Monday, May 10, 2010

Solomon's Puzzle: the excerpt that won the MWA short fiction prize

AT NINE-THIRTY Tom MacBride’s wife, Laurie, sat reading in bed with several, flouncy, white pillows behind her. All those pillows, as light and high as summer clouds, gave her the appearance of being well-insulated. Unsuspecting of Tom’s burden, she wiggled her toes under the flower-colored quilt folded at the end of the bed. Tom wondered if he should try to keep the news about Ben from her until after the baby was born. He sat on the edge of the bed near Laurie’s feet, holding the sole of his shoe in place until the glue he’d applied to it set.
“Why not buy a new pair, Tom?” Laurie said, without glancing up.
“I can make these do.”

Laurie looked young and vibrant in her advanced pregnancy. Her dark eyes were liquid and bright as they skimmed over the forms in her apple green folder, one finger on the line she read. Her hair, just as dark, was cut short and its loose curls shone in the dim, evening lamplight. She wore a scant, cotton nightgown, sleeveless and edged with lace; the flush across her high cheekbones spoke of her health and the time she undoubtedly spent in her garden after work. But Tom worried. The pregnancy had been unplanned and Laurie was not the type to quit work just because she was 42 and pregnant.

“Are you too warm?” Tom asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, glancing up from her reading.
“Don’t want your feet to swell,” he said, patting her smooth ankle.
“They’re fine,” she said, wiggling her toes as casually as if they were thrust into beach sand.

She seemed to sense no danger, though Tom had agonized, since his P.E. class, about the best way to tell Laurie. Their teenagers, Joe and Jeannie, had talked incessantly about the new boy at dinner. Tom knew, watching Ben and Joe fall into the rare, natural step of lasting friendship that Joe would bring Ben home before too long. Laurie must be prepared for the sight of him, but Tom thought that she looked too happy and sound to disturb. As he studied her, the baby rolled within her belly. She stretched and laughed, patting her stomach, her movements calling attention to her breasts, rounder and larger than ever—quite ready, Tom thought, to sustain the most vigorous of infant appetites.

“Just think,” she said, her hands smoothing over her belly, “we’re about to be parents again. I still can’t believe it.” She frowned a little and he knew she was reflecting on the odd tensions that ruled her life. They were busy people. They had a big family, their separate careers—Laurie owned a wildly successful quilting store—added to that his own unrelenting tendency to bring strays home, to whom Laurie had shown unfailing and generous acceptance. He knew there were times when she fell into bed too exhausted to give herself so much as the threadbare luxury of a good cry.

"I have doubts about hiring another employee.” She closed the folder. “This woman has experience; she won a prize at the Lancaster quilt show. But I have a feeling she’ll be short with the customers.”
“You need at least two more employees. If it doesn’t work, you can let her go.”
“You wouldn’t fire her. You’d try to fix her.”
Tom laughed. “Your standards for shop-keeping are worth upholding.”
“I actually think she made a face when she tried the shortbread.”
“There’s not a soul alive who would sneer at your shortbread.”
“If she starts this week, I’ll feel ready for the baby. Especially with the first day of school done without trauma.”
“Considering Joe’s prank, I’d hardly say without trauma.”
“Joe has always been hungry for your attention.”
“He got a feast of it today.”
“And the new boy. Isn’t it good of our children to reach out to a stranger?”
“What’s your impression of him, Tom? The new boy—what’s his name again?”
“Ben.” Tom took a deep breath. “He’s likable.”
“You must have noticed more.”
“Let’s see... he’s polite.” Tom studied the sole of his shoe, noting how very worth saving it was, barely worn.
“Father in the military?
“As many of our new kids are,” Tom said, glancing at her, awaiting a flicker of recognition.
“And so, his manners are impeccable, but it’s more than that, he seems to instinctively know how to get along with people. There’s a kind of observant look in his eyes.”
“And you think he’ll make the basketball team?”
“No doubt. I can tell by the way he walks. I’ve been wrong before, but this boy has this graceful coordination.”
“Like yourself.”

Tom grinned, embarrassed at her utter trust in him. “The way he walks tells me he’s a natural athlete,” he said, telling himself that he was trying to paint a vivid picture of Ben for her, but the imperative to tell the truth was like a gun thrust into his back making him uncomfortable with his equivocation. He swallowed hard.

