Along with STOP and END and DANGER, Sam’s brother taught him to recognize a few other words and phrases, such as FRIEND OF THE COURT. They were the people Sam paid child support to every month. They, in turn, sent it to his ex-wife, Ember. His brother had told him, “If you ever get a letter from them, call me right away, and I’ll come over and help you with it.” But Pete had moved eight hours away for a new job. So, when it came to reading, Sam was now on his own.
When he didn’t reply to their letter, the Friend of the Court sent more. And more. The only problem was that he couldn’t read them. But he knew they had to do with his support payments.
This was all his fault, he knew. He had been mad because Ember just couldn’t seem to get to their meeting place on time or missed their appointments altogether. So he decided the money would end, too. He had a right to see Destiny on a regular basis, and since Ember wouldn’t listen to reason, he figured the checks were all he had to bargain with.
He had been planning to withhold the support checks for only a little while — just to bring Ember to her senses — but then he’d had the accident. He’d been on the line, passing a truck panel to his neighbor, but the guy was flirting with the girl next to him and took too long to reach for it. The next thing Sam knew, another panel was coming straight at him. He slipped as he tried to reach for it, messing up his back in the process. He was out of commission for weeks, which meant he got only 80 percent of his pay. The joke, once again, was on him.
There was a college kid at the plant who was taking a break from school to save up some money to go back. Sam thought he’d ask him for help with the Friend of the Court letters. Matt seemed like a nice kid — he was majoring in special ed after all — and for that reason alone he thought he could trust him.
“Hey, Matt,” he said, the next time he saw him in the cafeteria. The kid was new and usually sat by himself reading a book. “Look, I got some papers from the court I really need help with. They have to do with my visitation with my kid.”
Maybe it was the way Sam held the envelopes out to Matt, as if he was presenting a damaged child. The boy took one look and seemed to understand. “Sure, sure, I’ll help. Do you want to look them over here?”
“No. Not here. Let’s go out to lunch tomorrow. I’ll pick up the tab. That’s the least I could do.”
“You really don’t have to do that,” Matt said.
“I don’t have to, I want to.”
So, the next day they drove out to a strip mall in his truck — all paid for, he said to the kid, to let him know he could afford lunch — to a place he figured none of the other men would be. He didn’t want anybody to see him being read to like a child.
They walked to a booth at the back of the restaurant where they could have some privacy.
The boy pretended this kind of thing happened every day. He tried to look casual, like there was no shame in this.
The waitress came over and said, “You boys ready yet?”
The boy spoke slowly, pretended to read the menu aloud to himself. “Let’s see … Fish sandwich. Catwich. Flame-broiled …”
Sam jumped in. “How’re your burgers? They any good?”
“I have one practically every day for lunch,” she said, tapping her pencil on her little green pad.
Sam closed the menu and gave it back to her. “I’ll have a burger. With lettuce, ketchup, and mustard. And fries. Your fries good?”
“The onion rings are better.”
“Sold,” he said. “And a Coke.” That was the way to handle that.
The kid looked uncomfortable. Probably worried about Sam picking up the tab. “I’ll have the same.” The way he said it, like he just swallowed a bug, made Sam laugh.
“Sure thing,” she said, looking from one to the other.
Sam waited until she was out of earshot and slipped his hand into the big manila envelope he’d brought with him. “Okay,” he said. He pulled out the letters and set them on the table like he was laying out a row of hunting knives and making the kid select one.
“O-key dokey,” the kid answered, like he was trying to make a little joke, but when the boy said that, Sam began to think he hadn’t picked the right person. The little freckles on his face, the careful way he laid out his paper napkin on his lap. In fact, come to think of it, there were times Matt didn’t seem too bright for a college boy, but he was the only person Sam had now.
“I need you to tell me what these say,” Sam said. “Basically, I don’t know which way is up with all this crap. I had them all in order nice and neat, and then they slipped off the table. I put them back the best I could. Now I got a hell of a mess on my hands.”
“Well, this shouldn’t be a problem,” Matt said in a voice a little too loud for Sam’s satisfaction. He pointed to an envelope. “See, you look at the date on the envelope and then … ”
Sam looked out the window. “I can’t see the dates. I need new glasses. That’s why I can’t read what they say.” But he knew the boy knew this was just an excuse.
“Um, well, never mind about that.” The boy looked over the envelopes and shuffled them like some kind of magician, his lips pursed. “Ah,” he lowered his voice, “they’re from the Friend of the Court.”
“I know that,” Sam said. “What I need to know is what they say inside. I have a little girl. Destiny. Her mother left me and took her, and now I pay support money to the Friend of the Court every month. Some friend.”
“So, how do you write the checks?”
His brother had given him a bunch of envelopes that were addressed to the court, and each month he went to the post office or a bank and got a money order for the amount owed. He could sign his name, the letters high and wide, like a child’s. “And I print Friend of the Court on the line where you put the payment information.”
The waitress came back with their food. Both men sat silent.
“Anything else I can bring you?” she asked, her eyes resting on the envelopes.
Matt scooted them under an elbow.
Sam smiled and said, “No, thanks. I think we’re fine.”
They waited until she left.
Matt tentatively opened the envelope at the top of the pile and began reading. “Samuel Jacobson, 1320 …”
“You don’t need to read that part. What does it say after that?” He pointed to the huge block of words on the page. “What does it say here?”
The kid nodded, looking happy to be given guidance. “Okay … ’” He scanned the letter. “Basically, it says you’re behind in your child support payments and that visitations will stop completely until you make a payment and set up a schedule to pay the rest.”
“Could you read it all?” Sam said.
So now, they settled in to how this would be done. The boy went through the letters, one by one. The news wasn’t good. By the third letter the kid seemed to be comfortable at his new job, just delivering the message.
When they were done, Sam gathered up the envelopes from the table and stuffed them back into the big envelope. “I do thank you,” he said.
“For what?” the boy said, sitting back. “This is awful. I feel bad. I hate to give you such bad news.”
“I can handle it.”
“But you can’t see your little girl until you catch up with the support payments. This is terrible. And all because you were laid up. They should know that. They obviously don’t.”
The boy grabbed his burger. “I wished you’d asked for my help sooner.”
Sam felt he could take offense to that, to the word “help.” But what did it matter? The boy was right. He was helping him. And he did need help.
“Would you like me to call them for you and explain?”
Sam shook his head. “No, that’s okay. Now that I know what those letters say, I’ll call. I have to call myself.”
Ember was one of the few people who knew he couldn’t read. They’d met in high school, and in no time she figured out what scores of teachers hadn’t been able to see or didn’t care to. She had left him a note on his locker to meet her after school at her house, and when he didn’t show up, she’d been really hurt. “How could you just blow me off like that?” she said the next day at school. She was trying not to be mad, he could see, but her eyes were welling up with tears. He didn’t want to lose her, so he told her. He was worried he’d still lose her, but instead she turned all motherly toward him, touched his face and said, “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Look, your secret’s safe with me.”
Ember always told him he was smart. “I know you are. Everybody knows you are. I’ll help you.”
He couldn’t do the in-class writing assignments, and for that, his teachers made excuses. He was just a little hyper. He couldn’t sit still. He was a boy, after all. They let him turn in his papers late.
So Ember would come over after school and coach him, but, with his parents and brother at work, their after-school meetings usually led to other things.
She ended up writing all his essays for him, reading assignments to him after school, and covering for him with friends. They got married the summer after graduation.
Despite his problem with reading, he thought his and Ember’s relationship had been pretty good. She took care of things that needed to be read the same way he fixed a flat tire or maintained the car and the house. But when Destiny was born, he had to leave the important things to Ember, like reading the directions on medicine bottles or the notes from daycare. But out of the blue one day, she asked him, “What if something happens to me? How would you deal with having to take care of Destiny?” He told her he’d make do, he had before he met her and he did it when she wasn’t around. “Making do isn’t good enough when you have a baby, Sam,” she had said, and he saw something change in her after that. She was less patient with him, quicker to judge.
“The problem is that you’re stubborn, Sam,” she started saying. “Just plain stubborn. You’d learn to read if you just put your mind to it.”
