His tiny fingertips skimmed the iPad. The hands of a surgeon, thought his mother. So graceful, so confident. Or maybe the piano. They’ll fly on piano keys. Yes. They were the hands of someone who’ll play Carnegie Hall.
“Simon, which face looks mean?” They made it a game.
Not as much mean as recalcitrant, he thought. Perhaps refractory, mulish, pig-headed. Lines from a dictionary flashed on the ceiling. He lifted his head and read.
She cupped his chin and gently steered him back to work. “Watch the computer screen, Simon. The eyebrows are arched, the mouth corners are up, the eyes are twinkling. I think that’s a happy face. Do you think that’s a happy face?”
They raced through the program like they did every night and stuck gold stars to a chart. Then came the hard part. Making stories out of pages in a magazine. Serena had cut out the pictures ahead of time and pasted them on notebook paper. Simon had to fill in the bubbles.
“The man has shirts. Lots of shirts,” said Simon.
“What do you think he’s doing? There’s a bull’s-eye, right? A red bull’s-eye under the picture. There’s a cash register, too.”
“Target, Target, Target,” the child responded.
“Words, Simon. Use your words. What do you think the man could be saying?”
“Expect more, pay less.” Tilting his head, he hummed.
They both heard the glass break at the same time. It sounded like the noise came from downstairs. A dozen presents sat underneath a Christmas tree by a large window. “Hide,” whispered Serena. There was no phone in Simon’s bedroom. The ringing startled him, anything sudden startled him. Serena would have to walk down the hall to call the police. Be quiet, be good were her last words as she shut his door.
It was a typical home in West Miami. Houses lined the block like concrete bunkers, each separated by a few yards of grass. People were close enough to hear Serena’s screams. Almost three hours passed until they found Simon. His mother’s body was long gone. The crime scene — the family room couch bathed in blood, the upended lamps — were taped off. The neighbors had almost forgotten about the boy, the strange boy nobody played with.
“He probably run off,” said an elderly man. “He always run off. She find him blocks away like a stray dog.”
A woman stepped out of the shadows. Slim, pale, already dressed in black. “I work with Serena at the school. Sometimes when she needs to go to the store, I watch him.”
The policeman wrote in his clipboard. The woman spoke and waited, spoke and waited. Breathing. When he glanced up, she started talking again. “I’m Amy. Amy Ritter. Simon’s 10 … did you find him? He likes to hide. He ends up in the oddest places. Behind sofas, inside cabinets.”
They found him behind the curtains, sleeping in the window seat. Serena had taken one of the sheets that matched his bedding and hung it floor-to-ceiling. No one scrutinizing the room would have guessed there was anything but wall behind it. It was his favorite hiding place. “Are you hiding in your fortress again?” his mother would say. “Or today is it a castle?”
Curled like a fetus, the child was too still. “Son, are you all right?” The policeman knelt at eye level. Even when he poked him, there was no response. Amy had to rub his arm and shout his name three times to wake him up. The boy opened his eyes and blinked.
“Simon,” said Amy, this is Officer Martinez.”
The man spoke slowly, over-enunciating each word, the way some people speak to the deaf. “You … feeling … okay?”
Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest
Simon stared at the face that loomed inches from his own. It was a jumble of eyes and ears and teeth. Only the nose caught his attention. There were huge holes on the man’s nose. Holes bigger than the La Brea Tar Pits. Larger than the Grand Canyon. The holes were like craters on the moon.
“I bet you’re Simon.” When the man tried to steer him away from the curtains, Simon pulled away. Then he tucked in his arms and legs and lowered his head. That’s how hermit crabs defend themselves from predators, he remembered. He pretended his back was a shell.
“I think it’s time to come out, buddy. You must be hungry. My kids are always hungry.”
Simon thought about his stomach and realized yes, it did feel empty. He stood up. The nose with all the holes belonged to a head that was attached to a very tall man in his bedroom. He was in a policeman’s uniform. Maybe he was a policeman.
