Mattie and his parents were the few year-round residents at the lake. The rest were summer people; they came during the hot months when the rhododendron blossoms bent heavily toward the earth, and the summer air carried the sweet scent of pine. The bike lane, weaving from the main road into the woods and down to the lakeshore, was crowded with runners, tandem bikes, and groups of families taking a stroll; the lake was spotted with striped sails of Sunfish and motor boats of varying size. The pace quickened in the summer for Mattie and his parents, who owned the only bike and boat rental shop on the east side of the lake; but for the summer people, like the McLeods, it was a time to slow down, to swim and sail, to read books on their porches, to work jigsaw puzzles, and to feel at the end of the day that still not enough had been accomplished.
Cabins of all sizes ringed this small lake in northern Michigan, each having its own weathered dock jutting into the water and a narrow path that pushed through bulrush up to screened porches and open decks. On the western edge of the 245-acre lake, nestled in among tall, white pines, the McLeod family’s cabin seemed to tilt, reaching for the sun that dappled off the water through the branches.
Isabelle pushed the screen door open and let it slam shut behind her. As she ran down the sandy path that led to the dock, she waved to Mattie while he finished wrapping the frayed rope in figure eights around the horn cleat. She watched his tanned arms and hands work, their muscles long and sinewy and roped with veins. He squinted up at her as he grabbed the oars. His hair was tousled and curled over his ears, his smile crooked.
“Hey, Belle, there’s the birthday girl. How does it feel to be 16?”
“Look what I have for you.” He reached into a paper bag resting on the floor of the boat and pulled out a broad-brimmed straw hat. Its red ribbon wrapped around the brim and tied in a bow at the back, draping down. “No more sunburned noses for you.” He placed it carefully on her head.
“Mattie, I love it.”
“Kids, can I get your picture?” Grandma McLeod waved a camera in her hand, carefully stepping over rocks and clumps of grass.
“Hi, Mrs. McLeod.” Mattie planted one of the oars solidly to his side like a staff and draped his arm around Isabelle’s shoulder. The August sun was still high and the air warm against their skin; a slight breeze blew long strands of Isabelle’s dark hair across her face.
Isabelle squinted as she looked across the still lake. The gentle sun peered above the treetops, rising at a more southern point on the lake than she had ever seen, signaling the coming of autumn. Ripples trailing a pair of ducks sparkled and danced at the water’s edge, and fallen golden pine needles twirled in a soft wind against the house. The morning gave promise to a beautiful September day.
“Do you have any idea how sexy you look right now?” Brian was still in bed, propped up against two pillows, his eyes droopy, his hair falling across his forehead.
“You don’t have your contacts in.”
The dinghy that had been tied to the dock next door the night before now glided with a single silhouette rowing slowly to the center of the lake.
“I’m going for a swim.” She turned from the sliding doors that led out to a balcony.
“Oh my God, you know it’s going to be freezing.”
“I’ll just see how far I can get.”
“I’ll watch you from the window, crazy girl.”
“Go back to sleep. I promise I won’t go over my head. Besides, I’m a good swimmer.”
The bed creaked as Brian slumped further down under the covers.
Isabelle struggled to pull up her one-piece bathing suit, slide on her cracked flip flops, and grab a towel all at once. Stumbling, she made her way down the stairs to the living space. A room smaller than she remembered, it had an overstuffed chair covered in knobby brown tweed fabric and a sofa loosely draped in an ill-fitting slip cover of dark green acrylic. Both faced east, out toward the lake. Next to each rested a lamp on metal TV tables. A braided rug of various shades of tan, brown, and green covered a mottled, yellowing linoleum floor; a worn gray path ran from the front door to the sliding door that led to the deck overlooking the water. On one side of the room was a small white refrigerator, sink, and a porcelain-enamel stovetop. The stove had a shallow chip that left a nickel sized spot of base metal showing black. Honey pine wood cabinets stood under a small stretch of Formica counter top and hung on either side of the window over the sink.
On the south wall of the room, a bookcase sagged from its double- and triple-stacked books; the lowest shelf still held Isabelle’s old games and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. Opposite that was a large chest of drawers. Hanging above the chest, a wood-framed mirror reflected a blue ceramic bowl filled with pine cones of various sizes and a rooster pitcher labeled Pisa, Italy, in cursive. A Polaroid photograph was stuck diagonally into the frame of the mirror — an image of a girl standing on a dock holding a large straw hat in her hand, her hair in a long plait wrapped around the front of her shoulder and across her bathing suit top. Next to her leaned a sun-bleached, towheaded boy gripping a canoe paddle. The photo was yellowed and creased in the upper corner. Isabelle examined the picture before sticking it back in the slot between the wood and glass, and then opened each drawer of the dresser. Pulling hard, unsticking the bottom one, she found the straw hat from the photograph, its red ribbon crimped but still attached to its brim. She set it on her head before heading out.
The rowboat was probably 500 feet offshore by the time Isabelle made it to the end of the splintered dock, but she still couldn’t tell which direction the silhouette was facing. She almost waved but thought Brian might have decided to watch from the balcony, so she dropped her towel, kicked off the flip flops, and hung her toes off the edge. Jesus, he was right: the water was freezing. The sun glinted off the lake. She didn’t regret not wearing her sunglasses; the brightness eased her. It bleached out the darkness of the past year. The straw hat barely shaded her face, and when she closed her eyes the warm colors behind her lids moved slowly like a kaleidoscope. The slap of the water against the wooden pilings and the cool morning air made the world light and open.
Isabelle forced her feet, ankles, then knees into the frigid water and without a splash slid off the edge of the dock. Keeping her toes from touching the muck at the bottom, her head rose and dipped like a bobber on a fishing line. The skin on her scalp tightened, and her body shuddered from the cold. With her arms circling through the water and her legs scissor kicking, she swam away from the shore until the chill lessened. Then she flipped on her back and stared at the sky. The white underbelly of a loon, his wings stretched wide, glided overhead. Isabelle heard his one-note hoot, signaling his search for family members. The loon circled back, and his long rising and repetitive yodel echoed off the water’s surface, trailing into the branches of pine trees. She knew he was defending his territory. She let her legs drop into the lake, righting herself from the back-float, and doggy paddled in place. She searched for the boat again. The silhouette, a dark speck against the sky, drifted farther and farther away.
After her swim, Isabel moved quietly, trying not to bang too much in the kitchen. She set the black, oily, cast iron frying pan on top of the stove. She pulled out the eggs and bacon and butter she and Brian had bought at the convenience store the night before, nesting them together on the red Formica countertop. Separating and stretching individual slices, she slapped the bacon strips in rows on the heated skillet. The bent metal trim from the counter caught her loosely woven sweater when she moved against it.
“Damn it,” she whispered.
“What’s wrong, babe?”
Isabelle jumped and swung around. Brian stood in the middle of the room watching her.
“I didn’t hear you come down the stairs. Man, you’re light on your feet.” She turned back to the stove where the bacon now sizzled in the pan.
“What are you making?”
“Scrambled eggs and bacon. Or I can do fried or poached.”
“Scrambled’s okay. Would you like me to make them?”
She heard the glass door to the deck slide closed. “No, I’ve got it.” When she turned he was gone, facing out toward the water. She rubbed her thumb against the chip in the porcelain and watched the bacon burn.
The silhouette had disappeared from the lake sometime between Isabelle’s morning swim and the confluence of eggs, toast, and coffee passing under her palate. The dinghy bounced against the dock next door from the afternoon waves and wind, but the house to which it belonged was dark and still. Brian was out on the dock trying to understand the engineering behind a fishing rod while Isabel sat curled reading in the overstuffed chair with its greasy arms and distant smell of rain and earth. She could feel herself drifting off as random images blended with the words on the page. When she awoke, a low cloud cover had snuck in over the lake, casting a hue of green and gray; she turned on the only two lamps in the room.
In the late afternoon, Brian and Isabelle sat on the end of the dock in rusted folding chairs. The clouds had dissipated, leaving thin gray brush strokes against a darkening sky. With the sun setting at their backs, they sipped wine from yellow plastic tea cups.
“Izzy, why are we here?”
The silhouette in the dinghy glided away from the shore again, heading for the center of the lake. She hadn’t seen it leave the dock.
“Because this place is technically yours and mine, now.”
“Let’s sell it.”
“Yea, maybe.” The water churned as the wind picked up. Twilight fell on them like a veil.
“I’d like to hold off for awhile before we do anything.”
“I’m just saying that since this place is practically falling down, maybe we should cut our losses and sell it as-is and be done with it. The land alone, I should think, would be worth something.”
The silhouette bobbed up and down and settled in one spot directly in front of the dock. It looked black against the twilight sky and disappeared from view when it dipped below the skyline.
“I’m not ready to be done with it.”
“Honey, it’s just that since I’ve known you, you’ve never visited this place. Now that your parents are gone, why hang on to it? Let it go. We could use the money.”
“I don’t know why we didn’t come here, Brian.”
“I do.” He held the cup to his lips. “Just look at the place.”
The silhouette traversed the lake heading to the south side. “I’m going in, Brian, I’m cold and it’s getting dark.”
The lake and darkening sky reflected off the glass of the sliding door that had replaced the old wood framed screen sometime in the last 15 years. Isabelle stumbled over its track heading straight for a lamp. She turned the knob and the bulb crackled and popped.
“Shit,” she said aloud.
She reached for the other lamp knocking it to the floor.
The base cracked and the shade popped off. The bulb lay bare against the linoleum floor; the small filament was exposed, with sharp glass edges protruding around it. Her towel and book hit the floor, and as she reached for the broken light, a sob escaped from deep within her throat. She turned the screw of the light switch over and over, clicking faster and faster. Isabelle dropped down to the cold floor squarely with her legs straight out, and, still holding the shattered light, wept.
Several minutes passed with the darkness smothering her. Her skin prickled with sweat. She wondered if Brian had heard the commotion. She made her way to the dresser to where the mirror reflected the only light in the room from the lake. As she stared at the photograph, she let herself remember. His hair had been white and his smile curled up one side forcing a dimple and exposing a slightly protruding tooth. He squinted hard against the sun as though it was a natural state and he was accustomed to it. His wet navy blue swim trunks hung low on his hips, leaving a distinct white line below his tanned torso, and they clung to his thighs from their wetness. His arm dangled casually across her shoulders while his fingers looped under her bathing suit strap at the top of her shoulder. This is how she always thought of him: bright and strong and hanging on to her.
An hour after sunset Brian and Isabelle sat at the square dining table. Candle lights flickered off the wine bottle, leaving shadows from the bowls and plates on the vinyl tablecloth.
“Tell me again how both lamps broke?”
“They didn’t both break. One just burned out, and I accidentally knocked the other one off the table. I’ll get some new ones tomorrow and some light bulbs.”
“There’s really no need.”
“We need more light in this room, Brian.”
“We’ve got the lamp from the bedroom. I’ll take it back up when we go to bed tonight, and then tomorrow we leave.”
“For when we come back.”
“I didn’t know we were coming back. The agency can sell it without us being here.”
“I’m coming back at least once more. You don’t have to come with me. You didn’t need to come this time.” She stabbed the salad with her fork. She had yet to touch the plate of pasta and marinara sauce from a jar. “I’m not going to sell the cabin without going through everything and bringing stuff home.”
“Like my books and the rooster pitcher that I brought back from Pisa for my grandma.”
“Those books are children’s books, Isabelle.” He twirled a mound of spaghetti onto his bent fork and stuffed it in his mouth, chewing slowly and swallowing. With a paper towel, he dapped at the corners of his lips and mustache.
“We’re not going to use the pitcher at home. It’s tacky.”
“I’m taking the things that mean something to me. My grandma was so happy when I gave it to her. That’s where her mother was born.”
“I like the mirror over the dresser.” He pointed over his shoulder, “Minus the photo.”
She knew Brian waited for a reaction. She brought the cracked tea cup half full of red wine to her lips and gazed out the sliding door. The reflection of her sitting across from him, the flickering candles between them, was set against a black background. They looked lonely.
“I’d like to head out by ten tomorrow morning. I’ve got to spend some time at the office in the afternoon.” He leaned back in his chair and drew his fingers through his black hair. With a strong angular face, Brian had an air of authority. His dark eyes were softened by his full eyebrows and long lashes, but his mouth was set with both corners pulling the mustache of his Van Dyke toward his chin.
“That’s fine. I’ve got some shopping to do.” She hesitated as if weighing her next words against his downward smile. “I’ve got lamps to buy.” When he brought the cup to his mouth, all she could see were his eyes. She thought they squinted for a split second.
The photo had been taken late in the afternoon. Given permission to leave the bike shop early, Mattie spent an hour on the lake with her before taking her to the movies. His father gave him the keys to the old family Chevy C10 pickup for the first time since he had gotten his license, to take her to the opening of Star Wars. He woke up early to wash the truck before going to work, vacuuming the interior, and using Windex on the windows. He covered frayed rips in the upholstery with a green-and-white beach towel, stretching it across the bench seat. He inserted Isabelle’s favorite Earth, Wind, and Fire eight-track into a tape deck and queued it up to “Reasons,” her favorite song.
After the movie, Mattie drove Isabelle to a nearby wildlife sanctuary that closed at dark. With Isabelle sitting close enough for him to drape his arm around her shoulder, he gently drove through ruts and over large rocks down a dirt road that wound through a heavy pine forest. Isabelle giggled as her head bounced against his shoulder. When they reached a clearing at the end of the road, a lone silver birch stood tall, spreading its dark branches against a sky brightened by the light of the moon; a clump of mistletoe hung from a low branch. Mattie turned off the engine.
“I love it here, Mattie.”
“I know. I do, too.” He reached across her lap to open her door. “Stay right there, birthday girl.” He climbed out his side of the truck and walked around front. She watched him pass through the headlights and come to her side. He held out his hand. “May I help you into the back of the truck?”
“Mattie Miller, what are you planning?”
“Please.” His hand was big and warm, and his thumb pressed gently into the back of hers as he grasped her fingers. After Mattie lowered the red tailgate, he lifted her at her waist while she pushed herself up with her arms, hopping backward onto it.
“I’ll be right back.”
“What in the world are you up to?” She heard him fumbling in the darkness of the truck’s cabin, the headlights went off and the music began to play. Mattie left the driver-side door open and Isabelle felt the truck rock slightly as he pulled himself up onto the tire and then onto the weathered wooden boards of the flatbed. In the dark, she made out his silhouette as he moved toward her.
“May I?” He took her hand and slid his arm around her waist and began to sway.
“Mattie, you can’t dance.”
“I can when I’m inspired.” He pulled her closer and held her hand against his chest, touching his cheek to hers. She drew a long, deep breath to smell the sweetness of his neck. His skin felt damp and smooth. As the music from the cabin of the truck blended with the chorus of wood frogs, Isabelle felt Mattie’s body sway. Blowing the stray hair that curled around her ear, he whispered, “I love you, Belle.”
“Izzy, do you want me to plug in the lamp next to you or keep it on my side?”
“I’d like to read a bit, can I have it?”
Brian had already plugged it into the outlet behind the small, white nightstand on his side of the double bed. Saying nothing, he yanked the black, cloth-covered cord and dragged it by the lamp’s base over to the other side and plugged it in. Isabelle pulled up a fresh pair of underwear under her nightgown, grabbed her book and glasses, and crawled under the frayed sheet.
“Are you kinda done with the whole sex thing, Izzy?”
Isabelle had sensed that this question was looming and was sorry that it came now.
“No.” She looked over the top of her glasses and saw that he had pulled out his iPad and was already scrolling. She scrunched farther down under the sheet and began to read.
Still awake several hours later, Isabelle heard the wind pick up, and branches from the pine growing close to the house scraped against her window. A wind chime that her grandmother had hung from the balcony made the night feel lonely and near. Brian was snoring. Isabelle tugged the crocheted quilt of black and green and red yarn up from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around her head. She never remembered feeling cold at the cabin until now. She used to wonder what the lake must be like after Labor Day, what Mattie did in the days when the shadows of the pines stretched long across the water and the chilled air smelled of earth and decaying leaves. She tried to imagine snowflakes disappearing as they touched the water’s surface with layers of ice forming along the shoreline and around the dock pilings. She pictured cabins closed up tight with their docks barren; all the deck chairs and umbrellas stored away in the sheds. She thought of Mattie alone sitting on the deck next door, bundled in a sweater and turtleneck listening to the geese fly overhead, watching the stars and planets rotate in the winter sky. A fire of pine branches and birch faggots popping and spitting from the stone fireplace that his father had built. His mother in the kitchen making something warm like stew or chili; all the foods that Isabelle never ate at the lake. The Miller’s cabin would be alive with a glow from each window, set alone in the darkness of the winter. And now, as the northern wind plucked the haunting chimes and the scratch of the pine branches kept time against her window, Brian lay next to her, and she was cold.
The next morning, Isabelle dumped the remains of the half & half down the drain and put the carton in the trash. “Should we bring the eggs home?” she asked.
“Nah, pitch ’em. Let’s pitch everything.”
“I’m going to the lake one more time, then I’m ready to leave.”
As she walked down the dock, Isabelle spotted the silhouette on the lake; it moved slowly toward her. The sun left black dots on the inside of her eyelids each time she blinked, but she saw the rower more clearly than ever before. He wore a blue life preserver, giving him oversized shoulders and arms that looked like sticks. As he maneuvered the oars, he turned the boat so that it glided perpendicular to the edge of her dock, and she watched him slide past her to the dock next door. He wore a red baseball cap that shadowed his face. White curls looped up around the back of the cap, and his tan neck was slightly burned. After he tied the weathered rope in figure eights around the horn cleat, he secured the oars inside the boat. With ease, he pulled himself up on the dock and unzipped his life vest. Throwing his arm up into the air, he waved to Isabelle with a smile; a wide gap split his two front teeth. A boy. She waved back without saying hello and watched him run up the gray, weathered planks to the cabin.
A rush of embarrassment rose from her chest to her throat. It strangled her as she let out a choked cough. A small boy. She stared at the dinghy as it bumped softly against the rubber pads on the edge of the dock, water lapping at its sides. She felt something release from her core, her muscles relaxed, and she nodded toward the lake and its gray quietness. The water was empty of sails. Hovering over the far side of the lake, a bank of clouds roiled and the tops of the pines swayed like wheat. She felt a slow rhythmic bounce of the dock making her turn as she pressed the straw hat firmly on the crown of her head. For a moment, she imagined a tall, white-haired boy with a curious smile loping toward her with his arms swinging, his eyes squinting against the sky painlessly.
“Are you ready?” Brian wore his pressed khakis, leather dress shoes, and sunglasses.
She steadied her voice, “I just saw a little boy that’s staying next door. I think he’s the one I keep seeing on the lake.”
Brian’s face showed no sense of recognition. He zipped up his jacket against the breeze, and it seemed to Isabelle that he was looking at the water for the first time.
“It looks different today,” he said.
A sudden gust of wind blew the straw hat off Isabelle’s head and into the lake. Lightly, it floated with its red ribbon trailing and sinking down into the water.
“Oh, no.” She fell to her knees and reached out to grab it, but the shallow waves licked the hat away. She stretched farther out over the water.
“Isabelle, let it go.”
“I love that hat.”
“It’s old. I’ll get you a new one.”
Isabelle leaned back on her heels, pressing her palms into her thighs as she watched the hat drift under the dock next door and catch in the stiff stalks of cattails growing out of the murky water along the shore. “Would you like to stop on the way home to pick up some new lamps? We can pick them out together, and you can look for a new hat.”
Isabelle remained kneeling, squinting away the brightness. “I don’t really need them.”
Featured image: Shutterstock
Jesse Sherwood is a runner-up in our 2020 Great American Fiction Contest. See all of the winners.
His body is light.
For whatever reason, I imagine cardboard tubes under the blankets. Like the tubes at the center of a roll of paper towels or toilet paper. These tubes are stitched together to form his body. Tubes of different sizes: The largest link together to mold the long bones, his legs and arms; mid-size tubes are crumpled for the joints and are laid out into the long staccato of his spine; the smallest make up the blood vessels, shrinking toward capillaries, spreading like intricate cardboard blooms throughout his body.
His eyes are half-open, glazed with opiates. He stares at some point beyond his feet. Every once in a while, his lids droop and close for a number of seconds before opening. My sister is probably on a similar opioid. She cracks a joke, in bad taste, in her style:
“And we always thought you’d kill yourself.”
And I think: It’s the truth.
I never imagined him dying like this: flesh detaching from bone, skin and eyes bleaching out, everything shrinking like he was laid out and shriveling in the sun. Any other way seems more reasonable than this, more like him.
But maybe this is a form of karma? His unbreakable ego, an ego that would take its own life, has to face the indignity of becoming nothing but a decaying animal like the rest of us. Maybe that’s why he is being crushed down, made immobile, stripped of all the things that ego was built on. I’m sure if we brought a gun and he could manage it; he wouldn’t hesitate. I suppose I wouldn’t either.
Abigail waits for a reaction to the joke, her hands gripping the rails of the bed tightly, veins coiling close to bone just like in our father’s hands now. She gives up and looks at Crystal and me, forcing a smile.
“I thought it was funny,” she says.
Crystal breathes out loudly and her breath, all mint and what smells like used dryer sheet, passes by me. She starts moving toward the door.
“I need a break,” she says to me. “Coffee?”
I wave it off. Abigail says she’ll go with her, and I can tell by Crystal’s look that what she wanted was a break from our pilled-up sister. They leave the room and I use the time to sit for a while. The weight of the baby in me — seven months — sits heavy on my organs and bends my back, like I was pulling hard on ropes tied to something immovable on the ground. There’s a tight ball of pain in the small there, pulsing needles down into the base of my spine. Sometimes sitting helps, but I haven’t tried it this past hour or so, with my sisters. So I sit and it does help some and I think about taking up my father’s hand in mine, but it’s the arm with the IV and that thing they put on your finger with the red light. Why wouldn’t they put it in the other arm, on the other side? This is the only chair; they knew someone would be sitting here.