He knew putting his mind to it wasn’t the problem. He remembered being in first grade, with all the other kids around him who were picking up words — all of a sudden, learning how to read. Sounding the words out, then smoother and smoother like planing wood the sounds turned into words, the words into sentences. It was like, one by one, a switch within them was being turned on. But it never was turned on in him. He waited for it but it never came. The words still looked like squiggles. He had a good memory, and that saved him. He could hear something once and remember it, then repeat it when it was his turn to read. He was a good kid, and that saved him, too. His family moved around a lot when he was in elementary school. His father just didn’t seem to be able to keep a job. “Last hired, first fired,” he always said. Sam went to a lot of different schools, sometimes moving in the middle of the year. Their neighborhoods were usually rough ones, and the teachers didn’t want trouble. For that alone, he was passed from grade to grade. He was held back only once, and that was the year he had mono.
He let Ember try to teach him. That was a disaster. He couldn’t stand to see her cringe when he stumbled or missed a word, a look of utter disbelief on her face. He knew she was trying to be supportive but her face got tighter and tighter as she tried to make it look as if she wasn’t ashamed for him, her mouth finally becoming a thin line, as if she was sucking in the words she wanted to say so they wouldn’t escape.
Sam called the Friend of the Court to explain his circumstances. He was back at work now. He’d catch up on the payments. He wanted them to make out a new payment schedule. But no matter what he said, the woman who answered the phone would say only, “Put it in writing.”
When he saw Matt, he told him, “You were right. We have to write a letter.”
He and Matt met the next day, the same routine. This time, the boy brought along a pen, paper, envelopes, stamps.
They got the table at the far corner again.
“Lucky for us they don’t get much business,” Sam said.
The waitress came for their order. “You writing a book there?” she asked, pointing at the pad of paper with her pen.
“I broke my glasses,” Sam said. “My nephew here has to read my paperwork for me.”
After she left, Matt said, “So, should I call you Uncle Sam now?”
They waited until the waitress gave the order to the cook and tended to a new table, far from theirs. Matt said “Shoot” and picked up pen and paper.
“I know how to do this,” Sam said. “I know what she told me, the Friend of the Court.”
“What did she tell you?”
“That’s my business,” Sam said.
Matt pushed the pen and paper away. “Sam. I’m supposed to help you and you won’t fill me in on the whole story. What she said matters. It matters in how I put things down for you.”
Sam said nothing, just stared.
Matt lowered his voice. “It’s just that I can’t read your mind, you know.”
Sam fumed, got out his lighter, the one his brother gave him for Christmas years ago, when he had the motorcycle. The silhouette of a beautiful woman’s body, the curve of her spine like the letter S, so perfect, hair so long, and the HD for Harley Davidson fitted tightly behind her like a dress she’d just taken off that still held the shape of her body.
He wanted a cigarette but was trying to quit. Besides, you couldn’t smoke in restaurants anymore, which was probably a good thing. He kept opening and closing the lighter.
“That’s a beauty,” Matt said.
“Here.” Sam handed him the lighter. “Have a look.”
“Do you ride?” Matt asked, handing it back.
“I used to,” he said. “Ember made me give it up when she had the baby. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to sell that bike. The only person who offered me what it was worth was a guy who had hardly ever been on a bike. Can you imagine? The only thing that made me feel better was all the stuff I bought for Destiny with it. We did her room up real nice. Even started a little college fund for her. That made me feel good.”
Matt looked at him. “Maybe we should write about that in the letter. What you just said.”
“I just mean … it’s so hard. I’m not trying to find out your business. You know,” Matt said, leaning forward. He looked around for the waitress and said, real low, “You know, there are classes for … ”
Sam thought the kid was going to say, people like you.
“I could teach you,” Matt said. He started to get enthusiastic, rearranging the papers all over the table like it was his own little desk. “I’ve been thinking I wanted to get back into doing some volunteer work.”
“Volunteer work?” Sam couldn’t believe his ears. He wasn’t a man asking for a favor any longer. Now he was an entire charity project.
“Sure, I’d be happy to do that for you.”
It was the words “for you” that really killed Sam. For you.
Matt kept his voice low. “When I was in college, I volunteered in this literacy program, teaching people how to read. I know how to do it.”
Sam looked at him. Matt’s eyes were light brown with little flecks of green in them. He’d trusted the kid this far and he hadn’t failed him. Maybe he could trust him with this.
“Do you know your alphabet? Your letters?” Matt asked.
“Well, that’s great. That’s a great start. Some people don’t know their letters. So you’re starting from a good place.”
The next thing was hard for Sam to say. “I know the letters all right but I can’t seem to put them together into words.”
“That’s okay. That’ll come next. It takes a little time.”
They were quiet for a while. Then Matt said, “I have a theory.”
“I noticed that the people who don’t want to start with kid books don’t do as well as the other folks. Their progress is a lot slower.”
“I don’t want to read baby books. I want to read real books.”
“Sam, I’m telling you. It’s like our brains are wired a certain way. You have to start out with the basics, sort of train your brain to absorb the words.”
Sam slapped the lighter down on the table. “Look, man. I really just need to have one letter written. My daughter has a birthday coming up in a couple of months. I want to see her for her birthday. I don’t want her to think her father missed her birthday.”
His voice was not going to crack. He made a big deal of reaching inside his wallet to get the money order. Largest one he’d ever bought. He’d catch up. He knew he would.
Matt put the money order in the envelope and addressed it. He nodded. “Okay,” he said. “But if you ever need anything else …” Then he got busy with the letter explaining how much and when Sam could pay.
And now, everything reminded him of his daughter: the toys and clothes she had left behind when she visited, a commercial on TV for a baby doll he thought she might like. He didn’t like the latest doll Ember had bought her. With its Goth, cat’s-eye makeup and torn, slutty clothing, it looked more like a tiny teen hooker than a little girl’s doll. One time, he even thought he saw Destiny on the street on his way to the hardware store and his heart brightened and quickened. He didn’t recognize the woman she was with, but it could have been a babysitter or a friend of Ember’s. The little girl had the same shade of blonde hair, a similar blue coat like the one he got her last Christmas, but it wasn’t Destiny. In fact, he was shocked at how he could have even thought it was her. And he was afraid for a second that the girl’s mother might have worried about the attention he was paying her daughter, how he turned around and smiled at the girl as he passed.
Three weeks after their lunch, Sam called Matt’s name across the lunchroom. Threw the lighter in his direction. Matt almost didn’t catch it, even though Sam had given him plenty of time to see it coming and a straight, slow pitch.
Matt walked over to Sam. “It’s beautiful,” Matt said. “I can’t accept this.”
“Don’t be such a college boy,” Sam said, and Matt laughed.
They sat down together at a table farthest away from their coworkers. Matt asked, “So you’ve seen your daughter? Things are straightened out?”
“Not yet. But the Friend of the Court is letting me send a birthday card to the house. They sent me their new address.” He had bought a card on his way to work, signed it DAD in big, gawky letters, and gave the sealed envelope to Matt to be addressed.
“I can talk to Destiny on her birthday,” Sam said. “And they said that the visits can start again next month. As long as there’s no trouble between me and her mom. Looks like her mom’s accepted the payment schedule.”
“That’s great, Sam. That’s great. And look, if you ever need me again. I’m serious about my offer.”
But with this, Sam got up from the table and shoved off, still smiling, as if he hadn’t heard a thing.
Sometimes Sam felt as if his whole life was one work-around after another. When you don’t know how to read, you memorize the shape of certain letters you need. A teacher hands you a book and tells you to read it out loud, but you tell her you forgot your glasses. You forget your glasses the next day and the next and they just figure out you’re poor and won’t be bringing your glasses anytime soon. The school nurse gives you an eye test, which you flunk on purpose so they still think your eyes really are bad. They refer you to an eye doctor, but you never show up with those new glasses. So, they skip over you during reading time because they don’t want to embarrass you. You pick up a job application and tell the manager that you can’t fill it out right then because you have to take your mother to a doctor’s appointment. You ask politely if you can fill it out at home and bring it back. And they’re fine with that because everybody’s in a rush and they’re just happy to get a body to fill that job. You get your brother to fill out all your job applications, do your health forms, prepare your taxes. When you get hired, you show up on time and you get along with everybody and no one’s the wiser. Now that you’ve been at the plant ten years, there’s no need to look for a job anymore, no more applications to fill out, no letters of introduction to write. Then all of a sudden, there’s this.
