The Post presents the winning entry in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.
Tuesday, August 3, 1989. 7:03 a.m.
Joseph Dromski gazed upward along the length of the crane, squinting through the already stifling haze. His reddened eyes followed the steel arm to where it reached out over the beams and girders, the skinless skeleton of the skyscraper under construction. He wondered just when it was, and how, he had lost it. “God, I’m tired,” he said aloud.
It seemed to him that there had been definite events which had caused it. Lost promotions that had gone to less qualified, as favors and payoffs. Jackie running away, what, seven years ago, eight? Joseph could not see the incidents as the skidmarks they were, merely warning signs on a long, steadily descending stretch of highway. And he did not wonder how negativity and hatred had replaced their opposites in his life, for it was such a gradual process.
And so it was that he did daily now things unconscionable ten years before, justifying his personal evolution in steps as it paralleled his perception of the world’s decline. Each step could be justified from the one preceding it, yet Joseph Dromski had no conception of the huge number of such steps; they ran together in his mind which latched onto only a handful of specific events which must explain, he would tell someone across the bar, the laziness and lack of morality in today’s youth or the warring in the Middle East. And so as he stared through the haze at the crane’s arm, he tried only to justify the action of the previous step, last night … Careless, he thought. Stupid kid.
Joseph Dromski watched the crew spreading slowly out over the site, and he, too, moved sluggishly toward the elevator cage. But as it lurched into motion, lifting him over the city, he felt none of the thrill he remembered once feeling. He sometimes saw it now in the eyes of the younger men, and he thought them foolish, unrealistic. Wise up, he sometimes told them (he’d told Teddie). Wake up and smell the coffee, and the burned toast, he’d chuckle, watching their eyes to see if his blows registered.
Tiny sweat droplets formed on his balding head, and inside, the dull throbbing began again. “God, it’s hot,” he told no one in particular.
Joseph looked around the elevator, peering guardedly at the grim faces of the other six riders, men he had known, it seemed, forever. He remembered when their moods were light and easy, and the men looked up to him, quick with a joke and the next round of Pabst. But now they hardly looked. So they’re guiltier than I, Joseph took this to mean, and knew that soon he could believe it … One more step.
The sun sliced through the wire cage and left lined shadows on the gray overalls of the riders. Their clothing now matched their faces, appearing like a prison chain gang.
Monday, August 2, 1989. 5:19 p.m.
Maggie sat on the concrete steps of the brownstone that was like all other brownstones, anywhere, and waved to Ted as he let her father out and drove off. She liked Ted, had dated him from time to time, and he had lately taken to coming into the bar some nights near closing time. Yet after a couple of drinks he would leer like a predator, overtipping and bragging about “going places.” He acted as if he deserved her rather than wanted her, and at times he spoke of life in the cynical terms he had learned from her father. Jackie had escaped before he could be so influenced, yet Teddie seemed sometimes to lap it up so eagerly. What were they doing in the middle of these nights, she wondered.
“You look like a hooker on the corner of Rush,” she heard her father say. You should know, Maggie thought, not meeting his eyes. “Find a sailor to slap you around a little, huh?” And he was past her and into the building.
Yet the remarks no longer drew blood as they once had, as when Jackie had first left. Maggie silently prayed that this was not because she was drained like her mother, an embalmed body in which no blood remained. She thought again of Teddie, who was apparently unaware that he, too, was losing blood to this man.
Maggie remained on the steps, listening, as her father heavily climbed the wooden steps inside, angrily but without the energy to be. Bitter.
Joseph Dromski entered the kitchen his wife had made even hotter by using the oven. Without a word he took a beer from the refrigerator and slumped into the leather-cracked stuffed chair in the front room. He unbuttoned the straps of the gray overalls, revealing a sleeveless tee-shirt sweat-stained the color of his teeth.
“Do you think you might sometime serve something cool in weather like this?” he called toward the doorway, switching on the television to drown her possible answer.
But she offered none, only acknowledging another check on a mental calendar, another day unchanged. Della had felt her energy, her life in these past years, escaping in tiny wisps, sucked out through the door that each evening he reentered. More and more it seemed locked from the outside behind him.
He used to tell her it was she who had changed, but recently he had begun telling her the opposite—that change was demanded and she had not. “You’ve got to modify,” he’d say. “You’ve got to get tough.”
