A Modest Proposal

In Issue 65 by Stephen Weiss

A Modest Proposal

Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

The sun had yet to reach its zenith in the cobalt-blue Iowa sky when they circled the cloverleaf onto I-80 West. Tess checked their progress on her iPhone Maps function and tried to decipher their final destination. She followed the interstate westward and saw Iowa City appear on the screen along with an icon for the University of Iowa.

“Looks like we’re heading into Hawkeye country,” Tess said.

“Yep.”

“I was born in Iowa City.” Tess waited for her mother to respond. “And will we be stopping?”

“Nope.”

Again, Tess waited, but no explanation was forthcoming. Her mother wasn’t giving anything away.

“You’re insufferable,” Tess said. She crossed her arms and stared out the window. A large red-tailed hawk perched on a green road sign ruffled its feathers as they flew by. It was so aggravating not knowing where they were heading or when they would get there.

“Too many memories…” her mother began to say before clamming up.

“Is that why we didn’t visit Dad’s grave?” Her father was buried at a family plot alongside many of his mother’s relatives somewhere back in Davenport. Tessa’s most prominent memory of his funeral was her mother’s tear-streaked face, and the rose she dropped into the ground at the end of the ceremony.

“We’ve spent too much time in cemeteries,” Mrs. Bell answered.

“Kinda like Dumbledore’s Mirror of Erised,” Tess said. “Men would waste away before it.” Tess had read all the Harry Potter books and was anxiously awaiting the final installment, but her mother had only seen the movies.

“Didn’t Harry see his dead parents?” her mother asked.

“Standing beside him,” Tess answered. “It showed his heart’s deepest desire.”

“Erised is desire spelled backwards, right?”

“Took me forever to figure that out.”

“I must have read it in your diary.”

“Not funny, Mom.” Tess still hadn’t gotten over the violation of her privacy on that fateful night when she snuck out of the house and got completely wasted before her mother could find her.

“Oh, lighten up. I was only kidding.”

“I’m sorry,” Tess said. She was so used to fighting with her mother and taking offense at every provocation. “I guess old habits die hard.”

Her mother glanced over at her and smiled. “What would you see in the mirror?” she asked.

Tess hesitated for a moment and imagined staring into the ornate golden Mirror of Erised. “I really don’t know what…”

But before she could complete her thought, the image of Cole standing next to her at the altar sprang unbidden into her mind’s eye. He was dressed in a tuxedo and looking nervous as hell. Tess bit her lip and felt her cheeks grow warm. She checked her phone for a signal, but they were passing through another dead zone. Every damn time she wanted to contact Cole, there was an unforeseen impediment. It felt like the universe was conspiring to keep them apart.

***

For several miles, Mrs. Bell couldn’t get the thought out of her head. What was her heart’s deepest desire? It shouldn’t be that difficult a question. Did she wish her own parents were still alive, standing by her side? Or would it be her dead husband’s face appearing in that hypothetical mirror? She couldn’t be sure.

As they approached the first Iowa City exit, the only image she could summon up was the ghastly eight-and-a-half-foot-tall Black Angel that haunted the Oakland Cemetery. Mrs. Bell never wanted to get anywhere near that specter again. Tessa’s father had taken her to see the monument on the night he uncovered her plan to terminate her pregnancy. The memory elicited a shiver down the back of her neck.

“Where are we going?” she had asked. His silence was unnerving. She knew he was up to something sinister.

They drove through the empty streets of Iowa City in his grandmother’s hand-me-down station wagon. The heater barely made a dent in the freezing midnight air. Their breath formed frost on the windshield, which he scraped off vigorously with his student ID card. He turned the car into an unfamiliar neighborhood and parked on a side street facing a rod iron fence half buried under a mound of plowed snow. Exiting the car, he jogged across the street, clambered up the ridge of heaped-up snow, and signaled her to follow with a wave of his arm. Quietly, she obeyed, until he lifted her up beside him, and she saw the evenly spaced tombstones arising from the snow on the other side of the fence.

“I’m not going in there,” she whispered. “That’s trespassing.”

“Trust me, you’re gonna want to see this.” He jumped to the other side and reached up to help her over. “Don’t chicken out now.”

“I’m gonna regret this.” She swung her feet over the fence, and he grabbed her waist to ease her down.

“It’s over this way, I think.”

“You think?”

“I just have to catch my bearings.” He looked up at the overcast sky that hung like a blanket over the naked tree branches and started trudging through the ankle-deep crust of snow. In the distance, a large, dark shadow began to take shape.

“We’re stepping on people’s graves,” she said.

“It’s just a little farther.”

“I don’t like this place.” She wasn’t sure if her chills were from the cold February air or fear of the massive monument rising from the frozen ground.

“There she is,” he whispered. “The Black Angel.”

“I want to go home.” She tugged on his wrist, but he pulled away and stood in front of the statue with an outstretched arm like a tour guide.

“There are many myths and legends about the Black Angel,” he began. “She was commissioned by a grieving mother to watch over and protect her dead child, but when the bronze statue turned black, rumors swirled that the mother had killed the child. Then stories began to arise about a curse. Anyone who kissed the statue would meet an untimely death.” He stepped closer to the base of the monument and gazed up at it in wonder.

“Okay. You’ve had your fun,” she said. “Now take me home. You know how freaked out I get about things like this.” Her feet were ice-cold, and her toes were turning numb.

“The fun is just beginning.” He reached into his coat and pulled out what looked like a plastic thermometer. “I found this in the bathroom garbage can wrapped up in toilet paper.”

Immediately, she recognized the positive pregnancy test strip and damned her careless disposal of the evidence. “Oh my God, I can explain,” she answered. “It’s not mine.”

“Don’t lie to me!” His voice echoed in the stillness and reverberated off the granite headstones. “And the three hundred dollars you took out of our account?”

“It’s to help a friend.” She couldn’t look him in the eye.

“I won’t let you do it.” He shook his head side to side, and plumes of expired breath clouded his face.

“It’s not your choice.”

“The hell it isn’t.”

“You can’t make me…”

“The hell I can’t.” His voice cracked like he was about to cry. He punched the side of his fist against the Black Angel’s leg, and snow fell from the back of her outstretched wing.

“Take me home.” She buried her chin inside her coat and crossed her arms tightly.

“Not yet.”

He regained his composure and took a deep breath before resuming his tour guide spiel. “There’s another curse attributed to our avenging angel. If a pregnant woman walks beneath her outstretched wing, she will have a miscarriage. So, step right up if that’s your intention. Walk beneath her wing. And I will plant a big kiss right on her lips.”

“I’m not getting anywhere near that thing.”

“Then you leave me no choice.”

“Don’t you go near that thing, either.”

Again, he reached into his coat pocket, but this time he pulled out a small box and dropped down on his knees like a repentant sinner. He took off his gloves, opened the box, and held out a solitaire diamond ring that captured what little light reflected off the snow. “This belonged to my great-grandmother.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” she said.

“I know we’re dead broke, and I’m up to my ass in student loans, but I can’t help that right now.”

“This has got to be the worst proposal in the history of wedding proposals.” She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

He paused, frozen in silence for several seconds, before whispering, “Marry me.” His hand was trembling. Even in the darkness, she could see the solemnity in his eyes.

“Not like this.” She stepped back and punched herself in the stomach. “Not like this!”

“We can make it work,” he said, rising to his feet.

“Everyone will think I trapped you.”

“Everyone who matters knows that I’ve loved you for as long as I can remember.”

“You love your books more than you love me.” She resented all the time he spent studying instead of paying attention to her. He was finishing up his senior year at the University of Iowa’s Medical School, and when he wasn’t busting his butt on the hospital wards, his nose was buried deep in one of his textbooks.

“You know that’s not true.”

“I’m not ready to be a mother.”

“A little late for that.”

“No, it’s not.” Though she had been raised to respect the sanctity of life, her Catholic beliefs crumbled under the weight of an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock. This sort of thing happened to other people—not her. The decision to terminate the pregnancy was instantaneous and final, the sooner the better. There was no need for debate.

“I won’t let you do it,” he repeated.

“It’s my body!” she shouted. “You can’t stop me.”

“Oh, yeah?” he shouted back and stuck his finger in her face. “I’ll tell your parents.”

