To Will One Thing

John Matthew Fox Click to read more...

John Matthew Fox’s stories have appeared in Los Angeles Review, Tampa Review, Pedestal Magazine and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2010 Third Coast Fiction Contest and earned a graduate degree in creative writing from the University of Southern California and lives in Whittier.

On the night Will felt the floating sensation, he attended a performance of the Ugandan Boys Choir. The boys were trash scavengers, rescued by a Good Samaritan and taught to harmonize, who performed every night across California to raise donations and recruit volunteers for the Kampala orphanage. Will attended by himself, since Regina was at the baby shower for a college friend’s third child. This was the friend who’d called Regina, offhandedly and without malice, a ringless fiancée, by which she meant a woman certain to marry but lacking the diamond. Regina had grieved over the term for weeks.

The Ugandan Boys sang in the church for two hours. Terraced upon metallic risers, they elongated their jaws. On one song, the boys left the stage to pass donation baskets, and the volume and balance fluidly shifted as the voices swung close and away. The music seized Will. It offered odd time signatures, syncopated rhythms, contrapuntal notes. Despite his usual formality inside sacred walls, he found himself tapping his foot and nodding in tempo. Instead of his normal instinct to pin down feelings with philosophical thoughts, he wanted to run through fields and not grow weary. He wanted to swim and not grow tired. He wanted this soundtrack to animate his life.

Will closed his eyes. The melodies became flags, waving in tempo. The notes danced and died and regenerated. Then his chair seemed to exhale him, and the floor released his feet. The pressure on his buttocks eased. He hovered, feeling weightless as a bubble. His skin felt permeable, with no membrane between air and flesh. The sensation continued until the precise moment when—as if synchronized—the last note terminated. Then his body settled, tethered again. Applause erupted around him. He gripped the chair, breath drumming in his ears. He felt like he’d been attacked. He turned to the woman behind him and asked her if she saw it. “Yes, they’re great,” the woman said, nodding towards the choir, still clapping. Everyone stood in an ovation. No one paid him any attention. As the audience flooded the front to talk to the boys, he fled through the double doors, feeling pursued.

#

He told Regina the following day, when they were on the couch with her dead aunt’s quilt. Though he preferred to rest in her room, Regina judged privacy a stumbling block to purity. He read. She knitted. Her long hair kept interfering with her needles. It’d grown past her waist, requiring the choke points of several bands. He often found Rapunzel-length strands in his car.

“Six months?” she said. “Uganda?”

“I didn’t say I was going,” he said. “They just offered the opportunity.” He would miss her too much to go. Last summer, when he’d flown to a weeklong car convention in Denver, he called her twice a day. And there was no question of her accompanying him—their families would raise an outcry if they traveled together unmarried. They hadn’t even kissed. Influenced by the popular books in home-school circles, she’d made a promise—she didn’t swear, she refused to swear—not to kiss anyone but her husband. He respected her belief because he knew it would hurt her deeply to break that promise.

She’d stopped clicking her needles, a sound so metronomic he found himself adjusting his breath to match its pace. “Getting married is an adventure, too,” she said.

“And I want that,” he said. After all, he’d filled his quotient of adventure on two mission trips in his college years, to Indonesia and Samoa. She was living her adventure now, swarmed by toddlers at the day care. Once he’d surprised her at work with flowers, and discovered her bracing bottle-sucking girls off both hips, while using a knee to push a boy on the swing who screamed, “Higher! Higher!” She was beaming.

“You do this,” she said. “Remember dog breeding in Kentucky? Remember that Iranian underground-church plan?”

“You’re right,” he said. “It was silly to even bring it up.”

“It was,” she said.

When he first met Regina, at a brother- and sister-wing bowling night, she’d rolled a strike and curtsied. He’d stored that clip in his head, replaying it often. It was such a graceful act—the pinch of dress between index and thumb, the right foot bent behind, the chin dipped. She seemed a quaint maid transplanted from a bygone time. A month passed before he’d started courting her. She preferred that term to dating.

She used her thumb to rotate her purity ring. “Do you love me more than anything?”

“No,” he said.

Her head jerked. “Well, not more than God, of course,” she added hastily.

“Right,” he said. But he knew what she needed and gave it to her: he said that he loved her, that there was no one else, that she was beautiful.

She kneeled and lowered her head to the coffee table, so all he could see was the part in her blonde hair that exposed a vulnerable line of her scalp. He said her first name: once loudly, once quietly. He said her full name—Regina Sarah Olsen—but not even that unlocked her. Finally, she lifted her head. “If you really wanted to go, you could go,” she said. The words rang hollow.

“I wasn’t really considering it.”

“Well,” she said. “I just wouldn’t want to hold you back.” It sounded straight from a cue card. Still, the possibility resonated in his chest, as if all his organs were tuned to the pitch of her permission.

#

She offered gifts. Usually she didn’t gift him except on birthdays and Christmas, but now she sprung them at random. At her apartment one night, he found her in an apron dusted with flour, both hands behind her back. She whipped out a gift-wrapped object, and he unwrapped it to find a book about the Icelandic chess match between Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky during the Cold War. He hugged thanks. Afterwards, she fed him hot scones, tipping her fingers up at the end to help him eat each bite. He made Neanderthal chomping sounds and she squealed when he pretended to bite her fingers. When he said he didn’t want more, she insisted. She made engine noises and flew flight patterns until he relented.

One night, after working until nine, he found a pastel envelope fluttering under the gums of his windshield wipers. A card bearing her florid handwriting, the large cursive loops on the ‘l’s and ‘f’s, which, according to a manual on handwriting psychology he’d read, indicated a generous ego. In the card she flung a largesse of compliments, not the cheap trinkets that any stranger could trot out, but the genuine coin. It was one of her best traits, this way she had of loving him. He read it twice.

