Just a little intro: A few months ago Caroline Adderson wrote to me about a student of hers who had just produced a stunning short story based on my exercise model in “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise” in my book Attack of the Copula Spiders. Caroline was right about the story, and I am delighted to publish it here.
But it’s not the first successful story written off that exercise. I am gradually collecting some great examples. So look at “Shame” by Benjamin Woodard and “Gunslinger” and “Angel of Death” by Casper Martin to get an idea of the range of styles and subject matter that can evolve from a simple prompt.
Bentley watched Adèle pass without a glance at the hydrocephalic skeleton of a five-year old child hung on a yard-tall metal pole, alien-headed, lights glaring on its glass case. She entered the next room down the corridor that curved to his right. Der Narrenturm, The Tower of Fools – not very PC back in the 17th century, were they, Bentley thought. The Museum of Anatomy and Pathology in the old psychiatric ward of the Vienna General Hospital was housed in a round, four-story tower separated from the main building by an expanse of lawn. The physical specimens of contagion and birth defects in two-hundred-year-old glass jars filled with murky fluid only compounded the barbarity of the place. Bentley had to admit that as far as medical horrors go it was a fitting setting – thick, whitewashed brick walls separated tiny cages of rooms on the outer wall, a circular corridor surrounded an inner courtyard where he imagined the less affected inmates had been allowed to take air. He had expected the place to reek of formaldehyde, like the pathology departments in all the hospitals where he had worked, but the building was odorless, sterile.
He didn’t want to come, not at all, but from the moment she learned about it Adèle became obsessed. Once here, she went from room to room, her eyes drawn from one specimen-containing jar to another – she never did anything half-way. Studying, work, sex. Having a baby. In the Contagion Room Bentley was reminded of the story Adèle told about the plasticine models of a syphilitic she saw as a child a French venereology clinic. The new nanny her mother had hired made Adèle promise not to tell anybody as she pulled her into the dark hallway and up the steep, wooden staircase. When the woman disappeared into the examining room, Adèle – curious, and a precocious reader – went from display case to display case, and made out the words letter by awful letter. Gumma, congenital syphilis, primary chancre. She was six years old. She had not been able to sleep for months afterwards, the speckled fetus and the caved-in nose floated in front of her every time she closed her eyes. Fifteen years later, during a medical school lecture on sexually transmitted diseases she darted out from the lecture hall, her chair clanging to the floor. Bentley found her in the quadrangle, sucking on a cigarette. “I’ve seen those before,” she choked out before the story tumbled all out.
But today she marched past them. Two rooms later she stood, transfixed, and stared at a preserved baby with its intestines floating outside its abdomen, its little fingers interlaced as if in prayer, put in that position by some well-meaning – or was it morbid? – mortician, and slumped forward, its nose flattened against the glass of the jar. The look on Adèle’s face must have been the look the child Adèle had – mouth slack, eyes darting about the specimen, taking in all the gruesome details. An anencephalic newborn in a jar behind her stared at Bentley from beneath half-closed eyelids.
He knew that he wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.
A few days after she ran out of the lecture hall Adèle dragged Bentley into Fairweather’s at Yonge and Eglinton. A rack in a back corner held a clutch of cocktail dresses, their cheap-looking fabrics glimmered in the bright ceiling lights.
“Ooh, can you imagine anything worse?” Adèle sung out.
Bentley eyed the dresses.
“I gotta try them on!” Lemon yellow, violent pink, green, and neon mauve tumbled off the rack into her arms and she disappeared into the fitting room.
“Stupid cheap zipper,” floated over the partition. “How’s this?” She flung the curtain aside and twirled out in the green dress. It cinched her around the waist, the straps drug into her shoulders; even though she was slim and toned she looked like a boiled ham in a netting. On a bed of stewed Boston lettuce. And yet, she was still beautiful.
Bentley pumped his index finger in his open mouth and made gagging sounds. He reached for the zipper. She weaseled out of his arms and ducked back behind the curtain. Soon she popped out in the neon blue.
“This color does nothing for you.”
“The color? What about the cut? Those flounces! Whoever came up with this deserves to die a long-drawn out death in the seventeenth circle of hell. Drowned in tears of women who had to wear this horror.”
