Always with You by Robert Maynor
Alternating between found letters written by protagonist Simon and oral depositions from his family, “Always with You” reads like a puzzle, a kaleidoscope of shifting voices and brilliant details that combine to create a character study with high stakes—an incredible feat. With mother, father, and sister providing essential exposition, the story pivots around Simon, whose ideas and actions manage to feel both dreamy and crystalline, fragmented and astute. As readers, we worry for Simon, yet, he also seems to hold us safely within his hands, guiding us with his unique perspective and insights.
As the narrative progresses, Maynor unravels Simon’s search for some sense of direction—of value or purpose—after the loss of his lover and a childhood full of intense analysis of the world around him, a childhood spent filling “notebook after notebook with words.” With a poetic sensibility and ceaseless attention to language, the story’s style reflects its protagonist’s melancholia and mania, resulting in a stunning and propulsive read.
Sometimes, such sharp writing and momentum risks feeling too controlled, the result of heavy editing that stands in the way of a story’s natural flow. Not here. The energy on the page reflects the process, outlined in Maynor’s author’s note. The evolution of “Always with You” reminds us that sometimes the most essential part of writing is listening. By existing in the world, attuned to the landscapes and texts that surround us, we gather the characters and images and moods that will return to us later and swarm the page with a mesmerizing heat. —CRAFT
Document I: Letter from S. Bethany
Dear Father Sister, Mother, Lover who art in Heaven Home, Hell, Hotel, Hospital
When you find this, please:
- Load me like a bullet in the chamber of your gun. Lay me by your pillow while you sleep.
- Husk me like an ear of corn. Toss my rotten in the yard, to the raccoon you aren’t supposed to feed.
- Run me like a red light in the morning, on your way to work.
- Resole me like a boot you can’t afford to replace. Walk me up your ladder and stand to drive a nail.
- Lose me like the weight you’ve worried on these past few years. Swear me off for good.
- Write me like a pamphlet explaining our existence. Hawk me like a Witness, to the crowds that ramble by.
- Listen to me. Listen. As if these words were wax. Tune your needle. Let me speak, sing.
I should might will be back one day sometime soon.
Family Deposition (Sister, Martha Bethany):
I wasn’t surprised when Mama found the note. My brother’s instinct when things were bad was always to run and hide, and once he did, it was hard to flush him out.
Mama and Daddy were fighting once, a big drawn-out affair like they used to have all the time when he was little. Simon ran off and hid in the woods. Nobody realized he was gone for a long time. I was in my room, in my bed with my headphones on. I was probably about twelve years old at the time, so Simon would’ve been nine. Mama came in with her eyes all crazy, saying, Where’s Simon, where’s Simon? I said, If you were really worried about him, you wouldn’t have lost him, like she used to tell me when I couldn’t find an earring. You would’ve thought I stomped on her toes.
We went looking all over the yard and in the woods, hollering his name. He didn’t make a peep. Told me later he was laying in a stump hole, reading his Bible. Guess he figured if Mama and Daddy were looking for him, they weren’t fighting.
Just before dark, Daddy went inside and came out with his shotgun. He popped it off one time in the air and Simon started screaming from the woods. He came running in the yard, crying and carrying on.
Daddy laughed when he saw him coming. He looked at Mama. Thought I shot you, he said.
So, no. I was not surprised.
Document II: Recovered Dispatch from S. Bethany
She was standing in the middle of the road in the middle of the night, across from a small lot of trailers situated around a trash barrel flaming almost green, smoke filling up the night. She held one hand to her chest and waved the other over her head.
I was driving Laz’s Chevy Impala to Bluffton for a job favor. Sports talk played on the radio. I wasn’t listening to it, I just hadn’t bothered to change the station. When I saw her, I hit the brakes harder than I needed to and pulled to the side of the road. I sensed an opportunity to act heroic. Haul a miraculously pregnant woman to the hospital. Hunt down a snake that’s bit a child, to identify and milk for medicine. To change. To entangle myself in a different kind of life again as a different kind of man.
She walked through the headlights to the passenger window, still holding that one hand to her chest. She wore pajama pants with cartoon dogs on them, cheap foam flip-flops with plastic thongs, and a ribbed tank top that clung to her breasts. I turned off the radio and rolled the window down. He’s going to kill me, she said.
Who is? I asked.
I broke the phone, she said. She lowered her hand from her chest and stuck it through the window into the car. I turned on the dome light. In her palm was a cell phone, snapped in two, guts exposed.
I thought it was an emergency, I said.
It is, she said. Her neck was puffy and spotted with large moles. I told you. He’s going to kill me. Please. Fix it.