He drove to the bookstore with the intention of buying her a book. During a recent facelift, the store had shuffled their sections and he couldn’t find the cookbooks. Instead, he found himself on a long aisle with neon-colored spines. Just as he reached the end, a book cart wheeled up, blockading him. He backtracked, noticing the spines belonged to travel guides. He didn’t want to linger, but glanced over the titles. At eye level, out of alphabetical order, were three yellow Ugandan guidebooks. Why three? He would have guessed the store only carried the regional book. He leafed through, feeling guilty. Reading the introductory notes, he realized he knew nothing of Uganda—their language, their currency, their politics. All his knowledge came from the tired Western views of the continent, as if Africa were a homogenous blotch on the globe. He bought the guidebook, just to look at the pictures. Nothing more. Afterwards, he realized he’d forgotten to buy the cookbook, and when he met Regina and friends for board game night, he only said that he’d been browsing.

#

Will and Regina attended a wedding in a spacious backyard. Regina and the bride had homeschooled together for years, and Regina relayed to him multiple times the story of the bride and groom meeting, betrothing and marrying within eight months. Paper lanterns swung from strings, apple cider filled the flutes, an aging Christian singer crooned from the stereo. Regina was not unhappy. Although there was no formal dancing, she swung the tuxedoed arms of her five-year-old brother. Will sat at the pink-creped table and watched the dignity of the bride and pent-up anticipation of the groom, the children chasing one another with party favors clutched in chubby hands. He knew these people. These were his people. They would keep attending church, keep elevating God, keep their marriage vows, keep raising their children in the ways they should go. Tragedies would be chalked up to the divine plan, and suffering embraced as a purifying force. Nothing truly unpredictable would happen: Butler would gain weight, Alison’s grandparents would tour the country in their motor home, the twins would win tennis tournaments. He could see five years, ten years, and knew that nothing would rupture their course. This, this. He wanted only this. With this he could be happy.

#

“I have something to confess,” Will told her one sunny day, while they were at bat against a Valencia church. This wasn’t the place, he could feel how wrong it was. Sports warped the delicate bonds between males and females. A foul ball soared, outfielders bobbing heads to spot it and avoid their teammates. She didn’t wait for the pop fly resolution, just turned to him. She looked good in the loose jeans, dusted red from the last inning. Usually he only saw her in dresses. “I emailed the orphanage,” he said. The phrase resounded in the space between them. He felt like he’d hit her.

“That’s nice,” she said, turning away. Then she gripped the dugout railing and yelled at the new batter: “C’mon Lacey! Sock it!” He leaned back and waited for her to process and turn, angrily, but she didn’t. Normally, she let him make the hefty decisions, like whether to drive together to her Uncle’s house in San Francisco. She would act as though she didn’t care, although sometimes she did. Now, even though she couldn’t tell a shortstop from a catcher, she kept her focus on the game. The bark of the bat, the soar of the ball into the low sky, the outfielders scrambling to bottom it. She cheered and pumped a fist.

But in a way, he was relieved that she hadn’t pressed him. If she had, he would have admitted he didn’t want to email the orphanage. That he didn’t want to go at all. It was an email in a moment of thoughtlessness, about which he felt shameful, as if he’d gone to the wrong website and seen something he shouldn’t.

#

In the shed at his parent’s house, his father soldered a scepter onto a queen. On the shelf, bishops apexed in a bulb and knights brandished swords from winged horses. The blade of the TIG torch seared his vision. His father swung off his hood and asked, “Ready to get whooped?”

They sat on either side of the upended wooden spool. This set was cast in geometric shapes: blocks for pawns, stacked balls for queens, triangles for bishops. His father got two glasses of lemonade, even though Will knew they’d forget to drink it, and secreted a black and white pawn in each fist. Will picked the right fist. White. Just before he moved, his father asked, “Now what’s this about Uganda?”

Up to that moment, Will had been deluded enough to believe that Regina hadn’t truly heard or didn’t care. But she must have deliberately dropped a comment, probably to his mother, which cascaded to his father. His parents wanted a quiver of grandchildren. The delay of several years seemed fruitless. And Regina knew they thought this way.

Will told him about the choir, trying to explain it offhandedly.

“Why would you want to go?” his father said.

“I don’t even know,” Will said. “I probably don’t want to.”

“I know why,” his father said. “You have a good heart and want to help people.”

It sounded like a solid reason, and Will let his father think it was the correct one. His father lived that way, helping people through the part-time work at the church and janitorial work for school, working despite the migraines. It was always about others. His father replied to the opening with the Budapest Gambit and slapped the clock vigorously. He’d played on the circuit with his junior college team but now spent most of his chess time building custom sets. Obscene requests were denied, but he’d built sets of New York/Los Angeles architecture and Roman emperors holding coins bearing their image.

“So did they get back to you?” his father asked.

“The orphanage? Yes. They gave details.” The details were draconian. Four volunteers slept in one small room. Food was austere. It was less of an enticement and more of a warning.

“You shouldn’t go,” his father said. “You’ve got too much to lose.”

His father traded a bishop for two of Will’s pawns and pushed his queenside. Will tried to blockade with a knight. Flies landed on the pieces and Will shooed them away. When Will was five, his mother found him sleeping in a laundry basket with a chessboard and pieces, and his father joked that he’d started playing in the womb. The day after his grandfather died, Will played a marathon session, and after he and Regina fought, he often retreated to an online site for blitz games.

His father advanced a pawn. “She can’t wait forever,” he said.

“I know,” Will said.

His father once built a religious chess set. Christ, Gabriel, disciples versus Satan, demons, possessed. When he told people about it, he asked them to guess which side was white. Then he’d laugh loudly. For some years he showcased the set on his website, but sold it because he didn’t like the possibility of black winning. Will liked the set concept—it implied that even the powers and principalities played by reason. And his father agreed, proposing that parishioners should play chess before church services, to usher them into God’s mode of thinking.

His father studied the board, elbows on the table. Will didn’t think he saw it. The next move Will would sacrifice a bishop. Once he sacrificed the bishop, the rest of the game would be inevitable. His father moved and Will replied. The move made his father inhale. There would be a smothered mate on h8 in seven moves. Every variation was accounted for, every sequence anticipated. The pure inevitability was beautiful. But when his father swung his hands out in frustration, he knocked over a glass of lemonade. It shattered on the concrete and Will felt a shiver against his pinky toe. Blood dewed from a cut. By the time they cleaned up the glass and sanitized the wound, his mother arrived home with groceries, and after they unpacked them, Will had to meet Regina. The game was lost. His father joked that he should injure opponents more often. “Like in chessboxing,” he said. He ducked his head and pretended to jab twice.

#

Will was five years old, on his back. Bees hummed around his head. Oak branches sliced up the sky. Someone had yelled something he hadn’t understood. Black clouds formed and dissipated across his vision, and inside these clouds, blurred shapes of men and animals moved, as if seen through a dark glass. When the clouds stopped, the sky kaleidoscoped through the rainbow’s spectrum. He tasted colors. Burnt, smoky copper. Floral breezy gold. Then it all settled and the world righted itself. He started crying. Scruffy approached and licked his face. There was the bang of the screen door; there was the rapid flap of his mother’s sandals. She knelt and cupped his head and plied him with questions, and he could only remember playing with his truck, followed by the loud voice and the clouds and the colors. “What loud voice?” she asked. He said his head hurt. He wasn’t bleeding. He bore no marks.

One doctor diagnosed it as a strange type of stroke, and prescribed medication. Another doctor argued his body bore the signs of an electrical shock, a magnitude on par with lightening. His mother insisted there were no outlets or extension cords in the backyard and no clouds in the sky. Another doctor said nothing had happened, that his brain needed to discharge energy and he’d experienced powerful yet illusory sensations. They gave up going to doctors. Their degree of certainty directly correlated to their degree of inaccuracy. A few admitted their inability to pin down a reasonable answer, and told his mother to watch for a recurrence so more data could be gathered. But it hadn’t happened again, not like that, not for years.

In an early draft of his application for the philosophy program at The Lord’s College, Will told that story. It seemed a seminal moment, even though he’d never been able to assign it a precise role. Instinctively, he knew it explained why he wanted to study analytic philosophy, but couldn’t tell how. In a vague way he believed that philosophy could ward off events like that one, but since philosophers had to be able to clearly draw from point A to point B, he eventually cut it, substituting an essay on how he inherited the ideals of chess from his father.

#

She kissed him. It was never meant to be that order of subject and object. He kissed her: that was how he’d always envisioned it. That order, he thought, was the only way that she would ever have wanted it. Allow the man to be the leader. After all, when they first started spending time together, she wouldn’t call him, insisting he should call her. But here she’d seized initiative.

They’d guided the junior high youth group to Magic Mountain and ridden the newest coaster. During the corkscrew at the end, his vision dimmed, as though someone twisted a knob for the lights. All the light funneled into the center then faded to black, and even the passengers’ screams decrescendoed. In that tunnel without exit he felt the terrifying sensation of losing control, and then the corkscrew straightened out to pull up to the platform and light and sound ebbed back.

They sat on a bench semi-blocked by bushes and she asked whether he was okay. He lied and said yes, forcing a smile. The smile triggered her.

He didn’t know how they’d dated for three years and never kissed. No, he knew. Her hirsute father who required an interview before granting permission to date his daughter. The group dates for the first six months, followed by chaperoned ones. Her mother telling the story of how the only person she’d ever kissed was Regina’s father. Regina’s reluctance to hold hands until a year had passed, and of course her promise to keep her lips virginal. Add to that his fear of himself, of losing control. Of believing passion in their marriage would be lost if he prematurely opened the gate of pleasure.

They spent a half hour on the bench, primly exploring each other’s lips. He’d expected to feel untamed. He’d always feared the urges of his loins. But the sensation gave him an odd detachment, a pleasurable distance from which he analyzed the situation. There were two people on a bench. They were kissing. It was a scene he’d watched thousands of times and even this time he remained more a viewer than a participant. She giggled. She fingered her long braid curled in her lap. He ignored the passersby, then glanced at them with embarrassment. A man carrying a cluster of balloons stopped across the way. As he detached a purple balloon for a girl, a red one wriggled loose and soared, weaving in its ascent.

Her line at the end disappointed him. He would have preferred a romantic mood, unleavened by laughter, but instead, as they moved to find the junior highers, she teased him: “Wouldn’t you miss that?” Motives curdled the moment. Instead of the supernova of a long-awaited pleasure, it seemed calculated. He suspected why she said it: earlier in the day, a mob of black children passed by, corralled by two black ladies who alternated between gaiety and reprimands, and he turned to look at the children, feeling nostalgic about an experience he had not yet had. She saw him look and he saw her interpret.

He meant to only peck her when he dropped her off at her apartment, but couldn’t resist lingering. On the drive home, he admitted that despite his aversion to her method, it certainly worked: he would miss that, if he were crazy enough to leave. He would miss it terribly.

#

At that backyard wedding they’d attended, Will had heard Regina’s Uncle Roy tell a story about a distant British relative of the Olsen clan. The man had left his wife one day, just walked out the front door and did not come back. Apparently, he moved just a few blocks over and changed his job. He spied on her but never contacted her. There was no mistress. It was a loving marriage. Eventually his wife counted him among the dead. They held a funeral. He spied on the funeral. Once he walked past his wife on the street and his wife did not recognize him. A few months after the funeral, he returned to his own house during the night and settled into bed. In the early morning hours, his wife woke and found a strange man occupying her bed. Nothing about him made her think he might have been her former husband. So she seized a letter opener and stabbed him. When he cried out, she recognized his voice. She called an ambulance and paramedics saved him.

