The Stories You Tell
Getting to know you: write about what brought you here and anything we should know about you. 500 words.
When I was thirty, my mother started going to meetings again because it had gotten bad lately. Worse than I’d ever seen. I came home again to Boston, broke and stuck and unsure of my trajectory, and I fell desperately in love with this girl, who I met in AA. I wasn’t in AA, but my mother was. I started taking the train up the North Shore to see my mother and she introduced us. I’d just moved from New York and messed up plenty while I was there, but I was still in possession of my arms and legs and more or less my faculties.
I was living in a studio in Somerville, teaching night classes at the local community college. The 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. slot for introductory writing can turn your life into something you hardly recognize. I drank coffee at hours that you shouldn’t and had a sour ache in my stomach that wouldn’t go away until it was time to drink more. I climbed into bed by about 3 a.m. and the shadows of cars passing on the walls became hideous monsters from my childhood, the ones that used to grab my ankles from under the bed, the ones that could slip under the crack of the door, that had skittering hands and too many fingers like daddy long legs. In my 3 a.m. daze, the monsters I knew, the ones I was so familiar with, scuttled over my body and grabbed me up in their arms. At first they were gentle, cradling me. Then they swallowed me whole.
That’s how it felt as a kid: my mother was this woman living in the house with me who was endlessly surprising, who could make amazing sandwiches shaped like fish with shredded carrot gills and spicy meatballs for eyes one day, and tell you she wished she’d never had you the next. During this last bad time, she stopped answering the phone and disappeared for days. When she was better again I asked her where she’d gone. She looked at me hard, like she was making sure I was really her son. Then she said, “I don’t know. I was nowhere. Not any place. Not any time, either. I was nowhen.” And then sh laughed, harsh and bitter. She cracked herself up all the time. She looked a little like Carol Burnett, laughed like her, too. The kind of woman who never looked young, but has existed always at forty or fifty or so. Already too wise for you to ever catch up. A wolfy grin, wide-open howling mouth.
Then she looked away, and her face went gray and still. It reminded me of this closet I had when we were living in an apartment in Swampscott. I was about ten. I’d go in this closet when Ma was fighting with Dad. The usual story: parents fight, kid hides.
But while I was in there, I’d get this funny feeling that I was nowhere at all, that I had ceased to exist, along with the things in the closet—we were all nothing and nobody together. I remember touching the rubber boots and the scratchy knitted hats. I watched my father’s shadow pace past and heard the two of them screaming. I watched moths beating their wings against the wool coats and I listened. No one knew I was in there; I could have stayed all night.
In the dark, I wasn’t a person anymore. I started going in there even when Ma and Dad weren’t fighting. There’s something addictive about being nothing.
Write about the last time you wanted to forget something. 300 words.
Ma’s AA was in the VFW close to the train tracks of Beverly Depot. I was waiting for her one morning when she came out talking to this girl with hair dyed red as a cherry and a giant man’s camel hair coat. “This is my son, Derek,” Ma said. “He’s a teacher. Derek, this is Lucille. She works as a tailor’s assistant in town.”
My mother was always careful to announce everyone’s occupation when she introduced them. Maybe it was a conversation starter, or her way of establishing the rankings of everybody, like dogs sniffing out who’s on top.
Lucille didn’t seem too impressed. Few people are. “What do you teach?” she asked. Her eyes were large and tired and her lips were the same cherryred as her hair. Flawless and eye-searing, like Hollywood makeup. AA women always had some kind of makeup on, like this protective mask. It could hide if you were drunk or high or desperately tired or older than you wanted to be. They always had great makeup. They were artists.
“Writing. Adult education.” Most of the students were older than I was. “What do you tailor?”
“Pants. I hem a lot of pants. You got pants that need hemming?”
“Sorry. My legs stopped growing a while ago.” That made her laugh. She seemed fun, game for jokes. AA girls were some of the funniest I’d met. Ma was leaning on the car, flicking her lighter, smiling a little. “You from around here?” I asked.
“Where from, then?”
She shrugged. “I’m here now.” There was a refusal in her voice, a door closing. I raised my eyebrows. She raised them back.
My mother gave her a ride into town and as soon as Lucille had gotten out at Corner Cleaners and Alterations, Ma rounded on me in the back seat. “So? Pretty, huh?”
“Ma.” I looked outside. Lucille was in the window, hanging her enormous camel coat on a hook. Behind her a giant row of black and khaki pants swaying on a rack. She was pretty.
Ma and I sat in my mother’s kitchen and had tea and talked like we were old friends, like this was something we did all the time. The truth was I’d hardly seen her at all for the past three years, and even less for five years before that, during her bad time.
