Estimated reading time: 45 minutes
Set aside some time to spend with this week's excerpt, "Scheherazade". As the story unfolds, we see Jen Michalski's main characters cautiously opening up to each other, as an act of assistance in a college parking garage expands into something more.
This is a longer piece than often appears in literary magazines. TLR likes to see works of all lengths, including flash, longer poems, and prose pieces up to 6,000 words.
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“Probably just needs a new battery.” Dan attaches the claws of his jumper cable to Regina’s contacts. “If not that, usually the alternator.”
“Should I take it in to the dealer?” She stands near the door of her Volvo, arms folded like hangers across her thin frame. Dan smirks to himself as he imagines her in this defensive, slightly repulsed posture around children, at sporting events, her students.
“If it doesn’t start tomorrow, sure.” They’ve never spoken to each other, even though they’ve taught their classes in the same building for a year. She’s lucky he’s even here; if he hadn’t been sneaking a cigarette before heading home to Karen and to whatever Karen is going to be mad at him about tonight, she’d been alone in the faculty parking lot to fend for herself.
“I can’t take it in if it doesn’t start tomorrow,” she says. “That’s why I’m asking you whether I should take it tonight.”
“I don’t know.” He shrugs. She seems the type to turn everything, even a favor, into thinly veiled annoyance. “I guess, if you want to be safe.”
Her lips purse; even though she’s wearing lipstick, all it does is accentuate how lined and frowning they are, how crinkled her eyes, how angular her cheekbones, as if someone stuck a straw in her mouth and tried to suck out her whole fifty-something face. Without waiting for her to respond, he climbs into his Jeep and starts the engine. She watches, her hands deep in the pockets of her wool coat, chin tucked into her scarf. He sees himself as she does: some mid-thirties fuck-off in a North Face parka driving a sport utility vehicle. If that isn’t enough to shrivel his balls to Skittles, he imagines what one of her students must feel like, her dark eyes piercing them as they try to explain the differences between Blake and Wordsworth or whatever it is she teaches in the English department. At least she has tenure, isn’t teaching here and at the community college across town, isn’t juggling a four-class course load in American History that pays not much more than being a cashier at the grocery store.
She’s still standing there, watching. Through his windshield, he waves her into her Volvo. Then, after a few minutes, he leans out of window.
“Turn it on!” He calls out to her. The car turns but doesn’t catch. He holds up his finger out the window, wait, wait, then waves it in a circle, go. This time, it starts.
“You gonna be all right?” He holds the cables and stands by her door as she revs the engine.
“Do you mind following me to the dealership?” Her face has softened. One of her earrings is hooked into the mass of curls that is her hair. “It’s not far.”
Although he’s tired, and Karen is probably already mad at him, he agrees. All his life, he’s said yes to things¾baseball, pot, surfing, sex, dirt bikes, road trips, college, LSD. He’s not sure what it’s all gotten him, except a bunch of crazy stories, but maybe there are a few more “yeses” still that will get him where he needs to be.
When he wakes up at five thirty, Amy is already waiting outside. There’s still snow in shady corners of the carport, snow that will probably be there for a few more weeks.
“When you get older, it won’t be so easy,” he says, pulling on his ski cap.
“What, stretching?” She holds up her leg behind her. She’s almost as flexible as a gymnast, although she’s way too tall—five-foot-eight—and too muscular. Her face still has the roundness of youth, though, a shiny, Midwestern creaminess, her hair straight as straw.
He laughs. “No, getting up.” He stretches towards the sky and feels the muscles in his back separate. He didn’t know at first how he felt about Karen having a daughter. Back then, he didn’t know how he felt about Karen, period, only enough to go on another date. To see how things felt after another month. To keep saying yes. Now, five years later, sometimes he feels that his future has closed on him like the aperture of one of Karen’s cameras.
But he stays for Amy. He watches her sprint ahead, her calves tight against the fabric of her running tights. Next week, softball season will begin. Amy’s already got a scholarship from the University of Michigan for the upcoming fall, and to cap off her senior year, she’s hoping to take her team to the state finals again. So every morning until the beginning of the season, Dan will wake up at five, run sprints with her, toss her batting practice, and catch hundreds of her fast-pitch softballs before he even has a cup of coffee. When they get home, Amy will shower and Dan will wait for Karen to wake. He’ll stand by the kitchen window and listen for a rustle in the bed, a yawn, a hand on his shoulder, but most times it’ll get too late, and he’ll wind up going into the bedroom and putting a steaming mug on her night table, beside her still-sleeping face, and slip out to the university library, grade papers there alone.
Just as he passes Regina’s office on the way to his own (which he shares with two other adjuncts), she hurries out.
“Here.” She holds an envelope, a little bigger than a credit card, out toward him. “I didn’t know what to get you.”
“For what?” He takes it and peers inside. It’s for the Alley Oop, a burger and beer joint where all the students go to drink and watch games.
“For helping me out.” She jerks her hand in the air like it’s no big deal. “Just a little thank you.”
“Did they find out what was wrong with it? Your car?”
“They’re putting in a new battery,” she explains. “I’m picking it up tonight.”
“Sounds like you’re set, then.” He wonders where she got the gift card. From the university bookstore? Gone to the restaurant herself?
“If that’s what was wrong with it.” She rolls her eyes. “With my luck, it’ll be something worse.”
He studies the card again. The amount on the card is too much in a way he finds slightly insulting—that he had expected something in return for his help.
“You can take your girlfriend, partner, whoever,” Regina adds. She turns to head back to her office.
“How did you get here today? If you didn’t have your car?”
“I got an Uber.” She gives him that look again, from the night of the parking lot. “I’m not completely helpless.”
He laughs. “No, you’re sure not.”
She stares at the floor, and he can see, by the blinking of her eyes, the torrent of thoughts and worry swimming behind them. They’re thoughts that bear no relationship to him; he can tell she’s already passed him by, like he’s a log stuck in the quick-running stream.
Which is where he should leave things, but he wants her to see him differently, know he is a nice guy, one who helps people and doesn’t need to be paid for it.
“I can take you to the dealer,” he says suddenly. “You want to eat beforehand? You ever had an Alley Oop burger?”
