Paulia Lyn Bailey
Followed by Bio and Q&A
Lights All the Way Up
“Don’t turn up the lights, yet.”
I could see the shadows of easels but not his face.
“Leave it dark for now.”
“Just trying to get settled. That’s all.”
“How’d you end up here?”
“It’s a last option.”
“We have to turn the lights all the way up soon. The others will be here shortly.”
“I’ll be ready by then.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“Talk about what?”
“Most people end up here for a reason. Someone dare you?”
“No. Why do you think that?”
“You just seem like you don’t want to be here.”
“You can leave. We’ll just cancel things for the afternoon. Get another model.”
“I’m not backing out.”
“But you can. You should know that.”
“No, I can’t. She’s three, my daughter. Rent is due at the end of the week.”
“Once it starts you won’t be able to rush it. They’re paying for the time.”
“I know that. Look, you’re the assistant, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Dr. Lynn hired me without all the questions. Why do you care so much?”
“I don’t like to see people do things they regret.”
“Things we’ll regret are necessary sometimes.”
“Five more minutes and the lights are up.”
“I’ll be ready by then.”
He moved in the dim light surrounding me, but kept the lights low where I sat, naked and shivering in the thin robe I clasped around me, despite the heat permeating the room, the only relief coming from the window air unit and the tired wheezing and twirling of the fans overhead. Even as the first students began walking in, and the light found its way to me, I couldn’t quiet the rattling of my bones and teeth. It was September.
The graduate assistant offered some brief introductory remarks as he clicked through his presentation samples.
The young man in the front row yawned and tapped his paintbrush in the palm of his hand. The older woman in the middle rested leisurely against the back of her chair, brush still in a non-committal position on the desk. The gothic-dressed young woman in the back with amazing body art mixed colors for her palette. No one seemed to be paying much attention to me.
I knew this was my cue. As we’d discussed, this would be a figure painting assignment from behind. I would stand and bend the first week, sit the next, and eventually pose for a full frontal nude.
I came to the center of the room, an area cleared for the model, turned my back to the class, and dropped my robe, a skin being shed.
I heard their thoughts begin. I started listening to the students in the back row first. Yes, I can hear thoughts, but only when they’re about me. I can also discern the images and names of speakers, even when I can’t see them. I didn’t always have this talent or curse, definition dependent on the day and what is being thought. After Amy was born, the hearing began and gradually I learned to control it, to focus on only one individual at a time and avoid complete insanity.
It is a phenomenon I can’t explain, and for fear of losing Amy, I’ve never talked about it. Sane people don’t hear voices.
Macy, in the back row, her butterfly tattoo almost in flight on her arm, painted my outline first.
The hips are wide. The angle of the bend curved.
Velma had ceased to peacefully recline. She painted from the inside out.
A darker brown for that birthmark on the right cheek.
The tapping of Karl’s brush in the front had moved to the canvas.
Very round in the bottom but firm. A light stroke.
There were other thoughts swirling too, additional speakers, ones less dominant, painting instinctually, minds not pacing through gears.
Ben, the graduate assistant, also painted.
Beauty. Sadness. Desperation.
He painted on instinct. I could tell by his speaking.
After a few minutes, my back began to feel the ache. It would have no doubt felt more excruciating and searing if not for the humiliation that blocked all else out as I heard the students deconstruct me, piece by piece.
An elbow, dry.
The back of the left leg, a cellulite pocket.
Backside of a breast, seen from an angle, a fruit netting stuffed with oranges, askew in size.
From all angles, the onslaught continued. Only at the end of the fifty-minute period did my back begin screaming, demanding to have its pain embraced and acknowledged.
When I had no more parts left, I stood upright again, swaddling the curtain of the robe around me once more. I went into the back room off the studio and dressed quickly.
“Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it.” I said this aloud. Thinking quietly had become difficult.
“You did a good job,” Ben said from behind his easel as I entered the main studio again. He still painted.
“Getting naked and bending over is a pretty basic procedure. Women have been doing it for thousands of years.”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed.”
“Okay, then. See you next week.”
I needed to ask before I left the room, to know how much time I had to prepare myself.
“Ben, I’m sorry about being rude. This wasn’t easy for me.”
“It’s okay.” He continued painting and lowered his eyes. The absence of a gaze, of a thought, washed relief and gratitude through my veins.
“When will the figures be displayed?”
“Typically, we rotate the displays of the student art showcased bi-weekly. The work done today will go up next week.”
Three forty-five. I needed to pick up Amy from Cougar Cubs before four o’clock or else pay extra. She was only a few doors down.
I passed others nudes, lounging lazily in the hall, ignoring me from their paper prisons pinned to wallboard poked so many times the board had no blood left to give. It was beyond me why the art department and the work of its students neighbored the on-campus daycare center.
When we left, I walked Amy out the side door closest, not taking her back through the hall of nudes, which would soon be littered with all the pieces of me I’d left behind in studio 117A.
I paid my rent on time.
The second week arrived. The process repeated. With my back to the class, I disrobed and sat. The air conditioner sighed, and the fan moved on. Heat hadn’t shown up in full force this go around.
“Please look slightly down if you would, Amber. Body at an angle,”—a pause, and then— “good, yes, like that.”
Goose pimples darted across my freckled forearms. Purple racetracks wound tightly around my nipples, now hard and cold. Only I could see these things, and it pleased me.
Macy wore purple the second week instead of the black. It suited her better.
Knots of the spine barely visible.
Velma kept flexing her fingers, arthritis taunted them as she gripped the brush.
Healthy. Young. Not a wrinkle.
Karl painted the slope of my back.
Better ass than most. Creepy if I ask her out?
“Yes, Karl,” I whispered imperceptibly. “It would be.”
