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Today's Story by J. Linn Allen

He’d been working for the Beacon Messenger only a couple of months, glad to get some kind of job after he’d been laid off from the bankrupt Chicago Tribune.


There’s nothing more unnatural than insulation, pink fibrous stuffing that spreads indestructibly to catch on grass, trees and swing sets or squats in the cups of tulips and daffodils. Ted runs his hand through his lank, unwashed hair to probe for stray bits.

People huddle in their yards among houses squashed like beer cans ready for recycling. He would rather interview the insulation. What house did you come from? What were you doing when the tornado hit? Where will you go? Insulation wouldn’t notice the bloat and floridity, the spidery eyes, the hard, prickly sweat, the edgy voice that sounded like it came from behind him. Each hangover is the worst ever. On the highway there he’d pulled over to plunge from the car and vomit on a fringe of loosestrife, spattering the tight purple buds.

Molly had confronted him. He’d seen it coming for at least a month. Over greasy fried chicken with too much pepper – what is it with Midwest towns and pepper? – and iceberg lettuce and hothouse tomato salad with bright orange Kraft dressing. Molly consumed a small, measured portion. Ruby, sensing tension, ate nothing. Ted gorged, fighting depletion. Against his better judgment he liked pepper, grease and sweet dressing.

“Go play.”

Ruby swung her long black hair her mom’s way. “Can I play Farmville on Facebook?”

“Okay. Don’t buy anything.”

Ruby said bye to Ted, flattening her lower lip slyly against her upper teeth, and ran out of the room.

“Aliens are stealing our young,” he said.

“Who are we?” Molly lifted her pointed chin abruptly to shift the mood.

Ted squinted. “That’s the big we?”

“We’ve been together for10 months and 6 days. You’ve been coming over here, eating my meals, playing with my daughter, reading her stories and sleeping in my bed and” – stage whisper here – “fucking me and I ask myself where is this going? I think that’s reasonable.”

Ted tipped up his Red Stripe and glugged. “No question.”


“This is sudden.”

“How many days more than 10 months and 6 would make it not sudden?”

“I don’t know if there’s a rule exactly.”


Ted rewinds the replay further back as he shoulders his backpack and crosses a lawn, careful not to step on a spoon and a pillow, to speak to one of the captives penned by incalculable loss. His roiling stomach fills him with empathy.

He and Molly had met at a church choir rehearsal. He’d been working for the Beacon Messenger only a couple of months, glad to get some kind of job after he’d been laid off from the bankrupt Chicago Tribune, grateful to a former Trib colleague who’d become editor there for helping him out. But there wasn’t much for a divorced 40-year-old in the small Indiana city except drinking and church, and he needed an occasional break from the former, especially since his old buddy was losing patience with his coming in late all the time.

“You were staring at my tits,” she had said in the parking lot after rehearsal.

“It’s all I’ve got to go on. When I know you more as a person I’ll stop.”

“I’m Molly Graham. Is that enough of a person?”

“I was actually staring at your straining throat as you sang more than your heaving bosom.”

“But that too.”

“I confess. I’m Ted Fulham.  That’s my person name.”

Molly is narrow and lithe with short black hair nicked with rust, a jutting yet delicate jaw and a wide mouth than promises and often delivers the unexpected. She radiates a brisk confidence that must be reassuring to her students at Franklin County Community College, where she teaches Bridge (formerly Remedial) English. It also seems to reassure 8-year-old Ruby, whom she’s raised since she and her high school boyfriend got divorced two years ago. He sells Chevvies out by the Overland Mall, many to cops, because his dad was deputy police chief before driving his Malibu into a quarry. Ted suspects Leland Graham beat Molly up a few times. The world is full of mean drunks. Ted knows a few, might be one himself, if you ask his ex-wife. But he’d never hit her, though he’d broken a few knickknacks.

The first time Ted and Molly made love, he wasn’t sure what to expect.  She was so wary and challenging. But she responded to him immediately, and the texture of her skin was a constant surprise – slippery but permeable, warm marble you could sink your fingers into. She seemed to yield and resist simultaneously, hurling herself at him and drawing back. Afterwards, her cheeks were wet. He was alarmed and exultant.

“Sorry. It’s my first time since the divorce,” she’d said, staring at the ceiling.

He braces himself for work.

“Is your family okay?” Ted asks the woman standing on her front lawn, which is rubble dusted and studded with pink fluff but otherwise relatively uncluttered with debris. She is Angela Saturday, 48, an assistant at a day care center, he writes in his notebook.

“My husband and my son were both out like always. I was talking to my sister in Indianapolis. I heard this noise like when there’s a horror movie with the sound too loud and I said, ‘Excuse me, Grace, I think it’s a tornado’ and I ran down to the basement. I was so scared.”

Ted looks at her one-story brick ranch. The roof and two walls have been stripped away and deposited in the rear, a strangely compact pile of tile, brick and drywall as if delivered for prefab construction. The living room is an exposed stage on which a gray-haired man sits on a blue sofa and a younger man in a matching chair.

