Submit to The Laurel Review's annual chapbook contest!
Submit to The Laurel Review's annual chapbook contest!
Issue 52.2 has arrived back from the printer!
Contest Winner Decided
Chapbook Finalists are here!
This week's feature is called "Two Hundred Words for Love," by Caroline Zeilenga from issue 49.2
This week's feature is from issue 49.1 called "Holes" by Brandi Handley.
"Your dress has a hole in it," Jacob says. He sticks his index finger through it, straight through to my knee.
"Huh," I say. "I didn't notice it when I got dressed." I uncross my legs and fold the skirt of my dress between my knees. The hole disappears from view and I forget it. My husband Jacob and I are at church, the same church we've gone to since we were kids, and services have just ended. We walk outside hand in hand, the glare of the sun making us squint. I can't see a thing. But, I don't need to. Jacob leads me through the church parking lot to our car. We've done this every Sunday for so long that I can't remember not doing it. Sundays we go to church. That's what we do, morning and evening, me in my sundress, him in his shirt and tie.
Except later this evening, after an afternoon of lounging and napping, I think of not going. I tell Jacob that my head is starting to hurt and that I'm afraid it will turn into a migraine. My headaches do that sometimes, and he knows it. He's seen me cowering under the covers away from light and sound, so he believes me without question and kisses me on the forehead before he leaves. I worry that I've just caused myself to have a real migraine tomorrow or the next day. But there's a Law and Order marathon on tonight, the one with Vincent D'Onofrio as Detective Goren, and I can't get enough of it. Besides, the top I planned on wearing has a hole in it in a noticeable spot above my right breast.
I like how smart they are, the detectives, especially Detective Goren. He knows something about everything: religion, philosophy, science, law, history. He's well-read; that's why he's so good. That guy's always reading. He knows things that other people don't. He's like God. Except that he's not. He's just a character on TV. I know that. But, he's just so smart. I could have been smart. I got through high school with ease. Mostly ease. I failed Chemistry once. But, everything else was solid B's. Jacob got mostly Cs with a couple of Ds. We didn't care much for high school. I might've tried harder. We were good kids, though. Went to church. Our church is in favor of marriage. Everyone was happy when Jacob and I decided on each other in tenth grade. We couldn't wait to graduate so we could get married and have sex. We were 19 when we did it. We never thought twice about it. We got married, had sex, and got jobs. It's been five years already.
I should have gone to college. I could've been smart. That Detective Goren, so smart. He sweeps over the crime scene noticing things others, even his partner Eames, do not. In this episode, a young woman has been killed, shot in the gut. There are traces of cocaine on the floor. The police assume she was a drug addict who hasn't paid and drug dealers came and took her out. But Goren notices her perfect fingernails and skin, a college degree tacked to the wall, and he notices that her apartment is clean aside from the signs of a struggle (turned over table, a thrown frying pan, scattered papers). She doesn't seem the type, he says. They never do, I think to myself. Nobody ever seems the type.
On Monday morning I go to work at Claudette's Card Shop. I've worked here since I was nineteen. I spend a lot of time by myself at the front of the store, near the door and the cash registers and the big bright windows. I greet the handful of customers who stroll in on a week day morning in summer. Mostly women, usually older, people who like trinkets and figurines and greeting cards that say nothing more than "Thinking of you."
There's a candy case between the two registers filled with gourmet candy: chocolate malted milk balls, chocolate-covered peanuts and raisins, coconut haystacks, white chocolate pretzels. The rich smell of chocolate floats heavily around the front of the store. I smell it and stare at the source of it through the glass. It wasn't long after I started here that I began sneaking pieces into my mouth one at a time. It's just so easy. I'm up here by myself. There's a sliding door behind the counter. I slide it open just a few inches and pop chocolate-covered peanuts into my mouth. There's no one here to see. But, inevitably, I start to feel guilty soon after the candy is gone. I think of the words "temptation" and "guilt" and I think of God and how he sees everything. At the end of the day I ring up five dollars worth of candy and slip cash into the register to make up for what I've stolen. It puts my mind at ease.
But today I take a whole handful of malted milk balls and put them in one of our clear plastic candy bags. I stash it in the cabinet beneath the counter and eat from it throughout the day. I don't feel bad about it either, and I certainly don't put money in the register to pay for it. It's just a little candy. I'm not going to Hell for a few malted milk balls. I feel lighter since I've realized this. Lighter and less tense like if I was a cloud I'd be a cirrus cloud instead of a big bubbling cumulonimbus. I've learned a few things about clouds lately. Trying to remember things I learned in school.
On weekdays it's only me and Leonard working. Everyone calls him Lee. He's Claudette's son and the manager of the card shop. He's 6'3" and wears swishy sweatpants every single day. Nicest guy you've ever met, but he doesn't know anything about greeting cards. Or managing a store. He was an art major in college. He paints these sprawling, multi-colored pieces with patterns of straight lines and straight-edged shapes. He's sold a few to dentist offices and one to a friend of his who owns a bar in the art district downtown, but his mom insisted he manage her store so he could make a decent living. I don't know how much he makes, but it's enough to pay for his house and car. I don't make enough to pay my electric bill. Lee's been managing the store for ten years now, I've been here five.
Lee's got a younger brother named Aaron. He comes in once a week to deliver the candy for the case. He picks it up from a candy maker downtown. Aaron's no Detective Goren. He's short and has a buzz cut. But he's smart. He tells me all kinds of things about fishing and amphibians. He studied Biology in college. He taught high school science for a few years before quitting to become a wildlife biologist assistant at Burr Oak Woods Natural Park on the other side of town. He seems to know a thing or two about human behavior, too.
"Man, those high school girls," he says to me. "I tell you, they're something else." He's unloading a twenty pound box of chocolate-covered peanuts. "They wear their shirts down so low and expect male teachers not to say anything. I finally had to quit teaching. Them and their shorts, too. It's attention they're after. Any idiot can see that. I never played their game."
I nod, agreeing and wonder what it would take for him to be seduced. I always listen to him carefully. I urge him to talk. I ask him questions. He hardly shuts up anymore when he's here. I take mental notes of everything, hoping to be smarter for it.
Later in the afternoon, after Aaron has left, an old woman with the worst wig I've ever seen shuffles into the store. I say my usual line, "Welcome to Claudette's Card Shop. Can I help you find anything?"
"Honey," she says to me, "I need a Christmas card for my husband."
"A Christmas card?" It's July and about a thousand degrees outside, but we do indeed have some Christmas cards. I lead her to the card rack that faces the glass cases of Angel figurines. "We have a few husband-Christmas cards leftover from last year," I tell her, "but next month we'll start getting all the new ones. I can give you a call when they come in."
"I like to get mine early," she says, leaning toward me as if she's sharing a secret. Her wig follows her lead and starts sliding toward me and I almost reach out to stop it from falling off. But it must be pinned in somehow because it stops suddenly and sits there like a sleeping cat.
"Alright, well, if you need anything else, just holler," I say.
"Actually, dear," she says, grabbing onto my sleeve, "they make this print so tiny these days. Can you read this one to me?"
This isn't the first time I've read cards aloud to customers, and at least today the store's empty. Not too many people buy our Happy 4th of July cards. "Sure, I'd be happy to."
She hands me a big thick card with a giant red bow glued on the front. "To my darling husband," I read. "You're the warmth of my fireplace, the shine in my star, the gift in my stocking..." I turn to the inside. "And the light of my life this holiday season and forever."
"Is that a tree on the front?" she asks, feeling the glittery front of the card.
"Yep," I say, "and inside there's a fireplace and some stockings and a couple cozying up on a couch."
"Hmmm," she says. "I'll think about that one. What's this one say?" She hands me a smaller card with a cartoon couple on the front. I can already tell this is one of those sexy humor cards that new couples buy for each other.
"This one's a little...inappropriate," I say, reaching to put it back in the card rack.
"Well, what's it say?" she insists.
I start to read, "Let's skip the mistletoe this year, husband..." I open the card and hesitate to read the inside. But she's waiting so I read, "And go straight to jingling your ornaments."
We stand there in the aisle silent for a moment. "Sometimes these humor cards are a little racy," I say, apologetically.
"I'll hang on to that one, too," she says, taking it from me and putting it in her hand with the other card. "That reminds me of my second honeymoon," she says, leaning even closer to me. "By then I knew a thing or two, and my husband Ralph was just a wild animal in the bedroom."
"Oh," I say, a little stunned. "Well, that's--"
"Not like my first honeymoon," she sighs, smiling, a little sad. "My first husband was very gentle. I was scared to death of sex, a virgin, you know. He was more experienced at 21. I was only 19. It took me a while to get used to it, but then I couldn't get enough of it!" She chuckles a little making her already shaking hands bounce up and down.
I am unnerved by how much my sexual experiences are similar to this old woman's. I can feel my face contorting, grimacing. I, too, was a virgin bride at 19 who didn't know anything about anything. I bet she was married in a small church just like my own. The reception in the basement with folding chairs and Sprite and raspberry sorbet punch. It isn't the cheap wedding I regret. It's that five years later I'm wondering if sex was the only reason Jacob and I got married.
"Now Ralphie has a bad heart," the old woman continues. "So we're real careful. But it doesn't stop us, let me tell you."
She ends up buying both cards.
I go home at the end of the day to an empty house. Jacob's a fireman and won't be home until tomorrow. I feel happy at this thought, the house to myself. The only thing that would make this evening better is a Law and Order marathon. I'm disappointed that the show isn't on. I start folding the laundry. I've a basket of dark shirts, both mine and Jacob's. I shake each one out, snapping it in the air before slipping it onto a hanger. As I shake out my red Claudette's Card Shop work shirt something catches my eye. A spot. After some searching I find it again. Another hole. This one down near the hem. My pinky fits through it, and it's as perfectly round as the hole in my sundress and in the blouse from last night.
"What in the world..." I murmur, picking up one of Jacob's shirts. I examine it carefully but find nothing but loose threads. I examine another and another of his shirts. They're all fine. I separate all of my shirts from his. Each one of mine has at least one of those smooth-edged holes. Some of them have three and four. I look in the basket for signs of circular material, the cut-outs from my shirts. Only the dryer sheets are left.
The closet doors are sliding mirrors and I catch sight of the strange look on my face. I look a little wild, my head is cocked to the side. I don't look scared. I look a little like Detective Goren when he's interrogating a suspect. He's all earnest and quizzical. He gets real close to the suspect and cocks his head to one side, like I'm doing now. Deep down Goren already knows what the suspect is trying to hide, even if Goren hasn't put all the pieces together yet. He will soon. Goren is never afraid, he's curious. I'm curious.
I throw the mirrored doors to one side. All my clothes hang like ghosts. I start on one side of the hanging rod, examining each piece of clothing one by one. My shirts are first. The first one has a jagged hole in the armpit, a hole that's been there for months from wear. But there's another hole, a perfect hole on the back, right where my shoulder blade would touch. The next shirt has three holes on the back, right down the middle. The farther back in my closet I go, the more holes each item of clothing has. My sundresses are in the very back hanging down, some of them hang to the floor. The first dress I take down is the dress I wore on Sunday, the one that, on Sunday, had only one hole, right between my legs. Now it's full of holes. The skirt. The bodice. Even the straps. It looks like a fishing net.
I get down on my hands and knees and run my hand over the carpeting in the closet. There ought to be a whole pile of fabric circles down here. But there's nothing but a couple of tank tops that had dropped to the floor long ago, a missing sock, an old purse, dust bunnies. But no evidence that my clothes were eaten through, or cut out with scissors.
I think briefly of calling Jacob, knowing he would come home immediately. But I don't want that, I realize. Whatever explanation he'd come up with would be wrong. I'm sure of it. He'd tell me if God wanted us to know, He'd tell us himself. He'd only try to protect me by wrapping his arms around me and telling me not to think of it. But I definitely didn't want that. I want to think of it, figure it out.
I put the rest of the clothes away and close the closet doors. Restless, I straighten my vanity table and the top of my dresser. I imagine the detectives going through my things. What would they take an interest in? My underwear drawer? The desk in the living room? What items would be placed in little plastic bags and labeled "evidence"? The birth control pills that I stash in an empty migraine medicine bottle? The pills I was supposed to stop taking three months ago. The reason that Jacob and I haven't gotten pregnant, though we're trying. Goren would figure it out.
