Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>Questioning
Michael Waller by John Sherman (Winter 2001)
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."
"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
"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
"What are you looking at?" she asked.
"No. Noth. Nothing. Just give me a
"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."
"Dirty. Just 'cause I smoke and all. I'm
"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
"I just mean, it's kind of a piece of
crap. Everything else here is so perfect looking. It doesn't fit is
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"We're alone," he said, and his hand
"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
"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
"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
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."
2000,2001 John Sherman