2013 Fiction Contest Winner, judged by Claire Vaye Watkins
Glenna had moved to Southern Ohio on a whim. A whim was all she could call it, really. Her husband, Nat, was a door-to-door salesman, if you could believe that, in this day and age. The classified ad in the Tribune, four years ago in Portland, had made them laugh—and so Nat had applied for the position. He bought a pinstripe suit and a fedora, from Avalon Vintage, for the interview. And, somehow, he got the job.
He sold knives, which he carried in his briefcase, along with a cutting board and a block of wood, which he replaced after each demonstration. His car trunk was full of wood blocks. During his sales pitch, he would set the cutting board on a hard surface, and on top of the cutting board the wood block, and then quickly and without hesitation he would slice through the block with the finest knife he had to offer. It was not a scam. The knife really was that fine.
Nat—her pacifist, wiry, beak-nosed Nat—had taken to the job immediately. Its anachronistic nature meant that no one could take it too seriously. So when the Portland branch of the company was shutting down, he was offered a transfer to Gallia, Ohio.
“I’d be selling the People’s Knife,” Nat had joked. The company was going through a rebranding; their focus was on lower-class and rural folk now.
Because far fewer people worked out of the Gallia branch, Nat would be in charge of a much larger radius. Five hundred miles larger.
“I’d really be traveling,” Nat said, and Glenna detected something in his voice that she rarely heard. A strange mix of whimsy and urgency.
Neither of them had ever been to the Midwest. They searched “Ohio” on the Internet, and then “Southern Ohio,” and then “Gallia.” They found that Gallia lay in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. They searched “foothill.” Gradual increases in elevation at the foot of a mountain range.
“Foothill,” they said as they passed each other going into and out of the bathroom that night. “Foothill,” they said upon waking in the morning.
They made a mental list of what they liked about Portland:
-Happy Hour with Bonnie and Max on Tuesdays, and with Emmett on Thursdays
-Their mutual hairstylist, Joan
And of what they did not like:
-No one ever seemed to say the word “happy” without “hour” following it
-The pressure to look like a hipster, once you realized you were a hipster, which they had reluctantly realized on a hazy night five years ago, right before eloping
Then they made a list of what they thought they would like about Gallia:
-Cheaper living, which meant they could survive off Nat’s commission and Glenna could have some time to plan her next career move
-The possibility of raising chickens and perfecting the art of scrambling eggs and eventually opening an egg-centered restaurant called Eggcellent
-They would be living on foothills, foothills, foothills!
-It would be something different
-It could be something beautiful—didn’t the pictures look beautiful, in a hardscrabble, brown sort of way?
And of what they thought they might not like:
-Hard to meet people?
-People might have different “interests”?
-Might get boring?
Two days after Nat was offered the transfer, he accepted. If the people in Gallia were gun-toting, church-going, children-bearing folk, he and Glenna could become that too—at least the gun-toting and church-going parts. They were open-minded people, willing to try almost anything that did not require commitment, they reminded each other. And, if worse came to worst, they could write a memoir about it later.
The trailer belonged to Bud Smith, an octogenarian who had been temporarily residing at The Four Winds for the past five years. His daughter and only kin, April Smith, was renting out his home unbeknownst to him.
“To help pay his nursing costs and crud,” she had said.
“Because crud can be quite expensive,” Nat fished.
April nodded her head. “Sinfully expensive, hun.”
It was an under-the-table arrangement. And soon after Glenna and Nat moved in, April showed up at the door with a tub of frozen deer meat and a proposition for them to chew over. Should Mr. Smith’s time come, Glenna and Nat could have the property, five acres and furnishings included, for $25,000 even. The property was worth at least double that, but no one would pay its full value in lump sum—and although April knew she could make more money in the long run by renting the trailer, she wanted it out of her stringy hair (her words). “Listen,” she said, “money not in my pocket’s not any money at all.”
Glenna was sure April had a drug problem, while Nat thought she had cancer—possibly both a drug problem and cancer, but definitely cancer. Whatever the cause, she wanted money fast, and Glenna and Nat both found it surprising she had not offed her father yet.
At first the proposition had sounded ridiculous to them. The last time Glenna had saved any money was in middle school, when she put her babysitting earnings in a plastic bank shaped like a coke bottle that came up to her waist. She liked watching the bills pile higher and higher, so much so that she asked to be paid in singles. When the bank was finally full, she asked to be paid in quarters so she could weigh the dollars down and keep piling. Soon thereafter, she stopped being called to babysit, which was a relief to her, not because she disliked the children, but because the money had become so burdensome. There was no material thing that seemed worth the emptying of that coke bottle; yet, if she did not empty it, what was the point of having saved? Eventually, she left for college with the money still in her bedroom, and when she returned at winter break the money was gone, and she never asked anyone about it.
