Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Microwave Fishing
by Diane Fleming

An omen works on him. Someone leaves the wrong mail in his box. For days, he carries the letter in his pocket, patting the envelope as he walks down the street. One day, needing to know, he sticks his finger in the corner and rips. He reads:

"Dear Joanna,

I will call Friday. Don't let my voice fool you. I don't look like I sound. One time I was selling my house. A woman called to answer my ad. She said she liked my voice: Would I go out with her? I thought it was funny, but my wife, when I told her, didn't find it amusing at all.  No, I have not talked to my wife about my fantasies. She is not comfortable talking about sexual things. You think I love my wife? I care for her very much. She is a nice person. I am not in love with her. Have you given any serious thought to sending me a picture of yourself? Or could it be that you still don’t trust me?


The words fascinate him. He thinks of the possibilities. He thinks, “How can I make someone want to know about me?”

For a week, he leaves pieces of himself around town. He drops a love letter to a made-up girlfriend at the laundry, a prescription he never needed on the sundry shelf at the pharmacy, and a dry-cleaning ticket on the bench at the park. He wants someone to find him.

He wonders if his scheme will work -- how can he help it if women don't respond to the ordinary? His ads on the Internet make direct requests and they go unanswered.

Tonight, the sixth night of his expedition, he takes a run and leaves a filled-out, signed check to his credit card company, loose from its envelope, on the footbridge over the river. Later, at home, he wonders if someone will look him up and reach him. He waits on the couch, his bony toes in the plush, quietly pondering his future.

If a man finds a lost check, he tears it up -- a practical thing. A man is thoughtful but not kind. A married woman would seek instruction from her husband, who would say, "Rip it up." A single woman, however, wants to know what she's not supposed to know. She devours secrets like candy and prays she goes unnoticed.

His perfect woman is only recently a woman. She has been a girl longer. He thinks, she once had a job as a camp counselor. Smart, pretty, and compassionate about boys (or she wouldn't have had that job), she was a girl who was ready to give up everything for a campfire and a marshmallow. She dangled her hand in the water, testing. She lowered herself in and guided boys' arms into swim strokes, teaching. Now, a woman, she remembers how to dance but not how to lead. He leads because he understands the flow of things.

While he sits on the couch, he rubs his muscled calf. He's thin because he runs and focuses on fat. Someone said that was a good thing but tonight, he feels worse than ever.

On the morning of day seven of an expedition she'd never heard about, she walks the trail that edges the river. She crosses the footbridge. She sweats as she moves and her eyes swing from the river to the people on the bridge to the concrete. She glimpses a check: a filled-out check signed Gerald. She picks it up and it makes her think of a man. The man she dreams of likes her solid ass and her custard-sweet-key-lime-pie thighs without green dye. Her perfect man asks for permission in a gentle voice that pretends not to lie. He entertains her for a small fee and brings poems in his pockets. He is a Supreme Being -- a notable man with visions.

Now she holds a check for a lot of money and she’s not sure what to do.

She calls him from school; “I found your check. $1,589 to American Express.”

He thinks her voice sounds pretty.

"Oh my God!" he says, pretending. “Where did you find it?” He thinks: It can't be this easy—this lost and found.

“On the footbridge over the river. Do you want it back?”

“Yes, I’d feel better if I had it back. Do you think you could meet me at some public place?”

“I could meet you at the park in front of my school -- St. John’s on Congress. There’s a bench at the entrance.”

"Is five OK? I could get there by then."

"Five is fine. I teach and I'm done by 4:30." She looks at the classroom clock.

At the park, he sees her before she sees him. A too-small blouse doesn't camouflage rolls of middle fat, the soft donuts that fall in rings beneath her breasts and above her hips. Little lines soften the skin around her lips and eyes. When he says “Hello,” her white hands shelter her rosy face, suppressing a sentence. When her hand reaches out for the crush of his handshake, she lifts her top lip to show straightened teeth.

He says, "Thanks for bringing back the check."

“It’s not a problem. Really.”

He sits for a second. “How do you like teaching?”

“I like it. But I think my social life has disappeared since I’ve started teaching. I work a lot.”

“I know what you mean. For me, it’s either work or working out. Then I’m just tired.”

“I don’t feel tired. Just overwhelmed by the work.”

“Maybe you’d like to join me for a cup of coffee? I live just down the street.”

“I don’t know,” She answers.

“Could it be that you don’t trust me?” he asks, lifting his eyebrows slightly into a goofy expression that makes her laugh.

“OK,” she says. “Coffee sounds good.”

They walk down the block together. At his apartment, he shuffles her in.

“Take your shoes off please,” he requests. “I’m trying to save the carpet.”

Her sandals are off. The carpet is soft. His breath is on her neck and her shoulders and her arms as he bends to pick up his miniature dog as she enters. He stands and smiles. She sees behind his teeth.

He leads her to the couch. He offers her a drink.

"Yes," she answers. She sits and rests her arms on her belly. Her eyes are open. She doesn't blink. He thinks, “There is hope.”

He gets two glasses of iced tea, and a plate of celery and carrots that is covered with Saran Wrap. He places them on the coffee table. He raises and rubs his hands together over the vegetables as if to say, "Oh, doesn't this look good?" When he looks at her, she lowers her eyes.

Patiently, he works her face. Her right cheek catches the yellow light from the lamp. Her face, two halves, two colors (gold, pink), is two paintings sewn into one. The V of her blouse points. She is homely even in gold light. Her skin is chalk or rubber baby pants, over washed. She leans back into the plaid couch. It's scratchy; it hurts.

She lifts a book off the coffee table and a letter falls out. She reads, "Dear Joanna."

She asks, "Are you married?" The letter droops backward in her hand, arching its back.

"Oh no. I'm not married," Gerald says, surprised that she asks. "And you?"

She goes red in the face. "No," she says. She looks at him with her chin lifted, her nose pointing.

His eyes drift from hers. His fingers unfold.

"I wouldn't want a marriage like my mother's," she says. "She's still married to my stepfather. God knows why. He's so skinny and health-conscious; it makes me sick. He's a bit of a control freak." She chuckles nervously and snaps the end off a carrot.

"Oh, that's too bad," he says, biting the inside of his lip. Something metallic oozes under his tongue.

She nibbles the carrot. She looks at his slender body and wonders if he exercises too much.

"Most of my friends are married," she says, flicking a dog hair off her black skirt. "But a few are getting a divorce."

Gerald is not talking. She stands up and walks to the window. Looking out, she absentmindedly brushes a dead fly off the windowsill. The dog rushes to examine it.

Gerald walks to the window and cups the rest of the flies in his hands. He rolls them between his palms and drops them into the fish tank in the corner. The fish rise and bob, percolating.

She wants to laugh, thinking, “He must not realize what he just did.” She politely ignores him and sits back down on the couch.

"I was married once," she continues. "I was married for two years. But he was a bully." She kneads her fingers in her hair, sifting away tangles.

Gerald thinks, “Everyone has hurts and I don't want to hear about hers.”

She squares her arms around her, fencing her bland legs, but her eyes invite.

His forehead tenses. His teeth grind while music plays seasick emotions. The radio is playing something alternative.

"I've never been married," says Gerald. "Maybe one day." His leg cramps. Did he run too far today?

Her coaster is stuck to the bottom of her glass. The coaster falls and toddles on the carpet for a minute. He picks it up. As he bends, he sees her toenails, ripped and peeling off her red toes.

There is celery on the table and it is no longer crisp. She reaches for the celery. Soft and wilted, it could come alive again in a glass of water. A trickle in her thigh glues her underwear to her -- silky cement.

He slides off the sofa and his knees crack loudly. His foot is asleep. He holds the dog in his arms and whispers, "It's OK boy. Yes, yes, it's OK." He walks toward the kitchen.

When he's not looking, she presses a finger into her neck relieve a little pulse. As he gazes back at her over his shoulder, she gives back disinterest.

She hears him doing something in the kitchen. She thinks she hears him open and close a microwave door.

He calls from the kitchen unexpectedly, "Oh my God! I forgot I have an appointment this evening. It's on my calendar here. I see it just now."

Alone in the living room, she grabs food. She knew this would happen. She makes men blush.

He continues, "Sorry I have to rush out. But thanks, really, for bringing back my check."

She sets out across the room tugging at her blouse. She stumbles into the dog as she absentmindedly wonders where she left her sandals. They are next to the wall. The dog turned them upside-down. She kicks them over with her bare feet and slides them on. She moves toward the door. The door opens to a little white kitchen, big enough for only one.

She moves behind Gerald and rests her hand on his back. 

“Let me ask you something,” she says. He turns around.

She tastes two of her fingers, which are hooked in her mouth. Swiftly, she moves her hands to his shoulders -- he is tall -- and lifts herself on her toes, as if pulling herself out of a pool, so that her eyes level his.

Suddenly, the microwave beeps. Gerald forgot he was popping corn. Gerald reaches to open the microwave door and the air bursts with scents of butter and salt.

Her eyes bitter. Her eyes appeal. Her mouth tastes like popcorn.
Diane Fleming has published a book of poetry, Trip to Normal, and recently won first place in The Austin Chronicle's Short Story Contest (2001) for her story, Valium.  She is currently a technical writer at Vignette. She is grateful to her writing teachers from SWT and Austin Community College, to her writing group friends, and to her once and future therapists. Originally from the Northeast, she found her true home in Austin six years ago where she lives
with her son, her boyfriend, and her hairy dog, Buddy.