Norman and Marsha Breckenridge live alone. They have been retired for ten years, and in their small Ohio house, older even than they have become, they have accepted sagging skin on sagging bodies, the slow dwindle of strength and endurance and sex, the effort and time they must invest in simply rising from a chair. With worsening odors from the bathroom, sour breath and bitter tongues in the morning, with words on distant signs a blur, voices muted even close to the ear, fingers no longer nimble enough to safely trim hair or beard, with the staircase now not often worth the ten minutes and sore knees and return trip, with days and weeks they never leave the house, they have made their peace.
With Luke, their forty-five-year-old son, who only recently became their son, who until a year ago was their daughter Linda, peace remains elusive. He has long whiskers like his father now, a deeper voice, a simpler wardrobe, a happier face. Strangers and former friends alike greet him at work, at the store, on the sidewalk, with confusion, occasionally fear. He has nightmares. He has started attending a different church, one he calls a Friends Meeting and a Safe Place. He can speak his mind around Norman and Marsha to a certain extent, but does not know what questions they keep silent. He has encouraged them to voice their uneasy concerns, so he can assuage their confusion, their heartbreak.
On the summer Saturday that he first told them, after picking up their groceries for them as usual, and before beginning what he religiously referred to as “the transition,” he knocked on their door, then still their daughter, and still with the body of a daughter, the hair, the full chest and smooth voice, but without the clothes of daughters, shed for those less aligned with men or women: sweaters, jeans, white sneakers. Norman and Marsha let their daughter in, and he sat on a couch, and he let the sunlight soak into him before he spoke. Of therapy, of how he’d used to think he wanted to be a man, of how he then realized he already was one.
Norman and Marsha sat, listening to Linda confess his secrets.
Norman said, “You’re my daughter. You’ve always been my daughter.”
Marsha said, “I don’t understand.”
“I know it’s hard to make sense of,” said Linda. “But my body isn’t me. I’m going to change my body to match who I am. There are injections I can take.”
Norman shook his head, his voice trembling. “But what about us? Why would you do this to us?”
Linda grew quiet, and drew his knees close.
“This is nonsense,” Norman said.
Marsha touched his arm. “Norm, you’re hurting her.”
Norman closed his mouth. Marsha went to Linda and sat next to him. She held his hand. “I don’t understand this,” she said. “What did your doctor tell you?”
“This isn’t just my therapist,” said Linda. “This is me.”
When Linda left, Norman and Marsha were alone again, and held each other. They took the groceries to the kitchen, and as they put cold food in the fridge and dry goods in the cabinets, Norman said, “Maybe it’s another trial.” Some years before, Norman’s sister had gotten breast cancer, and had lived. He had named it a trial then, and still did so. “God puts his loved ones through trials. We can’t escape it.”
“Linda is our own loved one,” Marsha said. “I love Linda.”
“So do I.”
They folded the empty paper bags and stored them in a drawer. They returned to the living room and sat on the couch, where Norman read a history magazine. Marsha picked up a pen to finish writing a letter to a friend, and found herself describing Linda as a newborn, recounting the strange mix of joy and exhaustion she had as she held her tiny, sleeping daughter so many decades ago, looking out the hospital window into a different world.
A few weeks later Linda cut his hair and again dropped off groceries for his parents. He told them that when he would begin his injections, or earlier if they felt like it, he would appreciate for them to start calling him Luke.
“You should know I’ll start to look different,” he said. “My voice will change. I’ll grow a beard. Later on I plan to have surgery.”
“Surgery?” Norman said. He had been squeezing his hands in the crooks of his elbows more tightly with every word, and could not stop himself. “What are they going to do?”
Luke’s eyes looked for something in his father’s. Norman waited.
“The first is a mastectomy,” Luke said. “Then they’ll shape my chest to be more like a man’s. But I need to wait and see how the injections go.”
Marsha listened, watching her fingers make shaky but careful needlepoint stitches, and felt her lips press hard together of their own will. She heard the words, but would not let them enter, would not let her mind see their images.
“You’ve been given the body of a woman,” Norman said. “As a gift. God gave us a little girl.”
Luke said, “I’m not making a mistake. My body demands this.”
Norman scratched his beard. He looked to Marsha for help, and she continued stitching, deep lines fanning out from her mouth and between her eyebrows.
Norman said, “Linda. Marsha picked the name. I guess it’s not good enough now.”
“Luke doesn’t sound so different,” Luke said. “I like the name. The Gospel of Luke was written by a doctor, and doctors are the ones writing out my new body.”
