GWS Reprint: Sarah Yaw’s “Stepping Down”

 This story first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of Salt Hill.  You can download an attractive PDF of the piece right here.  The copyright, of course, remains with Ms. Yaw and GWS is grateful that she allowed the story to be reproduced here.  Take a look at what we can steal from the story at this link.

Ms. Yaw’s debut novel, You Are Free to Go, will be published by Engine Books in September 2014.  You can visit her site to learn more about the author and her work.

 

Stepping Down

Sarah Yaw

Those of us who know nothing about prison guards know this: they love loose women and treat their wives like criminals, they never talk about their day unless they’re drinking, they beat prisoners instead of kids and they spend their state wage on boats and cars and pools because a paycheck is for enjoying and God knows they kiss the devil’s ass every day to get one. My best friend Beth, whose father is a guard, says there’s only some truth to it.

Tonight is their game. Lights blast on popcorn-colored and the fans pour in. Not too many—Auburn is a small town docked on a fingery lake in what they all call down there way upstate—but it’s a good turnout for small-town baseball on a rainy night. Tonight I am here for a first date with David who, like everyone else, is here to honor John who was a guard before he was eaten by cancer like a wormy apple. I met David on a boat out on the lake a month ago when I was thinking about other things.

When I met David it was a burning sun and the sky was only as open as the hills. According to Beth, I needed a distraction; I was all but dead. I felt that old. At twenty-eight a divorce is like dentures. And Alex’s leaving had left me geriatric, I’m here with David tonight because he asked, but I am sure now that it is a mistake.

“Karen, a prison guard?” Beth said as we smoked on her porch. “That’s a step down.”

For an August night it is cold from rain that fell a couple hours ago. The sky is closing in on us and the crows are making their way through the northern and western skies for their perching along the dark waters of the Owasco River. David has gone off to the concession for dollar drafts. A mentally retarded boy is behind me in brand-new jeans and a new windbreaker and a new baseball hat and he is waving a triangled banner that screams Double Days in blue and yellow as if this were the big time. There is a counselor, a small pasty-faced brown-haired girl with no-nonsense shoes. Someone is fiddling with the back of my hair. It’s flipped and flipped and flipped again and the counselor says, “No Jason, no. Jason, stop that.” I turn around, and Jason holds his twisted fist to his mouth and smiles a naughty smile and she’s apologizing, but I’m not upset I tell her. “It’s perfectly okay.” I say.

***

The tumbling of weather systems overhead doesn’t look good for the game but the rain at least is holding. David is tall and wide. His hair is short and dark now but he looks as though he must have been a flossy-headed baby. He wears small fashionable wire-rimmed glasses and is surprisingly handsome, though not my type, He sits down next to me and hands me a beer and we watch boys in blue shirts push large janitorial brooms in unison as if it were a show. They wipe away water from the tarps that cover the well-kept sod. They even play special sweeping music. The team’s blue boys sweep the entire infield expertly in one pass. When they’re done, they are in a perfect line and in time with the music they all hold the brooms away from their chests with their left arms looking like the final formation in a chorus number. Taking their positions along the tarp’s edge, they roll ably in hopes of bringing the players to the field before the clouds boiling overhead erupt and send us all home. I am entertained but David says he wants the game to start so John’s son Daren can toss the first pitch. The newspaper is here waiting to click and flash a picture and everyone is waiting to remember in silence the man who died not as he died with rickety ribs and a mouth nearly glued shut with thirst, but as the young man we can all admire now that he is dead and above reproach.

David points out John’s wife across the stands. I am jealous of her because my memories of Alex are not so unadulterated. Alex left quickly and at Christmas time.

“Is this your first time to a game?” David asks.

“As an adult,” I say.

“Well things have changed a little I imagine,” he says looking around at the stands. And they have. This is a new stadium, an imitation of an old ballpark.

“Yup, everything,” I say as music turns up turning this into a waiting-to-play party. The guards are gathering in loud standing groups and the wives are seated wrapped in fleece blankets and the children are running in splashy swarms through the stands.

“What?” he says.

“Everything has changed,” I say. He nods in agreement with a story he doesn’t know and sits silently looking out across the misty field. David, I have noticed, widens his gray, blue, green eyes when I’m speaking like he’s listening with them. He repeats what I’ve said and adds little. In my estimation he must not be very smart.

“I guess this is nothing like New York. I bet you miss it,” he says.

