I started my writing career as a poet — if you don’t count the stories I wrote and tried to sell when I was 12 — and eventually my poems became so long, with so many characters, dialogue, and plot, that editors of the journals where I submitted my poems began writing me notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?”
At first, I thought they just didn’t understand what I was trying to do in my poetry, but when I wrote my Holocaust poem “Little Birds,” a poem that was 35 single-spaced pages long, from several perspectives, with a very strong plot, and got those same kinds of comments, along with one that said, in red ink, “Our journal is only 50 pages long,” I began to think that perhaps I was starting to write poems that had more fictional elements than poetic ones.
Since “Little Birds” was already 35-single-spaced pages long, and stories are traditionally double-spaced when submitted to journals, I figured I was already beyond the “short story limit,” so I thought, “Maybe I should write a novel.” As soon as I let that idea even enter my head, I heard the voice of the Nazi Kommandant, from a story-then-poem that had been in my dissertation, say, “Tell my story.” At the same time, I heard the voice of the Jewish inmate with whom he becomes emotionally and sexually obsessed saying, “You can’t tell his story without telling mine.”
The premise of my first novel was born. I spent the next seven years researching the Holocaust again, then borrowed $11,000 (at 17 7/8% interest, total repayment $18K) from the bank to take a year off work and write my novel. After it was published, I found myself thinking of ideas for stories, though I hadn’t written any for 25 years.
My housemate (who was an ex-boyfriend) at the time I wrote and published my first novel, though he was a mathematician, was extremely jealous of my success as a writer. While I’d been writing the novel, he told me that my chances of ever writing a novel that could actually get published were “less than 1 in a million, and closer to 0 than to 1.” (Needless to say, my feelings were unbelievably hurt by that remark.) After the New York Times Book Review of my first novel came out, he got into a fight with a complete stranger in a public place, then came home and screamed at me about how much “important work” he’d done in the world of mathematics, while I’d gotten all this “national and international attention when all [I’d] done was write a stupid little novel.”
I knew that was the end of any relationship, even a platonic one as housemates, as I found myself staring at him, thinking, “Yes, I could kill this man.”
I left and moved out of the house, found a more supportive relationship a few years later, and continued my writing. Then I saw an advertisement for a contest, with 1st Prize as publication in the famed and reputable Story Magazine. The contest was called “The Seven Deadly Sins,” and the premise was to write a story that illustrated as many of the traditional seven deadly sins as possible: hatred, anger, murder, sloth, gluttony, envy… You get the idea. Within seconds, I had the opening line: “This is how the plan to kill your husband could begin.”
You get the idea. Within seconds, I had the opening line: “This is how the plan to kill your husband could begin.”
So I wrote the story, polished it up, and entered it, never expecting to hear anything from the magazine, but pleased that, as an adult, I’d written my first story.
Imagine my surprise when, several months later, I received a check for $100 and a box of books about the history of world literature. I had no idea what they were for: the letter had somehow gotten separated from the check and the box of books, so I called F&W Publications in Cincinnati — the address on the box of books — to ask if anyone knew why I’d gotten the books and the check. That’s when I found out that my story, “Naked, with Glasses,” had won 3rd Prize in Story Magazine’s “Seven Deadly Sins Contest.”
Though only the 1st Prize-winner also got published in Story, I still took it as a sign from the Universe that I’d improved greatly since those stories I’d written when I was 12, and continued to write stories when I took breaks from my novels.
Here, then, is the first short story I wrote as an adult (two others follow, with brief introductions about how I got the ideas), for your reading pleasure.
Naked, with Glasses
This is how the plan to kill your husband could begin. You come home early from work. You have a headache. A terrible headache. The worst headache of your life. You have this grant proposal to write. It’s not finished, and it was due yesterday. Your boss is gone for a week, so you bring the proposal home with you. After you open the door, you hear a noise.
“George?” you say.
Head throbbing, you wander into the living room. No one’s there, but you hear another noise. Upstairs. You find your husband in the hallway which leads to the bedroom. He’s naked, but he’s wearing his glasses. To see you better. He’s pale. He’s sweating.
“George,” you say, genuine concern in your voice, “what are you doing home in the middle of the day? Are you ill?”
He makes a movement, backward, toward the door. Too late. A young woman steps from the bedroom. She’s also naked, but she’s not wearing glasses. She doesn’t have to: she can see you perfectly well. You can see her, too. She is young. Lovely. Thin. George introduces her.
“This is Monica,” he says. “My assistant.”
This is Monica. That is just like George. Naked, wearing glasses, saying to his wife, “This is my girlfriend.” You say nothing. Your headache, however, suddenly gets worse. That is how the plan to kill your husband could begin.
