Stories 4
Spring 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Lying to You  by Najeeb Asmin-Wolfe

 

 

      by  J. Hertenstein



  Is it possible to cross the line between writing fiction and living it?

 



 

Dreams are not truth—yet we live and die by them.

—a rough translation from the Arabic

 

There are two sorts of truth: trivialities, where the opposite is obviously impossible, and deep truths, which are characterized by their opposite also being a deep truth.

                                                                                                Niels Bohr

 

 

At first I did it just to see. Not really a prank, more of a lark. What could it hurt? Certainly not my reputation already swimming in a sea of uncertainty. I mean who would really know. And, anyway, does it matter?

Call it frustration, the hard knocks of life bowling me over, utter rejection. Desperation. Or maybe I did want to transform myself, be someone other than the miserable person I was. The liar I turned out to be. After a year of submitting stories to various journals I was ready to call it quits. I sat in front of my monitor and rubbed my hands vigorously over my face, maybe hoping to pull my eyes out. What was I thinking—that I could make it as a writer? I hadn’t exactly gone out on a limb i.e. quit my job or taken out an additional loan—Thank God! I was already in hock, debt up to my ears—though I did cut back on my hours at work in order to write every morning. What was I thinking! I stupidly told my friends that I was doing it, the BIG PUSH, come hell or high water (Aren’t these clichés?). I’d either make it or not. Not.

When I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing I sat at the bar with my friends and celebrated, but the whole time I kept wondering: shouldn’t this mean something. We were taught to follow our gut instinct, follow that needling rhyme, that winding word trail to wherever it led. Work it, finesse it, and ALWAYS seek the truth. Members of my critique group could spot a dishonest sentence a mile away (again a cliché). Sentimentality, melodrama—oh my god—that was like rotting road kill smelling up the place. We would be crucified for using overwrought phrases, clichés, and—WTF!—adverbs. I came to anticipate the red pen, the big circles around whole parts, so I wrote more or less for the group and my instructor, who, by the way, published under two pen names. Experimental=good. Unconventional=more. Better yet shock. A girl in our group, who eventually dropped out, called it extreme writing. My last semester I don’t think I wrote one word of narrative. I got through and got the degree. Then what?

My little sister said I should write a series, like the Baby Sitter Club because Ann Martin was like the best and had a lot of books and kids couldn’t read just one. She’s so sweet. The rest of my family all had this uncomfortable pinched look on their faces, as if they didn’t want to acknowledge that there was an elephant in the room (wait—is this also a cliché?). ME. The person with the advanced degree in a dying profession where books will soon become a thing of the past because no one is supposed to read anymore. And, is it not much more likely to be struck by lightning than to be published? I was actually okay with this (not the lightning part, but being unpublished), until a guy from my critique group got a two-book contract with St. Martin’s Press and then I realized I better get my butt in gear (clichéd—a red pen no-no, but I love them; I consider clichés linking devices, short cuts, on par with contractions and icons and other immediate linguistic symbols—a higher cognitive form of communication.). Fear took over—or was it shame—I didn’t want to be a loser. So now the thing I loved doing, playing with language, using words to evoke beauty, provoke new ideas, challenge a reader to sit up and take notice—was turned into a race, and I didn’t want to be last to the finish line. Besides, I was way too far into debt. I had to make it work. I polished up a few of my old stories and made a submission grid and gave myself a deadline: twelve months to get one of these suckers published.

They came back quicker than food poisoning, it was like they boomerang.

One, right, after, another.

Chronologically this is the point where I sat mauling my face and bemoaning my future, or lack of a future as a writer. It was a game predisposed to defeating the players. The odds were stacked against anyone who tried. I’ve already used the lightning analogy and I’m sure as a cliché is born you’ve heard the one about winning the lottery and needles in haystacks. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to distinguish me from the pack. I was one of a number of nameless slushes in a pile of slush. If only there was a way to gain name recognition, to somehow rise above, like scum clinging to the rim of a pot of boiled cabbage. No no. I like the cliché of cream, buoyant and beautiful separating and floating on top of the inferior, common, run of the mill. I decided to attend the AWP Conference.

