This selection, chosen by Managing Editor Krista Cox, is from Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie, released by Fomite Press in 2022.
Whole New Worlds
My grandfather saw the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution. He stared from the deck of the U.S.S. Greenlet toward the thin strip of land that was the shore, and he thinks he saw puffs of smoke, the distant beginnings of a new war as the other died. His ship was outside Vladivostok. He was 15, and now, at 92, he isn’t sure he remembers what happened in Vladivostok correctly. His memory slips. He calls me by my mother’s name. He lies in his bed in the nursing home, voice thin as paper, and whispers pieces of stories. I try to catch them. I catch what I can. I create our history out of the pieces, pick them up, fit them together. Puffs of smoke.
I’m sitting in the gray half-light of early morning, alone. Just like Grandpa, I can’t think clearly. He’s looking back; me, forward. Try not to look at the borders, at the possibilities, I tell myself. They are boundaries into whole new worlds.
Grandpa lied about his age to get into WWI, running down to enlist with his buddy Jimmy Kantor before either of their mothers could stop them. Later, he insisted the Navy find him a place in WWII, even though he was considered too old. In my own life, I have never known such courage, and rarely such clarity.
The kitchen is cold, and I’m wearing my favorite wool sweater and a long flannel nightgown, the same outfit I wore yesterday, and the day before. I couldn’t sleep, and I slid out from underneath the heavy weight of Al’s arm and came downstairs. I stole his fuzzy bear paw slippers to wear, and each step I made on the hardwood floors sounded like I was being hushed, from restlessness to calm. Upstairs, Al snores softly. He’s sound asleep, head under his pillow, arm thrown over mine.
“I can’t believe you two planned a vacation in Iowa,” Mom had said. I called her last week to let her know we’d be out of town, to ask her to feed the cat. Alber hates to be alone. If somebody doesn’t come over and lavish him with praise on a regular basis, he’ll take revenge on the plants.
“We’re staying in an old farmhouse,” I said.
“Where else would you be staying?” Mom paused. “Whose idea was this?”
“Al’s.” I felt the conversation degenerating. “Mom,” I said. “We just want to get away for a while.”
“Oh, trust me, you will.”
We rented the house for the days before New Year’s, hoping to escape into a quiet and calm that the previous months had not allowed. I had a feeling then, in the way planning the trip made Al more buoyant, in the way he crossed days off on his calendar, that for him the vacation meant more than escaping a trying three or four months. Last week, when I wasn’t looking, the box with my grandmother’s wedding ring disappeared from the top of my dresser, and now, almost through our vacation, packing to leave, I wait for him to give it back to me.
The Realtor reminded us the amenities were few, just before we signed the rental contract for one of the few properties that fit his budget.
“No coffee pot,” she said, raising a penciled brown eyebrow, gauging our response. Her name was Mrs. Swenson, and she had an office right down the road from Al’s office at the university. Mrs. Swenson wore a bright red jacket and gold earrings. She smoked thin cigarettes.
“No coffee pot?” she said, and her voice rose at the end. We stared at her blankly.
“No washer and dryer.” Again, the eyebrow went up, and again, we were silent. “No shower,” Mrs. Swenson continued, “only a bathtub.”
Al leaned forward. He smiled. He said, “Does it have toilet?” The eyebrow stayed up. “Yes,” she said.
“Then we’re dandy.”
I had watched Al sign the contract, his hand gliding over the page.
It seemed so easy, being definite.
This morning, when I put a kettle on, blue flame hissed and sprang from the burner, and there was something beautiful about it in the darkness. Outside, for miles, the view is of snow and trees. There are no lights lining any highway, no garbage truck that thunders past, flashing yellow lights across the ceiling, nobody telling me that what my ads really need are borders to give them a little pep. Out here, lost in the long land that is farmland, I sit at a kitchen table of solid maple, and drink tea that is hot and strong. Later, I’ll drive down a dirt road, bump along until I reach pavement, and then glide past field after field, just for the fun of it, just to feel open space, wide open space, like I haven’t felt for a long time.
“Will you feed Alber?” I finally asked my mother when we spoke on the phone last week. Lately, we’ve communicated by telephone, sending ourselves from one side of Minneapolis to the other, over the snowy roads we refuse to traverse, over the long gray landscape of winter.
“I’ll even take him for walks,” she had said.
I doubted Alber could make it more than two yards, but I didn’t say so. Alber could use exercise, like Al. They’re a pair. They stretch out on the couch together and watch college football on fall Saturdays. On occasion, I’ve even seen Al slip Alber a victory potato chip when the Gophers scored.
“What’s happening?” Mom asked. “You’re planning to quit your job, now you’re enamored of Iowa.”
I knew she was joking, but underneath the joke, she didn’t under- stand. For months now, Al has been like a signal man on a Navy ship who waves flags at boats on the horizon. The signals are sometimes subtle, sometimes not and then must be decoded, but the message is clear. Where will we spend the holidays next year? How do I feel about the ring my grandmother gave me, her ring, the ring she has slipped off her finger already, for me, now? That’s what he asked me when I brought it home and showed it to him in October, placed on a white cloth in a small white box. He asked, “Is that the one you want?” I think, being honest with myself, which sometimes is hard for me to do, that Al was willing to wait for me until he started hanging out with my Grandpa. Al’s signaling started with Grandpa, who has decided I need to hurry up so he can be here to see it all. Al’s signals are like the smoke in Vladivostok that warned Grandpa at age fifteen that something was beginning, something big.
Caitlin Hamilton Summie founded Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, LLC, an independent book publicity and marketing firm, in 2003. Over the course of her career, in-house and solo, she has launched Susan Vreeland, Emily St. John Mandel, William Gay, Kim Church, Bren McClain, and many more. Her short story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts (Fomite Press, 2017) won The Phillip H. MacMath Post-Publication Book Award, Silver in the Foreword INDIES Books of the Year Awards in Short Stories, and was a June 2018 Pulpwood Queen Book Club Bonus Book. Her first novel, Geographies of the Heart, (Fomite Press, 2022) was a Pulpwood Queen Book Club Bonus Book in January 2022 and a finalist in the Indie Next Generation Book Award for General Fiction.