That was where the story ended. The circle broke up to attend to misbehaving children. But Will asked Uncle Roy what happened. Uncle Roy said the couple had gone to therapy, not that it helped. The man was impenetrable. He didn’t fight the therapist, he just had nothing inside him that the therapist found helpful. The man didn’t know why he had left or why he had come back. He seemed as confused about it as everyone else, except that he knew he’d needed to leave. His wife had gone to see the brownstone where her husband had lived, but someone else had already rented it. Apparently, he’d thrown everything in a dumpster. A clean break. He wanted to pick up life where they’d left off. The story happened twenty years ago, and from that time he’d been a devoted husband.

The next day Will told Regina he hated the story. It made him feel sick.

“Oh, that story’s not true,” Regina said. “Uncle Roy embellishes all the time.”

Will countered that her father and aunts had not questioned the story, but Regina insisted it was made-up. Her head wagged no, as if swinging along a deep groove. Suddenly he knew that whatever its truthfulness, she couldn’t accept it. He realized: even if she were the wife of that man, she wouldn’t believe the story.

#

That night insomnia haunted him, despite his usual trick of squeezing the pressure point between thumb and index. He rose and sat at the dining table. His roommate’s snores bored through the door. The cabinets and furniture took on new contours, reshaped by generous shadows and stingy light. He started a list. Lists organized the world, offering neat parameters and channels. On one side, Negative: Career, parents, money, physical love, and above all, Regina. His pen lingered over the Positive side without committing to the page. Finally, in a bid to put a word down, he wrote, “Called?” Then he jammed the list in the trash beneath the chicken carcass and returned to his bed where he lay, sleepless, watching moonlight drift across the floor from the fulcrum of the blinds. He worried about experiencing one of his moments, but felt nothing.

#

He and Regina walked near his apartment, following a meandering path through the tree-canopied canyon. It was on the outskirts of the city, full of low ranch houses splayed out on multiple-acre plots. The imprints of horse hooves were fossilized in the ground. Even though it was January, an autumnal palette of leaves clung to the trees.

They talked of teaching a Sunday school lesson about Abraham and Isaac and of visiting Santa Barbara with her parents and seven siblings. They talked of the new program that automatically censored foul language from movies. He had the feeling she was avoiding any mention of Uganda, so he hinted at the topic by saying that his boss promised a chance at promotion if he didn’t hightail it to a foreign country.

She shrank into herself, as though storing up energy before a launch. “I think I know why you feel compelled to go,” she said. She threw her shoulders back the way she did before every spiel. Then she launched into his record of service in college: missionary, soup-server, poverty minister, worship leader, camp counselor. A poster child of self-sacrifice. “And what do you do now?” she said. “Now you rent cars. Now you make money. Now you focus only on yourself and me. It’s no wonder that you feel like you need to give a little again.” She seemed satisfied by this explanation, as if hoping the sense of it would overcome his urges.

The logic was inescapable. She’d put words to something he’d once imagined: himself in that Greek myth where the protagonist stares at his reflection until he dies. Except in his case, there wasn’t one reflection but hundreds. Hundreds of mirrors surrounding him, all showing himself to himself, and it was horrifying. But that vision came only in a moments of doubt. He had created ways to give of himself, to her and to his community, even though not at the same rate. Of course he wanted to give more, but that wouldn’t justify a continental leap. “That’s not bad,” he admitted. “But I think it’s beyond that.”

“Beyond it to what?”

Will thought of a man playing a flute through the streets, and those that streamed out to follow him. He thought of images flashed so quickly that the naked eye couldn’t detect them. He thought of the trigger words used by hypnotists to set their subjects in motion. “To listening?” he said.

They walked on. He noted every item in their path, as if later he could revisit the order and quilt a patchwork of meaning. Hull of a snail, a fake mustache, an atlas page. He didn’t know how the conversation turned dark. Her tears arrived without warning. She began complaining that he was keeping her emotionally hostage. “Make a decision,” she said. “Tell me you won’t leave me.”

“Every day I make the decision to stay,” he said.

“That means any day you could go.”

He pictured himself walking out of her apartment and never going back. The idea scared him more than any nightmare. He doubted he had that willpower. He didn’t want that willpower. Her eyes scanned his face, reading the lines of his cheeks, his mouth, the ridge between eyebrows. She must have disliked what she saw.

“I didn’t want to show you this but I will,” she said.

#

They drove back to her apartment and she set up the laptop. A video clip with yesterday’s date. The BBC’s accents dignified even the most tragic events. It showed men in tattered jerseys waving rifles from the back of trucks. The ticker tape read “January Massacre.” The voiceover related the political troubles in Kenya, and the map flashed the long border with Uganda. Key phrases surfaced: fleeing refugees, destabilized government, dominoeing violence. The images veered from skinny men in oversized T-shirts shooting weapons to clusters of men pumping fists in the air. The segment ended on a shot of a muddy pond, with lumpy bags stacked on the shore. Then he realized. Those were not bags. Those were not bags.

“You hadn’t heard,” she said.

He imagined bullets strafing over his head or militants holding him ransom. During college, his friend’s mission trip to India had been cancelled because of a nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan, and everyone understood: you couldn’t visit the volatile regions.

“Sorry,” she said. Her eyes looked daubed with blush. “I’d hoped not to show you.”

“No, thanks. I—”

“Right,” she said. “You shouldn’t.”

“Of course not. I can’t.”

She replayed the video without sound. The jump cuts flashed rhythmically. The colors seemed brighter, the action quicker. Men’s mouths formed O’s of silent exaltation. Will turned away at the end, but Regina didn’t. She stared as the screen’s glow brightened over her face, her own mouth slowly expanding into an oval. Then she closed the laptop screen and the room fell dark.

#

He drove back to his apartment so slowly two cars honked at him. There did not seem to be a road; he drove mechanically, by memory. The lights of opposing vehicles refracted as if through prisms. When he stared at them without focusing, the gyre of light widened until it diffused and his sight refocused on the narrow beams. There must have been a parking space; there must have been a walk to the door.

Inside his apartment, he stood at his bedroom window. He lived with his roommate on the third floor, overlooking the park at the base of the loamy hills where he’d once picnicked with Regina. A memorial service consecrated the park—the bobbing candles looked like a revolving galaxy. He blocked out the view and leaned his head against the window. It cooled a strip on his forehead. All the distant sounds of a neighbor revving a car and his roommate’s television drained away. Each breath expanded and deflated his entire frame, the air reaching even his thighs, his head, until even his breath vanished, and he felt motionless, suspended in a vat of fluid. His head grew light, as though the blood flushed from his brain and coalesced in his chest. Then he sensed, behind eyelids, the entire room swell, objects blooming so close that he felt shrunk by their magnitude, and the shifting sizes disoriented him. His ears hurt; his equilibrium swam. It tilted him, made him drift. This time, he didn’t fight it. He let the objects press against him, overwhelm him. He sensed his own body enlarging to match their dilated size and was not afraid.

When he finally opened his eyes, he felt it. A breaker had flipped, and all of the uncertainty had settled and flattened. This he realized: all the reasons were stacked against his going, and he would still do it. He was meant to fling himself into a future he could not read. He went down to the computer, placed in the public space of the living room to encourage moral internet habits. From the kitchen came the sounds of his roommate, the shuffle of socks and clack of dishware. Although Will knew precisely what airline, what time, what website, he still ran one last check, to confirm someone hadn’t scaled the price down. He had a distressing vision that the airline had swooned out of business or that rising oil had spiked the ticket price, but nothing had changed.

When he pressed the button to buy the plane ticket, he remembered a cliff in Mexico, at the lip of the frothy sea. After his short-term team had finished building houses, they’d gone to the Caribbean coast and taken turns jumping from this cliff. It wasn’t too high, only about twenty feet, but when he was on top, it looked more like forty. The waves came in, the waves left. A sliding hue of dark blue, light blue, and grainy beige. If he didn’t time the leap right, he’d hit rock. He measured the rhythms and coaxed his heartbeat into preparing his legs. Then the moment of ditching the ground, of sailing out and over. His throat tightening up. Arms flailing. Legs flexed from the force of the jump. The bubbling up of vertigo, the uplift of a freefall armed with only timing and hope. It was a feeling he’d missed.

Back in his bedroom, gripping a printout of the confirmation number, he eyed his backpack and closet, knowing it was too soon to pack but already cataloguing the list of supplies. A chamois instead of a towel. Pure DEET instead of the diluted version because it took less space. Pants that zipped off to make shorts. He tasted tears before he realized he was crying. He wiped them from his smiling lips and left them on his cheeks. Though he hoped she would forgive him, he felt that she would not. In the center of the room, surrounded by the debris that would soon be separated into staying and going, he held out his hands, palms up, clenching and releasing, clenching and releasing. It felt good. He kept repeating the motion, imagining spheres rising from his opening palms to drift along the ceiling, each departing one reducing his weight until he felt he might float. Then he thought he heard, perhaps from the kitchen or from even farther, someone say his name.

Discussion

22 Responses to To Will One Thing

  1. R.T. Smith says:

    Everyone should read this story, but especially my advanced fiction students.
    RTS

  2. Ben Oddo says:

    Will, she just wasn’t the girl for you.

    What do people make of these “moments” Will has? Several times he describes these out of body experiences, and I found myself wondering why the author put them in the story. Could it be that by showing some sort of reoccuring health problem, Will realizes his time on this earth could end? Could the motivation for going to Uganda be the result of a declining physical health?

    Also, I found myself doing a double-take of this line: “Then he jammed the list in the trash beneath the chicken carcass.” Is the image of the chicken intentional?

    Lastly, just a quick note: while it can affect men, hirusitism is the excessive hairiness on women. Either way, a very interesting way to describe a potential father-in-law (she really wasn’t the one for you, Will).

  3. Katie Shelor says:

    My favorite part about this story was that it was told in snapshots through Will’s point of view. I felt like that really helped me see that he was just going through the motions in his life, taking in a lot, but trying to decide what everything means to him and how he feels about everything that is going on.

    I felt a lot of sympathy and emotion for Will because of the internal conflict that is presented throughout the story. He is constantly saying that he loves Regina and thinks he could be happy with her; however, he just seems like he’s going through his life and setting, wanting more, and knowing that he can make more of his life whenever he wants.

    I saw the change in him that we’ve been talking about all year. I saw him turn into a more independent and confident person who, although he remains kind and doesn’t want to hurt Regina, decides to live his own life and make himself a priority. I respected him greatly for that. This was a very entertaining story.

  4. Beth Wellford says:

    What I enjoyed most about this story was the exactness of language and creativity of description. For example, “Terraced upon metallic risers, they elongated their jaws,” is a sentense that is unusually crafted but perfectly accurate to the action being described. The endurance of such descriptions provides for an interesting variety in the narrative. Because the reader is so intimately cued into Will’s thoughts, there is an automatic sympathy and understanding of his actions. Although Regina is not a villain by any means, her coldness towards his wanting to go to Uganda renders her an apathetic and unlikable character. (Despite the fact that Will does seem to care about her). Also effective were the sentences that were short and nondescript, as they contrast the rest of the narrative. This juxtaposition is seen in the sequence of sentences, “Then he realized. Those were not bags. Those were not bags.” The repetition adds to the dramaticism of Will’s realization that his calling will involve a world so different than his life of muted emotions and chess figures.

