Martha in the Manuscript

Saugerties is a pleasant place; beyond the coffee shops and fruit markets are rows of tall, colorful houses lined along endless concave streets like stretches of rainbows. But it also has the river—the same river. So even though I’m sitting on a bench that’s more than a hundred miles away from the city, except for the lighthouse, the water across from me is no different.

The lighthouse is tall with a rounded black terrace and a point on top. I watch the people linger around it. Some are inside, their backs against the windows. Others walk across a wooden dock. No one steps onto the terrace.

The bench also has me in perfect firing range of a breeze that I imagine tumbling down the mountain like little rocks, blowing against the lighthouse so the chimes hanging on the wooden dock whistle along with the rippling water. It hits often, not like the breeze in the city, which only found me between the spread of buildings.

Suddenly there’s a sound to my left. I turn and see something else that usually doesn’t find me: a tall, attractive woman, brown hair splitting at her forehead. I don’t think she’ll stop, but she does.

“You got a smoke?”

I dig my hand into my pocket, nod, and move over so she can sit.

“I gotta run,” she says, and looks at the space I made. “But I could really use a smoke.”

“Don’t you have a minute?”

She considers me carefully. “You’re new in town, right?”

I nod.

“You’re not crazy are you?”


She takes the cigarette and sits, leaning in for me to light it. She smells like wine. “Depends?” she repeats, “what’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s not Tuesday,” I say. “So you’re in luck. I’m only crazy on Tuesday.”

She takes a drag of the cigarette. “That so? All right then, crazy man, what’s a guy like you doing out here alone?”

“I’d tell you, but I don’t want to give the secret away.”

“Makes sense,” she says. “Crazy people keep secrets.”

“How about this,” I begin. I realize I’m still holding the lighter so I put it away. “You tell me why you’re in such a rush, and then I’ll tell you something about me.”

She looks at her watch. I think about what I should start with. “It sounds like a fair deal, and I’d like to, but I really don’t have the time right now.”

“Probably because you’ve got secrets too.”

She seems taller the second time she stands. I want to stand too, to see if I’m taller than she is, but I decide to stay sitting. “I’ll leave that up to you, crazy man,” she says. “Thanks for the smoke. I’m sure I’ll see you again.”

Considering five minutes ago I was thinking of leaving, I’m satisfied being quiet and watching her body shrink into the distance. I take a deep breath and turn to the river. I knew there was something about this place—that proved it. A boat stops at the lighthouse. It’s the fourth of the day. Then I see someone looking at me from the terrace. I know who it is, but I can’t believe it. I stand to get a better view, but she turns and walks back into the building, and I know I won’t be able to see her again.

The chair creaks and I sit up, spreading three pieces of paper on top of the desk. I use a ruler to make sure all are the same distance apart and write “Martha” onto the first. I stare at the letters for a while. The pen pulses against my skin, but nothing happens. She’s not coming back, I tell myself. She’s not coming back.

I need a reminder, so I walk to the empty bookshelf. It was offered as a throw-in with the house, since the previous owner figured that of all people I’d have the most use for it. The shelf was here, so he tried convincing me the office would be ready as soon as I moved in. It was one of two selling points he kept reverting to—flawed for two reasons. The first was that the office wasn’t ready, since I still had to set up a desk and lay out a rug; the second was that I didn’t want a shelf. But I’m glad I have it now. It’s a good way to relax—a good reminder, which is just what I need. I hum as my fingers glide across it. The wood is nice and quiet. Just like Martha.

Then I walk to the window to see the other selling point: the creek. The sun is bright against it. The water lets off a strong, yellow hue. It’s not as mystical as he claimed it would be, but it does make for an interesting anomaly. If anything it’s like a long wheat field. I try to imagine what it tastes like, but I start to feel dizzy, so I head to the bathroom and wipe wet towels against my face. It doesn’t make much difference. When all is done, I go to bed.

A knock wakes me up, but I stay beneath the covers until it stops. It’s still early. It can be anyone. I wait a few minutes, and instead of going back to sleep, I bring a glass of water to my desk. There’s only one person I want to see anyway, and though I hit a small bump, I shouldn’t worry because it’s still working. I take out what I have and look over the proof. Small bumps, small feeling, small Martha, it doesn’t mean a thing. That wasn’t her at the lighthouse. I say it out loud and believe it. And so I say it again and again until I’m ready to continue. It wasn’t her. I’m here and she’s not. It wasn’t her. After years of trying and years of Martha, I’m exactly where I need to be. She’s not coming back. That’s relief not worry. She’s not coming back. It’s relief. Of course it’s relief. It’s not worry. Not coming back. Not back not worry. Relief.

