The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries> Sliver
The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries> Sliver
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.
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
"I'm cleaning the
yard today," I said as I searched the sink for clean glass.
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
"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 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.
"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
"Get a pizza or something," I said.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"Damnit, I need my tools," I snarled.
asked, examining the bent sign.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
"You found me," she said. "Parent." It was a verb. A command.
"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.
"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.
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
"I know you're
sitting there going 'Why's all this shit always happen to me?' right?"
She reached into
her backpack. "You got a lighter?"
"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.
I hesitated again.
It was rolled well, as tight and plump as a fast food burrito.
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
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.
I prefer it unbridgeable. That way, she might not turn out like me.
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