He expects her to say no, but at least he can go home, microwave a burrito at Karen’s place, and go to sleep with a clean conscience.
“I have.” The corner of her lip stretches, and it takes him a second to realize she’s smiling. “But if you want to waste part of your gift card on me, I’m not going to argue.”
It’s crowded at Alley Oop—one of the state’s college basketball teams is in the final eight of the NCAA tournament. They get the only booth in the back, near the bathroom. Regina seems slightly apprehensive. She touches the table with her index finger, rubbing it in the soft lacquered wood as she holds the laminated oversized menu up with the other.
“So come clean.” Dan leans over and smiles. “You come here every Tuesday, don’t you?”
“What’s Tuesday?” She looks bewildered.
“Twenty-five cent wings,” he says. “It was a joke.”
“My daughter went to college here.” She picks up the plastic tumbler of water and drinks from it. Even in the din of the restaurant, he can hear her clear her throat. “It’s the only place that I remembered after I moved here to teach.”
“This place will never die, unless the college does,” Dan agrees as the waitress comes to the table. She’s about Amy’s age and smiles at them blankly, as if the disparity in his and Regina’s ages and life situations doesn’t warrant any reaction or interest. Of course, he probably felt the same way about anyone over twenty-five when he was nineteen or twenty. Back before he understood his own young life was a small, unimportant thing on a very vast ocean.
Dan gets the double cheeseburger, chili cheese fries, and a beer; Regina asks about the soup, the specials, staring at the waitress with an intensity that Dan thinks is probably more reserved for medical board examinations, before deciding on a cheeseburger and Diet Coke.
“How old is your daughter?” Dan leans back. The banquette is old and he sinks in a little too much, taking him far away from Regina, the table.
“She would have been twenty-eight.” Regina’s voice is clear, matter-of-fact. She balls up her straw wrapper.
Dan takes a long chug of the beer the waitress has put in front of him. He thinks of Amy, listening to music on her phone at home, her softball trophies on the shelf above her bed, the shiny women frozen in the act of swinging or pitching, and the trophies seem so tacky, overkill for such a small, insignificant part of one’s life. No trophies, he thinks, of women giving birth, or making tenure. Or standing over a child’s casket.
“I’m sorry,” he says, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “My girlfriend’s got a seventeen-year-old.”
“They think they know everything at that age,” Regina says, again, without inflection, placing the balled-up straw wrapper on her napkin.
“Didn’t we all?” He smiles. His face is hot; his head, pounding. The bar cheers—someone has slam-dunked, and Dan takes the interruption to let the awkwardness between them slide away, like a droplet of condensation down the side of his beer mug.
“You teach history, right?” Regina asks when the bar quiets a little.
He nods. “My father was a history teacher. I figured I’d major in it, since I already knew so much from him.”
“Do you have a favorite period?”
“The Civil War. America between the World Wars. The Vietnam War era.” He coughs into his fist. “Not because of the wars, but the advancements—scientific and medical—and the cultural upheaval.”
“Nothing like a good war to shake things up.” She laughs lightly.
“You think that’s funny, but it’s true.” He points at her, smiling. “And it blows kids’ minds. What blows your kids’ minds?”
“Langston Hughes,” she says, sipping her Diet Coke.
“Really?” Dan leans over and whispers. “Wow. This college is so white.”
She smiles at she sips through her straw, her eyes on him. Mission accomplished, he thinks. She no longer thinks he’s just some meathead adjunct. And she’s easy to talk to, now that her hackles are down. Not overly warm, but pleasant, capable of pleasantries. As they eat, they gossip about some other professors on their hall, Michigan winters, the new parking passes.
But it’s still at the back of his mind—the dead daughter. And what about the husband-father? Regina has offered no more personal information, and he’s been too afraid to ask.
“Thanks again.” She says in his Jeep, her hand on the door latch. They’re in the parking lot of the Volvo dealer.
“No problem.” He grips the gearshift. “Thanks for dinner. And I, uh, feel really terrible about your daughter. I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through.”
She blinks and purses her lips, gazing at the door of the glove compartment, and he wonders if he’s pushed his luck.
“You shouldn’t spend your time worrying about it,” she says finally. “Spend your time with her, your girlfriend’s daughter.”
Before he can answer, she opens the door.
“See you Thursday.” She smiles a little smile and then disappears, her coat blowing open as she hurries across the darkened lot.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the evenings he teaches, he wears his best shirts, a splash of cologne. He doesn’t have a crush on her or anything. She’s not his type, nor he hers. It’s just the novelty of it. Of stopping by Dr. Regina Morgenstein’s office and exchanging pleasantries, hearing her laugh and seeing her lean back in her chair. Having his colleagues in the history department give him the side eye when he passes. Tonight, when he slows his walk near 12B, she’s leaning over a telephone book.
“Trouble with the car again?” He pokes her head in her doorway. The office is dim, like always, lit by a single lamp on her desk. He can barely make out the posters of Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, on her walls. Every time he stops by, he spends a few seconds studying a corner of her room, a corner of her desk, hoping to find a photo of her daughter, but hasn’t found one.
“Oh, no.” She shuts the phone book and pats it. “My t—I have a leak. I was just looking for a plumber.”
“I can come check it out, if you want,” he blurts. It’s a point of pride with him, his handiness. He’s fixed everything at Karen’s—sinks, roofs, water heaters.
“Oh, that’s nice of you, but—”
“It’s my toilet.” She whispers, leans forward.
“Your toilet?” He says loudly, and she stares at him, mortified.
“Well, yes, but you don’t have to—”
“Your shitter?” He says even louder into the hallway, smiling. “Something’s wrong with your shitter?”
Her jaw tightens, and he wonders if he’s gone too far. But then, like a snapping rope, the tension releases in her face, and she laughs.
“Yes.” She nods, touching her neck. “My shitter. So you’re coming to come fix it, you said?”
“Maybe you will have a beer in your fridge I can drink for refreshment after my sweaty labor.” He winks. “Maybe that beer will be a Guinness.”
“Maybe you have a deal.” She winks back.