A mist passes in front of me. The lighthouse is quiet. I try not to watch it, but I can’t help myself. My feet are tapping against the grass, speeding up and slowing down like the breeze. The sky is clear today. For some reason it makes me feel exposed.

I hear footsteps approaching, so I point my eyes at the grass and don’t move. The sound gets louder. I can feel someone staring at me. I wait until the sound passes and don’t look until it’s far enough away. An old man. Black hat. Crooked back. Probably looking to say hi or talk about the weather. It’s a nice day, but I’m happy I didn’t look. I don’t like talking about nice days.

More steps and I’m studying the grass again. This time really studying—the petals are thin; I can make out bits of movement between them. When I sit up, I realize there’s no point in putting my head down. I might miss the very reason I’m here.

Then a sound from behind me. “Hey there, crazy man.”

I follow the familiar voice to the familiar face. She motions for me to move over. Her blouse is cut pretty short, and I’m thinking of how it will look when she bends to sit. I’m not disappointed. “No rush today?” I ask.

“You tell me.”

I offer a cigarette and watch her slip it into her mouth. She notices, turns to face me and says: “So where exactly are you from?”

“The city,” I tell her. “Upper West Side.”

“And let me guess—you came here to get away.” She laughs quietly, but sees me look at her teeth and then stops. “Or is that one of your secrets?”

“Sounds like you already know my secrets.”

“Just that you aren’t from here,” she says.

“And why I came.”

“Then it sounds like I’m more intuitive than you thought.”

“Actually, I wouldn’t get carried away,” I say, taking it back. “It’s not very hard to spot the new guy, and I’m sure it’s even easier to figure out why he’s here.”

“You sure, crazy man? I’m the new guy too, and you didn’t spot me.” She takes a long drag of the cigarette. The smoke suspends in front of her.

The wind blows it to her face. She doesn’t cough. “Girl, actually. The new girl.”

“I didn’t realize,” I say. “I missed it.”

“Bad start backing yourself up. But you can recover. Go ahead, crazy man, why am I here?”

“If I had to guess,” I say. “I’d bet you’re running from something. Probably a guy.”

“Wrong again, crazy man.” She shakes her head with a slight smile. “Any more guesses?”

I shake my head too.

“Well, actually,” she says, “I was looking for a good place to meet somebody.”

“How did you decide on Saugerties?”

“Because it’s pretty and pretty people usually live in pretty places.”

I give her time for an addendum, but when she doesn’t take it, I ask: “Isn’t there more to it than being in a pretty place?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then what about being pretty?”

“Nope. It’s all you need.”

I hear a crash from the water. There’s a boat mounting at the lighthouse. Two men climb out of it. One of them says something that I can’t hear. No one’s at the terrace.

“So I guess it’s fine to assume that you came here alone?”

“Is that your way of asking if I’m single?”

“Maybe,” I say.

“You can do better than that, crazy man. What do you think?”

“I think if you weren’t single then you wouldn’t be hitting on me.”

She laughs and her head moves with it. The hair falls into her eyes. “Forget what I said before. You were right. There is more to it than being pretty.”


“You need to be aggressive too.”

“Aggressive,” I repeat. “Interesting. I would have thought it’d be intelligent, funny, something like that.”

“Nope,” she says. “Those are nice. But you can’t get anywhere if you’re not aggressive.”

“Aggressive,” I say again. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Don’t just keep it in mind. Keep showing you’ve got it.”

“You think I’ve got it?”

“I know you do.”

“Well, maybe, but there is a problem—”

She leans forward. “Sounds like I might hear another secret.”

“Not at all,” I tell her. “It’s hard enough being aggressive with someone when you don’t know their name.”

“You shouldn’t be worrying about names anyway,” she says. “Names are too important to be rushed.”

“Names are the first thing we get,” I remind her.

“Not true, crazy man. When the name comes we’ve already got everything else. The name comes last.”

“Then what comes first?

“Whatever we want to,” she says. A bird lands on the grass and looks at us. “A movie’s someone else’s, so how about that? We can see what’s playing tonight. Do you have plans?”

