James Dunham


A plastic pale of mud and gravel cracks in the rain filled too full in his young hands, left out past the carport to be washed away, beyond a slammed screen door, sitting there, not washing away, sitting there. He’s at the sink with his mother scrubbing his arms with a shredded sponge, scratching the stains from his skin. You should have stayed in the rain and cleaned yourself, don’t you hear me? Look at the floor. Look at it. Turn your head, and look at it. It’ll never come out. Look there. You did that.


This girl, legs kicked up on the hard dorm common room couch, papers everywhere, bare toes poking from the ends of her jeans, hair a mess of strands and elastic ties, absently spotting ink on herself between scribbled notes, ruining her sweatshirt, he seated across from her reading, not reading, an hour can’t get him past the one page, can’t unglue him from her shifting sprawl, belly down with her feet hanging over the couch back and her arms on the floor now – this girl stuns.


This woman, his wife, on top of him heaving hard to bring herself where she wants to be, biting her lip, her hands on his shoulders holding her up, and he lies there, what he’s supposed to do, to get her there, he having already arrived and gone limp, and still she grinds down, slick but it hurts and he says nothing to her of how sore the sting, it’ll be worth it if she gets there and stays there, stays, and falls emptied to the pillow at his side.


At the kitchen table with newspaper unfolded after work, his mother scans the classifieds and lets her dropping ash burn pencil holes through the gray articles, he’s in the next room on the floor with his school books, caught by the little windows now in his mother’s paper, dots of her visible through them in the expanse between her dark-painted fingernails holding the sides of it up, until she whips it folded and slaps it on the table, takes a deep, sucking drag, and releases a whisper that paints the kitchen smoggy. She sees his fixed wide eyes and pinches a smile on, stands and shakes ash from her dark skirt, slips off into her bedroom.


The teacher talks with backed turned, scraping chalk until he has to bend and write sideways to make all the words fit, students throwing gum and flipping middle fingers at each other, and in the corner a black-haired, black-coated, white-faced girl makes eyes at him, black lips curled too-good-for-you into a smile, and in a free period a pale hand grabs him by the shoulder. Come with me. Behind a dumpster, her back against a brick wall, she sucks and bites his lip, grabs his clothed rear end hard in one hand and slaps his thigh with the other. Come on. His hands stay against the brick and she slaps his thigh again, come on damn it, you want this? He kisses and sucks back and her can-crushing grip sends shooting pain down his buttock and she shoves him against the dumpster and spits. Fuck you. She wipes her mouth with a sleeve. Fuck you.


He’s in the living room in the soft chair facing the TV, applications spread around him, pen in his hand filling check marks in boxes until his mother gets home from work and asks what’s the mess. College? I can’t pay for that. You’ll be up to your ears in debt. Scholarships go to jocks. Look at this mess.

Most of this mess is your junk.

She blows smoke toward him. Really?

The pen keeps writing.

Fine. Sell the rest of your life for four years drunk. See if it’s worth it. She snatches the remote from between piles of magazines on the coffee table and flips on a cop show where someone gets beaten bloody, turns up the volume so she can hear it in the kitchen, comes back minutes later with a sandwich on a paper plate and sits on the couch, policemen’s eyes cold and sweat-circled on the screen, cuffing her to it.


His wife stops kissing him and says, I can’t relax. I keep thinking about everything. I’m sorry, I just can’t relax.


He lets go of her waist and rolls to his back.


I can’t get excited right now, she says. I’m sorry.

I’m sick of doing it alone.

She rests her head and a hand on his chest. I know.

Can’t you put things out of your mind for a while?

Can we not do this now?

So we wait until life is perfect, and neither of us has problems to stress you out.

She moves her hand up to his shoulder and pulls him tight. Don’t be mean. I’m frustrated, too.

He closes his eyes, opens them. The black looks the same.


This girl studies biology, performs lab experiments in her pajama pants, and marathon-gobbles enormous omelets filled with mushrooms and cheese in the cafeteria while he sits with his hands in his lap across the table from her, marveling at her terminology, at her ever-unkempt hair, at her thin neck and the shoulders hidden by her hoodie, and remembering the tension of muscles in her legs when they ran the indoor track together, her thighs strong but not thin like her neck, her stomach a little heavy, no matter her routine’s intensity, due to her thyroid gland, a thing he can’t picture, can’t locate on her body, while on the TVs that hang on the gym and cafeteria walls talking heads lament the market crash and proclaim the bowels of recession, which he jokes will land him in a cardboard box after graduation, but three years from now it ought to be better: he will get a job, she will get a job, and they will have enough to be OK – they are already OK; she zips her textbook into her backpack, gets up, kisses him on the hair, see you later, boy, and under the weight of her education steps heavily away, and only when she is gone from sight does he take out his own books and study.


When he gets home from his second job, his wife is waiting for him in their small but spotless living room. She says, Your mother called.


His mother has not called him once during his adult life, and he is now thirty-two. He has not seen her since two years ago when they spent Christmas with her. After graduation and the wedding, he had offered to visit every year, and every year she said, Do whatever you want, and he and his wife went to see her family until finally, his wife insisted they stay with his mother next time no matter what. Since then they’ve seen her every other year, and he calls her every month. But he has always, always been the one to dial.


She asked for me? He says.

She hesitates. They think she has emphysema.

He sits down. I don’t know much about that.

His wife hands him the phone. He dials.

His mother tells him that if the doctor doesn’t want her to smoke, he’s going to have to slap her wrist every time she goes shopping to keep her away. She knows it’s the only way to slow things down, but habits are habits.