There are times when I realize how much like my father I am, but it isn’t until now — now that he’s so much unlike the father I knew or want to remember and we’re alone — that our similarity hardens into fact. He wouldn’t sit around like this waiting for someone to die, waiting bedside, and I have an overwhelming urge to leave, too, an impatience not to see any more of this. I was young when my grandfather died, but I remember how my dad acted like it wasn’t happening. He took no time off work, never returned his sister’s frantic calls, kept religiously to his routines. I remember my mother — they hadn’t split yet — asking if he was planning on going to the funeral, and he said No, not making eye contact with her, then, Why would I? in a harsh tone, as if my mother were an idiot. I’d had a boyfriend in college who’d grown up Evangelical. I told him about this and he said that Jesus had said: Let the dead bury the dead. But that wasn’t why my father ignored my grandfather’s death. It was this, this thing in me now telling me to flee, sitting taut in my chest like a knot pulling tighter into itself.
My sisters return before I even get a chance to catch my breath from them. I can tell things went badly, that they’ve been arguing. Abigail’s color is grapefruit, sloping down her cheeks in dabs like she’d rubbed dye on her face. Crystal acts pretend-happy, that slight twitch in her eye as she holds her practiced smile.
“He move at all? Anything?” Crystal lets down the smile, asking in the harsh tone she inherited from our Dad.
I just look back at her, because we both know — all three of us know — it’s a dumb question. Abigail, as if I’d made a precedent, settles gently on the corner of Dad’s bed, her thinness barely creasing the sheets there. The reddish flare on her face disappears, her features ashen as if the buzz from the pills has pulled the flush away like a wave. But it isn’t the pills at all — it’s our father that’s drained her. The sight of him.
He used to be what people used to call virile. Tall, though not as tall as Crystal, with thick, curly hair, and solid muscle threading over his body. I try to hold that image of him, all those years ago when he was like that and things were good, but it always fades to this brittle dying man in this bed. Though it had been coming long before this. Whatever it was he felt the world owed him he never received, so he let his life wane. Cancer was a formality. Our mother knows it. That’s why she’s not here. That’s why she left all those years ago.
For a brief moment, staring at his sunken, yellowed face, I remember. I see an image of them, my father and my mother. It’s summer and they are sitting on grass next to each other. He’s in a navy-blue T-shirt and his ever-present jeans — no matter how hot — and she’s in a cotton dress with pale lilacs on it. He’s tanned copper; she’s pinked with fresh sunburn. He squints; she shields her eyes despite the large O sunglasses covering them. She’s smiling; he smirks. Their hands are very near each other in the grass, but they don’t touch. I see them like this, happy, before he sank into himself and she left.
I’m pulled back into this room by Abigail, who I see has started crying. She speaks, looking at Dad, not at Crystal or me.
“You remember the story about the deer?” she says, sniffing up snot loudly.
“Yeah,” Crystal says, looking up from her phone and staring at him too.
And I think: How could we forget?
My father was nine when he’d seen the deer die. It was an old age considering the time, 1965, and the place, rural upstate New York. His father, my grandfather, wasn’t a hunter, just like my great-grandfather hadn’t been, so he never passed on the practice of killing things to his sons. Other boys my dad knew had been out hunting with their fathers since they could walk in the woods without holding someone’s hand. I’m sure they talked about it at school: the cold mornings laced in frost, the crunch of leaf under snow, the shot of the gun cutting through the dawn. I imagine my father pretending that he’d done the same with his father, exaggerating a turkey’s spray of feathers, or the size of a deer’s antlers.
It wasn’t hunting season the night it happened. My father would never remember where they were driving from, or why he was the only one in the truck with my grandfather. He would remember how the snow seemed to go unbroken from shoulder to shoulder, as if they weren’t on a road at all, just a convenient clear path through the woods and fields. He’d remember that Hank Williams came grainy from the radio, the tires pressing through the snow, a sound like ripping fabric. He’d remember his father’s deep hum that didn’t match the Hank Williams tune or the tires. The ever-present smell of the cigarettes his father smoked through a minute crack in the window and the beer he took sips out of.
My grandfather, whom I would never meet, had a Norman Mailer look to him; that sort of pompous but sad stare, perhaps coming from the unexpected blueness of the eyes amid the tanned skin. At that time he was around 30 and probably still had the curly chestnut hair my father and us daughters would inherit and grandfather would go on to dye a strange color that looked like wood stain. As was the fashion, he had sideburns, slightly darker in color than his hair. He was tall, thin, strong — what some might call ropey. Those old pictures show my father as the type of boy they’d put in a Lassie episode, with chubby cheeks and a head of blond curls that would suddenly darken — as mine would — when puberty came.
I can see them both. My grandfather peering through his cigarette smoke and the falling snow, trying to stay on the road and not drift off into a field. My Dad bundled up in a jacket, a hat, maybe a scarf, maybe mittens too, falling asleep in the warmth from the truck’s heater, now and then being jolted awake by the shudder from a pot hole.
Then a jolt came that would keep him awake and make my grandfather lose control of the truck. I imagine, being the type of man I had always heard he was, that my grandfather swore when it happened, the whole thing occurring in that brief second of the curse. The loud thud of the impact passing through the skin of the truck, his foot reflexively compressing the brake, the tires’ lock and skid, and the final thump as the truck slid into a pile of snow on the shoulder next to a field, the pile of snow inexplicable, as if an entire cloud had condensed and fell there. And my blond-curled father holding himself tightly in the seat with his small arms, unsure of what was happening. Dad wouldn’t have said anything, of course. Out of fear, not only of the unknown event but also the anger and frustration he could sense emanating from his father as he burned through gears, back and forth, back and forth, getting the truck unstuck. The headlights lunging at and pulling away from the pile of snow, yellow in the light like tallow.
He did get the truck unstuck. He backed it onto the road and parked, left it running, said to the boy, Come on. That’s how my father told it. No preamble or explanation, just Come on, and opening his door and letting the boy open his own and dangle down to the snow and do his best not to slip and fall. And the truck seat folding forward and grandfather taking out the gun, checking to make sure it was loaded, and then pushing the seat back with a click and slamming his door. The boy pushing to close his but it not latching and my grandfather, maybe swearing again, coming around and slamming it. Maybe he said Come on again before walking back the way they’d come. Then my grandfather going back for the flashlight — my father remembered that part. Surely then he swore. Then the gruff walk back to the boy standing in the road, waiting. Shining the light in the boy’s eyes and walking on past him.
My father said it didn’t take grandfather long to find the blood. The burst on the ground where it had hit the truck, like a crimson palm leaf, a few yards off the pool where it had laid a moment, and then the drops dotting the snow where it had stumbled off. Not considering the boy, the depth of snow, the time of night, or the temperature, grandfather began trudging into the field, following the drops. Maybe he wanted the meat. Surely it couldn’t have been compassion, to put the deer out of its misery. Though that’s how my Dad always framed it. But it doesn’t make sense that way. It had to be something with enough power to keep grandfather from pulling out any more cigarettes or grabbing more beer. And it was 1965, and it was rural upstate. Such things as compassion from men were in short supply. That’s what mothers were for, and it was seldom even to be had there. My father never spoke of his mother or his father this way, but I gathered it from how he was with us girls. The way he’d turn stern, indifferent, whenever emotion was involved. So grandfather followed the blood because of his dented truck, because of getting stuck, because he’d been made scared.
Father always said the field was big, 80 acres or more. But I’ve been past it many times and it can’t be more than 40. He said it was different back then, even though the trees bordering the field today are at least 70 or more years old. I imagine that for his age and size, that cold, dark field must have seemed limitless, ice and snow spreading to the horizons under the spray of stars overhead. He never told how long he followed behind my grandfather, hopping into the holes the man’s boots made, calculating each leap, making a game of it despite his fatigue and chill. He only told us that he had had to catch up to his father, some 20 yards ahead, standing motionless in the field, silhouetted by the flashlight pointed at the ground. And then he saw the deer.
It lay on its side heaving, struggling for each breath. My father remembered its gulps for air sounded like someone rattling a plastic shopping bag deep in its chest. He remembered the blood flowing from its nose and mouth, bubbling and steaming before dripping onto the snow. Its eyes wide and terrified — black balls, he said, like marbles. One leg kicked out with no rhythm to it, sending sprays of snow a yard out from its body. Then he noticed the deer’s side, a large split across the ribcage. How it was strangely bloodless, and how he could see the pinks and yellows of organs peeking through the crack, steaming too like the blood. He never said whether he was scared or sad for the deer, but he was mesmerized enough to tell his three girls about it almost every single year in the winter, even after he’d become bitter, even after he’d become sick.
I know grandfather wouldn’t have told him not to look, or took him under his arm and said, Are you okay? Instead he raised the gun to his shoulder and told him to Turn around, but the boy didn’t. He just kept watching the deer’s eyes. And then the crack of the gun splintered everything.
I see my father, that little boy, jumping when it happens. The deer’s head dropping into its pool of blood in the snow, the last breath escaping, its steam dissipating as it rose into the air, its hoof locking mid-kick, the echo of the gun off in the distance, clacking its way across the countryside, until it is nothing but silence and the boy and the man and the dead deer.
My father told how grandfather stood awhile. I imagine my grandfather pulling a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it, the gun — father never said rifle or shotgun, but I picture rifle — leaning against his shoulder like a soldier in formation, or resting on his boot, the still-warm barrel in his free hand. Deciding, estimating. First, whether it’s worth the fuss. Second, the distance to the truck. Third, how much energy he has to pull it there over the snow. Lastly, the boy.
Whatever the sum of the estimates, he decides to take the deer, giving the boy the flashlight and the gun to carry, telling him to keep the light trained in front of his steps so he doesn’t trip.
It must have been the longest walk of my father’s life. My grandfather dragging the deer and Dad trying to balance the heavy gun and shine the light in front of grandfather without losing his own footing. But he did it — they both did it — and that was when the estimating he had forgotten to do must have struck my grandfather: how to get the deer into the bed of the truck. Again, he looked to the boy, this time calculating his height, his weight, how strong he thinks his son is. But my grandfather knows. He’s lugged the damn thing already and knows it has to be almost two hundred pounds, if not more. Like with his prior estimations, he decides to go ahead despite the obvious odds against success. He tells the boy to get the head, the shoulder. My Dad puts his hands under the shoulder and looks at the deer’s face. Where the blood had been bubbling out there is a scrim of pink snow like a growth of crystals; the eye he can see is still open, a black ball with no focus. He smells the musky scent of the fur, an acrid and earthy smell, like vinegar mixed with clay. Grandfather told him, Ready, didn’t ask it, and then he lifted it off the ground.
This part was always hard, and still is hard, for me to imagine, but I try. The man pulling up the back of the body quickly, like a weightlifter pulling a bar off the ground in one swift motion, the boy starting a second late, then trying to do the same and only getting the head and shoulder a foot or so off the ground, the cold, stiffening body looking like a distorted capital M: the butt on the tailgate, the back sloping down to the boy’s hands where he raised up the shoulder, then from there the neck bending back down and the head touching the ground. How they got it in from there, I’m not sure. Maybe my father somehow managed to push the shoulder up to the level of the tailgate. Maybe my grandfather shuffled over to help the boy lift it up and in. Their hands close together on the fur as they pushed. Whatever happened, it was done. Then my grandfather climbed up and slid the deer all the way into the bed, hopped down, and closed the tailgate. Maybe he said, Come on, to the boy again, not saying thank you or acknowledging the extraordinary effort just made by a boy of nine, but just assuming it the way one expects a knife to be sharp.
They went back to the house then, and that’s where my father always ended the story. But I go on with it, and I do it now with my sisters.
That snowy drive again, this time with the radio off, only the rip of the tires, my father falling fully asleep, the jolts from potholes having no effect, and my grandfather popping a beer again, smoking through a crack in the window, again. Then getting home and leaving the deer in the back of the truck to preserve in the cold. And my grandfather scooping my father out of the cab and carrying him in, taking him into the dark house and trying to go quietly up the stairs, going to the room my Dad shared with one of his older brothers and laying him on his small bed. Pulling his boots off and getting him out of his jacket, hat, and mittens, pulling a blanket over him against the chill. Then he went downstairs and sat in the kitchen, drinking another beer or two or three, thinking about who he could get to gut and butcher the deer for the cheapest price, where he was going to store all the meat. Then maybe he considered his son.
But maybe I have the story wrong, have misunderstood the grandfather I’ve never known, and by extension this man lying here half-dead. Maybe the whole time all my grandfather was thinking about was my father. Maybe that’s why he was angry, because of the injury that could’ve come to the small boy. Maybe he followed its blood trail for the meat, because they were poor and he had to feed my father and his siblings. Each step along the way, my grandfather caring for the boy above all else.
Crystal is the first to leave. Her phone has been vibrating all night. She takes it from her purse. I have to go, she says, and expects us to understand, maybe even feel bad for her. But we don’t understand. We’re indifferent. She kisses Dad on the forehead, gives Abigail a one-armed embrace, and comes around to me for the same, bending down so I don’t have to get up. I thank her for this, but she thinks I’m thanking her for her presence here, for staying as long as she has for this man she never liked and possibly doesn’t even love. When she’s gone, Abigail opens up, speaking to me but keeping her eyes trained on our father.
“Sometimes I wonder if it even happened. That deer,” she says.
“Who knows,” I say, tired, my back seamed with pain.
“Maybe he made it all up and we made it all up.” She turns and smiles at me, tears in her eyes.
She’s right. How can she not be? From our father’s end, the memory of a nine-year-old, spoken to us girls with dramatic flair. On our end, all the imagining and filling-in. Abigail’s version, when I’ve heard it, is much different than Crystal’s or mine. Some parts come from movies, other parts from books, others from the dumb psychology articles she always shares on Facebook. And mine? Who the hell knows where my version comes from.
“Dad,” Abigail says to him, at that register just before screaming, “did you make it up?”
“Abigail,” I say.
“No,” she says, still too loud, “I need to know.” She starts crying again. “I need to know before he fucking dies.”
She crumples on the corner of the bed by his feet. Our father remains mute, there and not there. I consider getting up to rub her back, but I don’t. Instead, I think, My little sister, amazed at the bare fact of it. By the bare fact of all of us.
We are silent for a long time before a nurse comes in to check on Dad. She’s thin, even thinner than Abigail. Barely a wisp of a person, with rich red hair pulled back into a large knot at the back of her skull. She moves as if we were asleep. The loudest noise is the scratch of her pen on the clipboard. I think for a second that it’s so odd she hasn’t said anything to us, anything to him, but then I wonder whether I’m wrong, whether she’d said hello to me and Abigail and my father but I’d somehow blocked it out.
As the nurse leaves she smiles at me: a tired, obligatory smile, a sad one she must give to several people a day. Just before the woman is out the door, Abigail calls to her:
“He’s going to die tonight, isn’t he?”
The nurse smiles at her with that smile, spidering lines throughout her face, and she shrugs. It could be offensive, but I find it honest, and Abigail must too, because she says nothing back. When the nurse closes the door gently, without the slightest click, Abigail poses the question to me:
“He’s going to die tonight, isn’t he?”
And I think: He will.
And he did.
I think, or I thought, I’d have left that night before Abigail, but I don’t. My husband, who I am sure will come to take me home before 10 p.m., doesn’t show until close to 11, slightly drunk. Abigail after her question to me — maybe more a statement — becomes even more insubstantial in the silence, gets up eventually and says, I’m leaving; I can’t do it anymore; not today. This time I do get up from the chair and embrace this sister. It is tight and sincere. She sobs in the crook between my shoulder and neck, holding on to me until the tears pass. When she straightens up I feel the spot where the tears went into the sweater cool like menthol rub. Abigail points to my stomach, to the baby:
“Take care of my niece or nephew,” she says. I nod and hold her hand to the door.
In two days, the night of our father’s memorial service, she will overdose on fentanyl, be discovered blue in the bathroom by her boyfriend. He will rush her to the hospital where, after some uncertainty, she will be stabilized and, when she awakes, will decide to go to rehab. Crystal will begrudge her this and stop speaking to her. Even 10 years later when Crystal has her uterus removed — cancer too — and a sober Abigail comes to her in the hospital room, there will be silence, a silence only broken five years later when Crystal’s cancer returns.
But now, with my father, I sit once more in the chair. I rub my distended belly, even rolling up the sweater and T-shirt beneath it to expose the stretched skin there, my belly button spread into a crop circle ring. I take my father’s IV’ed hand and place it on my stomach. It’s surprisingly warm and soft.
The baby will be a boy. He will have blond curls like his mother, like his grandfather. These curls will turn dark too. When he is nine there will be no truck, no gun, no deer. He will grow up tall, thin, strong — ropey.
He will be happy.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Amanda Irene Rush is a runner-up in our 2020 Great American Fiction Contest. See all of the winners.
Joey is nine years old when his mother goes nuts and his sister goes bad and he has to live with his grandmother who gets mad if he eats cheese in the living room. His grandmother gets mad about a lot of things these days. This morning is no different.
“I’ll be late again,” she says, glancing at the clock as she cranks the wheel into River Trails. “You’d think your grandfather could drive you once in a while.” She gives Joey his lunch money and leans across his lap to open the door. “I’ll be here between four and four forty-five,” she says. “Don’t make me wait.”
Joey has just enough time to get his feet on the ground and push the door closed before the car is moving again. He watches it turn onto Slater Road without stopping at the stop sign.
He still has two hours before the bus comes so he heads for Todd’s. Todd is his best friend who lives in the back of the trailer park. The same park he and his mother and his sister lived in before his mother started talking to herself and the electric was shut off. Joey knew there was something up when he brought home a form the school wanted his mother to sign and instead of signing it, she stared at it for a long time and then crumpled it up. His grandmother doesn’t want the school to know there’s a problem in the family, so every morning for the past month he’s been going to Todd’s house after his grandmother drops him off.
Joey doesn’t mind. Todd’s mother leaves for work early, leaving them free to eat Sugar Smacks and Cookie Crisp out of the box while they watch movies on the new cable channel — HBO. Even Joey’s grandparents don’t have HBO. Some days he and Todd cut school and play in the woods near the bus stop, or else sneak into the orange grove behind the woods. Joey worries about getting caught and being sent to Crowl Detention like his sister. “A couple months in there ought to make any kid want to go to school again,” his grandmother has said. Todd tells him not to be such a chicken fart. “It ain’t like we never go.”
This time of morning the air is cool and the park is quiet. He can hear the swish-swish sound his corduroys make as he walks. He sees Tinky the Chihuahua sitting in the big front window of the single-wide where the lady who always gives apples for Halloween lives. The dog starts to yelp like someone’s stepping on his tail and even from the road Joey can see its tiny body shaking. On the other side of the street is his old trailer. The bedroom he shared with his sister — until they could get a house, his mother used to say whenever his sister complained that she was too old to share a room with a boy — has a broken window, and weeds are already sprouting up in the cracked driveway. The trailer looks like it’s been empty for years. Some kids in the park have been saying it’s haunted. Joey shakes the coins in his pocket as he passes.
His grandmother gives him 45 cents every day for lunch — the reduced rate he’s always had. “Don’t tell anybody you live with us now,” his grandmother has said. “I’m not paying a dollar twenty-five for that tripe they serve.” His grandparents could probably afford it. They live in a condominium — with matching dishes and furniture — in Cape Coral, a city downriver along the Caloosahatchee. There aren’t any trailer parks in Cape Coral.
Todd’s mom is on her way out when Joey gets there. She’s shouting at Todd from outside the door that he had better have a clean shirt on when she gets home or he’s going to get it. She gets into her car and waves to Joey as she backs out of the driveway. Inside, he finds Todd sitting in front of the television watching a Donald Duck cartoon with his hand inside a box of Sugar Smacks. He sits down on the floor next to Todd and holds out his hand. Todd’s is already good and sticky.
“Those chipmunks are stealing that duck’s nuts,” Todd says laughing.
When Joey’s mother came back from the hospital a couple weeks ago, Joey thought she was cured and expected they would be moving out of his grandparents’ second-story condo and back into their double-wide in River Trails. What he didn’t expect was that his mother would sit in the big recliner in his grandparents’ living room staring at him for hours while he tried to ignore her, first by concentrating on the TV, and then on solving a Rubik’s Cube, and finally on a book he had gotten from the library, a Choose Your Own Adventure story. He had met his end three times already when his mother’s attention finally became unbearable.
“What are you looking at?” Joey cried.
His mother smiled with one side of her mouth. Then she spoke in a voice that reminded Joey of that movie he and Todd watched about the people who grow humans in their backyard and eat their brains. “If you ever grow up, I’ll kill you.”
That night, on the screened-in porch that overlooked the dock where the boats were kept, Joey slept underneath the thing his grandmother called a davenport. His mother was staying in the spare bedroom. He imagined her coming for him with a knife and figured he could make a quick escape by busting out the screen. He didn’t think the drop down would hurt him too bad. He had fallen out of plenty of trees. And if he should roll and fall into the canal, well, that was okay, too. He knew how to swim. Lying there, going over the plan, he wished he had thought of grabbing the knife himself.
The next day Todd told him he looked like the guy in the zombie movie who thought he had been turned into a zombie but was really okay in the end. Joey broke down and told Todd everything and to his shame had even cried a little.
Todd was good enough to ignore this weakness, but said, so quietly it was almost to himself, “Shit, my mom threatens to kill me every day.”
It’s true. Todd’s mom is a tough lady. She doesn’t even look like a lady. She’s built like most kids’ dads. She even has a bald spot on the top of her head. Joey’s had to duck for cover many times when she started throwing shoes and magazines and frying pans at Todd. Like the time Todd poured an entire bottle of onion powder in the crock of soup she fixed for supper. Or the time he let the dog eat a pair of her pantyhose to see if they would really come out its butt.
It’s nearing the end of the school year and the weather’s getting hot. By the time the bus drops Joey off and he has to walk the quarter mile through the park, past the laundromat and the pool, to the front entrance, where he waits for his grandmother on the bench near the security guard shack — which as far as he knows has never had a guard — he’s dripping sweat and has a throbbing headache from the strong stink of blacktop.
Joey hates these long waits after school, sitting alone on the metal bench with no shade. He wishes he could have Todd hang out with him so they could play dungeons in the shack, but his grandmother hates Todd. She calls him that Todd and refers to his mom as that woman, although she’s never met her.
One afternoon, Joey notices a pop machine has gone up at the laundromat by the pool. The machine has the normal stuff: Coke, Tab, Sprite, and something he’s never heard of — Mello Yello. The button for it is bright yellow and the letters are colored in orange and green swirls. He digs into his pocket. He has two pennies he found during recess buried in the dirt underneath a palm tree. The can cost 50 cents. It might as well cost 50 million cents.
The next morning when his grandmother drops him off Joey asks her if he can have 50 cents.
“I already gave you your lunch money,” she says.
He tells her he wants to buy a book on planets for a project he has to do for school. “My teacher said I need the money today so she can order it for me.”
His grandmother gives him the look he’s seen her give his mother when she used to ask for seconds at the dinner table.
“I would get it from the library,” he says, “but I need to cut some pictures out of it and I can’t mess up a library book.” He says this with his head down, trying to sound like the kid in his class who always gets the teacher to let him go to the bathroom in the middle of their weekly spelling bees.
His grandmother sits there for a while longer, just staring out the window. Joey wonders if she even heard him and is about to say it all again when she finally says, “I don’t even know if I have any change.” She digs through her purse and his heart leaps at the thought that he might get a dollar bill. She finds some change in her change purse and hands him two quarters.
“Since it’s for school,” she says. He thanks her as he closes the door behind him.
Later that day after the bus drops him off, Joey runs all the way to the laundromat. He’s relieved to see the machine is still there. Breathless, he takes the quarters out of his pocket and slides the first one in. It drops and clanks as it hits its mark. He drops the second one in but it doesn’t clink. He bites his lip and pushes the big plastic button. Nothing happens. He presses it again, harder. Then again. He slides the metal bar up and down and sticks his fingers up in the change return.
He kicks the machine a few times. “What the heck?!” he yells.
The pool man hears him and tells him to quit kicking the machine.
“It ate my money,” Joey hollers.
“T.S., kid.” The pool man laughs.
At dinner Joey picks at the skinless chicken and mashed potatoes and wonders how he’s going to get 50 more cents out of his grandmother. It’s no use asking his grandfather, because he never talks anymore. At dinner each night, his grandfather sits at the head of the table staring at his plate, taking a bite of something now and then, but mostly just pushing his food around.
His grandmother’s purse sits on the table near the front door, where she keeps her clip-on sunglasses and extra golf tees. She never leaves change lying around. The purse is a big, tan bag with zippered compartments of various sizes. Joey doesn’t know which one holds her change purse. It would take him a month to find anything in that bag.
Joey doesn’t figure his mother has any money. She sits across from him with an empty ashtray and a pack of Camels on her dinner plate. She picks up the salt shaker, runs her thumb over the top, and brings the imaginary flame to the tip of her cigarette. Invisible smoke blows in Joey’s face.
“Why aren’t you eating?” his grandmother says.
Joey drops his fork and it clatters on his plate.
“You’ve been eating junk food after school with that Todd, haven’t you?”
He stares at her.
“That Todd is no good,” she says, spooning gravy onto her potatoes. She looks at his grandfather. “Are you hearing this, George?” His grandfather looks at her and nods. “Don’t you think it’s a bad idea for him to be eating junk every day with that Todd?” His grandfather nods again and pushes his potatoes away from his chicken with a fork. “Aren’t you going to say anything to the boy?” His grandfather stares at her blankly. “Oh, for God’s sake,” she says, banging the gravy bowl down. She points the dripping spoon at Joey. “I don’t want you eating junk after school.”
The next morning at Todd’s, Joey asks if he can borrow a nickel.
“What you need a nickel for?”
“My grandmother gave me my lunch money, but I think five cents of it fell out on my way here ’cause I only have 40.” Joey holds out his hand and shows Todd the four shiny dimes.
Todd goes into the living room and motions for him to follow. Lifting a cushion off the couch, he plucks up a nickel, a dime, and three pennies from underneath a dusty pile of Potato Stix and a yellowed subscription card for TV Guide. Todd gives Joey the nickel and puts the other 13 cents in his own pocket.
“Let’s go see if the cat’s got any more of them worms coming out its ass.”
That day Joey skips lunch but he isn’t hungry. Before catching the bus in the morning, he and Todd ate half a box of Cookie Crisp while they watched part of a movie about a kid who gets lost in the woods and is rescued by a grumpy old man with a walking stick.
In the afternoon, the coins clink and clank and the can tumbles out of the machine. Joey holds up the can like Todd once held up a snake he chased out from under a cactus plant in his front yard. The can is icy cold and glistens in the sun. He doesn’t crack it open right away. His plan is to hide behind the security shack and drink it so that his grandmother won’t see him if she pulls into the park just as he’s taking a swig. He squats behind the shack, keeping a look out onto Slater Road. Just as he gets settled and has the can open, the little white car pulls in. He sets the can down carefully just inside the shack where no one will see it. He turns to look at it once more as he’s walking away.
“What were you doing in there?” His grandmother asks when he gets in the car.
“You shouldn’t go in there when it’s this hot unless it’s raining. You’ll get heatstroke.”
The next morning Joey waits until the car is far down the road before he goes into the shack. The can is still there, surrounded now by ants that march in line from inside the can to the patch of grass outside.
Joey and Todd look for more change under the rest of the furniture.
“You should get some new pants if you keep losing stuff,” Todd says.
They eat an entire box of Sugar Smacks while they watch a movie that has the guy who plays Mr. Furley in it. Then they look through Todd’s mom’s underwear drawer.
“It’s as big as a damn flag,” Todd says, holding up a pair. For kicks they both get in it and stumble around the trailer scaring the dog. The dog hops into the bathtub to get away, and Joey and Todd fall over together in a tangle, laughing.
“Suck school,” Todd says, leaving the underwear in a heap on the bathroom floor. “Let’s go to the woods.”
They wait for the bus to leave before they cross the dirt path that leads into the woods. They’ve been warned not to play in the woods because wild boars and giant raccoons live in there.
“Let me find a boar wants to pick a fight,” Todd says, pushing up sleeves he doesn’t have. He never wears anything but T-shirts with ironed-on pictures of monster trucks and cartoon characters like Mighty Mouse and Hong Kong Phooey.
Most of the day they play pirates, making each other walk over a pool of mud across a fallen tree trunk that is the plank, and using a long stick they find on the ground as a sword. When they get tired, they sit on the plank and throw rocks and pieces of wood into the thick mud, watching them sink. Later, they go back to the trailer and Todd opens some chicken noodle soup, which they eat cold and salty out of the can — “like soldiers do,” Todd says.
Before Joey leaves to go meet his grandmother, he puts his lunch money in his shoe so she won’t hear it jingle in his pocket.
At school the next day Joey skips lunch again. He goes down to the pop machine after the bus drops him off and digs that day’s lunch money out of his pocket and yesterday’s out of his shoe. Ten more cents and he could have two cans. The thought makes him dizzy. He pushes the metal bar down just for the hell of it and sticks his finger in the return slot. He pulls out a dime. He jumps around and shouts. The pool man is looking over at him and Joey waves to him. He slides the dimes and nickels into the slot, listening to each coin clink and catch, and pushes the button. Nothing happens at first, so he pushes it again. A little red light flashes in the corner telling him to please make another selection. At first, he can only stare dumbly at the light, feeling like he does when he turns the page excitedly in one of the Adventure books only to learn he’s dead.
He slams the bar down to get his money back, thinking maybe the red light is a mistake. Maybe if he puts it in again he’ll get what he’s after. But nothing comes out. The anger in him wells up so fast, as painful and unexpected as a goosing from Todd. He starts cursing then, yelling out things he’s heard Todd’s mom scream at Todd, smashing the buttons with the flat of his hand as he does.
“You asshole!” He yells. “You no-good bastard!” A Coke falls out of the machine and he rips it out of the slot and throws it against the wall of the laundromat. He wants it to explode.
“Hey!” The pool man shouts, dropping his net and coming toward him. Joey runs to the security shack, crying all the way.
A week passes before Joey goes back to the machine. He starts to eat lunch again but still keeps the 50 extra cents in his shoe. There are round impressions on the bottom of his right foot. That afternoon the pool is deserted, the water still. The pool man’s net hangs on the fence, which is latched shut. The machine stands there like nothing ever happened. Joey carefully feeds the coins into the slot and listens closely for the telling clicks and clangs. He pushes the button. The can rolls down and he lifts it out. Remembering what happened before when he waited to drink it, he decides to open it right away. He taps the top of it like he’s seen Todd do to the Pabst cans he filches from his mom’s supply, then he jerks at the tab.
The ring brakes off and hooks onto his finger. He shakes it off and tries to pry his nail underneath the jagged piece of metal that remains. It cuts into his skin underneath his fingernail and blood oozes out onto the top of the can and collects in a thin ring around the rim.
He sits down on the ground and doesn’t cry. With his finger in his mouth he looks at the closed can. He picks up a rock and starts to beat on the top of the can where the other half of the tab remains. After several attempts the little triangle of metal gives in. He goes to take a sip but sees pieces of rock and dirt floating in the clear, yellow liquid. He sets the can gently near the machine and walks to the security shack.
The next morning Joey and Todd watch a movie about some street racer guys while they eat the rest of the Cookie Crisp. The movie runs long and they miss the bus.
Joey suggests they go play pirates, but Todd says, “I’m bored with the woods. Let’s sneak into the orange grove.”
As much as they’ve been warned about the boars and the raccoons, they’ve been warned even more about Farmer Jack who owns the grove behind the woods. Though they’ve never seen it, rumor has it Farmer Jack carries a loaded shotgun to the john and has a pit bull named Cracker he keeps chained behind his house.
“Cracker, my ass,” Todd says, jamming a half-burnt cigarette butt he found on the ground into the corner of his mouth.
They make their way through the woods, carefully crossing over the puddle of mud on the fallen trunk that served as their plank, weaving a path through a thicket of scratchy bushes. They squat down near the edge of the grove and stare up at the trees with the fat yellow fruits.
“Time to do some picking,” Todd says, nudging Joey in the stomach. He follows Todd as they disentangle themselves from the bush.
They have to go in pretty deep before they find some fruit they can reach on their tiptoes. Joey has just twisted one off when he hears a low growl from behind. Then he hears Todd scream, “Run!”
Joey turns around. Cracker looks bigger and uglier and meaner than he ever imagined. The dog is showing teeth and raising up mangy fur on its back. The fruit falls out of Joey’s hand.
Joey stands like the dead and avoids eye contact, remembering something he read once. He’s hoping Todd might make a noise to distract the beast so he can make a run for it too, but he’s nowhere to be heard.
Realizing that it’s just him and Cracker, Joey slowly moves his right foot as if to step in one direction, planning to then fake the dog out and run in the other. Cracker is as fast as he is ugly, though, and before Joey knows it he’s on his back and the dog is pulling at his right shoe, its long, ragged nails raising dust as it hunkers down.
Joey kicks frantically at the dog’s head with his other foot, hoping it will change shoes, but the dog holds on. He looks around for some kind of weapon — stick, rock, anything. He sees the orange he dropped and remembers the time Todd squeezed one at his eye. He had screamed out and then Todd shot it at his own eye, exclaiming, “Damn, you ain’t fooling!”
Joey stretches for the orange, the dog pulling him in the other direction, and manages to roll the piece of fruit his way. He props himself up on his elbow and clutches the orange in his other hand. Juice runs down his arm.
He looks at the dog. He looks it right in its eyes, which are milky and soft looking. The dog lets go of his shoe and sniffs at the orange. It licks the juice off Joey’s hand with its large, broad tongue. Joey stands up then, hopping a little trying to get his shoe on straight, and sets the piece of fruit down in front of the dog. It lays down on its belly and starts chewing. Behind him, he can hear Farmer Jack running, cussing at Cracker.
The dog has pieces of orange all over its muzzle. Joey pats it on its head, then takes off running. He runs right through the thorn bushes and keeps running without looking back. He reaches the plank and sees Todd on the other side waiting for him.
“Hurry up!” Todd screams.
Halfway across the plank, Joey’s foot slips and he falls into the mud. He starts to sink some, and he hears the mud make sucking sounds as Todd tries to pull him out. Joey’s up to his waist before Todd gets a good grip on his arms. Todd pulls and pulls, the mud gives, and Joey flops himself onto dry land. Joey looks down at his feet. The mud has sucked off his left shoe.
When they reach the bus stop, Joey says so long to Todd. He doesn’t hear any kids around so he figures it’s still early. He walks along unevenly, wondering how he’s going to explain the mud to his grandmother. And not just the mud, but the scratches and the blood and the missing shoe, too. He stops at the laundromat and sits down on the curb. He takes off his remaining shoe. His lunch money is still there. He gets up and stands in front of the machine in his socks. He takes a deep breath and lets the coins fall into the slot. He knows he’s a nickel short, but he pushes the button anyway. The can tumbles down.
“Fucking-A,” he whispers, and reaches for it. He holds the can in a muddy hand and wipes his other hand on his clean sock. Holding his breath, he pulls the tab. It pulls smooth. As he lifts the can to his lips, he can hear the crackling sound of carbonation. He drinks until his eyes water. The second drink he takes, he holds in his mouth before swallowing. The bubbles tingle on his tongue. He takes his socks off and leaves them with his shoe. He walks — barefoot and covered in mud — to the front of the park by way of patches of dirt and grass so as not to burn his feet, sipping on the good coolness in that can. It starts to rain a little so he sits in the security shack.
When his grandmother pulls up, he gets in the car without a word.
“What in hell’s name happened to you?” His grandmother says.
Joey tips the can back and takes a drink. He lets out a small burp. “Todd and I skipped school and I got attacked by a dog and then I fell in some mud.” He stares out the front window and waits for whatever will come — shouting, crying, maybe hitting. He doesn’t know what, and he doesn’t care. The rain has stopped and the sun is shining again. His stomach growls loudly.
“I suppose you didn’t get any lunch, did you?”
He shakes his head.
“And you’ve lost your shoes.”
He looks down at his toes. “I’m sorry I got mud on the seat,” he says.
“What’s that you’re drinking?” she asks.
He gives her the can, which is lukewarm now and smudged with mud. She looks at it and then takes a long drink.
“Hmm,” she says, handing it back to him.
He stares at her as she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. She looks different. She’s smiling.
“Your grandfather’s gonna crap when he sees the inside of this car,” she says. “That oughta get him talking.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Evelyn ignored the protracted honks of protest and continued steering her silver SUV through the clotted traffic, nearly scraping a few bumpers with her dicey maneuvers.
In the passenger seat, Delilah stuck pink Post-Its to select pages of a thick home décor magazine. Using her substantial alimony payments, she’d refurnished her living room, outfitted her master bath with a vintage clawfoot tub, and had the exterior of her home painted, twice, all in an effort to fill the void left by her divorce. PJ preferred the back seat, with her canvas bag stuffed with paperback thrillers and snacks perched conveniently beside her.
For each of the past 25 years, they had driven from Southern to Northern California and spent a weekend in San Francisco. They ate at eclectic restaurants, walked along the beach, and shopped. The road trip, always taken in June, was an inviolable tradition.
Secrets were rare among the three of them, but until today, Evelyn had been determined to keep her husband’s affair a secret she took to her grave.
“I need to stop off in Santa Barbara,” Evelyn said.
“No problem,” PJ said.
“Beautiful there,” said Delilah.
Evelyn took a deep breath and continued, “To see a woman Richard used to see.”
“As in romantically?” PJ asked, her thin eyebrows rising above the rims of her cat’s-eye glasses. “Impossible. Richard idolizes you. Always has.”
“I’m surprised too,” Delilah said, folding up her magazine. “But why is today the first we’re hearing of this?” She raised her chin in that commanding way she’d perfected as a sixth-grade teacher, fully expecting an acceptable response. With a serial cheater of an ex-husband, Delilah was less fazed by infidelity than by Evelyn’s belated confession.
“I’ve never told anyone,” Evelyn replied. By the worry on her friends’ faces, she knew she’d waited too long to seek solace from the two women who’d been her steadfast confidantes since college, over 40 years ago.
They’d met at a freshman mixer, back when PJ had been known as Penelope Jean. They’d each hovered solicitously at different spots around the refreshments table, noshing on chips and watered-down punch in a feeble attempt to mask the uneasiness of not fitting in.
“We’re misfits,” Evelyn had declared, after introducing herself. “So let’s be misfits together.”
With that, they’d formed their own little clique. They’d commiserated over grueling papers and bad dates. They’d advised, consoled, but had never judged. Or had tried not to, anyway. Unconditional acceptance, borne out of a shared need to at least fit in with each other, had formed a pillar of their long friendship.
“It happened about 12 years ago,” Evelyn said.
“Let me guess, she was really young,” said PJ, whose husband had left her for a 24-year-old drama student the day after PJ had turned 50. Since then, she’d been so age-conscious that she kept her hair dyed solid black and had invested a small fortune on creams and noninvasive procedures to stave off the wrinkles and age spots.
“She was probably in her early 30s back then,” Evelyn said, then explained that Courtney had been the prosecutor on the few criminal cases Richard had handled for his firm. At 52, he’d still been trim and attractive, with deep-set blue eyes, a strong jawline, and a full head of thick, peppery hair. He’d been propositioned by various women through the years, but Courtney had been the first to whom he’d fallen prey.
Richard had Alzheimer’s now. He was no longer the hard-charging attorney or the man who’d easily garnered random female attention. Perhaps one of the saving graces of the disease was the eventual loss of the inclination to care.
The affair lasted a year and a half. Ordinarily dauntless and self-confident, Richard confessed to Evelyn with his head bowed and shoulders slumped with the cumbrous weight of guilt, disappointment, and self-condemnation, knowing full well nothing would absolve him.
Evelyn permitted herself a brief stretch of self-pity and wept privately, hurt, humiliated, and angry. She felt extraordinarily old at the age of 50. Although she dressed well and remained slim, her hair had grayed completely, and deep lines had sunk in around her eyes, nose, and lips.
He moved out, at her insistence, and leased an apartment nearby, until she asked him back several months later. Beneath the emotional scars and tenuous trust, she still loved him. She imagined she always would.
A five-month stint with marriage counseling established that they still loved and respected each other, but by then, as they approached their 26th year of marriage, “love and respect” had become an empty, banal catchphrase rather than the aspiration they’d once held as newlyweds.
“You need more therapy,” the counselor stressed during their final session. “You need to dig deep to heal. Then learn to be with each other again. Get your mojo back.”
Evelyn scoffed at the mention of digging deep, which she equated with peeling off a crusty scab and reliving the traumatic aftermath of being told Richard had been with another woman. Besides, mojo was overrated, strictly for the idealistic younger set. At least that’s what she told herself.
The middle school library, where Evelyn had volunteered two hours of her Thursday mornings, was where she’d overheard two moms chatting blithely about their husbands’ ongoing affairs — affairs they’d expressly permitted their husbands to have.
Lorna was a fit and leggy 40-something blonde who often dressed in tennis garb. “Neil has his girlfriend,” she told Evelyn. “And I have my life the way I want it. I do lunch and the spa with my friends, and I do what I want, when I want. And of course we show up to the important stuff together.”
Alice was a petite redhead married to a real estate developer. “Barry and I have a deal,” she said matter-of-factly. “He has Erica, and I buy what I want. I can even see anyone I want. It works for us. It’s perfectly copacetic.” She fingered an impressive diamond pendant and nodded approvingly, as if indicating that Evelyn would be positively insane not to strike up a similar deal with her own husband.
“We don’t have to be martyrs like our mothers were,” Lorna added crisply. “Putting up with certain things in marriage without getting something out of it.” The conversations in the school library had certainly spiced up those volunteer sessions. If those women were at all distressed, they hid it well with their talk of clothes and workout regimens.
Evelyn deemed those women jaded, vapid, and superficial. Yet, something about their “perfectly copacetic” relationships continued to intrigue her.
Evelyn and Richard never again spoke of the affair. In fact, they rarely spoke. The absence of the usual everyday conversation cocooned them in safety, or the illusion of it, as if not mentioning the transgression gradually whittled it into nonexistence.
They marched on. Evelyn managed their household, their finances, and their children. Richard immersed himself in work, his reliable method of escape. They behaved in ways contrary to the advice of the marriage counselor, constantly tiptoeing around each other and deliberately eschewing any discussion of their problems. Doing anything but digging deep and reclaiming their mojo. Their marriage had become tiresome and dull.
In a moment of abandon, and deep despair, Evelyn proposed that Richard continue seeing Courtney. She’d already weighed the risks, one of which included the possibility that sending him back to Courtney, even temporarily, could further alienate her from him. However, she was also keenly aware of the tension and interminable silence that was eroding their marriage. She’d listened to enough of Lorna and Alice’s conversations in the school library to have gleaned that their “perfectly copacetic” open marriages had offered some modicum of satisfaction that was preferable to the ineffable nothingness she had with Richard.
“That’s insane,” Richard said, raking his fingers through his hair.
Evelyn stared at him determinedly. “Maybe, but so what if it is?”
“Do you want a divorce?” Richard had asked. “Is that what this is about?”
“No. No divorce,” Evelyn replied flatly, swiping her hands through the air. She envied Courtney for her youth, but she had little desire to relive her own younger days. She simply wanted to move forward, age gracefully and comfortably, and remain married while doing so. “I’m okay with it this time,” she added. “Hell, I’m the one who’s trying to get you to go along with this crazy, insane idea. But we won’t call it cheating. It’s more of an … arrangement.”
As she’d urged Richard to embark upon this unorthodox marital sojourn, she’d discerned something Lorna and Alice hadn’t conveyed. Being in control, assuming the role of orchestrator instead of hapless victim, was empowering.
“I made a mistake before,” Richard said. “I can’t do that to us again.”
“But how much of us is really left?” she asked in earnest.
He couldn’t refute or respond otherwise, a rarity for a silver-tonged lawyer who was gifted with the skill of persuasion.
She persisted, and when he capitulated finally, she panicked and asked herself, “What have I gone and done?” She nevertheless shoved aside her fears and became adept at distracting herself whenever she caught herself thinking about Richard in bed with another woman.
With chagrin, she realized that she’d become her own version of Lorna and Alice, equally jaded and forlorn, although she never deigned to mention a word of her proposal in the school library.
Six months after the affair began, Richard abruptly ended it. The set-up, arrangement, or whatever it was had tested the grit and stretched the limits of their marriage, leaving them more damaged and bewildered than ever.
“It’s all so … not you,” PJ said, her puzzled face framed by the rearview mirror.
Evelyn met PJ’s gaze in the mirror. “I’m not the traditionalist you thought I was.”
“Neither is Richard, apparently.”
“She gave him the go-ahead,” Delilah interjected. “He’s flawed, just like anyone else, which isn’t an excuse. Just an explanation.”
“None of this says why you want to see this woman,” PJ said.
“Courtney’s sick. A rare bone disease, according to her Facebook. I’ve got a few things to say to her.” Evelyn took her phone out of the caddy wedged between the seats and handed it to Delilah. “Why don’t you get into my Facebook. Look for a brunette with green eyes. We’ve been in touch off and on recently. It’s an old photo, but it’s her.”
Delilah’s fingers grazed the screen. “She’s gorgeous. Great hair. Great eyes. Great smile. Just the sort of gal I’ve always envied but just had to hate.” She shrugged and passed the phone to PJ in the backseat.
PJ lifted her glasses, leaving them perched on her forehead, and squinted at the dated image of Courtney. “And you weren’t afraid of losing Richard to this?”
“Of course I was, but I was the one he came home to. Both times,” Evelyn muttered, suddenly feeling more pathetic than proud of that fact.
Delilah said, “I may know the answer to this already, if I know you as well as I think I do, but did you ever go out and have your own affair, tryst, what have you?”
“But you thought about it, right?” PJ asked. “Nothing wrong with one of those open marriages. Come on, admit you thought about it … even a skosh.”
“Why not?” asked Delilah.
“Because I was happy before, but Richard wasn’t. Maybe it was a midlife crisis or plain old male ego that got him to do what he did. Whatever the case, I wasn’t going to let it split us up.” She sighed.
She had a fleeting urge to further justify what she’d done, but said nothing.
One day, though, she’d muster a cogent explanation for the unfathomable despair that had driven her to make an audacious but foolhardy proposal that had had profound and negative effects on her, Richard, and Courtney. She’d tell them that the so-called go-ahead she’d given had been intended as a means of salvation to benefit both herself and Richard and not a special dispensation for Richard alone. Finally, she’d find the exact right words to articulate the distress, trauma, fury, loss of self, and craving for clarity and resolution that she’d carried in her highly guarded emotional repository for the past dozen years. But first, she needed to fully comprehend all of it herself. She was even contemplating a return to the psychotherapy she’d previously sworn off.
Courtney was an aged, brittle-boned woman now. A sickly hue colored her gaunt cheeks, and her hair had thinned to unsightly gray tufts.
“Most people who say they’ll visit these days usually don’t,” she said resignedly, and led Evelyn to a brown sofa in the small living room. The place had a musty odor. The walls were white and yellowed at two corners from water damage.
Evelyn placed her leather tote beside her on the sofa. She informed Courtney of Richard’s Alzheimer’s, then observed the familiar expression of disbelief and sorrow she’d seen on the faces of family and friends.
“He was always so strong,” Courtney said. “Brilliant. Powerful. And you knew I loved him,” she added, referring obliquely to the letter of apology she’d written to Evelyn over a decade ago.
Evelyn had tossed the letter years ago, but the memory of it was achingly fresh. Courtney had apologized, because dating a married man was not something she’d ever thought she’d do. She’d confessed to having fallen in love with Richard. The more time she’d spent with him, the deeper her attachment, and the greater her desire for more of a life with him. All had formed the impetus for Richard to immediately sever ties. The written apology had proven some level of conscientiousness, but sending it had been a ballsy move.
“He never felt the same about me,” Courtney said, tossing up a hand and landing it gently on her lap. “He didn’t have to tell me. We never even slept together that second time around.”
Evelyn widened her eyes, stunned and oddly pleased at the same time.
“Oh,” Courtney said softly. “You didn’t know, did you?”
Evelyn folded her hands on her lap and digested this new bit of information. She imagined the anguish, disquiet, and sense of foreboding Richard must have experienced during that second time around with Courtney. She took a sliver of perverse pleasure in supposing that those unpleasant states of mind had been some sort of karma for the sheer pleasure he’d had during the original affair. She’d forgiven him long ago, but she’d never been certain he’d forgiven himself. Or ever would.
“Most times, we just went out to dinner,” Courtney said. “He was with me but never really with me.” She bit the corner of her chapped lips, as if stopping herself from reminiscing aloud.
Evelyn stood. She figured now was as good a time as any to end their visit. She pulled out a check from the inner pocket of her tote and gave it to Courtney. “I’d like you to have this.”
Courtney hesitated, then took the check and looked up at Evelyn, perplexed. “Ten grand?”
“I read your Facebook posts. You have bills. You haven’t worked in some time, and your insurance has lapsed.”
“Of all people, you don’t owe me anything.”
“No I don’t, but you were a part of Richard’s life, even if a small part, and therefore a part of mine. What you had with him was wrong, but it gave him something besides sex, at least that first time around, that I couldn’t give him. Or maybe I could’ve but didn’t try. Figuring it out now is pointless. All I know is that shit happens and everyone deserves some happiness. So take the check. I hope it helps.” She picked up her leather tote and walked across the living room.
Courtney followed, stuffing the check into a frayed pocket of her sweater.
Just as Evelyn opened the door, Courtney placed a hand on her arm and said, rather timidly, “Thank you.” Her large green eyes, sad and desolate, belonged to a woman who’d given and desired love but had never received it in return, a woman who’d lost all hope.
“You’re welcome,” Evelyn said and walked out. She was smiling but also had the inexplicable urge to cry.
She’d come here to atone for her part in the past, but she hadn’t anticipated the overwhelming relief. She was ready to forgive herself. Finally. She continued down the walkway, wiping a tear from her eye.
Delilah and PJ stood beside the silver SUV, concerned and curious. As if by some deep-rooted, soul sister instinct, they’d each extended their arms, and Evelyn walked straight into their embrace.
They huddled for a moment, arms wrapped tightly around each other, the warm sun beating on their backs. With these women, Evelyn always felt at home.
Evelyn pulled away and said, “Let’s get going. I’ll tell you all about it in the car.”
“I’ll drive,” said Delilah, who customarily drove the second shift of these road trips.
As Delilah steered the car away from the curb, Evelyn took one last glimpse at the drab little home. She wondered, uselessly, how many days, weeks, or months Courtney had spent alone in there. One day, her disease will claim her life, and the Alzheimer’s that was slowly but surely obliterating Richard’s memory, intellect, and persona — his very essence — will usher in the complications that will lead to the end of his. Compassion triumphed over regret and loathing. It had to.
Evelyn grinned at Delilah and PJ, her allies for life, grateful that whatever the future held, none of them would ever endure it alone.
Featured image: Shutterstock
You’ve been refreshing the page for an hour now, and all you’re looking for is a single letter. You hope it’s a B. Even a C would be okay. You don’t expect an A in Mr. Miller’s English class, although you did stay up until two o’clock finishing that final research paper. It’s the best paper you’ve ever written, but you’re unsure how he’ll respond to it.
You refresh the page again and nothing. You pound your fist against the desk, wanting the suspense to be over and for your long summer to begin. You want nothing more to do with Mr. Miller, the worst teacher of your semester, a man who spent less time showing you how to write and more time boasting about his novels and how his literary agent keeps trying and failing to sell his latest manuscript. You’re not sure a class went by without him mentioning how three of his self-published novels were on Amazon. You might have even purchased one if you didn’t find the man so pathetic.
Your stomach growls. There’s nothing in the fridge, but maybe there’s a lasagna in the freezer, so you stand up, ready to shut down your laptop for the night. You can check your grades tomorrow. You got a B in every other class, so why would English be any different?
Still, your curiosity gets the best of you. You count to five, then refresh the page one last time.
There it is, finally, a grade next to your English class. The letter looks like an A at first, but then a brief gasp escapes your throat.
It’s an F.
That can’t be right. Your eyes are playing tricks. You click out of the page and come back in. You shut down your laptop and boot it up again. You’ve never received an F on anything in your life and yet there it is staring back at you, taunting you.
Mr. Miller must really not have liked that research paper, since you received an A on every other assignment. This is so dumb. He gave you the wrong grade — that’s the only explanation — so you e-mail him. You’re nice about it, just curious if he made a mistake. He’ll fix the issue in a prompt manner, you’re certain.
But an hour goes by and then five more hours and nothing. You managed to get some work done around the house, even made it to the gym before it closed, but by the time you’re heating up some leftover Thai food, you’ve double-checked your e-mail for the 50th time and nada. Mr. Miller isn’t writing you back.
You remain calm. Maybe he’ll check his e-mail later tonight or tomorrow. Maybe he’s traveling, you don’t know.
You watch a bad movie and go to bed and then check your e-mail again in the morning. There’s still nothing from Mr. Miller. He’s clearly avoiding you at this point, he’s such a coward, and so part of you wants to take the F and move on.
But no, you won’t let him get away with this. You open your web browser and type in his URL, www.masonmillerbooks.com — you can’t forget it since he promoted it every day. Maybe he has a personal e-mail you can write to.
If you weren’t so mad at the guy you would have felt sorry for him because this site is a joke. It looks like a five-year-old designed it, with the ugly gray background and the words in big italics. His books don’t look any better, the covers amateurish at best with shirtless men caressing scantily clad women, titles like Evermore and Ravaged and Tumultuous so cheesy you want to vomit.
You click around the site to find his e-mail address, but there’s no contact page or About Me, only links to his novels and short stories, as well as an orange form asking readers to sign up for his newsletter. You have nothing to lose, so you put in your e-mail and click SIGN UP.
The e-mail alert noise echoes through your bedroom. There’s something new from Mr. Miller, but it’s not the e-mail you hoped for — “Thanks for signing up for my newsletter!” the subject line reads. It’s a typical form e-mail any of his subscribers receives.
You click on it anyway. The e-mail is plain and basic, with a welcome and a thank you and links to his books, but there’s a discovery, too: At the bottom next to a sad, italicized Unsubscribe button is an address: 2848 Wonderstruck Court.
You rest your palm against your chin. You always wondered where Mr. Miller lived, and now here it is. You’ve cracked the case. What a moron to put his home address in the e-mail of his newsletter!
Wonderstruck Court. It sounds like something royal, magical. You picture Mr. Miller sitting on a throne in his Wonderstruck castle, enjoying a rack of lamb and a reserve chardonnay as he roars with laughter over the F he just gave you.
You go to Google Earth and type in the address. Thankfully his home is only 10 minutes away.
You could e-mail him first. Maybe wait another day, or until the end of the weekend. Play it safe, like you always play it safe.
But no — you head straight to your car. You’re not going to hurt him or yell at him. You just want to talk.
You keep the radio turned off as you drive to Mr. Miller’s neighborhood. You enjoy the silence, the time to reflect. You wonder what went through his mind as he read your final paper. Did he gasp? Did he tear up the pages and stuff them in the trash can?
You park against the curb on Wonderstruck Court, then put on your light jacket and climb out of the car. You step across a couple of empty driveways before you stumble to the third house and see the number 2848. This driveway is empty, too.
You approach his front door, knock three times, and then ring the doorbell. You probably should have rehearsed something to say to Mr. Miller, at least decided on what to open with. You’re willing to be nice about this, but you also have no reluctance in chewing him out.
Thirty seconds go by. You ring the doorbell again, and no answer. You take a few steps back, shove your hands into your pockets, and survey the house. There’s nothing special about this place. Unremarkable, just like your teacher. Faded beige and brown paint, two cracks in a front-story window, a square-shaped yellow lawn.
He’s not home, so you head back toward your car, ready to sit in the driver’s seat and wait for him to arrive as long as you need to, when you hear a loud clanging sound to your left.
You glance at the tall black gate next to the garage. It’s wide open, the growing wind slamming it back and forth against a wooden fence.
You walk past the gate and don’t bother shutting it behind you. It was his fault for leaving it open, and he’s practically inviting you into the house at this point, especially when you pull on the sliding door next to the covered barbecue and it opens with ease.
You step foot inside your teacher’s living room and there are no butterflies in your stomach, no worry an alarm is about to go off or a trained Doberman is going to pounce on you from the shadows. The one-story house is spacious and clean.
“Mr. Miller?” you ask as you tiptoe down the hallway. There’s no answer, so you move forward, past a laundry room and half-bathroom before you enter an office that’s so messy, so littered with papers and books and binders you can barely find any carpet to stand on. Unlike the rest of the house, this is clearly Mr. Miller’s territory, one that he hasn’t allowed his wife or a professional cleaner to touch, except for maybe the shiny, dust-free bookshelf that towers toward the ceiling.
You run the back of your fingers along the spines of the books, 10 copies each of Evermore and Ravaged and Tumultuous side by side, along with literary journals and a fiction anthology. He has so much of his work on display, along with a framed picture on the wall of what must be his family, Mr. Miller standing on the beach with a woman and two boys.
You take a seat on his computer chair and see photos of his kids next to the monitor, too. The boys look just like him, with short brown hair and giant dimples. The sight of them makes your stomach hurt. You wait for the pain to pass.
The room is warm and stuffy, so you remove your jacket and toss it on the floor before you push the chair closer to the desk and touch the keyboard. The massive monitor screen ignites in an instant.
You clap your hands when no password is needed and Mr. Miller’s computer desktop flashes across your eyes, an image of an idyllic winter wonderland. A dozen folders clutter up the screen with names like GradSchool, Teaching, ShortStories. You double-click on the Novels folder, and up come nine more folders, some with titles you recognize, like Evermore – Book 1, and some with oddball names like LesbianDinosaur. Such a variety of Mr. Miller’s important manuscripts, most of them unpublished, right there at your fingertips.
You minimize the folders screen. You’re not here to read his books. You came here to do one thing, and if he’s not going to be here to help, you might as well do it yourself.
You open his web browser and lean closer toward the monitor, searching through his web history, scrolling down until you find the tab you’re looking for.
“Please,” you whisper. “Please work.”
When the tab takes you to Mr. Miller’s college account, a grin flashes across your face, but then your heart starts beating out of control when a Honda Accord pulls into the driveway. The shades on the office window are drawn enough for you to see Mr. Miller step out of the car and walk toward the house. You’ve got 20 seconds to get this done, maybe less.
You focus on the screen again and scroll down to CLASS ROSTER. Next to your name is that ugly F. There are CHANGE and DELETE buttons next to it. You click on CHANGE.
You hear the front door open, so you stay as quiet as possible. You could make your grade an A — you deserve an A — but as the sound of your teacher’s footsteps echo down the hallway, you click on the letter B and hit SAVE CHANGES.
You exit out of the page and clear the Internet history, then jump to your feet and hurry past the office door. Mr. Miller is in the kitchen, drinking a beer as he scrolls through his phone.
You tiptoe in the other direction, trying not to make a sound as you head back to the sliding door. You move faster and faster. It’s five steps away.
“Hey!” a voice shouts behind you. “Who the hell are you?”
You spin around. Mr. Miller is no longer in the kitchen but halfway across the living room charging toward you.
“Oh.” He stops and sets the beer on a glass table. “What are you doing here?”
You don’t make a run for it. You stay strong and face him. “I needed to take care of something, that’s all —”
“You think you can just break into my house?” He grabs your arm. “You think you can just do whatever the hell you want and get away with it?”
“No. I came here to talk to you about my grade. You gave me an F, Mr. Miller.”
“And what?” he asks. “Are you surprised by that? You just wasted your time these last four months, and mine. I’m pretty sure your grade in my course reflects that.”
“Why would it be a waste of my time? I just wanted to get to know my own father.”
He tightens his grip, but you don’t try to wrestle him away. You stare into his eyes without blinking or flinching.
“What’s the matter, Mr. Miller? You didn’t like my research paper? I figured you would have loved it since it’s all about you. We both know there’s nothing you enjoy more in this world than yourself —”
“Okay, enough!” He lets you go, then crosses his arms. “You’ve had your fun, and you’ve made your point, but you’re not my child. You mean nothing to me. All you are is another student whining about a grade.”
You cross your arms, too, striking the exact same pose. “And what are you, Dad? After all this time I spent searching for you, what do I find? A total loser who’s trying to be the next Nicholas Sparks —”
“Get out of my house!” He clenches his hand into a fist, like he’s ready to hit you, but then he shoves you toward the door. “I’m better than Nicholas Sparks! I’m better than all of them!” He gets in your face, his nose an inch away from yours. “You were a mistake, that’s all,” he whispers. “I’m glad I walked out on your mother. I’m glad I didn’t spend time to getting to know you. Because the family I have now is the only one that matters to me.”
You’ve managed to stay unemotional this whole time, but now tears are welling up in your eyes, and you can’t stop them. You move past your father before he has a chance to push you again, and you hurry down the hallway toward his office.
“Hey, where are you going!” he shouts. “I told you to get out of here!”
“Don’t worry, I’m leaving!” you yell back. “I forgot my coat!”
“Well, hurry up! I don’t want to see your face ever again!”
You enter the office and pick your jacket off the carpet. As you put it on, you say, “Trust me. You won’t.”
You approach his laptop again. It’s still powered on. You click on the folder called Novels and drag it to the bottom of the screen.
“You have 10 seconds before I call the cops!” your father shouts. “Ten! Nine! Eight!”
You wipe a tear from your cheek as you right-click on the icon and select Empty Trash.
You’re out of the house before his countdown ends, and you don’t even bother looking at him as you leave the premises.
When you arrive at your car, the decision’s been made. You had the desire to take a risk, move across the country, get to know your absentee father by any means necessary.
But now it’s time, finally.
It’s time to go home.
Featured image: Ekkapop Sittiwantana / Shutterstock
Tani-san had always been a great one for experiments. As a child, she had attempted to discover which of a spider’s legs was the most important, only to find that it was always the last one. And then there was her investigation into the appallingly low survival IQ among city dwellers, which basically involved her creeping up behind people and hitting them over the head with a baguette. Indeed, her interest in the sciences had continued into middle age, eventually leading her to a very curious line of inquiry — namely, what she could make happen when she stopped going along with things.
One such experiment came about as a result of an incident that occurred on an unseasonably hot day in early autumn when she and her three friends were holidaying in the scenic prefecture of Niigata. They had just left the Garden of Harmony hot springs under something of a cloud when the minivan that was transporting them spluttered to a halt. A problem with the fuel pump apparently. As I say, it was rather warm and before long they were all starting to feel thirsty. So while the driver was waiting for the repair truck to arrive, the ladies went in search of a roadside station that lay “a few minutes” up the road — or so they were led to believe.
If ever a shop looked set to discourage trade, it was the miserable little concern they stumbled on some 20 minutes later. Why anyone would wish to set up business in such a godforsaken spot was beyond understanding: There couldn’t be more than 10 cars a day down that stretch of road. A large wooden strawberry stood outside in an attempt to attract custom, but because its features had been so badly touched up over the years, it had started to assume a lecherous expression.
Tani-san, who by that stage was not only parched but in a very bad mood indeed, was the first to enter the premises, making straight for the refrigerator cabinet, which buzzed as ominously as an electrical relay station. Grabbing four bottles of ice-cold mineral water, she marched over to the payment area.
“Shop!” she called out, slamming the drinks down on the counter.
The muted babble of daytime TV came drifting in from a room at the back. Then, after an unreasonably long interval, a scruffy individual in a sleeveless shirt emerged from behind the yellow curtain. A wholly undistinguished item, he was entirely bald apart from a single tuft of what might have easily passed as pubic hair that sprouted from the middle of his forehead.
“480 yen,” he said, scratching his armpit.
At this, Mrs. Sekiguchi and Mrs. Terakado exchanged sideways glances. You see, there had been a bit of a discussion before they set out for the shop. Mrs. Sekiguchi had insisted that she would buy the drinks because Mrs. Terakado had paid for their mud therapy at the hot springs. But then Mrs. Terakado insisted that she would buy them because Mrs. Sekiguchi had paid for their chalet. As a result, neither of them had brought their wallets. But then Mrs. Ishihama stepped up to the plate, took out her frog-shaped purse, and handed the shopkeeper a 10,000-yen note.
“I can’t change that,” he said with a shrug, “I’ve only got one 2,000 and two 1,000 bills in the till. Haven’t you got anything smaller?”
The obliging Mrs. Ish — who was a little bit light in the brain department — leafed through her stash of 5,000-, 2,000- and 1,000-yen notes.
