Assistant Editor Molly Reid: Jolene McIlwain’s “Drumming” captures a tender moment between a waitress and customer, Dusty and Elbert, both broken in their own way, in the way we all are—the pain we try to fold into distracting shapes, the rhythm we tap along the diner counter, hoping someone will pick up on its tune. This story will break your heart stealthily, by degrees. Get ready.
To hear Jolene read her story, you can click below:
by Jolene McIlwain
Dusty Sinclair plunged both of her hands in the steaming liquid, felt the slick softness of the bleached water on her fingers. She wrung the rag, slid it over the counters, nodding, nodding, smiling, nodding, while Elbert chattered on about the men in the green trucks, the wells they were punching into the ground all over the valley.
“Do you think they’ll convince anyone else to sell?” she asked, turning to meet his eyes, knowing he likely wouldn’t answer or even look at her. Elbert’s eyes met no one’s since the incident. He talked. A lot sometimes. The only way people could tell he took in what they said was if they watched him count the syllables of the words as they spoke.
“Marcellus, Utica, what’s the difference?” she asked, watching him tap three times for Marcellus, three for Utica, twice for difference. She smiled. “I mean, dif-fer-ence,” she repeated. He tapped three times, letting a tiny half smile itch his cheek. Then he pulled out his notebook with his only hand, held it down with his stump, and jotted something.
“One’s deep under the other,” he said, quiet as pie, and smiled full at his writing.
She stood there in front of him, watched him pull his wallet and change from his pocket. He placed the exact amount on the slip and situated two dollars in the menu holder for her. They’d been in the same study hall their senior year, where he’d often tap out drum solos pretending he was Neil Peart or Phil Collins. She went to see him at the hospital after his stepfather took a Buck knife to the tendons of his wrists for practicing too loud.
The restaurant had just cleared from morning rush. She’d have time to schedule with her doctor. She’d have time to go out back for a smoke. She could hear the dishwasher clanging pans and dishes, water spraying against stainless. She could hear the UPS truck pulling in across the street, the dogs at Herbie’s junkyard sounding off their warnings. She could hear the sweet trilling of the kids at the elementary school, outside for gym class.
“Hysterosalpingogram,” she said. Elbert’s eyes glinted toward hers, and he tapped the counter five times before she slid her hand under his finger. “That’s what they want me to have next, Elbert.” He tapped gently on the softest part of her palm, once, then again.
She should have been telling her husband this, or her mother, or her best friends.
“Infertile,” she said, feeling him tap her skin three times. Her throat stung, but she kept going. She closed her eyes and said, “Empty.” He tapped twice.
“I’m so sad,” she said. He tapped slowly once, twice, then again. When she opened her eyes, he was staring right into them.
Jolene McIlwain‘s writing appears online at Prairie Schooner, River Teeth, Atticus Review, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart and selected as a contest finalist by Glimmer Train, and semi-finalist in Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize and both American Short Fiction’s Short and Short(er) Fiction contests.
For more miCRo pieces, CLICK HERE.