Ben painted the freckle on my right shoulder blade first, the discolored birthmark above my hip next.
My own nude back gazed at me, time after time, as I walked the hall lined with wallboard, and the space of a few doors separating me from Amy had never seemed further.
She presented me with a colored picture of a kitten: orange, purple, and green, when I picked her up. The majority of her art had been done outside the lines. Again, we left through the side door.
By week three, talking with Ben had become easier.
“So for the full frontal pose today, you’ll be setting on this stool. Don’t cross your legs, but try not to be rigid; sit comfortably. Look upward and to the right, facing the wall with the clock. Any questions?”
“All right, then.”
“Why has the art department had so many different models?”
“Part of it is for the art. Different shapes and figures. Part of it is the people. It’s hard when the paintings are posted. People start recognizing models.”
“That why you started me with back poses?”
“Partly, yes. The students also needed to try something different. To make more art with less. A frontal pose gives the student more subject to work with. Good art should be possible with the most miniscule, basic subject.”
“Well, I certainly feel miniscule up there.”
“Don’t what? Be honest?”
“Degrade yourself for being part of making good art. Modeling is a job. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Well, then, in the name of art and rent . . .”
I’m not sure what I meant to say next. The students entered, and I stayed in the back, waiting for Ben to finish his introductory remarks. Dr. Lynn still hadn’t graced the class with his presence in the weeks that I’d been modeling.
“‘Two Women in Still Life’ a Willem de Kooning painting from 1952. A branch on the tree of Picasso’s work, cubist ideas, abstract depictions. What can you do with these tools?”
He gestured me toward center stage yet again. “When you’re ready.”
The stool had waited patiently for my arrival. When dropping a covering, something as simple as a robe, time after time, the act itself loses its potency. For the first time, I dropped the robe without trepidation. It was just a different angle, and soon, I’d have enough saved along with my financial aid to help me get through the semester since I couldn’t work at night and had no one to watch Amy. Modeling wouldn’t last forever.
September was waning, the chatter of the air conditioning absent. The fans, faithful as ever, kept the acrylic-spiced air in circulation.
Sitting down and angling my head to look at the wall clock was easy. Sitting comfortably was less so. The last time I posed, I had been crossing my legs. It was the one thing I could do to cover myself, and it didn’t affect the art because the students could see only my back. The first time, as I bent over, my bottom and thick legs had been the focus.
I watched Ben watching me as I settled into place. Keeping my knees clinched together for fifty minutes certainly couldn’t be any more difficult than bending for that time had been, but Ben had asked me to sit naturally. I moved my bottom to the front of the stool and planted my feet on the floor a ruler’s width apart, toenails painted peach. Between my open legs I could feel the air skimming across the surface of my thighs and everything else.
I waited for the voices to begin in my head. Macy was silent. Velma and Karl were silent. Even Ben had nothing to stay. For the first time, others’ thoughts could no longer penetrate me.
When the paintings were posted, I had intended to take Amy out the side door as usual. The janitorial staff and wet floor signs altered these plans. The bright colors of the nude paintings of her mother caught Amy’s attention. Abstract and cubist, it had become difficult to recognize me or even the pieces, but she was fascinated by them.
Large eyes and melon-shaped big breasts were the most dominant features in many of the paintings. My legs had become swirls of color in many of the pictures. Willem would have been flattered by the mimicry and also the invention.
“Pretty,” Amy said.
“Yes, they are,” I agreed.
Walking away with my daughter, rent paid on time for another month, I didn’t feel ashamed; I felt blue, purple, green, and orange, a swirling of bright palettes and tender strokes.
Paulia Lyn Bailey's work has previously appeared in Stoneboat (Spring 2017). She teaches English at Larned High School, including concurrent college credit classes for Barton Community College, and also directs drama. At present, she and her students are busily preparing for the upcoming musical. She holds an MA in English (Fort Hays State University) and an MFA in Writing (University of Nebraska at Omaha). She resides in Kansas with her husband and two daughters.
While teaching English at a state university, I would pass by nude portraits everyday when walking my youngest daughter to the on-site daycare facility. English and the Art Department were in the same building. She was curious about the portraits, and my answer was basically that they were beautiful art.
Our conversation made me think about the models, some of them students, and how brave and empowered they must be to just sit in only their skin for such lengths of time with the eyes of so many strangers on them. Then, I wondered how they overcame their fears of truly being seen without all the everyday draping and masks people wear, so I wrote the story in my final semester of completing my MFA program. I had just finished reading nina: adolescence (A Novel), which was written by Amy Hassinger, who teaches in the program I graduated from (University of Nebraska at Omaha). The subject matter of the novel is about a young girl who models nude for her mother and how that affects their lives and relationship. I was blessed in that the story was a perfect collision of what I had been reading, seeing, and thinking about.
After graduation, I read multiple of my short stories in order, and realized that I constantly write about the idea of enough: being enough, doing enough, when to say “enough,” or feeling that one is enough, so my goal is to one day find a home for a short story collection of that nature. Most people, I feel, struggle with “enough” at some point, so I hope any reader can imagine a moment of self-acceptance and of just being enough.
While attending a Sigma Tau Delta convention during my first time in graduate school, before I’d even committed to an MFA program, Ursula Le Guin spoke, and during the opportunity for questions, I asked a very basic one: “How do you decide what to write?” She said that she wrote about the things that concern her. I try to emulate that. It might seem simple, but it was a revelation for me, as a writer. I also have the great good fortune to teach American Literature to seniors, so she is an author who floats in and out of my life every semester, and I’m proud to say that I met her once, however briefly.
What is your favorite dessert?
Strawberry shortcake is my favorite dessert, especially if the crust is made from biscuit dough.
What is the best performance (music, sports, other) you’ve attended?
