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PAUL BYALL

 

 

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Paul Byall

Paul Byall’s new novel, Ridgeland, was runner-up for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom First Novel Award. He is the recipient of the 2011 Porter Fleming Short Story Award, the 2010 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and the 2009 New South Fiction Award. His first published story, written while a student at the University of California, received mention as a distinguished story in The Best American Short Stories anthology. Paul grew up in Ohio and received degrees from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the University of California. He currently resides in Savannah, Georgia.

 

 

 

 

Dear Miss Jacobs

Winner: 2nd Prize in the 2017 Séan Ó Faoláin Competition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Miss Jacobs

 

 

It’s been such a long time, I wonder if you’d know me now. At the moment I’m crouched against the wall of a cabin in New Mexico, squatting in the warm swaddle of a wood stove. I’ve got Jessie’s Navajo blanket heaped over my shoulders and my old Rand McNally atlas pressed against my knees for a writing board. While outside the wind howls through the trees and eddies of snow swirl over the frigid white. The doe Jesse shot hangs frozen by its hind legs from the big pine, skinned and gutted. Its steaming innards have vanished beneath the snow—along with the carpet of pine needles, innumerable rocks, whole shrubs, and the trail. There’ll be no leaving now until the thaw.

Perhaps you don’t remember me: Charlotte Forester, alias Slinky. I roomed with a girl named Millie, who was always walking into things. Remember her? In gym class she looked like a calico doll, her thighs sporting blooms of grotesque colors precisely at the level of our classroom desks and purplish splotches on her arms from collisions with various doorjambs. As a joke, one Christmas we made her a padded dress from old mattress covers. That was the Christmas you sent Millie and me a postcard from Greece. A motley array of fishing boats clustered on a beach, nets dripping from their sides. This is the scene I sketched this morning, you wrote. Tomorrow I will paint it. The light here is marvelous.

I wonder if Millie remembers your postcard. We flipped a coin for it. I kept it right up until last year when we moved to the mountains, and I had to leave my trunk behind. There were other things from my years at Saint Catherine’s in that old trunk, photos and letters, my yearbook, my diploma rolled into a scroll and tied with a thin, blue ribbon. There wasn’t room enough for the trunk in the Jeep, so I left it at the foot of the bed in the place we had in Texas.

Do you remember me? I was the one on the Christian Heart Scholarship. The skinny one –no boobs to speak of – who sat by the window in senior English. We were so grateful for that scholarship, Gran and I. The public schools in our district were mostly known for teenage mothers and 911 calls.

You have no idea how frightened I was those first few weeks. But everyone was nice to me. And the uniforms, those plaid skirts and burgundy blazers, were the great equalizers.

We so admired you, Miss Jacobs. You were the picture we all had of ourselves in our sweetest dreams. When you held class outside in the spring, we fanned out around you on the grass like the petals of a flower. A French impressionist would have painted you with a wide skirt and a parasol. You read Dylan Thomas to us, in a voice that glistened like rippling water and washed into our clean, curved, ivory ears. When on occasion a warm breeze would dislodge a strand of your hair and twist it across your cheek, my imagination cast you as the heroine of a Victorian romance.

I went to State. I don’t know if you knew that. Of course I couldn’t afford Smith or Bennington or any of those schools that most of the girls went to. But State was fine. Have you heard of Charles Wentworth? I had him for Writing II. He was widely published even then, though not yet famous. It took all the courage I could muster to approach him after class, but he smiled as if he knew me, as if we were old friends. By this time I’d filled out. You wouldn’t have recognized me. After praying for so many years for them to emerge – rise like birthday balloons from my bony chest – here they came, slowly but grandly.

Charles had a habit of smacking his lips when he was pleased. Wonderful, he said, smack, smack, when I agreed to meet him for a drink. It was a habit I thought charming at the time. I think I would find it annoying now.

It’s almost comical to look back on. I had no idea what I was doing. I was enraptured, just as in your poetry class.

There was a boy, Filipe, who always waited for me after class. Which required some patience because Charles usually kept me for a while, making arrangements for later.

Filipe was a scruffy kid with dark circles under his eyes who always looked half-stunned, as if he’d just awoken from a prolonged sleep and wasn’t quite sure where he was. He intrigued me. But I’ve always had a weakness for strays. Do you remember the kitten I hid in my room? Millie worried about it, afraid it would get us expelled. But she helped scavenge food for it like everyone else, once breaking into the cafeteria late at night for milk. You didn’t know that, did you?

We learned something about kittens that year: They’re such fleeting things. By spring he was eighteen inches long, head to butt, excluding tail. We put him out on the ledge when the headmistress stopped by, and when we looked for him later, he was in the pear tree twenty feet from the building – talk about a leap of faith – eyeing us distrustfully from a branch abloom with beautiful, white blossoms. We ran down, taking the stairs two at a time, but by the time we got to the quad, he was gone.

