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The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>    Sliver

 

Sliver

by

Nicki Reno


 

My house is sinking. The yard rises around it an inch or so a year, the back worse than the front, so that when the cans and bottles spill from the Cash Saver sacks in the kitchen, they roll across the linoleum and down the hallway to heap against the door to Summer's bedroom. The journey takes three days, average; for some reason, it's less when it rains. We joke - when we can be bothered to joke, when we overcome the grudges that cancer our civility - about a poltergeist, some homeless soul craving deposit money.

It's hard to be funny in a sinking house.

There are other problems: an unstable septic tank, leaking bile like a ruptured colon; the creek behind the toolless tool shed that annexes crumbly dirt chunks after each storm; and, most immediate, most obviously, the junk.

My yard is a rusty-nailed ecosystem of corrugated metal and tire stacks, of lawn mowers long abandoned. I have enough railroad ties to construct a splintery Babel; the old swing set near the creek looks like the discarded skeleton of some immense insect. Words don't do justice to the paint cans, wheelbarrows and cinder blocks; to the horse's trough, to the Christmas tree, to the hubcaps scattered like the Roswell crash site. It's the type of yard that seems to cultivate junk as a crop. The neighbors bitch about it over drinks with their landscapers in polo shirts, but they dump on it at night (crunched Jack 'o Lanterns, plastic kiddy pools); the city sends an occasional notice. Summer says she catches hell for it at school.

The weekend before I started at the plant, I decided to clean it up. Picture me (big, dumb me, but I'll get around to that later) shirtless, sweat-slicked, piling junk (carpet samples, yellow bricks of National Geographics) by the ditch, trying to remember if trash day is Thursday or Friday; imagine me crushing the rug of spiders beneath a stack of highway cones; visualize me muddy, sun-burnt, pink. Picture me productive.

At one point that afternoon I thought I heard the phone ringing (something that doesn't happen much when Summer is out with her friends), so I went in, planning a break. A beer. I was right, and answered. It was a Mr. Landsberg at Wal-Mart.  He told me he just caught Summer shoplifting.
Down the hall, her door was shut, like always. Old Milwaukee cans from Thursday night surrounded it, pooling.  My house was sinking, like a bullet in flesh.

The clean up morning had been typical of that summer; Summer slept late, sloughing into the kitchen after the TV soaps had already worked up a good soft-core lather. Hovering over her bowl of Always Save Flakes, she cleared the cotton from her throat and announced that when she was old enough to work, it'd be Kellogg's every morning and Red Lobster every night. As she ate, she traced a figure in some sugar spilled on the table.

"I'm cleaning the yard today," I said as I searched the sink for clean glass.
She didn't answer and, leaving her bowl on the table, seethed to the shower. Eventually, her friend Ashley showed up in her parents' car. It was one of those new ones with edges rounded out like a Tylenol capsule.

Ashley greeted me with a bored "hey." No "hello," or "Mr. Williams," but I hadn't expected one. When I was that age, I was the same way. I considered adults to be a dull hindrance, the hopeless proponents of seat-belted sobriety and autoerotic abstinence. I respected my superiors, not my elders. I had no superiors anyway.

I knew it wasn't much of a morning. Still, the early parts of the day always feel fresh to me; everything smells a little better, the birds chirp, the sun toasts the kitchen gold. My new job, the first since the accident, started Monday; my half-year malaise had melted. Sitting there that morning, long before Summer's slumberous brunch, surveying the damage that our sloped kitchen had endured (dented fridge, punctured pantry), I made a promise.  Flooded with late-morning glory, ashamed of my own temper, I made a vow: no more fights with Summer.

The security guy - under no circumstances could this wafer of a man be considered a "guard" - explained it to me as we walked to the back of the store.

"Her friends made it out to the car," he said. "She won't bend, so I kind of hoped you could ID the driver."

I told him I didn't know. His face twisted up with disapproval.

"I figured we'd just kind of scare her this time," he said. "Scare her straight, you know?"

"Sure," I said. He talked too much.

"Just to say to her, 'Hey! Wake up call!'"

I agreed without speaking. We pushed through the double doors to the Employees Only section of Wal-Mart. I could see into the break room: old folks watching TV, rubbing their feet, smoking - the walls were nicotined like dog's teeth.

