Keystone Species

I had this enormous energy inside me—a big swallowing thing, all muscle and throat. It seems far away now, but I can still feel it if I close my eyes and think back to the first time I saw Ben. He was standing there in a blue-black parka, his arms cast out toward the snow-covered firs, throwing seed to the poor winter-starved fauna of Knife River Community College. At first I couldn’t tell what he was doing, but when I realized it, the mundaneness of his act, I felt close to him. He was gentle, and all of us on that campus needed gentleness—the faculty, whose lives were in various states of assemblage and deconstruction; and the students, of course, children of drunks and abusers, who crashed into each other, just trying not to break.

At that moment, I did not think of my husband Cal or our Minneapolis home 130 miles away that I had left behind to teach at Knife River. No, I was thinking about love songs, about how songs themselves don’t make people fall in love: love of music, the overlay of thought and feeling across melody and verse, is what makes people fall in love. So it makes sense that when I first talked to Ben, a biology professor, he asked me about a bumper sticker on my car. It was a weathered and peeling black thing from a band I used to see play around dives in Minneapolis. 

“What?” I said. When I got nervous, I couldn’t hear what anyone said the first time.

“The bumper sticker on your car—I noticed it in the lot the other day.” For a second he seemed embarrassed. I felt good about that only because I knew I already liked him. 

“It’s a band.

“What are they like?” 

I stumbled, and my face reddened, even though I knew what I was talking about. “Garage rock kind of,” I said.

“I’ll check them out. I need something new to listen to.” He turned away and started whistling something I vaguely recognized but couldn’t place.

When I started at Knife River, what I had really wanted was what I thought everyone wanted: to teach at a university. After graduation, I was confident I would soon find work with my freshly minted doctorate in comparative literature, but I needed money immediately, so I took a position as an adjunct at a technical college in Minneapolis as my first teaching job. There I taught immigrants from Liberia and Somalia, many of them refugees of civil war. Their stories haunted me and haunt me still. A beautiful Liberian woman wearing a gold cross around her neck smiled as she recalled a gun pointed at her belly while she was in labor with her daughter. A Liberian man, who later stabbed his wife to death, wrote a stunning essay about witnessing Samuel Kanyon Doe’s coup d’etat murder members of William R. Tolbert Jr.’s administration. And one student wrote a line I’ll never forget: “Then the soldiers put me in a hole to be killed.” Months after I left, he did die trying to save his fiancé’s nine-year old daughter from a swimming pool. They both drowned.

Though I cared for these people, I did not belong with them. I was university material, tenure-track material. I was exhausted by correcting basic English errors with articles and verb tenses. At night, I drank Bushmills and furiously applied for university jobs, receiving form rejection after form rejection. Desperate, I applied for a few community college positions. When Knife River made an offer, Cal and I agreed I should take the job, even though it was near Duluth. It was a stepping stone to something else, a means to the end we both wanted for me. When former classmates asked about my career, I said I was taking a job at a college in a small town. I left out the word “community.” After all, I wasn’t staying there.

At first, I thought the students at Knife River were different; really though, they were the same. It was just the civil wars had changed. Addicts fought their own addictions, abuse survivors shadowboxed their abusers, and kids from local high schools fought their fucked-up parents. You learn quickly that everyone has some story. Who is to say which is worse than another’s? Who is to measure suffering, to say that one person has suffered more than another? My office was rarely without a troubled student in it. No one seems to tell you how lonely being a de-facto counselor can make you. Imagine it this way: you connect so deeply with someone while they are in your office it gives you electricity, but when they leave, the power goes out, and you are alone in a dark room. 

Nights after I finished grading that first semester, I called my husband Cal. When he actually answered the phone, we had terse conversations about his work and mine. I was jealous of the fact he was still in graduate school, that hallowed globe of possibility, and he didn’t have the skills or patience to talk me through the real world. 

“I’m tired. I’m always tired. I miss you and I just want to be home,” I said for the second or third time in one of our brief conversations.

“I know. It’ll be fine,” Cal said.

“Thanks. That’s very comforting.”

“Well, I don’t know what you want.” 

“It’s fine. It’s all right. I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I said. 

He often hung up without saying goodbye, and still I kept the phone to my ear, though I didn’t know what purpose doing so served. We went around and around like so during that first semester I was gone. When I was home, it took a day to relearn how to be around each other. When things had calmed between us, it was time for me to head north again, which I did, suffering from a reverberating brain and blood dissonance. 

In the weeks following our brief encounter in the hallway, I continued seeing Ben around the college. Seeing him made me feel less lonely, and maybe that was why I thought about him so often, why I walked the long way to the parking lot past his office after my classes every day. Maybe that’s why when I saw Ben sitting alone in the commons, I approached him. He looked up immediately. His mouth was full, and he was picking at a container of some carbohydrate-laden hotdish.

“Hey, Anne! Anne, sit down.” 

I sat down with my lukewarm minestrone.

“Do you like it up here so far?” he said. 

“Sure. It’s pretty,” I said. “But I don’t get to do much.”

He cocked his head, his fork poised near his mouth.

“I mean, I don’t know many people.” It felt good to say it out loud. He sat back against the cracking vinyl booth of the commons. It felt good to have someone listen.

“I get it. It’s hard to be the new kid.” He smiled at me. His hair was graying at the temples, and he had heterochromia. One of his eyes was brown and one was green. It gave him an intensity and an honesty I appreciated. I could not help but trust him. I liked the way he looked.

I knew what I was reaching for then, but I didn’t know where it would take me. It all had to do with energy. Years ago, after my first engagement went south, I fled home. I burst through the doors in tears, startling my aging parents. My mom immediately assumed I had been hurt physically, but my dad pulled me toward his chest. “He hurt her heart, Melody,” my dad said. 

This was true: my heart had hurt. And from that pain came something I craved. Looking across the table at Ben, looking into his eyes, I realized the crux of the issue: my heart wanted to hurt. I wanted to hurt. It was the energy and spark of hurt that I craved, and the more I thought about Ben, the greater the energy became. 

“I want to go hiking before the snow comes,” I said.

He listed off some places, as I suspected he would, and when I pulled back, he said what I had been waiting for. “I could take you sometime, if you want. You know, if you don’t have anyone to go with.”

“Yeah, for sure. I’d like to go,” I said. I was blushing, so I bent down over my soup. I wasn’t thinking of my husband. He was a vague fixture of our apartment, a shuffling presence, who even then, only a year into our marriage, had begun to feel faint to me. Everything was so separate. I imagined that was what it felt like to be a man, to be able to put things away when you wanted to. 

Ben and I went hiking a few days later. I climbed into his dinged up red truck, and he took me to Knife River State Park. He was a great conversationalist, and when silence fell between us, it was filled with the sound of the river butting and cracking against striated rocks. Ben walked quickly and talked to me over his shoulder, pointing out lichens and mushrooms and birds as we hiked along the narrow, hilled trails. It was his way and I liked his way. I had left my wedding ring at home, and I was filled with what doing so meant. It’s easy to say that’s wrong, but I liked the way it felt dissolving under my tongue. I liked agonizing over it. I liked that somehow my husband and all he did or did not do was secondary to this new thing. I liked that Ben understood what I did every day at work. I had less explaining to do, and there was more interest. Our college was small, and Ben and I shared several of the same students. As we walked, we talked about the ones we both knew and cared for. 

 “I’m glad you came up here,” he said. His back was turned, and he was holding a pine bough so it wouldn’t hit me. “We needed you here. The students needed you here.” I passed the tree, and the pine bough, released from his hand, trembled behind me. He looked at me. “I hope you’re planning to stay. We’ve had a lot of turnover.

I did not say anything right away. He turned around again before I would have been forced to. I couldn’t tell him that I didn’t want to stay long, that I felt I was meant for something else. He started walking, and I put my feet into the rhythm of his tread. I heard a crow. Ben began to whistle. The river gleamed under the sun.

I had left my wedding ring at home, and I was filled with what doing so meant. Click To Tweet

After the hike, we drank at my suggestion, which only served to prolong our time together. During the drinking, there was the jukebox, too, of course.

