Short Story

This was published in "The Monocacy Valley Review" which hasn't existed for a very long time.  It was my first paid fiction project.


"What I don't understand is why you said I was a mechanic, for God sake. I hate to get my hands dirty. Why a mechanic?" David is speaking quietly. Has he calmed down?

Janice shrugs. She doesn't think he'd pay much attention to any answer she could give and, anyway, she isn't sure why she said a mechanic. Perhaps because he looks like one: thick fingers on a slight, unathletic body. She can imagine him wiping his glasses on a rag he's just pulled from his coveralls, telling the customer that the distributors shot.

David and Janice are driving home from a party. They live outside town. David insisted on getting a place for the garden because Janice said she liked gardening. She was enthusiastic at first, reading the seed packages, watching for the first green shoots. By the end of the summer, though, the garden was a jungle of weeds and choked tomato plants. By winter, David complained about the long commute into the university, and now Janice wishes they lived closer in.
The trip is too long tonight. Janice is looking at the ground outside the car. Out the front window, it comes at her stately and slow; at the side it whirls by. She's trying her best to ignore David. 

“Oh, Jan.” He sounds sad and tired, but not particularly upset. It is November, too cold to roll down the Chevy’s windows and lean out the way she wants to.

The party had been noisy, crowded and smelled of overheated bodies. Jugs and boxes of Gallo wine were lined up on a rough wooden bench. Otherwise there was no furniture in sight.

"You didn't tell me it was going to be a student party," Janice shouted into David's ear, as they looked for a place to dump their coats.

"We should go to any party we can," he shouted back." At least until we get to know more people." 

He waved and yelled to someone, a woman with long braids and Nietzsche tee-shirt. "That's one of the people giving this," he told Janice."A grad student. She's into German philosophers. Why don't you try to meet some of these people?"

Janice patted his arm. She knew he was offering her this party as he given her the garden, something for her to really do. Out at the farmhouse sometimes she could be alone for days, seeing only David and the women at the market. She made loaves of bread and ate them in front of the television set. She enjoyed her near empty days; she'd getting a waitressing job soon enough when they needed the money again. But David worried, and in the evenings he watched her from his desk, looking for listlessness she supposed.

David introduced her to the woman with the braids, but she couldn't hear the name through the noise. They smiled and nodded at each other and then Janice shooed David and the woman off to dance.

Janice doesn't like dancing. She's certain she looks ridiculous, a pudgy lumbering woman, a little too old for the wild music and the swaying bodies around her. She watches David flap and stomp.

The first party he'd ever taken her to was full of people like this. Some of the women wore loose, vivid dresses; all of the men wore the uniform of blue jeans and T-shirts. That didn't vary from school to school.

At the first party, some of the students recognized her from the restaurant. They'd come over to say hello; she'd been so pleased that they remembered her name. Scholars were such quirky exotic creatures. She was almost a part of them then, not so old, standing next her connection to brilliance, her own splendid David.

The music at this party seemed impossibly loud. David was absorbed in dance, frantic high jumps. The room was thick with people dancing now. A couple jostled her and waved apologetically. She wandered into a quieter room, a brightly lit kitchen.

A group stood near the fridge; they seem to be telling jokes. It would probably be easy to get in on the conversations, but she veered away when she heard one of punch-lines: “Martin Heidegger."

A small flushed woman wearing round glasses stood by the drinks table. On her the glasses should be called spectacles; Janice was almost surprised when the woman greeted her without a trace of an English accent.

“This one isn't half bad," she told Janice and pointed to one of the green jugs. Janice had had enough cheap wine in her four years as an assistant professor’s wife. She smiled and said, "Well, no thank you. I really can't."

The woman nodded but looked interested. Without thinking, Janice added, "I'm expecting." 

The woman clapped her hands as if this were the best news she'd heard for months. Janice was just trying to work out a good story for why the baby was never going to appear, in case the woman worked with David, when the woman introduced herself. "My name is Phoebe. Do you work at the university? I don't think I've seen you around."

“No, no," said Janice." I'm not working just now. My husband is making enough to support both of us. A friend of his goes to the university." She waved her hand, half-pointing to the other room. "I'm not sure what he...We're just here to see him."

And then the story of David as a mechanic came out. Janice told Phoebe about the strange hours mechanic had to keep, about the late-night phone calls. "My husband is very patient with these people. I know I couldn't be."

Phoebe nodded vigorously, her glasses catching the light. "What did you do before?" she asked. "If it's not too rude…"

Janice had been a waitress for years. She was good at it and even enjoyed waiting tables, but waitressing sounded so dull. And a lot of students seem to have tried out restaurant jobs.

“Well, I quit my job real early. I was an editor, you know kind of freelance. I worried about the stress." Janice patted her stomach.

Phoebe beamed at her and told her that she was glad to meet someone aware of dangers to prenatal health. "I'm a nutritionist," she told Janice.

“A nutritionist, how wonderful!" She could have guessed. Phoebe seemed like a scientist, neat fingernails, simple clothes. "What do nutritionists do?"

Phoebe scratched the side of her neck."Oh, it's such a bore to most people."

"No sir, tell me about it. I'd love to be an expert about something so common and important as food." Janice touched Phoebe's arm.

Phoebe explained how she worked testing bowls of cereal by weighing them. She spoke so quietly, Janice had to lean forward to hear her. Such a nice change from the other professors Janice knew, who spoke loudly enough for the whole room to hear, speaking and gesturing as if giving a lecture to a hall full of fascinated students, instead of talking to one slightly bored acquaintance.

Phoebe was leaning against the table quite relaxed now, telling about a girl who came to one of her nutrition classes carrying an apron, when David appeared. He caught sight of them and galloped up, pink from dancing. His pale hair was on end even more than usual. He did love dancing. "You've got a halo," Janice told him. "A halo of hair, Saint David."

He stood by her, posing a little, with one hand on each of her shoulders. "Ah, Phoebe, so you've met my wife."

Phoebe blurted, "I thought you said your husband was a mechanic."

"A mechanic?" He let go of Janice's shoulders.

Phoebe was blushing now."I mean maybe not. Maybe she didn't say that exactly. It's so loud in here. We are having a hard time hearing."

Janice felt grateful. She wanted to thank her after David walked away, but Phoebe was silent and wouldn’t look up from her drink, cupping it both hands. David came back with the coats, and Phoebe immediately wandered off, waving to someone in the crowd the Janice couldn't see. David pushed her coat at her and walked to the car.


They've driven a couple of blocks and are almost at the town's edge when he says. “What else did you say?"

She considers exploding. Why does he suppose Janice said anything? Phoebe told him she might have been wrong. But she's too tired. He'll become angry, and after some tears, he’d weasel it out of her. This is something they've lived through before.

"Oh, well, something about expecting a baby."

"A baby? And a mechanic? Why are they becoming so elaborate?" He never referred to her lies by name. 

This is the question she doesn't know the answer to. Now she watches the houses and, outside the town, the trees blur out of sight.

It is true; she's become reckless. Five years before, about the time she met David in the restaurant, she would only change incidental people, telling stories about someone she'd seen on the bus. Since they’ve been married, she started to change the lives of people she knows, even their own lives, changing her identity with almost every person she meets.

David didn't notice until he had to explain to his last department head that he wasn't seriously ill, that his wife was mistaken. After that he talked to Janice. Holding her in bed, his face in her hair, he asked the questions urgently. She’d been unable to speak, choking on her tears.

David noticed more after that, and still Janice didn't stop. The last time he found her telling a story was the spring before, during the long drive through the cornfields, while they were moving here. He came out of the bathroom of the diner as she was talking to a trucker about her life as a missionary. She thought he was going to talk to her, but he just walked away quickly. She hesitated tiny moment before trotting after him. 

Sometimes she asked herself what if he driven away then? What if David had been gone when she went out to find him? But he hadn't driven away; he was standing by the car. The sight of him, his round face drawn in, the perspiration sticking the shirt to his thin back, made her run across the parking lot.

At last David is silent. She's drifting off when he asks,"Why a department secretary? If you had to tell that stuff to someone, I don't understand why it couldn't be a sales clerk or something."

“Secretary," she says.

"Yeah. Why did you have to say all that to someone I see every day? What do you think Phoebe’s going to tell people?"

She punches his leg and laughs. David wants to know what is so goddamn funny, but Janice just shakes her head. He turns his eyes back to the road and drives too fast. Janice laughs until her insides feel gloriously scrubbed and aching.

"You know," she says, "any one of my stories could be true. I mean, I don't say anything about little green men."

David slows down. He is chewing his lower lip, a sign that that he is concentrating on listening. This is the first time she has brought the subject up herself.

She giggles again. "Can you imagine if I did? The National Enquirer would be knocking on our door."

He speaks so quietly she can barely hear. "So. You just don't care, do you? You say stupid things, you get caught, and you look stupid, and you don't care."

Janice looks over but he is silent now. Even in the dark, she can see his face is blank.

" Well, Phoebe —" she begins.

David shakes his head."I'm tired. I don't want to talk about it now." He speaks politely, as if to an annoying student.

He's squeezing and releasing the steering wheel, squeezing and releasing and chewing his lip, not looking over at her.

Janice is glad he interrupted her.

She wonders if the party is David's last offering to her. Poor David, who likes strong definitions, who likes people to be predictable (Janice imagines this is because of the shadowy nature of his work) is married to a woman who is a muddle to him. Even her form is melting. Once her figure was clear; now she is a soft round shape. Her lines grow hazy.

They ride the last few minutes in silence. Janice leans against the window, pretending to sleep. As they pull into the driveway, she is nearly asleep. She sees Phoebe in a white lab coat. Phoebe's teaching a class. Her handwriting on the board is round, Janice decides — Catholic schoolgirls’ neat. Somewhere in the room, Phoebe's put up pictures of happy children eating from all four food groups. Janice often meets her there after class. She imagines Phoebe telling her about amino acids as they walked slowly, arm-in-arm, across campus to eat together in a vegetarian restaurant.


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