Palo Alto Weekly 17th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place

Natural Heroes

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.

About Shirley Klock

Shirley Klock spends many summer hours teaching expository and creative writing tutorials to children.

"I often encourage them to enter their work in the competition for younger authors," Klock said of the Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest.

"This fall I noticed the contest announcement and thought, 'Hey, I should practice what I ... ' Well, you get the idea."

So Klock did just that, entering her short story "Natural Heroes" into this year's contest and earning third place in the adult category. Her story began with a simple idea: an image of a cellar packed with glowing jars of preserves in an abandoned countryside home. She fleshed out the story from there, Klock said.

"Who would find them? What then?" Klock asked herself as she built the story from the cellar up.

"I am interested in how people of different generations relate to one another, what we can learn from one another, and I wanted Raymond to find something he was seeking in dreaming about Marie," she said.

The literary outcome garnered her the third-place prize and became part of a series of stories set in rural northern California and Oregon, Klock said.

A longtime Palo Alto resident, she is a professional development coordinator at Keys School in Palo Alto, which means she works with other teachers to help them meet their goals as educators. She has taught writing and composition at Keys for more than 10 years. Klock said she values the platform contests such as the Weekly's provides for developing authors.

"The Weekly does such a wonderful service in providing an opportunity for publication to creative writers. I am amazed and delighted to have the story selected," Klock said.

Along with writing, Klock's interests include hiking in the hills, and sailing. Many literary influences have inspired her over the years, including her mother, and authors such as Angela Carter, Nancy Farmer, and Madeleine L'Engle.

Her most recent influence has been the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska.

"She has this exquisite ability to observe the natural world close up and then suddenly zoom out to provide insight on the whole human condition," Klock said.

-- Tyler Hanley

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.
He gave up and stepped back from the Buick. “Marie,” he whispered and thought Eldon didn’t hear.

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 old houses.

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.”
But he had no choice. Now sometimes he turned a corner, and there she was, the long braid, the pasty backs of her bare knees. And then the woman would turn, the light would change, and she’d be gone again.

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 hair.

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 parking lot.

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 as well.

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. Marie LaFonte.”

“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.
Then he had to set the jar down hastily, as she swooped towards him and into his arms. “Harry,” she said quite clearly. “Let’s go to bed.”

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 didn’t?

“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.”