2013 Fiction Contest Judge's Selection
He walks before my eyes, and I see him as I always have, as a vision that enters me and takes my breath, stirring me. He comes over to me while I am sweeping around my register. He puts his hand on top of his head.
“So what do you think, Celia?” he says. “I need a haircut, right?”
Gabe always keeps his hair cut close on the sides, but it is starting to curl gently on top. I stop sweeping. I tighten my grip on the broom. I cannot say what I think. I am quietly trespassing.
Tiffany laughs from the next register. Her laughter makes me think of bubble gum and pink glitter nail polish. “He’s going around asking everybody,” she calls to me. Tiffany is eighteen. The Super Market is her summer job, and Gabe Metcalf is our supervisor. I am the twenty-four-year-old dropout in this picture.
“It’s getting hard to manage,” says Gabe, and the skin crinkles about his eyes. His shoulders are made of rock under the fabric of his white shirt.
It is hard to find something to say that is honest. “I can’t understand why,” I say, finally, for lack of anything better. I try to make my voice laugh. “You’re such a good manager.”
“Oh, right.” Tiffany giggles again. “We’re such angels he doesn’t have to manage anything.”
Gabe laughs. “So that’s why I see you ladies all the time polishing your haloes.” He talks like home, the cadences of rounded mountains and hard, red clay. He is tall, maybe thirty-five. He is the youngest of seven children who all have holy names, a tribe of angels and apostles and prophets, and I remember them all. His curling hair is darling.
“Sure, why not?” I say. “Cleanliness is a good habit. Brush your teeth, polish your halo, sweep the floor. It’s good for character or something like that.”
“What about haircuts?” He reaches up and plucks at the curls. His mouth is luscious, asking to be used, ripe for any number of things, like drinking pop from a bottle or holding a cigarette between his lips. To him, I have never suggested kissing. I wonder how it would be to know the words of my suggestion falling between us like bits of curling paper, slightly singed.
“I guess do what you like,” I say. “You’re the boss.”
I duck my head from the questions and fall to sweeping again as though it is my life’s work. For the moment, at least, it is.
I am an artist, and I look hard at my dreams. I dreamed the other night that Gabe and I were living in a little shack of a house. The walls were painted a brilliant blue, and I had set out lime green crockery everywhere. I thought I might even be pregnant, which is impossible for me. I was washing something, and my dress had long, flowing sleeves that kept sinking into the water. I never see faces clearly in dreams, but that night I saw the perfect image of Gabe’s face. I saw the frown ridge above his eyebrows. I saw the harsh bones of his face and the wide and startling blue of his eyes. He was wearing the same white shirt and striped tie that he would be wearing in real life, and he was standing on the other side of the room, looking at me. I wanted to finger the curls of his hair, but my hands were in hot dishwater and would not come to the surface. When I awoke, I was sweating in a heap, the covers pulled over my head and tucked all around me. I wondered who I was hiding from.
The phone rings while I am making macaroni and cheese. I answer it and am not surprised when I hear Conrad, my erstwhile live-in boyfriend, talking to me.
“Hi, babe,” I say. “How’s school?” Conrad and I are long-distance these days. We were dropouts together for a time.
I am looking through the kitchen doorway at the empty canvas I have stretched and primed, propped against the wall. It is two-dimensional, I realize, like my life, like the words I am making right now. Any depth I might create with them would be entirely illusory.
“School’s different,” Conrad says. “But in a good way. Nobody’s saving the world out here, Celia. You know?”
I do know. In another life, I left my master’s program in English. The new historicists and deconstructionists battled for my soul until I became so wearied that I backslid from academia altogether. But now my dear, freckled, ex-historian Conrad sends me clippings from The Wall Street Journal and froths about Roth IRAs. A recent convert to an MBA program, he wants me to join him in the jungles of darkest finance. I, however, remain a brazen heathen and linger behind in Bloomington, Indiana, working two jobs and creating works of art out of words and everyday objects.
“I’m glad it’s going so well,” I say. I am trying to twist my hair up off my neck. The little air conditioner in the window chugs and gasps with all its might, but my clothes are still sticking to me.
" . . . when I talk to Conrad on the telephone, and his voice is beating the drum in my ear, I feel the distance between us widening until the telephone line barely stretches between our separate universes."
“Why don’t you come out here?” Conrad asks. “You know it’s not the same without you.”
I don’t understand what he means by this. Chapel Hill is not the same whether I am there or not. It is different, and that is the miracle of it, according to Conrad. “Maybe I will soon,” I say. “It’s hard to scrape together the money right now. I’m getting it together soon, though, I think.”
