by Shelagh Powers Johnson
The story begins like a closed fist, tight and finite. The facts are simple, unchanging. It happened how it happened; no need to wonder. But over time, the fingers begin to uncurl, stretching and searching, as if maybe there is more to know—as if maybe the past is a malleable thing. And then the hand opens, flattens, the palm like an offering: I have a story for you.
No one noticed when he slipped away from the party and up to the hosts’ bedroom. He took his shoes off, tucked them in a corner; he left a half-drunk beer on the bedside table as if he might come back for it later. It’s hard to say what compelled him to do what he did next: maybe he didn’t know the pool had been drained for the winter and the jump was nothing more than a misguided party trick, something to liven things up; maybe from the second story window the tarp thrown over the hollow ground had looked soft and inviting, a cushion to break his fall, to scoop him into its folds and toss him up and away; maybe the darkness below had been a welcome mouth, the beast he’d been seeking to swallow him whole.
A picture of his wife had surfaced on the internet a month before, an artsy shot with the blurred hint of nakedness, the camera focused in on her face so you could see the lines that had begun whittling their way around her eyes and mouth. It had seemed like an odd injustice, this mildly erotic picture being so unflattering—maybe he’d felt a sliver of sadness for her tucked somewhere beneath his own anger and hurt. It hadn’t been their bed she was on; it hadn’t been him behind the camera. Still, maybe he wished she’d looked beautiful. Maybe then the world would have been kinder to them. Maybe then the sidelong glances would have been edged with jealousy rather than pity, rather than with disdain. If she’d been young, her hair a silky gold that didn’t glint with silver, her body an invitation rather than an apology—maybe then everything would have been different.
After the jump, there were weeks of quiet. The rumors slowed; the picture stopped flashing across cell phone screens; there were no more snarky captions. Instead people brought her tuna casseroles and frozen lasagnas, a gift certificate for a maid service, for a massage, for a year of free oil changes. She was cradled in the soft palm of sympathy while whispers about what she had done, about why he had jumped, were stifled within a balled fist, closed but ready to punch. She couldn’t be both a widow and a whore, so for a little while she was armored by her grief. But tragedies turn stale in the open air—they need dark corners and the wet must of secrets, edges that morph in the shadows. People need to have a story to tell, a handful of truth to work between their fingers until the facts bend into new angles. They need to burrow deep into the comfort of other people’s mistakes, curl themselves around the dimpled flesh of these imperfections, imagine the jump again and again to remind themselves that they are still whole.
SHELAGH POWERS JOHNSON graduated with an MFA from American University’s Creative Writing program and is an English professor at Bowie State University. Her work has previously appeared in Portland Review, apt, Typishly, Luna Luna Magazine, Ravishly, the Grace and Gravity anthologies, Night Train, Avatar Literary Review, and Clackamas Literary Review, among others. She lives outside Baltimore with her husband and daughter.