The Smoking Poet’s Third Annual Short Story Contest Winners
|Art by Chihuly
My father wanted a son. It was
a disappointment he didn’t know how to hide. He even bought me a set of toy soldiers one Christmas and started calling
me Private Kiddo. I followed Sergeant Dad to war every Saturday morning. Our battlefield was the den, our ramparts the couch
and the coffee table turned on its side. We were a murderous pair. I had his green eyes and his fiery red hair, and he could
read my mind. “Like Superglue,” he called the bond between us. I was that construction worker in the TV commercial,
dangling from a steel-beam father—held by just a hardhat and some Superglue. The bond was chemical and sticky.
But it broke.
My father was a writer. When
I was a child, that didn’t mean anything to me. Some little girls’ fathers were accountants, some were doctors,
and some were writers. What the hell did I care how he made money? When I was ten, all I needed was a dad who could make tanks
explode with his mouth. Although, judging by the cover art on his novels, he also made war with words.
Not long after my tenth birthday,
my father left on a series of book tours, putting paid to our Saturday battles. Our troops returned home to a shoebox labeled
“RESERVES” in the front hall closet, and the den grew quiet. Peacetime, however, left the den vulnerable to the
dark presence of my mother. She planted herself on the couch, pulled down the shades and remained there for years—a
sullen, smouldering fire in the middle of our flat.
“Get out . . . you may
as well leave me too . . . bugger off . . .” was all I ever heard from her, except when my father came home from promoting
his latest war story. They’d occupy the den with smoke and laughter while I stared at the shoebox of toy soldiers in
the kitchen. For a few days she’d bubble with life. She’d talk about her acting career and going back to the gym.
Then he’d leave, taking her good intentions with him. She’d pull the shades back down and start grumbling at me
again. “Turn that off . . . my life is not about you . . . get out.” I began to resent my father—for working,
for writing, for leaving me with a woman who always wanted me to leave.
on my thirteenth birthday I saw one of my father’s novels in the window at Waterstone’s. I had thirteen birthday
quid in my pocket, earmarked for a necklace I’d seen at Covent Garden. I watched people—mostly
men—pick up the book, eye the jacket blurb critically and put it back down. I could have bought it, but the necklace—a
long string of girlie, glittery green beads—matched my eyes to a T. I marched right over to Covent
Garden and bought it because I needed to know how it felt to be girlie and glittery. Like my mother in one of
“Why would you want to
look like a prostitute?” my mother asked that evening as she left the kitchen with a pack of cigarettes but without
an answer to her question. Did I want to look like a prostitute? I was thirteen. I wonder if she knew how her question would
dog me for decades, attacking me in the Marks & Spencer jewelry department, at parties when someone would compliment me
on a “flashy” pair of earrings, or on the Tube for no apparent reason at all?
At fifteen, to cure the cancer
I called mother, I left. Another thirteen years passed—which I would jokingly compare to the missing years of Christ
whenever anyone asked. People chuckled and never dug deeper: their lives, after all, were not about me. My story—the
drama I’d walked over corpses to conceal—was about to be on everyone’s lips, though.
In my late twenties, I shared
a house in Clapham with five very loud girls. My roommate Tracy—who was well impressed to discover my father on the
bestseller list—had bought his latest book.
“Joey, have you read this?”
she asked. She was hovering nervously over my bed and holding a copy of Red
Toy Soldier as if reading it would be a very good—or a very bad—idea.
“I never read my father’s
books. They’re all about war.”
“This one’s . .
. uh . . . different,” she said, “but fair enough. It’d just upset you.” She started to leave but
stopped at the door. “But just so you know. If it’s true, I’m sorry.”
“If what’s true?”
She laid the book on my dresser
Red Toy Soldier.
