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The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>Questioning Michael Waller by John Sherman (Winter 2001)


Questioning Michael Waller


John Sherman


A light bulb hung at the end of an extension cord. It swayed as breezes from the beach blew into the small garage where Billy sat with Ellen, drinking her older brother's beer. The bulb was the only light burning in the neighborhood. No moon was out, and neither Billy nor Ellen could see the end of the driveway. Sea salt hung in the humid air of the garage and filmed Ellen's bare legs. She wore an old T-shirt over a bikini. The T-shirt had billfish on it. 
     Billy lit a cigarette and leaned back in a plastic lounge chair. He propped an arm behind his head and dangled his cigarette off to his side, having seen older boys sit this way before. He felt her long, skinny fingers pull his cigarette out of his hand. 
     "You smoke a lot," he said. 
     "Shush, keep your voice down," she whispered. "Anyway, so do you." 
     "Yes, but girls shouldn't smoke as much," he whispered back, "it makes you look dirty."
     "Shut up."
     "I'm serious," he said.
     "Fine. It's not like I care what I look like to you anyhow." She threw the cigarette on the concrete floor, and the two of them watched it slowly burn itself away, as the silver smoke sifted out and into the sky. "Give me another beer," she said. 
     "They're behind you." She lifted the cooler's lid behind her chair, and her T-shirt rose up her leg. "Get me one too, will you." Again, she turned, and again her shirt rose. 
     "What are you looking at?" she asked.
     "No. Noth.  Nothing. Just give me a beer."
     "Here." She dropped a can into his hand and pulled her knees up to her chest underneath her T-shirt. "You know I'm not." 
     "Not what?" 
     "Dirty. Just 'cause I smoke and all. I'm not dirty." 
     "That's fine. I don't think you're dirty at all," he said. He looked down at his can of beer. She looked over at the sea kayak that was propped against the yellow concrete wall. The rest of the garage was empty except for a small cot that was folded up in the corner. The stuffing from the worn mattress hung out at the seams. It looked old and beaten. "What's that thing for?" Billy pointed over to the cot with his cigarette between his fingers. 
     "What do you mean?" Ellen asked. She sat up in her seat and pulled her legs closer to her body. He could just barely see the tips of her toes poking from underneath the stretched T-shirt. 
     "I just mean, it's kind of a piece of crap. Everything else here is so perfect looking. It doesn't fit is all." 
     "Oh," Ellen said. She stared at the cot for a few seconds without talking. "It's for my brothers fishing buddies. There's more in the closets over there. They all sleep down here before they go out to the Big Rock for dolphin." 
     Billy glanced over at Ellen. She was still balled under her T-shirt and would not look at him. She took long sips from her beer and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Billy watched and wondered if he should go sit next to her on the other lounge chair. He wondered if she liked having him here. 
     A cool gust of wind rushed into the garage, knocking over empty beer cans. They clanked against the floor and rolled back against the far wall underneath the cot. The wind whistled through the old wood of the house and, for a minute, it sounded as if it might fall over. "Shit," Ellen said. 
     "What?" Billy whispered and looked around the garage. He sat up and planted both hands on the arms of the lounge chair. 
     "You think my mom heard that?" "Not a chance. The wind's way too loud." He relaxed and eased back into his reclining chair. "Can I get another?" He tossed his empty can over to Ellen. 
     "Get it yourself. I can't reach." 
     "Come on. You're right there," he said. 
     "No. You get it. I don't feel like reaching all that way." 
     "Fine," he said and walked over to the large red cooler behind her. The ice was melting in it, and bits of sand floated on the surface of the slushy water. "You ready for another?" he asked. She did not answer. Her head hung down and he could not see her face. "You want another beer?" he repeated. Still she said nothing. He walked over to her lounge chair and sat on the edge, facing her. 
     "Why'd you come over here tonight?" she asked at last. 
     "I don't know. To see you. None of us have seen you for a while." 
     "Yeah, my mom hasn't really wanted me going out," she said. 
     "That's what I heard." He tried to stop. "I mean that's what we all figured, after not seeing you for a couple of days. After not hearing from you in so long." 
     "Uh huh." Her hair hung down over her face. She rested her chin in her hands. He looked at the top of her head, where her long brown hair hung and parted to each side. He could smell her shampoo. "Did Michael Waller tell you to come over here?" She brushed her hair back from her face. Her cheeks were flushed, and flecks of light sparkled off the brimming water in her eyes. She was no longer whispering. 
     "No. Hell no. Why you say that? What's Michael Waller got to do with anything? I was just wondering what you'd been up to is all," he said quickly and quietly. He was starting to wish he had not come. He drank from his beer and took out another cigarette from the nearly empty pack. Ellen did not try to take one. 
     "Don't you listen to Michael Waller. He doesn't know a damn thing." 
     "I don't know what you're talking about. Honest," he said. 
     "Well, just so you know. He's a fool and a liar." 
     "Man, you've really lost me now." He thought his cheeks were warming and he tried to smile. "I thought we had to be quiet." 
     They both drank from their beers and looked down at the floor. Sand from the driveway had blown over the concrete. Neither of them said a word. Thumping noises came from upstairs, and a board creaked in the floor above them. "What was that?" Billy asked. 
     "Oh perfect, somebody's awake," she said. She dropped her face into the palms of her hands. 