"And right through here," he said, stretching the 'and' as if there were a treat waiting for me. He combed his wiry moustache nervously.

The security office was a sparse, concrete cube, cramped with video-monitors and Styrofoam cups, the cloister of some caffeinated, voyeuristic monk. Summer sat in a folding chair, arms folded across her chest. She watched us with a theatrical boredom.

"Now, I've spoken to your daddy," he said. "And he agrees that we don't want to push this any further than we got to."

She looked down at her shoes. They were new, barely broken in. I'd never seen them before.

"So," he continued, easing himself behind his card-table desk, "I'm gonna need you to tell me who the driver was ..." he paused. "...to, uhh, facilitate this situation." Gesturing with his finger, he applied the world 'situation' to merchandise on the table: some CDs, black makeup, purple underwear with complicated straps.  When she didn't answer he looked to me and continued. "Of course, it would be possible to forget this whole thing -"

"Forgotten," I said, taking Summer by the arm. I lifted her from the chair and pushed the door open. The guard leapt up, springing like a Jack-In-The-Box, jostling the table and spilling his coffee. I hadn't noticed it earlier but, as his sad desk quaked, I read his plastic nameplate: "Guy Turner."  Guy was silent as we walked out.

Nobody stopped us and neither of us said a word. On the way out, I stuffed a TV Guide and some Snickers bars under my shirt. When we got to the Cutlass, I whacked Summer on the head, hard.

My friend Jim says I should have been a champion bowler because I was designed by God to knock shit over. I'm big and clumsy, with beaver's tails for hands; my arms are signed to a different contractor than my head and legs; my fingers seem mittened together. You can tell when you see me that I played ball in high school - the strut is still there, as are the obtuse remnants of a once-angular body - but now, I knock shit over. I'm destructive even when I'm not angry. When pissed, though, I rage savagely enough to loosen up federal disaster funds, reducing cabinets to driftwood and relationships to dust.

My anger has always been stupid. As a child I kicked a Tonka truck until my sock turned pink and my toes rattled like dice in a bag; at my wedding, I tilted the V.F.W. hall's pinball machine with the head of my best man; six months ago, I drove into the river because a bee tried to pollinate my head. Ever since they fished me out (my head caught, somehow, in the steering wheel like a pilgrim in stocks) clumsiness has tempered my temper. Now, I miss, and break the wrong shit.
I've also been unemployed since the crash. I was a school bus driver.

The space between us was three feet of Buick bench seat. She sat there, silent. She leaned forward, folding her thin shoulders toward each other like fragile origamical corners. Her voice was buried under the weight of my lecture.

"Let's stop and eat," I said, having shot my parental wad with an aimless, circuitous, shoplifting-will-get-your-hands-cut-off-in-Madagascar lesson.  She was silent.
The space between us was immense; an unbridgeable Kwai. Nothing could fit it, nothing could plug it. Sometimes I think neither of us wants to.

"Get a pizza or something," I said.

Sometimes, the space between us was as wide as the school bus I crashed; sometimes as tiny as the children who (thank God) weren't on it at the time.
She said nothing.

There were things we never talked about, on those occasions when we talked. The sandwich bag of pot I found in her room months ago; the unaffordable things she owned; the letters from school. Boys. Sex. Her mother. We knew these things existed, but they were verboten, quarantined to the unauthorized space between us.
She spoke.

"You did this shit, too, you know."

I knew. Sometimes, the space between us is a sliver. A fingernail.  I thought of outstanding bills, of the two weeks before my first check, of what could float and what could drown me.

"Red Lobster?" I suggested.

She laughed, kind of. At the very least, it was a gurgle untainted by sarcasm.

Summer was conceived when I was 15; four years old when I was 20. The space between us is a constant. It's the size of my childhood.

After dinner, the engine exploded.  We were 20 miles from home, coming up on the Highway 16 Bridge, when it combusted in a black cloud. Radiator water hissed as it rained against the hood and the windshield curdled under acidic ejaculate. Engine innards spilled to the highway, clunking as I swerved across both lanes.

I lost control in the cloud, swerving on to the shoulder. Rocks ricocheted and the back end swirled the gravel like a kid's snow angel; the smoke gloved the car, black, thick enough to insulate an attic.

With a shudder, it lost all power save its present volition. I pumped the gas, reflexively, desperately, uselessly. As I down shifted, the gears squealed like a nail shoved in a pencil sharpener. My brakes had never been reliable, and reliably, they joined the mutiny by breaking until broken.

We stitched along, blind, tossing rocks and screaming. The smoke pushed through the vents like a carcinogenic genie escaping its bottle; Summer's head hung outside like a dog's.

A sign stopped us. The car bent it backward but lacked the drive to roll over it and uproot it like we did back in the day. With a sad, sputtering finale, the Cutlass entered retirement, acquiescing to immobility. It even misted up a bit, spigoting wiper fluid.

"ShitDamnPieceOfShit!" I shouted, thrashing the steering wheel. Somewhere, in the deep caverns of my head, I heard that bee.

I got out and with another "ShitHouseWhoreBathsheba," immediately burnt myself on the hood. Summer followed, hands in her pockets, watching the sun set.

I wrapped some old Thrifty Nickels that were lying in the backseat around my hands and popped the hood, releasing a geyser of antifreeze that singed my arms. I screamed and kicked and spewed scatology at the cast of both Testaments.

"Damnit, I need my tools," I snarled.

"Why?" Summer asked, examining the bent sign.
"To beat the damn thing with!" The rage had me, as fiercely as it ever had. I'd fought it all day, succumbing only once, briefly, but this time there was nothing I could do. My foot cramped, attempting to contain it.

I tore open the trunk - nothing but empty bottles and hamburger wrappers. Kicking the bumper only shook a monstrous belch from the engine, but I kicked again anyway until I slipped in the gravel. I laid there, elbows skinned, and threw rocks at the car, listening to the echo of that bee.

It was almost dark when I finally stood up. The lobster clawed at my stomach (how could I afford that?) and Summer sat in the grass. The occasional passing car ignored us.

"Well," Summer said, as I dusted the gray from my jeans, "At least you missed the river this time."  I pulled a muscle in my calf. Rocks sailed through the space between us.

You never notice the size of street signs until you're stranded by one. While driving, they float by, made unsubstantial by mobility. Up close, they're huge, big enough for a neighborhood's worth of kids to sled on at once.

Which is why the rage was coming back. Despite the 'Slippery When Wet' sign's immensity and my careful, measured aim, each of my rocks missed the damn thing.

The blow up rivaled the car's: Summer shouting, gravel flying, me so angry, so pissed that I was shocked to see that the air around my head wasn't burnt black by my vulgarisms. Names were called, Gods were damned, throats were seared lasagna red - really, this had to be one of our best. An award winner. It was epic, rhythmic, oceanic and orchestral, with shore-threatening crests and deep silences. It ended as they always do, with Summer stalking away, announcing that she didn't have to take this shit "no way no how" - her silhouette disappearing beneath the bridge.  Feelings were hurt, mistakes made. You know the story; you don't need the details. Promises were broken.

For another hour or so, I sat on the cooled-down hood, waving my lobster bib at disinterested traffic. The Cutlass had calmed, having purged itself. I had a pretty good idea what had happened. I may bust heads pretty well, but my genuine specialty is cracking gaskets and the trail of burnt engine flakes down the highway was confirmation enough.

So there I was. Stranded, on the hood of my dead car, with no way to get to the job that was supposed to set everything straight; with my felony-destined daughter hibernating beneath a bridge like some extortionist fairy-tale troll; with some high-pitched hissing coming from beneath the worthless car ...

I felt the ground rise, barely. The hissing was barely perceptible, but I realized that I'd first heard it ten or so minutes ago without identifying it, at the start of my litany.

The tire. I must have kicked the tire. The ground rose again, subtly.
I was sinking.

As I picked my way under the bridge, I remembered the last time I was this close to the river: my head caught, water rising, the helicopter that the TV news rents to cover high school football games circling above. The river's smell - a mix of wet dog and newly removed bandages - flooded me, soaking the bee, which always pissed him off.

The bridge was the same as it had been when we jumped off it in high school and some of the names painted beneath it matched names in my sophomore yearbook. During the dry season, there was plenty of concrete beneath it to lie around on. To drink on. The slopes were littered with broken glass and rotted wood, the cracks between the slabs lined with green. Down by the water a beaver sat, bored, like a mud-slicked sack of potatoes.

Summer sat silently against the graffiti. I sat beside her, saying nothing. I watched the beaver a bit and found myself surprised at how big it was. You'd be hard pressed to get a beaver into a shopping cart.

Glass crunched as I shifted. The river was a joke, a downsized aorta clogged by mud and busses; still, it could be lulling, hypnotic, like a subliminal message. It seemed flagged at half mast, weak after the summer's desiccation. The whisper where it met the concrete bank seemed mournful, almost: the water lamenting the start of land. I don't know how long passed before Summer spoke.

"You found me," she said. "Parent." It was a verb. A command.

"What?"

"Parent. Tell me to listen and not to shoplift and shit."

"You wouldn't listen," I said. At the river's lip, cat-tails bent with the current.

She didn't respond.

"You'd say I used to do the same shit," I said.

"Used to?"

"Today was different," I said, remembering the candy bars. "I was pissed."

"When aren't you?"

I was suddenly nostalgic for a time 12 hours ago, at my table. Our arguments are souvenired around the kitchen, a fractured timeline of domestic unrest: the drywall gaped, the plates were lined where they'd been glued.

"I wasn't pissed at dinner," I said.

"You were when we paid. We should've dashed."

I sat up. "But you don't do that sort of..."

"See?" she said. "I knew I could get you to parent."

We fell silent, absorbed in the river's mumbling wash. Weeds and wood gathered around the pylons, several feet below the pale watermark. The river wasn't always weak: every couple of years it unfurled, wiping out miles of farmland and highway.

"How are you getting to work?" she asked.

I didn't know.

"Can Jim take you?"

I didn't know.

"I know you're sitting there going 'Why's all this shit always happen to me?' right?"

"Why does it?" I asked.

"All this shit you can't deal with," she continued, musing. "You know what? All this shit you don't take care of just rolls right past you," she illustrated by tossing a nearby can toward the river, "and just keeps rolling along until it stops at my fucking door."

She reached into her backpack.  "You got a lighter?"

"No," I said.

"I do." She handed me a Bic. "Try not to burn me."

She had a joint in her mouth. I looked again for the beaver, but it was gone.
"Come on," she demanded, "Get it going."

I hesitated again. It was rolled well, as tight and plump as a fast food burrito.

"Would you light the damn thing already?" she said. "I'm not going to."

I didn't ask why she wouldn't. Instead, I leaned in and did it, slightly burning my thumb. It was one of those child-proof lighters, designed for three-handed evolutionary mistakes, so it took a couple of tries.

She inhaled, holding it in as if I'd taught her how.

"It relaxes me, you know?" she said. I nodded dumbly. I was never sure of what to say to her when I wasn't yelling.

"Remember that stash you took out of my room?" she asked. "What was that? Eight, nine months ago?"  I nodded, breath held, letting it swirl through my chest.  "That," she announced, "Was some great shit."

What could I say? I had to agree with her. She shook her head when I passed it back to her. She lit another so I laid back, breathing deeply, waiting to turn liquid.

My friend Jim towed the Cutlass to the house the next day. He asked me where I wanted it; I told him I didn't care, just dump it on the damn lawn somewhere. Summer and I had made it home around dawn, after we caught a ride with an old minister. His belt had a Pilgrim's belt buckle and his crotch hovered just above his knees. Summer called him John Smith.

Jim drove me up to the plant the first couple of days and friends of Summer picked me up afterward. The first morning, they sent me into the bathroom with a paper cup; when the results came back Friday morning, I had to wait around by the gate, talking with the security guard until school let out and I could get a ride.

Summer and I fight quite a bit, still; the space between us is protected by no hasty treaties. Still, I can never tell how large it is: it's like the river, or a sign, or a beaver; it's as unstable as the floor of our house. Sometimes, it can fit in a backpack; sometimes, it spills over, destroying homes. When it shrinks, I always screw it up.

I prefer it unbridgeable. That way, she might not turn out like me.

 

The End


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