I wish I could say I made the most of this opportunity, but once again I ended up at the bar in the midst of friends faux celebrating, like we were the luckiest sons of bitches in the world. Ha. In the back of my inebriated mind was the thought: My life is an adverb. An adverbial afterthought. Drink drives me to existentialism rather than frat house revelry. I left the party early—I also left my nametag on the table. The next day when asked for ID to get into a panel I reverted to a hangover. Huh?

A guy in the lobby overhearing what was going on offered me his. I hesitated. We didn’t look anything alike. But, the writer world tends to be fluid (not a pun on how much we drink), usually going with the flow. I accepted Najeeb’s name badge.

After the conference I went home and cast a critical eye over my manuscripts. The writing was good, fresh, and, if I can say so, oftentimes hilarious. It was HONEST. What more could I give? I was all set to rub my eyes out when I noticed Najeeb’s name badge on my jean jacket slung across the back of a chair.

We’re almost caught up with the necessary beginning exposition, the back story; we’re to the major plot twist.

I reinvented myself. Call it a writing exercise, a prompt. I sent out one of my most promising pieces with Najeeb’s name on it, though I made up a last name. It was bullshit. But, I rationalized, it’s all bullshit. What is writing, if not bullshit. Just one big fabricated story after another. Sven Birkett at The Agni got right back, This is terrific!

Now this sets up a whole list of questions, theoretical.

My heart raced after reading the e-mail. I felt like I’d fallen off a ledge, the proverbial ledge. Najeeb’s story was accepted. Here was good news, and bad news. I ended up rubbing my face.

We’ve all read in the industry rags, or just turn on Oprah, about one disgraced author after another confronted with the fact that a. they’re not who they claim to be or b. their story is not their own but a conflation, a derivative, or a bold-face appropriation of someone else’s story. I lay down on the floor of my apartment and wished what I was feeling was merely a case of food poisoning. How could I tell Sven Birkett the truth! I got up and poured myself a drink, or two, and after mellowing out told myself that no one cares, and tried to believe it as much as I could.

I understood the blurring of genres, between fiction and non-fiction. Creative non-fiction—but even this label is confusing. Who gets to decide what is real and not real or an amalgam of the two. As artists we are encouraged to break the rules, color outside the lines, take risks, stretch ourselves. Applying this rationale, I was merely exercising my right as an artist, taking poetic license. Still, this didn’t explain my guilty conscience. That somehow I was cheating, an unreliable narrator playing a role.

I traced the history of story back to caveman days. What was it those primeval creatures were trying to tell themselves when they used handprints, comic book graphics of bears, spears, and stick figures. They weren’t looking for the truth, no, they were casting hope up on those walls, in the form of charcoalized dung (see bullshit); they were telling themselves stories. Bastardizations of valor, heroics, impossible feats. What did they chat about ’round the campfire? Myths. They were trying to make sense of the world as they knew it. No one sat around with a big red marker or gave them demerits for embellishing. No one said, You’re making this whole thing up—that’s what they wanted. Something totally made up. So I resorted to my basest nature and convinced myself I was once more giving people what they wanted.

I passed another story off as Najeeb, and it, too, was accepted. Each time it got easier.

I sent off a flurry of stories. All placed.

Soon I needed more material. This time I sat down at the keyboard and imagined myself as Najeeb. The original Najeeb was long gone. A phantom of the lobby. I had spent all of three minutes on that fateful day fumbling with the badge and shaking his hand. Thanks man. That was the extent of our exchange, and now look. I’m him! Yet, I wasn’t exactly sure who I was. So I took an afternoon getting to know my alter ego. I applied lessons learned in grad school. I wrote myself a letter. I sketched myself. I listed what was in my backpack, pocketbook, medicine cabinet, on my nightstand, hiding in my closet. What were my motivations, what drove me as a character? I began to play around with language, have some fun. If I made a mistake or wrote something stupid I blamed it on Najeeb. Com’on pull yourself together, dude. You’re better than this! I composed through the mask of Najeeb, and it was freeing.

I pulled something completely out of my ass and sent it off to The New Yorker. Guess what—

A second-tier publication contacted me. They requested an interview. I decided to play Salinger and deferred, demurred.

The worst part was I couldn’t brag to any of my friends. I couldn’t blog about getting published. My family continued to feel sorry for me and my friends stopped calling. My little sister gave up giving me advice. Even as I quit my job to write full-time, I told those I still had contact with that I got laid off, that I was getting SSI—benefits for a mental disability—to cover for the fact that I was pulling down some great money.