It was his trump card, and she knew it was no idle threat. He was fully capable of destroying her life to get his way—manipulative bastard. If her parents found out she was pregnant and planning an abortion, she would never be able to face them again. Even her mother, who had always stood by her side, would never forgive the loss of a coveted grandchild.

“Checkmate,” he said. He knew he’d won.

“Fine.” She spun around without taking the ring, stomped back to the car following their footprints in the snow, and scaled the fence without his help. The next day, she cancelled the clinic appointment. A few weeks later, they were married in a private ceremony. And their fates were sealed.

There was no honeymoon, and her wonderful, new husband quickly lived up to her diminished expectations. He wasn’t there for her during the pregnancy, and when her mother died after a prolonged battle with breast cancer, he failed to be supportive. “Why are you acting so upset?” he had chastised her. “It’s not like you didn’t know this was going to happen.” She never forgave him for his cold indifference in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death. Despite the child growing inside her, she had never felt more alone.

Every annoyance of being pregnant, every wave of pain during her eight hours of labor, and every minute of lost sleep that she suffered in the ensuing year, she blamed on her husband. She had never wanted to have children and could not imagine herself as a mother. How could she raise a child when she couldn’t even manage her own life?

But little Tess proved to be just as persistent as her father. Slowly she worked her magic and ever so gradually transformed Mrs. Bell into a caring and loving mother. By the time Tess was six months old, Mrs. Bell could not imagine life without her daughter and focused all her energy on Tessa’s well-being. The worst thing imaginable would be to lose her daughter. The maternal bond grew so strong it became almost pathologic.

While her husband slaved his way through his medical residency, Mrs. Bell raised Tess mostly on her own. When she complained that she felt like a single mother, he joked that motherhood was like an unpaid eighteen-year residency. She didn’t see the humor in his observation. He promised that once he was in private practice, it would get better, and they’d do more family things together—but she knew it was just another empty promise.

Truly, her marriage had been no bed of roses. Her husband’s mental abuse, whether intentional or not, left her feeling as beaten down as any physical attack. Words were his weapons; silence her only defense. Though she didn’t want to disillusion Tess of her hero worship, Mrs. Bell knew that he was inherently flawed and—had he lived—would have never lived up to his own elevated expectations for himself. If there was any honor or meaning in his intellectual sacrifices, she could not perceive it. Not one of his accomplishments brought him any closer to happiness, and he was never satisfied with success. There was always another goal, another ambition, and death was his only reward. All the wisdom of the world gleaned from all the books in his library could not answer the fundamental questions that tortured his soul, and whatever faith he possessed seemed misguided. He was a spiritual vacuum—empty and cold—and she was never able to fill that void.

And yet, Mrs. Bell would do it all over again for Tess. Her husband had been right about that: Tess was living proof that they belonged together. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health…until death do us part.

Mrs. Bell turned and looked at her daughter’s profile staring out the car window, lip-syncing to the tinny music escaping from the earphones of her iPod. The pale scar on Tessa’s cheek was a constant reminder of all that they had been through.

“I know what I’d see in the Mirror of Erised,” Mrs. Bell announced. “I’d see your happy, smiling face.”

“What?” Tess pulled out her earphones. “Did you say something?”

“Nah, just talking to myself.” She patted Tessa’s thigh. “Go back to your music.”

About the Author

Stephen Weiss

Stephen G. Weiss II has a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an MFA in creative writing from Stetson University, as well as an MD. He is a practicing urologic surgeon in Florida, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Weiss has studied with Mark Powell, Angie Cruz, and Chantel Acevedo, and has attended numerous writing workshops and conferences, including the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop, Kurt Vonnegut Symposium, the Iowa Writers’ Summer Workshop, Other Words Literary Conference, Pat Conroy Literary Conference, and AWP. When not writing or practicing medicine, he enjoys fishing, fantasy football, disc golf, and Basenjis. Weiss writes using the pen name S.W. Gordon. His work has appeared in Dash Literary Journal, Edison Literary Review, Evening Street Review, Five on the Fifth, Ghostlight: The Magazine of Terror, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Off the Coast, The Opiate, Penmen Review, Roanoke Rambler, and Streetlight Magazine.