That’s kind of what happened with Filipe. Once he got his feet under him, he was gone.

Filipe published a poem in a local review and decided to quit school to devote himself to writing. I quit too and followed him to San Francisco. He said college was for dilettantes, not true poets. We lived in the Mission District, where I got a job in a bookstore. Filipe wrote during the day and smoked dope at night. His poems appeared regularly in the Mission Clarion, and he became a kind of local celebrity. The Chronicle mentioned him in a feature on bay area artists, endowing him with just enough luster to attract the girls and evoke the envy of the artsy types who hung out in the area coffee shops. The audacity of the girls amazed me. They would approach us in shops and restaurants, eyes all aflirt, loved your poem, Filipe. Some of them actually came to the apartment, on the pretense of asking his opinion on something they had written or wanting to borrow a book. He developed a furtive nature, took to disappearing without warning and coming home at odd hours. I would have left him, but Gran had just died, and I had nowhere else to go. As it turned out, he left me.

Somehow I ended up in Texas—well, not ended up, since I’ve left there too. I don’t even remember what brought me to Texas. There were other places, as well: Chicago, Denver, Oklahoma City. In Chicago I wrote verses for greeting cards. That’s as close as I ever got to a life of poetry. But Texas was where I met Jesse. I would say he was rough around the edges, but in truth his roughness was through and through. Although not at all like the toothpick-chomping rednecks I’d encountered. He wore boots, but work boots, not the hobnailed cowboy kind. No big, silver belt buckles or broad-brimmed hats either. He claims to be part Chiricahua, but he doesn’t look it. He has wiry gray hair and steel blue eyes that never blink.

We lived in a rented cement block bungalow on a gravel street at the edge of town. Dust devils blew over the yards. That was where I kept that trunk full of books and memorabilia. I never knew much about Jesse, about siblings or ex-wives or things like that. I don’t know if he purposely hid his past from or if his perpetual silence was just for effect, to add to his mystique. I think he knew that this secretive, unknowable side of him appealed to me. He was my mystery man.

It didn’t surprise me when he came home one day and announced that he was moving to the mountains. That was just the way he put it: he was moving to the mountains. I could come or not, but he was going.

I sometimes think my artistic sensibility has betrayed me. What else can account for the parade of outsiders I’ve invited to plunder my life? I know I carried it to an extreme with Jesse. He had a way of looking at you – those unblinking eyes – that attracted and frightened you at the same time. There was always that dark edge of risk, delicious danger, hovering around him. Once, while digging up an old stump, he severed the head of a rattlesnake that had slithered out of the sagebrush without even shifting his feet. He just reached over and stabbed the shovel in the ground as calmly as planting a surveyor’s stake. I watched from a window.

 

This is my first winter here, and I didn’t know about the snow. I suppose I should have, but it’s New Mexico for god’s sake. Jesse brought the plants in last month and put them under the heat lamps in the corner, lamps that supposedly simulate the sun. He said they’re better inside, anyway. They can’t be seen from the air.

    

The Rand McNally atlas pressed against my knees is the one Gran gave me for my twelfth birthday. It’s one of the few books I was able to take with me. Sometimes I look up the places you visited, or just talked about, places you wanted to go. Like Kenya. Remember how you so wanted to visit Kenya and Tanzania. When you talked about Kilimanjaro and the surrounding savannas, I would picture you in jungle khakis with one of those pith helmets on your blonde head, a swath of muslin cascading down the back of your neck, cameras and binoculars strapped across your chest.

From time to time, I put the atlas aside, to get up and stretch, never venturing far from the sphere of warmth provided by the wood stove. I spread my arms and open the Navajo blanket, like a mallard stretching its wings, and arch my back, rolling my head around on my shoulders. I rub my hands together in front of the stove, fingers flared out like starfish and feel the heat penetrate my palms. The stove is a black, potbellied Buddha, a living thing that devours wood and exhales smoke up a fat pipe that tunnels through the wall, cemented to the logs by a gray masonry collar. The plants, lined against the opposite wall like soldiers, look content enough under their heat lamps, their stalks straight, their broad leaves brazenly spry. The lamps are adjustable, to accommodate their growth. Outside the sky is marble gray, the pines shiver. The dead doe twists in the wind, venison enough to last the winter.

 

Are you still sending postcards of exotic locales to admiring pupils? Pictures of gothic towers and ancient aqueducts? Or have you taken to email, like the rest of the world?

We were the last of the cyberless, just a few short years from the digital explosion, when everything still went by hand. Or straight from the mouth. We could shoot a rumor through the dorm as swiftly as any email.

I don’t have a computer here either. Nor telephone nor TV. Can you believe it? Jesse wanted to get off the grid, as he put it. There is a radio, however, an old transistor I keep hidden in my closet. Sometimes – when Jesse’s out checking his traps, or scouting the forest for signs of interlopers (snowshoe tracks, cigarette butts, campfire residue) – I drag it out and listen to NPR, This American Life or All Things Considered.

He blustered in a few minutes ago, stomping snow from his boots, his Winchester slung over his shoulder, claiming to have found a chewing gum wrapper in the east hollow. He said the snow’s no doubt already covered their tracks. I said it could have blown in from a hundred miles away, what with the wind, but he’s convinced someone’s been snooping around. He pulled down the trapdoor and went up into the attic to keep vigil. I hear him from time to time shuffling back and forth from the east window to the west.

 

Can you believe it’s been nearly twenty-five years? In a few years you’ll be looking at retirement. Do you still keep group photos of all your previous classes on your classroom wall? There were only four of them when we were there, ’83 through ’86—after all, you were not much older than we were. You could cover that wall floor to ceiling with all the classes you’ve taught since. Presidents have come and gone, governments toppled, countries renamed and maps redrawn, young girls married, borne children, and divorced. The only child I bore was a dead one, about the size of a mango.

 

When you spoke in chapel on Earth Day, Saint Catherine watched over you from her alcove above the altar. She is probably still there, our plaster saint, still smiling down beatifically on young girls dressed in pleated skirts and burgundy blazers. Legions of them. The girls come and go, but the statue stays, steadfast, implacable. Human life is more fickle. I am sure you have aged some, your smile faded, but I hope you are well, that no debilitating ailment has drilled its way into your willowy limbs.

Have you traveled the world yet, Miss Jacobs, with your portable easel and wooden case of paints tucked under your arm? When I went to your apartment for help on my senior thesis, I spotted a watercolor hanging over the fireplace. It was of a church high on a hill with three large domes. You said it was the Sacré-Coeur. You’d painted it two years earlier on a trip to Paris, in pink and white, with a pastel blue sky in the background, and I could visualize your fingers guiding the brush over the paper, making delicate wet swathes of pink and blue.

As I left your apartment that day, I passed that young man in the lobby, the one we saw you with from time to time. Of course he didn’t know me from a fence post, but he acknowledged my existence with a sort of half smile. Strange how you remember things like that.

Whatever became of him anyway? The last time I saw him was at our production of The Glass Menagerie. I played Jim, if you’ll remember, the ostensible suitor, a role I always thought Miss Gibbons gave me because I could be dressed to look more like a man than most of the other girls. They penciled a mustache on my upper lip, and I had to spend a lot of time standing around in the background in a dark suit, nodding sagely. Which was okay because I got to study the audience’s reactions to the lines. You sat in the front row with Mr. what’s-his-name, and I remember he kept inclining his head toward you to whisper in your ear. I don’t suppose you remember what he whispered. I was always curious about that.

We took bets on how long he would last. Well, not bets exactly, not for money. After all we were Saint Catherine girls. One girl, I don’t remember who, thought you would marry him. But I didn’t. Neither did Millie.

We watched from our window as he walked you to your door in the house across the quad, the brick colonial with apartments for faculty. It was winter, and you both wore long overcoats.  You embraced briefly, each of you shooting a puff of white breath over the shoulder of the other, and then you broke away and ran into the house, as he stood staring after you. He waited until the door closed behind you; then he turned up his collar and trudged away. There was something about the way he turned up his collar, like someone closing a suitcase for a long trip, that I understand clearly now but did not understand then.

 

There’s the sound again, his boots on the planks above. He’s moved to the west window. From there he can see the entire west slope. He’s got his Winchester and swears he’ll shoot anyone sneaking through the trees. I don’t think there’s anyone out there, just the empty wind whistling through the pines.

    

Have you heard from any of the other girls? From Millie? I visited her once at Tufts. She had outgrown her clumsiness. She introduced me around her dorm, ushering me through the corridors with the grace of a dancer. She had a boyfriend who doted on her, a tall, rangy kid from MIT with a great bush of curly hair. But she married some other fellow, I think, a medical student at Cornell or Columbia.

When we graduated you asked each of us to fill a page of your scrapbook. Mine is the one with the eagle and the dove drawn over a photo of the Sacré-Coeur. I had been sitting cross-legged on the bed, my chin in my hands, trying to think of something to put in your book, when that song came on the radio, the one with the line and the eagle flies with the dove. I cut the photo from an old copy of Travel and Leisure I sneaked out of the library, and I spent hours –  littering the floor of my room with failed, crumpled drawings – getting those birds just right, making them appear to truly fly. If you didn’t guess, you are the eagle, and I am the dove.

Do you remember me now?

 

 

 

©2017 Paul Byall

 

 

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