41st Writing Contest • First Place, Fiction
Cady Vishniac of Columbus, OH has won the New Millennium Fiction Prize for “Move.”
She will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
“A story about the lioness inside and the compromises that must be made to travel alongside it, neither stalking nor fleeing.”
By Cady Vishniac
They listen to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and eat baby carrots straight from the bag. The clouds loom low and thunder rolls across Camberville, marking their pilgrimage. Jody and Rob bicker in the front of the U-Haul, and what makes the bickering worse is the presence of their daughter—Jody’s daughter really, but for several months now they’ve been encouraging her to call Rob Daddy—who sits between them in her carseat asking if she’ll ever see any of her friends from daycare again. She won’t, and her friends’ parents never liked Jody or Rob anyway.
Jody tells her she’s got new friends waiting in Ohio. “You’re a beast of prey,” she says, both hands on the steering wheel, staring dead ahead at the road. “An obligate carnivore. The bravest girl I know.”
The daughter looks out Rob’s window, ignoring Jody in that pointed way toddlers ignore the grownups who’d die for them. The look on her face puts Jody in mind of an ex-boyfriend from just before Rob, a guy who used to crack wise about her Jewish nose.
She takes a hand off the wheel to tap Rob’s shoulder, then she picks up a conversation from earlier. “They torture in Zimbabwe, but don’t you think that guy who shot Carla the Lion deserves to go to prison there? He was poaching on a preserve.” Somehow in all this packing she’s found time to read dozens of news articles about Carla’s murder.
“Why do you think he should be tortured?” Rob asks. He fiddles with the air conditioner until he finds the defroster, which he turns all the way up.
“Not so much the original shooting, but claiming he didn’t know poaching was illegal. An excuse that bad is him calling the rest of us stupid.”
“Don’t talk about how much you want someone tortured in front of our kid.”
“But you told that blowjob joke in front of her the other day.”
“So then let’s teach her to embrace human rights violations?”
“You’re so holier-than-thou, why don’t you get out?” Jody says this at a red light, so Rob calls her bluff, opening his passenger side door and walking across several lanes of traffic. Cars hit their brakes and screech around him. At first Jody’s convinced he’s roadkill, but then she sees him land safely on the sidewalk and duck into a cafe. Fighting is such a way of life in Boston, Jody’s willing to bet he’s not the first boyfriend to make a break for it at this intersection, not even the first this morning.
Their daughter says, “Make Daddy come back,” so now Jody’s got no choice but to park the U-Haul in the alley behind the cafe. She calls Rob a dozen times and he doesn’t pick up, she texts him and gets no response, and then he storms out holding two hot cups and a cinnamon bun. The bun is for their daughter and the cups are chai lattes. Jody sips her chai and eases them back onto the road.
It’s Friday night. She should be chanting over candles, and Rob should be pouring wine. They should have a Shabbos goy to take them all the way to their new home, but they don’t.
They listen to Rob’s nineties pop radio—Jody’s embarrassed for him until Blues Traveler comes on—and eat pretzels they bought at a gas station. They’ve outpaced the thunderstorm so the sun shines and the clouds hang high, feathery cirrus.
Jody’s ex texted her the other day to say he was sorry. I just want us to be cool, he wrote. Jody wrote back, We’re cool but I’m moving to Ohio. She tells Rob about the texts as they cross the border between Western Mass and Upstate New York, while their daughter is too hypnotized to care about the conversation. She’s watching Sesame Street on Rob’s iPad.
“That guy is not your friend,” Rob says, and he’s right. She last took up with the man during the desperate, sleepless months after giving birth, when she was still waiting for her divorce to go through. He’d sneak into Jody’s apartment while the baby daughter slept and sneak out again before morning. She asked him on a real date once, but he said no, then she met Rob and cut him off, and they haven’t spoken since.
“Men don’t know how to be friends with anybody,” Jody says. “Most of you are sociopaths.”
Rob asks if she wants to play the cloud game. “That one looks like a feather.” He points.
“Too easy,” she tells him.
“Then what do you think?”
“A ribbon. The crest of a wave.”
“Wave?” Their daughter looks up from Sesame Street. “We’re going to the beach?”
Jody and Rob say no, no beach. Their daughter looks back at the iPad in disappointment.
“That wave thing was pretentious.” Rob says the cloud game should wait until they see better clouds. Instead, they’ll play the alphabet game. “A! That sign for an Applebee’s. Now you find a B.”
Jody doesn’t look for a B. Instead she points toward a dead deer by the Utica exit. Its body lies twisted on the median, its legs pointed straight up in the air. Their daughter spots the deer and asks, “Mommy, what happened to the animal?” Jody tells her he has an ache in his tummy.
