We want to congratulate Coner Segren, who wrote the winning short story for our 5th Annual Love Stinks Writing Contest!
By Coner Segren
He didn’t know in what city he had been born. That was one detail he couldn’t remember. Just one of those things no one bothered mentioning, and he didn’t see much use in dwelling on those things. He hitchhiked from job to job until, when he was around 21, he landed in Oklahoma. The rancher he met was old, kindly, with small inset eyes and a wind-bitten face. The picture of a traditional cowboy lifestyle already a century dead by the time the old man was born.
He got a job as a ranch hand, living in the hayloft, rising at dawn every morning to milk the cows, take them to graze, and whatever else came up in the moment. That first morning after he got the job, though, while painting the fence a fresh coat of white, a woman strode across the plain in a billowing yellow sun dress. It was the rancher’s daughter; a tall, beautiful blonde belle of about 17.
She leaned on the unpainted parts of the fence, against the face of the sun, talking with him the whole way down the fence line. Dotting the landscape along the fence were wild black cherry trees, the wind carrying their fragrance across the field. It was her scent forever after. She had some picked in a small basket and offered him some. They talked about everything; where he’d been, where he was going after this, books she read, how she loved tending the wild cherry trees. He stayed on longer than he had at any job before just to talk to her while they did the day’s chores. Finally, the rancher died of a heart attack, kicking up a flurry of dust on the plain. The girl had a stepmother, whom she didn’t much care for, and she planned to send the young ranch hand on his way to save some money. One night, before he was supposed to leave, they made love in the hay loft and he asked her to marry him.
The next day they went to Michigan. He said they could make good money in the factories and retire with a good pension. They both worked the line for a while, finding time to talk on their lunch breaks under the glow of green leaves or of icicles in the sun, until she got pregnant. Even after a few months with the baby girl, it was agreed she wouldn’t go back to the plant. She had a keen mind—he knew it since they first met—read voraciously, had a keen memory. She could recite whole paragraphs of books she’d read. He knew he didn’t want her to waste that. She took this time, around the thawing of spring, to finally plant the cherry tree she’d always wanted in her yard. Massaging the root ball between thumb and forefinger, unwinding tangles, clipping the broken roots, planting it in the soil on an incline to keep it safe from the frost. In spring, she took classes at community college, eventually becoming a pre-school teacher. She always said it was her dream to teach abroad in Mexico. She used to sit with the little girl, making collages of Mexican gardens with felt flowers and pipe cleaners on construction paper.
Then the factories started leaving the area. Soon enough, he was out of a job. She used to say they could follow the factories down to Mexico, that it’d be a gilded, warm country like where they first met. He didn’t believe it, though. He bounced his child on his knee in the dark, play sad ballads on his guitar. She went along with it for a while, for just the want of him, his presence. They went out less often, and if they did, he often shook and trembled. They started drinking much earlier in the day. Sometime after, he started to get nasty, saying she was stepping out behind his back, that she wanted to leave because he wasn’t smart, called her names, broke things. It exhausted her.
She stopped bothering to take care of the tree after a while, before a sudden cold snap killed it for good. The cold receded as quickly as it came, leaving puddles of slush and muddied water. Looking across the room to his chair one night, with the rain dripping into slush crackling like a fire outside the window, she saw his eyes for what seemed like the first time in years. Those once majestic green eyes were now sunken, situated like lonely gems deep in his face. She was sure he was dying. He seemed to sense this, for after a spell of silence he let slip, in a heavy, mournful voice that he thought love was killing him. Love for her and their little girl. Love was keeping him from the outside world. Love was making his hands tremble and his body ache when they went to the movies or the mall or just on a walk. Love was making him sweat profusely, toss and turn in the night.
A few nights later when he was nasty, he went off about how she took their daughter to his brother’s house without telling him, crying and howling in operatic tones for the whole neighborhood to hear. Everything was a betrayal to him now. She hadn’t the energy to fight the imaginary version of her he created, so she just yelled and screamed back at him. Finally, he said he was going to get the girl. He got in the car, dragging her into the Buick, speaking almost to himself. On the road, in silence, she stared intently at his hands, and he, to his own amazement, didn’t feel anything anymore. Up on his right he saw a giant oak tree on the side of the road. He felt the wheel turn to the road’s edge, and the car following. She saw where his eyes were looking, grabbing the wheel and jerking to the left, narrowly missing the tree. She said nothing, and he simply turned back.
In the dark house, he went upstairs to go to bed. She stayed downstairs, sitting at the kitchen table. Neither turned on any lights walking though the spaces they know by heart. He fell on the bed and went to sleep immediately. It would’ve disturbed him how easy it was to fall asleep. That night, he dreamt of cherry trees, of green stalks shooting up through crevices in the cement, growing as tall as cherry trees ever grow, sprouting where no one expects and impossible to control. Blooming fruit and blossoms rained to the ground, bursting into blood and viscera on the starved, dead grass. Here he was awakened by a mad crowing, shrill as a rooster, but more urgent, maybe a woman. Then he felt a heat, burning deep into his skin. There was fire all around his bedroom, all through the house. He ran through smoke and flames, desperate to find his family. But they weren’t there. Falling onto the already dew soaked grass, he saw the sky was turning dark blue. In the dawn chill, he raised his arms overhead, reaching as if to grasp the stars and pull himself up, out of his sorrow. Somewhere without memory of landmarks, street signs, faces, or traces of human feeling.