The cover art was a tweenage carrot-top girl arranging a battalion of grey soldiers for battle, all against a solitary red
soldier. Although the girl’s face was angled downward away from the camera, I recognized myself in the old family photograph,
color-enhanced to telegraph the symbolic relationship between the red-headed tomboy and the red toy soldier, abandoned in
When I closed the book six hours
later, I vowed to get even. He would pay for churning my life out as a tortured coming-of-age page-turner. Some marketing
hack had crammed my agitated adolescence into a jacket blurb:
“The story of Joey, an American girl
at war with her sexual identity, maternal rejection, and self-inflicted solitude in upper-middle-class London. Matthew Bloodthorn’s dissection of the expatriated androgyne, Red Toy Soldier, is his most honest work yet, told in the vulnerable voice of a teenager. A turning point for Bloodthorn
away from the wars of nations to the war with self.”
Of course it was all true. It
was truer than truth: it was the kind of compelling truth that gnaws the last bit of flesh from the bone. But it was my truth
and my sexual evolution to dissect. He had no right to assume my voice to expose the darkest part of me to a Richard and Judy
Book Club discussion.
“I’m suing you,”
were my last words to him.
After that, I let the lawyers
do my fighting. With my new matching set of parental adversaries, I managed to talk myself out of going home for Christmas
or calling on birthdays. At first I’d toy with forgiveness, even start dragging out the instructions for bending swords
into ploughshares; but as the holidays approached, so would my indignation. How dare he, and all that.
When the legal proceedings were
over, I received a communiqué through his lawyer: “You win.” Then came the silence—years of it. He was showing
me exactly what, in victory, I’d lost.
A decade went by without a word,
so you can imagine my surprise when I came home to a whispered voicemail message from him. “Joey . . . meet me . . .
please.” It was the sort of frightened “please” that cried TRUCE. He sounded different. It was more than
a change of heart, though; it was like a change of voice—or narrator.
Maybe it was time for a truce.
Hadn’t Time’s cliché licked my wounds enough? I’d moved on, and so had my mother. I’d stumbled across
her obituary in the paper:
“Cherie Bloodthorn, London-born actress
and wife of critically acclaimed American novelist Matthew Bloodthorn, dies at age 54. In lieu of flowers, donations
may be made to the British Association for Suicide Prevention.”
So I wasn’t anyone’s little soldier anymore. I was a woman; and, so that no one would miss this fact, I draped
myself in silk, saris and sentimentality. I was also a writer. My own books, romance novels that steered clear of flesh-gnawing
truth, were in all the shops. They were the prose equivalent of silly love songs, and I was filling the world with them—translated
into twenty languages. My hair style changed with the fashion—whatever was considered womanly—but it would never
be red again. And, thanks to contact lenses, my eyes were brown.
I called him back a week later.
I was curious.
“Who? Joey? Joey who?”
His voice was the pained whisper of an old, confused man.
“Is this a joke?”
I laughed. “It’s a bad joke.”
“Oh . . . Joey. Joey?”
“You called me,”
“You wanted to meet.”
“Call Joey,” he
said as if he were reading something by the telephone but couldn’t figure out what it had to do with me.
“Are you still there?”
“Oh . . . where would
you like to meet . . . Joey?” he asked finally.
“Some place inexpensive,”
I said. “I might storm out in the middle, and you’ll still have to pay for it.”
“OK,” he whispered
as if confused by my sarcasm. “How about ... the Indian on the corner of my ... my building? I don’t
go too far from the building. They know me there. I live at Fulham Broadway 114,” he said like a child reciting a memorised
“I know where you live,”
I said. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
He hung up without saying good-bye.
Between stations, the train
ground to a halt. Some sort of signal failure. The longer we sat there stranded in the tunnel, the more I had the urge to
do a runner. What would I say to him after ten years of estrangement? You’ve changed? You don’t look a day older
than the last time I saw you? Forgive me for suing you? “Would you like to try my vindaloo?”
I heard the woman sitting opposite me say. An old man was trying to give the woman’s daughter a sweet. “She doesn’t
smile very much,” the mother continued. “Thank you, but she doesn’t take sweets from strangers.” She
doesn’t like this, she doesn’t like that. For ten minutes the mother told the entire carriage everything they
never wanted to know about her timid child while the child dug deeper into her mother’s side.
“If you’d let her
speak for herself,” I said finally, “she might surprise you.” My voice barked through the carriage much
more loudly than I’d expected. The woman clutched the child and frowned, along with the forty other people in the car.