I am thinking of Gabe and Conrad and the insanity of real-life spaces. When I stand in the same room with Gabe Metcalf, we are not in the same room at all. Though inside of me he is breathlessly close, there is really nothing at all between us, and the space that lies there instead is immeasurably huge. And when I talk to Conrad on the telephone, and his voice is beating the drum in my ear, I feel the distance between us widening until the telephone line barely stretches between our separate universes.
It’s hard to make a model of something you have never really experienced. I’m hanging nuts and bolts with picture wire. Blue and green nuts and bolts, to dangle just out of reach. I think of calling the piece A Precious Time. Perhaps I will include pottery shards. I appreciate irony, but like sublimity, it is shown to best advantage when viewed at a safe distance. It is a wicked feeling to realize I am living it. The work in progress I am stringing together is a mobile of my life, the cogs and wheels too inert to hurtle apart in spectacular catastrophe, content merely to drift about in aimless orbit. I could call the piece Space Junk.
Across the high table from me, my friend Angeline, a women’s studies scholar, moves the fork towards her mouth. “So ask him out,” she says and takes a bite of meat.
I idly probe my salad. The room is thick with dimness, and the music is just loud enough to blur all other noises, the clink of glasses, the chitchat of the waitresses. I am perched precariously on a barstool, trying not to take up too much table space with my salad bowl, glass, and napkin. It is impossible to say the right thing in such a place. There is no way to choose well.
“It’s not that easy,” I say.
Angeline stares at me, chewing. She reaches for her drink and swallows. “Sure it is. Don’t make your life out to be so goddamn complicated, because it isn’t.”
Angeline’s relationships are like tilt-a-whirls. She spins them around too fast to believe, but somehow she keeps her eyes focused, and she survives. I can’t take that kind of pain. I prefer a calmer chaos.
“I don’t presume to be complicated.” I pick up some lettuce and a slice of cucumber. Complicated is what happens when Angeline’s older sister, Kim, has cancer and two small children. “That isn’t what I mean.”
“Well, if it isn’t easy, and it isn’t complicated, then what the hell do you mean?” She sets down her glass, and it makes a solid thump. Her lipstick has left a dark place upon the rim.
I lay down my fork. I am oppressed by the violent acrylics of nakedness against the bricks of the restaurant wall. A purple blob of a man with flaming genitals admires an abstractly curvaceous vixen. The paintings are grotesque, perverting anything I might say. Tonight my words are susceptible creations.
“Well, for one thing,” I say, “there’s Conrad.” And that’s true enough. I like Conrad very much. He is smart and earnest and knows how to take care of himself. Sometimes he is even funny. “But Gabe . . . he’s from Antioch, did you know that? That’s only twenty, thirty miles from home. I just can’t believe him somehow. I don’t know . . . I wouldn’t have any idea what to do with him if I got him.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Celia.” Angeline has a habit of blaring her eyes like headlights when she gets annoyed. “Listen to yourself.”
I reach for my piece of French bread and start pulling off long strands of golden cheese. “If he turned me down, then I would never have him. This way I can do whatever I like. I don’t have to give him up.” I put the cheese on my napkin.
Angeline spreads her hand across the mouth of her glass and leans toward me. “Celia, what exactly is it you’re doing by staying here? Working at the library, working at the grocery store, pasting anthology pages into collages. Have you asked yourself this?”
I don’t know how to formulate the question. I am homesick for Gabe Metcalf. I have never slobbered myself like this for anyone, for anything. My life is littered with pale, quivering heaps of insignificance. I never thought this would happen to me, and I am bitterly disappointed.
“How is life in the frozen north?” Conrad asks me, lightly. I am not so sure he means it that way.
“It’s May,” I say. “You know it’s hot as hell up here.” Sweat is like a slimy second skin on my forehead. I reach up my arm to slough it off. “I’m painting myself into a fever, Conrad. That’s what’s wrong with me. I’m sick, it’s like some kind of flu or something, but nothing helps. I need to see some mountains, maybe. I don’t know.” My words are a pitiful attempt at honesty. I know the name of my illness, but I cannot speak it to Conrad.
“It sounds serious,” says Conrad, joking back.
I remember the reckless, trusting way that he smiles. But it is getting harder to remember.
“I wish I could be there,” he says, “make you chicken soup, play Dueling Banjos on the stereo for you.”
We did those things once, and I am sad for it. I am standing in front of the fan, and my dress is diaphanous like the rest of me. It is a good image, I think, as I blow away like smoke over the Blue Ridge, and I could just let myself if only Conrad were not so real sometimes.
