November 2007

Donald Secreast


Donald Secreast Donald Secreast studied fiction with John Barth, Edmund White, and John Irwin at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. After a few years of teaching, he attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop where he studied with Lynne Sharon Schwartz and James Alan McPherson. While in the program, he traveled to South American with Charles Frazier and helped write Adventuring in the Andes (Random House, 1985). In 1990, Harper & Row published Secreast's first short story collection, The Rat Becomes Light. In 1993, HarperCollins published his second short story collection, White Trash, Red Velvet. Presently, Secreast teaches American Literature and creative writing at Radford University.

Excerpt From If a Woman Comes to Call

The pig didn't look right. Roger had glanced at it on the spit as he strolled around the abandoned sand quarry known to all the locals as "The Pit." Because of the Pit's isolation—ten miles from Tarburg—and because of its acres of sandy shore surrounding a lusterless pond, anyone wanting to have a pig picking immediately and automatically named the Pit as the party grounds. Another pass by the roasting pig assured Roger that the three boys in charge of this roast weren't fully in control. When he'd seen the announcement on the bulletin board in front of the administration building, he thought at first that he had misread it. A pig picking in January. To help kick off the spring semester.

At least the boys had taken advantage of the unseasonably warm weather. Although Roger knew he couldn't trust abnormal temperatures and the impromptu celebrations that came with them, he saw this party as a chance to resume his place in Tarburg College society. Still, boys who read the weather well didn't necessarily know how to cook a pig. Roger scanned the few people who had arrived as early as he had. No one interesting yet. No Daphne. Eventually, Roger would have to drift over to his colleagues and talk about frustrated vacations and unexpected debts. He dreaded the sympathy which would make him feel even more isolated. For the moment, Roger felt too drained to complain effectively, entertainingly. In all likelihood, complaining was probably improper for a man mourning the death of his mother, yet complaints, along with gossip, were a major social currency in Tarburg. He had come hoping to find someone to admire, someone so full of life that he could, by standing in the same pit, suck up some of that person's excess energy.

Unfortunately, all of the energy of the place centered around the pig, who was oozing thick drops of fat. Pretending to see something interesting down at the quarry pond, Roger took a few steps toward it then slowed almost to a stop when he got beside the pig. Although he hadn't had the three cooks in any of his classes, he had seen them around. They were the standard Tarburg College male: thick hair, thick arms, thick chest, thick legs. Healthy to the point of egotism. Despite their casual clothes and the casual setting, the three boys were suspiciously intent. One of the boys tapped the side of the pig with a large metal fork.

If he stayed three seconds longer beside the pig and its cooks, Roger knew he would be expected to offer advice or make an encouraging comment. The pig's bloated carcass defied him to do either. What was wrong with it? Roger asked himself, trying not to shuffle as he moved toward the pond. He glanced back. The boy who was turning the crank was having trouble getting the pig to rotate. The spit quavered when the boy did succeed in getting it to turn.

Looking back at the increasingly deformed pig, Roger failed to see Alice Bartholomew approaching the pond from an isolated stand of pine trees. Because they had started working for the college at the same time, Alice viewed Roger as a special friend and, consequently, treated him with a little more consideration that those people she suspected of being out to make her life difficult.

Despite his special place in Alice's heart, Roger had occasionally glimpsed the blade of bitterness whizzing in the back of Alice's civility to him. No matter how hard he tried, Roger always had trouble guessing what her moods were and preferred to avoid her until by observation from a distance he could discover if she was safe to talk to. Generally, if she spoke first, her mood rested on the jolly side of the line.

"That pig about ready?" Alice slipped up against Roger and put her arm around his waist.

Roger put his arm around Alice's shoulder. "Ready for what?" He knew Alice liked innuendo. Although attractive in that way a biology teacher can be with freckles on her nose and dark, naturally wavy hair, Alice had lost her initial appeal to Roger because she always carried an odor of the laboratory with her, a blend of chloroform and formaldehyde. During the first couple of years that Roger had known her, the odor hadn't bothered him that much, but during the last months of his mother's disease, he had noticed that the smell of her failing body reminded him of Alice's ghostly scent. Although he could still flirt with her on social occasions, he could no longer muster any serious fantasies about her.

Alice barked out a lusterless laugh, a miniature replica of the dull pond in front of them, and leaned her head against Roger's shoulder. "Is it ready for picking?"

Roger turned to look back where the pig was being cooked. Despite the sixty-degree temperature, he felt his skin contracting, the pores battening down their hatches. "To me, it looks more ready for exploratory surgery."

Squinting in the direction of the spit, Alice let her contacts drift around until they focused. "Well, I know all three of those boys, and cute as they are, their combined intelligence isn't up to cooking over an open fire."

"When I was up there a few minutes ago, they looked like they really needed some help." Roger moved around Alice to face her in the direction of the roasting pig. Alice liked to be of help, especially when it brought her into contact with her male students. Roger knew she was a very ethical teacher, and she was involved with an older former student, Stanley, but with her keen mind, Alice was able to see that very wide gray area between helping students and testing the porous membrane of the student/teacher relationship.

With her arm still around Roger, Alice started up the small rise toward where the pig was dripping elongated beads of fat into the fire. Roger saw that a few more people had arrived, and he didn't want to come swaying up to the crowd wrapped around with Alice's proprietary arms.

Like a dangerous undertow, Alice pulled him along. His panic began to surface like the fat from the pig—in small thick globules. None of the other women he might see would take him seriously if he appeared hooked up with Alice.

"Wait, wait." Roger stooped down, pulling himself out of Alice's half embrace. He flopped down on the sand and began to take off his shoe. "Can't stand to get sand against my skin." He made an elaborate display, shaking out his shoe then brushing off his sock. He saw that Alice was watching, the corners of her mouth twitching. He continued to brush his foot. "Sorry for the delay."

Alice patted him on the head. "I kind of like that submissive position."

"The secret when you have to party on the sand is not to move around so much. Just stay in one place and you don't start swishing the sand into your shoes." Roger meticulously retied his shoe and began untying the other.

"You got sand in both your shoes?" Alice stepped back from Roger and tilted her torso to the side to better examine his foot.

"I've been here almost as long as the pig has." Roger dumped the sand from his shoe then carefully brushed out the inside. "And I've been circulating." With relief, Roger saw that Alice now gazed toward the three boys by the pig. "I have a few more minutes of brushing off to do. I can already tell that I didn't get all the sand out of my other shoe." He brushed his sock with short, clinical strokes. "Go on up there and see if you can figure out what they're doing wrong to the pig. They desperately need the help."

Having one man at her feet and three boys on her horizon, Alice's laugh was more inflated, lifting from her throat in a sluggish trill. "They've always needed help. Rich boys can't get enough . . ." Alice paused as she walked backwards from Roger,
" . . . help." Now her laugh was actually buoyant, still lusterless but light and expanding.

For the sake of appearances, Roger took the time to remove his other shoe and brush off the sand he'd missed the first time. One of the cooks, perhaps to cover up the intensifying distortions of the pig, turned on a portable tape player. The official music at the sand pit had to be beach music. "Under the Boardwalk" drifted tinnily down to where Roger rested in the sand. The previous semester had worn him out, driving the two hundred miles every weekend to sit beside his comatose mother.

A faint odor of indignant pork drifted down to Roger. Over his shoulder, he heard Alice Bartholomew's voice, loud and ominous, her words hanging in the air like Spanish moss. "You bring a knife, and you two lift up that spit." Then her voice shifted from an institutional timbre of scorn to an inviting disdain. "Come up here, Roger. You've got to see this."

He stood up, feeling heavy.

Alice had come to meet Roger, to take him by his arm, not flirting this time but insistent, her skin almost vibrating with derision. "This tops all I've ever seen in the realm of food abuse." She dropped her chin down to her chest and snickered, a sound full of prickles and static. "Oh, Roger, they didn't gut the pig or anything. All this time, they've been cooking it with all its insides bumping around intact."

Roger turned his attention from Alice to the pig. One of the boys who had tried to lift the spit had burned his fingers and was standing to one side of the spit shaking his hand. Although Roger couldn't hear what he was saying, he was obviously telling his companion that he wasn't going to lift the spit. Then he threw an angry glance in Roger and Alice's direction. The third boy, who had brought a large knife, listened to the victim's complaint, shrugged, and plunged the knife into the pig's abdomen. In a smooth, tennis-like stroke, the boy then shoved the knife toward the pig's chest.

At the moment when the boy stabbed the pig, Alice looked in his direction. She clenched Roger's arm and yelled, "Don't open the pig over that fire!"

As she yelled, melted fat and steaming organs gushed out of the gash the boy had opened. With an oceanic roar, the fire leaped up twenty feet, blowing the pig over Roger's and Alice's heads down to the edge of the pond. When the pig landed, it plowed snout-first through the sand for six or seven feet.

"It's not exactly how I would have launched the new semester, but it sets a familiar mood." Roger leaned lightly against Alice and patted the fingers still squeezing his arm.




Donald Secreast: Fiction
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 37The Cortland Review