She was ailing and frantic, just not in the way I needed wanted her to be. It’s in pieces, I said. I got somewhere to be. Which was true. There was a man waiting for me in Bluffton, then I still had to make it back to Laz’s.
She pulled the phone back to her chest. You’re not listening. She looked up vaguely toward the fire in the barrel, the trailer. Fine, she said. Just let me ride with you.
No, I said. I could tell now she was spun. I got nervous, put my hand on the envelope in my left pocket. I’m going now, I said. Back up.
How about a little money, then? I’ll give you some head for a little money.
I looked at her and didn’t speak. She laughed a hoarse, cackling laugh and the moles on her neck shook. I let off the brake, pressed the gas, and eased back onto the highway. In the rearview mirror, I watched her cross the road. A figure came out of one of the trailers and walked to the trash fire in the barrel. It felt like the whole encounter was some kind of setup. I drove the rest of the way to Bluffton with an erection pressed uncomfortably in my jeans and a guilty feeling in my stomach like I needed to ralph but couldn’t.
What I’m trying to say is, all we are given are these humble bones and opportunities to use them. I would’ve acted heroic, I swear to god.
Family Deposition (Mother, Evelyn Bethany):
He wrote things down so he could understand them, then forget. It don’t seem logical, but that’s what he did. What he had to do.
Kids can be so mean. Simon would get something in his head, something the other boys said to him, and just stew on it for days. Whisper the whole conversation to himself, over and over in his bedroom. I’d stand with my ear to the door, listening, crying.
Finally, I took him down to the medical university and he met with a woman a few times. She had pointed ears and short dark hair. I didn’t trust her at first. She told Simon that writing things down on paper was like dumping gravel from a truck, to make a road. Emptying one thing and making another brand new. He filled notebook after notebook with words. Carried a little one in his pocket with him wherever he went. His daddy called him the editor, like a newspaperman. Where’s the editor? What’s the editor up to?
It did him good for a long time, though, the scribbling. Made some friends. He kept with it all the way up until tenth or eleventh grade, then stopped, which I figured meant he was doing good.
I guess he started writing again.
Document III: Letter from S. Bethany
On the spectrum of my love, you were an aberration—glaring, wrong, and beautiful—a pinhole in the curtain when we sleep in late, and I wake up in the morning and find your freckled shoulder bare above the blanket, the sun sneaking in, beaming across the room and shining on the wall, a perfect cone of light. According to you, the rest might not matter, the data might be faulty, the great Experimenter or whoever the fuck-all else might have made a mistake. But no. Now you’re gone gone. And the shape my life has taken, well, anyone could’ve predicted.
Family Deposition (Mother, Evelyn Bethany):
I did not approve of his relationship with Mary, or whatever you want to call it. Unnatural is what I call it. She and I were in the same Bible study class in grade school. One time she memorized the whole of 19 Psalm, word for word, about the law of the lord is perfect, the judgments of the lord are true. Stood up and recited it in front of the group wearing a raggy blue dress, looked like it was cut out of a flour sack. Always wanting somebody to look at her, feel sorry for her.
Simon was twenty-six years old. Mary had a son almost his same age. What could they have possibly had in common? I asked Simon that very question once, directly. We were standing in the kitchen, he at the sink, scraping bits of egg from a frying pan with his thumbnail, me pouring another cup of coffee. He said it was nothing earthly, it was all to do with their souls. She understood him better than anyone else. They didn’t even have to speak.
He said it just plain as day, in a real even tone, didn’t even look up from his washing. Like that wouldn’t hurt me, the one who raised him. The one who bore him.
Document IV: Voicemail from S. Bethany
- It’s Simon.
- Laz said you called him, looking for me. How’d you know I was staying here? Guess there’s only so many places. Guess this story ain’t as mysterious as I hoped.
- I was down at the washerette, doing laundry. I love the sound of that place, the smell. I was just sitting in front of the machine, watching the clothes and the bubbles turn through the glass. I was thinking what it would be like to climb in there myself. Adjust the dial to rough and tumble, let it spin me ’til I’m clean. I think I’d do it if I had someone to put the quarters in, wring me out when the cycle was done.
- Hope y’all are doing okay. Been eating my greens, Mama. Out the can. They aren’t like yours, even if I pretend, but I’m eating ’em anyway.
- Me and Laz had a good day yesterday. Went jumping off the Esau Jenkins Bridge like we used to. I know I shouldn’t say it and it’s probably a sin, but I felt holy falling through the air, the sun shining on my bare skin, just waiting for the plunge. I understood Christ, his confidence. Having a fate, a force like gravity, it gives that to you. But there’s oyster beds in the river there now and they shredded our legs all to hell. We both just jumped one time, then sat on the railing and let the salt and the blood and the pluff mud dry on our skin, listening to the birds and the cars when they crossed. Felt younger than I am. Like we were kids again, everything simple, our trajectories undrawn. We went down to the store and bought a bottle of the coldest Pepsi I ever drank in my life and passed it back and forth all the way back to Laz’s.
