Palo Alto Weekly 17th Annual Short Story Contest
by Shirley Klock
It started as usual, with the bending of the old mailbox off its post so it hung over like a broken blossom. Raymond ran his motorcycle right up on the porch, and the steps, half-digested by decay, crumbled. Inside tattered curtains stirred limply. When Eldon upended an old boot, naked baby mice slewed out across the floor, and he fell to his knees, dismayed. It was at this point that Raymond glimpsed the door with its pearly knob gleaming at him through the dusty air. He put his hand out, and it turned beneath his palm.
Down he went, into an earthen cellar. Jars winked in the beam of
his flashlight like distant stars. They were all around—the
preserves waiting under the empty house: cubed beets; beans with
frills of dill; half-globes of peaches and apricots; apple butter,
and pale pickles. The labels were still legible: marie’s cherry
conserves, crab apple sauce, tomato catsup, marie’s apricot
butter. He had found buried treasure.
A sound at the top of the stairs panicked him—he didn’t
want Eldon to see this—and he sprinted upwards. From the doorway,
Eldon asked, “Hey, what’s down there?”
“Nothing,” lied Raymond, “not a thing.”
Eldon stepped down, but Raymond did not move. “Stinks,”
he improvised, “like something died.”
Next they went outside together and gently rocked the rusted blue
sedan a Fairlane—hoping to overturn it, but the grasses and
layers of flood mud had glued it to the ground. While they grunted
and rocked, Raymond, distracted, noted the two cherry trees leaning
on the porch roof. The pits of the rotted fruit clogged the downspout.
Those trees should have been propped and trimmed.
It was this habit of mild vandalism that led him finally, the long
way around, to his first job in Mr. Sampson’s real estate
office. In high school Raymond had really gotten into it, raiding
abandoned houses in the narrow valleys that sprung up at right angles
to the Klamath. He couldn’t really help himself. It had been,
at first, just something to do with his only friend, Eldon. Eldon,
who had introduced him to this art of hunting and breaking down
When Raymond had arrived in this timber company town, he’d
been plump. A girlish big boy with long, chestnut hair in a ponytail.
His mother had died in a plane crash the year Raymond was twelve.
Everyone was surprised when Raymond’s father, an erect, silent
man, had waited two months, then abruptly resigned from the Navy.
Somehow, before Raymond even knew it, his father had bought the
old motel on the river up north, and they were there, alone together
for the first time.
Raymond remembered his mother very precisely. Her oval face, long
upper lip. The thick, single braid over one shoulder. Her feet with
gnarled, ruby toenails. The feel of the Cheerio she wet with her
saliva and glued to his forehead. In preparation for the move he’d
circled Woodburn on the California road map, and stuffed it into
a wide mouth jar. The morning they’d left San Diego, he’d
buried a bottle by the front step. In case. In case there’d
been some kind of mistake about who was dead and who wasn’t.
Then he’d taken his father’s hand and allowed himself
to be driven away.
He saw her still, his mother. Just as she had been the day she
left when she’d tickled his upper lip with the tip of her
braid. “Shaving yet, Raymundo?” she’d whispered.
Then sighed and put her arms about him, leaning on him with her
whole weight for just a second. “Don’t get too grown
up before I get back.”
He thought his father saw her, too. But he wasn’t sure, and
they couldn’t talk about it. Or anything, really.
The small school was just up the hill; Raymond could ride there
on his bike, which, his father pointed out, would melt some fat
off him. The river town was full of wiry loggers like the Linkers
who lived right next to the playground. The tall cab of their rig
loomed up over the backstop of the school’s baseball diamond.
Raymond had met Eldon and his sister on the eve of the Woodburn
annual arts festival. Craftsmen, potters, painters, weavers, all
came to sell their wares. There were a surprising number of such
people living off the land, trying to grow herbs and milking their
own goats. Hippies, Randy Linker called them. The first day of school
Randy told Raymond about the knife he kept for cutting hippy hair.