I can still remember seeing Martina McBride in concert and hearing her sing “O Holy Night,” because when she hit the topmost notes, it was sublime, by which I mean my breath stopped, so I could only hear and experience that sound, and my eyes filled with tears. Even now, the recollection of it still comes with intense emotions. I went to the show with my high school sweetheart; now we’re twelve years into our marriage, seventeen years into courtship, and we have two girls who love to hear the song, sing it, and listen to our story about it.
You’ve just been offered the opportunity to create a mascot for yourself. What will it be?
Oh my, I didn’t anticipate this question! I would choose a Panda Bear because seeing them often makes people smile, thinking about them makes me smile. Their lives are relatively simplistic and full of food. Being driven, being hungry to accomplish dreams is important, but balance and enjoying simple pleasures shouldn’t be overlooked. I think we’re living in a world in which the wrong sorts of hungers can supplant people’s focus on just taking good care of themselves, their families, and their basic needs. As a mother, wife, teacher, drama director, and writer, I am guilty of not pausing long enough or frequently enough. Paulia Panda seems narcissistic, but it has the ring of alliteration to it. Paulia Panda it is. I loved pandas even as a little girl.
Jody Hobs Hesler
Followed by Bio and Q&A
We arrived at the same time with our parents and little brothers and sisters. The Moms wore waterproof lipstick and swimsuits under their sundresses. The Dads dragged forgotten polos and khaki shorts from the backs of their dresser drawers and made sure no bad words or liquor ads showed up on our t-shirts. They lectured us on how to behave because you can’t be yourself at the boss’s house. They gave reasons why.
Our dads had been linemen together since before we were born. We were their first kids, all boys. Mr. Wilkinson, their boss, got promoted to regional manager and was throwing pool parties for each of the crews that worked for him now. Our dads had worked under five other regional managers before him. None of them had thrown a party. In our whole lives, we’d never been to a boss’s house.
Everything here was better than us, even the tan and white pebbles of the half-mile long driveway that led up past their swimming pool to their shining glass house. Our houses had rutted dirt drives, broken gutters, and paint-stripped front doors.
Some of the other linemen from our dads’ crew had already arrived. Their beat-up sedans and pickup trucks nosed the edge of the hedges that separated the parking area from the pool. We could smell the chlorine and hear water sloshing and children shouting just beyond.
We knew Mr. Wilkinson’s daughter Juliet from school. Before we even stepped through the bushes toward the pool, Vern whispered to us, “Bet she looks hot as hell in a swimsuit.” We were fifteen and she had all the right proportions and pretty hair and wide-open eyes. But she was gorgeous in a push-pull sort of way. You wanted to rest your hands on every curve, taste her lips with yours, but, for years before she even was one, she acted just like you’d think a boss’s daughter would. She might turn her head in our direction when we were laughing about something and give us a look that could level the feelings right out of us. Make us forget what was funny. Forget anything ever had been funny.
We entered barefoot, shoes hanging from our hands, and our feet burned. Instead of plain cement, the area around the pool was paved in slate that baked in the sun. The slates ended at a vine-strung stone wall behind the diving board. Back there, a stainless steel grill, big as half a car, flared in the sunlight. A whole little outdoor kitchen surrounded it, complete with gleaming cupboards and a mini fridge. Huge pots of ferny trees seemed to thumbtack the pool in place. Living at their house was probably like a pool party every day.
Juliet sat in one of the reclining chairs, wearing a lightweight sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up and cutoff jeans gouged with rips. She noticed us stepping onto the slates, waiting in line as our moms and dads shook her dad’s hand. We were the only kids here her age. But still she looked off toward the mountains that rose up behind her house, tugged at the threads of her cutoffs, canceled us out.
Mr. Wilkinson ended up shaking everybody’s hands hello, even our little brothers’ and sisters’. Juliet seemed to remember we existed as soon as Mrs. Wilkinson started handing around iced tea. She was younger than our moms with a perfect tan and fingernails painted like pink pearls. We couldn’t help eyeing how tightly her dress hugged her chest, the slit of her cleavage right in front of our faces as she pressed glasses slick with cold sweat into our hands. Juliet watched us watching her and razored her lips into a thin line.
Their whole place was fancy and perfect, with their big glass house and huge plot of land sloping up the side of Afton Mountain. The day’s fat clouds reflected in their pool’s blue water as if they’d ordered them up for the occasion. Mr. Wilkinson yanked beers out of his shiny mini-fridge to toss to our dads. They caught the cans in both hands and pretended they were used to bosses palling around with them. But really they were more natural scaling poles thirty, forty feet in the air and wrestling with live wires.
“Well, get comfortable!” Mrs. Wilkinson said while we stood around wondering, should we finish our tea first? Or cannonball right in like the little kids who got here before us? Or wait for some signal from Juliet? Vern’s little brother took a running start and splashed full speed into the deep end beside us, spraying us with icy beads of chlorine water, and Jake’s sister pin-dropped in right after him.
We claimed some chairs poolside and tried to look cool, laughing together about things on our phones or talking about songs we liked or if our families had been to the beach yet this summer. We glanced over at Juliet, and, when she glanced back, we nodded, because even lifting a hand to wave seemed geeky or desperate.
We lost track of what the parents were up to and sweated and waited for whatever had to happen before the first one of us would brave jumping in. The littler kids splashed around the shallow end or rotated in bright animal-shaped floats. We just sat there and missed those days when we goofed off without thinking about it first.
Mr. Wilkinson went over to Juliet and said something and pointed at us. When she got up and wandered over after that, we all seemed to forget our hands were attached to our arms. They hung stupid at our sides or drummed the arm rests of the chairs or slugged the guy sitting next to us for no reason. “Thought you came to swim,” she said. Her voice was halfway mocking, halfway almost shy. “You should get in. I’ll be back in a minute. I just have to change.” The wide neck of her sweatshirt tilted to one side, and she pulled it straight again before walking off.