Or perhaps it begins like this:
You and George go to the family reunion. It’s his side of the family. It’s hot. George’s side of the family always insists on having reunions in the middle of July. In parks that have inadequate shelters. In parks that have no trees. George hates his family. He says this constantly.
“How I hate my family,” he says. “Such a stupid family.”
You hate his family, too. You, however, are not allowed to say this. Not to George. Not to your friends. Not even to yourself, alone, with no one else around. You aren’t even allowed to think this. To think bad thoughts about George’s family is bad. It’s worse than a sin. It’s worse than a crime. It’s so bad, they haven’t even invented a name for it yet. And George always knows when you’re thinking bad thoughts about his family.
“Don’t tell me you were trying to decide between the strawberry pie and the chocolate ice cream,” he says. “I know perfectly well you were thinking how fat and ugly Great Aunt Mabel has gotten, and that I’m getting just like her.”
You don’t even remember which one is Great Aunt Mabel. They’re all so fat and ugly, you can’t keep them straight. That doesn’t matter to George. He shoves both the ice cream and the pie off the concrete picnic table, into the grass. Everyone looks at him. The children cry. You look longingly at the knife.
There are no butcher knives at the picnic. After all, everyone eats sandwiches, cookies, snacks. They eat pie and ice cream. There’s no food here for sharp knives. You think of sharp knives anyway. Long, sharp, glittering knives. Heavy-handled, glittering, butcher knives. You think of these beautiful sharp knives in connection with George. In connection with George’s throat.
Or perhaps it starts like this:
You work late. On a project. It’s important to you and to your company. It’s important to your promotion. It’s vital to your self-esteem. To your self-fulfillment. This project is not important to George. It annoys him. He doesn’t like to cook his own dinner. He doesn’t like you to cook his dinner the night before, and leave it for him to warm up. And he hates it when you come home, cook dinner, set it on the table for him, and go back to work. George hates that most of all. It means you’re not a good wife.
He doesn’t care about your education, your degrees, your career. He doesn’t want to be liberated. He wants to be an old-fashioned man. A real man. He nags. He whines. He complains. He calls you every five minutes at work to ask questions. Stupid questions that a teacher shouldn’t be asking. Questions like, “Where’s the can opener?” or “What’s it mean when the microwave goes boom?”
You discuss these things with Charles. Charles is your co-worker. He’s writing the project with you. He sometimes answers the phone for you, so he recognizes George’s voice. Charles tells George you’re in the ladies’ room.
He offers to take a message, but George says, “Never mind. It isn’t important.”
George doesn’t call back the rest of the evening. You ask Charles to answer the phone every night for a week. He does. Charles is very understanding. He’s a few years younger than you, but he doesn’t act like it. He refuses to believe you when you tell him the year you were born. Charles is beautiful. When he leans forward over the desk, his hair falls over his forehead.
“How awful it must be for you,” he says. “How dreadful.”
You start to agree with this. Later, when Charles leans over the desk, your heart starts to pound. The office is air-conditioned, so it can’t be the heat. When you get home at night, George is lying on the couch. Naked except for his glasses. Reading the newspaper. George isn’t as young as Charles. He has no hair to fall over his forehead. He frowns at you, looks pointedly at the clock on the wall above the fireplace. His glasses glitter in the lamplight. His belly bulges under the paper. It is a decidedly un-pretty picture.
You think of Charles, his arms around you, his mouth open on yours. Naked, perhaps, but not wearing glasses. You decide killing George would be a pleasure. More than a pleasure. An absolute joy.
Time passes. Life continues much in the same way. Much as everyone else’s. Only worse. But you’ve changed. You’ve made a decision. You decide the ending will be different. You’ll choose the ending to this life of yours. You. Nobody else.
This is how it could end:
George and Monica think you’ve forgotten them. George says, “She means nothing to me.” Monica doesn’t get to say what she thinks of this remark. George weeps, falls on his knees, beats his breast, swears never to see her again. He swears on the Bible. He’s very good at this. But George and Monica meet three afternoons a week. You know because you’ve been watching them. Your girlfriends and their children have been helping you. You haven’t told this terrible story to your own children. No, that would upset them. But the others understand. They chart George’s movements for you. They discover Monica’s address, phone number, license plate, dress size. They discover that she has a fiancé. The fiancé’s name is Michael. And Michael doesn’t know about George.
