The Dead Still Here

The Dead Still Here

by Laura Valeri

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781622881802
Publisher: Stephen F. Austin University Press
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Pages: 120
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

LAURA VALERI’s debut collection of short stories The Kind of Things Saints Do was the winner of the Iowa/John Simmons Award. She lives in Savannah, Georgia, with her husband Joel Caplan, and she is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.

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CHAPTER 1

THIEVING MAGPIE

Her ex-husband was stealing from her.

She had followed him from Italy to America, raised his three children, cleaned his house, ironed his shirts, cooked his meals, and then, after nearly fifty years, one night he sat with her at the kitchen table while they were watching the telegiornale, and confessed.

"I can't take this anymore, all your fighting, all your complaints." He waved his hand as if she were only a pesky fly that kept getting into his food.

She fought a vicious legal battle to obtain the condo in Florida and for a fair amount of alimony to see her through her golden age, but finally they came to an agreement. He moved out. Then, things began to disappear.

First, the car keys from the bowl near the door went missing; then her second pair of reading glasses. Even the wedding ring, which she took off one evening, and carefully placed in the ashtray on her nightstand, vanished by the time she returned from washing her face in the bathroom.

By this time, her ex had already returned his set of keys.

"He must have a spare set," she complained on the phone to her youngest, her daughter. "You know how he is, with his fingers in everything. He probably tipped the doorman to sneak inside."

"You would have noticed if someone had broken in," reasoned her daughter, "even with the faucet running."

"So, what are you saying? That your mother is losing her mind?" Her voice went up a pitch, and she held the receiver close to her mouth in her fisted hand, as if she would as soon use that receiver to smash something as she would to talk to her daughter on the phone.

Even so, she and the ex met every so often, when neither of them could bear to be alone while the rest of the world had someone with whom to share a meal or an afternoon. They met at their favorite chain restaurants, and asked for separate tabs, mostly on Sundays and holidays, mostly to break the monotony. All the same, at every meal, she could not help but remind her ex-husband whose fault it was that they divorced.

"You left me alone for all of nine months. You went to Europe to have a grand time."

But, he said, it was because of his job, his last chance to earn real money before he got too old.

"Then you took up with that whore, that girlfriend of yours from way back."

This, he denied.

"The wedding ring is proof."

Her heart still stung thinking of that wedding band stuck in a fissure on the bottom shelf of a bookcase in her ex-husband's studio. The inner band of the ring was engraved with a date that didn't match their anniversary. He claimed the ring was his father's, but, she said, those were not the dates of her in-laws' wedding, and she found a letter, besides, from an old girlfriend of his, one he had dated when he was still a University student. In the letter, this woman, now married, now with children of her own, called her ex-husband caro mio, and ciccio.

By this point in their predictable and recurring argument, the ex-husband signaled the waiter and, after paying his half of the bill, walked out of the restaurant with a quick, impatient stride, while still she shouted her complaints at his back.

"Fifty years!" She waved her fist at him. "Fifty years and three kids."

At home, she would look through her purse and find that her eyeglass case was missing, or her stylus pen, or her pocket mirror. Every Sunday, something else left her life never to come back. Still, every Sunday, when the ex-husband called after Mass, she agreed to meet him at one of their favorite restaurants.

"Better than being alone," she explained to her oldest son on the phone. To her daughter, the youngest, she said, "Better to have someone to hate than to have no one at all."

It was after dinner, on Christmas Eve, her two sons and daughter visiting, spouses and children in tow, that the doorman called from the lobby. He found her checkbook on the ramp leading to the condo's garage. She padded down to the lobby in her felt Christmas slippers and offered the doorman a twenty-dollar tip from the pocket of her night robe.

The checkbook was twisted and torn, as if someone tried to rip it apart before throwing it from the balcony of her thirteenth floor apartment.

"It could have been a car tire," her oldest son reasoned.

