Afterlife (essay, Prometheus Dreaming, May 2019)

 

Winter in the Wall (essay, Shards. May 2020)

 

Artist/District 2020 Application Work Sample (4000 words/13 pp double-spaced 12 pt)

The following is an excerpt from a novel in progress set at a Midwestern college, working title The Franklin Scholar. The novel spans the academic year 1964-65 and the excerpt, as suggested by the month headings, comes at about the midpoint. The four main characters have established increasingly complex relationships with each other.

December

A month later, one day during winter break, Esther drove the car on her own to Cohen’s. Taking the car to run errands, saying dammit instead of dangit, making a fresh pot of coffee just for herself, these were all markers of her adultness in her parents’ house. Esther’s primary task at Cohen’s was to pick up two dress shirts for her father. She walked up to the men’s counter, adult all the way, and chatted with Mr. Cohen, who was as old as Esther’s uncle by the sideboard, but less sherried.

Cohen’s was where Esther had been fitted for a long-line strapless brassiere-girdle combo, her iron undergarment for high school graduation week and for formalwear occasions that might come up at college in the fall. Mrs. Cohen had shown Esther into a fitting room in the back of the store, not the public fitting room, but a curtained corner of the alterations room which was strewn with garments and scraps and spools. Take off your blouse, Mrs. Cohen had said. They stood uncomfortably close in the tiny space. She scolded Esther for the unsupportive bra she was wearing. She told her to take it off, and they beheld Esther’s bare breasts in the fitting room mirror as Mrs. Cohen pulled a tape measure out of her pocket. She began wrapping it around Esther’s ribcage, deftly managing not to touch the breasts themselves.

“Look at your breasts!” she said.

Esther looked at her breasts.

Esther, at this moment, was there, but was also not really there. She had stripped as instructed, understanding the demands of logic: you cannot be fitted for a brassiere while wearing a brassiere. (Can you?) In her mind she wandered to the edge of the scene, perhaps perched on the length of twine across which the privacy curtain was pulled, except only half pulled, because Mrs. Cohen ducked in and out of the little fitting room. Esther floated as far away as she could while still watching. And simultaneously she was of course inside this body, behind these breasts.

Mrs. Cohen rummaged in a box full of ivory and beige nylon things, producing what looked like the snipped-off nose of a model of the Hindenburg. She fitted this thing onto Esther’s breast, shoving gently upwards, lifting it. She frowned and pulled a different Hindenburg from the box.

“You have heavy breasts.”

As soon as she could do so without fear that Mrs. Cohen would bark at her for getting in the way of her measuring, Esther covered her breasts with her hands. It was too late. She could not suppress the fluorescent pink and white afterimage when, for a second, she closed her eyes.

“Get dressed dear. Meet me at the rear counter,” Mrs. Cohen said as she slipped out of the curtained corner.

Esther got dressed. Her stomach hurt.

When she came to the counter, Mrs. Cohen pushed a catalogue towards her. “This one, and this one, these are right for you, and we can get in the proper size.”

Esther pointed at one. She didn’t care which one. And then she outgrew it anyway. She ordered it in the spring and by the middle of fall freshman year, it was too tight. She was able to open a seam and insert a sewn-in piece to make it last through to the end of the semester, but she was back to see Mrs. Cohen over the winter break.

And so it went, her relationship with Mrs. Cohen cemented by her dependence on her for undergarments that could keep up with her expansions. No more bare breasts, though, no more Hindenburgs, thank God.

And now, Christmas break, senior year of college, on the cusp of the auspicious-sounding 1965: carrying the package of her father’s shirts under her arm, Esther walked back to Mrs. Cohen’s counter. Two bathing suits were pinned to the wall behind the counter, a kelly green one-piece and a bikini in a red and yellow flower pattern. Matching swim bonnets. Slender spring pant-suits for Mary Tyler Moore, in coral and lemon. Floral silk scarves. Mr. Cohen talked of moving to Florida some day. Until then, Mrs. Cohen had moved Florida onto the back wall of their store.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cohen,” Esther said, the moment of her nakedness between them forevermore.