“Sorry,” I said and got up to stand by the door. My pashmina was hanging awkwardly off one shoulder. Who the hell
knows how to wear one of these things anyway? I fussed with it until I was sure it wouldn’t drag the ground. In the
end I looked like a walking turban.
The signalling problem was worked
out and the train finally arrived at Fulham Broadway. On the way up the escalators, I kept telling myself that reconciliation
would be good for my blood pressure and neck pain, that a new era in father/daughter relations would have all sorts of energetic
knock-on effects, that he hadn’t meant to steal my voice, that he might be able to get me a better agent—that
maybe, just possibly, he would surprise me.
When I saw him through the restaurant
window, I nearly kept walking. He’d always had a wooden, chain-smoker’s pallor, but I wasn’t prepared for
how much harder it could get with age. He surprised me all right: his face was a walnut with eyes.
“Hello,” I said.
The dining room was straight out of a Salman Rushdie novel.
“The usual,” he
said without looking up from the white tablecloth.
“What’s your usual?”
“I don’t know. You’re
supposed to—” He lifted his head and looked at me. There wasn’t the slightest spark of recognition in his
face. “Nothing too spicy. I’m on medication.”
“Well, let’s see.”
I reached down and opened the menu.
He looked out the window. “I’m
waiting for my someone.”
“There’s a problem
on the Tube,” I said, playing along. “They’ll come.”
“Why would you say that?”
He unfolded and folded his napkin.
For a moment I thought he’d forgotten we were talking, but then he said, “I did something ... that
hurt him.” He finally unfolded his napkin again and laid it across his lap.
“And what was that?”
I asked, and then it hit me: “Him?”
His hand trembled as he reached
into the battered shoebox marked “RESERVES” at his side. He pulled out a grey soldier and placed it on the white
tablecloth. The plastic gun pointed right at me.
“I don’t understand.”
But I did.
“I left him open to enemy
fire,” he said, lifting a small picture frame to his face so that he became a living portrait. “I was a writer.”
He shrugged and smiled.
“Why are you telling me
this?” I flipped through the menu, from lamb tikkas to chicken curries. We were attracting attention.
“You remind me of him,”
he said, handing me the picture frame. “Will you sit down with me for a few minutes? I’m sure ... your
boss back there won’t mind.”
Until this moment, I thought
he was enacting some sort of third-person literary apology, something worthy of his literariness. I was already parting my
lips to say, “Nice twist, now cut the crap,” but when he handed me the picture frame, I could see he was handing
it to a stranger. Looking back, maybe I was relieved that his brain had dumped me for the boy he’d always wanted. And
I was happy to play a waitress in a Rushdie novel. I was a fan. I had the pashmina.
“He must be a knock-out,”
I joked, holding the frame up to my face. I didn’t sit down.
“Yes,” he said,
placing another gray toy soldier on the table. And then another. And then another, until he’d built up a formidable
troop on the snowy battlefield.
“You like playing war,
He continued to arranged his
men. “I can’t have him back,” he said finally. “I just wonder sometimes if he’s alone.”
This was the gap in his defenses
I’d been waiting for. I couldn’t help it: war was in my blood. “Do you feel alone?” I put the frame
His hand shook wildly as he
placed the last soldier on the table. “Put on your 3D glasses now,” he said and stared at the soldiers as if they
might charge the poppadoms and lime pickle.
“Do. You. Feel. Alone?”
I spoke distinctly, as if to a child, and smiled, but inside I was seething. Come on, you bastard, squint through your dementia
and see your daughter. Admit where your selfish life has landed you. Count your losses and your flops. Tell me all about the
divorces. Admit it: you’ve lost your brilliant mind. Recount it all and
regret it all. Tell me your story has been about loss. In my mind I could have gone on and on interrogating him until he—or
I—cracked wide open.
“No one loves me.”
He smiled sadly and reached for the frame. “They love only the words.” He thumped two of the soldiers over. “You
know ... that story wasn’t even about him.”
“What story?” My
body trembled because I knew, though he didn’t know me anymore, he could still read my mind.
“His story ... it
was about loss,” he said and thumped another soldier in the head. “He was just the ... the vessel I filled
and then drained. I knew him once. I had the key to him, so I just let myself in and took what I needed. I had sticky fingers.”
He shook his head and grinned like a burglar. “Sticky fingers.”
“I need to go.”
Again he grinned at me through
that damned frame. “You have his eyes.”
“No, I don’t,”
I said, turning to leave. “I can’t.”
“You haven’t taken
my order yet.”
“Have the lamb korma.”
Already withdrawing from the scene, I didn’t look back, but I knew he would sit there and kill every last one of those
gray soldiers. He’d make tanks explode with his mouth. He’d save his son Joey. He’d play the father he’d
chosen not to be until he’d forgotten what we’d lost.
Allen, a native Tennessean, teaches English in Germany. His work has appeared at Metazen, Every Day Fiction, and
BootsnAll Travel, among others. He's an editor at Metazen and blogs about his travels.
SECOND PLACE WINNER
Blue Book Revisions
has at least 500,000 words, more than any other language. But there is not one to describe the sensation when you realize
you are being watched. Nor is there one for that moment when you look directly
at the person and catch their gaze. Evan made his late entrance.
the college president of our alma mater that had the distinction of being a premiere party school, addressed the audience,
"Dr. Arthur Condarelli was known for his unique pedagogic methods." That qualified as understatement. Thirty years ago, when
there was an oil crisis, the economy was in shambles, Americans were disgusted and despondent , relations were strained with
Arab Nations, and Jimmy Carter was lusting in his heart and keeping warm in a
cardigan, Evan and I had Arthur as our teacher.
"We're so pleased you could join us, "Arthur
said when I first entered his class. "Do you belong here?"
"Yes, Professor. I'm Catalina Garcia, and I was
supposed to be here last Thursday, but the copy of the schedule was faded and I'm really…"
"Basta." Arthur had snapped open his black doctor's
bag, the sole concession to his physician father, and confronted the other late student who had followed me through the door.
"And what is your excuse, Mr. Miller?"
"Being on time is overrated."
Arthur pulled out a fistful of rulers bound by
a rubber band. "Remind me to call your mother." He wasn't kidding. Evan's mother
worked at the college. She also was a loyal fan of Evan's girlfriend and, along with my mother, who usually did not take an
instant aversion to people but who made an exception for Evan, our mothers represented two of the myriad obstacles that surfaced
through our 10-year ordeal.
Evan and I had taken the two remaining desks
in front. The newly appointed chairperson had overbooked all of Arthur's courses and assigned them the smallest rooms. Arthur
pointed to me. "Pass these out," he barked. As the only child of authoritarian parents and a graduate of Catholic school,
I did as I was told.
"You have 20 minutes to write a 500-word essay
on the meaning of life. It counts as your first grade." Our class of undergrads began furiously scribbling in the blue books,
confident of our command of the subject. "Time's up," he said after 10 minutes. "You
two, give these out." I distributed the six-inch rulers and Evan the red-capped
Bic pens. "Now open your books to that drivel you wrote. Find every article,
definite and indefinite, every conjunction, every preposition and every tense of the linking verb be. Use your ruler and pen
to cross them out."
Students gasped at the blasphemy of revising.
Arthur had moved onto the next part of his lesson and had started writing a 100-word sentence on the board that would take
most of the three-hour class to diagram. Over his shoulder he said, "Count your total words. Put your crossed out word total
on top. Draw a line in between. That is called a fraction. Divide. Multiply. That will give all of you an idea of the percentage
of your writing that is shit."
Somewhere between the first and second smoking
break, Evan and I fell in love with Arthur and with each other.
In the auditorium, I turned away from Evan but
not before hastily memorizing the weathering of his angular features. While analyzing lint on my lap, I followed him as he
came up the aisle and stopped at my row where he shifted people until the space next to me was vacated. Evan crossed his leg
and banged the seat in front as a protest against the stingy leg room.
