Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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An hour after teaching her last class of the day, Laura sat in her faculty office with her door shut to block out the noise of the English department’s late afternoon bustle. By now, she should have been on her way home to her wife and daughter, but instead of packing her things, Laura tidied. The tidying gave her something to do while she waited for the mail’s delivery, which would, hopefully, include a letter telling her if she could keep her job. Today was the day the letter would come—she was sure of it—as equally as sure as she had been both yesterday and the day before.

While she waited, she found folders in need of filing, and corralled the loose binder clips running amok on her desk. She’d meant only to tackle the unruly papers, but restoring order to one area merely exposed the deeper chaos lurking. The pencils in the mug on her desk were stubby and dull. She selected one now and fed it into the mouth of her electric sharpener, holding it steady as the machine did its work. She pushed the pencil in deeper, and listened appreciatively, lulled by the grind and whirr as the machine consumed. She withdrew the pencil—all hone—and emptied the shavings into the small wastebasket beneath her desk, shaking them out onto her only other trash—the core of an apple, which lay browning at the bottom of the wastebasket, filling the confines of her office with the sickeningly sweet smell of rotting fruit. She’d sought refuge in the tidying, counting on the performance of meaningless tasks to quell her nerves and block out the noise of her fear, but now that the sharpener had grown quiet, the fear was still there beneath the hum of the day. It was there still beneath the sound of things being put away, and of file drawers sliding shut, the small fearful sound of her heart, a thrum of hope and dread.

She opened her door and stood listening. Her office was the last one at the end of the hall and to reach the mailroom, she would have to pass at least six others, including Janine’s, which she still thought of as Evan’s. One door down all was silent—Susan Harrell off to pick up her daughter. Across the hall all was silent as well—Lloyd’s office had been vacant ever since his death last year. Two doors down, Sakura chatted with a student. Beyond that, the indistinct voices of her colleagues coalesced into a buzzing hum.

Eyes averted, she hurried past the opened doors of colleagues in office hours, who with their curious glances watched her as she passed.

So many open doors, so many curious eyes.

She was halfway down the corridor, passing the unmanned photocopier, which was stacking, sorting, collating, and depositing neat copies in the feed tray when Janine emerged from Evan’s old office and waved. “I’m almost done. This won’t take a minute if you’re waiting.”

Laura said, “Just on my way to the breakroom.”

“I’ll join you. Give me one second.”

“No, really, I’m just grabbing some coffee.”

Janine lifted a silencing finger, then gathered up her copies. “Ready.”

The printer part of the copier hummed to life once more, dispensing pages. Several doors down from Evan’s, another door opened and out came Milo. “That should be mine,” he said.

“Since when do you come in on Fridays?” Janine asked him.

“I’ve got a meeting,” Milo said.

“Any time for coffee?” she asked.

Milo pulled his pages from the copier. “I wish,” he said. “Next week?”

As the two made plans Laura slipped away unnoticed.

In the breakroom the student worker balanced the mail tub on her knee, placing identical flyers into all of the mailboxes along with copies of the undergraduate student journal. Laura grabbed a disposable cup and poured herself a coffee, lingering over the stirrers and sugar packets while she waited for the sorting’s completion.

Janine came in shortly afterwards, cradling her stack of photocopies. “Is that the new Encomium?”

“They just came out,” the student worker said.

“I’ve been looking forward to this!” Janine took a copy and fanned out the pages of the small bound literary journal. “One of my students has work in this issue.” When she found the story, she showed it to Laura. Even on a Friday after a full week of teaching, Janine was chipper, all smiles. Laura could not remember how it felt to be so new and eager.

Once the student worker finished and left, Laura went through the mail in her box, which was once again full of flyers. She grabbed a handful and dumped them into the recycling bin. A lone sheet slid to the ground, boasting a glamour headshot of Janine. Below Janine’s smiling face and casually crossed arms was an announcement for the department’s informal writing group meeting next week where Janine would present her work-in-progress paper.

Laura left the flyer where it lay.

Janine retrieved an envelope from her box. “You’ve got one too,” she said. “Must be our annual evaluations.” She crossed her fingers. “Let’s hope we both got good raises.”

“Let’s hope,” Laura agreed, looking where Janine looked. Hidden beneath the junk flyers and now revealed—its edge caught in the string and button closure of an interdepartmental mail envelope—lay an envelope marked CONFIDENTIAL. When she took it up, the envelope felt light in her hand, and it was thin—much thinner than she’d expected.

Janine called her back. “You forgot this.” She retrieved the fallen flyer and dropped it on top of the letter in Laura’s hands.


Beneath the harsh overhead lights of the hallway, Laura carried the letter. Clutching it close to her side, shielding it from view, she carried the letter past the photocopier and over the carpet of indecipherable pattern, carried it past the portraits on the walls of Austen, Poe and Whitman. Once she reached the safety of her own office she locked herself in with the letter she had carried that long way. The letter from the provost took no time at all to read. After careful consideration and review of her appeal, the original decision to deny her tenure would be upheld. She was thanked for her years of service to the university and reminded that her contract would be terminated at the conclusion of the academic year on June 30th.

