Big as the Worldby Jessica Barksdale Inclan
The only clock in the room was the young man sitting dead center in the front row. As Maeve walked in, glancing up to the wall by habit to see if she'd made it to class on time, he was chanting, "One fifty-eight and thirty seconds. . . One fifty-nine. . . One fifty-nine and thirty seconds . . . Two o'clock."
She stared at him, he wild and dirty-haired, small brown eyes behind thick glasses. He wore earbuds, a slight twang of music leaking out from behind his curls.
"Class is officially started," he said.
The real clock on the wall was stuck at 5:35.
"Thanks." Maeve put her books and syllabi down on the table, looked out at the smattering of students, this literature class under-enrolled but filled past the cancellation point. By five students.
"You can start now," the young man said.
"Right," Maeve said, opening her grade book.
She breathed in and glanced around the room, too big and wide for a class of twenty-five. A space had formed between the young man and the rest of the students, some kind of natural selection process occurring in the time before one fifty-eight and thirty seconds. Like a wolf pack, students knew the weakling by scent and sight and sound. It was only a matter of time before they attacked.
The young man was talking to her again, but she picked up her stack of syllabi and began to pass them out to the rows. "Please start reading through. We can talk about it, and then I'll explain how this class will work."
He kept at it, listing the prereqs for the course, the classes he'd taken last semester, the facets of the short story form.
"Beginning, middle, and end."
A middle-aged woman with long dyed-blonde hair walked in, the room blooming with fruit and jasmine. She sat in a desk along the wall and looked at the syllabus Maeve handed to her.
"Do we read any law books? Law cases?" she asked.
"Two oh eight," the young man said.
"God," said a girl in the front row.
"Law books," the woman said again. Maeve noted her yellow eyeshadow, her contact-blue eyes.
"Two oh nine," the young man said.
Maeve answered the woman (no, only short stories, even if law cases did read like stories) and then looked at the door. Then the ceiling. A light-bulb was out in one fixture, the empty side of the classroom agloom. It had been maybe thirteen years since she'd taught in this room, Langston Hall 406. It had been a mythology class, the 9:30 hour spent right here on 9/11, the students and she sitting in a circle talking about what the tragedy meant, wondering if California was next to be hit with planes.
"Short stories aren't like novels," the young man said. "Nothing extra. Nothing overly descriptive."
"How many teachers do we have in this class?" asked another young man sitting behind the blonde woman.
Maeve wondered if they even had one.
Later, as Maeve punched her code onto the copy machine control pad, her colleague Ron slunk into the workroom, smelling of chalk and failure. This was nothing new, his pants habitually covered in long white silty fingers. And he'd been passed over year after year, once when Maeve herself was granted tenure.
"How's it going?" he asked, his face turned from her as he searched the cupboard. Pens clicked, notepads clunked.
"Not great," she said. "I have a problem student. And in my comp class, a deaf student with two interpreters."
"Wow." Ron popped out of the cabinet. "A silent Greek chorus."
Maeve nodded, trying another combination of numbers.
"They changed everything," Maeve said as she tried to remember her code. The last four digits of her social security number? Her hire date? Her birth date? She tried them all, but every time, she got a blinking "error."
"Your phone extension." Ron sighed and leaned against the cupboard. "The new one."
"We have new extensions?" Maeve asked, even as she remembered the new sleek black phone on her desk, her name on the screen, options like "unpark" and "mode" scuttling across the bottom.
Ron shook his head. "I know. Where did it all go?"
He clutched a legal pad, four packets of post-its, and five pens and slipped out the door. Maeve stared at the copy machine screen, knowing that no one really needed her handout on essay format. But then, like that, a mental strike; she remembered an email, her extension listed, the same number somehow as her old Girl Scout troop from thirty years ago. The machine whirred, pages with her ideas hot and clean in a nice stack.
Maeve could lay odds about her ability to pick the wrong line at any grocery store, and she was in that wrong line now. She'd changed lines twice, betting that the older woman with the cases of soda and slim red packages of hamburger would take longer than the young man with the sandwich swinging like a severed head in a plastic bag and the man with neatly ordered groceries all piled up like so much inventory. But Maeve was wrong, of course. The young man had—no didn't—have the cash, and she watched as the young man swiped, swiped, swiped one, two, three cards. By that time, the older woman from the better line was in the parking lot loading up her Camry and then driving away.
