I thought this story was dead because I wrote it as a response to one of Midwestern Gothic's summer photo contests, and it was not selected. Then, in August I shared it at a reading in St. Louis, and the audience laughed and laughed, and one listener told me later that she knew someone exactly like Maureen. I didn't even realize that the story was very funny, or relatable, but since then, every time I think of the story, I laugh and feel a little transported. I really think that without community, my writing would be dead in the water. The truest sentence for me is that part about the gooey film life gets. Other people really help break that stuff up.
Tyler Barton studies fiction writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he serves as a fiction editor for the Blue Earth Review and a podcast host for Weekly Reader. In 2016, he and his partner, Erin Dorney, founded FEAR NO LIT, the organization behind The 2017 Submerging Writer Fellowship. Learn more at fearnolit.com. Find Tyler's stories at tsbarton.com and his jokes at @goftyler.
Permalink: Norwood Young America Women’s Book Club
We had novels, pitchers, notes, peeves, but that night, our subject was never not Jenna, how she’d tramped through the blizzard to the podiatrist’s office, arrow in her arm. How insane that front-page portrait hulked, how she never showed an inch of skin, always with that orange balaclava, Vikes coat, gloves velcroed to her wrist, steel-toe boots, goddamn, those eyes. And I’d actually read the month’s book, but you just have to love a good legend. Makes the soupy beer taste okay. I almost wished she was with us.
“Woman’s got incredible skin,” I said, toasting her news photo taped above the bar. Our bartender’s idea of a Monday night watercooler. None of my three friends raised their glasses. “The finest skin.”
Maureen and Mickey cocked their heads, squinted at me. Cas smiled, sipped gin through a straw. On every TV, the Minnesota Vikings ran safe inside their dome.
Cas: “Wait, an arrow? She got stuck with an arrow? In her foot?”
Cas always needed her hand held. The youngest of us, a librarian, twins three years old. But me, Maureen, and Mickey—our daughters were all in college, and this club was us trying to prove we could learn new shit too.
“No no no,” I said, chewing a cheese curd. “Right bicep.” I flagged, two fingers, for a refill. But the tiny waitresses had gone blind.
Maureen: “Paper said she’s on a suspended license. The only doctor in walking distance is Gladfelter’s, the foot freak. So Jenna figures—”
Mickey: “That man, ugh, once slid his finger between my toes like…”
We all made a face. But it’s no myth. Gladfelter often held my foot like a hand, fingers intertwined with my toes. He’d hold tight, squeeze, pause, say, “How’s this feel?” I always wanted to say like sex.
Cas: “So did he help her?”
I was drifting, rubbing the inside of my arm, feeling around for the purest spot.
Mickey: “Wait, Donna? The heck you on about Jenna’s skin?”
Of course Maureen rolled her eyes. Ever meet someone who sees the world panoramic, like prairie sky, someone who’s a constant reminder that you’ve only ever seen heaven in little broken pieces, someone who gives you hope for total sight? Maureen is not one of those people.
Cas stared, waiting for my answer.
Jenna had the softest skin alive. And I explained as much, how it’s thin like Saran Wrap, smoother than whipped butter. Maureen and Mickey dropped their beers down heavy and closed their copies of Fifty Shades Freed. Cas laughed. On TV, the players shed their helmets, gathering around a Viking lying flat on the fifty. The bar shushed. You could hear the popcorn machine.
“That’s why she’s never not wearing that getup,” I said. “Bleeds easy, gets nasty wind chap, the sun burns holes through her gorgeous—”
I just wanted to stir the pot. Sometimes life gets that gooey film on top, and you just have to break it up, mix everything in before it crusts. I really did think, everything else aside, Jenna looked holy in that photo. Whatever kind of pain that arrow brought, it puffed her up like taxidermy, delivered to her the ideal Her.
Mickey: “The arrowhead’s still lodged in—what’s the arm bone called?”
“Vulva,” I said, swigging Maureen’s beer. Mine was empty is all.
“Enough.” Maureen stood. Mickey followed suit. “It’s been a lovely meeting, but—well, goodnight.” They strode out like action-figure ladies. A waitress asked about their tabs, and I jotted down emails, phone numbers, a list of their other crimes and fears and disappointments.
Cas, glowing, leaned across the table: “What sour hell is their problem?” She’d grown a little folded gut, like mine. I reached for a curd, but Cas grabbed my fingers, bumping Maureen’s glass, which I caught and finished.
“Tell me more about her,” she said.
We talked until the bar closed, and my phone died from missed calls, and our books got soaked with lager, and we never even got to the part where the arrow went in.
by Tyler Barton