“I’m Officer Martinez.”
A computer screen lit up in Simon’s head. Eyebrows straight, mouth down. A sad face, maybe a worried face. Then the screen quickly linked to another site.
“Ramon Martinez,” blurted Simon. “Earned run average 3.67. Win/loss 135-88. Born March 22, 1968, in the Dominican Republic.” His voice found a rhythm, rising and falling like an elevator. He swayed from side to side, standing on one foot then the other. Like the radio announcers, full of vinegar and pep. “With a lifetime strikeout record of 1,427, Martinez was one of this decade’s most outstanding pitchers.”
“You don’t say.” Martinez cocked an eyebrow and glanced at Amy, the two of them standing by a bed shaped like a race car, the comforter covered in cars, the curtains covered in cars.
“So you like baseball,” Martinez continued, “and you like cars.”
Simon studied the policeman’s face. Now he seemed quizzical. Though perhaps he was unsure or undecided. It was hard to tell. The faces never matched the ones on the computer. It was like the computer was frozen and real life moved. Pages of his favorite book leafed through his mind An Anthology of Scientific Facts published by Harcourt Brace, copyright 2010. He loved the heaviness, the heft, the way it felt when he lay down on this bed and put it on his tummy. Did you know that insects can be trapped in amber for centuries? Their wings locked, their very breaths trapped forever. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep, they don’t die. Real life moved.
“Is my mother dead?” he asked.
When he told the policeman that the man had been inside his room, at first he didn’t believe him. It appeared untouched. Clothes were carefully folded in drawers. The closet doors were closed. Even the toys were put away. The man simply took his father’s watch off his dresser and left.
“What did he look like?” asked Officer Martinez. “Do you remember what he looked like?”
Simon scrunched his eyes and gazed at the ceiling. “A red hat. Kitchen gloves. Black sneakers.” He slashed the air with his finger. “A Nike’s swoosh.”
But the face was a blur. He could not remember the face. Serena’s cries had long stopped. The house was eerily quiet. Simon sat on the window seat, peeked through the curtains, and watched the man, the man who hurt his mother, then he lay down and slept.
Amy stayed with him the next week. Simon liked Amy. Her hair smelled like soap. Her voice sounded like Christmas carols, and she used funny words. gosh darn whatchamacallit jeepers. But when they found his grandfather, the grandfather his mother never spoke about, the grandfather he never even knew, she went home.
It was up to her to break the news. They were baking chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen. Simon was pounding the dough on the kitchen table, kneading until his knuckles gave out. “Serena never told me about your grandfather. Did she talk about your daddy’s daddy?”
Simon read Amy’s face like brail. She was easy. Furrows rutted her forehead when she worried, furrows like tire tracks. He didn’t have to look at her to see them. He could squish the dough, squeeze it out though his fingers, and listen to her all at the same time. Serena would be proud. Yes, that is worried.
“Did they tell you he made cars? He worked on the line in Flint. He’s coming all the way from Michigan to stay with you, Simon.”
He was making a mud pie. If he used the flat of his palm it could be huge. Perhaps the world’s biggest. He tilted his head and started humming, humming loud enough to drown out the thump thump thump of the overhead fan, the buzz of the refrigerator, Amy.
“And I’m just three blocks away if you need me, right?” She sounded funny, like she was hiccuping. Simon hummed louder. Soon he could no longer hear the words.
The Grandfather came the next day.
They stared at each other for five minutes taking a head-to-toe inventory. George spoke first. “I could use a nap. Where can I take my nap?”
His two battered suitcases were slid into Serena’s closet. Then the stranger who called himself George lay down in her bed. His mother’s aura, the scent of gardenias, was displaced by something unfamiliar. Foresty odors like wood chips and pine needles. Even though it was September, his grandfather wore a flannel shirt. The temperature outside was a sticky 85 degrees, but he kept the shirt on right through supper.
Streams of sweat ran down George’s neck while he boiled a can of chicken noodle soup. Together they foraged the pantry, opening and closing doors. Simon found saltines. On the highest shelf, the one above the refrigerator, George found the Scotch.
“You mind if I indulge?” A shaky hand poured the brown liquor into a glass. Then they both sat down at the kitchen table. Simon shoved one cracker after another into his mouth, working his way through the box. His grandfather drank.
“I got the Parkinson’s. GM gave me early retirement. Disability pay.”
Simon watched him slowly sip, the booze splashing on the table now, almost as much landing outside the glass as staying in. The more George drank, the more his hand shook. His tongue got looser, too. Soon he was talking nonstop, a stream of words flowing out, the sounds liquid. They carried Simon like an ocean wave.
“You know what it’s like? It’s like my brain is stuck in second gear. I can’t shave no more, I can’t even put on my socks. So I say to my hand. Okay, this is the plan. You’re going pick up that razor and get this stubble off my face. Just like you’ve been doing for the last 60 years. Only all of a sudden there’s a breakdown in communication.”
He glimpsed at Simon, his hands in a frenzy as he poured himself another glass. “You don’t talk much do you?”
“I’m stuck, too.”
That night, like every night since the incident, Simon had a nightmare. Like most of Simon’s dreams, they were so vivid and lifelike that he had trouble telling they were over when he woke up. He dreamt about the watch. He was on the school playground when numbers suddenly flew at him like hailstones. He scurried in circles, trying to find someplace safe, dodging and ducking. Still they kept on coming.
“He wanted you to have it,” said Serena. “It’s your legacy.” Serena didn’t believe in using baby talk when speaking to children. “It’s your inheritance,” said Serena. “For posterity.” The car accident had happened a month before his third birthday. One minute his father went out for a quart of orange juice and the next minute he was dead.
The watch wasn’t a toy like his miniature Millennium Falcon or as interesting as his goldfish. But each night he touched it like a talisman before he went to bed. Now it wasn’t there. Like the hole in his mouth where a baby tooth fell out, something was missing. And when the nightmares came, when he heard his mother’s screams, a ticking metronome always lurked in the background. The watch in his dreams never failed to remind him of what was gone.
Martinez called. Could they come to the police station? There was another robbery and this time a silent alarm alerted the police. A block away from the house they found a pillowcase filled with jewelry. Two blocks away they found the thief. He was high, they said, and had a rap sheet. If someone made a positive identification, they could lock him up.
The room was bigger than the school gym. Simon held his grandfather’s hand as they walked from one policeman’s desk to another. Phones rang and pencil sharpeners churned. Simon rubbed his ears. People were screeching in Spanish, English, Creole. They sound like cicadas, he thought. Like a tornado of cicadas.
“Which one is Martinez?” George had a cataract in his right eye. He walked with his head at a tilt.
Simon slowly inched up the aisles, scanning the faces. Finally he spotted a man almost as tall as the doorframe. He got close enough to inspect his nose. The holes were even larger today.
Martinez glanced up from his paperwork and sighed. “I’m gonna show you a lineup.” When he looked Simon in the eye, the boy looked away. “Remember it’s one-way glass. You can see them but they can’t see you.”
There were five men standing in a row with numbers on their chests. But no matter how hard Simon stared at their faces, they resembled out-of-focus snapshots. Blurred. His hands got sweaty and he wiped them on his shirt. Up down. Up down. Up down. He could swear he heard laughing, but when he turned around to confront his classmates, to see if Bobby or Emmanuel or any other of the mean boys had followed him into the police station, no one was there.
Martinez ushered them into the hall. He spoke quickly like he was busy, like other people were studying lineups who didn’t stumble, who without hesitation remembered the face of the man who killed their mother. When he said Don’t worry son, I knew it was a long shot, he sounded like Simon’s PE coach after he struck out or threw a basketball into the wrong hoop. Overhead lights crackled. Cicadas screeched. Flapping his hands, Simon opened his mouth as wide as he could and screamed.
Fifty heads craned to glare. While Martinez jumped backwards, George closed in. He wrapped his arms around the boy and squeezed. “Remember when we read your book about the boa constrictors?” They started rocking, shifting their weight like a ship at sea, the grandfather all the while counting. One two three four five. One two three four five. One two three four five. Soon Simon’s heartbeat fell in with the rhythm. One two three four five. One two three four five.
“Those men all look alike to me, too,” said George.
On the way home, they stopped at a restaurant and had pancakes for dinner. It was the one food they agreed upon. In many ways, George was as picky an eater as his grandson. Every morning he had oatmeal, every lunch was soup, and every dinner macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile Simon preferred things crunchy. Granola, carrot sticks, little crispy fish sticks shaped like fish.
That night, George let him stay up past his bedtime. When Simon went to sleep late, he was too tired to have nightmares. Instead they watched football on TV. The old man had a pudding cup while the boy microwaved popcorn. Together they poured the last of the Scotch down the kitchen sink.
When his eyelids were fluttery and his feet seemed too heavy to lift, Simon let George carry him into Serena’s bathroom and set him on the edge of the tub. There was nothing that calmed Simon down more than watching his grandfather get ready for bed. He was soldierly and neat, and Simon loved soldierly and neat. A row of brand new toothbrushes was lined up along the sink and each night George unwrapped a new one, brushed his teeth, then threw the used one away. He did the same thing with soap. He’d use a bar once then toss it in the garbage. Sometimes, thought Simon, you just can’t get clean enough.
Next it was his turn. He counted 10 brushstrokes on each side of his mouth and spurted the toothpaste out into the water glass 10 times. He took the fresh pajamas that he laid out on his bed that morning then carefully inserted his legs into the pants and his arms into the top. Then he slipped under the sheets and pulled three blankets up to his chin. Tuck tuck tuck tuck tuck. While his grandfather sat in a chair by his bed (his mother had sat by his feet), Simon read 20 pages (not 9 not 11) of one of his top 10 favorite books. This week they were rereading The Hobbit (Houghton Mifflin Books, January 1, 1966, edition). Simon had read the trilogy at least a dozen times.
“There is nothing like looking if you want to find something.”
Simon pronounced the passages loudly and clearly. Every few minutes he glanced at George to see if his chin was resting on his chest. His grandfather was a never-ending source of amazement. Like a horse, he could sleep standing up.
“You usually find something if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” He had read 10 pages. Tuck tuck tuck tuck tuck. And then he fell asleep.
Six weeks later, Martinez called them again. George answered the phone. There was noise in the background. People were shouting in strange languages. The officer got straight to the point. “It’s time to hit the pawnshops. Bring a list of the jewelry you’re missing, photos, whatever you have as proof of ownership.”
“Hold on. Hold on. Let me get a pen.” George combed through the kitchen drawers for something to write with. By the time he lifted the receiver again he was out of breath.
“They sit on goods for 60 days. Then they release them.”
“Where do we go? Is there an address?” George got lost driving to the supermarket.
“Start with Homestead and work your way up. Cutler Ridge, Liberty City, Overtown.”
George straightened his back, hitched up his trousers, and cracked his neck. For years, his life consisted of driving to the VA Hospital and the Veteran’s lodge. Loop after loop like a skein of yarn. He liked the predictability, the safeness of it. Now things were unraveling.
“Homestead? Where’s Homestead?”
“FYI. The brokers are supposed to fingerprint and register their clientele. Comprende? Sometimes we get lucky.”
They sat down at the kitchen table and unfolded a map of South Florida. Serena’s absence was still palpable, like a chunk of unswallowed food in their throats. Her lipsticked coffee mug, the handwritten notes she left on the refrigerator.
“Did I tell you I met your mom once?”
Simon’s eyebrows jumped.
“I was into the sauce then. Your grandmother had just died. I don’t think I made a positive impression.”
His wife had suffered a long lingering death from cancer. If there were five stages of mourning, George wallowed in step two. Anger. He hated when they couched disease in military terms, when they called the treatment a battle, or the victim a casualty. George served two tours in Vietnam. There at least you had a fighting chance.
“Everyone loved Gloria. Never forgot a birthday. Swapped recipes with strangers on the bus.”
As soon as his wife died, his world spun apart. She was his center of gravity. The one who chatted with the neighbors, sweet-talked bill collectors, smiled through pain. You knew what you were getting with George. There was no sugarcoating with George.
“We have to make up a list. There’s a ring, a watch. You think anything else’s missing?”
They opened every drawer in Serena’s bureau, handling her panties and bras like they were tissue. They peeked under the bed and in the closet. Her scent was everywhere. Simon held her dresses to his face and buried his nose. Gardenias. They still smelled like gardenias. It wasn’t until he worked up the courage to search the photo albums that his synapses clicked. Yes, there she was in her wedding picture wearing pearls. He had never thought about his mother’s pearls. They were hidden in a small jewelry box, the red leather one she kept on her bureau. That was gone, too.
They treated their job like a reconnaissance mission. George wore his old army jacket even though it clenched his armpits. Simon carried a backpack with supplies: pudding cups, granola bars, water, his Swiss army knife.
“Take photos,” said Martinez. “Everything starts to look alike.”
The trek down US 1 in Serena’s Camry seemed endless that first Saturday. George didn’t care for the radio (You call that music!!), so he talked while he drove. Simon decided his grandfather was an automotive genius. He knew as much about vehicles as Simon knew about dinosaurs, about the animal kingdom, about crystal formation, about the constellations. If someone wanted to publish The Anthology of Vehicular Facts, his grandfather could write it.
“The 1971 Camaro was a beauty. A-arm front suspension. Leaf springs on the rear axles. An air induction hood scoop that opened when you hit full throttle. That Z28 was one of the 10 best cars in the world.” On and on he rambled until Simon closed his eyes, the words droning like a lullaby, lulling him to sleep.
The farther south they went the more dilapidated the neighborhoods became. There were bars on all the storefront windows, a spindly palm tree the only sign of green. It seemed that every other block was either a pawnshop or a fast food establishment. They pulled onto the curb in front of Al’s Pawn. First one metal door, then they were buzzed through another. A dark brown man with a wooly head sat on a stool behind a counter. He waved at them and offered a half smile. One of his front teeth was gold.
“We’re on the hunt for a diamond ring, some pearls, perhaps a watch,” said George.
“Looking’s free,” the clerk replied. In a corner was a TV. The announcer was calling football plays.
Simon scanned a shelf of watches and shook his head. Nothing was familiar.
“You don’t have too much in the way of fancy jewelry,” said George.
“Just what you see.” Someone ran through the goalposts and the crowd went wild. The clerk threw up his arms and yelled Touchdown!
They had no better luck in the next three stores. Instead of asking for help, they quietly sifted through the merchandise. George perused the tables with military paraphernalia. Simon liked the old clocks. It was like crawling through someone’s attic. Most of the stuff had been there for ages. Broken. Abandoned.
The fifth store, the one in Goulds, was the start of their education. They were making their way past bins of garage sale leftovers when a man with a long bushy beard, a black fedora, and a black suit walked into the shop. The salesclerk made a phone call and five minutes later an elderly man appeared from a back office. He was bent like a question mark, his face rutted with age. He shook the hand of the man in the suit, took a key out from his pocket, and disappeared behind another door. Minutes later, a dozen trays of rings, necklaces, and watches were laid on top of the counter. Gems sparkled. Gold glinted like sun.