“She’s a colleague of yours or something?” Karen is bent over the developer tray, prodding a blank sheet of contact paper. These are the photos she shoots on the weekends and during summers when she’s not taking professional school portraits. Their house is littered with contact sheets of children of all ages, skin conditions, and orthodontics, goofy smiles, cowlicks, unflattering eyeglasses. Sometimes he will recognize a fourteen-year-old girl at the mall or in the parking lot of the high school from her photos stacked on the kitchen table, a circle made with Karen’s pen indicating a blemish that she must brush out later with Photoshop.
“She teaches English,” he explains. On the wall before them, dripping photos hang of a frozen lake, a snow-covered barn. Dan tries to guess the picture in the tray before it develops: Owl.
“Her daughter died,” he adds, watching the white of the paper begin to fill in with shades of gray.
“Oh, that’s sad.” Karen taps the center of the photo, and a thicket of trees begins to appear. No owl. “She can’t call a plumber?”
“I feel sorry for her, kind of.” Dan peers over Karen’s shoulder. The darkroom, housed in the half-bath in the basement, is hot and crowded. But he likes the smell of the chemicals, the way Karen pulls her hair back when she’s working. He likes watching things develop.
“You going to be gone all Saturday, then?”
“I don’t know—why, you have somewhere to be?”
“It’s just I might need you for something.”
“You can call.”
“How old is she?” She nudges him out of the way as she clips the photo to the drying rack.
“Old.” He draws out the word. “You know I like older women.”
“You better watch it.” She pokes him with her tongs. “I’m not that much older than you.”
He thinks about Regina, the scowl that is her baseline, the one top incisor that pokes out a little further than the others. The frizzled, dark-reddish hair that doesn’t take well to a comb. The way her eyes soften when he pokes his head in her office.
“Just do this one thing for her,” Karen says after a minute. “And then you can say no after that.”
He knocks twice before Regina answers. She’s wearing dark tights, an oversized sweater. He wonders if she tried on jeans, maybe sweats, before deciding on tights. He feels suddenly self-conscious of his waffle Henley and stained sweatpants.
“You look nice,” he says to her. “I mean, outside school.”
“Oh.” Her hand goes to the neck of her sweater. “I, uh, thanks.”
He feels the back of his own neck burn in embarrassment as he shrugs off his parka, hands it to her without speaking. As she hangs it in the closet, he takes in the living room, the leather chairs and geometric-design rug. A pile of student papers litters the table, along with a half-eaten banana on a napkin. There’s photo of a girl, maybe five when taken, on the end table. Her hair is auburn, wild, like Regina’s. He steps toward the photo, but Regina’s already walking down the hall.
“It’s this way.” He follows the sound of her voice. The bathroom is bare, unlike his own, where everyone’s things fight for space. He bends down and surveys the damp ring around the bowl.
“It could be the flange, or the wax ring,” he says. “I won’t know until I get the toilet off.”
“Oh.” She crosses her arms. “It sounds like a big job.”
“It’s really not.” He rests back on his haunches. “Parts will run you under $20.”
“But how long?” Her tone tightens, like it’s his fault the toilet is leaking.
“You have somewhere to be?” He stands up, rubbing his lower back already, before he’s even done anything.
“No—no.” She holds her hand out for him to stay. “Not until later this afternoon. If it’s going to take too long, I’ll just call someone.”
“How long did you think it was going to take?” He wonders where she’s going, and with whom. “Five minutes?”
“No.” She shakes her head. “I don’t even know. I’m sorry.”
He doesn’t answer, pulling up the latches of his toolbox. If he’d wanted to get criticized, he thinks, he would have stayed home. When he glances up at her, she wears the same expression the night of the jumpstart, but he understands better it this time: helpless, maybe a little anxious. At the mercy of a stranger. Is he a stranger? He’s already helped her twice.
“It’s okay,” he says after a minute. “It really won’t take long. Unless it’s a big repair—you’d need someone else at that point. But I can fix a flange or a wax ring.”
“It’s just—I don’t want to get ripped off,” she says, trailing her fingertips on the countertop. “When the roofers came last year—”
“You won’t get ripped off,” he says. “I won’t let you. Okay?”
“Okay.” She nods, taking a step out of the doorway. “Do you want some coffee?”
“I’ll hold out for the Guinness,” he says. After she leaves he works quickly, shutting off the water valve and loosening the bolts from the tank. He listens to Regina move around the house—the clanking of a teacup, the groan of a floorboard. But mostly it’s quiet. When he steps into the living room fifteen minutes later, she jumps out of her armchair, sliding a bookmark into a book, something about early Romantic poets.
“Don’t get up.” He wipes his hands on his pants. “I gotta run out and pick up a wax ring.”
“I should go with you,” she explains. “To pay.”
“It’s the hardware store.” He shrugs. “Not the opera.”
“I’ve been to the hardware store,” she says, fetching their coats from the closet. “Have you been to the opera?”
“You inviting me?” He jokes. She pauses, holding his parka, before extending it out to him.
“Do you like opera?” she finally asks.
“I don’t know. Maybe?” He probably doesn’t. But he would say yes if she asks him to go.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” She turns to the door. “Shall we go?”
At first he thinks she means the opera, but then he realizes she means the hardware store. Still, he allows himself this little fantasy on the drive over: the tux he’d have to rent, or maybe he could get away with the suit he wears to weddings. What would Regina wear? She doesn’t have much of a figure: rail-thin and lacking in all the important proportions. However, it’s delicate, feminine and, like a clothing store mannequin, looks good in everything. Would they have dinner first? Italian? Something more daring?
At the last minute of his fantasy, he inserts Karen in place of Regina. Karen would find opera too long, too boring, be more interested in critiquing what everyone was wearing and how unflattering it made them look. Maybe, he thinks, the measure of enthusiasm for something is proportional to with whom you’re going.
At the store, he watches Regina run her hand lightly over items on the shelves—toilet flappers and packaged fill valves—as if trying to decipher Braille. He imagines running his own hand, over her forehead, her heart.
“I’ve been teaching Amy—my girlfriend’s daughter—how to change her oil,” he explains in line. “So she doesn’t have to ask a lunkhead like me to do it. It seems hard, stuff like this, but it’s easy to learn, and you feel kind of like, I don’t know—empowered. Like you’ve got a handle on your shit.”
“Do you feel like you’ve got a handle on your ‘shit’?” Regina asks. “I’m not being facetious, I just was wondering.”