Nat had never saved anything. Ever. But, shortly after moving to Gallia, he started to shift. It became clear that people in Ohio still needed knives—they seemed to really, really need knives—and, suddenly, Nat was talking about a future that was more than a few months away.
He came to Glenna with figures.
If they put aside a hundred dollars a week, they could afford the double-wide—the double-wide, he always called it—in less than six years. And if Glen—Glen, he always called her—got a job, they could put away everything she earned, and they could be talking two years. Two years! he said. Even if it were just a small job, a part-time job, a blink-and-you-miss-it, nothing kind of job…
Although the subject matter was perhaps the most mature he had ever tackled, his voice had never sounded so childish to Glenna. Breathless, as if he had just run in from playing outside and were telling her about a fort he was in the process of building out of sticks and mud.
But the money talk was not the worst of Nat’s shift. Glenna had heard once that, for something to become a habit, you had to repeat it consecutively for twenty days. It was as if Nat, after only three weeks, had become an Ohioan simply by living in Ohio. One night, Glenna bent down to pick up an envelope that had fallen by Nat’s desk. Scrawled on the back was an acrostic that read Only Hope In Ohio—the first letter of each word in bubble letters. Bubble letters! She had taken a long shower and cried after seeing it, her mind playing through a montage of Nat drinking straight from the pitcher of PBR at Swift Lounge; of him wearing a fake mustache as Joan cut his sideburns; of the kitten mask he liked for Glenna to wear on the back of her head when he penetrated her from behind. And now acrostics? Bubble letters? Scribbled mindlessly. Not meant to be ironic or seen.
“The double-wide.” Nat and April both referred to it this way.
As in, “I’m putting mouse poison under the double-wide.”
As in, “The insulation in the double-wide is better than ya’d think.”
Glenna refused to call it this. It was a trailer. That’s all it was. People did not go around referring to their two-story houses as “my two-story house.” People did not go around referring to their one-hundred-room mansions as “my one-hundred-room mansion.”
Yet, it was much bigger than she had ever imagined a trailer to be. Two bedrooms, two full baths, a living room and sitting room and half a dining room, a kitchen with a built-in breakfast bar—and they were decent-sized rooms. Fake wood paneling lined the majority of the walls, which Nat said made him feel like they were in a cabin and Glenna said made her feel like they were in a weird 1970s porn movie, not that she had ever watched any. In some places the beige carpet sunk under their feet: “Normal,” Nat said.
“Normal to be living on top of decay?” Glenna sputtered. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? Is that supposed to comfort me as I’m dying of black lung disease?”
“That’s a coal miner’s disease.”
Every time Glenna stepped on one of the rot puddles, as she came to think of them, she saw herself sinking through the floor, sticky black roots wrapping themselves around her legs and pulling her deeper and deeper, into the earth, which looked and felt like hot wet tar.
Nat had taped a quote, a Wendell Berry quote, on the mirror of one of the bathrooms, of all places: “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought or grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
Once, after eating one of Nat’s experiments in the kitchen, Glenna had been hovering over the toilet trying to vomit. She was cursing Gallia for having nowhere decent to eat out. Cursing Gallia for making Nat take up cooking. Her head was all nausea, but her body was rebelling from ridding herself of what she never should have ingested. Then she had looked over at the words on the mirror, her own pale reflection below the words, and out it came.
“A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support,” Nat said one night in bed, looking up from his laptop.
“Nice,” Glenna said.
“Berry,” Nat said.
And when Glenna did not reply, he said again, “Berry.”
Sometimes, when Nat was selling, Glenna stood outside on the grass. The trailer was at the top of an incline, a foothill Glenna supposed, and the land in front of and beside the trailer swooped down steeply until it hit the gravel section of Clary School Road. There used to be a one-room schoolhouse on this road, about a mile south, April told them. The street names in Gallia were mindbogglingly literal. John’s Store Road and Raccoon Hideout Road were two of Nat’s favorites, which he did not fail to exclaim each time he and Glenna passed them on the way to the grocery. Glen Cemetery Road was undoubtedly the most disconcerting—but, had a home been for rent on it back when they were moving, they probably would have taken it in an instant, laughing as they signed the papers. It would have seemed a great anecdote to tell about their “Ohio experience” at a dinner party someday.
