“Learning to Count in a Small Town,” by Roy Kesey


stands in his garden at dawn. On the trunk of his apricot tree is a swallowtail fanning its wings still wet with birth. Ven, he calls to his wife. Ha nacido la mariposa.

pushes her cart through the supermarket, around and around in the cool air. Her mouth is crusted with dirt. When she tires, she rests. She buys a bag of dog food, and the clerk knows she has no dog. He nods and hands her the receipt.

hasn’t yet learned to swim. Her brother taunts her from the far side of the river. The light on the water hurts her eyes. She looks down at her feet and wishes they were smaller.

leans on the bathroom sink and stares at himself in the mirror. There is more yellow in his left eye than in his right. The phone rings. He goes on staring.

hammers on the podium, shouts about immigrants. In the park outside the auditorium, men are playing softball, swearing and spitting, and their wives pretend to watch.

leans back in her hammock and knows that the afternoon heat will never end. The stink of tarweed weights the air. Crows harry a red-tailed hawk through the sky.

just makes it to his mailbox. Inside is the water bill and a postcard from his granddaughter. I hope you’re okay, she has written. I hope everything is fine.

never leaves her apartment. She rests on the floor, stares out the screen door at the dusk and her empty bird feeder.

sits up in bed and lights a cigarette. If she holds her breath she can hear the television in the next room.

has heart trouble. From his barstool he listens to conversations and has thoughts of football. He asks for one more drink and the barman says, Sorry, bud. We’re finished here. It’s time to get you home.


This piece was previously published in print by Land-Grant College Review.

Roy Kesey’s latest book is the novel Pacazo, winner of Word Riot’s 2012 Paula Anderson Book Award. His other books include the novella Nothing in the World, two historical guidebooks, and a short story collection called All Over, which made The L Magazine‘s “Best Books of the Decade” list. The story “Learning to Count in a Small Town” will appear in his next book, a collection called Any Deadly Thing, which will be published by Dzanc Books in February 2013. His short stories, essays, translations and poems have appeared in more than a hundred magazines and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology and New Sudden Fiction. He has won two Pushcart Prize Special Mentions, the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, and a 2010 prose fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.