  5. Catherine Skitsko says:

    This story is interesting in that the author is able to present two choices. One is certain- Will knows exactly what his life will be like if he indeed marries Regina. The other is not so certain. He has no idea what he is throwing himself into when he volunteers to go to Uganda which indeed he suggests is a “volatile” territory. He could even be putting himself in great danger. What makes his choice believable, however, is from the very beginning of the story, the author shows Will as not quite ready to fully commit himself to Regina- he has not yet bought the ring. Regina resents this, but there is no mention that Will resents it as well. Perhaps this great choice was the thing that he needed to propel him out of the relationship in which he was not quite sure of himself. His relationship is a certainty and he desires the opposite. When he finally makes the decision he enjoys the instability that it makes him feel, “The bubbling up of vertigo, the uplift of a freefall armed with only timing and hope. It was a feeling he’d missed.” Perhaps it was really never a choice for Will at all, but rather a natural progression of things. He says that he could be happy with her, but that would be in a world in which he had no other options. That world does not exist.
    Personally, throughout the story I was hoping that Will would make the decision that he ultimately made. Regina seemed to me almost overwhelmingly chaste and I wanted Will to be able to experience everything that he wanted to. However, I liked how the ending was not an overly joyful one. In order to go to Uganda, Will is giving up someone he loves and he is aware of that. He is happy about his decision but at the same time it saddens him. We can see that he truly did love Regina and this makes him a more sympathetic character.

  6. Daniel Murray says:

    In one of the latest creative writing classes, we discussed the implementation of the adage, “carpe diem,” into one of the stories being work shopped. In “To Will One Thing,” (featured in the current issue of Shenandoah) author John Matthew Fox draws on the cliché of “seize the day” through a skillful blend of descriptive imagery and well developed themes, but the story is refreshing and far from contrived. Like its main character Will, the story transcend the theme and endorses Pascal’s infamous saying: “The hear has reasons that reason can not know.” Although the story is not a prototypical Shenandoah story with religious extremes and out of body experience, the quality of writing and the overall narrative is worthy of the magazine. Fox illuminates a character more complicated than original perceived: “Instead of his normal instinct to pin down feelings with philosophical thoughts, he wanted to run through fields and not grow weary. He wanted to swim and not grow tired. He wanted this soundtrack to animate his life.” Will’s response to the Ugandan boy choir and desire for growth embodies the story’s central question. The ever evolving struggle between safety and individual desires. Fox fluidly combines descriptive language with seamless internal monologues in this portrayal.
    Although the story has numerous strengths, I believe its best quality is the effective voice of the narrator, who serves as the impartial, but eloquent intermediary in Will’s plight. The story focuses on Will’s revelation as he debates whether to leave his “pure” queen Regina and face the challenges in another world. Fox portrays this epiphany through floating imagery and the clear narrator voice. The ending scene shows this sort of out of body experience: “ Then he sensed, behind eyelids, the entire room swell, objects blooming so close that he felt shrunk by their magnitude, and the shifting sizes disoriented him. His ears hurt; his equilibrium swam. It tilted him, made him drift. This time, he didn’t fight it. He let the objects press against him, overwhelm him. He sensed his own body enlarging to match their dilated size and was not afraid.” In describing a fairly unordinary transcending experience, the narrator is concise, but his language is powerful. The chosen diction “objects blooming” and “shrunk by their magnitude” eloquently conjures the scene from Will’s perspective in a simple, but potent manner. Throughout the story, Fox walks the tight rope of religious extremism in which the story is set and never waves. In his alteration of syntax and sentence structure, the author creates a lively and powerful scene. “This time, he didn’t fight.” Again, Fox presents another precise sentence with great meaning. In my own creative writing, I need to take a page (unfortunately not literally) from the author and chose my words with the utmost care. Sometimes more is less, and Fox avoids the overly grandiose, which I am victim to. From many stories in Shenandoah, I realize that constant tinkering and deduction is needed for quality prose.

    • rod smith says:

      Writing takes fire and algebra. We love the heat but hate the deliberate fiddling . . . until we find the right key.

      What I most like about the story is probably the fact that I can take Will’s spells as either religious experience or psychological strangeness, or I can say “both,” all without decentering the story, which doesn’t depend upon our understannding that part of Will’s consciousness to empathize with the more sublunary aspects of his dilemma.

  7. The author, John Matthew Fox, does a very impressive job of co-opting the language of people who grow up in home-schooled environments and thus develop a worldview that is off the track of the ‘mainstream’ American experience. For instance, Fox captures the spirit of the home-schooled experience when he says things like “He first met Regina at a brother-and-sister wing night at the bowling alley.” I’m friends with two people who were homeschooled at one point in their lives, and what I was struck by is that members of the home-schooling community don’t refer to people they are friends with, but rather, families they are friends with. And the whole ‘brother-and-sister wing night’ aspect captures this effectively.

    I like how Fox captures the inner conflict that plays in his thought process. The best stories are when two seemingly contrasting character qualities seem to combine to form a consistent character at-large, and I think that’s happening here. A home-schooled student fits the profile of someone who would marry his high school sweetheart and never look back, and most home-schooled students are brought up in heavily religious environments. But what is another character trait of home-schooled students? Often, they have a tendency to participate in meaningful charity work beyond the “dip our toe in the pool” service popular with the country at large. So the fact that he would have an urge to go to Uganda to do service seems to be a consistent character trait that adds the layer of complexity necessary to drive the plot.

    And, of course, the motives behind this desire to go to Uganda cut right to the big picture of what is going on. Does he want to Uganda purely out of a selfless desire to help the less fortunate? Probably not. So why would he want to do it then? For himself. This isn’t to cast a harsh moral judgment, but rather, to examine the driving psychology of the protagonist. Why exactly does he want to go to Uganda? Without explicitly saying so, it seems that Will is dissatisfied with the predictability of and the steadiness of his life at home with his girlfriend. In some regards, Will is a weak character–most men probably wouldn’t admit that their girlfriend makes the advances and drives the relationship, yet Regina is wearing the proverbial pants in the relationship, and Will’s escapism to Uganda is an attempt to get away from that undesirable power dynamic. We see how this shifts the power a little bit–Regina acquiesces and kisses him, because Will has finally gone on the offensive for what is most likely the first time in their relationship.