“I need to get Amy off to college and then, I don’t know.” He shrugs, glancing at the shelf of screwdrivers with orange handles that are displayed along with duct tape and other last-minute pickups above the conveyer belt. He likes orange, likes the bold colors in the hardware store because they seem so sure of themselves. That and everything is measured—to solve the problem, you only need the correct-size bolt or ring or nail.
“Don’t know what?”
“Anything. Nothing.” He shrugs. He doesn’t want to talk about Karen, not when she’s not here to defend herself. And he wouldn’t know how to explain it anyway, except everyone already knows the gist of how it feels: that you’ve grown apart, or that you were never quite that close to begin with. On the same airplane, going the same general place, but different destinations once it lands.
He’s screwing the tank back into the bathroom tile when he hears a knock at Regina’s door. He makes an extra clang with the tank as footsteps, heavy, creak into the living room. Voices, male laughter, Regina’s laughter. He slowly puts his tools away as it dawns on him that he will have to leave in front of this man, whoever he is, boyfriend or whoever who can’t even fix a fucking toilet.
“This is my colleague, Dan.” Regina introduces him to John. John is bespectacled and bearded, sweater-vested, with a surprising amount of sandy, layered hair. A firm handshake. The kind of guy who probably goes to the opera.
“Weekend plumber.” Dan jokes, going toward the closet for his parka. He wonders how Regina and John met. What she sees in him. “You kids have a fun evening planned?”
“Just dinner.” John’s trench coat is folded over his arm. “And a movie.”
“I owe you dinner,” Regina says to Dan, stepping toward him, reaching to touch his arm. “I’m so grateful.”
“Nope¾we’re even,” Dan jokes, stepping away, his wool cap and parka on. He holds up the six pack of Guinness Regina has left by the door. “You already bought me dinner once. People are going to talk.”
On the mound, Amy winds up and he braces, squatting behind home plate. He doesn’t think as much as reacts. Closes his glove tight when he feels the pop of the ball in it. Then he stands, tosses it back, and waits for her to fire it at him again.
“Looking good.” He says after the fiftieth pitch. “Make sure you’re keeping your power foot straight, okay? You’re falling off to the side a little.”
His phone vibrates, and he digs it out of his pocket as Amy gathers stray softballs.
“Is this a bad time?” It’s Regina. Her voice, disembodied from her, takes him by surprise. It’s soft and crisp around the edges, lighter and sweeter than the lips from which it comes.
“No.” He steps back toward the batting cage. “Is it the toilet?”
“Oh, no.” She laughs. “It’s fine. But I just . . . felt bad about Saturday.”
“How so?” But he thinks he knows what she means. The way he went home in a bad mood, emptied two cans of Guinness sitting on the couch before halftime of the Wolverines game.
“Transactional. I should have canceled on John. . .”
“Why?” He picks a softball near his sneaker. “It was perfect timing for you.”
“What are you doing tomorrow? Do you eat breakfast?”
“Are you asking me to breakfast?”
“Homemade waffles? For your trouble?”
He counts to three before saying yes. He knows, at some point, he will have to say no. Before it’s something else for Karen to find fault with. Like his poker nights, or his fantasy league. But for now, he is riding the crest of a wave, waiting to see where it ends, whether he can tack away without wiping out.
“Who was that?” Amy is close to him now, the canvas knapsack of softballs slung over her shoulder.
“A colleague.” He stuffs the last softball in her knapsack.
“You go to your colleagues’ houses for breakfast?” She cocks an eyebrow. Amy knows the pulse between Dan and her mother is weak, but she and Dan don’t speak of it much, afraid to upset their own connection.
“When they want to make it for me,” Dan grins, then adds without prompting. “She’s . . . her daughter died.”
“Oh.” Amy exhales heavy, through her nose. “I guess that’s nice of you, then.”
“It’s nothing.” He touches her shoulder. “Don’t worry.”
“It’s just.” She frowns, eyes going upward in frustration before meeting his. “I mean, I worry about you and Mom sometimes.”
“Don’t worry about us.” Dan eases the knapsack off her shoulder. “You worry about your power foot.”
“I haven’t made waffles in years,” Regina says as she puts the plate in front of Dan. She hurries back to the kitchen and returns with whipped cream and sliced strawberries. “I’m happy if I get a good cup of coffee in the morning.”
“Me, too—although Amy was giving me a hard time about not making her breakfast the other day,” Dan says, spreading his napkin across his lap. “Like I don’t get up before dawn every morning to run with her, practice with her, go to all her games.”
“You like being a father,” Regina says. She studies him over the table. She’s doing that thing again with her finger, he notices, rubbing it against the tablemat, and he pauses before answering. He thinks about the curly-haired girl in the picture, if he should talk about Amy at all.
“Yeah, I do.” He stares at his waffle. “I mean, I would have been a father-father, too, but Karen doesn’t want any more kids.”
“Does that bother you?”
“I haven’t thought much about it—I mean, one is a handful. Amy’s a good kid, though—really smart and never gets into any trouble.”
“Amy’s a lucky girl.” Regina smiles over her coffee. “Her mother, too.”
“I’m lucky,” Dan says quickly, biting into his waffle, feeling the back of his neck tingle. “Wow, these are amazing. If I made waffles this good, I’d make them every day.”
“Hmm.” Regina holds up her fork, mouth full. “You know, I haven’t made them since . . . well, since Kate was a teenager.”
“How long . . . has she been gone?” Dan lays his fork against his plate.
“Five years,” she answers. Her hands tug at the ends of her napkin, pulling the middle taut.
“I’m sorry.” He doesn’t know what to say, what she would want to hear.
“Sorry won’t bring her back.” She stares at her coffee mug. “I’d prefer you not say it.”
“Yeah, okay.” He nods, and feels like he’s failed a test.
“I shouldn’t have said that.” She puts her hand on the table, toward his. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have even told you. I don’t want you to pity me.”
“Does John know about Kate?”
“Of course.” She draws her hand back, tucking it under the table. “But that’s different.”
“I mean, I don’t want you to be here for that.” She wipes some crumbs off the table into her hidden palm. “Because you pity me. That’s why you keep coming, right? Because of Kate and because you think I can’t do anything and because you feel sorry for me.”