“Hello Esther dear,” said the old lady, scowling approvingly at Esther’s outfit, her upswept hair, her blameless strawberries and cream complexion. You have heavy breasts, an objective fact, was the most hardship she had ever given Esther about her figure, and she was all too glad to sell her more undergarments. Esther was a sweet girl.

“Mrs. Cohen, I wonder,” she began. Brave adult. “I wondered if you could help me sort out a bathing suit.” Esther glanced at the hysterically cheerful wall. “I know I’m not the easiest shape to fit.” As if to soften the outrageousness of her request, she added, “I’d want a one-piece.”

Mrs. Cohen considered, looking at Esther over the rectangular lenses halfway down her nose. Then she bent down, pulled a wholesale catalogue from a low shelf, and flapped it onto the counter.

“Come. We’ll do some shopping. First, I need measurements.” Esther inhaled. “No no,” Mrs. Cohen said. “Clothes stay on you. Here, I come to you.”

Mrs. Cohen suddenly reminded Esther of her voice teacher Tati. Perhaps Tati’s mean older sister, but maybe mean because she had seen things, fought battles, protected little sisters. Mrs. Cohen came from behind the counter around to the shop floor. With her measuring tape she measured Esther’s waist and the distance from her neck to her bottom, which she touched only briefly, a nurse with a steady hand giving a painless shot. Esther felt a surge of love for Mrs. Cohen, for her lack of curiosity about her desire for a bathing suit, for her fierce competence, for her complete failure to deplore her.

 

January

Christmas break had frayed at the edges and Esther was glad to be back at Belfort in January. Snow had swept its white wing across the campus, across Braddock and its tumbling lawn, reflected light rioting through its wide wall of glass into the dining hall and the space-age airport terminal of a lounge.

Esther wondered if the architects had guessed how bright the dining hall would appear at midday after a snow — if they thought this would somehow make up for the tiny rooms of cinderblock and linoleum upstairs. It was probably an accident. Still, it was glorious. She gasped at the different moods and modes of light in the dining hall each mealtime as she descended the grand stairs. Even dusk struck a glow of pearl off the feathered ground.

Esther, Margaret and Priscilla left lunch together, bundled and booted and mittened. Every transition in or out of a building now required an elaborate costume change. Groundskeepers and students had together shoveled the snow into little mountain-walls along the walkways. Priscilla turned off west to make her way along the shoveled paths to Proctor, for dance practice. Margaret and Esther went to the Student Union to check for mail. Damp newspaper matted the entrance to the mailroom where a thousand boot-stomps had deposited melted snow. A package slip clung to the side wall of Esther’s little mailbox. Cohen’s. She took it to the window and claimed her package before Margaret knew she had slipped away to fetch it.

“What’d you get?” Margaret asked, tucking her mail, and Priscilla’s, into her knapsack.

Esther hugged the box. She wanted to tell Margaret, was of course going to tell her. This entire undertaking was the result, of course, of Margaret’s patient urging. But at the moment Esther could only smile. Margaret’s own smile at that moment was enormous as she looked at Esther hoarding her mysterious brown parcel. Margaret’s front teeth were enormous too, Esther noticed. Yet she didn’t look like a bunny or a horse. Maybe, almost, not quite. To Esther she just looked happy.

“Oh come on, what is it?”

“It’s something — I thought I’d try out. Just try out.”

“What, a harmonica? A chemistry set?”

Esther rolled her eyes. “No. It’s a bathing suit.”

Margaret opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it. She gave Esther’s forearm a quick squeeze, and spoke not a word. They left the mailroom and parted to class and library.

That night, Esther stood on a stack of piano-vocal scores, the better to see her middle in the awkward-height built-in dresser mirror in her room. Her bust looked pretty good. Then there was the rest. It hadn’t been easy to get the suit on and she’d worried she would break the straps as she scraped them up her soft January skin. Maybe the suit was just new, like a shoe, and she needed to break it in, force it to stretch and yield. She turned, peeking at the back. It wasn’t so much the part inside the bathing suit. The problem was where the suit ended and her flesh burst forth, with vengeance.