Vern said, “Y’all thinking what I’m thinking?” which was how he introduced every one of his ideas. He never waited for an answer, so there was no telling if any of us ever thought what he thought, but we all did what he said. “Let’s go see what we can see.” He bounced his eyebrows toward the house, meaning we should go spy on Juliet changing her clothes. “The whole fucking house is made of glass,” he said. “It’s built for it.”
Somebody always egged Vern on. “Look how she’s dressed,” Jake said. “Those shorts, shrink-wrapped to her ass.”
Alfred said, “She wouldn’t have told us what she was doing if she hadn’t expected us to follow her.” He pushed his glasses up his nose and breathed in loud through his mouth. “Would she?”
“Even the way she’s walking,” Vern said, “you can tell she knows we’re watching.”
We took his word for it.
The front of the house faced the pool, and the back faced Afton Mountain and the National Forest that clung to it like hair. No neighbors for miles that direction. Driving up, you couldn’t miss the sun glinting off all that glass. You couldn’t help but know the whole thing was see-through.
Juliet followed the rest of the pebbly driveway from the pool toward her house. A thin strand of woods, maybe fifty yards deep, stood on both sides of it. With every swing of Juliet’s hips, Vern puffed little noises. “As soon as she’s out of sight, we’ll sneak up there,” he said. “We don’t want anybody to think we followed her.” He always had a plan. “We’ll go through the woods, like we’re just goofing around.”
It was hot, and lots of tiny spiders slung webs through the woods, so sweat and webs clung to our skin. Plus, we’d left our shoes beside our chairs, and twigs and gumballs leftover from the fall pricked our feet. Vern cranked fart noises from his armpit like he’d been doing since third grade. His laugh still shrieked and cracked same as before his voice changed. He didn’t notice he was the only one who laughed anymore. But Alfred shushed him. “What if she hears?” he whispered.
Before we stepped out of the woods at the house, we hesitated where the trees met the yard. Vern clapped Alfred on the shoulder, pushing him forward. The force of the blow knocked his glasses lower on his nose again. “It’s go time,” Vern said. “At the house, we’ll each take a corner, and if you see something, say something. I bet we’ll see everything. It’ll be sweet.” The same word he used right before playing this porn clip he’d favorited on his phone. He replayed that clip in the locker room after gym class, at his kitchen table when we did homework and his mother wasn’t home, and even in the morning at the bus stop in our neighborhood. Sometimes girls would walk up, like Kelly Jackson, start to say hi, catch sight of the movie going in Vern’s hand, then drain pale and back away at his freakish laugh.
Momentum, even some kind of wacked out logic, carried us through the woods and lasted up until we fanned out, alone. Each of us had an equal chance of finding the window where Juliet was changing. Or of not seeing anything. Maybe she would change in a bathroom or close her curtains, or maybe the top floor, that looked like an attic, was really her bedroom and too high for us to see from the ground.
By myself, from the spot Vern chose for me, I had a hard time making myself look toward the glass. When I tried, I glimpsed a purple bedspread. A poster of a cat on a wall. A dresser with its drawers half opened and clothes hanging off the sides. Around one corner Vern was cursing his great view of the kitchen and, in the other direction, Alfred was kneeling on the ground feeling around for his glasses.
But it was almost as hard to look away as it was to look, so I did both, until there was Juliet, her back to the window. She plucked at her sweatshirt again, adjusting it, even though she was alone and even though she was about to take it off. Something lonesome about the gesture made my stomach swish. This wasn’t just some girl on a porn clip on Vern’s greasy phone. She was someone I knew.
Year before last we were in art class together, our last year of middle school, and we were alone once in the kiln closet, where the teacher put our ceramics projects after firing them. Mine was a sad-looking dragon. The tongue fell off in the kiln and the glaze I’d used faded to a pale snotty green. Hers was a little vase with flower shapes glazed onto the sides, but she dropped it, and it smashed. She made a fast choking sound and started to cry before she remembered I was standing there. Tears waited in her eyes, and she held her breath and fluttered her hand in front of her face, waving to stop them from falling. “It’ll be okay,” I said, “I’ll help,” and I knelt and gathered the pieces from the floor.
“No, no,” she said. “That’s not why I’m crying.” I spilled the pieces into her open hands. “My parents just split. My mom moved out last night.” She looked at me then, her eyes tense with hurt and confusion. Then she closed her eyes and let the tears fall.
I didn’t know what to say. She was pretty and perfect, and I was gangly and nervous. “I’m sorry,” was the best I could come up with.
She nodded, a sort of thank you, and held her breath again, trying to force herself back into control. I took my dragon and left her there. When she came out again on her own, I was sure no one else noticed how her eyes shone a little brighter. She sat back down with her friends, and I had the feeling none of them knew what she’d just told me.
Vern made it sound like spying on her was supposed to be so hot, but it felt gross. And now, she was standing there in the window, seeing me. Caught, the blood washed out of me, left me feeling shrunken and embarrassed. I wanted to be away from there. To never have been there.
I put both hands up in front of me, like the motion might convince her there was some other reason for me to be standing there, any other reason than why I was. She fixed me with her eyes, like a fork through a fucking chicken leg, and jammed both her middle fingers in my direction. Her face looked angry, but also as hurt and undefended as that day in the closet. Then, the sun ricocheted off the side of the house, lighting the whole thing up like a sheet of orange fire, and I couldn’t see her anymore.
Jake circled around the house from his corner. “Hey, man, anything over here?” He whispered it, like our secret wasn’t already out. I didn’t answer, just turned and ran for the woods.