The appeal’s denial formed an ache in her forehead, slipped a tightness into her throat and watered her eyes. Six years they had given her to make her case, the probationary period to demonstrate excellence in the areas of teaching, research, and service, which she had done. Her monograph had been completed, submitted, and accepted for publication prior to her submitting her tenure tub to the department, but the official book contract from the publishers had come a month later, four weeks too late to count in the voting process. She had been denied on a technicality. It hadn’t mattered that the book was forthcoming—nor that it had found a home with a good press with a reputation for quality scholarship. All that had counted was the extra twenty-eight days it had taken for the contract to appear. Just like that, her six years of hard work and effort had ceased to count and as a valued member of the department and university, she had ceased to exist. Hard to believe that it had all hinged upon something so small as a delayed contract, that such a small something as that had overturned her life. This had been her extra year, the year the university granted after a tenure denial to enable the non-renewed faculty member to appeal the case or find another job, but so hopeful had she been for a positive outcome that she’d not applied for other positions. She’d placed all of her eggs into one basket, wasting precious irretrievable time in funneling all of her energy into the appeal. For the last year she had hoped and now the hope had come to an end.

Within the small office, her life was splintering apart and no one knew but her. Laura wiped her eyes and nose and checked her email for a message from her Chair, Jared Mecklen, who’d been copied on the letter. She didn’t know what he could say to her now, but she thought he would at least say something, perhaps offer to meet with her. But there was no message from him. Did any of them even care—the department chair, the dean, the provost? Was she just a name on a file, a label on a large plastic tub? They’d cut her loose as easily as one would clip away a hangnail, with no regret for the jagged, bothersome skin.

What would she tell her family? There was a child to be raised, a wife to be loved, both of whom deserved better. She’d been hoping to celebrate, but now she’d have to put on a brave face. She wanted no one’s pity. When Evan was denied tenure their colleagues had put on a show of outrage and sympathy that lifted as soon as he and his boxes disappeared. They would now do the same with her. They’d mouth their disbelief, but their eyes would ask what she had done wrong and where she had failed, questions for which she herself had no answer.

A knock sounded on her office door. When she opened it, there stood Janine, pushing a Styrofoam cup at her. “You forgot your coffee.”

She took the cup and set it down on her desk beside Janine’s flyer and the envelope. Janine hovered in the threshold. “The coffee in the lounge is way better,” she said. She searched Laura’s face. “Are you okay?”

“Yes, fine.” Too many times to count had Laura passed the faculty lounge and seen Janine socializing over coffee with the associate and full professors. Though she abhorred the shameless brownnosing, she wondered now if some of the same might have won her more support and saved her case. She should invite Janine to sit—that would be the collegial thing to do—but she didn’t have it in her today. The best that Laura could do was to step aside from the door and collapse into her desk chair. She wanted to rest her head on it, to lay her cheek against the old cool wood, but she couldn’t do a thing like that with Janine watching.

Janine stepped in. She stopped in front of Laura’s desk, lifted her hand to her nose, and looked around. “Wow, your office is so neat! I’m way too busy to keep mine tip top.”

Laura bristled at the thinly veiled jibe. “I too was a bit of slob when I was fresh out of my graduate program and knee deep in writing my first book. My monograph’s done now, so . . . ” Touché.

“Congratulations! When is it coming out?”

“It’s in press.”

“What’s it called?”

Queer Sightings: The Site and the Sight of the Queer(ed) Black Body.”

“Great title! Will it be available at the next MLA?”


“Once my manuscript is done, I’ll have to come to you for pointers,” Janine said. “We should get together and have coffee sometime soon.”

“Sure.” But she wouldn’t be here to offer Janine any pointers.

Janine talked on, rambling about the handouts she had photocopied, marveling aloud at the free books the publishers sent her, chattering happily. “I forgot to tell you the good news. I just had my paper—well, my abstract, I still have to write the paper—accepted for an upcoming conference.”

“Congratulations.” Laura smiled, or hoped she did.

Her cell phone vibrated on the desk. She picked it up and read the new text message from Grace. Where r u? She texted back: Can’t get rid of colleague! Hope to get home soon! After Laura pressed the send button, she thought better of it, realizing that Grace would rib her for not simply texting “On my way” or using the OMW abbreviation she’d taught her. Her first texts to Grace had been long treatises, full sentences replete with correct spelling and proper punctuation. “It’s not a dissertation,” Grace often teased.

“That was my wife,” Laura said. “I need to get going.”

“Of course.” Janine tapped the flyer. “I hope you’ll be at the next meeting. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my piece.”

