A Short Story
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It began, Eleanor would remember later, when she caught him in the basement, masturbating—or so she thought, anyway, for a strange and topsy-turvy moment.

She’d come home from work an hour early, at 4 p.m., to an empty kitchen and the faint hiss from below that meant he was in the basement with his trains. Halfway down the stairs she saw him, in the swivel chair by the table, the train making its whizzing circuit of mountain and village. He had his back to her; he was hunched over, pumping his hand in front of his trousers. Turning, she hurried back up to the kitchen, still holding the brownie she’d brought from the deli. The situation had an Ann Landers–like quality. My husband is a fifty-eight-year-old high school history teacher, and the other day I caught him... It opened up distressing new horizons. If toy trains could be erotic, Eleanor wondered, what else? Garden hoses? Shopping carts?

A moment later he came up. His pants were buttoned, belt buckled, and his shirt neatly tucked in.

“I thought that was you,” he said. “What is it? You look like you saw a ghost.”

“Frank,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to...interrupt. Here, this was for you.” She placed the brownie on the table, and only then did she see the label—Sinful Fudge.

“Interrupt what? What’s wrong?”

“You know I respect your privacy, I really do.”

He frowned. “Will you stop being so damned elliptical? What privacy? It’s not like I—” He raised an astonished eyebrow. “Wait. Did you think I was—?”

Hopelessly she stuttered.

“Ellie, I was lighting a candle. A miniature Christmas candle, for the Smallville town crèche. I dropped a match on my lap, for Christ’s sake.” Unrolling his fist, he produced the burnt match.

It was funny, really, and she would have laughed, except that he wasn’t laughing. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. In the corner their old bulldog, Wally, splayed on his green mat, opened droopy eyes.

He looked at his watch. “Why are you home, anyway?”

“We closed early. Everyone’s fighting a cold.” Eleanor worked four afternoons a week as office manager for an orthopedist.

“OK. Well, let me finish up down there.” At the top of the stairs he turned back to her. “Ellie, why in God’s name would you think that? I mean, honestly. I’m not some fifteen-year-old boy.”

Why in God’s name would you think that? She mulled it over. It wasn’t about sex. After thirty-three years, they still made love: through everything in their marriage, the lovely and funny things, the stressful things, even the one unutterably horrible thing—they’d lost their son, Kyle, in a car accident twelve years before—sex had endured.

What it was about, she realized, was him, and the way he’d been of late. His sense of humor had evaporated. Pugnacious outbursts gave way to surprising, tame retreats. He stared off into space. He’d gone secret on her, gone underground.

He was fine, he insisted when she called him on it. Nope, nothing bothering him. Everything A-OK. But she recognized it, all too well.

So she watched him. Watched him swizzling leaves across the yard with the blower; watched him in his study, plowing through a stack of 10th grade papers. Bringing coffee, she glanced over his shoulder as with his green pen he crossed out “their” in Everyone has their own opinion about state vs. federal power and wrote in “his.”

“How are they?” she asked.

“These?” He leaned back, pushing his half-lenses down his nose. “You know—they are what they are.”

“And what was Dred Scott about again?” It was a familiar pas de deux: she’d ask about a topic and he’d launch in, laying out facts and interpretations, all the thousands of things he knew.

“It was about whether there is such a thing as a three-fifths human being,” he said, and that was all.

She watched him at a party down the block, thrown by a couple from his school. It was a young crowd—most colleagues his age had long since fled for the suburbs—and partway through the evening Eleanor looked up to see him, drink in hand, in a group of the youngest teachers. She edged closer. They were discussing gender politics in the workplace, and a boy with a beatnik goatee was holding forth. “This might not be a legitimate question,” Eleanor heard the boy say, “but—”

Her husband cut him off. “Every question is a legitimate question!” He pointed a finger, his face flushed. “Remember, a question denied is an answer defied!”

They sheltered in their beers; she saw their looks, the smirking undercurrent of Hey, save it for class, huh, Boggsie?

On the walk home she brought it up. “I saw you talking to the Seven Dwarves,” she said—their name for the young teachers. She took his arm. A cool fall breeze ruffled the trees, streetlights spilling liquid shapes through the branches. She was waiting for his usual self-deprecating chuckle, Guess I threw the old monkey wrench into that conversation, didn’t I? But he merely nodded.

“Smart kids,” he said. “Lotta energy. Lotta zip.”

An hour later she sat in bed and watched him undress. She knew his body as well as her own: the puckered appendectomy scar; his skinny legs; the constellation of moles on his back.

He felt her gaze and glanced over. “How’s your novel?”

“I’m not reading my novel. I’m watching you.”

“That can’t be too exciting.” He exited to the bathroom, and she heard him brushing his teeth. When he returned, she had a question for him. Lately when she looked in the mirror, she told him, her lower lip seemed to be drooping slightly, her brow protruding. “I think something’s happening to my looks, Frank.”

“You look fine to me,” he said, shoveling himself into bed.

“So you don’t think I look like a monkey?”

“Fully human. You done?” Reading, he meant. She nodded, putting aside her book, and he turned out the light.

In the dark Eleanor lay awake, thinking about the Seven Dwarves. She thought of her son’s friends, and how after Kyle’s death—he’d been seventeen, in his last week of high school—they all kept plowing on through life, graduating from college, getting jobs, getting married, having children themselves. Each time news from his circle trickled back, the old hurt fed and freshened itself, even after all these years. In six weeks their son would have been thirty. December 7- —a day that will live in infancy!, they’d pronounced when he was born.

Outside a car passed, its lights skating across the wall. She recalled when Kyle and Betsey were toddlers, and she’d check on them in bed. The nightlight Kyle used, a tiny moon. His race-car wallpaper. The hall carpeted in horrendous ’70s shag, thick threads like worms beneath her bare feet.

“Frank?” she whispered.

He grunted, sunk in half-sleep.

“When we first moved here, remember how we’d go to bed and you’d watch me undress? And you said no matter what, you’d never stop watching? Do you remember that?”

A rustle, and he was staring at her, face pale in the dark. “Ellie, I’ve never once been unfaithful to you. Not even close.” She said nothing, and he went on in a softer tone. “I want you to know that.”

I do know that, she thought. But it wasn’t what she had asked. Question denied, answer defied.

She turned to her best friend, Polly, for advice. Polly had been her kids’ sitter years ago, and at forty was as frank and spunky as she’d been at sixteen, talking about sex and all else with a brazen glee Eleanor imagined could have been her own, had she been born ten years later and not Catholic.

They were in her kitchen, Polly smoking while Eleanor chopped nuts for a batch of shortbread cookies. The topic was a talk show about women who showed up at their husbands’ work and seduced them. Polly’s husband Roger refused to play, even though as a car salesman he had the perfect setup. “The backseat of a Grand Marquis? A Buick LeMaster?” She blared her trademark snorting laugh. “The man works for the wrong company. He should sell Priuses. A thousand miles between every fill-up.”

At the counter Eleanor laughed and mixed pecan bits into the cookie dough. She mentioned Frank and what she thought she had interrupted in the basement. When she turned, drying her hands on a cloth, Polly was staring.

“Are we talking about sex? I think I’m going to faint.” She made a show of grabbing at the kitchen table.

Eleanor put the dishtowel aside. “Polly, he wasn’t doing it.”

“You know, sometimes they just have to. It’s like brushing their teeth. It’s a daily maintenance thing.”

“No, he was actually just trying to put out a match.” She saw Polly’s quizzical expression and held up a hand. “Don’t ask. Look, what’s important is that I thought he was. And I thought that because he’s been so secretive lately.”

Polly took a luxurious drag on her cigarette. “Secretive? As in, a number on the phone bill that he called forty-eight times last month?”

“No. As in being depressed and not telling me.”

“Ahhh. OK. Depressed about what?”

Eleanor hesitated. There was actually a lot to choose from. She knew the bitterness that male teachers in their forties and fifties could fall prey to at a private school like his, where the kids were rich, and suddenly the most important fact about a student was not how he did in your class, but that he drove a nicer car than you did. She hoped, in fact, it was something like this.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I’m just hoping it’s not Kyle all over again.”

“Is Frank doing anything for fun these days?”

“Well, you know, he has those trains of his.” She described the hours spent on collector websites, the frequent mail-order deliveries, the long Saturday afternoons at his train club. “Five years ago I thought it was good for him. It was the first time he showed any real interest in anything since Kyle. But now…” Her voice trailed off.