On his daughter’s birthday, he sat on his bed all night and waited for her call, phone in hand. He and Ember had had so much fun setting up for Destiny’s birthday parties. She was a good mother. She’d been a good wife, until she wasn’t. Some things break in ways you can’t see and because you can’t see them, there’s no way you can fix it. Sometimes when he looked back at it all, it seemed as if one day Ember was kind and supportive and understanding and the next she was impatient and mean and distant. It was like that light that went on in other kids’ heads when they learned to read. She saw the light, and he still didn’t. And, just like reading, he didn’t even know where the switch was.
Five minutes before Destiny’s bedtime, his phone rang.
“Hi, Daddy!” she fairly screamed.
“Hi, punkin! Oh, it’s so good to talk to you. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too, Daddy. That was a funny card you sent.”
“Was it a funny card, punkin? Did you like it?”
“Why did you send me a boy’s card?”
He felt his smile dissolve and the heat of embarrassment creep through his body like a bad flu. He thought of the drawing of the child on that card. Surely, it was a little girl, with short blond hair, like Destiny’s. That was why he bought it. Because the child looked like her. He thought she’d like that.
He couldn’t read it, of course, but he could make out the H and the B, which he knew were for Happy Birthday. And there were candles and a cake on the front of the card so he knew it was a birthday card. And a big number 6 for her age.
“Snips and snails and puppy dog tails,” his little girl was saying. “That’s what little boys are made of. That’s what the card says, Daddy.” He could picture her pursing her lips together like she did when she was mad.
“Why would you do that, Daddy?”
He felt his whole face contract as if in pain. What could he say?
“Oh, you’re so smart,” he told her. “You’re Daddy’s smart little girl. I played a trick, and you figured it out.”
“Well, of course I did, Daddy! It’s right there on the card. I read it.”
When Destiny was really little and gave him a book to read, he would make up stories to go along with the pictures since she didn’t know how to read yet. He had been so relieved when she started reading in kindergarten. She wasn’t afflicted with whatever it was that stopped his brain from putting simple letters together to make words. He hadn’t passed that on to her, and he thanked God for that. He thought of something he could say to her, another excuse.
“Actually, honey, when I went to the drugstore to buy the card, I forgot my glasses, so I couldn’t see the writing very well. I thought the little girl looked like you.”
“But it’s not a girl, it’s a boy. Why did you do that, Daddy?” repeating herself like she always did when she was tired.
He heard Ember say, “Tell your Daddy goodbye now. You have to go to bed.”
“Goodbye, Daddy. See you soon I hope. I love you.”
He started to say, “I love you, too,” and wanted her to know that the money he put inside the card was for her to buy herself a toy she wanted, but Ember had the phone now. She whispered, “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You’re a smart guy. You can do this. Get some help before she figures it out.”
He wanted to say something to her but nothing would come. Then he realized she’d hung up.
He went after his bedroom as if it were a person. It took him no time at all to destroy the living room. The kitchen was harder. And still, with all the pots and pans, the bright things he’d bought at Wal-Mart to live in this dungeon without his wife and only child, it wasn’t enough. When he was done, when there was nothing left to tear up, bend, or wreck, he lay in a heap in the living room. It was only when he tried to get up that he saw the blood. Streaks of it on his knuckles where they’d been cut by some useless belonging he never wanted to see again. He felt a strange sort of sadness, as if a friend had died.
He caught up with Matt after work the next day. The kid was waiting at the bus stop, his backpack hanging off one shoulder, an open book in his hands. Sam offered him a ride home.
As Matt got in the truck, he glanced at Sam’s knuckles. “Jesus, what happened?”
Sam said nothing and stared ahead as he drove. The kid talked about going back to school one day after he’d saved enough money. He talked about his family and a girl he was interested in, but Sam heard only bits and pieces, a few words here and there. They drove all the way to Matt’s apartment before Sam turned to him. It took all of his strength to start the speech he’d been working on all day. But all he could say was, “You’d have to promise me you’d never tell anyone.”
Matt nodded and said, “Of course not. Of course,” as he clutched his book to his chest, his face as serious as if he was hearing the most incredible confession. He reached into his backpack and brought out three small books. Kiddie books. One had ABC on the cover, with an apple, a bird, a cat scattered among the letters.
Matt studied Sam’s face and then said, “Just think. Someday you could read books to your daughter.”
He liked the sound of that. Reading books to his daughter. Sitting on the couch in his apartment with his little girl on his lap just like they used to when she was a baby. They could go to the library together and choose them. They could go to the bookstore. Just like any other family. Just like any other dad. It was something important that cost hardly anything but would mean all the world. The kind of thing both of them would remember forever.
Sam took the books. The kid was smart after all.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Grace refuses to let go of the birds. Two days after the hurricane makes landfall, rejiggering the Jersey coastline, my stubborn sister continues to obsess over them.
“Why doesn’t he ask where the birds have gone?” Grace complains to the television from her recliner. There is continuous coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath. In this segment, a reporter quizzes an environmentalist about the storm’s impact. The pair converse on a dune under a cloudless sky, a harsh contrast to the tempest’s black clouds and screaming winds. Crime scene tape frames their patch of beach like a sandy boxing ring.
“Thousands of people have lost their homes, and you’re worried about the birds?” I chide from the sofa.
“It’s their home, too. Somebody needs to think about them.” Unlike many coastal residents, the birds possessed the good sense to evacuate, thanks to innate radar that senses an approaching storm, Grace explains. “But with the dunes shifting and the marshes mostly underwater, they may not have homes to come back to.”
I respect Grace’s assessment. The retired midwife adores birds, and has crowded her backyard with birdhouses and birdbaths. But these days, she has weightier matters to ponder.
Turning back to coverage of the coastal disaster playing out a hundred miles away, I listen as dazed survivors recount the rivers of seawater that churned through their streets, heroic rescues by surfboard and Jet Ski. A house jutting out of the sea at a precarious angle, like a toy bobbing in a child’s bath, serves as the disconcerting backdrop for these accounts.
Grace eases her recliner upright. “I can’t watch any more of this,” she says, struggling to her feet. “We have to go. They need us.”
I fight the urge to assist her, knowing she hates being coddled. “Your cane, Grace?”
Snorting at the silver three-legged crutch beside her, she shuffles toward the kitchen unaided.
“So what’s this crazy talk?” I ask, tailing her.
“It’s not crazy, Merrill. I want to go.”
“Why? To help the birds?”
“Of course not the birds.” She turns to me and moistens her cracked lips. “To help those people. We can’t just stand here and do nothing.”
Standing being a relative term, I think, watching her. I don’t dare point out she can barely stand herself. My protests would be futile; from birth, Grace lacked the DNA to stand by and do nothing. To my shame, being the younger sister had never prevented Grace from rescuing me, whether from a schoolyard bully, an abusive husband, once even from financial ruin after an unwise investment.
But now, the sibling tides have turned. It now falls on my shoulders to liberate Grace, if only I possess the wingspan and can summon the courage.
“You’re always asking me what I want,” she continues. “Well, I want to help.” The ash spikes of hair that sprouted on her head after treatment quiver with determination, like the crest on a cockatoo.
I take Grace’s hand and massage a dollop of lotion into her papery skin, avoiding the violet stain of bruises inflicted by IVs. “But the storm hit a hundred miles away, and —”
“I don’t care.” Grace yanks her hand away, her steady cornflower gaze an ultimatum. “I’m playing the card. I want to go.”
I want to argue, but my sister possesses a powerful hand, one in which cancer trumps all.
“But Marjorie comes today.”
Grace dismisses her hospice nurse’s scheduled visit with a smirk and a wave. “Tell her to come tomorrow.”
“But she has other patients.”
“Fine. She can skip me, then. Now do me a favor and help me to the toilet.”
She rarely asks for help, so I offer my arm. Grace leans on me as far as the powder room, and then slips inside alone.
While I wait for her to finish, I watch another reporter interview teenage volunteers as they dispense meals on a makeshift food line, and cock my head. The task seems doable, and not too taxing. But should I take a terminally ill woman straight into the eye of the storm relief effort?
Torn, I call Grace’s husband to ask his opinion.