“We’re waiting for the insurance,” Angela says. “They shouldn’t really be in there. It’s probably not safe.”

Ted knows walks over to the house to talk to the father and son. On his way he resumes the previous night.

Ted has finally said to Molly, “This isn’t my life.”

“What is your life? Swimming around in your old muck?”

“Yeah. That’s it exactly.” Bitter but proud, his tonic chord.

“I’m feeling really sorry for you. Meanwhile I’ve got my own life.”

“Go ahead with it.”

There’s the decision box, right in front of her. Molly stares at it, chin on her fist, as if the box were square in the center of the kitchen table. “Okay. Go now.”

“Molly, I’m trying.”



The older man looks over from his armchair, face closed as a rock. “You’re not the insurance. You can’t come in here.”

“Okay.  Can I talk to you out here?”

“I suppose.” Al Saturday, 52, bakery truck driver.

“Why are you sitting there?”

“Where you expect me to be? Till Greg Sowacky gets here with a check I have no place else to go. He’s the insurance.”

“Is it safe?”

“Why not? Everything’s fallen that’s gonna fall. Anyway I’m not leaving. Sheriff already tried.”

“Are you protecting the house?”

Al laughed. “You see anything here worth protecting? Hell with all of it. It’s just a check to me.”

“Don’t tell him that. He’s a reporter.” Angela has come up behind Ted.

“I know who the hell he is. I’m not going to lie. We’re getting out of here soon as Greg Sowacky comes by. Till then I stay put.”

Angela starts weeping and goes back across the yard to the street. Ted finds his little videocam in his backpack. “You mind?”

“Go ahead,” says Al. The son, Eddie, 22, unemployed house painter, stares into the camera.

After leaving Molly’s Ted went to the Filling Station, a bar on the south end of town near the auto parts plant that closed a couple of years before. There were usually guys there around his age who had lost their jobs, which soothed his spirit, as did the barmaid, a woman with black curly hair, chubby cheeks, and blue grey eyes that bugged out amiably. Once he had his beer the rationalizations could begin. He’d already fucked up one life. That’s all you get, right? After a couple of hours he persuaded himself his life could stop right there, incapable of causing further harm.

“You’re full of shit, mister. Why would anyone leave that to come here?”

That from Greg or Gary, who was unsympathetic to Ted’s account of the perfect life he’d wrecked in Chicago, the great job, the gorgeous wife, the big apartment near the lake.

“That’s the black hole, isn’t it? Cursed from birth, same as everyone. You want another one?”

“I’ve had enough. So have you.”

“Exactly.” Ted turned back to the giant blue-gray globes of the barmaid.

The call from the paper had come at 6 and it’s past noon now and Ted is feeling more upright and interviews other victims and the cops. He’s pretty sure of angle with the Saturdays, wiped to randomness like the pink fluff. He calls the editor and tells him he’ll shoot over the story and upload the video in a few hours. Two hours max, his friend tells him. The website’s waiting.

He stops at the Bringer Inn on the highway back from the town where the tornado hit, and has a beer and burger in the almost empty roadhouse. He writes his story and files the pictures in the quiet gloom. The work steadies him and he feels better than he had all day. He’s done a good job. Maybe this will buy him some slack.

He recalls one Sunday a few weeks back he’d taken Molly and Ruby to Parsippany State Park. He’d stopped drinking for a month, not taken a pledge, just slowed down to a stop. Ruby grabbed his hand and took him to look for frogs on the banks of White Lake, a ghostly expanse with a fat, metallic shimmer like mercury.

“It looks unnatural,” said Ted.

“When I was a kid there were stories about people seeing spirits in the mist over the lake,” said Molly.

“Are there really ghosts?” asked Ruby.

“I think it’s some kind of phosphorescence maybe. It’s just an ordinary lake,” said Molly.

“What’s phosphorescence?” asked Ruby.

“A kind of glow that comes from rotting stuff in the marsh at the end of the lake,” said Molly.

“Gross,” said Ruby.

When they picnicked Ruby sat in Ted’s lap and tried to steal his sandwich. “Do you love Mommy?” she asked.

“Ruby, stop,” said Molly. Ted smiled at Ruby and winked.

“Ha,” Ruby said.

He’d started drinking again shortly after that. The sense of unreality had started filling him, like a dryness that made things flat. Like sitting in your house with the walls peeled back and the insulation pasted all around.

He thinks about having another beer before driving back, but he really wants now is a shower and a nap. Maybe he can make choir practice tonight. The words of a gospel hymn worm through his head: “Grateful, grateful, grateful, gratefulness….” He wants to see Molly once more, straining neck, slippery skin, lifted chin and all.

But when he wakes up it’s almost 8, and practice started at 7:30. He could still go. People do come late. He’d feel stupid, but he has a real choice here.


J. Linn Allen is a former journalism teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and have had stories in publications including Long Story Short, ThievesJargon, Hamilton Stone Review, Taj Mahal Review and Green Silk Journal.


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