Dangling out there, out of reach was Provincetown. I really really wanted to get a residency. Yaddo, the playground of the gods. Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Robert Lowell. Geniuses, or at least Jonathan Franzen. The MacDowell Colony, where they leave little lunch baskets outside your door, give you space to create with no strings attached. The gift of time, something on the level of a snow day.  It was the epitome of hubris to apply—I mean the real me had never gotten published. When I saw that it was okay to submit under one’s pen name I went for it.

 

I drove up the long driveway to the administration building. The scenery was Frostian, yellow woods, roads diverging. I literally felt literary. I introduced myself that night at dinner as Najeeb. No one batted an eye. In fact there were quite a few exotic ethnic-sounding names and many more hyphenated. A woman next to me with long gray hair and lavender eyes leaned close and said with the languor of a society lady, Interesting. I stared down at my plate. I was in over my head, knee deep in bullshit. I contemplated escaping, getting back into my car and driving until I found a trailer park or somewhere a little less intimidating.

Instead I slipped into the library on the second floor. I browsed the shelves, again feeling as if I were hiding in the shadow of those much, much greater than myself. Most of the books—my finger caressing the embossed spines—were donated by past residents, famous authors. Settled into a dim corner in a deep high-back chair I stumbled upon (actually I almost sat on her) a girl, olive-skinned with wavy hair that practically overwhelmed her face. She had the most expressive eyes I’ve ever encountered. They were dark, probing, and hauntingly beautiful. I guessed she was Lebanese. Colony protocol frowned on excessive chattiness. Residents have gotten kicked out for overstepping certain invisible boundaries. Outside of dinnertime unwanted conversation could be interpreted as intrusive, an invasion of a person’s mental space. So imagine my surprise when after a few awkward seconds she said, Hi, I’m Melissa Wolfe.

We’d meet intermittently. I would offer a shy wave as we passed each other on the way out to our individual studios. Sometimes after dinner we’d play ping-pong or a game we made up called Chase the Fuckin’ Ball. She was working on a novel and seemed to exhibit the same lack of confidence and self-depreciation as me. The last half of my last week we ended up staying at each other’s studio—not getting a lot of writing done. Her studio had a small window fitted with stain glass that caught glimpses of wavering afternoon light from between the trees. Lying together on a couch after making love, she held her hand up to the prismed light and said, Look, the rings of Saturn. I burrowed my head into her thick black/brown hair.

Later, back in my room, packing to leave, I sat down tormented. I aspired to be Najeeb. Fuck, I whispered to the bare walls. I was living a lie. When was all this going to stop? I didn’t want it to end. I leapt down the steps and ran through the woods, nearly knocking down several residents and pissing them off. What the hell! I burst into her studio with the multi-faceted light and fell to my knees in front of her. I’m a phony, I cried. A fake.

Najeeb, she said softly, her hand on top of my head as if patting a dog or cat. I know.

Something like a choke caught in my throat. I exhaled a huge glob of remorse and relief. She continued petting me. Don’t worry, I am too.

I stared at her. So, who was she pretending to be?

We all are. We all think we’re these big time—I don’t know—artists, when in actuality we’re all just on a path, a journey.

I wanted to scream, NO, you don’t understand. I am the real deal. Instead I laid my head in her lap. God, it felt good.

 

At night a streetlight across the cul-de-sac where we live shines in through the window next to our bed. I lay awake gazing at my wife. What does it matter that I’m not Najeeb? Who’s to say that that guy I met in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel three years ago was Najeeb? Maybe he made it up. Maybe his name is John Smith, a name so common it would drive anybody to adopt a nom de plume. Maybe we are all just a house of mirrors, varying reflections of the same person.

Anyway, I’ve come to embody Najeeb. For my next writing project I am planning to take on the novel. I’m writing it in the first person; my protagonist is a married woman named Melissa.