“It’s a long ride,” my brother-in-law Tom says in a tired voice. I picture him lifting his glasses to knead the bridge of his nose, as he often does these days. “You know how exhausted she gets.”
“Then I’ll take her wheelchair.”
“What if something happens?”
Would his “what-if” be any less devastating if it occurred a hundred miles away instead of here, I wonder. To Tom, I say, “If something happens, I’ll deal with it.”
He expels a resigned sigh. “It’s up to you, Merrill.”
I hang up, my decision made. The clock is ticking, my opportunities to revise our story and square things with my sister dwindling.
I pound on the bathroom door. “Hurry up, Grace. We’re going.”
Energized by her appreciative whoop, I load her wheelchair, cane, and a tank of compressed oxygen into my trunk. Back in the kitchen, I sweep Grace’s pill bottles into my purse.
Then, having settled my sister in the passenger seat with a cotton blanket, I drive while Grace catnaps. I sneak a peek at her: her fuchsia baseball cap tames her spikes, a half-smile plays on her lips. Sleep is Grace’s escape, diminishing her discomfort to about a Level 3, the equivalent of the frowning face on Marjorie’s pain chart that is labeled Hurts Even More. Too often lately, Grace’s suffering veers toward Level 5’s tearful scowl, Don’t Have to Be Crying to Feel This Much Pain.
Ironically, the thought of the chart makes me smile. One day not long ago, having tired of Marjorie’s ministrations, Grace grabbed the pain chart behind the nurse’s back and scribbled moustaches and devil horns on each face in the ranking, holding the paper up to me gleefully.
During this silent drive, however, there is little elation. Instead, worry nips at me. My sister’s illness has forced her to relinquish control and rely on the sibling she has always defended. I pray I am up to the task, this final chance for a slacker older sibling to shine.
Twenty miles later, Grace stirs and consults the GPS on her phone. “We’re close. Less than ten miles.” Her voice sounds stronger than it has in days. Damn Tom and his doubts. She stretches, and then squares herself to face me. “So: why are we here, exactly?”
I frown, blaming Grace’s meds for this memory lapse. “Back at the house, remember?” I prompt. “Helping? The birds?”
“Not ‘here’ in this car. Here.” Grace’s outstretched arms encompass years. “Together. You and me.”
Feeling cornered, I train my eyes on the road. “It’s simple. You’re my sister. You needed my help. So I came.”
“I know Tom put you up to it, but much as I hate to admit it, I do need help. But what about your job?”
“I told you. I’m, um, managing things remotely. You know, living the laptop lifestyle.” Hadn’t I perpetuated this ruse daily since my arrival weeks ago, dutifully departing Grace’s house, laptop tucked under my arm, and taking refuge in a nearby coffee shop?
“You’re managing things, all right. You don’t think Tom and I know you’re faking?”
My cheeks flame. “It’s called networking.”
“Come on, Merrill.”
“Well! I guess you two are having a good laugh over me.”
“We’re not laughing, honey. We’re worried.”
“Could you possibly let me worry for once?” I ask, pounding the steering wheel. “Although clearly, I can’t even do that right.” Chewing my lower lip, I busy myself adjusting the radio. “I should have told you,” I admit eventually. “I’m sorry.”
Grace stares out at traffic pooling around us on the drawbridge and crosses her arms. “Yes, you should have. But apology accepted. And now, just drive, please.”
“Right. Drive. Are you suggesting I just crash through them, then?” I gesture to the cause of the traffic jam: broad wooden barricades stretching across the highway a quarter mile ahead.
“I … I don’t know. There must be a way around them. Keep going.” She types furiously on her phone, presumably for alternate directions.
Trapped in traffic, I do as she asks, but after crawling a few car lengths, we spot a phalanx of soldiers surrounding the blockade, reinforcing it.
“That’s it, Grace. I’m not about to argue with them.” Ignoring the horns of exasperated drivers surrounding us, I lurch into the right lane, negotiating the last U-turn before the barrier. The jug handle exit winds us past a wasteland of storm-ravaged properties — bungalows buried in sand, a decapitated garden center whose sheared-off shingled roof rests beside it — before depositing us back on the bridge, headed in the opposite direction, toward home. I sag in my seat, despondent. This isn’t your fault, I tell myself. You tried.
Grace drops her phone onto the seat and stares at me. “You mean to tell me you’re giving up after we drove all this way?”
“What other choice do I have? Barrel through the barrier?” I mime a phone at my ear. “‘Hey there, Tom, would you mind popping down to the shore and bailing your wife and me out of jail?’ Nooo thanks.” As we backtrack over the bridge, I glimpse a flotilla of unmoored boats bobbing like bumper cars in the marina below.
“For God’s sake, Merrill,” my sister retorts. “Would it kill you to just once take a risk?”
“Thanks a ton, Grace.” My core thrums with indignation, but in my heart I know she is right. I have lived my entire life as a rules follower, fearful of coloring outside the lines. But today should count for something, shouldn’t it? I have risked everything — Grace’s health, Tom’s wrath — by the mere act of loading my frail sister into the car.
Even so, Grace demands more of me, and I want to give it to her.
“You want me take a risk?” I counter. “Okay. We’ll drive. Just tell me where.”
A smug Grace directs me toward the next exit. As we approach, we see that the authorities have blocked that ramp, as well as the following two.
“Take the next open exit,” Grace orders, undeterred. “We’ll find our way back.”
I obey. A mile or so later, an exit ramp opens up. In the unfamiliar coastal town, we maneuver around downed trees, utility trucks, a displaced boat tilting drunkenly on a curb. As we approach ground zero of the storm, our GPS hiccups, and then fails; our cell service dwindles to a single bar. And still, I drive. My sister shouts that she has spotted a church spire, and I home in on the steeple dissecting a cloud as though it were the North Star. We wend our way toward the spire; after several wrong turns and a dead end, we finally park beneath it.
As I start to help Grace out of the car, she rejects her wheelchair, but miraculously accepts her cane. I follow, dragging her oxygen cart, and we head inside. Immediately, a dark-haired woman approaches us.
“Welcome,” she says, smiling broadly. “If you need housing, we’ve started a list over there.” She points to a corkboard spackled with hand-lettered index cards.
“Thank you, Joanna,” I reply, reading her name tag, “But we’ve come to help.”
“Wonderful. You’re in the right place.”
Joanna leads us to a card table, where she hands us a sheet of adhesive labels and some felt-tipped pens. We write our names on the badges, then follow her into the church kitchen, past industrial stoves and a wall of refrigerators to a counter piled with sacks of assorted breads. “Our immediate need is sandwiches,” Joanna says. “Loads of them. All we have at the moment is peanut butter and jelly, but it will have to do.” She pulls spreads from a pantry; in no time, we forge an assembly line, stacking sandwiches in disposable aluminum pans that Joanna periodically retrieves.
While we work, volunteers come and go, sharing accounts of the storm damage they have witnessed: splintered boardwalks, power outages, the National Guard restoring order at the beachfront after reports of looting.
As the enormity of the disaster sets in, the few hundred sandwiches we have made seem a paltry offering, a grain of sand in the dunes of recovery. Nevertheless, we persevere. And as we labor in that church kitchen, Grace comes alive. As if by some magic of fluorescent lighting, my sister glows.
“It feels so good to be doing something,” she says. As Joanna retrieves another pan of sandwiches and then departs, Grace waves her spreader at me: “Hey, Merrill. Does Tom know we’re here?”
I wait before replying, carefully thinning the jelly on my slice to reach every corner of the bread. “Um, not exactly.”
“Ha!” Grace grins like a child who has pulled something over on a parent. “Wait till I tell him.”
As I turn away so she can’t see my eyes fill, Joanna rushes into the kitchen.
“Does anybody have a car?” she asks. A local restaurant wants to donate its freezer of food before everything spoils, and Joanna needs someone to retrieve it.
“My sister does,” answers Grace. “She’ll go.”
“I don’t really know my way around.” I widen my eyes at Grace in protest. We’re already doing enough.
As usual, Grace ignores me. “This is a small town, right? How far could it be?”
“Not far at all,” says Joanna, hugging my sister. “That would be such a huge help.”
Reluctantly, I agree to go, but only after equipping Joanna with my cell number and a hasty lesson in the operation of Grace’s oxygen tank. In turn, Joanna sketches the route to the restaurant on a napkin. As I leave the kitchen, my sister and Joanna begin to debate the migratory patterns of seagulls.
