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Her Daughter 

Hanging on versus moving on

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ABOUT THIS STORY:

In “Her Daughter,” Mari Hunt has written a story that assembles whole people from their smallest gestures. It shifts perspective without killing the tension and builds background without derailing the story. Hunt’s work is a master class on how observational detail can flesh out and propel a story as well as plot does. (Luke Baumgarten)

HER DAUGHTER

… was a good writer, she had to admit. Although the content of the poem the girl read — in front of every parent in the school — took her by surprise. She knew nothing of the boy who tasted like ranch dip and unfiltered Camels, whose memory forever ruined her child’s ability to listen to Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth album. She needed to start paying more attention.

She closed her videocam’s flip screen and dropped it into her leather tote. That was when she noticed the purple sticker screaming Twofer Tuesday stuck on the side of the bag. She’d taken her daughter to Total Discount to buy sparkly red platforms for tonight. The child had, of late, decided that discount stores were sick. No, that wasn’t it, they were chill. Or tight. Or something. Whatever they were, she took her daughter on Tuesday to get the red shoes. A pair of sandals covered in faux-jewels were the twofer. Today was Friday. For three days, her Burberry had sported the giant purple Twofer Tuesday sticker and she hadn’t noticed. She peeled the sticker off her bag and leaned into the wall of the auditorium.

HE STOOD BESIDE THE DOUBLE DOORS …

… watching his students read their poetry, keeping his peripheral attention on her. He doubted she’d use the video to provide her daughter a critique of her public speaking skills. He doubted she’d bother pulling the video off the camera at all.

She was not one of the crisp parents monitoring every move her child made. She blurred at the edges. Her daughter wrote an essay for his class saying her mom was in a fog, saying she tuned out of conversation, stared into space. The woman’s blue jeans bagged behind her as though she hadn’t the energy to eat enough to fill them. He watched her scrape a sticker from her purse with a fingernail painted a pinker shade of beige than her skin. She wadded the sticker into the palm of her left hand. He noticed her barren ring finger, though it was old news.

She settled against the wall, watching the juniors exit the stage and the seniors enter. He leaned toward her across the double doors. “There are some seats up front along the side.” He wanted to finish the sentence with, “Catherine.” He wanted her to know he knew her name.

She must know he knew her name. Everyone did, whether they taught her daughter or not. She was good gossip, something else she probably knew. She had a habit of smiling at people, then looking past them, communicating a desire not to communicate. And here she was at Authors’ Night standing in back by herself while most parents entered the auditorium scouting out the right people to sit with.

“I like to stand.” Her shoulders twisted in his direction. “But thank you.”

She saw him that first time … … in the school office, bent over the counter, talking with the secretary. Catherine told both of them her daughter had left her lunch in the car. The secretary offered to take it, but Catherine refused because, she said, she wanted to learn her way around school. It was a lie — the fact was that her daughter had texted needing tampons and ibuprofen and needing them now.

He led her to the door, his fingertips between her shoulder blades. He pointed to the route she should take. The half-space he left for her between himself and the doorjamb allowed her to smell his morning coffee, to skirt the edge of his body heat. In the moment she occupied the doorway with him, she mentally compared his face and physique with those in the clipping file in her head, assembled from years of perusing People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive issues while at the nail salon.

He held his own. She wondered how many upper school girls had crushes on him. She wondered how many of their mothers did. Catherine needed to get the brown bag to her daughter.

HE WATCHED HER SHOULDERS

… twist toward him when she said, “But thank you.” A stone pendant, as big as a child’s fist, hung in the unbuttoned space of her blouse. It lay at the place where the flesh of her breasts began their rise above her ribs. It was large enough to make him wonder if its weight bothered her. He’d seen her wedding ring hanging in that space for the last year and a half. It was gone now. He wondered if the weight of the ring finally convinced her to let it go.

He knew the things about her everyone at school knew — that her husband had 10 years on her. That Scott Rosenfeld moved his family from Chicago to southern California to open a new division of his company. That less than six months after they moved, as the Pacific’s morning mist enveloped its shoreline homes, Mr. Rosenfeld’s heart seized and spasmed, then stopped. She became a widow before her feet hit the floor that day.

Somehow, word got around that Mr. Rosenfeld was nude when paramedics arrived, prompting speculation about his bedroom activities prior to the heart attack. The speculation metastasized into gossip regarding Mrs. Rosenfeld’s pre-dawn athleticism. Mr. Shepherd knew the rumors were false. Her daughter’s essays filled out certain details. He knew the family traded a view of Lake Michigan for an ocean view in La Jolla, but Scott Rosenfeld still had business and a girlfriend in Chicago. He knew Mrs. Rosenfeld spent the last night of her husband’s life in the guestroom, alone. He knew she took a leave of absence from her own job after his death and a year and a half later had not returned. He knew her daughter had talent for writing and an adolescent’s lack of discretion in the topics she chose. He guessed Catherine Rosenfeld might be upset if she knew all he knew about her.

SHE ALMOST INTRODUCED HERSELF ...

… to Mr. Shepherd, almost extended her hand. In two years of attending his Authors’ Nights, she’d never formally met him. Her daughter enjoyed his classes and now had won a state prize for a poem written under his tutelage. She should say something, but in a glancing moment, she thought she caught him staring at her breasts. Her breasts were not the attention-seeking sort; Catherine was simply tired of the sort of attention they received. She withdrew, returned to leaning against the wall.

HE UNDERSTOOD THE FOG...

… she was in. The disoriented feeling that kept her out of the classrooms, kept her from calling about her daughter’s study habits. Her daughter did well, but most parents called to check. Considering the tuition they paid, most parents wanted reassurance.

At 31, he concluded with certainty that he was a teacher. In his 20s, he had thought it was an interim thing, something that would look good on grad school applications. Then he realized he loved it. He loved watching his students experiment with ideas, loved the way they approached every assignment as if no one, ever, in the history of humankind, considered politics or friendship or religion or love the way they did. He told his wife he didn’t want grad school, he wanted to stay where he was. Before the year’s end, she left him for a man who made three times a teacher’s salary. She left everything in their condo behind except her bike and her DVDs. She moved to Rancho Bernardo, and he hadn’t seen her since.

He was married four years. It was bad judgment — a mistake — one that left him never again single, but forever divorced. Divorced because he loved his job. Mr. Shepherd used to think the kind of guy whose marriage ended because of his career made a hell of a lot more money than he did.

He’d had two relationships since. The first lasted seven months. She was a music teacher and a nice woman, though he felt little for her but the comfort of not having to sleep alone. The second lasted a couple of years. Later in life than usual, he had needed his wisdom teeth removed. Under anesthesia he told his surgeon he loved her. She asked him to dinner when the drugs wore off. He thought he might actually love her — without anesthesia — but he couldn’t get past the feeling she gave him that he would come home one day and find her and her bike and all her DVDs gone.

Then there were the women at school, the mothers. Remarkably similar in approach, they’d schedule a conference to discuss a perceived problem with their child and show up wearing their frustration as if it were Shalimar. They’d apologize for leaving evidence of the student’s problem — artwork or a diary entry — at home, then suggest he come by the house and have a look. A few times his own frustration got the better of him, and he suggested they bring the sketch or journal or whatever the f--- it was by his condo. The last thing he wanted was to get laid at a student’s house.

SHE HAD NICE LEGS ...

… and he liked her eyes, but Scott Rosenfeld couldn’t fake appreciation for things that didn’t appeal to him. He liked big breasts.

Hers weren’t small, exactly. Statistically, they were average. Her height threw the proportions off, made them seem undersized. Scott made no secret of this opinion. When they moved to La Jolla, the billboards were everywhere — better living through surgical enhancement. She joked that, thanks to Botox, everyone in California was happy, but no one could smile. He wasn’t joking when he offered her breast implants as a birthday gift. By then she knew Andrea Moriarity was gifting her husband with a new pair of breasts during his frequent trips back to Chicago. He didn’t need further indulging.

HER DAUGHTER ...

... gathered with the other students onstage, accepting a final round of applause. Catherine shifted her body’s weight from the wall, forced her legs to do their job.

“She’s very good.” Mr. Shepherd was there, next to her, looking her in the eye this time. “She’s observant.”

Her hand went to the stone at her neck. One morning a few weeks ago, her daughter bounced through the kitchen, pareo tied at her hips, bikini barely providing sufficient coverage on top. She was about to suggest something more modest when the girl stood still long enough to pick up the ring hanging from its chain and hold it between them, considering.

“You deserve better, Mom,” the girl said, before grabbing an orange, slamming the kitchen door and heading for the beach.

That was the morning she laid the ring into a compartment of her jewelry box, coiling the chain within it. That was the morning the mist began to recede.

To Mr. Shepherd, she said, “Yes, she is observant.”

His eyes were on the hand holding her necklace. “That’s an interesting pendant you’re wearing. I noticed it earlier.”

The necklace — that’s what he was looking at. She felt a little foolish. “Rachel bought it for me during the school trip to Spain over the summer. You chaperoned, didn’t you?” He nodded. “I remember a vendor at the flea market who told the kids her gemstones had some sort of power, protecting the wearer against negative energy. Rachel seemed taken with the idea.”

“Rachel didn’t mention that, she only said I needed something new.”

He shrugged. “It’s a pretty necklace.” Rachel teetered up the aisle in her red platform shoes. Mr.

Shepherd told her she gave a nice reading. She thanked him with a full-body wriggle of excitement, and he headed for the double doors.

“Mr. Shepherd?” Catherine stopped his exit. “Rachel deserves a celebration, she’s overdue. We’re going for dessert, some coffee. Maybe you could join us.”

He took a half step back into the auditorium and said, “It’s Ben.” She held out her hand. “I’m Catherine.”

About Mari White

Mari Hunt has lived most of her life in Spokane, but having done stints up and down both coasts she feels she can’t fairly call herself “native.” Her writing is usually geared toward the young-adult market and from time to time her work sees publication in periodicals. She is active in the Inland Northwest Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), where her critique partners warn against bad habits like alliteration.

About the Contest

The 56 entries we received this year represent a record for our fiction contest. Either the theme — debt — weighed heavily on people’s minds or the unemployment rate just left a lot of aspiring writers with nothing to do but write. Either way, the submissions this year were strong, in addition to being numerous. These stories — about the things that break people, the things that heal them, and some very obedient fleas, among other things — are our favorites.

— Luke Baumgarten, Section Editor

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