We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
This road journey conveyed how mysterious people remain to each other, the feeling of menace that results. It captured the clumsy gestures we make across the divide, our disbelief in kindness—how very surprised we are when nothing bad happens.
I enjoyed the surreal atmosphere of this story, and I appreciated the author’s skill at unearthing the strange in the ordinary. Congratulations to Leslee Becker, this year’s Aura Estrada Short Story Contest winner.
—Kiran Desai, contest judge
“Honest Meals,” the sign said, surprising Laura. She was in the Utah backcountry, the landscape flat and expressionless, except for an occasional spine of mesa that loomed red and flinty, as if ready to ignite. Then, miles down the road, she saw signs promising “A Real Family Place. Just Like Home!”
If Tom were with her, he’d insist they stop. He was sentimental and predictable. They’d been together two years, so she wasn’t surprised when he backed out of the trip. He stood by her car outside her apartment in San Jose, wished her luck, and said he’d never forget her.
She’d taken the secondary road outside of Sacramento, on her way to Colorado, where friends offered her a place to stay and help finding a job. She was twenty-two and had worked at Photo Plus for a year, but the business folded.
She’d come across racy shots of people in vulcanized rubber, brandishing whips and other paraphernalia, but most of the photographs were of weddings, babies, birthdays, holidays, and some of cars, even lawn mowers. She’d had fun with coworkers, concocting stories for the pictures and reasons why customers needed prints in such a hurry. It didn’t matter that the occasions and the people had begun to look alike, insisting: “Remember? We were happy on this day.”
Sometimes customers failed to pick up pictures, and Laura kept a few, including one of an older man in a beret, holding a fly rod. She framed the picture and kept it in her apartment. People might assume it was her father, the picture taken on a day they’d fished together. But she told Tom the truth—that her father had disappeared in Vietnam when she was four.
“Why don’t you have a picture of him?” Tom had asked her.
“He never seemed real to me,” she’d answered, and left it at that.
Her mother had never hounded the government for information, as the wives of other missing servicemen had. She felt others were deluding themselves by believing their loved ones were still alive overseas. Laura had followed their stories in newspapers with blurred pictures of ragged-looking men families claimed must be a brother, son, husband. When experts said the pictures were a hoax, Laura had to agree. The whole thing was like the fascination with pictures of Bigfoot, but she felt for the families and wondered if they kept the pictures.
“You’re Almost There,” the next sign said.
She thought it was the heat and the weight of her belongings that made the car hesitate when she pressed the accelerator, and then the car quit.
She arrived at the café, a silver Airstream trailer, on foot. No one inside—an older heavyset man behind the counter, a waitress, and a young, thin man—seemed surprised. “My car broke down.”
“Floyd,” the older man said, “Go check the car.”
Floyd balked at the command, but he took the keys from her anyway, and went outside.
“I was planning to stop,” Laura lied to the waitress. “I saw your signs.”
“We’ve got a reputation,” the waitress said. “Penitentiary’s not far, and we figured that people visiting inmates might want some home cooking. Floyd was an inmate himself.”
“Doris was a guard,” said the older man.
Jesus, Laura thought. She felt like she was in a bad movie, playing the part of the dumb girl who gets kidnapped by lunatics. An ex-con had her car keys, and an old man in a blue serge suit was running things.
“Where you heading to?” Doris asked.
“Friends in Colorado are expecting me,” she said.
Doris handed her a menu. “Relax, he’s not the cook.”
“I’m an arranger,” the old man said, giving Laura a business card: “Festive Moments. Arranged by M. Peabody, The Toast of the Town. Favors, balloons, adult gags, novelties. Free Party Consultation.”
“Mr. Peabody specializes in over-the-hill-party themes,” Doris said.
He laughed. “The hill’s over there.” He pointed to the window, and Laura glanced out.
She would eat, be on her way, and have a good story to tell friends.
“Couldn’t even get it to turn over,” Floyd said, startling her.
Mr. Peabody patted her hand and said he’d call a tow truck.
She didn’t know how she’d pay for the towing and repairs, but when the truck arrived, Mr. Peabody insisted she finish eating, and he’d handle the rest.
“One in a million. He personally helped me and Floyd out when we couldn’t get a loan. We owe this place to him,” Doris said, joining Floyd in the kitchen. Laura heard them whispering, Floyd probably describing the disappointing contents of the boxes in her car: books, clothes, cheap jewelry, pictures, no drugs, not even a decent appliance. She glanced at the empty parking lot and the heat-shimmery road, and then at the photographs on the café walls of children near Christmas trees, people at a dance hall, and Mr. Peabody dressed like a Wild West gunslinger.
