Dinner with Edward

Fiction by Darci Schummer

SchummerThe first time she sees him, Loretta stops in the middle of the street, her hands so tight on the steering wheel that blood drains from her knuckles. Beads of sweat gather underneath her arms, above her lip, and in the crack between her lower lip and chin. When she tries to swallow, she cannot gather enough saliva. Out of myth, he is suddenly there. He looks the same, she supposes, except that he is dirty and his thinning hair has grown even thinner. A car honks, startling her, and she starts driving, unable to help herself from circling around again. He sits in Washburn Fair Oaks Park on a bench along the only path that runs through it, a diagonal walk that opens to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on one end and the Gale Mansion on the other. What lies between is part wasteland, part alleyway—a haven for the wandering. In winter, it is especially desolate. Heavy, wet snow clings to the oaks. The only things except for Edward and the trees that dot its grim landscape are the sparrows and squirrels scavenging in the snow. So this is where he has made his home, she thinks. She watches as he rips a small corner off the gas station sandwich in his hand, the white bread stark against his dark jacket. He throws part of it to a squirrel and another part of it to a cluster of sparrows. Loretta wants to go home right then and tell herself that it is okay to let go, now, now that she knows he has food and a jacket.

When she gets home, she cannot stop thinking of him alone with his cardboard sandwich, something she knows he hates—or would have hated before. But that’s not Edward, she tells herself. Not him, not Edward, not him, not anymore. The image of him in the park will not leave her when she tries to sleep, and she spends most of the night with the sheets in a tangle around her restless limbs.

When the alarm goes off, she is still tired. She does not feel like teaching freshman comp today, a course hated amongst the faculty at Hamline University. Her section this semester is especially tiresome. It is split down the middle: athletes who care nothing for language, who despite their finely tuned bodies lack grace, and arrogant 18 year olds who believe either that they know everything about writing or that they do not need to know anything about it. This is the only class in which her mind wanders, in which she finds herself glancing at the clock. She moves around the room by rote, asking the same questions and selling the same ideas at every class meeting. What is the thesis of this piece? Who can tell me? Come on; let’s just start throwing out some ideas. Tom? Some days she wants to scream at them the same way she imagines Edward had wanted to scream at his students. It’s not that damned difficult, she wants to yell. But now she treads around them coolly with a forced patience so genuinely executed that the students do not detect in the slightest the edge she feels whenever in front of them.

She dismisses class a few minutes early and sees Blake, an old English professor who had been a friend of Edward’s. She looks down at the papers in her hands and starts rearranging them in what she hopes will appear to be a meaningful way, but Blake has spotted her and he stops her just short of her office door.

“So, any word?” he says. His voice is barely above a whisper.

For a moment, she thinks about telling him what she saw in the park. Blake does not know, however, just how ill Edward had gotten before he left. Loretta would never have done that to Edward, would never have told his friends. He had not accepted her help when he started breaking down, and a man like him surely would not have accepted help from someone in academia, not after having lost his place in it. Her face flushes, and she looks down at her papers again.

“No, no word,” she says, taking a half step back toward her office.

Blake shakes his head, and rubs his white beard in grandfatherly confoundedness. “You’ll let me know, right?”

“Of course,” she says, her eyes focusing on a spelling error in one of the essays. “But it’s been a long time. I think he would have called by now if he had any plans to come back. Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s fine. Hopefully happy.” The ease with which she spits out the last two words surprises her.

“It’s so strange. Just to leave like that,” Blake says, which he says each time they see each other now.

“I know, Blake. I know.”

“But he may come back around after he gets himself figured out. Don’t give up hope just yet. Even Job kept hope.”

“Right. Job,” she says, crossing the threshold of her office.

On Highway 94, the traffic makes Loretta edgy and angry. She gets lost in her thoughts, as it stops and starts around her. She is thinking of the ruse she just constructed for Blake; she is telling herself that she needed to lie. To lie or to walk away before the conversation even started. Why couldn’t she just walk away? How easy it had been for Edward to simply step out into the streets of Minneapolis and pull the door shut behind him without looking back. As she continues driving, she begins trying to think through Edward, as she has tried before. It is always difficult; after all, she has never lost a teaching job due to budget cuts, nor has she ever suffered intense periods of writer’s block. She has found herself in creative deserts before, but once she started traversing them, she soon found her way back. What she imagines now about Edward is this: the burden of joblessness and artlessness had become too heavy to bear, so he baptized himself in a void, walking away with only his clothing, severing all commitments except those to his own body. Now he worries about survival, the gut. In that struggle, she imagines he is free. He does not have to think anymore, not like he had been thinking, his thoughts racing for hours and hours so that nothing could calm him, an unfathomably deep dark blinding him to what was actually happening in the world around him.

It still just hurts, though, that it was not by her hand, which she had offered so many times, but by the rejection of her hand that he had gained his freedom.