“You’re asking me? I thought I was supposed to be the aggressive one?”

“I can be aggressive too, crazy man. Do you have plans or not?”

“No, but—shouldn’t we wait?”

“Stop thinking so hard,” she says and then stands. “You’re acting like you’re new to this.”

“Just out of practice,” I say.

“Then get back into it,” she says. “Show off a little.”

“I’m trying. It’s just that I hardly know you.”

“And unless you want it to stay that way then stand. Otherwise you really are crazy.”

And so I do—though something doesn’t feel right. The good news is that I am taller than her.

She starts walking to Main Street, and I follow slowly. She turns back to me twice. As we turn the corner, she grabs my hand. Hers is cold. Then I see someone following us from across the street. It’s Martha. I walk faster, but so does Martha. She mirrors us on the other side until things start to blur, to shake, soon I can’t see anything. Then I hear a voice, and everything is still.

I walk to the window, look at the creek, and shut the blinds. I pushed my luck. I know I did. But I’ve been here before; if I wait a day or two it’ll come back. I can’t let it go to shit again. Not after all I’ve done. I’ll just take the rest of the day off, and then I’ll have nothing to worry about. I’m still in control. It’s me. Not her. Me. Not her.

The next thing I know I’m in bed with my eyes closed, and entire worlds are starting from three directions in front of me. On one side there are dizzying mountains—hardly salient through a storm. On another there are wide corn fields bouncing off the ground into small hills. On a third there are quiet lakes with red and yellow trees hanging over them like long arms. I can’t believe all this is surrounding me. I start walking closer to the lakes, but then the trees start to shake, and a swarm of macaws emerge. One of them lands on my shoulder. We look at each other, but it takes off. When I look ahead again, the lakes aren’t there. Nothing is. Everything starts to go black. I run to each side but discover I’m trapped. The walls are wet. Water drips onto my head. I scream for help but there isn’t an answer. Then I see a streak of light and walk over to it. It’s blocked by rocks, and despite heaving my entire body against them, they don’t move. I’m too tired to scream. I’m too tired to stop my body from sinking to the floor. Then the ground shakes, and a faint light starts to slide across the black like water. Finally, I’m able to look up. A person stands against the light. I realize its Martha. She disappears into the brightness. I stand and follow, but the light goes away again.
I wake up, take a cold shower, and somehow find myself right where I left off.

“Did you want to eat first?” I suggest.

“Are you hungry?”

“If you are.”

I look across the street again. Everything is still. I take a few short breaths and grab her hand. “We’ll eat,” I say. “Know anything good around here?”

“I’m not the person to ask,” she says.

I nod when I remember. “We’ll find something. Are you up for exploring?”

“Now you’re getting it, crazy man,” she says. “Keep the ideas coming.”
We turn a few corners, but everything we pass is closed. Then I see a little boy walking over. At first I figure he’s heading to someone behind us, his parents, probably—filling obligations with Mom to see Grandma or to go with Dad to the store because the basement light is broken—not the way a little boy wants to spend his day. I feel for him. He walks like the day is dead. I’m ready to meet his eyes when he passes, but when we reach each other, he stops.

“Excuse me,” he says in a quiet voice. “We’re selling lemonade. Twenty five cents for one cup or two cups for fifty cents.”

The boy points to a table at the corner of the sidewalk. There are two girls standing behind it. There are a pile of cups and a pitcher on top of it. One of the girls points to the pitcher.

“Would you like some?” the boy says again. “It’s for a good cause.”

“What’s the cause?” I ask.

“We’re raising money for the library.”

I feel the pressure. “A cup for each of us.”

My hand is free now, so the boy grabs it and leads me over. I drop my change into a little jar, and one of the girls places two cups onto the table. The other fills them with lemonade. It doesn’t taste right.

“Only fifty cents for another two,” the bigger one says.

My head starts to spin, but I nod. The boy smiles at the girls. I put more change into the jar, and she fills the cups again. I can feel the lemonade drop into my stomach. When I put the cup down, I turn back to my date and see Martha instead.

I try to smile at the kids. There’s a voice, but I can’t make it out. I turn my head. The woman is back.

“Are you all right?” she asks.

I nod. “I’m sorry. I thought you were—”

“Thought I was what?”

“Nothing,” I say. “Sorry. Did you want to keep looking for food?”

“Of course. Lemonade isn’t enough for this girl.”

We start walking again. The street is bright. Shadows lay against the sidewalk.

“What about this place?” I ask.

There isn’t an answer. When I turn again, Martha’s there. I quickly look to the floor, close my eyes, and start counting. My eyes open. The woman is back.

“What is it?” she says.

“Nothing,” I say again. “It’s nothing.”

“You can’t tell me that it’s nothing.”

“It is, really it is. But can we skip the food and go straight to the movie, please? I’m not hungry anymore.”

She’s quiet when we start walking. I take her hand and hold it tight. Aggression. A good thing. Aggression. Then I feel it. I know it’s going to be a short night.

There’s a light coming in from the window. The sun has been out for a while. It shines against the creek so the water’s yellow again. I follow it outside.

My hands are cold when I touch the water, and I think of my first night with Martha. I saw the power I had then. I saw what I could do. I saw what she could do. But it still didn’t stop me. And now it doesn’t matter how far I go or how much I write, because she’ll always be there. It’s all the same. She’ll always get in the way. She’ll always come back.

I take a long shower and breathe in short spurts. The water gets into my mouth, but I don’t care. It makes me tired enough to lie in bed, but it’s all like Martha. Martha in the bed. Martha on the floor. Martha at the creek.

A crash causes me to sit up. I run to the window and see someone walking at the far end of the water. A woman. Her back is to me, so I can’t make out the face. Twice she dips her feet into the water.

Even though I’m not dressed, I run to the door and kick it open.

“I know you’re here,” I scream, moving to each side of the yard. I leap over the water and push through the maze of trees. I know what’s coming. A dog starts to bark, but when I stop, and when it stops, everything is silent.

I shuffle inside and go to my desk. I don’t deserve this. Not after all I did. For me. For Martha. I look at the paper. It never comes out like I want it to.

I don’t hear footsteps, so the voice takes me by surprise.

“Long time no see. Where have you been?”

As soon as I see her, I don’t want to tell her. A part of me still thinks it can work.

“I was sick,” I lie. “Caught a bad cold.”

“Still got city nostrils,” she says. “You’ll get over that.”

“I hope.”

She sits. I don’t speak. She turns away. She doesn’t smell like anything today.

“We can try it again, you know. I know that it’s hard.”

“What’s hard?”

“Your secret. Getting over someone. I know what it’s like. I mean, I’ve never really experienced it. But I understand.”

“I’m not getting over anyone,” I say.

“Do you still love her?”

“It’s not like that,” I tell her. “That’s not it.”

“Then what is it, crazy man. Is it me? Not exciting enough for you? No story here? Is it the—”

I try to say no, but I know better by now. I just put my head down until it’s quiet.

There’s a light breeze behind me, rolling down the mountain like little rocks. The sun lies against the river—the same river. So even though I’m more than a hundred miles away from the city, the water across from me is no different. The Hudson followed me, working its way up the valley like I did. I can’t get away from it.

Then a sound to my left and I see something else that I can’t get away from: Martha. She walks to the bench, sees the space next to me and sits.
“You got a smoke?” she says.

I dig my hand into my pocket and nod, handing it over.

“Just like we used to,” she says. She leans in for a light. “Don’t you love that it turns out like this?”

There’s a shadow across the desk. It’s just like I remember it. I rub my finger against it until it moves. Then I feel her head against my shoulder. “Just promise me a happy ending this time. Please?”

Shawn Rubenfeld was a finalist for the 2011 SUNY Thayer Fellowship for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, and for the Patricia Kerr Ross Award. He received the 2010 Vincent Tomaselli Award in Creative Writing and performed archival work on the Ernest Hemingway manuscripts in Boston. He is currently an MFA Fiction student and teaching assistant at the University of Idaho.

The Colored Lens is a quarterly publication featuring short stories and serialized novellas in genres ranging from fantasy, to science fiction, to slipstream or magical realism. By considering what could be, we gain a better understanding of what is. Through our publication, we hope to help readers see the world just a bit differently than before.

If you’ve enjoyed this excerpt from the Autumn 2011 issue of The Colored Lens, you can read the publication in its entirety by downloading it for only $0.99 in e-book format for Kindle or Nook, or you can read a free sample of this issue in your Google Chrome or Safari web browser by clicking here.

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