“They’ll kill us, Del,” he used to tell her, before he had modified. Before he began working nights and talking less.
And Maggie told her not to listen, to take the blows and think of her own dreams, of returning to teaching, or just getting out. But Della did not sleep well, and her dreams she tried not to remember.
She, too, wondered how and why so much had been lost. She did not understand the steps involved, could not trace it. I still miss Jackie, she thought. If I could get past that, I know I’d be better for Joseph. “He’s takin’ you, Ma,” she heard her son, could it be eight years ago, “surer than if he was beatin’ you with his fists …” Thank God, at least, for that, she had thought at the time. Yet now, as she held the counter, the nauseating emptiness warm inside her, she was not so sure.
“Do you work again tonight?” Della asked, calling over the television, spooning chicken casserole onto a faded china plate, its blue flowered design worn unrecognizable. He did not answer, and as she handed him the meal his eyes did not leave the screen.
Maggie remained on the front steps, listening to the television news pouring from the second floor window and thinking of her mother. Finally she rose and checked her watch, knowing she would be early for work.
Tuesday, August 3, 1989. 2:12 a.m.
Joseph Dromski awoke with a start as the filter of the cigarette held loosely between his fingers seared his knuckles. He swore under his breath and stared across the room, completely disoriented. Worn furniture was bathed in blue-gray radiation light emitted from the silent television. Joseph stared blearily through the smoke at the small rectangle of light in which Groucho Marx was miming “You Bet Your Life.” The emcee handed a schoolteacher from Iowa fifty dollars for using the word attached to the foot of a suspended duck. “. . . a common household word, something you see every day,” Joseph mocked thickly. And then all was silent again save for an occasional passing vehicle on the still stifling street outside.
Joseph Dromski glanced at his watch now and rose quickly. He found his work boots lying neatly beside the door and mechanically tugged the laces through eyelets, pulling them tight as his hockey skates decades ago. He did not hear his wife breathing unevenly in the bedroom whose door stood ajar.
If we could finish this place tonight, he thought as he closed the door and slipped down the wooden stairs, maybe I could get some sleep. Yet as he stepped out into the moonless August night, he was wide awake, his mind actively calculating.
It had been a fine old building, 1920 maybe, and if the yard man believed even older, the bricks could sell for at least twenty-eight cents apiece. At least twenty-two hundred in the truck meant he could cut Teddie his seventy-five—for two hours work, more than I ever made at his age, the ingrate—and still have, what, five hundred plus in his pocket. That would buy a long nap, and maybe an afternoon at Arlington with the ponies.
The truck turned over grudgingly on the second try—the damn thing runs better in a Chicago winter, he thought—and Joseph drove slowly toward the south side, not worried that Teddie may have waited as he overslept. He’ll get paid, Dromski told the rearview mirror, nodding at the deserted streets.
Behind him in the brownstone, Della Dromski lit a cigarette and sat up in bed, feeling somehow better the moment the door closed behind him. Endurance seemed the only goal on nights like this.
Yet it had not always been this way, she counseled herself again. She remembered the winter nights watching from behind the glass as he glided over the ice so swift and full of boyish determination. And then the breezeless summer nights like this one, passing back and forth warm pints of beer on a blanket by the lake. Watching the barge silhouettes far away and the stars. Kissing, laughing. High school, she thought. And then the wedding and the Army and the children and still, she thought, they had been happy. Yet somehow, she could not place exactly when, it stopped feeling the same.
It was partially now, Della thought, that dammit she still loved the man. And partially her upbringing, for her mother would never have imagined leaving her father, whose drinking bouts and violence were much more common than her own Joseph’s. She had taught Della perseverance and preached forgiveness, always forgiveness, and as Della did now, had often blamed herself. And when Maggie pleaded with her to get out, she could never muster the strength to abandon that boy on the blanket by the lake so long since gone.
Della Dromski rose, stubbing out her cigarette, and entered the warm kitchen. With resolve she began laying out bread and mustard and sliced ham, the ritual and the mere motion of it a comfort.
She could not continue to hear the voices of Maggie and Jackie in one ear, and Joseph in the other. Her love went out to both sides, yet she was torn and unsettled.
Della listened to the steady, scuffing beat of the ancient coffee percolator. Outside, a car engine neared and quieted. She heard Maggie’s footsteps on the stairs, and looked up to see the front room an eerie blue-gray as the television played on silently without audience. She turned back to her work.
