Reverb, oil painting by Marilyn Papayanis

The Long Way Around

I’ve just come upstairs from the campaign office in the basement of Green’s General Store when I find the necklace. It’s one of those bitter January afternoons where the streetlights illuminate the falling snow even before the Post Office closes for the day. Maybe it’s the long winter, or the lack of natural light in the campaign office, but a hint of melancholy settles among the trinkets and folded towels, the snow brushes and spray cleaners. I’m in no rush to get home, stoke the wood stove, and start another supper. No hurry to hear Paul come in from the barn and drop his muddy boots with a thud by the door. I stuff my favorite scarf into my coat pocket and drift along the cluttered aisles.


In the back of the store, behind the art supplies, I come upon a cardboard box heaped with costume jewelry, the kaleidoscope of colors catching the light from the overhead fixture. I take a moment to rake my fingers through the jumble. And there it is, a rhinestone necklace animated with vibrant flowers and ornate leaves of imitation emerald. I lift it out as if it were priceless, the heavy colorful stones spilling between my fingers. A ruby, sapphire, and emerald explosion from a box with a handwritten sign that says $4.99. I press the necklace to my collar, step over to the rack of sunglasses, and check myself in the narrow mirror, grinning as if I’d just won a prize. I have absolutely no place to wear such a necklace, no business wasting even a few dollars on such a ridiculous thing. And yet it’s perfect somehow. An antidote to the gloomy day.

I stroll around a bit more and eventually make my way past the register up front. Nancy Miller, the town gossip, stands behind the counter, looking at her phone. She barely acknowledges me as I walk by, my heart clawing at the back of my throat, the stolen necklace riding heavily in my purse. I imagine Nancy’s shriek-like laugh had I found the nerve to put the necklace on the counter and wait for her to ring it up. “My word, Helen,” she would have said. “What the hell are you up to with this crazy thing?”

Outside I feel the pure, unadulterated joy of stealing the necklace, the wind blasting down from Canada like a celebration. I’ve never stolen a thing in my life, not even as a teenager, not even when my high school friend Shirley made off with half the makeup counter in this very store all those years ago. I lift my face directly into the wind, feeling its ice-cold embrace, and hurry to the car.

That night at the kitchen table I sit as I often do, pretending to review sums in the campaign office’s online ledger, a pencil I sharpened with a paring knife tucked behind my ear. At 60, I sometimes find it quicker to do calculations on paper, so my ear keeps the pencil handy. My volunteerism at the Democratic Party office turned into a full-time job years ago, answering phones, mailing out materials, and managing the few contributions that trickle in. Paul and I never talk politics, but I know that he and other farmers like him tend to be more conservative. From the living room come the competing voices of news anchors as he watches TV, and there’s the usual whine of Canadian wind as it assaults the kitchen window and back corner of the house. Paul’s cap and winter coat hang on a hook by the door, the scent of hay and curdled milk clinging to their fabrics.

I’ve already gone over the totals—many times, in fact—when really what I want to do is log in to YouTube and work on the sunflower I’m learning to paint. It feels a bit foolish trying to learn something new, something artistic at my age. Many of the women around here crochet afghans and baby blankets and craft holiday decorations out of felt and florist foam, but I’ve never had a mind for that. Yet walking by the children’s art supplies last week at Green’s, I paused to peruse the paints and brushes, risking Nancy Miller’s ridicule at the checkout as I placed a sketch pad and a set of watercolors and two thin brushes on the counter. Nancy only cracked a joke as she rang me up—something about paint by numbers, which I ignored—running my debit card without too much fuss. I hid everything beneath my paperwork from the campaign office when I got home, waiting until Paul went to bed before watching a “Watercolor for Beginners” video on my computer. For years, I’ve loved that time at night, after he goes upstairs. The quiet tick of the rooster clock over the stove, a cup of tea, a book or a magazine. No one needing anything from me. I knew I wanted to paint the beautiful, bold face of a sunflower, my favorite flower on the farm, a proud row of them flourishing each summer along the pasture fence.

That was last week, and my sunflower is coming along. The first few attempts were comical, the colors of the disc and ray florets bleeding into one another like butter kept too long on the heat. But each evening has seen some improvement. Tonight I want to work on the flower head, which the YouTube instructor calls the inflorescence. I’ve been waiting since I cleared the supper dishes, an eternity until the hands on the rooster clock move to the 9:00 position and I hear Paul turn off the TV. Likely he would say something pleasant about my painting, but this activity is mine. It’s the first thing I’ve ever pursued separate from him.

I stand to put the kettle on and tuck my feet into my slippers. In the living room Paul resettles himself in his chair, his legs propped on the hassock after a long day of chores in the barn. Sometimes I find him almost unrecognizable, this man I’ve been married to for forty-one years. I stare at him from the kitchen table, trying to make sense of how we’ve landed here, changed and grown old—our shared, slow demise in this farmhouse. The creaky knees, the past much broader and defined than any future could be. Sometimes he seems to feel my eyes upon him and he’ll beckon me to come sit beside him where it’s warm by the wood stove. He has a way of knitting his brows when he smiles at me, as if he still can’t believe, after all these years, that such a fine, smart woman chose him to marry. But he gives me more credit than I deserve simply because I graduated valedictorian of my tiny high school class. He thinks that makes me refined somehow, even though I was born and raised just down the road, the daughter of pig farmers. After high school, there was never any thought of college or moving away. It just wasn’t done. You graduated and married and had your babies, and that’s the way it was. I’ve seen over the years that the women around me are happy enough, and frankly so was I. Not jump-up-and-down happy, but content, I guess, with the predictable ways of life—the baby showers and family BBQs and various church events. It’s safe here, knowing how things will play out. The crazier the world becomes, the safer it can feel—until sometimes the safeness of it all becomes so heavy and oppressive you struggle to breathe. 

The burner clicks several times before it catches, and I remember with a start the rhinestone necklace I stashed in the bottom of my purse. Taking it out, I admire it anew and hold it up to the overhead light, then put it on and check my image in my compact mirror. Fluffing my hair, I put on a dab of lipstick, which has grown rather hard and cakey in the bottom of my purse since the last time I used it. I smack my lips together and purse them like the younger girls do.

Feeling rather festive, I move the kettle off the heat. Opening the refrigerator, I take out a bottle of wine I paid nearly $20 for at the Watertown Farm & Craft Market last fall. I also bought a single wine glass and a corkscrew at the Dollar Tree, Paul not a fan of the drink (as he calls it), having grown up with a father who indulged too much. 

It takes me a minute to figure out how to work the corkscrew, then I fill the glass less than halfway, as pictured in the magazines at the hair salon in Watertown. Lately, I’ve been going there every six weeks to get my hair done, savoring the clean, modern style of the place, the music of Jamie Cullen and Norah Jones (I know those names because I asked) taming the whirr of blow dryers and the rush of water into sinks, the murmur of voices. I enjoy thumbing through the thick, glossy pages of those magazines, mesmerized by runway models, beauty tips, and articles that give me pause to think. Embarrassed that another customer might see, I once curled the top corners of the magazine together to read an entire article with a bold, black heading that talked unabashedly about sex. Legs crossed and my foot bouncing nervously, I actually learned a few things. At my age, no less.

Now I hold the wine glass up to the light. How lovely it is! Like a prism! The necklace, too, catches the light. My seat at the table is still warm, the wood smooth and worn like a good saddle. My important papers are fanned out, the sketchpad and paints hidden underneath. In the blueish glow of my laptop, I take a delicate sip of wine, raising my glass as if offering a toast to the screen and the art lesson it will show me. I’m not quite sure about the taste, but I appreciate how it seems to quiet the wrinkles of things. I lift my glass for another taste. 

 “Oh!” Paul says, making his way into the kitchen, surprise in his voice. My fingers fly to the necklace, suddenly like a circus around my neck. I keep my eyes on my paperwork as he takes note of the necklace, the unfamiliar glass of wine, the lipstick.

Instead of going to the sink where he usually stands to drink a glass of water, he stops in front of the table. I stare at his moccasins Their stitching reminds me of the time my father sutured his own arm after scaling a barbed wire fence. A bunch of livestock had escaped into a neighboring field, and he was working the herd alone. Everywhere, farmers!, I think, feeling slightly panicked as Paul stands there. Is there any place on earth that doesn’t stink of pigs and cows and the inside of a barn? 

Just the thought makes me tug at the neck of my sweater. The same sweater I discovered  under the Christmas tree last month, Paul having paid off my layaway balance. He didn’t bother with a box, and instead secured the wrapping paper with tape that choked the cashmere around the middle. Although I know it was wrong, his gesture had annoyed me. I only had two more payments. Of course I smiled and thanked him, but then hurried to smooth out the lovely sweater and hang it in our sons’ now-vacant room across the hall from the bedroom Paul and I share. Over time, I’ve relocated most of my blouses and sweaters to the boys’ empty closet, preferring my Clinique perfume to the heady scent of cow dung and fresh mown hay that seems to cling to everything here. Both boys have long moved out, the oldest driving an 18-wheeler around God knows where, the youngest now advancing in his military career. Truth is, when they left, I felt relieved to have the child-rearing over, the daily grind of it all. I wouldn’t dare utter that aloud, but facts are facts. I’m glad they’re gone.

 I move my fingers back to the necklace, finding comfort in the heft of it. Braced for his displeasure, I meet Paul’s eyes, the necklace making me bold. But his brows are knitted in that way of his, his blue eyes kind and beseeching.

“Is that new?” he says. Alive with pink and green and purple cubic zirconia rhinestones, it’s hard to miss. Slightly embarrassed I look behind him at the clock, willing the hands to move to his bedtime. I feel exposed, almost as if I were sitting here naked.

“It’s nice,” he says.

A benign word, but so flat and lifeless! I take a shallow breath and hold it for a moment, feeling a wave of sadness. I nod, afraid to speak. Paul touches my hand, the day’s work in his fingers, rough and certain. How many times have those hands caressed my shoulders, my breasts, a gentle urgency as he moved to open my legs. 

“Come,” he says softly, touching my arm this time. “Let’s go upstairs.”

I have to squeeze my knees together not to recoil, to remain perfectly still in my chair. Rigid and unyielding. The tick of the kitchen clock seems almost deafening. I want so badly to sip my wine, to paint my sunflower. For Paul to go to bed.

“It’s been a long day,” he says, taking the wine glass. The scuff of moccasins over the linoleum and the splat of wine into the sink. I curl both hands around the rhinestone necklace as he runs the water to rinse out my glass.  

“In a minute,” I manage to say. My insides throb so hard I feel dizzy. Leaning on my elbows, I clutch the necklace under my chin to steady myself.

Paul sets the glass down gently. I know I’ll find it draining upside down next to the thin trail of rust in the sink. “Okay,” he says, his voice sounding tired as he turns toward me and the way to the stairs beyond. “I’ll be upstairs.”

How well I know this man, an intimacy deeper and more profound than anything else I’ve ever known. And yet as I look at him, I see a stranger, a man standing there exposed, his eyes full of longing. Lord how I want him to go to bed and leave me be. I don’t know how to tell him about discovering the necklace at Green’s and slipping it into my purse, about not having the energy or desire to come home. Or to go upstairs and lie beside him in bed. Or about the hidden sketchpad and my budding sunflower.

My fingers grip the necklace, tugging at it a bit to feel its presence around my neck. The pointed tips of flowery rhinestones press against my flesh, one small way to make sure I’m still alive. I tug at it again—and when I do, the cheap thread holding the necklace breaks, rhinestones spilling onto the table and over the kitchen floor. 

I cry out and stand, knocking over my chair..

Paul starts to grab at the stones.

“No! Don’t!” My voice is sharper and higher pitched than I intended. Paul straightens up and looks at me. His blue eyes register almost nothing, as if all his emotions were stunned by my harsh reaction. 

I clear my throat. “Sorry,” I say, tears beginning to sting. “Please. I’ll be up in a minute.”

I’m grateful as he leaves the kitchen, his moccasins making their familiar swiping sound along the floorboards. I dare not move—hold my breath even—listening to the creak of each step as he makes his way upstairs, then the flush of the toilet, and the bathroom sink running. Then, finally, the sound of him settling into bed. The house is now still, except for the steady, rhythmic ticking of the rooster clock above the stove. 

I run my hands over my sweater to smooth it and another rhinestone slips to the floor, disappearing under the cabinet. I stand there for a moment, clutching the broken necklace. Without hurry, I kick off my slippers and pull on my boots by the door, then slip into my winter coat. I take my scarf out of one pocket and wrap it around my neck. Grabbing my purse from the hook by the door, I open it and slide what’s left of the necklace inside. tucking my sketchpad and paints under my arm, I flip off the kitchen light, and for the second time today, I lift my face to the wind.