"It would have tire marks on it," she argued. "And how do you explain that the checkbook went out the window? You don't think I threw it myself, do you?" Thus, Christmas Eve ended with shouts, the children wanting to know why Grandma looked so upset. Why was Grandpa leaving so early, when baby Jesus hadn't brought the gifts yet?

She replaced all the locks of the condo. She banned the ex-husband from the building, threatening a restraining order. Their children learned to coordinate lunches and dinners from one parent's house to the other.

The daughter and younger son avoided talking about her missing things, at least to her face. Once, while she was washing dishes, she overheard her daughter confess to her brother: "You remember how she was when we brought our friends over? If a bath towel went missing, it was my friend or your girlfriend who stole it. What would my friend do with a bath towel, I asked. And Mom said, 'She's saving for a dowry.' A dowry! Thats her mind.

Medieval."

But the oldest son seemed perplexed, only occasionally offering alternative theories to explain the missing objects.

Once, on their way back from a Sunday brunch, her oldest son's wife caught her reading glasses just as they were about to drop from her purse onto the sidewalk.

"Careful," the son's wife said, returning the glasses. The son looked away. The ex-husband held the son back by the elbow and whispered, too loudly, "She would have blamed me if you hadn't all seen it."

She swung around, shouting: "You know very well what you do. Don't pretend. This time it was an accident. But all the other times, I know it was you."

The next morning, she found the front tire of her car flat. Later, the mechanic pulled a long, rusty nail from between the grooves.

"It's your father," she said to the daughter on the phone. "He's so vindictive."

Her daughter›s responses were symphonies of sighs. Even on a long-distance phone call she could sense her daughter's eyes rolling.

In this way, years passed, and things went missing: a GPS device, a cassette tape on which she'd recorded a lesson from a University lecture, a deck of playing cards, an important letter from her lawyer, her second set of house keys, two pairs of glasses, a bathing cap, a set of ear plugs, and a new screwdriver. Objects kept leaving her house, week after week, never to return. Sensing her sons' and daughter's skepticism, and fearing their gentle pleas for her to get on medications, she no longer complained, except to the oldest son, who listened without judgment.

Twelve years later, the ex-husband died. When they entered his apartment, the daughter opened a drawer in his nightstand, and saw it brimming with old photographs and objects from her own home: a set of earrings, the key to an old locker, a moonstone pendant she had received for her first communion, a baby shoe from her firstborn, and a silver spoon from his baptism she was certain had been lost forever.

"I can't believe Mom," the daughter complained to her older brother. "To steal all those things and hide them in Dad's apartment, to make us believe her crazy story."

CHAPTER 2

ROAD KILL

Jud knows a lot about Corey that would seem irrelevant in the scheme of things, as for instance, that he wears green contact lenses, that he shaves with a manual blade because electric razors give him bumps, that his mother is a consultant for the IT industry and one of the rare few programmers who still works with C++ besides, that his daddy split when Corey was four. Corey is sixteen or maybe seventeen, a Leo, a hipster, the type who likes to wear thrift store shirts that are open at the chest to show off his pecs like in a commercial for TAG, and the girls at school don't mind seeing Corey in his shirt and his leather wrap bracelets, two, three, on his left wrist only, the left ear pierced seven times, the nostril once, with one small diamond stud that teachers at Scudsboro High won't let him wear, but that he does, anyway, pointing to the Gothic cross tattooed on his upper arm, to the Latin, vade retro me Satana, expecting, of course, more detention.

