Today we publish the last of our top five stories in the 8th annual Voorheesville Short Story Contest. Our first place finalist, Megan Odorizzi’s “The Upstanding Citizen,” is a noirish romp that approaches the theme of this year’s contest, “The Night Before,” through the eyes of three people. As our judge put it, “There were lots of lovely little details and the dialogue was quite dynamic.” As a side note, Megan won last year’s contest with her story, “Spoiled.” Congratulations to Megan, our first repeat winner! We hope you enjoy it!
“When the willow tree sang of lost sorrow, I knew not if I should grieve for it or cuss at it.” Henry paused, staring at the typed words on the page. “Jackie! This is great,” he said, hitting the paper with enthusiasm.
“No–no it’s just . . . .” She tried to grasp around in her mind for the right words that would make the scene . . . Just . . . .
“Ugh!” She hit the arm of the velveteen chair she was sitting in. Even while thinking, she couldn’t get the right idea out.
“Jackie, come on, trust me. This is good writing.”
“Well, it ain’t like your writing, so I don’t see how it can be that good,” she mumbled.
She took out a metal tin from her trouser’s pocket and popped a cigarette in her mouth.
“You got a light?”
Henry tsked. “You know I don’t like it when you smoke.”
“Oh, don’t be so uptight. I’m helping the economy with this grace from God himself,” she shook the case, the cigarettes pushing each other around.
There was a pause of indecision from Henry, but Jackie already knew what he’d do. She’d won him over, and he hadn’t even realized it.
His wife Helena hated smoking ever since Nat King Cole died. She loved that man a bit too much. Henry once told Jackie that he couldn’t score her unless he put on King’s music. He joked that she could only get in the mood when King sang with his saccharine voice. Jackie knew he wasn’t kidding, but she never said much of anything other than, Sooner or later, she’ll make you buy two radios.
He lit her cigarette and watched her eyes cavort with the flame. Her carmine-colored lips curled as she took a long drag, thrusting the smoke towards Henry.
He kept his eyes on her. He sucked in her smoke, along with the taste of her lavender perfume.
She laughed, puffs of smoke swirling around her head.
“All right, Mr. Krawczyk. Lay it on me,” Jackie said, cracking her neck theatrically.
“I told you you don’t have to call me by my last name. We’re co-workers–”
“Nah, Nah, Nah,” Jackie interrupted, wagging her two fingers that held the cigarette. Little bits of ash fell onto the carpet. “You’re higher up, and you know that.” She took another long drag. “You’re my editor, and you’re a writer,” she breathed out.
Henry sat up, straighter in his chair with a light smile on his face. “Why do you think something’s the matter?”
Jackie’s straight white teeth showed up, contrasting against her lipstick. She took her last drag and stubbed out the cigarette. Her head lifted straight up to the ceiling; her lidded eyes pierced into Henry. The smoke ascended into the air on an imaginary string, drawing an ethereal haze around her.
“You breathed in my smoke.” She crossed her legs. “You don’t do that.”
She waited. So did Henry.
Jackie broke the pause, “You especially don’t do that after telling me off for smoking.”
Yet another pause, accompanied by a squeak from Henry shifting in his leather chair.
“Helena and I were quarreling a bit last night,” he licked his lips, shifting again.
The guilt rushed to the soles of his feet.
“Give me one of those, will ya?”
She shook her head, opening and closing the metal case with a soft click. She leaned over and Henry lit one eagerly. He breathed in the smoke with his whole body, his eyes clenched shut. His body moved slowly, wanting the smoke to stay in his lungs and swallow his breath whole. He began to think about his wife. And Jackie.
It was always Jackie, wasn’t it?
Henry had gotten home late last night. The stray cats patrolling his neighborhood were solely brought to existence by the illumination of the yellowish street lights.
He had been out drinking with some of his pals. His friends’ crafty expressions and the soft sound of the female singer’s voice tipped him over the edge. He didn’t see the cancerous blare of the bar’s lights anymore but the beckoning red-eyed glow of them. At the end of the night, he was stumbling his whole way home. Almost asking–no, hoping–to be mugged. But it was just him, the locust’s song, and the skittering cats.
With difficulty, he finally lodged the keys into the door’s lock. Henry’s head now lay on the front door. Number ninety-five. Fifth house on the left. A pitiful garden in the backyard, bleeding up into the front. It was white with blue shutters and had far too few windows. So few in fact that it made the entire house look squished and tense. Like it was suffocating. Shrinking, waiting for the time to be relieved; to cave in and lull itself back into the ground.
Opening the door, the first thing that came into Henry’s blurry vision was his wife. Helena was sat in a wicker chair by an open window. A breeze slithered its way through, making her bare legs prickle. She didn’t turn from her post as she announced, “Honey, I’m home,” mocking the way Henry says it. The way he used to say it.
