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Ethan Keeley

 Error and Empathy: A Review of Karin Lin-Greenberg’s Faulty Predictions

I didn’t know what to expect when I first picked up Karin Lin-Greenberg’s collection of short stories, Faulty Predictions. As the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the collection doubtlessly had literary merit. But the cover—and we all judge books initially by their covers—with its sunny color scheme and playful cursive font, suggested a light summer read, something to flip through beside the pool or on a beach during vacation. This assumption itself was a faulty prediction, as I immediately discovered after reading the first story, “Editorial Decisions,” which deals with social alienation, prejudice, elitism, and suicide, within the walls of a high school. I further understood my error as I continued reading Lin-Greenberg’s humorous, resonant, well-crafted stories. As a writer of fiction, I clung to her idiosyncratic, lovably flawed characters, her various and detailed locales, and her inviting prose style. Despite their differences in length, content, and point of view, the stories collected in Faulty Predictions all cohere under the thematic umbrella of the collection’s title.

Faulty Predictions is filled with characters of all backgrounds seeking to control their situations, suppress their emotions, maintain their worldviews, or change their families. They all seem to know what they want until they are met with the very truths they avoid. As I read the collection, I came to realize that my prejudgment of the book was a reflection of a broader human desire to control and the tendency to make superficial assumptions. There is security in being able to predict the outcomes, and having one’s expectations thwarted is uncomfortable, but usually illuminating. Just as I quickly became aware of my own mistake in superficially pre-judging Lin-Greenberg’s collection, her characters come face to face with their own biases as well, and the consequences that follow. In “Late Night with Brad Mack,” the son of a late-night TV show host can hardly believe his father’s support and sincerity; an older English professor, Pete Peterson, is perplexed by the sight of his own youthful abandon caught on video in “The Local Scrooge”; a disgruntled medical resident in “A Good Brother” instinctively shows deep affection for his sister in a wedding dress shop.

Faulty Predictions is as much a presentation of its characters’ thwarted prejudices as it is a reflection of our own. In the collection’s shortest story, “Bread,” the alleged antagonist Lenny, who purposefully squeezes and ruins loaves of bread at grocery stores, turns out to have altruistic motives. Lizzie, Lenny’s girlfriend, recognizes Lenny’s righteousness. Her Ma, however, does not. She has preconceived notions about Lenny, as we do, and seeing his face plastered all over the local news doesn’t warm her up to him any more. Yet in the end, Ma unknowingly benefits from Lenny’s behavior. We know, however, thanks to Lizzie’s compassionate point of view. This story, though brief, captures the heart of Lin-Greenberg’s entire collection; not only does it explore the importance of perspective in determining our prejudices toward one another, it celebrates the little, often unnoticeable things people do to make life better for others.

“Miller Duskman’s Mistakes” explores these themes of human predisposition and goodwill in a broader sense. The story is told in the first-person perspective of the nameless owner of the Ladybug Bed and Breakfast, whose deeply rooted understanding of the intimate town of Morningstar, Ohio and its inhabitants allows her a sort of omniscience. This inventive manipulation of point of view allows Lin-Greenberg to explore more of what happens in Morningstar than would be possible if it were a more strictly limited point of view. As a result, the nameless narrator becomes the voice of Morningstar as a whole. When the story’s title character moves into town and opens a high-end pizza shop, he is met with disdain. Like an immune system fending off a foreign cell, the people of Morningstar initially try their best to drive Miller out by refusing to buy his food. But they come to realize their reactive behavior ultimately has greater, devastating implications when Avery Swenson, the town’s most beloved and promising individual, leaves indefinitely as a result of the mistreatment.

While Lin-Greenberg ends “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes” on a darker note than some of her other stories, it is still filled with moments of optimism that are characteristic of her writing. Avery and another younger resident, Caleb Barlow, are always looking to help others, whether it be their neighbors or the birds who fatally fly into Miller’s glass building. The humanity with which Lin-Greenberg imbues these characters conveys the vital importance of empathy, which is the remedy for human prejudice: “It might not be kind to say that [Caleb] was slow, but that’s the truth. He was the sweetest boy around, gentle, loved animals…He was the first student in the history of Morningstar to never miss a single day of school…” (124). While this assessment of Caleb comes directly from the owner of the Ladybug, it is, again, representative of the whole town’s consciousness. Whether or not all the individuals in Morningstar feel this way about Caleb, thanks to the omniscience Lin-Greenberg employs through her narrator, we trust her accuracy, and come to know and admire Caleb as well.

