Wet, Dead Leaves by Shannon Fandler

Finalist, Remember in November 2013

wet-leaves on a roclNo one ever called Sean Dell by his first name, due to general reverence. I may have heard someone address him from across a hall, “Hey Sean…,” but behind his back he was SeanDell; the two names run together a little breathlessly. Just Sean, and you could be talking about the Shawn who went to the Renaissance Faire every weekend and owned a suit of chain mail, or the nice but forgettable Sean, or the Shaun who posted videos of himself waxing his back in the shower, waving each hair-coated strip at the shaky camera operator.

Sean Dell was not like the other English majors at my small and not particularly diverse Catholic college. For one, he was older than most students—in his late 20s—because he had served in the army before deciding to earn his Bachelor’s degree. The army had given him a trim, muscular frame with zero body fat and the reputation of having been a troubled teenager. He was also a talented writer and, though generally upbeat, he looked like he had the capacity for sexy brooding. At the annual English Department student poetry reading, Sean Dell read a poem about his wedding ring, which he tapped once, illustratively—on his right hand, not the left. The poem referenced withering plants, the hardness of soil in the winter, and most memorably, wet, dead leaves that gripped his finger in a chokehold. The poem eased the minds of more than a few English majors who were concerned about Sean Dell’s marital status.

My friend Maureen, who attended the event wearing knee-high dominatrix boots underneath a full, red, plaid teacher’s skirt, visibly unclenched her fists when Sean Dell stepped down—well, there was no down to step, but he made the impression of descending from a stage when he finished reading. Maureen had a different, candy-colored, lace-edged bra for every day of the month. She had stolen them from the juniors’ department of Kohl’s when she worked there, and I noticed them one day when I watched her do her laundry. She had one pair of jeans, a couple of cheap, thin t-shirts, and seven bras in her laundry basket.

“Wow,” I mentioned, “You never wear the same bra twice in a row?” I didn’t know her well enough to question the absence of underwear in the basket, not even one, spaghetti-thin pair. Laundry seemed personal. But I wondered if she wasn’t keeping Sean Dell in mind when she got dressed in the morning.

After the poetry reading, Maureen was buoyant for the rest of the day. We went to Minella’s diner, where she had enough spirits to actually eat something. “What was that line Sean Dell used, at the end of the poem?” she kept asking, hunching eagerly over her pie.

“Wet, dead leaves,” I said. “Or maybe dead, wet, in that order.”

The general view concerning Sean Dell’s wife was that theirs was a marriage of convenience. Rumor had it that she was Canadian and that she had wed Sean for citizenship only. He had tied the knot to help a friend. But wasn’t it usually the other way around, with uninsured Americans marrying Canadians to take advantage of their socialized health care? Mrs. Dell had a faint accent when she accompanied us on the annual English Department New York City bus trip, but this was hardly proof. Several of the English majors murmured among themselves that she had ruined the trip, because in previous years, Sean Dell had passed around a hip flask or a bottle of wine in a paper bag, and this year he didn’t do it.

“Hey Sean, gonna get that wine like you did last year?” a couple of people asked him, but he gave a cute, grimacing smile like a cat stretching and put them off. We all kept turning around to stare at his wife, but because of the high motor coach seats, we couldn’t really see her until we disembarked in Greenwich Village and gathered on a street corner blinking at each other.  She was a tidy, pear-shaped woman with dark, curly hair, a couple years older than Sean Dell. Instead of dressing like a college student, as he did, she wore a pressed pair of Bermuda shorts and the slip-on, wedge sandals of a middle-aged woman.

“You know what I like about them?” said Maureen. “They don’t hang all over each other in public. It’s like, they don’t have to prove anything to anyone.” Maureen, before breaking up with her last boyfriend, was regularly seen in the Commons straddling him on top of a picnic table, her spiked heels hooking over the bench as she fought for footholds.

