fiction, poetry & more

Second Prize
$100 Award


by Paul B. Cohen

“I haven’t had sex in eight years,” Shelley said. “Is that something we should drink to, or lament?”

This was not what I expected to hear. I gulped.

The old Shelley—the one I’d known as a teenager—could not have said such a thing. But she had changed, as had I. And in the decades since I left home, my old neighborhood had sloughed off its skin and acquired new stores, modern facades, and fresh air to expel what had grown stale.

Take the corner of 2nd and Main. According to the image I’d nurtured, Al’s Diner should still have been there. In its place was a funeral parlor. An overflowing pot of bougainvillea guarded the front door. To me, this signified that despite the inevitability of death, life can bloom. Okay.

Next to the parlor had been the bookstore, owned by the irascible Mr. Finke. He was a man old before his time. At forty, he was bald, and he peered at the world like a crusty Victorian desk clerk. He wore a dark tie, vest, and gold cufflinks. He knew many things about many books, although he’d never stock certain authors. One was Henry Miller (“too much gratuitous fornication,” he explained to customers), as well as the poet Charles Bukowski. Why Bukowski? “Poets use punctuation,” he said once to Mrs. Rosewall. She’d wanted him to stock the writer.

“Poetic license?” she offered. I think she was annoyed by his refusal.

“Poets understand and respect capital letters,” Finke said. “Bukowski doesn’t.”

Finke’s bookshop was now a Goodwill. Next door, when I grew up, had been Florence’s Flower Emporium. That too had undergone a metamorphosis to become a hardware store. A Korean market had taken over the corner shop which once sold suitcases and bags. I bought a bouquet of roses there from the taciturn owner. I’ve learned to bring gifts when I visit a woman.

Perhaps these changes shouldn’t have surprised me, because when you return to your hometown after a twenty-eight-year absence, how can you not feel you have slipped through a gap in the fence of time?

But some things stay the same. For example, the humidity of a Brownsville afternoon in August was as stifling as ever. Walking down 2nd Street to the intersection with Madison, I felt sweat announce itself on my forehead.

Shelley Johnston’s house was at 38. Having lived away in Atlanta for some years, she’d returned to Brownsville to nurse her ailing father. Her mother had already passed away. After he died, she stayed in her childhood home.

We had connected via Social Media. That’s how I learned her backstory. When I mentioned I was travelling to Monroe, ten miles south, she invited me to visit with her. She’d put kisses at the end of her message. I’d scrutinized them, wondering whether they meant what I thought they meant.

I asked myself whether I wanted them to mean something. She’d been someone who figured in my adolescent past. A date or two is what I recalled. As I approached her home, I could tell she’d had the house painted. The lawn was scrubby and yellow (the blazing summer heat had seen to that), but the flower borders were vibrant and attention had been paid to the imposing apple tree at the front.

When Shelley opened the door, a woman taller than I remembered stood before me. Yes, her hair was graying, but her light blue eyes were the same. Of course they were. Perhaps the skin under those eyes was baggier, and maybe she was shapelier around the middle, but this was Shelley Johnston in all her middle-age glory.

“I’d recognize you anywhere, James,” she said.

“Even when that mop of hair I had is long gone?”

“Your hair’s fine. And as you can see, I don’t dye mine,” she replied. “Come on in.”

“These are for you.”

“What a gentleman.”

As I entered, I looked down, expecting to see a cat dart past me. I had been stereotyping Shelley as a spinster who would keep cats.

“It’s so good of you to come,” she added.

I followed her into the front room. “Wasn’t this your dad’s study?”

“Excellent memory,” she said. She pointed to an antique-looking table in the corner. “His desk hasn’t moved. I do crossword puzzles there. Please sit. Iced tea all right?”

On the wall above the TV was a painting of a golden beach, with the sun setting in a salmon-colored sky. I put on my glasses to read the signature. It was Shelley’s.

“Did you know I like to paint?” she asked, bringing in a tray.

“No,” I said. “You paint well.” I was mildly impressed.

“It keeps boredom at bay.” She handed me a cold glass. “Here you go.”

We sat down. Shelley looked very happy to see me and then told me about her unfulfilled sex life.

“Oh, right,” was my inept response.

“I’m sorry if I shocked you,” she said, drawing her hair back, “but it’s the truth, and I wanted to be truthful with you.”

I sipped my drink to buy myself a few seconds. “Why in particular me?” I reckoned I could not be the only one she had told this to.

“You were my first boyfriend, James.”

“Was I?” She had not answered my question. “Then I’d say you were my second girlfriend.”

She sat forward. “Who was the first? Randy Smith?”

I laughed. “God, I wished. Every guy in the class had the hots for her.”

Shelley grinned. “Yeah. That’s why I hated her.”

“The first was Fran Singer,” I said. “Remember her?”

She thought for a moment. “Frizzy hair, big chest?”

“I remember the hair,” I said, lying. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t take my eyes off her breasts.

“Married a gynecologist,” she said. “I find that somewhat creepy.”

Shelley looked a touch old-school in her knitted skirt and flowery blouse, but there was no doubt she remained an attractive woman. I wondered what it would be like to remove her glasses and stroke her hair.

“James, you were married, weren’t you?”

“Five years. We’re no longer in touch.”

“That a good thing or bad thing?”

I finished my tea. “Just the way it is,” I said. I waited a moment, then asked: “Shelley, why did you say that about sex?”

She took a breath. “I feel I can trust you, James, given our history.”

“Ancient history,” I said, carelessly.

The remark stung her. “Not so ancient to me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But Shelley, why is it an issue of trust?”

“Because you won’t be one to broadcast it. You know how to keep things to yourself.”

Shelley was right: I am discreet. Yet I wondered how she knew that.

“I haven’t been to Brownsville in nearly thirty years,” I said. “Do you think we could take a walk? Maybe you could show me the place.”

Outside, the heat had relented; it was nearly six o’clock. We walked up Madison, turned back onto 2nd and up to Main. She took me past the stores I’d seen on arrival and chatted about transformations she’d observed in the years since returning from Atlanta.

The second block of stores on Main revealed more changes. A soulless coffee shop had replaced Finlay’s Groceries. Instead of Simons Suits, there was a store offering e-cigarettes.

Brownsville Centenary Park ahead, however, promised a link to the past, and we crossed the road at Main and Stevens to pass under the wrought-iron arch.

“Wasn’t there a fountain just inside here?” I asked.

“There was. Removed about ten years ago before I came back, so I heard.”

We headed toward the center of the park, which consisted of an ornamental pond with encircling banks of flowers and a faux Victorian bandstand. Apparently, the park designers had in mind a British model. I could not recall any music ever being played there.

We stopped on the steps of the bandstand. The structure was in pretty good shape.

Shelley looped her arm around a railing. “We came here, you and I, that night.”

“That night?”

“Prom night. Just the two of us, remember?”

I screwed my eyes. “Sort of.”

“I was in a cerise dress. Cost a fortune. And you were handsome in your tux—tall, great smile, and great hair.”

I didn’t know whether to be flattered by these details or unnerved by her eager reminiscence.

“God, we kissed a lot that night,” she said.

“Your memory is astonishing, Shelley.”

She appeared to like the comment. “Can I be candid with you?”

I believe she already had been. “Sure.”

“I thought we were going to go further. Couples used there,” she said, indicating a row of bushes, “and they were pretty invisible once it got dark.”

“I’d forgotten that.”

“And then we all went our separate ways. Isn’t that the way of the world?”

I looked at my watch. “Shelley, I’m sorry, but the time’s run away with me. I have a conference call at seven back at my hotel.”

She looked disappointed. “So you have to go?”

“’Fraid so.”

“What would you say if I took you to lunch tomorrow? Could you do that?”

“I have a breakfast meeting in Monroe, but I could make it back after that. I’d need to be away by three, though.”

Shelley beamed. “That’s great, James. Great. There’s a place just behind Main I like. It’ll be fun.”

* * *

That night, just before bed, I thought about my day. I flattered myself that despite some weight gain, and my hair not being the lustrous black it once was, I remained reasonably attractive. And my experience told me that Shelley Johnston wanted me.

I fell asleep musing that possibility.

* * *

Lunch was good. The place she took me to, Mitchell’s, served delicious lamb. We drank some French wine. We gossiped about old high-school classmates, and I even told Shelley about my marriage to Joanne. I usually keep those details to myself but something about Shelley’s candid nature prized me open, made me less guarded than I normally am.

And we drifted back to Shelley’s, as I knew we would. Inside, the house was pleasantly cool, especially her bedroom. The curtains were drawn against the day’s glare.

We kissed at the foot of the bed and undressed methodically as if under orders. I made some lame joke about not knowing which side of the bed I should take. Shelley excused herself and went into the bathroom, and I slipped under the covers on the left-hand side. I was nervous. Was it because I was playing hooky, about to make love to a woman during working hours? Or was I out of practice? Probably the latter.

After putting on a Fleetwood Mac CD, she climbed in beside me. She had removed her glasses. We kissed again. She placed my hand on her breast, murmuring in my ear. We were careful and considerate with each other.

* * *

When she was dozing, I got out of bed and put my clothes back on. I knew I was going to scoot as soon as I could, but I don’t regard myself as a callous person. I wanted to leave a message for her, but what would it say? Not a “thanks,” which would seem crass. I’m comfortable with words, as I write business reports for small to medium-sized organizations, but I couldn’t decide on the right expressions.

I lingered in her room. Shelley did not stir, which suited me, although perhaps she was feigning sleep so I could go. Eventually, I scribbled on the back of the card: “With happy memories of Prom night and today. James.”

Outside the heat threw itself at me. I walked up Madison, wondering what our coming together meant. I would send a message to Shelley through Facebook from time to time, but I’d surely never see her again. I didn’t think she would propose another reunion, but I couldn’t be sure. I hoped she didn’t. I acknowledged my selfishness. That was easy—there was no one to hear or call me on it.

On Main, a hearse had drawn up outside the funeral parlor. I saw a man in a dark suit standing by the car and approached him. “Are you the funeral director?”

“Yes, sir. Ralph Peters the Third. Glad to meet you.”

“And you,” I replied. “Could I ask whose funeral this is?”

He wiped his brow with a handkerchief. “Gentleman called Bill Matthews.”

The name was familiar. “Wasn’t he—didn’t he have tryouts for one of the Major League Baseball teams?”

“Yes, sir. In the end, he only played in the minors. Hell of a curveball, though, when he was in form.”

I thanked him and went to my car. My cell phone beeped. It was Shelley. “Thanks for today,” she wrote. “Call me.”

I archived the message and unlocked the driver’s door, glancing around at the street I’d once known so well. All around had changed and so had I. And Shelley. We’d completed a transaction with an origin decades earlier. I acknowledged that this wasn’t business but about emotions. Problem is I’ve shelved most of my feelings. Perhaps I’m a shadow of the James I was when Shelley and I danced at the prom and made out in the park. Was that James the true me, or is it who I was now?

With these questions dangling, I drove out of town. I didn’t know if I would ever have the answer to them.


A resident of Manchester, UK, Paul B. Cohen read English at the University of Leeds, took a Master of Arts in English at Vanderbilt University, and gained a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. A number of his plays have been produced in the US. Short stories have appeared in Prole, Conclave, Fairlight Books, and other online and print publications. His tale “Lecha Dodi” was a first-place winner in the Moment-Karma Foundation Short Story Contest, judged by novelist Alice Hoffman, and he was a joint first-place winner for Writer’s Atelier Second Short Story Contest for his story “Interruption.”

September 2022