"An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one."
~Charles Horton Cooley

Welcome to the Mortar & Pestle Literary Magazine! We are an undergraduate organization established in Fall 2002 at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. This magazine features the work of undergraduate writers and photographers from universities within the D.C. area. Because of this, Mortar is only available online.

The Mortar & Pestle editors can be contacted at gwmortar@gmail.com

Monday, February 1, 2010

Footsteps In Snow, by Christina Katopodis

Footsteps In Snow
Christina Katopodis

Mark Murphy sat next to Cheryl in a booth at the back of O’Connor’s. She readjusted her blue headband. At the Gold Club he had paid her to come with him for the night, but he couldn’t take her home because of his son. Mark doubted his fourteen-year-old, Ian, would even recognize her but it still wasn’t right. They had driven around the town for an hour listening to “Savin’ Me” by Nickelback on the radio. Finally bringing her here, he figured no one would care at the half-empty pub that they sat over two cold pints of Bud Light in the back, taking up as little room as possible.

Mark was a casual guy. What made Mark feel younger was spontaneity. Looking down, he squeezed Cheryl’s soft thigh. “You know,” Mark said, “I used to watch you swinging your hips side to side in my kitchen when you were cooking something over the stove for Ian. You looked so hot in those cutoffs. I didn’t expect to see you grinding your pussy on other guys’ laps at the club. You’ve been there for months and you never even looked at me until tonight. Why is that?”

Cheryl moved to straddle him and he pushed her back. “Not now,” he said.

She twirled the American flag pin on his weathered white breast pocket with a manicured fingernail. “It’s because I don’t like you anymore,” she said. She flicked her nails against the pin and turned away from him, crossing her arms and pouting.

Mark didn’t know what to say to that. He had never spent time with a stripper outside a strip club before, let alone Cheryl, the girl who used to nanny for Ian. He had seen her around town. They got a couple beers sometimes to shoot the shit and make it in a motel or in a field somewhere. That all stopped when Ian walked in on them once and Mark finally realized he could never date a woman when he had a kid like Ian around. Those few times with Cheryl didn’t mean much, anyway. He used to pretend that she was Sophie, but her breasts didn’t feel the same and she didn’t smell like cinnamon and it pissed him off to hell. Sometimes, rather than being a widower, he wished that he were dead. Cheryl had been the neighborhood babysitter. When Sophie passed Mark hired her to become a live-in nanny. Ian was six. She only stayed a few years. There were a few others who came and went. Now it was just Ian and him.

Mark left Ian alone because that was the only way a boy could learn how to take care of himself. The kid could never sign up for his country—so he had to be good for something else—but nothing could compare with hard military skills and discipline. Mark gave Ian money so he could get food and he didn’t bother him about what kind or anything. The kid did okay. Mark had mentioned the idea of him getting a job. The kid came back the next day with fifty dollars from washing cars. It was hard not to underestimate the skinny boy sometimes. He just wasn’t like Mark at all: pale, asthmatic, and studious, doing God-knows-what in the woods. Mark was stout, athletic and watched the news to know what was going on in the world. The one time Mark had taken him out to show him what a real man’s life was like; the kid hated it.

To make amends, Cheryl slid her finger down Mark’s chest. “I’ll tell you whatever you want. You know that, Babe.”

“If I pay you,” Mark said. He only went to the club for some fun, nothing permanent. Mostly, he jacked off in his car in the parking lot before driving home.

Cheryl giggled and her breasts bounced above her low pink scoop-neck. Leaning back to dig fingers into his jean pocket for a five, he dropped it on her lap and watched her slip it under her waistband below a tan hip striped with stretch marks. He felt a tightening in his crotch and readjusted himself. Cheryl smiled, showing off a perfect set of straight yellowed teeth. She rested her arm over his inner thigh, sipping her beer.

Mark scratched the grey stubble on his chin, grinning at Cheryl but looking at the wall. He stared at a small painting above the table, a colonial home in the snow. He had seen it before. The picture had always reminded Mark of the ideal Bedford life with a woman who baked pumpkin pie and looked after things. Since high school, that had been Sophie and his dream.

“I have to make a phone call,” he said. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Fine,” she said.

Mark picked up the receiver of the payphone outside the Men’s room and dialed home but Ian didn’t pick up. There was only one phone in the house and it rang loud enough to hear everywhere. Ian must have turned in. Across from Mark on the wall was a Guinness clock. A quarter to midnight seemed late enough. Mark put the phone in the receiver and stepped into the living room to find Cheryl teasing another man at the bar from her position in the booth with her knees spread wide apart, swaying.

“I think it’s time we got going,” Mark said.

“Okay,” she said.

Mark wished he didn’t care if she came or not, but he would have felt like an idiot going home alone now.

It was dinnertime and Ian was making grilled cheese with loads of butter and Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Mark came in and held up a dusty Scrabble box. He blew away the dust and a cloud surrounded them in the kitchen.

“Gross,” Ian said, turning to shield the stove.

“Well, I found it.” Mark grinned.

“Okay, lunch is ready.” Ian sighed. What he really wanted was Sal’s pizza.

“Great, let’s set her up.” Mark pushed aside the clutter on the kitchen table by the window and unpacked the box. “Think you could clean this up sometime tonight?”

“Yeah, sure.” Facing away from Mark, Ian rolled his eyes and flipped the sandwiches onto plastic plates. He set them down on the table and began eating before his dad sat down. “It’s really starting to stay light out later. About time,” Ian said. The sun was slowly setting across the hills. The stained glass sailboats in the window panes changed to orange and pink. Ian imagined that his mother had loved sailing off the coast of Cape Cod, or maybe just watching boats, especially during sunsets. He knew she had gotten them at a store in Nantucket, or at least that’s what his father had said.

“Yeah, not bad for March,” Mark said, mouthful of bread.

Ian went first, spelling out T-A-C on the star and Mark spelled C-L-I-P on “C”. Retaliating, Ian spelled S-W-I-N-G on the “I” and held the lead for most of the game. While Mark contemplated his letters, Ian leaned back in his chair and stretched. His eyes fixed on the porcelain pumpkin candle on the kitchen counter. That had been his mother’s too; in fact, nothing had really changed at all as he grew up. He assumed the flowery wallpaper in the living room had been her choice, and the comfy corduroy furniture. The place had always been a mess, for as long as Ian could remember, with empty bottles and scattered papers, movies, and books everywhere despite his father’s barking to clean it all. Ian hardly noticed: it was the small details like the wallpaper that made him feel nostalgic for some happier moment in his life when there was no responsibility. He would never let his father catch him sniffing the pumpkin candle when he felt dejected in the empty house. Knowing her things were everywhere made him feel emptier. The white duck magnets on the refrigerator, the dried flowers in a wooden bowl on the mantel in the living room, and the pictures on the walls of Ian as a baby in her arms were suffocating. Worse than the dust mites and mold, if he paid enough attention to the house and her things, her presence could aggravate his breathing to the point of exhaustion and tears. Gone were the days of wearing her rain boots or touching the clothes in her closet. In the summer before Ian turned twelve he cleared his room out of everything that reminded him of her and threw a box of her away, something he regretted doing that fall.

Mark knocked on the table. “Hey, kiddo, it’s your turn.”

Ian shook his head. “Sorry, what word did you put down?”

“Bar, because that’s where I’m going,” Mark said, “I wanted to meet up with the boys and have a couple drinks. You going to be okay here by yourself?”

“Yeah, go ahead. It’s fine.” Ian knew their time together on good terms would be short-lived.

“Don’t forget to finish splitting that wood. You said you would do it later and now it’s later,” Mark said, standing up and putting his coat on.

“I know, already.”

“Don’t like that tone, mister.”

“Whatever, just go.”

“Be careful, kiddo,” Mark said, ruffling Ian’s hair.

Ian groaned loudly as Mark shut the front door. After he cleared the table and bundled up in his jacket and boots, he picked up the gloves, axe, and lantern on the front porch. A black Honda Pilot drove by him on the dirt road, kicking up pebbles and snow from the frozen New Hampshire ground. A red reflection of the car’s taillights in the twilight moved down the snow banks and faded in the distance. Ian’s heavy breath and footsteps produced the only sounds deadened by the snow-covered woods.

An hour later, Ian covered the stacked wood with a tarp to keep it dry and carried an armful to the house, but that was where his plan ended. He was supposed to finish twice as much as he had. He couldn’t will his arms to move anymore. Dropping the logs and axe on the porch, he breathed out and took two puffs of sour air from his inhaler. His father would have a shit-fit when he got home and saw the job half-done, Ian thought, stacking logs to dry. He could never do anything right, although he tried, and yet again it wouldn’t be good enough.