“Please come soon,” he says. “The mountains aren’t far at all from here.”
The skirt of my dress is blowing past me and taking my legs with it. I am hovering here with the phone to my ear. I nod, knowing he can’t hear me.
"I have forgotten how to ask such questions. My questions have shrunk and shriveled and squeezed inside my chest. They sicken me."
Between customers, I have my daily affair with the ridiculous. I cannot keep my eyes where they should be. They wander towards the tabloids. The headline reads, Miracle Woman Has Healed Thousands on TV, Say Her Fans. I try on the amazing words and laugh at what I see.
Gabe, walking past, looks only once at the giant letters. His color rises.
“That is unbelievable,” he says, with hardness, even anger. “That is plain wrong.”
I skim the produce list mounted beside my register, spinning the clear plastic cube and seeing how many strange vegetable names I can find.
“My grandma reads those,” says Tiffany to Gabe. “She has to know all about the herbal prophecies and Biblical remedies and whatnot. We all tell her there’s no way that stuff works.”
Gabe shakes his head. “They shouldn’t print that. People want it to be true.”
The idea for my next piece comes to me all at once. A garden of futility, bringing forth psychic predictions and stock market analyses.
Gabe touches the page. “If I had a gift to heal people,” he says, “I’d go to every hospital in the country and cure everybody.” His face is amazingly beautiful. “If these healers are real, why are there still hospitals out there?”
I have forgotten how to ask such questions. My questions have shrunk and shriveled and squeezed inside my chest. They sicken me.
“Frauds like this woman, they tell folks it won’t work for them, if they don’t believe,” says Gabe. “Nobody’s going to tell me sick people haven’t got the faith for curing.”
The power of his insistence touches me in all my sacred spaces. I have forgotten what it is to have conviction, to be convicted. I, too, would like to feel that way, any way that made me choose.
“I’ll get you the money, Celia,” says Conrad. His voice is suspended by such thin wires. The sound comes to my ear by miracle. “I mean it, I’ll find a way. That isn’t why you can’t come.”
I lean against the wall with my eyes closed. I am speckled with old paint, and my brush dangles at the end of my arm. “You’re right. I can’t come because I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted to death, Conrad. I honestly don’t think there’s anything left of me to come.”
I hear the emptiness that means he’s still there. Then he says, “You won’t be coming, then.”
“Conrad,” I say. A drop of water grows in the corner of my eye and hovers there, trembling.
“There’s a place here waiting,” he says. “You can hang all your mobiles. I’ll give you all the space you need.”
My face is shaking. “Would you, Conrad?” I say. “Would you really?”
“When haven’t I, Celia?” he asks.
He is hundreds of miles away, and so close I think I will smother to death. The drop of water slides to my lips, finding rest.
I am sitting in the floor. There is no place lower for me to go. I take some refuge in that thought.
“What are you working on for the Fair?” my friend Janet, a photographer for the local paper, asks me. She is sitting like a cat in the armchair, in full possession of the textures of her living room. She raises the wineglass to her lips.
“It’s the Gabe Metcalf corpus,” says Angeline, reaching for the artichoke dip on the coffee table. “She wakes up in night sweats and scribbles body parts in torment.”
Janet creases her forehead as she looks at me. “But why, Celia?”
My fingers have already put the Fritos in my mouth. I have no choice but to crunch them in reply. I do not like the question. It implies what I already know, that my life is without reason just now.
“She won’t answer you.” I watch the motions of Angeline’s hand as she jabs her slice of crusty bread into the dip. “All I can get out of her is the regular bullshit. How people don’t want what they want. You know,” she says, nodding at Janet. “But basically,” she says, leaning back with the bread in her hand, “Celia doesn’t want to go to Chapel Hill, and she thinks this is the easiest way to fink out on Conrad.”
Now Janet opens her mouth. “You’re breaking up with Conrad?”
“I never said that,” I say through fragments of Fritos, lifting my head.
“He loves you,” she says, and her gray eyes are sad and pitying.
I am too tired to be aghast at myself anymore. I swallow the chips. “I know. I just don’t know who it is that I am right now, is all.” And that is the best way I can say it, no matter how secondhand it sounds.
“My dear, this isn’t you.” Janet shakes her head, wondering.
I shake my head, too, and marvel at the feeling of decision that comes. “I need to get out of here, and I’m chiseled in marble. It’s too much effort.”
“God, take a vacation,” says Angeline, turning towards me. “Paint something with all the pieces in the right places for once.”
I wonder, not for the first time, what a life looks like all put together.
“What’s going on?” says Janet. She has crossed her legs at the knees and is gently swinging her right leg, the toes of her foot pointed as though she is an accomplished ballerina.
“Gabe has a soul,” I say, and know this is no answer.
“Doesn’t everybody?” Janet asks me.
I shake my head. I can’t fathom the pale thing Conrad does out at Chapel Hill anymore. This is my own fault. If I sit and look at the fringe of the rug long enough, perhaps my peripheral vision will detect the pattern of my life.
“Celia,” says Angeline, her dark lipstick making her words bold and heavy, “you are throwing yourself away on a trash heap of craziness. You can sit around getting eyefuls of Gabe’s sizzling soul, or you can go out and get your own. It’s your choice.”
Sometimes I wonder what my life looks like through other eyes than mine. I can’t fathom what Conrad sees anymore.
I am perched on the arm of the sofa, wrapped in a dusty afghan and sipping hot peppermint tea. The television is talking to me. It has been another long night daubing my multidimensional dreams onto flatness, and the window is turning pink and gold. I am letting the morning financial show flicker across my face. They are talking about futures. To me, it is a bit reckless, a bit disconcerting, to try to quantify something so unknowable. Right now, I am thinking of the past, of waking up beside Conrad and knowing myself wholly, of knowing myself whole. My dreams then were made of soft spring rain, and I grew.
I know my day of reckoning has come at last when I turn my head and see Gabe Metcalf walking towards me. He is wearing a short-sleeved olive green shirt and a pair of khaki shorts, and I am as astonished and as embarrassed as I have ever been. I am standing in my blue linen dress with my hair piled on my head to keep my neck cool. This is the day of the Art Fair on the Square, with the downtown full of vendors and crowds of people, and my booth is covered with dreams of him.
He waves. “So this is what you do when you’re not ringing up customers,” he says to me as he comes over. There is a young woman with him.
“Wrong,” I say. “I’m ringing up customers today, too.” I have sold two paintings, and was trying to be pleased with myself. Instead, now I am trying to comprehend the mystery of Gabe Metcalf here with his bare, fine-looking legs. And there is, too, the question of the woman with him, pale-eyed and petite. She is wondering who I am, because she looks from his face to mine as we speak. It is not jealousy I feel, but a weird panic for Gabe to know me here, and a crazy wish for him to acknowledge me.
Gabe looks at my Space Junk mobile intently. There is no recognition in his face of what he is seeing. “How do you come up with the ideas?” he asks.
I want to laugh. “I get them in dreams, mostly,” I say. “I guess that sounds a bit mystical, but it’s the truth.” They are abstract images, stylized figures, bodies rendered in artificial colors and with no recognizable faces, but I have displayed the truth of my visions for anyone’s eyes. They were never meant for his. “Do you come to the Fair on the Square every year?” I ask Gabe.
“I’ve never been.” Gabe shakes his head. “Mary Bess wanted to come out for an hour or so, since I told her it’s a big Bloomington event. She’s visiting,” he says, and turns his head to look at the young, fair-haired woman, one of his holy band of siblings. “Celia’s from the Super Market,” he tells her. “But she’ll be going other places before long. She’s too cerebral for the rest of us.” His smile is self-deprecating, bashful, and his eyes are sweet.
I am not really from the Super Market, I realize. It is not my natural habitat. I do not shower in the produce section or sleep in the freezer cases. It is strange to think that Gabe sees me that way.
“Nice to meet you,” says Mary Bess to me, nodding. She has a delicate color, and there is a haleness, a wholesomeness, about her, like a shepherdess in a pastoral painting. She is wearing a white sundress with a pink floral pattern. “You don’t sound like you’re from here, either.”
“No,” I say. “I’m from East Tennessee.”
She smiles with her lovely teeth. “You’re home folks, then!”
Mary Bess is right, and it is a joy to hear her exclamation. It is hard to explain to outsiders how we belong to one another, but we do. “They’re scarce up here,” I admit.
Gabe is looking at the paintings, the collages. I see him at the edge of my vision. There is a frown of concentration in his eyes. He does not know the way I watch him, curious to know what he will do. “How much are you asking for them?” he says. His mouth gapes slightly, creating quite a fabulous effect.
“It depends,” I say. “A hundred dollars, a little less, a little more. Space Junk here is not for sale.” I touch one of the dangling green bolts. I am more attached to the loopy thing than I thought.
“What’s it supposed to be?” he asks. He looks hard at it again, as if scrutiny alone will render it meaningful.
