The World’s Best Music

by Don Miller

“That’s discipline,” Stewart’s mother said, pointing her cigarette at the living room. There, his sister was practicing Bach. Most days Tracie did not get up from the piano stool until the ringing of an egg timer indicated she had been practicing an hour. Stewart had just begged for a second Star Crunch.

When the music stopped abruptly, Stewart’s mother gulped. The night of her 14th birthday, Tracie had dyed a lock of her hair green. The week before she had been sent home from Catholic school for fastening a Sex Pistols pin to her white, button down blouse. Lately Bach had been meandering into Bacharach and the Beatles.

“I hate this shit,” Tracie screamed. The scream was followed by a loud crash, and then the familiar sound of Tracie’s Birkenstocks clunking up the stairs. When Stewart went into the living room, he saw his sister had shattered the glass facing of an antique grandfather clock. The clock had long stopped working but had been in Stewart’s family since before the Civil War. The size of the hole was roughly the same as the baseball Stewart had accidentally chucked through Mr. Peterson’s bay window while playing catch with his father.

His mother brushed by him and stood in front of the clock.

“I swallowed my gum,” she said, staring into the hole. She gritted her teeth and reached into the clock, trying to avoid the jagged icicles of glass. Stewart inhaled sharply, causing her to nick her wrist. Before Stewart could get a towel, the egg timer was speckled with blood.

When Stewart was forced to start piano lessons the next week, he was thankful his mother had wiped off the egg timer. She had not touched the grandfather clock, leaving the broken facing as a reminder of Tracie’s disrespect for family history.

Stewart took piano lessons every Tuesday after school at Mrs. Pardue’s house, which had a peaked roof and a crooked cobblestone fireplace. Stewart imagined the cobblestones were giant gumdrops and the roof was made of gingerbread. He was Hansel about to enter the cottage of the boy-eating witch. He looked for Gretel, but she had found her way out of the woods with defiance as her compass. The inside of the house was old and musty and smelled of cat urine. He learned to play from a tattered red book titled The World’s Best Music. The piano stool was embroidered with gold, diamond-checked fabric, and a tear in the back of the stool made it look as if a tiger had been roaming around the room. The peeling wallpaper furthered this impression.

One of the first songs Mrs. Pardue taught him was called “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”

Carry me back to old Virginny,
There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow,
There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go,

As a seven year old, he had thought nothing of the lyrics, instead trying to remember the acronym FACE for the notes that fell on spaces and Grizzly Bears Don’t Fly Airplanes for those on lines. When he got the song right for the first time, Stewart slammed the lid of the keyboard shut, as if his musical career was now finished.

Mrs. Pardue slapped him on the hand. “That is just what your sister would do!” she said.

Stewart had been playing the piano for a year when he heard Nirvana for the first time. He was in Tracie’s room, a refuge from the muted Oriental carpets and stolid antique furniture downstairs. The room perpetually smelled of smoke and the Febreze that Tracie sprayed to cover it up. She had engulfed an entire wall with a tie-dyed quilt. Another wall was dotted with magazine photographs of fashion models and rock stars. A third wall tracked Stewart’s life through photographs: Tracie holding him hours after he was born all the way up to this third grade school picture. Stewart had to duck to avoid a teddy bear that hung from a noose, the base of which was tucked under a ceiling tile. The gleeful smile on the bear’s face mimicked the expression of a rock star affixed to Tracie’s wall. A skinny man with long dirty blonde hair and bad posture smiled sarcastically at the camera. “I might as well have a noose around my neck,” his smile seemed to say.

“Who is that?” Stewart asked, pointing at the Rolling Stone cover.

“Holy Shit! You haven’t heard this yet?”