“No,” he says. “That’s not why.”
“Because I have a theory about saying yes to everything,” he explains. “And I’ve said yes to some crazy things.”
“Well, now I have to know what.” She smiles.
“I’ll tell you just one,” he says. “When I was in college, one semester I worked at this turkey farm east of Lansing as a turkey calmer.”
“Exactly.” Dan laughs. “Chickens are easy to slaughter, because they’re kind of stupid, but turkeys are whip-smart. So they knew what was going down and freaked the fuck out, fought back. So my job was to talk to them, help them cross that bridge of acceptance.”
“That actually worked, the talking?” She leans back in her chair, wide-eyed, mug in both hands. “What did you say?”
“Believe it or not, yes, it worked. I made up epic stories about their lives, or talked about the magnificent turkey retirement home to which they were headed.”
“Tell me one story.” She raises her eyebrows. “Please.”
“There was this turkey¾big wattle and a long snood. Really big body. I mean, he was the Tom Brady of turkeys. So that was what we called him, Tom. I told him he was the Greatest of All Turkeys, that he’d won so many Super Bowls not only was the President going to pardon him but that he was going to start for the Patriots on Thanksgiving.”
Dan draws his finger across his neck. “Felt so bad. If there was one I could’ve saved, it would’ve been him.”
“You can’t save anyone,” she says quietly, like she’s not speaking to him.
“I never repeated the same story twice,” he adds, after a minute. “It was like, I don’t know, like The Arabian Nights.”
“Scheherazade.” She nods. “It fits you.”
“But for turkeys,” he adds.
Even though he should leave, she makes him another waffle, another cup of coffee. In the living room, he flips through a pile of student papers on the coffee table while he waits for her to brush her teeth, so they can walk out together. Papers about the poems of Yeats. An off-set couplet in one of the pages catches his eye: But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you/And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
Yeats does not mean Thanksgiving pilgrim, the student of this particular essay has written of the couplet. Because there is no Thanksgiving in Ireland.
“In case we don’t do this again,” Regina says at the front door. “And I guess there’s no reason to, I wanted you to hear it from me, and not anyone else.”
“Kate, she killed herself.”
Her words are so unexpected that his response falls out of his mouth with the heft of a boulder. “Oh.” It craters between them as Regina steps onto the porch, pulling her scarf tight around her neck. After a moment, he follows her, closing the door behind him.
“It’s locked.” She nods at the doorknob, as if she hasn’t heard him, adjusting the strap of her briefcase, jigging her keys.
“Are you happy?” He asks Amy, who’s lying on the other side of the couch. They’re watching TV, waiting for Karen to come home from a late night at work.
“Yeah.” She texts something on her phone. “Why?”
“Just asking.” He digs in the bag of Doritos and feels nothing but waxy bag and crumbs.
“I’m got a scholarship to Michigan.” Amy opens her mouth wide. “And I got my braces off, finally.”
“Yeah, you’re the bomb.” He grins. “Seriously, though, when you and Jeff broke up—are you over him?”
“That was last fall—he’s so stupid.” Amy piles her hair atop her head. It’s as light as Silver Queen corn. People think he and Amy are siblings. “Why are you asking all of the sudden?”
He lies. “I read some article on teen suicide,” he says. “And the signs—sometimes they’re subtle. Or, you know, sometimes things seem like the end of the world because you’re a teenager and you’ve never experienced them before, when the reality is that, in ten years, Jeff won’t mean squat to you.”
“He don’t mean squat to me now.” Amy reaches for the empty bag. “You didn’t leave me any Doritos?”
“We have another bag.” He hops up and goes into the kitchen.
The girl he dated in college, Julia, she was the one who messed him up. Breaking up with him before graduation, after they’d agreed to drive around Canada for a few weeks, visit some distant family of his east of Vancouver. After he’d applied to grad schools in Illinois so he could be close to her while she attended the law school at University of Chicago. After he’d already fallen in love with her, planned to marry her, father their children. It still meant squat to him, a little bit, when he was mad at Karen or drunk or couldn’t sleep at night and scrolled through her photos on Facebook, her two children, her lawyer husband. His heart had been Hulk-smashed, and even though he put it back together, it was a vase with a piece missing, one that he was supposed to display proudly on his coffee table, anyway.
“I’ll miss you when I’m at school,” Amy says when Dan comes back with the party-size bag he’d talked Karen into getting last Saturday at the grocery store.
“I won’t be that far.” He settles on the couch, drawing her legs atop his. He opens the bag with a pop and hands it to her. “You can always come home on the weekend, but you’ll have so many friends, then, you totally won’t want to hang out with your mother’s boyfriend.”
They’re both quiet. Maybe they’re wondering whether he’ll still be Karen’s boyfriend then. There was a trial period, last year, when they decided, at Karen’s suggestion, to live apart for a while. Dan stayed at his mother’s house, where he fixed the dryer and cleaned the roof gutters and watched “The Golden Girls” while eating tuna casserole, wondering if he should finally get his PhD. But then Karen broke her leg skiing, asked him to come back. Dan, in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure of his life, said yes.
After Amy goes to bed, Dan grabs his phone and sits on the deck. He cracks open a beer before calling.
“I’m sorry—it’s late, but—could I ask you something?”
“Um, sure, I guess.” Regina sounds sleepy. He hears shuffling in the background, thinks maybe she’s sitting up in bed. He wonders if John is with her.
“I’m really sorry—I shouldn’t have called.”
“But you did. So ask.”
“I don’t want this to come off as insensitive or whatever, but do you know . . . why she did it? Kate?”
There is a long silence, marked by Regina’s breathing, and he concentrates on the cold beer can burning his palm as he waits for her to hang up on him.
“She didn’t leave a note,” she says finally. “I really don’t know of a specific reason.”
“Do you hate me? I’m sorry.”
“Why would I hate you?”
“For asking. It’s just . . . I don’t know. For her to feel so helpless, so unhappy. It made me start worrying about Amy.”
“Is she having problems?”
“No, no—nothing like that.” He pauses and takes another sip of beer. “She got dumped last fall, but she seems fine now. She probably thinks I’m insane for asking.”
“I’m glad you asked. You just never know.”
