Two Fictions

Josh Russell

The Mistake

On the morning of her forty-eighth birthday, Helen cancels the restaurant reservation she made a month ago so Matt’s girlfriend from high school can come over and the three of them can eat a dinner Helen cooks. This girlfriend from high school is now a poet and professor and is in town to give a reading at the women’s college. One of the reasons Helen fell for Matt twenty-odd years ago was because he had the poet’s book on his shelf—she’d finally found a fellow law student who read more than Ayn Rand and baseball card price guides. They’d been living together for a few months when it occurred to her there was only that one volume of poetry shelved with a few paperback novels from a college American literature survey class. Its title was No More Ideas, and a silver sticker on the cover announced it’d won a prize. When she asked, Matt told Helen the poet had been his first serious girlfriend. She understood serious meant sex.

Helen serves spinach lasagna, garlic bread, salad, a meal just complicated enough to make her feel justified for being pissed she’s the one cooking, though she tells herself she could’ve heated up TV dinners and her displeasure over spending her birthday listening to them giggle about high school would be justified.

After they eat, Helen clears the table while Matt opens a second bottle of wine and he and his first serious girlfriend sit together on the couch. The poet puts her hand on Matt’s knee. Talk momentarily turns to who’s dead, then they return to joking. It’s pretty clear most of these jokes are about when and where they had sex while in high school, which is annoying both because of the subject of the jokes, and because of their apparent belief Helen won’t understand what’s funny about Peter’s when his family went out of town that one Thanksgiving.

When Helen comes from the kitchen, the poet excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Matt watches her go, grinning, then turns to Helen. She doesn’t try to hide her irritation. “What?” he asks. Helen reminds him it’s her birthday, adds it hasn’t been fun to spend her birthday listening to him and his first serious girlfriend talk about getting serious back in high school. He’s quiet for a long moment. “That was a long time ago,” he finally says. It sounds more lamentation than apology. Helen considers sharing with him a memory of her first serious boyfriend—Honda Civic, gravel parking lot behind the country club pool, night before Christmas, shared look of surprise when he was suddenly inside her—but there’s a flush and the poet returns. “How’s your mom?” she asks Matt.

Helen’s first serious boyfriend broke up with her not long after that night behind the pool, and she hasn’t kept in touch with anyone from high school or college. Matt has many happy connections to his past—LPs he bought at the mall, yearbooks inscribed with goofy good wishes, albums of snapshots of his smiling childhood compiled by his mother—and Helen has nearly none. Feeling like a jealous jerk, she flees to the bathroom while Matt begins to tell the poet what his mother’s been up to since they were in high school.

The sink is dry and Helen wonders if the poet washed her hands. When she sits down on the edge of the bathtub, she sees the poet’s handwriting in the squares of her crossword. This annoys Helen even more than the hand on her husband’s knee. She considers stomping into the living room and telling the poet that Matt ordered her newest book, displayed prominently on the coffee table, only when he knew she was coming to dinner, and he hasn’t read it, and probably won’t, but she has, and it’s not very good—the poems are all the same, all about trees and boring sex and minor annoyances at the grocery store or Target—and then she sees the poet has made an error. Helen knows the answer. From the bathroom she can hear them continue to reminisce, so the poet surely heard them arguing. Matt puts on a New Order record. The mistake is neatly penciled.

Mr. Microphone

She ended their affair when his wife gave birth, and had not spoken to him since, but one night while driving the baby around to trick it into sleeping, Tim saw her jogging, pulled the minivan over, and rolled down the window.

“Hey good lookin’, we’ll be back to pick you up later.”

She looked at him blankly. He had stopped under a streetlight, and sweat made her face and shoulders gleam.

“It was a TV commercial in the late seventies. Mr. Microphone.”

She nodded slowly. Beyond the complications of adultery and the baby, one reason Emily broke things off was that he was fifteen years older than she. Often, she’d told him, his jokes made no sense to her.

She wore a sports bra, no shirt, her stomach was flat and it too gleamed. “Timmy,” she said calmly, “why don’t you fuck off?” She checked her watch—the watch he gave her for her birthday.

“Come for a ride.” He was surprised by the desperation in his voice, and he saw her flinch. “I really miss you,” he explained.

She sighed, opened the door, and got in. “I swear to god if you play Joy Division or Human League and lecture me.”

“Understood,” he said. “How’ve you been?”

“Oh, you know, fine.” She looked out at the split-levels and ranch houses, not at him. “And how are your wife and child?”

“You want to know what changing diapers is like?”

“Oh, I know: siblings, babysitting, nieces and nephews. Shall we talk about the weather now? I think it might rain tomorrow. Or do you want to tell me all about Mr. Microphone?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess that’s what I wanted to say when I saw you running.”

She sighed again. “We’re both sorry.”

He turned into the elementary school’s parking lot and the minivan’s headlights lit the playground. When he cut the engine, the swing sets and teeter-totters disappeared in darkness.

He heard her unbuckle her seatbelt. He could smell her sweat and make out her silhouette when she climbed into his lap, but he couldn’t see her face, even when she kissed him. He reached out and felt her ribs, pushed her spandex bra up into her armpits. When he put his mouth on her nipple, she groaned, the baby began softly to cry, and a flashlight beam came through the window and lit her breasts. She covered her face with her forearm and scrambled away. The beam followed her, then moved to the backseat where the baby continued complaining.

Behind the glare Tim saw a uniform. He turned the key and rolled down the window.

“Everything okay?” the policeman asked.

Tim nodded, unable to speak. The cop pointed the light at Emily. She’d pulled down her bra. “Okay, yes, okay,” she said quickly.

“I have a three-year-old,” the cop said. “I get it. But go home, don’t screw here. You’re not teenagers anymore. You don’t want me to call your parents.” He laughed at his own joke and Tim forced a chuckle.

“Have a good night, officer,” he called as the cop went back to his car.

“Baby,” she hissed. “The baby, and you didn’t stop me.”

Tim examined her face in the dim glow of the dashboard. “Let’s go somewhere else?”

Emily opened the door and got out. She was illuminated by the beams of the minivan’s headlights, and he watched her pass the jungle gym and the slides and the soccer goals until she faded into the gloom. Behind him the baby started screaming.

Josh Russell’s King of the Animals (LSU Press, 2021) was longlisted for The Story Prize. His stories and essays have appeared in Subtropics, Epoch, DIAGRAM, Seneca Review, and One Story. At Georgia State University, he’s the Director of the Creative Writing Program.