There's a novel that's been burning inside me for a while now. This fellowship will allow me to focus wholly on my writing, while also enabling me to travel to do research for the book. In particular, I'd like to travel to regions of the United States heavily damaged by floods and hurricanes, and interview a few people who've lived through major storms. I'd like to visit Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and talk to folks about the terrible floods that have hit the region in the past 20 years, and I'd like to visit the Gulf Coast, to interview residents about living in an area regularly under hurricane watch, and specifically about living through Hurricane Katrina. I'm deeply grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts for this fellowship, and for the time and travel the award will make free and enable.
Vernon pushed through a door marked 6 and leaned huffing against the wall. A door opened down the hall. In the doorway stood a man in a brown coat with a white wool collar. Vernon stood away from the wall, gathered himself. Then he saw Martha behind the man and realized the cowboy was leaving apartment 609.
The man was young, not a hint of gray in his beard. He eyed Vernon as he approached, loudly asked Martha if she was going to be all right. She patted the cowboy's arm. She wore a long sweater of white and tan cables, and hugged herself, a cup of coffee in one hand.
"You're at the right place, Vernon," she said, and Vernon realized how pathetic he must look.
"See you tomorrow," the cowboy said to Martha, then turned and extended a hand to Vernon. "I'm Vance."
Vernon firmly shook his hand. "Vernon."
"I know." The cowboy glared at him a moment, then ambled off. "Thanks for dinner," he called back to Martha. Martha waved and then her eyes fell to Vernon and the corners of her mouth sank.
Vernon followed her inside. The apartment was small and filled with furniture from the parsonage. Furniture that had been theirs, tweedy couches, the oak coffee table, the bookcase dressed with angel figurines and other country nicknacks. She'd been gone only a few months, but the apartment felt lived in. Piano music played from a stereo, their son's old boombox. Beneath a large window overlooking the courtyard, a little fountain gurggled water into a trough of slick black stones.
"Hope I didn't interrupt your date," Vernon said.
"He's a classmate." She smiled, but her tone was curt. "We have an exam tomorrow."
Vernon didn't want her to see the shoebox, and slyly set it on a wicker-seated rocker beside the door, laid his overcoat over the chair. "You going to pass?" he asked.
Martha stared hard at him. "Soon as the buzzer rang I knew who it was," she said. "I'm still in the loop, you know? Sadie Walsh says you couldn't even finish the service this morning?"
Vernon stood stiff. "He's a nice man? This Vance?"
Martha stepped close and patted Vernon's chest. "Poor Vernon," she said, teasing. "Let's get you out of that jacket and get you some coffee."
She helped Vernon out of his suit jacket, plucked off his hat, and hung them both on the doorknob. She took Vernon's arm and lead him to the sofa by the window, then left off into the kitchen. He sat listening to cupboards being opened, cups clinking. A coffee cake, half-eaten, sat on a small table in the kitchen, and Martha called to Vernon he should have some.
"No, thank you," he said, though he was famished.
Martha cut him a slice and set it on the coffee table. "I'm not asking, Vernon," she said. "You look terrible. Folks've been telling me you aren't taking much care of yourself."
"Who's saying that?"
"Scuttle-butts like Sadie Walsh?"
"People who care."
Martha left again into the kitchen and Vernon eyed the cake. He slid it towards himself, but didn't pick up the fork. He watched Martha, washing up cups, pouring the coffee. He wanted to go to her, to hold her and lay his face upon her shoulder.
Martha carried in two cups of coffee and handed one to Vernon. He sipped it and it tasted wonderful, like it always had.
"It's been a long day." He drank again and closed his eyes as the coffee spread its warmth through him. Vernon sat forward, hunched over his knees.
"What's wrong, Vernon?" Martha asked.
He shook his head. "Nothing."
She laughed. "You've always been the worst liar."
"Lord knows, I wish you were a better liar. But one thing about Vernon Hamby is he just can't help but let the truth be known."
Vernon nodded. "It's exhausting."
"I know it is, sweetie. Was for me, too."
"No," she said. "I'm all done with sorry. No more sorry. Now what's wrong, Vernon?"
"Not wrong–" He thought a moment. "Just disappointing."
"There's no such thing as wrong for Vernon Hamby? You still sticking to that line of hooey?"
"It's God's will."
"And you take comfort in that?"
"It's not about comfort, Martha."
She tucked her feet up under her, leaned against the armrest. "I take no comfort in it, Vernon."
"I know it. Maybe you will someday."
She grinned. "Eat your cake, Vernon. Am I going to have to feed you myself?"
"I don't want it."
"Because another man ate from it first?"
Thirty years of marriage, there was no place to hide. "I'm not here to fight, Martha."
"You need to eat," she said, firmly. "I used to not be able to get my arms around you, and now I could knock you down with a sneeze."
"You want some eggs? I'll make you an omelet?"
"Coffee's fine," Vernon said.
"I do care, you know? I don't hate you."
She lowered her head. She gazed into her coffee. "Fair enough," she said, nodding. "I don't hate you anymore."
"I'm glad, Martha."
"In class," she said, "we've been talking about forgiveness. How no matter what you say, or how much you talk, someone isn't really forgiven until you can stand beside them without wanting to slap them in the face. Been thinking a lot about that. About a lot of things." She chewed her lip, eyes drawn inward. She looked as if she might say more, then she smiled. "Why you here, Vernon?"
Vernon glanced at the wicker rocker by the door. "Sometimes," he said. "I wake in the night and can't remember his voice, or the way he laughed."
She sipped her coffee, staring off out the window at the dark sky and the lit tops of trees. "Someday maybe this'll pass, and we can just get on with our lives."
Vernon gazed again at the doorway. He shouldn't have come.
(Alan Heathcock. "Lazarus" from VOLT. Copyright(c) 2011 by Alan Heathcock. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN. www.graywolfpress.org.)