Short Story Break

I recently submitted a story to The First Line, a journal that asks writers to submit stories using a common first line. I stumbled upon this journal a few years ago and have made a couple unsuccessful attempts at submission. It is a fun concept for a journal, so I encourage you to visit there site and try to write a story based on the first lines provided. For this submission, I took a story I wrote a couple years ago and made a couple changes to make it fit the first line. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments. Happy reading!

IMG_3554Each Person is Unknowable

By Stephanie Hammerwold

Laura liked to think she was honest with herself; it was everyone else she lied to. Everyone did such things the moment they picked out an outfit and put on makeup before stepping out of their homes each morning. Why should she be any different?

She had checked the weather the night before and laid out her outfit on the antique chair in the corner of her room. She had inherited that chair at age 16 after her grandmother had died. Her relationship with that chair had lasted longer than her marriage.

She sat down at her vanity, and held up necklaces to pick one that would go with the outfit. Pearls. It would have to be the pearls this time. Laura was a bit hesitant to wear them because it seemed like something her mother would do, but she was a middle aged woman living on her own now, so why not? After fastening the clasp, she stepped back to view the effect in the mirror. Not bad for a woman in her fifties. She took in the whole outfit, something purchased at Talbot’s—a camel colored sweater set and black pants. Was it too fancy for coffee? She thought not. After all she wanted to impress upon this man that she was not the kind of woman to show up in jeans the first time she met someone. Oh, she really was starting to sound like her mother.

She had moved here from Minnesota, but considered this area her home. With the exception of a brief stint back in Minnesota to tend to her ailing parents, she had lived here for 30 years. Well, she had been in Aptos up until a few years ago, but no one back home knew where Aptos was. Now though she found herself in a lovely triplex in Capitola. There was space for a garden where her cat could chase grasshoppers. She was free of the big house in Aptos and the cocktail parties and the now ex-husband that had come with it. Her children were grown, having moved on to start their own lives in big houses.

Yes, it was a good life, but she missed companionship. So when her friend Linda offered to set her up with Frank, she said yes. She’d never gone on a blind date. Well, this wasn’t really a blind date, was it? They were just meeting for coffee in the afternoon. That was hardly a date. Oh, if her mother could see her now in the pearls and the sweater set, getting ready to go on a date. All these stories of women becoming their mothers—and here she was in the middle of it—doing something her mother wouldn’t dream of but all the while wearing the costume of Evelyn Winston. Even in the wake of divorce, Evelyn would have stayed single out of loyalty to the institution of marriage. But, as it happened, her parents died within a couple months of each other, Evelyn leaving this world first.

Laura and Frank had talked briefly on the phone and had agreed to meet at a nearby Starbucks. Normally Laura cared little for such places. She liked plain coffee. Sure, she could easily afford a four-dollar-a-day coffee habit, but was it worth it? Laura had made a fortune on real estate, which had given her the option to retire at age 53. What with that and the life insurance policies that her parents had taken out early in their lives, she didn’t need a man to help keep her financially comfortable, and she hoped that Frank was the kind of man who could read that in the pearls around her neck.

She recognized him as soon as she walked in. He was standing back from the register, staring at the menu. He was in jeans and a dark canvas jacket that covered a checked shirt. His hair was grey, a bit messy and long as though to give the impression he had spent the morning toiling away in a dark room. He had emailed her a picture the day before, and she had done the same. It was all on the pretense of being able to recognize each other without having to do any of this nonsense like, “I’ll be wearing a red sweater.” Middle aged people just didn’t do that kind of thing, did they?

“Laura?”img_19991 (1)

“Hi, Frank. You ordered yet?” She knew he hadn’t ordered, but she said just to have something to say.

“No. What would you like?”

“Just a coffee for me.”

“All right then. Why don’t you go and grab that table over there, and I’ll get our drinks.”

The tables were little wooden things with similarly surfaced chairs. It was as though they didn’t want their patrons to stay very long. When Frank arrived at the table, they began with the small talk customary to such interactions. It was the kind of conversation where the weather took center stage. They finally progressed to the life story stage, careful to share only what was necessary. It was as though they were reading from a report by someone who had only gotten to know them by sifting through the letters and artifacts of their human existence on Earth.

“So, that’s how I got into photography—followed a pretty girl and eventually married her. I don’t have the wife anymore, but I do have my cameras.” He gave a forced chuckle as he waved his reading glasses in his outstretched hand.

People really did like to sum up their life stories in such quaint little chuckles—especially at this age. Even the great Evelyn Winston did such things. Laura ran her fingers over the pearls at her neck and wondered how Eveyln would react to seeing her only daughter having coffee with a photographer who probably didn’t own a single business suit—such a departure from Laura’s ex-husband. Frank wasn’t bad really. He was a bit pompous and thought himself quite the artist, but what harm was there in that?

“Well, I really only got into real estate because I could make it work while my kids were young. The older they got, the more I was able to invest myself in the work.” Laura surprised herself by adding her own quaint chuckle. “I rent my own place now. It was strange, you know, renting after only ever having lived in a home that we owned. But it’s nice not having to worry about the little things. Let the landlord deal with it, right?”

Laura continued to sip from her coffee cup or at least pretend to. The coffee had long ago run out. But she kept up the pretense of sipping just to have something to do while Frank went on talking about the places he had travelled, even landing a few choice assignments for National Geographic.

“More coffee?” She didn’t want more and instead requested water, more to enjoy the few moments of silence that would come when he left the table. When he came back, she resolved to wrap things up. This blind date thing hadn’t been so bad, and maybe Frank was the kind of person that could give her companionship. He didn’t seem interested enough in other people to get in the way of her maintaining the independence she had grown accustomed to. They agreed to meet again, next time over dinner. He would call her after he returned from his trip to see his daughter in Seattle.

Laura made her way out to her car, content in the story of the retired real estate agent—knowing that it was just as implausible as Frank’s tale of photography. It would do though, as long as she played at being human. These little stories, the lies people told themselves and each other, they were all a part of human existence. Frank, being what he was, and Laura, being what she was, were no different now.



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