    Looking at what Professor Smith said, I agree that the interplay between psychological strangeness and religious intervention form an underlying strength of the novel–I like wondering, is this really happening or is there a psychological deficiency taking place? The two are blended together in a way that ‘makes the story work’—if it was explicitly religious, then there is less suspense and the reader has to suspend disbelief. If we know he is having psychological problems explicitly, then the question arises whether the author is overstepping his bounds in creating a character that might be too wily unbelievable to be fully appreciated. But when the two come together, the reader thinks ‘Huh. Tell me more about this guy’ and that serves as the hook that catches and then keeps the readers’ emotional investment in Will’s future that give this story its consequential aspects.

    I like the mismatch between Regina and Will on expectations that Fox introduces to the reader early when he mentions that Regina is attending a baby shower of a friend who is already having a third child. Regina is looking to this woman with envy, and suggests that she is disappointed she is not at that stage of life herself. Will, meanwhile, is disappointed over that very possibility–he has a ‘there must be more to life than this’ attitude towards the stable marriage route. This is a clever play on disappointment that reveals a sharp divergency–Regina is disappointed she’s not married with kids, Will is disappointed his life is pointing in that direction.

    I liked the consequences of Regina’s decision to kiss Will. Fox gives it a seriousness and gravity that is difficult to capture in a mere kissing scene without coming across as over-the-top. She makes a last-ditch attempt to maintain control of her relationship by abandoning one of the most manifest examples of her control–the desire not to kiss–in an attempt to keep Will that falls short. The mechanical, forced nature of the kiss that backfires is an original storyline–where else does a first kiss induce this type of failure? It’s a very creative concept, and I like Fox’s artistry in demonstrating how Regina’s attempts to keep Will inadvertently reinforce Will’s desire to leave–this law of unintended consequences is something we can all relate to and extrapolate meaning from. In Middlemarch, I read how Causabon’s desire to mention in the will that Dorothea can do anything but marry Will Ladislaw and she can receive the full inheritance–this is Causabon’s dying wish, and puts into Dorothea’s mind the potential to see Will Ladislaw as a romantic partner, and ushers her on that inevitable path to marrying him. A similar thing happens here–Will was probably going to go to Uganda anyway, but Regina’s failed kissing scene has an impetus affect that further strengthens Will’s resolve to leave.

    This may seem odd, but my favorite scene came when Will visited the bookstore and saw three books on Uganda, bought a guidebook, and then didn’t tell Regina about it. This scene gentle packs a lot of information for the reader to decipher. We learn about the consistent religious orientation of Will’s mind–he sees three books, and sees the coincidence as proof of divine Trinity forces at play. That reveals his mindset. We see him buy a book–vote with his dollars and make a cold-hard purchase–which reveals that he is taking the next step on his path to going to Uganda. There is something concrete about buying that guidebook–it transforms from a nebulous idea to a legitimate potential plan of purpose. And most importantly, the fact that he does not tell Regina about this–in fact, he lies to her and says he was ‘just browsing’–tells us a lot about Regina and Will’s relationship and how Will wants to avoid causing Regina pain is about to commit to an action that will permanently call into question their relationship. Potent stuff from visiting a bookstore and buying a book!

  8. Sara Hardman says:

    Overall, I found this story interesting and enjoyable. One of the story’s strongest aspects was the fact that it grabbed my interest at the beginning and only heightened that throughout. I think that starting in the middle of the story, rather then establishing a setting and characters and background information first, was the main reason for this.

    Also, I was very interested in how the story would ultimately end. This was because I was invested in the main character, Will, very much. Not only did the author of this story make the main character come to life, but he did the same for every character in this story, and especially Regina. He wasn’t judging any of his characters or telling readers what to think about them. The author simply presented the facts and allowed us to make opinions of our own. Because the characteristics displayed from Regina though, such as the long hair and home-schooling and great piety, usually come together to form a certain person, I was able to assume a bit more about her life, which I found really useful.

    Overall, I really liked this story. It was one that I enjoyed reading from beginning to end.

  9. R.T. Smith says:

    Concerning the guidebook — This is just one of the places where Fox is showing us compromise or erosion of ideals on either Will’s part or Regina’s. We see these two fictional characters adapting and transforming. We see them creating further fictions and masks. Fasconating stuff.

  10. Allie Weiss says:

    I really appreciated the religious elements of this story, and I thought that the author did a wonderful job of tying all the religious points together at the end with the actual, audible “calling” that the main character experienced. The fact that it was just that, someone calling his name, and not the overdramatic display of bright lights and overt holiness, was what really struck me. It was by no means the burning of the biblical bush; yet it fit better into the story because it was something that could have happened in reality. After all, someone hearing their name being called is not supernatural. But in the context of this story, it carried great significance.
    One thing that I was slightly unclear about was the importance of chess in this story. Will points out that every move, at one point in the game, was accounted for and predictable. He knew how it would all play out, and so did his father (who the reader has come to dislike). And his father, realizing that he will lose, strikes the table in a fit of fury and injures Will, thus effectively ending the game. I thought that the significance would be that one side was religious, and one demonic, and that the father was always on the religious side. This could have been representative of God the father, who would always win. But the fact that the demonic side is about to win, and then the game just abruptly ends, threw me. Is there a metaphor hee that I’m just not seeing?

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  12. Angelle Guyette says:

    As someone picking up pen and paper again after a long departure, it heartens me that the literary world still has a place for the sharp and cutting edges of ambiguity wrought in the realms where faith and physical-spiritual experience are drawn and upset by smiths (and Foxes, apparently) who understand in three dimensions, the price of the curves they forge.

    This is clearly not just a prize-winning story, but a tale that should be included in the literary lexicon of future generations. There’s not one line that doesn’t bear a Truth worth looking at, pondering over. [Cuss word implying writers’ Hades deleted.] You sure set the bar, high, don’t you?

  13. boldricke15 says:

    I like the division of character in this story. Will is two people: Regina’s Will, who is reasonable, and pure, and whose simple desires are within reach any time he wants them; and the mystery Will, who appears without warnings, always alone, through these strange, unexplained, metaphysical moments. The story is on the surface about Will’s decision to go to Uganda because he’s a Christian and he wants to help people, but the layers below that are so much more complicated and unknowable. Will can’t even articulate to himself why he wants to go. He knows it’s not safe, and not good for his relationship with Regina, and any benefits the trip might offer are vague and never spelled out. But some otherworldly force makes his rationality meaningless. What exactly that force is, is the crux of the story. Less crucial to the deeper meaning of the story but absolutely necessary for the punch that it packs is the way the writer describes the sensory details of the experiences: he feels like he’s been “attacked,” he feels “pursued,” it’s the “bubbling up of the vertigo, the uplift of a freefall.” It terrifies him but it’s a pleasurable terror.

  14. Grace Haynes says:

    I loved the vivid descriptions and compelling details of this story. The author made me feel as if I was in Will’s head and experiencing his internal dilemma firsthand. I enjoyed learning about Will’s relationship with Regina through Will’s portrayal of their experiences together and conversations between them. A lot was told about Regina through Will’s flashbacks and internal musings. The clever. title immediately grasped my attention. It’s a play on Will’s dilemma to take a chance for the first time in his life, to leave behind the familiar and strong traditions of his community and to plunge into an exciting adventure.

  15. hammerm16 says:

    I truly enjoyed this story. Each paragraph was strategically used to used to add depth to the characters, furthering the plot tension.
    I loved how the story began, foreshadowing the ending, but allowing the reader to ignore the blatant hints in the meantime. Will looks to the Ugandan choir in an infallible, biblical sense and regards Regina as a seemingly shallow woman prioritizing social commitments above those in need.
    I love the description of the total body effect that the boys’ singing had on him and what little emotion he gave to his relationship with Regina. They seemed to reach both polarities of overwhelming emotion and none at all.

  16. Stephanie Rice says:

    The writer has a wonderful grasp of language, and he uses it to describe familiar details in unique and revelatory ways. I enjoyed how well the author conveys Will’s branch of Christian culture in small details, not needing to go into lengthy exposition to convey a sense of the whole. I also value the sense of the author’s invisibility. It feels like there’s a direct connection between the reader and what Will thinks, what Will sees and experiences. In a similar way, the author never tells the reader what to think and how to feel; his writing creates impressions, but it’s left for the reader to judge.

  17. Kiki Martire says:

    I agree with Grace that it is the vivid descriptions and compelling details of Fox’s story that draw the reader in first, and maintain this grasp voraciously until the end; a difficult feat to master. I grew up knowing some Christians who were home schooled and held similar views to the characters in the story. In my experience authors treatment of such outdated values are one-dimensional, so I appreciated the dynamic approach the author took with Regina, Will, and their families in this regard. Will believes a life of mundane certainty can bring him happiness,”This, this. He wanted only this. With this he could be happy.” But the possibility of this happiness does not solidify itself as a necessity. Are people searching for happiness alone, or is it a more complex condition of purpose and adventure that sustains satisfaction? Will chooses a dangerous, uncertain path rather than his simplistic vision of marital life with Regina. This choice is in keeping with what makes him a special character capable of defying the predictable: his ephemeral out of body experiences that draw him closer to the spiritual world. This makes Will unique, which is made clear by the authors description of the doctors who could not categorize his odd condition. Overall, the primary strength of this story is the way Fox travels through time, tying distant memories and recent occurrences together seamlessly. The woven collection of mismatched subject matter (refugee choirs, a home schooler’s dogma of strict chastity, young devoted love, a call to volunteer service abroad) are brought together harmoniously to make this piece really sing.

  18. Ryan Scott says:

    A fascinating and delightfully ambiguous piece. I appreciated that Fox set his story against the backdrop of American fundamentalism. Though initially I wondered as to what this detail had to add to the overall narrative, I believe that Fox was making a comment about how right-wing fundamentalism, like the left-wing secularism that it often clashes with, tries to impose a pattern of rationality upon the world in spite of all the signs that the world is a fundamentally irrational place.

  19. hewittc15 says:

    A common trait that all of my favorite stories share is ambiguity. I like having something to chew on once I’ve closed the book, or the tab. This is one of those stories. When I read his first incident, I tried to brush it off. I wanted to brush it off. “Oh, it was just an episode of synesthesia.” But it wasn’t just anything. It was something else, and the more that became apparent to me, the deeper the story dragged me. I felt compelled toward it, just as Will is compelled toward Uganda. For me, it culminated with the startlingly clear image of “a sliding hue of dark blue, light blue, and grainy beige” — the ocean has its own ambiguity. This story will stay with me for a long time, I think.

  20. Anna Kathryn Barnes says:

    This story was thoughtful and complex. I especially enjoyed the segments traveling from different time periods, snapshots of Will’s life and experiences as well as his joys and tribulations. Regina is described as almost so perfect it is frustrating, like she needs to just let it all go and take off on an impulse. The juxtaposition between her beliefs and desires and the tension holding Will back from pursuing his own hopes. The author has a clear and meaningful voice. I especially liked the metaphor in the opening of the story when Will is listening to the boys’ choir, how he felt as if he was being attacked. How could the harmonies of young voices make you feel attacked? Is it the guilt that these boys have been collected and improved, from their own complex and often painful histories. I appreciated that Will ultimately ended up following his intuition, buying a plane ticket for himself, despite the controversy he knew it would create with Regina. This story was well-written and impressively executed.

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