Another Supper
Susan Scutti

From The Visit: Virginia
Veronica Golos

Will You Marry Me, Nelson?
Maureen Holm

Another Supper
Susan Scutti

The man was older and had never found a wife. Years of accumulated pain had short-circuited his instincts so that the first time he met the woman, he doubted her. Each time he spoke to her, he felt himself responding, but he wouldn't allow himself to please her. He was too afraid to be kind in a way that could possibly win her.

The woman's brown eyes were wide and soft for the man; she told a friend she thought he was similar to her in soul ways. She watched herself with the man, and, later, padding about her apartment with her cell phone stuffed in the pocket of her robe, blamed herself for the fact that the electric current shut down between them. She, too, had lived in urban solitude for years and now she acted eccentrically, wary of any attention coming her way. Even after months of knowing him, she could barely speak, so she just stared into the horizon of his eyes as if waiting for some sun to rise and warm her.

A stranger approached her one night while she was out after work, flattered and cajoled her with drinks from the bar. To destroy her frustrated desire, the woman became involved with him. "He's . . . nice," she told her friends; behind her back, they said the new man wasn't really right for her and would never last. Dutifully, though, she went out with the new man, she listened to his conversation, his concerns. She worked hard to feel, to feel. And, the new man must have taken away a small piece of the woman's pain. When the original man called her, her voice sounded new; now, she had the tone of someone who is desired.

And now the original man knew he had to please her if he wanted to win her and take from her what she could give.

Shortly after this, he visited her office and, seeing him unexpectedly, the woman's glance fell from his eyes to her desk and landed on a photo of the new man. He saw her painful smile, pitying him as she looked up at him to speak. In response to this, feelings of inadequacy and cruelty rose within him, compelling the man to flirt instead with the woman's assistant. In front of her, he asked the assistant to have a drink with him after work. The assistant looked back and forth between the man and woman she'd introduced to one another months before, then quickly obliged.

Silently, the woman watched the man and her assistant humiliate her; she lifted the photo of the new man from her desk, carefully looked at the image beneath the glass. Clearing her throat, she turned away.

The man saw the woman smile and turn her face. As she turned, strands of her straight, long hair fell across her cheek, dividing her face into a pattern of shapes. Each shape was similar, though different in color. Her blushing complexion showed more pink in places than in others. As he watched her turn her face, he listened to the sound of her clearing her throat and he felt himself breathing. He felt the weight of his eyelids and the dryness of his mouth as he watched the strands of her straight, long hair fall across her cheek, dividing her face into a pattern of shapes, which were similar, though different in color. As the man watched the woman, he felt the give of soft carpet beneath the soles of his handsome shoes and he felt the heat of blood in his face. His breath moved in and out of his lungs and he watched strands of hair fall across the woman's face. He heard the small sound of her clearing her throat as a dull pain began to spread outward from his solar plexus; the woman smiled and turned and hair fell across her cheek.

That night, the wounded man and the assistant got drunk and things went farther than he had intended.

Afterwards, he felt remorse in a way he never had before. The assistant was not only married but also a mother and the man had always thought of her as "good." Can a good woman be so easily led astray? He felt dazed by it all: his guilt, her guilt, the enormous amount of ugliness inside both men and women.

After his night drinking with the assistant, the man avoided people; his fear of himself had grown so large. The assistant called him but he didn't answer the phone; her messages signaled his answering machine like airplanes waiting to land. Carefully, he erased her voice without listening to a single one.

During this same period, he remembered the woman's pained, sweet eyes and he longed to see her face. Finally, after weeks passed and the memory of the night with the assistant faded, he visited her office. He lingered at her desk, staring down at her hands which were as pale as crumbled pieces of Greek statuary. Seeing her again after he had tried to hurt her (yet ended up wounding only himself), he knew that he could give to her now, kind at last.

As she looked up into his eyes, the man felt that the woman sensed something different about him; he believed she understood that all that was hard inside of him had softened. And seeing this, he felt how she wanted him yet pushed him away, her inner nature roughened by fear. Staring into one another's gaze, the faces of man and woman were like mirror images: Both had a deep line of pain centered between the eyes.

Her mouth fell slack when she heard the man say, "Would you like to go get supper somewhere together?" Yet, before she answered, the married assistant walked past the man and, unconsciously, he responded to her. The woman, the woman who was as beautiful as a broken Greek statue, stiffened and when her eyes returned to the man's, she wordlessly shook her head "No."

From The Visit: Virginia
by Veronica Golos

I don't remember what day of the week it was when I woke up to find a strange face in my face, a cold knife at my throat, a knee on my bed, such clutter and confusion, all my pretty plants on the window sill, broken and torn. I don't remember what I was wearing that night, the night that smelled of azaleas and lilacs, the white fish I'd cooked in my sky blue kitchen. Such quiet I never knew in New York.

I do remember the sheets were freshly out of the sun, it was my first marriage and I was in Norfolk, Virginia, on Azalea Street. Everything in Norfolk centered around azaleas. They even had an Azalea Festival, where those who usually rode in cars would line the streets to watch anything azalea come floating past on floats of make-believe azaleas.

I know it must have been late at night, since John, my husband, was still at work. We both worked at Weyerhaeuser Paneling Plant, him on the night shift and me on the day. My shift was a 7 a.m.-to-3 p.m.-get-up-at-5 a.m.-meat-sandwich kind of work; a long drive in the morning; the dew dampening the green fields to dark gray; the wood slat houses only just creaking out of sleep.

I'd drive through to Chesapeake, Virginia, the small highway that came up from North Carolina where many of the black workers lived, up from a place even more rural, with more red dirt, more dark birds lining telephone wires stretching to the horizon.

How did I end up in Norfolk, Virginia, married to this Kentucky boy, tall and big, with an accent it took me five years to understand completely? How did I marry him to begin with, with all the signs begging to be noticed? But me, I wasn't into reading signs in those days; too busy running a course seemingly laid out sweet as gingerbread towards something--the something I can't remember.

I do remember my husband's rifle lying clear as day on the dresser. But in the face of that new face, the face I'd never seen before in my life, somehow I couldn't put together how this could be; how he could be in my bedroom, at three in the morning, bending over me. Was something wrong at work? Is John okay? I asked him. Shut up, you bitch! he told me. And there was just a little blood from the pressure of his knife at my throat, I mean, just a smudge on the throat, and, you know, I still have a tiny--and I mean tiny--scar, so it's all right; it's nothing big at all, just a tiny, tiny scar.

Will You Marry Me, Nelson?
Maureen Holm

There's a way to split logs and every guy over sixteen wants to believe he can do it. Most will tell you they can, even if the closest they've come is splitting a toothpick after it's gotten soggy, more like stripped it really. Suck it wet enough and it separates into splinters, no thanks to anybody's manliness.

Then there's a way to stack logs after splitting. If the logs are in half-rounds or in quarter-face, there's no making them fit with the just the right amount of air space in between so they'll dry after a long rain, if you start out wrong on the first layer. Mess up bad enough, and the whole shebang could come tumbling off and rolling out of control, embarrassing you in front of your neighbors. Then they'd know that, try as you might, you didn't know the trick to laying that first row.

Fact is, there are only about ten guys in any given State of these United with trees who actually know how. They know because they don't much care about people, or logs either, though logs are more important in the remote forests and lake areas where those guys have their cabins and canoes. It's just that they've got sense enough to let a log be a log when they address the essential issues in their lives, if only because they had to when fate dealt them the blow of losing whoever it was caused them to become hermits in the first place. Logs have a mystery most people don't appreciate, splitting, stacking, burning them.

Considering it that way, Nelson decided to be more generous toward his neighbor's woodpile, all kind of haphazard today, a day in mid-May, a month when rain trades off with sun two, three times in the space of an hour -- if you live on a boat on the river. No doubt the worst was falling with folks who set stock by a woodpile they didn't understand but claimed to. Family's like that, if you're born into one that's never had a hermit of its own who told them all to go to hell and why on the Fourth of July, chawing tobacco, smelling gamey and cursing, when he'd have rather stayed in bed that Sunday with the latest slut his family was trying to break him of.

His left eye began to twitch, a tic he'd often observed in his since-deceased father's right. You just never know what genes you're going to inherit, even on a delayed basis. Would his son, if he ever had one, have the twitch in his left or his right? If some peculiarities, like twins, skipped generations, maybe others just rotated location. He could cope with his father's legacy as long as the right eye didn't kick in too. Shelley wanted kids, but for now was just making hints.

She was one to admire a well-stacked woodpile, would want the priest to utter something profound at her wedding, never questioned but that someone other than herself knew how to position the first layer of logs and so needed only to approve or disapprove of the result. He certainly didn't know how; he'd have to act on sheer intuition when she insisted he must. He didn't know anyone who did and no one who wasn't pretending to. They were all as adamant and unforgiving about it as they were ignorant. He knew too that he couldn't bear the priestly profundity; he just didn't know quite why. Knowing what he knew and not knowing what he didn't must be reason enough for not going through with it.

The logs didn't complain, the woodpile didn't twitch, endured whatever stacking had been done with it. Not happy maybe, but who could tell? Logs being logs, fragmentary trees . . . Or did they resent the felling, splitting, burning? Slowly, the quarter-faces developed frowns, smiles, grimaces; the half-rounds broadened into buttocks and breasts. His eye stopped twitching. He got a hard-on, realized that the first layer should be full-rounds. He relaxed, enjoying the localized tension in his body and the simple solution to the woodpile riddle.

Eyes reposing on his neighbor's timber, he searched his other senses, smell and sound, for the unadmitted fantasy that sustained his swollen state, to select from among the stacked assortment of disparate feminine features a matched set of breasts and behind to merge into a personality specific to his desire.

"I want to see your naked body," he had said. "I want to see your naked body before . . . "

"Before what?" came her reply, muffled by the covers of the make-shift bed.

"Before . . . me. I say it like that, like Hamlet maybe, archaic: 'I want to see your naked body before me'."

She did not respond, did not move.

"Why won't you show me your naked body, Simone?"

After a long pause, she spoke, soft, but resolute. "Because you'll be angry at yourself, angry at me, and you'll blame me."

He sat for a minute and let the words float on their backs across the surface water of his will. It was true: the current flowed both ways.

"Maybe I'm just playing games," he said. They were silent. His chair creaked. He paged in the book he'd been reading to her and resumed the author's lush despair.

"Will you marry me, Nelson, so I can stay? Will you marry me?"

Maybe he didn't hear it; maybe her huddled form didn't say it; maybe it didn't have to be said.

He reopened his eyes, fallen closed against the image of the stacked logs, squinted tight against her departure, sweet, sodden fragrance filling his head like memory unbidden from wood that would be wood, whatever his technique in stacking it, whether he thanked the long-suffering trees for his epiphany now, later, never.