I ran until I stubbed my toe into a tree stump. The toe jammed and the scrape bled. I slumped down onto the stump and curled my head into my hands. I wanted to wait there until it was time to go home, but I knew I had to get back to the pool and act like nothing happened or else my dad would come looking for me and yell at me for skipping out on the boss’s party.
The wall closest to the grill end of the pool was only ten or so yards from where I sat, and a heavy scent of barbecue drifted toward me. The wall was made of stone and vines clung to it, making it even taller than it was, so I couldn’t see the people on the other side and they couldn’t see me, but I could hear them and the distant sizzle of cooking meat.
It was a bunch of the dads. Even Mr. Wilkinson. They were laughing about something. I could hear a faint trickle of music, a tune that sounded familiar. It started slow and sped up, then the dads all laughed louder.
“What is this?” one of them asked.
“It’s my son’s phone,” another one said. Vern’s dad. “Can you believe this shit?” The music played again. It was the porn clip. The dads roared.
“Used to be all magazines,” one of the dads said.
“Kids these days with all their technology.” My dad.
“You think I should say anything to him about it?” Vern’s dad.
“What would you say? Boys will be boys.”
“Quick, put it back. Before the wives see. Before the boys know we saw it.”
First they played the clip one more time. Their laughter sliced the air, high pitched, hysterical. And it came to me that there must be a whole piece of the meaning of life and the secret of how to be in the world that none of our dads got at all.
The woods livened up behind me, and Vern, Jake, and Alfred scuffed into view. “Yo, man, what happened to you?” Vern asked.
I knew he meant why had I bolted, but I showed them my toe. It had started to turn purple and there was blood and torn flesh, so it was good for distraction. “Shit,” Jake said.
“Well you didn’t miss anything,” Vern said. “That was a fucking waste of time. All of a sudden she just came back out the door in her suit with a towel around her neck.”
I stood up and we started walking together again. I tried not to limp.
“Didn’t see jack shit,” Alfred said, hiking his glasses back up his nose. “But at least she didn’t see us.”
Back on the slates, we peeled our shirts over our heads and stashed them at our seats. Vern’s phone was back with his shoes, and Juliet was back at her lounge chair, lying flat with sunglasses over her eyes. Maybe she wouldn’t say anything about seeing me. Walking by her, I looked the other way and clenched and unclenched my fingers, wishing I was invisible.
We shove-splashed each other into the ten feet and took turns trying out flips on the diving board. Every now and then, Juliet would look up at us. All the air sucked out of me when she stood up and joined the line to dive.
“Hey, boys,” she said. Her lips hung in a smirk and her eyes zeroed in on me. “Get your eyeful?”
Vern snorted and slammed me in the shoulder. “Nice,” he whispered. “No wonder you ran off.” Behind us, the grill smoked and barbecue fumes started to make me feel sick.
“You do that kind of thing a lot? Sneak peeks into people’s windows?” Juliet said. She didn’t shout, but she wasn’t quiet, either.
Mr. Wilkinson sized us up then, one at a time. A leg of chicken caught fire on the grill. The smell of the burning sauce mixed with fresh cut grass, chlorine, and the smell of last year’s leaves on the forest floor—a perfect summer smell. If we’d all acted differently, it could have been a whole different kind of day. Mr. Wilkinson flipped the chicken leg and doused the flame that way, giving him an extra second to think.
“What’d you boys do?” he asked. Mrs. Wilkinson shifted her sunglasses up into her hair to get a better view. Little wavelets in the pool sparkled with sunshine like a thousand tiny stars floating there.
Juliet stared me down and I was sure she was waiting for me to confess. Even if I’d wanted to, I wouldn’t have been able to find my voice. But she answered for us anyway. “What’d you expect them to do, Daddy?”
Little kids kept splashing in the shallow end, but at the deep end everything stopped. No one jumped off the diving board. The moms swiveled to face us. The dads put down their beers.
“I mean, everything here, this huge house, the fancy pool, every tiny driveway stone,” Juliet said. “It’s all for people to look at, right?” Her eyes forked her father into place instead of me now. “That’s why you invited these nice men from work, isn’t it? To look at all your nice things? Your great big house? Your new beautiful wife? Such an upgrade from boring old Mom.” Our moms shifted in their chairs and straightened bathing suit straps, fluffed their hair.
“Juliet,” came her father’s voice, warning. Her stepmother’s half smile curled to one side like a question mark.
“And what’s the point of a house with so much glass if you’re not trying to show people what’s inside it? A great big trophy case to show off your pretty young ladies.” She said that last part like she was quoting somebody, and the burn on her dad’s face made it clear she was quoting him. Maybe he’d even said something like it to our dads when they first got here. But our dads kept their faces blank as stone.
A beach ball smacked the water at the edge of the pool beside Jake. A couple of preschoolers in the shallow end clapped their hands for him to throw it back. But no one did.
“It’s all about showing off, isn’t it? I can show off, too.” And she reached back to the nape of her neck, pinched the knot of her bikini top between two fingers, and made like she was untying it. I didn’t believe what Vern had said anymore, that she might want to be looked at that way, but Vern and Jake jerked to attention and Mr. Wilkinson lunged to stop her.
The barbecue tongs clattered to the slates and a spray of sauce splattered Juliet’s chest before her father charged into her, knocking her backwards into the pool, his own body crashing in after hers. Their two splashes merged and thrashed a wave of water into our shins where we still stood, no longer waiting for the diving board.
Juliet rose to the surface, choking with laughter. Her bikini top had come untied for real when she dunked into the water—you could see how it had gone loose—but she managed to keep hold of the dangling strings behind her neck. In front of me, Vern wolf-whistled.
“Shut up, asshole,” I said.
He faced me, looking stunned. “What the hell?”
