Winter 2019 Fiction

Kevin Hyde

Praxinoscope

 

Biographical Speculation, Part One

As he watched her dip and twirl on the parquet floor, the young man thought about how she had been shaped, how a million unremarkable events determined the face, the weight, the hair, and the height of the person he saw. She was, he thought, an unbelievable configuration of skin, muscle, and bone.

She danced with one of the older members of the country club, a beblazered, white-haired gentleman who couldn’t quite pull off the wrist-wrought turns and twists that he was putting her through. The contrast between her grace and the older man’s limby, arthritic movements was stark and unignorable. But the young man noticed how she smiled widely, and had a sort of curlicued laugh.

 

Interview One - The Club Pro:

There was no doubt in my mind that he had enough talent at least to enter the Open qualifier. Swing like that? It’s natural, no way to teach it. At a certain point, it comes down to the way your body’s put together, the twine of your ligaments, the way your bones stand, length of your arms and such. Some of it depends on how you played as a kid too—not just golf, all the sorts of activities you use to while away an afternoon. Baseball’s good for it. Swimming too. Really anything with fluidity in the movements. I’d bet money it was the chores his old man gave him when he was a kid, especially splitting logs for firewood after school and such. Told me about that once. Must have hated it, but swinging that axe made him right for this game. Before that arm injury, he never lost a tournament at the club that I know of—lost plenty of bets, plenty of balls like we all do—but when it came down to brass tacks, he was clutch as hell.

 

Biographical Speculation, Part Two

He was sitting at one of the round tables near the bar, directly adjacent to the dance floor, suit jacket on his chair back, tie slightly loosened. The song stopped and the couples wound down slowly, dropping their poses. She walked straight to the bar, her gown shooshing as she went past. He heard her say, “Gin and tonic, please.” He thought about going up to her right then, but hesitated—some slight note of exhaustion in her voice made him check himself. He got up, grabbed his jacket and whisked it onto his back in one quick motion, shot his cuffs out a bit. She noticed him, as she turned away from the bartender, but only as a brisk movement in the corner of her eye.

He stood before the framed mirror in the bathroom and washed his hands, then shook off the water and smoothed his hair back. He evaluated his reflection for a moment, and assumed the expression that he hoped he always wore naturally.

The band had just started up again, and he felt the misty heat of the party on his face as he re-entered the ballroom.

 

Interview Two - The Brother:

You have to understand something about your dad: he didn’t rush into things. When he was ten and I was eight, I remember our dad, your grandpa, asked us to make a list for Santa Claus. This was a couple days after Thanksgiving, and we were still swimming in leftovers. I finished my list within an hour—ran to my room and broke out the loose-leaf and pencil ASAP. Your dad on the other hand deliberated for weeks, he sweated over his list, pored over it at night, after school, whenever he had a free minute. Wrote it out in that neat little cursive he had. I think he finally turned it in a few days before Christmas, and asked Dad to put a rush on it at the post office so it would get to the North Pole on time. I asked him what had taken him so long to do it, and he said to me, in all seriousness, “I didn’t want to make any bad choices.” Ten years old! You would have thought he was filing the family’s taxes or writing his will. Now that you know that, you can see why the thing with Elizabeth was such a shock to everyone—it was so fast. The way he just jumped into it, how quick and intense it was, and the way it ended, of course. Entirely out of character. But I know now, looking back, that the person I saw then, with her, was the clearest version of your father. Okay, when I say that, I mean that you could almost look at his life like it was a triptych. There was the way your father was before, and the way he was after, but it’s what happened in that space in between that’s what really happened to him. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but you’re old enough to hear this.

 

Biographical Speculation, Part Three

He had diagrammed on a cocktail napkin the exact path he would take when he walked up to her and asked her to dance. This flightplan, a nervously fashioned symbol of his own insecurity, lay crumpled up in his jacket pocket, where he would find it again much later and grimace at in embarrassment.

She was still standing at the bar, idly shifting her drink from one hand to the other, watching couples dance, smiling at the entire ritzy mishmash revolving in front of her.

He looked straight at her and tried to catch her eye. She gave him only a sweeping glance. He made his approach, from her direct west, to the spot next to her, and settled himself in as if he had been called over for an urgent conference with the bartender. She felt how close he was, and turned to look at him.

He held out his hand to her, palm up, and asked her without hesitation, “Would you care to dance?”

“Yes,” she said, “I’d love to.”

Her bracelets clinked quietly into the crook of her elbow as she lifted her arm and folded the cool weight of her palm into his.

 

Interview Three - The Previous Man:

That was a tough time for yours truly, right after the break-up. We had been dating for a while, almost two years, and then out of nowhere, she decides she wants to be with someone else! Didn’t strike me as quite fair. We didn’t have a perfect relationship by any means, but we had some fun. I had talked to my parents pretty seriously about marrying her after graduation. My pop was even going to set me up with a job at his firm, entry-level insurance, so I could stand on my own two. Save up for a house, maybe kids down the road. So her leaving was a shock. Kind of messed up my last year of school, threw a big old wrench in the works. But it came out all right, you know? Met my wife a few years later, working at the insurance company, which, let me tell you, made that job a lot less boring. Makes it easier to wake up in the morning when you spend all day with someone you love. Can I say that I still think about her from time to time? Because I do, but not in the way that you might guess. I won’t say anything about your father since I don’t know him, or know anything about him outside of what I’ve read. So I can’t blame him for any of it. But she was such an exciting person, a live wire and stuff. It was a shame what happened—or not a shame, really, a waste. When we were together, I saw it in her: she had good sense, wasn’t afraid to speak up, ever. She would have done some good, in whatever she had chosen to do. She would have been a great mother, no doubt about it. But who’s to say that things would have turned out differently if I had still been with her? Hard to tell. No way to tell.

 

Biographical Speculation, Part Four

For the first few moments, he saw her only in pieces, in frames: the dangle of her pearl earrings as she spun on the dance floor, the shadowy bounce of a stray dark curl, the shiny spring-grass green of her dress, her downy, bare arms wrapped around his neck. He held her in his hands as closely as he could within the bounds of propriety.

She knew his hands as heavy, warm apparitions on her waist. When their faces came closer together, she felt the wind of his breath in the cup of her ear, and grinned at the tickle of it. She bent her head back at an awkward angle to get a quick peek at his face, at the sharp blue in his eyes and the rough grade of his chin and jawline. She knew she liked him more than a little when she felt him give her hips a tentative, almost imperceptible squeeze, like he was making sure she was still right there in front of him, still bound by the soft shape of his arms.

The song ended, and they both needed some fresh air. They were hot, from the dancing, from being so close to each other. She led him across the ballroom and through the hallways to the side doors that opened on to the grounds.

The exterior of the country club was decorated for Christmas with clusters of white lights: wound above lintels and along posts, threaded into the dead branches of the trees and hedges, precisely embedded in window sills, they fixed the garden in an ornamental glow.

They stood on the brick patio and watched their separate breaths mix in thick, ghostly plumes. He offered her his jacket. The brass-button ends of the too long sleeves hung down through her crossed arms. She shivered next to him.

“Michael.”

“Elizabeth.” She smirked and offered him a handless sleeve to shake. “Pleased to meet you,” she said. He chuckled and bent down to kiss her wrist through the jacket.

“You dance so well,” he said, “even when your partner’s clumsy.”

“You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself,” she whispered.

“Oh, I didn’t mean me. Who was that fellow you were dancing with before, I know I’ve seen him around the club….” He paused. She was giving him a hard look.

“That’s my father,” she said. “Even though he’s fifty-five, he still moves better than you do.”

He felt himself blush against the cold air. This was going all wrong; he had steered the conversation into such a pit. “I’m sorry. That didn’t come out right. I just meant it as a compliment.” He sighed and thrust his hands into his pants pockets.

She walked to the edge of the patio and looked up into the winter sky.

He paced back and forth behind her for a few moments, thinking. It surprised him when she turned around and laughed right at him, peals of laughter that resounded in a brittle, metallic way.

“You were so nervous. I could feel you leering at me from across the room. A girl always knows when she’s being looked over,” she said coolly. “I could tell when we were dancing that you had to work yourself up to ask me.”

“You are a little intimidating.”

“That’s only because I’m so tall,” she said, and stood on her tiptoes, in her heels. “See?” She took a few tottering steps in his direction. He caught her by her elbows and looked down at her.

“Where’s your date for tonight?” he asked.

She raised her eyebrows. “He’s at home, with his family. They live pretty far away, so he couldn’t make it.”

His heart sank. This would end up as an isolated incident. She just needed attention, and he happened to be in the right place at the right time.

“So you do have a boyfriend. How long have you two been together?” He heard the unconsciously sharp and detached tone in his voice. He breathed deeply. She turned her face away from his.

“Ten months, here and there,” she said. “We’re not exactly engaged or anything, if that’s what you’re asking.”

There was an invitation in there somewhere, he knew. He took a risk and made the willful leap from that second to the next; he decided that whatever this was—this episode between him and her, and however it would eventually end—he wanted it to be because of him, what he had done, and not because of what he had let pass by. He held her face in his hands and kissed her, and felt her arms wrap around his neck, and it was like he had been kissing her that whole time, had known how her lips would feel before his mouth had even touched hers. Their embrace was as still and composed as a painting—a discrete moment, unchanging as a fact.

