The Quotable

The Underdog

“All I’m asking is, why? Why? He’s such a nice boy.”

Corrine rolled her eyes and deftly sidestepped Caroline’s rail-thin, barely-scraping-five-foot frame, where she stood on the first carpeted step. Caroline had hoped that the step, lending her extra height, would also somehow infuse her with an authority she seemed at a loss to command on her own these days. Corrine sprinted up the stairs, rounded the corner, and slammed her bedroom door.

From the step, Caroline could see through to the living room where her husband Richard sat, pipe in the corner of his mouth, reading yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. The pipe was not lit. It had not been lit once in the twenty years since Richard’s father had part of his jaw removed due to cancer. Richard still liked to sit with the pipe, though—wiggling it with his tongue, bobbing it up and down to the rhythm of some song he heard playing in his head. When his favorite game show was on, Richard would occasionally remove the pipe from his mouth while he played along, jabbing the pipe in the air when he was right, clamping back down on it if he was wrong.

Caroline stared at her husband, willing him to look up. She wanted to meet his eyes in shared exasperation, hold up her hands, and shrug her shoulders. Kids, she wanted to say. She wanted him to nod in agreement.

As if on cue, Richard turned from the paper just long enough to give a pipe-jab in her direction, and he was gone again.

Later that evening, she had cleaned all but the greasy, crud-encrusted broiler pan when the doorbell rang. Saved by the bell. She let the pan submerge and settle at the bottom of the sudsy water.

“I’ll get it,” she yelled to the silent house as she peeled off her blue William-Sonoma rubber gloves on the way to the foyer. The minute the words escaped her, her lips curled into a smile. Of course she would get it. She always “got it.”

Wretchedness met her when she opened the front door. Jason Yanochko, “Yank” had both his hands stuffed into the back pockets of his Wrangler jeans, his head bent low. He lifted his chin, tilting his face sideways toward the door as Caroline opened it. One red-rimmed brown eye made contact from behind a curtain of sandy blond mop before darting back to the floorboards of the porch. Yank cleared his throat.

Caroline placed a hand to her own throat. She couldn’t stand to see disappointment, always went to great lengths to avoid it. She certainly did whatever she could to avoid being the cause of it. But here it was, in the form of a seventeen-year-old boy on her doorstep, more than disappointment—devastation, desperation. Caroline was not the cause, of course. No, this was Corrine’s doing. Corrine, who was upstairs, unaware, oblivious to the wake she had left behind her.

“Evening, Mrs. Leshko. Is Corrine home?” He appeared to be addressing his sneakers.

“Oh, Yank…” The words came out soft, and the concern in her voice seemed to cause his eyes to fill. She was at a loss here. She had an overwhelming urge to mother him, to pull him to her and smooth his hair. She wanted to tell him that girls could be so cruel. She wanted to tell him to forget that girl; she wasn’t worth it.

But “that girl” was her daughter, a fact Caroline could scarcely believe. Caroline’s cheeks flushed with unnamable emotion—shame, anger? Confusion, Caroline decided—confusion. How had she raised a child to treat another human being so callously, so heartlessly? Caroline would have never been so cold; she had always been kind, almost to a fault. She always rooted for the underdog. Hadn’t she modeled that well enough for Corrine? Maybe this was Caroline’s fault. Her lack in parenting skills, in imparting appropriate values, in instilling compassion had lead to this boy’s pain. Caroline’s own eyes began to fill. She wanted to help him.

She would fix this.

She invited him inside. Richard was in the living room, shouting answers at Alex Trebek. Caroline left Yank lurking near the coat tree by the front door and she dashed up the stairs to rap lightly on Corrine’s door.

“Yank is downstairs.”

“What?” Corrine threw her door wide open. “Mother, what part of ‘broke up’ don’t you understand?”

“Corrine,” Caroline continued quietly, hoping her demeanor would rub off. “He is right downstairs. He can hear you. He just wants to talk.”

Corrine was silent for a moment.

“Tell him to LEAVE!” Corrine spat her last word, an exclamatory slam of her bedroom door for punctuation.

Caroline made her way to the top of the stairs in time to hear the soft click of the front door being pulled gently shut. She knew Yank had gotten the message.

She was surprised to see him again when she answered the doorbell the next night.

“Yank, I don’t think she’ll—”

“I know.” He said, pulling a folded up wad of notebook paper from his back pocket. “Will you just give this to her? Please?”

Later, Caroline found the notebook paper crumpled in the bottom of Corrine’s trash bin. She knew she shouldn’t, but she couldn’t help herself; Caroline plucked the note from the bin and carefully stretched the paper open, grasping it from opposite corners, her index fingers and thumbs forming pincers. She was careful not to pull the paper too flat, so that when she was done reading, she could allow it to relax back into its original crinkled state.

The paper held poetry—bad, sad, teenage boy poetry. While the awkward rhythms, the strained structures, and the overly flowery sentiments caused her to cringe, Caroline could not help but be moved by Yank’s earnestness, his open-heartedness. She re-read the note, soaking in its sweetness, before allowing it to re-curl, squishing it tight, and replacing it cautiously amid Corrine’s refuse.

Two days later Yank was back again, with another folded wad of notebook paper. This time, Corrine didn’t even make a pretense of reading it. She refused to take the paper from her mother’s hand.

“Toss it,” Corrine lobbed over her shoulder, as she grabbed a Diet Coke from the fridge and muttered something derisive to one of her friends on the other end of her cell phone.

Bitch, Caroline thought, and then felt dizzy.

Caroline waited until she was alone in her bedroom that night. Corrine was texting away under the covers in her own room. Richard was snoring it up in the guest room, again. Allergies, he had said; he didn’t want to disturb her. She knew no one would interrupt her, but just the same, Caroline unfolded the note very quietly.

It was more poetry, of course. Surely as bad as the first, but she read it over and over as though it were Yeats, or Browning, or Shakespeare. It brought tears to her eyes.

“Yank,” she said when he came to the door the next evening, “Sweetie, she didn’t even read the last one.” Caroline said it as gently as she could.

He didn’t retract his hand, holding out yet another wad of notebook paper.

“Did you read it?” he asked.

Caroline hesitated. She didn’t want to embarrass him. She didn’t want to seem disrespectful, intrusive. She didn’t want to lie…

“It was lovely,” she finally said.

“Well,” he said, “then you can read this one, too.”

He extended his hand toward her, and she took the note.

Caroline took his note the next night, too, and the next. They developed a ritual, of sorts: he would ring the bell and she would answer the door, standing above him in the doorway as he handed up a new poem. She would tell him the last was beautiful, or moving, or some other adjective to buoy his self-esteem. He would blush, duck his head, cram his hands in his back pockets and shuffle back to his thirteen year old Honda del Sol with the primed hood and two different colored doors.

She wasn’t sure that it was the right thing to do, but his pain was so raw, his love so pure. And he seemed so genuinely appreciative. This was how she could help.

“Corrine isn’t home.” Caroline told him the evening that he asked to come in.

“I know,” he said, “She’s at the bonfire. I was hoping to talk to you.”

Caroline brightened. She was touched; honored to be sought out.

“I’m just finishing the washing-up.” She stepped back and opened the door wider so he could pass by.

“I’ll help you.” He smiled at her, his eyes gazing straight into hers for a moment, for the first time, she realized, since this all began.

This. The word surprised her. They didn’t have a “this.” Did they? She felt a flutter in her chest.

Richard wasn’t home. Did that matter?

She shook her head. Oh for crying out loud. I’m old enough to be his mother. But words like cougar, and Mrs. Robinson, and Coo, coo, ca-choo buzzed in her ears like a swarm of angry yellow jackets.

Caroline had certainly never thought about Yank in that way. But she surprised herself when she didn’t put the chunky rubber gloves back on. She allowed her hands to slip, unprotected, into the tepid soapy dishwater.

It wasn’t long before Yank’s hand brushed against hers as she handed him a glass to dry. It could have been innocent, but she knew it wasn’t. She should have dried her hands on the dishtowel and told him to leave, but she didn’t. She couldn’t explain it, the thing that had come over her. She was… curious, the only word that came to her, inadequate as it was. She looked up, knowing that she shouldn’t, but powerless, or maybe unwilling, to do anything else.

Curiosity killed the cat…

His kiss was serious—gentle, with a hovering hesitancy. Their lips barely touched. Lightly, repetitively, almost rhythmically, he brushed her lips with his. Not really a kiss at all… More like a soft, quiet “no, no, no” that was building steadily toward “yes.”

Before she could stop him, before she could fill her lungs, gather her thoughts, to speak, to scold him, to shout, “Inappropriate!” he stepped back from her.

“You are so pretty,” he said. “So delicate.” He smoothed a graying strand of reddish blond hair from her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. “You shouldn’t look so sad all the time.”

She took his smile as some sort of apology as he backed away from her and turned to the door. His hands were tucked into his back pockets as usual.

Caroline steadied herself for a moment with a hand on the kitchen counter. When her heart had slowed, when her breath returned, when she thought that perhaps her knees might manage it, she drifted to the mirror in the foyer. Did she really look sad?

Tired. She definitely looked tired—and a little gray, not just her hair. She raised her fingertips to trace the path Yank’s had taken across her cheek, found the loose strand of hair and twisted it around her index finger.

Pretty, Yank said… and delicate.

She stepped closer to the mirror, studying her image with a detached consideration, an impersonal intensity. Richard had once said, long, long, ago, that he couldn’t tell if she was the happiest sad girl he knew, or the saddest happy girl. She had tried to cultivate the “happy.” Crying at herself in the mirror, now, she began to laugh.

“Something’s different,” Richard said later, leaning his golf clubs against the wall. “Did you do something to your hair?”

“No,” she said, running her fingers through the length of it. “Brushed it,” she smiled, aware of a pleasurable discomfort as he scrutinized her face, trying to put his finger on the change. She felt color rush to her cheeks.

Satisfaction brought it back…

“Hmmm,” Richard tilted his head, puzzled, but also apparently charmed. He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her into a strong, deep kiss.

“Corrine isn’t home?” he asked, their lips parting just enough for the words.

Caroline shook her head. Richard brought her hand up to his mouth and kissed it.

“Come on,” he said, leading her toward the hallway. “Jeopardy’s almost on.”

As Caroline settled onto the sofa, opposite Richard’s recliner, she was thinking about satisfied cats and writing poetry, of wild, far-flung affairs and quiet moments at home. She wondered if the doorbell would ring the next evening. And if it did, would she answer it? And then, when Richard jabbed his pipe at her, she tossed him the remote.


Alicia Dekker was once Princess of Lalaland, but she abdicated the throne to pursue her one and only dream of becoming a fire-eating tightrope walker, only to discover she was allergic to charcoal. Naturally, she turned to writing for solace. She uses only #2 graphite pencils, made with recycled wood.

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