“Here,” he said, sipping his craft brew like a person who knew their limits. “I know you’ll play something good.” He put a couple dollars in my hand, and I stood in front of the yellow light of the jukebox at the Gopher Lounge and went through the songs, my heart pounding, as I thought about my audience and about me and what would serve us both. I swilled my Budweiser because at that time I did not yet need to exist within certain limits (something I’ll always miss), and I thought about how I would probably get a pour of whiskey after I chose my songs. But that thought drifted away into the haze of the bar, and one by one, the choices came to me. Even now, I still remember my playlist, 4 plays for a dollar, 8 songs in all:

“Crazy” Patsy Cline

“Fist City” Loretta Lynn

“Cocaine Blues” Johnny Cash

“Honky Tonk Angels” Kitty Wells

“Walking the Floor Over You” Ernest Tubb

“Foolin’ Around” Buck Owens

“Mama Tried” Merle Haggard

“Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” Willie Nelson

We listened, we sang along, and every time the bartender came around, we ordered more. By the time “Foolin’ Around” played, I had pulled Ben off his stool to make him spin me across the sidelines of the bar, an act that was normal to me. Back then, I danced with anyone who was willing. The regulars in their industry-branded baseball caps turned to look and then faced the bar again. The bartenders, all women, smiled. We danced straight through Willie and then sat back down, closer than we were before. Ben knew the songs in the way that I knew them: fully, reverently. And because we loved the same songs, I knew I could love him in the broken light of that bar. 

At midnight when Ben said we should go, I was too drunk to drive, but I pulled it together, as had been my custom in those years of functional alcoholism. We said goodbye politely in the parking lot, my body ringing against his though we did not touch. In the car, I put a piece of gum in my mouth and took a few deep breaths. As I was about to take off, I heard a knock on the window. Ben was motioning for me to roll it down. He leaned forward. I smelled hops on his breath.

“You know what you are?” he said.

“What?”

“A keystone species.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a little thing that does a lot,” he said. He turned and walked away, throwing his arm up behind him. I stared at the space for a while. I needed a moment before I could put the car in gear. I pulled out my phone as hot air blew from the vents. Keystone species, I typed in. 

Keystone species: a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically.

I let his comment course through me. I started laughing. I heard him say it again and again. Can you imagine how I felt? Can you imagine then my heart? The things it thought? My god, my heart. I was lonely and mixed up and trying to solve everyone else’s problems. Earlier that day, a student I had grown close to, a teenage girl taking college courses, had sat on the floor of my classroom and told me about her break up. Her boyfriend had broken up with her for someone else. “I told him he’d never find another me,” she said. “No other girl is going to work that hard for him,” she said. She looked like me at 16, and I had a hard time separating us. I felt a sickness then. It was a sickness for the way I had always and would always hate the idiotic, destructive power of teenage boys. My husband, in his own way, still had that teenage boy power over me, and, ashamed, I told that girl not to be ashamed when someone hurts her. Though I knew something was going to start with Ben, I was still a fool for my husband, who hit “Ignore” when my calls came in, who always seemed to be looking down on me as he sipped imported sour beer from his academic tower. It’s possible for the heart to escape when it’s in love and broken simultaneously, and my heart started to move then, this energy behind it, a constant push. 

With Ben, the texts and calls started soon after. There was another lunch or two at school, but mostly we kept our distance on campus. I watched him with care and attention. I was miserable. I was ecstatic. I stayed awake making complex lesson plans for my rhetoric and creative writing courses. I told my husband I loved him and I meant it. I told my husband I would not come home on the weekend because he had been ignoring me all week and I meant it. On the weekends I didn’t go home. Ben and I hiked around Duluth and drank steadily at the Gopher Lounge. 

If pleasure results from confession, pleasure also results from omission, and the pleasure I derived from Ben was a pleasure of omission. I knew he was divorced; he knew I was married. We did not discuss it. We existed in an alternate plane. I dreamed about him, but I never told him. I had often taken pictures of myself on my cell phone, but I didn’t take pictures of myself during this time. There was something I didn’t want to see. I gave my creative writing students an assignment that asked them to look at old pictures and write about what they had lost or gained since the moment the photo had been taken. I forced everyone else into introspection. I sat back and listened, and I walked up hills and over rocks and along the coast of the Midwest with Ben until I was sweaty and exhausted. 

When he finally touched me, we were at a dive bar in West Duluth, and I was ordering my third beer. He put his hand on my waist like it was the natural order of things. I love my waist. It’s been beautiful since I was a teenager, and it’s beautiful now. I love being touched on my waist because having someone’s hands there makes me feel valid. His hands were quiet, but they burned. Something changed then, something grew more serious. I knew what was coming next. I had been listening to a lot of sad songs. Cal wasn’t there, and Ben was. 

