2023 Great American Fiction Contest Winner: Shush, Shush

"I sat beside him in the front seat, where my mother would sit if she were here. I was 12 in 1968 — old enough, Dad decided, for me to visit her."

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My father said little. Impatient to arrive, impatient to visit, impatient to turn around and get back home, he drove as fast as he dared, swinging from lane to lane on Interstates 95, 295, 495, 695 through Virginia, D.C., and -Maryland.

I sat beside him in the front seat, where my mother would sit if she were here. I was 12 in 1968 — old enough, Dad decided, for me to visit her.

What’s it like, I asked, where she is?

Peaceful, he said, where she doesn’t need to worry.

He checked the rearview mirror and jammed the stick shift into gear. I watched his arms and legs move in fluid rhythm — lever the clutch, pull the column shifter, check the mirrors, swing into the passing lane, mash the gas, pass the slower car beside us, recheck the mirrors, veer back into lane, stomp the clutch, shift into overdrive, and glide.

He did this in silence — unusual for him, an easy talker — and his silence made me uneasy. If I tried to think of something to say, to ease my tension, to fill the vacuum, I’d blurt and stumble. Feeling mute and stupid, I gave up trying.

Better to crank down my passenger window and look out — count the drivers we passed. Our ’66 Ford Country Sedan roared down the lane like a cargo jet on takeoff, and slower cars vanished behind us.

If I leaned out the window, the blast of wind tore back my hair, pulled tears from my eyes. I could rest my cheek on the window frame and let the road rumble through my cheekbone. Squinting toward the Ford’s blunt nose, I saw a line of chrome trim running like a gun sight. I shot whatever got in our way — Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

If this were a race we’d be winning, which made me feel proud, even as I cranked my seat belt tighter. When a car passed us — a rarity — I made sure Dad knew. That guy is speeding!

The other drivers stared ahead expressionless, paid me scant attention. I imagined myself having mind control, whispering into their brains, Look at me, look at me, look over here at me. One driver did, and my heart jumped up to my throat. I jerked back and turned away.

My father veered from lane to lane, jamming the shifter through gears as we crossed into Maryland. He downshifted onto the exit ramp, pulled onto a two-lane state highway that shot through low-lying fields into rural countryside.

Passing on this two-lane road was exhilarating. We floated behind the car ahead, jockeying till the other lane opened up, then Dad downshifted hard, swerved into the passing lane and punched the gas. When we pulled back in, I’d let out my breath.

Trees and houses flashed by, wind thumped the windshield. In the afternoon light, my face reflected in the glass looked like a scoop of ghost.

Can we stop for ice cream?

He gripped the steering wheel, focused on the road. If he heard me it didn’t show.

I am the ghost of ice creams past.

I pulled a wrinkled list from my pocket, checked the paper bag between my shoes. In it, a few items for Mama. I read aloud from the list: Kool cigarettes, a jar of instant coffee, chocolate cherries

The air cooled as we sped through the afternoon, and Dad snapped the heater on. The roar of the blower plus the blast of wind was satisfyingly deafening.

I invented a game. To win, I had to read aloud every sign we passed.

Happy Motoring.

America Shops at K-Mart.

Bridge Freezes before Road.

Baskin Robbins … Baskin Robbins! Hey Dad! 31 -Flavors!

My father glanced at his watch, downshifted.

I added a new rule to my game — if I missed a sign, we would crash. No one would know who caused it.

Do Not Litter.

Jesus Saves.

S&H Green Stamps.

Crownsville this Exit.

Welcome to Crownsville.

Crownsville Town Limits.

Crownsville State Hospital.

My father parked, set the brake, let the engine die. In the bath of silence my ears rang, felt plugged and full, like ducking under water.

We’re here, he said.

He slipped the shifter out of gear.

 

I followed my father into a giant stone building, then down a dingy hall. A sign above us read C Ward — East Wing. We pressed a buzzer and waited by a metal door.

A nurse peered through a tiny window, unlocked the door, swung it back and propped it open with her shoe.

You here for Ann? She chewed a wad of gum. I remember you from last time, Mr. Louis.

She looked down at me, eyes crinkling. This must be your little boy. Ain’t he a cutie!

She yelled over her shoulder, Ann! Ann! You got visitors! then stepped aside so we could pass. The door slammed behind us.