The land behind the trailer leveled off and drifted and drifted, and eventually it must have dipped or fell, because at a certain point—it could have been a mile, it could have been ten miles; Glenna had no concept of distance—the long brown grass and brambles disappeared, and all she could see was sky. It was strange, to be able to look so far and see so little.
Life wavered, for Glenna, between the making of decisions so impulsive that she barely realized she was making them and the absence of decision making at all, which was, of course, a decision in and of itself, although it did not feel this way. On a cool morning in early May, about two months after setting foot in Gallia, Glenna found herself drifting along with the land behind the trailer. When she realized that she was taking a walk, she was surprised to also realize that she had never once since moving here thought to take a walk.
“I took a walk today,” she imagined saying to Nat.
She scanned her surroundings for something striking.
Almost everything was brown. The dirt and the dirty, straw-like grass. Her boots. The fur of the tiny animal that had rustled past. A sparrow and then another sparrow. Even the sky looked brown—a dusty, dull sort of brown.
“But the beauty of the monotone is,” she could hear Nat saying, “that it makes even the smallest brush of something different seem monumental.”
Let there be wildflowers, Glenna thought. Let there be a red-eyed crane.
She decided she would walk until she found something of interest. After staring long enough at the empty space that was the only thing between her and the sky, she started to see the atoms that made up the air (also brown), and it looked like they were pulsing, like the air itself was breathing. She breathed in the breathing air, and kept walking.
The land Glenna is walking on, at this point in her story, is so heavy with history that it moans under its own weight. A town once rested here, with a dozen little houses, and a church, and a school, and a park, and a road. Then—pop, crackle, fizz, hiss—there were no longer any houses, and there was no longer a church, and there was no longer a school, and there was no longer a park, and there was no longer a road, and there was no longer the Evans family, and there was no longer the Massey family, and there was no longer the Jones family, and there was no longer the Davies family, and there was no longer the Blythe family, and there was no longer the Couch family, and there was no longer the Vaughan family, and there was no longer the Perkins family, and there was no longer the Lloyd family, and there was no longer Pastor Powell, and there was no longer old Mrs. Cadwallader, and there was no longer Alwyn Ellis, and there was no longer the Jones’ mutt howling every darn day just before sunrise. This land is so heavy with history that it moans under its own weight. But Glenna does not know this. It never ties directly to her story, nor does it not tie to her story. The land is there, moaning, and she is there, moaning, and, of course, they cannot hear one another.
That night, Nat brought home a giant box of lettuce that one of his customer’s had given him from her garden. With his sharpest knife, he was slicing the leaves off the head—slicing them into little, manageable pieces—and letting them fall into a colander on the sink. Glenna stood beside him, a towel still wrapped around her head from a shower she had taken hours ago.
“And her utensil set was as ancient as she was,” Nat was saying. “Totally filthy and rusted. So even though she obviously didn’t have the money, I didn’t feel too bad about the sale. She’ll truly benefit.”
If it were Glenna, she would pull the leaves off the head. It was not a task that required a knife. It was certainly not a task that required one’s sharpest knife.
“Anyway, maybe I shouldn’t have accepted the lettuce, but, if there’s one thing I’ve learned through doing business here, it’s that you’ve got to treat your customers as equals. Not just treat them as equals, but see them that way. I offer her something, she accepts. She offers me something, I accept. You have, I have, we all have. Getting back to my original point, though—”
Nat sliced quickly and without looking, yet each piece of falling lettuce was remarkably similar to the one before it in shape and size.
“—and she about convinced me that the mothman exists, and that the crazy bird was it.”
If Glenna could cut like that, she thought, maybe she would not pull.
“Can you imagine how strange this bird must have looked?”
“No,” Glenna said.
“No, I’m sure you can’t.” Nat smiled. “How was your day?”
“I went for a walk,” Glenna said.
Glenna stared at the lettuce leaves.
“Great?” Nat tried. “Where to?”
At the lettuce leaves. Let us leave. Let us leave.
“To nowhere, obviously, Nat,” Glenna said. “Where could I possibly go around here?”
A piece of lettuce missed the colander and landed on the floor.
“I walked for hours, and I didn’t see one interesting thing, and, yes, I was looking.”
A drop of blood landed beside the lettuce piece, and then another drop, and another. This emboldened Glenna.
“Who chooses to live here?” she said. “We have to get out of here. We have to leave.”
Nat grabbed the towel from Glenna’s head and wrapped it around his hand, and Glenna was surprised by how light she now felt.