When the department chairperson, who had waited
for Arthur to die before he would retire, took the podium. Evan let out a guttural scoff. With that exception, we sat beside
each other, separated by 20 years of silence. We were accustomed to silence. We had sat this way through lectures, reading
in cafes, watching films and through the explanations of the entanglements, marriages, separations and divorces that meant
we had gotten it wrong again and again. Now we were each on either side of 50.
Evan took my hand in his and held it at his knee.
Grey flannel trousers had replaced wool suits that had replaced worn denim. In another lifetime, Evan had sported a leather
blazer and rocker curls with jeans and cowboy boots. At the time of my 18th birthday, he considered it suave to mix sangria
with lemon soda. "Come on Cat, try it. You'll hurt my feelings."
"Evan, it's nothing against you, I 'm just fussy
about what I drink. Honest, just coffee, orange juice, chocolate milk and Pepsi.”
"Give this a chance,” he said holding the
plastic cup to my lips.
bad. Kool-Aid tasting," I said after a cautious sip.
Billy Boyd clapped. He was Evan's closest friend
who had joined our celebration. "You know, Evan, I was saying to myself—I do not believe this chick. First, she does
not smoke weed, even therapeutically, and then, she's gonna refuse to drink. That's too deep for me."
"Well, I hope I seem less aberrant now, Boyd."
"Yep." He went back to watching the scratchy
reel of Pink Flamingos playing against a wall in the college pub. Boyd was a gnarled
giant who believed he was an incarnation of Dylan. He cultivated his mystique by being secretive about his parentage and,
for those who missed the obvious resemblance, he carried his guitar around like some people always carry a book so that at
any juncture he could break into song. He and Evan were Dylan disciples.
took Evan's word when he told me that Dylan was a poet and a visionary. There was hardly anything that Evan would tell me
that I would not believe. Often, when I needed to lean in to hear his subtle tones, I wondered if he had glommed the habit
from Gatsby's Daisy.
Near the end of fall, he had led me outside to
"get some rays on the lawn." After a few minutes, we had lapsed into a then unfamiliar silence, "This is the hardest part
of any relationship.” I braced myself for the going-our-separate-ways speech. After the kiss, he said, "I want you to
know that we are a part of each other. We always will be, no matter what."
There was, however, the problem of his pesky
girlfriend. Evan assured me that she was not as beautiful or as intellectually stimulating, not to mention that she was consumed
by bourgeois pastimes like shopping that were beneath him but concluded by citing her four-year seniority which gave her top
billing. I reasoned that since I knew Penny's flaws and was willing to boldly follow Evan’s bohemian whims and never
go to a mall again, I would prevail.
If I needed reassurance of Evan’s affection,
I would study the birthday card where in convoluted script he had written, "If not for you" and signed it, "Love ya, Evan."
Thrilling because it mentioned the L word, but the "ya" bothered me. Slang was tasteless, but even more significant than his
solecism, the "ya" took the edge off love you, which he knew and which is why he had signed it that way. I believed if I stuck
around long enough, someday he would say all three words to me. A few months later when he did, I was engaged to someone else.
The commemorative plaque was unveiled, and the
ceremony brought to a close. Evan stood in the aisle, tilted his arm out and waited. I linked my arm through the triangle
as Mrs. Sherman came barreling towards us. "You two. Arthur always said you would
end up together. Give it up." As the person most devoted to Arthur, Cookie Sherman
had learned to be economical with words. "The pictures of the kids. Get them out."
Evan reached into his tri-fold while I fished
around my purse. We peered over her shoulders. "Two boys and two girls," she said giving the wrong ones back. Evan examined
my beach picture with the kids, then slid it into his wallet. I tucked away his skiing photo. "We really thought he was going
to make it to today." Mrs. Sherman stopped herself short of tears and pressed on as if she could hear Arthur ordering her
to move on, to go on with her life except that Arthur had been her life. Now she had become the curator of his legacy, "Make
sure you sign one of the books. He would have been so happy to see you."