Last spring Ian was clearing out the back yard when his father had called him over to the woodpile. The ground was soft and wilted leaves mixed with wet grass in the clearing. Ian’s father had brought down the axe gracefully through the center of log after log. The uneven weight of the axe had felt awkward in Ian’s hands and he nearly cut his toes off on the first swing and on his second only chipped the edge of a log. Grumbling, his father took the axe from him and tried to demonstrate. When the axe was back in Ian’s hands it felt as lopsided as before and lodged the head, sticking instead of splitting the wood. His father grabbed the axe out of his hands and walked away. The next day Ian fled before his father woke up from the couch in a drunken stupor, escaping into a labyrinth of birches, exploring the limits of their property. When he came back for lunch his father dragged him to the woodpile and they tried again, every day for a month until Ian could be trusted to do it on his own.

Now, hungry again, Ian went inside and made macaroni and cheese from a box in their small kitchen. He washed the dishes, threw away some old newspapers on the table and a moldy bag of chips, and cleared out the empty beer cans from the nooks and crannies of the bathroom and living room. It wasn’t the wounded soldiers his father was always talking about that had made his father’s room smell rank, but the dead mouse Ian found in some clothes by the radiator. He opened the windows to air out the room, hoping a cleaner house would calm his father when he came home and realized the logs weren’t done.

Closing himself in his room, Ian breathed a sigh of relief. It was his space, where he had complete jurisdiction. The walls were bare aside from a Casablanca poster he had gotten from the video store next to Pizza Bella, and a pair of binoculars hanging from a nail by the door. Stacks of school papers and used text books were bolstered by a low bookshelf sitting next to an old wooden desk and chair in the corner. The room was neat and uncomplicated.

After finishing his homework and reading, Ian took his binoculars off the nail in the wall, stuffed his feet into a pair of boots, arms into the sleeves of his sweatshirt, and headed out the door. He added to the note: “Out on the deer path. It’s ten now, be back in a couple hours.”

Later, when the phone rang, Ian was miles into the Joppa Hill woods, too far behind rock walls and birch branches to hear. Outside the snow glowed light blue under the full moon and the trees grew like black weeds into the midnight sky. Reflected off the snow, the light was bright enough to see almost everything without a flashlight. Horses had packed down the snow, clearing an easy path for Ian to follow all the way to the pond a mile out from Joppa Hill farm. Stealing light from surrounding stars, the moon seemed to glow brighter in the wetland tall grass, reflected in the winking pond. Off the path, Ian climbed up the wooden pegs to the lookout of an abandoned tree fort where he had left a hunter green fleece blanket. Ian’s legs dangled over the edge of the lookout. He wrapped himself in the blanket and adjusted the binoculars to scan the grass by the pond. The day before Ian had found tracks to and from a patch of melted snow and matted grass. It hadn’t snowed in weeks and there was only a half foot to a foot of snow on the ground. Thin icebergs spotted the surface of the pond and Ian could hear the faint sounds of lapping water at its banks, thawed by the unfrozen ground.

The worst of winter was over: nine-foot snow banks along the back roads were now three-foot piles of dehydrated snow. Ian’s socks and jeans were soaked through from walking on the wet ground, but the blanket kept him warm. He waited, patiently listening for footsteps in the snow. His eyes adjusted and readjusted on twisted bushes, roots cresting snow, and dark streams trickling into the pond, discerning shadows and short breaths of wind. He thought about returning home and grew angrier with his father. Mark had promised Ian a night together, and then went back on it so easily like he had done Ian some kind of favor by sticking around a little longer than usual. The white snow-sheets remained clear and the water lapped languidly in the impatient woods. Clues were everywhere, showing signs of life off the trodden path, and yet every night for a month Ian had sat waiting in lulling silence for something to come to the pond for water or scratch a tree for bark and each night he fought off sleep for disappointment. He was addicted to lingering in a place that felt like home but cheated him from what he wanted no matter how much time he spent. He had to break free from home, the not knowing festering in him until he rose from bed and left, discovering each night that the pond and snow were still void of moving life.

He was tired of this game: traces of rabbits, fox, deer and moose encouraged his habitual pleasure in frustration. Ian surrendered, folding the blanket and climbing down from the lookout. He stepped in a puddle of soft grass and his socks were instantly soaked again in icy water. He growled aloud, gripping one of the ladder rungs and shaking it violently. “I hate him,” Ian shouted in the silence. He wanted, like so many times before, to hear his father’s worried footsteps coming toward him in the snow, or an animal, or a girlfriend, a woman. Looking back once and finding nothing but still snow, Ian began the slow walk home.