 

 

Bio: J. Hertenstein is a writer living in anonymity in Chicago with two novel manuscripts in the drawer.  Two of her personal literary heroes are Tillie Olsen and Dorothy Day because they represent women who refuse to separate their social conscience from their art. She's written books that have been widely reviewed. One of her  non-fiction projects (Orphan Girl) received a two-page center page spread in the Chicago Tribune Sunday book section. A couple of summers ago she was able to attend the Wesleyan Writers Conference on the Amanda Davis Scholarship. She has also been awarded a waitstaff scholarship at Breadloaf.  Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in: Fiction Fix, Cantaraville, Rosebud, Word Riot, Flashquake, The Write Room, Frostwriting, Hunger Mountain, and Tonopah Review. She is also involved in leading a creative writing workshop for a group of women at the shelter.    More at:   http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/ 

 

 

 

 


May

      by Margaret Karmazin
 

           
Bill Nowak’s widow Joanne stood to the left of the casket, dressed in a  neat navy  suit and appearing competent though slightly stunned.  She had reason to look stunned since her husband of thirty-five years had died suddenly in his sleep three days before.         

 True, he’d had stents put in and been diabetic the last four years, but there’d been no warning, no indications of further decline. There were other signs, however, of a more ethereal nature, the sort of thing she’d briefly mentioned to her sister-in-law, Charlene, but to no one else.  Most people turned away at such revelations. The viewing was four to seven, but the way things were going, Joanne doubted it would be over by then.  It took, and she’d timed it since she saw one of her old school friends come in the door, a good fifty minutes for the line to move through the velvet rope lane to the casket.  And they were still packing in the door.  Her husband had been well known in the community.

She was exhausted.  The thought of enduring this, then the funeral the next day seemed beyond her.  This whole thing was barbaric, even sadistic.  Why did they put widows through this?  After losing the person closest to them in the world, why were they expected to endure dispiriting and exhausting proceedings while being made to stand and serve as a social host?  Beyond absurd.

“Are you holding up?” whispered Charlene, leaning close.  Her breath smelled like cinnamon. 

On Charlene’s other side were Joanne’s two nieces and a nephew and his wife, then Bill’s other sister Cissy, filling out the receiving line.  Bill’s parents were both dead and Joanne’s mother too feeble to stand.  A neighbor had taken her home after she viewed the body before the funeral home opened to the public.

“I feel like dying myself,” said Joanne. 

“Did you take anything?”

“Half a Valium,” said Joanne.

Bill had been acting fire chief for the city, the official chief currently in the hospital recovering from a bypass.  He had served in this capacity once before, only not as long as this last time. 

The police chief stood in front of Joanne, his face drooping, holding her hand between his own.  “It’ll be a sorry world without him,” he said, jowls shaking.  “This city’ll see the difference right away.”

Joanne had never liked the police chief and neither had Bill.  They, and probably hundreds of other people, knew he was occasionally crooked.  For that matter, pretty much anyone they knew in any sort of high position was a bit tinged.  It hit her - had Bill had his fingers into dirty pots himself?  She would never know.

“I know,” she told the chief, “Thank you.”  Appearing relieved to move on, he blustered into Charlene’s face and on down the line.  Mechanically, Joanne received hugs, forlorn looks, arm pats and hand squeezes.  She wondered if this was how the Queen of England felt when made to greet endless crowds while maintaining her demeanor of chilly grace. Not that Joanne was expected to exhibit chilliness, but dignified sorrow; hours and hours of holding one’s face just so, murmuring what people expected to hear, never breaking down when what she really felt like doing was alternately screaming, sobbing and sleeping.  Possibly with some drinking thrown in, vodka or scotch.  It would be later when all the damn hoopla died down that she’d be permitted to feel and oh, she dreaded that too. Those nights stretching before her after all the friends had returned to their own lives.

“Did you tell your mother about the autopsy?” Charlene whispered during a brief lull while a couple Bill had known from his bowling league took their time kneeling by the casket.

“Yes,” said Joanne, her voice wobbly.

“She objected?” ventured Charlene.

“Objected?  She went ballistic. Well, as ballistic as a sick old woman can get.  I don’t like to get her worked up, but frankly, it’s none of her business.”

Charlene looked exhausted herself.  She was a full time operating room nurse while taking care of her own husband who was currently enduring chemo treatments.  She had rings under her yes and looked like she hadn’t slept in days.  “What did she object to?” she asked.

“Fred, her current boyfriend at the complex, was there and said, ‘Are you nuts?  If they find Bill’s death wasn’t natural, then it’s either suicide or murder!  Did you think about that?  And if they suspect murder, who do you imagine will be the main suspect?’”

“Holy shit,” said Charlene, a bit too loudly. “That never crossed my mind.”

“Yeah, well, I guess Fred’s right. And he also said, ‘If they label it suicide, you won’t get your life insurance.’”  She paused. “Maybe it was a dumb thing to want the autopsy, but I have to know if he did it himself.  He was such a firm Catholic, I can’t imagine him doing that, but...I have to know, Char.”

“Even if you might be giving up five hundred thousand dollars of insurance?”

“Yes.”

Charlene paused.  “Even if they were to check out the other angle?”

“I’m willing to take the chance,” Joanne said, but her heart flipped over. “It’s too late now anyway, the deed is done.” 

She had an active imagination and suddenly pictured herself in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.  Saw herself in an interrogation room, two or three cops hammering at her. And of course those cops would be, some of them, Bill’s old friends because the firemen and cops hung out together. But she put all that out of her mind as the kneeling couple had risen and were coming her way.

“So, so sorry,” they murmured, “can’t believe it, just can’t believe it.  Just last week, we talked to him at Denny’s and he seemed fine.” They shook their heads.

“I feel like I’m in a dream,” said Charlene.

When they had gone on and the next group was saying their goodbyes to Bill, Joanne whispered to Charlene,  “That weird stuff that happened.  That’s why I wanted the autopsy.”

“Tell me again.”

“Saturday night when he passed, he went up to bed earlier than me, like usual.  But he stopped on the stairs and looked at me for what seemed a long time.  It was odd when it happened, one of those things you don’t remark on till you think about it later.  Then I swear he said, ‘Good-bye’ instead of ‘Good night.’  But like I said, I only remembered this later.”

“Do you think your mind just-”

“Made it up?  No, I don’t.  Then a couple weeks ago, we were having an argument and he said, ‘Don’t say anything you’ll regret.’ He never said anything like that before.”

“That is pretty weird,” said Charlene.

“And yesterday a teller at our bank told me that just this week, he cashed in some CDs.  I don’t know where he put the money yet. Didn’t think to ask for a reading of what’s in the checking or other accounts, my mind was so screwed up.”

Charlene didn’t comment on this one.

Joanne went on.  “And he was really nice to me lately, the past few weeks, other than that one silly argument.  For instance, I bought a new dress and purse and usually he’d get all sarcastic about my spending, but this time he just said, ‘That’s gonna look really good on you, Sweets.’  He never talked to me like that.”

“How did he talk to you?” asked Charlene.

“Not too nice a lot of the time.”  She lowered her eyes.  “Pretty much indifferently.”

“So, you’re thinking there was something....”

“I’m thinking he knew he was going to die.  That either he knew this because he was having premonitions or because he ended it himself.”

Charlene’s face, for a split second, twisted in pain, but she took Joanne’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

Joanne felt like leaning on her sister-in-law, the woman seemed so strong.  Of course she knew some of Charlene’s vulnerabilities; knew that she and her brother had not been close. Bill had not talked about it, only to say once that Charlene had had it too easy compared to himself and he felt resentful. 

It was the typical male idea of females getting off easy, Joanne surmised, since in Bill’s experience, they weren’t expected to do as much physical labor or bear as much responsibility as he had been expected to carry.  It was a choice some males made, to turn a blind eye to the particular sufferings women endured, but Joanne had never openly disagreed with Bill.  He’d been headstrong, but she’d not minded that.  It made him, in her eyes, masculine, strong.

“I can’t believe Cissy is insisting we all go out after,” said Charlene between mourners in the line.  “If you don’t have the energy, Joanne, don’t go.”

“I don’t know,” Joanne said.  “I’m not ready yet to go home alone, just not ready.”

“Is someone going to be there?”

“My girlfriend, Renée. She lives next door.”

“I’d offer to stay but I don’t want to leave Frank alone all night,” said Charlene.

Eventually, the viewing was over.  Joanne's feet were numb.  She looked at her husband in his coffin.  They had slathered on the make-up too thick; his skin had a gray cast when normally he was florid.  He didn’t look as heavy somehow as he actually was, having gained fifty more pounds over the last two years. 

Charlene came up behind her. “Do you want to be alone?”

“No,” said Joanne. “I was thinking that he looks slimmer lying there than he was.”

“I noticed that too,” said Charlene.

“You know, he was eating like there was no tomorrow.  I kept remarking on it but he told me to stop nagging.”

“I noticed it too,” said Charlene.  “He was cramming it in at the last two family gatherings. Jay’s wedding, remember that?”

“Yes.  He kept going back for more helpings. It was like an alcoholic going at it or something.”

“He was so stressed out,” said Charlene.

Joanne looked at her sharply.  Had that been an accusation? 

“I mean,” continued Charlene, “what with the acting fire chief thing and all his other commitments.  He pushed himself to the limit.”

Joanne nodded.  The old hurt welled up in her.  She knew what everyone thought, or at least those “in the know.”  That Bill had kept a mistress for years and had a child by the woman. Joanne knew without a doubt that people had been whispering behind her back for most of her married life.

Through all her exhaustion, she had kept one eye on the crowd for May. Kathleen May Roster, Bill’s girlfriend before herself, and as people romantically liked to believe, his one true love.  When she and Bill had walked down the aisle thirty five years before, she had actually heard someone whisper, “I wonder why it’s not Kathleen.” 

The world had called the girl Kathleen, but Bill had preferred May. As far as Joanne knew, no one else had ever called her that.

Rumors abounded ever since; people imagined that Joanne wasn’t aware of them, but she knew more than anyone.  She was also aware that fireman and cops were notorious for cheating and covered for each other.  It was a private club with wives the outsiders.  But throughout her marriage, she had never had reason to suspect Bill of being unfaithful with anyone other than May.  As if that were reason to relax, but there were extenuating circumstances. 

“And then there’s tomorrow,” Charlene said.  She too looked exhausted and had a half hour drive home after Cissy’s obligatory get together at DeTorio’s. 

“Why don’t you and I just go get a drink?” said Joanne. “That little bar down the street from my (she almost said ‘our’) house.  Who cares if Cissy gets pissed?  I don’t, do you?”

Charlene, torn as usual trying to please everyone, hesitated then succumbed to the more pleasing suggestion.  She nodded and the two women slipped out a side door to the parking lot.
 
They slid into a booth at Rory’s Tavern. The neighborhood bar was populated by the usual skinny or potbellied alcoholics, pounding their chests as they hacked, explaining, “It’s just the damn cigarettes!”

Joanne ordered a draft beer and Charlene a gin & tonic. “This is all I get,” she said, referring to her drive home after. 

“You’re my favorite sister-in-law,” said Joanne, “and there’s something I want you to know.”

Charlene, with her nurse’s reserve did not immediately respond.


“I see your mind working, Char, and I know what you’re thinking.”

“How could you know what I’m thinking?”

The tired looking waitress set down their orders and withdrew.

Joanne took a deep breath.  “I want to talk about May,” she said.

Charlene actually choked on her drink.

“I know, I’m supposed to be either ignorant about her or in denial.”

“Well...” muttered Charlene.  Her face flushed.

“Bill loved her, you remember that.”  When Charlene made no reply, Joanne went on.  “I guess they were soul mates, if there is such a thing.  She was totally not like me.  You know how I am - in control, everything in its place, only I could never keep Bill in his.  May was, is, sort of in the moment, up for fun, though in a soft sort of way.  She was fine with Bill being the boss.  She was his adoring butterfly, if that makes any sense.”

Charlene sipped her drink, eyes wide.

“I didn’t stand a chance back then.  But oh how I wanted him.  Since tenth grade in high school, I’d wanted him, but he never gave me a look.  Didn’t know I existed until he was twenty-three, when he came to my school to speak to the students.  I was in charge of the assembly and scheduled a few sessions with him beforehand to discuss what topics I wanted the fire company to cover.  He hardly remembered me from high school.  But I made him look at me and invited him to my apartment to discuss final arrangements - totally unnecessary, of course.  I, still a virgin then, seduced him.  He was young and full of wild oats, even if he was in love with May.”

Charlene was silent.

“You all probably wondered what in heaven’s name made him give up May and marry me.  Well, I used two tricks to get him.  One, I spread a rumor that May was cheating on him with some guy from Morrisville, someone May actually knew.  I knew exactly where to plant those seeds to get that story going and right back to him.  And two, I got pregnant.  I really was, for two months, though I had him think it was four.  Long enough with the other thing to turn his head to me.”

“I-I never knew you were pregnant,” said Charlene. 

“No.  You know Bill, not one to share his business with people. For a while there, he was furious with May, though I heard she denied everything. As well, she might since she didn’t really do anything wrong. And, he being young and easily influenced by sex, I used a lot of that to turn his head. You did notice how quick that wedding came about, didn’t you?  Didn’t you wonder?”

