Jan Allen’s short stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Apple in the Dark, and fellow-writer-voted Sixfold.

Redefining Everything

by Jan Allen

I haven’t seen the biological father of my firstborn child for 53 years, but when Paul Westerfeld passes me, in the aisle seat of the fifth row, I don’t have to look twice. His face is thinner, he’s lost some hair, his lips rest in a less pronounced upswing at the corners. But his green eyes have that look they got sometimes, like he’s deciphering a math problem, even though he’s just searching for a seat on our tour bus that’s bound for New York City.

I owe my husband Norman everything. He married me when I was eight months pregnant. He’s snoring softly beside me now; the window of the bus is his pillow. He’s been asleep the whole time I’ve known him.


There were ten of us on the bus when we left Steubenville at 7 a.m. We picked up Paul and the rest of the passengers in Pittsburgh at 8:00.

It is now 1 p.m. We are stopped at a convenience store in Harrisburg, three hours from New York City. Less than an hour ago we’d stopped at a Buc-ee’s-wannabe, where I cleverly evaded Paul while standing in line for the ladies’ room, then waited for him to reboard the bus before purchasing a sharing-size bag of M&Ms, which I did not share.

I say, “We just had a bathroom break an hour ago. Why do you think we’ve stopped again? At this dinky gas station to boot. Do you think something’s wrong with the bus?”

My husband, who’s looking out his window, doesn’t answer. But the woman across the aisle overhears. I’d started to befriend her at 7:30 in an effort to resuscitate the better person I used to be. But this was before we picked up Paul.

“For sure!” Mary Ann (Mary Lou? Mary Ellen?) exclaims. “The bus is broke down!” She is elated. “This is our lucky day. We made it to this 7-Eleven. If we woulda broke down on the side of the road, they’d be takin’ a bunch of us to the hospital with frostbite.”

Mary Ann’s seatmate Laverne (Shirley? Rhoda?) adds enthusiastically, “On my last trip, when we broke down in 105-degree heat, they had to take away two old ladies by ambulance. Heatstroke.”

Our tour guide gets on her microphone and exuberantly announces that Mary Ann and I have surmised correctly; we are waiting for a brand new bus that will arrive by 3:00. For the next two hours I am going to be crammed in a tiny gas station with fifty-four other passengers, one of whom doesn’t know he is the father of my oldest daughter.

What constitutes a lucky day is relative.

There is a lively buzz in the bus as my fellow travelers gather their things. I don’t hear a single complaint or exclamation of surprise. I guess a broken-down bus is an old people’s adrenaline rush.

When we’d stopped at the Buc-ee’s wannabe, we’d filed out in order, front to back. But this time when the women in front of us, then next to us, stand and depart, I stay seated. My husband doesn’t question my inaction. He never questions anything I do, or don’t do. And especially in the decades when I was singlehandedly raising our four children—three of whom matched Norman’s DNA—I did some crazy stuff. I miss those days.

I wait until the bus is empty. I have decided to redefine the “everything” that I owe my husband.

“Norman, it looks like Melanie’s biological father is on this tour. I’m not going to be able to avoid him in there.”

If Norman cried at any time during the three years his twin brother Greg suffered with AIDS, I didn’t witness it; I didn’t see him cry with relief when Greg died. If Norman cried last year when our youngest daughter, Jenna, was diagnosed with lymphoma, I didn’t witness that either; I didn’t see him cry with relief when she received our son Andy’s stem cells and is now, they tell us, cured. (When my children were tested for the bone marrow transplant, Melanie did not match any of her siblings. If this revelation is being discussed, it is not being discussed with us, at least not yet.)

I notice now that Norman is crying a little. He turns away and wipes his tears, as men sometimes do, with the thumb and middle finger of his dominant hand. I get up and walk down the aisle, because it might’ve taken me a decade or two but I finally got the message about emotional detachment. I do wait for Norman outside the bus door. Mary Ann wasn’t kidding about frostbite. He joins me a minute or two later, and we walk toward the tiny gas station in silence.

When Norman opens the door, the five people closest to it stare at us furiously. Not only have we let in the frigid cold, but these five people now have to nudge others so we can close the door behind us. COVID, anyone? RSV?

I watch in a ceiling-corner convex mirror as an overwhelmed worker weaves between some of us to unlock a storage area so we can spill into it.

With mumbled “Excuse Me”s and “Sorry”s, Norman shuffles off, toward the restroom I assume, since he’d remained on the bus fifty minutes ago at the Buc-ee’s-wannabe.

I might’ve been a little quick to say I wouldn’t be able to avoid Paul in here, because it is impossible for the sardine at one end of the can to detect the sardine at the other end. We have a whole week of group activities ahead of us though, so I’m bound to run into him eventually. I might as well get this reunion over with.