He showed Raymond a tiny grizzled swag that could have been human
The craft fair was held in the gymnasium, and before school was
out they’d already started arriving: clunker trucks filled
with ceramics, stained glass, and woven pot hangers. Raymond balanced
his trumpet across his handlebars, and pushed through the crowded
But he had to stop beside an old Chevrolet. A woman kneeled on the tailgate. She wore a long skirt over a black leotard like a ballerina would wear. Like his mother had worn. Her long braid held his attention. She drank from a jar filled with milk. Raymond gazed, and she smiled. “Want some?” she asked.
Raymond took the jar, but could not drink as he was overwhelmed
by that earth-shaking sense of grief that often overtook him at
such moments. He was just handing it back untouched when Randy Linker
pushed him from behind. The bicycle crashed over. The horn case
bounced. Not only that, but the jar of milk fell to the ground.
“Hey, hippie-boy,” Randy said. “Good thing I
got my knife handy. You can get you a free trim.” Without
thinking Raymond covered the ponytail at the back of his head. Which,
as soon as he did it, he knew looked sissified.
That was when Eldon emerged from the cab of the truck. He, like
Raymond, had long hair, but his was loose under a leather hat. And
before anyone knew quite what was what, Eldon had twisted Randy’s
arm up behind him so that Randy was on tiptoe. That done, Eldon
gradually lifted and whipped Raymond’s nemesis back and forth
so that the knife fell from his other hand. Raymond himself kicked
it away under the truck.
Eldon, it turned out, was home-schooled by the woman with the braid,
who was his sister, Giselle. Raymond eventually, over the months,
got thinner and fitter riding his bike six miles up the river to
where Eldon and Giselle lived in a yurt that their parents, two
pyschotherapists from Portland, had built. In fact, Raymond was,
for all practical purposes, from that point on, home-schooled there
Three years later, Raymond and Eldon, now bored young men, had
embarked on a spree of harmless (they told themselves) vandalism.
All that had ended one evening when the sheriff arrived just as
they had finished lighting fire to an old arbor. They’d been
enjoying the smell of smoking roses under the darkening sky. When
the patrol car drew up, Eldon fled out into the unmowed field. He’d
expected Raymond to follow. But Raymond had been caught standing
there, idly wondering why Eldon had suddenly run off like that.
He’d not told about Eldon, and so he alone, after due process
of law, had been sent to McLaren’s Camp for juvenile offenders.
When he returned on probation, he was beyond high school. His father
was more distant than ever, as though he, too, were preparing for
a long trip by plane to oblivion and would be leaving any day. But
Raymond and Eldon were able to take up again right where they’d
left off. The only thing that had changed was Eldon’s head.
He’d shaved off all his hair. Raymond understood, although
they never discussed it, that the bald head was Eldon’s way
of doing penance, of recognizing Raymond’s sacrifice.
Raymond was anxious that his probation officer, a young college
intern, not find out about the weekend forays into the countryside
in search of abandoned barns and cabins. And somehow no one seemed
to realize how the job she suggested he take might be a real boon
to his addiction to the art of finding and breaking into old houses.
His employer, Mr. Julius Sampson of Country Home Realty, was a chain smoker in suspenders and a fleece cap stamped with a Deere tractor logo.
“What do I call you?” he said. “Ray, Raymundo?”
“I think Raymond,” said Raymond.
“There you go,” said Mr. Sampson. Raymond re-typed
old ads, made coffee, and read over the yellowed listings. Because
Mr. Sampson’s eyes were cracked and webby with cataracts that
he wouldn’t have removed, Raymond made sure that his employer
toddled safely from the office to Kate’s Korner Café
for lunch and back home at the end of the day. It was really Rebecca,
Mrs. Sampson, who ran things from home.
When Raymond saw the old listing for the house, he knew fate was
on his side. “Mature foundation plantings. Two cherry trees:
Bing and pie.” He showed it to Mr. Sampson. “I’ll
ask Mrs. Sampson,” he said.
Raymond thought he’d probably forget, but the next day Julius
reported that the house had lost its land. That is, the land been
bought out from around it by a contractor. Of course, no one was
developing anything these days. And now that all the acreage around
it was gone, no one wanted the house.
“Who owns it?” asked Raymond, even though, excitingly
enough, his thumb was now covering the typed name, “Marie.
“The original owner,” said Mr. Samspon, “would
be old, a widow. Most likely down in that care center. Where they’d
moved all them when the rest home here burned down. That new place
over in Santa Rosa.”
It was the house with the cellar; Raymond was sure. Marie’s
house. Two cherry trees: one Bing, one pie.
He went back there alone and found the photograph upstairs, in
a drawer. In the picture she was at the kitchen table, and her hands
were in her lap, folded, and she was looking up. The guy with the
camera must have been standing over her. The guy that, just for
a second, Raymond imagined himself to be, as though he was seeing
through the eyes someone probably long dead.
This was what he saw: Her arms and legs were bare and crossed at
the ankle. Her smile was secretive like she was thinking. Possibly
about the rows of gleaming jars down below. Her shoe hung off one
foot. Her forehead was broad and round, like there was a lot going
on upstairs in that skull, and maybe there was just a hint of red
about her wavy hair.
He sighed; the spell broke, and he took the photograph with him
back into the cellar.
This time he opened one of the jars. The peaches slid into his
hand in a flood of syrup, and then immediately turned to sludge
like something sent through a faulty time machine. That’s
when he decided. He had to see the woman in the picture. As she
was now. Otherwise, he’d be looking for her the rest of his
life. He was already haunted by one woman and did not need more.
Everyone at the Sun Valley Care Center seemed happy to see him,
and Eldon, too, actually. Raymond had been a little worried about
Eldon —the shaved head made him look pretty vile. But the
nurse let both of them follow her down the corridor.
Some of the residents were still in bed even though it was nearly
noon. “You don’t dream, when you get old,” commented
Eldon. “Everything is just one present moment, unconnected
to anything else. If, in that moment you’re happy, you think
you’ve been happy for ever.”
Raymond looked at him. “What if you’re sad?”
“Sad forever,” shrugged Eldon. And Raymond knew that
for what it was, an eternity of grief in a second.
In the commons room, Raymond saw her at once. Her head was in her
hand; but her legs were together and twisted to one side just like
he’d last seen them in the photograph. He did not hesitate,
but went and took her arm. It felt a little unnatural, but he didn’t
let go. He knelt to one side until he felt her attention dawning.
Then he put the old photograph between her fingers and waited. Eldon,
across the room, was arranging a group of men in wheelchairs to
form a circle. No one seemed to mind.
Marie would not look at the picture, and he finally took it away
and replaced it with a small jar of marie’s cherry conserve.
She held it. Then put it against her cheek.
Across the room Eldon was now leading his group in the hokey-pokey.
Everyone seemed to be having a fine time.
What would happen if he visited her every week, and she got to
like him? He’d grown up strong, and he’d be willing
to extend that strength to her, too. There were ill-intentioned
people who might take advantage, and he’d guard her against
them. And then, when he himself was living in their house, Marie’s
house, he’d see that the trees were trimmed, her photograph
restored, herself remembered.
Just now though, he turned to Marie in surprise because she suddenly spoke.
“Took you long enough to get here,” she said. And stood up.
The jar slipped from her lap towards the floor, but Raymond leaned
forward and plucked it from the air. He hesitated. “I got
here as soon as I could,” he said.
The nurse appeared, gesturing helpfully, but he made himself hold
on to her. Astonished, he realized she was kissing him, well, Harry.
Kissing Harry. Beneath his own steady heartbeat, Marie’s fluttering
pulse gyrated, wild with relief. And, all at once, they were both
flooded with almost too much delight to be borne in one single second.
Everything, Raymond thought, makes sense. How could you think it
“That’s what it’s all about,” sang Eldon. The ring of people in wheelchairs applauded. Marie clapped. “My hero,” she said. “My one and only hero.”