39th Writing Contest • First Place, Fiction
Jackie Davis Martin of San Francisco, CA has won the New Millennium Fiction Prize for “Knife.”
She will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
“This is the story of the man who came to dinner. When a famous writer crashes their party, he brings risk, subterfuge, and creativity back into a life gone dull. But what will he take in return?”
By Jackie Davis Martin
That Saturday evening Lila and her husband Graham were at a dinner party for six—somewhat small scale for their hostess Janelle—where they sat stiffly on antique Chinese chairs around Janelle’s table and exclaimed over salad served on the asymmetrical plates she’d brought from Paris. The three couples were accustomed to one another and always on the alert for a new flourish at the table. Lila found comments on dining accoutrements tiresome and irrelevant, although she too joined in with compliments on the placements from India, a centerpiece from Prague. Lila longed for something something new to happen. Soon the dinner party conversation would switch to travel and become more tedious. These were her old friends! She tried to listen. Anthony. the host, was elaborating on why they’d chosen this condo complex (garage, gardens, privacy) and the garrulous Margaret kept interrupting to talk of her and Mike’s recent find: a condo they’d move into when they returned from Berlin. It was easy for Lila to drift, to poke desultorily at the purple greens (odd description in itself) as she toyed with one of Janelle’s exquisite butter knives.
“Ah,” Anthony said. “Those belonged to Janelle’s grandmother. Aren’t they pretty?”
The knives nudged Lila back to a time when she took risks. She remembered Innsbruck, she and Graham sitting at a sidewalk café. Had it really been twenty-five years ago? There had been a round wrought-iron table and slatted wood chairs, the two of them leaning over their thick tureens of coffee and sharing an apple strudel. “Mit Schlag!” they always added. They’d order only one so they could stop again and order another, the way they made love then, always the stop temporary, the pleasure keen but already anticipating the next indulgence, smug in the knowledge it would occur.
They’d been sitting at an Innsbruck café with mountains on all sides, snow-peaked even in summer, and, when Graham consulted his map, Lila slipped the scrolled knife they’d been served with the strudel into the pocket of her jacket. “Life doesn’t get any better than this,” he had observed.
She’d leaned across and whispered, “I stole the knife.”
His eyes scanned the empty plate. “Where? Put it back.”
“No,” she said. “Anyway, I have others, too, but not as pretty.”
“What! Christ, Lila.”
“In the suitcase. This makes five, I think.”
Graham thought the Austrian consuls would find out or something. Even then, Lila had recognized in him his attention to the right thing, waiting one’s turn, not making waves, qualities that were in stark contrast to the man she had dated before him, who had asserted and bullied their way into the best rooms, the extra soaps and towels, the table with the window view.
On that same trip she’d helped herself to one more little knife—this time from a restaurant in a small town on their way to Salzburg—to round out her set. When they’d returned home, Lila didn’t display her collection as she’d intended, as she might have done for Lucky– that was the former boyfriend’s name—how odd she hadn’t thought of it. Lucky. He was, too; he got away with things. She was wowed by, and mistrusting of him. Lila didn’t consider that Graham was unlucky–lack of luck didn’t necessarily accompany a solid sense of fair play—just not as edgy. She had tucked her knives into a plastic baggie and stashed them at the rear of the utensil drawer, where, from time to time, she’d look at them, remembering her daring.
It was literarily a knock at the door. .The entrance of the stranger at Janelle’s and Anthony’s dinner party shifted Lila’s resigned perspective. Janelle was clearing the salad plates, preparing for Anthony to serve his Hunter’s pork stew. Anthony had recently taken a cooking class. If you studied Janelle’s face—always gracious—you could see her anxiety over the ordinariness of what her husband accomplished. To balance things out, she used designer pottery. The stew arrived in glazed bowls, each in the shape of a different flower, which they raved about and then, remembering the stew, commented on that, too.