 

February

After the Friday night organ concert at Memorial Chapel, which Harlan usually attended though he did not have to play tonight, George said, “Hey. Let’s not go home right away.” Home, to both of them, on a Friday night, had become Harlan’s room.
“What did you have in mind?”

“Come with me.”

Harlan stopped. They stood behind Memorial, on the snow-shoveled path skirting the sandstone bulk of the chapel’s rounded apse.

“Where?”

“Just come.”

“It’s late — I don’t want to go to Vincent’s.”

“No no, it’s something else.”

Harlan could hardly see the person inside George’s navy blue woolen coat, hooded, a tartan scarf bundled about his face. But he could see his eyes, bright and unobscured. Harlan pursed his lips and followed, walking behind George along the path until they reached the sidewalk where they could walk two abreast. It was 11:45, the time when co-ed study groups, parties and gatherings of all kinds were dispersing. Girls could be seen in pairs and groups, stepping around slush puddles in their dressy shoes, punished for their vanity in the melted and refrozen snowscape; or boys walked them to their residence halls.

They turned north, away from kids loitering outside the billiards room at the Student Union, past the science and physics buildings, past the north residential quad whose trees were enormous and silent under cloaks of snow. They walked to a part of campus Harlan had been to only once. Deep in freshman year winter, he had been convinced, by singers of course, to go ice skating. It seemed impossibly long ago, but he remembered well the fellow who had fallen on the ice just so and broken his shoulder. Harlan had calmly crossed off ice skating from the mental list of things he ever wanted to do again. They were now approaching what must be the gym complex.

“George where are we going.” Harlan said, not asked. He banished a feeling of dread. He had muscle for banishing.

“To the gym.”

“What for?”

“To the pool.”

Harlan stopped. He looked at the expectation on George’s face. It was the face of a child sitting on a giant joyful surprise.

“Hang on, what do you mean?”

“To swim,” George said, impatient that they were stopped fifty feet from the door.

“What? It’s almost midnight.”

“I know!”

“Look, I don’t,” Harlan began, quiet before George’s terrible pleasure. George was looking at him, his lips parted, optimism fogging his glasses, optimism relentless and stupid.

“I spent my summers sitting at organ benches,” Harlan said. “I don’t — I don’t do a lot of swimming.”

“Hey, that’s okay,” George said, turning to look behind him to the door, where Margaret was supposed to let them in at midnight. “You don’t have to swim, like swim laps or in the deep end or anything.”

“I assure you, I will not be swimming laps,” Harlan said. George’s enthusiasm was charming but it was something else too. It was sharp. It glinted in the dark.

George stamped at the cold, annoyed at the delay. He seemed to try to hush his impatience. “Would you come in, though?” he asked, gentle. “Would you just hop in the three-feet with me? I brought you some swim trunks. They’re mine — but they’re loose on me. And a towel.”

George was saying a lot. George was talking about the three-feet and swim trunks and towels. But the gym was locked and it was midnight. Harlan’s face registered only confusion.
“Margaret has them.”

“I’m sorry. You said Margaret?”

“Yeah, Margaret and Esther are meeting us,” George said, again looking to the door.

Esther?”

George looked at his watch. 11:54. “Yes, Esther,” George said brightly. “It’s a pool party.”

Harlan was so surprised that he was stuck, unable to see or sort any of this. All he saw was George, who continued to look at him.

“Come. Will you?” George asked. He trotted the rest of the way to the gymnasium door, then turned back to face Harlan. The name placard on the building was lit by a weak spotlight, but the doorway and the snowbound juniper bushes against the building, and George, were in shadow. There was nothing Harlan could think, nothing he could say to this. He just moved.

He caught up to George, and George pulled him to the doorway, shadow within shadow at the end of campus, where there was no one, where the yellow light of lampposts petered out. Beyond them lay the athletic fields and beyond that the deep void of fallow cornfields under snow. Harlan let himself be pulled, let George swallow him up with the hunger of waiting, dear God they were behind schedule; they would have been in Harlan’s room by now if not for the trek to this northern frontier after the organ concert, and a standoff on the sidewalk outside the damn gymnasium.

There was a noise at the metal door and they flinched away. The door opened a crack, then all the way, to reveal Margaret, towel-clad, shivering and grinning.

“Come in! We have 45 minutes.”

Harlan nodded politely, reflexively, but he could not speak. He watched Margaret click the heavy metal door shut behind them and hasten down the gymnasium corridor, leaving small damp footprints. She would be right at home, Harlan thought, supervising the women who waxed the pews and dusted the Stations of the Cross at St. Catherine’s, or bossing little boy cousins out of the kitchen as she hauled a heaping platter of roasted something to the dining room table. His wariness altered little, but shot through it was a streak of gratitude for this tiny white girl with the copper hair. He didn’t know what the hell was going on right now, but he wouldn’t want anyone else in charge.

Down the hall they followed her, to the locker rooms, to the thickness of chlorine. Margaret handed George a canvas bag, pointed to the men’s locker room door and disappeared through the door on the women’s side.

In the locker room, Harlan said to George, “Are you sure no one’s here?”

“No one else. Margaret has a key because of swim team.”

“You get a key when you’re on the swim team?”

“No, just she has one, because she’s the manager or something,” George said, rummaging through the bag and pulling out towels. “She’s friends with the coach. Or the director maybe. I don’t understand sporty things.” He found what he’d been looking for. “Here, take these.”

Harlan took the swim trunks George handed him. George had already stripped, was pulling on his trunks, tying the drawstring, shoving his heaped clothes on the bench, ready to fly out the door, dive in the pool, run down the bank, jump off the dock. In no time he stood by the door out to the pool, ready.

“Go ahead,” said Harlan. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

Harlan put his shoes on the bench and his clothes in a cubby. 45 minutes, Margaret had said. His body did its undressing, and his mind went other places, other times. It went to Pool No. 2 at Druid Hill Park, teeming with black bodies, all the black bodies of a city of a million people. Was it fun or was it boiling chaos. Harlan couldn’t tell from the road where they stood. He looked up at his mother, her high heels and string bag and closed eyes, the knife-pleats in her skirt unfolding in the humidity.

They went for ice cream instead.

Harlan walked the tile floor from locker room to pool deck and sat down at the pool’s edge, wearing George’s dark green swim trunks — white stripe down each side, snug. He dangled his feet in the water, which was warm like the air. He looked around at the school colors and team banners on the walls; he let George pull playfully on his legs and then pull more seriously, and more gently, on his hands.

Esther was at the far end and Margaret was swimming toward her, pointing to the boys. For the moment Harlan and George were alone at the shallow end. Harlan lowered himself off the edge and slipped into the water and they stood waist-deep. George beamed at him. Harlan did not share George’s glee, yet he did love the softness of the water. They heard Margaret count off, and then she and Esther started a race toward the shallow end.

George waded toward Harlan, into the space between them, but Harlan’s look stopped him, with eyes that seemed lit from behind, or layered like an agate or the scales of an iridescent lizard. George had touched Harlan’s eyelids with his lips, had breathed Harlan’s breath. It was at those times, when they were so close, that Harlan’s eyes were a tunnel, brown blurring liquid into black. Lenses so open they recorded time.

Was the deep black-brown a trick, or was the agate a trick, changing like the water, which moved in the yellowish light of the high caged lamps overhead? Maybe George had imagined it, for he looked again and saw dark brown eyes bright and deep, steady as Harlan. Harlan touched away a single drop of water forming on George’s earlobe. The girls arrived in splashes.
At last all four of them stood in a square in the water. Harlan observed that Margaret was exactly as sturdy and matter-of-fact in her bathing suit as in any other outfit, and that Esther, smiling as if she had a secret, was just as triumphantly bosomy and bottomy and dolphin-smooth as he would have imagined her to be.

