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Literary Fiction


By Edward Ashton
Jul 4, 2020 · 927 words · 4 minutes

From the author: I'm not sure exactly what this story is. Not a romance, though.

Stimpson first sees Jenna on the highway, at quarter of six on the evening before his twenty-eighth birthday.  He’s just that morning received his doctorate in English Literature, and is now stuck in traffic on 79 south, two hours past Erie, still sixty miles shy of the West Virginia state line.  They’ve closed the highway down to one lane just north of Washington, and he’s been crawling along for twenty minutes, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and watching the heads of the couple in the car ahead of him -- her chin on his shoulder, her hand in his hair.  The sky is clear and bright and the stereo is playing Chemical Wire, and he isn’t really minding the holdup, meaning that he is in no hurry to return to Middleburg, or to move back into his parents’ house at twenty-eight years of age, when he glances into his rearview mirror and sees a gleaming white Miata -- the kind of white that hurts to look at in the sun, smooth and pristine and almost gleaming -- flying up behind him in the closed-off lane.

Stimpson has often said that he believes the world to be made up primarily of two types of people:  those who stand in line and wait their turn, an those who began by taking frontsies in the cafeteria in first grade, and who are now driving past miles of stalled traffic all over the world, smiling and waving and expecting the rest of us to let them in.

The Miata slows as it comes up behind him.  Jenna has her blinker on. She’s barely moving as she passes by, and she comes to a stop just a little ahead.  Stimpson has left a gap between his car and the one ahead of perhaps five or six feet.  He drops into gear and tries to close it up, but Jenna edges over and gets the front left corner of her twenty-thousand-dollar sports car in front of Stimpson’s Hyundai, and there is nothing to do but watch as she pulls in ahead of him.  She has dark hair and well-tanned skin and a toothy smile every bit as white as her car, and as she turns away he thinks that this is not someone who has ever had to wait for anything.  That irritates him even more, but it’s too late to lean on the horn and have it mean anything.  Instead he contents himself with riding her bumper all the way through the construction, glaring at the back of her well-coiffured head and wishing her evil luck.

Jenna next appears almost a month later, in the express line at the Safeway on Hillcrest Avenue.  She's two customers ahead of Stimpson, who is buying a pound bag of pretzels and a six-pack of beer.  He’s moved back into his old room, and has quickly fallen back into arguing with his father over dishes left in the sink and time spent in the bathroom, and probably would not have remembered Jenna had it not been for her impeccable hair and her twenty-seven items.  Jenna turns and sees him watching her, smiles apologetically and shrugs.  She has a half-dozen coupons.  She’s paying by check.  Is it possible that she thinks a smile is sufficient?  Stimpson hardens his features and narrows his eyes.  The cashier looks up at him, raises an eyebrow in question and quickly looks away.  There’s a price check on gummy bears.  Jenna is sure they’re on sale.  Stimpson puts down his basket and walks out of the store.

Middleburg is not a large town, and after that afternoon it seems Stimpson sees Jenna wherever he goes.  He stands behind her at the bank machine as she checks the balances on five different accounts.  He watches at Norv’s Ice Cream as she samples twelve flavors before choosing vanilla.  Two days before Christmas, he finds her brilliantly white Miata straddling the last two parking spaces at the mall.

Early May:  Stimpson emerges from Dunkin’ Donuts to find Jenna there on the corner, sitting on a wooden bench, waiting for the bus.  Her hair is cut shorter now, and her neck is long and slim and graceful, rising majestically from the collar of her tailored silk blazer.  Stimpson is resolved.  Today he will speak to her.  He walks over to the bench.  He stands behind her.  His shadow falls across her (the sun is high and bright, though the air is still cool) but she does not turn.  He walks around her, sits down next to her, offers his hand.

“Gerald Stimpson,” he says.

She turns, slightly startled, half smiles and says, “Jenna Randolph.  Do I know you?”

And now is the moment.  Of course you know me.  I’m the one who steps aside because you only have a few things to copy.  I’m the one you let ten friends crowd ahead of at the movie premiere.

“I don’t think so,” says Stimpson.  “Do you take this line often?”

“Oh, no.” She takes his hand, shakes it, lets it drop.  “My car’s at the mechanic’s.”

“Nothing serious, I hope.”

“Just a paint job.  I left it double-parked for two minutes, and someone scratched it with a key.”

“That’s been known to happen.”

A west wind is rising now, pushing her hair back, ruffling his shirt.  Stimpson leans back and closes his eyes.

“I think it may rain,” he says.  He finds he’s strangely happy.  The sunlight warms his face.

This story originally appeared in The Lowell Review.

Edward Ashton

Edward Ashton writes people-centered science fiction, or science-centered people fiction, depending on the day.