The story was I was in love with this girl in New York who didn’t love me back. I begged her to, and she tried. She was very obliging. I thought we were great together, that we’d beat the odds and make it. We walked around Brooklyn and the Lower East Side for a while, brunching and smiling at all the pretty people and places and things. Eventually I figured out she just didn’t want to hurt my feelings.
Suddenly the ex and her friends were on every late-night subway car, in every crowded coffee line. All the happy busy plans that we’d made together filled the city like an inflating balloon. After it burst, the wreckage was everywhere.
So I came home. In Boston, or in the network of towns up and down the coast, people scuttle by you for half the year with their heads tucked into the collars of their coats. You don’t see faces until May. They’re secret, and private, and taciturn, but not unfriendly. There’s a quiet mutual agreement in these gray harbor towns. You’ve got your life, and I’ve got mine.
Now, my mother and I were sitting at this little drop-leaf table in a kitchen with floral wallpaper, smelling soup on the stove.
“I’m thinking I could do some online dating,” she said. “I think it’s about time.”
“First I’ve got to get myself in attractive shape. Lose a few pounds. Start a garden.”
“Sure.” When she was new in AA, my mother was always full of plans and projects. I remember this one Christmas where she said she would handmake every ornament on the tree. She only got through a few dozen beaded reindeer before the holiday season hit her and I found her passed out next to the tree, her hair singed from lying too close to the fire. But the ones she finished twinkled and spun and beckoned.
“New start, right?” she said. “For you and me? Time to forget about whatever went wrong in New York. Right?”
“I want a man like your father,” she said. “I know, it sounds crazy, but that man had a great head of hair. That matters when you get to my age. You better lock somebody down, Dare, before that all goes.” She pointed at my head ominously.
She was always giving me advice like this. Get married before you lose your teeth and muscle tone. Don’t get too attached to those kidneys of yours. When you’re a recovering addict, every story has only one trajectory: downward. Your skin, your nails, your liver, your brain’s ability to generate dopamine; these are things you’re going to lose. Everything you think you can control is an illusion. Life is on its way, and it’s a process of decline; it’s coming to hit you head-on, and there’s no chance it’ll miss you. I suppose she was right.
Riding the train back that night, I couldn’t help thinking about Lucille, her calm refusal to say where she was from. What was the harm in that question? Was she afraid I’d look her up? Was it the old AA mindset—was she just taking one day at a time?
Write about a time that you failed to achieve a goal. What did you do afterward? 300 words.
In New York I taught high school English. I knew Pride and Prejudice backward and forward. I was the cool teacher, the one with zany ties, only a half-step older than my students. The principal loved me; I got nominated for some New York Post “best teacher” award. In Boston, I met my employer, the head of the Humanities department, only once. He was a balding, be-sweatered type, tucked into a cubicle that was pretending to be a real professor’s office. They’d put a little fake door on the thing for privacy. He took a look at my resume, asked me if I could teach the night shift, and gave me the grammar textbook. Since then, I’d been slipping into the building long after everyone else was gone. I had a special key to access the room with all the vending machines. At the time, it was the best thing I could get.
My students spent their days working full-time jobs for minimum wage. They were home long enough to kiss the baby, cook a quick dinner for the niece and nephew. To have a slow cup of coffee with a boyfriend or the relative putting them up in the basement. To half-listen to the night ball game on the radio, to the news from home: Haiti, DR, Bulgaria. Then they were on the road again, in the night traffic, or bumping along in an emptying train. They came to write essays for me.
Write about when you faced an obstacle and overcame it. 300 words.
My students’ indifference was already written on their faces. They looked up at me and their eyes were glossy and white like dice. I zoned out and in again the way they did, heard myself talking about the immigrant experience in American fiction. They nodded and bent their heads to their notebooks.
On their papers, I marked the comma splices, every last one. I told myself that if I didn’t, they’d go on to some future as a legal assistant or receptionist for a dentist, and they wouldn’t be able to write. They wouldn’t even get the job. Their cover letters would be riddled with mistakes unless I caught them now. I had to push them like flour through a sieve. How could they, how could they possibly tell their stories, if they didn’t know how to properly join independent clauses?
I heard myself talking about topic sentences. It was 1 a.m. I could see the students watching me in grim controlled exhaustion. I thought, topic sentences are a flaming bag of bullshit. The last possible thing they need.
On that day, one of my students came up to my desk while everyone was working on an in-class writing assignment. It was Alice, one of my favorites. She was shockingly tall, willow-thin, and wore white ribbons at the ends of her cornrows. It made her look like a young girl headed to her first communion. So innocent you’re afraid to touch her hand, as though she might break. She took notes like a demon, feverishly transcribing my every word. In her first, getting-to-know-you essay, she wrote, “I am from Haiti, but I wan to achieving the American Dream. That is what making me American. I will wear the Boston red socks.”
Alice didn’t have the paper she owed me. Her baby was sick, and she was up all night with him.
I asked her who watched the baby when she came to class. The homeless shelter has people who will watch babies, she told me. I felt sick all of a sudden in the way only some teachers, social workers, police officers, know. I told her, you can make up the essay next week. That night, the night I met Lucille, I ended the class with grammar jeopardy. This grammar error uses a modifying phrase without an appropriate subject: What is a dangling modifier!
Then we all trooped out to the train station together and stood huddled in our coats, and there was a companionable silence, the quiet of another long day, the hours full of struggle, sick babies, crowded shelters, the threat of the immigration officer at the door, the dirty needle, the half-full bottle, the halfempty fridge, the lover we only half knew, the fathers of our children we only half trusted, the shouting coming from the apartment below that would only stop half the time when we complained and pounded the floor. The air on the platform whistled through our too-thin coats. There was the Boston skyline illuminated behind the overpass, and in the other direction, the giant railroad spike of the Bunker Hill monument.
It wasn’t our city, though; we had the long ride to the end of the line ahead of us, and maybe another bus, until we reached that cluttered kitchen that wouldn’t get cleaned up unless we did it. And we’d crawl into bed, accompanied or alone, and make sure the alarm was set for 6:35—those five extra minutes our little treat—and even if we couldn’t write a coherent sentence, there was a rough, singing poetry in us and in what we did.
Then the train came; the group waved; I broke apart from them. They were heading outbound, and I was going inbound. I wasn’t them, after all, much as I sometimes thought I was, and thought that I could follow them home, like I knew them and their lives.
Write about your earliest childhood memory. 500 words.
In many of my childhood memories I’m in the basement of a church or in the Italian Community Center, playing with Bible toys (plastic Noah, wooden animals paired with string) on a round hooked rug fraying at the edges, and behind me is a circle of women. My mother went to the women-only groups; she felt safer there, not so much showboating, a little less lying. The co-ed groups often ended up as singles mixers; it was how she’d met my father, and how he’d met his first of many lovers. I keep my back turned and mash the wooden toys together, make them kiss or fight, because even then I know what’s going on behind me is not for my ears. Still, the stories reach me by osmosis; I’m marinating in them, growing wise in the women’s tears.
A custody battle in the works, a parole officer hard on somebody’s ass. Someone left naked out in the cold, figuratively or literally. Sue’s kids, grown up now, won’t have anything to do with her, don’t believe she’s sober for good this time. Jane’s out of a job; a friend of her boss found out she was in AA. She comes to the meeting begging for a lead on some work, any work. She’ll wash dishes with illegals, she says, she doesn’t care. She’s a month away from a homeless shelter. The women shrug, hold out empty hands. But a few weeks later, one of them gets her a job in a warehouse, hauling crates of beer, wine, and spirits. Her back’s on fire, and she walks with a permanent stoop, but she’s alive.
I’m their pet, their mascot. They ruffle my hair and press kisses in my cheeks and give me old squashed mints from their bags. I go from lap to lap, looking for the best spot like a cat. The ones missing their children hug me too tight and won’t let go. They talk about their kids, their exes, and they hold me tighter and tighter.
Sometimes there are small triumphs; when Beth gets her kids back, there’s a party with cookies and sparkling orange juice, and I can eat all the Hershey’s kisses I want. Someone puts a CD in the paint-spattered church boom box. Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole. The women dance, turning and swaying in each other’s arms. They laugh like old friends. My mother swings me around by my arms and I slide and shimmy around her. “He’s a pro!” she brags.
The meeting is the shelter for the women it’s supposed to be, but it’s a shelter in space and in time. Here, they are safe from the things that will happen to them once they step out the door. They are safe from the relapses that will hit half of them like a tornado under a bad moon, from the consequences of their own choices, from the lies they will tell.
Even after I am old enough to stay home alone, I keep going to the meetings. After work she gets in the car and I slide in beside her. When we drive home, peaceful and tired, our bodies large and soft, it’s the closest we’ve ever been, the closest we’ll ever be.
Write about your first kiss. Was it everything you thought it would be? 300 words.
The next time I visited my mother I stood on the train platform for a long time with an unlit cigarette in my mouth, just chewing on it for the bitter taste, and I saw Lucille walking up the tracks. They’re fenced off past the station but there she was, head down and concentrating, red ponytail falling into her face as she balanced on one rail like a kid. When she saw me she half smiled and stood nearby, just within earshot.
“That’s dangerous, walking on the tracks like that,” I said. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
She shrugged. “Like I give a fuck what you think?”
That made me smile. “How’d you get over the fence?”