I find Paul by looking in the ceiling-corner mirror. At the same time, I’m rehearsing what I’m going to say. The words forming in my mind are the ones that a woman suddenly standing next to me says:

“Hi. You might not remember me, but we went to high school together.”

She is a woman I noticed when she boarded the bus—I realize now this was right before Paul boarded—and also in the convenience store an hour ago. I could tell from her lack of eyebrows and how her knitted cap slid up that she had no hair on her head.

When you see someone young who is probably dying, “Oh, God, no” goes through your mind. When you see someone who is probably dying but who has reached a certain age—is it 60?, is it 65?—you think “Oh…well.” This woman has reached the “Oh, well” category. As have most of us on this bus.

She says, “My name was Wendy Westerfeld then.”

I look in her eyes and I remember. Paul’s sister. She’s caught me off guard, and all I can do is whisper her first name.

“I idolized you, you know?” Wendy says. “You and Paul weren’t nasty like all the other popular kids. When I talked, you stopped what you were doing and listened. And you guys let me hang around with you a lot.”

Even though Wendy was two years younger than Paul and me, I idolized her right back. She always blurted out whatever was on her mind, and the bigger her audience, the better. She was what used to be called a pistol, or a smart-aleck. I wonder where that got her in life.

Wendy continues. “I thought what I was witnessing was true love. The way both of your faces lit up when you were together. The way you laughed. How you couldn’t keep your hands off each other.” She turns away. If I’ve figured out the convex mirror, she’s looking where her brother is. When she turns back to me, her eyes have a hostile glare. “When you moved, you promised him you’d call as soon as you got to Steubenville. He kept waiting. For a phone call. Or a letter. Even a Dear John letter would’ve been better than nothing. You broke more than his heart. You broke my brother’s soul.”

After my mother discovered, in the summer of 1971, that there weren’t enough tampons missing, my parents’ orders were explicit. I would leave Pittsburgh to live with my spinster aunt, Kate, in Steubenville. It was that or be sent to an unwed mothers’ home where the nuns would make sure my childbirth would be excruciating, and then they would take my baby away from me. They told me that at seventeen I didn’t have the foggiest idea what love was, and I needed to let that boy start his adult life unencumbered.

I was terrified. I did what my parents told me to do.

At any time after I was whisked away, if Paul had driven his Chevy Nova down the mile-long cul-de-sac to the house at the end where we conceived Melanie, he might’ve seen one of my parents’ cars in the driveway, or even one of my parents. But he had no reason to suspect I’d lied when I told him my father’s company had transferred him.

“I need to talk to Paul, Wendy,” I tell her.

But she is having none of that. “Don’t you dare go near him.”

“Even if I wanted to, how could I avoid him this whole week?”

“Bundle up. A heavy coat, a hat. Wear a mask. Just until tomorrow. We’re meeting my daughter at Tavern on the Green. I’ll get sick. I’ll make sure Paul and I don’t finish the trip.”

“I really need to talk to him.”

“Sure, sure. Do that. Introduce him to your lovely husband, show him pictures of your beautiful kids and grandkids. He never married, Dori. He spent fifteen years of his life taking care of our dad. So go ahead, go over there right now.” She squeezes my upper arm through my heavy coat with the strength of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger and pulls me toward where she had looked earlier. “Rub your beautiful life in his face.”

I start shuffling through the slightly thinned-out crowd in the direction Wendy’s pull has put in motion.

Wendy jerks me back by my arm that she is still holding. “What are you doing?”

“You told me to go over there.”

“Are you an idiot? Don’t you understand sarcasm?”

I turn to face her. I place my hand over hers, the one that’s still gripping my arm. “I’m doing the right thing. At least it finally feels like the right thing. You’ll see, Wendy.”

Paul is listening intently to a man who is storytelling with upper extremity accompaniment. Paul, Norman and this man might be the only males on this tour. I wait until the other man’s arms fold across his chest.

“Hi. Excuse me,” I say to both of them. Then I turn my attention to Paul. “You might not remember me, but we went to high school together. My name was Dori Williams then.”

His mouth falls open, but otherwise there is no response. At first I just stand, frozen, too. I’d never gotten past memorizing the little speech I just delivered. Finally, I reach out my hand for shaking, but he pulls me in. He must make eye contact with Wendy as he does, because when our short hug ends, she is standing beside me instead of cowering behind Mary Ann and Laverne, who’ve followed Wendy and me to this aisle of the store. Mary Ann and Laverne have been so blatant about listening in, there’s no way you could call it eavesdropping. At least the man Paul had been talking to has graciously turned his back to us.

Paul smiles. “How’ve you been for the past, what, 60 years?”