“Let’s leave tomorrow,” she said. “I think Ooma will take me back.” She had worked as a personal assistant, in Portland, for Ooma Beamer, an interior designer who was in talks with several networks to have her own reality show. “I’ll sell my soul, Nat. Let’s leave tonight.”
“Hold on,” Nat said. “I’m going to go give myself stitches. I just read about how to do this. Hold on just a few minutes.”
“I’m miserable,” Glenna said.
“I’m listening,” Nat said. “Hold on.”
And so Glenna got a job teaching Strategies for Success at Baylow. They could leave Gallia; Nat agreed to this—but first, he said, try getting out. For me, he said. Anyone would be miserable sitting inside all day, not talking to anyone other than her dopey husband, he said. Here’s a phone number, he said. Call it, he said. For me, he said. For me, he said. For me.
One of Nat’s customers was an admissions representative at Baylow, an unaccredited career college specializing in medical billing. The inside scoop was that they would hire anyone with a bachelor’s degree. No matter that Glenna’s degree was in Fine Arts, with a focus in weaving. Weaving—which Glenna had always liked the idea of doing more than she actually liked doing. When she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel right before she was set to start an MFA program, she had momentarily believed in God.
At Baylow, for three hours straight on Tuesdays, Glenna spoke to a roomful of young mothers and grandmothers and National Guardsmen and meth addicts about responsibility. About timeliness. About communication. About first impressions. Her voice echoed off the walls.
“Echo!” Glenna had interrupted herself mid-class, early on in the quarter. “Do you hear that?” she asked the students. “Echo!”
“This place used to be a bowling alley,” one of the students hesitantly offered. “I think the vibrations are whacked out in here because of it.”
“The acoustics, you mean,” another student, who Glenna was pretty sure was the first student’s boyfriend, said. “Not the vibrations.”
“No, I meant the vibrations.”
“Is it just me,” said a student who had never before spoken in class, “or does anyone else sometimes hear, like, faintly, the sounds of balls rolling beneath them in here? You know, that bowling ball rolling sound? Kind of like the sound of waves, or metallic waves.”
Someone made a wisecrack about balls, which Glenna did not quite catch, and a few students laughed. A middle-aged woman, who had once shared that she had three young children who lived in Alabama, shushed them.
“I know what you mean, hun,” she said. “You’re talking about the ghost of the building.”
In a story, Glenna thought, one of the short stories she had read in college, she might have befriended this woman. After class, she might have pulled her aside. Maybe asked her what she knew about ghosts, in a subtle way, without even using the word “ghost.”
But, in real life, the woman said: “I know what you mean, hun. You’re talking about the ghost of the building.” And Glenna said—for some reason, Glenna said: “There will be no talk of ghosts in this classroom.” The voice that echoed back sounded old. Pinched. Ghastly.
After class, Glenna would drive feverishly through the back roads of the foothills, the fucking foothills, feeling frightened and judgmental of what she saw. Houses that looked like they had been built in one day by middle schoolers in a woodshop class. Houses with their doors and windows all wide open, as if the people inside were begging to be gotten. A fire-singed church with a message spray painted on one of the boarded windows: “Services at Marty’s.” A tiny fenced-in pasture surrounded by No Trespassing signs. Two white and squat horse-combination animals—donkeys? mules? sheep-horses?—stood perfectly still inside the fence, their eyes peeking out from behind their shaggy facial fur. The animals stared at Glenna and seemed to be saying, “What are we? Is this really what we are?”
Once, she came across a baby pool left out in late autumn, filled with dark water, and a toddler, no older than two, wobbling toward the pool. Glenna paused the car and could hear the child saying, “No, no, no” and then laughing, “No, no, no” and then laughing. She had stared as he made his way closer and closer to the pool, and then, just as he touched the edge, a woman in a bathrobe ran out of the house and scooped him up in her arms, yelling: “I love you!”
For weeks afterward, Glenna pictured the boy hurling himself into the pool, his little body wound up round like a ball, and it was as if he was both the ball and the thrower of the ball at once. He would hover over the pool just before the splash, the ball part of him fighting what the thrower part had done. Then the water was still, and Glenna stared and stared.
“Have you ever thrown yourself into something?” she asked her students.
Yes, they answered. Yes. We have thrown ourselves into school work, and motherhood, and our jobs at the Red Roof Inn and the Michelina’s plant. We have thrown ourselves into church, and volunteer opportunities, and—the best of us—the National Guard. The best of us have thrown our lives on the ground for this community, for this country.
“Thank you for your service,” Glenna said.