A toss of her head, back behind her. “I live on a hill next to the tracks. I just climb over. It beats walking on the road.”
We talked. She had just finished reading a book I was teaching in my class, some short stories about Nigeria. We both liked the one about the boy missing a hand. She’d been in AA for a year. I knew the first year was a shaky time. Like you’re trying on this new coat for yourself, this new you, and you don’t know if it’ll fit. But I didn’t say anything about it. It was too strange, presuming too much about a stranger. It put us on unequal footing. She kicked at the ground like a kid and smiled at my stories but didn’t offer up much herself. Her lips were very red, as cherry as her hair, and she had this light spattering of freckles. Gusts of wind kept blowing her closer to me and I could feel her shape under that big coat, inching closer.
I wanted to ask what got her there in the first place, and what my mother said in meetings. But the train came, and we got on in silence and sat in different seats. I kept looking to the side to see what she was reading. It looked like poetry. After every page she’d pause and look out the window and I’d see the whiteness of her neck. When she got off in Salem, I followed her.
It was the busy season. The town was packed with tourists this time of year; pumpkins and ghosts and people in costumes for weeks before Halloween. There were haunted houses, the witch museum, info sessions for Wiccans. Women going by in pointy hats and stick-on warts. I lost her in the crowd, and just walked through town for a while, looking in shop windows. I remembered going here as a kid. My dad was still around then and we went to the museum that had wax mummies of people hanging from the gallows. I still get a shiver thinking about it.
When I was in the historical part of town I heard someone take up the cry: “She’s a witch!” The crowd suddenly moved and shifted, pressing me into the middle. Over a few heads I could see soldiers in period dress dragging a person forward. Planted actors in the crowd were shouting and hissing. “Hang her! Hang the witch!” The tourists quieted; some took up the cry. The whole group was tense with anticipation. The woman strode by in a long brown dress and her long fake hair fell in front of her face as she was jerked back and forth by her captors. She wore a bright red bodice. As she raised her head, I saw it was Lucille.
“I’m not a witch, I’m not!” she cried suddenly. She was not plaintive or afraid, but rather annoyed, cold and dismissive. Her eyes flashed.
“Look at her dress!” another actor roared. And another hissed, “Slut!”
“I am only a goodwife and mother,” she said, tired of these small-minded, hysterical people and their frantic games. I pushed a tourist out of the way. I wanted to warn her, they’re serious, they mean business, they may be ridiculous and tiresome but they are also dangerous. The tourists laughed, delighted.
“Witch! Witch!” The actors danced gleefully around her, pushing and shoving. One guard grabbed her by her breast. She shoved him off. This didn’t seem like part of the play, but her eyes did not show the slightest surprise. Still those tired eyes.
“To trial! To trial!” the actors chanted, and the tourists took it up. We followed the actors to the courthouse. I vaguely remembered seeing the mock trial when I was a kid: the damning evidence of the red bodice, the woman’s defiance, the sentence of death. Her final, ringing declaration that went unheard as the mob cried for blood. Lucille caught my eye as she walked past, tugged by the bastard guard who had groped her. For a moment I saw surprise. Then: a smile. “Don’t worry, they won’t hang me,” she said. “I’m innocent.”
“I don’t know, that bodice looks pretty red to me,” I said. Then she was back in character again—or was she ever out of it?—proud and bored at the same time, inscrutable. Too good for all of them.
I felt a strange rush of pride. I paced around outside the building like an expectant father. When the crowd dispersed, I saw her coming out the back of the courthouse in her T-shirt and jeans. Hair back to that dyed strawberry, makeup bright and modern again. She saw me, too, and her gaze was friendly. “Come on, let’s get coffee,” she said.
We went to a cafe where apparently all the historical re-enactors liked to hang. Half the crowd was in breeches and corsets and buckled shoes. Lucille hunched around her mug. “So which job do you like better?” I asked. “Hemming pants or getting hanged?”
“Hemming pants,” she said. “If they’d make me full-time I’d do it all day. But I want to work at the museum eventually. I have a degree in history.”
We were quiet for a while, both of us looking away, at the young cashier with the nose ring, the last of the afternoon’s tourists going by. Soon it would be dark and the local Wicca coven would be out in their capes, singing strange Halloween songs. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out . . .
“Does my mother still tell that story about when I locked her out of the house in meetings?” I asked. “I was like twelve, if it makes it any better.”
She did all her laughing with her eyes. You had to be looking hard to see it. “It may have come up,” she said. But she was uneasy. “I don’t know what your mother’s told you about me.”
“She hasn’t said anything.” I knew the code, the confidentiality. Even when AA folks were lying to their families, they were pretty good at keeping each other’s secrets. It was a loyalty thing.
Lucille nodded. Her eyes moved everywhere but to mine. Finally she pushed up her sleeves in a hard, violent gesture and laid her arms on the table. “That’s what you wanted to know, isn’t it?” Her arms were lightly freckled with needle scars. Like any girl who’d spent her life on the Cape, unless you knew what you were looking at. It was a brave thing to do. I remember being impressed. That was maybe when I started to fall in love.
We rode the train back to her place. It was dark and the gulls weren’t crying anymore. We didn’t turn on the lights. We were on a nubby corduroy couch that might have been her bed and we were in each other’s arms. It seemed like she and I could know each other better this way. We let the evening and the night creep in all around us. We talked slowly and laughed and saw the gleam of each other’s teeth in the moon. We talked about friends we had who we didn’t see enough anymore and about lovers we’d had who we still missed. I felt our sadness filling the room and it was like a balm, and I’m certain she felt it too.
It was as if my life had started making these jump cuts, as if I was in an edgy urban movie about drug addicts. I had a condom in my wallet, expired. I had this momentary flash, a hesitation: drug addict. AIDS. It was the early nineties. But she had one. I pressed myself into her. I could smell the salt air around us, the slight must of the old couch. It was like home, so much like home that when I woke up hours later in the dark I wondered if I’d have Rice Krispies for breakfast and whether Ma made it back last night. Then Lucille stirred and her hair tickled my neck and her eyes opened—iron gray, armoredlooking—and I remembered, both of us remembered, we were grown-ups now.
Write about your favorite hobby. Why is it your favorite? 300 words.
My mother’s latest project was her garden. She was working out there most times I visited and I would help her haul big bags of soil outside. She didn’t have a green thumb and the crocus bulbs she laid in the earth a few weeks before with such tender hopefulness hadn’t showed their faces yet. But it was her new hobby, and I was careful not to say anything.
“So you and Lucille, you’re an item now,” she said.
“I guess so.” A few times a week I went to Lucille’s place. Then I was back on the train in time for my night class. Sometimes the best part of the day was riding away from her on the train into the dark, being sad to leave her, and knowing that meant I was happy. I’ve always liked goodbyes for that reason. They let you feel what you’ll miss.
Below me in the dirt of her backyard plot, my mother wiped her brow with the back of her arm. “I don’t want you getting too close to her,” she said.
“I thought you were the one setting us up.” I was only half listening. She had this way of warning me against too much happiness. When I was over the moon with my previous girlfriend, she was the one to say, “Love comes and goes. Don’t get yourself worked up.” I’d learned to disregard so much of what she’d say. But when she said it again, her brows together and voice serious, I couldn’t help wonder: what did she know?
“I thought you needed to get back into dating a little. Like, for practice. Nothing serious.” I wasn’t sure it was until she said it.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.
“She’s new. New to the life.” She meant the sober lifestyle.
“So? You were new once. Everyone was new once. And you’re new again.” I picked up a bag of soil and upended it into its waiting hole. Liking the clean flush of exertion, the warm run of sweat down my arms. It was past Halloween now and the air was cold.
My mother waved her hand at the bare damp earth. “When you’re new, you plant your flowers and they won’t grow. You plant and plant and plant. You think, you deserve to have a few flowers, after everything that’s happened to you. But they don’t grow. You think, now that I’m good, now that I’ve become good, surely they’ll grow. You hope they’ll grow and you hope, and still they don’t, and they don’t and they don’t. It’s because something’s wrong with you still, even though you think you’re all fixed. They’ll never grow until you figure out how to fix it.” She pulled off her gardening gloves and stared down at the gnarled tree root that was her hand. Veins riding high and fragile above the surface of her skin, like rivers on a topographical map.
Write about a fight you had with a friend or family member. Who was wrong? Who was right? 500 words.
The dark is the friend of addicts. In the good bad old days, we slink and revel like cats in it. In the bad good days that come later, we hide the things and the memories that we don’t want to see. In the dark, Lucille and I rode the train to Boston and back and rested our heads on each other’s shoulders. We walked through the unlit streets and kissed like teenagers. In the dark, we watched movies and cooked potato fritters. We made love in the dark, needless to say. And in our excitement, we said things that we knew we couldn’t say in the morning. I’m scared, but you make me feel safe. I love your crooked toe. I love your smile. You’re sweet, but only to me. You’re smug, but you drop the act with me. I don’t know if that made them any less real, though. Like I said, addicts live in the dark. Their most authentic selves are out there on the church pews and bus stop benches. They’re always in the shadows.
Lying with Lucille one afternoon, I was thinking about what my mother said in the garden. Lucille was renting out half a duplex and the couch really was the bed. The little kitchen, bedroom, living room, were almost bare of decoration; a few photos on the mantle showed her making a peace sign with a young guy, his arm around her. An old friend, she said, and wouldn’t say more. In the ceiling, you could hear someone pacing around upstairs at all hours.