This was not my mother’s first stay in a state hospital, only the latest, but it was my first visit. I couldn’t take it in all at once — the room cavernous, loud, overheated, painted a faded yellow, the TV booming on one wall, its screen covered with Plexiglas.

Dozens of people filled the room — sitting, standing, some muttering to themselves, some shuffling from foot to foot, some staring into space. A radiator clanked in one corner, and a man in pajamas crouched beside it counting on his fingers.

At first I didn’t recognize my mother, not till she rose from the sofa, unfolding stiffly, like a doll. Michael, you came. The words were thick in her mouth. I didn’t think you’d come.

Everyone watched us, which felt weird, so I kept my eyes on her. I hadn’t seen her in months — smaller than I remembered, her blouse coffee-stained, her hand in mine soft and warm and lifeless. She led us to a table away from the TV as Dad dragged three folding chairs.

Whadja bring me, Louis? What’s in that bag?

He pulled out doughnuts, a Whitman’s Sampler, a carton of Kool 100’s. She unwrapped a pack and picked at the foil like she was half asleep. I watched her struggle with the tiny tin corners, resisted the impulse to reach over and help. I didn’t want to make her feel worse.

Your mother’s on a new medication, my father said.

He offered her a light. She puffed and puffed, sucking hard on the cigarette, her cheeks caving in, smoke whooshing from her mouth. Her nails were painted with magic marker.

You get my instant coffee? Not the decaf, I hope. The good kind.

I held it up. Maxwell House, Mama, like you said.

My father took it from me, poured the coffee crystals into a paper bag, handed her the bag, and kept the jar. He saw me watching and said, We can’t leave glass.

At a water fountain, she filled a Styrofoam cup, stirred in coffee with her finger. See that girl on the couch? That’s Doris. She eats it with a spoon, straight from the bag.

At the sound of her name, the woman clumped over and sat by me. She hooked her bare feet behind the chair legs and stared at me, her face soft and empty as a cloud. I stared back till dizzy.

Doris, this is my son.

The woman wore a sleeveless blouse. From wrist to elbow her arms were crossed with scars. Rows of Xes. She saw me looking and scratched them.

Other patients shuffled over, faces hanging, one grinding his teeth. They held out their hands to my mother, who gave each a cigarette, sometimes two or three, a pack, she filled every hand without looking up.

Mama, we got those for you.

This is how it is, Michael. These are my people. I owe my people.

Her carton was half empty when a nurse stopped by and shooed the patients away. Ann, you give everything away again, you won’t have none for yourself. Why not leave your smokes at the nurse’s station with us?

Nurse, this is my son Michael.

Oh isn’t he a handsome boy! Looks just like you! Aren’t you lucky to have such a good-looking boy!

To me the nurse sounded fake — too loud, too upbeat, like she was putting on a show. I didn’t like her fake voice, her big fat butt. I frowned till she waddled away.

Mama, I drew you a book. I pulled it from the bag.

I’d drawn it the day before, a few loose-leaf pages stapled together. The cover showed me holding a ladder against a brick wall, Mama climbing out a window. Next page had us hand in hand walking down a zigzag road. The last page showed us crouched over a campfire, hot dogs on sticks.

You wrote me a book? What’s it say?

It’s a story book, Mama! That’s you and me on the cover, see? It says Escape to Freedom!

My father leaned over. Son, she’s not here against her will. This isn’t a prison.

What about the locks, Dad? What about the bars -outside?

It’s not that simple, my father said.

I like your book, Mama said, it’s pretty, holding it close to her face and squinting. She put it down and lit another cigarette off the butt of the first, her eyes crossed on the simmering tip.

There’s something wrong with my eyes. I can’t stop blinking. I need glasses.

My father shook his head. We’ve been through that, Ann. How many glasses have I bought for you? I get you a pair and you give them away.

It’s the wrong prescription. It’s that doctor.

She blinked at me through a menthol cloud, her eyes startling — gray and pale, pupils sharp as pencil points. She searched my face and leaned over so close I smelled her smoky breath.

What is it, Mama?

Suddenly I felt uneasy next to her — her twitchy face, the way she chewed her tongue … I backed away.

Mama, what is it?

Her face crumpled. Forgive me, Michael. Please forgive me.

I do. I couldn’t think what else to say. Mama, I do. I patted her hand the way Dad used to.