“Leave her the fuck alone.”
Nearby, Juliet doggy paddled toward a ladder. “My hero,” she sneered.
“Language, boys,” one of the mothers called. Otherwise, the parents turned quickly back to their conversations and beverages, looking away as Mr. Wilkinson heaved himself out of the pool, his pink polo and madras shorts coursing with water. His eyes, little stones of hatred, fastened on me, but what could he say now?
Vern shoved my shoulder and walked past me and away, leaving me alone at the deep end. At the grill, the chicken legs burned to char, filling the air with rotten sweetness.
“It wasn’t my idea,” I said to Juliet, keeping my voice low so only she would hear.
“But there you were all the same.” Out of the water now, she dragged a hand from her forehead down to the end of her hair and tossed extra water behind her. She stalked off, water splatting ahead of her footsteps.
Mrs. Wilkinson produced a fresh tray of raw, naked chicken parts. After a change of clothes, Mr. Wilkinson slathered them with sauce and started over like nothing had happened.
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, feature articles, essays, and book reviews appear in The Rumpus, Gargoyle, Raleigh Review, Streetlight Magazine, The Georgia Review, [PANK], Valparaiso Fiction Review, Change Seven, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction from Lesley University and teaches at Writer House in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I wrote the first draft of “Sweetness” the day after the presidential election while still in a semi-catatonic state and dressed for mourning. I felt compelled to attempt to demonstrate the insidious, hereditary nature of toxic maleness. The point of view in the story transforms as the narrator struggles to distinguish himself from the pack. While a story on toxic maleness demands a male lens, it’s the boss’s daughter Juliet who gets to drive the story home.
What is your favorite dessert?
What is the best performance (music, sports, other) you’ve attended?
Another superlative question! These gutted me when my kids were little. Each favorite thing reminds me of a next favorite thing…. Here are some highlights. Holly Golightly performed at a small music venue in Charlottesville several years ago. Publicity for the show had been lousy, still, she and her love interest/backup-one-man-band played their hearts out for the sparse crowd. Her signature sound in a small half-empty club gave the show intimacy and immediacy. More recently, Josh Ritter played the Jefferson Theater, also in Charlottesville. His beautifully written songs fall more on the melancholy scale, but he so clearly loves his work and his life that every song was joyful. He grinned contagiously throughout the show. Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove gave a standout show at Blues Alley in D.C. a couple years ago, too. We were there for an 8:00 show, but he got so into the music that the next show had to be delayed. I was also one of the lucky folks who got to see Hamilton with the original cast, just before they won all the Tonys and it was still vaguely possible to get a seat. The energy in that show was on fire. I loved the way the cast threw a spotlight onto many of the founding fathers’ ironies and hypocrisies and how the music style breathed new life into Broadway musical tradition.
You’ve just been offered the opportunity to create a mascot for yourself. What will it be? What will you name it?
I connected with a group of writer friends at a writing conference in 2014. We’ve created a long-lasting support network—swapping stories, sharing successes, and bolstering each other when we get rejected or discouraged. We appointed the armadillo as our mascot—tough on the outside, vulnerable on the inside—because writing requires our deepest sensitivities to make our work authentic and the thickest of skins to protect us against the constant rejection that defines this business. We’re a group of women, so we call ourselves the Armadill-hers.
Nicholas A. White
Followed by Bio and Q&A
Mountain Lion Cove
On most mornings, Allison and her son walked a quarter-mile path down to the cove. The warmer weather brought the best fishing, and despite Allison’s job at the dairy farm, she and her son needed these trips. She brushed her fingers against some scars on a tree trunk, afraid they were claw marks. Just bugs, she realized. She turned around, panicked for a moment after not seeing her son. But Nathaniel was okay, just bent over the path inspecting a toad that was burrowed beside a rock. She told him to hurry.
“We need to get to the bank before the boat fishermen take over,” she said.
The sunrise created skinny shadows behind the trees. Allison knew what she’d seen a week ago, even if the other folks at the dairy farm doubted her. Their skepticism wasn’t anything new. They doubted just about everything she told them, including what she’d said on her first day of work about Nathaniel’s dad leaving.
“We could use this as bait, Momma,” Nathaniel said, holding a toad the size of his palm. “Maybe catch one of those big fish we saw splashing the water. That’d give us lots of fillets. And maybe something different, too. Even with the milk the bass still taste kind of funky.”
“Be grateful,” Allison said.
“Why can’t we eat Subway like we did yesterday?”
“You know why, sweetheart.”
“But I’m hungry.”
Allison set her five-gallon bucket on the ground and turned to her son. He was going through a growth spurt, she knew, and no matter how much fish or pan-fried squash she piled on his plate, he still went to bed with some complaining in his belly. Ever since her husband had left, each move and decision seemed to weigh fifty times heavier and more important.
“We need to keep moving,” she said. “Those fishermen have been catching near all the fish before we even get a line in the water.”
“Look, Momma.” Nathaniel covered his hand over a paw print in the mud, stretching his fingers as wide as he could. “You think it’s a fox?”
She wanted to tell him the truth, but to do that, she’d also have to tell him that she’d been going to the river at night, after he was tucked under covers, to catch catfish in case the fishing got bad late in the summer. She filleted the catfish while he slept and hid the chunks of meat behind the ice tray where he couldn’t reach. She wanted to describe the mountain lion to him, the way it roamed across the shore without hesitation, how the moon reflected off the river and lit its eyes like beacons. She’d explained the sighting to one of the girls at the dairy farm, but the girl had ignored the possibility of a mountain lion in South Carolina. “There hasn’t been a sighting in over fifty years, and I reckon someone other than you would’ve seen it near the river,” she’d said. “And don’t you think it would’ve come after these chickens by now?”
