‘A Kept Woman’ by Richard Greenhorn

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Happiness itself, for a man without hope, is a kind of torture. It adds to his life no optimism for the future, but rather stands as confirmation of his wretchedness, that wretchedness which, in his isolation, was merely a speculation he had about himself, but which, after a spurt of joy briefly enlivens his dreams, and for a moment guides his mind’s-eye to a kinder future, that very sensation which suggests life itself may be a blessing also incarnates his misery: He hears a woman’s jangling laughter in the distance, he sees a teary child rushing to his father’s embrace, he feels the rule of love guiding the planets so undeniably, and all the clearer his squalor appears to him: The more the goodness of being is confirmed, and the more his solitude is solidified, the more his hapless thoughts are validated as truth and not some cruel nightmare from which he might awaken this day. It is the sweet moments, the sweet reprieves from the perfidy of existence, which are the worst, because in those moments in which his hopes seem to come alive, he realizes how quickly they must die.

He rarely left his apartment but to go to his cubicle. He desired as little experience as his life could bear. The desire for a woman’s kiss would sometimes arise in him, but it only took a distraction, a video or a jog, to drive it away. But a real kiss, from some woman, at some bar, stayed with him for weeks, and could not be cleansed until reality succeeded, day after day, in purging from his mind that sweetness; reality itself had to erode before he could be content again, and he could not simply replace one thought with another. He had tried giving his heart to women, things, creeds, but he so rarely found reciprocation, and the effort of giving was such a strain, that he could only be sickened by what seemed the injustice of all. It seemed that existence was some infinite gut devouring, eternally, all he could give. He simply wanted to be left alone with his dreams. And he did all his shopping after midnight, and smoked cigarettes only under the moon.

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★ ‘An Exemplary Career’ by Richard Greenhorn

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One of the great things about growing up in Pelican Prairie was seeing Michelle Willowstreet on the track. She eventually moved to Minneapolis, and spoke of us unkindly, but when we were in high school together, everyone in town adored her. Later, when she was universally acknowledged as a world-class runner, she told Running Nation magazine that she had never been interested in staying in Pelican Prairie, even in high school, and that the boyfriends she had there all seemed “destined for Fargo.” That was true, in my case at least. I felt a little betrayed, because Pelican Prairie is only two hours from Minneapolis, and Michelle and I used to drive to Dinkytown together, where we would talk about how much we liked the cafes and weirdos—but that we would never want to live there. When we broke up, I was too embarrassed even to go to her grad party. Michelle was not only the greatest miler in the state, but beautiful and the valedictorian of our class. I could’ve swallowed my pride, perhaps, if God had distributed His gifts a little more equally, but I’ve always found intelligence, beauty, and talent come as a bundle, and when someone is above you, she is above you in every way, and not just one.

Michelle and I dated only our senior year. She had a few boyfriends in high school, but she also was different with me than the others. By senior year, she was scared for the future, she said. She couldn’t tell me why, she said she couldn’t get it into words, but then she would hold my hand, and I understood completely. She was voted best female athlete by the Minnesota Coaches poll our senior year, praising her “high character.” She said she didn’t like strangers’ praise because it made her feel like a fake person, and she held me closest when she said this, and I would whisper how I loved her.

When she ran for the U in college, she remained an inspiration in town. Her sophomore year she set NCAA records in the 800 and 1600. More than this was her magnum opus, a 600 meter race at the NCAA indoor championship when at the beginning of the last lap, she tripped and fell about fifty meters behind the pack. She picked herself up and with her long gazelle-like stride we Pelican Prairians knew so well, she closed the gap and broke across the finish line first, winning the heat and leading the U to a victory overall. Footage from that race spread over the internet and was seen by tens of millions of people, the most popular video soundtracked by a worship song called “Jesus Picks Us Up When We Fall.” It was no surprise to see Michelle perform such heroics to us back home. She had tripped and fallen in the Section championship our junior year, but ended up winning that race easily.

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‘Josie’s Thread’ by Richard Greenhorn

There was one thin thread of flesh which was all Samuel really liked about her. Josie claimed it was a great embarrassment to her, from an unfortunate experience in high school and in the present day, when she wore tights or shorts. Samuel could only assign this to stupid vanity; to him, Josie’s thread was a manifest sign of his love for her. To simply set his tongue on her was to resolve that evening’s bitter dispute, was to soothe whatever qualm had set some unspoken barrier between them during the day. The messiness of morals, temperaments, and all the better angels of the universe could be subjugated beneath the mild application of pressure, and all life’s complications smouldered when Josie threw her head back and burst into a white flame.

Josie’s thread provided a linchpin in Samuel’s mental conception of her, and at times when his affection for her was waning, he could think of her thread and resurrect his former feeling. He could sit and think about Josie’s thread for a quarter of a hour at a time, behind his desk, not contemplating a particular motion, not immersed in any thrall of passion, but simply thinking of her thread in appreciation. Every moment they shared together was a movement towards her thread. All the attributes of hers he found unpleasing, from her vestigial religion to her yoga to her mercurial tears, were hollow ceremonies in the two great seasons of their relationship: Having her thread, when he was very happy, and fasting from it.

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