These instances of optimism and empathy are potently found in “Prized Possessions.” Lydia Wong, an immigrant from Shanghai, struggles to bond with her filmmaker daughter Anna, who is far removed from her mother’s Chinese values. Lin-Greenberg depicts moments of familial tenderness that highlight Lydia’s true feelings toward her daughter despite their strained relationship: “Surely Anna had to know that Lydia had only wanted the best for her, always. Yes, she’d been strict when Anna was growing up, but all she wanted was for Anna to grow up to be a proper, well-behaved young lady” (39). These revelations all take place within Lydia’s thoughts—they are never stated out loud and never openly discussed between characters. Lin-Greenberg understands that we seldom speak what we actually think, and these repressed sentiments preserve many of our insecurities and faulty predictions about ourselves and others—even our own families.

Indeed, Lin-Greenberg’s stories are ultimately about family, and not exclusively biological families. The high school seniors in “Editorial Decisions” become a family through their shared experiences, as do the diverse students of the “Half and Half Club,” the collection’s final story. The entire town of Morningstar, Ohio collectively raises Avery Swenson after her mother is killed in a truck accident and her father dies in Iraq; Lydia Wong walks “into the warmth of the afternoon to join her family” (49); Pete the professor recognizes “something familiar in the image of himself on the screen,” but can’t quite accept his role as an affectionate grandfather and human being (73). In the collection’s titular story, Hazel Stump, a paranoid elderly woman and self-proclaimed psychic, isn’t yet ready to embrace her multiracial family, only acknowledging them by writing their initials on several chalkboards in a college building. She foresees many things accurately, yet has the greatest trouble facing the most important truths of her life: the futility of her prejudices and a deep affection for her family.

Karin Lin-Greenberg’s collection makes us consider our own families and communities, our prejudices and insecurities. To read these stories is to connect to fellow human beings from many places, to understand their individual and universal struggles, and to reinvigorate the inherent human empathy that unites us all. It is also to understand how our faulty predictions about ourselves and those around us ultimately distract us from this unity. Lin-Greenberg, through her poignant, hopeful, and funny stories, offers redemption not only for her characters, but for her readers as well.

Ethan Keeley was born and raised in Rochester, New York, a significant hub of culture and the arts. When he isn’t writing he is either living vicariously through his nerdy obsessions, or playing guitar. He tours with his band whenever possible in a van unfit for proper sleeping. His fiction has been published in previous issues of Gandy Dancer.

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Ethan Keeley


Jason felt alive. The intense winds tearing at his face brought the eight-year-old to a state of ecstasy. This was his first roller coaster ride. He sat toward the back with no one next to him and imagined he was in control of each movement—the track was mere illusion.

The first drop forced his head against the cushioned seat; one heavy bar held in his slight figure while the ride brought him to a left turn, then a right, jolting him to either side. Unanimous, joyous screams went up all around. Another ascension, then down again, then a flank, which caused the coaster to turn nearly sideways. Jason felt the sensation of floating; his body began separating from the bar’s embrace. Adrenaline flooded his veins. It was all part of the fun—back to a straightaway—he was fine.

They were approaching the last leg of the journey. One final incline, one last push to the end. Jason could see the whole park now: a miniature display. He was utterly detached from the world. The coaster began its final descent. Jason felt himself slipping again as the bar shook looser with each bump. He held on with every ounce of strength he had, but gravity was a ruthless opponent. He was sucked upwards, then pulled downwards. He heard distant screams from above, then only the wind. Fly, it whispered.

Jason was free—weightless. He silently watched the unforgiving earth approach him.

Ethan Keeley is a senior English (Creative Writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. He has lived most of his life in Rochester, NY. His short story, “Half,” was published in Gandy Dancer 2.1. He would be best friends with Huckleberry Finn because of his philosophical nature and adventurous spirit.