“There were only nine circles of …” he begun, and Adèle rolled her eyes.
“I know that,” she said.
The next dress, the mauve, made her pale, freckled skin look like she had secondary syphilis. He bit his lip as he remembered Adèle’s shaking voice.
When she disappeared into the fitting room for the fourth time he was ready to walk out and never come back.
“Did you have to try all of them?” he asked long after they left the store. Something in his voice made her stop and look at him.
“I thought it was funny,” she said.
“You have no sense of proportion.” He stomped off, leaving her standing alone at the entrance to the subway.
The following morning, he waited for her at the same spot – she was late. He had studied way past his bedtime to make up the time, and was feeling grouchy and unkind. But he couldn’t go a morning without seeing her. He waved when he saw her in the crowd.
“Ready for the gynie exam?” Adèle asked when she reached him.
Bentley looked up at the trees just coming out in leaves – greenish mist hung around the branches. No apologies from Adèle, ever. A sparrow trilled and went silent over their heads.
“I’m totally not,” Adèle said. “This fertility crap. I have to put up with it every month, I don’t want to study it, too.”
“I thought procreation was every woman’s passion,” Bentley said carelessly. Adèle’s cheeks went brick red.
“I’ll have you know that I am not constantly thinking about babies and nursing and lactating and gestating and bringing life into this world and whatever other cliché crap you chauvinist misogynes think women are about.”
“Sex?” Bentley asked just as Adèle inhaled to continue. He wiggled his black eyebrows like a beetle. Adèle snorted and punched him in the shoulder.
“Hah! I am like a guy in that respect, eh? Men think about sex…”
“…every eight seconds,” Bentley finished with her.
Adèle laughed and leaned into him, her head on his shoulder. His penis stirred and thickened – obviously he was one of those men.
“You must have gotten too much testosterone exposure during your fetal life,” he said. He kept his arm around her shoulder the rest of the way to the hospital.
The first time he saw Adèle she was dancing on a chair at their med school orientation party. She wore autographed boxer shorts from an upper class man, the prize token for the scavenger hunt; a wide grin – all teeth – split her face, thick brown hair parted in a bob on the right. As she shook it off her face her eyes met Bentley’s and she winked at him, her face an invitation. Bentley felt his face grow hot.
They were sleeping together a month later. Bentley, virginal, realized right away that Adèle was much more experienced than he would allow himself to imagine. Her lipstick on his penis – kissing it, biting it, sucking it she smeared the crimson on the pearly pink of his shaft and foreskin. He pushed aside thoughts of the unnamed men, their greedy hands, their probing tongues and dicks that knew Adèle better than he did.
He realized then that he would never let go of her.
What are we doing here, Bentley wondered as he followed Adèle into another low-ceilinged room. And another. She had to see every last atrocity, every last crime nature committed against itself in forming these monsters. Teratogenesis – the study of monsters – he remembered from their genetics lectures. She shouldn’t even be here – after all those miscarriages what could be going through her mind, for god’s sake. What was she thinking as she stared at the specimens – better no baby than one of those? All that blood she had lost with the last miscarriage, she almost needed a hysterectomy. It took her months to recover but still she wouldn’t allow a transfusion. She was still hoping she’d get pregnant after five years of tests and fertility treatments.
He loved her so much.
That night, after he rolled off her, Bentley lay supine on the king-size hotel bed, arms splayed. The neon sign from the cafe across the street flickered blue shadows across the curtains.
“I want to try IVF.” Adèle rubbed her face in his hairy chest, a greying patch extending from nipple to nipple. “This… this isn’t working.”
“I’m not getting any younger.” She had turned thirty-six this past January.
“I’m not good enough?”
Adèle lifted her head and stared at him, unblinking.
“That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?” Bentley always lowered his voice as his temper rose.
“I had all those miscarriages.” Her voice sounded wet. “We still don’t know why I can’t carry a baby to term.”
She rose from the bed and stood by the window, her body dark against the sheer curtain. Outlined in blue, the curve of her hips and butt, broad as if made for bearing children, made him want her all over again. He grabbed her waist and pushed her face down onto the bed.