“Don’t get smart,” Norman said. “As if what you’re doing is praiseworthy. What do you think Don would say about this? If he knew.” Don was Norman and Marsha’s preacher. He spoke often of duty, and roles. Norman had tried to tell him, and had been too ashamed.
“Norman,” said Marsha, her face old and rigid. “You’re getting angry.”
“Some anger is righteous.”
“Most isn’t.” She stopped stitching and turned to her daughter. Her child. “Linda. Or Luke. I think what Norman means,” and here she looked askance at him, “is that forty years is a long time to get used to having a daughter. And we both love having a daughter.”
Norman crossed his arms and tucked his chin down. “I don’t need you interpreting for me.”
“You both still have me,” Luke said.
The injections began, and soon Norman and Marsha couldn’t recognize their child’s body as female or male. His voice dropped, but retained some higher range. Hair on his face grew long, but thin so that his chin still showed. He no longer wore a brassiere, but his chest was still a woman’s. One day after Luke left, Norman cried into his wife’s arms.
“My daughter is gone,” he said. “She can never come back.”
Marsha kept many words inside. As much as she wished for more compassion from Norman, she could no longer bond with Linda, with Luke, in the way a mother bonds with daughters, womanhood and a woman’s body a trait no longer shared, or fully shared, and Luke now lived in a place neither Norman nor Marsha had ever been. Marsha had watched her own body’s long decline from strong, supple, and young, into the sore and shrunken form it took now. All bodies would break to nothing, and this she had come to accept. She feared, instead, for the death of filial love, never as now so likely to find flesh outliving it.
When Luke visited, they always let him in, but could no longer greet him at the door with any enthusiasm, with any cheer. His arrival was a weight, like the bouts of cold winter wind that kept the landscape barren and the windows closed tight, days that needed to be weathered, and kept Norman and Marsha huddled in the kitchen for the warmth of the stove.
The longer Luke took the injections, the more he spoke of surgery. Not only of the chest, but of others that were possible, though he couldn’t afford them, that would transform his lower half as well into a man’s. “Those are very complicated,” he said during another of his many visits. Norman and Marsha listened, quietly. “I would be in and out of the hospital for months, or longer.” He said he would be satisfied, for now at least, with the operation he was soon planning to schedule. If more money came to him in the future, he might go on to others. “But transforming my body could continue for a lifetime if I let it. I might just tire out before then.”
Marsha nodded, and Norman stared at the floor, his hands clasped around his belly.
When they were in bed, the room dark, Norman was on his back, and could almost see the wooden cross above their headboard. “No one will love her,” he told Marsha. “She might be happy, somehow, with maiming herself, but people will never stop shunning her. These things are permanent, and she might want to change back.”
“You can doubt and stir up your demons if you want,” Marsha said. She lay on her side, facing away from her husband. “But that doesn’t help our child—or us—get through this.”
“Are you afraid to call her ‘Luke’ when we’re alone?”
“Daughter or son. Doesn’t make a bit of difference now. I will not moan and groan in despair.”
“If anything warrants despair, it’s the loss of a soul. It’s out of shame I haven’t said anything to Don. He said on Sunday that the body is a temple, and it’s the duty of all of us, whether man or woman—”
“The duty of a mother is to love her child.”
“How about of a child to love her father?”
“The humble man I married so long ago wouldn’t presume such certainty of things he knows little about.”
Norman closed his eyes. “I know about family.”
“You know everything about it, I’m sure.”
They lay in the dark, not touching.
Luke pushed forward with his operation plans, and some days later Norman and Marsha took a taxi to the hospital to see how he was doing afterward. He had told them it proceeded in several steps, and he would be there a couple of days. He had found a specialist at a hospital in Columbus, almost an hour ride from their town, and flat farms passed by the windows of their taxi the whole way, every field so alike the car never seemed to make progress.
Luke was asleep when they reached his room, his chest cut and flattened into its own earthy field, bandaged like a deep wound, and Norman and Marsha, on seeing their son in this state, began to weep at how different things were, and at the overwhelming weakness enclosing Luke. They didn’t wake him, but sat and watched him breathe and rest. No words passed between husband and wife, the pressure of their linked hands carrying all they would have said.
When Luke woke, they went to his side. Norman and Marsha assured him of their wishes that he would soon be well. Luke, hearing them, smiled broadly, and told them although things weren’t yet finished, and although he could barely move from the trauma of surgery, already he felt relief and release from his old body. “I don’t feel like I’m in a new one,” he said, “but I can see myself walking a dirt road in my mind. It’s good to be walking.”