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Ethan Keeley

Straight Lines

The more I think about it, the more I realize that Pearl, Mississippi, the town itself, raised me as much as my mother did. It was no fault of hers; she did her best, and I understand that a nurse’s duty is as much to her patients as to her children, even if it meant spending the majority of the day at the hospital instead of at home. Her work ethic set the precedent for mine, though I hardly had one to speak of at the time. So in the summer of my thirteenth year I begrudgingly went door-to-door around the neighborhood to offer up my lawn mowing services. She suggested I charge ten dollars per lawn, though I was vying for at least fifteen—after all, life was expensive, and I was trying to save up for life’s necessities, which then included a guitar and some video games. I managed to snag a few customers and that was enough for my mother. There was Mr. Daley a few houses over, the Petersons across the street, and Mrs. Crowley at the end of it. One customer in particular, though, actually made me enthusiastic about my new job, and that was Ms. Crespo one street over, whose daughter Giana had been in my English class the previous year.

I was most definitely in love with Giana, and had been from the time she’d read Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” aloud in class. I didn’t find the poem terribly mind-blowing, but the way she read it—no mistakes, no speed-ups or slow-downs, just steady with a smooth and soft cadence—got to me. She had the darkest hair I had ever seen, and darker eyes. When I came to Ms. Crespo’s house on my quest for employment, Giana came to the door. It was only a five-minute walk to her house, but before that summer I had no idea she and I lived so close to one another. I had always assumed people like her lived somewhere else—somewhere specifically not near me.

The Crespo house had light beige siding, a black roof, and a chipped-white front door. An army of grass and moss infiltrated the beat up driveway, which led to a small garage with a rusty, netless basketball hoop nailed to the top of it.

“Hi, I’m Aaron,” I squeaked when she opened the door.

“Yeah, I know. What’s up?” Her blank stare made me feel twice as self-conscious as I already did.

“Are your parents home by any chance?” I didn’t know yet that parent wasn’t to be pluralized for her. Sometimes I forgot other people had split parents, too. She gave me a look I couldn’t interpret—sideways frown and an up-and-down eye motion. I was oblivious to most things, I would later discover.

“I’ll get my mom.”

Ms. Crespo introduced herself and said that in this heat it was more than worth it to pay someone to mow the lawn, and that she was happy to help a young man earn his keep. She was a short, pretty woman, neither thin nor thick. Her teeth, almost always revealed, were very white and her hair, like Giana’s, was straight and black, but other than that she didn’t look much like her daughter. I assumed Giana’s thin face and lean frame must have come from her father.

The first time that I worked for the Crespos, it was the last week of June and the beginning of a dreadful heat wave. It had reached ninety-five degrees by noon and I felt every single degree, not to mention the humidity that engulfed my pores and lungs, making any movement a slog through thick Jell-O. The furnace that was the air, coupled with my curiosity about Giana’s location, inflicted all sorts of anxiety. Was she in her room watching me cut the grass? Were my lines straight? Was she in the living room, reading or watching TV, where I, all sweaty and disheveled, might run into her if I was invited inside? Was she not in the house at all? I considered asking Ms. Crespo when she came out with a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade but couldn’t figure out how to formulate the question without seeming too direct. I cut the engine and wiped my forehead.

“I really am a sadist, aren’t I?” She widened her eyes and made a fanning motion with her free hand.

I didn’t quite understand what she meant, but found the gesture appealing. “Thank you,” I panted, graciously accepting the refreshment before absorbing all the liquid with one gulp.

She handed me a generous twenty. “A little extra for the heat.”

“You don’t have to do that.” I knew the things you were supposed to say. She ignored my protest and asked if I could come back in a couple days to help with the garden. We settled on Friday, the last day of June.

I had thought she’d be waiting outside like the time before, possibly already starting her work on the garden, but I didn’t see her. I knocked on the front door and waited, then heard a faint call in the distance.

“Aaron! Over here!” She was shouting from the side door, which took me a good ten seconds to figure out. Embarrassed, I scurried to the side where half of Ms. Crespo could be seen propping the door open.

“I probably should have let you know I might be inside.” “That’s okay.”

The side door opened into a narrow vestibule attached to the kitchen. I couldn’t figure out the Crespo kitchen; it was such a strange combination of broken-in and state-of-the-art: slick hardwood floor, spotless black marble counters, an oven from what looked like the fifties, and scratched-up cup-boards whose handles scuffed the walls when opened too wide.

