JoAnna Novak



IN THE FACULTY LOUNGE, ALWAYS SOMETHING, some opening mouth and getting him wrong: “Gluten? Or is it bread? Isn’t that a rice cake?

A brown rice cake. Half an avocado. Mashed into a rinsed-out Gerber jar. Before the toaster, Wynn spreads on avo. Opens the nova lox. Each salmon leaf, the gold cardboard, a pink promise. He swore he’d never leave the city. Never work another office. Never Cindy, Aja, Larissa, Manda, Ophelia. Marie and then Maria. Beatrice, Brittany, Mary Ellen, Elena, Amarilla, Tristen, Lee, everyone pre-Mary.

Married to Mary.

That extra r.

R is for rope.

Mary. Motorcycling her, proposing in that shifty boat. The burritos curing every hangover, their wedding in a green hangar, the Art Deco hotel haunted by Grover Cleveland. Money. Honeymoon and welcoming parents, Winnie and Ace, and their offer—you’ve always got a home in us.

Did Mary ask to be married?

Did she ask to be Maced? (On the E train, demon unseen, least of all by Mary.)

Her irises since: greener.

She nightmared, shook; their plants bent like snakes. I’m scared of everything, she said. They left the city for Winnie and Ace’s four-bedroom, two-fireplace ranch in Wyoming, state of jackalope and double-baked bakers.

Lounge-lunching, Wynn’s knife makes a plucky sound on the rice cake. Salary opens all the cupboards: a salmon-avocado tasty in a room steamy with tot hot dish.

“So healthy,” says a marshmallowy voice. “I just give up.”

Wynn has been turned by less. The woman has soupy black hair and the dark glasses booksy girls liked. A purple blouse with silver tulips, a silver necklace trawling between her obvious boobs. The brightness of her clothing takes up a lot of space.

“New sub?” The woman stirs a carton of yogurt. It slops like paste or fucking. Wynn thinks quick: true, awful, bored.

“I’m the guy at every board meeting, PTO—”

“You’re a runner.” She puzzles her mouth around the spoon. “We need a sub in gym.” (Mary is always asking why he needs to show so much face to the principal, why he needs to be at school by ten to seven. Why indeed, he wonders himself, when, today, for instance, he hasn’t seen his boss once.)

“You caught me. I ran a 10K this morning,” Wynn says. This is olding, chapped, snow- beat, Midwestish. No, no wifey: Mary is see-ya, her fear a bird aflame in the flue. His in-laws: two rando oenophiles in a cul-de-sac. Only the city of him exists: fleet, free of flour, friable. He could slather yogurt on this woman’s neck, lick, lick, lap. “The field house?”

He wasn’t choosy before Mary, but yes, he types. I’m thirty-one, thirty-two, he thought those unmarried years: I deserve type. Type was hipless, with scant décolletage he baptized
with prosecco. Type wasn’t this woman, but still he’s an ass for not asking her name, he realizes, as he jaws the salmon at his desk.


In his slim cords and a boiled wool vest, Wynn zones past trophy cases, aureate athletes atop acrylic pedestals. High school left him this—the accomplishments of others.

Double doors lead to Gym A. Beside them is an office with a teal window, frosted over and barbed with stencil lines. Suburban Life clippings + tape = privacy. He scans for Mary’s name—she played volleyball. This is her old school, maybe. He still can’t remember where she went to college.

The woman in purple opens the door. Her hair is up, piled like laundry.

“Thank God.” She hands Wynn a clipboard. “But what are you wearing?”

Wynn points to his boots, his last splurge with his last New York check. They’re the color of brown butter over gluten-free gnocchi, his last New York meal.

I ran the Brooklyn Bridge in those boots. I leapt a hotdog cart. I made love to the daughter of a Nobel Prize winner in these stallions.

“I run barefoot,” he says.

“Well . . .” She holds out her hand. “Andrea Straube.”

“Wynn Acton.”

She hands him the clipboard. A lesson plan, a roster, a brass whistle on a chain. “Keep ‘em organized,” she says. “I can’t be visiting another hospital.”

From whence do students come? Wynn is in, and already they’re backs-to-bleachers, orderly as Legos. Sophomores, red shorts, black shirts. Was he ever that small? (He was. Shorter than girls, who gripped their elbows like lockets they didn’t want to lose.)

Unbuttoning his vest, Wynn steps in front of the class. That bandaid gym smell. That burn-your-retinas light. Pairing, the students whisper. Someone boots the bleachers.

He rolls through the roster. These names are neo-Norwegian. Or German? Wynn does okay. Ilsa is not Elsa but ill-suh, Rolf—rhymes with golf. Anders, Ingrid, Brigid, Merit. Lena and Oleander, Michael, Mikey, Thomas, Tyler. Laura-Rose: totes Laura-Rose. Steven has a baby arm.