So one of your friends calls the house. At 2:35 on Wednesday afternoon. 2:35 exactly. She’s very prompt. You know because you’re hiding in the kitchen. George and Monica don’t know you’re there, of course. They’re too busy with each other. The phone rings. Right on schedule. Your friend says she’s a nurse from the emergency room of the local hospital. She says she knows Monica’s there because Monica’s mother told her so. George gives the phone to Monica. What else can he do?
Your friend says, “I have terrible news for you, Monica.”
Monica holds her breath. Standing in the kitchen, crouched near the doorway, you hold your breath, too.
Your friend says, “Your fiancé Michael has been in a motorcycle accident. A terrible motorcycle accident. One of the worst motorcycle accidents I’ve ever seen.”
You know what she’s saying because you wrote it yourself.
As a final touch, your friend says, “Your fiancé Michael wasn’t wearing his helmet.”
He does this sometimes. You know because some of the others have seen him do it. Monica knows it, too. She cries out. She drops the phone. She grabs her clothes and runs out of the house. George follows, but she’s gone before he can get his clothes on. He stands in the doorway. Naked. Wearing his glasses. In the front doorway. Where everyone in the neighborhood can see him. He has no shame. You’ve suspected this for a long time, but now you know it for a fact.
You don’t say anything to George as you come up behind him. You say absolutely nothing as you aim the gun. As you squeeze the trigger. George says nothing as he falls. His hands grasp at the empty air. His glasses shatter as his body hits the concrete of the front walk.
You smile. Your friends and the neighbor women gather around, nodding their approval. No one calls the police. There’s no need to: the police chief’s wife is your best friend. She’s the one who gave you the gun.
Or it could end like this:
You’re packing your suitcase. Your heart is pounding and your face is flushed. You’re so happy. George comes home. Your heart thuds. What’s he doing home in the middle of the day? He comes into the bedroom. He looks at the suitcase. He looks around the room. The closets and bureau drawers are almost empty. The suitcase is filled with your clothes. George takes off his glasses, cleans them, puts them back on.
“What are you doing?” he says.
Charles is waiting for you at the airport, but you think it best not to tell George this. Not at this time. Not in this way. Besides, you’ve left a letter for him on his desk. You look at your watch. George stands in the doorway.
“Please let me go, George,” you say.
“Not till you answer me,” says George. “Not till you tell me exactly what’s going on.”
You try to push him aside but he’s bigger than you. Heavier.
“Please, George,” you say, “I’ll explain everything to you later. But first I have to catch this plane.”
George isn’t listening to any of this. He walks in front of you as you go to the stairs. George is walking in front of you, but he’s walking backward. So he can see you better.
“Tell me tell me tell me,” he keeps saying.
You look at your watch. You should’ve been there long ago. What if Charles thinks you’re not coming? You push George out of the way. A slight push. Against the chest. Not even a shove, really. You’re a small woman and he’s such a big man, after all. But he’s standing at the top of the stairs. Right on the edge of the top step. Your push takes him by surprise. He falls. Backward. Down the whole flight of stairs.
His glasses glint in the light as his big body tumbles down the steps. His neck is broken.
It’s not your fault. Everyone agrees about that. Of course, you’ll have to change your flight. But Charles will understand.
Or perhaps it ends like this:
You’re tired. It’s been a long day. You know George didn’t mean to ruin the microwave oven, but he’s a teacher and you’d think that someone like that would know that you cannot put certain kinds of dishes into the oven.
George complains about his teaching assistant, whose name is Michael. Michael has a fiancée named Monica. George thinks Monica’s a twit. She fell off her bicycle today and sprained her little finger. She called Michael away from the lab, just when George needed him. You don’t care about Michael. You care even less for Monica, whom you’ve never met.
The proposal you wrote for the new project didn’t get accepted. It didn’t get rejected, but it didn’t get accepted either.
“Let me think about this,” your boss said. “Let me have Charles look it over.”
Charles is younger than you. He’s just graduated from college. You feel depressed. Angry. Hurt. Do you cry? Shout? Stomp your feet? No. You smile.
“That would be just fine,” you say.
Charles is the boss’ nephew.
Your head is throbbing by the time you get off work. You decide not to cook dinner. You’ll warm up some food in the microwave. No, you’ll try one of those new frozen meals that you just pop into the oven. You’ll pour yourself a glass of wine, put your feet up, and relax. You smile, and your head starts to hurt a little less.
But when you get home, you find that George has broken the microwave. He didn’t mean to, but he’s not as smart as everyone else thinks he is. You throw something. Not at him, exactly. At the wall. He doesn’t like how close the bowl comes to his head. You say three feet away isn’t close. George doesn’t agree. And after all, it’s his head.