Cornfields and soy fields. For a moment Jody sees a lion loping through the crops, stalking a herd of gazelle, but then she snaps out of it. She proposes they write Fuck Boston on the rear hatch of the U-Haul but Rob’s worried there are people from Boston all around. Someone might fight them. Bostonians would be the kind of people to fight them.
Jody parks at a rest stop outside Albany at ten. She hooks their daughter’s plastic potty seat onto her purse, then she and the daughter go inside to pee. As they pass the men’s room, a guy in a Confederate flag shirt, the words Heritage Not Hate emblazoned across his chest, points to the potty seat. “Is that sanitary?”
This trip would be impossible without Rob’s help. For example, when Jody and the daughter return to the U-Haul, Rob says he’s checked in with her mother, who’s been driving the same stretch of road with the cats in the back seat of her Honda Civic. Everything’s fine on her end.
“I trust you,” Rob says, as Jody buckles their daughter into the carseat. “But tell your old lover to leave us alone.”
They listen to Alison Krauss and eat tuna sandwiches. The sun sets over downtown Rochester, the derelict parts of the old Kodak campus. Their daughter won’t nap or eat or poop. Jody tries to engage her in conversation, but she just screams, so Rob plays her Sesame Street’s Chanukah special. He strokes her cheek and talks her down, and this makes Jody grateful for him, his stabilizing influences. There are so many men out there with zero paternal instinct, men for whom a child in distress might as well be an alien—her ex, for example.
They roll into the hotel around the daughter’s bedtime and park the U-Haul perpendicular across four parking spaces. Jody’s mother is already arguing with the woman at the front desk when they get inside. Their daughter runs over to an end table with a basket of decorative glass balls in the center, Christmas ornaments with the hooks pulled out.
“The cats are staying in one of the rooms!” Jody’s mother bellows.
The front desk woman grins. “Which room, ma’am?”
There’s a crashing noise and then the tinkling of glass. Their daughter yells, “Mommy, I threw it at the floor!” She giggles. Jody picks her up and apologizes profusely to the woman, who grunts. Rob bends to pick up the glass with his bare hands.
“I can sweep it,” the woman says. “Just need to know which room the cats are going in.”
“Does it fucking matter?” Jody’s mother asks. She says the word “fucking” too eagerly, like a person for whom swearing is a special treat.
“Procedure says we need to register them to a room. Pick one.”
So Jody’s mother looks at Jody and Rob and says, “I hope you don’t expect me to stay with those animals. I have insomnia,” then she goes down the hall to her room and her keycard doesn’t work. Jody’s fairly certain the front desk woman messed that up on purpose, because she would—her mother is such a Nazi. She and Rob laugh as her mother walks back to the desk and calls the woman incompetent; and their daughter laughs too, even though she doesn’t know what’s funny.
They take their keycard from a second front desk woman and go to their room, across the hall from Jody’s mother. Rob puts the card in the door the wrong way three times and insists it’s broken too, the front desk people really are incompetent, but when Jody turns the card over and sticks it back in they hear a click. The little green light flashes, and he says, “Sorry I don’t know how to open a door.”
Their daughter says, “Daddy, I forgive you.”
He bathes her while Jody goes out to the parking lot and gets everything: her bag with all her clothes, the laptops, the phones, Rob’s bag with all his clothes, their daughter’s bag with all her clothes and her life-size Curious George, her Big Bird blanket, the cats, their litter, and their food. It takes her three trips, and by the time she’s done, their daughter is asleep in the middle of the hotel bed with her butt pointing up in the air and her face smooshing into the mattress.
Jody throws the Big Bird blanket on top of her. She and Rob take the foldout couch, and the cats sleep on top of them, clawing at their sides if they try to roll over. Jody dreams the cats are chasing Rob through the savannah. They bite his leg open and run him down, and she can’t do a thing to help.
They listen to the muzak in the lobby of Grandma’s retirement home. They eat cheap muffins from the old people’s breakfast buffet, except for Jody’s mother, who’s trying to lose weight and doesn’t touch them. Rob has muffin crumbs stuck to the velcro of his one-day beard, almost the twin of their daughter, who mashes the muffin into her face until it mixes with her snot and sticks to her skin. This being a retirement home, there’s a whole table of old people watching, enraptured. The daughter asks Jody for a kiss, so Jody gives her a peck on her crusted lips. A couple of the old people clap. Sometime in the night, Jody’s ex texted to say Does this guy make you happy? But that’s not the point, and it’s not Rob’s job to make her happy. He makes them a family. She hasn’t texted back.
On their way upstairs to Grandma’s room, they leave the cats under the retirement home attendants’ desk, because the old people are all dire asthmatics. They go up to Grandma’s room, and the door is unlocked, the TV playing Animal Planet at top volume. They kiss Grandma and hug her, and then they put their daughter in her lap in the wheelchair, careful not to jostle the oxygen tank. Jody’s mom snaps the photo, and in it Grandma is touching Rob’s chin, trying to wipe away muffin crumbs. She licks her thumb and rubs it all over his face, and he forebears.
Grandma has mushrooms sitting on her table—for research she says, but the university made her retire years ago—and they have to remind their daughter not to eat the fungi. Grandma’s dead husband’s things sit on the bookshelf, the paraphernalia of this man who went to study the bacteria of the Antarctic and one foggy afternoon strolled off an ice cliff. A samovar and some biology textbooks. A kippah and coke-bottle wireframe glasses that must be older than Jody.
Their daughter finds Grandma’s cane and asks, “Will it explode?” before whacking the cane against the top of Grandma’s oxygen tank. It does not explode, but Jody’s mother takes the cane away. Their daughter weeps.
Jody wants to tell Rob about the way Grandpa was always walking into danger. Off a cliff, into traffic—there’s a recklessness that he and Grandpa and the deer all have in common. Can Jody be honest? Grandpa took risks with his life because he knew so many people who perished in the camps, and sometimes she has less patience for other morose men, for Rob, because his problems are so petty by comparison. It’s not like anybody killed all his friends.
Jody doesn’t talk about Grandpa with Grandma ever, because she doesn’t want to upset her. She loves Grandma more than life. They have the same birthday, and Jody has inherited her interest in Muriel Spark, her asthma, her bad posture, and her mole, a raised brown dot anchored in the armpit.
“We all love you, Grandma,” Jody tells her.
Grandma heard fine, but Jody’s mother yells it again just in case. “Grandma! We all love you! Grandma!”
Their daughter’s interested in loud noises, so she claps.
Grandma can still get annoyed. She rolls her eyes at Mom and says, “I’m glad you’re out of Massachusetts. Don’t let this nice boy get away.”
Jody’s ex used to refer to himself as a nice boy, but that sort of thing is never true if a person has to say it about himself.
They watch Animal Planet until Grandma starts snoring and their daughter starts gnawing the carpet, then they go downstairs again. The attendants joke that they thought nobody was coming back, but Jody thinks they were just looking for an excuse to steal the cats.
They listen to Tuvan throat-singing and they listen to Debbie Friedman singing T’filat Haderech. They eat supermarket sushi from the Wegman’s near Grandma’s home. They’ve traded their daughter for the cats today, which means they can blast their music as loud as they want and Jody keeps making blowjob faces at Rob as he drives. He’s got a lead foot, and she’s worried they’ll be pulled over for speeding in a U-Haul. Still, she’s happy he’s here, and she likes wandering with him. She expects Manna to drop from the sky any second.
They pass cows, horses, and more cornfields. There’s also a field of lettuce, or maybe it’s kale, and another dead deer. This one’s winking at Jody, or at least she thinks it’s winking at her, but she doesn’t mention the winking to Rob. There’s nothing to hide—he already knows she’s nuts—but she hates to make him worry.
Today they have more success with the cloud game. That one looks like a tortoise and that one looks like a buck. That one looks like a dildo. A spork. A pinecone. Dead man’s glasses. Castle overtaken by a horde of bees. Tuning fork. Castle guarded by Confederate soldiers. ’98 Ford Explorer. Confederate soldiers standing guard at Auschwitz. Unicorn, or maybe just a horse with a dildo on its forehead. Samovar. Lion.
“A lion?” Jody says.
“Yeah, it’s almost as scary as you.” But Rob says this with a smirk, only teasing.
“Next time you get hungry I’ll slay us an antelope.”
Because they can relax in the cab of their U-Haul, because the cats don’t scream as often as their daughter, Jody’s able to think about her behavior. She was out of line yesterday when she chased him into that coffee shop. She spends all her time worrying she’ll lose her cool and he’ll tell her that’s it, he’s had enough.
She says, “Soon you’ll up and leave me forever,” and Rob says to calm down. He tells her he wants to take her dancing under that wide Ohio sky, those benevolent Ohio clouds looking down on them, but she doesn’t like to dance. Ten years ago she was limber, but now, especially after a night of drinking, she can feel the stiffness settling into her limbs. Ten years ago she used to dance naked on tables, and the money was okay, but since then she’s striven to reach that place where nobody gets to see her move.
Still, Jody’s not an idiot, so she tells Rob she’d love to dance. He says like angels on the head of a pin, and she asks what that means.
“Angels? How many can fit. My grandma used to say it.”
She’s always fascinated when Rob talks about what it was like to grow up Catholic, how it feels to be Catholic and then change your mind. All she’s ever been is a Jew, even when she’s not being a good one. It’s been proven in clinical trials that Ashkenazi, meaning Jews of Eastern European descent, meaning Jody, are forty percent more prone to schizoaffective disorder and manic depression. Jody struggles to know herself, to be perfectly aware of all that happens inside her head, so that if she develops a mania, at least she’ll know what’s going on.
Jody wants to believe the angels made Rob’s grandma happy, but he disabuses her of the notion. His grandmother saw demons in Teletubbies and Harry Potter. She didn’t let Rob own baseball trading cards. Everything was the Mark of the Beast. Rob has lots of aunts and uncles who still believe as strongly as his grandma did, and Jody wants to meet them, but on the other hand she’s scared to let her daughter spend too much time with these people.
They eat nothing because they’re out of food. Rob pulls the windows down and they listen to the roar of the highway, breathing the thick smog of a million other drivers until Jody longs for Grandma’s oxygen tank. Pennsylvania. They see an Amish man driving his cart on the bridge above them, and the clouds look like fluffy sheep. They call Jody’s mother and ask her to meet them at another rest stop, where they park next to the tractor-trailers.
There are more Amish in this parking lot, the men and boys with their suspenders and the women with their wimples, sitting on a blanket in one of the truck spots. They’re picnicking. Jody’s mother zips into the lot through the exit and almost runs some Amish over. She parks the Honda next to the U-Haul and pops out, then she opens the back door and releases her granddaughter from a car seat.
Jody hooks the potty seat to her purse again and takes the daughter inside. Nobody bats an eye, not in Western Pennsylvania. It’s like people are saner the farther one gets from the East Coast. While the daughter potties, Jody imagines herself as a Midwesterner, a nice woman who never does anything worth apologizing for. She checks her phone and sees her ex has written another message. I loved you. You can’t just take off for flyover country. What do they even do there? Jody doesn’t respond to this one either.
When her daughter’s done pottying, Jody buys enough pizza for three grownups and a short person. Everybody sits in the Honda eating the pizza together, the daughter with Jody in the front seat. She turns down Jody’s kisses but smiles when Jody tickles her armpit. Then she yells, “Mommy look!” as she releases the parking brake. They slide forward only an inch or two, but the motion gives Jody palpitations.
“Who the fuck taught you to do that?”
Jody’s mother reminds her how only unfit parents curse in front of their children.
They listen to Wiz Khalifa and they listen to the Rolling Stones. Another thing Jody likes about this part of the country is there are signs everywhere saying not to make U-turns, including on the highway.
“Do people even try that?” Jody asks.
“Focus,” Rob says. “Navigate.” Then he chews his lip and asks, “Jody, is he still texting you?”
“I’ll handle it. Take 271 South toward Cleveland.”
“But we’re not going to Cleveland. Block him. Please.”
“Are you serious? That’s not how it works.”
Tears spring from the corners of Rob’s eyes, but he doesn’t say anything else about the texting. Instead, he asks, “Do you think that cloud looks like a hand?”
Jody thinks it looks like a pot leaf, but Rob disapproves of drug use so she says sure, it looks like a hand. Then they pass another dead deer and Jody can’t cope because it’s a baby. She calls her mother and asks if their daughter’s okay, and her mother says what does Jody take her for, the girl is fine. Jody says they’ll order a pizza when they get to the new apartment.
The home stretch. The moon beaming on the horizon where they plan to live. It smells like death because the cats, tired of being ignored, have pissed in the crate. When they pass the Ohio Visitors’ Center Jody shouts that the state line is limned with moonlight and the breath of G-d is fresh on the highway.
Rob says, “What?”
They listen to their pathetic bodies creaking and a bluegrass cover of 99 Problems. Jody sees a cloud shaped like a cloud and a lioness standing on her hind legs in a field of broccoli, waving hello them. Jody’s mother calls to say she felt like taking a break, so the daughter’s driving, and then Jody’s ex texts to say Good luck. Rob’s eyes dart to the text and back to the road. In one smooth motion he wrenches her phone from her hand and tosses it out the window, then before she’s had time to react, he says, “I’m sorry. That was stupid of me.” Jody balances the past ten seconds against the past two years, against her own behavior and the way travelling brings out the worst in them both. She tells him he can buy her a new phone tomorrow.
They merge onto yet another highway in a long list of highways, and the signs say they’re eighteen miles from the Holy Land, Columbus, which means they’re here, they’re done wandering! Or anyway they’re close enough. The mole in Jody’s armpit turns out to be the Mark of the Beast, the Confederacy rises again, hateful heritage, and tractor-trailers make U-turns on the head of a pin. The U-Haul is a muffin, a horde of bees, a unicorn, and Jody swears to Rob the deer can still be saved. If only they would learn to move, to run, to dance on tables. Potty seats strapped to their backs, they’d escape the places that hunt them.
Cady Vishniac is a Distinguished University Fellow and MFA in fiction at The Ohio State University. Her stories have won the Sherwood Anderson Award at Mid-American Review and the Alexander Cappon Prize at New Letters.
"Move" © 2015 Cady Vishniac