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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Four Nov-Dec 2023.
Lost, story by Tim Tomlinson.
Every day, for half of the Seventh grade and all of the Eighth, Dale Weston and Clifford Foote walked the halls of the Junior High together. They shared many of the same Advanced Placement classes: AP English, AP History, String Ensemble, Latin I, then Latin II. The classes they didn’t share kept them apart only for the duration of the period. When the class bells rang, Dale would be standing without fail outside Cliff’s classroom door, ready to walk him to the next class, her hair held back in a tortoise shell barrette, and her culottes hemmed many inches above her knees. How did she get there so fast, Cliff wondered? Did she run? Did she get out of class early? Did she request a pass? It was like magic, and at first it made school bearable, then exciting. He never told her all through Seventh and Eighth grades that he loved her, but he could tell that she could tell. They weren’t officially “going steady,” Cliff hadn’t given her a ring, he didn’t feel he had to, they weren’t in Archie Comics. Still, he believed it was clear that he loved Dale, clear to Dale and to everyone else, just as it was clear to him, through her devotion and reliability and consistency, through her delight in his jokes and her attention to his assertions, that Dale loved him, too, very much, although like Cliff she had never felt the need to proclaim that love aloud. But what else could she mean, Cliff used to tell himself, those times when they’d sit together on class trips, or at lunchtime with their legs dangling over the cafeteria wall, and she’d sing, just call me angel of the morning, and I say a little prayer for you? Or on the many days, walking and talking between classes, Dale took Cliff’s hand in hers. She took his hand, and he loved that so much. When they spoke at their lockers, she’d remove his wristwatch and run her fingers lightly up and down his forearm. Later, after school, and already miles away on his bus rides home, while Dale practiced tennis with her friends or attended ballet class or student council meetings, Cliff could still feel the tingling of those fingers on his skin.
Sometimes Dale’s friends Judy and Patti complained that Dale spent too much time with Cliff. They were afraid he might be a bad influence. His hair was unkempt, his taste in music was extreme, and he stole books from the library. He wrote weird slogans on school walls, and once he’d been suspended for handing out SDS flyers at a high school assembly. But Judy and Patti lived close by Dale, and Dale told them that there was always plenty of time to talk to them later, after school at tennis practice or choir or on the telephone when they’d finished their homework.
“Hold it,” Cliff said.
But Dale wouldn’t hold it. She told him not to wait for her any more, between classes or after school. She said not to call on the telephone either.
“My father said to tell you you’re a nice boy,” she said. “That he thought you were a really nice boy.”
“Nice boy?” Cliff muttered, his face scrunching around the phrase as if around a bad taste. “He said that?”
“He did,” Dale said, nodding. “But he also said you were lost.”
“I’m what?” Cliff said.
“Lost,” Dale repeated. “He said you were nice, not in some spastic way, and he stressed that, but he also thinks you’re lost.”
And Cliff recoiled, as if from a blow, and the word rang between his ears like a gong. It registered so deeply that Cliff turned away, shaking his head, silently forming the word in his mouth as if it were a code he had once memorized and suddenly recalled, the breakthrough of an amnesiac. Lost. The sound of it pushed away all the other sounds in the hall. The students shouting, the lockers banging, the heels thumping, all these receded in the echoing gong of lost. He pictured Dale’s father pronouncing it, his lips carefully forming the word around the stem of his pipe. It was the first true word, the first true sound. Lost. How, he wondered, had Dale’s father seen it, how had he known? What clue had betrayed it? How could he not have known it himself? Who else knew? The teachers? Judy and Patti? He wanted to talk to Dale’s father, he wanted to know more about himself, he wanted to be found.
Cliff said, “I thought-”
But Dale cut him off. She said her father told her not to discuss her decision with Cliff, and not to argue it, and not to defend it. It had to be stated, but that was that. It was final, and there was nothing to be gained by explanations because all the explanation Cliff required was the statement itself. Dale’s goodbye might seem painful in the immediate, her father had told her to tell Cliff, it might appear abrupt, without warning, irrational, violent, unfair. It might appear as if it erased, in a second, more than two years of very close friendship, a friendship that might have appeared to others, maybe even to Cliff, as a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. But that would have been a mistaken impression, based on nothing Dale had ever said or meant to say. However, she added, it could be the case that Dale had inadvertently contributed to that mistaken impression, and that was why her father had advised her to be so final, so resolute now, even if that resolve might appear cold, even brutal. Eventually, Dale’s father told her and she repeated now to Cliff, eventually Cliff would come to appreciate her economy, her efficiency, the neatness of her goodbye, and when he did—perhaps in a month, or a school term, maybe a year, or perhaps not until Cliff was in his twenties and after he’d had new experiences with other girls, and perhaps after he’d left them abruptly and without explanation, which Dale’s father felt certain would happen, as it must with every young man, and young woman—when Cliff was able and did come to appreciate the humane economy of Dale’s goodbye, he would probably want to thank her for its merciful brevity. But in the meantime, she quickly added when his eyes lifted and she could see clearly through the pools forming in them that something like hope was already forming in them too, but Cliff was not to call and thank her once that understanding did arrive, which her father had been certain it would, and she was certain, too, but just to be clear and thorough and completely transparent, Cliff was not to call her with that understanding or with any other understanding or observation or reason now, soon, or in the future, ever.
“Ever?” Cliff said, or thought he said.
And Dale said, “Ever.”
And Cliff said, “I don’t—”
But Dale said, “Period.” She said, “Full stop. Time out. Game over.”
Cliff said, “But how–?”
And Dale said, “There is no how, Cliff, there is no why.”
And Cliff said, “I don’t understand.”
And Dale explained what her father explained to her: that there was nothing to understand except that she had made a decision and that decision was that Clifford Foote was no longer to follow her, or contact her, or question her, ever and for always. Her father, she said, had said the exact same thing about the finality and the irrevocability and the totality of Dale’s decision, and her mother agreed with, and Dale believed in, and Judy and Patti supported very strongly and the Student Council endorsed and even the choir and the ballet studio encouraged that absolute, unequivocal, and non-negotiable resolve.
And then the bell rang and Cliff said, “Dale,” and Dale snapped at him for grabbing at her arm and he begged her to wait for just a second, or a minute, and she snapped again.
“Stop holding me back!” she shouted. And she stamped her foot once, maybe twice, and she shook his hand free from her arm as if shaking off an unpleasant substance, and other students in the hallway stopped and stared and some laughed and others whispered, and then Dale Weston scooted away, so quickly she ran down the up stairs.
“Will you wait outside my next class?” Cliff said after her.
He wasn’t sure she heard him.
But when his next class ended he waited outside its door, and waited and waited, his heart pounding, then nearly stopping each time he spotted a ballet-straight posture, perfectly aligned shoulders, long, stockingless legs, cordovan penny loafers and white anklets. He waited through the press of other students passing through the halls, entering classrooms, opening and closing lockers, proceeding down or up stairways. He waited through the thinning, then the disappearance of those students, and through the second bell ringing through the empty halls.
Ordinarily, when Cliff cut school, he did it with stealth. Today, he just walked down the front drive. He felt like he was invisible, or like he didn’t care. When someone called his name, he kept walking. He walked over the speed bumps, past the track and the tennis courts, to the hill near the end of the drive, which he climbed. At the hilltop, he hopped the fence and took the woods path that led to downtown. Pale green buds were just appearing on the bare trees. Cliff didn’t notice them. He didn’t notice anything. He could have walked into traffic, been struck by a car, and still continue walking.
At the harbor he watched seagulls perch on pylons. A ferry went out, a ferry came in. It emptied. Everything felt empty. From his pelvis to the tips of his lungs he felt empty. He thought of a poem he’d read in a book he’d stolen. It gave him an idea for one of his own. He got as far as its title. “Lost: Lines Written in Dejection at the Empty Goddamn Harbor (for Dale Weston).” He imagined the rest of his life would be its lines.
Tim Tomlinson is the author of the chapbook Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, the poetry collection, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire, and the short story collection, This Is Not Happening to You. Recent work appears in Bangalore Literary Review, The Antonym, Tin Can Literary Review, and the annual anthology, Best Asian Short Stories (2023). A new collection, Listening to Fish: meditations from the wet world, will appear soon on Nirala books. Tim is the director of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. He teaches writing in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.