He stood stock straight now. The alcohol seemed to leave his body instantaneously.
“I, uh, I went out with Sam and Tommy and some other guys at work.”
He stepped closer to his wife, but she stood her ground, cemented into her wicker chair.
He cleared his throat, only now realizing that he probably reeked of booze. “Helena, I’m sorry. I shoulda been back sooner.”
He glanced at her.
“I should’ve told you.”
She got up, her back to him. She put her hands on her hips, leaning backward in a slow cat-like stretch. She strode over lightly on the balls of her feet, her nightdress loose and flowing against her body.
With the window now closed, she questioned, “Why’d you go out?”
Henry opened his mouth, ready to answer, but nothing came out.
She turned and just . . . looked at him. Henry, she thought. You look absolutely foul.
He gave her one of his smiles that attempted to caress her cheek and try to make up for anything and everything.
“You know, usually when someone asks a question, your wife, for example, people are polite enough to answer.”
She bit the inside of her cheek, hard, feeling the skin between her molars about to break but eased off.
“Hel, I don’t know what to say. What do you want me to say?”
Helena rolled her eyes, huffing, she walked around the room to clean up her ice-cold dinner plate, Henry trailing after her.
“You could answer my question,” she said, scraping off the remaining food into the garbage. The fork scratched against the plate, giving shrill cries.
But the truth was, by Henry’s dry mouth and thudding heart, he didn’t know why he went out.
When someone gets so fed up with their partner, they choose to shout over silence any day. With silence, you have to wait. You have to think. With shouting, you don’t have to consider it. You can talk all you desire until you run out of things to say. Until your throat is stiff dry, and your eyes cake with forgotten tears and you feel the thud of your heart against your hollow chest, and all you can do is stare. And wait.
Helena threw the fork and plate in the sink with a clatter.
“I don’t get this. What, huh, Henry? What is it?” She rested a hand on her hip. Her sharp nails dug into her transparent slip. “I shoulda known better. Ya always get like this.” She shook her head. “I am so stupid!” Helena said to herself.
Henry shucked off his overbearing jacket and laid it gently on the chair in front of him. He rubbed his shoulder, feeling a drop of sweat slowly creep down his back.
After a few tense seconds, Henry finally responded with a sigh and, “I always do this?”
She clucked her tongue, not believing her ears.
“Yeah, Hen, ya do. You always make things too difficult, and for what, huh?”
He took a seat, but she still stood next to their kitchen table. Helena edged closer to her husband, her hot and prickly breath leeching onto his face.
“I know it ain’t me,” she spat. “Because ever since that doll you been editing for showed up, I’ve been having to force you to even speak to me.”
Henry squinted his eyes at his wife.
This is what she’s mad about?
He started, “You know that’s not the reason–”
“Excuse me?” She took the seat across from him.
Helena and Henry were in a silent staring contest, not daring to break each other’s bloodcurdling gazes.
“You think I’ve been distant because I have a thing for Jackie?”
Helena frowned at the mention of her name.
“Do you even know yourself?” A strained smile played on her lips. “You’re a romantic, Henry.”
He shook his head, opening his mouth to speak, but Helena interjected with a laugh.
“You think I’m stupid?” She raised an eyebrow at him. “I know you spend all your time in ya stupid little make-shift office in our home smiling to yourself at what she’s writing.” She leaned forward on her arms, her eyes unwavering from her husband’s. “What is it, Henry? You want her to write a lil’ something about you?”
“You’re being crazy.”
“Crazy?” she mimicked. “By golly, officer, my husband’s committing adultery and has the gall to–”
“Shut up!” Henry slammed his fist on the table, making Helena jerk.
She protectively wrapped her arms around her stomach, clenching them together tightly.
“Jackie is not like that,” stated Henry curtly.
“Well, I am so sorry that I don’t know her as intimately as you do,” she muttered.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake! I don’t have eyes for her!”
“Then what is it?!”
“You!” He was exasperated and out of breath. He felt like there were rats all over his body, nibbling at his skin, making it sizzle and sting.
Helena drew her eyes to the ceiling and blinked rapidly. She had a hysterical grin complementing her shaky voice, “What the hell did I do?”
“Oh, I don’t know, honey,” Henry deadpanned. “Maybe rave about wanting a family when you convinced me to buy this house,” he stabbed a finger against the table, “my house, not ours, and then suddenly squirm at the very thought of us in bed.”
She scoffed, “You know full well–”
“I know full well you don’t want me to touch you unless Nat King Cole sings and plays his big ol’ trumpet.”
She smiled at him.
He shook his head, not understanding, “What?”