You run out of the house. You get into the car and drive away. You drive for hours. You think of all the terrible things you’ll do to George. All the terrible, slow, painful things you’ll do to George. To Charles. To your boss.
No: to yourself. Yes. that’s it. You’ll kill yourself. You’ll deprive them of your existence. That’ll show them.
You’ll drive your car right over the edge of some cliff. A high, steep cliff, with jagged rocks and crashing waves at the bottom. They’ll find you at the last second. They’ll beg you to hang on, just for one… more… minute. But it’ll be too late. Oh, how they’ll grieve. Oh, how they’ll suffer. You drive and drive, looking for cliffs. You can’t find any. That’s because you live in Ohio. You curse yourself for moving with George to Ohio.
You think of an alternate plan to punish George and the rest of them. You’ll drive into a tree. A big, old, oak tree. There are plenty of those in Ohio. They’ll have to dig the car’s twisted metal out of the tree. They’ll have to use Jaws-of-Life to get you out of the twisted metal of the car. What’s left of you will be almost unrecognizable. Except for your face, which will be untouched, and even more beautiful in death than it was in life. Yes. That’ll show them. Oh, what weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. How they deserve it.
You drive and drive and drive, looking for just the right oak tree. You drive until you realize you’re tired. Until you realize you’re hungry. Then you go home.
A cold dinner’s sitting on the dining room table: salad, cheese, bread, wine.
There’s a note from George.
“I’m sorry I ruined the microwave,” it says.
You don’t cry. You’re too tired.
You go upstairs. George is in bed. He’s lying on top of the covers, naked, reading student papers. He looks up when you come in. He puts down his pen and the student essays.
You sit on the side of the bed. You say nothing. Tears blur your vision. George takes off his glasses. Now his vision is the same as yours. He puts his hand on yours. Your fingers tighten.
This is how it could end.
One of my next stories came from the fact that I have a Southern Appalachian accent. Unless you’re from the areas mentioned below, or are a Linguistics scholar, you won’t understand the difference between a Southern accent and a Southern Appalachian accent, but let me assure you, the population of Southern Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania have the Southern Appalachian accent — as opposed to the Mountain Appalachian accent — and others in the area recognize it. They also consider it as an indication that the speaker is illiterate, stupid, uneducated, dirty, nasty, and stupid.
All my life I tried to get rid of that accent — to no avail, since my “Southern accent” is constantly remarked upon — and so, for my next story, I decided to make use of that accent (and when I read it aloud, I read it in the accent that I grew up with). I have gotten rid of all the illiterate aspects of the Southern Appalachian accent and dialect — much of which came from my biological parents, who left school without graduating from the 8th grade. While growing up, I saw education as the only way to escape poverty, incest, illiteracy, and having multiple children starting at around age 12, as my mother had, and as I myself was being pressured to do by my mother and stepfather. Most of my family was horrified that, as a girl, I went to high school in the first place: I was the first in my family to graduate from the 8th grade, and the only one to graduate from high school, let alone to continue my education by going on to college.
When I wrote “St. Jerome Emiliani Comes to the Church Picnic,” I decided to explore my Southern Appalachian dialect and accent, and fell in love with the little girl narrator who emerged. (Eventually, I plan to video myself reading it aloud, so you’ll get to hear the accent I was born to, and which I’ve tried to eliminate, albeit not completely successfully, it appears, since everyone [including Patrick Stewart, who imitated me mercilessly at our first dinner together until he had perfected it] always remarks on my “Southern accent” and my “
(Eventually, I plan to video myself reading it aloud, so you’ll get to hear the accent I was born to, and which I’ve tried to eliminate, albeit not completely successfully, it appears, since everyone [including Patrick Stewart, who imitated me mercilessly at our first dinner together until he had perfected it] always remarks on my “Southern accent” and my “drawl,” though I honestly don’t hear it.)
St. Jerome Emiliani Comes to the Church Picnic
When I was little, Mama and Daddy tole me nobody but old folks died. Before I was even growed, I found out my Mama and Daddy lied. Anybody cain die. Even folks young as me. Folks cain die right smack in the middle a playing with they doll babies, right smack in the middle a eating mashed potatoes at supper, right smack in the middle a Saturday night bath. Folks cain die right smack in the middle a anything at all. Ain’t no way to stop it neither.
The day I found out my Mama and Daddy done lied to me was the day of the church picnic. Mama done went off early in the morning, to be with her pies and her lady friends. Daddy carried us there later, just before lunch. He pulled right up to the front gate, and give us each a quarter.
“Y’all get on out now,” he says. “Go say ‘Hey’ to the Reverend. I’ll be in directly.”
Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior they just jumps right outta the car, before he even finishes talking. You sure cain tell they’s twins. Even though they’s boy and girl, they’s identical selfish. To the very bone. My own self, I am more polite. I waits till he finishes before I opens the door.
‘Course Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior don’t pay him no never mind. They’s already at the gate, jumping up and down in fronta the preacher, almost wetting they own selves in they excitement. I act more dignified. More growed-up. Lotsa folks is pushing through the gate. Some of them boys ’bout run me down, and don’t even say ‘scuse me neither: they’s just like the twins. Lotsa folks knows Mama and Daddy, and they all says, “Hey.”
“Hey, MaryLouise, where’s your Ma?”
“Over at the pies.”
“Where’s your Pa, MaryLouise?”
“Parking the car.”
“Where’s your Ma?”
“At the pies.”
“Where’s your Pa?”
“Parking the car.”
After ’bout three-billion-trillion “parking the car’s,” I starts to wonder what in tarnation is taking Daddy so long. Don’t take that long to park no car, even if it is a big brand new one that he parks real far from all the resta the cars so it don’t get no dings nor dents nor scratches in its brand spanking new $25 paint job. Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior starts in whining and crying like dogs got they tails stepped on, and says they gotta go find Mama.
“Don’t you be going nowheres,” I says. “Daddy done tole us to wait by the front gate.”
They turns up they ugly little twin faces at me, and squinches they ugly little twin eyes.
“We going over to be with our own Mama,” they says.
And they runs theyselves off before I cain even grab aholt of they collars. ‘Course they don’t come back. Didn’t I tell you they’s selfish? Ain’t got no respect, them two. Why if I’d done that kinda disrespecting when I was they age, I’d been whupped for certain. Them, they’ll probably get no more’n a mean look and a “I tole you two don’t you do that no more.” But you cain bet that ain’t gonna stop them two none.
After a while, I get kinda tired of waiting on Daddy.
“How long’s it take to park a car?” I asks my own self, and I decide it don’t take near as long as he’s been gone. I reckon I best go look for him and fetch him into the church yard.
The parking lot is little rocks in some places and dried-up grass in others. Daddy didn’t tell us where he’s gonna park, so I gotta look up and down, up and down, up and down every row. There’s lotsa cars here today, I cain tell you. I ain’t never seen so many cars in one place in all my life. I keeps on walking, looking for the car. Sometimes I am walking in dried-up grass. Sometimes I am walking on little rocks. It is fun to throw these little rocks. They’s just the right size for throwing. Wait: I ain’t here to throw no little rocks. I am looking for my Daddy. I drop them little rocks.
Finally I finds the car. Daddy ain’t there, but the door is open. Now this is mighty particular. Daddy don’t never go nowhere away from the car and leave the door open. I figures he gotta be standing somewhere, jawing with the fellas, but I sure ain’t seeing him nowheres.
I reckon he done forgot about us standing by the front gate like he done tole us to his very own self. I reckon by this much time past he’s over to the pies where Mama is. ‘Course Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior done tole him by now how I was the one who run off and left them by they own selves so they was forced to come find Mama so they’d not be all alone just the two of them just them two little twins all by they own selves in the middle of the church picnic all by they lonesomes. I cain just hear it now. I closes the car door, drags my feet, kicks at some of them little rocks that is so nice for throwing, and walks my self on back to the church yard gate.
All a sudden, folks is running. Men-folk mostly, but some women-folk, too. Running past me, in the direction I just come from. Funny looks on they chalk-pale faces. So I runs, too.
They runs they selves back toward the very furtherest side of the church parking lot. Where it is all grass, and none of them little rocks at all. They’s all running to the little boys’ room. And they’s all going right in, too, all of them: they just running they selves right in to the little boys’ room. Even the girls and the growed women who I knows cain read. So I goes on in, too.
Right away, sure as I’m born, without nobody saying nuthin at all to me, I knows something powerful bad’s done happened. The looks on they faces is something awful. And it’s real quiet in there. But it ain’t quiet like church-quiet come Sunday morning. No, it ain’t like that. It’s bad-quiet. Some of the women-folk is shaking they heads. They got they hands over they mouths. In they hands which is over they mouths, they got they flower-stitched handkerchiefs. The men-folk is shaking they heads, too. They’s talking real low to they selves. And everybody that done run they selves over here is all standing in front of this here one stall.
One of the more growed boys wearing tore overalls is holding the door open. So everybody cain look right in. Now that don’t seem at all right to me, but then Mama and Daddy done always tole me I ain’t even allowed to go into the little boys’ room, but here I am, clear as daylight, nobody not a single person on God’s green earth stopping me. That’s ’cause they’s all too busy with they eyes looking in the stall where the boy in the tore overalls is holding open the door. So I looks, too.