If Corey had stopped to consider Scudsboro, if he'd driven on 67 along the miles and miles of planted fields, corn, soy, tobacco, cotton, and pastures where the cows graze and the egrets stand tall near their piles of dung, and if he'd paid attention in town and read the church marquee that said "Without Jesus, There Would Be Hell To Pay," and if he knew that the hottest things that ever happened during a Scudsboro summer is the wind, he might have maybe opted for prep school, like his mother offered, would maybe understand why the teachers talk about him in the schoolyard when he's close enough to hear them: "They don't belong to any church," "The mother goes to Unity, bless her heart," "The kid growing up without a father like that," then Corey would know why they worry about how he doesn't seem to want to blend in like the rest of the kids, how he thrives on being the oddball, even as he still manages to avoid getting noticed by, say, the Jack Wyndhams and Mark Stoltzs of the situation, guys whose noses Jud had to bust before he got some respect. But even if he did understand it, Corey wouldn't care. It's South Georgia, a place of breath-stifling summers, of twilight gnats, river tides, and swaying marsh grass, it's church bells tolling and choirs singing, it's coal rolling on 67, State troopers on 80, eighty miles to the nearest beach on five gallons of gas, and everybody here owns a gun and loves Jesus, even the Democrats, who will lock and load standing next to their Obama lawn signs that their neighbors keep burning down, or using for hangers.

Corey is the only white boy in Scudsboro with dreadlocks. He says he's no fashionista: his hair is so kinky he can't keep it straight any other way, and besides, he says he's part Dominican, on his father's side (Jud suspects black: the flat nose, the wide nostrils, the tanned smooth skin). In Atlanta, Corey says, kids called him a douche. They slammed him against the lockers, they elbowed him to make him drop his lunch, but here in Scudsboro only the teachers care. Corey threatens to just, fuck it, shave it all off one day, there, bring it right up to Miss Marie, and fuck her and the kids in Atlanta and their pseudo-liberal dribble.

Corey says, "Cultural appropriation is where left-wing politics becomes a caricature of itself. Where's the damage? In the mind of a few privileged Ivy League talking heads whose minority card should be seized 'cause they're fucking green all over?" Corey's always talking too loud, his voice rising with every statement, his hands moving large, pointing, dropping, clenching, and pinching things that don't exist, and Jud watches it, thinking it's like a dance, what Corey does, like the way the body moves is part of the music with some of the hip-hop groups Corey listens to.

Corey says, "This sort of thing contributes to the kind of Puppet Theater politics instigated by the corporate-controlled media." He lights a joint in the parking lot because Corey thinks the principal won't know a blunt from a rolly, anyway.

"Who cares about dreadlocks, for fuck's sake?" he says, biting down on the blunt with his front teeth. "Think same-sex marriage. What do the neo-cons say, that it compromised the sanctity of marriage, right? So, what they're saying is that gay people are culturally appropriating marriage. It's all fucked, this political shit." He drills his temple with his middle finger, which is also tattooed with something that looks to Jud like a gang sign.

Jud pulls his baseball cap lower and pops another beer. He doesn't quite know why he even listens to Corey. It's not as if Corey's ideas are interesting or even surprising. Each time Corey says fuck it feels to Jud like someone gave him a wedgie.

For Jud, Corey is reality TV, something so gross that you can't help watching because there's nothing else worth turning the channel for.

Corey says, "Am I right?" hands open, like a shyster from a Tarantino movie.

"You're full of crap," says Jud. Can't even bring himself to say shit, which is what he really wants to say, because Nana's got it drilled into him so much she'd slap him across the face. Nana doesn't get worked up about much, but things like language really set her off, and, well, Jud respects Nana, which is more than he can say about his own mother, who left his Dad for some truck-tire salesman in Alabama right after Dad's wood chipper accident.

Corey sucks on his blunt with his left eye squinting, his nostrils folding in. He holds in the smoke and nods as he hands it over to Jud, who is supposed to be in History right now, who has rugby practice at four and will surely be kicked off the team if he misses it again. But he has to admit it gives him a bit of a thrill, coach threatening to kick him out: and it's not because he doesn't love rugby– he loves crunching bones without having to apologize – but it's because it will make Pops angry, like it might be possible for him to drop his Jud essence like dirty socks, and become something different than the kid who works on his F-350 truck with Pops every Sunday afternoon, the kid with the catylectic converter and the diesel fuel pump tricked up to run tracks with the boys.

He squints at Corey through the smoke between them, and Corey squints back at him like he understands, and this makes Jud want to run over Corey's Euro-cool motorcycle with his truck. It had to be a Ducati Hypermotor, an expensive Euro-import that fits in Scudsboro like Satan fits in at a church potluck. Jud feels personally offended that Corey owns one of the most gorgeous bikes ever made.

"Present from the old man. To make up for the fact that he's never around." But Jud thinks the bike is weed money.

It's Jud's turn on the blunt. It's wet, but he puts it between his lips all the same and nods back at Corey, who laughs like he knows something Jud doesn't. But then, it's Casey and Julia and Michelle crossing the parking lot, their giggles and talks rising suddenly above the mockingbird that's been screeching at them to get out from under the tree for the last twenty minutes. Jud feels a clutching in his stomach seeing Michelle. Corey waves like it's Algebra and he's got a question for the teacher that'll make him look smart.

"Hey, ladies."

The ladies wave back. They say "Hi Corey, hi Jud." Jud nods.

Rugby is in an hour and he's missing History, and he's guzzling beer and smoking pot, which would make it better for Jud to miss practice than to show up stoned and drunk. To Corey, he says, "Hey, don't fuck with Michelle, okay?"

Corey's got his back to him, arms open like he's Jesus welcoming sinners.

"Hey, you hear me? Not Michelle, okay?"

Corey makes like he doesn't hear it. By then the girls are too close for Jud to keep going, and Corey's going at them with the smile of a prophet. Jud crushes the beer can and throws it out to the garbage in a perfect hoop shot.

Jud tries to pretend not to see Michelle, but she shows him her teeth in a pretend smile, so he grins. It was Jud's fault they broke up again. Out on the bed of his truck, all things good, his hands on her flat stomach, then up, under her bra, her pepperoni pizza breath on his face: "Slow down, come on, Jud, I'm not ready for that."

He sat up and lit up a stick, Michelle's saliva still in his mouth, and said, "You look like a whore in that top. What did you wear that for if you don't want to do it?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Come on, it's written all over you. Were you hoping he'd come tonight?"

"Who?"

"I saw your text to him. I was standing right there."

Michelle slipped off the truck bed, pulling on her jacket.

"Hey!" He jumped off the truck after her.

"You're a real asshole. Get off the booze, Jud. You're turning into your Pops."

Now it all seems to him like a bad TV show, that cliché that Corey's always said he is, except he did grab Michelle's hair. He tugged on it hard, like Pops with Nana: "What did you say? What the hell is that supposed to mean?" And the kind of shit he thought he should say.

It was, really, just the bourbon. He threw up an hour later, his truck parked sideways on Nana's hydrangeas, and Jud with his face to the lawn, tasting dirt.

Michelle's dad called Pops when she showed up home with a bruise on her lip, and he threatened to drive over with his shotgun. The whole business ended up in a lot of screaming on both ends.

But Michelle struts up to him like nothing happened, pulling her cheerleading jacket tight like it's cold, though it's really only October, and it's eighty degrees, and they're all wearing flip-flops except her. She's got her cheerleader uniform. Her long, tanned legs so nicely defined, her calf muscles flexing out of ankle socks so perfect it makes Jud want to start it up again. Julia and Casey pull Corey in a bear hug. Michelle's lip looks normal now.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Dead Still Here"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Laura Valeri.
Excerpted by permission of Stephen F. Austin State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

THIEVING MAGPIE, 7,
ROAD KILL, 11,
PROPHECY, 21,
LIABILITIES OF A LOVE MISGUIDED, 33,
BLESS HER HEART, 34,
MURDER BY GHOST, 47,
PRESCRIPTIONS FOR LIFE, 57,
LOGORRHEA, 59,
THE MADONNA OF THE DROWNED, 67,
WHAT THEY KNOW, 80,
ICE STORM, 82,
ASSEMBLY HEART, 95,

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