“And people are different, you know? When my college girlfriend and I broke up, for a long time I was pretty devastated, but I didn’t tell anyone.”
“What did you do?”
“I was supposed to start grad school, but I moved to San Diego with a buddy instead. Taught myself to surf. Surfed every day I could. I literally drowned myself.” He laughs. “Well, not literally. But it made me—my feelings—kind of insignificant, I don’t know. And I waited tables and read biographies of American presidents and slept in a sleeping bag on the floor.”
“You came back here, though?”
“When my father died. My sister had gotten married and lived too far away, and I didn’t want my mom to be alone.”
“Do you ever think about going back?”
“To San Diego?” He has. Secretly, only when he is alone, as if afraid his own thoughts would betray him. But what would he do there? He’s thirty-two, ten pounds heavier, an adjunct who needs to sleep on a mattress these days. “Nah. Do you ever think of going back?”
“Wherever you were before.”
“New Jersey? No, I don’t think I’ll go back there.”
“I’m really sorry for waking you.”
“It’s okay,” she says, and he hears moving around again, the hum of the microwave. “I have a hard time sleeping.”
“Me too.” He leans back in the deck chair. “I have this weird panic, like I should have figured out what to do by now and I keep waiting for that sign, being open to it.”
“To saying yes to everything.”
“Right,” he laughs. “You remembered.”
He hears the sliding door open behind him and tenses.
“Who are you on the phone with?” He feels Karen’s voice, like a burn all over his shoulders.
“My colleague,” he says, sitting up straight.
“It’s late. Come to bed.” With that, the door slides shut behind him.
“Are you in trouble?” Regina’s voice sounds light, bemused.
“Nah—she gives me shit for everything,” he whispers. “And the funny thing is, it doesn’t matter what—I could leave crumbs on the counter or have an affair—both are like DEFCON 1.”
“Well, all things being equal, you should have the affair, then.”
He feels like Regina has overturned a bucket of ice water in his stomach. “I don’t want to. I mean, I would want something more than that. Like, someone I could talk to. About anything. That’s all.”
“Still, you should go,” she says. “Before DEFCON 1.”
“Hey, I’m sorry I woke you, and made it all about me.”
“You didn’t. I’m happy you called, Dan. See you tomorrow?”
He doesn’t go to bed right away. Instead, he thinks about surfing—how he bought a used longboard for two hundred bucks with his graduation money and paddled out in the cold water, figuring it out as he went along. You could be lost in an ocean, but there was potential. A sliver of coastline popping up over the horizon, an open harbor. A boat. A plane. It was the other way, being on dry land, finding it inhospitable, and knowing how long it took you to get there in the first place, that scared the hell out of him.
When Amy pitches, it’s a thing of beauty. Her right arm lifts, like the minute hand of a clock, up to twelve o’clock. In unison, her right leg drives down and forward as her arm falls, before switching to her left foot, lifting it, her arm now at four o’clock, then eleven, making a complete rotation with her arm while driving her right foot toward her left, before releasing the ball underhanded at the six o’clock position. Dan has watched her for hours, in slow-motion on videotape, in real life in the mornings, and it amazes him each time, the way she hurls herself out into space over and over. She’s like a giant heart and its ventricles, contracting, expanding, pushing out blood, oxygen.
“Did you lock the car?” Karen asks, beside him in the stands.
“Uh-huh.” He doesn’t take his eyes from Amy as she bends over the mound, ball in glove, waving off a sign. “Why?”
“I don’t remember it clicking. Are you sure?” There is precedent for Karen’s paranoia. Late for a shoot last year, she’d forgotten to lock the doors of her Windstar in the parking lot of a neighboring high school and returned at the end of the day to find several hundred dollars of supplies stolen.
“Do you want me to go check?”
He sighs and climbs down the stands, through the concourse, and into the parking lot. There’s nothing in his Jeep, and it’s on him if it gets broken into, anyway, but he knows if he doesn’t do it, it will escalate. It’s not about the Jeep, or whether he locked the door at home or put his clothes in the hamper.
Besides, Karen’s actually speaking to him, ending the three days of radio silence that followed after she came home and found him on the deck, talking to Regina on the phone.
At his Jeep, he sits in the driver’s seat with the door open and digs out his pack of cigarettes from the side door. Karen wasn’t always this way, and early on, he’d written off her paranoia, her mood swings, and controlling behavior to stress, a bad day, a one-off. But it’s been five years, and the realization that it will never stop drives Dan to furtively smoke at school, or times like these, when he can’t be sure which way the wind will blow, whether Karen will be satisfied with the locked car door and the day will resume without incident or whether it will be a precursor to something larger.
He’s halfway through the cigarette when his phone rings. It’s Karen.
“Where are you?”
“I had to take a piss,” he says.
“You’re not lying, are you?” She doesn’t mention what he’s lying about, but he wonders if it’s Regina. He’s deliberately avoided her this week, rolling into the arts building at school at the last minute and hanging out in the men’s room after class. Part of it’s Karen, but part of it’s maybe to see if Regina will forget about him, if she will retreat back into her world of early Romantic poets and Constant Comment tea and sweater-vest John and he can tell himself that he was being stupid, getting all worked up about her, someone he has no business getting worked up about in the first place.
“No, I’m not lying,” he says to Karen, digging around in his change holder for his breath mints. “Should I bring you back some toilet paper as proof?”
“Will you get me a pretzel?”
At the concessions stand, discovering there are no pretzels, he buys both himself and Karen hot dogs, a big Diet Coke. He’s at the condiments bar when his phone rings again. He’s about to throw it onto the concrete when he sees it’s Regina. He holds it like it’s the timer on a bomb. There’s no way to erase the record of her calling, if Karen happens to go through his phone. But he doesn’t have to answer.
Still, his stomach feels fluttery, his head light. The ringing stops, and after a few seconds his phone vibrates, indicating a new voicemail.
“I’m sorry to call you during the weekend.” Regina’s voice envelopes his ear. “I just—I guess I’m being paranoid. I worry I said something wrong, which is entirely possible, knowing me. Anyway, you don’t have to call back. I’m sure I’ll see you around at school. I hope you’re doing well—I’m sure you are—bye.”