Finally, the young sandwich man left. Maeve hoped with ordered grocery man, it would be a matter of scan one item and count the others, multiplying on the cash register. But it wasn't like that at all. The cashier seemed to be lonely or sad or desperate or nosey because she took her time, swiping each and every item—Maeve thought about this word—desultorily, asking the man about the twenty-five salad bowls and corresponding diet frozen dinners, not to mention the dozen sugar-free yogurts, the three loaves of fat-free bread, two sweating boxes of sugar-free fruit popsicles.
"I've lost eighty pounds," the man said as the mountain of all his food grew. At least he was helping bag, but he was double bagging, as if the salads and the frozen dinners were fragile, needing more packaging than they already had. The salads looked like spaceships in their round plastic containers.
"Amazing!" the cashier said, checking him out as she swiped a one, a two, a three.
Maeve cleared her throat, felt her phone buzz in her pocket. It didn't stop, so it wasn't a phone call but repetitive, incessant texts. Her insides felt as cold as the iceberg lettuce in the domed bowls, fragile as the sluicing popsicles in their paper wrappers.
"I eat one of these." He held up a frozen dinner, put it down, and then picked up a salad. "And then one of these. Weight just melts off."
"Seems like you have dessert, too." The cashier winked at him. "But nothing to do much harm."
The man blushed, dinners skittering into his double bags.
Maeve's phone stopped buzzing and then started up again, the vibration zinging all the way to her bones. Then she knew the line was moving too fast, the diet man's food all bagged up.
"Good luck with that weight loss!" the cashier called out as he walked away. He turned, smiled, and Maeve wished she hadn't seen the hope in his eyes, the notion that maybe he'd stay slender and come back to this very store and sweep this dumpy, over-lipsticked cashier off her flat-shoed feet and ride off into the smoggy sunset.
After stopping at home and putting away her milk, cereal, and coffee, Maeve sat at the kitchen table, listening. Her condo, though, was completely quiet. Her son Matthew had left for his second year of college the week before, packing his car to the brim, kissing her on the cheek, and roaring off. He texted when he arrived, but there had been no news except Facebook updates. She had been forbidden to respond, like, or comment to anything on his page—that was the condition of their social networking friendship.
"It's too weird," he said. "Friends' moms write weird shit on their pages. Disgusting."
For two years, she'd not written one word on his page, though she had read everything, perusing his uploaded photos, his friends' comments, the pages he'd liked, as if Matthew were an archaeology project. She knew him better than anyone else on the planet. She just couldn't say anything about it.
He was paying attention to her page because now and then, he would send her a text: great photo. Or: enjoy your pasta.
On the table, her cell rattled, skittering across the wood. For years now, she had kept her old flip phone, not wanting a bigger screen to see anything by. So the phone fit perfectly in the palm of her hand, and now she reached out and cupped it, felt it move against her skin, a trapped, angry beetle.
It calmed, her hand still. The refrigerator took up the void, whirring with water and ice. Outside, a late lawn mower, the fall grass long and green. Finally, Maeve picked up her phone and read the long list of texts. At an occupational therapy class, some smart person decided to teach Maeve's mother how to text. If Maeve had heard about it before the fact, she would have complained.
"What are you thinking?" she might have asked. "Do you know what you're going to put me through?"
No one cared about what she was going through. After all, it was her mother who had a stroke and couldn't walk. Could barely talk. Thus, all the texting.
Maeve sighed, opened the latest.
These were her mother's words, always had been, even when she was able to say fully, "Where have you been? Why haven't you come to see me?"
There were the other W's, too. When? Who?
Maeve steadied her phone, typed in with her thumbs, I'll be there soon.
But then, she felt herself sink into the wooden chair, soon so hard. Soon the very thing she could not do.
Her mother sat askew in her wheelchair, as if she'd fallen asleep while looking out over the damp swath of lawn in front of her assisted living facility.
"Mom," Maeve called out softly, both wanting and not wanting her mother to wake up. Her questions to herself were: Do visits count when her mother was asleep? Could she pencil this in as visit eight this month, the number she would report to her sister Emma? If she sat quietly for a half-hour and then woke up her mother for the second half hour, would that be a half or full hour visit?
She closed the door behind her without a click and walked slowly to the bed, putting down her purse. From here, she could see the pink and slightly shiny bald spot on her mother's head. Once, her mother's hair had been long, light blonde. Maeve could remember her twisting it and pinning it to her head like a French movie star. In fact, Maeve could remember her mother's entire body, her long neck, her dark smooth eyebrows, her elegant, thin feet. All those lovely shoes Maeve and her sister Emma aspired to, walking around in their parents' bedroom in lurching circles.
But now, her mother's body was one thing, immoveable, lumpy. Her skin like rice paper. Her breath like something old at the back of a forgotten refrigerator. And here she was, finally, Maeve one of her only visitors, everyone else dead or moved far away. Her mother's small but tidy bedroom smelled like something good covering up something that could never be hidden.
"Here you are!" The door opened and closed, Maeve turning to see Darlene bustle in white-clad and beaming. "I told Sally you would come."
Maeve bit the inside of her mouth, squeezing the soft flesh between her molars. All she had to do is press a little harder and she'd bleed. But instead, she walked to her mother, pulling up a chair, and sitting. She took her mother's hand, soft and slightly warm, dry and familiar.
"I'm here, Mom,"
"I tested," she said, her x sliding.
"I know. I was at work today."
"Kay," her mother said, suddenly turning to look at Maeve, right in the eye, that same swift dark look Maeve had known her whole life. This was the look that saw everything, the lies and despairs, the short-lived triumphs and the terrible failures.
"You work hard." Her mother's fingers moved in Maeve's grip. And then she was asleep again, Maeve still, her mother's delicate pulse counting down the minutes until Maeve could leave.
As Maeve made her way down the long tile hallway, the glass exit doors bright in front of her, she heard Darlene call out and run to catch up, her shoes a smash of rubber-soled squish.
"I almost forgot." Darlene breathed hard, a box held in front of her chest, the lid moving with every inhale.
Maeve took the leather memory box, knowing its feel by heart. How many times had she and Emma opened it, pulling out photos of ancient relatives, the snapshots yellowed, browning, crumbling at the edges.
"Just seeing it makes her upset," Darlene said. "I hid it on the top shelf of her closet, but she knows it's there. Maybe if it's really gone, she'll stop crying in the afternoons."
Maeve's heart weighed a hundred pounds, pulling her toward the floor.
"Before the last stroke, she added a lot of new photos." Darlene's face was bright and big as a sunflower, so positive, Maeve wanted to slap her. "I bet you'll enjoy looking through."
Maeve said something pleasant and thankful, but as she pushed through the doors into the cool twilight, she wondered where she would hide the box from herself. She thought about a shovel, a tractor, a hole big as the world.
This time, Maeve was pre-angered when she walked into the class. She'd imagined the hundred times the young man—Jeremy—would interrupt her, just as he had the entire class before, and she was ready to kick him out. She'd call the dean, yes she would. Each clack of her heels on the dry hot concrete reaffirmed her decision. Jeremy, out. Jeremy, out. Then she could focus on Kathy, the blonde woman with the crazy eye shadow, and all the rest of her students she hadn't really been able to see because of Jeremy's clamor. Without him, she'd teach them all about the short story. She'd make sure they understood everything.
Maeve yanked open the door and almost pushed her body through, thrusting herself into the room and aiming her body at the rostrum like a projectile. She gritted her teeth, clutched her folder and books, and shot Jeremy a glance. He couldn't do this to her all semester. She couldn't put up with it, not for one more second.
And yet. There he was. Not talking or listing or counting down the seconds to the class starting time. No, today, Jeremy sat, arms raised and held over his head, his hands dangling like what? Flowers? Handkerchiefs? Limp balloons? He swayed a little, probably to the music he was listening to, his hands fluttering, his head bobbing, his mouth moving to lyrics Maeve could not hear or understand.
She slammed her books on the rostrum, looking up again at his watery dance. He wasn't looking at her, though, his eyes unfocused, almost closed, a strange smile on his lips. And then, without it being in front of her and despite its hiding place in her attic, the leather box opened up. There Maeve was on the lawn in the backyard of the house she grew up in. She and Emma were wearing tiny bathing suits, the lawn sprinkler on. Their mother in a yellow sleeveless dress sitting on the picnic table watching them both, a camera in her hands. Her arms were butter brown from long summer days, her hair streaked from sunlight. On the table, a picnic. She'd made sandwiches and stirred up a pitcher of cherry Kool-Aid. A mermaid picnic, she'd called it. Every so often, she pushed a long, loose strand of hair back from her face, telling the girls to fling water drops.
"Cool me off! Just a little water now! Perfect!"
Maeve and Emma danced, their arms held up above their bodies, both of them moving to a song Maeve sang aloud for them all, something she'd brought home from kindergarten. The afternoon spun. Their mother clapped and laughed, called out, exclaimed, "Oh, my beautiful little girls."
Standing in front of Jeremy, Maeve stilled, her terrible heart opening. Her mother, her biggest, best love. Maeve's and Emma's bodies glistening. The summer heat surrounding everything. The blades of wet grass under her feet, soft and sharp.
Maeve watched Jeremy's hands, felt her body soften, melt, move to the old song she could barely remember, the one on her tongue, still there, even after all this.