Tracie pressed play on her compact disc player. The only way Stewart could express how he felt was to pick up a pile of Tracie’s dirty clothes and heave them against the wall. Tracie jumped on the bed, causing a pair of Birkenstocks to clunk to the floor. She shook her bushy blonde hair, so that Stewart could not see her eyes. She looked like “Thing One” from The Cat in the Hat. Stewart mimicked her, wishing he had long hair like Tracie’s, so he could be “Thing Two.”

The words to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” obliterated the lyrics he learned at piano lessons: “ ‘Mid pleasures and palaces though…we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there’s no…place like home!” “Tis summer, the darkies are gay.” “RAW DENIAL!”

After Tracie moved to California, she sent him mixed tapes he listened to on his headphones. He visited her when he was a senior in high school. She cracked open a beer for him once they arrived at her studio apartment, and she took him to Haight-Ashbury, where shadowy kids his own age brushed against him and murmured “Buds. Doses.” He came back from an all ages show mosh pit with bruises the shape of fingerprints on both arms. Tracie loaded him up with books from a used bookstore, assigning him a “Non-Sanctioned Summer’s Reading List.” He read Kurt Vonnegut for the first time on the plane ride home. Stewart’s recently retired father was waiting for him at the airport. Stewart’s father wore Bermuda shorts and a green t-shirt from that year’s Masters. He looked like a man trying to convince himself he enjoyed not working. While Stewart waved broadly as he walked towards the baggage carousel, his father winced at Stewart’s new tie-dye shirt.

“Be careful, son. She’s trying to make a disciple out of you,” Stewart’s father had said.

But once Stewart got to college, he didn’t think of Tracie very much. Despite being given the nickname of “Blowhole”, he lost his virginity during Greek Week. The heart attack and subsequent death of the rush chairman, Bobby Finkle gave the pledges an extra sense of urgency. A squish of one Dixie cup against another and a somber-toned “To Finkle” became a by-word for sexual promiscuity.

But whenever Stewart went to the dank basement of the fraternity house to listen to a band play Dave Matthews covers, he pictured his mother’s face projected on the moist cinder block walls. She was reminding him that his body was a temple. So he watched as the peach-fuzzed philistines stormed their own temples. Stewart stepped in to break up fights and trick inexperienced inebriates into relinquishing their car keys. Sometimes he would leave the party early and run around the quad, making sure he was back in time to clean up. Instead of gaining 15 pounds his first semester like most of his pledge brothers, Stewart lost 30.

His fraternity brothers started growing beards after Christmas Break. The fraternity president proudly raised the stars and bars on Valentines’ Day. Stewart wore his great grandfather’s confederate uniform to the party. Most of the legacies had relatives who had fought in the Civil War; these wore the authentic uniforms. The interlopers had polyester uniforms with bright black plastic bibs. The discomfort from his scratchy beard and hot wool uniform extended to his psyche. When the Alabama Black Caucus led a protest outside the door of the KA house, Stewart and Hunter, a pledge from Louisville, were forced to stand as sentries in their uniforms. A news station from Birmingham covered the protest. Stewart and Hunter stood rigidly and silently as a pretty reporter peppered them with questions. After she left, Stewart fled to Birmingham. His father waited for him outside the front door, right hand extended.

At dinner that night, Stewart’s father raised a glass and repeated what he had said to his son after shaking his hand: “Thank you for protecting our southern values.”

Stewart looked uncomfortably at Tracie, who was also home for the weekend. She was waiting tables at a Bay Area diner and living in a studio apartment in the South Bay.Tracie was in mid-chew. Their father had grilled steaks.

“Our values?” Tracie asked.

Stewart’s father continued to hold his glass in the air, waiting for someone to clink it, until Tracie spit the wad of steak into her plate.

“Racism is not something I value,” Tracie said, spitting out every word like she had spit out the steak. She scraped her chair against the hard wood floor and looked at Stewart.

“Are you coming?” she asked.

