From the Archives: Oatmeal, A Short Story | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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From the Archives: Oatmeal, A Short Story 

click to enlarge Following the publication of her short story, “Oatmeal,” in February 2003, Cathleen Bell became the author of seven novels for middle grade and young readers: the ghost story Slipping (Bloomsbury), the history-themed romp Little Blog on the Prairie (Bloomsbury), the time-travel romance I Remember You (Knopf), the thriller The Amanda Project: Unraveled (Harper), and the Weregirl trilogy: Weregirl, Chimera, and Typhon (Chooseco). She lives with her family in Brooklyn and frequently retreats to their tiny cabin in Schoharie County for writing retreats and inspiration.
  • Following the publication of her short story, “Oatmeal,” in February 2003, Cathleen Bell became the author of seven novels for middle grade and young readers: the ghost story Slipping (Bloomsbury), the history-themed romp Little Blog on the Prairie (Bloomsbury), the time-travel romance I Remember You (Knopf), the thriller The Amanda Project: Unraveled (Harper), and the Weregirl trilogy: Weregirl, Chimera, and Typhon (Chooseco). She lives with her family in Brooklyn and frequently retreats to their tiny cabin in Schoharie County for writing retreats and inspiration.

It is May already and 38 weeks since Mike left. Thirty-eight weeks for Juliet of waiting for husband at her parent's house in Hinsdale, Illinois, the town where she was a girl. On 38 Saturday evenings, Father has washed, Juliet has dried, and Mother has put the dinner dishes away. Mother and Father have trudged up the mud-colored stair runner to bed with their magazines. The refrigerator has hummed, and Juliet has set a tall glass of Old Milwaukee, Mike's beer, on the wiped-down kitchen tabletop with its pattern of trapped gold sparkles. The beer, a slip of letter paper, one pen, and two Archway oatmeal cookies. This is her routine.

It's spring now. The trees are come into leaf, and the cicadas have returned. Their two-note song reminds Juliet of August, the month Mike left and also of the passage of other noises that have come while the cicadas were gone. The wind against the storm windows in November, the muffled stillness of the last blizzard back in March. It's hard to believe the year, and with it Mike's tour of duty, is coming full circle. The white head on Juliet's Old Milwaukee sinks into gold. She attempts to construct in her mind the letter she will write. She takes a bite of an Archway and lays the date across the top of the paper in neat block lettering.

"Would you look at that?" she says, holding the ballpoint pen before her, watching it tremble, tapping the table's sparkly surface. She closes a fist around the pen. The shakes stop.

This past month Mike's been on ground duty. More dangerous than the bombing runs he had been flying escort on, but a requirement of all Marines. Juliet has dragged the ninth grade at the school where she teaches, the school where she and Mike first met, through the conspiracies and triangles of Julius Caesar. She's barely caught the IDs her students miss on the tests. She's given extra credit where it isn't due. She's ignored the chatter coming from the back of the room because she knows Mike is cutting through kudzu, a radio that looks like an old-fashioned mountaineer's haversack slung across his shoulder. She listens to the death toll on the news every night. Ninety-seven, 46, 201, and pretends she can ignore the connection between her husband and the number that is read. The news that she sees on television and reads in Time magazine ought to be disposable, but it has sneaked up on Juliet and become her life.

"Dear Mike," she writes, "I hope you are well. I am fine. The last week here has been fine. Spring now with the leaves out, it's fine." Juliet crosses out her third fine, writes nice instead and diligently makes a line of x's through her crossed-out word. She traces over the date at the top of her letter blacking out what she's already written.

Juliet might have tried to express herself differently in a letter to a different man. In a letter to Hank Reiner, the math teacher who isn't fighting because of his blind right eye, she might have written of the separation pains, the aches she sometimes mistakes for the onset of the flu. This is the kind of letter Juliet might have liked to receive herself, but Mike does not want what she does. Mike flies jets. Mike's skin does not flush or blemish as Juliet's does. It retains an even texture like sand. His hair is straw colored, obedient, course. Juliet loves the feel of the width of Mike's hands on her back. He is gregarious in a way she has never been. To be his wife, part of him is all she wants. She looks back at her life before marriage as dry and empty, missing the crucial ingredients of Mike's freckled, warm arms in the bed. When they were living in tacky officer's apartments on one base after another, Juliet was filled with the breath of joy, a balloon that could never be popped.

There was a formula at work then, and now that the formula is skewed, Juliet is making every effort to correct it. She breathes regularly and chews deliberately, practicing calm. She does not trap words on paper that could come to haunt her later. It is not her luck to jinx after all but his.

She writes to Mike that tomorrow she will start to teach "The Odyssey." She's been re-reading it, thinking of him at the description of the gray-eyed Athena disguised as a man. Every time she encounters a beautiful line she thinks, "Wouldn't Mike love this one?" Literature is not Mike's thing, but she knows he must have read the poem when he was in ninth grade. They all did. Hank Reiner has sections memorized.

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