“I don’t know. There’s something wrong about it. The way he enjoys it.”

Polly rolled her eyes. “Honey, who knows why men like what they do? Roger spends all Sunday watching monster truck shows. I don’t even question it anymore. If he wants a dork hobby, fine.” She stubbed out her cigarette. “If Frank wants to fester, you force him out of his cave. How about a workplace seduction?”

Eleanor imagined showing up at the door of his faculty room wearing a trench coat and nothing underneath. She had to laugh.

“What?” said Polly.

“Frank’s reaction. Honestly, I think he’d dial 911.”

In Polly’s presence she could laugh about the situation; but at home, with him, there was nothing funny. One day after work she found him sitting at the kitchen table, still in jacket and tie, looking perplexed. Something had happened at school, he said. He was taking over a class for a young colleague whose husband was having brain surgery; he’d met with her to go over lesson plans. “She’s telling me about her 9th grade. It’s colonial America, and she’s doing this role-playing thing with her kids. You know, quill pens and diaries and so on. And when she’s done, I say ‘That’s all nice, Serena, but where’s the history?’ And she bursts out crying. Can you believe that? This girl’s husband might be mortally ill, and I go and shoot her down.” Shaking his head, he gathered keys and briefcase and left the room.

Eleanor fed the dog, then went to the liquor cabinet and took down his bottle of Jameson’s and a tumbler. Before she could pour, the phone rang. It was the time of day Betsey called from Virginia, and sure enough, Eleanor picked up to a breezy “Hello, Mother!” The previous week, Betsey had called with a breathless Guess what?, making Eleanor wonder if she and her husband, Jurek, had finally reconsidered their child-free pledge. No such luck. I’m getting braces, Mom! her daughter had confided. And indeed, Eleanor heard now the lisp of new gear in her daughter’s mouth. At length Betsey told her about the procedure; her handsome orthodontist, a dead ringer for some actor; the colossal sum of money it was costing.

“And how’s everything up there?” she asked when she was done. “How’s Daddy?”

“Actually, he’s been moody.” Eleanor sketched the story of the young teacher. “And now December’s coming. You know how that is.”

“Maybe Dad has seasonal affective disorder. Jurek does. He got a lamp.”

“A lamp?”

“You know. Ambient therapy. It’s called PosiLux. Mother, hold on a sec, will you?” Eleanor poured the tumbler of Jameson’s and waited. Her son-in-law, Jurek, worked for the Czech embassy in D.C., and Betsey for a defense consulting firm in Fairfax. Their life consisted of networking parties, fitness binges at their health club, expensive restaurants, and work. They lived in a rented condo and took frequent trips abroad. Sometimes Eleanor and Frank joked that they were spies.

A smeary clatter came over the line, and Betsey returned. “Listen, why don’t you two come down for Thanksgiving? Daddy can use Jurek’s lamp. We’ll have fun.”

Eleanor made agreeable noises, and her daughter rattled on, then abruptly stopped. “Think about Thanksgiving, OK, Mother? It’ll be good for Daddy.”

Feeling vaguely scolded, she hung up and, Jameson’s in hand, went looking for her husband. She found him in his study, sitting at his desk, taking notes in a spiral notebook.

“Frank.” She handed him the drink. “About that young colleague of yours. The girl. You have your ideas about history, and she has hers. There’s nothing malicious there.”

He nodded, in a way that did not signify agreement. In the corner, the grandfather clock tocked loudly. Eleanor looked at the shelves of books, some sprouting the curled top of an envelope—authors he’d written to in his early years as a teacher, their responses stuck back in their pages.

“That was Betsey on the phone,” she said. “They want us to come down for Thanksgiving.”

He nodded again, scribbling away. Eleanor found herself trying to recall what Betsey had looked like at the normal braces-wearing age. She’d been fourteen when Kyle died.

“Frank? Were we supposed to get Betsey braces? Was she walking around here with buck teeth, and we didn’t even notice?”

With a grimace he pried himself from his work. “Betsey’s a child of the times. People think everything’s fixable nowadays.”

He went back to his notes, barricaded behind his desk, his pen scritching busily across the page. Eleanor had the feeling he wasn’t really writing anything, just nonsense words to wait her out.

Grief, she remembered their counselor saying, was opportunistic. You might think yourself long over it, but if something weakened you, there it was again. Which was how Eleanor imagined it now: grief stalking them in corners of the house, grief crouched in the dark of the driveway. She recalled how, a dozen years before, the two of them had huddled with Betsey as the dreadful quiet roared around them. How whenever they thought it had passed, it turned and howled back down on them again. For a full year after Kyle’s death, Eleanor had lived outside time: she would look up and see snow and realize it was winter; look again, and leaves were on the trees.

In the middle of the night she woke to find Frank not there. It scared her, recalling the years when he would disappear: exiling himself to the yard or attic on some excuse, only to end up in Kyle’s room, staring mutely at trophies and posters. Back then he had convinced himself he was to blame—for not having lectured Kyle about drinking and driving; for having touted a certain reckless and hard-drinking Hemingway style from novels he himself had loved as a young man. It’s not your fault! she would tell him, over and over. To no avail. Routines went on, work went on, but his life had stopped. He stopped going to church, and she understood, without his saying so, that he had renounced God in his heart. It did not occur to her to do likewise. Why throw away your umbrella in a rainstorm? Week after week she’d gone to church—his church—without him, dragging Betsey along. She herself had grown up Catholic, but upon marrying had embraced his mild, mannerly Episcopalianism. Doing that had made sense to her as a twenty-three-year-old; already lapsing, she had seen it as a final freeing of herself. Later she wondered if all she’d wanted was escape, an open door into his world as she had imagined it, tents on green lawns, sailboats, books, Connecticut—whatever was the opposite of being a Polish Catholic girl from Pittsburgh. She had been too reliant on all of that, she saw after Kyle’s death; too reliant on him. She lay in bed, and the sound of the toilet flushing in the bathroom comforted her. But it was with her now, the memory of how she had lost a son and then almost a husband. She wasn’t sure she had the strength to fight it all over again.

The Saturday before Thanksgiving she went with him to his model railroading club. I think I’ll come along for once, she announced, taking up a longstanding invitation.

They drove to the city’s outskirts and a warehouse with a red caboose sign. Inside, he led her through rooms crowded with train spreads. He introduced her to fellow club members, showed her a tool shop where men in bifocals sat at workbenches, laboring with tiny brushes and tweez-ers over model locomotives. The place made him talkative. “See those castings they’re putting on—boiler bells, sand domes, all that locomotive gingerbread? They’re superdetailing. Right down to the china in the dining cars.”

They walked among row after row of train layouts, from Wild West to the savannas of Africa. He showed her his favorite, a lumber camp high in the mountains. The track wound through rock-hewn tunnels. Bridges spanned ravines dotted with matchstick pine trees.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” he said. “Look at this sawmill.”

She stared down at tiny shacks and vehicles, a stout engine with a single word—“Climax”—emblazoned on its side.

“Climax, Frank?”

“That’s as in ‘maximum climb,’” he said, ignoring her joke. “It’s a geared locomotive. Invented in 1878 by Charles Darwin Scott, in Spartansburg, Pa. A logger who built it for his tram road.” He moved his hand over the panorama in a lordly gesture. “This is total authenticity. I’m telling you, Ellie, not one single thing is missing.”

Eleanor looked down at tiny saws and conveyor belts, a backhoe the size of her hand, boulders the size of her fingernail. The miniatures gave her a queasy feeling: the way something could be both pebble and boulder, both timber and twig. Reaching down, she put out a finger and snaked it around the pile of boulders.

“Whoa, hold on there,” he said, catching at her arm.

All she’d wanted was to touch the pile—to place her finger on it and restore the true sizes of things. But he jostled her, and her finger sent the backhoe tumbling. On an impulse she finished the gesture, scattering the pebble boulders. Her hand struck a little shack, the roof flipping off to reveal little model people inside; and with a surge of wickedness she sent them tumbling too.

“Hey!” He grabbed her arm. “Are you crazy? What the hell are you doing?” Lifting her wrist away, he held it out like something contaminated. “Jesus, Ellie,” he said. “This is someone’s work.”

When she walked away he was hunched over, rearranging.

Outside the afternoon had clouded over, and a blunt wind sent leaves skittering across the parking lot. He came out the door and walked toward her, his shock of gray hair flopping in the breeze.

