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"The Stopping," short story excerpt

Saturday 5/8/21

This morning I wrote a 2200 word story called "The Stopping" that is as strong as anything I've ever written. Excerpt:


I had exactly one nannying gig in my life, though I’d wanted to be a nanny since I could remember. It was on Martha’s Vineyard when I was twenty-four. People had cautioned me, “Oh, it’s a great place, so beautiful, but what a toxic culture.” Money corrupts. Humans are selfish. Vicious. A running addendum of coastal-adjacent folly.


I wouldn’t have been able to work as a nanny again if I wanted to, because the seven-year-old girl who was my lone responsibility fell off a boat—or went off a boat—and died. She was named Addison and she loved the ocean. Her mother’s name was Mrs. Renault, but she said to call her Winsome, which was her first name, because it was less formal, and I thought, “Is it?”


I knew early on why I was there, that she didn’t want much to do with her kid at that period of her life. She was in a divorce, so I overheard a lot of conversations about who got what cottage, what vehicle, even what first edition, not that I could envision her with a folio of Flaubert.


She had this boyfriend named Paco. I wondered if I was a racist because I thought, “Paco? Surely she can do better than that.” I probably viewed him like he worked at Taco Bell, or had some muy bueno lunch truck with fish tacos that were regularly raved about by rich white women cutting lose in $100 designer Capri pants, even though I knew he was this revered horse breeder whose animals contended in the Kentucky Derby. He’d always wear a white shirt, pants, shoes. If ever a man was primed to blend in with the snow, it was Paco, or could less afford to trip in the mud.


I was thirty-eight when I heard from Mrs. Renault again. She might have been Mrs. Paco, but that didn’t seem likely. I’d been doing what I’d long been doing—logging in Oregon. People are always like, “A girl can do that?” The girl part makes me wince, and yes, lots of women work in my field, but I didn’t have to say any of that to her, because she was the rare person who evidently didn’t think it was odd, or odd for me.


She said, “This is Winsome,” after I had answered the phone mainly because I recognized the area code, and of course I knew who it was.


First I asked, “How did you find me?” as if I’d been on the lam for fourteen years and the jig, at last, was finally up. We spoke a bit about what I’d been doing, and whether I nannied again. I thought she might say, “Do you need a reference.” Then she asked me if I’d come see her on the Vineyard.


“Just for a day or two,” she added. And qualified/negotiated: “An afternoon.”


I started working through the excuses that weren’t coming as fast as I’d have liked, when she said, “I’ll pay you—name your price.” There was a desperation in her voice that I knew. I was about to say $5000, but out came, “You don’t have to pay me,” and that meant I’d be going. I mumbled, “airfare.”


When you’re in the woods as much as I am, even the airport feels like the big city. I’d been through so many after I left Martha’s Vineyard what seemed like a lifetime ago, but also last Monday when you can still recall what the mid-day temps were. I just went. I said something to my parents about growth. Finding myself. Recovery. I did a lot of drugs and slept on a lot of couches. I had sex with a lot of people whose names I knew for three days. If that. I had their DNA on me, in me, for longer, depending upon the availability of a shower. You just sort of go around. It’s like a slow game of human pinball without the bells and whistles.


Once some friends in Dallas were trying heroin, and one of them said to me that she couldn’t do it, would I inject her, and as I wiped her arm with a cotton ball dipped in alcohol, I thought of that kid and I said, “this is stupid,” and we did cocaine instead and I remember hooking up with her brother when she was in the room. I felt like this trashy version of a hero. Because I stopped her. And who knows where it otherwise might have led.


I filled in for a lot of teachers as a substitute. You could blow into a town and be put in charge of children for a day. I was that substitute teacher who tried to do a lesson regardless. And also the kind who could fool herself into thinking that the kids were grateful that she did. But then I thought maybe they were helping me. Sensing my need. And I felt more naked in front of those children than I did when I was mostly naked in front of my friend after I stopped her from the heroin. When I got out West, there was the logging job, and the job stuck. I stopped. I stayed. I was good at it, and I needed the confidence.


A limo picked me up at the airport, took me to the ferry, and then there was a driver waiting to take me to the house where I had worked that one year. 5/8ths of one. I did the actual math. The driver said, “Mrs. Renault wants you to know that you can have this car for your entire stay. I can take you anywhere.” He made it sound like his vehicle—which he spit-polished with pride and a brand of otherworldly elbow grease—could drive out into the middle of bays, if only you gave him the word.


I didn’t know where he expected I might wish to go. I just said, “I don’t have any friends here,” and he replied, “Well, all the same.”