She had gotten up at 4:00 am so that her roommate, a makeup artist at Sephora, could work out a compromise with her shiny, bumpy face. In the bright sun, you could see every grain of makeup the roommate had used, including cheek-sculpting bronzer and violent sweeps of purple eye shadow. Maureen was wearing what she considered to be her most alluring top, a plunging swath of fabric that barely covered the stiff cups of her Kohl’s juniors’ department bra. No one had known until the last minute that Mrs. Dell was coming.

“They don’t seem to fit together,” I reassured her as Sean Dell and his wife ducked into a record store, leaving the rest of us standing in front of a dilapidated house where Jack Kerouac was said to have spent nights on occasion. The wife seemed more like a mature older sister visiting her college-aged brother.

“No, I disagree,” said Maureen. “They’re a great couple. He’s so courteous to her. Did you see how he held the door?” But Sean Dell was courteous to all women, and besides, he could hardly let a door swing shut in his spouse’s face, even if theirs was a marriage of convenience.

“I’m happy for them,” Maureen concluded, a sentiment that seemed over-the-top considering that they weren’t newlyweds, and few people find it necessary to express joy in a coupling that is four or five years old. I tried to distract her from her obvious misery by dragging her into a curiosity shop, where I lent her money for a giant, irritating button that said, “Princess, having had sufficient experience with princes, seeks frog.” Maureen usually found buttons with sayings to be empowering, but although she pinned it onto her book bag next to a button with a picture of a typewriter that read, “Sorry, you’re not my type,” she remained quiet and sad.

We later packed into a tiny, Chinatown restaurant with only two large tables. I didn’t get to sit with Sean Dell at dinner, and neither did Maureen, as we steered clear of the subtly frantic musical-chairs activity going on at the table he had selected. A handful of homely girls and gay guys of the variety who do not bench weights joined us, dispiritedly, when they were not quick or smooth enough to secure chairs at the preferred table. We tried to hold our own conversation, one girl suggesting that we go around and each name a favorite author, but loud laughter kept erupting from the next table, where Sean Dell was looking mildly self-gratified. He rubbed his collegiate stubble and grinned into space. Maureen poked at her rice. We all noticed that his wife was seated two chairs down from him, and that she knew how to use chopsticks. She plucked food confidently from the communal serving platters and engaged the person sitting next to her in conversation.

On the way home in the dark, I whispered to Maureen, “I wonder if Sean Dell’s wife ever stumbled across that poem he wrote.”

“What poem?” said Maureen, her face turned into the bus window.

“You know, the wet, dead leaves.”

“I’m sure she’s read it,” said Maureen. “Why wouldn’t she have? I’m sure Sean Dell intended that line to mean something totally different, like leaves are slippery, and marriages are like that too, but then in the end, everything works out.”

Across the aisle, students were draped over each other’s seats reminiscing about last year and how good the jug of cheap wine tasted when Sean Dell passed it around. Someone had bought a small bongo drum from a homeless man and was tapping out a sad, suburban rhythm.

But a few weeks later, Sean Dell asked Maureen to go with him to an independent short-film festival. She had run into him at the coffee shop where he worked part time, and he had “comped” her some kind of high-calorie, whipped-cream-covered beverage the Maureen I knew would never have ordered. She slurped it down to the streaks of chocolate syrup on the bottom. Then she expressed admiration for Sean Dell’s poetry and asked if she could email some of her own to him, to get his critique. That’s when he casually brought up the film festival. Maureen agreed that short films were too often overshadowed by full-length features, which were basically the cinematic version of fat people. She and Sean Dell had a lot in common, she said, but they were “just friends.” She emphasized that she would never try to get between him and his wife.

I guessed that sitting in a darkened movie theater with Sean Dell was a bad idea. When he strode into class, usually five or ten minutes late, he dragged a chair out from behind a desk, flipped it around the wrong way, and mounted it forcefully. Occasionally he sat on a chair the right way but rocked back dangerously in a manner that would get you in trouble back in grade school.

They went to the festival. “How was it?” I asked Maureen cautiously.

All she would say was, “The films were really thought-provoking.” She was trying to be mysterious, but I knew that if Sean Dell had so much as held her hand, she would have forced me to analyze the moisture levels in his palm and the amount of pressure he had exerted on her fingers. She was waiting for him to extend an invitation for another intellectual date, but though he kindly returned Maureen’s email with detailed comments on its half a dozen poetry attachments, his eyes wandered over his other classmates.

Then one Friday night he had an all-male party in the basement of his rental house and invited Wyll, formerly known as Will, who tried unsuccessfully to check his excitement when he related the story to Maureen and me the following Monday. The party had taken several weird turns; Sean Dell had referred to the support columns in his basement as “phallic,” and there was no sign of his wife anywhere. Then someone slipped something in Wyll’s drink, and when next conscious he was driving 80 mph on the Pennsylvania turnpike with his windows open and his long hair blowing behind him. He was going in the wrong direction and was almost in Scranton. Wyll’s delight in the recollection was intoxicating. We all wished we’d also located phallic symbols in Sean Dell’s basement and smoked a rare, Hawaiian strain of marijuana that Wyll described as being indescribable. We wished we’d also made it, senselessly, to Scranton.

Wyll had dug up a bit of information, too: Sean Dell had been discharged from the army for questionable interaction with a platoon-mate. “I think Sean Dell likes guys, a little bit,” he whispered. “Oh my god, should I act on it? I mean, I’ve never done anything like this before in my life!” He was burly and sweater-vest-clad, with a 19-year-old’s baby face peering out from behind spectacles and a bear-like beard, and I doubted that Sean Dell was interested in his cuddly but virginal self. Either way, Wyll never acted on it. When Maureen came to class, her book bag was grimly pierced with a dozen more buttons.

I guess we had all misunderstood the poem. After the annual English Department poetry reading, when Sean Dell stepped away from the podium, there was the sense of the room having been stirred awake. There were possibilities coming alive, that exciting things could happen to boring people—people like us. “I think you’re very brave for reading that,” a girl piped up hopefully. Sean responded with a polite smile, his arms crossed over the taut front of his olive cable-knit sweater.

I was next in the poetry-reading lineup, but I wasn’t a poet, so I read an essay about working on a farm the summer after high school. In my handbag was a bottle of Rescue Remedy made from flower oils, which my grandmother gave her inbred, neurotic cat to keep it from shitting all over the rug. Even though I both drank and inhaled the Rescue Remedy in the bathroom before the reading, my voice and body trembled. I hardly had enough breath to finish the essay. But when Sean Dell got home that night, he repeated to his wife a line I had written about corn reaching for the sky as if at gunpoint. I know, because she mentioned it months later at the end-of-year English department dinner, thrilling me by saying, “Are you the girl who wrote the thing about the corn?” I thought my insides would ooze pleasurably out onto the floor.

The dinner was the last hurrah of the academic year, after which Sean Dell graduated college and we never saw him again. He won the English Scholar-of-the-Year Award, and the oldest professor in the department stood on her tiptoes to drop a medal over his neck. When he sat back down, he quickly took the medal off and slipped it onto his wife’s lap. It was an action a small boy makes when he’s holding something inconvenient and wants his mom to store it in her purse. She tidied the ribbon and looked proudly at him. Maureen, whom I had given a ride to the dinner, insisted we walk over and say congratulations before we left. “Congratulations,” we chimed, embarrassingly in unison. We chatted with his wife.

“He won’t wear his medal,” she said with a lovely, scolding little smile. We told Sean Dell to wear his medal. Then we left the hall and crossed the rainy parking lot to my car, stamping in every puddle and drenching our shoes.

Shannon FandlerShannon Fandler is from the Philadelphia, Pa. suburbs, where she is a marketing copywriter by day. Her work will be featured in an upcoming issue of Apiary Magazine. Otherwise, she is just getting started as an essayist. Her hobbies include the typical things that people enjoy. (You probably do them, too.)  

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons, user waitscm

 

 

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