2022 Spring Fiction Contest Winner
During the months after her husband, Max, died, Jane adhered to a self-imposed schedule. She had gotten this idea from a widow she’d met in her grief group: an attractive, efficient woman who seemed to be getting on with her life. Each day Jane ate two pieces of burned wheat toast with apricot jam very quickly, over the sink, soft crumbs falling over her shirt. Then, she took her short pointy dog, Paper, for a walk through a neighborhood where everyone her age, forty-eight, owned a home and held a university job with tenure. It was winter and families sat in the windows of their Victorian homes eating eggs, or they stood on their porches pulling on boots; sometimes a shovel made a scraping sound against pavement or a station wagon idled, warming itself in a driveway, while snow fell steadily.
After watching her husband die of a heart attack in the windowless altitudes of a hospital in Colorado, where he did not survive a business conference, Jane found she could picture anyone dead. When she stopped at the counter of a cafe on Pleasant Street to order a cup of Earl Grey tea she could imagine how the waitress with the ring in her nose would look dead: slightly paler, still, her face slack. Afterward, walking on a side street that bordered farmland, steam rising from her cup, Jane saw an old man with a cane shuffling toward his mailbox and she could picture him dead too: collapsed on his lawn, limbs heavy, blood still.
Jane liked to walk across the windblown acres of the Pioneer Valley farmland to the east, to a place where an abandoned gray farmhouse was pressed against a dense forest. She enjoyed this part of the walk most though she could not say why; she liked, for example, that the house had been abandoned for so many years that it was becoming part of the wilderness: thin maple trees rising from the porch, raccoons in the parlor, squirrels hoarding nuts in the pantry. In 1900 it had been a big farmhouse with six bedrooms and four fireplaces and, though the front door remained shut, all the windows had shattered and, just this winter, after a blizzard, the roof at the back had given way, exposing a bedroom where a bed with a metal frame and a bedside table whitened and filled with birds. Jane stood, gazing into that room, which seemed to accept that its ceiling was also a sky.
Next, Jane took Paper home, gave him kibble, and removed one of Max’s death certificates from The George Washington Armoire, purchased from an antique store in West Virginia. The armoire had come with a story about George Washington, his less famous brother Charles, and a mountain ride to a hot spring; Jane could not remember the details, and she had not believed the story, which came without provenance, and was recited by an obvious salesman with false teeth. But Max had fallen in love with the carved door, and oversized claw feet, and the possibility that a founding father had once hung his coat in the hush of its wooden vestibule, and now it stood in Jane’s entryway, and Jane stored the things she did not want to look at inside: wedding photos in which she danced with her arms around Max’s dark neck, Max’s favorite book of Merwin poems, The Lice, with his name scribbled on the first page, his blue flannel shirt which had lost all its buttons, the backpack with the dangling whistle and broken zipper that he carried on all their hiking trips.
Afterward, Jane ate her lunch—a can of tuna or a single spoonful of peanut butter on a rice cake—over the kitchen sink. She did this quickly, furtively, aware that Max no longer required food. While Jane was eating, she opened the list of businesses she needed to visit, and settled on the phone company. Each day, as a part of The Schedule, she visited one business or tried to solve one death-related problem. Before Max died, Jane had been ignorant of the words written on death certificates, words like bi-ventricular valve failure, or hyperlipidemia, and she had not realized that these certificates were the same shape and size as a college diploma; she thought of Max, graduating first.
The year before Max died, when their son, Sam, started college, Jane and Max had moved back to their old college town of Amherst, Massachusetts, one mile from Emily Dickinson’s house with its deep porch and gardens, hidden behind a tall wooden fence. Jane thought of how a replica of Emily’s white dress hung in a hallway outside the bedroom where she once wrote about searching for herself with lanterns. On her way to the phone store, Jane passed the diner where she and Max shared their first blueberry pancake soaked in maple syrup, during a sleepless night when they had talked so much that they failed to study the evolution of a horse’s hoof; she passed the green where they picnicked each spring, spreading their blankets under crabapple trees, beyond guitar music and frisbees.
At the phone store, Jane was welcomed by a man her own age whose hair had become a series of eroding islands; he wore a necklace with a cross and a gold watch.
“Looking to upgrade?” he asked Jane, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk.
“No,” Jane said, pulling Max’s shattered phone from her purse. Jane had broken the glass herself, by throwing the phone across the hospital room when it began to ring just as Max was taking his last breaths; she had enjoyed the arc it made in the air and the sound of glass breaking as it slipped across the hard, polished floor.