When it was over, I didn’t feel guilty. I felt relieved. And tired. I slept long and deeply in his bed with my phone switched off. In the morning, I turned the thing on again, and there were no messages waiting for me. 

Over the next couple weeks, Ben and I assumed a routine. We didn’t talk about what was ailing either of us. I went home infrequently on the weekends, and when I walked around the hallways of campus and the streets of West Duluth, I smiled conspiratorially. I had freedom; I felt like I had when I was 16, sneaking around with my boyfriend, giving him head in the woods, washing my mouth out with orange soda after.

But there was only so long I could pretend I didn’t have two lives, and Cal decided he wanted to visit the campus. Perhaps since I had quit calling and reaching out, he realized the problem between us was serious. What could I do when he asked if he could come? He was still my husband. 

The day he showed up, he was wearing a blazer with khaki pants and a button up shirt. Newly introduced to my environment, he looked like a kid playing dress up.

“What do you think?” he said, his arms out at his sides. 

“You look great.” I laughed. 

“What?”

“Nothing. I’m just happy.”

“Good. Finally,” he said. He winked at me and brushed my hair back from my shoulder. 

I turned to lead him through the hallways, but he stopped me there in the commons with its big glass garage doors. Outside, pines swayed. The students, carrying their books and backpacks, walked in and out. 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “About how it’s been. I’m having a hard time.” 

“Me too.” I looked down at my shoes, black ballet flats. The fake leather was wearing out on the tips. He pulled me in for a hug. He didn’t smell the same. His body was stiff against mine. I knew then, I suppose, but the divorce didn’t happen until later and for different reasons. 

I took his hand in my shaking palm and sunk into pretending. I smiled and waved at coworkers as we walked around. “This is my husband Cal,” I said. 

I had told Cal to come on a Friday, a day when few classes ran and a day when Ben was rarely there. But as we walked through a narrow passageway of faculty offices, Ben materialized at the end of the hall, smiling and laughing with an adjunct instructor, a pretty woman I had seen around a few times but did not know. I was flustered, and I wanted to change course, but I would just introduce the two of them and continue with pretending. I gave Ben a half smile when he turned and looked my way. By the time Cal and I were nearly to the end of the hall, he ended his conversation with the woman and spun around. Passing us, he kept his eyes straight ahead and walked on without acknowledging me. I caught his scent. An ache gripped me. Black spots crept into my line of vision. 

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I spit out. I left Cal  alone and hurried off. I was involuntarily holding my breath, and I needed to breathe or I would pass out. Jesus Christ, the mess I would make if that happened. Ben had been right: I was a little thing that did a lot. None of it made me or anyone else happy.

After I gathered myself in the bathroom, Cal and I left. We went to Carmody and drank beer and whiskey until the recorders in our minds shut down. When we woke up in the morning, we joked because neither of us remembered if we had had sex. For a minute, things became simple. I was married to Cal and the rest of it could go to hell. It felt like it had before the distance started between us. But by evening when the hangover faded, I was acutely aware that Cal would be leaving. The coldness crept back in between us. When he was in the shower, I texted Ben. He didn’t respond. And I knew he wouldn’t. I could feel it. 

During that semester, I had become close to the teenage girl who had gone through the break up. She was one of those fractured and floating people: her alcoholic mother had abandoned her and her sisters, leaving them with their father, a quiet man who worked too much and talked too little. She chatted up everyone in class but always looked lonely. Outside of school, she checked at Chris’s Food Market and spent what free time she had riding her grandfather’s horses. I was so accustomed to her staying after class to talk that I started bringing my lunch with me so that I could eat while we talked. I suppose I started to like talking to her. At first I felt protective of her, but as our time progressed, my feelings expanded. It was like a balloon blowing up. It grew, breath upon breath, until it was a full and light thing, thin-skinned and delicate. I was so lonely, and when she was there I felt less lonely, less lonely and younger, like she and I were friends, like there was no power between us.