Mark opened Cheryl’s door for her in the driveway and she got out of the car without thanking him. “Place hasn’t changed much,” she said, letting her eyes adjust to the molding wood panels of the front porch. The paint was chipping around the front door. There were no shutters on the plain white house and the looming snow-capped shrubs took over most of the front yard.

“It’s home,” Mark said. He walked up to the front door and pushed it open. Cheryl stepped over the threshold and threw her fleece on the couch. Turning around to face Mark, she smiled without showing her teeth and put her hands on her hips, looking completely unapproachable. Mark walked around the couch and sat down. Cheryl followed, again resuming her stance in front of him. For a moment they stared at each other. Her blue eyes appeared indifferent and hollowed him out just the same. Mark grunted nervously. She was not how he remembered: her face looked sad and he could see where her dark roots had grown out beneath her dyed blonde hair. He shrugged.

Cheryl loosened. “What do you want to do?”

Mark shrugged again. “Just wanted some company, I guess.” It was the truth. He had been pretty damn lonely and hanging around with Ian who just stared off into space only made him feel worse. He hadn’t planned on meeting up with Cheryl, but so it goes. She was a bad habit he couldn’t kick with her metallic blue eye shadow and a headband. Hell, she had always been a good laugh, but now she was different. She looked old and rough.

“Uh huh, sure.” Cheryl slipped off her shoes and started unbuttoning his pants, lowering herself to her knees on the floor in one fluid motion. Mark touched her hair, coarse and sticky between his fingers. She kissed his neck and pulled on him hard. Sliding his hand under her shirt, he reached up and cupped her breast, squeezing gently. In it now, he ripped off her shirt, picked her up and moved her underneath his on the couch. In the window light, her blue skin looked faded like the corduroy couch cushions. He didn’t care; he was hard and he wanted her. It had been too long. It was just fine. He didn’t care. She was his now, his again.

She had taken his shirt off and started licking his nipples. The room was cold. Mark nestled between her warm legs and kissed her collar bone, bit her shoulder. Topless now, Mark could see her nipples, little dark scars on her bony chest; her breasts were flattened apples flopping sideways and back. He shrugged off his pants and sat up to unbutton her jeans. Lace panties hugged her hips and he tore them off her.

Just above the patch of pubic hair between her thighs Mark saw a bruise. Embedded in her skin, it looked like a thumbprint that dragged midnight blue across her pelvis.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

Mark rolled off and sat by Cheryl’s feet on the opposite end of the couch. Unconsciously, he stared at the details of the wrinkled wooden floor.

“Well?” she said, “What is it? Not good enough for you anymore?” She blinked.

Mark sighed. “It’s not that,” he said.

“What the fuck is it, then? Huh? You got a problem or something?” she screamed.

Mark picked his shirt up off the floor and put it on. He felt deflated, like he had reached a new low. He had known going into this that she had probably been with a million guys, but he had known her before. She had graduated from Hesser. She was a babysitting, hip-swinging girl who cared about helping people. That’s what Mark always looked for. He liked people who cared about the world and about him. It made him feel good. Now, he didn’t know what he saw in Cheryl.

Propping her head up on the opposite arm rest, Cheryl swung a leg over to rest on the coffee table, bending her knee and scratching it. “You’ve got a serious problem,” she said. “Some nerve bringing me here and wasting my night. I have better people I could be fucking right now, better things I could be doing too. It’s not like I really wanted to waste my time with a bum like you. I fucking hate bums like you. Think you know what you want and you don’t. You have no clue.”

Mark bit at his cuticles and stared at the wall, clearing his mind. The whole situation, awkward as it was, had happened somewhere far away in a different living room on a distant couch to some asshole, not to him. He was a father, for Christ’s sake, and a widower. He had been the high school star with the cutest girl in town. They had married a year after high school. He went to University of New Hampshire and served in the Air Force afterwards to pay for tuition. She went to Saint A’s and waited for him to come home. They had dreams. This wasn’t his dream. Cheryl was so far away from his dream. She didn’t belong here and neither did he.