In the spring semester, when Evan and I returned
for another course with Arthur, Arthur returned wearing a beret. "Go back to
the pages you wrote and circle the adverbs. Don't condemn them without a proper trial. Is the adverb a crutch for the verb
or inadequate exposition? Hungrily? Does that mean swallowed without chewing? Licked the plate? Chased crumbs? Make sure your imaginary garden has real toads."
A student dared to interrupt, "Dr. Condarelli?"
Arthur lowered his owlish eyes upon him, "It's
Mr. Condarelli." Arthur's committee
had knocked down his dissertation a second time.
"This is supposed to be a creative writing course." Arthur was two seconds from throwing the kid out. Arthur's compact body vibrated with
stored energy that at any moment could release in a torrent of activity, yelling and character dissection. "You think you
could build the fucking Taj Majal without knowing something about marble and bricks and precious stones?" Arthur removed his
beret and patted down his hair that pointed in opposite directions. "Adverbs
can signal weakness." A patch of his head had been shaved.
During a class devoted to the placement of adjectives
and the Borgesian implications on meaning, if you said a brown horse in English
or un caballo carmelita in Spanish, he said, "If I die, all of you better show
your sorry asses or asses that are sorry to pay your respects. No man wants a funeral that can be held in a phone booth."
We waited on a long line or line that was long
to sign Arthur's book. I handed Evan a pen. He wrote, "If we would have had one more son, we would have named him after you. Love ya, Evan and Cat."
Evan and I left The Arthur Condarelli Theater
and passed through the remodeled Student Center where nothing remained of our past. No pub, no ping-pong, no ratty notebooks,
no towers of texts, no haze of smoke. Only screens and glass ceilings of design nothingness. At least the parking lot was
still dark, concrete and unsafe. "You ski?"
"They ski. I drink." From the age of 20, Evan
had owned a red sports car and now it had finally become a cliché. "Or I used to drink," he said, clicking the doors. "How’s
"Good." I said getting into the car. "And Penny?"
There also is no word for that millisecond hesitation
when someone you know well is about to tell you only a partial truth. "Great," he answered. But not before there was a flash
of the neighbor's wife and the woman at work and the mishap with the babysitter. He pulled the ticket from the visor. "Fidelity
is so overrated."
When I didn't respond, he pulled back into the
space, "You never?"
I shook my head, "Not even a kiss."
"For what purpose?"
"There must be more to Tim that I missed." That
was true. While I had always regarded Penny as a petty annoyance like traffic and grocery lines, Evan adhered to a strict
policy of contempt for any male in my life. "What's the decision?"
"Do you have to ask?”
Our routine after Arthur's class let out at noon
was to kill the rest of the day in the city. At the time, Manhattan had been post bankruptcy and pre-Disney with small movie
theatres, coffee houses, music shops and bookstores that had yet to be devoured by chains. For our version of Ferris Bueller,
we would stick with the remnants.
Things had not changed inside the tiny restaurant
that had occupied the same spot for 50 years. The walls remained an unsettling shade of pink, the portraits on the wall were
still crooked, and the spiral stair case to the bathroom more treacherous than ever. Evan was cutting into my waffle. "You
didn't put on enough syrup."
"It's my waffle. You could have gotten your own."
Regardless of where we ate or what we ate, Evan had always fixated on my dish, giving opinions, taking samples and offering
commentary. "Eat your crazy omelet, avocado should not be cooked."
Next table over, a pair of university students
expounded on their world vision. "I think they should fire all the old people," she said.
"I agree," the other replied. "They are so resistant to change. I can't stand them."
"Were we ever that stupid?" Evan asked too loudly.
"Probably," I answered. "We listened to Arthur, though."
Evan checked the contradictory parking signs
a few times. "If we hurry, we can make Rashomon. Dead men tell no lies," he said settling in with Milk Duds. We were young, irresponsible, and happy again, and there is no word for exactly how that feels.
Afterward, in the blinding light of the March
day, he said, "The last time, when you wouldn't even acknowledge me, I wanted to flip that table on the two of you."
"That would have been impossible. Tim and I were
at a booth."
"And that justifies not talking to me? After all the shit we've been through?"
"What did we have left to say to each other?"
"Did you know that I am a phenomenal ice skater?"