Ms. Crespo offered me fettuccine alfredo with a side of roasted red potatoes—leftovers, I presumed, but still a much more elaborate lunch than I was accustomed to, and much tastier. It wasn’t that my mom was an awful cook—she just worked so much that my lunch options were normally limited to microwaveable carbohydrates and cereal, and by nighttime she was so exhausted from dealing with the handicapped, injured, ill, and dying that she either resorted to take-out or settled for preparing something simple. But as good as the meal was, the thought of Giana entering the kitchen upset my appetite. For a moment I thought Ms. Crespo was telepathic because she suddenly brought up the subject most urgent in my mind.

“You know, I told Giana to come down for lunch five minutes ago but sometimes I wonder if she’ll ever leave that room of hers. I’ll go call her again.” She got up to leave and the house creaked as she made her way up-stairs. Suddenly I was sitting at the sleek kitchen counter alone, my plate a creamy war zone of potato chunks and white sauce.

She returned with Giana, who was wearing gray sweatpants and a baggy white T-shirt, her hair falling chaotically over her shoulders. Even this look suited her.

“Hey, Aaron,” she said, her back turned to me as she reached into a cupboard for cereal. I loved the way my name sounded in her voice.

“Giana! What are you getting cereal out for? Lunch has been waiting here,” Ms. Crespo said.

“I want cereal,” Giana replied, nearly overflowing the bowl with generic brown oats, then drowning them in milk.

“Are you finished, Aaron?” Ms. Crespo asked, grabbing my battlefield of a plate.

“Yes. It was delicious.”

Giana stood in profile, leaning on the counter and staring out the window while she ate her cereal. The sunlight landed on her hair, revealing the auburn hidden beneath the black. With all my being I wanted to know what she was looking at and thinking about.

“Aaron’s going to help me with the garden. We’ll be outside,” Ms. Crespo said to Giana, who remained in her picturesque pose, chewing but not blinking.

We started on the garden, which ran alongside the walkway leading to the front steps. I knew nothing of gardening, so I merely did what I was told. Ms. Crespo wore a flattering wide-brimmed sun hat that not everyone could pull off. She lent me some gloves far too big, giving me deflated Mickey Mouse hands. As I self-consciously dug some holes for her new azaleas, I worried that they were the wrong shape or size or depth and that Giana, from inside, would take notice and deem me an unworthy human being.

Between the two of us, it only took a half hour to put the plants in place, pull the weeds, and water the whole row. It looked vibrant, though a bit at odds with the neglected driveway and old basketball hoop in the background. I realized there was no car in the driveway or garage. I wondered what Ms. Crespo did for a living. Maybe she took the bus to work. Maybe she walked.

She handed me two fives and asked if I’d be willing to help her clean the house on Monday. Once again I refused the money, which, for thirty minutes of hole digging, I really hadn’t earned. But she insisted, and I told her I’d be over again at noon.

“Have a great weekend, Aaron,” she said, gliding back inside. I wanted to say goodbye to Giana but saw no sign of her.


Sunday at ten in the morning was when I took care of Mr. Daley’s lawn. He was an older man who lived alone, had a small, perfectly square front lawn, and always gave me a soda or a piece of candy as a tip.

“Morning, Mr. Daley.”

“Morning, Aaron! My favorite lawn barber!”

This was his favorite line. He had me come every Sunday, so his lawn never really got to be long enough to justify being cut, but I think he appreciated the company. He would, without fail, be sitting on the front steps in his lawn chair reading the paper, glasses perched on his nose, white eyebrows elevated, pale forehead wrinkled.

“Now, get a load of this—they’re postponing the launch of the space shuttle Discovery because of some bad weather!”

“That’s interesting.” This was my usual reply when I wasn’t exactly sure which side of the fence he stood on, which was most of the time.