Stewart looked at his father and then at his plate. He loved it that his family grilled steaks for Easter instead of having ham like everyone else. For years, Stewart had been his father’s grill assistant, rushing to the kitchen for salt and pepper and a Crimson Tide platter on which to put the steaks. He loved grilling with his dad, cold beer in hand, talking about Alabama football. Stewart had come home as much for the steak as he had to see Tracie.

When Tracie looked at him, he could tell she saw the Confederate soldier he had dressed up as and not who he really was.

“Great! Just what the world needs: a clone of daddy,” she said, and stomped off to her room.

When Stewart pushed his chair back from the table, his mother held up a forbidding hand.

“Let me take care of this,” she said. Stewart’s mother rose from her chair and walked hurriedly towards the steps.

Stewart pushed his chair back to the table. His father ate the rest of his food, like nothing had happened. Stewart didn’t eat another bite. He could hear his mother pounding on Tracie’s door. Then he could hear the muffled tune to Smashing Pumpkins “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” playing behind Tracie’s door. Stewart mouthed the words to the chorus: “DESPITE ALL MY RAGE, I AM STILL JUST A RAT IN A CAGE!” After a few more minutes of knocking, Stewart’s mother returned to the dinner table.

Ignoring Tracie’s music, his mother asked if he was still playing the piano. Stewart almost laughed. He hadn’t even thought about the piano the whole time he had been in college.

“Well, I want you to explore your artistic side some how,” his mother said.

Stewart capitulated by taking a creative writing class his sophomore year of college. He convinced Hunter to take the class, telling him it would be an easy “A.” Hunter snickered when the teacher, a thin, balding man wearing a bolo tie, cowboy hat, blue jeans and boots walked in the room. The first thing Professor Brown did was to write a quote from Thomas Edison on the board: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Stewart hadn’t even brought a notebook to class, but he asked to borrow a sheet of paper from the girl next to him. Her short blonde hair was pinned up in a barrette. She wore khaki shorts, a yellow “Widespread Panic” t-shirt and Birkenstocks. After class, Stewart went straight to the school library and checked out all of Professor Brown’s books. They were poetic westerns. Stewart swirled every sentence around in his mouth before ingesting it, hoping it would become a part of him.

His green metal carrel seemed continents away from the fraternity house, as he scribbled down lines in a spiral bound notebook. He wrote them quickly, not pausing to look at what he had written. He imagined the foundation of the fraternity house cracking, the white columns collapsing, and his drowsy fraternity brothers falling into the dusty rubble of what had once been the Greek system.

Stewart’s classmates gushed over his wittily scathing critique. Professor Brown was more guarded in his praise, but at the end of the class called the story “real”, which from him was the ultimate compliment. One of the biggest admirers of his story was the girl he had borrowed the sheet of paper from the first day of class. Like her professor, Chelsea admired the story because it was authentic.

On their first date, Chelsea confided in him that she was sick of the artificiality of the Greek system. Chelsea didn’t care about Stewart’s grade point average or earnings potential. She was interested in his unique perspective on the world. When Stewart tried to kiss Chelsea at the front door of the sorority house on their second date, she gave him her cheek, saying “Let’s just hang out.” Chelsea invited him in to watch The Graduate in the sorority house lounge. Stewart intentionally sat on the other side of the long sectional couch. Chelsea looked at him and smiled, plopping down next to him. She slapped her hand on top of his and held it. As they sat in the dark and watched Benjamin Braddock take his date to a strip club, they heard a rattle of keys in the door. One of Chelsea’s sorority sisters stumbled in with her date. Too drunk to notice that anyone was in the room, they started making out on the other end of the couch.

Chelsea smirked at Stewart, waiting for a reaction. Stewart recognized one of the pledges being smothered in the leather cushions of the couch. Stewart extricated his fraternity brother and offered to give him a ride back to the fraternity house.“Remember who you are,” Stewart said, taking the pledge by the shoulder By this, he meant a Kappa Alpha at The University of Alabama.