‘Home of Festive Moments. M. Peabody, Proprietor. Specializing in Everything.’
The tow truck stopped to let Mr. Peabody out, then continued on.
“You probably blew a gasket,” he told her.
“Oh, no. People are expecting me.”
“First thing,” he said, “is putting you up. Second thing is changing your plans, letting your people know. You can do both at my place, or you can stay here and conduct your business. I told the fellas at the garage you’d be at my place.”
“Loaded with Experience,” said the bumper sticker on his car, a large green model with sloping fins. The back seat was filled with packages of balloons, paper plates, hats, and noisemakers, all sun-faded. “Floyd was in the pen for arson,” Mr. Peabody said. “Burned down his ex-wife’s house. He’s reformed now.”
She figured that he’d deliver a hackneyed speech about criminals and other wayward people turning their lives around by welcoming Jesus in their hearts.
“That’s where Floyd was.” He pointed to a high stone wall edged with razor wire, and behind it a series of scalped hills. “Mining, but that’s over now.”
Severance, said the town sign, listing the population as 1,320. “A Quarter Mile of Good People!”
It was a dusty, forlorn place, with boarded-up stores, a movie theater converted to a carpet store, a barber shop, a general store, and a couple of churches.
“Have you lived here all your life?” she asked.
“Nope. Just the second part.”
She couldn’t imagine much call for his party business. A little dog paraded down the street and collapsed under the awning of the general store. Mr. Peabody took her to a gas station, where her car sat among discards. It might take a week, the mechanics said, to get parts and finish the job. They didn’t ask for a deposit or a credit card. Mr. Peabody stood off with the men while she retrieved her suitcase.
He drove toward the hills, then took a dirt road that led to a driveway fringed with hollyhocks. A sign said, “Home of Festive Moments. M.
Peabody, Proprietor. Specializing in Everything.”
It was cool inside, surprisingly clean and spare. On the fireplace mantel was a picture of a young sailor and one of a hard-looking woman.
“That was me,” Mr. Peabody said. “In the navy.”
“Your wife?” Laura asked of the other picture.
“Maria. Not my wife. I was the entrepreneur of that choice.” He handed her the phone and went to the kitchen.
She had to speak to an answering machine and liked thinking of her friends speculating about her message. “I’ve had a change of plans,” she said. “I’m staying at the Home of Festive Moments.”
She’d vowed to write Tom off as a lost cause but considered calling him to say where she was and that she’d been thinking of him. But then the image of her apartment struck her. She’d scrubbed everything, emptied the refrigerator, and felt low, as if she’d erased herself. She’d called Tom to say goodbye, and he rushed over and kept trying to be upbeat. “Boy, if these old walls could talk,” he’d said, “the stories they’d tell, huh?”
• • •
“I’ll give you a tour of the place, and then we’ll eat,” Mr. Peabody told her in the kitchen and then led her to a small room filled with antiques, including an old slot machine. “Lots of people have stayed here. Now, you might get bothered by the many phone calls, and you might not like staying here alone. I don’t keep firearms. There hasn’t been a murder in a long time. I’ve only been robbed once. Someone made off with a suit and some provisions. I operate my enterprise out of my car, generally. My valued possessions are under lock and key.”
“I told my friends where I was, and I gave them your phone number. They’re going to stay in touch, make sure I don’t run into trouble.”
“Smart girl,” he said.
She followed him to a shed filled with costumes and props—whoopee cushions, clattering false teeth, balloons, and noisemakers. “Definitely festive,” she said of the collection.
“Can’t go wrong with amusements.”
When they returned to the house, he removed a portfolio from a cabinet. “I keep records,” he said, showing her pages of weddings, birthday parties, anniversaries, and graduations. Beneath each picture were names, dates, and summaries. “Wedding party of Carol and Ray Potts, July 15, 1978. Broken punch bowl. Replacement cost, $25.00.” “Chihuahua bit the Hatch boy on his fifth birthday.” “Emilo Santos came home from the Armed Service November 10, 1985.”
The latter part of the portfolio had pictures of long tables and men in orange coveralls, and families and prisoners opening presents, and then he showed her café photos. In one of them, Doris wore a guard’s uniform in a wedding picture with Floyd, a ball and chain around his feet. “Sentenced for life,” the caption read.
“I had a job in California at a photography shop,” she said.
“Now, about arrangements. I can assure you I’m not seeking remuneration money wise or sex wise.”
He took a pen and a little notebook from his pocket. She saw him enter the date, the weather, and then, “Laura Spencer’s car broke down. Ordered blue plate special at Floyd’s place. Car left at White Dog Garage. Awaiting parts and repair.”
“How’d you know my name?” she asked.
“It was on your vehicle registration. Why don’t you rest a while?”
She went to the guest room, determined not to let her guard down. Over the sizzle of food frying in the kitchen, she heard him crooning, “I wanna be a cowboy in the holy ghost corral.” Just that one silly refrain, again and again.
The sun was going down when she awoke disoriented, reminding her of when she’d get drunk at parties and wake up in unfamiliar places, convinced she was infatuated with danger, and for what? For the false pleasure of appearing reckless?
She looked out the window near the bed and saw something resembling a chapel constructed of haphazard stones. Blushed and shiny from the setting sun, tiny objects—bits of glass and bottle caps—glittered like excited eyes.
“You slept exactly forty minutes,” Mr. Peabody said at the table, ladling tortillas, beans, and rice on her plate.
“What’s with the chapel out back?” she asked.
“Tomorrow, after breakfast, we’ll go on a call. Twin sisters. I write songs. Did I tell you that?”
“I heard you singing.”
“I’m stuck on that one. I’d be a rich man if I’d stayed with one thing, but look at what I’ve got.” He fanned his arms expansively, as if to include the adobe, the muscular hills, his possessions, and her.
“How’d you end up here?” she asked.
“I’m tired,” he said. Although it was a harmless remark, she felt wounded.
He went to his room and closed the door. She returned to her room, put the picture of the fisherman by her bed, but couldn’t sleep.
She watched the sun come up, then made breakfast and went out to the chapel, touching the stones. They were as warm as breath.
Inside were bowling trophies, religious medals, tiny souvenir spoons, rusty horseshoes, cow skulls, even an old cowboy boot, bronzed like a baby’s shoe. In the middle of the assembly, she saw an oval-framed picture of
Mr. Peabody was in the kitchen, wearing a beige suit with Western stitching. He smelled of after-shave. He didn’t thank her for making breakfast. “You should put on proper attire,” he said. “It’s the twins’ eightieth birthday. Would you want company to show up in denim shorts and an old T-shirt?”
“I wanted to go for a walk first. I didn’t know there were rules.”
“You do now. I have a reputation to uphold. What if something happened to you out there? Don’t you know that everything you do, every single thing, matters? Someone left gaps in your personal education.”
“My father died when I was four, and my mother died when I was in college. I didn’t get to finish my education.”
“We all know not to nose around,” he said and told her to change her clothes.
She went into her room and saw him go into the chapel. Did he think she’d swiped something? A bowling trophy? She put on a white blouse and a green jumper and glanced at herself in the mirror. She looked like a Mormon.
She held a camera on her lap in the car. He didn’t say a thing about her outfit, only that he trusted she knew how to operate the camera.
The Hulsey place was at the end of a lane. As soon as Laura opened the car door, a terrier lunged at her. “Amigo,” the blue-haired sister shouted, “lay off.”
“He gets excited,” the other sister said. She wore the same outfit as her twin—salmon-colored pantsuit, white boots, and ropes of silver and turquoise jewelry.
“So, the party man’s got himself a girl,” said the blue-haired sister.
“I’m just helping him out,” Laura said.
“It’s a temporary arrangement, Grace,” Mr. Peabody said.
Grace ushered them into a living room filled with porcelain figurines and pictures of the sisters at various stages of their lives. “Let’s get this over with,” Grace said.
Mr. Peabody put a party hat on Amigo, told the sisters to sit on the sofa, Amigo between them. Amigo yelped at the flash, and then they went to the dining room.
“Are you crying, Ida? Such a sap,” Grace said.
“I can’t help it. Where are all our friends?”
“Dead,” Grace said.
Mr. Peabody handed Ida a present, a glass paperweight with a butterfly inside. Grace got a silver barrette.
“What’s your story?” Grace asked Laura, after Mr. Peabody went to get the cake.
“My car broke down.”
“It’s always something, isn’t it?” Ida said.
Mr. Peabody returned with a birthday cake with pink icing and a ring of lit candles. He told the twins to make a wish and blow out the candles, but the candles kept burning. “Gag candles,” he said. “A new item I found in a catalog.”
Laura knew the gag candles had been around for a long time. Her mother had used them at the sixteenth birthday bash she’d arranged, sending invitations to classmates Laura hardly knew. Her mother had given her a watch and a set of matching luggage and kept saying, “Are you happy, baby? Tell me you’re happy.”
• • •
The café parking lot was filled with cars. “They come on weekends,” Mr. Peabody said, “to visit family members. I’m thinking of building a motel, so folks can stay close by.” He handed her a ten-dollar bill. “For your lunch.”