She realizes she has missed the Riverside exit and is heading west toward the center of Minneapolis. She steers her Honda onto the 11th street exit but does not say to herself, I am going to drive by the park. She says, I am going to go downtown, I am going to go to the Art Institute, I am going to go to…I am going to go to… But that is not true: within minutes, she is circling the block looking for him.

This time he sits on a bench at the Gale Mansion end of the park. His head hangs low, reminding her of the nights he would fall asleep sprawled out in the recliner in the living room of their house. Though her window is raised, Loretta reaches her hand toward him and imagines waking him up from one of those sleeps. His hair and face would be warm, his lips slightly parted so that she could see his teeth, teeth she had always envied, white and straight. A police car driving by flips on its siren and Edward turns his head. For a second their eyes meet, which startles her. She looks at him just long enough to know that he has not come back yet from wherever he has gone. Edward, she thinks, you old ghost.

Back at her one bedroom in Seward, she wades through essays about mothers and fathers, compositions littered with trite and shallow details, comma splices, fragments, and awkward constructions. She begins to think that she must be an awful teacher because good teachers’ students obviously would not write terrible papers. Then she remembers a comment a good teacher had once given her on an essay: Loretta, your essays are a bright spot in an otherwise dark world. Thanks! Prof. Johnston. That was the only time she had ever imagined that the other students were not writing brilliant, insightful essays, far better than those she had worked on meticulously. On nights like these, she misses Edward. Some nights they had both graded so many papers that they were loopy by the end and could do nothing but drink whiskey and collapse on one another. Imagining it, she wants to lie down silently but does not have the time, not now, not when there is so much to be done. With renewed fervor, she reads and comments on the essays, reminding herself to write at least one good thing on each poor essay and to praise highly each well-written essay.

After the last paper is graded, she drops the stack on the floor by the side of the bed. The thud they make is satisfying. She turns off the light. When she retreats into the deepest cave of sleep, she will dream of Edward. She will see him as he used to be before something broke in him and he could no longer teach, write, or be her husband. He will smile at her and speak to her cryptically as is the speech in all dreams. The weather will be warm; there will be no snow. The fair oaks will shade them, the breeze turning the oaks’ leaves into song. She and Edward will be sitting together on a blanket, the soft blue blanket printed with tiny red flowers that they used to sleep under in their marriage bed. Edward will be smiling, his head tilted slightly, and the secrets of the married will be on their faces. Eat, he will say, eat. I packed this just for you. Eat. Then, as she is about to take the simple food prepared by his hand, she will wake, thirsty and hungry.

The morning arrives early and petulant. The dream hangs on her shoulders like an ill-fitted shirt. She eats dry toast and drinks ice water, all the while still living in the dream, not in the center of the dream, but in the outskirts of the dream, the part where she is a merely a spectator—one who knows she has just witnessed a farce. She repeats to herself that the dream is just that, but still it stays with her, and she lets herself indulge for moments at a time. As part of this indulgence, she drives to the grocery store and the liquor store before going to school. She buys Honeycrisp apples, the last of the season; smoked Gouda, their favorite brand; a fresh baguette; a bottle of cabernet, their favorite wine. She brings everything into her office and arranges it all carefully into one paper bag, which she stashes beneath her desk, feeling better just knowing it is there.

In class, the students workshop exemplification essays. When she had given them the prompt based on an essay about racism—write about a time when someone assumed something about you that was not true—they had all just stared at her. Now their papers show it, and she blames herself. She knows class will be painful, but she tries to remain upbeat. She picks one of the strongest writers to workshop first, trying to motivate the class. Once the student starts reading the first paragraph of his essay, she hears whispering from one side of the circle. Tom, a student who entered her class with 18-year-old arrogance, keeps talking to the person next to him. They snicker, their glances gesturing at the student reading. Loretta launches a frigid glare in his direction, and he stops whispering but continues to wear the same pompous grin he has all semester.

“Good, thank you,” she says when the student finishes reading. “Now, I want to open this up to everyone. What did you like about the essay? Anyone. What did you like?” The room remains as still as a painted ocean. “Okay. I’ll start,” she says, struggling to keep frustration out of her voice. “I think the detail in these examples was very well done. I could picture the way people treated him when they found out about his sister’s illness. I could see the looks on their faces—what was it he wrote, ‘like I was marked’? Great line. Somebody else, somebody else. What did you like in the essay?”

As a few other students start commenting, Tom goes back to whispering. Each time he breaks from a whisper, he makes eye contact with Loretta as if to openly defy the classroom’s order. She shoots him the same cold gaze, but he just continues talking. She holds her tongue, keeping him in her peripheral, until the wave of comments recedes.

“Tom,” Loretta says, just as he is again turning toward the student next to him, “what did you like about this essay?”

“What?” he asks, still wearing the same grin.

“I asked you what you liked about the essay.”

“Oh. Right. I wrote some comments, but they’re not really in that category.”

