Gurney Norman Prize for Fiction: 3rd Place
There was an inscription near the front. Perfect cursive, a date from a long time ago. “To Opal. I’m sorry I’m so repulsive. Love, Archie.” Not all of them had inscriptions but they all had the name, “Opal Atwood” on the back cover in thick permanent marker. Opal seemed like she had been scared someone would steal them. Tonight, she was probably turning in her grave.
Fiction by Raisa Tolchinsky
She told them to call her “Larson” without the “Ms.” No one knew her first name. On overcast winter days, she drew suns on the fogged up windows by her desk with the pad of her finger, like a little kid on a car trip. She was always out of breath and her dark clothes were perpetually streaked with chalk. She seemed like a new teacher even though she wasn’t. Larson told the class that when she was eighteen, she sold naked photos to pay for college. She said she was proud of her financial independence and she recommended they all follow suit. This made the boys chew tobacco a little bit quieter.
Every day at lunch Florence sat in Larson’s room instead of going to the cafeteria. She was seventeen. She had a wide forehead and wanted to be the kind of person that saw things others didn’t, so she read a lot, which only made her disappointed at how little she knew. She wore underwear from the discount store and had a small collection of cigarette butts from slightly important people, like the principal. Her father, a cook, was a big man with a copper mustache shaped like a horseshoe. Her mother was a hairdresser and a gossip whose hands always smelled like bleach.
Larson was even more exciting when she wasn’t in front of a class. She kept a water bottle filled with vodka on her desk, next to a photo of a strange looking girl holding a guinea pig in a silver frame. Florence did not like this picture, or the fact that Larson had a child. She was filled with a strange longing to be both her daughter and something else.
The truth was, Larson was an awful geometry teacher. She never woke anyone who fell asleep, rarely took attendance, and sometimes bought pot from a large boy who sat in the farthest back corner. She didn’t teach a damn thing but everyone loved her because she didn’t try to make them care about anything, not even the things she cared about: poker, German food, sweaters. This was appreciated. Nobody told on her for the really bad stuff.
One day at lunch, Larson said, “Tommy likes you.” Was she high? Was she kidding? Her dark hair fell over her eyes. Florence had observed from the very beginning that she wasn’t exactly beautiful. Her nose was kind of crooked and she had a diamond nose piercing that was hanging half-way out. She seemed beautiful because she wore smudgy pink lipstick and acted like she had something everybody else wanted, which was kind of true.
Florence shrugged, said, “He’s okay, I guess,” and swallowed a spoonful of yogurt. Tommy was red headed, wide shouldered, wild. He once punched through a window at a party. He had a face like a boxer’s. She hadn’t ever thought twice about him.
Larson stared out the window. From outside came the faint sound of laughter, a basketball hitting a metal hoop.
“Ah, I see.” Larson, if she had been holding a cigarette, would have flicked it casually.
He would do, Florence guessed, for certain purposes.
She hadn’t realized she had said this out loud until Larson looked up.
“What kind of purposes?”
Larson’s legs were propped on the desk, dotted with dark stubble. Florence felt something expand inside her, like salt-water taffy in a pulling machine.
“You know, getting it over with. This weekend I want to chop down the cherry tree. Park the pink Porsche. Debut myself.”
Was she trying to be funny? She often surprised herself. Larson, however, did not look surprised at all.
“You know, do the dirty. Bump uglies. For-ni-cate.”
Larson was not a teacher who liked to give advice and Florence knew this about her, which is probably why so many strange things were bubbling out of her mouth with such ease.
“It won’t be that bad. It’ll get easier. Or maybe not easier, but expected.”
Last week Florence’s father had called her mother a cunt for no reason, at least no reason she could see. Her mother didn’t say anything back, just stood there squeezing the molding kitchen sponge. When Florence told Larson this, Larson had only nodded.
It was the beginning of June. School was almost over. She would graduate soon. Outside, the sky was filled with the kind of light that made everything look colorless. Florence was squinting without meaning to. She was thinking of Tommy, of the quick way he slipped a cigarette into her palm. Then she thought of Larson in a white set of lingerie.
Meanwhile Larson was saying, “It won’t be so bad. It really won’t be. Practice giving a blow job on a tube of toothpaste, so it won’t come as a surprise.” Florence wanted to turn the photo of her daughter around. Larson reached into her desk drawer and didn’t offer her a condom like she was supposed to, instead shoved a handful of jellybeans into her mouth. Florence was sure the only reason she hadn’t been fired was because she was fucking the principal, a tall, reedy man who banned Christmas celebrations because he was Jewish. Larson told the whole class he liked to be blindfolded in bed.
A bell rang. Outside a group of girls moved towards one square of sunlight, but there wasn’t enough room for all of them.
“Well, good luck with Tommy,” Larson said, winking.
When Florence got home, her brother was smearing butter on burnt toast. The kitchen sink was busted, the water pouring from the faucet uncontrollably. She sliced an apple expecting to find a star and found it missing one seed.
“How was your day?” she asked Ray. He had toast crumbs all over his face.
Ray didn’t answer her. He sipped his milk and looked over the rim of the glass wearily. One day he would wear a suit, she was sure of it. They stared at each other until he blinked, sighed, and said, “I had really hoped you would have turned out to be less irritable.”
Florence had one friend. Her name was Iris and she came over every Friday at 8:00 on the dot. They went to parties on Fridays and only kept each other around so they had someone to go with. They had to keep up appearances. Iris wasn’t very bright and made Florence’s father uncomfortable because she often had hickies and was pretty in a way that was easy to look at. Today, for example, she wore a tank top that showed the upper curves of her breasts. Plus, her middle name was Viola, and Iris Viola was pretty much the stupidest name Florence could think of.
Iris and Florence sat on the vomit colored carpet of her bedroom floor, sipping out of a plastic jug. Iris got wine from her brother who was older and had a fake ID and sometimes smiled softly at Florence, who smiled back even though he had a face broken open with pimples.
This particular party was down the street. Parties were always “down the street” in Riverdale. You could hear the highway no matter where you were. It was the kind of place that was mostly quiet and had nice gardens and yet so obviously contained a certain kind of violence. Iris wanted to leave as soon as possible. Florence liked its well-groomed terror. It seemed to match what she felt.
Florence knew Tommy would be at the party because he was always at parties and he was always drunk. Everybody liked him because he did stupid things to make other drunk people laugh, which really required almost no talent whatsoever.
They were never quiet when they left the house. Florence’s mother was at the kitchen table, ironing in the dark. She always seemed to be sitting still even when she was doing something. She had a small pimple on the tip of her nose. Her hair was wrapped in a piece of cloth and she smelled like coconut. Florence could see what she might look like bald with cancer.
“Where are you girls going?” Her mother’s voice wavered through the darkness. She always asked even though she didn’t seem to care much. Florence had a picture of her when she was still beautiful, in a green silk dress, clutching her father, who seemed already bored by her. Florence wanted to rip it up one day.
“Just to a friend’s house. Tyler Atwood? He lives just down the street.”
Her mother nodded down towards her ironing.
They didn’t say much to each other as they walked to Tyler’s house, they never did. Iris’s face was yellow underneath the light of the streetlamps. There was no moon. Dogs were barking and downstairs lights in other houses were being turned off. They heard muffled music coming from the basement before they saw the house. Everyone always thought parties in basements were somehow soundproof, but they were wrong.
The basement was where Tyler’s grandmother lived, before she died. The entire place was pale pink and the couches were covered in ugly floral. It was usually freezing but there were so many bodies packed inside it was now musty and warm. There was a table littered with empty cans and cheap half-filled bottles of vodka. Florence spotted Tommy. He was rifling through a closet and trying on Tyler’s dead grandmother’s skirts. Tyler looked like he was about to cry. His eyes had a weird sheen to them, and his lips were pressed together so hard they were white. When Tommy saw her, he waved. His red hair was plastered against his face, which was red, too. There was an old hip-hop song playing that reminded her of 8th grade, which seemed far away but not unimaginably so. She turned towards Iris, who was staring at her dirty white sneakers.
“It would be nice to punch someone in the face,” Florence said. Iris didn’t answer. Florence walked slowly towards the shelves on the other side of the basement. The books were organized alphabetically by author. They were covered in a thin layer of dust. She looked over her shoulder. Some people had started to trickle upstairs, and Tyler was screaming at a girl who had thrown up on the floral couch.
The first book she opened had pages stained with food. There was an inscription near the front. Perfect cursive, a date from a long time ago. “To Opal. I’m sorry I’m so repulsive. Love, Archie.” Not all of them had inscriptions but they all had the name, “Opal Atwood” on the back cover in thick permanent marker. Opal seemed like she had been scared someone would steal them. Tonight, she was probably turning in her grave. Suddenly Florence felt a wet hand on her shoulder.
“Hey,” Tommy said, and tried to flip his long hair away from his eyes, which were dark and unfocused. His hair was so damp it wouldn’t flip so he pushed it messily aside. Larson was probably right about him liking her.
“What are you doing?”
“Just looking at some books. I’m terribly bored.”
“I know some ways we could make it less boring.” Tommy was slurring his words and it made him seem younger. She had the urge to take his temperature, to tuck him into bed. I’ll take care of you, Florence hoped her smile said. She followed him to one of the back rooms, it must have been Opal’s bedroom. There was a floral duvet on the narrow bed that matched the couches. It smelled like antibiotic soap and there was a picture on the nightstand of Tyler as a baby. Tommy took her hand and kept licking his lips nervously.
“So, um, you like classes this year?”
“Do you think Tyler’s grandmother died in this bed?” Florence asked.
“I said, yes, I like gym. Especially the rope climbing.”
“Did you see Martha trying to climb up yesterday? She couldn’t even get off the ground. Mr. Marzolo had to bring her a ladder.”
He was cruel. He was cruel but also he was drunk. Florence thought of Larson saying, “Maybe not easier, but expected.”
When they started kissing, Tommy put his tongue in her mouth and moved it up and down like an automated toy. It didn’t seem complicated, really. Everything is mechanical, if you look at it the right way. Florence kept accidentally looking at the baby picture of Tyler over the corner of her shoulder. She pictured Larson, leaning in and listening as Florence described the night.
“I’m really quite drunk. I should be going now.” She pushed him away. She didn’t feel the need to explain anything to him. It was like explaining something to a small dog. His drunken head wagged back and forth. No, no, don’t go. She took Tyler’s grandmother’s book on the way out. It felt like it was shining through her pocket.
At lunch on Monday, Larson took out a large jar of peanut butter and a plastic spoon. The dark blue circles under her eyes seemed darker than normal. Her hair curled against her eyes, unwashed. She didn’t ask Florence anything about the weekend. Maybe she didn’t care at all. Or were her eyes gleaming? Florence could imagine painting their toenails together. She decided to volunteer information.
“We went to a nice comfortable barn. He lit a bunch of candles and brought chocolate covered raisins.”
Larson didn’t say anything.
“He has a half-finished tattoo of a lightning bolt,” she added, to make it seem more realistic.
Larson raised her eyebrows.
“Tommy? I’d never take him for the tattoo type.”
“I didn’t either.”
Larson slowly licked peanut butter off of the plastic spoon, like a four year old. Her tongue was long and pink.
Maybe Florence was boring her.
“Why is it half-finished?”
“He didn’t say.”
Larson uncapped a small tube of lip balm. Now would be the time an adult should mention being safe.
“I’m very happy for you, Florence,” she said. “I also hope you aren’t pregnant and still get to see the aurora borealis and Las Vegas, like you mentioned last week. Intercourse is a tricky business.”
“We were careful.”
That strange thing was rising in her, the thing she didn’t know what to call, that was not quite lust but in fact something scarier. She was unable to conceal it; it also filled her with false strength. She had an urge to show Larson the birthmark on the bottom of her foot.
“I would like to make love to you. With you. At the end of the day,” Florence said.
Florence felt disoriented.
“Take me to your house, please. I don’t feel well.”
Something gentle came over Larson’s face, and the gentleness made her seem younger. She looked straight at Florence.
Inside, Larson’s car was neat and clean. Florence had imagined fast food wrappers scattered on the floor of an irresponsible sports car. Instead, it was small and plain and vaguely disappointing. She realized she did not know what Larson’s first name was.
The identical houses rushed past. Florence was alarmed to see a child sized pink tutu and a box of open graham crackers in the back seat. Larson did not put on music. Maybe she knew that whatever loud and unyielding pop song came on would be too appropriate for what Florence was feeling.
The house they pulled up to was the smallest on the block. Clumps of earth were scattered all around, like someone had once tried to garden but had given up. The door was painted a bright blue. Larson peered into a small tin mailbox as they walked up the stairs, as if Florence wasn’t with her.
The house was dark and smelled like pasta. There was a shadow box with a dead butterfly near the windowsill and messy drawings in crayon on the fridge.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Larson asked.
Florence did not know if she was offering her a Coke or something real.
“I would like a whiskey, please.”
It was the wrong thing to ask for, she was sure of it. She should have asked for a gin and tonic or something with citrus. Larson raised her eyebrows and opened a cupboard, took out two scratched plastic cups. She measured out a thimble’s worth of whiskey in one, and filled the other all the way up.
Outside the sky was white and hot. The air conditioner hummed in the corner and cool streams of air washed over them in waves. What was a question that would start an intimate conversation with no ending? Larson handed her the cup. They sat at the kitchen table, which was covered in crumbs.
“Did you know that a narwhale’s tusks are filled with nerves?”
It was the only thing that Florence could think of. Larson didn’t say anything, instead swirled her glass so the ice made a clinking noise.
“Yes, it’s true, I was just reading about it. Also, if you cry in space, the tears stick to your face.”
Larson seemed just about to say something when the door burst open.
Olivia looked just like she did in the picture, but without the guinea pig. She wore bright purple tights and had two pigtails sticking out of her head at varying degrees. Her mouth was rimmed with jam.
“Mommy! Today there was a boy with a limp in carpool.” Olivia ran towards Larson, who reached out her hands.
“Olivia, can you say hi to my student, Florence?”
“Hello, Florence.” Olivia peeked up through streams of blonde hair.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Olivia!” Larson chided. “That’s not a something you ask someone you just met.”
“Sorry.” Olivia looked thoughtful. “Can I ask someone I’ve already met?”
“Only if you know them very well. Olivia, Florence and Mommy are going to go upstairs now. You play downstairs.”
“Are you going upstairs to play?”
“Is it the kind of playing where you make a lot of noise?”
“Olivia, I’m not sure. Take your allergy medicine, please.” Larson handed her a spoonful of viscous liquid.
Florence wondered if she was only here because Larson felt a duty towards her, the same way she felt towards Tommy. She followed Larson up a narrow set of stairs. She was amazed she had not yet called her mother for a ride, who would have certainly shown up in their awful grey minivan without demanding why she was there or with whom.
The bedroom was wide and very dark. The bed was wide too. Its mere existence suggested what Florence was once sure of wanting, but now wasn’t sure. Florence made a note of almost everything so she could go over it later in her head. There was a dirty glass and a small book on the nightstand, a duffel bag in the corner. The ceiling was marked with a big crack. There was the feeling of a third person there, crouched in the corner.
They were alone. They sat on the bed. Larson leaned in. Her breath smelled like whiskey.
Florence had imagined what would happen next a hundred times. Larson would remove her shoes. Then she would take off all her clothes in the same way Iris did whenever they were changing behind a towel at the beach. Her underwear would be white or black lace.
It turned out to be beige underwear, and up close, Larson smelled like plywood and some kind of shrubbery. Florence kept her eyes open.
Larson’s skin was cold, and when she reached over to undo Florence’s pants, Florence began to laugh.
Mostly Larson did things, and Florence tried to copy her. The whole room was filled with the whooshing sound of Larson breathing. Florence was annoyed by it, and tried not to make any sounds herself.
The whole thing was like returning to a place Florence had visited as a child, someplace she still didn’t know if she liked. Maybe the New Hampshire summer house with all the frogs.
Afterwards, they sat in silence, not looking at each other. Finally Larson got up, flushed, and brought Florence a glass of water. Then she turned on the TV. The MTV channel was playing. Downstairs, Olivia moved around, obviously making as much noise as possible.
Larson looked older now, undone. Her maroon lipstick had begun to feather out around her lips. Finally, she slipped on her robe and turned to look at Florence, as if realizing who she was for the first time. She did not say anything.
Florence did not feel a need to do this again. It was exhausting. It was so much work. The feeling that there was a third person in the room had vanished.
On the drive back they did not talk. Olivia sat in the backseat, humming. Larson stared at the road.
“You know that thing you said earlier, about tears sticking to your face?”
“That’s horrible. That’s terrifying.”
“Not really. I just think it’s kind of neat.”
“One day you’ll understand, how horrible it is.”
Florence already knew that almost everything was horrible. It seemed unnecessary to state this fact.
“What’s horrible?” Olivia asked from the back seat.
When they turned onto her street and her house came into view, Florence pointed it out. A house of muted colors and chipping paint. She knew there would be no surprises there either. Her mother was probably scrubbing a cast iron pan with salt. Her father was probably walking across the living room in great strides.
“Goodbye,” Florence said.
“Goodbye,” said Larson.
“Goodbye!” yelled Olivia.
Her brother was still in the kitchen when she opened the door, a small pair of glasses perched on his nose. He was twelve but he might as well be forty. He looked at her, disappointed.
“Where were you?” he asked.
“Someone came by. They said you took something… their grandmother’s?”
He stared at her. She couldn’t meet his eyes.
It was not until she got up to her room that Florence allowed herself to look at the book she took from Larson’s bedside table. It contained nothing of importance, but it was small and dark, with more potential than the rest. It would look nice next to Opal’s. She wanted the feeling of holding it, unopened, to last.
Raisa Tolchinsky hails from Chicago, received a B.A. from Bowdoin College, and is currently a candidate for an M.F.A in poetry at the University of Virginia. A 2019 Brooklyn Poets Fellow, she has read and edited for Tin House Books and Tricycle Magazine, and is founding editor of SIREN. Her poems, essays, stories, and interviews have appeared in Muzzle Magazine, Tricycle, Blood Orange Review, and KR Online. When she’s not writing, she’s boxing or dancing like a weirdo on her roof. Learn more about Raisa and her work on Instagram @raisatolchinsky and on Twitter at @raisaimogen.