She pushed herself up, a rigid yet resolute smile on her face. She began swaying her hips, dancing lightly yet with an edge of hysteria, her back now turned to Henry and she switched the radio on. At first, a gurgle of fuzzy scratching screamed out of the box, but then in absolute awe, a sultry voice surged out accompanied with a–
“Piano. He plays the piano, ya ditz,” she spat.
And it was true. Nat King Cole did, and he was damn good at it.
Helena sang along loudly to the song playing, making her body move elegantly against her slip. Her hands pushed the cloth up and down, tracing up to her bare thighs. She wasn’t half bad at singing.
Henry shoved himself out of his chair, getting to his feet. He shouted, but Helena kept on singing and dancing and moving with her eyes closed. Not one inch of the house wasn’t rumbling with sound. It could practically feel the pressure pushing against its walls. Helena was practically screaming now, her throat clenching with anger.
The rats grew angrier in Henry’s body. This time they didn’t nibble. They bit, hard. Fists clenched because of the pain, his knuckles ghostly white, he made his way over to Helena.
In a swift movement, the radio was on the ground, a chip out of it but still playing fine. Helena, eyes wide, grabbed onto Henry’s shirt, trying to hold him back. But it was too late. The rats pooled at the soles of his feet, and he stomped. Hard.
The room filled itself full of silence except for the crunching coughs of the destroyed radio bits under Henry’s shoes.
He didn’t dare glance back at Helena.
“I’m taking the couch.”
He didn’t wait for her response as he withdrew into the living room and seated himself on his new bed. His shirt was wrinkled where Helena’s hands grasped desperately.
Absentmindedly, Helena took a step forward, her thoughts whispering around her like fumes of smoke. A breathy curse from her throat rang out. She shook her head, limping to their bedroom. She slammed the door shut, prickles of pain shooting from her foot. Seated on the bed, she examined the sole of her foot. A small metal piece blinked at her. It started to cry a tear of blood. With steady hands, she plucked it out. Silence encompassed her as she dropped the bloody thing with a clink.
All Henry told Jackie about that night was that he and Helena got into a heated argument that led to him breaking their radio. He mentioned nothing about Helena’s suspicion of Jackie, or that he was drunk, or about Helena’s snide comment about Nat King Cole; he knew Jackie would’ve eaten that up, but he also knew she would grow distant if she knew all of last night. Henry couldn’t do that. He couldn’t see her fade. He couldn’t. She was his muse.
Jackie rose in haste, a new vigor in her step.
“You wanna get takeout?”
“Would I like to . . . Do I want to what?”
“Get takeout! I know this real good Chinese place downtown.”
“Can we come back here after we get the food?”
“O’ course. It’s takeout, that’s how it works.”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry, I, uh, yeah, let’s go.”
A half an hour later and with little takeout boxes filled with food in hand, they re-entered Henry’s workroom.
Jackie sat down on the carpet, her legs crossed, and opened up a carton of lo mein, greedily scarfing it down with her cheap wooden chopsticks.
“Sit down,” Jackie said with a full mouth.
She nodded down to the carpet.
Henry sat down, copying Jackie. He watched her eat with a light smile across his lips. His eyes lingered on the prominent lipstick stain on Jackie’s chopsticks. His gaze stalked to her lips. They were plump. They were intrusive. And her nose, crooked, yet enthralling. And her eyes. Those soft brown eyes that gripped the tip of his tongue and made him–
Henry cleared his throat, averting his gaze, and opened up a carton of fresh white rice. He grimaced down at it. Packets of different sauces lay next to his right knee, and he paid no time to dump all of them on the rice, covering it in a cesspool of sickly sweet syrup. Not one white grain was left as Henry picked up his steel spoon and dug in.
After fifteen minutes of comfortable silence, they had finished all five of the cartons they bought.
Jackie lay on her back, stuffed; her soft brown curls tickled her cheek. She stroked the carpet subconsciously, up and down and up again.
“Mr. Krawcyzk, do you think people’d buy my book?”
Henry, on his back as well, looked over at Jackie. He followed the motion of her hand, the thoughts of her consuming him like licking the tips of your fingers and willing them to put out the flame of a candle.
“Yes!” That response was too loud; Jackie’s ears seemed to shift back like an animal’s. Her hand stopped its stroking.
He cleared his throat, suddenly all too aware that he was in this room with her. All too aware of the little shifts and shakes of her body, opening, and closing to him. To his breaths, his aches, his thoughts. To only him.
“Yes, Jackie, I think people would. Buy your book, I mean. I do, truly.”
She breathed out, having the intense urge to go back to her apartment and climb deep under her bed covers until Warmth kissed her forehead, the tips of her ears, and her supple lips and tell her she could liberate her body and rest.
She rolled over to face him better.
