Bar the Door By Carolyn R. Russell
I received the emailed query just before my nightly rounds: lock up the front door, turn off the house lights, check the thermostat, bar the rear slider door with a reassuring chunk of wood. Those things never happened.
I don’t usually receive emergency requests. I coach college application essay writing to supplement my meagre teacher’s salary. My clients are generally a self-selecting bunch, either super-achievers who want to get ahead of their own meticulously scheduled deadlines, or slow-starters whose parents contact me early in the season because they know what their kids are up against. But that’s exactly what the subject line was, the words emergency and request capitalized. The body of the email was in an annoyingly screamy font, Showcard Gothic, or maybe Rockwell Extra Bold.
The missive was surprisingly well-written for a high school student. That should have been my first clue. Instead, my takeaway was typically self-serving, that the gig was going to be an easy $65 an hour. The cover letter indicated that someone named Chris Patterson had been given my name by a high school classmate, and that they needed quick help to turn around a time-sensitive application.
I poured myself a beer and opened the attachment. Thankfully, it was double-spaced, in 12 pt. Times New Roman. I took a long cold swallow of my IPA and settled in; Grace was already in bed and probably asleep by now. My plan was to knock off a quick re-write and charge double for the speedy turnaround.
I began to read.
Two hours later my hands were still shaking.
This Chris person had written what he called a personal essay on the topic of overcoming adversity for a hardship scholarship to a mid-tier private university. At first glance, it appeared to adhere to the classic five-paragraph format, just too long. The opening lines were good. Or, maybe they just mirrored my own preference for starting with an eventful recollection, in the middle of something action-heavy, or exciting, written in the present tense. Typically, then, the writer goes back in time to set up the first section. The piece ends with an interpretation of the meaning they have ascribed to their chosen subject matter and the impact it’s had on them.
Chris’ essay starts in the middle of a memory. He’s in grade school, and the class is working on family tree projects. His teacher leans in over his shoulder and asks why he’s drawn a picture of SpongeBob SquarePants where his dad should be. Tears. Phone calls. Little Chris is finished for the day.
The essay progresses as one might expect, except for two things. Two big things. The first is that the writing is terrific. This kid does not need my help. The second is that the story he tells is chock-full of unexpected details, details that make my head spin. Like where his mother went to college, and when, and what she studied, and with whom. Her first name.
I remembered her. I was barely out of graduate school, glad to be in a position where I could finally call myself gainfully employed. I was also horribly insecure, and yet still somehow entertaining the idea that the non-tenure track adjunct professorship was beneath me. I was meant for better things. Lilly was a senior, only a couple of years younger than I was. Her hero-worship got me through the worst of my self-doubt. And she was pretty, so pretty. We crossed the line only once, and parted friends.
I did the math. I sat for a while.
I went up to check on Grace. She’d fallen asleep on top of her book, and I removed the hardcover from under her elbow and put it on the nightstand. The adjustment woke her up. She turned over on her back and said my name, the moonlight throwing sparks off her wedding ring as she pulled the covers up over her shoulders. Then she was gone again.
About the Author:
Carolyn R. Russell is the author of The Films of Joel and Ethan Coen, published by McFarland & Company in 2001. Her humorous YA mystery, Same As It Never Was, was released in 2018 by Big Table. Carolyn’s new YA dystopian thriller, In the Fullness of Time, was published by Vine Leaves Press in March of 2020. Other works include essays and stories for The Boston Globe, Dime Show Review, Bridge Eight, Wanderlust Journal, and Medusa’s Laugh. She holds an M.A. in Film Studies from Chapman University, and has taught on the college, high school, and middle school levels. Carolyn lives north of Boston with her husband and two children.