In the car, the cold steering wheel nips at my hands right through my gloves, the stiff upholstery crackles whenever I move. Breath clouds float along the dash. I back the car out of the short driveway without waiting for the windshield to clear and head down Ellis Road. Hunched up close to the steering wheel, I find the familiar road through a small space in the lower windshield that hasn’t frosted over. It’s dark out here, but I know each curve and pockmark, the road a ribbon shaken out over the frozen earth. The moon sits boldly in the sky, a spotlight illuminating the snow-covered fields. I have no idea where I’m headed. I’ve barely been beyond the North Country, the farthest being Syracuse years ago when we took the boys to the State Fair. We’d toured the Dairy Cow Building and admired the butter sculpture and returned home without even seeing the midway, the boys cranky and crying as they licked at their cotton candy on the way back to the car.

I use the car’s blinker, even though there are no other cars around, and turn right onto Hadley Road. I’m able to sit back a bit from the steering wheel, the windshield beginning to clear. I stare straight ahead, both gloved hands gripping the wheel, my mind as blank and frozen as the landscape. After a few miles, there’s Norton Road onto which I make another right. The Peterson farm up close to the road, a light on in the barn. Old Man Peterson in there working on his tractor, or attaching the plow to his truck. The 6 o’clock news predicted 18 inches of snow tomorrow.  

Before I know it, I’ve looped back around to Ellis Road and am passing by my house. The familiarity of it: the front porch light, a parade of boxwoods along the fence, a whole row of sunflowers asleep beneath the snow, the barn. I slow a bit, my foot pressing gently against the brake pedal, my gloved hand on the blinker column. And there is Paul in the front window. His robust farmer’s body, his white T-shirt almost glowing in the dark. I press my foot to the gas—the sky above glittering with stars. 


Author's Comment

The inspiration for this story comes from my paternal grandmother. Like Helen in this story, my grandmother married a farmer and, by many accounts, was unsatisfied with small town life. From that, I created the character, Helen, who longs for a more sophisticated life than the one she has grown up in and married into. It was my intention not to demonize her husband, Paul, but rather to suggest that even with a loving partner and the experience of motherhood, many women yearn for much more.


Old Stranger: Poems
by Joan Larkin
Poem after poem, Old Stranger unearths moments that shape a woman's life. The poet's eye is unflinching as she sees the past folded into the present. Her body is the ground of deep soul hunger. Her language is music.
“To discover the ‘old stranger’ is a knife, not quite, it’s an old piano. No, it’s a book about mortality and the debt of flesh, about love, rot, relationship, smiles that cut like knives through every seeing moment. It’s about painting. It’s a beaut. There’s so much masterpiece here. I mean, wow, this is why one is a poet all their life. To make this.” — Eileen Myles, author of a "Working Life"   “Joan Larkin’s much-awaited Old Stranger: Poems is a miracle of compression, mystery, and innuendo. Here is a poet for whom craft is an extension of wisdom. Whether revealing the archetype secreted within an object, or the elemental, persistent grief within a memory, Larkin expertly hones the edges of poems like a luthier shapes a violin.” — Diane Seuss, author of Modern Poetry   "Engaging with curiosity and often startled affection, this poet tells of how it feels to be both enamored and shaken with what connections reveal. Quiet and absorbed, one reads this most graceful of books until pow and one is alerted!" — Jody Stewart, author of This Momentary World: Selected Poems
    More about Joan Larkin: Available from Alice James Books, Bookshop, and Amazon.


Linda Mary Guyette earned an MFA from Brooklyn College in the late ‘90s, after which she spent many years as a working mother with a full-time job that saw her writing life prioritized to the back of the closet. Under the unfinished laundry. Now she’s making up for lost time. Her work has appeared in Calyx, The Little Magazine, Potpourri, Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, and The Woven Tale Press. She lives and writes in a small cottage on a small lake outside New York City and is currently at work revising her first novel, The Radio Man.

After a lengthy detour through law and a career teaching literature, Marilyn Papayanis found her artistic voice in free-wheeling paintings, like the one included here, of the nude female body that connect the joy of movement and the poetry of gesture to the immediacy of visual representation.

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