This week, we decided to share some fiction from NDQ 85 a bit earlier because we have a really cool announcement to make on Thursday.
Judith Ford’s “Green Scarf” is a harrowing and uncompromising read that speaks to a pressing concern. It appeared at the first story in NDQ 85 and demonstrates the power of short fiction to prompt serious reflection.
In the car on the way there, the young man with the blond sideburns said, “The doctor always tells me I can take the prettiest girls out to dinner.” This, she guessed, was supposed to put her at ease. She was not at ease. He was smiling. She was not. She returned her gaze to the buildings that moved in and out of the car window’s frame: a Howard Johnson’s motel, a Texaco gas station, cars parked everywhere along the busy streets. Black, silver, red, blue. She couldn’t have said the color of the car she was in. All she remembered of the walk across the parking lot was the dark asphalt that had glinted here and there in the waning sunlight, those unexpected sparkles, and her own slow feet in their scuffed white sandals. The sound of the car door opening. The sound of the linen fabric of her new green dress sliding against the car seat. Nor could she have told anyone the name of the scrawny young man who was driving, although he’d said his name when he’d picked her up. If that really was his name.
She would have been more scared if she hadn’t resigned herself to the likelihood of her death. There was a strange empty peacefulness in that. Like Novocain. It had made it possible for her to get up that morning, get dressed, and keep moving into whatever would be.
Like bungee jumping, she supposed. Or skydiving. You travel to the highest point. You close your eyes and you jump. Falling, you have no more choices.
She’d sewn the green dress with the thought that it would be the last she would ever wear. She’d done a damn good job, too. The dress was perfect, a graceful A-line with cut-in shoulders. Fashionable, very short. That morning she’d added white lace hose and a white straw hat. Wrapped the hat with a green chiffon scarf, knotted it at the left side and let the scarf ends flow down to her shoulder.
She’d always had a flair for the dramatic, and a tendency to commemorate important dates with food, costumes, poetry. She always bought herself a pomegranate on the first official day of winter, eating the seeds a few at a time over the whole month, in honor of Proserpina and the promise of spring. She’d written a poem on her birthday every year since she was ten, even her most recent birthday, when she’d turned 21, drinking cheap marsala alone, waiting for her lover to call. He had not called.
The green dress, she thought, was versatile. It would be equally suitable for her wake or for annual celebrations of her survival.
Bring someone to drive you home, they’d said. She hadn’t asked her lover; she’d demanded. She never made demands of him, but this time, yes, she had. He’d agreed, although she knew he didn’t want to go, almost as much as she didn’t want to.
They’d followed directions, driven 100 miles to register in a midtown hotel. He’d paid for the room. Besides the ride in his rusting station wagon, it was all he could afford. They’d lain in each other’s arms on the double bed three hours waiting for the call. When it came, the voice instructed her to come alone to the lobby. She’d put her sandals on, untied the green scarf from the hat, and placed the naked hat on the bed. She loved the hat and wondered if, because she loved it, it could somehow pull her back here. After. Alive. Safe, despite the odds. She loved the man, too, but knew there was not much there for her to return to. The hat, then. And the memory of who’d she’d been when she’d tied the scarf to it that sunny morning. Would it be enough?
In the car, she wove the scarf between her stiff fingers and closed her hands tight, in fists, as if the scarf were a rope, like the ones spelunkers use to find their way back out of unmapped caves.
The car radio burbled news: Neil Armstrong had just walked on the moon; people in the background cheered; President Nixon said something about America being proud. Sideburns tried to talk to her about how cool it all was. She didn’t find it especially cool. She wondered how Armstrong would get himself back.
The man with the sideburns parked the car, asked her to follow him, please. And now, different from the way she’d walked to the car, seeing only the ground, she noticed everything. This, despite the fact that nightfall had wiped out the summer sun. She noticed that the sky was not yet as dark as it later would be, that Sideburns had parked at the back of the hotel where there was no neon sign announcing the hotel name; that his shirt was blue and his shoes were black ankle-high boots with pointed toes, the kind her older brother wore. She noticed how brightly lit the interior hallways were and how the walls, papered in dense flowers, seemed to sway in toward her as she walked.
They stopped at a door. She would remember the number always: Eighteen.
“Your delivery is here,” Sideburns said to the closed door. She heard a security chain slide out of its track, a deadbolt turn. The dark-haired man who stepped aside to let them in wore a red, short-sleeved golf shirt. A small black-and-white television on the dresser at the foot of the bed was turned on. The bed was covered with a clear plastic sheet. The bed sheets, blanket, and bedspread lay crumpled on the floor. A stack of white towels, all carefully folded, lay on the dresser beside the TV.
“Do you have the money?” the dark-haired man asked. When Sideburns had met her in the hotel lobby downtown, he’d asked immediately if she had the money. Yes, she’d had it, but only $600. “The fee is $700,” Sideburns had said. She didn’t have a dollar more, not one. Not in the woven rattan purse that hung from her shoulder, nor back in her small apartment, nor at the bank where they charged another overdraft fee every day that her account was empty. Not in her lover’s bank account either. He was in graduate school and living on loans.
“I was told it was $600.”
“It’s gone up since.”
She stood, just inside the closed door, with the green scarf stretched tight between her hands.
