In the Eye of the Beholder, a short story
January 29, 2013
[This short story of mine ran last week on Best Selling Reads, a new site where a number of authors are gathering around the water cooler to spin tales. Check it out if you get a chance. The site also has a big promotion running as a way to introduce readers to the action over there.–SW]
In the Eye of the Beholder
They laughed at Melrose when he read his piece.
Maybe his appearance put them off, his ragged clothes, hair disheveled, beard unkempt, thick glasses held together with a strap of white cotton athletic tape.
Maybe it was his smell, the unwashed odor of a person used to the outdoors, nights under the stars, forages in stray trash bins.
Perhaps it was his grim demeanor, the way he cocked his head when he listened to the others recite, then refused to applaud, to heap praise, to join in the fun of self-congratulation.
Or it might have been the subject matter, the slice of reality he had chosen, so foreign, so unfamiliar.
Their laughter wasn’t the good-humored jostling fellow writers engaged in with a half-hearted critique of someone they judged an equal. It wasn’t happiness at a clever turn of phrase, a snicker at a sideways remark, even a belly-laugh at a passage that had taken a wrong turn and not made its way back to the main road.
No, it was a mean laughter, a laughter of derision, the sort of reception a king reserved for a peasant, the way a star sneered at his fellow nominees when he received the big award.
The professor was as bad as his students, a Ph. D. diploma in literature framed on his wall, a begrudging semester of pro bono teaching of a free class to be endured, students who had not read the Classics, thinking themselves worthy of his time, an open admission policy spawned in political correctness as a noble gesture to the community.
After the class ended, Melrose walked across campus, beyond the red brick homes of the faculty members, passed the football stadium, beyond the railroad tracks to the community he called home.
“Been to class again, Melrose?” Shorty asked when he saw him coming.
“How’d they like your piece this week?”
“Was it supposed to be funny?”
“I didn’t think so.”
Shorty patted Melrose on the shoulder. “What the hell do they know, anyway?”
Shorty called out, “Hey, guys. Melrose has a new piece he wants to share with us. Y’all gather ‘round.”
“I don’t know, Shorty,” Melrose said. “Maybe not tonight.”
“No way, man. We love to hear you read.”
Eight souls had gathered. They formed a semi-circle around Melrose and waited.
“Okay, then. You asked for it,” Melrose said.
The crowd laughed, a different laugh than he had heard an hour before in the class room.
He pulled out his spiral notebook, opened it to the hand-written selection he had composed for the writing class and began to read.
“Mary loved Claude until the day he died. She died, too, three weeks later. She had give out from loving Claude so hard. When the police found her body in the tall weeds behind the liquor store on Eighth street, they hauled her to the morgue. The doctor at the morgue called the undertaker who brought a pine box. Shorty said some real nice words at the cemetery before two teenagers lowered Mary into the hole and shoveled dirt on her.
“Afterwards, Mary’s friends placed flowers on Mary’s grave, but they couldn’t find the place where Claude was laid to rest, so they brought Claude’s flowers back to Mary and give them to her, too.”
The crowd was silent for a minute before Shorty spoke. “That’s just how it happened, Melrose. You did a beautiful job telling it.”
The others piped in. “You sure did,” “Mary loved Claude so hard, she couldn’t be without him,” “It took me three hours to find flowers pretty enough for her,” “I sure miss both of them.”
One by one, they shook Melrose’s hand and thanked him for telling Mary’s story the way it was.
“You are going to be a famous writer one day, Melrose,” Shorty said.
“Not if the folks at the university have anything to do with it,” Melrose said.
He and Shorty laughed out loud together.
(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author.)