You cain knock me over with a chicken feather. You cain knock me over with the breath outta you mouth. You cain knock me over without nuthin at all. What they was all looking at was a man.
A growed man was there, with his pants full on, kneeling on the floor, his backside sticking out at all of us, his head down in the toilet. For the life of me I cain’t figure what he’s doing like that. ‘Specially with everybody in the whole entire world in the universe standing there gawking at him. Don’t he hear all of us? Don’t he notice that the door is being held wide open?
“He’s dead,” says one of the men-folk to another.
“Like a doornail.”
“How can y’all be so disrespectful?”
“Shouldn’t we do something?”
“Sheriff’s on his way.”
“Cain’t we at least lay him down?”
All the men-folk looks at each other but nobody moves.
Nobody moves ‘cepting me, and I am staring at the patch on the back of the man’s jeans. It’s a blue patch. Blue with little white stars on it. Blue with little white stars in the shape of hearts. Blue with little white stars in the shape of hearts from my old jumper that I am too growed to wear anymore and which Annabelle Lee cut on with a scissors because she is such a stupid selfish little twin. The blue patch with the little white stars in the shape of a heart is on the back of the man’s jeans.
That man is my Daddy.
‘Course I don’t say nuthin to nobody. I cain’t say nuthin to nobody even if I was to try. My mouth’s hanging open and all, but no words is coming out. No words is coming outta my mouth which is open to the ground, but them words is in my brain all right. And them words is running ’round and ’round and ’round, bashing into my head bones, and them words is saying, “No, no, only old folks die.”
But my Daddy is in the little boys’ room on the other side of the parking lot at the church picnic. My own Daddy is kneeling on the floor with his head stuck in the toilet and some boy with tore overalls is holding the door wide open so everybody and his brother cain see and all the folks is standing ’round shaking they heads and whispering “how sad how awful dreadful sad” while my own Daddy is kneeling there not moving nary a little finger and I my own self am standing there with my mouth hung open wide enough for a bird to build its self a nest in not saying no word not no single word at all.
I reckon it must be for a fact, what they been saying about him being dead.
When Mama gets her self there, she screams and starts to crying. Then somebody gets to noticing that children is in the little boys’ room, and some of them children is little girls, and one of them children which is little girls is me.
“Oh, my God, oh, sweet baby Jesus,” they says as they kinda push-pulls me out of the little boys’ room, out into the parking lot where the grass is all tramped down from all the folks running they selves over here, out where the dried-up grass turns its brown self into them little rocks which is just the right size for throwing, out where the sun is shining hot enough to fry a egg without no skillet.
But I cain’t feel nuthin. Not even the sun beating down on my head.
I cain’t see nuthin neither. ‘Cept that little blue patch with white stars in the shape of a heart.
And I cain’t hear nuthin ‘cept big words and Mama crying hard enough to choke her self and Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior crying even harder till somebody finally done picks the twins up and takes them over to a neighbor’s house which is nearby the church yard.
I cain’t hear nuthin but weeping and wailing and growed doctor words like “mass-of-corn-airy” and “corn-airy-fail-your” and “They’s St. Jerome Miliani’s widow and orphans now,” but they all means the same thing.
And dead means forever. Dead means forever and ever till the end of the world. Dead means no cake on your birthday with one more candle than you done had last year, and no powder-smelling Mama to kiss both your cheeks and your forehead at night so’s you can sleep with pretty pictures, and no rides up to your own warm bed at night on Daddy’s shoulders, the Daddy you love more’n anything else in the whole wide world around and who you want to marry your own self when you’s all growed up.
Dead means till Jesus his own sweet self comes back to raise you up from the ground where you’s laid for hundreds or thousands of years and takes your sweet lonely old bones up to heaven to match them with your skin. Dead means darkness and coldness and shivering and loneliness. Dead means never ever again. Dead means nuthin at all for the rest of your whole entire life on earth.
Dead means you done found out your very own Daddy lied to you.
‘Course, I coulda forgive him for that.
But he ain’t never give me no chance to.
The final story I’m sharing from the collection was originally one of the chapters of my newest novel (not yet published), about Jesus of Nazareth. Anything that ended up not in the final draft of the novel, I re-worked into stories. Many of the character development and plotlines have changed over the several years it has taken me to write the novel, so the stories simply didn’t fit my final vision of Jesus of Nazareth. Still, I liked the original stories and characters, even if they had changed in the novel version.
