The heat pressed down on the city, slowing the rush-hour traffic to an exhausted crawl. She drove home with the windows down, hoping to draw some fain breeze across her face and through her clothes damp with sweat, but the humid air refused to stir. In the old neighborhood around the apartment the trees drooped listlessly, almost motionless.

She filled the bath with cool water and sat in it for a long time, until she heard Price coming up the stairs. She looked at her watch on the stool: six-thirty. She climbed out reluctantly and dried off, pushing the damp ends of her dark hair behind her ears and putting on her robe. The bare wooden floor creaked slightly under her feet.

In the kitchen Price was reading the newspaper on the makeshift table: a plywood board across two stacks of cinderblock. The armpits of his shirt were ringed with sweat.

“Hey,” she said. “Bus late?”

“Yeah.” He nodded absently and held up a brown paper sack. “I got sandwiches at the deli.” Then he turned back to the paper.

“How was school? Are they going to like you?” She moved behind him and kissed the top of his head, massaging his neck gently.

“They like me but they hate math.”

“Well, Price, they’re just kids. Did you expect five classes of seventh-grade Einsteins?” He shrugged without looking up. “Come to think of it, Einstein probably flunked seventh-grade math,” she said, “if he got that far. So take heart.”

He seemed absorbed in the news. Outside the sun was low in the sky.

“Hey.” She tapped him lightly on the head and wrapped her arms around his chest, leaning over so that her lips almost touched his ear. “What’s for dinner, mister?”

He glanced back at her for a moment. “Sandwiches.”

The air in the apartment was heavy and still. A car slid past in the street below.

“Oh.” She straightened up and took the paper bag quickly to the counter. “Sorry. For a minute there I had this crazy thought that perhaps we would be having some particular kind of sandwiches. Roast beef, say, or ham and cheese. But now I finally understand,” she said. “They’re just plain old sandwiches. Sort of in keeping with our no-frills style of life. Roast beef is for older couples with furniture.”

There was a pause. She fumbled with the bag, emptying it onto the counter and then looking over her shoulder at him. He was looking silently at her. His eyes were very dark brown. She could never read his thoughts in them. She turned away. Looked out the window, tried to fight down the quick hot rise of anger. “And yes, work was fine. As I guess you already know.”

“Lisa.” She heard him get up and come towards her. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, I know you must be worn out after school and the bus.” She had begun to sweat again after the bath. “I’m not trying to harass you.”

“I just wasn’t thinking.” He put a hand on her shoulder and turned her to face him. He was neither smiling nor frowning. He hugged her gently; her arms hung at her sides and tears came up in her eyes, burning.

“Just talk to me.” Her voice was breaking. “I can’t read your mind.” He was silent. Which was what she expected.

They ate without speaking. She moved her eyes along the grains in the plywood. It grew dark outside, though the heat remained stifling in the apartment.

At night she lay on top of the sheets, which clung to her in the humid air. She drifted at the edge of sleep. Price breathed softly beside her. She thought of him sitting at the kitchen table. Halfway between remembering and dreaming, she saw him back in college; she saw him in the black tuxedo at the wedding, neither smiling nor frowning, but holding her hand tightly at the reception. When they first looked at the apartment he placed a hand quietly on her shoulder. When he got the teaching job he picked her up and spun around and around, smiling slightly, his eyes dark. She awoke. She was covered with cool beads of sweat. After a moment she could see the faint outline of his body, raised on one elbow and turned toward her. She could not see his face; he put his arm gently across her waist and she smiled, moving closer in the darkness.

6 thoughts on “Heat

  1. From a creative writing class, circa 1987, with professor Marianne Gingher. The assignment was to write a love story without using the word love.

    It’s extremely hard to retype the story without making any edits, but there you have it. Not too terrible. The prof wrote “one of the very best love stories” at the bottom, but I recall another submission by an English kid named James Dean – as his story unfolded you realized the main character had an extra thumb or finger and because of his embarrassment was reduced to stalking his love interest at a distance. Not creepy but painful and awesome. Wish I wrote that one.

  2. Pretty good — and this is coming from a harsh critic. I have only three points of feedback: (1) You did a pretty good job tying the details of the scene to the characterization of the characters (“he bare wooden floor creaked slightly under her feet.” means she was probably walking slowly/shyly/expectantly. You showed all this, without having to tell it — the mark of good fiction.); (2) You executed the correct use of the semicolon (bravo!); (3) The car slid past on the street, not in it. Much better writing than some of the trash given awards at the USCF site. Now, can you sustain this for a full short story?

    I’ve pretty much given up on writing fiction. I find it much more difficult to do than non-fiction. For some reason I like to describe what I see and know, rather than make up stuff.

    Keep an eye out for “Masters of Technique: The Mongoose Press Anthology of Chess Fiction.” It should be out in a few weeks.


  3. Father-in-law: What is the subject of your book? Non fiction?

    Paul Giamatti: Uh, no. It’s a novel. Fiction. Yes. Although there is quite a bit from my own life. So I suppose that, technically, some of it is nonfiction.

    Father-in-law: Good. I like nonfiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time.

  4. Well, in defense of fiction, the good fiction writers have a way of capturing the human condition, by giving the author freedom to conjure any type of emotional response from the reader. Ironically enough, the best non-fiction writers learn a lot about writing technique from studying masters of fiction. In some ways, non-fiction writing is easier, because the event that triggers the emotional response does not have to be created; it already exists. Of course, there are aspects of non-fiction writing that are more difficult than fiction, however — like maintaining that emotional response while keeping the facts straight. Fiction writers can just tweak the “facts” as a surrogate to the real deal.

    If you have any interest in chess fiction, check out “Masters of Technique.” At the very least, I can assure you that the writing doesn’t suck and the chess is accurate.

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