Today we present the third finalist of The Texas Observer’s 2013 short story contest, judged by Dagoberto Gilb. Throughout September we’ve been publishing the contest’s finalists, one per week, leading up to the winning story, which will appear in the Observer’s October Books Issue and online early next month, along with a roll call of honorable-mention entries. In case you missed it, our first finalist was Dini Karasik’s story “Amalia on the Border.” The second was “Fire in Galveston,” by Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue.
This week’s finalist is Dinah Cox’s “Three Stories of Prosperity,” a tripartite tale narrated in three distinct voices.
Three Stories of Prosperity
By Dinah Cox
At the end of a long day overseeing the overseas manufacture of drinking straws, a rich man, in the midst of removing his shoes, sees a mouse. Eek, he says, ironic because he never before has said the word “eek,” never before thought himself fearful of skittering or stinging creatures; mostly he looks only at papers and a computer screen, car keys and, not very often, piano keys when he feels like indulging his artistic side. But today he sees a mouse. Today he says—but does not shout—the word “eek,” only no one is home to hear him.
Eek, he says again, because he can. A mouse.
The mouse, brown and lumpy like an old crust of bread, hobbles along in fits and starts by the fireplace. The fireplace is empty save a single desiccated log and a pile of ashes, cold below the drafts in the chimney. The rich man realizes at once the mouse is ill, poisoned perhaps, taken over by tumors, nervous and useless and heaving from the depths of its twisted innards. The mouse sputters and gags, staggers and limps, and finally cowers in a corner, its uneven breathing like loose grit blown against windowpanes during a storm. The rich man decides against removing his shoes and instead reties their laces, puts on tomorrow’s necktie, and prepares himself against the winter wind outside. He buttons his overcoat, finds an old fuzzy hat he wore when he was a boy and ties it underneath his chin. A pair of gloves meant for below-zero temperatures make him look like an astronaut, the whole world a vacuum, gravity be damned. He has some idea he’ll find a shovel in the garage, scoop up the mouse, and dump it outside in the elements until nature takes its course.
He abandons this idea as too sensible and instead takes a water glass from the kitchen cabinet, overturns it, and places it, dome-like, on top of the mouse, now, thanks to his handiwork, a specimen enclosed for observation, an artifact bound for a museum, like the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln or the left hemisphere of Einstein’s brain.
He looks closer at the mouse-under-glass, its laboring lungs and convulsing limbs. All at once he is speaking to the mouse, even though he has never before spoken to a mouse, never had cause to speak to a mouse, never even thought about mice very much at all unless you counted the time he set traps for an old neighbor when he was a boy.
Something’s going to happen to me tomorrow, he says. Something terrible is going to happen to me. I’m going to eat my breakfast and drive my car and walk into my building and greet my secretary and stamp my seal of approval and come home just like I always do, only something terrible is going to happen, tomorrow, when I least expect it. Oh little mouse, I could drink you like I’d drink a glass of water.
On the first Saturday in November, the University Alumni Association sponsors the Spurs ‘n’ Saddle Black Tie Barbecue, tuxedos and cowboy boots only, please; ladies, evening gowns and stockings, leave your roping pants at home. Eileen believes herself so rich she can wear anything she wants, but she is mistaken, as she discovers, when she shows up twenty minutes early wearing jeans and a diamond-studded sweater, her hair braided with ribbons honoring the school colors, also the colors of Halloween. She believes the event a potluck, another mistake, as she realizes when the wife of the university president takes one look at her casserole dish and says, You must be allergic. As if she would bring her own food to compensate for her shellfish allergy, and so what if she’s given up red meat, who do these people think they are, anyway? Eileen herself comes from new money, but then so does everyone else in this backwater town. All the old money travels in a rusted-out pipeline down to the Gulf of Mexico. Eileen’s husband—often mistaken for her father—is a periodontist and a part-time airline pilot, moonlighting for the sake of their big house on the outskirts of town. And their children have not distinguished themselves as children around here should. The oldest—a girl—wants to become an opera singer and the younger one—a boy—has disappointed everyone first by refusing football, then by giving up golf lessons, and finally, against the explicit wishes of his father, joining the symphony orchestra as the first-chair flautist, a prodigy at the tender age of twelve. What is to be done about such artistic children? Eileen envies friends from the Alumi Association whose children are autistic and not artistic, at least those weirdos could be cured with a pill. But she does her best to encourage her own children; she’s proud of them, in her way, and their gifts, such as they are, might reap financial rewards or, at the very least, help her daughter find a husband and her son find a wife. Really she’s not that cold. Really she’s very warm. Really she wants what’s best for them, what’s best for the family, a mention in the local paper, a smile and a nod from the Republican state senator. Really she didn’t mean to bring a casserole to the Spurs ‘n’ Saddle Black Tie Barbecue, a catered event, and really she didn’t mean to wear jeans.