Charlene looked bewildered.  “I guess I was a typical teenager - wrapped up in myself.  At the time, I was still in high school and having my own problems.  Bill never told me anything anyway.  He wasn’t always nice to me.”

“He was pretty uptight and set in his ways. I felt bad that he didn’t appreciate you more, but I do think he loved you underneath it all. “

“I’d like to think so,” said Charlene, “but I wouldn’t bet my 401K on it.”

“I think you’re wrong.  As for his treatment of me, I don’t begrudge him his frequent annoyance with me.  After all, I lost that baby, the one you never knew was in the making, and never again got pregnant.  We went to doctors, but in those days, they didn’t do all the stuff they do today.  And never imagine that I forgot that I’d taken Bill from the women he loved.”

“You mean still loved?” asked Charlene carefully.

“You’re afraid to tread here,” said Joanne. “You’ve heard the stories for years.  Remember when you tried to tell me in your roundabout way?”

Charlene flushed.

“I do know this,” said Joanne. “He loved me in his way.  Probably a very different way than how he’d felt towards May, but it was there nonetheless.  He told me so.  That’s how I know for certain.  He told me.”

There was a long pause before her sister-in-law spoke.  “The truth is, Joanne, I didn’t know my brother at all.  There’s nothing I can say because he chose to be a stranger to me.”

Joanne nodded and the two women finished their drinks in exhausted, but companionable silence.
           
Twelve days after Bill was buried, his old friend Sergeant Wilker delivered to Joanne the results of the autopsy.  Bill had died of a myocardial infarction.  Nothing mysterious, no taking of his own life.  She heaved a sigh of relief for several reasons, religious, legal and financial.  And now, feeling free of worry, though hardly of grief, she dressed in her most becoming outfit, appraised herself dispassionately in the mirror and climbed into her car.

The house was easy to get to; she’d kept her eye on it for years, all those times Bill’s truck was parked discreetly down the block or in the alley behind.  She took a deep breath, then got out of her car. By the time she reached the door, her hands were shaking.

May opened it, her face registering confusion and some fear, then stood aside to let Joanne enter.  

“I brought you something,” said Joanne.

“Would you like some tea?” asked May.

“I wouldn’t mind,” said Joanne.
 
She sat down to wait and studied the other woman as she walked to her kitchen.  A small woman, unlike herself, plump though still oddly youthful looking.  When May returned with a tray holding the mugs, Joanne asked about the boy.  Though now, of course he was twenty-eight, a man.

“Will’s doing fine.  He’s working for that aircraft company over in Reston.  Has a real good job, good future there. Got married last year to a girl from Doylestown. She’s very nice.”

Joanne hesitated, then opened her purse and took out a long, thick envelope.  “This is for you.”

May took the envelope and silently opened it.  She looked at Joanne, her eyes astonished and filling with tears. “I can’t take this. What are you thinking?”

“Take it. It’s half of the life insurance. It’s in cash so you don’t have to pay taxes on it.  Deposit it in small amounts. I have plenty. He would have liked you to have it.  I don’t imagine you have much for your old age.”

The woman did not deny it.

“Well, you can relax now,” said Joanne.  She took a perfunctory last sip of her tea, then stood up.

“Good luck,” she said.

As she walked to her car, some of her burden was lifted.

Bio:Margaret Karmazin’s credits include over one hundred stories published  in literary and national magazines,  including Rosebud, Chrysalis  Reader, North Atlantic Review, Potomac Review, Confrontation, Mobius,  Absent Willow Review, Pennsylvania Review and Wild Violet.  Her   stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River   Review and Words of Wisdom were nominated for Pushcart awards and   Piper’s Ash, Ltd. published a chapbook of her sci-fi, COSMIC WOMEN.    Her story, "The Manly Thing," was nominated for the 2010 Million  Writers Award. She helped write the introduction for and has a story   included in STILL GOING STRONG, stories in TEN TWISTED TALES, MOTA 9,  ZERO GRAVITY, COVER OF DARKNESS and CIRCLING URANUS and a novel, REPLACING FIONA, published by etreasurespublishing.com. Ms. Karmazin   lives in Northeast Pennsylvania with her husband and two cats.  She is  also an artist.