It was just as hot and humid as it had been all week, but I had begun to enjoy the therapeutic effect of mowing lawns, the way the consistent hum blocked out all other noise. I loved as well the up and down motion, the clear objective: go straight, turn one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, go straight again, repeat. The rhythm cleansed my thoughts, until they too moved in unobstructed straight lines, simple and direct. My consciousness coasted and cut the excess, but now and then I got caught up in thoughts of Giana: Would I see her tomorrow? What did she think of my coming over to her house to help her mom? And why didn’t Ms. Crespo have Giana do the tasks for which she enlisted me? If she needed a man, surely she could do better than a scrawny thirteen-year-old boy who still ate overly sugared cereal and watched cartoons most mornings. Giana was taller than me at the time, and I’d be willing to bet, equally as strong, if not stronger. Maybe she was occupied with other tasks. She could have been practicing an instrument, or writing poetry, or any number of endeavors more glamorous than yard and housework. And perhaps Ms. Crespo wanted to encourage me, a young man, to develop a good work ethic as my mother did. Moms were on the same wavelength that way. Single moms, especially.

After I finished Mr. Daley’s lawn, which only took about twenty minutes, he handed me a ten and a generic orange soda and called my attention to the paper once more.

“Would you get a load of this? The Jews and Muslims won’t stop blowin’ each other up!”

“See you next week, Mr. Daley.”

I didn’t know any Jews or Muslims. All I knew at the time was my town, some of the people in it, and that I was part of Mississippi, which was part of the United States of America. The world was much bigger than I could have imagined, of course, but my world was Pearl, and more specifically my mother, my little jobs, and my school. There was also Madison, where my father lived, but I saw him so infrequently it hardly counted. So the Jews and Muslims may have been blowing each other up, but as long as it remained in a land far removed from me and my town it didn’t concern me. Mr. Daley, however, seemed heavily invested in these matters, though I couldn’t figure out why. Here was an aged man glued to his front steps, boxed in by his lawn, concerning himself with the world at large, as if one day his house might be the target of an air strike. I had to admire his engagement. The man knew more about the goings-on of the world than just about anyone else in town.

When I got back my mom was in her green bathrobe, a Sunday ritual, making a brunch of scrambled eggs, fruit salad, and wheat toast, her hair wrapped in a purple towel. Sundays were her only full days off, and even then she might be called in from time to time. “Being a nurse is more than a salary—it’s a commitment to every human being who’s rolled in those doors, good or evil, night or day,” she would say.

She welcomed me with uncharacteristic vigor. “There he is, my working man. How’s Mr. Daley?”

“Same as ever.”

“Throw that soda in the fridge, Aaron! You’ll ruin your appetite.”

The eggs were overcooked, the cantaloupe and strawberry and kiwi juices congregated to create a discordant flavor, and the toast was slightly burnt.

“So, how was week one?” she asked, sitting down across from me. I told her that Ms. Crespo wanted me back over tomorrow.

“Again? She sure is putting you to work.” She didn’t sound as delighted as I’d anticipated.

It’s not bad. I’m never there long.”

“What does Ms. Crespo do?” she asked after a long intermission of chewing. “Her job, I mean.”

I recalled the car-less driveway. I didn’t know. Tomorrow was Monday and she would be home. Maybe she taught and had summers off. Tuesday was the Fourth of July, too, so she might have been on vacation.

“Why?” I asked, somewhat defensively, to my surprise. She shrugged. “Just curious.”

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Ethan Keeley


She didn’t think much of him when she first saw him standing on the other side of her street that morning, facing her house but not exactly looking at it—she didn’t think much of him other than he was inadequately dressed for the weather. He was wearing a light brown jacket more suited for early fall, tattered jeans that were not only too tight but too short for his lanky legs, navy blue flip flops, and no gloves to cover his large hands. The neighborhood was completely quiet except for the ghoulish moans of January’s coastal winds. The holidays had passed and the younger people—save for this man—were either off to school or work for the day. It was just her, curiously staring out her window, and him: the world’s most absurd-looking statue.

Her first thought—or rather, her hope—was that he was probably waiting for someone or something to take him away from the stabbing wind she could now hear thrashing outside her home. A man’s attire, no matter how unfit for the conditions, meant little to her in terms of his character, so despite his appearance he must have had somewhere to go, someone to see, something to do other than endure the North Atlantic’s harsh winter air just across from her house. Tea in hand, she would peer out her window every now and then to see if he had gone. He had not. It had been one hour. He had not moved. He was a scarecrow a season too late.

The woman removed two heavy coats from the downstairs closet and put on the smaller one. The larger coat was the exception to her rule of not judging people based on their clothing. Her husband’s coat, a pitch black, wool pea coat, had been his favorite thing to wear—and her favorite thing to see him wear—as long as she had known him. They, too, had met in the winter some fifty years ago in Cape Elizabeth, back when her hair was long and blonde and captured the falling snow like a thousand golden tongues. She was walking her dog through the thick snow at the bottom of a hill where her future husband, adorned in his pea coat, was taking two boys sledding. They could have been his sons but turned out to be his nephews—something about him just exuded “Father.” He was just below average height but had perfect posture and stood tall for his lack of vertical advantage. He readied his nephews’ sleds with vigor and caution, never once losing the unfaltering smile spread across his face. While descending, one of his nephews must have hit a lip or a rock buried under the snow and veered too far to the left. The boy and the sled came within a foot or two of her and the dog. Everyone was screaming and barking as soft powder exploded all over them and the boy’s sled escaped from underneath him, bound for the woods a good distance away. But they all came out unscathed, and the pea coat man had frantically raced down the hill, nearly stumbling three times before reaching the bottom, blurting apologies and “Jeepers!” to her all the way down. She didn’t know then that Howard, this handsome figure toppling before her had just returned from The War in Europe. It didn’t show on the terribly human expressions bouncing all over his face, nor did it show in the clumsy halt he almost managed just before knocking her over as the slope suddenly ended. Judging by his weight for the split second he was on top of her she should have assumed he was a soldier, a man’s man, a patriot—even if she had, at the time she would have loved him all the more for it.


The man outside hadn’t budged, though the wind was now teetering his frame back and forth to the effect of an indecisive domino on an uneven table. The woman reached for the door and walked against the dagger wind as fast as her bony, aging legs could carry her to the frozen man. As she approached, his eyes remained staring at everything and nothing as they had been an hour before and God knows for how long before that. He seemed not at all distracted by the pea coat being carefully lowered onto his still and lopsided figure. At this distance she could see a prominent scar between his right cheek and eye, brown and protruding, made all the darker by the shallow, pale skin that surrounded it. His long, blonde, unkempt hair that covered both his head and most of his distorted face glittered with the thick ocean snow and vibrated furiously in the wind as if in an attempt to detach itself from his poor visage. It was strange to see a young man out there during the day in January, stranger still to see one so disheveled and ill-prepared, and strangest of all to see anyone but her husband in that coat. It automatically made the bearded man look more dignified as his arms were still at his side and by default he wore it as a cape.

“Oh, you poor thing! What on Earth are you doing standing out here? You’ll freeze to death! Here, come with me, come with me. That’s it.” The woman spoke slowly and as softly as she could, lest the force of her words finally topple him over. She felt guilty that she had let him stand out there for over an hour. Half embracing this total stranger half dressed in her husband’s coat, she slowly walked him across the street to her front door. With her hand on his hunched upper back she could feel the deteriorating strength that must have resided in him not long ago. She asked him to come inside but led him in herself.

It had been two months and fifteen days since she last had a guest. Her two sons lived down south, the older one, Gary, in Texas for a broadcasting job, the younger, Mark, in Florida for the warmth. Gary had called her and Mark a week before Christmas to set up a family get-together. Gary wanted Mark to pick her up in Maine, then come back with her to Texas, stay for a few days, then bring her back North. Mark had a fit and said he had this and that to do and so-and-so to see and wouldn’t have time to even drive one way. So Mark reversed the proposal, asking everyone to have Christmas in Florida. Of course, this debate all happened behind her back, the way they always did after Howard died, and she didn’t find out until three days before Christmas that everyone was on their own that year. She suggested, sensibly, that the two of them just come up to Maine with their wives and kids. It was hard enough for her to travel in her age anyway. “No snow in those parts either,” she argued, hope in her voice. She spent that Christmas alone.


The man looked slightly less ridiculous now that he was inside her living room, but only slightly. His hair was matted and drooping like a dog’s that just took a bath. She walked to the bathroom to grab a towel for him as he gently removed the pea coat from his back. He hadn’t said a word. She started to wonder if he was a mute, and fought back her fear of what this strange, stoic (or possibly crazed) man was capable of doing. But something about him was unthreatening. His motions were slow and beneath the mess of hair on his face she could picture a timid, boyish face. And being accustomed to talking to the television and herself and the wind most days she figured she should attempt a conversation while she had an audience.