Better to be comfortable, says the wife of the university president. And to think it might rain. The wife of the university president is also named Eileen. Privately, Eileen thinks of herself as Eileen #1 and the wife of the university president as Eileen #2, a reversal of sorts, but one that does not fail to please.
Eileen #2’s prounouncement turns out to be prophetic: The Spurs ‘n’ Saddle Black Tie Barbecue suffers under a deluge, the sky flattens and opens with a sudden sideways slant, as if the rainwater were the trick of a magician’s assistant, the mass of clouds a secret trapdoor. Both Eileens escape under an awning, the entrance to the Hotel and Restaurant School’s flagship teaching establishment, a fancy steakhouse with cloth napkins and a fireplace, The Rancher’s Club, they call it, though no ranchers ever dine there. In a glass case on the wall is the menu, items listed in calligraphy, barbed wire bordering the edges, steaks and more steaks, potatoes, the vegetable of the day. Next to the menu is the painted profile of a cow, its round body and lean flanks meant to suggest the decadence of the savory experience to come. Eileen #1 steps back from the awning’s edge when the rainwater shoots toward her in a horizontal splash; now she’s next to the menu, eye to eye with the outline of the cow. She’s not sure, but for a moment she thinks she catches the cow looking at her diamond-studded sweater and the ribbons in her hair. No, it’s really happening, the cow is staring her down, its eyeball a bulging yellow mass, and the rain’s coming harder now, great gusts of pressurized spray, like water from the hoses they use to clean the killing-room floor.
Brandon is a banker, or at least well on his way. For now, he’s the loan officer at a local branch of Appletree Savings and Loan, “a deposit a day keeps the landlord away.” He’s like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, only not as stupid, he thinks, not as prone to sentimental mistakes. He’s recently divorced, lying alone in bed one night when the telephone rings, something that never happens anymore, not even during the day. He rolls over, shakes off a vague dream of sunlight on the floor of a barn, and answers.
Hello, he says. Mom?
She knows some people, she says, some people who need a loan.
Right now? he says. They need a loan in the middle of the night?
Please, she says. They’re lesbians.
Brandon is open-minded, and he watches a lot of television. His former brother-in-law, his high school history teacher, two and possibly a third teller at Appletree Saving and Loan: all gay. All fine with him. And if they had the right credit scores, sure, he’d give them a loan, no problemo, amigo, amigas, mujeres con mujeres, whatever floats your boat. The time, though, is troubling. Tomorrow, he says to his mother. Have them call me at the bank tomorrow.
Okay, his mother says before hanging up. Okay?
Well, okay, then. It’s all settled. Tomorrow he will work. Something terrible is going to happen to him, tomorrow. He’s going to eat his breakfast and drive his car and walk into his building and stamp his seal of approval and come home just like he always does, only something terrible is going to happen, tomorrow, when he least expects it. He doesn’t have a secretary, but maybe if he did all this trouble would go away. He’s tired now, his body like a limpid stream, floating, drifting off to sleep. He returns to the dream of sunlight on the floorboards of his grandfather’s big, red barn, only the paint is fading and flaking, the boards loose and rotting, the whole thing turning pink before his very eyes. Who will pay the mortgage every month? Who will cook the dinner? Who will change the furnace filter? If they find a wasp nest in the eaves, who will knock it down? Who will fold the laundry? Who will mow the lawn?
Dinah Cox lives and works in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Her short stories appear in Prairie Schooner, Copper Nickel, Quarterly West, and elsewhere, and she’s an Associate Editor at Cimarron Review.
Nellie Downer’s story checks every box on the list of attributes guest judge Bryan Washington appreciates in short fiction: “stories with distinct voices, a keen sense of place, and a palpable intimacy.”