She cried, smoke slipping through her fingers like shoestrings. My father folded his hands. I squirmed in my chair and watched her cigarette ash. It fell with a soft explosion.

In another part of the ward, applause spilled from the TV. Someone shouted, Weeeeeee got a winner! and it ricocheted off the walls.

She sniffled, then pointed at my father’s shirt. That’s new. Where’d you get that shirt?

He looked down at it. Sears, I think. Sears and -Roebuck.

Is that Sta-Prest fabric?

I guess so. They had a sale so I got two or three — all the same color.

It’s nice. It looks good on you.

Thanks, he said, sounding pleased, but I can’t tell the difference. To me it’s just a shirt.

Can I have it?

He paused, then started to unbutton it.

She grinned at him, her cheeks flushing, her face suddenly glamorous in the way I remembered, her eyes bright as stars. He grinned too, pulling out his shirttails — they looked at each other like secrets were flashing between them.

Never mind, she said, I don’t need your shirt. I’ve got Frank Sinatra’s. She hummed a tune, rocked side to side in her chair.

My father said, That’s “Stranger in Paradise” you’re humming. Wasn’t that your favorite once?

She stood and swayed before us, dipped into a two-step, her plaid skirt splashing around her knees.

Mama, you’re pretty when you dance!

My father nodded. “Stranger in Paradise.” Topped the charts in 1953. But wasn’t that Tony Bennett?

She wagged her finger. Frank Sinatra … Frank Sinatra … Frank Sinatra … She turned slowly around, hips swaying to her singsong chant. She glanced coyly over her shoulder at us. Could one of you take the knife out of my back?

I looked at my father. His face snapped shut.

It’s a joke, she said, swinging her hips, a joke. You both look so serious.

He leaned forward in his chair, elbows on knees. He sighed. Ann, it’s late, we better go if we’re gonna beat the traffic.

A joke, for heaven’s sake.

We put her things in the grocery bag, walked back the way we came — he on one side, she scuffing on the other. A joke.

The nurses in their booth were reading magazines. We rapped on the glass till they looked up. One lifted a ring of keys.

My father pressed a wad of dollars into my mother’s palm, but she didn’t look at him, her face dull and faraway. The two of them stiff as statues.

Mama! I grabbed her hand and tugged it. Mama!

I felt giddy and wild — because I was leaving, I guess, or because I came, or because, who knows, this was important. Mama, when are you coming home? When will you be better?

Shush, Michael, just a little longer. She gazed down at me, blinking. You won’t forget me, will you? She ducked and whispered into my ear. Don’t forget your mother.

Her hand slipped from mine, it wriggled from mine like a mouse. She shuffled away with her paper bag, her back bent over. She looked a million years old.

My father and I were ushered out the door. I turned to wave, but my mother was already gone. All I heard was the whisper of her slippers — shush, shush, shush, shush, shush.

 

I followed my father back down the hall. His footsteps echoed around us.

At the front desk, a guard looked up from a comic book, waved us outside where everything shone from an earlier shower — lawn, boxwood hedges, parked cars nicked by pins of rain.

I hopped down steps, gulped the smell of wet asphalt as we crossed the parking lot, Dad’s keys jingling. He unlocked his station wagon, gunned the motor, and we backed out in a blue cloud.

Gravel ticked under the floorboards. I sat pressed to my seat as we sped past granite buildings, barred windows, benches on an empty lawn.

At the driveway’s end, we veered onto two-lane blacktop. Dad’s big Ford rocked like a boat, whined as he geared it up, the only car on the road.

I felt sad — but a light sweet sadness, soft as the amber sunset behind us. Did he feel it too?

He tipped back his rumpled cap, and I knew — there was nowhere else I’d rather be than here with him, both of us buckled in the wide front seat.

Dad, why is Mama there?

He ran blunt fingers through thinning hair.

According to your uncle, to keep her safe from all the crazy people out here.

He adjusted his visor and began, as is his way with every story, at the very beginning. How they met through friends in Washington, D.C., on the porch of a rooming house just off Columbia Road. How shy she was, and pretty in a cotton scarf, Catholic like himself.

Six months later they married, their first apartment a basement room with pipes hung from the ceiling.

She painted them polka dot so we wouldn’t bump our heads.

After their first child — me — we moved above a bakery, the windows open on summer nights to the sweet ether of yeast. With three more kids in four years, they talked of having twelve.

My father stopped, cleared his throat, paused so long I whispered, Dad?