“My name is Grace.” She failed to say more for a few moments. The man’s eyes ricocheted about and he nodded subtly in a way that could have meant: “Yes, your name is Grace,” or, “I can’t easily reply to that.” Grace’s house was normally so barren she nearly forgot the rules of being a decent hostess, but her years of experience with having her husband’s brothers from the war over for dinner and drinks soon kicked in.

“I have tea if you’d like.” Trying her best not to stare at the pitiful figure before her, she took the coat and hung it back in the closet where it had lived uninhabited for quite some time. “Or coffee?”

The man was cautiously patting his beard with the towel, and his mouth quivered as if on the verge of speech. Nothing. Nothing but that look: a peculiar mixture of awareness, fear, and perplexity.

“Here, sit down. I’ll bring you something warm.” She gestured somewhat nervously to the love seat and started some coffee. She didn’t know an adult soul other than her who disliked coffee. It made her mouth dry, her breath bad, and her anxiety worse. But Howard had basically bled it. His pupils were black coffee floating in the brown mugs that were his irises. If there wasn’t a pot on in the house back when he was living she knew something had gone wrong, or gone worse. One morning when they had just recently bought the house in Maine, before they had the kids, she made a pot for him but deliberately used decaf. It was a cruel and loving prank, and it only took him fifteen minutes to find out he had been duped. With a groggy smile he chased her around the house until their legs failed them and they both stumbled safely, gently—he was always so gentle with her—onto the kitchen floor, embracing each other, still in their underwear.


When she returned from the kitchen with a mug in one hand and a creamer in the other she noticed the man gazing with great intensity at a frame on the coffee table: a black-and-white family portrait taken just after Mark was born. Grace always had to remind herself that the young, bright woman in the photograph was indeed her, long before her hair shrunk and thinned and grayed, before her posture slumped, before her bones showed through her loosened skin; Her hazel eyes, though gray in the picture, were one hint—perhaps the only one—that this young mother and proud wife was also Grace, and would somehow become the woman now staring at her ideal self.

In the photo, the four of them were standing in front of the newly painted, yellow house (also gray in the image) that Grace and the young man were now sitting in. Howard held Gary on his shoulders as she held baby Mark in her arms. Her husband was still whole then—she remembered how his ears would shift a few inches back on his head whenever he saw his boys. He had wanted nothing but peace for them. Soldiering was his burden to bear, not a legacy to pass on.

“That’s my husband and kids. He’s gone now, they’re all grown up, have kids of their own.” She placed the coffee and cream before the man and pulled up a chair to sit across from him. She couldn’t tell for sure but his mouth bent in a form probably equivalent to a smile. He directed his attention to the mug and his large hands encompassed it, embracing its warmth. She couldn’t help but stare at his scar when he wasn’t looking. It was shaped and colored like a gluttonous worm: long, pinkish-brown, glossy when it hit the light the right way. Considering the man would not or could not speak, she felt no harm in asking of the mark’s origin, though she knew she would never know. But to her surprise:

“War,” he said with rocks in his tone, not rudely, just in the way anyone would sound devoid of human contact for God knows how long.

“War,” she echoed, nodding slowly. “I’d ask which one but they’re all the same, aren’t they?”

His eyes stayed fixed on his black, still un-sipped coffee. He returned a somber nod.

“My husband was a soldier.” She pointed faintly at the family portrait. “World War Two and Korea.” She said it with mock pride and glanced at the corner of the ceiling while giving a slight unsmiling chuckle of reminiscence and pain. Korea was the one. If you’re lucky enough to escape one war alive you’d better not push it, loyalty be damned. But that was her husband: Mr. Loyalty. Never cheated on her once—hardly ever looked at another woman. Never missed his kids’ concerts or games. Never lied or stole or envied. He might have killed. She knew he killed. But he was at war, and he was fighting the bad guys, and the bad guys got killed, and the good guys did too but as long as the bad guys’ death toll was higher it all meant something. Mr. Loyalty was loyal to his family and his country, and she never knew which took precedence or if they were one in the same to him.

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