He replays it three, four times, memorizing the cadence of her voice, the pauses, the sound of her breaths, and when the phone rings again he nearly squirts mustard from the dispenser onto his wrist instead of the hot dog and this time yes, he will answer it, but it’s Karen, not Regina.
“Amy’s batting next,” she says. “Hurry up—you’re going to miss her.”
When he gets to campus and sees Regina’s car in the second row, he taps the gas and pulls in next to her. If he doesn’t make it a point to see her, it’ll look like he really is avoiding her, now that she’s left him a message. Besides, she’s not stupid. She’ll know what to say, what not to say. How to gracefully churn out mindless pleasantries in passing for the next few weeks until the semester finishes and they have the whole summer to figure out how never to see each other ever again.
“Hey.” In the arts building, he knocks on the doorframe of her office. “How’s kicks?”
“Kicks are fine.” She glances at him before her eyes return to her laptop. “Kicks good for you, too?”
She plays the part even more perfectly than he could’ve imagined. And yet it just makes him feel worse. When he doesn’t answer, she lifts her head again. The corners of her lips are screwed tight into her face, like he’s just told her he doesn’t have his paper to turn in because his internet wasn’t working.
“I’m sorry I haven’t been around much,” he says finally. “it’s just—”
“DEFCON 1?” She raises her eyebrows.
“You want to go to a movie? Like right now?” He steps inside and closes her door. “Or dinner? We can leave notes in our classrooms saying we had emergencies.”
“Before finals week?” She laughs. “My students would hunt me down in the theater.”
“Not if we saw that Swedish film at the Independent,” he says. “Subtitles are undergrad-repellant.”
“What would Karen say?” Regina leans back in her chair, grinning at him mischievously.
“What would John say?” He grins back.
She closes her laptop and opens her drawer. “As enticing as your invitation is, can we take a raincheck?”
“What’s that?” He notices a pile of plastic cards in the drawer with a rubber band around them. He wonders if this is where his Alley Oop gift card came from, if she has a bunch lying around to give out to anyone when situations arise, and he feels big and dumb and stupid.
“These?” She holds them up. “They’re gift cards I bought for my daughter to use. Not all at once—some were for college, some for birthdays, holidays. I didn’t realize she hadn’t used any of them until after she was gone. Anyway, a bunch are expired, but some aren’t. Do you want them?”
She spreads a few on the desk—Bath & Body Works, the Gap, Wayfair.
“I wish I had actually bought her things.” She picks up a card. “But I didn’t know what she liked anymore. I thought I was doing her a favor, but maybe she felt I couldn’t be bothered.”
“I’m sure she appreciated it.” Dan’s eyes fall on Regina’s shoulders. They slump inward as she stares intently at the card, eyes unblinking. He wonders if she’s going to cry. What he would do if she did.
“I have an idea.” He leans over and picks up a few of the gift cards. “For our rain check.”
“You bought all this stuff yourself?” Karen looks at the shower gift basket from Bath and Body Works, the comforter-and-sheet set from Bed Bath & Beyond, the new cleats from Dicks.
“Just some graduation, going-away gifts for Amy,” Dan explains as he packs everything in a Rubbermaid container to hide in the garage. He doesn’t mention that he went to the mall with Regina, that they spent an hour at Bath and Body Works spraying fragrances onto little paper slithers and also on their wrists, cherry blossom and wisteria and wild blueberry vanilla, interrogating the sales staff as to what scents high school girls liked. It’s for our daughter, Dan had explained, joking, and realizing its potential poor taste, turned to Regina apologetically. But instead of castrating him with that look of hers, she reached over and squeezed his hand. Her fingers were warm, almost feverish, curled over his, and he froze, not wanting her to let go, but maybe she mistook his stillness for embarrassment or mild revulsion and moved her hands quickly to a candle, bringing it up to her face.
“Did you hear what I just said?” Karen’s hand is on the side of his cheek. She caresses it. How long has it been since she’s touched him like that? “I said that was really nice of you, doing this for Amy. She’s going to love it. And all this time I thought you hated the mall.”
It’s late at night, after eleven, when Dan gets to Regina’s house. She’d called him in tears, mumbling incoherently about John.
I’m missing a student paper, Dan had said to Karen, pulling on his coat and grabbing his keys. I must have left it in the office. I’ll be back soon.
Regina’s wearing a dark plum dress, pantyhose, when she opens the door.
“I shouldn’t have called you.” She shakes her head. “I don’t even know why I called you.”
“What happened?” He steps over the threshold of the door. Regina’s shoes rest at odd angles behind her, as if she kicked them off mid-walk.
“John and I broke up.”
Dan hangs his coat in the closet, giving himself a minute to process what she’s told him. He thinks of an island, once a dot over the horizon, easily mistaken for detritus, now visible.
“You want some wine?” When he turns, she has already poured herself another glass.
He waves her off. “I have to get up early. So, who broke up with who?”
“I broke up with him.” She flops down onto the couch, wine spilling over the rim of her glass. “John is insecure, prone to bouts of extreme jealousy, and misguided possessiveness.”
“Huh. He sounds nice.” Dan recorks the bottle resting on the table.
“Oh, he is, he was, most of the time.” She takes a long sip. “Until I met you.”
“You told him he had nothing to worry about?” He sits across from her. He crosses his legs, tries to look relaxed. But he feels ready to explode out of himself. A vein throbs in his ankle, his neck. “You told him I was gay, right?”
She sinks into the couch, hand on her stomach, and laughs. When she looks at him, her mascara has started to run a little.
“That’s what I like about you.” She dabs the corner of her eye with her pinky. “You always make me laugh.”
“Seriously, if he’s a jealous type, you don’t need him,” he says. “And I could’ve told you this over the phone.”
“Did I get you in trouble, speaking of jealous types?” She bends over, like a clam shell. He can hear her voice, very small. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” He stands up. “But I don’t want to fight about who has the more possessive partner.”
“If you don’t like her—Karen.” Regina looks up. “Why don’t you just leave? Amy—I know. But she’s graduating soon. You can always stay in touch.”
“I thought we were talking about you and John.” He shoves his hands in his pockets as she leans back against the couch, drawing her knees in with her arms. She’s like a little bird, all tucked into herself, and he imagines lifting her up and cradling her, talking to her like one of those turkeys.
