Read an Excerpt
Would you like to read a short story by Richard Goffman?
“The Thickening” is a story that was first published in 2009. The title refers to the changes that happen in the natural world around us at this time of year, as spring brings forth new life and shucks off the dead skin of winter. The main character views these changes in the woods and the streams, and in the depths of his family and his heart.
by Richard Goffman
With an aluminum tube that had once, long ago, been a section of a tent pole, he stoked the coals in the terracotta chimenea, stirring up a few flames into the twilight, and some ashes, too. It was still too cool to be sitting outside on the porch. He just couldn’t sit inside anymore. Outside he could not hear the phone not ringing.
In the soft old chair that had been retired to the porch, with his sweatsocked feet propped on the low porch rail, Jeffrey gazed at the woods that abutted their property. It was these woods, these black walnuts and butternuts, quaking aspens and white poplars, scotch pines and pitch pines, that had sold him on this house almost fifteen years before. It’s federally protected land, the young realtor had assured him. Won’t ever be cut. Can’t be.
Unlike so many others, this promise had proven true. Development had encroached on the other sides. What had been a Monet hayfield across the road had long since gone for “townhouses” – eight faux barnwood façade structures, sixteen homes, sixteen families, more than twenty cars, a school bus stop, a big sign with a miniature waterwheel. Millrace Townhomes. Jeffrey could not stop himself from wondering every single time he passed this sign: Does anyone who lives there know what a millrace is? Or that there used to be a stream nearby that actually fed a mill, a couple of miles from there, on the other side of the wildlife refuge? He’d often walked with Bethie, shown her the ruins, the old stones and rusted, twisted iron that were all that remained of what must have been a thriving business for some years, forgotten for more than a hundred.
Bethie had loved her walks with her daddy, from the days when he mostly had to carry her, through the Flotsam Years, when their clumsy, long-eared mutt had followed them everywhere. Joanne had left them – left him, she’d have said, but, net net net it was the same thing – six springs ago, the year before Flotsam had died. Jeff’s secret name for Beth’s mother, since she had gone, was Jetsam. But in truth, it was she who had jettisoned them. Him.
The first week of April was a tricky time. The weather could be anything. That was one of the things he’d, stupidly, pointed out to Beth a few hours ago. Don’t you think I know that? Do you think I only know how to drive when the sun is shining? And, when he’d tried to restate, retract, she’d done her remarkable eye-roll, the one that spoke such volumes of wronged, misunderstood injustice. Oh. Oh, please. Then she’d buckled her seatbelt and driven away.
But the evidence of April’s capriciousness was everywhere. A small patch of snow remained in the shadow of the garage, and the weatherman had even speculated on some possible flakes later in the week. Just flakes, but still. Yesterday, Saturday, had been June-like, and he’d worked outside in shorts and a t-shirt. He was pretty sure he’d seen a mosquito. Today he pulled the fuzzy blanket around him in chilled awareness that he was attempting to rush porch season.
You could never tell with this time of year, but Jeffrey measured the progress of spring’s approach by what he called the thickening. In the summer, the woods behind the house were a wall of pure green, an emerald fortress, a border that was, to be sure, porous and explorable, but only by physically entering it, not just by looking. In the fall, it was a circus of colors, more dazzling than the wall of the emerald fortress. During the day, even the twilight hour, like now, you couldn’t look through that wall of hot gold and blood red to see deep into the woods. But autumn evenings, in the dark, that’s when you knew that the trees behind the house were leaving, slipping inside themselves, hunkering down for the long winter. You could tell this best in the dark because the wildlife refuge had a tiny parking lot on the far side of the woods. There was a one-story, one-room log-built park office, and a public men’s and women’s room, and a flagpole with an American flag that went up each morning and came down each evening. On the roof of the public restroom was a light fixture that came on each night to illuminate the little parking lot. In the summer you couldn’t see it from his porch; in the winter it shone through like the eye of a watchful god. In the fall, as the leaves thinned out and fell, the light was revealed. It was always there, he knew, but he only thought about it when it intruded visibly into his consciousness.
Spring was the time of the thickening. The walnuts closest to his property were almost uniformly around eighty feet tall. Only a few had trunks more than twelve inches in diameter. It seemed to Jeffrey that the trees had stopped growing taller, and had stopped growing fatter, for several years now. He didn’t know, but he theorized that trees could continue to thrive but, like goldfish in a tank, knew when to stop growing larger in order not to outgrow their environment.
Yet, they flourished. In the spring they put out new shoots, new branches, new buds, and eventually new leaves. They replaced what winter took, and they added new. Fresh bark, tiny tendrils, cones, the promise of their fruit, each after its own kind. And this made the thickening. On April Fool’s Day every year the light from the refuge office still pierced the woods, intruding right through Jeffrey’s bedroom window. By Beth’s birthday, April 30, it was nowhere in evidence from any part of their house. That was why on dark April evenings Jeffrey loved to watch it begin to disappear behind the thickening of the woods. He would observe carefully, trying to determine if the gradual change had begun, if the light was beginning to be filtered by the trees. It was a lot like trying to catch the movement of the hour hand on his watch.
It was fully dark now, and the floodlight from the refuge shone through with intrusive intensity. Jeffrey noticed birds, swallows maybe, flitting frantically, black against deep blue directly above his head. Not birds, he realized. Bats. As he made this recognition a sound accompanied it: not the clicking of the bats, but a low, distant wail. He felt its meaning in his lower intestine before he decoded it in his brain: siren.
Jeffrey jumped. He craned his neck. The siren pulsed, louder/softer, higher/lower. He couldn’t tell if it was getting closer, or even which direction it was coming from. He stood as still as he could, leaning as far over the porch rail as his center of gravity permitted, but he still couldn’t place it. He knew its signature though. It was the township volunteer ambulance corps.
Beth was a fine driver, he knew. He hadn’t let her take her test until she’d met all of his safety standards, but she had met them, early and easily.
Maybe it was the combination of the darkness, and the disdainful look on his daughter’s face as she pulled away from him down the driveway just an hour before.
Maybe it was the conversation he’d overheard in the diner last week. A bunch of kids he didn’t know were talking about the upcoming senior prom. They were talking limousines and tuxedos and late night trips to the city. One of the girls mentioned the fact that the prom was only a few weeks away, and there hadn’t been an accident yet.
“What do you mean?” a boy asked. “What accident?”
And then the girl related the “fact” that every year, almost always in the weeks before prom, a tragic car accident occurred, with students from their school being critically injured, some even dying.
Jeffrey had forced himself to focus on his lunch and stop eavesdropping.
The siren still wailed in the hills. The ambulance was speeding somewhere, eating up the twisting curves through the greening mountains— was it on the way to a wreck? Or did it already have a patient aboard, racing against the progress of the injuries to get to the emergency room?
He realized he wasn’t breathing. He breathed.
Through the sliding doors, across the kitchen, he slid sideways in his socks toward the pantry and the telephone table. Yes. The damned light was blinking. Once, long pause. Once, long pause. Bethie had called while he’d been outside, and now the siren…
He touched the answering machine’s button and stood, straight but leaning just a little, like a skinny birch tree ready to come down with a single axeblow. The words that came out confused him. Which hospital did he have to run to? And whom would he call to come and take him there, since Beth had the car, which—
But, no. It was a robocall from a company selling mortgage refinancing. Not even a person. Jeffrey found the delete button.
He felt as if he had been rescued, but the feeling lasted less than the time it took him to normalize his breathing again. It wasn’t a rescue, it was a warning. Act now, it had said. That frantic trip to the ER could still be yours if you don’t act now.
In the drawer of the phone table was their phone list. He called Jennifer’s house first. Jennifer was Beth’s best friend, he was pretty sure. She seemed both smart and slutty to him, but he never said that to his daughter. That would be the fastest road to an outraged door slam and a lengthy breakdown in their communication. He knew better.
The phone at Jennifer’s house was answered by the voices of Jennifer and her kid brother on the family’s answering machine. The next call was to Stefan-the-non-boyfriend’s house. It was similarly answered. In neither case did he leave a message. He thought maybe he should, but he wasn’t sure what to say, and he wasn’t sure whether he was more worried about what he might find out, or Beth’s reaction to his calling her friends’ parents.
If he couldn’t locate her through friends, he realized, he was ready to call Denton Memorial Hospital. Or the state police.
Beth had been taken to Denton’s emergency room once before, when she was less than a year old. Joanne had held her as Jeffrey had sped there. A baby with a broken arm. A mother who hadn’t heard her fall.
Stephanie! Hadn’t she said something about Stephanie, before they’d argued about the car? “Hi, it’s Jeff Salazar,” he could say, “Beth’s dad? I just have a message for Beth, and she’s out, and I thought Stephanie might know…” Yeah, something like that. He felt sure he could do it without sounding too freaked out.
He reached for the receiver but it rang before he touched it. This confused him for a second, and he almost dropped it before he got it to his face.
“Daddy, is it okay if Jen comes over to spend the night tonight? Her mom said it’s okay. Please?”
The joy the sound of her voice incited washed over him and through him. Jeffrey drained all emotion from his own voice before responding to her question in the affirmative. Then he sat down, heavily, weary, at the kitchen table.
The phone rang again. “Daddy, what if, I mean, is it okay if a couple of kids come over too, but they’ll leave, I promise, before… before midnight? Okay?”
“A couple of friends?”
“Just two. Please?”
“But you know them,” she said, and he heard the laugh in her voice that hadn’t been there recently. “Just Victor and Elias, you know.” Jeffrey couldn’t picture Victor, and was quite sure he had never heard the name Elias in his life. It didn’t matter.
“When will you be here?”
They worked out the details. He made sure that Jennifer’s mother was in the loop, and they negotiated the boys’ departure time up to 10:30; then Jeffrey hung up. When he saw his reflection in the now opaque sliding glass door, he recognized that he was standing more erect than he had been a moment earlier. He looked less haggard.
Back outside, it was now completely dark.
The siren was gone. The air was as quiet as it was fresh and dark and all-enveloping. Whose kid, or wife, or grandparent had needed a swift trip to Denton Memorial? How much blood had their been?
His heart had returned to something near its normal rate. Things develop, he thought. Beth was a better driver than he was. Joanne, on the other hand, had driven like a maniac. Beth, he knew, would be better than either of them— at everything. Wasn’t that the goal?
Jeffrey slipped his gardening sandals on over his dirty socks. He walked in the pitch black across the yard to the nearest trees of the refuge. The only illumination came toward him through the trees from the refuge office floodlight, and that made it even harder to see in front of him, but his feet seemed to know exactly how many steps would take him to the verge of the forest. He stretched out his hands and touched the rough cool of the walnut’s bark, the absolute immobility and depth of its root system. He put his face against its roughness. With his arms encircling the trunk’s girth, Jeffrey bit a piece of bark and held it on his tongue with his mouth closed. He pressed his whole body against the trunk of the tree.
His own backyard lights blazed on.
“Daddy? Daddy! What’s going on?” Her voice reached to him across the yard, from the exact spot on the porch he had just vacated. “We’re going downstairs to watch— what are you doing in the woods in the dark?”
Jeffrey spat out the bark. “Nothing, Bethie— Beth. Just – checking – just nothing. I’ll be in in a minute.”
Back on his porch, he saw that the glare from the far side of the woods was now barely visible, washed out by his own backyard lights, the ones Beth had switched on. He switched them off. There it was again, still quite strong through the trees. He put himself back in the armchair, closed his eyes, and listened to the rivery sound of teenagers laughing in his basement. A tiny choir of brand new tree frogs, undoubtedly down by the pond, all but invisible even in broadest daylight, chirped into the night, announcing their intentions. The fire in the chimenea had gone out, and he left the ashes unmolested. He let the darkness hold him.
©2009 Richard W. Goffman All Rights Reserved
©2009 Richard W. Goffman All This brief excerpt from Laid So Low takes place in the consciousness of a little girl named Iliana. She was kidnapped and smuggled from El Salvador to New Jersey along with her mother, who is forced to work as a prostitute.
was a stuffed monkey Mamí had given her before they’d left home. When she had
gotten him he was almost as big as she was, but now she was several inches
taller than him, a fact which Chimpi refused to acknowledge. Chimpi had long
arms that Iliana could bend in such a way that he could hug her when she was
sad, and so that he could hold on to her when she gave him piggyback rides.
played with when no grown up people were around. She called him “G.” Mamí and
everyone else called him Jesus, because G was really a nine-inch tall plastic
crucifix someone had given Mamí when they had gotten to America. But G was
Iliana’s favorite letter in Inglés,
plus she knew that in Inglés they
said Jesus as if His first name was G and His last name was Zuss, so, when she
played with Him she called Him G. Later on she learned that G was the initial
of the American God, so it made sense to call His Son that.
He was a ten-year-old boy with a red shirt and red hair that stuck straight up.
Stanley could talk Spanish as well as she could, and Inglés as well as the Americans could, better than Salchichón. But
he wasn’t American and he wasn’t Salvadoran, like Iliana and Mamí. Stanley
insisted that he was from Antarctica, which was the country at the bottom of
the world, and that he could travel anywhere in the world from Antarctica, to
any country, any time he wanted, which was why he had made it a point to know
with Chimpi, because he was the most fun. Often she would play with Chimpi and
G together, because it was hard, sometimes, to tell a story with just her and
Chimpi to act out the parts. And sometimes, especially if she was feeling
lonely, like when Mamí was away working, Iliana would call all three friends
together. When she did this, she referred to them as “the boys.” Usually
Stanley, who could be very bossy because he was so smart, would take over
everything. Fortunately Stanley knew lots of stories that Iliana didn’t know.
Whenever Stanley told a story, he made Iliana have an important part, like a
mother or a princess. One time he made her the Queen of Antarctica.
thought was surprising and which Iliana thought was funny. She didn’t just learn Inglés from Stanley, who would sometimes sit Chimpi and G and her
down in a row and teach them new words, making them repeat over and over, “Una manzana es ‘an apple.’ ‘Un barco es a boat.’ Un chocolate es ‘a chocolate.’ Un pato es ‘a duck.’ Un elefante es ‘an elephant.’” She also
learned it from American TV. She didn’t always get to see TV, mostly only when
Mamí was away working. Usually she only worked at night, when Iliana was
asleep, and she would slip into bed before the sun came up, hug her and fall
asleep beside her. But when she was away during the day, Salchichón would push
the TV into the room on a little cart and plug it in. He would move the wires
and the tinfoil that were on top until they could see something, usually
cartoons but not always, and sometimes he would watch with her for a while.
to work at night and still not come back until late the next day. Now, this
time, Mamí must have a very big job, because she still was away after two
nights and two days. Maybe when she came back this time she would have enough
money so they could live in a house with real windows, and have their own TV,
and a refrigerator, and their own bathroom, and Iliana could play outside and
go to an American school.
the TV in the room for a little while. This time, though, when Mamí didn’t come
back the second night and the second morning, he pushed it in and left it
there, and he gave her an extra Ring Ding for breakfast. That’s how Iliana knew
Mamí was making lots of money this time.
was beside herself with joy because the man said, “Today, Sesame Street is
brought to you by the number 9 and the letter G!” Chimpi watched over Iliana’s
shoulder, but she held G in front of her, so he could get the best view, since
this was his special day, his special show. She held G tight and gave him a
Would you like to read an excerpt from Heartless Cruelty?
This is from the last two sections of Chapter One.
Bachman’s briefcase, an organizational feat that often eluded the teacher. He
closed the briefcase, locked his desk and stood to leave, when he realized he
was not alone.
glanced at his seating chart for Period 3, which Debra had taped to his desktop.
(She was amazing.) Jason, that was his name. Jason Fender. Every year Bachman met the challenge of committing to memory by the end of September the names of his hundred twenty-five or so new students. But there was always one kid, sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, whose name refused to stick in his head for weeks and weeks into the fall. He was never quite sure why, or what these students had in common.
learned about the Edith Wharton novel. Now Jason, who never volunteered in
class and had to be called on to get him to participate, was still wrestling
with the raw human issues the book evoked. And now Jason had spoken the longest
string of words Bachman had yet to hear from him.
don’t love each other. So why don’t they just get divorced?”
here. In 1983 divorce is common, and people have lots of options. In 1983, when
a man and woman get divorced, the woman doesn’t starve to death. At least we
would hope not. But Ethan and Zeena lived in a very different time, in a very
different place, and under very different circumstances than us.”
response, which almost sounded as if he had ignored Bachman’s statement, caught
Bachman by surprise. “I mean it’s not like they even had any kids. Some people,
they want to get divorced, but they don’t want to fuck up—oh, I’m sorry Mr.
damaged by the word ‘fuck.’ Go on.”
important anymore. And then other times, stayin together messes the kids up even
worse, because of all the fightin and cussin and stuff.”
torrent, and his awkward adolescent frame moved in fidgety, illogical ways. He
was a skinny kid, and his clothes didn’t exactly fit.
shadow of a circle around Jason’s neck, too.
Caused by what? How could he know? He couldn’t even be sure they were bruises,
or that they had been intentionally inflicted. Bachman looked elsewhere, but
the picture was still in his head. If they were bruises, how did they get there? Rope? Two encircling hands, maybe. Whose?
but he really wanted to see where Jason lived.
in presidential order. Washington Street was a main thoroughfare, three or four
blocks from the beach; Adams and Jefferson Streets had some beautiful, old,
three-story homes with wide, wraparound porches and leafy yards displaying the
best of autumn’s paintbrush. It was locally accepted that you wouldn’t want to
live on any street later than Jackson, and many people wouldn’t even drive down
Van Buren or anything west of there. Bachman lived nowhere near this section,
and didn’t have such a firm grip on the order of the early presidents. He never
could remember the difference between John Tyler and Zachary Taylor, but he
knew that both were long after Andrew Jackson.
pulled into the Dippity Donuts at the corner of Monmouth and Polk.
on his heel and headed down Polk like he had a very important meeting.
remained open, like an unanswered question. Bachman could only watch the dark
figure grow smaller in the growing gloom, raincoat flapping like the wings of a