Assistant Editor Molly Reid: Michael Alessi’s “A Small, Silent Assurance” raises more questions than it answers—what happened to this marriage? What is the nature of this man’s condition? And those poor turtles, why???—but these questions lead us on a treasure hunt that rewards with strange, surprising images (“a snake’s nest of stethoscopes,” hands “skittering over surfaces like two bald tarantulas”). This story reminds us that even our afflictions and losses contain beauty, and that sometimes the urge to connect, to commune with another living being, makes us do desperate things (maybe, even, grope starfish).
To hear Michael read his piece, you can click below:
“A Small, Silent Assurance”
By Michael Alessi
My first husband had curious hands. I mean, they were always roving, skittering over surfaces like two bald tarantulas. He said he could remember just the things he touched—cursed with a perfect tactile memory. In public he opened every door labeled Employees Only, fingered the straws in other people’s drinks, and squeezed strangers’ shoulders in passing, always wearing the embarrassed look of a dog owner with no control of his pets. On our first date, a tryst at an aquarium, I mistook his shaking hands for nerves. When we reached the tidal pool, they made their break, yanking him until his body slumped over the waist-high glass while they groped starfish below. A female guard tackled him to the carpet, pretzeled his arms behind his back, but the hands persisted, madly spooling the end of her tie as he begged forgiveness—from her, from me, from the invertebrates he’d molested. When you see a person in pain he can’t control, pleading for relief, you want to be that relief. I lied for him: dropped my ring in the tank and claimed he’d tried to save it.
On the drive back he sulked in the passenger side, wringing water off his knuckles, and cursed the doctor he’d hired to treat his condition. She’d quit after he stole her nose ring; another of his urges no easier stifled than a blink. His car was littered with baubles blindly lifted from passersby—a snake’s nest of stethoscopes, yellowed name tags, and a Boy Scout sash flush with merit badges. He winced when I touched my jewelry. I’d learn that in these moments of injury his hands recoiled, fingers primping each other as if to assure themselves, in their own language, that they were innocent.
At his insistence we pulled off at a lily pond. The turtles there, accustomed to his handling, paddled close to be counted, and he picked them out of the water one by one and passed them to me, until my arms began buckling. I tried to picture the ways that parents cling to their children, but I’ve never held something without the fear of spilling, and a body will always let go if you do. In the aftermath—cracked, seeping shells scattered on the rocks—two hands, suddenly steady, wiped my face clean. That night and many nights to follow, after he’d fallen asleep, they signed to me in the bedroom’s dim light, their spidery dance most likely the spasms of dreams but perhaps instead a small, silent assurance that I too was innocent.
Michael Alessi received his MFA from Old Dominion University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in such literary journals as Mid-American Review, Passages North, The Pinch, the minnesota review, and New Delta Review, among others. A native of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, he lives in Chicago.
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