Foreign Correspondent

By Thomas Kearnes

This particular Friday afternoon offered no obstacles to securing the few minutes needed to follow the cobblestone path to the mailbox. Years ago, Lyle had painted the body to resemble a chicken coop. Whenever the Hatchers sent mail, a plastic rooster perched on the flag. They replaced the novelty bird several times a year. Teenage boys loved destroying whatever reminded them the world wasn’t ugly like their shriveled hearts. Minnie Hatcher feared Friday afternoons. She faced this terror alone, a solitude she chose. The choice never had been hers, though, not since the arrival of the first note three months ago.

The Hatcher farmhouse sprawled a mile back from the unpaved road. She and Lyle would soon have to sell the land, their home. The kids were right: it had become too much.  Lyle’s stroke last winter hastened the property’s decline.

Minnie had left her bifocals in the kitchen. She didn’t notice the lowered flag until moments before reaching the curb. She saw the rooster reclined. It simply meant the postman had picked up the paid bills. Perhaps the mailbox was empty. The summer sunlight and cruel humidity encased her like a dissected rodent inside glass. She recognized the lavender envelope right away. Ignoring the store circulars, she tore it open and unfolded the stationery of the same color. The sensible thing would be to discard it unread: always lavender, always the sparse and thread-like handwriting. But it mortified her that a young man she met only once harbored intimate information about Hank, her only son. Who else might he tell? Minnie Hatcher unfolded the note. Less than five minutes after meeting me, your son sucked me off in the men’s room.

Minnie’s imagination was impossible to reign: the grungy single-stall bathroom, the fetid floral wallpaper, the greasy smears on the mirror. She had never been to The Petting Zoo, Texarkana’s sole gay bar, but she knew Hank frequented the place when home from college. The details announced themselves rudely, but the scenario as a whole refused to coalesce inside her mind. She felt totally aware but lost as if driving a fog-bound country road after dusk.

If a young man made Hank laugh, he found a way to thank him. That was how Hank expressed his feelings to Minnie and Lyle days after starting college. At the time, neither parent asked what this gratitude entailed. Their son was gay: all comprehension ceased beyond that fact.

Once inside the kitchen, she slipped Ethan’s latest note in the back of the junk drawer beside the stove. This room was her domain. Lyle wheeled himself to the table only for meals, and their daughter Tonya tacitly agreed to remain at the table during her visits. No one would find the letters, Minnie assured herself. They were as private as her thoughts falling asleep each night.

Minnie made the most splendid iced tea in town. The women from the church, the women with whom she once taught school, and even Tonya, agreed. As they congregated at the kitchen table, taking long sips and urging her to profit from her talent, Minnie stood back, fingers knotted at her waist. Pride invites no envy when unexpressed. Then Ethan’s notes began to arrive, and the kitchen transformed into a den of traps, shadows blooming as the sun fell and conversation faded.

“You look troubled, darling.” As he said this, stretched in the hammock slung between two oaks in the backyard, Lyle took the glass of iced tea from Minnie. She was scared he might drop the glass. Even after six months, his right side had yet to recover its strength.

“Only silly things,” she said.

“Tell me.” He took a long sip. “Speak your mind.”

“Don’t spill your tea.”

“Nectar of the gods.”

“Tonya’s coming for supper.”

“She bringing the girls?”

“I can’t remember who has them this week.” Minnie shook loose her steel, gray hair, gazed into the distance. She was still an attractive woman, still drew gazes at the hardware store and supermarket, but she ignored this meager interest. Her life was pledged to another man. She managed a smile for her husband, their stubbornly resilient home, their two children, all the animals. Most of all, however, she smiled to see the sun slip behind the tree line. The arrival of Friday night meant Friday afternoon had passed.

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Minnie sprinkled salt into the beef stew bubbling on the stove. Lyle’s doctor would not be pleased, but Minnie believed small indulgences were integral to love. Truth promised freedom, but freedom promised loneliness. The steam rising from the pot left her pleasantly lightheaded. The ritual of providing for her husband (and—tonight—her daughter) made Ethan’s notes feel like a hazard sign so distant she had time to avoid peril.

How long had the phone been ringing? The land line, not her cell. Minnie used the cell only for emergencies. Save for Lyle’s stroke, she had lived a life free of emergencies. Ethan’s slow-burn terrorism required no desperate calls or dashes for help.

“I have a surprise for you when I come home,” Hank said. A woman’s plaintive voice filled the background.

“Sweetie, my heart can’t handle surprises.”

“This is a good one.”

“A quiet night at home—that’s what I call good.”

Hank chuckled. “If you can handle Tonya’s brats, you can handle this.”

Minnie hooted, relieved at their familiar banter. She treasured her son’s laughter, hearing it join hers like gospel singers’ praises. She checked the stew. “I’ll tell her you said that.”

“I’ll deny everything.”

She smiled, happy for the moment, confident with every decision she had made at every prior moment. Hank paused and that confidence evaporated.

“Hank? Are you there?”

“Um, I needed to ask about the sleeping arrangements.”

“You know your room is always ready.”

Hank inhaled sharply. The woman in the background giggled. “I’m bringing Mitch with me.”

“Have you told your father?”

“That’s why I called you.”

“I see…”

“It’s been a long time since I ditched Ethan, Mom. I know—I know how that turned out. I was careful this time, I swear.”

It had been nearly a year, just before Independence Day, the same stifling Texas heat, the same cobblestone path leading to the same unpaved road. Lyle had been asleep, and Minnie had sat before the picture window overlooking the front lawn. She had completed her sixth word-find puzzle before Hank’s dented Nova pulled into the driveway, hiccupping over potholes and stones. Too fast, she thought. He’s been drinking. That awful club. At least he’s safe, she thought. Safe at home.

“Mom,” Hank called, charging through the kitchen. “Meet this guy. He paints!”

Minnie swallowed and placed her pencil inside the puzzle book. No need to announce her location; the living room light was the only one lit.

Ethan lumbered after Hank into the room, Hank obscuring him from Minnie’s view. Her son occupied the room with the sudden majesty of a sonic boom. His bright blue eyes were watery, his gestures grand, especially when he playfully shoved Ethan in front for inspection. Minnie felt safer in the presence of large, boisterous men—like her son, like Lyle before his misfortune. Ethan was slender and doe-eyed, long-limbed, one of the gentle fawns always darting from the woods and across the road or stepping uncertainly through the backyard. Paint splotches dappled his fingers.

Minnie offered a nervous hello to her son’s new suitor, but Ethan couldn’t be distracted from his admiration of the room’s high, arched ceiling and varnished floors. “Mrs. Hatcher,” he said, “this place is wonderful. I like a home that embraces its age.”

So Hank had told him their last name…

“You’re very kind,” she replied.  “Did you meet my son just tonight?”

“Ethan’s ride left without him,” Hank said. He tagged Ethan’s arm. “Your friends are bastards.”

“I had no way home,” Ethan added.

“Where is home?” Minnie asked.

“The sewing room has an air mattress, right?” Hank asked. Minnie’s son had always concealed and revealed information about his lovers deftly, a magician of romantic discretion.

“What should I tell your father?” she asked.

Hank grinned, dismissed her with a wave. “I’m taking him home early, before church.”

Minnie brightened. “So you’re coming to services after you’re done?”

Ethan blushed, rested his head on Hank’s shoulder. “I’m far from home, Mrs. Hatcher.”

That night, she woke to hear the hot tub beside the back porch bubble and splash. She and Lyle rarely indulged themselves, and the hot tub was one of those instances. Exercising in the water had been a godsend for Lyle’s ongoing recovery. At their bedroom window, Minnie sipped iced tea, watching Ethan and her son kiss, laugh and touch in the tub. They passed a flask between them. Watching, not comprehending, they believed their intimacy was a form of alien behavior. To Minnie, it was.

Your son was so terrified of leaving semen stains on his sheets. Why was he so sure you’d recognize them?

That had been the first note, arriving in March, long after Hank dumped Ethan. He fell out of Hank’s favor only two months after meeting Minnie. She no longer recalled clearly Ethan’s face.  Hank, of course, was the sort of young man who coolly eradicated former lovers the moment a new prospect descended. She had wanted to warn him that only fools dismissed their past, but instead sipped her tea.

Back in the kitchen, Minnie raised a spoon to her mouth; the potato chunks and beef tips singeing her lips. “You want me to talk to your father?” she asked Hank.

“Tell him Mitch is a friend from school.”

“What about the next time?”

“Next time?”

Minnie placed her spoon beside the pot. Even after meeting several of Hank’s “friends” since he started college, she hesitated to categorize them. “What if things become serious?” she asked. Tonya was due in ten minutes, her children’s attendance still in doubt.

Hank laughed. “Then Dad can walk me down the aisle.”

“So you’re coming Friday?” Minnie prayed they’d arrive after the mail.

“What about Wednesday?”

“Is summer school over? Don’t you have class?”

“Summer school is a joke.”

She smiled, fingered the handle of the drawer holding Ethan’s lewd confessions. “You boys drive safe.” She could distract him. The shell game would exhaust her, but she couldn’t fail her family.

* * * *

Tonya’s oldest daughter, Ali, hunkered over a TV tray alongside Lyle, both piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of a flowery Dutch countryside. The therapist had recommended Lyle keep his mind active, promising it would reinvigorate both his memory and mental acuity. More detective novels, fewer nights perched before Fox News. This suited Minnie just fine; she long ago tired of fretting whether her husband agreed with the commentators’ disdain for homosexuals.

“I swear,” Tonya said, “you use more salt in one meal than we do in a week.”

“You slurped it down quick enough.” Minnie poured Tonya black coffee into a blue ceramic mug. She sat at the kitchen table, poised and seemingly plaintive.

“You two are under enough stress without dietary nonsense.”

“Stress is a polite word for life, honey.”

Tonya’s other daughter, Abby, sat on her lap, furiously cutting shapes from colored construction paper. Minnie had cleared the table, urged Ali to help Lyle with his puzzle. She’d hoped to persuade Abby to clear out as well, but Tonya insisted the potpourri of school supplies in the kitchen drawers was perfect for Abby’s project: imagine yourself as an adult. Minnie guarded the drawers, ready to retrieve whatever Abby required. Tonya, of course, was ignorant of Ethan’s notes, but conversing with her only daughter in this room of great danger and great comfort eased Minnie. She could reveal her secret at any moment.

“Sit down, Mom.” Tonya sipped her coffee. “Your ankles aren’t good anymore.”

“They get the job done.”

Abby peered up from her work. “Do you have more pretty paper?”

Tonya cuffed the back of her head. “What do we say?”

“Please.”

Tonya kissed Abby’s head, told her she was a good girl; she didn’t notice the coffee splashing her blouse. Minnie called out her warning several moments too late. Her daughter swore gently, mindful of the girls, and uselessly dabbed the damp fabric.

“I’ll fetch you another,” Minnie said, dashing to the back of the house. Passing through the living room, she dismissed Lyle’s confused look. From her closet, she pulled a white silk blouse with a sailor’s collar. It doesn’t matter if you’re divorced. Young women should look their best at all times. She didn’t hear the drawer slam in the kitchen. Upon returning, she gaped in dumb silence to find Tonya clutching some of the lavender envelopes.

“Mommy keeps her mail by the breadbox,” Abby said, pointing.

“Mom, who’s been writing you?”

“Is that purple?” Abby asked.

“Honey, I’d rather not—”

“None of these have a postmark.”

Minnie crouched to Abby. “I have all sorts of pretty paper in my sewing room.” Minnie’s head snapped up at the sound of rustling paper.

“What the hell is this?” Tonya held up the note like a rotten fruit.

Minnie could read the note without her bifocals. Tonya had found the most toxic message. The humiliation coursed through her tired, tired veins. We laughed whenever your son hung up on you. He said you’re his anchor. He said you drag him down. He will move to Chicago the moment he graduates.

Tonya ordered Abby to help her sister and grandfather with their puzzle.

“What about my pretty paper?”

“Right now!”

Abby frowned and shuffled to the doorway. “Grandma, if you keep your mail in a drawer, the mailman can’t find it.”

Minnie sighed, hand upon her heart. “You’re right, baby. Grandma was being silly.”

“Abby,” Tonya said, her tone softer, “do what Mother says.”

She shrugged and headed into the living room. Before joining her sister and grandfather, she looked over her shoulder, disappointment distorting her features, bloating her face.

“We’ll finish soon,” Tonya said. “I promise.”

After Abby left, Tonya sorted through the letters, her eyes glazing over with fury. Minnie stood by the drawer, as if her secret remained secure. She couldn’t bring herself to watch her indignant daughter. What would she think about her brother? What would she think about her?

“Is any of this true?”

“I don’t know, honey.”

“When did these start?”

Minnie told her everything: Ethan’s unexplained appearance after Hank’s night at the bar over a year ago, the letters, and the intimacy forced upon her like dirt piled onto a casket. She refused to release the drawer handle. Perhaps her dignity remained inside like the hope inside Pandora’s Box. Minnie kept talking, describing too much, describing the wrong things. Was she speaking too loudly? In the living room, she saw Lyle hunt for the next piece, the girls’ eyes roving over the incomplete Dutch tableau.

“Does Daddy know?”

Minnie slowly shook her head.

“Thank God. These things would kill him.”

Minnie’s voice cracked. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Tonya snapped to her feet. “We’ll burn them.”

“But they’re evidence.”

“Of what? Even if it’s his handwriting, I can’t show anyone this trash. What about our family?” Abby lurked in the doorway, leaning against the frame. Her cheeks were red and puffy, her eyes glassy. Minnie tilted her head in the child’s direction to get Tonya’s attention.

“Ali says I’m too stupid to help.”

“You tell your sister she’s the one with dyslexia.”

The girl burst into tears. “I promised I’d try harder.”

Tonya tossed the letters on the table, shot her mother a look of warning, and collected Abby in her arms. The girl buried her face into Tonya’s shoulder and wailed. As she rocked Abby, Tonya said in a low, tense voice, “I’ll take them home tonight.” She stroked Abby’s hair. “I’ll burn every last one.”

“What if they don’t stop?”

“We’ll worry about that next.”

“I’d give anything to make it stop.”

“They will. I’ll see to it.”

Tonya escorted Abby out of the kitchen. Minnie placed her hand over her heart, felt its beat begin to slow. Tonya was a good girl; she knew what was best. Minnie couldn’t help the feeling, though, that she’d been robbed—robbed with her own consent. Ethan had meant those letters for her. Was relinquishing them a betrayal, an even more egregious one than keeping them? She glanced into the living room, watched her husband, daughter and grandchildren add piece after piece of the Dutch countryside. Had Hank been there, her family portrait would’ve been complete.

* * * *

Minnie slipped into the bedroom, a glass of iced tea in both hands. Lyle stirred in bed, raised himself till his back met the pillow. He smiled and she smiled in return.

“I turned off those chuckleheads before ten,” he said. “You catch the weather?”

“Still hot. Still miserable.”

“Maybe twenty dollars will convince Hank to mow the yard.”

“Maybe Tonya will nag him for free.”

Lyle laughed, trying to keep the phlegm from his voice as Minnie joined him in bed. She’d changed into her yellow, cotton nightgown in their bathroom, changed behind a closed door. Since the stroke, so much seemed inappropriate. She’d given Ethan’s letters to Tonya. If Tonya had noted Minnie’s doubt, she’d given no sign. Minnie’s heart fluttered and her toes went cold. Tonya would make more and more decisions regarding her future with Lyle.

“What were you and Tonya talking about?”

Minnie swallowed her tea too quickly. “Nothing, honey. Girl stuff.”

“Get things straight?”

“Tonya’s a good girl.”

“We’ve got great kids,” Lyle said.

Minnie recalled one of Ethan’s notes, the one that arrived before Easter. I heard your son cry once. He confessed your father should’ve died the day of his stroke. We hadn’t spoken in three months. He said he loved me. I said I loved him. At least one of us was lying.

* * * *

Hank was three hours late, and Minnie didn’t know who to call. Tonya wouldn’t know where her brother might be. She didn’t know any of his friends’ numbers, at least those from his childhood, the ones he insisted he’d outgrown. Minnie gazed into the front lawn though darkness obscured her view. Lyle had fallen asleep at least an hour ago. His complete faith in his children deeply touched Minnie, touched and worried her. She’d learned faith led to disappointment.

The call came on the land line. It must be Hank, she thought.

“Are you Mrs. Hatcher?”

“Who might this be?”

“Ma’am, this is the Bowie County Sheriff. Is Henry Hatcher your son?”

She knew. But it wasn’t Friday. The bad news arrived only on Fridays.  She told him he went by Hank.

“Ma’am, your son and a male companion have been in an accident.”

Hank Hatcher never saw the RV barreling down the highway as he pulled out from The Petting Zoo parking lot. His companion, Mitchell Boothe, insisted Hank had only had two, maybe three, drinks. The bartender and patrons recalled him having more, boasting and cracking dirty jokes. He died instantly; Mitch suffered two broken ribs. The RV’s driver was treated and released, muttering to anyone within earshot about that strange name for a bar.

Tonya rushed to her parents’ home minutes after Minnie called. Minnie’s two sisters promised to arrive Thursday; Lyle’s brother was due the next morning. Both the land line and Minnie’s cell rang and rang and rang. Minnie believed crying to be a luxury, like a new winter coat or eating out on a weekday. Lyle locked himself in the bedroom when Minnie tried to coax him outside to receive everyone’s sympathy. Her family roamed the kitchen unmonitored. Minnie felt useless, outdated with nowhere to patrol.

* * * *

It was difficult to slip away and check the mail on Friday. The funeral, planned for Sunday, loomed large and pitiless before her. She’d insisted Tonya drive to Paris to fetch the girls from her ex-husband. Minnie had refused to heed her daughter’s advice: a funeral might be too traumatic for Abby and Ali. “We did things your way last time, honey. I know more about this sort of thing.” Children dying: we should all know far more and far less of such a thing.

She waited until three that afternoon, giving the postman ample time. All her relatives sat stone-faced before Fox News, watching the pretty blonde pundit declare whom they should hate this week. The lawn still needed a trim. The chicken coop mailbox—perhaps she could convince Lyle it was too silly, such a tempting target for teens’ mischief. The red flag lay horizontally, the plastic rooster derelict. The water bill she’d sent that morning was gone. She sighed in relief when opening the box—more information, just a snippet, about her baby, Hank. Lavender, she told herself. Look for lavender.

The envelope was alone in the box. Minnie ripped it open. At first she didn’t understand.

We both loved a boy we never knew. You will not hear from me again.

Minnie clutched the letter to her chest. In vain, she looked about the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ethan. She wished to know more. Emptiness gnawed her gut. A fawn emerged from the woods. Was it lost? Was it looking for its mother? Minnie scrambled into the house, determined not to cry, leaving the fawn on the unpaved road. She imagined Ethan’s earlier letters burning in Tonya’s fireplace. She wouldn’t be so cavalier this time. A different drawer, maybe in another room.

 

Thomas Kearnes holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. His two collections are Pretend I’m Not Here (Musa Publishing) and Promiscuous (JMS Publishing). His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Adroit Journal, The Ampersand Review, PANK, Word Riot, Eclectica, SmokeLong Quarterly, wigleaf, Storyglossia, Five Quarterly, A cappella Zoo, Spork, The Pedestal, Digital Americana Magazine, and elsewhere. His work has also appeared or will appear in Pseudopod, DarkFuse: Horror d’Oeurves, Collective Fallout, Grim Corps, Pantheon Magazine, and Underground Voices. Kearnes is studying to become a drug dependency counselor. He lives near Houston.

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