Here is one of the stories involving Pontius Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth, “In the Path of the Juggernaut,” which is narrated by Pilate.
In the Path of the Juggernaut
Juggernaut: A belief to which
people sacrifice themselves or others.
“When, in all the years I’ve been stationed in this hideous desert province, when have you known me to actually hear one of these cases?”
“Yes, I know, my Lord, but the local dignitaries are in quite an uproar…”
“What local dignitaries?”
“The Priests, of course.”
“I buy the Priests, you idiot. They can’t be in an uproar against me.”
I indicate to my slave the three bags I’m taking back home with me. To another, I point out the wrapped package on the bed. A gift for my wife. Silk scarves with elaborate embroidery and beading. From some far-off land by way of the Parthians, the vendor told me. My wife will be pleased.
“The Priests did get into an uproar about those Standards. Got nearly half the city’s population into an uproar about it…”
“Do you want to be whipped?” I say.
“I’m… I’m your aide, sir.”
“Do you think that means I can’t have you whipped?”
“I’m not a slave, my Lord. I’m a citizen.”
“Weren’t you a slave at one time?” I say, rubbing my chin slowly and narrowing my eyes.
“Your lordship gave me my freedom.”
“How long ago?”
“Ten years, sir.”
“Very well, then, I suppose I won’t have you whipped.”
“Gratitude, my Lord.”
One of the slaves ties my sandals while another adjusts my traveling cloak. As I glance around the room to see if I’ve forgotten anything, I hold out my wrists and hands so that the female slaves may put my bracelets and rings in place. When they’re finished, they bow before slowly walking backward from my bedroom. The large Carthaginian who adjusted my cloak picks up my golden necklace which holds my great seal of office, lifts it over my head, puts it around my neck, and settles it against my chest. He’s the only one tall enough to do it so that I don’t have to bend my head. I give him his daily coin. As always, he closes his eyes as he slightly bows his head and leaves the room.
“The Priests are quite insistent that you hear these charges…”
“Which means the charges demand the death penalty?”
“And the only death penalty the Priests can issue is ‘death by stoning’ for religious and moral issues such as blasphemy and adultery.”
“That means this is a case dealing with insurrection or rebellion against the Roman Empire?”
“It concerns a disturbance at the Temple… They say he disrupted the entire monetary system and made threats.”
“I’m not quite sure, my Lord.”
“Why aren’t you quite sure, Lucius?”
“He’s one of the silent ones.”
“One of the suicides, you mean.”
“I don’t see any reason to stay in the city for that,” I say. “I have to get back to Caesarea Maritima and the Mediterranean. You know I simply can’t breathe here.”
“The Priests know you haven’t left the city yet…”
“Guilty as charged. Crucify him.”
“They say he’s scheming to set himself up as the new head of state…”
I laugh aloud.
“…that he commands thousands, tens of thousands — all willing to martyr themselves to his fanatical cause. They say if you don’t destroy him now, chaos and rebellion…”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“The Priests. Caiphas, most particularly.”
“Where is he?”
“Caiphas or the prisoner?”
“I’m going to exile you to Germania when this is all over, Lucius.”
“They’re downstairs, my Lord. Both of them. All the others are with them.”
All the Priests bow, as do the guards, when I sweep into the Great Hall. Immediately I notice that despite their reputed terror of the man, he’s not bound in any way. He’s no Rebel, at least not the kind they’re accusing him of being. All the Priests want to speak. And they don’t even shut up despite the fact that there’s no translator present.
I send for one of the guards who speaks koinē, the common Greek language left by Alexander’s soldiers that the soldiers and the shopkeepers still use to communicate. None of the Priests speak it. One of the shopkeepers does, though, and he begs my permission to come forward and translate with the guard.
At once the Priests start babbling that the prisoner is a healer, a magician, an exorcist, while some of the others present insist he’s only a teacher, until finally the two translators can’t keep up, and they both look at me, shrugging. The Priests say the prisoner caused a disturbance in the Temple, calling them traitors and collaborators —which, of course, they are — claiming they had desecrated the “house of The Lord God, his Father,” whatever that means.
I gaze at the prisoner. I can see his anger about the High Priests, but they’re useful to us. He must actually believe they should be devoted solely to the service of their god. A fanatic, then, but not of the sort they claim. I can see from where I sit that his own hands haven’t labored over weapons or munitions. His long, slender fingers and alabaster skin are more like a woman’s; his hands are more suitable for holding pen and ink — though I doubt he can read and write — than for assembling the swords, shields, and spears necessary for an army. He doesn’t look like a warrior or Rebel or Zealot or a Freedom-Fighter. No, he looks like the teacher his followers and some of the others claim him to be.
