by Caitlin Hamilton Summie
Oh, for the love of short stories! Today, a little late for May’s Short Story Month, I thought it would be wonderful to celebrate one more short story writer, Patricia Lawson. Please enjoy this excerpt! An excerpt from Odd Ducks, due out this summer from Bkmk Press, follows.
From the story “Biker,” as excerpted from the short story collection Odd Ducks by Patricia Lawson, Bkmk Press, Summer 2020.
Inside his apartment Stephen watched Sandra trying to pry open a stuck thermos lid with a table knife, an act that would probably end in her shattering the thermos’s glass lining. He felt a familiar bur of irritation, but for a moment let himself enjoy its prickle.
It really was time to break up. Once there had been a slight upward momentum to the relationship, which she had goaded into existence, but now things were terrible. He had never liked her pale skin for one thing or her nearly invisible eyelashes. His skin, it must be admitted, was also somewhat pale and no doubt was one reason for his having been classified as a nerd in high school and college, but in her company he felt nerdier. Another thing he disliked was the false intensity with which she “studied” things—a pin-oak leaf, for instance, or an oddly spotted ladybug—to show off her pretended interest in “the world around us.”
She could be relentless. They needed toe clips for their bikes, she insisted, and when he said “no rattraps for me, thanks,” she inclined her head to the side, like a puzzled dog (an expression he recognized as totally fake because she never puzzled over anything) and explained how clips improved pedaling efficiency. “If you want something that catches on the terrain, go for it,” he said, “but count me out.”
He also disliked her car, an old VW Beetle, disliked everything about it and thought it all reflected her—the porelike perforations in the upholstery; the exterior color, a beigey pink, which resembled the tone of her skin when she was just starting to burn; the stupid cartoon about a VW she had taped to her glove compartment (a man staring at a VW lot and saying “Where’s the Raid?”) about which he had said, “not funny”; most of all the reeking car deodorizer in the shape of a butterfly.
And why, for God’s sake, had she wanted to spend their Sunday pedaling fifteen miles into the “country” with a picnic lunch he would have to tote on his back. “It isn’t even country fifteen miles from here. It’s suburbia,” he’d said. He saw enough of the suburbs when he stayed with his parents, more or less to keep them company, though he lived in town during the week in his tiny apartment while he finished his PhD.
As an alternative, he proposed biking to the Plaza and going to Barnes & Noble, maybe having coffee there.
“I can pack iced coffee in the thermos. Look! I got it open.”
“No,” he had said loudly. You had to practically hit her over the head. “I don’t want a suburban experience. I want an urban one. I want to go to the bookstore.” He noted that he often sounded petulant and childlike arguing with her, but that was how it had to be.
And so, wearing his yellow jersey and new lycra/nylon padded shorts, he led the way through the streets he considered safest for bicyclists, though none were that safe. Kansas City drivers were mostly inconsiderate of bike riders. Sometimes he despaired of ever being able to live the life he wanted in a town where biking to a shopping area was a major undertaking.
Still, it was nice at Barnes & Noble, at least for a while, even though it meant having to lug his helmet around inside the store. He left Sandra in the magazine section while he went to look at the store’s meager collection on the hard sciences, leafing through a few books on reptiles before selecting one with sensational pictures of Gila monsters and hooded cobras so he could wow his upcoming summer zoology class. Today’s students were visual creatures, and you had to play to their interests.
They drank their iced lattes and then glasses of water as they ate the egg-salad sandwiches she had sneaked in inside a tote bag. “It would have been nicer to have a picnic,” she said. “Anyway, he’s watching us”—she nodded towards the pug-faced kid behind the counter.
“He doesn’t care,” he said. “Why should he? Look there.” He pointed. A homeless man was dozing at a table in a corner, a tattered gray bag on the floor beside him.
“Okay, but if the manager were here, he’d ask us to leave.”
“No he wouldn’t. People today don’t make waves.”
She set her jaw and went back to the toe clips. He really should buy them. “You’re not getting full use of your upstroke,” she said.
Again he explained his thoughts about overcomplicating a piece of machinery and almost slipped in, “I think we need some time apart,” but she was bending over to pick up a dropped napkin, revealing bluish-white skin at the top of her forehead. When she was upright again, she said, as if she had heard nothing, “At least you should give them a try.”
She took forever repacking the silly fuchsia Tupperware containers into her tote, and he was so annoyed that on their way out he forgot he was carrying the reptile book, walked past the alarm system without having paid, set off a buzzer, and had to explain to a frowning security man, who responded to his explanation with “Whatever.”
“You need a good nap,” she said. “You’re really grouchy.”
“I’ve got work to do.”
“People’s natural rhythms are low after lunch. People who are able to get into deep sleep, even for a few minutes, improve their mental efficiency.”
He gave her his thoughts about the quality of research you were likely to come across in Psychology Today. She was silent only a moment. “A nap improves your disposition too.”
When he got back on his bike, he noticed irritation was making him pedal faster. Even so, several blocks later, he was surprised to see how far ahead he was. Halfway up a steep hill, he glanced over his shoulder and saw to his delight that Sandra was at the foot of the hill, having trouble with her goddamn toe clips. It served her right. He pedaled to the top, enjoying the sense of strength in his calf and thigh muscles. He was in astonishingly good shape.
At the crest, he looked back again and saw she was still struggling. He supposed he should go back and help but didn’t think he could stand to. There was sure to be a quarrel. He looked ahead at a long level stretch where the street was dark and shaded.
He considered for about two seconds. And he took off.
© Patricia Lawson 2020
Patricia Lawson’s work has appeared in Pleiades, Dalhousie Review, New Letters, and elsewhere. She taught for many years at Kansas City Kansas Community College and was an associate editor of The Same. She is a Riverfront Readings committee member at the Writers Place in Kansas City and a graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Odd Ducks is her solo fiction debut.
Photo by Chris Mullins