“I’ll show you,” he hissed through his teeth as he lowered his face beside hers. Adèle turned her head and Bentley saw her perfect profile. A tear streaked down across her cheekbone. He kissed it, tasted salt. His body sagged.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Adèle squirmed beneath him, turned over, and wrapped her arms around him, scissored her legs across his buttocks.
“Don’t ever leave me,” she said.
The next morning Bentley woke up with an erection. Something tugged at his consciousness. A nagging, unpleasant something. Adèle, in a backless, shimmering silver-grey gown, the even beads of her spine bisecting her back with such grace it took his breath away. She turned and his penis flatlined. Bentley shook his head to dislodge the image – a line of blood down Adèle’s belly, from the ribcage to the pubic bone, in a perfect parallel to her spine, the dress gaping open, muscle and fascia slashed, a glistening globe of the uterus exposed. The bottom half of a baby hung out from the incision, buttocks and legs hanging. Pulsating coils of umbilical cord dangled down to Adèle’s knees, blood stains splashed down to the hem of the gown.
The bisected Adèle lifted a champagne flute at him. “Cheers.”
Bentley shot upright on the bed. Adèle slept peacefully next to him, wrapped in the white linen sheets crushed from last night’s sex.
As he padded barefoot to the bathroom the cold marble floor bit at his soles. The wall tiles were weeping long droplets of moisture when he stepped out of the shower, but he still felt the cold sweat on his back.
A week later, back in Toronto, Bentley had performed two kidney transplants and five bladder resections. Adèle finished a paper reporting her new research on gene therapy, and reviewed – and rejected – three others. They taught entitled surgical and medicine residents, they gave lectures to medical students who played with their smartphones. They attended patients in clinics and on the wards. They worked late and hardly spoke over their take-out dinners.
It was as if they both held their breath.
At home the crib grinned its slats at Bentley every time he passed the nursery they set up during the second to last pregnancy, when Adèle went beyond the twenty-week mark and they thought the pregnancy would keep. Once, when he came home from a late night in the OR, he stood outside the nursery door, his forehead against the cherry wood of the door jamb, and tried to imagine the snuffles, the mumblings of a just woken baby, but all he heard was Adele’s soft breaths in the darkness of their bedroom.
Two weeks later Bentley came downstairs as Adèle stood at the kitchen counter waiting for the water to boil, teabag label hanging over the rim of her mug. He had seen the tampon wrapper and the blood tinged applicator in the bathroom wastebasket. He reached for her, and she burrowed her face in his neck, her arms around and up his back like a vise, hands together, pushed against his spine.
Neither spoke until the kettle whistled.
“Not even a romantic interlude in Vienna,” Adèle said then. Not quite how Bentley remembered it – the pickled fetuses still haunted his dreams. He reached over and poured the boiling water into the mug, dunked the teabag in and out.
“You’ve always taken such good care of me,” Adèle said.
“I don’t want a baby,” he lifted her face up by the chin. “I just want you. I went along with all this, but I don’t want you bloated with hormones, needles stuck in your belly, rushing off at 6 am to have an ultrasound up your hoohah.”
Adèle chuckled, but a tear slid down her cheek. Bentley bent down and kissed it dry.
“We’ll be all right,” he said. “Just the two of us.”
That was before the nightmares started. Before Adèle stopped going to work and just lay on the living room sofa, the pillow beneath her cheek sodden. Before Bentley was able to count the ribs beneath her disappearing muscles. And before he found her lying in a lukewarm bath, her white arms and legs floating just beneath the surface, nipples poking through the surface of the pink water, twisted wet hair snaked around her neck like a coil of umbilical cord.
But at that moment, surrounded by the aroma of the mint tea, in the orange light of the setting sun puddled on the slate tile floor, Bentley truly believed that they would be all right.
Małgorzata (Margaret) Nowaczyk, a pediatrician and a clinical geneticist, is a professor at McMaster University and DeGroote School of Medicine in Hamilton, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in Geist, The Examined Life Journal, and Canadian Medical Association Journal. Her short story “Cassandra” will appear in Prairie Fire. She is a co-editor of an anthology of short stories from the Canadian-Polish diaspora to be published by Guernica Editions in 2017. She lives in Hamilton with her husband and two sons.