“We were. Now we’re talking about you.” She pokes her head up. “You talk about saying yes to people, Dan. You need to say yes to yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you want?” She closes her eyes, her head against the sofa cushion. “What do you want?”
With that, she’s quiet. He wonders if she’s passed out. He goes over and gently slides his arms under her legs, her back. Then he carries her to the bedroom. When he places her in the middle of the bed, she tightens her arm around the back of his neck and opens her eyes. Without saying anything, he lowers himself on top of her.
When he hears his cell phone vibrating, he knows it’s not the first call Karen’s made. All throughout his dreams, he heard something buzzing, didn’t know what it was. He reaches over and grabs it from the night table, looking at the caller ID.
“Dan.” He hears Regina turn over, feels her shake his arm. “You should probably answer that.”
“And say what?” He closes his eyes, lets himself remember what happened the night before. That it wasn’t awkward, as he feared it would be. That he liked it. That he would do it again. He opens his eyes and turns to her. She sighs and runs her fingers through his hair. He can see the beginning of stubble in her armpits, a mole the size of a pin above her right breast.
“Whatever you need to tell her has nothing to do with this,” she says. “This can’t happen again.”
“Why?” He’s so surprised he’s unable to hide his disappointment.
“Because.” She shakes her head. “You’re in a relationship. And we’re at such different places in our lives.”
“You knew that last night, before you broke up with John.” He sits up. “Before you called me.”
“I did, but I was drunk.”
“That makes me feel so much better.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.” She squeezes his arm. “I meant there are things that you might want but have no practical way of existing.”
“They can.” He stares at his phone, vibrating again. “All you have to do¾”
“Is say yes?” And then, after a minute, she says, as if in apology: “It’s funny, if Kate had brought you home, I would have thought she’d lost her mind. But after getting to know you, I would’ve been so happy for her. Of course, she would have never dated someone like you—she was so angry at the world most of the time.”
She stops speaking, her shoulders heaving.
“I worry that it’s my fault—the anger. I worry she got it from me. I worry I’m a bad person. A broken person. I worry that it’s my fault she killed herself.”
She screws her eyes shut and waits for the wave of grief to pass over before continuing. “And I’m not—trying to live her life for her. I just, naturally, since you’re not much older, I often think about where she would be in her life in the context of yours—where would she be in her career? Would she be happy in her relationship? I’m sorry—you are so full of life. I find myself comparing.”
He leans over and draws her into his arms. They rock back and forth, like they’re on a boat. Out here, he thinks, in the water, everyone is lost.
“I looked her up.” He hears Karen say through the deadbolted door. “Dr. Morgenstein. And when I drove by her house at three this morning, guess whose Jeep was parked out front? A student paper, isn’t that what you said? You goddamn liar!”
“I don’t know what to say.” He looks back at the driveway, at his luggage, his PlayStation, his aftershave can scattered about the lawn. “Except I’m sorry.”
“What about Amy?” He sees Karen’s bloodshot eyes through the crack before she slams the door. Through it, she yells: “You were her world!”
He packs everything on the lawn into his Jeep. He could probably crash at his mother’s again, until he figures out his living arrangement. When he left Regina’s, they’d agreed to talk once he’d figured out his situation with Karen. She’d kissed his cheek and pressed a travel mug of coffee into his hand. He’d been too sick to his stomach to even drink it.
He drives to the high school and waits in the parking lot until the afternoon classes let out. Then, when he sees Amy, he jumps out of the car.
“I’m sorry.” He walks along the sidewalk toward her. Amy’s lip is parted, the hinge of her jaw loose and hanging. She juts her head down, pulling her backpack close to her.
“You lied to me,” Amy says when they get to her Ford Escort. “You lied about that woman.”
“I wasn’t,” he answers. “At the time, I wasn’t.”
“Just leave me alone.” She slides into the driver’s seat.
“So, that’s it—after everything we’ve done together?” He folds his arms. Of course she would side with Karen. But he had hoped that maybe she wouldn’t.
“It doesn’t mean you can cheat on us.” She slams the door but doesn’t start the engine.
“Amy, I love you.” He puts his palms on the glass. “Nothing will change that.”
She cracks the window. “Do you love my mom?”
He understands if he says yes that Amy can talk to Karen, that forgiveness can happen, that things maybe would be okay.
But for some reason, he thinks about all those school portraits lying around Karen’s, all the years of pimples, braces, awkwardness. All those kids trapped forever in their least-liked versions of themselves.
“No,” he says. He takes a step back. “I don’t. I’m sorry.”
Back at his Jeep, he squeezes in among the boxes, the clothes and stereo equipment, his dumbbells. In the rearview mirror he sees the Tupperware container of gifts in back seat. Should he have left them at the house, let Karen give them to Amy? Would she even have done that, or would she have thrown them away? Would they now sit in the corner of his office, like a bunch of unused gift cards?
He closes his eyes, just for a minute, before he has to think about what happens next. He imagines Tom Turkey, if he were still here, nestled somehow comfortably atop the CD rack, his talons scratching up Van Halen to The Who all the way to Wilco, in the passenger seat.
“I’m sorry, man, for lying to you guys like that,” Dan would say to him. “It was a shitty thing to do.”
“It’s all right, guy,” Tom would answer. “It wasn’t lying, exactly. You were just telling us what we wanted to hear. It was the thought that counted.”
“Speaking of which, tell me I’ll be all right,” Dan says aloud.
When Tom answers, Dan already knows the tale. He knows how it ends. Of course he does. And there are some bad parts, but there are good parts, too. He sips the coffee, long cold, and waits to hear the good parts.
Jen had this to say about "Scheherazade"
I often can’t remember why I started writing a particular story. However, I do remember when “Scheherazade” nudged past the dreaded 5000-word mark. No longer short fiction, I thought it nonpublishable. But rather than stop and work on something else, something with more tangible rewards, I kept writing. My partner and I had just moved across the country. My new social life consisted largely of going to Target and picking up things we’d left behind. So I had some free time. Not just free time, but freedom. If no one was ever going to read this story, I could write without limits, without reservations. So I did.
Jen Michalski (she/her) is the author of several books, most recently The Summer She Was Under Water (Black Lawrence Press). @MichalskiJen