Let them go, Grace.
On my way out, I pass folding tables accumulating a small mountain of lost and found items: trophies, bedroom slippers, a plastic bin of crayons. Someone has set a few dozen damp photos on a ‘Greetings from Asbury Park’ beach towel to dry, and I stop to examine them. One snapshot in particular catches my eye: two young girls dressed alike, very likely sisters, sharing the lap of a shopping mall Santa. Their plaid skirts, snowy blouses, red tights, and patent leather Mary Janes recall the holiday uniform of our youth.
I pick up the photo and run my finger over it, finding it rough. The saltwater journey has exfoliated its surface, blurring the girls’ faces. And yet, something in the arrangement of the siblings’ limbs speaks to me. The way the older girl has thrown her arm around the younger one’s neck, whether in camaraderie or aggression, I can’t discern, due to their unreadable expressions. Grace and I had posed similarly over the years, those Christmas moments preserved and dry in a family album somewhere. Perhaps I had protected Grace in the past, I think.
As I set the photo down, I ponder the infinite number of memories such as this Yuletide reminder that the hurricane has wrenched from their owners, and wonder how long it will take to reunite them.
After following Joanna’s directions to the restaurant, I console the dazed proprietor, who presses dozens of sweating plastic food containers upon me. It takes multiple trips and probably 45 minutes to fill my car; when I finally check my phone before heading back to the church, I discover several missed calls and a terse text from Joanna that makes my gut clench: “Please hurry. Grace is ill.”
I cup my hand over my mouth, recalling Grace’s pain meds inside my purse, which sits on the passenger seat beside me.
Though I barely recall that drive back to the church, I will never forget the spectacle of my barely conscious sister reclining on a bed of blankets on the kitchen floor. I kneel beside her and tighten the strap that secures her oxygen mask. “I’m so sorry. I never should have left you here alone.”
Wincing, Grace shakes her head. She presses her hands into her belly, the epicenter of her pain. I do not need Marjorie’s pain scale to gauge her discomfort at this moment, which seems off the charts. Trembling, I scramble in my purse for a pill, but she waves it away.
“This was the last day,” she struggles to say through her mask.
Despite strenuous efforts to withhold them, tears spill down my cheeks. “No, Grace. It’s not your last day,” I say, slapping the yellowed linoleum. “Don’t you dare think that.” Though I can imagine few places more sacred to expire than a quaint seashore church, I cannot, will not let my sister spend her final moments on a kitchen floor, struggling to breathe.
I lie down beside her. “Please. Fight with me,” I murmur into her ear. “I know you can find your way back. Remember the birds.”
Grace claws at her oxygen mask, tugging it to one side. Even clouded with pain, her cornflower gaze rivals the sun-washed sky we glimpsed on television that morning. “Not ‘last day,’” she whispers hoarsely.
“Not what, Grace? I’m sorry. I can’t understand you.”
Even over the whine of the approaching ambulance, my sister’s next words are crystal clear: “This was the best day, Merrill.”
Despite the events in the church kitchen, I have zero regrets about driving Grace’s cancer getaway car that day. During that momentary calm following the medical storm, when Grace’s breathing steadied and my panic subsided, anything seemed possible. That moment, that memory, became the bow on the gift of our final days together.
I stay on at my sister’s house for a time after her memorial service, appropriating Grace’s backyard rituals: replenishing water, dabbing peanut butter onto feeders in her aviary refuge. One day, a package as light as air arrives, addressed to Grace, and I open it. Beneath a cloud of tissue rests a handmade birdhouse of balsa wood, painted cornflower blue, its door the same crimson as the tulips blooming in the painted emerald pot outside it. As I hold the birdhouse aloft, powdery sand dusts my cheeks, and a note flutters to the ground:
Dear Grace and Merrill,
I was so relieved to hear Grace’s condition had stabilized. She is in my prayers daily.
(The words on the page blur, and I blink to re-focus them.)
Our town cleanup continues, and the church lost and found overflows. We must make space. This item arrived several weeks ago. Since no one has claimed it, I thought of Grace. May it bring joy (and birds) to her garden.
Tears streaming by now, I carefully carry the birdhouse out back, setting it here and there, ultimately nestling it in the arms of a sturdy, mature maple. It calls to mind one of Grace’s last lucid days, when she summoned me to the television in the living room.
“Merrill, come look! It’s a miracle. The birds are back.”
I perch on the edge of her hospital bed to watch. It is a month after the storm, and the birds are back, although not necessarily to their native habitats, the reporter explains. In a bizarre twist of nature, a number of wayward species blown off course by the coastal storm are turning up like immigrants in the most unexpected places — gannets skimming the Hudson River, petrels poking around Massachusetts.
“Which makes their pilgrimages nothing short of amazing,” concludes the reporter.
A beaming Grace turns to me. “I knew they’d come back. It’s a sign, isn’t it?”
As someone suspicious of most signs, omens, or ‘God winks,’ I find myself a tiny bit jealous of my sister’s capacity for hope. “Yes, it is,” I say, to appease her.
“And remember.” Grace trains her cornflower gaze on me a final time. “Those very first birds passing through the eye of a storm are the most vulnerable ones.”
Yes, Grace, they might be, I think, walking back to the house after settling Joanna’s gift. But they are also capable of surviving, and flourishing.
As I admire Joanna’s birdhouse from my sister’s back steps, a fluttering in the maple catches my eye. To my surprise, a cocky Jersey Shore seagull, a hundred miles off course, has alighted on the newly installed birdhouse.
I approach, marveling at the path of this wayward bird that weeks ago perceived a subtle shift in the atmosphere and took flight. This creature has no more business poking around Grace’s Pennsylvania garden than I do.
And yet, here we are, unlikely comrades, thrown together by wind, currents, tides, instincts.
The seagull caws, unfazed by my proximity. Thinking he might be hungry, I scoop peanut butter from a nearby feeder with my finger and smear some on the perch of the birdhouse. My instincts are correct; he bends and consumes every scrap.
The peanut butter is all I have, but it will have to do for now. And while I can no more predict our futures than forecast the next hurricane, I somehow sense clearer, calmer skies ahead for us both.
Featured image: Shutterstock
“Thornhope, Indiana” is the winner of The Saturday Evening Post’s 2019 Great American Fiction Contest. Meet Jon Gingerich and the other Great American Fiction Contest winners.
He still had dreams about it sometimes. A grain silo glinting with sun. Irregular outbursts from an idling motor. Steel walls that rang with strikes from the shovel, every word his brother barked inside. He hated that about dreams, the details that lingered when he was awake, sat inside him all day as though he’d been filled with rocks.
“Leave the goddamn motor on,” Richard yelled.
Last load of the day and their father had been transporting grain to the Thornhope elevator when the silo funnel jammed. Carl deliberated from the grass,
considered the ladder where the auger met the silo mouth, the fingers that gripped from inside the hatch as Richard stabbed away into a sea of kernels. Then the funnel resumed with roaring relief and the hand disappeared, the arrhythmic rustle of rushing corn brought to an abrupt halt as something punched the silo floor. What followed was a prolonged vision of life reckoning with itself, glimpses from the vantage point of some parallel impossible future coming to pass. Carl running to the control panel at the utility barn to disengage the motor. Carl climbing the ladder and peering into the mouth, encountering vacant dunes. The square of light that shone into the hatch, a sifting of kernel sand as he entered the broiling box on his knees and began the impossible task of digging through it all. The grain that just shifted back. He remembered finding Richard’s fingers after several minutes. He remembered squeezing the hand and his brother squeezing back, remembered screaming for help, remembered sinking too, thinking for several moments he’d drown in it. He remembered pulling at the arm until he was sure he’d separated it from the shoulder, unable to retrieve the body against the weight of the grain. He remembered wild pulses of color in the yard, various sirens and the bursts of men tumbling up the ladder and the screams of a saw against silo walls. He remembered that after several minutes the hand grew cold, and then he lost it altogether.