George, though. He was more himself, less inhibited, if that was possible, than Harlan had ever seen him. He came up for air with a quick shake of his head, he slapped and chopped the surface of the water, he did dives and laid-out back somersaults and handstands. Something poured out of him that Harlan, if he had tried to put a word on it, would have had to call grace. The grace of a child, of Harlan’s baby nieces and nephews who ran and slept and laughed with abandon. George, like them, seemed entirely comfortable soaking wet and practically naked. For that matter George was pretty comfortable completely naked, too. Arms over his head in Harlan’s bed, so ready to surrender. Harlan liked it. He liked it a lot. He would never understand it.

“Oh! I almost forgot,” Margaret said, and scrambled out to grab something from the bench. She jumped back into the pool with it. A silver flask.

“George, you get one turn with it,” she teased, elbowing him, then grabbing a bit of the fabric of her bathing suit to grip and unscrew the lid. But she offered the flask first to Harlan. “Whiskey communion,” she said, winking at him.

Harlan drank as directed, then passed the flask to Esther, who passed it to George, who passed it back to Margaret.

“Good God,” Harlan said, when he had taken his sip. “Margaret, what — ” he began, but stopped and smiled. “Just give me another.”

“It’ll put hair on your chest!” said Margaret. Esther was flushed from racing and generally transformed by her long wet hair and bare skin, so it wasn’t obvious that she had blushed. “And here’s to Wonderful Wendy,” Margaret added, raising the flask to Priscilla’s dance teacher and frequent enabler of curfew fraud.

 

Until they were all outside again and walking south to Trevor and Braddock, the drumbeat of danger in Harlan’s ears did not cease. There were distractions from the drumbeat, like the passing of the flask; and Esther’s back float that had set her fairytale of blonde hair waving; and when George threw Margaret into a dive that was accidentally a spectacular bellyflop. The drumbeat quieted and slowed, the pulse of a hibernating animal. It slowed so much that there was a short time, after the beginning and before the end, when Harlan couldn’t hear it. A space between drumbeats long enough to span the moment when Harlan kissed the water from George’s earlobes to when he stood under the scalding locker room shower which George had warmed up for him — in that space there was a moment which Harlan could have called perfect. Could perfection be so brief?

Outside, the gymnasium door was locked behind them, their coats and collars were on and up, and the drumbeat faded to near silence, though it would not cease completely until Margaret and Esther were dropped off at Braddock, safe inside their one-hour curfew extension, and Harlan was home. Margaret and Esther walked ahead, Harlan and George behind. They passed the sepulchral forms of the buildings of the north residential quad, the Student Union, Memorial Chapel. Harlan said nothing, in fact had said little since the moment Margaret had opened the gym door. That seemed like last week but it had been not quite an hour ago.

“Aren’t you glad you did it?” George asked, interpreting correctly this particular flavor of Harlan’s silence as reproach.

“Well, I did it,” Harlan answered.

“You had fun.”

“Yes,” he admitted. The cold air on their pool-scrubbed faces was sharp, but Esther and Margaret up ahead weren’t hurrying, so the boys didn’t either. The clothes on their shocked flesh gave them an awareness of their bodies, fabric on skin. George had picked up a stick and as they walked he reached idly to flick chunks of snow from branches and hedges along the path. “I did have fun,” Harlan said after a moment. “But George. Doing something like that — it’s a joke to you.” He stepped around a patch of ice on the walk. “It’s not a joke to me. I’m –” he said, breaking off, impatient with himself for attempting right then and there to bring George down to the ground, for talking without thinking it all the way through. In a German sentence, a verb often sits at the end of a clause or at the very end of a sentence, forcing the speaker to make a quick mental sketch of the whole structure before beginning to say it. It was a discipline Harlan had taken to right away. “You have a keen intuition for German syntax!” scribbled Herr Kern on one of his early exams, and after that the professor had made a practice in class of pointing his beaky nose at Harlan, pressing him with an extra-challenging question. He was confident his student would meet the challenge. Harlan had never worked so hard in a class.

Think it through. He said, “it’s just different for me.” They walked in silence. George smirked uncomfortably, looking down at his own steps. He had ceased smacking branches with the stick. Harlan ached with the effort of this whole evening, and the effort before him right now. One effort begat another and another.

 

 

 

 

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