“I’m sorry,” she offered. “I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry I spoiled it for you.”

“Noted and accepted,” he said, unlocking her door.

On the ride home she waited for more, but there was no more. They came down the highway ramp and drove among triple-decker houses and squat brick apartment buildings. They passed the burger place whose onion rings Kyle and Betsey had loved, and not far from there the building where their grief counselor had had his office.

“Frank, do you remember what Dr. Zechner said about living our feelings? And how we promised each other we’d keep each other in the loop about what was going on?”

He said nothing. Past the grade school, he slowed and pulled into their driveway. They sat in the parked car.

“I’m sorry if you feel neglected,” he said.

“It’s not my feelings I’m talking about. It’s yours. I’m wondering what’s going on with you. I know it’s a hard time of year, with—”

“Listen, can we just…” He sighed. “Can we maybe just let it sit a little? Can we just sit here and be quiet?”

Eleanor looked out. The light had dwindled so that it was neither day nor night, their yard a sea of gloom where fantastic shapes lunged and dove in the shadows. She got out and walked to the house, leaving him there.

That evening they made love. It was his invitation: a tap on her shoulder as she was setting the table for dinner, and there he was, holding two wine glasses and glancing upstairs. Thirty-three years ago, as newlyweds visiting his parents, they had dared to drink wine in bed, and the next day woke to an embarrassing splotch of crimson they’d had to explain away.

On the bedside table a candle flickered as they touched each other under the blankets. Over the years, as Eleanor had put on weight, it had been a consolation to discover he preferred her that way, just slightly ample. She made her way down into the cave of blankets, kissing his neck and chest, wishing she still had the long hair of her 20s to spill on him. She felt a shift in his position, his hand departing from where it had been rubbing her shoulder; heard the click of the wine glass on the table. Was he drinking?

Rising from under the blanket, she swung up and straddled him.

“Mmmm,” he said, smiling. “That’s nice.”

But something in his smile, some practiced quality, unnerved her—as if it wasn’t him but an impostor, reading from a script. A stuntman, she thought; I’m making love to a double. The thought seized and shook her.

“You’re all hot,” he said, and ran a finger in a slick stripe down the dampness of her back.

The gesture calmed her. She closed her eyes. The moment passed.

The next morning they woke early to find that it had snowed—a rare November snow, one inch on the ground and the sky already blue again, as if someone had stolen into the neighborhood during the night and decorated it. Eleanor wanted to get out there before anything happened to mar its loveliness.

“You go ahead,” he said at the coffee machine, as she lifted the dog leash from its hook and sent Wally into a wriggling spasm. “I’m gonna futz around here and read the paper.”

Outside the air held a pleasant chill, and the dog sniffed with interest, a touch of new pep in his tired waddle. Their neighborhood looked good in snow, the bulky Victorians hunched side by side in their narrow yards, like big birds on a branch. Eleanor thought of friends who had deserted to suburbia years ago. Now, finally, things were coming around again. Young couples were moving in, artists, dancers, teachers. Prices were bouncing back; it was shrewd to live there again.

In the park, the trees had dropped their last leaves atop the new snow; beneath each tree sat a pool of color. “Someone should take a picture,” she overheard as two joggers ran by. Eleanor passed the spot where, one spring day two years after Kyle’s death, she and Frank had met a young couple whose bulldog came snarfling up, all ugliness and joy, making Frank laugh until he shook. Months later they’d bought Wally, a puppy homely as mud. Bit by bit laughter had returned to their lives, sudden bright strokes against the gray.

Back home the Times lay untouched on the kitchen table. She took off her coat and went into the hall. “Frank? Hello?”

Some absolute quality in the stillness told her where to find him. She climbed the stairs and made her way to the guest room. He was sitting on the edge of the bed.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Nothing.” He worked a thumb with a forefinger, as if he had a hangnail. “I just came in.”

Morning light cast a lemony glow. Redoing the room years ago, Eleanor had chosen lacy white curtains and yellow walls, and she felt like apologizing. He wasn’t seeing it anyway, she knew. He was seeing tan wallpaper with silly racing cars. They had put it up themselves, with rollers and glue brushes, when Kyle was four.