“You won’t be eating with me?”
“I have personal obligations.”
“I can pay for my own lunch.”
“A gal always needs to have cash on hand.” He patted the breast pocket of his suit coat. “Besides, I keep track of expenses.”
She got out of the car and saw him writing in the little notebook.
“Making the most of it, are you?” Doris asked her at the counter.
Laura paused a moment. Did Doris think she was using the old man? “I’m earning my keep, helping him out.”
“The Hulsey twins. Floyd baked the cake,” Doris said, and left to wait on people.
A well-dressed older woman sat at a booth, and at an adjoining one were a young woman and two kids, a boy with a mullet and a little girl in a yellow dress. The girl was fidgeting, trying to stare at the older woman. The mother yanked her back into place. “Shena, behave.”
“She won’t ever get points for good behavior,” the boy said.
“Enough. No funny business,” the mother said. “He don’t want to hear about those athletic shoes you want. Show him your schoolwork. We only got an hour, and if you’re good, we’ll stop afterwards at the Dairy Queen.”
“Some fun,” the boy said.
Doris returned with Laura’s order. “You should see the shindigs Mr. Peabody throws at the prison. He could write a book.”
Laura felt funny getting this information, as if she were participating in an odd courtship ritual.
“That woman over there,” Doris said, gesturing toward the older woman, “started corresponding with a con. Married him. Mr. Peabody arranged it. He’s behind most everything.”
“He’s behind the times,” Laura could say, but it would be stupid and juvenile. “Interesting man,” she said. “Definitely different.”
“He mined in these hills. He’s been a bail bondsman, a parole officer, and now a party arranger.”
“No family of his own?” Laura asked.
Doris shrugged. “His lady friend mooched off him. He gave her her walking papers. I never cared for her. Hard to please.”
“That’s the one. She’s fat and still married, as far as I know. She sends those newsy Christmas letters every year from Florida, like she wants to rub in the fact she moved up in the world.”
“Florida,” Laura said, surprised to hear ordinary details about a woman she assumed was dead.
She wondered if her Colorado friends were glad she didn’t show. And then something she hadn’t thought about in a long time came back to her, a memory of her mother prettying herself and the house for dinner with the man she’d been seeing. She’d curled Laura’s hair and bought her a fancy dress. Laura had felt she was on display, especially when the man said, “I always wondered how the other half lives, and now I know.” He and her mother had chatted away, joking, making expected comments about the meal. Nothing bad had happened, yet Laura had felt suddenly grownup and separate. What had happened to that man? He was dull and polite, and then he stopped coming around. She wished she’d talked more with her mother, wished her mother would’ve been more down to earth about Laura’s father, instead of always romanticizing him.
• • •
She rushed out of the café when she saw Mr. Peabody’s car.
“Wait here. I won’t be long,” he said, heading inside.
He’d left the notebook on the dash. The date and weather notation again, followed by details about the Hulsey party. “The girl came along. Has a big appetite and dim prospects.”
“Dim prospects,” she thought. Who was he to talk?
“What are you going to name that motel you’re thinking of building?” she asked when he returned to the car.
“It’ll come to me. Something original and inviting.”
“I wouldn’t pick Severance, if I were you.”
He didn’t say anything. They drove to a mobile-home park, and he finally said, “People are the same all over the world. It’s just more concentrated here.”
She heard TVs playing, and from one trailer, the lonely sound of a baby crying. Mr. Peabody stopped near a trailer that had a sign on it advertising bait. A little girl holding a fat gray cat emerged from behind the trailer.
“This is Betty,” the girl said to Laura. “She had babies. What’s he up to?”
She pointed at Mr. Peabody. He was putting on a gorilla costume.
“Oh boy, you’re going to scare him,” the girl told him. “Betty and I are going home now.”
It smelled sweet inside the trailer from something baking in the oven. A banner above the sofa said, “Congratulations, Joey.” Balloons were tied to the furniture, and religious pictures and ones of men landing on the moon were on the walls.
“You went all out, Mrs. Teebo,” Mr. Peabody said to a plump woman. He didn’t introduce Laura. The woman shushed him and led them into the kitchen.
“It’s supposed to be a surprise,” she said, “but that girl kept coming around with her cat. Joey’s allergic to cats. He’s asleep now.” She closed the kitchen door and went into another room, where Laura heard whispering and a boy giggling.
Mrs. Teebo opened the door and shouted, “Surprise!”
The boy was bald and frail, and he laughed when Mr. Peabody made gorilla sounds. Then they went into the living room, and Laura took pictures, glad to hide behind the camera.
“Are you his new assistant?” Mrs. Teebo asked.
Laura nodded, wondering about other assistants. Everything seemed exaggerated in the small space, and she cringed when Mrs. Teebo told Joey to make a wish, and blow out the candles. “God, God, here it comes,” Laura thought. But she was relieved to see the candles were regular ones. Mrs. Teebo and Mr. Peabody clapped loudly. Then Mrs. Teebo served cake, ice cream, and lemonade. Mr. Peabody removed his gorilla mask and gave Joey a baseball cap. “Okay, take our pictures,” he told Laura.
“I want her in it,” Joey said.
Laura hesitated, glanced at Mrs. Teebo and Mr. Peabody, and then stood by Joey. Joey took her hand. “Can I kiss her for luck?”
No one said anything, so Laura said, “Sure,” to get it over with. She leaned toward the boy. He kissed her lightly on the forehead, and then hard on the lips. His mother took pictures, dragging out the excruciating
“The boy’s grown up on us,” Mr. Peabody told Mrs. Teebo.
“You putting on weight?” she asked Mr. Peabody.
“You know me. Can’t say no to anything.”
Laura excused herself to go outside for a cigarette, and when Mr. Peabody finally came out, he said that they needed to check on her car at the garage.
“Where’s Joey’s father?” Laura asked, changing the subject.
“Long gone. Mrs. Teebo raised Joey on her own. She cleans rooms and sells bait. Joey’s got it bad. He’s on his way out.”
Laura touched her lips. Joey had held her hand, and kissed her for luck, as if this might exempt him from his future.
Later, she saw her car at the garage, but it felt like it belonged to someone else. The mechanics said that it’d be ready tomorrow. Mr. Peabody looked pleased. “That’s a stroke of luck. Good job, boys.”
They said nothing on the drive home. He quickly went to his room, and she was uncertain of what she should do next. She knocked at his door. “Want me to put stuff back in the shed?” she asked, but got no answer. “You need to give me a bill for what I owe you.”
He opened the door, and she saw paintings of somber-looking pioneers. Why would anyone want such grim pictures around?
“I told you I wasn’t expecting remuneration.”
Why couldn’t he ever say her name, and why should she care? He now had photographs of her with Joey, and she wondered if he’d someday show them to someone. Would he describe her as a lost soul?
“I’d like to have copies of those pictures Mrs. Teebo took today,” she said.
“It was a good day, wasn’t it? You made someone happy.”
She felt moved, something in heart shifting, falling into a space that seemed natural, like stones loosened by a hard rain.
“I could hang around longer,” she said, her voice sounding every bit like the cloying one Tom used when he wanted something from her.
He shook his head. “Wouldn’t look right. Wouldn’t be right.”
He went into the kitchen, and she went to her room, feeling low at the sight of her suitcase and messed-up clothes on the bed.
He was at the stove, and she startled him by touching his shoulder. She was glad he didn’t say anything, or try to stop her, because she was trying to figure what she was doing by taking over.
He sat at the table, mentioning he’d drop off film at the general store, and that he was determined to start watching his diet. He glanced at the window, and just when she thought he’d comment on the weather, he surprised her by asking if she had a boyfriend and job prospects.
“No. I lost my job, and the boyfriend, well, he was very immature, stuck on loss and on himself,” she said, knowing she could be describing herself.
“A person stuck on himself makes a mighty small package,” he said, and got up from the table.
“I like it here,” she said.
He blushed and looked away. She knew she’d been too stupid or too frank.
“Be sure tomorrow to leave with a full tank. Long stretch ahead of you between service stations.” He quickly went to his room.
She felt foolish sitting in the kitchen in her Mormon outfit, even washing the dishes. What would Tom and her friends think if they could see her now?
She went to her room and packed her suitcase, leaving the photograph of the fisherman on the nightstand. Maybe the picture would end up in the chapel with all the other relics, and others could come up with their own stories.
She left a note with her address in Colorado, where he could forward the pictures she’d asked for. “You’ve made a positive difference in my life,” she wrote, aware it was corny and canned, something his parolees probably told him all the time.
She knew he’d feel relieved as soon as she left. He might write in his notebook. “Laura Spencer. Repairs completed.”
And she’d be driving, thinking of him, thinking of the things she wished could be true, the things that were true—the tentative look on Joey’s face when he kissed her for luck, softly at first, then determinedly, as if everything unsettled, unpleasant, and unfair in the world could be made to vanish.
Photograph: Stephanie Kac
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
in your carpeted office you lay my life down / and say open up to that small room in my sternum.
In his new book, the former Fed chair cuts through economic orthodoxy on central banking. But he fails to reckon deeply with its political consequences.