Norman and Marsha listened to his joy. The doctors and therapists had all said pain would soon follow, but none entered the room.
Days later, Luke would tell them, the pain came in fits in tandem with fear. He woke to it, his chest sharp, his body curled as from a beating. It came when he sat alone on his couch after dinner, in the dim light, feeling he had to fight his corrected body before it would let him in. It came when he stepped from the shower and saw someone not quite male or female, a stranger, behind the mist of his mirror. It came when he sat in the silence of the Friends Meeting, his hands shaking and holding each other tight, others around him wondering if the spirit was soon to move him to speak.
Today, Norman and Marsha see his pain at every visit, the sudden silent tears in his eyes, but he reassures them he has had no second thoughts. He’ll leave the pain behind if he walks far enough. It’s pushing him forward.
Though Norman and Marsha have been united in wishing Luke freedom from pain, in the many hours they spend reading on the couch, watching the news, eating, sharing most every moment of their lives, Norman finds time to remind her, “Don’s been asking me about Linda,” and Marsha finds time to say, “Luke isn’t Don’s son. Neither are you.”
“I still listen to him on Sunday,” he says, “with you beside me.”
“Not every word he says comes from above.”
“You don’t want to tell him because you know what he’s going to say.”
“Which makes talk useless. I won’t talk to a man who won’t listen, whether it’s him or you.”
“It’s not just Don I can’t tell. My sister had a mastectomy because she would’ve died. She’s never felt back to normal. Imagine the insult of her niece envying her.”
“Stop it. Can’t you see Luke is at peace? Even in pain, he’s at peace.”
Norman looks away. “I wanted us to go to Don together, but I’ll go myself.”
“Norman, go wherever you please. May God keep your feet from tripping over each other.”
Norman inches himself forward on the couch, and lurches twice before bringing himself up. He takes one step at a time across the living room to the closet, pulls his coat sleeves over each arm, puts on his hat and sunglasses, and unhooks his cane from the banister by the door.
“I don’t expect to be back soon,” he says.
Marsha watches the television and puts her stitches through the fabric. “I’ll enjoy having the bed to myself if you’re out late.”
He opens the door and closes it behind him. It’s eight blocks to the church, and he realizes he has forgotten to call and see if his preacher is there. But he walks. The sun shines and the wind blows, and Norman leans forward on the sidewalk as he pushes in search of the truth. Inside, Marsha picks up the telephone receiver and thumbs the numbers.
The cracked concrete about murders Norman’s knees, but the pain and the focus from pushing forward in the cold, from looking both ways at every street, from stepping carefully down and up the curbs, leaves no room for other thoughts. When he reaches the block with the single-room church, he looks up from the sidewalk and sees a car parked in front of the building, someone sitting on the cold steps below the red-painted doors. Luke.
Norman tries to grab the many words in his mind and form some into a question, but his heart still kicks him from the walk, his mouth busies itself sucking thin air and huffing it out. He shakes his lowered head while he leans on his cane. He lets all the questions float away with his clouds of breath and says, “This is between me and Don.”
Luke sits with hands clasped. “I told you everything. I told you I would listen.”
“What do you want me to do? Introduce you? He won’t even look at you.”
“I told you I would listen.”
“Then answer this, Luke. Where’s my girl? Where did she go?” He swings his arm around as if she is hiding, but his eyes rest on Luke, the one who can answer. Norman’s eyes sting like ice on his face. “Where’s Linda?”
Luke doesn’t blink, and stands from the steps. “She found peace.” He passes his father, walks around his car, and opens the driver-side door. He pretends his father is not upset. “Want a ride home?”
After a second, Norman takes Luke’s meaning. The church is locked. The wind blows on. Norman stands motionless.
“Here,” Luke says. He comes around and opens the passenger door. He offers a hand to take his father’s cane. Norman looks at the dying grass that lines the fractures in the concrete, and hands his cane to his son. Norman takes hold of Luke’s arm, and Luke helps him in.
James Dunham‘s work has appeared most recently in Philadelphia Stories. His flash fiction story “In Winter” was listed among Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions of 2012. He earned his MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University, and his BA in Creative Writing from the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University. He currently tutors high school students in grammar and reading, and is the copy editor of Dog Pond.
Photo credit: Lionel Allorge (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons