Every Porch a Threshold
Kristine Langley Mahler & Jennifer Wortman
Winner of the 2019 Summer Collaboration Contest
From her car, carefully parked on the street of modest two-story houses with pine-spiked lawns, Lena watched the daughter of Jake’s neighbors inhabit the back corner of her front porch, swinging her leg as if kicking thoughts away. It was easier to watch the girl than to watch Jake pace in front of his picture window, not once looking outside. Which, despite Lena’s care in hiding herself, insulted her. Why couldn’t he sense her presence? He’d failed every test she’d given him. Still, his pacing pleased her. He paced when agitated, as did she. Their final conversations were a dance, their music his gruff declaratives, her tears.
507 Crestline Blvd
We had relocated from a ranch house with a yard that went yellow in the summer to a two-story house on the other side of the country; our yard was still yellow, but this time the cause was the pine needles dropping from the trees shading our new house. I spent hours under the overhang of my new front porch, watching the neighborhood from a spot where I could see but not be seen. I see myself on that porch all the time, a mnemonic for my self-positioning in my new state, how I believed someone would look deeper and find that new girl selecting into her loneliness by refusing to come into the light. I have no peace without the image of that girl as explanation. Someone built that porch, once. Someone stood back and looked at it with satisfaction. Someone was able to walk away.
Why couldn’t Lena just drive away? And why did the girl spend so much time on the porch? Didn’t she have a life to live? As if hearing Lena’s thoughts, Jake stopped pacing, swiveled to the window, and marched outside. Lena ducked, too late. He narrowed his eyes in that cowboy way and pointed, so precisely she practically felt his fingertip on her nose. As he approached, she squirmed herself up. He looked deep into her loneliness, as always, and smiled. “You stalking me now?” She glanced at the girl, who met her gaze. Lena’s shame, fear, joy traveled between them. The girl looked away. “Might as well come up to the porch,” Jake said. “Have a drink.”
My arms are weighted by that blood-sinking heaviness which precedes exposure. I know I’m about to be revealed. But it’s normal to scroll through Google searches until I find the county tax assessor for my old cities. It’s normal to know I should be looking for the county tax assessor in the first place. It’s normal to click through boxes while opening deed documents to learn the names of the people who own my houses, now; it is normal to Google them, or their children, their daughters by their maiden names + “married” + our town names, the sons through Facebook reunion groups for the high schools where I didn’t graduate. This is an information free-for-all and it’s not stalking if I’m not creeping on closed-off ground. Right? I’m asking hypotheticals with one answer, the funny answer, the disclosure where we all admit to behaviors we’re ashamed of, because we still want to be seen. We want the finger pointed at us. I want the finger pointed at me, that evidence I existed. Exist.
“It’s normal, you know,” Jake said, pouring a wedge of whiskey over ice. “To get attached.” He took care, as he passed the glass, to avoid Lena’s hand. “You don’t have to spy on me. You can knock on the door, say what you need to say.” What could she say? That since they parted, she’d become a Google whiz, learning his mother’s maiden name, his high school, the previous owner of his home, facts that failed to substitute for the warm rock of him? This house, his bed, bore no evidence of her. “If I left him,” she asked, “would you have me?” But she didn’t want to leave her husband. She just wanted to be everywhere, so she’d know she existed somewhere. She hoped the girl was watching them, taking note. But the girl was gone.
There is a place I will never leave, a girl I will never leave, a splinter my skin absorbed that my body refuses to reject. I can see it, black like the Megalodon teeth I picked out of the creek banks, exposed after millions of years only for an interloper to pocket and take them away. What did it mean to live somewhere so old that dinosaur sharks had left rows of teeth, shedding one jaw-width only to grow another? What did it mean to live somewhere so young that the teeth were still there after all those years, after the local kids had taken what they wanted? I smuggled my million-year-old shark teeth in the bottom of cardboard boxes and moved them to the next house, the next state, where I lost them, the teeth slipping between the four-by-eight joists of my attic. I think about the archaeologists who will sift through the decay someday, when the insulation has degraded and the house has been pulled apart and the wreckage has been shoveled into the town dump. I can see, glistening in an excavated midden, those misplaced teeth giving everyone the wrong impression. Megalodons never moved over the ancient Midwest. The sharks lived in North Carolina, behemoths silently gliding through the water, mouths closed to hide the threat as they circled their prey.
He pressed his lips together and considered her question. Then he smiled, baring teeth. “Define ‘have,’” he said. “I shouldn’t have to,” she said. And there they were again, already sifting through the decay of what they’d made. She’d always seek that sharp, dark part of herself lost in their wreckage. If only the girl would return. Lena would tell her: Keep off that porch. Learn how to stay. Or learn how to leave.
Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review and has been recently published/is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, Waxwing, and The Rumpus, among others. She is the Nonfiction Editor at Split Lip Press. Find more about her projects at kristinelangleymahler.com or @suburbanprairie.
Jennifer Wortmanis the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love (Split Lip Press, 2019). Her work appears in TriQuarterly, Glimmer Train, Normal School, Brevity, DIAGRAM, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor at Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.