Thanks to Professor Brown’s urging, Stewart was soon a published author. His story was accepted by the campus literary magazine. Since the cover of the magazine was a close-up of a woman’s nipple, Stewart was embarrassed to carry the magazine around, but he did hold on to the original work-shopped copy of the story.

The publication of his story motivated Stewart to be a better student. He spent weeknights at his library carrel. It was situated in a musty corner of the eighth floor of the library, near the section on Newtonian Physics. No one ever came to this part of the library, so Stewart tore out an illustration of Newton staring contemplatively at a fallen apple and tacked it to his carrel. Stewart was also motivated by his family’s descent: his sister into substance abuse, his father into inactivity and his mother into depression. Defying gravity meant defying these invisible forces that seemed destined to pull him down.

When Stewart was a junior in college, he waded through the muddy infield at the Kentucky Derby with Hunter and two pledges. Hunter snickered when the lyric “Tis summer, the people are gay” flashed across the Jumbotron.

“Those ‘people’ used to be ‘darkies.” Hunter, a Kentuckian, went on to explain that the lyrics had only been changed in 1986. Stewart did not admit that he used to play the song on the piano, but he flung the rest of his beer in the grass. Stewart imagined Tracie extending two middle fingers at the undulating crowd, which winked at them like the chapter president did every year he promised administrators that the fraternity would integrate.

They had all worn seersucker suits and fedoras, which were not uncommon in the seated area, but most of the people in the infield were dressed for the beach. Stewart had shaved off his beard, but the rest of them hadn’t, a hangover from the “Old South” party the previous week. Because of the long beards, they looked like attendees of a summer barbeque who had been stranded on a deserted island.

Stewart had been clean-shaven ever since. The “no beards” policy at the bank he worked at suited him fine. Tracie made fun of his clean-cut look when he visited her at Badlands National Park, where she cleaned hotel rooms. She had written him a postcard several months before, inviting him out. She bragged that it didn’t get dark until 10 p.m, and they could go hiking after her shift. But when he got there, she didn’t even bother changing out of her pink maid uniform after work. She fidgeted, smoked, and ashed in empty beer cans. As a program about the migratory patterns of penguins came on, Tracy casually rolled a joint. She lit it and held it out to him. When he didn’t take the joint, she shrugged her shoulders and started smoking it. On the t.v. screen, female penguins gracefully dived in icy water, effortlessly avoiding the jagged floes.

That Christmas, Tracie didn’t come home. While Stewart and his father wore suits and ties for Christmas dinner, Tracie’s mother wore a tie-dyed scarf, a gauzy, brightly colored blouse and a denim skirt. She had let her hair grow wild and shaggy like Tracie’s.

When Stewart’s father suggested a picture, Stewart’s mother refused.

“Not without Tracie,” she said.

“We can send the picture to Tracie along with her check,” Stewart’s father said.

“What?” Stewart asked. Stewart’s father threw up his hands and got up from the table.

“Ask your mother,” he said.

Stewart’s mother puffed on a cigarette and stared out the bay window.

“She’ll use that money to buy drugs,” Stewart said.

“She is my child,” Stewart’s mother said flatly, and started clearing the table.

Stewart tried not to think of Tracie, focusing on his career instead. He quickly ascended through the hierarchy until he was the Head Mortgage Loan Officer. Next to the diploma on his office wall was a photograph of him shaking hands with a client on the cover of the bank’s in-house magazine. “The Closer” was written in bold letters underneath the photograph.

After this last promotion he bought a Lexus and moved out of the two-bedroom apartment he had lived in since graduation. He bought a three-bedroom house, intending for the additional bedroom to be a place to write. He furnished his office with an expensive mahogany desk and leather chair. He placed a placard inscribed with the Thomas Edison quote next to his newly purchased laptop. He hung portraits of famous writers on the walls. A shirtless Faulkner pecked away at a typewriter that had been placed on some pool furniture. His sunglasses and exposed potbelly seemed to scream: “I don’t give a damn!” Hemingway looked more serious. His face was inches away from a notebook. He scribbled intently, his arms encircling the notebook as if to keep it from flying away.

The open door of the office became a mockery to Stewart because he never walked in. Eventually he closed the door, shutting the office off like a parent who entombs the bedroom of a dead child. But closing the door didn’t get rid of the guilt. He paid for a “Creation Space” at an artist’s colony located in the rolling hills of Virginia. Stewart had to wait for a cow to get out of the way as he drove up the windy gravel driveway. After getting situated in a dorm room, Stewart walked to his studio. The freshly painted room was furnished with a chair, desk and bed for those who got so absorbed in their work that they didn’t want to walk back to the dorm. He was immediately distracted by the orange day lilies outside his window that leaned towards a miniature Swiss chalet. The back of Stewart’s studio was on a hill, so from his vantage point, they grew out of a windowsill. A visual artist had painted their root system on the studio’s wall. Inside the chalet was a writer whose books his parents had read.

Someone knocked on his door. A red-haired woman wearing blue jean shorts and an orange sleeveless blouse held out a taut arm encircled by a snake eating itself. She squeezed his hand a little too tightly, introducing herself as “Erin.” Then she invited him to participate in an “open-mike” reading later that night.

“I don’t really have anything ready,” Stewart said, but Erin pointed at the manuscript sitting on the corner of his writing table.

“That looks like something to me,” she said. “I’ll mark you down.” Before Stewart could protest, Erin turned around and started walking towards the dormitory. As he gazed at her toned, freckled legs, she looked over her shoulder and smiled at him in a flirtatious way.

Stewart stared at his story for the next few hours, reading it aloud for practice. On his way to the reading, Stewart heard what sounded like a concert of agitated monkeys. The cicadas, after a 17-year slumber, had awakened to copulate mightily, and then die. As he approached the dormitory, Stewart saw woods to his left and pasture to his right. The pasture was lined with barbed-wire fence and a sign that warned “Don’t Feed the Horses.” They looked friendly enough, but at dinner the previous night, a Korean girl had shown him a saucer-sized bite mark on her side. The chirping birds broke up the monotony of the humming cicadas, but as if jealous, one flew into his hair. Stewart brushed it away in time for another to take its place. He ran towards a gleaming white gazebo with a sky blue roof, which was a designated smoking area. From the gazebo he could see the dormitory, a brown two story building. On the bottom floor was a lounge with chairs and couches. This was where the reading would take place.

When Stewart walked into the lounge, most of the other artists were already there. Ranging from recent MFA graduates to retirees, they had come from all over the country to write, paint or compose. The famous writer sat by himself in the front row and sipped on a glass of red wine. He had a bald bulbous head and wore a faded denim shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots. In his younger days he had been pictured on the cover of Life Magazine. Although he had been standing behind Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, the writer’s Native American headband and rhinestone studded cowhide jacket were the real focal point of the photograph. The writer raised his glass to Stewart and winked. Before Stewart could sit down, Erin had called his name.

“What?” Stewart asked. Several artists in the crowd laughed nervously.

“You’re up,” she said, handing him the mike.

Stewart looked at the mike as if someone had just tried to violate him with it. This got another laugh. Then he walked up to a music stand and set his story on it.

“I hope it doesn’t disintegrate,” the famous writer said, raising his glass again and draining it. He plucked a bottle of wine from under his chair and held it up for all to see. Then he loudly uncorked it.

Stewart glared at the writer in silence, remembering how Professor Brown had handled a disruptive student.

“Proceed,” the writer said, waving at Stewart dismissively.

Stewart did not look up when he read. In a few spots, he waited for laughs that didn’t come. He quickly moved to the second page. Stewart was a few sentences in, when he felt something whoosh by his left cheek; then he heard a crash. For a second, he thought someone had opened a window and the cicadas were rushing in, but that would not explain the noise. He looked to his left and saw a red stain dripping down the wall.

“My vomit,” the writer said, pointing at the stain. “You have made me vomit.”

Stewart locked eyes with the writer, willing himself not to back down. Stewart searched for the writer’s motives behind his cloudy, bloodshot eyeballs. The most obvious explanation for the writer’s bad behavior was drunkenness. Another possibility was the writer had secretly been in a fraternity in the 1950s. Perhaps he, too, was a legacy and the story reminded him of his pre-revolutionary days when he wore a beanie and a pledge pin and went to sock-hops. Finally, Stewart settled on the fact that his writing was so bad that it made the writer nauseated.

The writer sighed loudly and approached Stewart, chest pushed out, and a long, bony finger pointed in his direction. There was a nervous silence as the crowd waited to see what would happen. The writer jabbed a finger in Stewart’s chest and then pulled it back like Stewart’s skin was toxic. Stewart mimicked his confident pose on the magazine cover. He was “The Closer.” Stewart waited for the Merry Prankster to flinch. He didn’t, but Erin touched the writer on his shoulder and guided him back to his seat. She looked over her shoulder and motioned for Stewart to keep reading. Stewart was now overly conscious of his words, and he could barely make them come out of his mouth. After finishing his reading to tepid applause, Stewart scanned the room for an empty seat and was relieved to find one in the corner of a lumpy couch at the back of the room. Several other writers read, but Stewart didn’t hear a word. He stared at the back of the Merry Prankster’s liver-spotted head, which drooped as the readings went on. “At least he didn’t fall asleep during mine,” Stewart thought. As soon as the last person had finished, Stewart walked quickly towards the door.

“Wait,” Stewart heard Erin say behind him, but he didn’t stop to hear the rest, instead trudging down the gravel pathway. When he saw the Korean girl rounding the corner, he took a detour, ducking behind a hedge, knowing that she would ask him how the reading went. There, in front of him, was a giant, swirling clamshell sculpture made of black slate and rope. Underneath the sculpture was a pool of stagnant water. In the brackish reflection, Stewart could see jagged edges on the underside of the shell. He felt like prying open the shell and climbing in. But when he turned around, he could see the blue hazy mountains.

Beyond those mountains was Chelsea. Before coming to the arts colony, he had seen a photograph of Chelsea and her three little girls on Facebook. He knew she lived in Charleston, West Virginia, which was only three hours away. He imagined Benjamin Braddock driving his Alfa Romeo to a suburban home, only to discover Elaine Robinson already married with three kids.

The last time he saw Chelsea, she had been smoking in bed. She only smoked when she had been drinking, and they had both been drinking the night before. Stewart woke up smelling smoke. Bright red ash burned a hole in the sheet next to his right temple.

Chelsea didn’t bother to cover up her breasts. Instead of remarking on the burning hole, Stewart pulled the sheet up to Chelsea’s chin. It stayed there for a few seconds before it fell.

“Are you trying to kill us both?” Stewart asked.

Chelsea blew smoke at him. He coughed and waved his hand in front of his face.

“Now I’m just like the rest of them,” Chelsea said.

This time she pressed her cigarette into the mattress. The smoke from the burning foam made Stewart choke. He wrenched the cigarette out of her hand and threw it in the sink. Then he grabbed the crumpled pack of Marlboros sitting on her bedside table.

“My property,” Chelsea said faintly. He crushed them in his fist.

Stewart tried not to look at the gauntlet of flint-faced girls in nightgowns as he stumbled to the end of the hallway. Chelsea was now like them: a stone burnished by experience.

Realizing there was no escape in Charleston, Stewart walked behind the hedges until the path met up with the road. Even though it was nearly dark, he felt the cloying humidity wafting from the trees. The cicadas sang their monotonous song. He went into his studio and cranked up the air, so he didn’t have to listen to it.

His fraternity brothers vacationed at resorts in Jamaica, Barbados and the Turks and Caicos. Hunter had made a cursory invitation for Stewart to join he and his wife on a Caribbean cruise, but Stewart had refused, coming here instead. To find out from someone who should know that he was not legit, that he was a fraud.

Someone was knocking at his door. There was no peephole, so he looked through the window. It was Erin. She carried a bottle of white wine and two glasses. She caught his eye and pounded on the window.

“I know you’re in there,” she said.

Stewart opened the door. Erin looked exasperated, like she was dealing with a child.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“What do you have to be sorry about?”

“You wouldn’t have had to deal with that if I hadn’t convinced you to read.”

“Well, maybe I need to deal with it.”

She looked at him quizzically. “You mean rudeness and vulgarity?”

“No, I mean the fact that he was right.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I liked the story.”

Stewart smiled. “You’re just trying to make me feel better.”

She rolled her eyes. “What’s wrong with that?”

Stewart sighed. “For one thing, you’re perpetuating a delusion.”

Erin chuckled. “So you think that guy…” she pointed at the dormitory and pretended to guzzle a drink from one of the wine glasses. “Is the arbiter of reality?”

“From an artistic standpoint, yes.”

She scoffed at him. “Really? Then we’re all in trouble. He tried to take a piss on one of my paintings.”

Stewart laughed. Erin did an unsteady twirl and then held out her hand.

“Come on,” she said.

They found a couple of lawn chairs in front of the clamshell sculpture. They drank wine and watched the hazy mountains become dark outlines and then disappear altogether.

Erin asked if he was married. He said no, and asked if she was.

“I was, but he died,” she said, holding up her left hand so he could see her ring.

Stewart thought of the sign at the exit of the artist’s colony: “You are Now Entering The Real World.” Next to the sign was a box of sticks to fend off the aggressive dogs that lived in the farms surrounding the property.

“This place must be an escape for you,” he said.

She shook her head. “No, he came here too. We used to share a studio. There is no escape.”

Stewart apologized.

Erin shook her head. “It’s o.k. You get to where you accept it.”

One day Tracie didn’t show up for work. The park rangers stopped looking for her after a week. They posted “Missing Persons” notices with a picture of Tracie in her maid’s uniform throughout the park. “But that isn’t Tracie,” Stewart’s mother had said when she saw the picture on the internet. She hung on to the image of her little girl wandering through the wilderness, looking for home. After a year, Tracie’s mother got a short, boyish haircut and started wearing muted, conservative outfits.

“Acceptance,” Stewart said, vaguely. He thought about the writer’s accusing finger. When would he accept who he was?

“I’m getting out of here,” Stewart said.

The next morning, he didn’t go to breakfast, not wanting to face the writer. He walked quickly past the open doors of the dining room, hoping no one would see him. Luckily, no one did, but he was not able to escape Erin.

She was crouched in the pathway. She didn’t look up when he approached.

“Corpses,” she said, pointing to the gravel. Stewart looked down and saw dead cicadas littered along the path. Their veiny wings lay limp and useless. The bright orange rings around their midsections were already fading.

Stewart helped Erin scoop up the insects. They were not dry and rough like he expected, but they felt like boiled peanuts. He cupped his hands together, so the bodies could not escape.

“Let’s clean up death,” Erin said. They carried the insects to a trashcan outside the dorm. Soon they had cleared away a section of the path. Stewart watched a lone cicada fly towards them. Stewart knew that it wouldn’t be long before the path was full again.

Both of them went to their studios. He imagined Erin splashing swirls of paint on a canvas, like Jackson Pollack. Stewart sat in front of his laptop. He put his hands in the ready position, lifting them slightly above the keyboard and curling his fingers. He imagined his swiftly moving fingers kept the cicadas at bay.

DON MILLER ’s stories have appeared in South Dakota Review and The Nebraska Review. He is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at UNC-Greensboro. He is an Associate Professor of English at Guilford Technical Community College in Greensboro, N.C., where he lives with his wife and son.