“I miss the food and the movies,” I say.

“Food and movies—Auburn’s not so fun after all that.” He leans back and crosses his legs. He leans his elbows on the seats behind him and his chest is broad.

“I missed the lakes when I lived away,” he says.

“Where were you?” I am shocked he’s been anywhere but here.

“Where was I? Tucson. For a girl,” he laughs. “And then she kicked me out so her boyfriend could move in and I came home to my mother’s house. Like you,” he says. “But I lived in the basement.”

I laugh because Beth said on first dates you need to act amused by what they say even if you’re not. And I am not because I am thinking of the day my father came to Brooklyn to bring me home and how my stomach turned and I tasted failure like I had lost the war, like I was retreating and leaving behind spoils. I hate that David thinks he’s anything like me. That he thinks he knows anything about my life.

I do live in my mother’s house—in an apartment above the library in her enormous house. I cook my own meals there and smoke late at night to forget that I used to have plans. But I am nothing like him, I assure myself. At one time my life had weight, it had purpose, it was big and I knew exactly how to be in it. Now, instead of dinner parties and brunching at a long table of coupled-up friends, or a job with children, I exercise and lunch with ladies who take tremendous pity on me and stroke my head. I don’t work. I eat sushi with them and listen to their endless advice: exercise, read books, listen to tapes, write in your journal, take long kind baths. It will all be okay. You’ll meet someone, they say as if it is the sad and inevitable truth. Being single doesn’t last forever, just hope it’s a good one next time, they say this as if we have no control in our desperation over who comes and who goes and who stays. Besides, you’re pretty enough they say.  Blondes don’t stay single.

But I am fair and forgettable. Just like I’ve always been fair and forgettable, like I am in the pictures that line the walls of my mother’s house. The pictures of the know-it-all girl. The predictable and cautious girl. The girl who knew just how things would turn out. When I walk through the dark house on nights when I can’t find Alex I look at her and I miss her.

Beth tells me, “It’s okay to just hide out for a while, but sooner or later you’ve got to get back out there.” That’s why I’m here tonight, not because of any great hopes, but because I am taking her advice like I take the ladies’ advice. I listen to everyone who has ever been alone and I wonder how it is they are all still standing.

***

I smell David as he leans next to me to reach to the ground to pick up his keys that have fallen from his pocket and I know that he is not for me. He smells funny like laundry and soap and there is the smell that is all his and it scares me. He is not right. He is too tall, too thin, too unfamiliar.

Alex who is a musician and who is pretty much always afraid of death and who wakes in the night gripping his chest drenched in sweat from fear is exactly what I’m used to. David who spends his days unarmed, locked in a prison with murderers doing who knows what, who sits next to me straight and still and looks me in the eye without feeling the need to speak while slowly sipping his beer is unacceptable because I crave Alex. I crave him all the time. At night in my dreams we still sleep against another and it’s as if nothing has changed, as if the next thing known will be our waking up on old age as the arm-in-arm couple walking the side-by-side, no-particular-place-to-go-walk. All my will be understood again. Clear. Expected. Guaranteed.

Looking at John’s wife across the stands with her simple brown hair and an old sweatshirt and jeans and white sneakers sitting with her feet wedged on the railing in front of her, knees to her chin and her arm around her boy as she stares into the lights, caught in their greasy smear, I envy her more and more her mourning.

***

French Fries! French Fries! French Fries! yells Jason the retarded boy as he rushes the concessions and tosses his blue Double Days banner to the ground in his dash out of the stands. David makes a big deal about picking it up and presenting it to me as a gift. It makes me uncomfortable and I smile tensely and tell him that it, the banner, reminds me of when I was a teacher. “I taught Kindergarten in a private day school and what l loved most was teaching my students about the shape of things.” I look at the banner. “’Everywhere you can find a triangle, an ellipse, a trapezoid,’ I used to tell them. ‘The world is easier to understand when you can fit it into a cube,’ I always said.”

“You can fit it into a cube? You really believe that?” he asks.

“Well,” I say, shocked. “It helped them learn the shapes. Besides, they need to know how things work. You’re in a prison all day, wouldn’t it be better if everyone played by the rules?”

“Yeah, it would,” he says. “But life doesn’t go like that, you know that by now.” We’re quiet for a moment. I am looking away when he places his hand on the middle of my back and says apologetically, “Go on with your story.” I don’t want to because I am angry that he won’t just sit there amused by me. Who the hell is he, anyway?