“What does that mean specifically?”
“I haven’t seen him handle the ball yet. But he’s fast; he’s got incredible stamina. Today when he ran with the team, he came a little late, made up the missed laps and was still done first.”
“No way.”
Tom nodded. “Yeah. He’s six-foot-one, about 175 pounds, nice lean build.”
“Jeannie kept saying how handsome he is. She makes him sound like something out of a teenage girl’s imagination.”
“No, he’s quite real and quite strikingly handsome.”
"Really?” Laurie peered at Tom.
“Yes,” Tom said with a finality that he hoped would alert his wife.
“He’s that handsome?”
“Yes, he is.”
“As handsome as Joe?” she teased, disbelieving.
“Come on, Tom, you never say anyone is as handsome as Joe.”
“This boy is. Just as handsome. Just exactly as handsome.”
“It’s him, Laurie.”
“Him?” she squinched up her face.
He watched her eyes widen with realization, heard her breathe. Her hands went protectively to her middle. “Are you sure?”
“His name is Bennett Hunter.” Tom shook his head, still stunned, still disbelieving. “Ben is his nickname.”
“No,” Laurie said. “It can’t be. There must be a million Hunters in this country.”
“I spoke to him. I told him we were good friends with his mother.”
“And nothing. It’s him.”
“But what did he say when you told him we were old friends?”
“He looked pretty confused by then. I was so stunned to see him, I think I acted like a senile dolt.”
“You said good friends to him?”
“I may have said dear friends.”
“And he didn’t respond to that?”
“The entire gym class was listening to us.”
“Maybe it’s not him, then.” Laurie reached for his hand. He covered her hand with both of his
“No, it is him.” “I asked if his father’s name was Max Hunter.”
“So, then.”
“Listen, I’ve thought about this and it’s possible—no, it’s probable—that Max never mentioned us. It’s perfectly understandable.”
Laurie’s glance flashed anger. “Not to me.”
“Not everyone has your generous heart,” Tom said, humbly. Moving closer to her, Tom took her in his arms and was dismayed to find that she trembled. But Laurie said, “You should have brought him home to dinner.”
“Laurie. We can’t go barging into his life. We’ve got to show restraint.”
“You can be restrained,” she said, releasing his hand. “When I see him I’m going to grab him and never let him go.” She fought tears and lost. Her head dropped against Tom’s shoulder and she clutched at his arms with both her strong, neat hands.
“We must be invited into his life,” Tom whispered. “We haven’t any legal rights.”
“So you’ve said before.”
“I’m as sorry as you are that it’s true.”
“Your promise,” she said. “You have that.”
“That is between Max and me. We can’t use that to force Ben into a relationship with us.”
“You talk like we’re horrible ogres. Half the high school practically lives over here.”
Tom twirled one of her curls around his fingers. “Here, I have something for you.” He stretched across the bed and grabbed his briefcase. “I brought home as much of his academic record as I dared sneak out,” he said, giving her a large folder. “I read as much as I could squeeze in today.”

Laurie opened it to see Ben’s first grade picture. Her voice faltered, “Tom, that thoughtful expression.”
“When you meet him, you’ll see why we’ve got to be careful.”
“Is it thoughtful or is he worried?” Laurie said, considering the picture.
“He is thoughtful,” Tom said, “and that’s why I say what I do. By all indications, he’s pretty bright, but there’s a defensiveness, a fragility, that’s there too. You’ll have the same impression, that he should be treated with courtesy—intellectual respect, really—and gentleness.” He meant to assure her of their decision, but she was lost to him, devouring the information in the folder with the kind of rapt concentration peculiar to her. Tom fell silent, realizing he was speaking cautionary words to his own astonished heart.

BUSY in her kitchen with preparations for Tom’s birthday dinner, Laurie MacBride heard the roar of the old MG in the driveway and looked up. Through her kitchen window, she watched the car come into view and saw that Joe had brought a friend. Suspecting, hoping it was Ben, Laurie stepped closer, her heartbeat quickening. Ben’s bright blond head emerged from the car and her breath caught. “I should have known,” she reproached herself, “when I saw that hair color.”

As he walked with Joe to the garage, Laurie noted Ben’s height, his familiar, athletic stance, that natural agility that she had always so admired. Her heart swelled with an awed kind of pride, and she shook her head in amazement. Who would have believed that Joe and this child could have become fast friends?

She turned back to the fresh greens she was washing at the kitchen sink, thinking, Who would ever have believed that Donna Boswell would have married Max Hunter? It was just this skepticism that had made her doubt herself when she saw them together—intimately and bizarrely together—with Ben a bright, incongruous shadow shining from behind them on the night after Donna had won her lawsuit against Tom.

Laurie shook her head again, thinking how strange life was, as she plunged a colander full of fresh salad greens under the cold, running water. She shivered with delight at the cool water on her puffy fingers and would have liked to climb in the sink and plunge her whole puffed, pregnant self into that chilling water and shake the sense of heaviness that doubled with the remembrance of Donna’s lawsuit and all that came of it.

Back when their soup kitchen, Rising Sun, was thriving, Tom had encouraged Donna to marry the man she loved. The resulting pregnancy had weakened Donna’s body to the point that her doctor concluded she could bear no other children. Someone had to pay, so said the lawyers and doctors. Her husband had fled. Because Donna’s lawyers proved through the notes Donna took in counseling sessions that Tom had convinced her to marry, had “applied undue pressure” the court required Tom to pay for Donna’s disappointed spirit and damaged body.