Allison and Nathaniel walked to the edge of the shore, where the banks of the river stretched a half mile wide after the previous day’s rain.
“The boats haven’t come yet,” Nathaniel said. “We could go anywhere we want, even to that point where you caught the bass that near filled up the whole bucket.”
“Let’s try some shallower water since it rained. Maybe the rising water’s got them closer to shore.”
Allison glanced at the tree line, checking for signs of mountain lion cubs under the exposed roots. She’d researched the habits of mountain lions, how they camped under the cavities of fallen trees, creek beds, and large roots. She found reports about attacks on children, decades ago, but pushed away the details. Big cats rarely stayed in the same spot for more than a few days. The one she’d seen had probably moved on.
Nathaniel grabbed the largest worm in the bucket. “This one’s going to catch us a big bass for sure,” he said.
Allison tied a hook to her line and attached a bobber. Nathaniel wanted to bait the worm himself, so she let him. Afterward, he asked to search the shore in case something washed up from the rain. Allison almost told him he couldn’t go, but as long as he stayed clear of the woods, there wasn’t much danger. And she needed him to find some more fishing lures anyway. Occasionally a boat fisherman would lose a bobber overboard, or snap a line and not bother to recover the lure. Nathaniel had collected four lures last week alone, and because they’d still been in good shape, Allison had sold them for almost ten dollars total at the bait shop. The money went into the jar on top of the refrigerator.
The sun rose above the trees on the other bank. The sunlight would bring the boats, but Allison hoped to fish for a good hour before they showed up. Enough time to catch a nice fish or two, she thought. She hated the days when the fish were in deeper water, where only the boat fishermen could reach.
“I found a minnow lure,” Nathaniel yelled.
“Don’t go on much further,” she said.
Nathaniel continued along the shore toward the mouth of the cove. Allison looked at the woods for any sign of movement. Quit being paranoid, she thought. But she couldn’t shake the idea of Nathaniel taking off toward the trees, just like his daddy, without so much as an explanation or a goodbye. Although she wished it weren’t true, Nathaniel had his daddy’s curiosity for the world and his tendencies to wander. There must be something in their blood, she thought, that prevents them from needing an explanation for doing things. But Allison figured an explanation wouldn’t have done much good in filling the void anyway.
Her bobber shot underwater, and she set the hook on a small bream. Not much for a meal, she knew, but it was better than nothing. She sometimes watched how the boat fishermen would take their time reeling in fish, savoring the fight, but for her the only pleasure was getting the fish onshore. She filled the five-gallon bucket half-full with water and dropped the bream inside to keep it alive. Nathaniel was now the size of a fingernail in the distance, and she hollered for him to turn around. She wondered what the Seneca River had looked like before it was dammed, how quickly the water had run.
“Look, Momma, I found a hook, too,” Nathaniel said. He peered into the bucket, sighing with disappointment upon seeing the bream.
Allison inspected the hook, which was still in good enough shape to use. The minnow lure was scratched a bit on the side, but she figured she could still sell it at the bait shop for a couple of dollars.
“These are some nice finds,” she said.
Nathaniel smiled and began to walk in the opposite direction, still hugging the waterline. He could walk a good while in that direction and she’d not lose sight of him, since the shoreline didn’t curve much. She hooked on another worm and threw by the branches again, hoping to find a bigger bream or a bass hidden in the brush.
She was about to recast when the first boat appeared. The fishermen turned off their engine to coast into the cove. They wore collared shirts and sunglasses and drank coffee from thermoses. Within five minutes of their first cast, they caught a three-pounder, holding it up for pictures before tossing it back into the water.
“That’s a good start to the morning,” one of them said. “They’re hitting.”
Allison threw as far as she could toward the boat. A moment later her bobber ducked under, and she set the hook on a half-pound bass. She removed the hook and was about to toss the fish in the bucket when one of the fishermen hollered at her.
“You aren’t keeping that, are you? Looks too small.”
Allison stared at the fish, imagining the meat she could salvage. It wouldn’t be much, not enough for a full meal, but it was something. Still, she tossed the fish back in the river.
“Guess not,” she said. “Thought it was a little bigger at first.”
The boat fishermen caught several more bass, navigating through the perimeter of the cove. When they left, Allison cursed them for spooking any nearby fish with their boat’s wake. Nathaniel had almost disappeared along the shore, and she called for him to come back again. It was near time for her shift at the dairy farm, anyway. But then her line tightened and her rod bent so far toward the water she thought it might snap.
The fish fought strong, and twice, after it jumped clear out of the water, Allison worried it would shake the hook loose. She kept calling for Nathaniel until she finally looked over and didn’t see him. Her immediate reaction was to drop the rod and find him, but after controlling her panic, she knew she couldn’t afford to lose the rod. Just calm down, she thought, he’s probably gone into the woods to look at a rabbit or something. She thought about all the past times Nathaniel had run off to look for toads while she worked the garden in their backyard.
She reeled in the fish as quickly as she could, a nice bass, and after unfastening the hook and tossing it in the bucket, she sprinted after her son. Her breaths were short and raspy by the time she found him by the base of a tree, huddled close to the ground on all fours.
“You near gave me a heart attack,” she said.
“Don’t move, Momma, there’s a pair of foxes by that bush not ten yards away. Think of all the meat we’d get from them.” Nathaniel threw a rock at them but missed, and the foxes fled the bush, screaming loud and angry.
Allison placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve got a big fish landed on the shore, and it might be close to five or six pounds.”
“Five or six pounds?” Nathaniel said. “We haven’t had catfish in a while.”
“It’s not a catfish. Just a big bass.”
She glanced at their fishing spot, worried the bass might’ve knocked over the bucket by now, but what she saw emerging from the woods made her instinctively pull Nathaniel closer.