Simon slowly walked over. The men were too busy talking to notice him, the one in the fedora swooping his arms, gesturing, the old man nodding. His mother’s ring was a simple round diamond on a silver band. One entire tray was filled with them. To Simon they were all alike. The watches had the words Rolex on their faces. None said Bulova, like his father’s.
They almost met success at a store in Hialeah. Half the shelves were stocked with swastikas. Ashtrays with swastikas. Helmets with swastikas. Posters with swastikas. George’s Purple Heart worked like a password. The owner put his arm around his shoulder and the glass doors in his cabinets flew open.
Still the diamond solitaires and ropes of pearls all seemed identical to Simon while the watches all looked unfamiliar. Simon stared and stared. And when a slice of sun cut its way through the blinds and onto the countertop, he covered his eyes in pain. Metal gleamed like shards of glass and diamonds burned like ice. “Hot! Hot! Hot!” he screamed. He flapped his hands and spun like a top to make the burning stop.
“Can you close the shutters?” George bellowed. “Turn off some lights for Christ’s sake!”
Then they counted. One two three four five. One two three four five. George wrapped the child in his jacket, stroked his back, and massaged his arms. When Simon finally calmed down, they walked back to the car. Words weren’t necessary. The boy and his grandfather knew each other’s shorthand. The shrug of a shoulder was enough.
Slowly their lives were finding a groove, the knots loosening. They drove to the pawnshops every Saturday, making their way as far north as Orlando then turning around. The lives settled into a routine. George met with Simon’s teachers and helped him with his homework. And after school, they threw baseballs in the backyard and tinkered under the hood of the Camry. Together they grew.
At the supermarket one day, Simon pointed out to George the rows of soaps that came in bottles. “You can pump them,” explained Simon. “Each time it’s like new.” George narrowed his eyes then dumped a bottle in the cart. And when they started reading The Fellowship of the Rings, Simon forgot to count the pages. Sometimes they read 20 even 30 at a sitting. Together they made a chart of Middle Earth so George could keep the names right. His grandfather even stopped falling asleep.
They both dreaded the approach of Mother’s Day. Like they did every Sunday they went to their favorite restaurant for pancakes. But the booths were teeming with families that day. Babies were crying, kids were running up and down the aisles, the tables overflowing with gifts. George cleared his throat.
“Next month school ends. Right?”
“I thought we’d take a little road trip.”
He took a box out of his pocket and held it out. “Here, open it.”
“A compass, it’s a compass, Grandpa.” Simon traced the round surface with his finger. It reminded him of his father’s watch. He’d keep it on his dresser.
“I figure we’ll hit Jacksonville and work our way west. We have family in Michigan. And I believe Gloria had some cousins in California as well.”
“Can we visit the pawnshops?” asked Simon.
“Of course, of course. That’s part and parcel of the expedition.”
The boy smeared the maple syrup around his plate with his spoon. Then he stared at the mess like it had all the answers. “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” His lips kept moving, silently repeating Tolkien’s words. He didn’t know if he was saying them or thinking them. If they were quiet or if they were loud. But they were always there.
“And we can bring your books. We can read every night if you want. I believe The Return of the King comes next.”
Simon dipped his thumb into the syrup and traced the edge of this plate.
“Poor Frodo,” said his grandfather.
Simon glanced up. His thumb was midair, his mouth, open.
“All that trouble just to rid himself a ring.”
They bought maps from every state and that night spread them out on the linoleum from the kitchen down the hall to the family room.
“This is the fun part.” With a shaky hand George held up a red marker. “We start with Miami.”
Simon nodded. He would collect postcards from every city. There would be rocks from the Rocky Mountains and salt from the Great Salt Flats. A cap from Dodger Stadium and a lobster bib from Maine. He could see it.
With his fingers guiding his grandfather’s, his small hand cupped over the larger one, they drew the first small circle. They made lists of provisions and researched motels. They packed a stack of old books and bought some new ones, too. They gathered names and addresses of friends and relatives from the east coast to the west and together they plotted their future.
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