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One Question
By Dorene O'Brien

​Claude’s question triggered a cavalcade of bad memories for Corrine that began with Mike in Room 6 of the Crown Motel. After all the demands—move to the right, use your hand, a little harder—still no banana and some humiliation to boot. “Oh, you’re terrific, baby,” he’d said. “I’ve just had a lot on my mind.” So she went home and stared into a mirror at someone she didn’t recognize, a face made solemn by reassurances that it wasn’t her, the words “cellulite can be sexy” reverbing in her head.  

Next there was Charlie. “Guess there ain’t gonna be a party tonight,” he’d said, cowboy hat cocked to the back of his head as he leaned against the driver’s side window of his rig. “I’ve been taking these downers.” He rolled a bottle of capsules between his fingers with an agility that would have come in handy earlier. “They make me, um, lethargic.” Charlie was an over-the-road trucker, so while Corrine hadn’t taken lesson one in pharmacology; she figured the pills represented either a death drive or an excuse.

“Forget it,” she sighed.

“Here.” He shoved a twenty at her. “Buy yourself something.”

“Don’t,” she said.

Then there was Billy, who was a Deadhead in more ways than one, which meant he followed the rock band across the country like a dog in heat but lost his fervor when she spilled out of her black lace bustier as they lay on a mattress in the back of his cab.

“Whoa, Mama Cass,” he teased. “What happened?”

“I put on a couple pounds.” She turned away.

“Aw, c’mon, sugar. I still think you’re the sweetest candy this side of the Mississippi.”

Billy was well traveled, so this could mean something. “Really?” she said.

“Sure.” He unzipped his pants to extract a limp and shriveled penis. “What about my candy? Wanna taste that?”

After twenty minutes of fruitless stroking, nibbling and licking, Billy pulled her up by her armpits and said, “How ‘bout you just rub my back?”

The next memory triggered by Claude’s question featured Max, whom she had dated throughout college. They’d made love in the lab where they researched crystallization, melted garnets under microscopes, sketched interfacial angles. They were bright students who worked well together, and their secret remained intact when she left MIT. Years later they met in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Houston, where Max had keynoted an extraterrestrial mineral conference, and ended up in a suite on the sixteenth floor. He was a senior research analyst with NASA, an exciting and rewarding position that quickly turned stressful and challenging when things went south in bed.

“It’s me,” he said, rubbing his temples and insisting that he was a freak who spent so much time in labs he couldn’t function anywhere else. Corrine hadn’t, of course, ever made love to him anywhere but in a lab, so this was plausible. They parted on friendly, awkward terms.

The last memory she allowed to form unimpeded involved Jess, who didn’t even want sex. He wouldn’t, in fact, let her see him naked below the waist. He wanted only to cuddle while listening to oldies, and he’d sometimes fall asleep holding her hand. After several months of dating—which consisted of weekday evenings downing Buds at the Blind Mare—they started spending more time at her flat. It began innocently enough: “Can you get me a beer?” and “Why don’t you drive over to Mel’s for some of those taco chips?” Overnight, it seemed to her, the questions changed: “Can’t you cook an egg without burning it?” and “What’s the difference between you and a herd of cattle? The cattle eat less and smell better.” Granted, though, Jess was never disappointed in bed. Several weeks after he left town to work on a dude ranch in Arizona, she heard that his pecker’d been shot off in Nam, so she felt bad and didn’t blame him for anything.

Sixteen years, 28 pounds, 12 relationships and one question after her dating woes had begun, she was living with Claude in a trailer park in Palestine and waiting tables at Crandell’s in the Crowne Plaza Hotel for free meals and minimum wage. She tallied customer’s bills and bar tabs in her head before ringing them up on the register before going home to Claude at night, and that was enough.

She’d met Claude after back-to-back failures: her attempt to rekindle the flame with Max on the sixteenth floor and her romance with a man who lacked a component part. Claude had sat in her section at the restaurant and, after looking over the menu, apologized to her before quietly admitting that he could not afford to eat at Crandell’s. He bowed his head and turned to leave.

“Wait,” she called, and even today she cannot account for her response. She had not planned to call out to him; she wasn’t attracted to Claude—or to any man after her latest disappointments—yet she did. He turned, his embarrassed look suggesting that he had forgotten his keys, and she motioned for him to sit down.

“New in town?” she asked.

“Just this mornin’.”

“Hold on.”

She brought him the Texas Two-Step, a large platter of scrambled eggs with bacon and a ham steak, two thick slices of sourdough toast and a pot of coffee. She didn’t understand that either, but she could easily justify the free meal to the morning manager, Mr. Bevel, a kind and charitable man.

“But—" Claude objected.

“Don’t worry about it,” she winked. “Enjoy.”

This, too, surprised her. She had not meant to wink, for afterward she worried he’d think it suggested a flirtation it did not. It was some sort of maternal instinct incited by his flannel shirt, slight build, long red hair jutting from beneath a Cubs baseball cap, even the naiveté he demonstrated by coming to dine at a place he clearly could not afford. He left her a five dollar tip and showed up at Crandell’s three weeks later with one red rose, a Whitman sampler and a dinner invitation. Corrine wonders even now if he’d had a sixth sense, if he somehow knew how much time she needed to move back into relationship mode.

They dated for three weeks before he even kissed her, and his gentleness and skill surprised her. Six months later she moved into Claude’s trailer and understood for the first time what it must feel like to be a wife. She enjoyed cooking dinner for Claude as he showered off the dust from long hours at the construction site, and she relished sweeping the braided rugs and setting her Corelle dishes on the kitchen table as she never had in her own place. Claude always kissed her before leaving for work and after arriving home, and he made love to her with the same guarded passion he had the first time, as if she would break. She savored his coffee kisses in the morning and the dusty ones at night, his careful caresses, his shy grin after lovemaking, his tentative “Are you all right?” Her history with men had not prepared her for this; she had been asked many questions in many beds by many men, but this had never been one of them. “Of course I’m all right,” she’d say, holding him tightly, clutching for a moment longer something so foreign and so compelling. 

Then came the question one Monday morning as she sat at the kitchen table chewing her pencil over a crossword. She smiled, but then Mike, Charlie, Billy, Max, and Jess marched across her thoughts like a perverted parade.

“What’s wrong?” asked Claude.

“Nothing. I mean, you caught me off guard.”

“I’ve got my eye on a ring at Payle’s, but you don’t have to get that one.”

Now Charlie was removing his snakeskin boots, Max was diluting ammonium nitrate in a beaker. “My life is flashing before my eyes,” she said.

Claude laughed. “This ain’t gonna kill you, honey.”

“I’m sorry. I know that.”

“I just thought…things are going so well.”

“That’s just it,” said Corrine. “Things are going well. Do we want to change that?”

“I love you, Corrine. I want you to be my wife. I thought you’d be happy.”

“I am happy. Maybe I just think it’s too good to be true.”

“Okay, then. You spend the day pinching yourself and let me know what you felt when I get home tonight.” Claude kissed her and left.

At work that day Corrine watched her customers closely, especially the couples. They entered together, the husbands sometimes holding the door for their wives, then sat in a booth or at a table opposite one another. After perusing their menus and ordering, they stared through the window or glanced around the restaurant at other diners. Their food came and they ate in silence. They seldom looked at their partners, and their interaction with her, a complete stranger, was more friendly and intense than with one another. These people were her parents, she thought, and suddenly found the source of her resistance to Claude’s proposal: she’d never learned how to love correctly, how to make a relationship work. Still, there was little comfort in finding someone else to blame. Maybe her parents didn’t have those lessons, either. Did that mean she should go without?

“I want this to work,” she told Claude over rigatoni that evening. “Just give me some time.”

“Is that a ‘yes’?” he asked.

“It’s close.”

Later, as Claude snored beside her, she thought of Jess and how his past was evident not as a scar or a bruise, not as something tangible but as a painful absence. This is the function of a wedding ring, she thought, a kind of inscription of a life-altering event, but without the permanence of a scar. Will it be strong enough to overcome the pull of the past and its painful memories? Just because things were going so well with Claude now didn’t mean they couldn’t turn sour as suddenly and as intensely as they had countless other times. She watched Claude as he slept, admired him in this unconscious state of perfection.

“Claude,” she shook him gently.

He blinked through a forest of red hair. “What is it?”

“I love you,” she whispered.

“Is that a ‘yes’?”

“I think I’m going crazy.”

He snapped on the light. “How’s that?”

“Look.” She pointed to the scar on her left knee. “This is from when Billy and I were high on meth and I tripped over a curb. Twelve stitches. He called an ambulance and left me there.”

“He was a jerk.”

“Yeah, but he’s still here.” She tapped the scar.

“That was a long time ago, Corrine.”

“This scar on my thumb is the encapsulated history of love.”

Claude inspected Corrine’s thumb closely, as if he could read in it the pages of an ill-fated romance.

“Max tried to burn his dissertation when I told him I was leaving MIT, and I grabbed it—”

“Corrine, that’s all in the past.”

“But our past is not some separate moment, Claude. It’s settled in the present, in our minds and bodies.” She waved her thumb. “Now is the only time it exists.”

“If we let it.”

“How can I stop it?”

“You can marry me and begin a new past.”

The next morning she tucked a note under the sugar bowl and walked to the bus station, dragging her wheeled suitcase behind her.

“West,” she told the ticket agent, and he pushed a ticket to Yuma at her.

“This all right?” he asked.

“It’ll do.”

Corrine hoped as she ascended the metal stairs on the old Flyway that she would not be traveling alone. She invited all of the men from her past on the trip, freed them to say what they wished and to relive history, so long as they were all gone by the time she stepped off the bus back in Palestine. If they stayed on, she couldn’t marry Claude; if they left, she would be free to begin anew.

Claude’s question had forced from her subconscious the details of memories so old they felt dusty to her, felt as if they were being viewed through gauze, and as the bus pushed forward on its westerly path she pushed inward to further contemplate the experiences she felt kept her from moving on. She recalled Mike’s sweet face, the cab of Charlie’s purple rig, Billy’s tie-dyed tee shirts, Max’s flaming dissertation, Jess’ MIA penis.

She found herself contemplating her college days at MIT, thinking that it had all started there, at a place where she was always deliberating, always uncertain. She’d been near the top of her class, but was painfully aware of how tenuous it was. High IQs don’t guarantee confidence or discipline—those things come from upbringing—and she knew she was in trouble when she lost interest in mica flakes and grew bored with theorems. She knew she was a cliché when she fell into the bottle, though she was impressed by her ability to perform reasonably well while drunk. This, of course, convinced her that what she was doing did not take that much talent or concentration, that any idiot with even a double-digit IQ could fill her class ranking with little training. Max told her he’d kill himself if she left, but she had watched him stare lovingly into his crystal aquarium many times, and she knew that his passion would save him.

Her advisor had tried to reason with her, offered to accompany her to AA, threatened to call her parents. She laughed, as her parents didn’t even know where she was, didn’t know she’d earned a scholarship to one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and probably wouldn’t believe him if he were able to pull them out of the bottle long enough to explain to them that their daughter was throwing off a lucrative, fulfilling future. She said goodbye to Max, then trudged down the marble steps of the chemistry building and headed toward the Greyhound station, leaving Boston with few possessions: two pairs of blue jeans, an MIT sweatshirt, some underwear, a toothbrush, a pair of leather boots, a comb, the knockoff Nike tennis shoes she wore and $149 stuffed into a worn duffel. She wasn’t happy to be leaving, or sad, just empty. She thought that if she were robbed or roughed up outside a greasy spoon for her duffel, or even raped and killed by some lunatic preying on young women who traveled alone, that would be all right because it seemed like the next logical step in the course of her life. Instead she made it to Texas uneventfully, disembarking randomly in Palestine, where she hefted the bag onto her shoulder and stepped into the dreary night, a night so clear and close to her now that she wondered how all the days and months and years before Claude arrived In her life had actually fit in.

Corrine was shaken from her reverie by a woman stumbling down the aisle, dropping loose change and cursing as she knelt to rub her hands along the floor’s rubber grates. That’s me, she thought, staggering through life, losing valuable things while being unable to part with worthless ones. The bus droned on, past Cleburne, then Sweetwater, and she grew tired of waiting for her former lovers to materialize like they had so many times before. So she waited. And waited. But when Mike, Charlie, Billy, Max and Jess finally floated into her thoughts, their arms hung limp at their sides, their eyes were vacant, their mouths neutral lines. Corrine said goodbye to each man in turn, and she tried hard to imagine them waving and smiling, wishing her well, releasing her, but their movements seemed stiff and unnatural. With a start she realized that these men had not come freely, willingly, but were pulled from a dark prison within where she had been holding them captive and allowing them admission to her thoughts through some unconscious gate keeping that she herself did not understand. “Go then!” she yelled in response to this epiphany, and several passengers stared at her before turning back to newspapers or traveling companions. It’s not their fault that I’m indecisive and afraid, she reflected. It’s mine. I’m the one who trapped and guarded these memories. I’m the one who allowed them to seep into my thoughts in bits and pieces, out of context. When she thought of marriage, of Claude, of happiness, the sharp edges and broken shards of these jagged memories are what cut her, and she understood that only she could recast or release them. She slept on a cracked bench at the Yuma bus terminal upon arrival and later that same day boarded the first eastbound Flyway back to Palestine, feeling in her heart a slow and heavy opening.

* * *

They would be married in the small Catholic church in town, Claude in a rented tux and Corrine in a bridal gown borrowed from a co-worker whose fiancé was arrested on a B&E the day before they were to be wed. A small reception in the church basement afterward would be catered by Crandell’s, compliments of her manager, Mr. Bevel. When Corrine, touched by his generosity, asked him to escort her up the aisle, she thought he was going to cry. Calling the florist, scheduling a manicure and buying shoes pulled Corrine’s thoughts from the past and anchored them in the present; she slept a dreamless, luxurious sleep.

The morning of the wedding she woke early and did a crossword while drinking her decaf. Claude, romantic and old-fashioned, had spent the night at a friend’s apartment so her wouldn’t see her before the wedding.

“Aren’t you worried I’m going to hop on a bus?” she’d joked, but she could tell by his expressions he’d already considered that possibility. He kissed her gently and left, his tuxedo cocooned in plastic and folded over his arm.

Corrine kept herself busy until it was time to step carefully into the beaded dress, slip on the high-heeled pumps and push the flowered comb into the side of her French twist. Mr. Bevel picked her up an hour before the service was to begin, and they sat side by side on a stiff bench in the church basement admiring the swan-shaped ice sculpture, the three-tiered wedding cake, the linen tablecloths.

“Are you ready, dear?” asked Mr. Bevel as he offered his arm, and they ascended the stairs to the vestibule, where they stood before the heavy oak doors to the church proper. The building was hot, and the lull of the pipe organ made Corrine drowsy. She stared at the doors and noticed how the stain had brought out the richness of the wood grain, how the small colored windows in them blurred the images beyond.  

“It’s time.” Mr. Bevel placed his fingers on the metal handle, and he looked nervous as she gripped his arm tightly. They proceeded through the doors and began their slow, awkward steps, unable to synchronize their strides. Moving forward with resolve, Corrine looked up to see Mike, who sat in a pew on the bride’s side, proffering a thumbs up. Charlie, perched on the hood of his rig, tipped his hat and smiled down from one of the stained glass windows, and Billy sat at the organ banging out a funky version of “Here Comes the Bride.” He ceased playing when she halted the procession to close her eyes and breathe deeply.

“C’mon, sugar,” Billy called, and she opened her eyes to see him motioning her forward with a flourish of his arm. He resumed playing and they resumed walking toward the altar, where she then saw Jess in priest’s robes, a bible in his right hand. Behind Jess, Max mixed the water with the wine in a beaker before pouring it into a chalice, and he raised the cup to her.

After slowly unwrapping the wrinkled handkerchief from around the stem of her bouquet, she wiped her forehead, then pushed forward, nearly dragging Mr. Bevel the remaining several feet to the altar. Corinne shook her head, as if to dislodge any discomfiting thoughts, and the music suddenly stopped. She turned to search the sea of faces in the rows of wooden pews, but what she saw behind her was a clean white train, and before her Claude, smiling, reaching, unblinking.


Dorene O'Brien's work has appeared in the Connecticut Review, Carve Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Clackamas Literary Review, New Millennium Writings, Detroit Noir and others. She has won the Red Rock Review’s Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Fiction Award, and the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award. She has also won the international Bridport Prize and received a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her short story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, won the National Best Book Award in 2008. Her website is www.doreneobrien.com.