“I don’t believe I do,” she said, carefully examining each one in turn. “Perhaps if you were to lend me a pair of scissors …”
Tani-san, on the other hand, could have quite easily provided him with the correct change, but she didn’t like his attitude, so she chose not to. Instead, she grabbed the four sweating bottles and handed one to each of her friends, quietly instructing them to follow her lead. The situation was about to get a lot more complicated than it needed to be.
Turning then, she squared up to the owner and drew herself up to her full height, which was well over four feet.
“Now, see here,” she said. “We’re not going to give you any of our money because we don’t like you. But neither are we common thieves. So instead of cash, you’ll just have to accept payment in either goods or services. You decide.”
“What?” said the hapless proprietor, thrown off his game, such as it was.
“Goods or services,” repeated Tani-san. “Which is it to be?”
The little man gave a disbelieving grunt and looked from one to the other.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Is this some sort of joke?”
“No joke,” said Tani-san. “Have you never heard of bartering, the act of exchanging one commodity for another? You give us these drinks in exchange for four penicillin tablets — that sort of thing?”
“Well, penicillin tablets or beaver pelts. Whichever is the most appropriate.”
This met with a perplexed silence. It was as though they had just stepped into the retail equivalent of the Twilight Zone.
“Look,” said the shopkeeper, “I haven’t got time for silly games.” (Although, actually, he had.) “If you’re not going pay for those drinks, you’ll have to put them back.”
However, Tani-san held on to her thirst-quenching beverage, which she had every intention of consuming in the next three minutes.
“Let me assure you, it’s no game,” she said. “In fact, given your current attitude, I would like to propose that we suspend the monetary system for the purposes of this transaction.”
The shopkeeper frowned.
“You can’t just do that off your own bat,” he said. “It’s not your decision. I get the money, you get the drinks. That’s how this works.”
“Yes,” admitted Tani-san, “well of course it is a system that has been found to work, although the downside is that it is extremely boring. Besides, the concept of money only exists by joint agreement. If the majority stop believing in it then it ceases to be a valid means of exchange.”
With that, she turned to her three friends.
“Hands up all those who have stopped believing in the monetary system,” she said.
As before, Mrs. Sekiguchi and Mrs. Terakado exchanged glances because they were not entirely sure what was expected of them. But then Mrs. Sekiguchi slowly raised her hand, followed by Mrs. Terakado, who smiled sheepishly at the shopkeeper. As for Mrs. Ish, she just stood there gazing gormlessly into space until a swift poke in the ribs from Tani-san prompted her to do the same. Tani-san’s vote made it a landslide victory for the barterers.
“I make that four to one,” she said, gazing at the shopkeeper. “So I ask you again: goods or services?”
Now, let’s just take a moment and imagine what it was like to be in his shoes: Week after week, month after month, wasting away in that miserable little hole of a shop with nothing to look out on but an empty stretch of tarmac. When you’re not filling your days with online gambling and daytime TV, you go through the motions of reorganizing the shelves, checking the stock, fixing the strip lights, and touching up the strawberry. But business is so bad that you don’t even bother to keep much money in the till anymore. The only living thing that you have seen in the last 24 hours is a bean goose that flew down on Tuesday morning and did its business on the veranda. But then, just when you are about to chuck it all in and take the gas pipe, real human customers come walking through your door, thus lending some semblance of purpose to an otherwise thankless existence. Yet all you get is this:
“… Well, come on,” urged Tani-san. “Make your mind up. We haven’t got all day. Just remember: We’re not going to give you any money because we don’t believe in it anymore.”
Is it any wonder, in light of the above, that he suddenly lost it?
“Okay! Fine!” he snapped, turning bright red and waving his arms about like a foreigner. “Two can play at that game! As of now, those drinks are not for sale. And neither is anything else for that matter. In fact, now I come to think of it, this is not a shop at all. It’s a roadside exhibition of contemporary foodstuffs. There! How do you like that?”
On the quiet, Tani-san was rather pleased with his return volley, though she was quick to counter it.
“I see,” she said. “In that case, you leave us no alternative but to force your hand. Ladies …”
With that, she unscrewed the cap on her bottle and took a long, refreshing swig of liquid bliss. Needless to say, her three desiccated friends required very little encouragement to do likewise.
“Hey! Hey! Stop that!” remonstrated the shopkeeper with a series of impotent gestures. “You haven’t paid for those yet! Stop it! Stop it, I say!”
Yet his angry protests made not a jot of difference. As soon as the ladies put those bottles to their lips, the die was cast and there was no going back. Indeed, the hard-nosed pragmatist in him realized this and was already planning his next move. One thing he could do was to call the police. The only problem with that was it would take ages for them to get there from Nagano, and in the meantime he would have to hold four middle-aged ladies hostage, which was problematic in itself. In the end, it hardly seemed worth it for a measly 480 yen. All the same, he felt that he should come away from the situation with something — just to save face if nothing else. And so inevitably he found himself playing into Tani-san’s hands, a fact of which he was all too painfully aware.
“All right, all right,” he conceded, slumping defeatedly onto the stool behind the counter. “I give up. What ‘goods’ have you got?”
So then his four troublesome customers proceeded to empty out their pockets, laying the contents on the table in front of him. Before long, there was quite an accumulation of odds and ends. Sifting through the used tissues and the half-eaten candy bars, he alighted on a tubular object, which was like a glue stick but bright yellow.
“… And what, may I ask, is this?” he enquired, holding it up between thumb and forefinger.
“Oh, ah, yes!” said Mrs. Terakado, recognizing it as hers. “Now that is what they call a butter stick. It’s for buttering toast. I tend to carry it around with me in case of emergencies.”
He was tempted to seek clarification on this last point, but decided that it wasn’t worth it.
“And this?” he asked, equally mystified by a small glass bottle containing the dregs of some colorless liquid.
“Knee cleaning ointment,” mumbled a shamefaced Mrs. Sekiguchi, looking to her feet.
He peered quizzically at the label on the bottle and then returned it to the pile of half-melted peppermints, loose hairpins, and out-of-date promotional vouchers, none of which were acceptable recompense for the four drinks. But then he had an inspired thought:
“… You did say goods or services?” he enquired craftily.
“I did,” said Tani-san, eyeing him from across the counter. “What of it?”
“Come with me,” he said.
With that, he got up and led them through the curtain into the kitchen at the back. They then found themselves in the dingiest stockroom that Tani-san had ever seen: thick with cobwebs and permeated by the stench of rotting pilchards. A single naked light bulb illuminated a set of shelves and a large fridge-freezer that sat against the wall, caked in unholy residues.
From one dark corner, he then produced a mop, a bucket, and a box of cleaning materials, which he thrust into the ladies’ hands.
“Clean this place up,” he said. “And we’ll call it quits.”
Feeling rather pleased with himself, he left them to it and headed back through into the kitchen to put the kettle on. Soon he was settled in his favorite corner with a bag of green tea Kit Kats and a dog-eared manga. To add to his contentment on this occasion, there were the soothing sounds of his annoying customers laboring away in the background to pay off their debt — well, three of them were laboring away. Tani-san was supervising, naturally.
Yet it wasn’t long after that he became aware it had suddenly gone very quiet back there. Grumbling under his breath, he set aside the adventures of Astro Boy and headed down the passageway into the stockroom, only to find it deserted and with the back door wedged open.
When he stepped outside into the sunshine, the first things he noticed were the four bothersome ladies sitting along the wall, chatting quietly to each other while they waited for their driver to pick them up. Close by was the fridge-freezer, which they had disconnected and dragged outside into the car park. To make matters worse, they had emptied it of its contents. There was row upon row of ice creams, soba noodles, sandwiches, and rice balls all laid out on the ground in neat lines, thawing in the afternoon heat.
“What are you doing?” he asked, gazing at their handiwork aghast. “You can’t just quit the job half way through and leave all this stock lying around! I’ll lose the lot!”
“On the contrary,” said the ladies’ foreman, feigning offence. “I think you’ll find, on closer inspection, that we have more than fulfilled our half of the bargain.”
“Oh no, you haven’t!” he retorted. “Not by a long chalk!”
“Well, I beg to I disagree,” said Tani-san. “We have. Obviously.”
In the face of her unshakeable certainty, the proprietor was at a loss for words. All he could do was to hold out his arms in mute appeal until, at last, his objections emerged by means of the appropriate orifice — any other, and he would have been in big trouble:
“By what tortuous line of reasoning can you even begin to say that?” came his outraged reply. “All you’ve done is move things around and make a mess. In fact, it’s far worse now than it was at the beginning! Just look at my Green Tea Haagen-Dazs! It’s like a chemical spill!”
“Well, I can’t help that,” Tani-san calmly explained to him. “The deal was very straightforward: We were to reimburse you for four bottles of water, which, by my calculation, equates to 6 minutes of labor from four low-skilled workers on the minimum wage. In point of fact, we actually worked for 7 minutes 47 seconds. So if anything, you owe us. But of course, if it’s so important to get your stock back into the freezer before it starts growing hair, I would be more than happy to renegotiate on behalf of my members.”
I only need add that by time their driver finally pulled up outside the shop, the forecourt had been cleared of all perishable foodstuffs. Moments later, the ladies themselves came marching out of the entrance, loaded high with sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, cup noodles, and chocolate. Tani-san was the last to emerge, closely followed by the angry shopkeeper, who handed her his last two family-sized bags of potato chips as she climbed into the back of the newly-repaired minivan.
“Please don’t ever come this way again,” he said.
Needless to say, she had no intention of doing so, although it wasn’t the last time she saw him. A year or so later, she was at home one evening, half-watching the NHK news when his unflattering mug shot came up on the screen. Reaching for the TV remote, she turned up the volume:
“… so-called mastermind of the Kokan Gang,” said the commentator, “all of whom were arrested last night at a branch of One-Stop in a district of Shibata. For several months, this notorious gang of criminals have been terrorizing lonely convenience stores in Niigata and the surrounding prefectures, forcing retailers to relinquish their stock by rejecting the monetary system. At ten o’clock last night, they entered the Tsukioka branch of One-Stop unaware that Tatsuya Harada, Professor of Economics at Tokyo University, was standing behind them in the queue. With no regard for his personal safety, the professor argued the case for strict monetarist policies for a full 20 minutes, keeping the criminals intellectually cornered until the police arrived.”
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
Heat waves wiggled skyward above the blacktop. Elliott stood on the highway’s fringe and gazed northward toward Canada then south across the central Washington steppe. Ancient patches of black rock that had hardened from the lava streams of distant volcanoes interrupted the rolling grasslands. He retrieved his almost-empty canteen and took a swig of hot water.
Elliott had hitchhiked that same route in 1967, moving north toward Calgary, to a life beyond the reach of America’s Selective Service and its military draft that had stolen his friends away to Vietnam. But a decade later, President Carter granted the draft dodgers amnesty and Elliott headed home.
The August sun burned through his straw hat. Sweat ran down his forehead and dripped into his eyes. He removed his sunglasses and wiped his face with the sleeve of his work shirt. Elliott remembered his past ten years spent moving from farm to farm, dancing fields of wheat stretching across Alberta’s flat plains, quivering images of tall grain elevators, a Canadian National freight streaming eastward.
A semi roared past, its backwash blowing Elliott farther onto the highway’s shoulder. The silence returned, broken only by the occasional gust of wind. Over a low rise, a vehicle approached from the north. It kicked up dust and left a rooster’s tail to mark its progress. Elliott turned to face it and stuck out his right arm, thumb extended. He could make out a single occupant in the blue Cadillac convertible with its top down. The car blasted past him. He turned to watch it disappear. But the Caddy slowed, pulled off the road, and came to a stop. The driver twisted in his seat and waved him on.
Grabbing his knapsack and guitar, he hustled down the highway toward the Caddy. The driver was a big sloppy man, his gut extending forward in a series of sloped terraces until wedging itself under the steering wheel. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and white slacks, his head topped by a Seattle Mariners baseball cap.
“How far ya goin’, buddy?” the driver asked.
“A couple of states south of here.”
“Well, I’m goin’ to The Dalles. Ya know where that is?”
“In Oregon, on the Columbia, about a hundred miles upriver from Portland.”
“That’s the place. You got a driver’s license?”
The big man raised an eyebrow. After struggling to open the door and climb out, he walked around the car to Elliott and stuck out his hand.
“My name’s Frank. If you want a ride, you’ll haveta drive.”
“I’m Elliott … and no problem with the driving.”
Elliott climbed in, moved the driver’s seat forward, adjusted the mirrors, and eased the lumbering car onto the highway. Frank had raised the side windows so the wind noise didn’t bother them.
“Just keep her at 75 and she’ll purr all day long.” Frank leaned forward, opened the glove box, and took out an almost-full bottle of Jack Daniels. Elliott caught sight of a snub-nosed revolver lying amongst a clutter of what looked like traffic tickets.
“You’ve been waitin’ out there long?” Frank asked.
“A couple of hours.”
“Why the hell did you take the inland route? There’s a lot more traffic near the coast.”
“I’m coming from Calgary.”
Frank seemed to consider that bit of information, all the while taking swigs from the fifth of whiskey. They drove in silence. The sun turned the landscape golden in the hot afternoon. Frank slouched, his pale pink belly sticking out below his shirt, seatbelt nowhere in sight. Elliott watched the highway and constantly checked the rear view, looking for the inevitable state trooper to pull out and fall in behind them. But the route remained deserted and the miles rolled past.
Frank finally broke the silence. “So … so what were ya doin’ in Calgary?”
“Working … at the University … as a night janitor.”
“Huh. You don’ sound Canadian, sound more like one of them hippie kids from Californication that came through here in the ’60s. Don’t see many hitchhikers anymore.”
“I’ve just turned 30. I think that qualifies me as an adult.”
Frank glowered at him but offered Elliott the bottle. He took a long pull and handed it back.
“Yes, I moved to Calgary in ’67. This is my first trip back to the States.”
“So you’re one of them draft dodgers?”
Elliott let out a deep breath. “Yes … it was the only thing I could do.”
“No it wasn’t.”
Elliott stared straight ahead, hoping that the questions would stop. Is this what it’s going to be like, being treated like a coward, a traitor, a deserter? Wasn’t being exiled punishment enough? Maybe I came back too soon. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back. The roar of the Caddy’s tires grew louder. Elliott glanced at the speedometer; it was pegged at 85 but the big car continued to pick up speed. The white lines on the two-lane highway became a blur. He sucked in a deep breath and eased off the gas.
He glanced sideways at Frank, who stared straight ahead while sipping his whiskey. “So Frank, why are you out here all by yourself?”
Frank shook his head, as if coming out of a dream. “I’m a small-time plumbing contractor. One of my suppliers is in The Dalles … drive there couple three times a year.” He took a long pull from the bottle. “My son, Eddie, used ta come along. I was teachin’ ’im the business.”
Elliott sensed that they had edged into treacherous emotional territory and shut up. Frank stared into his lap and played with the bottle’s paper label. A blast of wind hit the Caddy. Its right rear wheel slipped onto the shoulder and the car slid sideways for a moment before Elliott straightened it out, his heart racing faster than the big V-8 engine.
Frank hadn’t budged. He tilted the bottle skyward then spoke: “Eddie was a good kid, a fine boy. And he knew his duty. All the men in our family know our duty. I served in World War II and again in Korea. My Pop served in World War I.”
“My family’s the same,” Elliott murmured.
“Except you.” Frank flashed him a murderous look.
“Yes, except me.”
“You know when Eddie got his draft notice, he was excited to go. They sent him to the DMZ, assigned him to a field artillery battery, 155 howitzers I think.”
Elliott took his foot off the gas and let the big car slow. His mind went back to the revolver resting in the glove box, within easy reach of its drunken owner. If I’ve got to bail on this guy, I need to be going slower.
Frank continued talking into the air. “Maybe if all you idiots hidin’ under rocks in Canada had gone to Vietnam, my Eddie might still be alive.”
“How did he die?” Elliott asked, immediately wishing he hadn’t.
“A sniper got ’im … never saw it comin’ … just sittin’ there next to his gun … waiting. Was in Vietnam just two weeks.”
“I’m sorry that you lost your son, Frank. I’m sorry anyone had to die in a war that never should have happened.”
“Well, at least he did his duty … unlike creeps like you who cut and ran.”
“Adding more dead Americans to the toll wouldn’t have solved anything. And the protests helped stop it.”
Frank turned sideways in his seat and glared at Elliott. “Don’t you care about honor, about duty?”
“Sure I do. But there was nothing honorable about Vietnam.”
“You sayin’ my boy died for nothin’?”
“No, I’m not saying—”
Frank lunged for the glove box, grabbed the revolver, and pointed it at Elliott. “I don’t need no snot-nosed punk telling me about honor and duty. You deserted your duty and country. They shoot deserters, ya know.”
“Take it easy, Frank, take it easy.”
Elliott gripped the steering wheel. The Caddy continued to slow. He braked and pulled to a stop on a wide turnout. Mt. Rainier graced the western horizon. Elliott turned toward Frank and stared into the drunken man’s eyes.
“Frank, that war hurt all of us … believe me.”
“The hell you say. I’m drivin’ alone through this wasteland while my son’s underground in Arlington. What have you lost?”
Elliott gazed across the plain then lowered his head. “I … I lost my father. He died while I was in Canada and I couldn’t go to his funeral. I lost most of my friends … scattered to who knows where. I lost ten years of my life working the fields south of Calgary. I lost my purpose in life. I hope to find it someday. I lost my … my home.”
Frank snorted. “That ain’t nothin’. Eddie was my only kid. His mama ran off when he was small. He was the only thing I had and now he’s gone. And here you are, preachin’ … preachin’ purpose in life. What’s my purpose?”
Frank’s gun hand shook. He raised the revolver and pointed it at Elliott’s face, his eyes wide and staring, mouth open, as if ready to howl with rage and sorrow. Elliott watched Frank finger the pistol’s trigger. Time and movement slowed. Frank seemed to see the gun for the first time. His hand calmed and he closed his eyes.
Elliott lunged forward and batted the pistol out of Frank’s hand. It flew into the dry brush. The two men stared at each other, shaking, breathing hard. After a few moments, Frank remembered his bottle. He refused to look Elliott in the eye. Elliott opened the driver’s side door and vomited onto the gravel. The smell made him feel even sicker and he breathed through his mouth, long rasping gasps. His head pounded and he longed for a quiet dark place away from all that sunlight. Finally, he eased the car back onto the highway and they continued their push southward, not saying anything.
Near sunset, they crossed the Columbia and entered The Dalles. Elliott pulled the Caddy to the curb in front of a downtown hotel that looked perfect for traveling plumbing contractors. He shook Frank awake and climbed out of the car.
“Hey, man, thanks for the ride.”
Frank yawned and sat up in his seat. “Yeah, sure, kid.”
“Sorry about your gun.”
“I’m not.” Frank grinned. “You be careful goin’ home. This ain’t the ’60s. There’re some angry people out there.”
Elliott walked west along the highway. To the north, the broad Columbia flowed silently below barren bluffs. Snow-capped Mt. Adams caught the last rays of sunlight, lording it over the hard basaltic steppe, far from the gentle SoCal beaches of Elliott’s home.
Featured image: Shutterstock
The monsters never build up much steam as they travel between the Western towns — 40 mph is their top speed, but they usually go between 20 and 30. We who live on these behemoths don’t require that they get anywhere quickly. We only require that the realms through which they rumble are mysterious and lonely.
Tourists accept that with alacrity. They like that about us, though the lives they live back East are the opposite of ours. In the Northeast, they’ve got the Silver Lines to speed them through metropolises that stretch across entire states, at close to 200 mph. In the Southeast, the Steel Lines still use coal in burners that are much more efficient than those of their ancestors. I hear that in Florida and the coastal cities of California, they’re building the Carbon Lines, which are elevators rather than trains. They will go up to and down from low orbit.
We on the Iron Lines use steam to power our trains, and though our predecessors would be dazzled by the process we use to generate that energy, our lives resemble theirs much more than they do those of our cousins on the other lines. We are mavericks and nomads. Many of us are hermits. Ninety percent of our land is untrammeled by anything other than boots or hooves. Our cowboys are mostly Navajos, Hopis, and Apaches; and Indigenous people own 60 percent of the Iron Lines. Most Easterners don’t know that, but you’d damn well better believe — we do.
I’m the descendent of white train engineers who lost most of their money in the Great Market Crash way back in the 20th century, so basically I’m a working stiff. I’ve found courtesy and respect to be good default settings, regardless of whom I encounter, so I was already on good terms with Nelson Begay when he sat down on the bench next to me in the Panorama Car. I knew he didn’t require a greeting or even an acknowledgement. If he wanted conversation, he would speak first — and that’s what he did.
“You have a good reputation,” he said.
“I’m glad to hear it.” I didn’t look directly at him. Easterners will stare right into your eyes and wonder why a Westerner flinches from that intrusion. They think you’re weak if you can’t look at someone directly. Our white ancestors used to think the same thing, but they learned the hard way that the shy people who were already living here were anything but harmless. We eventually adapted to their ways. Respect goes a lot farther than bluster.
“Got a job for you from the Allies,” said Nelson, meaning the Allied Indian Nations of the Southwest. The Allies take a lot of flak from First Nations people for using Indian to identify, but the Allies ignore it. Disagreement was the norm between tribes before white people got here. I suspect it’ll be the norm long after we’re gone.
“They need a good sweeper?” I did my best to mimic the neutral tones that came more naturally to Nelson than they did to me.
“That’s exactly what they need.” His tone didn’t change, but I could tell I hadn’t fooled him. He knew I was puzzled. There were plenty of good sweepers cleaning the Iron Line. Plenty of bad ones too, but everyone knows who they are, and it’s easy enough to get a good job done if you need one. “It has to be a foreign woman,” he said, “and she has to have respect.”
