We Want Your Writing.


She was at the kitchen table watching the microwave clock leave midnight. Ron had promised he’d be back by half past eleven. Before he left, he’d said, “I’m too old to be out past my bedtime.” It wasn’t a joke. Nothing about his leaving had been a joke. Her hands were folded over the black screen of her phone. The kitchen table was clean. The kitchen counter was clean. The stove. The sink. There was nothing left to do, no hope of replacing the minutes. Just her, sitting at her clean kitchen table, hands over the glass and plastic of her cell phone. She wanted a cigarette. She’d quit smoking fourteen years ago.
Lights in the window, in the sink. Lights in the frosted glass of the kitchen door. Ron’s engine growling, then coughing, then silent. Ron’s steps. Ron, opening the door.
He saw her as soon as the door opened. There was no way not to; it was a small kitchen. He nodded, took off his cap, and closed the door behind him. The top of his head was bald. It shone as if one of the girls had polished it. One hand held the baseball cap at his side; the other was in his pocket. He wasn’t looking at her. Not really. His gaze was directed a little above her shoulder. He was embarrassed for her, to be coming in, as he was, still smelling like cigarette smoke and their perfume.
“Well?” she asked.
“Well,” he said. “She was there.”
Virginia knew that. She had learned the girl’s schedule by way of June Hassett, whose brother Aloyiousis was a regular at Miracles on Highway 9. The whole point of Ron going had been that she was there.
“And?” Virginia asked.
Ron came and sat at the table. The wrinkles in his face had started taking up his cheeks. There was a liver spot on the hand he put on the table. He looked old. But then, they were getting old. She put out her right hand, palm up, towards him. He put his in hers, rubbed the tender skin on the inside of her wrist with his thumb.
He said, “She’s pretty. She’s just about the prettiest one there.”
Virginia nodded. “I thought she might be. I thought she might. What does she go by?”
“Yeah.” They let go of their hands, together, neither of them noticing. The unconscious instinct of marriage. “What is sassafras, anyway?”
“It’s a tree,” Virginia said.
“I thought it was something you put on chicken.”
“Is that a common name to take?”
“How would I know?” For the first time, her husband looked uncomfortable, which came out as a pouting expression. She didn’t know what questions to ask. That was the problem. “The other ones,” her husband said, “they were Bunny and Dallas. If that tells you anything.”
“Dallas like the city?”
He shrugged. She was running out of time to ask him questions. With Ron, there was always a short window to ask or a small number of questions you were allowed. Either way, she was running up on the end.
“Are you hungry? Do you want anything? You want me to put a pot of coffee on?”
“I want to go to bed,” Ron said. “I just want to go to bed.”
“You want to take a shower?”
“I just want to go to bed.”
“Was she, did she look, well, nice? Does she look like a nice person? Does she look, I mean, friendly?”
“She’s a stripper, Virginia. She has to look friendly.”
The word stripper fell from his mouth like a swear. She tried to smile, pretend at some humor of her own, to be in on a joke so they could be on the same side; she needed them to be on the same side. But smiling felt grotesque, and she stopped immediately. He stood. He was angry at her. She had sent him there, to Miracles on Highway 9, and doing that, she understood —dimly, but she understood—had been an affront of some kind. To be sent by your wife to a strip club. When the whole point of a strip club was that your wife wouldn’t want you there. Lord knows she wasn’t born yesterday. But she needed to know. She needed to know something about this girl, called Sassafras, and how she appeared to men. How men understood her. Virginia wanted, above all, to have some understanding of how her father had seen the woman.
“Her name is Sarah Townsend,” Virginia said. “Her real name, I mean.”
“I just thought you might want to know.”
He didn’t. She could see he didn’t, it was as plain as the rough shave on his face. Her Ron was not a difficult man to read. A little more than a decade ago, when he had been carrying on with that Ramona Snipes from Alexandria, she had known the first night, the very first night he came home unfaithful. There had been arguments. Insults. Lawyers. Threats. And eleven years later, here they were. Staring at each other.
“I’m going to take a shower.”
“I think that’s a good idea.” She felt another stab of pity for the man. “Ron? Thank you. I mean it.”
He walked up to her, bent down, and kissed the top of her head. It wasn’t natural; his movements were jerky, full of indecision, but he did, and that counted for something. It did. She’d learned the hard way that it did.
When he was gone, she picked up the cell phone and found her sister’s name and called. Ellie lived in California. It was only half past ten there. She would be awake. She would answer, and she did, on the second ring.
“Virginia? Is everything okay?”
“I sent Ron to Miracles.”
“You sent Ron where?”
“To the strip club where Sarah Townsend works.”
For a moment, silence, and then, “Good Lord, Virginia, why?”
“I just want to understand.” She felt like there was more to say, but that was as far as she could get. Ellie snorted into the phone. It was a wet, rude sound. Virginia almost wiped her ear.
“There is nothing to understand, Virginia. Daddy was old, he thought he was in love with a stripper, he gave her what should have been ours. Do you want it clearer? He paid for his prostitute. My God. What did you send Ron out there for, anyway? Ron gets a headache when you ask him what he wants for supper.”
“That’s my husband,” Virginia said, hoping it would come out strong, authoritative, a line her sister wouldn’t cross. But she could hear her voice in the phone. The whine of it. “I don’t like when you make fun of him.”
“Ron,” Ellie said, that one syllable holding all the contempt and derision of thirty-two years of listening to her sister’s complaints and frustrations and betrayals and hurts, all the phone calls about what Ron had done now so that, inevitably, her sister’s opinion of the man rested some fifty feet below sea level. This was Virginia’s fault; she had come to recognize it as her fault. And Ron has the same opinion of Ellie, for much the same reason. All Virginia’s fault.
“Ron’s a good man,” she said. “He only did what I asked.”
“But why, Virginia? That’s what I’m asking you. Why?”
It was difficult to explain, and Virginia wondered if this is why she had called her sister, to be challenged this way, forced to put into words the wanting lit in her chest Ron had not challenged her. Her plea to him had been with soft, wet eyes; he had done as she asked to keep the peace. Ellie would not be so satisfied. Ellie was never satisfied. Ellie said they had been cheated, she and Virginia, long before their daddy left what little land still belonged to his name to a stripper named Sassafras. They had been cheated out of a childhood, their mother succumbing to some malady of mind before any doctor had the chance to offer a name. A neighbor had found her, toes floating mid-air. Ellie and Virginia had been in school, sixth and seventh grade, respectively. Their father had been on a binge. When he was at last found, he was twelve miles south of Beau Rivage, pissing in the Gulf of Mexico.
His own father had left him more than fifty acres of land; by the time of his death, there were only ten acres, and these now belonged to one Sarah Townsend nee Sassafras. And this concise description of their tragedy was only the lid on years of absence, drunken rages, hiding from the men he brought home, taking care of him when he was at his most pitiful, when the skin changed color and the teeth started dropping—the constant cycle refusing to be forgotten. Why had Virginia sent her husband to Miracles on Highway 9?
“I want it not to be a mistake,” she said. “I want it to be worth something. What he did.”
“It’s worth a migraine and nothing else. Now, listen, Virginia. I don’t know what you got going on in your head, but you just let the lawyers handle things, you hear? If we play our cards right, it’ll be like it never happened.”
“Virginia. I know, Lord help us, I know, you just want everybody to get along. But, my love, there’s just too much everybody these days. We can’t all get along. That’s just the truth of it. We gotta be a little ugly sometimes.”
“I need that money, Virginia.” Her sister’s voice had gone low. Not soft, never soft, but low, like a growl from a dog just beginning. “It’s just me out here. I don’t have kids, and I haven’t had a warm body next to me since Y2K. It’s just me, and I’m going to turn sixty soon, and I’m tired, Virginia. I’m tired. Aren’t you tired? Don’t we deserve some reward for being that man’s child? Don’t we?”
“We do,” because agreeing with Ellie was the only way Virginia could have a conversation with her. And she missed her sister. It was lonely, past midnight at the kitchen table.
“Just let the lawyers handle it, Virginia. Don’t put your nose where it doesn’t need to be.” But she said it gently. Then she said she needed sleep, didn’t Virginia? And then, goodbyes. And then the phone on the table again. The time on the microwave was 12:23.
Virginia sat at her table, looking at her small kitchen which opened into her small living room of her small, 1,200-square-foot home with nine years left on the mortgage. Thoughts passed through her head like thunderclouds still heavy with rain. She was somewhere else watching them, deciding. Or surrendering.
It was 12:26. She found the number for Miracles by searching on her phone. All it took was a few crooks of the thumb and the line was ringing. She didn’t allow herself a moment to think about what she was doing.
A weary, deep voice answered. Was it a man or woman?
“Hi, is Sarah there? I mean, is it possible, can she come to the phone?” And then, a lie that came naturally, that never would have if she’d given herself time to think, “This is the babysitter.”
“Uh, yeah. Give me a minute.”
There was plenty of time to hang up. To stop a bad mistake. And she knew, if Ron or Ellie were over her shoulder, or those cartoon angels, god or devil, it wouldn’t matter. This was a foolishness that had been festering in her since she’d learned who her daddy, in sound mind and body, had left his land to. His wealth, too. But, oh, she wished the weary voice would come back on the line and tell her that Sassafras was too busy to take her call.
“Hello?” Her voice was almost as deep as the one before; had her daddy found it alluring?
“Carol? What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It’s not Carol, it’s Virginia Boules, I lied, I’m sorry, I wanted to talk to you. I’m sorry. Were you in the middle of something? Were you working? I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m calling at this time of night. If you’re busy, I understand. Are you busy?”
“No,” the other woman answered, without pause, as if this were a perfectly normal conversation, or one she had been expecting. “You caught me at a good time. But don’t call pretending to be the babysitter. Don’t do that. I thought something was wrong.”
“I’m sorry.”
“What do you want, Mrs. Boules?”
A deep breath and, “I wanted you to know, my husband was there tonight. And, I wanted you to know, I sent him. I wanted to see, well, I don’t know exactly what I wanted to see. I don’t know why I made him go. But I wanted you to know. You know. In case you see him. In the future. With me. If we end up meeting. So it’s not awkward. I don’t want it to be awkward. I know he came tonight. He said you were good. I mean. He said, you were pretty. He liked your name. Sassafras. He wanted to know how come you picked Sassafras.”
“The manager came up with it. At the last place, they called me Jewel.”
“Is that all? Virginia?”
So she was just Virginia, that quickly. Her hand was tight around the phone.
“I wanted to say. I wanted to tell you. Well, I’m—However things turn out. Whatever happens. I’m glad to know you have kids. A kid. I’m glad that Daddy might have been—I wonder if he was, you know, trying to help out. He could be generous, sometimes. He had a lot of, I guess, demons, but he could be generous, he really could. He’d come home with, well, candy. Sometimes. Toys. I just. I wanted to know if, if he did it because of, you know, if he loved you. I wanted to know if he loved you,” she said, panting now, bad as a dog, worse than a dog, like a dog with something caught in its throat. The sound of it, reflected back through the phone. She couldn’t stop listening to herself. The alternative was to listen to the silence coming from Miracles on Highway 9. Miss Sarah “Sassafras” Townsend not saying a word, just waiting for this phone call to end; the only reason she let Virginia go on was so that this could end.
“I hope,” Virginia said, “I hope if it turns out, you know. If the land is—becomes yours. I hope it helps. I hope it helps with your family. You deserve it.” Ellie and the lawyer would be furious with her, but she could deny it if she had to, and maybe Sassafras wouldn’t bring it up; maybe she would be kind, a kind-hearted girl with a tough exterior Virginia’s daddy had fallen for. “You do. A single mother. I don’t know how. I can’t imagine. I hope it helps. I hope it helps you.”
There was a sound that might have been the woman’s tongue rolling over her front teeth, and then, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.”
“I would have taken it anyway.”
“If I didn’t have a kid,” Sarah Townsend said. “If it was just me and my lonesome, we’d still be right here. I would take that property and sell it off, which I’m going to do, because your daddy was of sound mind and body and there’s at least a dozen who say so. Because he did it five years ago. Because he thought he loved me. And I would have taken that luck from you if I had been barren. It’s just the world. This is the world.”
“I don’t. What a horrible thing to say. What an awful thing to say. Daddy, he didn’t, he cared about you. He did. That’s why he did it. He loved you. He wanted you and your child to be provided for.”
“Your daddy didn’t know what love was.”
She should hang up now. Virginia knew it. There was an answer, and that had been what she was after, but she couldn’t, she just couldn’t. Her hand wasn’t tight around the phone anymore. Her throat was loose. The anger that came out was easy. Unbothered.
“My daddy had his faults, but he was a loving man,” she said. “I think it’s you who don’t know what love is. Look at where you are. Look at what you do. And let me tell you something, none of this will be easy, I promise you. We’ll fight you tooth and nail. You’ll need lawyers just to use the bathroom. You understand me? If you get it, I’ll make sure it won’t be worth it. You’ll have so much debt from them lawyers, what the land covers won’t even be half. You don’t know what love is. I feel sorry for you.” And she hung up, sobbing; she’d been sobbing, starting about the time she’d mentioned the lawyers, sobbing at her kitchen table, her clean kitchen table, marred now. She would have to clean it again.

William Hawkins

William Hawkins has been published in Granta, ZZYZYVA, and TriQuarterly, among others. Originally from Louisiana, he currently lives in Los Angeles where he is at work on a novel.


William Hawkins has been published in Granta, ZZYZYVA, and TriQuarterly, among others. Originally from Louisiana, he currently lives in Los Angeles where he is at work on a novel.