Short Fiction: A Novelist Takes a Cue from Art

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UPSTAIRS, HE HEARS HER SAY GOODBYE to their brother and place the receiver back in its cradle. Sitting on the bed, suddenly too dispirited to move, he waits for the sound of his sister’s heavy, arrhythmic tread on the stairs, after which he will return to the first floor and use the half bathroom before turning in. It’s way too early for bed, but the sooner he’s asleep, the sooner it will be tomorrow, and by early afternoon, after Tom calls again and they go through the necessary motions, he’ll be on his way back to the city.

When he sets his phone down on the end table next to the sofa sleeper, it vibrates and the screen lights up, identifying the caller as TOM, who apparently hasn’t bought the lie about his leaving home without his cell. Hoping he’s stupid enough to answer. He lets the call go to voice mail, waits to see if his brother leaves a message. He doesn’t.

All quiet above. It’s possible Maggie’s already gone upstairs. She’s told him more than once that her days can’t end soon enough, so maybe. But probably not. She knows he hasn’t used the toilet. Knows he’ll need to before retiring.

When he emerges from the basement, he sees she’s turned on a small lamp in the front room and its dim light reveals the water damage along the outer wall, the ancient wallpaper stained and curling. Every window in the house needs to be replaced. When the wind blows, the heavy curtains billow, even with the windows shut tight. For a moment he thinks he’s lucked out, that his sister has indeed gone upstairs, but then he sees her on the landing, sentry-like, as if to prevent him from climbing the stairs himself. No worries there. He hasn’t been upstairs since the night she told him and only went up then because he didn’t believe her, not until he saw the towels she’d wedged under their mother’s bedroom door, the piece of cloth threaded through the keyhole.

“He’s suspicious,” he tells her now. “Tommy.”

She shrugs, stubborn.

“He’s going to figure it out eventually,” he warns, “if he hasn’t already.”

She shakes her head. “He doesn’t want to know. Nobody does.”

He sighs. “Whatever you say, Mags.”

She fixes him with that stare of hers, the one she’s had since she was a child, an odd mixture of willful incomprehension and triumph. “Yes,” she agrees. “Whatever I say.”

Linden Frederick's Downstairs

Linden Frederick’s Downstairs

RICHARD RUSSO is a novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, and teacher. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel Empire Falls, which was adapted into a multiple-award-winning HBO miniseries. His novel Nobody’s Fool (1993) was also adapted to film—directed by Robert Benton and starring Paul Newman. He has written eight novels, including Everybody’s Fool, a New York Times 2016 bestseller, and a memoir, Elsewhere, published in 2012. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1990.

LINDEN FREDERICK grew up in upstate New York and studied at Ontario College of Art in Toronto and the Accademia di Belle Arti, Florence, Italy. Since moving to mid-coast Maine in 1989, Frederick has participated in exhibitions at the Farnsworth Art Museum and Portland Museum of Art in Maine and in gallery exhibitions across the country. His work is in public and private collections throughout the United States. The upcoming exhibition Linden Frederick: Night Stories will be on view at Forum Gallery in New York City from May 11 to June 30, and then at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland from August 18 to November 5. In October 2017 Glitterati Incorporated will publish Night Stories.