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Issue #7 |

Nobody’s Dead

Don’s divorce had been mostly fine, their sons were well into adulthood, Jeff up in Vancouver as a fundraiser for a First Peoples museum and Mark, naturally, down in Seattle where the money was, making money, and Allison had wanted for so long to be somebody else, to assemble all the parts she had over the decades collected but been unable to fully make function, i.e., her interest in Powers and Energies, her sense that another world existed within the visible, her actually fairly impressive and lucrative ability to read the truth of people’s lives just by sitting with them, holding their hands across a velvet-topped table, essentially an outgrowth of her empathetic attention as Don knew but nonetheless a real talent, and, most of all, her need to be among people who believed the things she did without having to live with, as she did with Don, the steam of tolerant skepticism that boiled off him constantly, and yes he was aware that he also sometimes could not hide his dismay that the lively, energetic, appealing girl he had married had grown up to become not a wise old woman but, in his eyes, sometimes, a sort of credulous fool. So her final displacement of herself to New Mexico seemed only the last move in a marriage that had done its basic work and been used up, efficiently and entirely. The money question was settled so that Don kept the house on Garden Street with its view of the city and Bellingham Bay and the lumpy San Juans beyond. He was already down to a part-time schedule at the university, teaching just one class a quarter, Native Cultures of the Northwest, enough to keep his social person at least functional, and he honestly enjoyed his students, rarely flashy but almost to a person dutiful and conscientious and frankly admiring of the people they studied. In return he was unguarded and relaxed with his students, not exactly forthcoming with his personal life but its basic facts were known to them and others, and thus it was that one afternoon after class the idea of online dating arose. “Oh my gosh, you should try it!” one of them, Holly, said. “There’s all kinds of skeevy guys on there. I mean, you’re not skeevy!”

“We should make your profile!” Grace said.

A giddy current of girlish excitement went through them. And what would the objection be? Sixty, basically bald, reading glasses, no physical specimen, cardigan sweaters for heaven’s sake, he knew what he was to these young people, a father stand-in, a role he enjoyed almost as much as the teaching, and here was their opportunity to guide him for a change.

“You do not want Tinder,” Grace said.

“Yeah, no,” Maria said. “That’s just for hookups. You want something more serious.”

Did he? He did, probably. The idea of sex with a stranger was not exactly unappealing but they were right, he mostly wanted someone to talk to, to be Don with. A group of them (Grace, Maria, Vernetta, et cetera) followed him to his office where he posed for pictures, the girls scrutinizing the background and placing him just so, then applying filters so his jawline somehow stood out and the bags under his eyes were etched in attractive shadow (“Everybody does it, it’s normal,” they assured him), offering assistance with his biographical statement. “Think about who you really are,” Julia advised. “Who is Professor Henderson really?”

“Not a simple question,” he observed.

“Well, but what do you want?”

“Just, mostly, a friend.”

The girls sort of melted in place at this. “Oh my god, Professor Henderson, you’re so sweet,” Vernetta said, and began typing with her thumbs. Once he was packaged and posted (it was like submitting an article for peer review, that same feeling of vulnerable proposition) he was thrown into a few days’ doubting scrutiny of his own being, how small his life seemed from the outside especially when held against the lavish, florid biographies of the women whose profiles he began to match with almost immediately, lawyers and psychiatrists and even the mayor of Fernwood, the small town where he sometimes stopped to pee on the way to Vancouver to see Jeff. During this period he felt moved to do some serious house-cleaning, a project he had mostly avoided taking on in the nearly two years since Allison had left, not wanting to disturb her many nested presences in the attic and in the spare bedroom she had used as a sort of research center, this out of something like superstition or at least a reluctance to stir up the remnant energies she had impregnated these places with. But now it was time. The attic amounted to a dozen boxes of oddball ephemera, including a fair number of booklets and pamphlets printed on crappy ditto paper and stapled by hand, hopeless publications in which the unseen powers of the universe were discussed in samizdat, cosmic gossip passed around at the endless meetings and comminglings Allison had participated in over the years, events that had taken her out of the house almost every Tuesday and Thursday night, and ultimately forever. To destroy this evidence of a lost secret society provoked some pang of misgiving in him not but the rest, not at all: the flowing ribboned capes and sparkly pantaloons, the manuals to the various invisible systems that teemed within, maps to the ports and calls of energies as they swarmed one’s continental outline, the crystals whose life had been evidently soaked up, leaving only a cloudy hunk of nothing, on and on. Into the boxes, into the trunk of the Subaru, then, ultimately, the following Saturday, off to the dump outside Fernwood, and from there it was five minutes into town, where he was scheduled to meet The Honorable June Hildebrandt at a Stumptown Coffee.

“You must be Don,” she said, lifting a little out of her chair.

To read the rest of this story, please purchase a print copy of Story #7, Spring 2020. Photo courtesy of Noël (onedeuxpunch); view more of their work on Flickr.

Michael Byers is a former Stegner Fellow, holds an MFA from the University of Michigan (1996) and is the author of three books: The Coast of Good Intentions, a book of stories, and the novels Long for This World and Percival’s Planet. The Coast of Good Intentions won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction …

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