“That category?”

“Yeah. The let’s-pat-each-other-on-the-back category.”

Loretta can feel every muscle in her body heat and tense. She pauses and takes a breath before responding. “Well, Tom, presuming you actually did do the assignment and did it correctly, you should have written at least one thing in that category,” she says, making air quotations around the words that category. All rustling of papers and shifting in seats halts. “Well?” Tom still stares at her, but now his smile is gone, and his jaw has started to pulse. She stands up and turns around, leaving her spot in the workshop circle for one behind the lectern. She perches herself there and leans forward, her eyes dead on Tom. “Hmm…No response. Tom, I am particularly fascinated that out of everyone in this class, you have no response. It is truly remarkable. Next time, if you don’t feel like participating, don’t bother coming.” She gazes defiantly him, the class caught between them. “Take a break, everyone. Come back in 15.”

When class resumes, Tom does not come back, and she does not know whether to feel proud or ashamed. What she does feel is unburdened, as though she just set down a very heavy bag. For the rest of the class, she avoids looking at Tom’s empty chair and struggles to maintain what focus she has left. Afterwards, she pulls the door of her office shut behind her and leans back against it. She ignores the blinking message light on her phone, pulls the paper bag from beneath her desk, and quickly walks out with her head down so that no one will stop her in the hallway.

As Loretta starts her car, she can see Tom’s face, alive with anger, and she wonders where he went when he did not return. His not returning gnaws at her as she wades through 94. He had been disrespectful, but she did not like losing her temper in class. The teacher is always supposed to remain calm. By the time she reaches the Riverside exit, her exit, all she can think of is how badly she wants to tell Edward what happened. He would know exactly what to say. She cannot help herself; she passes the Riverside exit, taking the 11th Street exit instead and driving to the park. She circles it, worried that Edward might not be there at all. Then she sees him sitting on a bench in the middle of the park, right along the sidewalk. He looks the same as he had the other day—his head tilted forward as if he is sleeping. A layer of snow is accumulating on his hair and Loretta imagines brushing it off with her fingers. She gets out of her car and walks toward the sidewalk that runs through the park, the snow packing easily beneath her feet. As she nears the bench where Edward sits, she imagines putting her hand gently under his chin and pulling his face up so that she can look into his eyes. When she imagines his eyes though, she does not see the eyes of the man she loves. Rather she only sees those of the man who left her, hollowed eyes that only yesterday had looked but failed to see.

Thinking of them, she stops, and instead of continuing to walk toward him, she walks across the park, finding a bench behind a tree. From the bench, she can watch him. She can imagine that he is sleeping, that she is just waiting for him to wake up to come to dinner. She opens the paper bag and begins taking out the contents. When she bites into the apple, she is back in the center of the dream, which is boundless. In the center of the dream, Edward wakes and crosses the park. He sits down next to her and reaches into the bag. He rips apart the baguette and cuts off a thick piece of cheese, a peculiar smile on his face.

Eat, he says, eat. She takes the food from him and smiles back. So, what’s on your mind?

I blew up at a student today. 

Well, did he deserve it? he says, smiling and nudging her. 

Yeah. I guess he did. He was laughing at another kid’s writing.

There you go, he says. Then you don’t need to worry about it. Sounds like he needed to be put into place. 

But he didn’t come back to class after break, Edward. He just walked out and didn’t come back…

A trickle of cold water runs down Loretta’s neck, which pulls her back into the outskirts of the dream. She wipes the back of her neck with her hand, and runs a hand through her hair, melting the snow that has gathered in it. The paper bag at her side has grown damp, and she thinks about leaving, but then she remembers the wine. She uncorks the bottle and pours some into a paper cup. The cabernet is dry and rich and after a few sips, the cold begins to flee her bones.

She looks over at Edward, who has not moved. “Cheers, Edward,” she says.

Then the dinner is over.

At home, she stares out the window into the purple darkness. Snow is still falling, but it has grown lighter and the flakes tumble in the wind. Another set of papers waits for her, a pen poised on top of them. She doesn’t want to look at them, not now. She is tired of unending work. She is tired of the one bedroom, of Blake, of Tom. She is tired of missing Edward. It would be so easy, she thinks. She imagines pulling on her boots and long wool coat, wrapping a scarf around her neck. She imagines opening the front door, which always sticks a little, and shutting off the light. She imagines turning around and taking one last look over her dark apartment. She imagines the glow from the clock on the stove shining in the kitchen, and the streetlight casting a garden of slanted light on the hardwood floor. And then she imagines pulling the door shut behind her and stepping out into the snow.

Excerpted from Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press, 2014).

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About Darci Schummer

Darci Schummer is the author of Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press, 2014) and the co-author of Hinge (broadcraft press, 2015). Her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Necessary Fiction, and Midway Journal, among other places. She splits her time between Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota, and teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

Darci Schummer

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