Beth did say, “You never know, maybe he’s different, maybe he’ll surprise you.”

“Go on,” he says.

“Well.” I am afraid to tell him how my room was alphabetized, hierarchical, gradated, and clean. “I had glistening evaluations. The students excelled. The parents were always satisfied. The end.”

“Did you quit your job when you came home?”

“Yes,” I lie. The truth is I was fired, but he doesn’t need to know that. Or how my boss told me they were moving towards a more open approach to learning and, in her opinion, I had no knack for it. Or that that was the precise moment when everything changed.

***

Tonight there is always the weather. There is rumbling deeper in the distance. But it is in the North and seems to be far from town. The boys in blue shirts are sweeping the bases and putting down the lines. The gray clouds tumble as though they are amused. The wind is ripping through the trees tossing the crows this way and that and has brought with it the smell of manure. 1t’s from the northern farms that roll flatly out from Canada and like a mantle it covers us.

If I were from somewhere else, I think, a place where it was not known what form love sometimes takes I would never wager on the attraction of opposites. Tonight, the women are shivering in the stands and the men are drinking and they are all not talking. Not with each other, anyway. The women huddle. They complain. They yell, periodically, at their buzzing children. Sometimes they swear. “Fuck this cold in August,” one yells from under a blanket. They never ever look to where their husbands are standing right behind home plate yelling to David to get the hell over here. They laugh because this is a date, make a big deal about how they are going to steal him away. And I am mortified because I am someone’s wife.

Beth said, “Expect a lot of stories about Jewish pedophiles, Nigger kid killers and just plain old white perverts. That is what my father talks about when he drinks.” And David is absorbed into a conversation in which hands are flying and I am imagining the worst sorts of stories.

I sit alone and search for something to consume from my memory of Alex. I look for a last secret sweet kept willfully locked away in my chest. I sift through the bones that are still pure, but I can’t find any.

It was not long after I lost my job that Alex pulled away from me and snapped, He primped. He did sit ups. At dinner with friends he wouldn’t sit. Instead he ate standing as if edging towards the door. We don’t even have sex, he said on Halloween. I am unhappy, he said one month later. Everyday I spend with you makes me feel one day closer to death, he said for Christmas gripping his chest in a midnight sweat. Then he left.

John’s wife is also alone and I wonder why it is the ladies haven’t flocked to her.

I envy her still. Every morning Alex wakes up. Every morning in a small attic apartment in Brooklyn, three blocks from ours, he wakes up with his arm asleep under the head of some other woman. I look up and see David. His flirting eye is on me as the men keep him locked up and I can see he wants out, he’s had enough of their talk; he wants to come back and from here I can see Alex never will.

Jason grabs the back of my shirt and it cuts me in the neck. I laugh but David who has just come back does not. David handles it. He turns to Jason and says, “Hey, buddy, give me five.” It works. Jason laughs and slaps David’s hand over and over and over. It turns out David knows the counselor. They chit and they chat about the intrepid game. David takes my hand and l let him. With it he points Jason’s attention to the sky. Jason makes eerie, Halloween house OOOOOOOOS when he sees the blackness of it. The counselor leans into David and whispers not too quietly that these clouds are proof that there is a God, “That guy was a cheatin’ bastard,” she says about John. “Everybody knows it too,” she says loudly. And I understand why John’s wife is alone and why none of the other wives want to be near her.

The boys in blue shirts roll out the tarp again. “Canceled!” Everyone yells. A loud and angry, “Ahhhh!” explodes from the men, “I told you so,” “I knew it,” they claim.  “On John’s day.  What a shame.  What a Goddamned shame.”  The women Thank Freaking God that they get to go home.

I see David looking over at John’s wife. He is silent but not still. He has taken my hand and wrapped it in his and placed it in his lap and he is huddling over it and tapping each of his legs and says in a terse voice that he’s glad it’s canceled, for her sake. I agree and we watch as she grabs her things and hurries her disappointed boy out of the stadium.

 

Sarah Yaw’s novel The Other Side of the Wall was recently selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize. Sarah received an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and is an Assistant Professor at Cayuga Community College, where she does all kinds of cool things. She lives in Auburn, NY with her four-year-old twins, her husband, the photographer Douglas Lloyd, a fish named John, and a couple of neglected houseplants that are doing a lousy job filling the void left by two old, beloved dogs.

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