“Need a repair?” the man asked.
“My husband died,” Jane said, opening the death certificate, and placing it on the man’s desk, “This was his phone.”
“How old was your husband?” the man asked, reaching for his glasses. Jane watched him examine the death certificate and she could see how he would look dead: his head as heavy as a melon on his desk while his gold watch went on ticking.
After the death errand Jane went swimming. Jane swam at a YMCA built in 1950: a rectangular brick building with low ceilings and tile floors. She preferred the children’s pool to the adult lap lanes because it was warmer there and she could drift aimlessly. Jane had grown up on an island, off the coast of North Carolina, swimming in a lagoon behind her family cottage, and she found almost all water soothing and amniotic; she floated among rubber ducks, amid an opera of screaming toddlers. When she came inland for college, Jane had missed the constant breathing of the sea. The first vacation she and Max took together, when they were still undergraduates, was to Cape Cod where they rented a cheap hotel room with thin towels and identical framed photos of lighthouses above the beds; they swam in the shallows and ate fried cod sandwiches and let sand gather in their shoes. In a corner of the pool Jane saw a father teaching his son to swim and she tried not to remember Max teaching Sam to float, a decade ago, in the pool behind that old Truro hotel: the two of them on their backs, their dark faces upturned, as Max explained that water could be like a bed.
Next, Jane visited the library. By this time, three o’clock, she was hungry but ate nothing, preferring her own emptiness. Jane’s favorite room in the library was up a flight of marble stairs, in a rectangular wood-paneled room hung with sketches of the trees of Massachusetts: white pine, sugar maple, black cherry, sycamore, hemlock, eastern cottonwood, river birch. It was quieter on this upper floor, and Jane enjoyed sitting in an artist’s rendering of a forest, the pencil lines ghostly; she liked being surrounded by shelves of non-fiction books; she felt herself growing quiet among the facts. It was here that Jane had begun reading about famous widows: Jackie Kennedy who refused to remove the pink suit splattered with her husband’s brains, Queen Victoria who wore black for forty years and ordered her servants to continue bringing her late husband’s bowl of warm shaving water to his empty bedroom. Jane read about tribes who did not speak a recently deceased person’s name because this might trouble their spirit, which was still hovering nearby; she read about villages where the families of the dead changed their own names so that death would not come searching for them. Jane read about medicine men who believed that the spirits of sick people had begun to wander, medicine men who were sent into forests and rivers to capture the vagrant spirits of the dying so they could return them to their owners.
Jane had started visiting the library to research careers, to try and figure out how a housewife who was nearly fifty, and had a degree in fine art, could get a proper job; she had come with questions about suffocating medical bills and quick, cheap certificate programs, but found that dwelling on financial ruin left her breathless, so she wandered upstairs and rested in a big, soft chair, beside a window, among the drawings of trunks and leaves, and read about grief; she read about a place in Australia where, after a death, all the villagers placed a piece of furniture on their front lawn for a week as a way of showing that ordinary life had been interrupted. Near closing time, Jane descended to the lower level of the library where she stood in line to check out a book about Victorian mourning practices; she was behind a homeless man who had pennies instead of quarters and wanted help buying a cup of tea from a vending machine; in her old life, Jane had felt worried for the homeless but also separate from them. Now, she could see that each of them was exactly like her: they had simply fallen out of the ordinary world after an unexpected death, or lost job, after the voices in their heads, or the visions that formed themselves from shadows. She sometimes left sandwiches for a homeless man in a tweed jacket who spent the afternoons on a park bench a mile from her house, speaking to characters from literature. Sometimes Jane saw the man in the tweed jacket crawling across Main Street or searching the grass on the village green for four-leaf clovers; Jane waited until her book was stamped, then opened the heavy wooden doors and stepped outside where the snow had begun to fall heavily, each snowflake fat and wet.
At home Jane found Paper asleep on the couch, his nose tucked into his tail, and she could picture him dead: his flank refusing to rise. Then, he stood up and shook himself, selecting a stuffed owl from the floor while wagging the entire lower half of his body. Jane ate a handful of salted almonds over the sink, then a second handful. She watched her son Sam’s pet Betta fish, Telemachus, slip through a submerged kingdom: his burgundy tail flicking through the corridors of a lost castle, then through the rooms of a sunken ship, until he floated above a trunk full of fake treasure. Jane could remember Sam arranging this landscape five years before: placing each object on pebbles at the bottom of the tank while his new fish waited in a translucent cup of pet store water. She remembered how Sam had been reading The Odyssey in his English class at school, naming his fish after Odysseus’s son. The name haunted Jane who noted that Sam had a father until he was nineteen: the age of Telemachus when he began searching for Odysseus. She thought of Odysseus’s wife Penelope at home, weaving and unweaving a shroud for twenty years, her house filling with hungry suitors; she thought of Penelope growing old in a bed that was also an olive tree. Jane sprinkled food through a hole at the top of the aquarium and watched Telemachus ascend.
Jane’s schedule included a second walk for Paper, this time past Victorians that were lit up so Jane could see her neighbors doing the things families did: reading on the couch, practicing piano, a metronome ticking, playing Scrabble, boiling pasta or twirling it from bowls in the kitchen. She saw the snow falling under street lamps, where it whitened; it was twilight now and Jane watched objects lose their shadows, each passing stranger or car growing flat.
Jane and Paper moved through the same streets that had been full of motion in the morning, watching them wind down: the cafes and offices turning off their lights, doors shut and locked, people walking home with briefcases or bags of groceries, bent forward into the falling snow. Jane and Paper walked to the old gray farmhouse that had long ago emptied itself of family and Jane tried to imagine how it happened: the father dead one day in his fields, perhaps, while the chickens bobbed their tiny heads, and cows went on chewing, or the mother slipping down a flight of stairs with a teacup or a book in her hand. Maybe none of the children liked farming, or the land was divided between them, and they could not agree on whether to sell. The moon was nearly full, and Jane looked up into the exposed bedroom which was so white it might have been a bedroom in heaven: white curtains, white floorboards, a blanket of white over the bed. Paper shivered at the end of his leash; he resisted when Jane took him in her arms and crawled with him through an open window. She used her phone to light up the rooms which might have been rooms in Atlantis, for they seemed to drift at the bottom of the sea: an ironing board still open in the kitchen, a music book propped open on a mute piano in the parlor, dark lamps still plugged into walls. Jane could hear animals moving in the cupboards and walls. She wanted to climb up to that heavenly bedroom but worried that the staircase might give way, so she stood for a minute, pointing the light of her phone upward, and listening to the wind.
Ever since Max died Jane had felt numb. One night, a few weeks after his funeral, she walked home from the grocery store along a busy highway in a dark coat and felt the dangerous breath of passing cars push her forward. The day the death certificates arrived she climbed a fire escape in an ice storm without holding onto the railing. Sometimes she drove too fast on country back roads, her car skidding. There was a bridge across the Connecticut River where she and Max had once spun on black ice while they were still in college and sometimes, passing over that bridge, Jane looked down into the swirling river, remembering their orbit. A man in her grief group had said something that caught her attention the week before: I don’t want to kill myself but if a plane was falling out of the sky I would not run to get out of the way. Jane stood at the bottom of the dark stairs—until Paper pulled hard on his leash and her phone began to ring. The call was from Jane’s mother, who, all Jane’s life, called when it was inconvenient. She called when Jane was brushing her teeth, or having sex, when she was sitting on a toilet, or in the middle of a heated argument. Jane slipped the phone back into her pocket, and let it go on ringing as she climbed out the window, back into the night, where her breath bloomed.
Jane’s schedule required that she feed Paper and eat her own dinner: a leathery enchilada heated in the microwave. She sometimes ate on the couch, her plate propped against the coffee table, or on her bed while watching a show called Billy the Exterminator in which a man was called to attics and basements, to infestations of raccoons and bats, spiders and bees. On this night she ate on the couch, looking at the table where she used to sit with her family: Max passing the salad to Sam while he described a kind of butt gun he’d discovered in the bathrooms of Bombay or Sam showing Max how he had named his telephone internet FBI Surveillance. She pierced her enchilada fiercely with her fork and listened to the wind. Then, it was time for bed, where she slept long enough to dream that she lived in the abandoned farmhouse, in the room without a roof; she liked the way the driveway was unplowed and the mail was never delivered, liked opening the empty ice box and ironing nothing. Jane dreamed that she slept under snow, like Max, at the edge of a forest, in a bed that filled with birds.
is the author of seven books of poetry including: The Owl Question (May Swenson Award), Orpheus, Turning (Dogfish Poetry Prize), Telling the Bees (SFA University Press), Darwin’s Daughter (SFA University Press), and Lost Language (Press 53). She has been the recipient of awards from Yaddo, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Recent work has been read aloud on The Writer’s Almanac and included in American Life in Poetry. Two YA novels—Lost River, 1918 and My Sister Lives in the Sea—won the Global Fiction Prize and are forthcoming from Leapfrog Press.