I knew she’d gone to UVermont, how she’d come to Salem hoping for a job in the museum, but they were downsizing and could only give her the acting job. I knew she listened to indie country music and how she bopped her head like a teenager when she liked what was on the radio. I knew she liked history and that she knew how to spin thread and sew her own petticoats and kne what Giles Corey, convicted of witchcraft, said when he was pressed to death with six heavy stones (“More weight”). I thought, it’s been long enough. We’re serious enough for me to ask. So I did.
“What first got you using?”
She turned away. It was a feat on the narrow couch but she did it.
“Well, how about what got you to quit?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Not even that? Don’t I deserve to know?”
She turned back. “You deserve to know? You deserve? What the fuck makes you think that?”
“Because I’m your boyfriend? Because we’re together?”
Now her face had that look I’d seen before, a disdain so total it was almost boredom. She was the woman in the red bodice again, surrounded by the mob that would never understand, and somehow I’d become the mob. It made me mad. I thought I was a goddamned warm and understanding guy. I’d grown up with this world, heard all the stories. What was one more? But she wouldn’t tell me. She’d pour out her heart to a bunch of loser strung-out strangers but not to me.
“You want some heartwarming story? Poor little slumbaby crawls back into the light?” she said.
I was mad. “Hey, fuck you.” I got up and found my coat.
She followed me to the kitchen. I thought she was going to apologize, but she was standing there in her underwear, watching me to go, looking tired and angry. “My story’s not for you,” she said. “It’s not for anyone but me.”
On the evening train, I was with the homeless people who sneak on and ride back and forth to stay warm. Two men were old friends but they’d been riding different lines and hadn’t seen each other for a while. They hugged, traded insults, sat close in their layers and layers of ragged jackets. They nodded at the conductor and he nodded back. They were all old friends. They’d been riding this train together for years.
Write about a time that you were all alone. 500 words.
My students were always willing to share their stories. They were overfull containers and they spilled when they tipped to the side. They wrote about anything. I knew more about them than I did about Lucille. Volumes more.
Micheline wrote about being handcuffed to a bed while giving birth t her first child. Hermes wrote about his first job at a copy shop when he still didn’t speak English, copying sheets all day in a language he didn’t know. Nasir wrote about riding the train with two drunk frat boys who poked at his turban, yelled at him to get a shave and asked if he was a terrorist. The other passengers watched in silence.
Alice wrote, “When I first came to America, I didn’t know anyone. I cry myself to sleep each night.” Good, I wrote on Hermes’ paper. Powerful, I wrote on Micheline’s paper. On Alice’s paper I wrote, vague/cliche. She came up to me after class. There were dark purple circles under her eyes. With her dark skin they looked like bruises.
“Mister Derek, what is this?”
I snapped my briefcase shut hard. No time tonight for any more questions.
“It’s a cliche, Alice. Haven’t you seen that word before?” She gave a little half-shrug, raising one shoulder in the air like an unanswered question. “It means an overused word or phrase. People only cry themselves to sleep in the movies.”
I was still angry. I wanted to say, Go home. With your silly unending problems and your immigrant tears. I’ve had enough for one day.
Alice was puzzled. Maybe she heard the sarcastic edge in my voice. “But I did. I really did. It’s real.”
I was fed up with her reality. “Well, it’s not good enough writing. You’ve got to show how you feel. We’ve seen this before.” I tapped the page, hard.
Alice nodded, biting her lip. “Mister Derek, can you help me with the grammar on something?”
It was 1 a.m. I said, very slow and tired, “What is it?” She fumbled with a folder. “My statement. For this.”
It was a child custody hearing. She took the baby to the emergency room. He had had viral meningitis for five days. He was still in the hospital. Social workers were doubting Alice’s ability to care for him. They wanted him in foster care.
I sat at the desk. I wanted to say, you are trusting the wrong person with your life. “Let’s make sure we get this right.”
We worked on her statement line by line. Hard, detail-oriented work. Both of us bending our heads over the red-scratched page. There can be something exciting about grammar, about proofreading, if there are real-life consequences. I began to feel like a sculptor or artist, staying up through the night to craft and shape and prod. Beside me, Alice bent earnestly, nodding at everything I said. She had the impressive length of bone, the strange fragility, of a racehorse. I found myself looking at the back of her neck as she read over my edits, the line of little curls there escaping her braids. I couldn’t imagine, couldn’t really believe, that she was a mother. It was only a hypothetical child we were now trying to save. She was a girl. She had seen a lot but had not yet been bowed by grief. She couldn’t possibly be like my mother, with her potato shape, her face so sharp and cruel and sad.
Alice looked up at me. She knew I’d been looking at her. She had to know. “Mister Derek,” she said. The classroom, the building, the city was quiet. No one awake who should be at 3 a.m. Her face was open and sweet. Her lips, dark and small because she was biting them, pulling them into her mouth. She needed me to rescue her. “Mister Derek.”
“What is it?” I said, gentler than I meant to. She had to know. “Mister Derek, is this comma in the right place?”
I started. The buzzing of the florescent light was back. I had to stare at the sentence a long time before my brain could do the thing that makes it read. “Yes, it is. It’s perfect.”
The memory ends with me riding the subway home. Once again I’ve jumped in time. This must be what my students are doing when they look out the window, and, I realize, Lucille, too: when that empty look is on her face, she’s trying to leapfrog over an hour or a day, on to the time when she will be a little less of an addict, say, a little less lonely, a little less fucked up. There’s drool in my beard. The train rocks me like a baby the way it always has.
I haven’t been completely honest. I left New York because of a girl. But she was also my student, at the high school, and we were found out, that we had this relationship. I knew it was wrong. But I had this problem with love. I thought, stupid me, that if you loved somebody, that was good. In the books I taught, in Keats, in Wuthering Heights, love is a drug. It holds you under the water and drowns you in its beauty.
We held each other. We went for walks in Central Park. It was not a lurid thing. I could tell you she was very mature, and that I was very young. It wouldn’t matter, I know.
I wonder why I didn’t become an alcoholic. Whether it’s some lucky shuffle of the genetic cards. Or whether as a kid I saw my mother and learned the brutal, exact truth of inheritance. My mother would say, “Look at that boy. H can eat just one cookie and put back the box.” And in her voice would be pride, but also something akin to fear. Like I was something she’d never understand. And I was; in that house, in that life, I was special. I could have a little of something good and then put it away like I was bored. It was like a magic trick to my mother, but maybe cookies just didn’t have my number.
Write about what your family means to you. 500 words.
Alice approached me after the next class. She looked tired but happy. She told me, in her soft, stumbling voice, that her baby was better, he was out of the hospital, and maybe because of that or because of the letter, the social workers had backed off. Then, smiling shyly, she presented something from behind her back: a bottle of rum. The bottle was heavy, expensive glass, and the brown liquid glowed like amber in the light. Good stuff, I could tell.
“I can’t take this, Alice.” I wanted to say, save your money, for God’s sake. You’re walking a tightrope and if you’re going to make it, you need everything. Money and friends and luck.
But her face fell, and I thought, if we take away the power to give gifts, then we have taken away everything. So I put the bottle in my bag, and smiled again.
“What’s your baby’s name?” I asked. Somehow it hadn’t sunk in from all the forms.
“Stephane,” she said. Her accent made the word sound like a spell. Her eyes were bright. And I wanted to grab her and kiss her on the mouth right then, I wanted to kiss her hair ribbons, because what are you doing with those things, you have a baby, you are a mother.
But I didn’t. She glided safely away from my desk, and out of my life, and like so many students of mine, I don’t know where she is now, or if she made it, if her baby made it, if she went back to Haiti, if she kept toughing it out in Boston. Stephane would be all grown by now.
I rode the train home alone, drinking the rum from out of my school bag, not caring who saw me.
Write about when you had to make a difficult choice. 500 words.
My mother gave up on the flower beds. She stood there in her caked gardening gloves, staring at the blank soil. “I planted them too late,” she decided. “Everyone saw this coming.”
“It doesn’t matter, Ma.”
She nodded. Not dismayed yet, calmer than I’ve seen her before when something disappointed her. “We’ll wait for the spring. We’ll replant.”
I wanted to tell her it was a waste of money—that whatever small touch we’re missing, this family has not a green thumb among us—but I didn’t. My mother rounded on me. “Lucille hasn’t come to meeting for the past two weeks,” she said. “What’s going on between you two?”
“Nothing.” Nothing and more nothing. I’d called a few times without an answer. Didn’t leave a message on her machine. “Why is this my responsibility?”
“It became your responsibility when you started dating her.”
“You set us up!”
She pulled off her gloves and threw them to the ground. For a moment, I thought she wanted to fistfight. It had happened before. Once, in my sullen teenage years, I called her a wino. She brought the back of her hand swiftly upward into my chin, knocking my head back like some kind of reverse whiplash. I remember wondering where she learned that move.
First, she’d launch herself at me. Then we’d embrace, and roll on the ground like the lovers in From Here to Eternity. Love and hate, always so close to us.
“I thought you needed some fun,” she said finally. “A good time. A rebound. I thought you’d be the kind of guy who’d treat her right for once. But you’re so smug, Derek. You’re so goddamned smug.”
“Tell me what you know about her.”
I wanted to know so badly what she knew. In the past, I did what I had to to find out things. Once, when I was twenty and she was going through a dry spell, she let slip that my father had moved nearby. She was only a few weeks clean then, vulnerable as a kitten. I gave her good dark rum and gin and tonics with lime, made just the way she’d taught me. She told me where he was soon enough.
I didn’t go to the address in Mattapan until a few weeks later, when she had sobered up again. That makes it okay, right?
I sat on that address for three weeks. From what my mother had told me, he didn’t stay in one place for too long. He’d met her and stayed for a few years; I try to summon a memory of him now and all I get is his voice yelling downstairs while I hide in the closet with the coats, being nothing. I remember a rack of ties in the closet with Boston team logos that he’d wear to church. I remember a big hand, giant as a catcher’s mitt, enveloping my head, rough and gentle at the same time.
By the time I finally went to the address, he’d moved on. My penance. My mother had heard Lucille crying the way the women always cried. She’d heard the stories. We looked at each other, and she knew what I wanted, and what I was willing to do, and that she’d be too weak to say no.
She smiled, though. A creased grin, a what-the-hell look. In my mind, I see that grin. Long after the sound of her voice went from me, I can still summon her smile. In my backpack was the half-finished bottle of rum. I could hear it gurgle when I moved.
“Let’s get inside,” she said. “It’s cold. Feel my hands.” She touched them to mine. They were icy.
“Come on,” I said. I went into the kitchen ahead of her and pulled two glasses from the cabinet. I filled one with the rum. The other with apple juice. She smiled at me, and we knocked back our drinks.
I remembered the way we’d watch movies on weekends when I was a kid and she’d tuck her bare feet under the couch cushions and shudder with pleasure. I think of her that way sometimes, like an ex-lover. Somehow we had weathered enough storms to be all right, and in my mind we are not really mother and son; we are two old North Shore friends in our ratty winter coats, shivering against the coming dark.
Write about an important memory. 500 words.
That same day, I waited at the train station, hoping Lucille would come. I tucked way down into myself on the bench with my hands in my pockets and let the thin wind find its way down my collar, close to my body. Three middle-aged women joined me. Two sat down and the one in the too-thin coat stamped her way up and down the platform, trying to keep warm.
“Do you remember what happened last night?” the one in the raccoon coat asked the one with the oversized Bruins jersey.
“I think I really did it this time. Jesus.” Raccoon Coat laughed.
“You were fucking out. Out cold. My girl said you were fucking blue, girl.”
“Blue girl, blue girl.” That was the third woman, in a laughing singsong.
“I gotta go meet my P.O.,” said Raccoon Coat. “Every fucking day because I screwed up once. He was like, are you high? And I was like, hell, yeah, I got high.”
“You were out, girl. Out cold.”
“When I OD’d they didn’t know it was me, they didn’t know who it was. That’s why I never carry ID. They couldn’t arrest me, couldn’t ask any questions. When I woke up, there was a police officer waiting by the fucking bed, but before he asked me any questions he went for a piss and I fucking bounced.”
“I’m just trying to get my son back,” said Bruins Fan.
“Tried to go cold turkey last year,” said Raccoon Coat. “You try detoxing in a hotel room with seven other girls trying to detox. Like putting a bunch of dying cats in a bag. Fuck that shit.”
They went on this way, talking not quite to each other but talking anyway, needing to tell the stories. Smoking and spitting into the tracks.
I’m sitting on the bench with the women I know so well and I still remember the warmth I felt for them then, all of us together in a world colder and crueler than we thought it would be, the way we laugh anyway. The women sit around me and don’t seem to notice I’m there. I’m a houseplant that watches. They’re the monsters from under the bed, the ones that scare me, that hold me close.
In another few moments, a station worker will come out from his booth to tell us to go on home, there’ll be no more trains today. Someone was walking on the tracks and got hit. I’ll wait in the growing dark, and I won’t believe at first that it was Lucille. I’ll wonder, later, if daylight savings time threw her off, if she didn’t mean to be there. And I’ll never really know. Her story, ultimately, will stay safely her own.
But in this moment, sitting with the women on the bench, laughing about parole officers and deadbeat dads, I’m safe from what will happen next. I’m here with the women I know. Their hair is dyed blonde or too-bright red and their faces are too creased and I know exactly who these women are; I know their whole goddamned life story. But in my memory, I listen.
BLAIR HURLEY received her BA from Princeton University and her MFA from NYU. She has stories published or forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Descant, Bluestem, Narrative Northeast, The Red Rock Review, The Best Young Writers and Artists in America, and elsewhere. The recipient of an Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Writer’s Room of Boston, she is currently at work on a novel.