- The phone’s beeping. Guess I’m running out of time. Good to hear from you, even if I didn’t even really get to hear from you. Don’t worry. I promise, I’m well.
Family Deposition (Sister, Martha Bethany):
My brother drew and was drawn to what Mama called odd birds, but it was always Laz that worried us most. He was like Simon—you couldn’t see what was wrong with him—but he was full of some awful energy he couldn’t control or even comprehend. Stole things he had no use for. In seventh grade, he beat a kid so bad his face caved in, had to have a steel plate bolted to his skull. We knew where he was headed. But he always looked out for Simon.
They quit hanging out so much after high school. Simon went to college. He came back after a semester, but Laz still held it against him. I started hearing the rumblings a few years back, he was running with Bubba Welch and them boys from the tire shop.
It’s no wonder that Simon went to Laz when Mary died. Laz made him feel safe. Safer than any of the rest of us could. Simon was too smart to get caught up in all that other stuff Laz was doing, though. I would’ve sworn it.
Guess it just goes to show.
Document V: Collection Letter to S. Bethany from St. John’s Hospital
St. John’s Hospital
501 Walpole Rd.
Port Royal, SC 29901
November 29, 2016
Simon L. Bethany
186 Alms Ln.
Adams Run, SC 29426
Dear Mr. Bethany,
We write today concerning your past due balance of $13,454.87. Your account is in serious jeopardy. In order to protect your account, please make a payment within fifteen days. We accept Visa, Master Card, and Discover.
Your itemized charges are as follows:
|Date of svc.||CPT code||Service||Charges|
If your payment is already on its way, we thank you and ask that you kindly disregard this notice. If not, we require receipt of your payment as soon as possible. If you are unable to make your payment in full due to financial difficulties, a payment plan is available for you to satisfy your obligation.
St. John’s Hospital
Family Deposition (Mother, Evelyn Bethany):
I had no idea Simon had been hurt until the delinquency notice came in the mail. We’d gotten in an argument about him coming home. He’d stopped calling or answering.
When we got the letter, Simon’s father said it’d gone far enough. He drove over to Laz’s place, an old house with a rotting porch pushed to the corner of Starline Drive and that little tidal creek that runs underneath. Seems like it ought to be repossessed, always flooding up to the foundation. But Simon wasn’t there. Laz didn’t know where he was. Hadn’t seen him since he wrecked his Impala. I guess that’s how he got hurt. Laz said he wasn’t mad about it, but Simon was too ashamed. That’s what he said. Too ashamed. We never got the whole thing straight.
Having a child, you’ve got hopes from the very beginning, they’re still latched in the womb. Big as a peanut, the doctors say. Big as a lemon.
It is hard to sleep at night thinking about him lying alone in a hospital bed, bones broken, tubes pushing medicine into his veins. Who took him home? Who cared for him? When I dream, it is always of him, and he is always bloody.
Sitting on the porch, I see a man walking along the highway built for driving. We go downtown, I see a man sleeping on the sidewalk built for walking. My first thought is always, where is his family?
We’re right here.
Document VI: Recovered Dispatch from S. Bethany
Feed me, Jesus. Fill me up. I’ve eaten my fair share of flesh, what’s a little more? Tell Preacher don’t be stingy. Come off that body. Blood too. Let me step up to your throne. Lay that manna on my tongue. Fuck a sip, pour me a glass to wash it down.
Jesus said, You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. Sounds like a lie twice told. Bobby Bare said, Dropkick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life. Sounds like a wish done granted.
There are chickens pecking in the yard at the Church of God of Prophecy. Some are hunters, and some are thieves. Talk about a metaphor. Fucking watch. I come on Wednesday evenings for a bowl of noodle soup. Oliver Twist said, Please sir, I want some more.
But in the Bible, it was Judas who thought about us hungry. When Mary came to supper and poured that ointment on Jesus, Judas said, Why this waste? This ointment might have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.
What the fuck is this ointment, so valuable? But Judas has to know who he’s talking to. Don’t talk to no Magdalene about the poor. Don’t talk to me.
My mother named me Simon, and a leper I’ve become. Sacrilegious, sacrosanct. Even Jesus hit a rough patch.
Family Deposition (Father, Cyrus Bethany):
Me and Simon took the trash to the county dump together every Sunday. Loaded the cans into the back of my pickup. Simon liked to play my old cassette tapes. He loved the silly old country songs, “Amos Moses” and “Dang Me” and all them. He’d sing along and laugh, his hair blowing back from the wind coming through the window. But “Dropkick Me, Jesus,” he never did find that one funny. Sang it with his eyes closed, like a hymn in church. His voice got all low, didn’t sound like himself at all. It unnerved me, if I’m being honest. My own boy.
At the dump, he sat in the truck while I unloaded the cans. He didn’t like his shoes to touch the asphalt there, said it made them stink all week. On the way home, I’d stop and get a twelve-pack of Milwaukee’s Best. At the house, he’d go inside to do whatever it was he did. I stood in the yard and drank ’til supper. That was the most time we spent together all week.
Document VII: Last Recovered Dispatch from S. Bethany
Six days of rain and six days of cold like you never seen. Hitch out to the barrier islands hoping to find some warmer weather, but even Wadmalaw has frost on the fields. Sit out front a run-down gas and grocery, boots frozen to your feet. Cashier lady comes out and gives you a pack of orange crackers. Later, a Styrofoam cup of coffee. It tastes bad, but dear lord it hots your belly ’til it’s gone.
Midafternoon and the store is real slow. Man pulls up in a silver Mercedes, the headlights almost blind you. Don’t need gas, don’t need groceries. He rolls down the window and tells you get in. Know probably you shouldn’t, but you are so cold you don’t care.
He turns the heat up high. Seat warmers in the leather. Cross a couple bridges. He asks if you want some soup. Say soup is all you ever eat. He asks what you want. Get a bag full of burgers and hot, hot french fries. Dear lord, grease coats your tongue, your throat.
He pulls up to the Comfort Inn and you stay in the car while he reserves a room. Notepad and pen on the bedside table. You go straight to it. He says the only thing people write by hand anymore is suicide notes. He says why don’t you take a shower, write later. You don’t like to be told what to do, but he’s paying. Get under the hot water, feel it rolling down your back, smell the soap and the shampoo. It tingles on your skin. Turn off the faucet and pull the curtain. Your old nasty clothes are gone, just a white bathrobe laying on the sink.
In the room, he’s standing there with an alabaster bottle of oil in his hand. He tells you lay down on the bed, and you think here it comes. You don’t know what it’s like, but judging so far, it’s probably worth it to be warm and clean and full, but still, you are scared.
He comes to the bed and drips some of the oil on your feet, still gray and wrinkled from the icy boots, your toenails gnarled and yellow. He starts massaging them and it hurts at first because you been on them so much, but it starts to feel good okay and you close your eyes and your shoulders untense. Imagine it is Mary with hands so soft, rose from the tomb.
He moves up your ankles and rubs your calves, feels the bump in the bone from the accident because you couldn’t leave the cast on long enough, had to walk, walk, walk. Dear lord, to lay. What were you afraid of? Then he drips a little bit of oil on your thighs and rubs it in, kneading the muscles.
When he finishes with your legs, he puts your feet together and moves to your arms, applying oil and massaging. Then he stretches them out from your body in the shape of the crucifix. Don’t move, he says. He opens the robe so your chest is exposed and goes to the corner. He stands on the armchair and studies you from above. You can’t even look at him, it’s like his eyes are glowing. Feel your body shrivel before him.
Tell me my sins are forgiven, he says.
Poof, you say. They’re gone.
Family Deposition (Mother, Evelyn Bethany):
I wake up early in a town that sleeps in late. Take my coffee on the porch. Watch the titmice and the cardinals come from the dark and peck seed from the hanging feeders. I whisper to them, so low nobody else can hear.
Yesterday I was at the BI-LO shopping for groceries. I saw Mary’s son, Thomas. He had a long scraggly beard, not like he’d chosen to grow it, but like he just hadn’t bothered to shave in a real long time. He pushed a buggy full of the saddest groceries I ever seen: frozen lasagna, deli meat, loaf of bread, jar of mayonnaise, carton of eggs, case of beer. You can’t choose your mother and you can’t choose your son. I wanted to take that boy home and give him a hot meal and a hot shave, skin his face as smooth as god done the day he was born. It gave me more than a little bit of trouble, that impulse. But there it was.
When the sun gets high and cars come driving along the road in front of the house—people on their way to work—the birds flutter into the trees. But that’s okay. I know I’ll see them again tomorrow.
ROBERT MAYNOR is from the Lowcountry of South Carolina. His stories have previously appeared in Blood Orange Review, The Carolina Quarterly, BULL, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. He is a past recipient of the Larry Brown Short Story Award and the Coker Fellowship in Fiction from the South Carolina Academy of Authors. He is currently seeking representation for a novel, The Big Game Is Every Night.
Featured image by Wulan Sari courtesy of Unsplash