Then I realize that if Detective Goren and Detective Eames were investigating my bedroom, I'd be dead.
The next day Aaron's back in the store with more candy, a couple of boxes of nonpareils and a box of gumballs that were not ready for pick-up yesterday.
"What kind of bug eats holes in clothing?" I ask him.
"Termites, roaches, really anything with teeth."
"Huh," I say, thoughtfully. "Do you know of any bugs that chew in a perfect circle?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Look," I say, lifting the corner of my shirt with the perfectly symmetrical circle cut out of it.
"No bug did that," he says, smirking a little. "Looks like a hole punch. Get your shirt caught in a hole punch?"
"No," I say. "Are you sure there's not some kind of termite or something that chews through fabric like this?"
"Yeah, I'm sure."
"Huh," I say, again. "My clothes, they're covered in them."
He looks up at me strangely, like he's trying to decide if I'm joking.
"I'm serious," I say. "My whole closet. Full of holes."
"Ain't no bug," he says and shrugs.
I make a point now to notice things. Like a detective. I look at customers more closely. That woman's purse is dirty on the bottom. I look out at the parking lot with a sharp eye. The red Honda has dent in its bumper. There's a line of young trees that separates our shop's parking lot from the salon's parking lot next door. For the five years that I've worked here, I always thought that the trees were all the same type. But, holy crap, one of the trees has leaves with a different shape. Five years and I'd never noticed.
Aaron's busy unpacking the gumballs.
"Hey, did you ever notice that those trees are different types?"
"Yeah," he says, absently, "the second from the right's a cherry tree and the other ones are all dogwoods."
"Oh." That Aaron, so smart.
"Cut it out," I say. "I'm trying to watch this."
Jacob removes his hand from my backside and places it ill-humoredly under his chin. We're lying on our stomachs on our bed facing the TV.
"This is the third episode in a row," he says. "I don't know how many more people I can watch get slaughtered."
"I told you there was a marathon on today," I say. It's Saturday and both of us have the day off.
"Yeah, well, I didn't know we were going to watch the whole thing."
He eyes my backside again and the curve of my lower back. Finally he turns his attention back to the TV. "Where's the mystery in this?" he says. "You know they're going to figure it out, and I bet even you already know who did it."
"It's not about that," I tell him. "It's about how they figure it out. And about Goren getting the killer to confess. That's the important part."
We lay silently for a long while. I wish he'd just doze off if he isn't interested in the show. But when the episode ends Jacob stretches out his arms and nuzzles his face into my shoulder. When the theme music starts for the next episode he groans, "Nooo..." He sits up. "No, no, no, no, I'm not watching another one."
"You don't have to," I say, trying to pay attention to the details of the opening scene. "If you don't want to watch this with me, you don't have to. I won't be mad."
"You won't be mad," he says. "I've spent the last three hours watching this stupid show, and you won't be mad if I leave?"
It occurs to me that even a few months ago I would have argued. I would have come back with examples of all the times I've watched stuff on TV that he wanted to watch. Re-runs of Cops, football and basketball games, dozens of four-hour baseball games. I could have talked him out of his anger and annoyance. By the end, he'd be lying beside me content. But I can't tell who the victim is going to be in this episode. Usually it's pretty clear who's getting ready to die. But I can't figure it out. There are two young women. Two older men. The women are escorts. It's important that I figure it out beforehand. So I watch. I watch with a vague sense that Jacob is still talking to me, that he's still angry. But I push that away. And concentrate.
It's the brunette.
Sure enough, she goes down with a blow to the head. And by now, Jacob is no longer standing in the bedroom; he's somewhere else in the house.
There are so many ways to die, I think to myself. The first episode of the marathon showed a man getting on a motorcycle. He rode off without a helmet. I assumed he'd crash and that would be the end of him. Somebody had tampered with his brakes. But, he didn't just crash and land on the pavement. No, he crashed and went flying off of his motorcycle and was impaled by a wrought iron fence. I am positive that's happened to someone in real life at some point. People die every day, horrifically.
On Monday Aaron doesn't show up with the candy.
"Aaron not coming today?" I ask Lee.
"Nah, we're good on candy until next week," he answers.
I'm disappointed to say the least. I stand alone near the registers all day. I ring up a total of three customers before lunch. Lee hangs out in his office in the back room, doing God knows what. I eat candy from the case brazenly. I push the candy onto the customers that come to check out. "Have you tried our candy?" I ask, sliding open the door. "Here, try some." I put a scoop full of white chocolate pretzels in a bag. The customer accepts it but doesn't purchase any more.
"We get this candy from downtown," I say to a younger woman. "It's gourmet."
"No thanks," she says, barely acknowledging me.
Finally, I dump the entire tray of truffles into two plastic bags and hide them beneath the counter. I bag two pounds of malted milk balls and five pounds of chocolate-covered peanuts. I simply dump the tray of nonpareils into the garbage can. The case is starting to look diminished, bare even.
"I think we're going to need more candy before next week," I tell Lee when he emerges from the back room.
He looks at the case. "Whoa, what happened?" he says. "Somebody rob us?" He's joking, I know, but I don't laugh.
"We had a surge of hungry customers, I guess."
"Well, I'll see if Aaron can swing by tomorrow."
"Good idea," I say.
Unfortunately, Aaron's working the rest of the week. Can't take off to make another candy run. I'm miserable with boredom for the next three days at work. I've been thinking of him more and more. I think of him at home when I'm cooking dinner. Sometimes even when Jacob is home, I think of Aaron hiking through Burr Oak Woods, examining bugs and leaves and lizards. I think of his matter-of-fact tone of voice and rough bearded face. I think maybe that I'm attracted to him, but then I realize it's probably just the idea of him. Ideas are always better than the real thing.
I feel like I'm watching Jacob and me from a distance while we eat our pork chops and asparagus. Jacob will eat anything I put in front of him. He likes it all without question, without a thought. I feel my head bobbing up and down to whatever it is he's talking about. His broad shoulders shrug. He's very strong. Always has been. Strong and tall and confident. There's nothing left on his plate, and he goes to the sink to rinse it. His back is to me, and I gaze over his body.
When he finally shuts off the faucet, I say, "Did we get married just so we could have sex?"
He throws his head back, laughing, and he's drying his hands on a yellow dish towel, the one with the daisies. "Doesn't everybody?"
I am surprised by his astute response. But then he comes to me and bends down to kiss my forehead. "I'm just teasing," he says. "We love each other. That's why we're married."
I like his first response better. It seems more honest, like the curtain had been lifted, if only slightly. I'm disappointed. I know he believes that we're married because we love each other, and I believe the alternative.
And for the first time divorce enters my head. Divorce is against God and the church. But, I'm not too worried about that anymore. I'm more worried about Jacob than about the damnation of my soul. I don't want to hurt him. But, I can't seem to come up with a good enough reason for divorce, anyway, so it doesn't even matter.
Besides, life with Jacob is simple and comforting. Even going to church gives me a sense of relief, and when I listen to the sermon I can pretend that I don't doubt every word that the preacher speaks. I can ignore the fact that his preaching is based on nothing more than what he believes in his heart to be true. There's something exciting about a mystery, something you can't quite explain. But, it's getting harder and harder for me to ignore the evidence to the contrary. I can't just leave it alone anymore. I want to know how things work.
Every day now I go home and go straight to my closet to see the holes. Every day my clothes look more and more like lace. Delicate lace like clothing from another time. This evening I notice a light coming from the back of the closet. I realize it's the sun shining through a perfectly round hole in the wall, straight through to outside. I push clothes aside and put my eye to it and look out. It's only our backyard, the way it always looks: the tiny concrete patio with its two metal lawn chairs, the petunias are back by the fence drooping from the heat, our one tree is still and quiet. But, before I know it, the closet wall is starting to look like Swiss cheese. I try to catch the wood in the act of disappearing, but I'm always looking in the wrong spot.