“This is really all you can pay?” the golf shirt man asked. For a second, she hoped they would send her away. But in the next second, she remembered what that would mean. It was not bearable.
“He said it would be enough. It’s what I was told to bring.”
The two men went into the bathroom and talked quietly. No words she could pick out.
“Okay, then. I’ll make an exception,” the golf shirt man said, as he came out drying his hands on a towel.
She took off her clothes when she was told to. The two men waited again in the bathroom.
Framed inside the TV screen, a cartoon fish wearing glasses swam happily in a gray sea. “I wish, I wish, I wish I was a fish,” sang a chorus in the background. She recognized the movie, The Incredible Mr. Limpet. About a disappointed man who became a fish to escape his life. The music was merry, silly. As she slid nude beneath the white sheet, her scarf clutched in just one hand, she heard the voices sing, “Cause fishes have a better life than people.”
Amen, she thought. Amen.
“Give me that,” Golf-shirt said. She didn’t want to, but already she’d surrendered her will to such an extent that she could no longer locate it. She gave up the scarf. She gave up everything and closed her eyes.
She would always remember the return of the sight and sound of Mr. Limpet. As if the TV had been dampened and then returned to normal, although she hadn’t noticed anyone touching its dials. Other things she remembered: the smell of her blood, a metallic smell like rusting iron; the flush of a toilet; the new song on the TV, “Be Careful What You Wish.” How the men retreated again to the bathroom so she could rise and dress. She didn’t rise or dress. She rode waves of pain and dizziness. She’d particularly remember the pain and the dizziness.
Watching the cartoon fish unmoored her even more. She wondered if she’d ever be able to stand up again. She shut her eyes. She moaned. A voice from the bathroom: “Hurry now. We need to be leaving.”
It was perhaps the anxiety in that voice that made her finally push the sheet off and reach for the Kotex. What had just been done here was a crime. What if someone called the cops? Would they arrest Sideburns and Golf-shirt who had just now saved her, saved what was left of her? And how, without them, would she find the hotel where her lover waited? She didn’t remember its name or what street it was on. She still needed these men. Protecting them was also protecting herself, and her newly returned, tenuous life. She stood up, shaky, pulled her underwear over the bulky pad, fastened her bra, pulled her dress on over her head, had to sit for a little while before she could risk bending over for her sandals, for the green scarf that was coiled on the floor beside them.
What she’d also remember: how her vision narrowed again but not from fear this time, more from dizziness—blood loss, she supposed, as well as her body’s finally registering what had happened to it, the assault, for sure, but also a swell of relief. She wouldn’t remember getting into Sideburns’s car and leaning her head against the cool glass of the car window.
At the hotel where her lover waited, she stumbled crossing the lobby. Sideburns grabbed her elbow and whispered, “Don’t faint on me now.”
“I’m not a fainter,” she told him and steadied her weak knees to prove it. At the elevator, Sideburns pressed a packet of pills into her hand—antibiotics, he said, and something to stop the bleeding, and told her he would call tomorrow to check on her. He let go of her elbow then, wished her luck, and was gone before she could push the Up button.
The instant her lover opened the door, she ran to the bathroom and vomited, gagged and spit until there was nothing but bile. She was embarrassed for him to see her like that. Later she’d think it was good that he’d seen the impact. Without that, it might have been too easy for him to forget. She didn’t want him to think it had been nothing.
He leaned on the bathroom door frame, asking could he help. He held her arm and led her to the bed where she rested for an hour before she trusted her legs not to buckle on their way down to the lobby and out to his car. Once again, she kept her eyes on the ground, steadying herself on the solidness of the parking lot. She looked for the sparkles but didn’t see any. The asphalt now was the black of a starless, moonless night.
They didn’t speak as he drove. She dozed but woke each time he paid the tolls, one-two-three of them. Two hours later he stopped in front of her apartment building and she got out of the car. When she turned to pick up her purse and her hat, she saw that the car seat was soaked with dark blood. He saw it, too, and his face went white. Out of fear for her? Maybe. Or maybe out of fear that he’d be unable to clean the stain before his wife saw it.
He told her the back of her dress was soaked, too. “Try not to let your roommate see,” he said, though later she wondered why he’d thought that so important. Maybe because he couldn’t bear looking, himself. Or was he worried he’d be implicated? “Can you walk on your own? Should I help you?”
She reached for the green scarf he held out for her. “No,” she said. “You don’t need to help. I’m okay.”
She wrapped the scarf around one wrist and walked slowly up the stairs. She passed the dark square of her roommate’s bedroom, washed up in their shared bathroom, wiped up the drops of blood that escaped onto the white hexagonal tiles of the bathroom floor. Crawled into bed and slept fitfully. The dress lay in a tired, ruined heap in the corner of her bedroom. She woke again and again all night, amazed that she was there, still there, and safe, with the hat and the scarf—and the dress that in the morning she would push down deep into the trash bin in the alley behind her building.
Judith Ford, a retired psychotherapist, has published fiction, nonfiction and poetry in many literary journals including Connecticut Review, Quarter After Eight, Southern Humanities, Sulphur River Literary Review, and Willow Review. Ms Fordlives half time in Wisconsin and half time in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and dog.