     "Great," he said, tossing his cigarette butt to the floor of the garage. 
     "Just get the light alright. Turn off the light." Her face reappeared. The ceiling creaked, and footsteps thumped across the floor. Neither of them spoke. He listened as her short, choppy breaths quivered with every other step of the person upstairs. She sounded scared, and he was excited. 
     "Is that your mom do you think?" he asked. 
     "Probably," she said. "It's either her or my Aunt Nancy." He could feel her legs sliding down to the ground next to his. "They'll kill me if they know a boy's here." Her leg pressed against his, and he could feel the small prickles of her calves. She had not shaved that day. 
     Upstairs a door opened and someone stepped onto the wooden porch. The two listened, and the person walked down the steps that lead to the driveway in front of the garage. They could hear the click of heels on the wooden steps. 
     "Get up. We've got to run out back before Nancy comes in here," Ellen said. 
     "What about this beer? There's cans all over the place." 
     "She'll think my brother did it with some of his redneck fishing friends." She stood up next to him. "Come on. It always works." They ran out the back door that opened onto sand dunes. Sea oats scraped their legs, and weeds growing in the sand cut into their ankles and heels. Reaching the top of a dune, they stopped and watched as a silhouette floated through the house, turning on lights in the den above the garage. Another dark figure stood in the open door of the garage. Light from the den spilled out of the house and onto the dunes. 
     "Is that Nancy?" Billy asked and pointed to the person in the door. 
     "It's gotta be. Only Nancy's snobby enough to wear heels at the beach." 
     "Do you think she saw us?" 
     "I don't know," she said. "Let's just go down to the water." He followed her along the planked path to the ocean and watched as she stepped down the wooden steps to the beach. He jogged down them after her and stood next to her in front of a ridge of sand dunes. Light from a dying path lamp flickered over them and illuminated her tan face. He stared at her and wondered if she had done this before.
     They sat down together in the sand and gazed out at the black water that lapped up on the beach and barely grazed their toes. They sat close to one another, and he was almost touching her leg. He glided his hand down over the cool sand and rested it in the shadow of her thigh. 
     "It feels good out here," he said. 
     "Yeah," she said. They sat for a minute without saying anything. Breakers crashed against the packed, wet sand, and the white foamy water washed up the beach. Yellow lights flittered off and on along the horizon, marking the few boats large enough to be out at that time of night. Still neither spoke, and Billy did not know what to say. "I hate that place," Ellen said finally. "I wish I didn't know any of them. They never leave me alone." 
     "We're alone," he said, and his hand moved closer. 
     "Probably not for long. Nancy'll probably come stomping out here in a minute in her heels, yelling at me for being improper." Billy could see tears slip down her cheek. They were beautiful, and she was beautiful. Her face was puffed and red, and he wanted to kiss her. 
     "You're not improper. I don't think you're improper." He moved closer to her, and he placed his hand on her thigh. "What have you ever done that was improper?" She looked at him. 
     "Oh don't act like that." She looked at him for a long minute. He was smiling at her, but his lips trembled and he could feel the shakiness of his own hand on her leg. His head was not far from hers, and he could tell she heard his quivering breaths and felt the uneasiness of his hand as it rested on the top of her thigh. 
     "I'm not acting like anything. I don't think you're improper. I think you're great. I think you're perfect," he said. She closed her eyes and trembled slightly. 
     "Don't," she said. "I know what you're..." She stopped. "Just don't." Billy pulled his hand back and thought his throat would crack it hurt so badly. He jerked away and drew his legs up under his crossed arms and looked straight out at the ocean. 
     "Ellen," a voice called from behind a sand dune. It was muffled in the breezes, but it was high pitched and strained. "Ellen," it repeated. A woman appeared on the ridge of dunes behind them. 
     "It's Nancy," she said, "I'd better just go in." She stood up. He studied the backs of her thighs. They were skinny and long and covered in sand. 
     "Wait. Can't we can walk down to my place? We can go swimming in the pool," he said. 
     "I can't. I'm gonna get yelled at as it is." 
     "But…" She had already turned away, and he watched as she walked up the beach toward Nancy. He watched as her aunt took her arm and leaned in to say something to her. He could not hear what. 
     On the beach, he sat and took out a cigarette, but the wind blew hard and he couldn't light it. Standing, he turned and looked back at the sand dune. Lights from Ellen's house glowed above the ridge of the dunes, and he watched as they were turned off one by one, leaving him in the engulfing darkness of the empty beach. The wind blew over him and another wave crashed on the hardened sand, cracking in his ears and sending goose bumps up his tanned arms and neck. All the lights were out. 
     He walked the shore, next to where the large breakers rushed up on the beach. The wind ripped through his hair and T-shirt, and ghost crabs clicked away from him in the surf. Water rushed over his feet and up his legs, splashing high enough to drench the bottom tips of his shorts. He waded through the shallow, foamy water, stopping every few steps to look at the long, deserted stretches of beach ahead and behind him. He studied the lights of the pier ahead of him and walked toward them and thought to himself, "Man, Michael Waller's full of shit."


The End

 © 2000,2001 John Sherman



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