In the morning, I bypass my work shirt in favor of a tank top full of holes. I woke up realizing I can't take another hapless day standing in front of those big bright windows in the card shop, the sun throwing a glare on everything in the store. Glass cases and glittered greeting cards blinding me all damn day. Old women tugging on my shirt sleeves. Lee swishing past me on his way out to lunch. And not even Aaron to pique my interest. I won't be able to stand it. I'll end up ramming head first into the Precious Moments display. Those porcelain figurines and their big sad eyes. Instead, I drive to Burr Oak Woods Nature Center.
"Is Aaron here?" I ask the woman at the front desk.
"Aaron? Yeah he's here," she says. "But, he's out collecting samples. I can try him on the walkie."
"That's okay," I say, starting to wonder why I'm here. I turn to go but quickly, out of curiosity, ask which trail he's on.
"Bethany Falls," she answers.
It seems unlikely that I'll find him. He's probably well off the trail hunched over in the middle of some brush. But, I take the trail anyway. It's nine in the morning and already stifling outside. The humidity makes me sweat instantly. My thighs are sticking together. I can feel that my cheeks are bright red. I'm starting to appreciate the holes in my tank top, although, even the slight breeze is warm and sticky. My flip flops are rubbing a blister on the top of my foot. Dirt and wood chips are stabbing at my feet. God it's so hot.
And then I hear rustling. I start jogging and looking from side to side. Tree trunks are twirling past. And then there he is. He's in his uniform: a ranger hat, khaki button-down shirt, green pants, hiking boots. He's bent over with a plastic container in one hand and some kind of root in the other. He's still several yards away, surrounded by tall grass and tangled tree branches. He's where I can't follow, at least not quickly. So I call to him.
He twists around.
"Jamie?" His face is streaming with sweat beneath the brim of his hat. He looks more annoyed than surprised. "What the hell are you doing here?"
I don't have a solid answer. "I had to..." and I trail off. I start picking my way past the first line of trees.
"Hey, stop," he says, still very much annoyed. He makes his way toward me, clomping heavily through the brush. "You can't be off the trail." He stops in front of me. "Are you wearing fucking flip-flops?"
I nod, stupidly.
"Well, what do you want for god's sake?"
"To talk to you."
He sighs heavily, growling a little at the end of it and rubs his face with one hand. "What the hell for?" He glances at his watch. "Aren't you supposed to be at the shop?"
"Well, Jesus, Jamie what do you want?"
"My shirt," I say, lifting the hem of my tank top. "All these holes."
"What about them?" he says, exasperatedly.
It's just so hot. I think of boiling in this kind of heat for eternity. It's what had made me so religious in the first place. The fear of burning for infinity plus one. I start swaying where I stand. It would be so convenient if I'd just pass out, right here on the trail. That would solve everything. That would get me out of this situation and out of my muddled mind for at least a while. But, I don't pass out. I just stand and sweat.
"Look, Jamie. I don't know what to tell you. But, I'm sure as hell not standing out here." He takes off his hat and wipes the sweat from his forehead. "Let's go back to the visitor's center, I guess," Aaron says. He walks ahead of me, plodding easily down the trail. I follow him, limping a little because of the blister on my foot that has now broken open. He doesn't know what to tell me about the holes. They mean so little to him.
I see the end of the trail up ahead. To the right is the parking lot. To the left is the visitor's center. I head toward my car, but before Aaron disappears inside the little beige building, I blurt out, "Do you believe in God?" It hurts me to ask the question. But, that's why I came here. To ask. To learn something.
He looks at me for a moment. "Nah," he said, turning away from me and walking toward the air-conditioned building.
"I didn't think so," I say. Even though I knew how he would answer, his flippant "nah" still startles me. It's so blasphemous. But if I think no, no, no, no in my mind long enough, it starts to hurt less and become more factual. But, his answer is not satisfying. It's disappointing. Taking the mystery of God out of the question leaves me only with what's in front of me. All these holes. But these holes are important, I realize. To me, anyway. Instead of following him inside, I make my way home.
I wonder what they would make of the holes. The detectives, that is. They would come across them for sure. The wall at the back of my closet is so full of holes that hardly any wood or sheetrock is left. It's thin like a net, one push and the wall would fall over. Light as air, it would land gently in the grass outside and disappear there among the green and brown blades. I could step on it and not feel a thing beneath my feet.