A teacher, trying to return his people to their god.
But those eyes of his — oh, yes, I do see the spark that frightens them, the smoldering passion that makes them tremble.
That passion burning in his eyes is a fire for his god.
Yes, he burns, but not against the Roman Empire.
Perhaps he did attack some vendors in the Temple and claim the Priests have desecrated the “house of his Father.” And so they have, with Roman collaboration.
All he did was speak the truth.
With one look he reduces them to a quivering mass because he forces them to see themselves. With one look from him, they fall against each other, their limbs jerking and twitching, their eyes rolling back, their lips frothing. Even my own legionnaires turn pale and tremble though he says not a word.
Should I execute a man because he frightens others by making them see the truth about themselves?
If I look at him, will he make me see some truth about myself?
I wave the guard and the shopkeeper over to me.
“Ask him if he’s plotting rebellion against the government?” I say to the guard in Roman, who asks the shopkeeper in koinē, who repeats the question to the prisoner in his own tongue.
He says nothing as his eyes continue to burn with that fire. But he does look up at me. It feels as if his hand is clenched around my heart. I glance down at the charges until I can catch my breath.
Rebellion, Treason, Tax Evasion, Terrorism, Inciting Riots.
“Have they so angered you by violating your god’s temple that you would allow them to charge you with treason against the Roman Empire, though you’ve committed no such crime?”
That look comes back to his face, that pressure to my chest, and while the shopkeeper and the guard wait for his answer, which I know will never come, I realize that he’s committed to throw himself under the hooves, to be crushed under the wheels, as if that will somehow stop the desecration, as if somehow he’s been born to it, as if somehow his death will change things, and that — above all — what I do matters little to him.
It’s a pity. But what can I do to stop him? We cannot even speak to each other. He wants me to sign. His eyes tell me that. I pick up the pen, dip it into the ink, and sign the death warrant.
So. There it is.
When I push aside the document, I see that there is a mark, a stain of some sort on my palm, and I rub my hand against my robe as they lead him away to the same end as all the others. I send one of the boys for water and towels. When he returns, I wash my hands. The water is cool and clear.
After I leave the palace and board my litter, I notice that my hand is still stained. I rub it against my robe, over and over. Lucius has left documents for me. I’ll whip him when I see him next. I kick the documents out of my way, each headed with the traditional and usual notation: To Our Most Honorable and Noble Prefect, Pontius Pilatus.
Just as his was before I signed it.
His eyes are there when I close mine in the litter, leaving the city. His silence is heavy on my skin. A savage cry rips at me from the place they call Golgotha — Hill of Skulls — outside the city walls. Chosen by us long ago so every one of them can see the consequences of resisting us. A hill covered with crosses. Covered with the bones of their leaders. I let the litter-curtain fall into place.
A cloud passes, for a moment, in front of the sun.
The mark in my hand burns and burns.
After I submitted the collection in a contest just to get a critique of them as a whole, I was warned that I would have no chance of winning since the publisher, UKA Press [United Kingdom Authors Press] had never done a collection of short stories, so mine couldn’t “win” the Annual International Contest. I thanked the publisher for her honesty, but assured her that I just wanted the critique of the stories from the outside readers — all publishers, editors, authors, professors, etc. The contest entry fee is rather expensive (between $40-50 for 35 pages), but the critique is very insightful and detailed: I’d entered it before and gotten excellent feedback on my work, which helped me improve it.
Since no one had ever read my entire group of stories as a collection, I went ahead and entered it into the contest — the 35 pages, at least. Later, the publisher contacted me and asked if I had any more stories: she said that the outside readers had enjoyed my submission so much that they wanted to read more. I sent the entire collection. For months I heard nothing from them, and, more important to me, I had never received the critique which I was anticipating. When I contacted the publisher a few months after the contest ended, she said she’d check on the entry, telling me that it must’ve gotten lost in the mails.
About a week later, I received what appeared to be a copy-edited version of Naked, with Glasses — all my stories arranged in what looked like a book format, with comments from an editor named Don. I was confused, to say the least. When I contacted the publisher to ask what was going on, I was informed that the outside readers had been so impressed with my 35-page contest submission, that they had wanted to see the remaining stories in my collection. They then insisted that the Grand Prize be given to my manuscript, though UKA Press had never published a collection of short stories before.
I was stunned.
“What about the critique?” I said.
“We don’t publish short stories,” said the publisher, with a laugh, “and you just got awarded the Grand Prize: how much more of a critique do you need?”
None, I guess…
but it might have been nice…
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© 1993, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman.
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