“Good.” I say it with a brief nod. I’m all business as I pull out my phone, type in my password.

I’ve never cared much if I’ve aged well or not, or if I’ve put on a few pounds (concealed by my puffy coat, I hope), or if my hair isn’t staying put where it’s supposed to. Today especially, I can’t worry about a curl going up instead of under, not when Wendy doesn’t have any hair at all. Can I? But I know that while I’m searching, Paul is studying me like I’m an equation to be solved, and to say I’m a bundle of nerves is vastly underestimating the bundles.

I can never find what I’m looking for on this stupid device!

If it is possible to clear your throat angrily, that is what Wendy is doing. She has to be furious, sure that I’m going to rub beautiful photos of my grandkids in her brother’s face. Well…

I finally find what I’m looking for, a video of Melanie holding Ethan, who was a newborn at the time. Melanie’s expression had reminded me so much of Paul that my breath had caught.

I say, “This is a video of your biological daughter.” I hand him the phone and add, “Also, your grandson.”

The video lasts twenty seconds. In it, Melanie runs her index finger down Ethan’s nose and across his quivering lips, kisses his forehead, then looks at her husband, who is holding the camera, with bewilderment.

Paul watches it, then leans toward Wendy, and they both watch it five or six times. Finally, they look back at me.

I reach for my phone. Paul doesn’t pull it away but he doesn’t meet me halfway to give it back either. He doesn’t seem angry, or happy, or anything. Maybe his brain is trying to solve for X, but X is too old and complicated to find the solution to.

I say, “Her name is Melanie. And her son is Ethan. She has three kids. Ethan, Sarah and Robbie.”

This time I reach farther, and I take my phone from his hand. “I have to tell you, Melanie doesn’t know that my husband isn’t her father. She’s about to find out though.” I don’t know if this is true. Maybe the kids have already taken DNA tests. “I can’t guarantee she’ll agree to meet with you—if that is what you want—but I’m pretty sure she would. Do you want to see more photos? Or—”

Our tour guide interrupts with a shout. I try to find her in the mirror, but instead I find Norman. He is standing by the door leading to the outside, where he has an unobstructed view of me, of us, in both a direct line of vision and in the mirror. We make eye contact without the mirror. He looks bone-tired.

I’m beginning to detect our tour guide’s flair for melodrama as she announces the new bus has arrived and we must board. Immediately! Norman is pushed out the door by people behind him. Those around us start filing out too; reluctantly, even Mary Ann and Laverne. But Paul holds me back. There’s probably still an indentation on my puffy coat from his sister, a place to grab.

“Wendy, I’ll be right out,” Paul says.

Through the store window, Paul stares at Wendy until she boards. We are the only people from our bus remaining in the store. Norman might not notice, or care, that I am missing, but Wendy certainly won’t let them leave without us. Right?

Paul takes a deep breath. “Wendy would blow a gasket if she knew I was saying this to you. She thinks people can only be happy if they have kids. A few years here and there notwithstanding, I’ve had a great life. I don’t have any interest in meeting Melody.”

I look at the shelf directly behind him. I think about pushing him against it so that it will topple over and he will land among the food staples. But he’s so short and skinny and wiry, he’d probably catch his balance, and the only thing that would happen is a couple of five-dollar cans of Campbell soup would topple. If I pushed Norman, on the other hand, he’d take down this shelf and perhaps all the others in a domino effect, because Norman is tall and burly, and also, he wouldn’t have a clue I was about to push him.

I try to keep my face neutral, but I move just enough so Paul knows I want him to remove his horrible, horrible hand from my arm.

He does. “Well, I suppose if she wanted to meet for dinner, that would be all right. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t want to build any kind of relationship.”

“Noted.” I nod, turn, and walk to the bus.

When I sit down, Norman is not sleeping. He is not looking out the window. He is watching me with the concentration he usually reserves for books about the Watergate break-in or the Chappaquiddick scandal.

I don’t try to hide the fact that I am furious. I believe I’m panting. Steam might be spewing from my ears. When Paul walks down the aisle, I duck, as if to tie the shoelace on one of my pull-on boots.

I can feel Norman’s stare.

I sit back up and snap at him, “What?”

Norman looks down, starts softly laughing. So fricking inappropriate. He can’t tell I’m about to lose it; he’s as oblivious to my mood as this stupid filthy bus is, as it speeds down this stupid boring interstate. Brand new bus my ass!

When Norman is able to stop laughing, he says, “Of all the scenarios I’ve conjured up over the years, him rejecting you has never entered my mind. That’s what just happened, right, Dori?”

“How dare that jerk!” I am still caught up in my moment, not Norman’s, not yet. I’m talking to myself, like I always do whether or not Norman is present. “Who does he think he is?” I’m indignant, I’m vehement, but I’m whispering. I don’t want Mary Ann and Laverne to hear me. I hiss: “Who actually uses the word ‘notwithstanding’?”

Norman says, “I’ve always known you would find him. You’d write him a letter or call him, or later, when social media reared its ugly head, I figured you’d look him up.” Norman hasn’t made eye contact with me since he started talking. He turns away, toward the window. “And then you would leave me.”

Now he’s got my attention. “No. No. That part of my life was over as soon as I left Pittsburgh. I approached him for Melanie. Not for me. Because of her bone marrow not matching. She’s going to start questioning her paternity.” This might not be true exactly. It might not be true at all. But if one of my children could be presented with a dad who cared about her, didn’t I have to give her that option? I didn’t think it was possible to have a father who cared less than Norman, but apparently I thought wrong. “Why did you think I would leave you?”

“I knew you didn’t love me, that you loved Melanie’s father like I loved you, that you married me out of desperation.”

Back then, I wasn’t a rule-breaker, at least not rules with stigmas like mine (unwed mother), so I suppose I was desperate. I’d loved Paul, but I was being honest when I told Norman I left him behind in Pittsburgh.

Had I loved Norman? “You were so quiet and shy,” I say, “I didn’t know you that well. But Aunt Kate sang your praises, and I thought it was wonderful of you to offer to marry me. I knew I would grow to love you.”

Norman doesn’t ask me the obvious next question. If he did, I would circumvent answering.

He is still looking out the window. “My parents would always say, ‘Norman never gives us any trouble like his brother does. He’s such a good boy.’ Kate assumed I was marriage material because I cut her lawn for free and answered every question with ‘yes, ma’am’ or ‘no, ma’am’. It’s like when people assign emotions to a squirrel; it’s human nature to assign positive ones.” Bleak that Norman is comparing himself to a rodent. “What is that old saying? If you stay quiet, people will think you’re stupid, but if you speak up, everyone will know for sure.”

“Being an introvert is one thing, but you still could’ve gone to our kids’ activities. You could’ve just sat there quietly. But you didn’t. Sometimes I would see you open the door to the gym, like you were going to come in, but then you would change your mind, like you had something more important to do.”

“Dori, I can’t believe you thought I had something better to do. Didn’t you realize that I was bad luck for our family? If I went to Melanie’s diving competition, she over-rotated. If I went to Andy’s little league game, he struck out.” Even bleaker, Norman thinks he is a jinxed rodent. “I thought the more I backed away, the more you all would love me. After I realized that wasn’t true, I didn’t have another personality I could magically transform into.”

“It’s not magic, Norman. It’s as easy as this conversation.”

Not quite not that easy, but it’s a start.


I love Manhattan. I’m constantly looking up at the skyscrapers, but my neck doesn’t get stiff. My back isn’t killing me. My hips, knees and feet don’t hurt as Norman and I walk together more than we have in years. I want to see all the sights. Norman holds my hand; the sidewalks are so crowded he has to, or else we will lose each other.

When we return to the bus after seeing a Broadway show, I ask Norman if he liked the play. When he answers “sure,” I challenge him to “tell me specifically what you liked about it.” And he does.

At the end of the second day when we all return to the bus, our tour guide counts us off with her usual fervor. She gets to fifty-two, not fifty-four, but says “let’s go” to the bus driver. Wendy and Paul are gone. Wendy told me yesterday she would fake an illness; Paul said Wendy would blow a gasket. I hope it’s one of those things, not that Wendy is really sick.

As Norman and I sit in Radio City Music Hall, waiting for the Christmas Spectacular to begin, he tells me he believes that our daughter Jenna will be the one who will get the 23andMe DNA test kits. This will be after she catches up on all the other duties she has had to let slide while fighting for her life. He surmises that Jenna and Melanie will approach not both of us but only me when they get the results. The conclusions Norman reaches about our family make me realize that although he’s taken a back seat all these years, he’s been paying close attention from there.

When I started raising my kids, it was almost 40 years before Sarah Palin compared a hockey mom to a pit bull with lipstick. I was more like a bison in a garter belt, and later, a grizzly bear in L’eggs pantyhose. What I’m saying is perhaps Norman remained in the background because the foreground was already occupied. Norman’s emotional absence bothers me more now that our kids and grandkids are grown and it’s just the two of us. But decades-old habits are going to be hard to change.

It’s our third day in New York City. We’ve made it to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. It’s dusk. I’m not going to tell Norman I love him until I do. I can’t assure him I’ll never leave him but only because I might die first. So I borrow a page from The Book of Norman and stand here silently, holding his hand.

Copyright 2024 by Jan Allen