Maybe he’d said enough.

Or maybe he needed time, wanted to tell me everything — how little they found in common, her shyness growing into silence, she drew away, became remote. And how stubborn she became, refusing to meet his friends or coworkers, refusing to leave the house.

Secretly he thought of divorce, perhaps when the kids were older. But everything changed one Saturday — home from Safeway with groceries under his arms, he found her on the stairs trembling.

Annie, what is it? What’s wrong?

Louis …

She looked up at him, her cheeks alive with tears, in one hand a pair of scissors, in the other hand the rope of her long hair.

Louis, has my face changed? Am I the Blessed Virgin?

His own hair stood up on the back of his neck.

He said he cried like a baby her first time in the hospital. I tried to imagine my father crying as he counted on his fingers: Harrisburg State Hospital, Springfield State, Spring Grove, Rosewood, Saint Elizabeth’s, now Crownsville.

Discharged, she came home fragile, quiet, drifted through the house in a haze of cigarette smoke.

But sooner or later, in weeks or months, he’d come home from work to find her gone, doors flung open, -children playing in the dark, or police.

Sir, we have a woman at the station claiming to be your wife.

Officer, she probably is.

My father looked over the seat at me, eyes lost behind his glasses.

Son, this was not our dream when your mother and I got married. We didn’t plan any of this. It’s nobody’s fault, you know that, right?

I turned away from my father. I had more to ask, more I wanted to know, more to say — but I didn’t know where to begin. We watched in silence as the highway glided under our Ford’s blue hood. The sky dwindled into twilight. Lights above the median strip flashed overhead like jets.

 

My father and I made that trip many times — past radio towers, railroad yards, shopping malls and suburbs we memorized. Always I asked for the story, and always he told it. I know it by heart from beginning to end.

But I want to hear it again — these many decades later — the slow roll of his voice in wind and rushing tires. I want to see his face lit by dash lights, his hands rocking the wheel.

It’s my turn now. Driving home at night after visiting my mother, I’m alone in the car, and older than my father was then.

I feel again the old sweet sadness — though she’s happier now, in a clean, bright group home run by a Baltimore couple she likes. I can’t make her life all she deserves, but it’s so much better than it was.

I roll down the window, let the wind blast around me, and name signs to towns I’ve passed so many times before — Millersville and Crofton, Patuxent and Bell Branch Park, up U.S. 50 toward New Carrollton I swing left at a flashing light and climb the ramp to Interstate 495.

Sooty and worn after all these years, still the ramp rises gently, an easy grade as the wheels of my Dodge spin a song so familiar I find myself humming, picking up speed for the last miles home tonight.

I look over my shoulder, find my space in the silver traffic, and rise into a river of lights.

 

The Post would like to extend special thanks to its staffers who helped with the selection of finalists, and to its distinguished panel of guest judges who shared their time and talents: Michael Knight and previous Great American Fiction Contest winners Linda Davis, N. West Moss, Jon Gingerich, and Dana Fitz Gale.

This article appears in the January/February 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. I haven’t read a more convincing 12 year-old boy’s P.O.V. since Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. Bravo! There was never an instant when I wasn’t engaged with my senses and my heart. This is a deeply moving story that catapults you, wondering, into the future. Which is to say that as beautiful as it is as a short story, it would also work as Chapter One of a first-person novel.

  2. Moving story by Michael Mack. Especially poignant because it was written in the voice of a child!

    By Gayle Bluebird

  3. You tell this story in a descriptive, realistic manner starting with the trip itself to the facility decades ago, and the uneasiness of it all between father and son. Some of the back story later on how this came to be, and how the son continues to visit his mother by himself, in the present day.

    The heart of the story deals with the father and son’s arrival at the hospital ward and taking in the entry process then seeing her among (presumably) much more disturbed patients in her vicinity. Tough on both father and son, but especially the son. Seeing mom’s cheeks caving inward from the deep drags on her cigarette, her disheveled appearance and general manner otherwise, not easy to handle.

    I particularly liked the conversations going on between the father and son with the mother. How the son made her that little book to giver her hope, his shock at her chewing her tongue, facial twitchings; her inquiry into dad’s shirts, and their exchange on ‘Strangers in Paradise’ from happier times before everything fell apart. The final paragraphs show a better place and times for her in the future, even though they fall short of what her life should have been.

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