Voices on the Stair:
Collected Stories

By Elizabeth Routen
Published by  Xlibris Corporation
April 2001; ISBN: 0738858358; 236 pages

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Read a Short Story:

Voices on the Stair by Elizabeth RoutenAN OPEN LETTER TO THOMAS WOLFE

1.

Susanne lies in the grass outside her house counting clouds as they pass. "He wanted something before he went, see, so I gave him this." She shows me her hair. A lock has been cut from the front. Susanne is proud; it is a badge of honor, of sorts. "They used to weave hair into all sorts of things, you know, brooches and pictures even. But usually–" her tongue slips over the word, pauses, continues, "when they were already dead. Sometimes they were alive, but usually they were dead. I think he’ll keep mine." She smiles at me, her teeth flash, and then she settles into the region of clouds. "Where—is—he—now?" Susanne’s voice is a sigh.

We have done all of these things before.

We were born in the south–the South–of the country, people who throw open doors to Georgia in the Night, life as an abstract painting. Too quick the motion, a painter cannot realize heat and brooding, the incessant questioning of a tomorrow that rings in ears like a cicada or an ocean after the tide. A promise. A weariness, a questioning. The idea that when life is good it is sure to end, that pleasure by its very nature is fleeting. Susanne knows.

We go down by the river, broad and flat as a liar’s smile. She stands on the bank, unperturbed, her hands in too—small pockets. "Do you remember ..." Susanne stops, inspecting the past. She glances out of the corner of her eye, all in an instant a girl I know too well and not at all.

Susanne stands by the river, that cut hair falling from its halfhearted arrangement. But it doesn’t stir in a breeze. Nothing stirs here. Even the languid water is breathless, out of place. "I remember," she murmurs. "Let’s go back." She smiles at me, this girl, this woman. Now I am supposed her friend.

 

*

It’s a quarter mile home–not enough distance to protect us from the flood that will come, one day. Soon Susanne stops and raises her arms in the air, shaking them like a missionary. It’s late in August here. North, where he is, the first twinges of yellow are coming into the walnut trees. How urgent that autumn. The whole year waits to tear into its package of nor’e’sters and color. Perhaps it’s what she sees.

There is assurance in her voice sounding against the whitewashed walls as she cooks dinner. Susanne hums songs about Jerusalem and unbreaking circles. Her face is plain and slack, not given to any color, any touch of pink that would cry out against her grey eyes for attention. She dots lipstick on her mouth in the morning, though there is no one to see, though there is no one to care. She does not want people to look too deeply.

When the lock of hair grows out again she will cut it anew.

*

Susanne has a new car, a convertible. On Saturday she roars out of here, tumbling down the road, dust kicking up to obscure what she leaves behind. She’s been going farther and farther lately, out of this town and this county. One day she won’t come back. She doesn’t know it, but I do. There isn’t enough to keep her. If she trusted you she’d tell you she was headed North, to find him, to keep him safe.

That’s another lie. She knows he is a bristle—haired man with sunken eyes who waits in a bed with his hands on his stomach, and stares.

When she leaves, I go to the attic and push open the windows, waving at air in front of my face to move it to another stale clime. There are no trees here. They were cut down in expectation of the last hurricane. Everyone helped; we didn’t have to ask.

I open a notebook and work on the letter I’ve been writing. I work for hours.

My great fault is that I never know how to begin. Failing that, I should say that I see the end too clearly, that all things which will ever be known to me are known to me now. What would you say if you were sitting next to me? I think it would be nothing at all. You would be sorry for my silence and my great, dull eyes.

Tell me what I have done wrong, so I can make it right. Would you say, rest now, time is short–how short I do not know. I would like to tell one story worthy of being told.

She returns when the first night air is filling this room with thick, musty gas. It tastes like the clouds. Susanne brushes my hair back with her hand, gathering it into a black bouquet. She smells like the road. I must smell like an assiduous reminder.

Susanne has things she wants to say, but she can’t do it my way. I write to fill my mind. She writes to fill time. She pens recipes and long, unanswered missives to people she knew in high school. She writes to the friends that they had together, to tell them everything is good.

Susanne looks at the heading on my page. "An Open Letter to Thomas Wolfe–34"

"Where will you go, my sister? Where will you go with that?" What she means is, What good is this to us?

What can I say to make her understand? I have written many letters to people I will never know. Thick manila envelopes line the shelves. In magic marker their covers are spattered with names: Capote, Fitzgerald, Wharton. It is a form of prayer. I start to explain but she is not behind me anymore. She is backed against the wall, thinking of him. Susanne feels him, his hands stained with walnut juice, smelling of that bitter, bitter sap, unwrapping her like a gift.

I think, one day, Susanne might come to hate me. She’ll burn my papers, all of these papers, though they are open and she could read them if she asked. I would tell her, take them, take them all. I’m going to talk to the river.

I’ll even write it down for her. I’ll write it here–god help you, susanne. I turn to look at her, but her hand is against her forehead, her eyes squeezed closed to block the idea. god help you, susanne, it’s not out here, it’s not–

2.

Susanne stands at the sink, cutting a peach against her thumb without watching. "He’s late," she says.

She looks out on our backyard. Grasses that point to the horizon are fringed at the river by the flaying hands of a few old pines. The stumps of our trees wait patiently in the yard, darkened now by the rain and sun, the hurricane that came last fall.

We stood on the porch and stared, tried to smile at the men who came and cut our trees out of pity. Susanne made coffee. But she grasped my arm as they worked. For the first time in those long two years, our situation was real to her–this is it, this is your life now, and it’s not going back to the way it was. Not ever. For those few moments, she needed me.

The first drops of rain splashed onto their saws just as the last trunk was cut. Then the men sank back into worries waiting down the road in their own quiet, flustered houses. We crouched in the bathroom, listening to the storm.

Susanne shakes the pit off her knife and it slides down the side of the sink. She washes the wedges with water that, no matter how deep you drill, is always briny, smelling of the sea. "I reckon that’s that." She finally turns to look at me, not at me, at me, her eyes flitting from here to there like the tail of a balancing cat.

She is not a beautiful woman. But there is something stately in her walk, in her grace.

There’s a half—eaten biscuit on my plate, a few crumbs scattered here and there. Peach juice and steam have wrinkled her hands. We stare–I into her face, pinked with rouge and excitement, she into the wall behind me.

The screen door slams.

"Susanne–I said, Susanne." He breaks the words in two like stale bread, balances one half of her name on his tongue before casting it into the world.

She runs one slim hand along the side of her face and then smiles. "He came."

*

I watch him drink his second glass of wine, and it occurs to me that he’ll never be caught. Susanne will worry for the rest of her days about the outdated painkillers and antibiotics she hands him from behind her pharmacy’s counter on Friday afternoons, but David will never be caught. Words and images and faint impressions of a place he just left or intends to visit gather around his body as though one room isn’t big enough to hold all of him. He’s got the hands of a sharecropper’s son, flat and earnest, forever moving across the table, ranging over our cloth napkins and fine silver like a mind flits between the future and the past. His hands won’t settle long enough to leave evidence. And who would want to tell? The elderly and the poor wait by their windows for him. They cradle their limbs tenderly, knowing that soon he will be there with a brown paper bag that offers relief.

He sets the salt and pepper shakers side by side, then far apart, then side to side again. Before Mike’s accident, he came more often.

"How is he?" David asks at last. Susanne is prepared.

"The doctors say he’s getting better." She looks up from her plate, into his blue eyes that shine like channel markers in the dark.

The doctors haven’t said anything like that, of course, because doctors never will. What they said was, "your husband showed signs of increased response." This means he will catch a ball if you throw it at his face. They do this two or three times a day because there’s not another patient whose animalistic responses have so completely taken over higher function. It is darkly amusing. They set Michael up in the bed and open his eyes and throw balls. Every time–every time–he catches the ball and sits, motionless, unblinking, yellow foam clutched in his talon—like grip. They unwrap his fingers and make a note: "Patient has showed signs of increased response."

"He’ll get better."

"Do you want to go see him?"

Susanne snaps her head out of the plate. She’s thinking of all the reasons: there’s not enough money, the car always breaks, I can’t get take time off, the house will be robbed ... all she finds is that yes, yes she wants to see him.

"Because I do." David sets his elbows on the table and cracks his knuckles one by one. "No sense us using two cars, I mean, if you want to."

"I didn’t say I didn’t, did I? I didn’t say that."

There are such differences. David is light where Michael was dark. David is wise with his hands; Michael was wise with his words. David smiles where Michael would do nothing, impatient to get to the next idea, the next stoplight, the next new town. Susanne and Michael once rambled all over this country, startling flocks of birds that rested in quiet country roads with the sound of whirring tires. Then Michael went out by himself one day and didn’t come back the same man.

Before the hurricane David cut down the big willow tree. I swear, I watched that man and thought, it’s hurting him to do that. It’s a hurt.

*

They stay up late, planning. I can hear them talking through the thin walls. Susanne is angry. "You don’t have any right ..." "He was my friend." "They don’t know what to do for him here ... hundreds of miles." "Bring him home." "She can’t help him ..." "She can’t talk but she can think ... treat her like a child." Their voices drift up and down, in and out, smiling and wincing, brushing lightly past things that need to be said like teenage lovers’ hands scatter at a touch. Yet they are friends. David sleeps on the couch. I hear Susanne pause at the doorway before turning off the light. She comes upstairs with muffled footsteps so as not to wake me.

3.

We were born in the south–the South–of the country, people who throw open doors to Georgia in the Night ...

AN OPEN LETTER TO THOMAS WOLFE–43

 

What if I could read my biography? Would I put it away carefully to review at the end of my life, to study another’s assessment of where I went wrong? Or would I flip to the page where I exist now, and then a few more?

Enough of half—measures and uncertain steps.

We passed through North Carolina while I slept. I am sorry to have missed it.

These words are jagged; this road is long. Look at them, staring to the side, never saying a word. She wouldn’t dare to touch him, he wouldn’t dare to try. But there is something close, pacifying, even. He shifts the transmission. She makes us sandwiches. We pass through North Carolina in the night.

*

By now it is the middle of September and Syracuse is cold. The neon sign advertising the Shoney’s where we ate tonight shines into our room. None of us brought clothes to fight the chill, though it was discussed that New England is a chill, indifferent place, full of strange beauty.

We change our clothes and climb into the single beds. Susanne is nearest the window so she can catch the first rays of morning and make sure we wake. The room smells of smoke and laundry detergent and muddy footprints and we burrow into the covers to hide our noses from the smell.

Susanne turns out the light and taps on the window to let David know it is okay to come in. I see the flash of his watch as he takes the cigarette out of his mouth and stomps it into the pavement.

He undresses quietly, brushes his teeth in the dark and climbs into a sleeping bag spread between our two beds. "Good night," he says quietly. I pretend not to hear, but Susanne says, "We’ll be there tomorrow, won’t we?"

She doesn’t expect an answer; we know the answer. She covers her nose again.

*

Something has awakened me from a dream I can barely remember–Susanne cutting her hair over the bathroom sink. The clock on the desk says 3:14. I hear voices, look to Susanne. David’s tan arm reaches up to her from the floor. She grips his hand firmly enough that the pale flesh turns translucent and ghostly in such spare light. Susanne is being subsumed, awakened, realized. "Bring him home," David says. I close my eyes.

4.

Windhaven sits upon a hill that has been shorn of every unwelcome visitor. Since our last visit they have carted away even the few walnut trees that once lined the drive. The hard wombs too often rained like hail on visitors’ cars. From the window in Michael’s room I see small, bent figures plucking at irregularities in the lawn. Soon snow will come and make them irrelevant.

Susanne’s lock of hair is in an envelope on the nightstand, sealed, unwrinkled, never touched, marked "Susanne."

We stand, staring at Michael from the doorway. For once I do not feel that my silence is arresting. The hum of his machines makes the room sound like a vacuum. Whoosh, whoosh, is all we hear, like wind through a hallway or someone struggling for time. Words would be swept away by it, shattered into misunderstood, half—lost syllables. So we are all silent.

Woosh, woosh. Like breath, only more.

A tear has gathered in Susanne’s eye, and she does not push it away. David raises his arm and squeezes her shoulder with his hand. She leans back into him just slightly, such a little pressure as water in a slow brown river might put upon a rock washed all the way from the Appalachian Mountains to the mouth of the sea. Yet they are friends.

I watch them carefully. Now David is unmistakable; his fluttering has ossified. I’ll remember them like this all my life–through all the years to come, through the time when solemn little shoots of green grow around the sides of stumps. This is the story I had to tell. And this is my open letter to Thomas Wolfe.

This.

First published in Adirondack Review
Copyright 2001 Elizabeth Routen
Reprinted with permission.

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Synopsis

It's no coincidence that Elizabeth Routen's first book has been hailed by reviewers on three continents as "sensitive," "haunting," and "ambitious." Readers have been captivated by powerful prose, apt images, and unusual insights into the human condition that are the hallmark of an intrepid new writer.

Elizabeth Routen is proud to present Voices on the Stair, a collection of short stories that is certain to delight and surprise even the most critical reader.

From the captive Holland of World War II in "A Far Distant Place" to the soft piedmont of Virginia in "Tess," Voices on the Stair is a book which will take you on a journey like no other—that to the center of the human heart and back again. Go with Ellie to the high plains of Nebraska, with James to the first test of his boyhood, with Louis to the childhood home that has been poisoned by age and memory, with Margaret to the wedding bed on a cold winter night. These protagonists are young and old, male and female. They struggle with life and love and loss—and the trauma of getting what they want.

From the preface:

"You [the reader] are the present, the active ingredient that makes clear what was nonsense and real what were but the quixotic leavings of a pen. You´re going to hate some of these pieces. One or two might make you laugh. Maybe another will inspire you to call a long-lost friend. That's good. If I can help you forget about the dishes that are begging to be washed and the colicky baby whom you just know is going to wake you up in the middle of the night, then my job is done. How to do that job is the consuming passion which ties me, and I presume others, to writing. It's something of an obsession, and, like all obsessions, can be unhealthy, unproductive, detrimental to one's social life, and generally aggravating. But let me worry about that. Your purpose is to determine whether or not I've been successful."


Reviews

Elizabeth Routen, whose stories embody all that is true about a generation—from the harsh realities that knock us back to the smooth winds that calm us—has written a book which I am not hesitant to call a masterwork. Routen´s first collection achieves what no young author should hope for, but every young author should strive for—honest artistic merit. An exciting book that will not allow you to walk away without exhaling and wondering if you´ll ever read something as moving again.

–JASON GURLEY
author, Close Program
editor, Deeply Shallow

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Author

Elizabeth Routen has been published in The Paumanok Review, The Adirondack Review, and The Newport Review. She is a staff writer for Storyteller Magazine.

Elizabeth Routen is a native of Norfolk, Virginia.

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