Listen, Mom. Whatever you need to do, you need to do it.

I’m screwed either way, she says. There’s no escaping it. Not unless they find somebody to donate a lung.

You can do this, Mom.

Oh sure, you believe in me, now that I’ve gone and put myself on death row.


At college he studies political science, work-studies as a gofer for one of his professors’ secretaries, drinks beer he at first doesn’t enjoy while playing video games with his classmates, and on the weekends sleeps and wakes up with his girlfriend, smiles every time he sees her, and they go to restaurants and talk about the foods they like, and she teaches him to play the piano in one of the practice rooms music students use. Some days everything goes perfectly, and when they get in bed they are happy and in love.


When he goes home for the summer, he works at the grocery store to reduce the size of the loans he’ll take out in the fall, and pretends, as often as possible, that his mother does not exist. Every rug and chair and wall carries the scent of her cigarettes, a smell he had never known was there until he left the house for months at a time, and her grease-stained paper plates adorn flat surfaces throughout the house, often accompanied by aluminum silverware and plastic cups. One day when he has off of work and his mother does not, he can’t keep himself from shoving all the plates in the trash, from scrubbing her cups and forks clean, from gathering her magazines off the floor and stacking them under the coffee table that now sits empty. He pulls the vacuum out of the closet. Its bag needs to be changed, but he has no energy to go to the store and uses it anyway. There are stains on the carpet, smudges on the walls, threadbare patches on the furniture. It is too much.


He is playing a game in his room when he hears the door slam and his mother say, What the hell? She puts down her bag, goes into the living room, and says Shit. She comes down the hall to his room. He does not turn to look at her. I get it, she says. She pauses to suck her cigarette. You’re telling me I’m a slob. I’m not good enough for you. That’s fine. Do whatever the hell you want. But this is my house, and when you finish your little degree you’re not coming back. Remember that. Look at me.

He turns.

Remember that. She taps some ash from her cigarette onto the carpet in his room. My house.


After the wedding, on the warm steps outside the church, his mother draped in her maroon dress with a Marlboro shaking in her hand, she sits dripping tears into her lap, sobbing when he finds her, ignoring his touch. What’s the matter, Mom, please, talk to me. Please. He crouches before her and lays his hand on the side of her neck, a touch meant to console, one he has never before used on his mother, one taught to him only recently by the girl, the woman he has just this day married, and he pulls his mother close, getting ash on his elbow, on his one suit, It’s OK, Mom, it’s OK, it’s fine, everything’s fine. She hears nothing, lets no comfort in, vibrates like a closed shutter on a windy night.


Sitting by the old window, his mother puts two wrinkled fingers to her lips and closes her eyes, pretending, nothing in her hand, no twist of pale smoke streaming or thinning from the imaginary filter, she in a chair statuesque and staring at the nothing in the yard, he’s at the table with his brand new checkbook and what she calls a fancy pen, an engraved one that writes easily. Money for her medicine, for adding a month or two to what time she has left, her eyebrows narrowed and lids slanted, molded with habit and years to a look of perpetual concern despite her inability now to concern herself with anything, hair dyed dark, but at the roots white, bright white.

Mom. Mom. See this envelope here on the table? It’s in here. Don’t lose it. See it? Right here.


This morning the sun hibernates behind thick clouds, the frozen grass outside catching flakes one by one, but the house stays warm, in the kitchen the burner under the kettle flaming blue, and he at the table waiting for his tea, for his toast, and feeling for the first time that the past fifteen years are truly over. He is no longer young but happy to not be so, a sentiment he never expected. Last night, December thirty-first, friends crowded the living room holding glasses of wine and talking about their children, and he and his wife laughed with them and answered yet again that the reason he and she had not had children was money, that only now, just past forty, could they provide a good life for three.


He and his wife did not say that only now had they been able to relax enough to stop caring about the frequency of their love, enough to enjoy each other without caring who was in control and who was more satisfied, enough that they ended their nights without arguing but with massaging soreness out of each other’s now thoroughly adult bodies, complete with telltale aching joints and patches of dry skin, with hands that could not be mistaken for those of a twenty-something. He and his wife did not say that loving each other more slowly with these no longer young bodies was still exponentially better, universes better than truncating their young antics with a clash of needs. They have given up on winning and have gained, at last, each other.


At the breakfast table he remembers college, remembers that first time, the first time for both of them, in her dorm room on the narrow bed with the pink and green blankets, the two of them grabbing hard at each other, vying for what they each wanted, even then a conflict, but one they managed to ignore, and in the end he held her because he knew she was in pain, did not stop holding her, and she let him. From the start, they had not fully gotten what they wanted but were determined to give what they could. Hearing her get out of bed to join him for breakfast now, he marvels that it took so many years to arrive here, feels an expansion in his chest as he sees her emerge from the hallway in her bathrobe, still a bit heavy around the thighs, morning hair as unkempt as the young woman he could not look away from in the dorm, overwhelmingly herself.


Something in the wall creaks, startling them both, the house reacting to the cold outside. They laugh at themselves for being scared, but he feels something more than that. An uneasy stirring, a remembrance of a smoky aroma so strong he can taste it. He stands and reaches for the phone, dials, and waits, listens, fearing it is too late, and that it has always been.


James Dunham’s work has appeared in Southeast Review, Dog Pond, Philadelphia Stories, and Necessary Fiction. He has an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and a BA in creative writing from Susquehanna University.

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