“They were blue, green and red, right?” she said, sitting down next to him. “Those little cars. And little men with the checkered flags. And wasn’t there some kind of tower?”

He nodded, vaguely.

“You know, I just saw the loveliest thing. In the park.” She started to tell him about the leaves on the snow.

“I’m sorry,” he broke in. “I just feel like sitting here, all right?”

“All right.” She stood, but didn’t go.

“Frank,” she said instead. “Look at me.”

“I am looking at you,” he said. “You’re right in front of me.”

Yet it wasn’t true; and Eleanor felt herself panicking. Years before, when grief would overwhelm him, he’d turn away, literally, until she caught his gaze and forced him to show his sorrow, and the two of them would have it out. But this was something new, this looking-without-looking—sending the butler down to deal with her, the stunt man to woo her, while he went off and made love to his aloneness. He was digging in; he was tunneling down and closing up behind.

“You may be looking, Frank, but you don’t see me,” she said. “You’re not even trying. And you haven’t been for a while now.”

His face reddened, and he jerked to his feet. “What do you want, Ellie? You want my feelings, is that it? You want me to open up? Tell you how bad it all still hurts? Jesus!” He was shouting at her now. “How about if I told you the make and model of every damn car on that wallpaper? Would that be enough feelings for you? Would that do the trick?”

 He pushed by and stomped to the window.

“Yes,” she said, calmly. “I do want your feelings.”

“Well, my feelings bore the hell out of me,” he said, in a quieter voice. “I hate my feelings.”

Silence settled back around them. A bird outside twittered. Eleanor waited.

“Do you really know every car?” she asked at last.

He shrugged. “Maybe. I know there was a Lamborghini.”

“A what?”

“Lamborghini. An Italian sportscar. Very new at the time.”

Eleanor nodded. She remembered buying the wallpaper, in a little family-run store—long since closed—on Farmington Avenue, the two of them paging through the book of samples for something a boy would like. “What were the other cars, Frank? I can see them but I don’t know the names.”

He closed his eyes, prodded his brow with his fingertips. “There was a Porsche. A Ferrari. A green Triumph. I used to tell him that was Jackie Stewart’s car. And the blue Lamborghini. I told him it was Italian for ‘thatsa one helluva beautifulla automobila.’ I told him—” He turned back to the window, hands on the sill, and shook his head.

“I thought this would get better,” he said in a choked voice. “And now he’s supposed to be thirty, and he didn’t even make twenty, goddamnit.”

His shoulders heaved, and she went to him and held him. Sobs pulsed through his back and shoulders. When they passed, he pulled back, rubbing his eyes. “I can’t even remember him anymore, Ellie. All I remember is missing him.”

“You remember him. I know you do.”

“No.” He went back to the bed and sat. “I think about him and all I get is me.”

Outside the bird chattered again. Eleanor looked out the window. The snow was melting, everything glistening in the sun. She saw her own footprints in the drive, the dog’s alongside.

“I’ll bet you remember the music box,” she said. “The one he got stuck.”

One day when Kyle was four, they’d heard a shriek from down in the playroom, and he came up the basement stairs, howling—the music box clamped to the side of his head. Somehow he’d gotten the wind-up lever jammed in his ear, and it was stuck there, the box turning slowly on the side of his head as it played “Tales from the Vienna Woods.” She and Frank had stood at the top of the stairs, and in spite of themselves they laughed until they cried, laughing even as they helped Kyle get it unstuck.

“Jesus,” Frank said now. “The whole thing was rotating. It was actually sticking out of his ear and playing. How the hell did he manage to do that?”

“You see? You do remember.”

“Christ, he was funny, wasn’t he? The funniest little guy.”

He sighed. Eleanor had always loved the way he ran a hand through his hair when he sighed. That was true the first time they met, and it was true now. She went over and sat next to him.

“I love you, you know,” she said.

“Well,” he said. “Thank God for that.”

He put a hand on her knee. She closed her eyes. She pictured them heading down to Betsey’s, on a train crowded with Thanksgiving travelers, and somewhere in New Jersey or Pennsylvania the train heading into a tunnel and the overhead lights blinking out—his hand touching her leg in the darkness, letting her know he was there, until they came barreling out into their lives again, into the light.


Read more fiction from Commonweal here.

Published in the 2012-07-13 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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