But the knocking on the door was sudden and firm. Anthony said, “I’ll get it,” and pushed himself from his chair; Graham was forced to wrap up some comment which had gone on too long already about Obama’s policies, and Lila felt a little sorry for him. She was more attuned, however, to the man who stepped into the room, bringing in with him gusts of fog and a scent of lilies from the gardens outside.
He was a short man, rather rotund, with a gray crew-cut, thickly soft, like bristles on a baby’s brush. He wore a handsome gray raincoat over a plaid flannel shirt and corduroy trousers. He talked rapidly: hated to bother, had just moved in, couldn’t get the damn garage door opener to work, car blocking sidewalk, squeezed through bushes, wife not here yet, sorry to bother—but?
“Come back!” Janelle called as Anthony retrieved keys and exited with the stranger. “Come back and join us for dessert.”
He returned with a bottle of wine clutched by its neck. He said he’d had cases delivered, but no opener and forgot to get one, having been distracted by “an encounter in a bar where some guy—right out of Dostoevsky—clutched my shirt and wouldn’t shut up.” His name was Bill Barnes and he had just been hired at SF State as an exchange professor. Lila placed his age at mid fifties, maybe. Not too many years younger than she was—but what a thought.
He dug with gusto into Jan’s strawberry galette and said he’d been living on flavored coffees and Big Macs as he crossed the country. Lila reached for one of the table’s bottles in its earthenware holder to refill his glass. Bill Barnes glanced her way in a brief thanks and Lila’s heart fluttered, as though she were thirteen. The man’s eyes were light under pronounced eyelids. It was his vitality—he was so different from them.
“You’ll have to come over for coffee,” Janelle was saying now. “Anthony and I are always here—except when we travel.”
Lila feared that Margaret, who set down her fork, would jump in on cue at the word “travel,” but she was on another course. She began a recitation of professors from SF State that she’d been aware of one way or another.
Lila wanted them to shut up.
“Decaf anyone?” Janelle said. “Brandy?”
Bill Barnes apologized for crashing their party, but was easily persuaded to stay. He watched Anthony uncork a new bottle. “My own wine opener, a real beauty, was confiscated last year at the Houston airport,” he said.
Anthony was sympathetic. “Goddam security stuff in override. All the time.”
“My wife. . . sent a knife,” Graham began. They all laughed.
“Graham writes poetry,” Lila said, and felt mean, although it was true. Graham played around with four-syllable rhymes—“My mood/ Has changed with the food”—which sometimes amused her and other times made her want to scream. He once in a while wrote a real poem, a good one, that didn’t rhyme at all. Graham was launched, though, into the story of Lila’s packing a paring knife that had been almost confiscated by security in its own box to send along with their luggage; the box had arrived bobbing along on the conveyor belt at the baggage claim. Graham was too slow with anecdotes, Lila thought, although deliberation was one of the qualities she’d once liked in him.
“That reminds me,” she said, wanting to jolt them. “I stole knives. Six of them, in Austria, years ago. They’re in the rear of the drawer.”
“You did what?” Margaret said. She jutted her head forward.
“She said she stole knives,” Anthony said. “This sounds good.” Anthony was clearly getting drunk. His wife busied herself with demitasses and tiny glasses with golden scrolls.
“In the Rear of the Drawer,” Bill Barnes announced. “A good title. Are you a writer?”
“Yes. No.” Lila thought of her own intense concentration at the computer, her creation of several stories, three of which had been published in online journals. She stared at the man, at his fuzzy crop of hair: Bill, William. Surely—? She’d read the stories of William Baker Barnes in Harper’s, in The New Yorker—she owned two paperback collections. She’d admired his economy of presentation, the intensity of situation and unusual characters. “My God,” she said. “You’re William Baker Barnes!”
“He said Barnes,” Anthony said.
Lila drained her brandy quickly and Bill—William—did the same. He glanced her way and bobbed his head in a sort of affirmation. She didn’t want to make a fool of herself gushing over him. Margaret, who clearly had never heard of William Baker Barnes, told him that, when she’d taught high school, several people had told her that she should write. She smiled humbly at her disclosure.
“And you?” Bill Barnes asked Lila.
“Not like you. But—yes. I do write.”
A hour and a few travel anecdotes later, Anthony gathered their coats and they all said goodbye in the vestibule. Lila thought that Bill Barnes smiled at her differently from the others, as though she were a kindred soul, but she considered maybe she just wanted to see that.
The next morning Lila spilled the pot of coffee she’d just made. It was more than a spill—it was a river of coffee that spread across countertop to floor. She’d used the last of her beans, and now she had to throw down towels, get on her knees, to mop up. Both Janelle and Margaret had “someone in” to do cleaning, and probably William Baker Barnes and his wife would, too.
The name gave her a pleasant and unpleasant start which—getting another towel—she forced herself to examine. She’d met a writer she truly admired, someone of talent beyond those in her writing group—although they’d all learned to be good critics–but it was Janelle who lived almost next door, and Janelle didn’t care. Lila tried to remember what Barnes looked like—sort of like one of those inflatable punching dolls from her childhood, not roly-poly exactly, but solid, of a piece. It was the confidence he exuded: this is who I am; my talent enables me to be daring.
She needed caffeine.
Graham was just getting up as Lila pulled on last night’s jacket, still draped over the balustrade. “Starbucks,” she explained. “We ‘re out of coffee.”
“What?” The gray strands of his hair looked electrically charged. “You don’t like Starbucks.”
“Be right back.”
At Starbucks, the paper fluttered to the floor when Lila pulled her hand out of her pocket. A woman behind her picked it up and handed it to her. It was a bank withdrawal slip with writing on it: “Call me. Stolen knives, stolen lives. Bill B.” And his number. Lila dropped the free cup of coffee she’d got with the pound of beans and created the second mess that morning.
“I want you to read this story I’ve been working on,” he said when she called. “It’s about a knife—or letter opener, anyway.”
“Me?” Sunday morning gathered itself where she sat, on a bench outside Walgreen’s, cars half into the street waiting for their turn to enter the lot. Such an ordinary hubbub for her to be talking to the likes of William Baker Barnes! Maybe he had seen insight and intelligence in her.
“Is today a possibility?”
She told Graham she forgot about a baby shower for a woman in her department. “Who?” he asked, even though he was familiar with only three or four names. She told herself that this meeting was of no more consequence than such an event although her heart was racing and she was vowing not to boast to her writing group. She’d take the meeting in stride. If she ran into Janelle or Anthony—what then? What would she say? She wouldn’t have needed to sneak through bushes to invite William Baker Barnes to visit her classroom. It was all pretty nerve-wracking and—she had to admit—a thrill.
William Baker Barnes –she had to stop calling him three names in her head even though he didn’t seem to be a “Bill” at all—was waiting at the end of the garden. As he admitted her through an iron gate, Lila glanced through thick tall shrubs to determine the orientation of the condo complex.
Bill smiled. “They’d be over that way. Your friends.” He led her away from where he’d pointed, the shrubs so dense and fountains so loud that Lila was assured her presence was undetected. Besides, her focus was mostly on the hand, large and warm and slightly damp, that gripped her own.
She was struck by the clean lines and spaces of his unit. Janelle and Anthony’s home was so overwrought with window dressings and furniture and rug upon rug that one didn’t think in terms of rooms at all. Here what would become the living room was now empty except for a buttress of wine boxes at one end. An opened bottle, a cheap corkscrew and plastic goblet sat on the kitchen counter next to crumpled paper coffee cups.
“I started without you,” he said. “But I’m prepared to entertain.” He shook loose another goblet from a large bag and poured two glasses.
A card table and one folding chair took up the dining area; there was a laptop, a small printer and stack of papers and files. Her heart pounded: William Baker Barnes at work.
He assessed her assessment. “Yeah, it’s great in a way. Wait’ll Francie gets here, though. The space will close in.”
The name took Lila aback; suddenly she felt like the other woman, a position she’d never had or considered. He led her through a second room, totally empty, past a bathroom where she noted soggy towels on the floor, reminiscent of her own kitchen that morning, to a large room with an unmade futon in its center. Scattered clothes and suitcases surrounded the futon, as though it were a floating island. She paused in the doorway. “This unit seems so different from Anthony’s and Janelle’s.”
“‘Anthony and Janelle,’” he said. “Who can go on saying those awkward names? If you wrote about them, you’d have to call them something else.”
“Why would I write about them?”
He’d entered the bedroom and was setting the glasses carefully on a box of wine that was functioning as a night stand; a cheap goose-neck lamp leaned inquiringly next to keys and small change. He flopped onto the futon, patting the space next to him. The sheets were navy blue and new, their plastic zipper case flung in a corner. Lila stood in the doorway wondering what to do, and he laughed at her wavering. “I’m offering you the only available seating,” he said.
She set her handbag on the floor, folded her jacket on top of it, and crawled on all fours, joining him. She hadn’t been this close to anyone but Graham in twenty-six years.
“What do you write about?” he said conversationally as though he really was curious. At the same time he was reaching under a heap of clothes to produce a cluster of printed pages. “Ah, I knew it was here. I was re-reading it last night prior to sending it to my agent.”
Of course he would have an agent; she just sent out things at random. At a summer conference, a minor writer had told her her writing resembled Joyce Carol Oates’s; he’d urged her to try for an agent, but she’d felt shy about it. Now Lila admitted that comment to Bill and he raised his eyebrows. “Do you make things up?” he said. “Or do you use experiences like the stolen knives?”
She kept glancing at the story, his, right there.
“How many knives are there?”
He was interested; she could answer. “Altogether? Hmm–eight. Six from traveling with Graham, two from Lucky—a guy I dated before Graham.”
“Yes.” She shrugged, feeling a little pride at the minor filching that seemed to attract him.
He asked if she’d be tempted to write about him, and when she demurred—why would she do that—he insisted.
“You?” She wanted to impress, yet he liked honesty. “A writer of fifty. Fifty-five? Hair like a grey baby-chick, a sort of permanent smirk. I’d give you glasses.”
He laughed. “Wires? Tortoise?”
“I don’t know! I’d have to know you better.”
“I can do you, easily.” He guessed her age at fifty or so, too, and she didn’t add the extra years. A good body, he said, and charming bangs. He touched her hair. “A Matron-Femme Fatale-Little Girl.”
Lila shivered. She sipped her wine. Had she any lipstick on at all? Just as she thought that, William Baker Barnes leaned forward and kissed her, a brief and warm press of the lips. “With beautiful lips,” he said. “Perfect lips.” She was wide-eyed; it was a surprise, a transgression. And yet—she had to admit—such an enormous compliment to be desired. She tried not to say to herself: by a famous writer.
He smiled gently and leaned on his elbow, relaxing, as though they’d known each other in one way a long time and he was now contemplating another. “What do you do? Do you have lovers?”
“Have?” She set down her glass and picked up his story, amazed more by the casual presumption of the question than she’d been at the indiscretion they’d both committed “You mean present tense. No.” The words on his papers ran together.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Read.” He cued her in with a little butt of his head.
“Do you really want my comments? What do you want?” She twisted to sit up, positioning herself like a child, legs jutting out. She had to look at him over her shoulder.
He sat up, too. It was an odd arrangement, as though they were on a beach blanket, basking without sun, without an ocean. Her dark blue jeans ended in black boots; his corduroy legs ended in black socks with the gold stitching on the toes, the same socks her husband wore.
“What do I want.” He said it as though it was a large concept, one he’d been deliberating for a while. “Fame. Love. Money.”
She wondered whether he was making fun of her. “You have those, don’t you?”
“Shit,” he said. “In maybe some communities. Did your friends know who I was? Would I be accepting another position involving all this moving?” He planted his feet on the floor and heaved himself up with some effort. She felt dismissed. It was her own fault; she’d brought herself here, knowing nothing of him but his name. What did she want?
“Relax,” he said, padding across the room. “I’m getting refills. Read.”
Lila returned to the story, looking for the letter-opener he’d mentioned. There was one. The girl, a child, stabbed her brother with it, pretending a game, and severed an artery. Lila held her breath in dismay—the audacity of stabbing a child on paper.
“How do you do this?” she asked after three pages “How do you plunge right in and create chaos? Heartbreak?” Mostly she’d been told she skirted around the issue in her work instead of facing it head-on.
He set the bottle carefully on the carton and fell onto the flat bed in a lump. “That’s just it,” he said. “I plunge.”
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her down.
He kissed her again, this time with a passion that stirred and confused her. His body was solid against hers, his mouth solid, too. He released her and held her, her head cradled on his shoulder. “You feel good,” he said. “Don’t you think this all feels good?”
She hadn’t protested. She had just allowed it to happen, and he was right: it did feel good. She stared beyond his chest to the blank walls, the bare hallway with its staircase, the space. It was an unfurnished world of no past or present. So she told herself. Even so, after two more kisses, she said she really had to get home and he said take the story with you, what about Thursday?
Early Thursday evening Bill turned toward her on his bar stool reminding Lila of years spent before she married Graham, of scenes in the early eighties, her sitting on bar stools swiveling toward a stranger that she hoped would turn into someone steady, someone she could stop going to bars to have to meet. “So, what did you think? The story.”
She didn’t know whether the thrill of William Baker Barnes asking her opinion outweighed the conspicuousness of where they were. She’d agreed on this bar because it was in a part of the city she never frequented; now, however, she felt uneasy. Prompted by Bill’s text messages and the duration of his temporary bachelordom, she’d told Graham she’d signed up for a new writing course for the next four Thursday evenings, so she’d already committed herself to this one. Then Francie (Francie! she sounded cute, and young) would arrive, and Lila would pretend Bill Barnes hadn’t happened in this particular way.
“So tell me.” He leaned an elbow across the bar, propping his head to look at her.
“I didn’t believe the child would stab her brother.”
“Okay,” he said. She expected him to say “Why not?” or “Kids can be cruel.” Was he dismissing her already? Or actually listening?
“It’s too sudden. Maybe she has a mean streak—whatever that is—planted earlier. Maybe she considers grilling bugs with a magnifying glass, maybe she does.”
“Nice detail, that. Did you?”
“Actually, yes. But I didn’t stab my brother. I didn’t have a brother.”
“I did,” he said. “I used a popsicle stick, but it broke and the spike tore his skin.”
“Like the letter opener.”
“Like a knife,” he said. He squinted, as though focusing on something in his head, silent for a moment. “So—okay, I’ll work in some other detail. Let’s talk about your knives. Your motives.”
She told him she wanted to hold onto something.
“What I thought was elusive. Something rare that—satisfied.”
“No guilt? Remorse?”
She shook her head. “No.”
He smiled. “Let’s go to my place,” he said. “We have lots to talk about.”
How could she possibly refuse a writing idol? She told herself she would learn from a master. He held the door for her: “It will be our first craft session,” he said.
He liked undressing her slowly, which she allowed, no longer hiding behind her going-on-sixty sense of herself. She had some varicose veins and breasts that sagged a little without their bra, but here on the mattress, without the pressures of gravity, she could hold her own. Besides, he didn’t seem to see flaws. His love-making was warm and gentle and, if she admitted the truth, a teeny-bit boring with its lack of urgency.
He said he’d married young, in college, and had strayed only three times since then, although that seemed hard to believe. She pried for experiences prior to the marriage, only to keep his on a keel even with her own, but he had been focused on writing even then, a misfit, he described himself as, in a situation that prohibited much sexual exploration.
He saw his present condo with its echoing rooms as a teenager would a house emptied by vacationing parents. After two visits, Lila too lost all sense that her friends lived across the thick garden, beyond one of the babbling fountains.
She didn’t lose the sense of Graham sitting at home. He was a fair man and much better in bed than was Bill Barnes. Barnes had a fine public sense of himself, forceful and convincing, but in bed he was another matter—tentative and too deliberate, as though he’d read a manual. Graham was gentle and thorough, so her betrayal here with Bill was deep. She couldn’t shake the way things should be done, had been done for twenty-six years, and get into what was seemingly a performance on Bill’s part, which left her satisfied, eventually, it was true, but not exactly dying to go through the entire thing all over again.
Still, she loved telling herself that William Baker Barnes was her lover; it was thrilling—the furtive meetings, his intrigue with her, her novelty of him. And she did probe him about form and voice, about revision tactics: How did he figure out what to cut? He’d been amused at that question: “Cut? A bit obsessed with the image, aren’t you?” But he’d answered seriously; one simply determined what was not essential to the situation, not needed, then got rid of it.
He pressed her to tell him of her affairs. When she said none, he said never, not before marriage? Oh, well, that, she said. “That,” he’d said. “Tell me.” He seemed to admire her as a woman of experience and she felt exhilarated with the position he’d assigned her; he was a mere writer—she was a woman who had lived.
“There was a game,” she said, “many years ago—when I was single for a while.” They knew this phrase to mean between marriages, although he didn’t ask which ones. “It was all a contrivance—this social event—where we tried to get to know someone, scope someone out. What makes you happy? That was the game. It was a drill; we’d keep asking the question of a partner—a stranger—and he—or she—had to keep answering, keep coming up with new answers.”
Bill Barnes’ eyes scrunched with mirth. At such times he looked boyish and Lila wanted to hug him. “That’s great. And you, for instance, answered. . . ?”
“Probably the usual—books, sky, ice cream—I don’t remember. But I know the answer to the other question now.” She was sitting as he was, knees pulled up, arms around them, “About the knives. I wanted to steal my own happiness.”
They were on his futon and he reached around her to refill the empty glasses that had been sitting on the box. “Do I make you happy?”
She tried to assess what he might have in mind: his writing, his status in her eyes? Maybe he was just speaking of sex, though. “Yes,” she said. She didn’t ask back, not wanting him to have to fudge an answer too.
On the last Thursday of September, Barnes had champagne for the two of them; the days were beginning to darken early. On Saturday his furniture would arrive, as would Francie, filling in the role Lila had temporarily usurped. Francie called daily, once even in Lila’s presence. Bill had spoken to Francie with the mouth that had just been on Lila’s. She wondered whether he felt guilty, but his wink to her told her the conspiracy was private and mutual.
“Won’t you be upset?” he asked that last evening, cradling her, the way he did after.
“We’ve known all along,” she said. “Will you?”
“It doesn’t have to end,” he said. “Would you be upset if it ended? It doesn’t have to.”
“I don’t see how it can go on.” Life would be guilt-free, she considered with a small relief, guilt-free and ordinary. She wished for a moment that she still smoked; a cigarette seemed a good idea right now.
“Will you take anything?” he said. He gestured, as though offering the apartment.
“Take?” She considered she’d already taken something that wasn’t hers. “You mean as in ‘steal?’’
His lips turned up—a smile, or a smirk. “Well, it’s been our space and it’ll be taken from us.” He said Francie loved to entertain; she’d want to meet the people he worked with. And Janelle and Anthony had been kind. They could all get together, like the night he met her. “And your husband, too—what’s his name—the poet?”
Lila reached for her jeans. “I’ve got to be going.”
He watched her dress and checked his cell phone. “It’s almost ten o’clock,” he said. “Your ‘class’ is over.” She was in his bathroom, combing her hair; he came to stand behind her, lifted her hair and kissed her neck. “Did you learn anything—in class?”
She spoke to the mirror. “I did, yes. I learned to face the words, that words can pierce.”
He loosened his arms. “You’re talking about writing.”
“It was a writing class,” she said, now moving into his writing room where her jacket hung over the sole chair. “And you? You took the class, too.” She longed to look at what he was working on; she wondered if she’d had any effect.
“Actually, I did learn something.” She was grateful for the word actually; it made it easier to walk away from him. “I learned—again—that people can be—forthcoming.”
It was late November—two months later—that Lila saw the story. She discovered it in The Atlantic, and she looked up Bill’s schedule online to find his office phone, not his cell where they often left innocuous messages, and rang him directly. He feigned delight at first, at hearing from her at work, but immediately grew defensive at her attack. He had merely borrowed a bit of a situation, he said.
“Situation? You made it your story.” The phone was a mistake. She had no upper ground with a flat plastic device wedged next to her ear. She saw William Baker Barnes sitting at a desk, his feet perhaps propped on an open drawer, the power to say whatever he wanted, or to say nothing at all.
He asked her whether she’d written the story, too, another version, and when she said no, he questioned her alarm. “We’re writers,” he said. “Borrowing is what we writers do.”
“But you stole,” she said.
“Stole,” he said. “That’s your word, Lila.”
He added that already he’d been contacted by one of the editors of Best Short Stories of The Year who’d read it ahead of publication.
She pressed “Cancel” without saying goodbye.
Through tears of fury she re-opened The Atlantic and read, in one of the formats she had revered for years: “Knife,” by William Baker Barnes. In the story he called her character “Lilian.” Lilian, an artist of around sixty, pretty but aging, seeks out the attentions of a talented young photographer, Bjorn, whom she falls in love with. She is so much in love with him that she senselessly steals knives from their steak dinners. When her husband Garrett discovers the knives, her affair is revealed. Bjorn has an enormously successful exhibition, where he stands proudly with his wife Fawn and pretends not to know Lilian. One is left with the suggestion Lilian returns to kill herself with one of the stolen knives.
Lila folded the magazine closed and sat there until darkness began to descend and Graham returned from the store. He asked what was wrong. She couldn’t say “Nothing,” so she said an article on death had affected her. He nodded and touched her shoulder briefly as he left the room, and she felt worse at the simple trust he had endowed her with.
“Lila?” Graham called from the kitchen. “Honey? Do you want some cheese and crackers? I just got this aged Gouda.”
She heard the fridge open and shush closed, the sound of the cheeseboard being slammed onto the counter. Possibly no one would recognize the likeness of the story’s initials. Or, how many in her social set would read the story? Would they associate her at all, even with the knives? And—here was an important point—Bill had actually asked whether she’d written it too, suggesting she could. She at least had that from the affair: the fact that he respected her writing and saw her as competition, in a way. She considered that maybe she would write something about a vain writer who made use of a woman who—
A kitchen drawer banged up and down being jimmied, and Graham cursed then cried out at the crash. When Lila rushed in, Graham, a little stunned, was getting slowly to his knees amid the overturned drawer and its spilled contents. He picked up spatulas and ladles, as well as the plastic bag of little stolen knives. On his knees he handed the bag to Lila, smiling with his usual kindness, shrugging away sins of the past. She took the utensils he held out to her and shoved them into the drawer, noisily righting it, slamming it closed, and then offered Graham her arm for him to stand.
Jackie Davis Martin’s most recent stories appear online in Fractured West, Bluestem, On the Premises, and Thrice Fiction, and in print anthologies: Modern Shorts, Love on the Road, and Life is A Rollercoaster. A memoir, Surviving Susan, was published in 2012.
She teaches at City College of San Francisco.
"Knife" © Jackie Davis Martin 2014