“What’s wrong, Momma?”
She pointed to the mountain lion coming from the tree line, walking with the same stride she remembered from a week ago. The black outlines around its nose and teeth looked like a shadow across its face. Allison wished for a camera so she could prove to the folks at the dairy farm she wasn’t seeing things.
“What is it?” Nathaniel asked.
“Folks say there haven’t been any mountain lions in South Carolina for over fifty years, but here’s living proof otherwise.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“They can be.” Allison lowered her voice to a whisper. “Especially if they’ve got cubs around.”
“Maybe that’s why Daddy never came back. Maybe he got attacked by a mountain lion.”
“Maybe,” Allison said, and even though she wanted to dismiss the idea immediately, she knew she’d spend too many nights awake wondering about it. There always seemed to be something to wonder about.
“Think of all the meat we could get from one of those,” Nathaniel said.
They stopped talking after the mountain lion looked at them. Despite the distance, the fear returned, and Allison realized there would never be a time when she’d quit worrying about Nathaniel, when she’d quit feeling responsible for his survival. The mountain lion lowered its head to investigate the bucket.
“It’s getting our fish,” Nathaniel said. “Look, Momma.”
A few weeks after Nathaniel’s daddy ran off, Allison had sold her favorite necklace to fund a trip to the zoo in Columbia, where they’d watched gorillas and monkeys, even a giraffe. Nathaniel now watched the mountain lion with the same fascination. Allison tried to relax. She tried to let the fear melt away so she could appreciate the sight in front of her. Nathaniel gasped when the animal knocked over the bucket and picked up the flapping bass between its teeth. He stepped forward.
“Where’s it taking the fish?”
“Maybe to feed its cubs,” Allison said. “Stay close. I bet they’re nearby.”
“Can we follow?”
“They know the woods better. They could be right on top of us without any warning.”
After the mountain lion disappeared between trees, Allison and Nathaniel returned to their fishing spot to gather their rod, bucket of worms, and five-gallon bucket, which was now knocked over and empty. The small bream gasped for breath on the shore, and Allison threw it back in the water.
“We’re not fishing anymore?” Nathaniel asked. “We don’t have anything.”
“It’s not a good idea to stick around with a big cat lurking somewhere behind us. Besides, a boat came through and cleared out the cove. I figure we can fetch some money from the jar in the kitchen and take a trip over to Subway. The tomatoes should be near ready in the garden, too.”
“But you said we needed to save money?”
She smiled down at him. “It’s not every day you see something like this. I’d say it’s reason enough to celebrate.”
They were silent for most of the walk to the truck, watching the woods and avoiding dead branches with their feet, careful not to make too much noise. Allison set the fishing rod and bucket in the bed and scratched with her fingernail at the peeling paint. She sighed with the thought of a new paint job, something she’d been putting off ever since Nathaniel’s daddy had left. The truck probably needed an oil change too, and some other maintenance stuff that she didn’t have the time or money for.
“Maybe we should look around the yard when we get home,” Nathaniel said. “Just in case Daddy got attacked by a mountain lion or something.”
“It’s been near six months since he left.”
“We should still look.”
But Allison knew where Nathaniel’s daddy had gone. He’d run off with one of the younger girls from the dairy farm, the same girl whose job she had taken over. They’d probably hopped a few state lines and were now living with the girl’s parents, with cold air during the summer and fresh groceries packed in the fridge. Allison felt pathetic for agreeing to look through the woods back home for him. But life’s tough like that, she thought. There’s always hope, whether or not you want it. The truck started on the third try, and she drove quickly, afraid she might be late for her shift at the dairy farm.
Nicholas A. White grew up near Charlotte, North Carolina and graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Clemson University. He’s currently an MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and his stories and essays have appeared in Pembroke Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Deep South Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Learn more at www.nicholasawhite.com
While fishing along a secluded cove on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina—a few miles away from Clemson University—I saw three cubs emerge from the woods, near a heavily eroded part of the cove where exposed roots created ominous little caves. These were definitely not foxes, kittens, or any other animal except mountain lion cubs. I sprinted out of there, not wanting to stick around to see if the momma mountain lion would view me as a threat to her cubs upon her return. It wasn’t until after I got home and did a little research that I discovered mountain lions haven’t (supposedly) lived in South Carolina for many decades. This was back in 2013. A recent internet search, while writing this note, revealed a handful of supposed recent sightings in South Carolina, which doesn’t surprise me, because I know what I saw. My roommates and I started calling the cove “Mountain Lion Cove,” and writing a story came naturally to me (which isn’t always the case). I wrote about fishing, a mountain lion, a sighting, and an element of a mother protecting her young (in the case of the story, a human mother), but I think the instinct transcends species.
What is your favorite dessert?
Last year I joined the gluten-free club, which rules out some of my favorite desserts (custard-filled donuts, cannolis, cookie cake, etc.) I’ve lately craved salty over sweet, though—and while this doesn’t technically count as a dessert, my go-to splurge has been french fries from either Five Guys, Chick-fil-A, or Bojangles’.
What is the best performance (music, sports, other) you’ve attended?
I’m going to use the term “best” loosely here. It was funny, at least. I scored on the wrong basket in the first basketball game of my short-lived career. I wish I could say I was a little kid, but this was in high school.
You’ve just been offered the opportunity to create a mascot for yourself. What will it be?
Given the story I’ve written, I have to say cougar! (which was also my high school mascot, conveniently). Kramer the Cougar sounds right—I’m not sure why. Maybe because I try to be both goofy and serious, more so in real life than in my writing, though one day I hope to be able to write humorous stories, too. A cougar seems serious, and Kramer makes me think of the Seinfeld character busting through a door. A combination of the two sounds about right.