 

Interview Four - The Newspaperman:

Did you read the article I wrote about it? It was a good article. I don’t think I can tell you much more than what I put in the paper. It was so long ago, and it’s hard for me to recall specifics about any one story. It was the talk of the town for a while, given your father’s family and how well known he was at the club. Local golf legend. Don’t see that much anymore—that is, hometown heroes of any degree. Not many local-anything legends. But it was a closer-knit place then, more news got around from neighbor to neighbor. Terrible crash. You wouldn’t know it to look at it now, but thirty-five years ago that area out by the river had the most winding, twisted roads you can imagine. There wasn’t much in the way of rails either, since people knew, or usually knew, to take it slow through there. Guy that almost hit your dad, Wodnewski, Wodniski, something or other, left town over the matter. Didn’t like the looks he got. Police—you know Doug Kohnken, he was the first on the scene—determined that it wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular, one of the drivers was careless, drifted a little, and your dad swerved too hard away from the river, caught his right wheels in a ditch and rolled the car. Broken leg, both arms, crushed ribs, concussion. The girl, Elizabeth Evans, was thrown. Your father made it out of the hospital in time for the funeral, and had your uncle bring him in his wheelchair to St. Theresa’s for the service. Closed casket. I never spoke to your father for the story, so I can’t help you on that end. His choice. Your grandparents were not forthcoming—they didn’t appreciate the attention, and were naturally beaten up about the whole thing. It was a slow summer for news here in town, and that was the biggest story for months. Not sure who else you can talk to that’s still around now—might try her family, but that’s a long shot.

 

Interview Five - The Wife and Mother:

I don’t want to talk about it. Your father never wanted to talk about it, so I don’t see any reason why I should. What year? We met three years after it happened, if that’s where you’re going. September 9, 1967, your father and I had our first date. He picked me up and took me to see a movie over in the city. No, I wasn’t ever curious, about her or what had happened. I would never have known about it if my friend Cathy hadn’t mentioned it to me. She called me up, and this was when your father and I had been seeing each other for a few months already, she called me up and asked if he had ever told me about his accident. Of course he hadn’t, why would he? So Cathy told me that, after she met him for the first time, something about your father had seemed so familiar—something about his name. She’d asked her mother if she knew him, and of course Mrs. Shallenberger knew, since they all used to live damn near in the same neighborhood as the Evans. That’s how I found out, not from any weepy confession by your father, or hidden stacks of photographs and love letters. And I didn’t want to open old wounds, so I left it. Not to sound callous, but it wasn’t as if this was an old girlfriend who I thought he might sneak around with behind my back. It’d take some effort to do that. So no, I never felt compelled to ask. There was only one way that I know it affected him, and maybe this was his own odd memorial to her, or maybe he was too superstitious—but he didn’t drive down by the river, not on that section of the road. He’d drive miles out of his way to avoid it. Or if he absolutely had to go down that part, he’d wait for a time when he knew I was free and he’d ask if I could drive him. You know, the way you remember your father is always going to be different than the way I remember him, or the way your brothers remember him; you could only see certain aspects of him from your perspective. You weren’t married to him, so you wouldn’t know just how good a dancer he was—well, you saw him at your wedding, but he was even better when he was young. Or how he had a nervous habit of doodling nonsensical little notes to himself on everything, in that slanted chicken-scratch handwriting he had. That’s how it is to be someone’s child. Even if you are old enough to see me as a person, I’m sure everything I do is still filtered through your expectations of the place I’ve occupied in your life. You could only have seen a sliver of the person your father was, just because you’re your father’s son. Now let’s look at those pictures you brought.

 

Extrapolated Father:

You wonder how it would have been if you were born from her instead of from your actual mother. Were you the inevitable first child, waiting, somewhere, for your own birth? What son would have been my son, if not you? I can tell you. You would be different. As drastically different as I was from the minute she was alive to the minute she was not. That was a change that I did not see coming. The last part of her I lived with was her arm, stretched out towards the windshield before the crash. We were next to each other just once afterwards, when I put my hand on her coffin and thought about her body, split and then stitched together, lying within; thought about how the face of the thing inside that coffin would only be a mockery of the color and flush of the face I had known.

Feel free to try to imagine me as I was, the prehistorical version of the father you knew, as just a son, a man, a person in the world. You might have photographs around you, in imbricate layers on the floor. Notes that you’ve taken, memories of me, misguided and inaccurate. Whatever combination you attempt, whatever sequence you choose, all you’ll find is a choppy, blurry picture of my life, soundless and colorless, animated in the most unnatural manner, lacking every characteristic that formed the familiar me, and what you’re left with is a revolting vision only of that which you’ve forced into being: a work of brute, discontinuous mimicry, as far a cry from the real thing as could be.

 

 
 

 


 Kevin Hyde’s work has been published online at BULL, Gigantic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Eyeshot, among other places, and in Penny, Redivider, Parcel, and Big Fiction. He and his wife live in Tacoma, Washington. 

 

 


 

Lovers Tarot Card

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.