It was still dark when Carl walked the lot. He woke early because he couldn’t sleep and hated the quiet, but outside the quiet was different from the quiet in his room. A pale light shivered out across the fields and the air was thick, smelled of freshly turned soil and barn manure, as it had every summer morning. He passed the concrete cap where the silo had been, remembered reading somewhere about a tribe in the Amazon that made soup from their relatives’ ashes. He didn’t think he could ever get used to something like that and wondered what someone from that part of the world would think about things he considered normal just because he’d done them every day. As he wrestled through the row with a coil of hose, a breeze came over the valley, sent shudders through the stalks. At the pivot system he screwed the hose into a rusted intake, then returned to the lot, sluiced the spigot’s threaded ring free of grime, and attached it to the line. Ropes of water began to coat the stalks and now the sky swelled with sun. He wiped husks off his shirt as he passed the combine shed before stopping at the last barn. When he drew open the door, birds scattered in the rafters.
He remembered squeezing the hand and his brother squeezing back, remembered screaming for help.
The Nova lay under a snow of dust, red and hale like a blood-swollen tick. Carl flipped the overhead lights and cleared a pallet rack of rusted fencing wire. Sitting on an upturned bucket, he removed the starter from its cellophane packaging, studied the manual, then lifted the car’s hood and disconnected the battery terminal. The starter caught in the transmission housing the first time he tried to slide it in; it took several attempts before he was able to secure and fasten it with the ratchet. He attached a new wire to the terminal and another to the solenoid and then went to work installing the new battery. When he was finished, he opened the door and sank into the seat. The interior smelled like cologne and leather oil. A withered atlas lay on the floorboard. Carl turned the key and the engine coughed to life, roused from a deep sleep, and the barn filled with light and exhaust as a cassette in the stereo came through the speakers, some heavy metal band Richard had been listening to the year before. He sat there, feeling the steering wheel’s grooves between his fingers. In a wedge of light just beyond the barn door, a dead crow lay in the gravel.
He’d come up with the plan the week after high school graduation, nearly a year after his brother had died. He’d fix Richard’s old car, pack his bags, and leave unannounced for California. A travel agency in Indianapolis arrayed rows of brochures; the photographs were foreign and strange, and in the following weeks he studied guidebooks and highlighted destinations that appealed to him: Big Sur, the Pacific Coast Highway, the redwoods of Humboldt County. It was of little consideration that he didn’t know how long he’d be gone, or when he’d come back, if he was to come back at all. The misguided ambition of it was just another reason to leave. In the weeks since, he’d thought about the trip so often he’d willed it into memory. He just needed a car to get there.
“We’ll transport hogs tomorrow,” his father said that evening at the table. Supper was meatloaf, mashed potatoes, sweet corn. They’d had it twice a week for as long as Carl could remember. “You keep an eye on that pivot system. July is hell on those crops.”
The dining room was windowed with sepia photos of a family Carl had never met: his parents’ relatives and their parents’ relatives, Scottish frontiersmen who’d roved the Midwest grasslands. Modern additions of Richard hung between them: Richard in his football jersey, Richard at prom, Richard on the combine.
“Make sure the truck isn’t blocking the gate,” the old man continued. “Orr Grain folks need to dig up that silo cap before they build the new one.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” Carl said. “Figured I’d work on Richard’s car.”
“What the hell for?” the man wheezed. He spoke like he had to cough everything out. “You play with cars after we transport hogs.”
“Do we have to talk work at supper?”
The man had a raw face, calloused hands, the nails stained with cog grease.
“Persimmon pudding in the fridge if you want,” his mother said. A dandelion crown of hair bobbed as she gathered plates. “You going to that auto show in Logansport next weekend?”
“I got no car, remember? Am I supposed to meet friends in a grain truck?”
“You wrecked your car,” his father said.
“A rotor went out on the highway. Because you bought me a hunk of shit.” The men shared eyes. Eventually the sounds of silverware resumed.
“Life doesn’t end after high school,” his mother said. “You need to socialize. Don’t want to be like your cousin up the road.”
“Third cousin,” Carl said, as his mother tried to conceal a grin with her sleeve.
That night Carl went upstairs and quietly entered Richard’s room. The space had a museum-like quality: Carl’s mother insisted they keep everything the same. Richard’s coveralls hung from the closet door, puzzles he’d completed as a child had been matted and framed behind glass. Because the door was always shut, the room sponged up the house’s exclusive smells, aged fabric and swelling wood. Carl examined a dresser and its curios: a class ring, a graduation photo, a Matchbox Corvette. He opened a drawer and explored the depths until something pricked his finger, removed a chipped arrowhead, jagged like a shark’s tooth and tied to a crude shoestring necklace. He slipped it into his pocket and went downstairs, where he found the front yard alive with fireflies. A breeze had come over the farm, the branch shadows sent blue fingers dancing over the house, and the porch began to hum with kills from the bug zapper. He crossed the lot, looked back to the house, and noticed his father’s silhouette in the static glow of the living room television. He entered the barn and popped the Nova’s hood to appraise the interior, the work that needed to be done, when a white pickup pulled into the lot. Bruce Orr climbed out of the cab wearing high-waisted khakis and a blue Starter jacket. A ring of fish-belly skin bulged over his belt.
“Your daddy around?”
“See for yourself,” Carl said.
“Wanted to speak with him about the bin model we’ve been discussing.” He waved a manila envelope and tucked his lower lip between his teeth, spit in the gravel.
“So speak with him,” Carl said and shut the Nova’s hood.
The man looked Carl over and shook his head, then made his way toward the house. Carl stayed there until after the man left, alone in the quiet of the barn, waxing the car’s hull with an oiled dishtowel by the milk glass light of the moon.
On Monday, he watched through his binoculars from the water tower planks as Dale’s pickup stirred a canopy of dust over the road. Carl’s grandfather had built the tower sometime before the war; its rusted base once supported a galvanized tank but that had been taken down decades ago. He could see for miles up here, from the reeded sloughs of the Tippecanoe in the east to the twin bronze spires of the Thornhope elevator at the county line. When the pickup pulled into the farmhouse lot, a tide of gravel swept into the grass.
“Those legs are rusting through,” Carl’s mother yelled as he climbed down the tower. She was on her knees in the garden, pruning a caged row of plum tomatoes. Her hands were mossed with chocolate-colored soil. “You’re going to break your neck.”
They drove through town, honking and waving at familiars. They stopped at an auto parts store in Monticello, where Carl bought a carburetor, then parked at the banks, dropped their fishing rods on a sandbar, set their lines, and opened warm cans of Milwaukee’s Best. The sun danced through the branches, foxing the water with patches of orange light.
“Check it out,” Dale said and opened his tackle box to reveal a menagerie of dry fly wings, wooden wasp and moth lures housed in cradles of black foam. He held a lure between his fingers; it had an epoxied thorax, a mohawk of orange breast feathers.
“Mud dauber.” He turned it over to reveal an underbelly of hooks.
“You’ve got a talent,” Carl said. “Still think you could open an online shop.”
“You get tired of corn I can get you in at Braun,” Dale said. “I start Monday.”
“Can’t do factory work,” Carl said. He took a sip of beer, cast his line, and closed his eyes.
“Can’t sleep,” Carl said.
“Life doesn’t end after high school,” his mother said. “You need to socialize.”
“What’d you buy that carburetor for?”
“I’m still leaving.”
“Be gone in a few weeks, maybe next week if I can.”
“Because you don’t have any money. Because you don’t know how you’re going to make money once you’re there. What about your folks?”
Carl shrugged. His line drifted into a shoal scummed over with algae.
“You’re out of your goddamn mind. That Nova didn’t run half the time Richard had it.”
“I got the starter in Friday and she fired up,” Carl said. “Holds up like hell won’t have it.”
“Richard always said the transmission’s shot,” Dale said.
“I’ll keep it on fluid until I get it fixed.”
“New transmission’s going to set you back eight hundred.”
“Can’t install it myself.”
“Fifteen hundred. You ain’t going nowhere.” A rippling ring turned in the lake. “Heard your cousin was in Lafayette yesterday with that thing on her head again.”
“So?” Carl said.
“So, nothing. Just saying. You miss high school?”
“Hell no.” Carl troweled a sand mound with his boot. “You know, I read once that Hungarian is the only language that has a two-syllable word for yes.”
“Now what the hell does that have to do with anything?”
Carl reeled in his line and clipped it with a pair of wire cutters. “It’s stupid,” he said.
“That’s what I’m telling you.”