Ian stopped in his tracks. Her face was clear in the moonlight from the window. He stared at the pubic hair at the apex of Cheryl’s blue legs, which were spread apart on the couch facing his father who was naked except for a shirt. “Oh my God,” Ian said. “Oh my God.” Everything was wrong—so wrong. Deafening blood rushed through his ears as he staggered backward toward the kitchen counter. He was screaming: “How could you? What were you thinking? What the fuck were you doing?” He had never run his mouth at his dad before and he couldn’t stop now. “What kind of father – father are you? You’re so fucking sick, I don’t understand you. You can’t even take care of yourself and I do everything. Everything! Then you go and bring some – slut – whore like her here and it’s in our house. You brought her to our house, our house!”

Mark had stood up and he was putting his shirt on, but Cheryl hadn’t moved on the couch. Ian was shaking violently. “Get out.” Ian’s back hit the kitchen counter and he looked down at the porcelain pumpkin candle. Without thinking, he picked it up and threw it at her. Glass shards rained across the back of the couch and floor, but Cheryl was left unscathed. She looked at him languidly. Her hair was illuminated by the window moonlight, motionless.

Ian kept going. He threw the binoculars at her haloed head, and they broke against the wall, missing her by inches. He thrust himself on top of her, pulling fistfuls of hair, hitting her shoulders and chest as he bent over the back of the couch. In seconds his father pushed Ian away and they fell forward together off the couch. A punch landed on Ian’s jaw. He struggled underneath the weight of his father’s knee over his chest. Pinned down and crying Ian covered his face with an arm and coughed uncontrollably.

Mark got up to let Ian breathe. Ian immediately rolled over onto his stomach, cradling his face, and coughing up bloody saliva. He stood up quickly and staggered away from his father and Cheryl retreating to his room. Between coughs he turned and looked at the floor in front of his father’s feet. “Fuck you,” he said and locked himself in his room.

He lay on his bed and wiped his nose on his pillowcase. Outside he could hear them get into his father’s car and drive away. He listened to the silence that followed and fell asleep.

Ian slept through the morning and early afternoon. At some point in the night he had kicked off his boots and managed to slip under the blanket on his bed. His mouth tasted like rusty metal and his teeth felt grainy. There was a dry spot of light blood on his pillow where he had drooled in his sleep. Sitting up straight and reaching to wipe the corner of his mouth, Ian felt the worse headache of his life. His shoulder was stiff from log splitting and the knuckles on his right hand stung from attacking Cheryl and his father.

Remembering the night, he groaned and lay back down. Replaying each episode, the vivid events of the night seemed foreign, like they had happened to someone else. Methodically, he erased everything from his memory. Sinking deeper into the covers, he stretched and touched his sore muscles. He wished none of it had happened.

There was a soft knock on the door. Ian went stiff and the knock came again, louder. “What do you want?” he said.

“It’s two o’clock,” Mark’s muffled voice came from behind the door. “Get cleaned up. You didn’t finish the logs yesterday so we’ve got to get twice as much done today. I’ll give you five minutes, and then I’m kicking this door down.”

Ian groaned. “Fine, I’m up.” The last thing he wanted to do was see his father. He wanted to be alone. Ian put on fresh clothes. When he opened his door, the button lock clicked and his dad looked up from his newspaper at the kitchen table.

“About time,” Mark said. “Get something to eat and then we’ll go.”

“I’m fine,” Ian said. His stomach growled loudly and he could feel the color rising in his cheeks. Ian pushed a piece of orange-painted porcelain around on the floor with the toe of his boot. He regretted throwing that. Looking around, he was surprised to see the floor clean of the rest. He couldn’t remember the last time his father had cleaned up something. The whole living room looked as though it had been given a good shine. Ian saw the dent where the binoculars had smashed against the wall and bowed his head even lower.

Mark grunted and folded his newspaper. “Suit yourself,” he said gruffly. He picked up the axe leaning next to the front door. “Come on,” he said.

Outside the snow reflected the bright afternoon. Ian squinted and watched the ground in front of his feet until his eyes could adjust to the light. Checking his pockets for his inhaler, all he found were pieces of lint and a tissue. In silence, they walked along a thin path of trampled snow by the road. Mark turned abruptly left into the woods and Ian followed him to the familiar clearing. Just as Ian had left it, the hard chopping block sat unmovable in the center, splintered by his yesterday efforts. Mark uncovered the pile of wood and rolled a thick trunk to the center of the clearing, tipping it over near the chopping block.