Tuesday, August 3, 1989. 2:37 a.m.
Maggie closed the door quietly, wearily, and saw her mother’s back to her at the counter, bread laid out in neat rows before her. She knew her entrance had been heard, and moved behind her mother, kissed her cheek.
“Take these over to . . .” her mother began, then stopped, thinking My God, that was just like him, and tried to smile. “Honey, how did it go tonight?”
Della felt suddenly defensive, not wanting her daughter to say a word. Embarrassed to be making him sandwiches in the middle of the night. She turned her head slightly so that Maggie’s words might be channeled into her right ear, Joseph’s ear.
Maggie loved her mother, and she knew what her mother had begun to ask. She understood her, and part of her loved the unfinished order. Was this where she was different from Jackie, she wondered, and more like this woman at the counter?
Yet the part of Maggie that did not love this “slip” by her mother, the unanswered love her action represented, the weakness . . . this part of Maggie hated her father, suddenly and deeply. She realized this feeling had existed for as long as she could remember. Jackie, she thought, help me now.
Maggie had watched her father gouge into people as his own self-hatred went unacknowledged. She felt him trying to take from her all that was inside her, because he had relinquished all that was inside himself. And she had watched him take away her mother’s self-respect and her dreams, almost laughing that it was so easy.
Maggie had watched this since her youth, and had found her mother in tears, or worse, like this now, many times. And she had been there to comfort her. But did she
respect her mother for taking all this—for letting him destroy her because he felt wronged? Part of Maggie despised this weakness in her mother and in herself.
Maggie hesitated. “I’ll run the sandwiches over to Daddy,” she said. “I’m still wired from work, could use the air. I know the area they’re working—Teddie told me the other night.” Her mother looked up seriously.
They stared at each other for a moment. Della’s eyes sought an answer, what two construction workers could be doing in the middle of the night. Then, Maggie thought, they seemed to dart, to withdraw the question.
“I love you, Mom,” Maggie said simply, pouring hot coffee into the thermos.
Tuesday, August 3, 1989. 3:21 a.m.
Joseph Dromski waited by the truck in near-total blackness, sweating. He saw no lights on in the apartment building opposite the abandoned brick structure where he stood, and no sign of human life at all on the other sides, a small park and a dusty, littered vacant lot. Ted emerged from the condemned building, his shirt perspiration soaked, pushing the wheelbarrow laden with clay-colored bricks.
“That’s got to be about it,” Teddie panted. Joseph frowned, seeing room in the pickup for maybe, he quickly calculated, seventy more.
“A few more,” said Joseph Dromski, looking at the truck.
“The interior walls . . .” Teddie began, frustrated, catching his breath. “. . .shouldn’t try,” he attempted, faltering, knowing it was dangerous to spark Joseph’s short fuse.
As Joseph helped him stack the bricks into the bed of the truck, Ted knew that he would reenter the gutted structure. Joseph finally stood still and waited, as Teddie lifted the wheelbarrow the last time.
“Greedy bastard,” Ted muttered under his breath, cursing more himself, for a lifetime of yielding in this game of chicken. He rolled the cart through the doorless entryway and into complete darkness.
Tuesday, August 3, 1989. 3:29 a.m.
Maggie had passed and rounded the same block twice before she recognized her father’s truck. In the blackness it was barely visible beneath the structure that stood, she could tell, without glass in the windows or occupancy of anything but pigeons and rats.
Her Volkswagen stalled, the engine dying, as she saw the barrel-like form of her father and the tall, massless skeleton of Teddie pushing a wheelbarrow. The men exchanged words, but in the silence from a block away she could not make them out. What were they doing?
There was a moment, then, of total absolute silence, which Maggie thought she had been granted to understand something. Something you already knew, Jackie would tell her. But as she watched Teddie reenter the hollow structure she thought, I’ve missed it.
It was not, she would think later, violent or deafening, even played upon the background of complete silence. It was soundless, like a film she suddenly remembered
seeing in grade school, of an earthquake somewhere out west. Buildings fell this way, she remembered thinking. Without narration or description; without emotion.
The last brick . . .
And then she remembered Teddie, as three of the exterior walls of the building in slow motion collapsed upon each other like a house of cards. The coffee in the thermos on the seat beside her remained hot.
