Marie Manilla

Learning to Write

I’m not Native American, but I needed a ceremony. My friend Marnie suggested I write letters to my ex and burn them, let my ache dissipate with the smoke. I wasn’t sure I believed her, but I was desperate for good medicine. I loaded the back of my truck where I would sleep under the camper top. I’d gotten the Toyota in the divorce and used it to move from Texas back to West Virginia. A month later I drove into the Virginia mountains to camp beside the Appalachian Trail. It was June and rainy.

            The first night I sat in the truck bed with a lantern, rain pelting the fiberglass roof, and wrote page after page of everything I should have said to my ex. I was taught to swallow emotions, put up with, endure. That’s what good wives do. Right? Stand silently, stoically by. Caustic advice taught by parental example that erupted in panic attacks and hives. I also scribbled the awful truth that I still loved this man who didn’t know how to love back. It was an unhealthy allegiance, maybe even addiction. Letting go would not be easy. I was glad I’d brought a thick notebook.

            By morning the rain let up. I built a fire in the pit and fed it sheet after sheet; blackened ashes drifted up along with the six years I’d given to this man. Smoke swirled through the limbs of the red oak towering overhead. I imagined remnants of words tangling in its branches, parts of letters: ascenders and decenders, shoulders and spines.

            Late afternoon, a car pulled into the slot beside mine, a line of trees in between. A father and five-year-old son emerged, the boy holding a kitten. I was glad for the respite—my writing hand was cramped. Still, I didn’t want company, so I hiked the trail, too gloomy to lift my eyes from my boots. When I returned, their tent was pitched and they were roasting wieners. The boy held the kitten in one hand, a sharpened stick in the other. When his hotdog caught fire, he dropped the kitten, and it wobbled toward the woods. It didn’t look old enough to be separated from its mother. The father helped his son, so I rescued the black cat.

            In gratitude, the man offered a hotdog. The charred meat smelled better than my granola, so I accepted. The boy blurted, “I’m spending the whole summer with Dad. He gave me this.” He lifted his pet. I wondered if the boy’s mother was pleased.

            “What’s its name?”

            “He doesn’t have one yet.”

            The man was an attorney who lived in D.C. His ex-wife lived in a nearby bedroom community. We jabbered until sunset, watched a doe and two speckled fawns step into the path. They paused to assess our intent before darting away.

            Then a torrential downpour.

            “Get in my truck!” I hollered, since I doubted their tent would survive.

            The boy was also looking forward to starting kindergarten. He showed off his counting, his letters, scrawled a few oversized words in the back of my notebook: CAT, BOY, MOM. Soon he yawned and fell asleep. 

            We clambered into the back, the rain drumming the roof so hard we couldn’t talk over it. I clicked on the lantern and tugged towels from a cubby hole for us to dry off. The boy looked frightened, and he draped his father’s arm around him for solace. The father stroked the boy’s hair with his thumb. Finally, the rain reduced to a steady beat and the boy found his courage and voice. Out spilled everything he looked forward to that summer: swimming, t-ball, playing with his cat. “What should I name him?” he asked me.

            It had pointed ears and a stoic face. “How about Spock?”

            The father offered a Vulcan greeting the boy didn’t understand. Still, he liked the sound, the salute. The boy was also looking forward to starting kindergarten. He showed off his counting, his letters, scrawled a few oversized words in the back of my notebook: CAT, BOY, MOM. Soon he yawned and fell asleep.

            The father looked weary, and I was grateful he had no ulterior motives. My gut was on alert since the divorce. Even my penmanship had changed. Before moving, I had to sign courthouse documents to reclaim my name—the last time I would give it away. The man walking me through them (print here, sign there) flirted about being a handwriting expert. When he finally studied my scrawl his grin collapsed, and he could no longer make eye contact.

            “I just got a divorce,” I had said. “I’m kind of a mess.” I don’t know why I felt compelled to offer an excuse. Maybe I wanted him to know that things would get better now. Marriage had been horrible. Divorce could only be an improvement. Surely my writing would recover too.

            The man in my truck pulled a cluster of burs from his son’s jacket. “He’s not going back to his mother. She got a job in New Mexico.” I tried not to break eye contact like the man in the courthouse. “I just don’t know how to tell him.”

            The cat made sense to me now.

            I don’t know what I said, if anything. Sometimes being witness is enough. I do know that when the rain stopped the man carried his son to their tent, which had weathered the storm.

            By morning I was hoping to get on the road before the father and son stirred. I didn’t want to hide the man’s secret in front of the boy. I have no poker face. I packed in my gear and quietly closed the camper door.

            The tent flap unzipped. The man crawled out with the cat and set it down. It mewled and timidly pawed the mud. The man turned my way and assessed my intent. “You heading out?”

            I stifled the urge to fabricate an excuse. There would be no more of that. “Yeah.”

            He sauntered over. “I wish you the best.”

            “You too.”

            He handed me his business card. “If you’re ever in D.C., look us up.”

            We both knew I wouldn’t. As I drove away, he scooped up the cat and crawled back in the tent where his son was still just on summer vacation. I hoped the man would wait until August to share his news.

            I drove down from the mountains and settled into the slow lane on I-81 that bisects the Shenandoah Valley. I was not frightened by semis zooming by, shuddering my truck. The valley was beautiful, even with the truck stops and fast-food chains. Beyond them was land steeped in history.

            Still, my mind returned to the boy as I imagined the look on his face when he finely found out. Maybe he would be crushed. Or maybe he would be content to stay in the room he’d likely spend the summer claiming with stickers and Scotch-taped drawings of his cat. Perhaps the yearning for his mother would diminish. Kids are adaptable that way.

            At a pit stop, after I gassed up and peed, I got out my notebook, flipped to the back, and tried to interpret the boy’s rudimentary handwriting: the sturdy arm in the A, the assured bowls in the B.

            Then I borrowed some of his confidence and scrawled a new word for myself: ex-wife.


West Virginia native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her novel The Patron Saint of Ugly (set in her home state) received The Weatherford Award. Shrapnel, set in her hometown of Huntington, won The Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums, first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, Calyx, and other journals. Marie continues to live in the mountain state.


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