I am feeling capricious. “Anything you like,” I say.
“Really?” he says. I enjoy the good nature of his face, how fresh and clever he always seems. “I thought artists had some complicated reason for what they did.”
“You mean like the meaning of life?” I say. “That’s my next project.”
Mary Bess laughs. “Isn’t it everybody’s, though?” she says.
He narrows his eyes at the mobile. “I don’t see space junk. It looks more like a constellation to me. Some scientist will discover it one day, name it, and make a fortune.”
“Could be,” I say. “Miracle Woman finds the oldest constellation in the universe.”
“Someone has to find them,” says Mary Bess, her teeth like milk.
Gabe shrugs. “Miracle Woman could do worse,” he says. “At least it’s honest work.”
It is an uncanny response, much larger than anything I expected. It is as though he has spoken my name.
“Well, we should probably get on. It’s good to see you.” Gabe nods farewell. “Don’t spend all your money in one place,” he says, stepping back.
“Oh, I won’t,” I say. I am seized all at once by a sort of divine madness. “I mean to save it.” And I really do. Perhaps, after all, there is a future, and I can go there someday.
I watch them turn and walk into the crowd. Gabe’s hair has recovered from the last haircut, and I am wickedly glad. I may have a true love pining for me out in Chapel Hill, but I am still fond of the way Gabe’s hair curls. I feel the echoes from this strange visitation moving through the recesses of my worn soul.
"As the road begins to rise, I pass a house with a single yellow window curtained from me. There is no one else awake in all of Indiana. The color comes upon the purple night like a lover, bright and liquid."
I do not know where I am going, but I am desperate for motion. I wake from a dream of dark eyes and cannot be still. I cannot stand the thought of my canvases watching me from the walls. Tossing off the dirty sheets, I fumble through the room and out the door to my car. Then I am coasting over dark roads out of town, and I know I am going to Brown County. There are stars out here, and a lovely silver sliver of a moon, and the road is for me. I will imagine that the hills are mountains. I roll down the windows. As the road begins to rise, I pass a house with a single yellow window curtained from me. There is no one else awake in all of Indiana. The color comes upon the purple night like a lover, bright and liquid. Slowly I coalesce in the driver’s seat as I pass and think of all the sleeping people in the darkness, as I think of the yellow window that I am tonight. I will drive this road until dawn, and end up back in Bloomington when I am done. I am not at all startled, somehow, to realize that this is the dream I have awakened from.
The morning clothes me like a new garment. I am sitting in my faded, old sleep shirt before the canvas, amazed at how clearly I can see in the crispness of the light. The sunshine pastes itself in squares upon my floor, and even my feet are glowing. I am painting the secret window I saw last night in the Indiana darkness. Instead of ordinary glass, it is a mosaic of color, full of light. The window is in the noonday sky, and the panes are thinly veiled, but the white curtain is blowing back, offering hints of the colors beyond. Through the white fabric, the colored pieces of glass can be traced like veins beneath an ancient skin. It is an image that makes me look, again and again. More than ever, I want to know what is there, to face the future of my own making.
I am standing by the time clock, ready to clock out.
“I’ve only ever flown once,” says Gabe Metcalf to me, nodding. He has a very serious look on his face, and the skin is tight about his eyes. “I was going to Chicago. It was night when we came into the city.”
His stories stretch the muscles of my heart. I stand before him as open as I dare. I am receiving benediction.
“It was like something out of a science fiction movie,” he says. The movement of his hand is for grandeur. His eyes see it all again. “We were coming down out of the clouds, and there was this enormous, shining city. I’d never seen so many lights, miles and miles of them, stretching away on the darkness, like a message, a colony of stars. I don’t know. It was something else.”
Watching him, I can imagine. “I’ve never been anywhere that big,” I say. “I’d worry I would lose myself in it.”
Gabe looks at me again. “Well, I went to the store and bought a map,” he says. “It wasn’t too bad after that.” He smiles. “We won’t schedule you that week. You have a great trip.”
It is humbling to hear how a young man from a tobacco farm in Antioch, Tennessee, once saw the celestial city. For now, I am satisfied to get seven days in Chapel Hill at least and a good, long look at my boyfriend. That, no doubt, will be revelation enough.
Melanie K. Hutsell is a native of east Tennessee. She has had short fiction appear previously in Trajectory and also in the Knoxville Writers’ Guild anthology Outscape: Writings on Fences and Frontiers. An excerpt from an unpublished novel, currently titled The Dead Shall Rise, won first place in the 2001 Tennessee Writers Alliance Novel Competition, which was awarded at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville.