Even When Good is Losing

southernlit

words: Marla Cantrell

The view from the back door of Lovie’s small house looks like a painting. She doesn’t own a lot of land, but there’s a field behind her property that a farmer uses to grow hay, and because of that it seems as if she lives on acres and acres. Beyond the hayfield is a gray barn, a few big houses, and in the distance, a jagged line of purple mountains. Right now, the sky is the blue of baby blankets, and the white clouds could be the filling from a quilt. Lovie sits on her back porch swing, a glass of hard pear cider in her hand, and watches the clouds shift, changing shapes in a way that seems as easy as breathing.

 

Inside, one perfect pecan pie is baking in the oven. The nuts came from the trees in her front yard. A few weeks ago she spent an hour out there, a pillowcase in her left hand, scooping up the nuts with her right. She likes the way pecans grow, how they develop inside a green husk that turns to brown and falls away.

 

Today, there are even more pecans on the ground beneath the trees. Lovie thinks about them and sighs. She should really go out and pick them up. She decides against it, takes another sip of cider, and watches a bald eagle swoop across the golden hayfield and scoop up a gray mouse.

 

Lovie has turned her cell phone off. She’s placed a handwritten sign on her front door that warns visitors not to knock because she’s sleeping (which is false) and because she works the graveyard shift at the local newspaper (which is just barely true).

 

Tonight, though, she’s not going in. She takes another sip of cider. Last night, as she sat at her desk editing copy, her co-worker Margaret rolled her office chair up beside Lovie, “Cutbacks,” Margaret whispered and looked around the nearly empty room. “Again.”

 

The news (inside the newsroom) was not a shock. They’d been through downsizing before, three times in the last three years, and every time the unlucky ones were forced to carry out their belongings, like someone thrown out of their home after a terrible fight.

 

Lovie looked around her cubicle. She’d taken home every personal trinket and photo the year before. She pulled the pushpins off the corners of the certificate that verified she was the Employee of the Year 2004, back when she was a reporter instead of an editor, and slipped it into her purse. She returned to the article she was editing about a mid-level celebrity coming to town. The reporter had called him “infamous” instead of “famous.” Both words were incorrect, but “infamous” led readers to believe the man was wicked, which, now that Lovie considered it, might have been accurate. Lovie replaced the word with “well-known” and moved on.

 

On their lunch break, Margaret talked Lovie into going to Sparky’s, the one diner in town that was open at three in the morning. “I don’t care if I get cut,” Margaret said. “Tom’s been after me to quit anyway. He got that settlement after he hurt his back at the steel plant, so we could make it. I mean, it wouldn’t be ideal. Tom’s obsessed with fishing, my lord, and fishing shows.” Margaret wrinkled her nose. “But I wouldn’t have to stay up all night.” She patted her belly. “And maybe I could lose some of this weight. It’s been proven night workers gain weight because their circadian rhythm gets totally thrown off.” She pointed to her plate where only two french fries remained. “I could be eating nothing but kale, and I’d still be fat.”

 

Margaret is thirty-three or thirty-four but dresses like she’s twenty. Her hair is purple on the ends. Her nose pierced. If the company laid her off, she has a husband who’d teach her how to remove a fishhook from a fish’s mouth. Who’d already bought a house boat. Who already had a plan.

 

Lovie knew that Margaret would not be cut and that she would. Lovie’s boss and his boss have been avoiding her lately, and last week she had to have the IT guy reset her password to get into her work email, and he kept saying “sorry” as if he’d done something wrong. Then her photo went missing from the employee board in the hallway, and when she mentioned it to the top dog’s assistant, she looked at her shoes and mumbled something Lovie couldn’t quite understand.

 

“You’re not fat,” Lovie said to Margaret, after a long pause, and her voice sounded like somebody else’s.

 

When they returned to the newsroom, Lovie cleaned out her email. She purged her file drawer and found a dozen thank-you notes from interns she’d taken under her wing in the twenty-plus years she’d been there. She switched on the small TV that sat on her desk. On it, a tired news anchor talked about the upcoming elections. “We’re all doomed,” Margaret said from her place two cubicles away, and Lovie, thinking about her own future, said, “Don’t I know it.”

 

On the way home, Lovie passed Joe’s Grocery. She remembered stopping there on 9/11, how the only noise had come from a radio the checker kept by the cash register, the news of the century playing out. Three shoppers had stood in line, shifting from foot to foot, rubbing their eyes with the heels of their hands, as quiet as the dead. The next day, Lovie had written an article about the man she’d seen later, standing beside the highway, dressed in an Army uniform, unfurling an American flag that flapped in the wind as cars and trucks zoomed by.

 

“Sometimes all you can do is be a sign of something good, even when it looks like good is losing.”

 

He’d said to her, “Sometimes all you can dois be a sign of something good, even when it looks like good is losing.”

 

This morning, once she was home, she pulled out a photo album. She has pictures of herself with Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, that time he was in Branson for a beauty pageant. If she’d not worked in the news, she wouldn’t have met any of them. She wondered if it was worth it, this life attached to the pulse of what was happening. Mostly, it had felt as if she was opening other people’s mail, revealing things the subjects of her articles would have given anything to keep secret.

 

Lovie looked at the clock. It was almost nine o’clock. She called her boss. He didn’t answer. “Not coming in tonight,” she said. “Sick as a dog.”

 

When he called back, she didn’t answer. Later, though, when she listened to his message, he’d said, “So sorry to hear you’re not feeling well, Lovie. Why don’t you take the rest of the week off? We’ll regroup on Monday.” There was a pause. He cleared his throat. “Just plan to come to my office on Monday morning at ten. It’ll give us a chance to talk.”

 

After hearing the message, Lovie put the sign on her front door warning anyone away. She’d used it off and on for years, this note that told people she worked nights, slept days and didn’t want to be bothered. She showered, made her bed with fresh sheets, took a sleeping pill, and crawled beneath her comforter.

 

Now, she’s up again, a pecan pie in the oven, the view from her back porch as beautiful as a postcard. She takes a deep breath and feels the cold air of autumn sting her lungs.

 

An eagle soars above her with the gray mouse in its clutches. If you look at life a certain way, the mouse was put here to serve the eagle, Lovie thinks. She considers the pecan tree, how the nuts form inside thick green husks and how if you try to open them before they turn brown, whatever they’re made of stains your fingers. But if you wait, the husks fall away, and the pecans are yours for the taking. There must be a lesson in that, and she tries to figure it out but can’t. She frowns, looks at her glass and realizes all the cider is gone, and the realization feels like a thousand losses.

 

“What a world this is,” Lovie says aloud, and as she does, her voice wobbles, and then it crumbles, and then every hurtful thing she’s ever felt shows up. Lovie is of the opinion that you shouldn’t pity yourself as long as there are other people worse off than you. She starts to name names, everyone she knows with a bad diagnosis, a lousy marriage, an ungrateful kid. But this time, it doesn’t work.

 

In the next minutes, she cries wholeheartedly, the tears running down her face and onto her neck. When she stops, she wipes her eyes, blows her nose, takes three long breaths. She goes to the kitchen, washes her hands, checks the pie, refills her glass. But there is a point when a memory of her mother shows up, and in it, her head is down, a yellow pencil in her hand, and she’s making out a budget, the numbers for rent and groceries and utilities in separate columns. Lovie must have been eight or so.

 

When she’d asked her mother what was going on, she’d said, “Daddy hasn’t come home from his hunting trip, and no one can find him.” Lovie remembers how that sentence pushed her into a pool of fear so deep she couldn’t feel the bottom.

 

What bothered her at the time was how her mother didn’t cry, didn’t mention her love for her father, or even, though it was hard for Lovie to imagine, her fear that he’d left them on purpose. But as she thinks about it now, she sees it differently. Her mother, when faced with the worst thing possible, took a pencil and paper and made a plan that would save them both.

 

“I wish Mom was still alive,” Lovie says, and just then, the oven timer dings, and she jumps. When she pulls the pie from the oven, the smell is like every night before Thanksgiving, when she, as a kid, baked with her mother.

 

In an hour, the pie will be cool enough to eat. Lovie imagines setting the pie on her kitchen table, taking a fork and eating all she wants right from the pan, without one bit of regret. The idea makes her feel maybe a millimeter stronger, which is enough for now. Which is plenty.

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