Steve Liskow  
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from the short story RING OF FIRE

Meredith almost dropped the plate of brownies when the dew reminded her she still wore sandals. She marched across the Davises' lawn and tripped over the sprinkler head; only the aluminum foil kept the brownies on the plate again.

She swept the shards of her dignity back together and looked toward the house, hoping Richard hadn't seen her stumble. Framed by the drapes, he sat on the couch in a white shirt and dark slacks, his tie loose and a glass in his hand. Meredith pushed the button and heard chimes echo behind the door.

"Yes?" Richard's voice sounded heavy as unbaked dough.

"Richard?" She tried not to chirp. "It's Meredith Tyler. From across the street? I've brought you some brownies."

"Meredith." She could picture him tightening his tie and hitching up his trousers.

"Are you all right?" Stupid question! "Well, I mean, of course you're... um, may I come in?"

The Nately kids rode their bikes up and down the sidewalk, screaming like birds of prey. Richard didn't even turn on the porch light.

"Um, I don't really feel up to seeing anyone right now." His voice sounded ancient, but Meredith knew he was only two or three years older than the twenty-nine she admitted to.

"Richard," she said. "You aren't alone. I know how you feel. And it's terrible." Terrible wasn't the word. Nicole, three months pregnant, had killed herself Monday. The door stayed closed and the light off.

"Richard?"

Meredith stood on his dark steps, the plate of brownies growing heavier by the minute. She had to make sure he was all right, that he remembered to eat. She rang the bell again, awkward in her T-shirt and cut-offs, especially since Richard still wore his suit from Nicole's funeral. He looked handsome in a suit. Well, she looked good in cut-offs. If men saw her legs first, they thought she was still in college. Maybe she shouldn't have changed out of her black dress, but who baked brownies in a dress besides June Cleaver?

The door swung open with a deep swoosh and Meredith saw Richard's eyes sunk deep in his face. His chin seemed heavier than a week ago and his hairline looked higher. He slumped against the doorframe.

"Richard," she said. "These are brownies. Just a snack, but I was afraid you wouldn't have anything in the house, you've been so busy with...I figured you wouldn't have time to shop. Do you need anything? Coffee? Can I heat something up?"

"Um."

He backed up, his breath at least forty proof. Meredith strode through the vestibule to the living room, dark leather and bright wood, but drab without Nicole, whose framed lopsided grin greeted her from the mantel. A half-empty glass rested on the coffee table. Meredith saw a plastic bag next to the flower arrangement on her way to the kitchen.

"Are you sure you don't need coffee or something?" She could feel Richard's eyes on her hip pockets.

"Um," he said again.

Johnny Walker stood at attention on the counter. Jack drank scotch too. Or used to. He'd been so drunk after one of their fights that he'd missed the top step in the dark three months ago. Meredith tried not to think about it.

--From Thin Ice, Level Best Books, 2010

from the short story Running on Empty

Kristen let Tom accelerate into the westbound traffic before she spoke.

"I want a divorce."

Tom pulled out to pass a Buick with a white-haired driver and Massachusetts plates, accelerating long after he?d cleared it. He only drove fast when he was upset. Wilco moaned on the CD player and Drew slept, his blond curls bobbing in his car seat.

"We're falling apart," Kristen said.

"Certainly sounds like it."

Tom never took his eyes off the road, but he turned down the CD. His voice held just a hint of tension, like the hint of garlic in Kristen's special marinade in the Tupperware in the back seat. His parents expected them at four-thirty, they'd eat at seven, and the fireworks would start at nine-thirty. Tom worshipped schedules.

"You're never around anymore," Kristen said.

"You traveled a lot too," he replied. "Until you wanted to be a mom."

"I thought you wanted to be a dad."

"I did. I do. I am."

In the back seat, thirteen months old Drew dangled a silver ribbon of drool on the chin he'd inherited from Kristen. She reached back and gently dabbed at it. He murmured but didn?t wake up. He had Tom's nose.

"Let's face it, Krissy, we got used to living pretty well when we were a two-income family. I love you and Drew, but one of us has to pay the bills."

He turned up the CD again. Family or career, Kristen thought. Who the hell said you can have it all?

"I never feel like you're here anymore, even when you're on the couch or holding Drew. It?s like I'm looking at a video or something, there's no connection."

"I need a little down time when I get home. You ought to be able to understand that. You most of all."

Wilco went into a loose jam that reminded Kristen of Neil Young. She hated Neil Young. The sign by the roadside commanded, "Remove sunglasses at tunnel."

"We never talk anymore."

"Sure we do. Drew did this, Drew did that, Drew hates solid food. Drew's fussy because he?s teething. And you know damn well what my day was like."

I miss it, Kristen thought. I didn't think I'd miss it this much, but I do.

--From Still Waters, Level Best Books, 2007

some of Steve's short stories appear in these collections: