Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2013    poetry    all issues


Sarah Einstein
Walking and Falling

Jessica Bryant Klagmann
In the Forgotten Corner of the World

Melanie Unruh
Bend, Convolute, Curve

Aliya Amirh Tyus-Barnwell
Love and Marriage

Charles J. Alden

Ann Minnett

Amy Foster
Cripple Creek

Amy Dodgen
A General Rule

Joseph Hill

Lisa E. Balvanz

Ellen Darion

Erin Flanagan
The Learning Theory

Walter Bowne

Chris Tarry
Dairy Barn Angel

Gordon MacKinney
Death of a Motor City Talk Jock

Christopher Cervelloni
Tipping Superman

Daniel C. Bryant

Jane Deon

Justin J. Murphy
The Petrology of South Dakota

Lisa E. Balvanz


Some people believe everything I say; this is a mistake. I’m not the kind of girl you can trust to tell you the truth. I was raised on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Learned that I should love myself for who I am, that it’s okay to be different, that I can do whatever I want if I try hard enough. I work at a Kum ’n Go in podunk, Iowa. Maybe Mister Rogers was wrong.

So now you’re getting this picture of me in your mind. Sure, I’ve got the nose ring, tattoos, dyed hair that changes every week. You see me and you think, maybe I’m a stoner, a drunk, been knocked up a couple times, maybe had abortions, maybe left the kids at home alone because I can’t afford day care—or worse—they’re with my mother.

I’m not any of those things. I tried pot once. I’m allergic. My whole throat swelled up until I couldn’t breathe.

Imagine shopping for a wedding dress in the middle of nowhere. There are churches to get married in everywhere, but the closest wedding shop is an hour away, and if we don’t find something there, the next place will be in a whole other state. It’s on the edge of a town so small that if you sneezed while you were driving, you’d miss it. Low slung, stucco building snuggled up against the edge of a soybean field. The place isn’t fancy on the outside, just huge windows to look through and see all the latest styles. It doesn’t have to be; it serves the bridal needs of three counties by word of mouth alone.

Inside, I find myself standing in the dress of my dreams. Nicely fitted with extra fabric that wrinkles down the whole front. My small rose tattoo is visible, my first, and lies just beside the left shoulder strap. The skirt of the dress fills out with a short train.

My mother is glaring at me, eyes squinting. “It’s too plain,” she says. “It’s not what you want.”

What do you say to your mother when she completely doesn’t understand you? I’m getting this dress, Mom. It’s the dress of my freaking dreams. I say, “I like it,” and smile a little.

“No, you need something with more on it. Some lace or beading or something.”

I’m not getting a dress so people will look at the beading. “I look good in this, Mom. Don’t you think it looks good on me? It makes my waist look smaller.”

“It makes your hips look huge.”

The dress of my freaking dreams.

If the dress wasn’t two hundred dollars more than I have to spend on it, I’d buy it. Mom shuts her purse, and we leave the shop with nothing. The wind blows dirt in my eyes on the way to the car.

Lance is older, has long orange hair and a scruffy beard to match. He owns a labradoodle, takes him for walks every morning after breakfast and at night before he goes to bed. Mom thinks I’m throwing my life away with him, but I feel like that labradoodle’s gotta mean something.

He’s eighteen inches taller than me. I don’t even come up to his shoulder. When I hug him, it’s like hugging my dad was when I was kid.

Not like that comparison means much to me. My dad hasn’t been around the last few years. I remember he used to smell like grease and motor oil. I remember him most clearly outside under the shade of the maple tree, leaning over the hood of his pick-up, so his butt is the prominent feature in my mind. It wasn’t the best-looking butt you’ve ever seen, but it did its job just fine. Probably the image of his butt doesn’t say good things to you, so you can stick with thinking about how his hugs were, if you want.

Lance says I should keep a journal of my dreams. He believes that dreams tell us things: what we’re worried about, what really matters to us. Stuff we won’t admit to ourselves. He tells me about his, but they’re pretty normal. He forgets his pants on our wedding day. He’s fighting with some guys at work and falls off the roof. He loses Bethany, his labradoodle.

“I got you a journal.” He hands me a cloth-covered book with blank pages.

“I prefer lined paper,” I tell him. What I won’t tell him: I don’t have anything to write.

“This way you can jot down pictures too, if you want.” He moves to tuck his hair behind his ear, though it’s already there.

“Good idea.” I smile, trying to make it look genuine, and kiss him.

It works. He smiles back.

He’s sitting on a bench outside the library, watching me as I walk home from work. He’s leaning on his cane a bit, looks like he’s thinking about standing up, been thinking for awhile but hasn’t gotten there. He’s got a big bag beside him, a pair of old-school red and blue bowling shoes with their laces tied round the handles. Man, the old guy probably thinks it’s 1988.

This is the busiest street in town, and I’ll tell you, it’s not busy. You’ve got the library, a small grocery store, consignment shop, and local soda fountain that have always been there. There are other store buildings, but the businesses come and go, leaving empty shells behind. Inside, maybe one shelf, a rickety chair. Right now there’s a photography studio that just opened up, and a bookstore that’s going out of business. Across the street from the library is a boarded up bowling alley, paint peeling off the side of the building. That’s where the old man’s attention is. The place has been closed for a few years now, but the sign still says the hours and announces New leagues starting in September!

He reaches out his hand to stop me from walking away.

“Are the leagues still forming?” he asks.

I’m surprised he can read the sign all the way across the street. His glasses are thick as Olympic medals.

“That’s what the sign says.” I move to walk away, and he waves his arm again.

“When does the bowling alley say it closes?” he asks. “I can’t read the hours.”

I squint in the direction of the door. Not sure why, but I tell him the truth. “8:00. Unless there’s a league going.”

“What time is it?” he asks.

“Uh.” I glance at my watch. It says 3:57. “8:30,” I tell him.

“Oh.” he frowns, his body settling down a little into the bench.

The bell tower rings at the Catholic church a few blocks over, counting the hours. He looks off towards the sound, as if he can see it, blinks every time it rings. One blink. Two blinks. Three blinks. Four. He keeps looking for awhile, keeps his eyes wide open, huge through those thick lenses.

“Think it’s broken?” he finally says.

This guy is a keeper for sure. “Could be,” I say.

“Well, I better head home then.”

I walk off, and when I look back a block later, he’s got his rear in the air, suspended, knees wobbling, trying to get that last umph to stand up. If there’s a bowling ball in that bag, I don’t know how he managed to carry it.

I haven’t written anything in the journal. Lance tells me I should try every morning. I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m not trying, but I sit there with my pen for fifteen minutes every morning after the alarm goes off, tapping it against the paper, wishing I had something to write. Lance says it doesn’t have to be long. It can be anything. He says the more I do it, the more will come to me.

I’m considering making something up. I could start with a word: Running. Sadness. Pineapples. Thinking of pineapples makes me hungry. I close the journal and head to the kitchen to dig up some breakfast.

Lance is a construction worker. It’s not the classiest work, but he enjoys doing things with his hands. His favorite part is putting the frame up, nailing all those two-by-fours together to make a wall, lifting it up, a house coming like magic out of nothing. He complains on the days when they have to put in insulation or shingle the roofs, but he never complains about putting those first two by fours together. It’s what he’s wanted to do since he was in diapers.

“So, besides Kum ’n Go and marrying me,” Lance says one day, “what do you want to do in life?”

I roll my eyes at him.

“No, really,” he says. “I’m being serious. You’ve never told me. What are your dreams? What do you want to do when you grow up?”

“Do I have to have them?” I ask.

“What did you want to be when you were a kid?”

I shrug. “Violet Beaureguarde?”


“I mean, she got to chew gum all the time. My parents hated how I smacked it when I chewed, so they took it away whenever we went places, or at mealtimes, or when watching TV, doing homework. Pretty much whenever they were in the room, I guess. Yeah.” I nod.

He shakes his head.

“How about a mother? Every little girl wants to have kids, right?”

“Definitely not a mother,” I tell him.

“So nothing, really.”

“Nothing. Really.”

Once I told my mother maybe I’d be a ballerina. I was chubby at the time, and Mom was kind enough to remind me I didn’t have the body for it. I said I was thinking about being a journalist. Mom said I would have to talk to strangers, and as I’d just developed an unreasonable fear of people I didn’t know from watching too many cop shows, I scratched that idea. I didn’t even get the chance to suggest that I become a firefighter. When Mom heard we were going to tour the fire station, she told me to appreciate those people, because they could die, burnt to a cinder, trying to save my life.

Tomorrow I will write in my dream journal: Mother burst into flames. It was my fault. I was sorry because we were in the garden and it set the petunias on fire.

Mother and I used to get along. Except for the fact that my dad was never around, we were the picture-perfect family. I wanted to make her proud. She was proud. She came to every play, every sporting event, every silly little booster-club meeting. She supported her daughter, and she made sure everyone else knew it. Remnants of those days lie around the house. Pictures hanging in the hallway or sitting above the fireplace feature us both smiling, her arms around me.

It didn’t start with Lance. I told Mom I was thinking about joining the Air Force. I was nearing the end of high school, and it was time to get serious about my future. I was thinking I could learn to fly, then maybe dust cornfields. Did I want to join the Air Force? No. But you got to learn to fly somewhere. Apparently, girls don’t join the Air Force, or the Marines, the Army, the National Guard. Life just went downhill from there—Mom telling me what she thinks I want, me denying it.

I don’t know what I want. Maybe I don’t want the dress of my freaking dreams. Maybe I don’t want the roast beef for the reception or the little floral centerpieces we picked for the tables. Maybe silver and blue weren’t the colors we should have gone with. Sometimes I wonder if I even really want Lance or if I’ve latched onto him because he is the only one who really cares to know what I want. I wonder if I ever really knew what I wanted, and I can’t remember how I knew when I knew what I wanted, if I knew.

Lance says our dreams tell us things. If I could remember my dreams, maybe I could make sense of this. When I wake up, I don’t remember them. I don’t remember them.

Today when I walk past the old man, he doesn’t say anything to me. Doesn’t nod, doesn’t raise his hand to grab my arm. He’s just staring straight ahead at the bowling alley, leaning his cane against his knee, tapping it on his bag. Just staring and tapping, making his shoes dance as they dangle on their strings.

“You made it over there yet?” I ask.

Tap, tap, tap. “Nah,” he says. “Been thinking about my wife’s key lime pie.”

Tap, tap, tap.

Okay . . .

I start to walk on, but he stops tapping and turns to look at me, so I wait.

“She doesn’t make it anymore,” he tells me. “Doesn’t make anything anymore. We just eat those TV dinners. I’d cook myself, but I never learned how, and it’s hard to stand long with the arthritis in my knees.”

I nod, not sure what he expects me to say to this.

“Anyway,” he continues, “would you mind helping me get to the bowling alley?”

He’s already trying to stand up, stuck in that awkward position with his rear in the air. “You can grab my bag and hand it to me when I get up.”

I reluctantly pick up the bag and wait. It’s not very heavy. I’d guess he has an eight-pound ball, maybe even a seven. It would have to be on the light side, if he has any chance of actually bowling with it.

Here I am, standing, holding the bag. I feel weird about it, so I hold it out in front of me. I’m not really comfortable becoming a part of his life, even as small a part as the girl who picks up his bowling bag and helps him walk across the street. The sooner I can get out of this situation, the better.

It has to be a full three-and-a-half minutes that he’s stuck in that position, and I, therefore, in mine. Finally, he gives a grunt and straightens up to his full height. He’s not actually much taller than me, and it feels strange to be next to a man without that difference.

He taps his cane on the ground a couple times, chuckles, then reaches over to me. Rather than grabbing the bag, however, he puts his free arm through mine, leaning on me for support. The link between us is established, whether I like it or not. We begin the jaunt across.

Now, of course, I’m in trouble. Once we get a bit closer, it’ll be pretty obvious that the place has been closed for awhile. Right now the guy is concentrating too much on walking to notice anything though. He walks with confidence, I’ll give him that. Shoulders thrust back, head up, slow and steady, but he’s not gonna let anyone get in his way. We’re so slow that even on this quiet street three cars have to stop and wait for us. He nods to them in turn.

He steps carefully up on the curb, and then we’re across. He heaves a sigh of relief, pauses just for a minute as he breathes in deep.

“Feels good to stretch my legs,” he says. “But what’s this?” He waves his cane at the door. “Looks like they’re closed.”

“Hmm.” I drop his arm, though I’m still carrying his bag, and walk over to the doors, peering inside. “Looks like they’ve been closed for awhile. This place isn’t in good shape.”

I can’t believe he hasn’t realized what a liar I am.

He shakes his head, looks down at the ground. “I don’t understand. The boys and I just played last night. I bowled 270.”

I don’t look at him, shift my weight.

“Well,” he starts to turn around, “you’ll have to help me back.”

What can I do? I can’t just leave him here, on the wrong side of the street, far away from his bench. So I guide him across the street again, a little slower but just as confident, and when I look over once to be sure a car is going to stop before it hits us, I notice a twitch in his eye, a little moisture.

I write: I dreamt I was at the wedding. The old man was there. I’d invited him. I called him Wayne. I helped him sit down, already in my wedding dress, an ugly, cream one my mother wanted me to get that’s covered with flowers made of chiffon. Lance wasn’t there yet, so it was okay that I was in the church sanctuary. No one else was in the room. I sat him on a pew in the middle, close enough that he could see, but leaving enough room for my family in front of him. I went back to the changing rooms where my mother helped me finish doing my hair and put on my veil. Everything looked funny through the white. We went out to do the wedding and everything was pretty normal, except that Bethany was the ring bearer.

Lance looks dashing in his tux. I realize my dad is giving me away. I hug him, think of how it’s like hugging Lance. When I get up to Lance, I grab his hand. There’s music, a Bible reading, a sermon, typical wedding stuff. Then we get to the vows. Lance says “I do.” Then it’s my turn. “I do.” Wayne is shouting. He stands up from his seat. No longer needs his cane. “You lie!” he yells. “You don’t mean it!” He’s wearing his bowling shoes. He’s waving his cane in the air over everyone’s heads and coming towards me. “You don’t know what I think, old man!” I say to him. Lance lets go of my hand. Wayne is still walking towards me, waving his cane, and I duck.

I realize I switched verb tense halfway through. I think there are too many details for it to be believable. It’s too much of a jump from the last one, doesn’t build up quite right. I think about what I’d take out. I can’t decide. It all needs to be there, I’m sure about it, but I don’t know why.

Plus, it’s in pen. I can’t take it back now.

When I see the old man today, I decide to sit by him. I just go over and sit by him, as if I do it every day. He’s looking across at the bowling alley still, and he doesn’t turn to look at me when I sit down, but he nods in greeting like he expected it.

I’m not sure where to go from here, not sure what I’d intended to do past this point of sitting. So we sit in silence for awhile, just looking, listening to the cars pass, the dying leaves rustling on the trees.

“I didn’t think I’d see you here again,” I say.

“I used to be a pro,” he says.

I nod, as if I have known this forever.

“My wife says my mind is going.” He sniffs, rubs his nose.

I think about how many things I have left to do. The long list of assignments my mother has made for me to finish preparations for the wedding.

“Do you want to go?” I shift on the bench, turning towards him. “What I mean is, there’s another bowling alley just a town over. We could go if you want.”

He nods.

I run the ten blocks to my house. Mom isn’t home, and I’m glad I don’t have to explain why I’m taking her car.

When I return to the library to pick the old man up, I help him stand up, grab his bag. It’s a bit of a struggle to get him into the car because he has to lean down. On the ride there, he tells me about his pro bowling career. He remembers all the details of every game—every spare, every strike, the way he threw the ball and how he should have fixed it.

His bowling ball is hard for him to lift, even though it’s only seven pounds. I try to convince him to use one from the bowling alley, one of the lighter balls for children in neon green or orange, but he won’t hear of it. He moves slowly up to the line, pulls his arm back, and sends the ball down the aisle. The throw lacks speed and energy, but makes up for what it’s missing in aim and grace. It hits the right pocket and knocks down seven pins. When he turns around to wait for his ball, he’s smiling. I realize I have never seen him smile before.

I don’t know whether he knows that I lied to him earlier or if he thinks that it was his mind playing tricks on him. I wish I had never said those things.

I’m working another long shift at Kum ’n Go, a place that’s OK part-time, but I never wanted to stand behind a counter all day, watching people fill their cars with gas, selling them cigarettes and booze. We’re just off the highway, so half the people who come in are just passing through the cornfields, dazed, and ready for a change in scenery. They buy candy bars and pop, and I have to clean up after them when their kids leave a mess in the bathroom.

I’m putting money in the cash drawer, unrolling the crumpled bills the last guy handed me to pay for his gas, when the bell above the door rings. It’s Lance. I’ve been thinking about him all day, how I would tell him. He smiles at me and heads back to the coolers to grab a V8 before coming up to the counter.

“How’s it going today, lady?” he asks, setting the drink down. He’s been painting at work and his shirt and arms are covered in dry splatters.

“Same old, same old,” I say. “Couple of kids tried to lift some ice cream sandwiches.” I grab the bottle to scan it.

“But you and your eagle eyes saved the day. Did they take off running?” He hands me his cash, flat and neat from being in his wallet.

“Bicycles,” I say, “but you know I tackled them. Next time they’ll go to Casey’s.”

“How many?”

“Just two. Scrawny little troublemakers.”

I give him his two cents change. Now’s the time. I’m leaving, Lance. The drink’s condensation chills my hand as I push it across the counter towards him. His warm, speckled hand brushes mine as he grabs it.

“Call me when you get home?” he asks.

I lean over to kiss his cheek. “Of course.”

I’m only in South Dakota because Lance made me. I wouldn’t have minded too much if it were just the two of us, but he said my mother had to come. He said it nicely, as if he were insisting and thought it was the polite thing to do. I know it was my mother’s idea. She’s afraid if she leaves us alone we’ll get jiggy before the wedding. Please, mother.

The waterfall is beautiful, anyway. The fall’s a little taller than Lance, maybe ten feet, and only a few feet wide. The water is clear—I mean, crystal clear. You can make out every slick brown rock behind the cascade, even where the liquid bashes against the edges, slides over the rock like silk.

Lance isn’t saying anything. I’m not saying anything. Mom starts saying something, but Lance shushes her.

Awe is attractive on Lance. His mouth is halfway open, and his eyes are bright. I think he feels a connection to the earth in this moment. If we were talking, he’d ask if I feel it too. He’d insist you can’t not feel it, being surrounded by the growing leaves, the sweet-smelling air. I don’t know if I feel it.

I just want to listen to the waterfall. It’s not a huge, gushing sound like those big ones. This one’s soft, quiet, even calmer than if you were filling up your bathtub. More like a shower, more like constant rain. It’s quiet enough you can hear the wind too, the rustling of leaves, the flap of birds’ wings as they sweep just over our heads, chirping to each other.

“This is a place I know myself,” Lance says. He says it low and quiet and I don’t mind because it blends in, becomes part of what’s around us. Lance is part of what’s around us, with his hiking boots and cargo pants, backpack, 80’s-style headband to keep the hair out of his face. He doesn’t leave a footprint in the soft mud like I do, doesn’t break branches off the trees, but gently glides through, steps lightly. I don’t know how to travel with him. I feel clumsy and awkward and all kinds of damaging to what’s around me.

Truth be told, I don’t even know how we’re standing here together right now. I don’t understand how our paths not only crossed, but managed to intertwine. If you’d asked me what kind of man I wanted to marry three years ago, before I met him, I would not have described Lance. For starters, he would not have orange hair. The orange isn’t actually that bad reallyit’s the pasty skin that goes with orange hair I don’t like. And, if you’d asked me, he’d have to like watching stuff blow up. Not actually blowing stuff up, necessarily, just watching it happen. Instead of this making ourselves one with nature thing. Above all, he’d have to hate my mother.

“Lance, you know I love you, right?” I take his hand.

“Yeah,” he says. “I love you, too. That’s why we’re getting married.”

I can’t help smiling, feeling a little bit better.

“You worried about something?” he asks.

“No,” I lie.

This is the best I can do. I hope it’s enough. I can’t tell you the truth, even if I wanted to. I’m not sure I even know what truth is. Time keeps moving on and I think, maybe someday I’ll get it. Maybe someday I’ll understand Lance, my mother, that old man. Maybe someday I’ll remember my dreams.

I stare at the waterfall. I feel the warmth of Lance’s hand in mine. I shift my weight and the mud squishes around my shoes. The water keeps flowing down the edge, the wedding keeps drawing nearer, the old man comes repeatedly to his bench by the library and stares at the empty bowling alley, my dream journal continues to get filled with made-up tales, and I can’t stop any of it. I take a deep breath and walk over next to the waterfall. The water splashes on my face where it flicks off of rock, speckles my pants as it bounces off the stream at the bottom. I put my hand into the cool, falling water, feel it bounce off my knuckles, slide down my fingers and jump off. Close my eyes and try to stay here. It will only be a moment before my mother starts talking again. I can’t stop any of it, and I can’t seem to fix myself, and I just try to keep up with the rest.

Lisa E. Balvanz I originally started writing “Dream-Work” as an exercise in voice. Previously, I had written mostly third person narratives, and I wanted to experiment with writing a first-person narrator with a voice that was very different from my own. Though this is now one of my older stories, it was instrumental in pushing my craft to a new level. It remains one of my favorite stories, and I’m happy it’s found a home in Sixfold.

Dotted Line