“You know you’re my third editor.” It was a statement, but it had an instant regret of not being a question.
“You didn’t tell me that,” he said softly.
“Yeah,” she chuckled. “I know I was just . . . .” she trailed off.
“There were these two guys before you. I was new to New York, and I wanted something immediate, ya know?”
“Yeah, so I, ya know, I wanted the first editor I saw. But you know how the folks here are. They see a desperate and pretty girl, and they just,” Jackie paused. “Anyway,” she continued gravely, “He didn’t work out, and by this point, the train ticket here had already drained me good, not mentioning my dingy apartment wasn’t a bargain in the slightest.”
Jackie started to stroke the carpet again.
“So,” a smile playing on her lips, “I called everyone.” She giggled again, putting a hand over her face.
“Thank God that list included you.”
Henry scratched his cheek, a hidden smile peeking out between the slits separating his fingers. He felt oddly proud of himself. Like Jackie chose him.
“Naturally, none of ‘em called me back with good offers the first day,” she shot a look at him. “Except one man: Jonathan Rowe.”
She wetted her lips.
“Now, this man sounded real nice over the phone, so naturally, I set up a meeting with him the next day. Now Johnny offered me some real good possibilities, especially with connecting me to a publisher free of charge.”
Jackie had started to get bored of her voice when she added, “Of course, I’d have to pay Johnny a handsome sum, but I was willing to overlook that.”
She sighed, continuing, “I just hadda do this one extra thing to seal the deal, as he put it.”
Jackie, tight-lipped, smiled, rubbing her temples. Henry let out a small huff, realizing where this was going.
How dare someone ask that of her.
“Now, naturally, he had a missus, which made me feel even more disgustin’. Ya know? I thought I was gonna do something. Pave a way through the line o’ men.” She smiled for real this time. “Because y’all have a way of swallowing up everything in one gulp.”
He didn’t know what to say.
She dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
“Nah, my fault. I thought I was doing something brand new by being a woman and seeking out my dreams.”
She looked up at him, “Just ended up with a bunch of perverts full of bunk.”
“Why didn’t you . . . .” he stumbled over his words. “I mean, you said the offer was good–”
He felt her cringe at that.
“I was gonna do it, but you decided to call me back. Good offer. Nice voice. Meeting went well.” She gleamed at him. “And you didn’t ask me for any,” she lowered her voice, “special favors.”
They laughed together, enjoying the new silence and their full bellies. But Henry couldn’t stop peaking over at Jackie.
A moldy sense of hollowness took comfort in the crook of his ribs.
It was an hour since Jackie and Henry’s lunch. His office felt colder without Jackie’s body heat and the solace it found from Henry’s desires. Sometimes his office couldn’t handle Henry, however. Sometimes it would make the door difficult to open, so it didn’t get flooded with his indecisiveness. But those brief moments of being able to see him not sagacious and giving in was a bliss greater than that of an allegory.
But the office liked Jackie unconditionally. She was kind and pretty and smelled like flowers. She was the type of girl every office wanted. The prize girl. The star girl. The office knew she was a star girl. It was Henry’s office, after all.
Henry’s house, however, was sickly.
Helena lay flat on her back, her eyes on the ceiling. She didn’t know how long she’d been like this. She supposed all day. Her left arm had gone all tingly. She had no desire to pick herself up and plop herself down onto the bed like a forgotten toy.
She needed her bones to stretch themselves thin enough to break. To ease in to the pain and crack and crumble.
She knew it was a Saturday but in her head, she heard the phone ring. She could listen to her co-worker on the other line asking why she hadn’t shown up for work. If she was sick. If everything was all right and if she was all right. But no such call came.
She wondered if she left this house if anyone would look for her. At least for the first day. She knew that for the first day, she’d be an afterthought. A word you can’t remember the name of until the next day, and it comes to you in a jolt, followed by a headrush, succeeded by unsettling disappointment.
She heard the front door creak open and slowly close. It was like Henry was trying not to wake her from a slumber. And maybe she was sleeping. Her eyes felt glazed over. They blinked at odd intervals like they were trying to show that they still, in fact, worked. Maybe her body had finally sewn itself into the carpet.
Her body was one deep rumble of static.
The music didn’t hit her until their bedroom door opened.
Henry, she thought. Henry. Henry. Henry.
She was delirious. The house was inhaling with her, making sure she blinked. She swallowed. She lived. It sighed with her and squirmed enjoyably against the sound of King’s voice brushing gently over them.
She smiled in bliss as she felt the presence of Henry over her.
He had bought two radios.
With closed eyes, Helena slowly opened herself, letting Henry, her music, and Jackie in until she and the house were finally lulled to rest, able to breathe again. Slowly now. So slow it didn’t even matter anymore.