“No, this. I don’t know why we have to come all the way to Monticello to fish. What’s wrong with the creek?”
“Creek’s got nothing but smelt and crawdads,” Dale said. “Lake has bass.”
“I’m tired of fish.”
That night Carl lay on the couch with Susan, running his fingers through the soft scoops of hair. He enjoyed exploring the curves of her body, the subtle dip in her stomach, the rounded fins of pelvis that disappeared into her hips.
“Bruce said you were working on some car in the barn the other night.”
“So?” Carl pulled a quilt over them, trying to get their heads under it.
“So, you don’t have a car,” she said, swatting him away.
Toys were scattered over the carpet. Carl thought there was something dirty about it, sleeping around with kids’ toys everywhere.
“He’ll be back in an hour,” she said. “You need to get that grain truck out of the driveway.”
“I read once that in Iran you invite people to your house even if you don’t want them over,” Carl said.
“That’s not a very good policy,” Susan said.
“I don’t think so either.”
She reached down, picked her underwear and T-shirt off the floor. Soon he was undressing her and kissing the divot in her neck. It made her laugh, and she squirmed against him.
“You think this is strange?” she asked.
“We’re cousins. It’s strange.”
A baby began to cry upstairs and Susan pulled on her jeans. A yellowed front page of The Pulaski Gazette hung framed over the mantel, a smiling teenage beauty queen in a floor-length ball gown skirt, frozen in time. Susan had won the Miss Pulaski Pageant the year she graduated high school, advanced to the state pageant, but lost the following year to a girl from Carmel. She disappeared from the public eye soon thereafter, married Bruce Orr, heir of Orr Grain in Winamac, and had a family. In the years since, word around town had it the fall from fame had bruised her ego. One rumor that’d gained traction was that Susan allegedly took to wearing her old pageant crown around town: to the dry cleaners, the grocery, the post office. Carl had never seen her do this and didn’t believe it for a second, because he knew this was what people in their county did: They’d convinced themselves that different experiences were experiences not worth having, and set their targets on anyone’s attempts to move beyond the place they’d been born because it made them feel better about the fact that they’d never tried.
“You ever think about leaving?” he asked. “This town, I mean.”
“Not anymore. Went to Indy a couple times to compete, went to Chicago for our honeymoon.”
“What’d you think?”
She started for the stairs, paused in the doorway. “I think I wanted to do a lot of things. I can’t tell you what was going through my mind at 18.”
Beside the framed clipping, a family photo revealed an older Susan seated next to Bruce, their infant daughters on his lap. A thick moustache draped over the man’s lip. Carl thought he looked like the butt of a joke he was too dumb to understand.
“I’m 19,” he said.
“You look a lot like Richard when he was that age.”
“I don’t want to talk about Richard.”
Carl got up from the couch. He put his arm around Susan’s waist, brushed a finger across her jaw, and went to kiss her. A clumsy performance, carried out to make him seem older than he was. “I’m moving to California,” he said.
Susan cupped a hand over her mouth to mute a laugh. “No, you aren’t,” she said and continued laughing as she climbed the stairs.
Carl worked on the Nova for the rest of the week. He installed the carburetor, got a pancake compressor from the garage and filled the tires, then started the car and made several turns in the lot before pushing onto the road. The Nova fought him for the first mile; the belts screamed and the transmission groused its way into gear, but was humming at a steady keel by the time he circled back home.
He replaced spark plugs and the ignition coil, changed the serpentine belt, installed new taillights, patched the radiator with sealant. The following Monday, he drove the car to a service station in Royal Center for a new set of tires. When he returned to the farm, he found Bruce Orr and his crew surveying the site where the old silo had been.
The men arrived at the farm each morning after that. They bulldozed the concrete cap and burrowed deep wells into the earth as Carl changed the Nova’s disc brake pads and replaced the air intake. On the third day, as he installed a new distributor, a semi ferrying massive steel slats showed up at the farm. Sometimes he worked on the car in the lot as he watched them; other times, when the noise of the silo’s excavation became too much, he drove to the Tippecanoe banks and listened to his brother’s cassettes as he watched swallows pick in the ruts. He replaced the fuel filter and thermostat. That Friday, he returned home to find a new silo where the old one had been. It had a bullet-silver barrel and a blood-red, curvilinear triangle roof, seemed to stand above the fields like a castle turret. Carl headed for the barn, found the rotting crow he’d seen the week before, now bloated with decomposition. He grabbed a discarded instruction manual and picked up the bird, then marched to Bruce’s truck, leaned into the open window, and tossed the carcass into the glove compartment.
The Oak Grove’s evening crowd was thinning out as Carl and Dale hunched over a booth near the kitchen. The restaurant’s paneled walls bowed from moisture damage, entire sections of ceiling tile swelling with rot. Two teenage girls wearing low-cut dresses entered the restaurant. A group of seniors seated near the door looked the pair over. Their faces were small and dark and they spoke in hushed, inquisitorial tones.
“Haven’t seen you in a minute,” Dale said while scribbling on his napkin. “Heard there’s a new grain bin at your place.”
The question seemed padded, calculated to conceal intent. “Dad’s idea.”
Bruce Orr and several of the Orr Grain crew entered the restaurant and sat at a table in the back. Bruce motioned Carl over; Carl ignored him and thumbed at his menu before a pregnant waitress arrived and took their orders.
“I’m sure that was hard,” Dale said. “I mean, I know your folks aren’t talkative types.”
“I’m fine,” Carl said. “In fact, I’m leaving soon. Carburetor’s in and I got new belts, even new tires. I thought about converting the brake system to a dual cylinder, but that’ll have to wait.”
“Whatever,” Dale said and continued drawing on his napkin. Crude designs for lures lay scattered around the table.
“Doesn’t it bother you that these are the same people you’re going to be looking at for the rest of your life?”
“They’re not so bad,” Dale said.
They crossed the restaurant lot, passed an assembly of cars. Bruce Orr’s truck was parked next to a mud-spotted tractor, its bucket frozen skyward like a Venus flytrap awaiting prey. The man climbed out and looked Carl over.
“Hope you like the new bin,” Bruce said. “Got to say, your daddy’s a more pleasant man to carry conversation.”
Carl spit in the gravel.
“Suppose you don’t know anything about a dead bird in my glove box. Maybe you’d like to pay the cleaning bill?” Bruce began to follow Carl across the lot. “Tell you what, you stay in your barn, keep working on that old car. Maybe Thornhope will get its first Brickyard champion.”
Carl turned, noticed several of the Orr Grain crew milling outside their trucks. He smelled coffee, chewing tobacco on Bruce’s breath.
“Maybe I could borrow your wife’s crown,” Carl said, and the lot went quiet.
Bruce’s head reared back, seemed to make sideways whipsaw motion, and then the ground slipped under Carl’s feet and there was a stabbing pain in the sinus below his right eye and his breaths grew heavy and tinged with blood. He tasted dirt, felt gravel in his cheek, and realized he was lying in the parking lot.
“Goddammit,” Bruce said. He was on his haunches now, with a hand pinning Carl’s arm behind his back. “I’m real sorry about what happened to Richard. We all are. But you’re going to make life a lot easier if you stop being such a hotheaded little prick.”
Carl squirmed and Bruce tightened his grip, drove a knee into Carl’s spine. The pressure cut through to his sternum, made him feel as though he was sinking. He wanted to cry but wouldn’t let himself. So he kept his face to the dirt and endured it.
“We’re going to have to live with each other. We’re family, whether we like it or not,” Bruce said. “Now, I’m going to let you up, and if you try to fight me I’m going to break your arm.”
“Don’t fight him,” Dale said.
Bruce pulled Carl to his feet and he noticed an uneasy sullenness around the man’s eyes, the look of someone brokering an act of kindness to which he wasn’t fully committed. Then Bruce seized Carl by the shoulders and hugged him. The gesture made him uncomfortable and redirected his focus inward, so he broke free and pushed through the crowd, eyes to the ground before he climbed into the grain truck and drove home.