The night he lost the lawsuit, Tom had been so broken he had gone to bed when the children had. Laurie left them sleeping and drove to Rising Sun to continue her preparations for the next day’s soup. Her first task was to wipe out the old ovens. She knelt between the open doors and sopped up bubbled residue with old rags. The fumes stung her nose and drew water to her burning eyes. She worked rapidly, holding her breath, turning to the side to breathe. In her haste she pushed some of the cleaning fluid across her knee and onto the floor. She hurried to the front room for more newspapers to absorb the caustic, dripping ooze of the oven cleaner.

Remembering that she was lightheaded and bleary-eyed from the fumes, Laurie had, for ten years, mistrusted her perception of what happened when she reached toward the stack of papers. She remembered seeing the stack and misjudging its distance from her hand and she stumbled. She was still reaching for the papers when some angry force hit the house with a sharp, cracking boom.

It was an expansive sound, bigger than the house, resounding immediately against her chest, brutal and terrifying. The impact jolted her to her knees. She scraped her palms and forearms on the floor. Tiny, blue lights popped at the fuse box in the corner—and then darkness. Plaster fell all round her in chunks. Dust swirled, illuminated by the headlights of the car that had broken the front wall and stuck into the room where her display window now stood.

Laurie remembered crawling toward the light, approaching the beams from the side, willing her eyes to focus. In the car a woman screamed, her voice, her face familiar. Laurie choked with recognition. An accusing thought soured her mind, But why, Donna? You won the lawsuit.

She hurried closer, anger propelling her to ask the question aloud, to demand an answer. Inches from the intruding car, she stopped, unable to move or scream, unable to breathe. It can’t be. It’s the fumes or I’ve hit my head.

Donna was in the car with the wrong man.

Her swimming eyes peered into Max Hunter’s face and when she saw the bright, golden head of a child emerge above the back seat, his blue eyes terrified in the dimming light, she tried to speak to him, tried to comfort him. She reached out both hands for him, but the car scraped away in desperate recoil and her vision went black.

When she revived, hospitalized with a concussion, her lungs scalded from the cleaning fumes, Laurie distrusted what she’d seen in the swirling, chaotic darkness of the crash. Knowing the sharpness of her bitterness, she did not tell the police that the same woman who had just won the lawsuit against her husband had rammed a titanic car into the same building where the offending soup kitchen thrived. She told herself that it had been a bizarre, if symbolic, hallucination. Laurie suspected her anger had put Donna’s face in that car beside her husband’s sole and relentless enemy—Max Hunter—of all people.

Nor did she mention her suspicion to Tom, having discredited it as “sour grapes.” At first, Tom was frantic trying to care for everyone as he rebuilt Rising Sun. His damaged back revolted at the work. After the surgery, the doctors doubted he would walk again.

Laurie told herself then and for years afterwards that it was the shock and the darkness that made the woman in the car look like Donna and the man next to her look like Max. In loyal and heartfelt defense of her husband, her troubled mind had coupled together the two people who had hurt Tom. They were symbols to her of Tom’s pain, of friendship gone bad.

It followed that it was merely her imagination, influenced by the memories the lawsuit raised, that created a child so like what she imagined Ben would be to pop up from behind the back seat. But he had looked so real...and the terror she’d seen in his eyes haunted her on still, hot nights. Those times, unable to sleep, she rose from bed and pondered the shape and color of his eyes while she moved her needle through the layers of her quilt, rocking up and down, up and down to the rhythm of her whispered and solitary prayers.

And soLaurie buried her suspicions of Donna and Max. That is, until Joe brought Ben to her store’s quilt-filled porch two days ago. That night she told Tom, she’d made a terrible mistake. Ben’s description of his mother, the words of hers he quoted, revealed the impossible truth that Max and Donna were indeed married. It shook Tom profoundly to think that Max Hunter had been behind Donna’s vicious lawsuit; Laurie woke at midnight to find him doing pull-ups on the bar he’d put in his closet. The only thought that comforted them was that this revelation brought some explanation for Donna’s behavior. They both had suspected from the beginning that she, who had once been so dear to them, was incapable of devising that bitter lawsuit alone.

Tom insisted that they hope Max had changed. After all, Tom reasoned, they had met Ben, loved him on sight, recognized his keen intelligence and his manners, noted that his accomplishments were the kind seen in carefully raised children. Tom insisted that they believe Max had risen to the challenge of raising Ben. They must give Max another chance, Tom said, for Ben’s sake.

But Laurie felt thrust back in time, anxious to begin tasks left undone. Now she knew that there had been a small golden-haired boy in the backseat of the car that night. Laurie had seen Ben that terrible day in the darkness and dusty confusion of the crumbling soup kitchen and Laurie could once again feel the powerful instinct that had made her reach out her arms toward him, despite the law and the cold-hearted rulings of the court, despite convention, despite the gulf that separated them.

Ben was here in her backyard. Her fingers waited with the restlessness of a craftsman kept from her art. What did he know? What had he been told? What did he remember? Laurie intended to find out; he would not slip from her arms this time.