I didn’t take foreign woman personally; he simply meant that I wasn’t Navajo (or Tohono O’odham or Yavapai, or whatever the client turned out to be).
“I’ve known you longer than anyone else,” he said. “I can recommend you.”
Nelson and I had known each other since kindergarten, when we started at the same boarding school. Unlike most schools, ours was mobile — it was on a train, and we traveled with it from place to place. We had been very proud of that fact, and we had felt lucky. Later we found out how mixed that luck was, but I still didn’t regret going to that school, and I suspect Nelson didn’t either, despite the price both of us were still paying.
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
“I know,” he replied.
After that, we continued to sit together and watch the scenery. Ancient volcanoes had shaped Arizona, creating rich mineral deposits. Our train huffed and puffed through the mountains near Bisbee, past the mines that had long since ceased operations and become tourist attractions. We passed derelicts of those old times, some of which dated back to the 1880s. We had voted to keep those artifacts in place, so we could see where our ancestors rolled, and on what precarious machinery they had done it, and what a wonder it was that they had done it at all.
Nelson pointed at the wreck of an ore car with his lips. “My great-grandfather died on one of those. Got between the cars when they were fully loaded.”
“My great-grandfather was a lineman,” I said. “They busted him down from engineer. He broke his back and then drank himself to death.”
“Plenty people still do that,” said Nelson.
Plenty did. Not Nelson, and not me, but we both had family who ended that way.
“In Prescott,” said Nelson, “I’ll introduce you to Russel Tsosie. He’ll tell you what to do.”
After that we sat quietly together, just as we had done all the way through boarding school, Nelson and me, side by side. The Iron Monster would have a lot of territory to climb between Bisbee and Prescott, through mountain ranges, descending to 1,500 feet above sea level and then climbing again to 7,000 feet. Most of the Easterners sitting in that car with us would get bored long before we got there.
Nelson and I outlasted them all.
Russel Tsosie might have been about 50 years old. The way he was dressed told me he wasn’t a townie, but he also wasn’t a train dweller. That meant he was one of the tribal people who lived in the Wide Open, herding sheep and cows and farming. Easterners are often surprised by how much silver and turquoise people like Russel display on their fingers and belts and around their necks. They don’t realize that tribal people own all the land and all of the associated leases in five states. Russel might ride a horse when he was tending his land, but he drove a top-of-the-line ATV or a fully loaded truck everywhere else.
“Somebody made a mess” was the first thing he said to me. The quiet authority in his voice told me something else about him — he was a medicine man.
I blushed. If he was telling me about the problem, it meant white people had probably caused it. “The mess needs to be cleaned up, then.”
“Yes,” said Russel, “but you have to get to it first, and there are some obstacles.”
What are the obstacles? a person from back East might ask. A townie would be just as likely to make that mistake. Ask a question like that to the wrong person, and you are going to get your answer way later than someone who has the courtesy to wait for the speaker. This was a lesson I learned back in kindergarten, so I exercised a bit of discipline.
“I need you to wear this,” said Russel, handing me a woven tunic and a sash. “It’s okay to put it on over your other clothing.”
Fortunately for me, that was just jeans and a T-shirt, so I wouldn’t suffocate in the extra layer. I slipped the tunic over my head and tied the sash as well as I could, expecting advice from Russel about how that should be done — but he kept silent.
“Walk over here,” he said when I was done, and I followed him off the train. We disembarked onto the main platform in Prescott, into a crowd of people enjoying a book festival (also a balloon and a food festival, depending on whom you asked). We ambled along the sidewalk in the sunshine, smelling the cooking odors from food booths and listening to the townies talk too much about nothing. A lot of tourists swelled the crowd, but plenty of local people milled around too, including Indigenous people who lived in Prescott. Those were the people Russel paid the most attention to. Finally he pointed with his lips. “Walk through those women and see if they’ll let you pass.”
“Okay,” I said. “What if they don’t?’
“Then come back here and see me. I’ve got a backup plan.”
I started out with some confidence. The women in question were Indigenous and were wearing fine clothing by Native American designers. My simple tunic looked pretty humble in comparison, so I thought maybe they wouldn’t notice me. After all, there were several white women milling around in the crowd near them, and the fashionable women seemed oblivious to anyone who wasn’t Indigenous. That’s not an uncommon behavior along the Iron Line — people can be pretty tribal around here — so I didn’t take it personally. I even thought it might work to my advantage. But then a young Navajo woman looked directly at me and stepped into my path.
“Why are you dressed like that? You’re a white woman.”
I thought about saying, Russel said I could! but that sounded pretty lame. Her calm, confident tone made me feel tongue-tied. Finally I said, “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to.”
An elderly white woman stepped into my space. “Ignorance is no excuse. If you can’t be bothered to educate yourself, don’t appropriate clothing that belongs to other cultures.”
“Okay,” I promised. “I won’t do it again.”
“You need to take that off,” said the Navajo woman.
She was so disapproving, my hands shook as I untied the sash. I pulled the tunic over my head and then tried to hand it to her, but she just stared at me as if I were a bug. Finally the elderly white lady took pity on me and grabbed the clothing. “I’ll find out where this belongs,” she said, with considerable authority, and she wheeled and marched away.
The Indigenous women stared at me until I backed up and scurried back to the train. Russel was waiting for me.
“They made me take off the clothing,” I said, feeling as if I had already failed him. “Those women were furious. They said I had no right to wear those things.”
“That’s what I needed to know,” he said.
“So — you’ll need to find someone else?”
“Nope. I needed to see if they knew what they’re talking about. They don’t know. That tunic was made for a foreign woman. You were supposed to be dressed that way. These people who live in the towns are the ones telling people what’s right and wrong around here, but they don’t know what that is. They’re so focused on the damage in one place, they’re not seeing the damage in another. You still willing to do the job?”
I didn’t have to consider for long. My curiosity was stronger than my common sense. “Sure.”
“We’ll wait for those women to go inside. They’ll be too busy to pay attention to you. You can walk right past them.”
Turned out — he was right about that.
Most tourists never venture beyond the narrow towns along the Iron Line, which were first built to accommodate miners, railroad workers, and traders, and later to appeal to travelers looking for the sorts of things they were accustomed to seeing in adventure magazines. We have plenty of saloons, trading posts, hotels, and museums, and that’s where most people visit.
We also have natural sites that outsiders are allowed to visit. We have many more that people are not allowed to visit, and what I found at Red Rock Natural Park reminded me why that tends to be true. Most people are respectful when they visit our wild places, but some people are not. When I climbed out of my ATV, the damage was apparent.
I said a little prayer. I don’t intrude into the religions of the tribal people, but sometimes they tell me general stuff. If you’re visiting a place that doesn’t belong to your ancestors, you need to apologize. You need to ask permission and show respect. So I put my hands together and inclined my head.
“Spirits,” I said, “I want to repair the damage the bad people did. Please give me permission to enter. I will do my best.”
Silence is the answer to any prayer, but you can read a lot into it. I lifted my head and turned a critical eye on my surroundings.
The sandstone rocks for which this park was named had been laid down millions of years ago, formed from dunes that had once stretched over the entire Colorado Plateau. Their petrified outcrops loomed over the Eastern horizon, a six-mile hike away — a fortuitous arrangement, since people would have to walk for a while before they could disfigure the rocks. Most vandals aren’t that energetic, and those that are would be likely to run into rangers once they reached those outcrops. This near edge of the park was relatively flat, a woodland of cottonwoods and willows, next to a creek that would eventually empty into the Verde River. Birds chattered at me and ground squirrels spied like nosey neighbors. Usually, it was the sort of place that should heal your soul.
The people who had invaded that refuge had partied like people who are trying to prove they’re better than the people they’re visiting. They had smashed their beer bottles and thrown trash everywhere. It made me mad — but it was your basic clean-up job, and I knew a little elbow grease would go a long way, here.
I had to laugh. Was it my good reputation that got Nelson Begay to recommend me?
Well, sort of. It was my good reputation as a sweeper. I’m very thorough. And thorough is what I believed the spirits in the place wanted from me. I rolled up my sleeves. Then I picked a spot and got started.
Maybe you think that job was about the trash, but that was only half of it. The paper and plastic would have disintegrated — even the glass would have disappeared as sand and grit blew over it, or water washed it into basins. It was the disrespect that bugged the spirits of that place.
It’s the disrespect that bugs me, too. So I zeroed in on everything that didn’t belong, plucking it off the sacred ground with my grabber, sweeping and raking, dumping the debris into bags that I loaded onto my cart. I worked until the light was fading. I would have worked until the moon came up, if that had been necessary, but eventually I could look around me with satisfaction and believe that the mess had been cleaned up. All traces of the disrespectful aliens had been obliterated.
I was about to leave when a feeling came over me. I put my hands together one more time. “Thank you for letting me be into this wonderful place,” I said.
I was talking about more than just that holy spot. In my mind and in my heart were the wide open spaces, the red and gold rocks, the crooked trees that bent over the canyons like tourists trying to get a good photo. I loved those places so much I could scarcely express it. I had to settle for a short prayer.
Maybe the spirits like them short and sweet, because the birds sang me out of there like a happy ending.
I understood why a foreign woman had been necessary for that job. Sometimes it’s not enough to clean up vandalism. You need to apologize, and you need to mean it. The vandals never would, but no one expected them to. I and every other person who lived on the Iron Line had a price to pay for our passage. It was that simple.
“It’s done,” I told Russel. His sharp eyes missed nothing as he assessed my sweaty and dusty condition. Hard work done outdoors leaves its marks.
“I’ll tell your bosses,” he promised.
When I smiled, he smiled back at me, and I knew I had done okay. My paycheck would reflect the extra work. My reputation would, too.
I was happy to get into the shower, once I got back on the train. An Indian taco filled up the hole in my belly better than just about anything else you could imagine. Night was well advanced by the time we got underway again. We steamed toward Grand Canyon, with a blaze of stars overhead. I sat in the Panorama Car and waited for the Milky Way to wheel into sight. After a while, Nelson joined me.
Nelson and I may have more in common with each other than we do with our respective clans. We are train folk. We live on the Iron Monsters. We’ll die there, too.
Yet between Nelson and me, there’s a little more than that.
“You know those old movies where the Indian boy and the white girl fall in love?” Nelson said, after a while.
“Yes.” Because I hadn’t just watched those movies, I had lived a few of them.
“There they are, at the edge of a canyon,” said Nelson, “and he’s trying to tell her how he feels, but he doesn’t have the words. And she tries to bridge the gap between them, but she doesn’t know how. And your heart breaks for them, because you know their worlds are just too different, even though they live in the same place.”
“I know,” I said.
For several moments, we simply watched the landscape crawl by. I thought he might be finished talking, but Nelson spoke again. “When you’re young, all of that seems so tragic. Then you get older. You realize how happy you are just sitting in the same car with her.”
I smiled. “Maybe you decide love isn’t that heart-stopping place at the edge of a canyon. Love is that comfy seat in the Panorama Car, where you can watch the world go by and talk about old times together.”
“Maybe you decide that,” said Nelson.
Together, we watched the Milky Way rise over the Iron Line, and counted our blessings. You wouldn’t know it to look at us, but they outnumbered the stars.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com.
That summer, the gender-neutral change room changed everything. The university, accused of being behind the times, finally put one in. For Professor Mulligan, it was amnesty enough to come around on purchasing a campus aquatics membership. It was a way to avoid the posturing, the testosterone, the groupthink of “bros” in the men’s room. Not to mention the mindless, aggressive music spewing from Bluetooth speakers in there these days. Also important: private stalls. You weren’t out in the open. You weren’t exposed.
The professor, a portly fellow, portlier in fact with each passing semester, didn’t undress in front of people. There was a vulnerability, a certain shame in being on display. That afternoon, in his stall, Mulligan loosened his tie, unclipped his suspenders, and unbuttoned his sweat-stained dress shirt, unleashing mayhem. To the tune of two bulging rolls of belly fat and a pair of droopy breasts, all of it topped with matted gray chest hair. This wasn’t who Mulligan was supposed to be — he felt out of place in his own body. Did he have regrets? Who didn’t?
“Professors of psychology don’t have any fewer demons running around inside than anyone else,” Mulligan was known to lecture. “We’re able to identify them, put names to them, that’s all.”
And he didn’t necessarily mean clinical names. Mulligan gave his demons people names. Harley, for example, was the part of Mulligan that ate too much, the part fixated on consumption, on overconsumption. The addict. As a child, it was food. As a teen, as an adult: cigarettes, alcohol, then opioids. Now, as a senior — after nicotine patches, Alcoholics Anonymous, and three stints in drug rehab — Harley was back to food. Harley, the gluttonous slob, was effective, though. Damage control was a tough racket, but Harley was a world-class trauma assassin, burying fear and insecurity beneath thick greasy mounds of fast food and potato chips. It sounded silly, but personifying internal psychological processes, caricaturizing them, somehow made it feel like there was a team within, somehow made Mulligan feel less alone. In a weird way, it helped him understand who he was.
Mulligan pulled on a black T-shirt because going out onto the pool deck topless was not an option. Imagine if one of his Gender and Development students saw him in such a state, half-naked, defenseless like that.
Swimmers in goggles and latex caps filled all eight lanes of the Olympic-sized pool. Their strokes varied, but all cut through the water expertly. One end to the other and back again. With purpose.
Mulligan turned to the therapeutic hot pool. It was empty. The sign there suggested consulting your doctor before entering. It warned that more than 10-15 minutes in the hot pool was potentially detrimental to your health, that prolonged “enjoyment” could cause disorientation.
The lifeguard, a muscular kid in a mesh tank top, watched Mulligan in a way that made Mulligan feel like he was doing something wrong. Was it the T-shirt? Were T-shirts not allowed? Mulligan raised his hand and the kid nodded at him like the two of them had known each other forever.
The first step into the scalding water immediately reminded Mulligan of the baths his mother ran for him as a young boy, how unbearably hot she always made them, how long it took for him to ease his way in, how impatient she was with the whole ordeal. This is a bath, she’d say. Baths are hot. This is how you get clean.
Mulligan took another step — down to knee depth — and stopped again. He stared out the window at a tree, a thin stick of a thing by the walkway to the parking lot. Scraggly branches and wilting leaves drooped in the sweltering heat. The twig-like tip flopped to the side — like it was giving up.
One more step and the water was all the way up Mulligan’s thighs, perilously close to his scrotum. He stood there for what seemed like hours, and he would have stood there a few hours more had a swimmer not gotten out of the main pool, peeled off his goggles and cap, and walked over to the hot pool behind Mulligan. Feeling the pressure to get out of the guy’s way, Mulligan took the final step — waist level — and his hands instinctively moved to his submerged crotch. It was futile protection — screen door on a submarine came to mind — but Mulligan’s hands stayed there. It was psychological.
The swimmer stepped all the way in and sat right down, waterline at his nipples. Just like that. Like it was nothing. Mulligan, XXL shirt stretched tight across his belly, took a deep breath — then a few more — working up the nerve to sit.
Then he sat. Nerve endings across his body — a hundred thousand of them — under siege from the intense heat, sent a hundred thousand distress signals to whatever part of his central nervous system was in charge of pain management. There was a rush of blood to his head, a pleasant tightening around his brain — reminiscent of a warm opiate buzz. Then a sort of weightlessness, a drifting of consciousness, an altered state: Mulligan overload. He turned to the sign on the wall: No person having a communicable disease or open sores shall enter the pool. Suddenly drained, Mulligan’s eyes rolled back in his head.
Communicable disease. Mulligan’s mother had died of pneumonia. All that time she spent in the hospital. Weeks. But it felt longer than that. Like years. He stayed with her, all night, every night, at her bedside. Those nights were long. Time had a torturous way of stretching out. The sound of his mother struggling for breath, the crackling of her windpipe, it was unbearable. All Mulligan could do was sit there. Watch his mother wither, sink into the bed. And through all of it, he never worked up the nerve to talk to her, to really talk to her, to explain to her who he really was. Morbid maybe, but his secret would have been safe; it would have died with her. Instead, she died and there was an entire part of her only son she never knew.
Mulligan opened his eyes.
The water in the pool was still very hot, but he’d at least gotten over the shock. He’d acclimatized. He’d get out soon — more than 10 to 15 minutes was potentially detrimental — but for now he enjoyed it.
Another lifeguard, a young woman in a canvas fishing hat, whistle in mouth, flutter board under arm, patrolled the deck. She paced with self-assuredness. Comfortable in her own body. Reminded Mulligan of Pauline, a student in Gender and Development. He admired Pauline. She was sure of herself. She knew who she was.
Mulligan was in the hot pool alone. The guy, the swimmer who’d peeled off his goggles and cap, gotten into the hot pool with Mulligan, was gone. The waterline was at the guy’s nipples. The waterline was at Mulligan’s nipples. And everything underwater moved on its own. His shirt rippled with the current of filtered water shooting out of jets. His liver-spotted arms floated and bobbed, a dissociation of the limbs, a disconnect between movement and conscious thought. Mulligan was an expert on dissociation: authored a textbook, had personal experience, invented a character to represent the part of him responsible for disconnecting from thoughts and feelings, the part that spearheaded efforts to check out mentally when Mulligan was triggered. This was Spencer, the scrawny trembling twerp who always had an escape plan, who always had the white flag cocked and ready. Spencer, second in command in Trauma Suppression, dealt with what Harley couldn’t bury beneath food. Mulligan was open about his internal cast of characters — his team — in class.
“You’re allowed to make a little light,” he was known to lecture. “Take this stuff too seriously and you’ll cripple yourself under the weight of it.”
What Mulligan wished he’d have been open about was his identity. He wished he’d never kept it a secret in the first place. Pauline, the young woman in Gender and Development, wasn’t afraid to open up about her identity. She came to see Mulligan during his office hours, went right into it, told him everything. Pauline had been born Paul. But even as a child — for as long as she could remember — she knew that wasn’t who she was. She knew she was a girl, a young woman. And she told people about it. Without hesitation. It would have been safe for Mulligan to reciprocate, to open up to Pauline about his own identity, but he couldn’t work up the nerve. Instead she left Mulligan’s office and Mulligan envied her from a distance.
Soaking in the hot water made Mulligan feel healthy: blood flowing, pores sweating out toxins. He pictured little particles — nicotine remnants, lingering alcohol and opioid debris — exiting his body, his inner custodian, Dana, the unappreciated diligent worker, toiling away, deciding what stayed and what went. This was a bath. This was how you got clean. And 10 to 15 minutes wasn’t going to do it: Mulligan had 10, 15, 30, 60 years of damage to undo. Maybe he’d just stay. Maybe he’d soak for as long as it took. He’d already been here a while. Look how dark it was getting. Look how chilly: students pinching coats shut, hurrying to the parking lot. Look at that tree by the walkway, its branches stripped clean of leaves. Look how it stood firm in the whipping wind. Mulligan sank down, shoulders in the water, happy to be in out of the cold, and breathed easy.
Mulligan had breathed easy when he finished AA. He wasn’t a model member. He went through with it, said all the right things, but never took any of it seriously. Everything about it: the patronizing tone, the Jesus stuff, the sheep who ate up the Jesus stuff, the general embarrassment of being there, being one of those people. Mulligan thought of himself as the rogue member, the outsider, the one who was above it, who didn’t need it. He got sober, though — his inability to identify with group members who’d lost jobs and gone to jail minimized his own problem. And showing up, going through the motions, participating when prodded was somehow enough.
The three boys across from Mulligan in the hot pool were drinking. They sipped from cans of All Nighter, an energy drink the university had banned from campus ages ago. Mulligan looked at the lifeguard, a scrawny kid in a ball cap, to see if these boys and their drinks were going to get the boot. The lifeguard, meek and nervous-looking, watched the hot pool from afar. He saw what was going on. Didn’t have the stomach to do anything about it. Like Spencer, Mulligan’s inner escape artist, his coward extraordinaire. The boys drank their sugar-loaded drinks, their testosterone fuel, and raged about the difficulty of their commerce courses: taxation this, inventory accounting that.
Making a “searching and fearless moral inventory” was Step Four. They had circle time in AA. Talked about their feelings. Mulligan made up a bunch of stuff about having a family, being divorced, drinking because he lost custody of the kids. What else was he going to do? Spill his secret? Expose what Harley and Spencer had spent a lifetime supressing and avoiding? To that room of real-life Harleys and Spencers? Because those were the people who were going to understand what it was like to live a lie? Okay, maybe they were exactly the people to understand. The point was: the AA gang — generously tattooed, excessively pierced — wasn’t the gang Mulligan wanted on his side, the first to know that he felt like an alien in his own body, that this god they were all so fond of screwed up with Mulligan at birth, that Mulligan, crippled under the weight of everything, never worked up the courage to live his life the way he was supposed to. Maybe Mulligan should have told them though. Times were changing. Kids nowadays knew who they were and they were coming right out with it, addressing gender dysphoria like it was nothing. Like goddamned heroes.
This was the best Mulligan felt in a long time. Just needed a good long soak to loosen him up. His shirt seemed to be loosening up. This was what it felt like to be in shape: your shirt wasn’t stretched tight, you had some breathing room. It was dark outside and Mulligan could make out his reflection in the window. And — weird — he didn’t hate what he saw. He almost looked young. Almost looked clean.
Every so often, new people appeared. And, just like that, they were gone. Some would push the button to start the jets. The jet at Mulligan’s lower back numbed the base of his spine.
Lifeguards came and went. Alternating watches. Rotating shifts. Periodically sampling the water, testing chlorine levels. It was a constant fight with the pH, a delicate balance. They all knew him by name: Professor Mulligan, The Soaking Man.
Nights would be the hardest. When distractions disappeared. When you were alone with your thoughts. When time had a torturous way of stretching out.
Then there was the winter. It would come with a vengeance. Blizzards, squalls — storms of people’s lifetimes. There would be a tree outside, a thick beast of a thing by the walkway to the parking lot. Snow would pile on its sturdy branches but they’d hold the weight. Those branches were in it together: units with roles, cogs in the machine, contributing to the whole. A team. Forging an identity.
Mulligan sank down, water at his chin, a vantage point that made it look like the water level had risen, like the tide had changed. His shirt rippled with the underwater current. Mesmerizing how it moved on its own. Reminded Mulligan of how he often felt: passive, affected, lacking any say in the matter. It certainly summed up suffering through puberty: having no control over the way his body transformed itself. It was during puberty that his mother stopped letting him into the women’s change room at the public pool. You’re too old for that, she said. They’ll think you’re a pervert. So then it was the men’s room. Where grown men undressed in the open. Where everything hung out. The overwhelming wrongness of that.
Mulligan fixed on his rippling shirt, letting the current happen to it. Felt nice that the shirt was loose on him, that he was swimming in it. Felt nice to be young, to be healthy. Felt invigorating. And he wasn’t going to take it for granted this time.
Soon spring would come. That tree would bud again. And — even if just a little, even if imperceptibly — it would be stronger than it was before. After enough time it would grow taller than the building. Out of its shadow. Cast a shadow of its own. Because showing up, going through the motions, was somehow enough.
Featured image: Shutterstock
The public pool is no place for a girl whose body is still a work in progress. Especially when the Buchanan boys are here. Mimi can’t walk past them without sucking in her stomach, can’t move an inch without second-guessing her limbs, can’t even breathe without wondering if she’s inhaling right.
The boys are three chaise longues over, puffing their skinny chests and shooting Super Soakers at each other. Every so often, they look over at the girls, probably to check if they’re still paying attention. Both parties play a game of looking and not looking at each other until Mimi can’t take it anymore.
She’s stuck here as long as Bethany and Nadia get their thrills from making eye contact with the boys. Nadia’s mom isn’t coming to pick them up for almost three hours. Her own parents are at a wedding in Scottsdale, and if she were to walk home, it would take over 40 minutes, a death sentence under the Arizona sun.
Mimi begins her private act of rebellion by escaping to the little café behind the changing rooms that is nothing but an open window offering coffee, soda, chips, and candy. The only thing the place has going for it is the outdoor seating area, which gives expansive views of desert mountains punctured with cacti. From a bored teenage girl with wheat-colored hair and messy liquid eyeliner, she buys a Coke and a bag of sour cream chips. Sugar and sodium, carbs and trans fats — Mom would kill her.
The only other person around is an old woman absorbed with scribbling in a notebook. Mimi exhales, letting out her gut, then chugs down half the Coke. She shovels the chips into her mouth as if someone will take them away if she doesn’t eat fast enough. When the bag is empty, she feels a mixture of satisfaction and guilt.
She still has a little belly, like a baby. Despite her recent growth spurt, she’s waiting for width in all the right places. At least she has her legs, long and tanned, her selling point, which she shows off as long as she has her towel wrapped around her upper body.
Her friends can have the Buchanan boys. What does she care? She doesn’t stand a chance with Ben anyway. Bethany already fills out B cups, underwires and everything. Nadia will always be adorable with her too-big eyes on a too-small face.
But the image of one of her best friends going out with Ben crushes her ribs like a car compactor.
She knows neither of them actually likes Ben. They prefer Strand Buchanan, his older brother, who is handsome in a Disney-channel-star kind of way. Mimi likes Ben, even though he has Dumbo ears and a too-wide mouth — because he has Dumbo ears and a too-wide mouth.
But it only matters who Ben likes. Mimi is a flower to be picked or crushed beneath his feet. Her role is to watch and wait, without appearing as if she is watching and waiting, while quietly angling herself to be seen.
It’s all so exhausting, and Mimi needed a break. She pats her belly like a gluttonous old man. She can breathe again.
She picks up a copy of The Arizona Republic left on the table and reads it slowly to kill time. The lead story is on the black bear she keeps hearing about. Hikers kept leaving the bear food on the trails, and he came to associate humans with food. In recent months, the bear had chased hikers on two separate occasions. Luckily, no one was injured. When wildlife officers finally tracked him down on a trail after receiving a tip, one of them shot him dead.
Mimi studies the black-and-white photos. In one, the dead bear is limp on the ground while two uniformed men loom over him. Another photo captures the rage of animal rights protestors with fake blood on their hands, mouths open mid-scream. They’re quoted arguing that the bear could have been tranquilized and relocated to a remote area. But the wildlife officers defended their actions: The bear would always be a threat to humans no matter where he went. This was their only option.
Mimi isn’t sure who she agrees with. The officers had a point, but the bear wasn’t at fault. She considers this from more angles, all the possibilities that could have led to a peaceful solution. Captivity in a zoo? No, zoos were jails for animals. Death was better. Maybe —
She whips her head around to see a boy her age with wet brown hair. He wears only blue swim trunks with a white towel casually thrown around his shoulders. Water drips down to his bare feet, and he holds a bottle of Coke.
Mimi’s eyes widen, but she manages a hello back.
“I see you’re reading about my dad,” Ben says.
“I am?” She looks at the bear in the photo. “Your dad’s a bear?”
She feels stupid as soon as she says it, but fortunately, he laughs, under the impression she’s joking. He steps closer until she can smell the chlorine on his skin and hair. Sees the green flecks in his hazel eyes. How his lashes are thicker than any girl’s, his skin creamier than caramel. It’s unfair.
Ben points to one of the two men standing over the bear.
“That’s my dad,” he says proudly.
This is the part where she should act impressed, but Mimi finds herself saying, “Was he the one who killed the bear?”
“Yup. Shot him, straight between the eyes.”
Mimi swallows. She looks down at the photo of the bear again, so limp and sad, a pile of furry skin.
“If he didn’t have a gun, my dad could have killed it with his bare hands. Ka-pow!” He punches the air to demonstrate.
“Yeah. My dad’s a black belt in karate. I’m a brown belt right now, so I’m almost there.”
“Could … you kill a bear?”
“Yup. Bears are dumb. Here’s a tip. If you ever see one, just raise your arms as high as possible to make yourself seem bigger than you are. Then start yelling and making noises. That’ll scare it away.”
“They’re dumb that way,” Ben repeats. “That’s what makes them monsters. They can attack anyone for any reason. What if it wanders into town and attacks kids in a playground or something?”
“That wouldn’t be good.”
Ben nods. “My dad’s a hero. They should give him an award for saving the city.”
But he killed him, Mimi thinks and immediately pushes the thought away.
Ben slowly walks around until he stands directly across from her. The cheap plastic table separates them, but they stare at each other for a second that feels like eternity. A field of electricity wraps around them. He takes a swig of his Coke.
After he swallows, he opens his mouth as if to say something else, but he just grins. Despite her shyness, she can’t help but smile back.
“Well, I better get back,” he says.
“Okay,” she says. “See ya.”
When he’s gone, Mimi breaks out into the biggest smile of her life.
Ben Buchanan sought her out. Spoke to her. Even tried to impress her. They were bound by eye contact and mirroring smiles. And he even bought a Coke, same as her. If that doesn’t mean they’re simpatico, she doesn’t know what does.
She finds it impossible to read the rest of the paper. Instead, her eyes glaze over at the desert mountains as she replays her interaction with Ben over and over. She can’t wait to tell her friends.
On second thought, what if they embarrass her? They don’t even know she likes Ben.
This will have to be her secret for now.
She wonders if Ben will be her first boyfriend. Her first kiss? She giggles to herself. She can stay at the public pool forever as long as Ben is here.
When she’s back in her chaise longue, Mimi bites her bottom lip to suppress all the smiling she wants to do. She keeps her sunglasses on, and the sky looks bluer still. She lies there for a minute, an hour, she doesn’t know.
Bethany breaks Mimi out of her dreamy trance. “Oh. My. God.”
Mimi sits up and follows her friend’s gaze. She recognizes the shaggy-haired blond boy who just arrived. He’s scrawny and pale, with arms comically darker than his torso and legs, looking like a white Ken doll whose arms have been replaced with arms from a brown one. She’s so distracted by the severity of his tan lines that it takes a moment for her to see the real source of Bethany’s surprise.
Joe is holding the hand of a girl half his height and twice his width. A girl who is, to put it bluntly, fat.
She wears an oversized straw hat and a black one-piece swimsuit with white polka dots, as if to emphasize her roundness. When she takes off the hat, Mimi sees that it’s Martha. Not that it would’ve been hard to recognize her. Everything about Martha is round, even her facial features: round eyes, round lips, round nose. If a caricaturist were to draw her, a series of circles would suffice.
Joe lives at the end of Mimi’s block and is a year older than her. He is constantly skateboarding past her house. Martha is in her homeroom and a couple of other classes, a nice girl, although obviously not in her circle. Mimi waves at them from across the pool. They wave back as they lay out their towels on their chairs.
Bethany turns to Mimi. “Did you know about this?”
“Not a clue.” Mimi shrugs.
“How did this happen?” Bethany asks as if it is Mimi’s fault.
Mimi understands her friend’s shock. While Joe isn’t as hot as Strand, he’s friendly and outgoing, one of the most popular guys at school. He should be with some cool skater girl. Weight issues aside, Martha is still too homely, someone Mimi imagines would make a great nurse or mother of five someday. She never imagined her paired up with anyone. Not even with Dan Brewsky, the fattest guy she knows, because he is a terrible person who goes around calling girls wenches and smells like BO and grape slushies.
“Good for her,” Nadia says.
They watch the new couple step into the water, Joe leading Martha by the hand. They continue to hold hands even in the pool. In that moment, Mimi feels a stab of jealousy. She doesn’t want Joe, but she does want a cute boyfriend not unlike him. Martha is fat while everyone else works so hard not to be. How is it fair she snags him?
But Mimi talks herself out of these petty thoughts. She channels Nadia’s generosity. Good for her. Good for them.
“Hey, Joe,” Strand yells from the pool deck. He’s sitting, calves in the water. “Did you find your new girlfriend in a pig pen?”
Mimi’s breath catches in her throat. Nadia audibly gasps, while Bethany snorts.
The Buchanan boys and their cronies laugh out loud. Even Ben, his beautiful profile in crooked mirth.
“Why didn’t you bring her a float,” Ben adds. “Or maybe all her fat’ll keep her buoyant.”
Buoyant. At least he has a good vocabulary, Mimi thinks bitterly. Her cheeks burn from secondhand embarrassment.
Martha’s face crumbles, and then, lips quivering, she quickly gets out of the pool and scurries away.
Joe looks from Martha to the boys, torn whether to chase after her. His face is a deep scarlet, adding another color to his bizarre palette of skin tones. He cusses and swims over to Strand, grabbing his ankles to pull him into the water. Strand only laughs as if he is being tickled.
Amidst a whole lot of splashing, the other boys jump in. Mimi has never seen Joe lose his cool or anything remotely close to anger. He looks like a devil to be reckoned with, even against five boys. The boys never descend to his rage, laughing and using group effort to dunk Joe’s head in the water.
“They’re going to kill him,” Nadia exclaims.
Mimi is frozen. She wants to do something, but what?
Luckily, the lifeguard, a high school boy, blows his whistle. “Hey, hey! Knock it off. Buchanan, I see you.”
Strand sticks his tongue at him. “He started it.” But he obeys. The boys follow, letting Joe go.
Joe quivers alone in the water, breathing heavily. Depleted, he slowly swims back to his side of the pool. He grabs the two towels, his bag, and Martha’s.
When he’s gone, Mimi exhales. She didn’t realize she has been holding her breath all this time.
“Poor thing,” Nadia says.
“Yeah, but Martha Owens?” Bethany scoffs. “Really, Joe? He should have known what he was getting into.”
“It’s so humiliating,” Mimi says.
“At least it’s not us,” Bethany says. “She should know better by now.”
Nadia and Mimi don’t disagree. Bethany goes back to her Cosmopolitan. Nadia scrolls through her phone.
Mimi removes her sunglasses and sighs. She reapplies sunscreen on her legs for the sake of something to do. As she rubs the thick white cream into her thighs, she notices the webbing of her green and blue veins. She’s mesmerized. The more she stares, the more prominent and peculiar the veins appear, a glimpse at the machinations beneath her shell. It is almost disgusting. Funny how she never noticed them before.
“Maybe we should go soon,” she says to Nadia.
“My mom can probably pick us up early,” she replies. “I’m hungry now anyway. Are you guys hungry?”
“I’m always hungry,” Mimi says.
Even Bethany nods.
When it’s time to go, they walk past the boys. She doesn’t hesitate to meet Ben’s eyes. He smiles. She doesn’t.
At In-N-Out, Mimi eats enough grease to send her mother into a conniption fit. Nadia’s mom is not one to care, though, having a few extra pounds on her. She lets them know they can order more if they’re still hungry.
The girls decide to split another box of animal-style fries.
“I really shouldn’t,” Bethany says, but she never stops shoving fries into her mouth.
Mimi’s stomach grows to pregnant proportions. Luckily, she’s wearing a baggy gray sweatshirt.
“It’s like we haven’t eaten for weeks,” Mimi says before taking a long sip of her Coke.
“I’ll have to run more laps tomorrow,” Bethany says. “I wonder how much Martha eats every day to get that fat.”
Nadia rolls her eyes. “Come on, Beth. That’s so mean.”
“What? I just want to know so I never get that big myself.”
Nadia tells her mom what happened with Martha at the pool today, tears rimming her eyes.
“Those boys sound like hyenas.” Her mom shakes her head. “Unfortunately, you’ll meet people like that at every age.”
“Cruel people?” Mimi asks.
“People who act like gatekeepers to other people’s happiness. They don’t gain much except control. Never give them the satisfaction.”
“But what if they have a point?” Bethany asks.
Nadia’s mom regards her gently. “I have a philosophy in life. People can do whatever they want as long as they’re not hurting anyone else. If someone enjoys food a little too much, what does that have to do with me? But if someone’s callous to others, I do have a problem with that.”
Bethany blinks at her as if she’s computing this information. She never stops eating the fries.
When Mimi gets home, she takes a shower. If she has her way, she’ll never step into another public pool again. She’ll stick to showers. She would take three showers a day if her parents wouldn’t tease her about putting the entire state of Arizona in drought.
At night, she stares at the popcorn ceiling longer than she needs to even though she’s tuckered out. She thinks how ugly popcorn ceilings are, like upside down dirt painted over.
When she finally drifts into the unconscious, her thoughts wander to inane places.
What if all humans had translucent skin? Thin, like the skin beneath their fingernails. No hair would be needed because their bodies wouldn’t need the protection. They would be exposed and fragile, but the world would also not be a hard place. Their glass-like shells would display the inner workings of their greens and blues and reds. The state of their beating hearts. The levels of pollution in the blood. Not to judge and be judged but to detect what’s wrong so it can be fixed.
People wouldn’t rely on the body to know who they’re attracted to. Everyone would look more or less the same, all with busy, grotesque bodies. The only way to know each other would be to get to know each other.
Maybe the teeth could stay. They could still eat. It wouldn’t be a crime. Everyone in the world would eat as much as they want, growing into fat, translucent balloons. Eating could make them lighter, buoyant, their bodies floating higher and higher into the sky until the sun obliterates everything with light.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
At midday in the early summer Jack stood alone in the driveway. The pavement was hot against the soles of his feet. He had been at it for some time when his father came out very serious.
“Jack, go inside,” said his father.
Jack kept on, looking down at his feet. Above him the sun was spread out full and all around the sky was clear and blue to the ends. In the distance there was the sound of boys playing all the time.
“Not right now, Papa,” Jack said. “I’m working on my feet.”
His father moved towards him. “Go inside,” he said. “I won’t say it again.”
Jack put both feet to the pavement. He did not feel the heat now. It wasn’t important. He looked up at his father, his eyes squinted to the sun.
“But Papa,” he said, “you know how the other boys like to run when it’s hot out. I need to get my feet ready. If I don’t get my feet ready —”
“I know it,” his father said, all the severity in his voice gone out. “Another day. Go inside, please.”
Jack saw there was no game to play. He walked back to the house.
When he reached the door, Uncle Jim was coming out. Uncle Jim was a big man. He was always smoking Marlboro cigarettes.
“Go on inside, Jackie,” Uncle Jim said. “We’ll be back in soon. We’ll make lunch. Banana and peanut butter sandwiches. You know how we like those.” He put his hand on Jack’s head. “Go on.”
“Okay,” Jack said, moving past Uncle Jim into the house. He was glad to have something to do.
In the house, Jack went to his mother’s bedroom. The door was closed. She had not come out all morning. She had not been happy for a long time.
Jack went to the kitchen. He brought a chair from the dining room and set it down in the pantry. The chair was heavy and when it met the wooden floor he wished he had set it down so there was no attention. When he found the bananas, he came off the chair and saw his father standing in the kitchen.
“Hi, Papa,” Jack said timidly.
His father put one hand on the counter, leaning against it, the other hand on his waist. His face was serious again. He said, “What did I tell you about standing on that chair?”
Jack did not answer.
“Go on,” said his father, “what did I tell you?”
“Don’t do it.”
Jack held the bananas up with both hands. He showed his father. “I had to get the bananas, Papa. Mom has been in her room all day.”
“I know it,” his father said, now forgiving the boy. He came over to Jack, pulling him in close and pushing the hair back off his forehead. “Were you careful?”
“Good.” His father walked into the pantry. He came out with the jar of peanut butter. “You’ll need this, too.”
“Thanks, Papa. I forgot about the peanut butter.”
His father picked him up playfully, holding him suspended over his head. “You forgot about the peanut butter? That’s the best part!”
Jack laughed as his father lowered him to the floor. He knew it was all right.
After he had settled, Jack looked up at his father soberly. “What is Mom doing in there?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said his father. “She’ll be out soon, I’m sure. Don’t bother her, please. We can’t bother her today.”
When his father moved towards the garage, Jack spoke again. “Papa?”
“Will you go check on her?”
His father did not look mad but not happy either. It was a lot to ask. “Sure,” he said. “Stay here.”
Jack listened from the kitchen. He heard his father knock softly on the door. The door did not open. There was silence for a long time until Jack heard his father speak through the door. At first he could not make it out, but the voices grew louder. His father was asking her to come out. She spoke louder each time and each time his father repeated calmly, “Please come out, please come out.”
Then Jack heard his name. He listened closely. He heard the door open and heard his mother, her voice now cool and without emotion, say to his father, “You tell him why,” and then the door shut and it was over and there was nothing else between them.
When Jack’s father returned to the kitchen he walked past the boy, opening the door to the garage. He stopped in the doorway. His back was to Jack when he spoke. “Stay inside for a bit,” he said. “It’s too hot to be running around outside today.”
The door shut and Jack stood alone in the kitchen.
Some time later the men came in from the garage and sat down at the big table. They were ready to eat. Jack went into the kitchen to put the sandwiches together.
“What are you doing in the garage?” Jack asked.
Both men looked over at Jack, then back at each other. Uncle Jim spoke first.
“Working on the old car,” he said.
“What’s wrong with it?” Jack asked.
“We’re just fixing it up, that’s all,” he said. “You see, Jack, even things like the old car, things that seem to be going on all right, sometimes they need fixing up. That’s how it is with old things.”
“Oh,” said Jack. Now he looked at his father. He wanted to know what it all meant. But there was nothing else. The men sat at the table, looking at each other deliberately. They were speaking with their eyes.
Jack brought the sandwiches to the table and set them down eagerly.
“Thanks, Jackie,” said Uncle Jim. “These look good.” Uncle Jim bit into a sandwich. Jack watched him finish it, chewing it up quickly.
“That was good,” said Uncle Jim. “Thanks, Jackie.” Then Uncle Jim looked over at Jack’s father. “Tell him,” he said.
Uncle Jim said nothing. Jack’s father looked at him, confused. Then he understood it. “Oh, no,” he said. “Not now.”
“Go on,” Uncle Jim told him. “You said you would.”
“Knock it off, Jim.”
“Tell him. The boy needs to know how it’s all going to go.”
Jack’s father picked up a sandwich. “Not now,” he said, biting into the sandwich. He would not look at Uncle Jim.
All the time Jack was watching the men talk and trying to understand it.
“You’ll have to, eventually,” Uncle Jim said.
Jack’s father was looking straight ahead, chewing. When he finished, he said, “Not now, Jim. Leave it alone.”
“Fine,” said Uncle Jim. He stood up and walked back into the garage, closing the door behind him.
Jack’s father watched Uncle Jim go out. Jack sat quietly at the table. His father looked across the room for a long time thinking.
“Papa?” Jack said after a while.
His father looked at him, but still he was thinking. “Yes?” he said it hesitantly.
“What did Uncle Jim mean, ‘Tell him’?” Jack asked shyly. He wasn’t sure if it was right to ask it.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” his father said. “Your Uncle Jim was being funny. You can’t always listen to him. Uncle Jim, he’s always being funny like that.”
“Oh,” said Jack.
For a while they sat at the table not speaking. It was very difficult for Jack to keep the silence so long but he was sure it was not his turn now.
His father finished his sandwich and pushed the plate forward.
“Jack —” he stopped. He was trying to get into it.
“Yes, Papa?” Jack said to get him going.
His father rolled the bottom of his glass in circles on the table. “Never mind,” he said. “I should be getting back to the garage.”
“Okay,” Jack said.
His father stood up from the table. “Remember not to bother your mother,” he said.
Then his father was gone again into the garage.
The afternoon passed. Outside it was beginning to grow dark and still the men had not come in. Jack had not seen his mother, either. He waited in his room, listening for anything. It was late when he heard the men. In the hallway he met Uncle Jim.