“What do you do in this unit?” he says, ignoring the notes.

No one says anything. Lick dicks or suck an egg? He has never told Mary what a nasty boy he was. He was a bully. An asshole. The sort of jerk that got suspended for taunting pudgy weaklings. That’s why he moved to the city and became a sometime sculptor: art is always one cosmic apology.

Ilsa, an elbow-clutcher, raises her hand, waving her nails like ten lit matches. “Fitness testing. So . . .we do all the tests and then we get free gym.”

“Do whatever,” blurts Michael or Mikey. “Straube likes us to get out our balls.” A blue wire cart teems with volleyballs at the other end of the bleachers, but no net. Suddenly Wynn remembers: By turning a crank, his high school gym teacher could drop a net from the ceiling. Suddenly Wynn remembers: At home, his wife is pregnant.

Wynn sweats. The salmon is oiling out of him, omega acid by omega acid. Overhead, fatty fans rake the air. Gym A is two basketball courts, splayed and available. In one corner, a  rock wall grows off the cinderblocks like a warted nose.

“Here’s the deal.” He swooshes the clipboard. “Dodge ball. I whistle, the game ends.” He wills his boots to adhere to the floor—it’s the color of tapioca—and he blows.

The first ball hits his sternum, battering his lungs. Another ball skips, pops, bops off
his ankle. Girls shriek boys whoop like Braveheart. His right hip, his stomach. He winces and opens his eyes to a lime green Wilson whizzing toward his nose. That’s when he tucks the whistle inside his collar. The brass is warm, a thumb, on his chest.

Someone yells stop and someone else yells harder. A few boys sprint away from the group
and tear toward the cage, two girls chasing them, two other girls tiptoe-running toward a cove with a water fountain by the double doors. EXIT. Every room has one. In this gym, the letters are green.

Home. Winnie and Ace and Mary, Wynn a banged-up wreck. Winnie on the red ottoman in front of the red sectional where Mary and Ace canoodle. Mary likes the part that juts out long, the tongue. Wynn gets the recliner, a throw pillow cross-stitched with the Statue of Liberty. Everyone drinking pinot grigio, except Mary. Mary marshmallow hunts from a ramekin of Lucky Charms balanced on her belly.

Wynn’s bruises are wet and open, like city puddles, always cesspoolish.

“What happened to you anyway?” Mary says between chomps.

“I told you.” His ears are ringing: is he whispering or shouting? “I subbed gym.”

“I can’t believe Straube let you.” Mary considers a pot of gold. “She must be getting senile.”

Winnie swirls her wine. “Okay, grumpo! Someone needs dinner.”

“Dad,” Mary always sounds sloppy-tongued when she talks to Ace during cocktail hour.

She reaches to her father, the way she used to reach for Wynn when they shared an apartment, a sofa, a city, a state. “Dad, am I as big as a basketball?”

Ace pets Mary’s stomach. “I love to see you eat.”

“Mom made pizza,” Mary says, cringing at the recliner. “Since when,” Wynn says, wincing. “When have I even been able to eat one goddam bite of gluten?”

“Let’s go, Mary.” Ace frowns in the doorway. “This from city boy!”

Mary bursts into tears. Clutching her stomach, she rushes out, trailing the two-parent coterie.

Wynn covers his eyelids, one by one, with the side of his wine glass. Cold is good. The Statue of Liberty is pretty. The pillow is like a crammed cheek in his lap. He hears Mary in the kitchen: “Don’t worry, little boy. You won’t be a fussy eater.”

“Has he always had a temper?” says Winnie, louder than she speaks over the car radio when they drive to the Kroger.

“If he’s ever violent with you,” Ace says. On a snagging, the sliding door closes.

You can admit some wounds, Wynn thinks, not others. His eyes, his chin, his neck: red and screamy. His torso: sore and blackening, poisoned, like a banana rotting in its skin. His appendix came out when he was kid, a due reward for a bad boy, he told himself, and now the scar—urban girls love a scar—sings.

Eventually, Wynn knocks on the kitchen door. A plate is set for him at the table, and he wraps his arms around the back of Mary’s chair, and envelops her with a hug. Such a puritan kiss. Such a sturdy little boy theirs will be. And Wynn winces as he sits, winces as he reaches to refill his wine, winces as he eats the pizza, knowing he’ll be gut-sick, green-faced, captive of his intestines all night.

JOANNA NOVAK is the author of I Must Have You, a novel, and Noirmania, a forthcoming booklength poem. Her writing has appeared widely in such publications as Catapult, Guernica, LitHub, The New York Times, The Rumpus, and Salon. She is a founding editor of Tammy, an independent chapbook press and literary journal.

Issue Four
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