After Janine left, Laura locked herself in once more. Her whole body vibrated from the encounter, from pretending that all was well. She carefully set down Janine’s coffee into the wastebasket. She couldn’t understand why Janine called so much attention to herself. She’d gone overboard in making the flyer—an email to the department’s list-serve would have sufficed. Laura preferred to be left alone and draw no notice. She didn’t paper her office with posters of Miles Davis or Toni Morrison nor did she display rainbow flags or calendars of vagina-like flowers in bloom. She was black; she was queer. What of it? Save for Evan’s mug and two framed pictures on her desk, her office was devoid of personal items. That first picture, taken at a strip mall’s photo booth, dated all the way back to May 17, 2004, almost nine years ago, the day that same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts. She and Grace had driven over from central Pennsylvania where she’d been on a postdoctoral fellowship, marrying at their first chance. They’d been one of seventy-eight couples that day. Legal at Last! Grace had scribbled across the bottom of the black and white photo in purple marker. They looked great together in that shot—she in her velveteen tux and her head freshly buzzed, Grace in a vintage cream skirt suit and a matching pillbox hat with veil.

The second picture had been taken at Chloe’s first birthday party, and in it Chloe was standing in her walker in front of a cake that was almost bigger than her, Grace kneeling to hold her steady. Nearly six feet tall and what boys on the street called thick, what Germans called zaftig, and what department stores called plus size, Grace was touchy about her size, often taking cover behind Chloe in photos. When they’d first met, Grace had poked fun at the incongruity between her size and her name. “Grace is a name for a ballerina. A calligrapher, maybe. Somebody careful.” She’d made a joke about wide hips and airplane aisles. She had a fullness about her—full nose, full lips, full bosom, hips and thighs—that Laura loved, a body made for juke joints and rent parties, pigs feet and bottles of beer, a body to put any blues woman to shame. How would she ever break the news to Grace? Married for nearly nine years, but together for fifteen, Grace had gone along for the entire ride—for Laura’s graduate coursework, orals and comps, field research, proposal, and dissertation. She had been asked to move on more than one occasion, her own career growth limited to fits and starts. Laura didn’t want her to pretend she didn’t mind starting all over again—the year they’d moved for the postdoc had been awful. Grace had worked the graveyard shift in an emergency room and they’d barely seen one another. Accustomed to sharing their days over dinner, laughing at the antics of her colleagues and Grace’s patients, that year the conversation had been stilted and one-sided. Grace’s ER stories had been unbearable, too gruesome for Laura, and Grace herself—always exhausted and irritable as she dragged in just as Laura was leaving for the day—had been in no mood to tell them. At the conclusion of the postdoc, they’d moved once more, this time to Ohio, so Laura could take this tenure-track Assistant Professor position.

Here they’d sought to make a life. To this small Ohio city she’d dragged her wife, wooed by the lure of the tenure-track, of the security it promised. She had promised Grace that this would be the last stop.

How could she go home empty-handed?

In a last-ditch effort, Laura logged into the MLA Job Information List and searched for openings. April was months too late to apply for tenure-track positions. She knew those offers had been made and the contracts had been signed, but she hoped that perhaps, just maybe, there would be something. As expected, most of the job listings had expired. Laura pulled up the websites of English departments at comparable colleges nearby. She scanned each department’s home page, but no one was hiring in her discipline. Next she pulled up individual faculty web pages, scrutinizing faces for signs of sickness or disease, disappointed by photos of hale and hearty academics, not a single one of whom looked to be at death’s door.

Finally she found a likely profile. She pulled up the page of an older white man in her discipline. “You don’t look well at all,” she said, taking in his thinning hair, his liver-spotted face, his aura of ill health. “Let’s see how old you are.” She clicked on his curriculum vitae and used the date of his degree to calculate his age. Surely he would retire soon. Perhaps they’d do a search to replace him next year. She bookmarked the page and searched for other faculty members with flagging health or advancing age. It wasn’t until the third profile, while she was looking at the CV of a woman who had formerly run a women and gender studies program, that the macabre nature of her actions hit her. Her hands on the keyboard were shovels tossing dirt onto graves. She looked away from them and the denial letter and Janine’s flyer to the only safe thing on her desk, her mug—Evan’s mug.

Two years ago, she’d come in to the department on a Saturday to help Evan pack after his tenure denial. He’d picked a Saturday so no one would see him and gloat. “I won’t give them the satisfaction,” he’d said. In his small office, Evan had meandered while she’d assembled boxes, taping the bottoms closed and opening the top flaps, lining them up near the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. She’d just pulled down a handful of heavy anthologies when she finally noticed he wasn’t packing. “Do you want to pack by period or is it okay to mix them?” she’d asked.

Evan had run his hands along the top of his lateral file cabinet, lightly touching the doodads and figurines which sat there—a small ship, a palm-sized jazz man playing piano, a university mug. He’d crossed to his closed door and lifted away the mini umbrella hanging on a hook, revealing the plaque hidden behind it. “For Excellence in Teaching,” he’d read aloud, taking it down. He’d laid the plaque flat on his desk, rubbed his hands over its surface and looked into it as if it were a mirror. “It came with that mug over there and a small grant for curriculum development. I won it the same year I had my third year review—the same year we hired you. When I got it, Jared said to me ‘You’re doing just great, Evan. Just great. This will put you over the top when it’s time for tenure. You’re cooking with gas. Your case is a slam dunk.’” Evan dunked an invisible basketball through an invisible hoop. “He said the requirements for tenure and promotion were three peer-reviewed articles. Guess what? I had three peer-reviewed articles when I submitted my file. And he said to me then ‘You’ll be just fine. No need to worry.’ And here I am, skulking around on a weekend, packing my boxes. Care to hazard a guess as to how many articles Jared has?”

Laura said, “Not really.”

“Go on,” Evan urged. “Guess.”

“I’d prefer not to.”

“How Bartlebyian,” he said, smirking. “You do Melville proud.”

“Evan, please.”

“Three,” he spat.

Three articles had sounded skimpy to her ears, but Jared had received tenure years ago when the standards were far less rigorous. If, as Chair, he had provided Evan with outdated tenure requirements, then surely Evan had a right to be angry and to feel misled. Moreover, he might even have a case. But she wasn’t a lawyer, so she’d kept her peace and concentrated on his boxes. ‒Do you want to pack that?” she’d asked.

Evan had held out the plaque to her and watched while she’d circled it in bubble wrap, then placed it into a box. “Thanks for helping me,” he’d said. “You know you’re the only one who still looks me in the eye.”

She did know. Evan had become a departmental outcast once the news of his tenure denial spread. She’d asked, “What will you do now?”

“Damned if I know.”

“It’s not the end, Evan. You’re a great teacher. Anyone would want you,” she’d said.

He’d scoffed and finally started to pack. “I can’t get tenure at a mid-tier college with paltry publication requirements. There’s nowhere to go but down from here.” He’d wrapped the piano player in newspaper. Careful of the sails, he’d set his small ship down into the opened box with the bubble-wrapped plaque.

“Will you file an appeal?”

“No use,” he’d said. “I forgot to times it by two.” He’d grabbed two handfuls of books and placed them into a box. At her puzzled look, he explained, “You know how it is. We always need more than they say. The black factor? If they say you need to serve on two committees, you’d better serve on four. If they say three articles, then you need six. If they say the book needs to be submitted, you need it under contract. If they say under contract, we need it in print.” He’d been wrapping the mug in newspaper, his hands carefully tucking the loose corners of the paper into the mug’s hollow. “I just thought I’d found a place where I—I should have known better. I got comfortable, didn’t cover my ass. I had too much faith.” He regarded the bulky mug in his hand as if he’d never before seen it. He untucked the corners of the paper, making the mug resemble a flower in bloom. “Take it,” he’d said.

She’d dismissed Evan’s embittered words, so certain her own fate would be different, so sure it could never happen to her. The sight of Evan’s mug full of freshly sharpened pencils now made her dizzy with nausea. She blamed it on the apple core, the pencil shavings, and the strong coffee. Mingled together in the small close office, the scents were thick on her tongue. Inhaling the rot, Laura leaned over her wastebasket and gagged.


Forty minutes later, Laura pulled up to the curb in front of the house that she and Grace had been so proud to purchase, so delighted to own. She couldn’t look at her house without love. She loved it, windows, shutters, siding—all. On either side of her home was a house that looked just like it, but was nothing like it at all. The mortgage had been a major expense, the first adult purchase of their lives. That, followed soon after by the costly fertility treatments that gave them Chloe had set them back a pretty penny, but, in turn, had given them the things they’d wanted most: a home and a family. The lights were on in the kitchen, Grace and Chloe thrown into sharp relief behind the sheer lacy curtains at the windows. There was Grace moving between stove and sink while Chloe bent her head to some task at the table. How many more nights like this would they have before they had to move and find another place to live?

She entered through the kitchen. “Anybody home?” Their dog Baxter leapt up to greet her, sniffing her and pawing her slacks.

Grace moved back and forth between the stove and kitchen island, assembling Chloe’s favorite dinner of fish tacos. “Hey babe,” she called out.

Chloe sat at the table drawing a picture of their house. Laura washed her hands at the sink and then poured goldfish crackers into a bowl for Chloe, her contribution to the night’s aquatic theme. Instead of drawing grass in front of the house, her daughter had drawn a row of fish swimming across the front door. “Look Mama.” Chloe lifted the picture proudly. She leaned back, sucked in her cheeks and puckered her lips in imitation of a fish.

“Something looks fishy to me,” Laura said, admiring the picture as she tousled Chloe’s dark curls and nuzzled her neck. “Fishy fishy.”

Grace asked, “What kept you?”

“Janine.” At her wife’s blank look, Laura clarified, “The new hire?”

Grace nodded in recognition. “Oh yes. The go-getter.”

Laura nudged past her to get the dishes from the cabinet. She pulled down a pair of glasses and a plastic cup, Baxter trailing her as she set the table. “What makes you say that?”

Grace quartered a lime and asked, “Remember the first time I met her? At the holiday party?”

“You only met her the one time,” Laura said.

“Well, she seemed a pretty ambitious type. And she certainly made the rounds. When she came into the room, it was like Norm from Cheers. She knew everybody there.”

“It was a department party,” Laura said. “She’s in the department. Of course she knows everybody. I know everybody too.”

Grace filled a ramekin with tartar sauce. “But that was her first semester, right? There wasn’t a single person she didn’t speak to.”

Laura distributed the silverware, napkins and plates. “Come on, didn’t you see the way she never spent more than five minutes with each person before moving to the next? She was like a politician shaking hands and kissing babies.”

Chloe held her plastic cup as Grace poured. “Either way, she got the job done,” Grace said.

“And what job was that?” Laura asked.

“Making an impression.”

“And I didn’t?” Laura asked. “Forget it. Never mind.” She turned her attention to Chloe. “Did you have a good day at school?”

Laura ate in silence, wondering when and how to tell Grace the news, while her wife and daughter filled her in on their day and Baxter paced the table, hoping for scraps. Despite repeated warnings, Chloe had taken her favorite doll to school and the doll’s arm was now broken.

“Fix it,” Chloe said. She sat the cowgirl doll on the kitchen table, propping her against a drinking glass to show the doll’s left arm dangling from its gingham sleeve.

Laura lifted the doll to her ear and shook it, hearing the small rotator thud in the doll’s hollow plastic body. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

“Now, Mama?”

Getting the rotator out would require a level of concentration and a measure of patience she did not presently have. “Later, Chloe.”

“I’m taking her back to school tomorrow,” Chloe announced.

“That’s how she got broken in the first place,” Grace reminded her.

Laura said, “No school till Monday.”

“Then I’m taking her Monday.”

“Why don’t we let her call in sick next week?” Grace asked. “She can stay home and recuperate.”

“Monday,” Chloe insisted.

Grace tried again. “Why don’t you take one of your pony-girl dolls instead?”

Equestria Girls,” Chloe corrected. She reached for her cowgirl. “She’s the only one I like right now.”

Laura kept the cowgirl away from Chloe, not wanting to risk further damage. She said, “I’ll look her over after you go to bed tonight.”

Grace reported next. “An old woman came into the ER today. She’d been bitten by a dog.”

“What kind of dog?” Chloe wanted to know. “Like Baxter?” The yellow Lab lifted his head at his name. Chloe broke off a piece of her fried cod and held it out for him.

“Stop that,” Grace warned her. “He’s greedy enough as it is. They were Rottweilers and there were two of them. They came after her out of the blue and attacked her on her way home from the market. She was pushing her shopping cart down the street when the dogs circled her. She said that each dog took one leg and pulled.”

Laura asked, “What did she do?”

“Threw her canned goods at them to get them off,” Grace said.

Chloe pulled the shredded lettuce from her taco and began eating it by the handful. Grace reached over and took the lettuce from Chloe’s hands. She stuffed it back into the taco and pushed the plate toward Chloe. “Eat it right,” she said.

“Was she hurt badly?” Laura asked. She called Baxter over to her and ran her hands over his graceful head, scratching the thick golden fur. Their dog would never do such a thing. Every human he encountered was his best friend.

“Did her arm fall off?” Chloe asked.

Grace said, “What kind of question is that?”

“Well?” Laura asked.

Grace said, “Thankfully no skin was broken, but she got nicked, so we started her on a series of shots.”

Where they’d lived before, Grace had worked in an emergency room where she saw all manner of gruesome things. Relegated to late shifts where the worst emergencies seemed to occur, she’d brought home stories of car accidents, head trauma cases, and gunshot wounds. There was no denying that her wife dealt with humanity, with the gore of it, the real flesh and blood of it, but Laura was glad that Grace only told these other kinds of stories now, stories of mild mishaps and minor scrapes, of patients requiring only a shot or a stitch.

“How come she got needles?” Chloe wanted to know.

Grace said, “That’s what we have to do in cases like this one where the woman couldn’t identify the dogs. They didn’t have collars and they’d probably been abandoned. There was no way of knowing if they’d had their shots or if they’d come into contact with a raccoon and contracted rabies. You know how you have to go to the doctor before school starts and get a needle to make sure you don’t get sick? Well, we had to give shots to the lady to make sure she would be okay and not get sick.”

“Do you have to talk to her like that?”

“Like what?” Grace asked.

“She doesn’t need a disquisition,” Laura said. “A simple explanation would suffice.”

Grace glared across the table. “What would you prefer? Goo-Goo Ga-Ga?”

“Who actually talks like that?” Laura asked. “Seriously. Besides yourself, who do you think really talks like that?”

“Parents.” Grace grabbed her plate and rose from the table.

“I’ll do it.” Laura snatched her wife’s plate from her hand. She came back for Grace’s glass and utensils and then she cleared Chloe’s and her own. She made three trips from table to dishwasher, and with each return Grace seemed less angry. By the time Laura came for Chloe’s plate, Grace was telling Chloe a new story about a man who’d cut his palm with a butter knife.

“Really?” Laura asked. “A butter knife?”