Watching closely, Ian realized that Mark was setting up a second chopping block. Mark pulled out a second axe from under the tarp in the wood pile and handed it to Ian. Letting the axe hang by his side, Ian picked a short log from the pile and balanced it on his chopping block. He swung and missed completely before Mark was set up by his side.

“Watch it,” Mark said. “Your backswing is out of control.”

Ian suppressed a groan, handling the axe. “This one feels different than that one,” he said.

“That one should feel easier,” Mark said. He swung and split a log clear through in one go, the two halves rolling off the edges of his chopping block.

Smirking, Ian swung again and lodged the axe in his log. He held the wood down with his leg and pulled the head of the axe out. A scar ran diagonally across the thin bark where the axe had been. He aimed and the log split like butter.

Mark was already through three logs when Ian set down his second. Bringing the axe down harder and harder each time, the axe would stick deeper and deeper into the rebel wood. Ian wrestled the axe out of each log, breaking into a nervous sweat. He wanted to miss, accidentally swing the axe at his father and chip a few toes or fingers off to make him feel sorry. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his father chopping in fluid motions without effort.

Panting and sore, Ian tried to catch up. Aching muscles from the day before screamed each time he swung back. Splintered pieces fell from his chopping block, decorating the ground below. Mark had built a pile by his side. Ian was being measured and he didn’t like his odds.

“You just need more power,” Mark said. “And your form is all wrong.”

Ian’s arms shook in anger and fatigue.

“Listen,” Mark said.

Ian’s axe stuck in his log and he wiggled it out. The last thing he wanted to do was talk. His dad was awful at lectures, talking in circles. Ian had learned to tune him out.

“Stop a second, will ya?” Mark said, kicking the scarred log off Ian’s chopping block.

Ian brought the axe down hard where his dad’s foot had been, wishing his foot had been there. “What?” he said, finally meeting his dad’s eyes. “What?”

“Well, I just thought we should talk,” Mark said.

Ian looked down and kicked the wood stump lightly with his foot.

“I just want you to know that me and Cheryl—well, nothing happened,” Mark said. “I’m sorry you had to walk home and see that, that’s all.”

“Whatever,” Ian said. “It’s not like I haven’t seen that before.”

“Right,” Mark said. “It’s just been a long time and I did wait until later…”

Ian wasn’t listening. Seeing a naked woman—whether she were Cheryl or not—on his couch would have made Ian’s night if his dad hadn’t been half naked next to her. Her breasts were palm-sized—but his dad had probably already squeezed them. Why did he have to go nuts on her like that? She probably thought he was crazy. His dad probably thought he was crazy too. “Forget it,” Ian said.

“You embarrassed me,” Mark said. “I guess I sort of deserved it though.” He glanced at Ian and for the first time, Ian saw a hint of sincere unease in his dad that he didn’t recognize.

“What do you want me to tell you?” Ian said.

“I just didn’t mean for that to happen, that’s all,” Mark said.

“Obviously,” Ian said.

“Fine,” Mark said. “Now you know.”

Mark was a lousy father and he knew it. He had fucked up again, and the kid was really messed up over things. He had never seen Ian so violent and angry before last night when he attacked Cheryl. It wasn’t difficult to pin him down and take care of the situation but the whole thing had Mark shaken up. The stuff Ian had yelled from his room unsettled him. Taking Cheryl back to her place in the car, he had asked her if she thought everything would be okay.

She said, “That kid is too young to know what the real world is like. He’s got hormones up the wazoo, I’m sure, and no dad to tell him what to do with all of it. You’re too messed up. You should be taking care of him, not the other way around.”

“That’s enough,” Mark had said.

Now, he took a good look at Ian. The kid was his height—that had happened in the last couple months—and his face had an edge to it that wasn’t there before. Lanky enough, Ian looked edgy in everything he did. Mark remembered when he was Ian’s age. All he wanted was to see a little piece of ass and touch himself in the shower, in bed, on the couch, everywhere. He was horny as shit. Ian probably didn’t even know what to do with it all or what a real pussy looked like—he was too young and sheepish, anyway, for that. They would probably have to have a talk about that at some point.

“Well?” Ian said.

“Let’s cover up that pile and bring these split ones to the house,” Mark said. “That’s enough for now.” It wouldn’t hurt to let up a little. The kid was clearly trying. He didn’t know how to tell him, thank him, without bringing up his mother.

Sophie was a sore spot for both of them and talking only made them both angry. Mark thought keeping the kid busy would keep him closer to home. There was no telling what the kid could do out in the woods where no one would find him. On the other hand, maybe he had been too hard on him. Ian did practically everything Mark asked of him. He just wanted to make sure he grew up normal, like a real man.
Sophie had decided to keep the kid, something Mark was against at the time but it meant a lot to her. She made all the decisions for both of them. She was as bright as a fox and had the most perfect soft hair and great breasts. God, he was dumb around her. She had a way about her that you just couldn’t argue with because she would diffuse whatever lit your match. On top of that, she smelled of spices, like pumpkin pie.

She wanted the house in the painting, the quiet and simple Bedford life and family, and Mark had wanted it then with every bone in his body. They tried getting pregnant. He didn’t know why it was both of them getting pregnant, but it felt right to say “we’re pregnant” like being part of a club. It felt good until a couple months in when he took her to the doctor because the back of her tongue hurt and her neck, the beautiful neck he kissed softly and where he nestled into her at night. The reality was, she had cancer in her lymph nodes and needed chemotherapy.

“But the baby.” That’s what she said. “The baby’s more important. Stop being so selfish.” He wanted to be selfish. She was his and had been for several years, how could some thing that was only a bunch of cells really take precedence? Over her? She was so perfect, so selfless it killed her. Ian killed her and that was that. In one phrase that tiny being had more power over Mark’s life than anything else ever would.

The therapy would have killed the baby. They were no longer pregnant. She was pregnant and Mark had to just stand by and watch it happen, except he couldn’t. He had to leave the house, get out, drink with the guys, and go for long drives down the back roads to look at new houses and properties.

The night Ian was born she looked like Mother Mary, the bedside light shining through her wavy hair illuminating Ian’s sleeping face. Sitting across from them, Mark cried. She begged him to come to her so he nestled into her shoulder and neck and sobbed against her hospital nightgown. The pumpkin smell was gone. She had a tough spirit. The sour smell of sickness formed a cloud around her for six months. That was all he could smell, even after she was gone.

Ian had her skin and nose. The way he examined things and made decisions reminded him of her sometimes. When he was a kid, Mark could tell him stories. Half of them were made up but that made it easier. When Ian realized why she chose not to get early treatment, he stopped asking, stopped talking, and stopped smiling.

Mark needed to cut the kid some slack. It wasn’t right when he could take care of himself. He had been ready to take care of a family. A woman like Cheryl wasn’t going to help. It was him and Ian now. The kid didn’t need a mother, he needed a father. What had he been wasting time for?

They finished bringing the split wood to the house and went inside. Ian went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door.

“Hey,” Mark said. “I’ll make us some lunch. Why don’t you go shower?”

A look of uncertainty crossed Ian’s face. “What are you making?”

“I was thinking some tomato soup and grilled cheese.” Mark shrugged. “I might go to the store later and pick up some groceries. I was thinking of getting some pie or something nice at Vista. You want to come with me?”

“What’s the occasion?” Ian said. “Is she coming back?”

“Nah,” Mark said. “Just for us.” He cleared his throat.

Ian thought about it and nodded. “Cool,” he said. He turned away to go shower.

Mark rubbed his hands together, surveying the kitchen. After some searching, he found all the ingredients and began heating things up. It wasn’t the house and the family, but maybe he could salvage some of whatever it was they had. They had come so close to losing everything.
When Ian came out freshly washed, the small table in the kitchen by the window was set for two. There were no napkins or placemats. It was nothing fancy. But it was, and that was something. They dipped their well-done grilled cheese in bowls of soup and gazed outside. No need to fill the space with words, they watched the light fluffy snow falling slowly. Melting and then covering the ground in a soft quiet blanket, the fresh snow touched everything. It fell on the pond, it fell on Joppa Hill, and it fell on the axe and chopping board. The paths and roads were white, the fields and grass bleached white, and the clawing branches in the woods were calmed, wearing white gloves that waved softly, slightly.

Christina Katopodis is a senior at The George Washington University
majoring in English and Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish. She
is originally from Bedford, NH. This summer she will be working as a
teaching assistant and residential camp counselor at University of
Virginia program in American literature. Christina will be a first year Masters student at the City University of New York concentrating in American Studies and Literature. She hopes to enter a PhD program in Literature and become a professor in the future.

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