Maggie turned the key and the car sputtered. The engine caught. She sat for a moment comforted, concentrating on this low rumbling, grateful. And she spun the car around, in the rearview mirror seeing the figure of her father leap into the cab of the truck. She accelerated, screeching around one corner and hitting the lights, stopping only when she felt out of reach and the telephone booth appeared in her path.
She was quite calm with the police, she thought later. Speaking evenly and giving no names, saying please just send an ambulance quickly I know nothing more. And just as calmly and rationally she somehow knew there was no hope. He has taken from Teddie what he took from Momma, and me, and God knows who else. What he took from the building itself . . . And we will all eventually collapse, she thought, our insides looted but the facades left apparently unblemished, betraying no damage.
Maggie packed quickly, leaving a note in her mother’s handbag, nothing more than Jackie’s address. Yet she knew her mother could not follow her now.
As the first streaks of hazy light appeared in the rearview mirror, Maggie saw the silhouette of the city, the skyscrapers rising proudly from the darkness beneath. And only then did the tears begin to fill her eyes and fall silently onto the work shirt she had never changed. There was something different about these tears, she thought, for they were not shed and lost in the night to be found again the next. They meant something, for they came with motion, and change. She gripped the wheel tightly, staring straight ahead.
Tuesday, August 3, 1989. 7:18 a.m.
The elevator cage stopped at the top of the city, and the man closest to the gate hesitated a moment before sliding it aside. And it seemed to Joseph Dromski that the shadows of prison stripes remained on the overalls of the seven men long after they had stepped out into the sun. “God, it’s hot,” he said.
One-on-One with Author Gregg Cusick
Why does Gregg Cusick write fiction?
“I couldn’t not do it even if I never got anything published,” he confides. “I do it for myself.”
He has heard other authors say the same thing, “But it’s true,” he says. “Writing helps me figure things out.”
I’m talking with Gregg about his short story “Gutted—” an excerpt appears in May/Jun issue of The Saturday Evening Post. It’s the first-place winner in the recent Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, administered by the granddaughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway.
Gregg thinks a literary gene must have passed down from his father. “My dad wrote short stories as well as working in management at AT&T. He always wanted to try to make a living at writing, so he took a year off and became a full-time writer. My mom went to work in a department store to support us. I was 11 or 12 at the time. At the end of the year, he went back to AT&T, but he’d sold a couple of stories and won an award.”
Gregg’s own early fiction featured a horse named Nag and was accompanied by hand-crayoned illustrations. He went on to receive a master’s in English-Creative Writing from North Carolina State University in 1990.
“Maybe I got it from my dad, but I always thought being a writer was the best way to make a living. Of course, it’s hard to do. I’ve taught, worked as a paralegal, been a construction worker, moved furniture,” he says. “I couldn’t sit down to be a writer like John Cheever did, where you do it six, eight hours a day.”
He shrugs philosophically. “Today, I work as a bartender. That’s proven to be a real good job, in that it leaves plenty of time to write. And you get a lot of story ideas from being behind the bar.”
Gregg and his wife, Katie, an architect, live in Durham, North Carolina. However, he mostly grew up in upstate New York. “It’s a place I’ve used a lot for settings in stories, a wonderful crystallized memory, magical in a way.”
“I’ve come to realize if I go a certain amount of time without writing, it’s like an itch that gets worse. I find that I need to put something down on paper.”
“Writing is so solitary,” he says. Although his dog Jeepers often keeps him company, his wife gives him space. “She can tell when my need to write starts building up.”
Gregg has had a number of stories published in small journals like Chelsea, The Alchemist Review, Inkwell, and The Bellevue Literary Review—and collected into such anthologies as Wordstock Ten 2008.
“After reading about competitions in Poets & Writers, I started doing the contest thing. I’d do it once a month, package up a short story and mail it off.” He’s twice won The Robert Ruark Foundation Fiction Prize, and placed first in the Ernest Hemingway Festival fiction contest, the E.M. Koeppel Awards, and the Alligator Juniper Fiction Contest, among others.
“Two years ago, I won second place in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. She was so encouraging, I kept at it and this past year nailed first prize.”
Lorian Hemingway takes pride in her winners’ accomplishments. “I consider it my job to honor the talent of emerging writers—and if those who enter this competition are compelled to continue to write as a result of receiving the recognition they so deserve, then we are each richer for it.”
Yes, no question about it. Gregg Cusick will keep writing. He can’t avoid it.