“They’re dull, so people tend to apply more force than necessary, and when their grip slips, the cut can go deep. His cut was three centimeters deep,” Grace said. “He needed seven sutures.”

After she’d cleared the table, Laura grabbed Baxter’s leash from its hook. “I’m going for some air.” She shook the leash to make it jingle and the dog emerged from under the table.

“He already went,” Chloe said. “Mama let him out.”

Laura wrapped the leash around her wrist anyway, desperate to leave before she was called upon to talk about her own day. “That’s all right. We could use the exercise.” Quickly, Laura grabbed the trash and left.

Outside, she tied a knot into the garbage bag’s neck and set the bag on the curb. At the corner, she turned and led Baxter toward a small hill preferred by runners. The town was just beginning to emerge from its winter slump and it seemed especially cruel for the bad news to have come to her in the spring. Truly, April was the cruelest month. When that April sun was shining forth she found joy in taking her dog on a jaunt where, together, they could watch the world thaw, walk the sidewalks emerging once more from beneath the dirty snow banks, see the dull icy lake shivering with spring and smell the blossoms that dared to come. There was no telling where she might next end up. For all she knew, the next job—if she was lucky enough to even get one—might take her to a place where spring never lasted long enough to make an impression.

She tugged at Baxter’s leash, but he idled, sniffing familiar trees and bushes without any real interest. She had not liked living here at first, initially finding the area small and hickish. Despite warnings from graduate advisors and mentors about the scarcity of positions and the necessity of going where the jobs were, Laura had set her cap for New York, Philadelphia, or Washington DC, and she’d been disappointed after such expectations. With time her neighborhood had grown on her, and—without knowing it—she and her wife had fitted themselves to its grooves, adapting to its habits and routines. Now, after seven years of daily living, Laura no longer dismissed it as a one-horse town. More often than not, she found herself defending its amenities to her scornful big city friends. Here she and Grace had their choice of movie theatres. True, one choice was an old theatre complete with velvet rope and brass stands, but the other was a modern Cineplex in a mall plaza and shopping area. And having an ice cream parlor in her neighborhood was a nice touch. Despite the old-fashioned decor, the parlor served only organic and gourmet ice cream and offered nothing as pedestrian as vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. She would definitely miss the life they’d made here. Here, they’d bought a house, birthed a daughter, and adopted a dog. Here they’d had it all, and now it would soon be gone.

Finally Baxter stopped at a tree. He lifted his hind leg and made a go at it, but it was obvious that his heart wasn’t in it.


Grace and Chloe were watching an episode from The Muppet Show DVD when Laura returned. Baxter ran over and sniffed them anew. Laura flopped down on the couch on the other side of Chloe. She tugged on her daughter’s curls and looked at the clock. “Bedtime.”

“I’m not sleepy,” Chloe protested.

“You will be,” Laura said.

“Can I stay up until I am?”

Laura looked to Grace, who shrugged. “Sure,” Laura said, knowing Chloe was a goner. Ten minutes later, just after the Muppets sang the song about putting the lime in the coconut and drinking both together, Chloe fell asleep, curled up on the couch between her mothers. Laura patted her daughter’s small leg, feeling the solidity of her. They had waited so long for her, waited until they finally felt safe enough, supported enough to bring a child into the world. Chloe was happy here. She had never lived anywhere else, never known any other life, but now she’d be uprooted. “We forgot her bath,” Laura whispered.

Grace said, “It won’t kill her. But don’t forget to fix that doll.”

Laura took up the injured cowgirl and began to tinker. Grace scooped up their daughter and disappeared upstairs.

When Grace returned, the dishwasher’s cycle was concluding. At its beep, Laura put down the doll and rushed to the kitchen.

Grace said, “It can wait till tomorrow.”

“This’ll only take a minute.” Laura opened the dishwasher’s door and was met by a face full of steam.

“What makes you so helpful today?”

“I always help,v she said.

Laura reached for a plate; it was hot to the touch. She flinched, letting it burn her fingers—she deserved it after all. She gathered the hot plates and stacked them, punishing herself with the burn, feeling them clank in her hands. She unloaded the glasses and the cups, gathering their heat in her palms. It was useful to put the dishes away, to upend the glasses and set them in neat rows within the cupboard, to place one bowl into another, to stack the plates, to create order from scalding chaos. The firmness of the silverware in her hand, the daunting reality of forks, knives and spoons, the clatter of the utensils against one another filled her with a tiny and inconsequential power that she clung to, the only power she had left. And it was okay to cry now. After all, the dishes were so hot.

Grace heard her cry out and was at her side in an instant. She led Laura to the sink where she pried the puffy throbbing fingers from Laura’s mouth and held them under a steady stream of cold water. Laura unfurled her tender fingers beneath the water, but she couldn’t stop the tears. When she tried to remove her hands, Grace wouldn’t let her. “Twenty minutes. Nurse’s orders.”

“It’s okay. My hands are okay.” At Grace’s dubious look, Laura said, “Really.”

Grace wiped Laura’s wet face. “Five?”

Laura nodded and Grace set the timer on the oven. While Laura cooled her fingers at the sink, Grace puttered. She rinsed and refilled Baxter’s water bowl, which made their dog come running. Next, Grace wiped down the counters and double-checked all of the lower cabinets to make sure they were zip-tied closed to keep out Chloe. As the water cooled her fingers, Laura watched the care Grace took, checking all of the kitchen outlets to make sure they were covered with outlet protectors to keep Chloe safe, restoring the kitchen to order, unaware that this would not be their kitchen for much longer.

The oven’s timer beeped and Grace returned to the sink. “The pain is just going to come back,” she said. “Twenty minutes would be better.”

“It’s fine.” Laura shook her wet hands and reached for the paper towels.

“Here.” Grace pulled out a clean dish towel from the drawer and brought it over. She cradled Laura’s burned fingers in the towel and brought the fingers to her lips. Gently, she kissed them, performing the same ritual that she did for Chloe’s scrapes and boo-boos, before wrapping the towel loosely around them. “All better now.”

That kiss in their bright kitchen was Laura’s undoing. “You never did ask me how my day went,” she said.

Grace patted her. “Oh hon, sorry. How did it go?”

“My letter came today.”

Grace smiled expectantly. “And?”

“They denied my appeal.” She couldn’t look at her wife. “When the semester ends, I’ll have a few weeks to pack and vacate my office. My institutional affiliation ends June 30th.”

The news lay between them. It was unexpected, Laura knew—she was still processing it. She waited for her wife to say something and break the uneasily silence.

Grace shook her head as if to ward off an insect. “And you’re just now telling me?” Careful of Laura’s fingers, Grace pushed Laura from her and backed away. “That’s why you sniped at me all through dinner?”

“What was I supposed to say? That I failed at my job? That I brought us all the way out here for nothing? When was I supposed to say that? Should I have told you over dinner in front of Chloe and spelled out the big words?”

“Don’t use Chloe,” Grace said, but there was no bite to the reprimand. She sounded as tired as Laura felt. “Are we fighting this?”

“You can’t appeal an appeal.”

Grace pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table. “We knew this was a possibility.”

Although Grace was too well-mannered to say ‘I told you so,’ Laura heard the reproof. Her wife had been against the appeal; she’d wanted Laura to sue. “It’s too much like begging,” Grace had said. It had taken months to convince her that filing an appeal was best. All along, they had known their chances and the risks. They’d gone over it all last year when the original denial came. Unless another job at another university in the same city became available, they would have to move, and they had both known how slim the chances were of such a thing occurring. Still, they had hoped for the best and Laura had taken no steps to prepare for the worst, as if such preparation would jinx the outcome.

“I was so sure I would win,” she said, cupping one wounded hand in the other. Grace was right; the pain had returned. The pads of her fingers throbbed once again under the dishtowel. “I failed. I’m a failure and I failed.”

“You’re not a failure,” Grace said.

“Tell that to the chair of my department. Tell it to the review board and the dean and the provost and the board of trustees.”

Grace said, “It will be all right.”

Laura leaned against the table next to where Grace sat fidgeting with the shakers. “We don’t know that. We don’t know anything right now, so we don’t know how it will be at all.”

“You’ll find another job,” Grace predicted.

“They’re just handing them out like Tic Tacs?”

“It’s not like you’re in this alone,” Grace reminded her. “I have a job too, you know.”

Still you mean,” Laura said. “You have a job still.” Yes, Grace had a job, so they’d still have health insurance, but without Laura’s job they would feel the pinch. Without it they would not be able to stay in their home, no matter how they scrimped and saved. Grace’s job was not the one that had upended their lives; hers was not the one for which they had moved from city to city, the one for which they had made life changes. Laura’s was the career that had needed to pay off and make it all worth it, the packing, the leaving behind of things loved and familiar, the withholding, the denying, the waiting, waiting, waiting to have Chloe until they were in a better place and things were more secure.

“You can use the time off to work on the next book,” Grace offered.

“I just finished this one!” She couldn’t even think of the next book. She felt as if she had just thrown the first one down an abandoned well. She wondered if she shouldn’t also throw herself in after it.

Baxter barked and stood between them. “It’s okay, boy.” Grace patted him until he sat back on his haunches. “We can figure this out. It’s not life or death.” She reached for Laura’s wrapped hands.

“Don’t handle me.” She didn’t want her wife’s understanding, her soothe. She wanted Grace’s anger, Grace’s blame, wanted Grace to yell at her, to say it was all her fault, because yes, yes it was. “I’m not one of your patients. ‘It’s not life or death, Laura.’ No, it’s just your career, just the last fifteen years of your life. Just books nobody reads anyway. Just because I don’t give people blood transfusions doesn’t mean my job isn’t real!”

Grace arched a brow, looking at Laura like she was some new thing. “Are you selling tickets to this pity party?”

“It was my responsibility.”

“Because without your job, we’d be passing around a hat and standing on the welfare line?”

“This is my life we’re talking about!”

Grace said, “This is a job we are talking about. We are your life.”

At that, Laura felt the fight go out of her. So much of her life was Grace and Chloe, and her life with them was the life she’d been meant for, the only life she wanted. She closed the distance between them. Ignoring the throbbing in her fingers, she tried to pull Grace up from the chair and into her arms. “You understand we’ll have to sell this house. We’ll have to move.”

Grace dodged her. “I understand the whole damned thing. I might not have a Ph.D., but I’m not an idiot.”

Grace disappeared upstairs and Laura knew not to follow. She picked up the doll and moved to the window seat. They had purchased this house for its big bay window and once Grace had covered its deep ledge with a cushion, the window seat became Laura’s favorite place. Here she curled up with Chloe and read to her about Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog. Here she could sit with one side of her body warmed by Chloe, the other side touched by the cold window, and look out to see the garbage she’d taken out, sitting there bagged beyond the window—her window—and taste a slice of happiness. She’d wanted to hand this slice to Grace and Chloe and now she’d lost her chance. Grace said it was not her fault, but she’d taken no precautions, developed no contingency plan, had no just in case. She had never truly believed that her appeal would be denied, never believed it would come to this. To fail, and now, to have failed twice was a failure so profound she could not even begin to comprehend it.

With tender sore fingers Laura continued to tinker for some time with Chloe’s cowgirl doll. Coaxing out the necessary piece was impossible. No amount of finesse or maneuvering could pry out the rotator and, without it, she could not reattach the poor cowgirl’s arm. As she worked to no success, the night grew darker outside her favorite window, making it seem as if everyone in the neighborhood—perhaps even the entire world— was settling in for the evening. The chair, who had not written to her, the provost who had denied her case, Evan who had moved away—just like her they were all now winding down for the evening, preparing to head off to bed. Everyone, of course, except Janine, whom Grace called the go-getter. Laura imagined her in her home office, working late into the night. After two semesters, Laura knew little of her. She didn’t know if Janine was gay or straight, if she was single or married, or if she had any children. For so long Laura and Evan had been the only black people in the department. They’d grown close and after Evan left she’d turned inward, withdrawing from departmental social functions, feeling isolated and unsure of her footing. When Janine arrived at the beginning of the school year, Laura had been indifferent to her, not having the heart to invest her emotions in another black colleague. She’d rebuffed Janine’s friendly advances, regarding them as phony and slick. For the first time, she now wondered about her. She wondered if Janine had a Chloe, if Janine had a Grace. What a foolish question. No one had a Grace—no one, that is, but her and the simple truth of it propelled her from the couch and up the stairs.


She found Grace inside Chloe’s room, sitting in a chair beside their daughter’s bed.

“We’ll have to buy her a new doll,” Laura said. “I couldn’t fix it.” She gently laid the disabled cowgirl on Chloe’s nightstand and propped her dangling arm against the base of the lamp. “I don’t know what else to try.”

Grace made a noncommittal sound, never taking her eyes off of Chloe. Chloe lay with her hair caught between cheek and pillow, her mouth partially open, her face calm and peaceful. If left undisturbed, she wouldn’t stir. Unlike Grace, who tossed and turned all night and kicked off her covers, who went to bed on her side and woke up on her stomach, Chloe never moved an inch in her sleep.

Laura said, “It’s been a tough day.”

“That it has.”

“I promised this would be the last stop,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Grace skimmed the blanket, smoothing the covers over Chloe’s legs, and Laura followed her hand as it floated the blanket over their small girl. The longer Grace patted and smoothed, the more at ease Laura felt. This was what made Grace so good in those emergency rooms. With her light touch, Grace could soothe the trauma, ease the worry, and calm the panicked heart. Laura reached out and gently freed the hair trapped beneath Chloe’s cheek.

“Don’t wake her,” Grace cautioned.

“No,” Laura said. “Coming to bed?”

“Soon,” Grace said, “Sometimes I just need to watch her. She reminds me.”


“What I get to come home to,” Grace said. “That woman today in the ER was terrified. She was old and stiff. Once she went down, she couldn’t get up without help. If she hadn’t had those canned goods, those dogs could have torn her to pieces. Her skin was gashed and broken. Her jeans were bloodied. She had scrapes and abrasions. Hon, she was so scared she was shaking.” Grace spoke as if from far away, looking past Laura and over her shoulder at something only she could see. “It took forever just to get her story, she was stuttering so badly. Who lets Rottweilers run wild and just abandons dogs when they get tired of them? They never should have been out there loose. What if it happened near where Chloe was playing and those dogs came after her? She wouldn’t have stood a chance. She wouldn’t have known what to do. What if it was Chloe?”

“But it wasn’t Chloe,” Laura said. “She’s fine. She’s right here.”

Grace’s hand stilled on the blanket, hovering over their daughter. “Every time something bad like that happens at work, I think of you and Chloe. I think of what you were doing the last time I saw you, and I tell myself that you’re both safe.”

“You never told me that,” Laura said.

“No,” Grace said, “I never did.”  

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