Stefanie Freele

First there is the sadness. It comes about like slow fog, a consoling oceany fog, or perhaps like a sweater without the foghorn. Thick, warm, shielding.

It sneaks up over the past few weeks and rapidly she finds her forehead on the wall and her mouth saying, “I can’t.” What it is she can’t, she can’t express. She just can’t.

She knows she should call her doctor, but if only today she can rest before her husband comes home expecting dinner. He’ll be cheerful and briefcase-plopping and rainjacket-hanging and cheek-kissing. But, he’ll also be so gosh-darn I’ve-been-on-the-subway-and-I’m starving. Why do people have to keep eating and eating and eating? She thinks a monthly meal should be sufficient along with a bi-weekly snack.

The kitchen is red with black tiles. Loud colors that confront her each time she chops and stews and mixes. She detests the kitchen, fears the tiny window, the rumbling fridge, the white table. There is nothing comforting about the chairs, nothing supplying within the cupboards, nothing handy in the drawer.

At 5:15 she calls in a pizza, leaves a cash-filled envelope at the door and cries into her pillow about the red and black tiles – how they always look dirty, about the crumbs in the bottom of the microwave – there are always more. She hates her job, loathes the old people and their smell, worries about the handles on their wheelchairs – does anyone ever wash those handles? How does that Thursday woman, named Kit, cut their hair with such cheer? Snip! Snip!

At 8:01am she calls her doctor and receives a prescription and then a bottle by 10:30. By 5pm, she plans chicken, by 6pm they’ve eaten, by 7pm they’ve read the paper. At 8:15 she announces she is going for a walk.

The sky is darker than the black toilet seats in the public bathroom at the doctor’s office. Noises and smells. Lasagna. Cat urine. A bus. Before bed she licks honey off her husband.

In the morning she makes cupcakes.

Three weeks more of the medication and the dose doubles itself. She throws away the pill cutter and peels off the prescription label.

She colors her hair brassy red, sassy red, the red of confidence, bossiness, pushiness. The red of a completed business folder. A project they can’t say no to. She walks across the parking lot in heels, with pantyhose, a skirt that matches the shoes, that coordinate with the jacket, and a silk shirt underneath with a new lace bra, panties no one will see, but like it all, they are flawless.

The boss gives her a raise, a project, a promotion. She says things like I’m a can-do-person.

Her husband loves the dinners, loves the back massages, but quietly suggests she slow down, chatter less, save more, shop later. Enough.

She isn’t interested in being held, nor snuggling, nor square dancing, nor watching another movie. Let’s walk, she says, and they traipse the city, mapping out the streets. She convinces him that they will cover every road by foot before the rainy season begins. Each night they’ll walk ten to twelve miles. Hurry, she says and buys him jogging shoes, the best, fitted just for his sturdy foot. I’ll be your trainer, I’ll get us in shape.

But what about the news? He wants to watch tv and rub his toes together at the end of the couch.

We are the news.

The boss says that if she could stop bouncing her knee he could concentrate better on what he is about to say.

She doesn’t wait for the what-he-is-about-to-say and says tell it to my lawyer.

Look at yourself, the boss calls out as she gathers the boxes and the monogrammed bag.

She drives out of the parking lot, much too early to go home, to make basil-tomato soup for hubby who will smear butter, immerse crusts, nod, say I love to dunk.

She heads north toward a dark cloud, a cloud that will appreciate her.

After many turns, many trees, many greens upon greens, a curve reveals an enormous redwood-tree-tall logger next to an unreasonably huge blue ox. Paul Bunyan’s car-sized hand waves her over and while perched on his shoe, she reveals to Paul that she hasn’t driven under the speed limit since she left her job.

Paul insists she try the free fudge in the gift shop which she responds with, I don’t need food, Paul, I don’t need food. You, you’re big, you need lots of food. I need… and she pauses, unsure how to finish the sentence, looking through the crowd of tourists for what it is she needs.

A boy, about seven, clues her in. There is a man with a microphone, inside Paul’s leg. Just a small man, hiding, the boy says, the giant isn’t real.

She finds this news terrifying; an Oz-like employee works inside the giant’s appendage, spouting off things like, Can I answer any questions for you? No? You know everything there is to know, do ya?

Paul tells the boy, who is kicking his leg, that Blue, the ox was frozen so long, he stayed blue for life.

The boy tries to pick the lock with a stick to the door-that-will-reveal-the-sham, until his father calls him over to restroom.

Let me give you a wave, says Paul to the boy, and waves that creepy car-sized hand far above the crowd. The hand creaks and moans like a rusty carnival ride. This causes her to sob.

In the parking lot of a campground, she holds a Styrofoam cup with a rock in it. A grasshopper, will soon hop onto the rock at the bottom and she’ll catch him with the lid. Some are jumpers, some are landers, she tells the park ranger who is asking her if she drove all the way to the Oregon border in one day.

As she strips off the torn pantyhose, balls it into her pocket and kicks her heels into the trunk, she looks him in the eye – oh man of green uniform – and says, Yes! but, I forgot my hiking boots, where is the nearest REI?

No, she doesn’t have camping gear, an annual pass, or drinking water.



Is there anyone he should call for her?

The puddle, the same puddle she drove through, so smooth and elongated, deliciously oval, she must place a naked foot into it. With eyes closed, she lifts her foot up and down, oozing and sucking, slurping that foot in the mud until the ranger interrupts –

I think you should just plan to wait here and not drive any further.

Why would she drive anyway, with such a soothing puddle to grip her heels and feet, to encompass her ankles like a forgiving mother?

When a truck, a big 4×4 of a slosh-pile roars up, she thinks she might embrace that larger-than-life tire, wrap her legs around it and ride through the park like a safari-triumphant woman. Perhaps they’ll even let her hoist the rifle crossing the back window, and she asks them, can I hold your rifle and ride your tire?

One man laughs so abrupt he spits his sandwich bite on the dash. The other asks the park ranger if she is for real. Which, she responds by showing them the back of her neck, free of bites, scars, or tattoos which clarifies to everyone how real she really is.

Her husband running wetly across the parking lot, smelling like black coffee and newspaper, arrives at the station and takes her hand.

I’m not going anywhere without my rucksack, she insists.

No one at the station seems to know what rucksack she is referring to, the husband has never seen her with a rucksack and finally, a janitor-woman with the mop-and-bucket cart pushes by like a drained motel maid. The wife snatches from the cart a roll of toilet-paper, clutches it to her muddy chest and declares she has found her long lost rucksack and is now ready to go.

She thanks the officers who are taking turns letting the air out of their lungs, the air they have been holding for the last few hours while waiting for the husband to arrive.

The husband, undersized compared to the officers, looks too-thin, too unbuttered, too puzzled and fatigued. The poor man needs his wife.

The wife, still gripping her rucksack-toilet-paper, announces what everyone must be thinking, dear, you need a good meal.

The officers agree and pat him on the shoulder, sir, get some sleep. Several hotels nearby, many are affordable. One of the officers mentions a place to get the best clam chowder and they all agree, yes, you must go to Buccaneers, they’ll treat you right.

Buccaneers it is! His wife announces. Sturdy and commanding, she leads her beleaguered husband toward the door, away from the band of staring uniforms, out into the misty evening where he can recuperate from his exhaustion, fill his stomach and clear his troubled head.

Stefanie Freele is the Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review. Her recent fiction can be found in Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, Night Train, Necessary Fiction, and Word Riot. Her short story collection, Feeding Strays, released in 2009 by Lost Horse Press, was a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Award and the Book of the Year Award. Stefanie is the current Healdsburg Literary Laureate.

One Comment on “Stefanie Freele”

  1. 1 GENRE « FictionDaily said at 11:03 am on May 10th, 2011:

    [...] First there is the sadness. [...]

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