“Jackie, what are you doing up still?” Uncle Jim said in a low voice.
“Looking for Papa.”
“He’s in his room. You should go back to bed. It’s late.” Uncle Jim nodded towards Jack’s bedroom.
“I need to see Papa.”
“You’d better not tonight,” Uncle Jim said. “Go on to bed.”
Jack looked up at Uncle Jim. The smell of cigarettes was heavy and Jack didn’t want to argue any longer. “Okay, Uncle Jim,” he said. “Goodnight.”
Jack went to his room. He lay on his bed for a long time watching the ceiling fan go around. He liked the soft buzz the fan made and the cool air on his face. He listened for stillness across the house and when there had not been any new sounds for some time, he went to his father’s bedroom.
As he neared his father’s bedroom he could hear it through the door. He put his ear to the door, listening until he was sure. Then he pushed the door open enough to see it. His father was sitting on the far side of his bed. His head was in his hands, his back was to the door.
Jack watched his father, the only man he really knew, crying on his bed. He watched for a long time that way. But after a while he began to understand it and then he didn’t want to see it anymore. The curiosity was gone and there was only the feeling that it would not change, not any of it. He pulled the door closed and went back to his room.
After he had turned off the lights and got into bed he pulled the blanket tight to his chin. Lying still against the silence he watched the moonlight float in and now for the first time he felt very much alone. He thought of Papa, and he wondered if it is right for men to cry like that when they know so much.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com.
Endrick stood there, 40 feet below dust devils and the hot sun, in one hand the rope, in the other a lantern — turned low, for the moment, to save oil. He stood on a rudimentary lift — a round wooden platform so small, to fit the narrow shaft, that there was room enough, barely, for his feet. Tied to a ring in the middle of the platform was a rope which rose upward, out of the shaft, over an iron crossbar, and around a spool which, turned via a crank one way or the other, raised the platform, or lowered it.
The rope. Holding it tightly with one hand, Endrick wished that it was only a little thicker, and not so frayed, in places. It was, after all, the only thing that kept him from plunging another 40 feet to the bottom of the shaft.
And men did fall. Very rarely, Endrick was told. But something about the way Paddys, the old man, had said this — lowering his voice a little, and his eyes — caused Endrick to wonder. He nearly asked his employer what happened to the men who did fall, but checked himself. It was better not knowing.
Endrick and the platform had been still for nearly a minute, as Paddys, locking the crank, took a midway break essential to his age. But now, his rest over, the creaking of the spool resumed, and the platform again began to lower. Soon Endrick could see nothing but the lantern itself, and beyond that the odd crystal glimmer of quartzes that was so much like the twinkling of stars that he felt, for a moment, that he must be in an open field, with the whole night sky spread before him.
The shaft was 80 feet deep, and it would take, according to Paddys, twice as many turns of the handle to deliver Endrick to his destination. Indeed, a second or two after hearing his employer’s shout of close, the platform struck the ground with a jolt.
The darkness deepened as Paddys leaned over the mouth of the shaft and cried: “All’s well, friend?”
“And you need nothing?”
“No. No, I don’t think so.”
“Then I’m off. Some business, in the village. Eleven, I’ll come wind you up. We’ll go for a drink, ah? And you’ll show me your treasures.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Endrick was sure he heard Paddys say, “I’m counting on it,” after his silhouette vanished.
Though the shaft itself was narrow, at a distance of 10 feet from the bottom it broadened, so that it had, on the whole, the shape of a long-necked chemical flask. There was a cavity on one side of the flask, which proved (Endrick thrust his lantern within it) to be a tunnel of considerable length. This was the Jewel Room, as Paddys called it, a new excavation that was to be the focus of Endrick’s attention.
The young man swung the bag from his back and retrieved from it a clawed instrument similar to a hand tiller. His objective wasn’t to dig — all the debris that could be removed from the shaft had been — but merely to scratch at the walls, scanning these for a telltale azure gleam: sapphires. It was tedious work, and dirty. The Room narrowed with distance, and Endrick knew he’d soon have to crouch, then kneel, and at last sit, as he moved from one end to the other.
Endrick set to work. Nearly three hours later, the fruit of his labor was a single diminutive blue stone. He dropped this into the drawstring pouch in his pocket, retrieved his water jar, and sat a minute drinking in the dirt, peering at the unexplored end of the Jewel Room, and wondering if his luck there would be any better.
At the extreme end of the Room — it was difficult to make out — was a scattering of rubbish (cigarette ends, empty jars) and a heap of rags that looked almost like the body of a man.
No … It was the body of a man.
Endrick crawled forward — for the ceiling here was low. He held out the lantern.
Yes. A man’s body. A lean man, and tall, and covered as much by dust as clothing. His wide-open eyes seemed almost to gaze back at Endrick.
“Hello,” said the man.
Endrick’s heart bounded out of his mouth, nearly.
“Hello,” he said back, at last.
“How long have you been down here?”
More silence. And then:
“Three days,” said the man. “Three hundred days.” He gave a low chuckle.
Endrick looked the man over. His left leg was resting at an unnatural angle. His trousers … They were saturated with blood.
“Are you — broken?” Endrick asked, gently.
“I’m not broken,” said the man, with a laugh. And then: “I’m broken. All over, I expect.”
The man showed his teeth.
“Can you move?”
He nodded. “I dragged myself. Back here. Can you guess why?”
Before Endrick could answer, the man turned his head to one side and rubbed his tongue against a broad, smooth stone embedded in the wall. The stone was beaded with moisture.
“I’ll get you out of here.”
“What you’ll do,” said the man, “if you have any brains in your head, is go about your business. Is” (wincing, lifting a finger) “to take my own stones, and then go. There’s a dozen here,” tapping his pocket, “that I gathered on the last day. He knows. It’s why he sent you.”
Endrick stared at the man for a minute, then said: “I think that if I took you by the waist, I could drag you to the lift and — ”
“Get away from me!”
The man kicked at Endrick with his right leg and a shout — of pain or rage, Endrick was uncertain. “Just leave me.”
“I won’t leave you.”
“Let go,” said the man, kicking first with his good, and then his injured leg, the scream of pain from the last shooting through the tunnel like a nerve.
Endrick listened this time, though not for his own sake. He crawled backward until there was room enough to sit upright.
“It’s simple,” he said, breathing heavily. “You lie still, and I drag you to the lift and — ”
“And what? There’s room enough, barely, on the lift, for one man. I can’t stand.”
“I’ll help you,” said Endrick.
The man shook his head.
“What’s the good of it? If I could stand, even then, if we could squeeze ourselves both onto the platform, the balance, the weight must be just so, or we’ll both fall. The board’s thin. The rope would never hold.” Grinning, “It’s a long way down.”
“Something could be done.”
The man only laughed.
“Even if he could,” he went on, stopping Endrick before he could speak, “if he wished to, he’d never have the strength, not at his age, to lift the two of us. And he wouldn’t wish to.”
The man again showed his teeth, the only clean part of him.
Endrick got onto his hands and knees. He crawled a few paces. “Whether you like it or not,” he said, “I’m going to help you.”
The man laughed. He swore. He laughed again — and was silent.
Dragging the man from the tunnel was a difficult enough task, and one not lightened any by his screams, his lapses into resistance, the occasional kick. In time, though, the two of them cleared the mouth of the Jewel Room and reached the middle of the main shaft, where the platform lay in a dim circle of light.
They rested a while, in silence. Then:
“Can you sit up?” asked Endrick.
“No,” said the man. “I don’t think so.”
“You were sitting when I found you.”
“Do it anyway.”
With assistance from Endrick, who held his shoulders, the man did, at last, with a long moan, sit up.
“Good. Your right leg. Is that one good enough to stand on?”
“Have you tried?”
The man only glared.
“Try it now.”
He did — and roared.
“I won’t do it,” he said. “It’s murder.”
But Endrick only positioned himself behind the man and, grasping him under the arms, lifted him upright.
“Now grab the rope,” he said, once the groaning and the dust had settled together. “Grab the rope, and I’ll help you onto the platform.”
The man groaned a little more, but obeyed, collapsing against Endrick’s chest.
“What now?” he rasped in Endrick’s ear.
“We wait. It’s past eleven. Paddys will be back soon.”
“Paddys,” Endrick repeated.
The man shook his head. “He won’t come back.”
“He will. Any minute.”
Five minutes passed. Another five. Another ten.
“I don’t know your name,” said Endrick.
“Your name,” the man repeated, dreamily. He’d lost, Endrick surmised, a great deal of blood. He considered jostling the man, but didn’t want to aggravate his pain. They needed to hold still, besides. To keep their balance.
They waited, it felt, forever. There was occasional talk — vague questions, on Endrick’s part, answered always, it seemed to him, in riddles — but this grew more and more scant, and lapsed, at last, into silence.
The man’s eyes were closed now. He’d grown so heavy. Endrick was considering the wisdom of sitting, when —
“All right down there?” came a voice from above, as a shadow passed over the men.
“Yes,” cried Endrick. “I’m ready.”
“On the platform?”
On Endrick’s shoulder, the man either laughed, or whimpered.
“I’m ready,” was all Endrick said.
“All right,” said Paddys, backing away from the hole. “Hold on.”
The rope quivered. At last, though slowly, it began to move.
“You’re heavy,” said Paddys, grunting.
“Fool,” whispered the man. “Foolish. Fool.”
They were ascending, Endrick guessed, at less than half the usual rate. The spool yelped with every crank.
A cry from above: “I can’t hold it! You’re too heavy! I can’t hold.”
With his free hand, the man reached down, retrieved something from his pocket, then stuffed it into Endrick’s.
“No,” cried Endrick.
The man showed his teeth.
“I can’t hold!” cried Paddys again.
The man relaxed his grip on the rope. It became difficult, now, to support him, to keep balanced. The platform began to tip.
“You’re too heavy!”
Endrick looked into the man’s eyes. There was light enough, now, to see them. They were so full of dust … Endrick couldn’t discern their color.
He let go of the man’s waist.
A moment later, far below… a soft sound.
Endrick very quickly found his balance.
“Better,” came the voice of Paddys, above. “Much better. It’s easier, now. It’s easy.”
Endrick held very still. In a minute, there would be sunlight on his face.
Featured image: Illustrated by Rolli.
She could be seen, Anna, in her later years, fair weather or not, walking up and down streets that might’ve been bridges of wafer, so tentative were her steps. The straw hat, the woollen jacket — as characteristic as her gray eyes, her strong English chin.
Fifty years earlier, her father had served as veterinarian, dentist, and doctor to the town’s thousand-or-so residents. In no extraordinary day would he thrust his hands into darkness and, like some red-gloved magician, procure a colt, a tooth, a swollen appendix — and all before a light lunch of biscuits and tea.
Doctor Pain, people called him. He opposed anaesthesia “on moral grounds,” preferring, in the midst of prying out a tricky wisdom tooth, or setting a broken limb, to chastise one for writhing, as if agony were a blemish of character.
When he passed away in his 60th year, the population crushed into the Baptist Church for his service, though the man was no Baptist, and never set foot in a church of any flavor, as far as anyone could remember. Dr. Pain had few relations, fewer friends, so the greater number of those gathered must have been present, as Mrs. Hillier (something of a gossip) confirmed, “Just to make certain.”
Living as he did, a retiring widower, spending little on himself or anyone, the good doctor was whispered to be rich. Rumors are sometimes true. His will stipulated that Anna, his only child, on her marriage, would inherit his entire estate of close to a million dollars. A sum, in those days.
One of the plainer faces in town, reappraised, was now found to possess, after all, a certain peculiar charm. Affections will settle, and Anna’s landed comfortably on a young man — younger, about 20 — by the name of Robert Allen.
Robert, too, had a peculiar charm. Passing him on the street, one might remember, if anything, the practical non-existence of his upper lip. Or his odor, which, by no fault of his own (his parents were sausage-makers), had a bias towards sage and garlic.
For several years prior, it had been no rarity for Robert to appear on Anna’s doorstep — in the capacity of deliveryman for the family business. But when he began to make a daily appearance every evening at a punctual half-past six, it became obvious that Anna had either grown unusually fond of sausage, or unusually fond of Robert. Public opinion settled on the latter.
They married the following June. Enigmatically, again, in the Baptist Church (the bridegroom was Catholic). Though the abundance of Allens, so many sausages crammed into the front few rows, lent the small church, in the summer heat, an unfortunate odor, everything else went smoothly, “Both with and without a hitch,” as Mrs. Hillier noted, as often as possible. As the couple ran out of the church, half the children threw rice, half held their noses.
A month later, they separated.
A month after that, Robert was dead.
To plot out the tragedy’s hows and whys is to draw on hearsay, guesswork, outright lies, a construct of cobwebs, only. The truth of the matter was something that not even Mrs. Hillier, in all her omniscience, could divine.
The only definite facts are these. After the funeral — during which, it’s said, Anna showed little emotion (though it was difficult, with the veil, to tell) — she turned hermit for a time, emerging briefly, over the next few months, on a handful of occasions, only. And then slowly, she resumed her usual routines, and seemed, to those who knew her best (not many, and not well), to be unchanged by the events of the previous months.
Nothing, in the short interval of their matrimony, had seemed to anyone amiss. There were no overheard rows, no unpleasantness. The young couple walked most evenings, and seemed, to all who stopped and spoke to them, chronically cheerful.
But one night, Robert returned home from work to find the front door — locked. No amount of pleading or persuasion could induce Anna to open it, nor could an explanation be gained. At last, exhausted, he returned to his family home, intending to stay a night or two, until whatever chance affront which offended his young wife was forgotten or forgiven.
It was there that, the following week, a severe-looking man in green called on Robert, presented him with a thick document, nodded, and turned on his heels.
Robert shuffled through the pages in disbelief.
They were divorce papers.
The mental steadiness of the young man declined rapidly after that. By the end of the first week, he’d become sullen and reticent. By the second, he’d given up washing, and left the house only to bang fruitlessly on his wife’s door, or walk about the neighborhood aimlessly, eyes on his feet. There were doctor’s visits, which became more and more frequent, and whispers of insanity — a family trouble, it was said, for several generations. When a failed attempt at his own life was followed, days later, by a successful one, people were, by that point, if saddened, hardly surprised.
As for the sudden about-face in affection, there was, of course, no shortage of theories. Perhaps married life, speculated many, didn’t suit a woman already accustomed to being her own master. Some sexual inability on Robert’s part was proposed also. Overwhelmingly, though, it was believed that Anna had no intention of remaining married to anyone. She wanted her inheritance — nothing more, nothing less.
Daughter Pain, someone chanced to call Anna during this period. The name stuck for months, during which time public sentiment so opposed the woman that it was a wonder it didn’t congeal, wield pitchforks, and drive her out of town. But small towns, and small-towners, aren’t as medieval as they once were. If people were stiff towards her, it was a stiffness that time, by and large, massaged away.
A final theory. This one came years later, making its first appearance on the lips of some insignificant person, at the local café.
“I was thinking,” said the insignificant person, “about Anna.” As she was the only Anna in town, there was no need to clarify.
“Yes?” said Mrs. Hillier.
“Well,” pausing for coffee. “Supposing you or I were in the same situation. I mean, in the position to inherit a bundle. But at the same time, not ready, or willing, to marry just yet.”
“Mmm hmm,” drinking.
“And let’s say you or I decided, logically enough, on a quickie hitch-and-annulment. You couldn’t very well let the man in on it. He’d only want his cut — and no small one, at that.”
“I suppose. Men are like that.”
“And wouldn’t a thoughtful person choose someone who had something to fall back on? When everything went poof?”
“I suppose so.”
“So instead of picking some hapless fellow, you pick someone like Robert, poised to inherit the family business and —”
“Helen,” (that was her name).
“How could she have known he’d go off his rocker? It might’ve happened anyway. After all, there was his uncle.”
“And his grandfather.”
“And a few cousins, too, that —”
“Helen. I see your point, dear. It’s an idea. We all have our theories. But I don’t think it very likely, not in this case. There may be some doubts, a few unanswered questions, true. But one thing, to me, is absolutely certain.” Mrs. Hillier emptied her cup, and set it down, for effect, with a surplus of force. “The woman is a monster.”
She could be seen, Anna, for the next 50 years, in her hat, her woollen coat, walking on wafers, first with a cane, then a walker, then crawling across pavement, to the churchyard, lying by her mother and father, not far from her one-time husband. And for all the contention, the talk, no fewer crowded themselves into the Baptist Church to pay their last regards than would have for the saintliest. Throughout the service, the burial, the afterwards tea, there wasn’t a shadow of disrespect, a word. If monster she was, the public had, apparently, long since forgiven her.
But people will forgive almost anything.
Other magazines are hitting the stands with their annual swimsuit issue, so we thought we’d offer our own take on it with these bathing costumes dating back to 1910.
The model for this cover illustration was likely Edna Hutt, Henry’s wife and his favorite model, whom he considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, their union was an unhappy one, with accusations of abuse on both sides, including “use of ‘strong liquors,’ intimacy with other women, and cruelty.”
Artist J.C. Leyendecker was well known for his illustrations of strapping, strong-jawed men, starting with the Arrow Collar Man and continuing throughout his long relationship with The Saturday Evening Post, where he illustrated more covers than any other artist, including Norman Rockwell. The model for this illustration appears to be Leyendecker’s partner, Charles Beach.
John LaGatta’s illustrations depicting beautiful, sultry women were considered to be some of the most desirable artworks of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. His style was a favorite of advertisers, including Campbell’s, Ivory Soap, Kellogg’s, Johnson and Johnson, and—not surprisingly—Laros Lingerie and Spaulding Swimwear.
This is one of six covers that Alex Ross painted for The Saturday Evening Post. All of his covers featured beautiful women, but this beach scene is the only one that doesn’t focus on a single person. Anyone who has spent time at the beach knows that a successfully completed game of cards is highly unlikely (unless the cards are made of lead).
De Mers illustrated this short story by Steve McNeil, which posed the question, “He’d quit his job to escape the pressure and confusion of city life. Should he go back now, to please a girl?” From the look on his face, you already know what the answer is.
Snyder illustrated this short story by M.G. Chute called “The Trouble with Love,” where we learn than “No man liked a sloppy, forgetful date who came without a bathing cap or didn’t have enough bobby pins along.”
“Jimmy braced himself for the shock. She was wearing a chartreuse-and-black swimming suit. She was sleek and gently tanned and showed more curves than Warren Spahn. She put on her bathing cap and looked at Jimmy enigmatically.…Clinically, he had to admit that Jill Foley, in a bathing suit, was as tasty as ice-cold watermelon.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose likeness is sitting on our young virtuoso’s volume of finger exercises, was playing minuets on the family harpsichord at age four— but could he have done so if he had been obliged to play with flippers on both feet and a swimming pool staring him in the face? We wonder. The model used by artist George Hughes is the same youngster who appeared on our January 9, 1960, cover. His mother was standing over him on that occasion, letting him know that he had stalled long enough and that he was not to go outside until he had written a Christmas thank-you note to Uncle Vic.
Most of us have seen swimmers of this ilk before. He was the kid around the corner who spent his vacation periods counting the days until he could return to school. He was the character in your platoon who used to volunteer for guard duty. Dick Sargent’s likeness is a realistic one. See that gap between the upper front teeth? Comes from gnawing on tree trunks. You can spot an eager beaver every time.
As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” This collection of Saturday Evening Post images is a paean to strong women making a difference.
This cover illustrated a short story called “The Noose.” The cowgirl at the center of the story, Fan Blondell, “was already aware of her power, too, and walked among the rough men of her acquaintance with the step of an Amazonian queen, unafraid, unabashed.”
In the short story, “The Swastika” by Robert W. Chambers, stenographer Miss Grey turns out to have deeper knowledge and more intrigue than her employer expected. J.C. Leyendecker, one of the Post’s most highly regarded artists, created this Egyptian-themed cover to illustrate the story.
Artist Joe De Mers illustrated “Her Big Moment” by Lee McGiffin. In it, four accomplished women return to their college reunion. De Mers captures the sleek glamour of the 1950s.
This illustration accompanies a short story called “Petticoat Empire” by Edith Embury. In the story, Nathalie Wyman is a film producer: “She was the boss, the genius. No one ever disagreed with her — not if he wanted to keep his job.”
Artist Coby Whitmore was well known for his illustrations of confident women. This woman looks like she has already picked out her 1952 model, and will be shortly driving it off the showroom floor. It comes as no surprise that Whitmore had a fascination with cars. In the early 1950s, he designed the Fitch-Whitmore Le Mans Special with racecar driver John Fitch.
Boldness comes in all shapes and sizes; sometimes it means doing what you believe even when those around you don’t quite understand.
No gallery of bold women would be complete without Norman Rockwell’s beloved Rosie the Riveter. The model was Mary Doyle Keefe, a 19-year-old phone operator in Arlington, Vermont. During World War II, Rosie the Riveter toured the country raising money for the war bond drive. “I was very pleased that they could make all this money for the war.” Keefe said. “I am proud of this painting. It’s a symbol of what the women did for the war, to do their part.”
After her husband died, Ellen Pyle turned to painting to support her family. Her sister-in-law sent three of Ellen’s illustrations to The Saturday Evening Post in 1922, two of which were immediately selected by The Post’s famous editor, George Horace Lorimer. Over the course of the next decade-and-a-half, Pyle completed 40 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, including this archer.
The American Red Cross Motor Corps were a group of women who aided the U.S. military in transporting troops and supplies during World War I. These women did everything from running canteens and military hospitals to caring for patients of the 1918 flu pandemic.
Artist Neysa McMein was involved in the war efforts during World War I, travelling through Europe with Dorothy Parker to entertain the troops. She painted a number of wartime covers, including this pilot.