“I have to tell you something,” I said. I was really hungover from drinking just to drown, and I was staring out the window of our classroom. Ben never responded to the last couple texts I sent, and Cal and I were fighting again. I had known earlier that day I would end up saying something I shouldn’t. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop. It was this energy inside me. It was shifting and growing; it had come to control me, and the more time I spent with Ben, the farther from home I got, the more I drank, the stronger it became. 

I turned around, and she looked up at me with her dark brown eyes, beguiling eyes, and she reminded me of my sisters whose eyes were much the same. “What is it?” she said.

“Oh nothing. Never mind.”

“You can tell me.” She blinked once. “Really.” She blinked again.

I took a fingertip and wiped the lipstick mark off my glass water bottle. Then I took a long drink.

“It’s nothing. Sorry I brought it up.” Snow was falling, and every time I stood in front of the window, I felt like I was inside a snow globe. 

“I don’t mind listening. I owe you.” She was smiling. Her skin was still so perfect. It was amazing to me. 

“I’m not proud,” I said. I couldn’t look at her.

“Of what?”

“I just did something I shouldn’t do.” 

“You can tell me. I give good advice,” she said. “It can’t be that bad.”

 I hesitated. But I knew I would say it.

“I’m cheating on my husband.” My back was still turned. Red squirrels chattered around the base of the pines, their small feet marking the fresh snow. She said nothing, but without even turning around, I knew she had changed her mind. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have told you that. I think I crossed a line. I didn’t sleep a lot last night.”

“No, it’s OK. I get it.”

I turned around. She smiled at me, setting down her bag of chips. She stood up and wiped her hands on her jeans. 

“You’re kind of an asshole then, too?” she said.  

“Excuse me?” I sounded lame, and I knew it.

“People can’t help it. They just can’t help it,” she said. “They can’t help being assholes.”

I wanted to launch into a tirade about complication, human emotions, and adult relationships, but there was no point. A crack opened in front of me then but only black light showed through, a black glow destined to crawl across me. She was right: I was an asshole. I had been one to her, to Cal, and to my other students, who I somehow thought I was above teaching. But I wasn’t. I was a woman who had spent the majority of her adult life trying to understand the dysfunctional, alcohol-soaked household in which she grew up. I knew civil war. 

“I’m sorry—I should never have told you. Please,” I said, but she walked out, and I did not follow her. I felt sick, and I left without keeping my office hours. I went to the Gopher Lounge and drank Bud after Bud until the lights came on.

That next week, she avoided me as much as possible, and I avoided Ben. I stopped walking by his office, and I made myself scarce during the normal times we ran into each other. The night we usually hung out, I didn’t text him. I ignored my husband, too. I walked by Lake Superior on the Riverwalk in Duluth, the tourist nature of which disgusted me. As the waves reached crescendo, I wished I were somewhere else. I cared about nothing and no one, and I wanted to be in my bed without anyone next to me.

I was thankful that less than three weeks remained of the semester. It was a comfort to know that soon I would not have to see the young girl again. She had stopped talking to me outside of classroom decorum; I didn’t blame her. I was everything she didn’t want to become, and though I was still young then, I was no longer young to her. I was heading forward into something new and distasteful. I was who I was, and as I read useless poem after useless poem I would undoubtedly print in the school’s literary journal, I knew I belonged in this place. I was fucked up, would always be fucked up. I would stay here where I could hurt the most. And I would thrive in this environment that with its long, unpredictable winters was undoubtedly suited to me.

Author / Ilustrator

  • Darci Schummer is the author of the story collection Six Months in the Midwest (Unsolicited Press) and co-author of the poetry/prose collaboration Hinge (broadcraft press). Her work has appeared in Jet Fuel Review, Ninth Letter (web edition), Necessary Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, Pithead Chapel, and New Rivers Press's American Fiction anthology, among other places. Her stories have been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, where she also serves as editor for The Thunderbird Review.

  • Photos of a Square Dance in McIntosh County, Oklahoma (1940). Photographs taken during a square dance in McIntosh County in Oklahoma by photographers working for the U.S. government's Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA and later the Office of War Information (OWI) between 1939 and 1944 made approximately 1,600 color photographs depicting life in the United States, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The pictures focused on rural areas and farm labor, as well as aspects of World War II mobilization, including factories, railroads, aviation training, and women working. https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/photos-of-a-square-dance-in-mcintosh-county-oklahoma-1940