He packed his duffel bag that night, picked bits of gravel out of his cheek in the shower, swabbed his face with antiseptic. Downstairs the house was quiet save for the ticking of a clock, several sinking keys of floorboards. He slipped outside and climbed the water tower by its crosshatch of beams. Rolling onto the planks, then lying down, Carl surveyed a moonscape of blue fields. The breeze was warm and tasted like honeysuckle, and feral dogs were howling somewhere deep in the woods. Through his binoculars, the headlights of Bruce’s truck flooded the Orr’s driveway down the road. Carl dug out his cellphone and called Susan. She answered on the first ring.
“I never walked around town with that crown on my head, not once,” she said and began to cry. “People are so stupid. You do one thing right and they just remind you of the times you failed.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Carl said. “I’ve got a credit card and a couple hundred bucks and I was thinking you should come with me.”
“You’re crazy,” she said. “A couple hundred won’t get you anywhere.”
“I’ll get a job at an auto parts store or something. And you can start doing pageants again, maybe modeling.”
“I can’t do anything like that, Carl. I’ve got a family.”
“You could start over.”
“Carl, I’ve got to go.” Her voice fell into a whisper. “Bruce is here.”
Carl looked into his binoculars again, saw the distant lights of Bruce’s truck making its way toward town.
Carl climbed down from the tower and crossed the yard for the porch, where the wind was rolling and sending bell chimes into the yard. He caught a flash of something and watched as his mother moved across the hairline of stalks near the darkness where the new silo stood. She seemed to be humming something, a song or lullaby whose words Carl couldn’t hear, because the wind had picked up again and now the chimes made music of it. He felt guilty standing there, as though he was intruding on some private, personal act he didn’t have permission to witness, so he slipped inside, went upstairs, and collapsed on the bed, exhausted. He thought about the faraway places he’d read about and their customs, like how kids in Greece throw their baby teeth onto roofs for good luck, or how Russians give flowers when they break up with someone, or how female relatives paint designs on Muslim brides before their weddings. He wondered if other cultures recognized how messy grief could be sometimes, the unfair expectations we put on ourselves to say and feel the right things, to ensure the adequate public display of aggrievement is being expressed. To spell out what he couldn’t put into words anyway, like the months he’d spent wondering if he could hear Richard’s voice in the house if he concentrated hard enough. How he’d squint and imagine him there, racing to the edge of the field on the four-wheeler, waving back for Carl to catch up. He couldn’t help feeling guilty at how relieved he’d been that he wasn’t thinking about Richard as much as he used to, or Carl’s memory of him, which wasn’t the same thing. And almost on top of the thought he was asleep, and had the same dream he had every night.
Carl woke before dawn, dressed, and walked the lot. In the barn, he hung Richard’s arrowhead from the rearview mirror and started the car. The Nova gave a quarrelsome wheeze for the first several miles, its chassis rattled and the transmission bucked as he shifted gears just before the Thornhope elevator, but settled as he pushed off the county road onto the highway, where he headed west. Blacktop mumbled beneath him, the Nova’s shadow fell over a quilt of fields, an electrical charge of summer was in the air, and a breeze filled the car with the smells of juniper and dandelion as he rolled down the window. He merged onto the state toll road with its great lanes of traffic, vistas of sleeper towns and mall-sized rest plazas. Behind the teakettle wail of wind, he heard crickets churning in the swales between the stalks.
The car gave out somewhere near the state border. It slowed down in the lane, and when it wouldn’t accelerate Carl was forced to pull onto the shoulder. He restarted the engine and crawled along the berm but couldn’t get the Nova to climb out of first gear. He called Susan’s cellphone but she didn’t answer. An hour later, he stripped the car of everything his brother had left behind: dusty cassettes, expired registration papers, a handful of sticky coins. He got a ratchet from the glove compartment and removed the plates, took the arrowhead from the rearview and stuffed everything in his bag. Then he began walking.
He was on the toll road the rest of the afternoon. Convoys of vacationing families passed. Teens in a car with Nebraska plates yelled something at him. He tried calling Susan again. Eventually, he began holding his thumb to traffic. Trees on the side of the road had turned up their leaves. Dark plumes of cloud spread across the sky. The rain fell in battering sheets, and gravel-sized drops hammered against the screaming slats of passing truck beds. He kept his thumb to the road but the rain grew so violent he became invisible to traffic. The wind rolled against him and the sun began to set, and by nightfall he was soaked through and shivering.
Somewhere just before the I-80 junction, a grain truck pulled up beside him. Carl climbed into the cab and the driver, a soy farmer in his late 60s, offered him a towel and thermos. The man asked Carl where he was headed, and then the truck shoved onto the highway and they traveled east, back toward the farm.
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, including Peter Bloch, Holly Miller, Estelle Slon, Jesika St Clair, Michael Knight, and previous Great American Fiction Contest winners Linda Davis, Celeste McMaster, M. West Moss, Julia Rocchi, and Michael Tasker.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
This article is featured in the January/February 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Meet the Winner! Jon Gingerich
“I was stunned,” says Gingerich on learning his story “Thornhope, Indiana” had won first place, publication in the Post, and a prize of $500. “It took a day or two to sink in. I’m still in a daze about it. Just completely gobsmacked.”
“Thornhope, Indiana” was inspired by real-life events in the author’s family. “My grandfather was a farmer in northern Indiana, where the story takes place,” Gingerich says. “He died 25 years ago in a farming accident very similar to what occurs at the beginning of the short story.”
It was a devastating loss for the family, a death the author thinks about all the time. One of the central themes of “Thornhope, Indiana” is how our society deals with the death of a loved one. “We talk about losing someone as something we eventually will ‘get over,’ and I don’t think it works that way,” says the author, who through Carl — the young protagonist struggling with the loss of his brother — shows us how “grief changes you forever.”
Born in Indiana, where his family still lives, Gingerich “always wanted to write a story about the place where we’re from, and with precious little in the way of modern fiction set in the Hoosier state, I didn’t feel that I was wading into overfished waters.”
Gingerich began his writing career at 25 working for weekly newspapers before moving to New York 14 years ago to become editor of a business magazine. But, he says, “fiction has always been my passion.” He received an MFA in creative writing from The New School, and for the past five years has been a fiction instructor at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop in New York City — “I love it.” His work has appeared in a number of literary journals — including Pleiades, Grist, The Oyez Review, Stand Magazine, and Helix Magazine — and he recently finished writing a novel. “Thornhope, Indiana” is his first story published in a national consumer magazine. For more, visit jongingerich.com.
Meet the Runners-Up
Each runner-up receives $100 and publication of their work on our website. We salute these fine writers and the more than 250 others who entered our 2020 contest. We will publish the stories listed here in the coming weeks and add links to them on this page, starting with the publication of “Thornhope, Indiana.” Look for the release of a new story every Friday thereafter. —The Editors
Amanda Irene Rush
Title: “Fifty Million Cents”
Storyline: Joey is nine when his mother goes nuts and he’s sent to live with his grumpy grandmother, often on his own.
Bio: First story to be published in a national magazine; stories have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review and Glimmer Train; for more, visit thegatheringgirl.wordpress.com.
Title: “All Happy Families”
Storyline: All three sisters know their father wouldn’t wait around for anyone to die — so why are they waiting on him?
Bio: First story to be published in a national magazine; humor piece appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
Patricia Perry Donovan
Title: “Don’t Have to Be Crying”
Storyline: As coverage of Hurricane Sandy played out on TV, Grace — her sister knew — lacked the DNA to stand by and do nothing, no matter the cost.
Bio: First story to be published in a national magazine; stories have appeared in The Bookends Review, Hippocampus, and other literary magazines; author of two novels. For more, visit patriciaperrydonovan.com.
Kate Brett Lewis
Title: “The Silhouette”
Storyline: Now that her parents are gone, Isabelle revisits the family’s weathered cabin on the lake and the memory of a summer day so long ago.
Bio: First story to be published in a national magazine.
Title: “A Man of Few Words”
Storyline: Asking for help was something Sam didn’t do, but as the letters piled up, he had no choice. Could he trust a college kid with his secret?
Bio: First story to be published in a national
magazine; stories have appeared in Yale Review, Rumpus, and other literary magazines. For more, visit cathymellett.com.
Post editors are delighted by the storytelling and fine writing of this year’s entrants. We’ve compiled the best stories — our winner, runners-up, and honorable mentions — in an e-book, available on your favorite platforms for $3.99. Order now at saturdayeveningpost.com/fiction-books.
Featured image: Courtesy Jon Gingerich