contemporary short story
winner of the
2002 TenTen Award
coming through the window warmed the baby's pink-blonde head and
Madeleine's darker, blue-veined breast. The aroma of peaches
drifted to her from the bushel baskets in the kitchen. Rows of
glass jars, lids and screw tops waited on the big pine table. The
baby's sucking slowed. His eyelids fluttered and shut.
Between the reddening
sumacs along the dirt road, a man bobbed along, arms swinging,
body flickering against tasseled corn. He crossed the wooden cow
bridge and negotiated the maze of tractor tires, rusty harrows and
empty chicken cages that led to the farmhouse.
She laid the baby in his
playpen, slipped a sweater over her milk-stained T-shirt. Before
the mirror in the hall, she ran her fingers through her long black
hair, straightened her lopsided breasts. Cory had warned her about
the sorts who might come to the remote hill farm. Last year, deer
hunters up from Massachusetts raped a woman in the next county.
Bums with cigarettes burned down barns. Thieves claimed they were
The man, as he crossed the
creaking porch, looked like none of Cory's sorts. He wore a
backpack and khaki shorts. His floppy-brimmed hat was flowery, and
he wore it tilted back. Men here sheltered under long-billed caps.
At church, their foreheads were pale, waxy.
She started at the
confident rat-tat-tat. A shotgun stood in the hall closet. Despite
her protests that she'd never use it, Cory had once made her load
it and ready it to fire. This morning, when he told her that the
milk yield was down, that they'd need credit to buy winter feed,
his eyes were bloodshot and teary. He clutched the baby tightly.
He brought her the last of the peaches from the big cooler. She
watched his truck accelerate away, saw his brake lights flash red
at the cow bridge.
She opened the door. The
man stepped back clutching his floppy hat. His gray hair lay in
damp curls against his forehead. "Excuse me," he said.
"How far it is to the next store?"
At least he wasn't looking
for work, or money, or to use her telephone. Through the screen
door, she smelled a faint tang of soap. "Hard to say,"
she said. "We drive everywhere." Half hour to Cory's
church. An hour to the big grocery store.
The man shifted position.
His legs were tanned, muscular. He smiled. "I lived in Texas
once. Bit of a shock after London, where everyone walked or took
Was he English? Hadn't she
once told Cory Englishmen had odd habits?
'Australians'," he'd snapped back. She imagined Cory arguing
with his loan officer, furious about the interest rate, getting
drunk. Staying away until morning.
she offer the man water? She hesitated. There'd be no one around
until evening, when a hand came to milk the cows. "There's
a store on the way to town," she said. Cory ran a beer
tab there, but she'd never stopped, not even for gas. "About
five miles away."
The man's smile collapsed.
He plopped on his hat, said "Thank you, Madam." Crossing
the cow bridge, his arms swung lower.
She weighed peaches, matched
jars with lids and screw tops. She slid a juicy slice onto her
tongue. Surely he hadn't slept rough? Where had he walked from
She washed the sticky peach
juice from her hands, searched the telephone directory, found the
number of the store. A recording said, "Number
She diapered the baby and
strapped him in his car seat in Cory's old truck. They bumped
along the washboard surface of the dirt road in a cloud of dust.
She had planned, when she caught up, to hand the man food and
water through the window, but seeing his dogged trudge, she pulled
ahead and unlocked the passenger door.
He slid along the bench
seat and stowed his backpack between his big knees. His Adam's
apple bobbed as he swallowed the water. He closed his eyes and
inhaled the scent of peaches. He ate Cory's untouched breakfast
announced, reaching over the baby to shake her hand. "How did
you arrive in frosty New England?"
"In Puerto Rico, two
years ago, I met a man wandering on a beach, separated from his
"Puerto Rico," he
said softly, imitating her inflection. "Lucky man. Can't say
I've ever met anyone interesting on a beach."
"You've never been to
San Juan." She'd been an old maid schoolteacher. Her friends
had coaxed her to show the shy farmer a good time. Cory was
handsome, a burly blonde with a photograph of a farmhouse, big and
white against rolling fields and a dark forest. Later, she
discovered he'd left school at fourteen.
The store was boarded up,
but a wisp of lace curtain like a frill on a slip fluttered
from a window above. She had never noticed the apartment before.
It seemed a significant oversight.
"After walking twenty miles, I would have curled up and
died here, Madeleine."
laughed at despair so narrowly averted. He unfolded his map and
they spread it between them over the sleeping baby. Tiny squares
represented Cory's farm. Roads intersected vein-like, at acute
angles. Hugh traced his intended route with a well-manicured
finger. Their shoulders brushed. She smelled pine and road dust,
the odor of fresh perspiration. Cory, arriving home late, smelled
of beer and cigarettes. He slept heavily beside her. He no longer
woke her with caresses and she was happy to be left alone.
The truck bumped past
fields, pine forests and rocky granite outcrops. The baby stirred,
kicking and rooting. Outside the only motel in town, he hesitated.
"Why not come with me and feed him while I shower?" he
Giddily, she watched Hugh
boost the baby to his shoulder, expertly pat his diapered behind,
plant kisses on the creases of his baby neck. Breathlessly, she
imagined fruit flies hovering over fuzzy-haired peaches in her
warm kitchen, saw passionate swarms gathering over Cory's bushel
baskets, smelled the sweet-sour perfume of decay.
is an Irish-born writer of fiction and nonfiction.
with her husband and children in Maine. She is a past winner
of the Associated Writing Programs Intro Award and the Saskatchewan
Writers Guild's Long Grain of Truth contest for nonfiction.
Her work has been published in Willow Springs and Grain. Currently,
she is a member of Literary Refugee Camp, and online writers