Horace. An ugly name. The music they’re playing at the funeral is annoying. She’s sad. A little bit, maybe an emotionless sad, cold like a Chicago winter, but hollow and bitter, an almost obligatory sad, as if some downtrodden and suppressed human impulse was finally trying to escape the deep recesses of her being, stimulated by the sobs around her.
The parlor was inexpensive. Why are the flowers real? She paid for fake ones. They were 100 dollars cheaper. If she gets billed for it, she’ll complain. They’ll feel bad for her. The death of her son was a twisted asset. They’ll have pity on her and her empty purse and her empty sadness. Her empty guilt started to creep up in her consciousness but she silenced it as the music got quieter and the cheaply clad priest stepped up to the pulpit. Horace.
She remembered the day Horace exited the womb. Along with gestational fluid and blood- her blood, he had stolen her blood and almost killed her in the process, she was unconscious at that magical moment when he finally saw the artificial hospital light, and along with all that blood, he stole something else, her sexuality, tilled her garden and made it fruitless as a poet would say.
Horace. Right, the ugly name. Why did she choose it anyway? Who was Horace? A philosopher? A mayor? Who knows. She liked the sound of it, the breathy “Hor” followed by the “ace” like the hissing of a poisonous snake. He called her a whore sometimes. Not Horace, he was much too innocent. Frustratingly innocent. Whore was what she heard when she told him that she had a child growing in her stomach. The word whizzed through the air like a bullet and struck her in the head and the stomach. It bounced around in her skull, found an opening within the folds of her cerebellum, and embedded itself there, becoming a part of everything that she thought and did and saw and heard and cried about. An abortion. Her avant-garde friend Allison had whispered that word to her over coffee at the campus café when she broke the terrible news. Allison, with the unkempt hair, bookish yet aggressive mien, and intimidating blue eyes.
They had kissed once, passionately, in Allison’s dorm room at Smith, then had both looked at each other with eyes that shimmered with the glint of fear and excitement. Allison was frightening. Where did she work now? At that feminist magazine, on the Upper West Side, with the apartment overlooking the park and her hair, these days, was even more unruly, her eyes even more frigid, her diction even more acerbic. Abortion. She only heard the “or” when Allison had said that. The sound left Allison’s lips and entered her ears and immediately the “or” turned into whore and she looked at the black coffee shamefully and said “I couldn’t.” It was 1958 and things were different. The progressive doctors were in New York or Boston and she was so young and scared. Besides, he didn’t want her to. His eyes! How they had immediately obscured her view, blurring out everything but the lively, blue irises. She had gazed at him timidly and fawn-like. Nineteen, young, knowing no other men but her father and the few boys she had known from around town as a child.
He smiled, his voice was buttery and sharp, like a knife cutting butter and spreading it all over her naïve heart.
“You look like you could use some help,” were the words that flowed out of his perfect mouth and spread over her like the water of a warm bath with rose petals in it for added fragrance.
What had she said? It didn’t matter. He helped her carry her books and coffee to a table in a secluded part of the café. He introduced himself with the charisma of a politician. A professor at a nearby college, some dignified-sounding position in the math department.
“And what about you?”
Who was she? A first-year English student, from a small town in Pennsylvania. Was she anything else? That was all she could muster and he laughed and told her about a time he had been in Philadelphia for a conference. She laughed, though she had never been to Philadelphia. Her father thought it was noisy and morally derelict. He was thirty-six. She told him her age, expecting him to walk away and leave her by her juvenile self, but he didn’t, and they talked for hours and arranged a time to meet for dinner.
The priest was chanting something about life everlasting and salvation and the children of God. God. If there were children of God, she wasn’t one. She hadn’t loved God and God had clearly never loved her as a punishment, but with funerals and death it’s always important to leave a little bit of room for God in case he really is sitting up there in some celestial paradise, loving all of his mortal miscreants. The last thing she wanted to do was condemn her dead son to an eternal life of fire and brimstone after condemning him to a waking life of more or less the same. She was an awful mother. Almost humorously awful. But how the hell had he turned out so great? He was the kid that all the other mothers cooed over and she was the misguided and impure giver of birth who “just needs to figure herself out before she ruins her son’s life.”
She had heard Jane Klein say that at a meeting at the school. Jane Klein, plump from a life of bourgeois comfort who knew nothing about the world outside of the picket fence that surrounded her meticulous yellow house with a little sign hanging next to the front door that said “God welcomes you.”
That filthy-clean suburban fortress made her cringe whenever she drove by. Too many trees. And the yellow of the house reflected the setting sun like a pool of urine against the amber and orange backdrop. Jane Klein lived on Main Street in that pristine town. Fairview. Typical name for a typical town of fairness and plainness and depressing stagnation. Horace went to the high school there, though they did not have the good fortune or affluence to reside in its clean avenues. The birds were always louder there, she noticed, when she would begrudgingly pick her son up from music lessons or after-school tutoring sessions or any of the innumerable activities he did.
The state had a program that let students from low-performing schools study at high-performing schools. It was news to her at the time. He came home with a pink paper with lots of small words on it that she neglected to read. Did she even help him with his application for the program? Probably not. Or maybe she had skimmed over an essay he wrote for the application, half-heartedly pointing out a misplaced comma and telling him it was otherwise good. She often did that. He asked her at the worst times for help. What else was she to do?
“Mom! I got in! I’m starting at Fairview in the fall!”
She had tried to smile but was tired and the smile ached and she had a headache and ended up frowning and asked him how he expected to get to and from the school which was 40 minutes away from where they lived. Poulter Station. She remembered when she first was looking at apartments. Poulter Station or Thornwood. The three-year-old child was pulling on her hand and she looked down at him and said the two names in her head. Poulter Station sounded like a slaughterhouse or a dreary factory of the first industrial revolution. Thornwood didn’t sound right. It was too sharp and jeering and shouted at her, Thorn! Wood! Thor! Nwood! Hor! No, Poulter Station it needed to be. The schools were listed as some of the worst in the state. But did she have a choice?
“There’s a bus that will take me! And they’ll pay for my lunches and I can do any of the after school activities!” Too much energy for her, and she remembered looking at him, annoyed that he was happy and loud and celebratory.
The sniffles in the room were like a chorus, and that teacher of Horace’s, with the short blonde hair and the glasses and the Ivy league degree was sniffling more loudly than the others, like a rogue, cracking voice that is conspicuous in a uniform chorus. Someone put their arm around her, and the sniffling got louder, as if the arm that was meant to comfort her made her even more sad; or maybe it did make her feel comforted which somehow translated into tears. That didn’t make sense either but sometimes someone else’s touch is so powerful and so vital that the body is flooded with emotion, and tears come when they shouldn’t. She looked at the other faces. The somber visages made the room seem darker. All of the eyes were cast to the ground or focused on the priest, who was talking now about the Afterlife and “the better place above.”
The better place above. Those necessary words that promise some sort of deliverance from the evils of the mortal world, but aren’t those words mere conjecture, and don’t we believe them only because we want to? She wanted to believe them. So she did. She pictured Horace with his incessantly smiling face, making friends with angels and cherubs and God. She had been so harsh to him. But he had been so harsh to her. Not Horace, Horace didn’t have a harsh bone in his body. Him. Professor Penley. Harsh.
“Call me Jack.”
That first dinner date had been magical. She barely spoke, letting his words silence her world and serenade her. They ate a rare fish dish that she didn’t like but that she ate because it was expensive and he kept saying how it was the best he had ever tasted and she wanted to impress him and act like she had a refined palate so she said it was a bit salty but that it was tender and also one of the best she’d ever had. He had smiled at that. That smile was the fuel for the engine of her desire for him and after a few more fancy dinners he started to kiss her when he said good night, and then she was sleeping at his apartment on campus.
The blonde teacher gained control of her sniffles and looked at the priest. What was her name? Ms. Stanley? She knew Ms. Stanley because Ms. Stanley had taken her aside one day and was telling her that Horace would “be a shoo-in for Harvard or Princeton, and I really want to work with him on his college applications but I need to know, and I’m not trying to pry, but I need to know, more or less, what your financial situation is and if we may need to apply for scholarships…” Financial situation. Her financial situation was embarrassing.
After he called her a whore he didn’t speak to her for a few weeks. Even before that, when she would sleep at his apartment, Jack seemed increasingly detached, attributing it to a thesis paper he had to write, but he smiled at her less. Their intimacy was rushed and lacked passion but she was too naively enamored to take note.
Her finances were a white envelope from Jack’s office at the university in Connecticut. The envelopes came once a month. They were generous, comparatively, considering she had no other income.
“There’s something I need to tell you. I have a family. A wife and two kids. They can’t know about this.” His beautiful eyes were cast to the ground when he said that, and in that instant she thought she felt Horace kick, but she was only two months in, the bump small enough to still be kept clandestine, although Lauren Topfield, from Hartford, whose father was a senator, commented earlier that day that “women really should be more careful about their weight in university.” She knew Lauren Topfield was talking about her but she was not offended, she was glad that no one suspected that within her slowly expanding stomach was a child conceived out of wedlock and a dark red stain on her womanhood.
“And my thesis is finished. They want me back in Connecticut. I can’t stay. I’m sorry I called you…I’m sorry that I called you that.” She received his words with icy silence and all of the golden sunshine that had lit her time with Jack was suddenly obscured by dark and ominous clouds, as grey and powerful as a tempestuous sea.
“I think you should keep the child. Anything else would be… I will send you money every month, I promise. I don’t recommend that you stay in college. It’s not liberal enough yet for women like… you, even here.” Women like her. Women who had been trampled upon by the muddy boots of men. She was angry when he said that.
But he got up and walked away before she could say anything, before she could make one last desperate attempt to fight for her livelihood.
She was weak. Pathetically weak. And she wrote a letter to the administration the next day saying that she would no longer be taking classes at the college, and she found an apartment and packed up her dismal ensemble of belongings and moved, without telling her family, or Allison, or anyone, out of shame and confusion.
Her finances were sufficient for the first few years of Horace’s life but then the white envelopes stopped coming and she wrote a letter to Jack’s address at the university and two weeks later she received a thin envelope:
I regret to inform you that Professor Penley passed away last month due to complications from a heart condition. Please respond if you require the address of Professor Penley’s family and we will be happy to provide it to you.
Department of Applied Mathematics
She was tempted to contact Jack’s wife. Without his money, she didn’t know how she could possibly provide for herself and Horace, as a single woman in a broken age when women were mothers and not providers, without a college education, without any understanding of employment, she was stranded, hopeless, useless. She responded, requesting the address, and it was sent to her. She ran her fingers over the scribbled address and decided that she would contact her own family first and tell them, and she did, she took a train to the rural town in Pennsylvania with Horace, all of three years old, in her arms. She knocked on the door of her childhood home and her father opened it, his familiar cold face that had assumed the rigidity of a stone ever since her mother died greeted her, and she told him and he stared at her in disgust and closed the door.
The priest had finished his sermon and was walking down from the pulpit. Music was playing again. What had he said? She hadn’t listened to much of it. She was distracted by the way the priest’s eyes scanned the room, like the eyes of a snake. She looked around. Ms. Stanley was wiping her eyes. Ms. Stanley. What had she said when Ms. Stanley had asked about her financial situation?
“It’s none of your business.”
“I’m doing this to help Horace!”
“I don’t think Horace will be going to college. He needs to work. And if he does go to college, it will be the community college or the state university.”
“I don’t think you realize the amount of opportunities that are available for a student like Horace. He wants to study medicine and I know the head of the Biology department at Harvard. I could get him an interview. He could attend on scholarship. I promise you, this is the best thing you could do for Horace.”
“I don’t know.”
“How can you not know?” Ms. Stanley had faltered in the suppression of her anger and her voice was sharp and harsh.
“I don’t think college is for Horace.”
“You’re selfish, that’s what you are!” Ms. Stanley had said and the words stung. “You are doing unspeakable damage. What kind of mother are you, keeping your brilliant son from making something for himself? Show him that you love him and give him the chance that he deserves.”
She was furious and glared at Ms. Stanley. Ms. Stanley looked a lot like her, before Horace of course, before stress and eating bad food and wearing cheap make-up, when she was still beautiful and could look at herself in the mirror and be happy, but Ms. Stanley was strong and independent and beautiful and young, and the product of a different era, and that angered her. The words that came out of her mouth, prodded by wrath and corralled out of their hiding place deep within her mind, surprised her, and they burned as they exploded from her lips
“Horace has been the worst thing to ever happen to me, and for you to sit there and speak to me as if it is my duty to love him, to love a curse that I never asked for, to spend every waking hour wishing that he was gone, to break my back to provide for him when he is the last thing I wanted…” she trailed off, scared of what she had just said, scared that she had actually said that out loud, scared of the power of those words that bespoke all that she had kept inside of her throughout Horace’s life. Ms. Stanley’s face was frozen in horror. The room was silent but the words echoed, bouncing off the walls and striking her in the stomach, and the head, like cannonballs, like fiery, heavy cannonballs.
“How can you hate your own son?” Ms. Stanley finally said, in a voice wavering with surprise but searingly quiet.
She drove to Jack’s house in Connecticut a year after her trip to Pennsylvania, borrowing a neighbor’s car. She had no money. She owed rent on the dirty apartment in Poulter Station.
“I can’t keep extending your rent. You should look at apartments in Thornwood. It’s more affordable there,” her landlord had told her, giving her one more month and promising eviction if she failed to pay.
She pulled into the street on the scribbled address. Meticulously manicured lawns were like plush carpets leading up to the perfect homes and the trees and sculpted shrubs were like stoic soldiers protecting the homes from ever having to gaze upon anything even remotely unsightly.
Nine Huntingdon Lane. She parked the car on the curb in front of the house. It wasn’t oversized like its companions. It was a humble Cape with a gray stone façade, paned windows, a stately entrance, symmetrical and balanced. A woman was kneeling in the flower bed in front of the house, gardening or weeding, or something.
She stared at the woman from the window of the car. She was blonde and thin, her face was elegant and attractive but not in a gaudy way, and she looked intelligent but strong. Two children ran from the side of the house, one with a bat and one with ball, and they went to the woman kneeling on the ground and she hugged them and kissed them and threw the ball to one of them, smiling, laughing, the sunlight striking her hair and reflecting its golden radiance. The woman turned her head and her face was even more beautiful and poised in its full profile, and she looked for a second at the car, squinted her eyes, and waved questioningly.
She drove away. She cried. She cried all the way to the dirty apartment and Horace cried too, and she started to cry tears of anger and looked at Horace, whose face was wrinkled in anguish, ugly, and she wished he wasn’t there.
“How can you hate your own son?” Those words assaulted her mind as she stormed out of the school that day, they assaulted her mind as she sped home, silent with rage, with Horace in the passenger seat, they assaulted her mind as the red traffic light approached, matching the red hot fury that she felt, they assaulted her mind as she sped through it and heard a honk and screamed as a car smashed into the passenger side of the car and all she could see on the ground when she had been pulled out of the car by a medic was Horace’s college prep textbook, singed on the corners, the pages crumpled, the book open to a page, and on the page, she could read the words clearly, “Ten Tips For Getting Into The Best Schools.”
She looked up as Ms. Stanley deposited a bouquet of yellow flowers onto the already enormous pile. She saw a ghost of her young self, walking through campus with books in her arms and glasses and blonde hair and a budding sense of confidence. Ms. Stanley kissed her hand and placed it on the black casket. She looked motherly, beautiful, free.
Did she hate her own son? The words again assaulted her as Ms. Stanley walked out of the funeral parlor and her mind conjured an image of her own youthful self walking away and she looked around the parlor with disdain, longing, regret, confusion….
Alexander is a sophomore at Temple University majoring in Global Studies and Spanish. Originally from Connecticut, he attended Temple for his freshman year, and has spent his sophomore year studying abroad in Spain and Italy. Alexander enjoys reading and writing in his free time, as well as hiking and spending time outdoors. Apart from fiction, Alexander writes poetry, and has contributed to Temple University’s literary magazine, Hyphen.