Evan said. "What about you?"
"I'm a wall hugger."
"Good," he said hailing a cab to the park.
Despite the fact that everyone should have been
at school or at work, the rink was crowded. "I don't think I want to do this,"
I said. "You have no idea how terrible a skater I am."
"I can't imagine any better feeling than you
clinging to me for dear life,” Evan said, lacing up. He passed me the rentals. "Don’t worry, I won't let you break
an arm and have to explain to Timmy."
"He would understand."
Evan was a good skater. With my arm locked on
his, we circled, cautiously at first and surrounded by a steel forest, spoke twenty
years worth of words. Words about loss, like cancer and dialysis, laments about boredom, changing careers and second jobs,
snow blowers and lawns, the Jersey Shore and the Berkshires, gyms and getting old, bargains and compromises, quandaries about
getting what you wanted and losing what you had. All of life's little humiliations that we could not have endured together.
Each time, Evan pulled me further and further
away from the wall until we were in the silent center. "Sorry about ruining your perfect record."
I lied to Tim and we went to dinner.
gloomy parking lot, he said, "Now do you know what we would have said to each other?"
But in the end it would have all been crossed
out except for Evan and Cat.
Suarez’ stories and poems have appeared in Quality Fiction and Prism Review. On line publication credits
include All Things Girl, Literary Tonic, Apt., 971 Menu, Tuesday Shorts, and
The Shine Journal. Her story, “A Single Night in Chelsea,” was a finalist in the Warren Adler
Short Story Contest. Work is forthcoming in Six Sentences, Volume 3. Suarez
makes her living as a psychologist.
THIRD PRIZE WINNER
Otema was a good man and proud, so when the village drunkard offered to tell him how a man in Kicheri became wealthy in an
instant, Benon wasn’t sure he should listen. It was beneath him to be seen
even talking with Joseph Mkala, although everyone knew the man was one of Benon’s best customers. In the end, Benon gave in and listened to the tale—even giving Joseph a free glass of banana gin
to lubricate his tongue—but afterwards he regretted it.
Benon’s trouble started a few days after the conversation, when four screws turned up missing at a particularly
inopportune time. Benon had opened the twist of paper that should contain six
wood screws but found it now held only two. He groaned when he saw the ragged
tear where the others had rubbed their way through the paper packet while his son was carrying them home. The screws were lost forever, Benon knew, dribbled out along the three-hour walk from Bugota, where he
had purchased the metal door the screws were meant to mount, to Rwenkagi, the tiny community where Benon was proudly building
his newest house. He had trundled the heavy metal door over the rutted dirt road
lashed securely to his bicycle while his son Dennis straggled along behind carrying a banana leaf wrapped around a fistful
of nsimi for their lunch and the scrap of newspaper containing the six precious screws.
Benon felt a flush of anger, then a deeper stab of self reproach at his own foolishness in expecting the four-year-old
to complete the simple but important task.
Dennis was a darling toddler with a chubby belly and a quick mischievous grin that never failed to bring a chuckle
from Benon, who often marveled that the boy was unlike his other children. They
loved and respected him too, of course, but they never tagged after him like Dennis did, singing a nonsense ditty to himself
as if he didn’t have a care in the world, kicking up the dust with his toes and stopping now and then to pick up a pebble
or a twig that caught his eye. When he was with his father, he was as happy as
a little boy could be. It made Benon happy to have the tiny fellow by his side.
Now, though, the boy had let him down. Without the screws, Benon could not put
the new door in its frame. His house would be incomplete and the raw admiration
of his neighbors would be tempered.
This was Benon’s third house. Even without the new door, it
was unquestionably the finest in the village, made of fire-hardened brick rather than the cheaper sun-dried ones Benon had
used to built his second house. That one had been admired by his neighbors, too, because its rough, soft brick walls were
a big step up from their own mud-and-wattle huts which were just like Benon’s first house. Also, the second house had been roofed with corrugated tin scraps Benon had salvaged from the abandoned
soldiers’ quarters across the river, a marked improvement over the thatch above everyone else’s heads.
That sun-dried brick house with the tin roof had been the first of its kind built in the village, something that
gave Benon great satisfaction. He started it with bricks he made himself and
finished it later with more bricks bought with the earnings from his work as a porter for the tourists in the mountain gorilla
reserve. It was hard to both work his farm, build his house, and carry the tourist
backpacks up the steep trails through the misty mountains, but Benon had done so for several years. Felicity, his wife, did much of the field work that put food on the table while Benon worked for cash that
bought the bricks, course by course, and the mortar, load by load, until the second house was built. Timber for the roof joists Benon cut himself in the forest, waiting until he knew the rangers were elsewhere. If they caught him, he would have to pay either a heavy fine or a bribe; either way,
it would be expensive.
The only complaint about the second house came from Felicity, who objected to its location near the dirt road
that ran through town. Every vehicle that passed raised a cloud of dust, she
said, and much of it drifted into the new house. It was farther away from the
fields, too, so that she had a longer walk to and from work every day.
Felicity stopped complaining when, not long after the house was done, Benon’s neighbors elected him to the
village council in recognition that a man of his seriousness and accomplishments would be likely to give good advice to the
headman. The appointment fueled Benon’s ambitions, although he was careful to keep any trace of swagger out of his walk
and to remain deferential to his seniors on the council. He also worked hard
to keep both his houses in good repair. Soon, several others in the village started
building sun-dried brick homes of their own.
His neighbors also followed Benon’s footsteps to the tourist camp, swelling the rota of available porters
and reducing the number of treks Benon could work each week. Benon was resourceful,
however, and turned the oversupply of labor to his advantage by mounting a double seat on the back of his bicycle so that
he could earn a few shillings taxiing his weary fellow porters back and forth between the village and the tourist lodge. He could have earned more on any given day as a porter, but there was no assurance
that he would work each day. The bicycle taxi business, though, had customers
every day, so his total earnings were greater. Besides, while the porters were
tromping up and down the mountainsides, Benon could attend to his other affairs, returning only at the end of the day to pick
them up again. A motor scooter would have been even better, but Benon couldn’t
possibly save enough money to buy one. Unlike a new house, which you can buy a brick at a time if you need to, the entire
purchase price of a motor scooter was expected at once.
When the first neighbor completed a sun-dried brick house just like his, Benon decided it was necessary to start
building a grander home. Fortunately, Felicity had provided the means, albeit
unwittingly, by bearing two sons in two years, then two daughters before she had Dennis.
The two boys were now old enough to not only work the field, allowing Benon to run the bicycle taxi service full time,
but they could be trusted to tend a still Benon built to make banana gin near his old mud-and-wattle house where the boys
now slept. He had put it there so the smoke from the constantly-burning wood
fire under the drum of slow-boiling banana wine would blow away from the new house.
It was also close enough for the boys to keep an eye on the simmering still but far enough so that if it exploded,
Benon’s new house would not be destroyed.
Felicity also gave him two daughters. The younger of them had a twisted leg but she got around fairly well. Now she was old enough to sell tomatoes and yams at a table by the side of the road. She also sold the banana wine and gin made by her brothers.
Felicity lost a baby after the girls were born and Benon assumed his family was complete. But, three years after the birth of the girl with the twisted leg, Dennis came along, a big surprise to
everyone. His mother treated him like found treasure; his sisters like a doll. Even Benon, ambitious and busy as he was, often found time to scoop him up and nuzzle
his bare belly, which always sent the baby into gales of squeals and giggles. Dennis
was now sturdy enough to be helpful around the house like the other children, although the loss of the screws had shown Benon
the little boy wasn’t good for much yet.
The older girl was the real prize. She was a beauty even at fourteen,
with long, lithe legs, wide hips that promised easy childbearing, and a perky upturned nose above full lips that spoke of
sweet nuzzlings in the night for her lucky husband. Her face made the newest
house possible when a wealthy man in a neighboring village paid a spectacular bride price for her—sixteen cows!
Benon bartered the cows for enough fire-hardened—not sun-dried—bricks to build his newest house. He should have kept at least some of the cows so his sons would be able to buy brides
when their time came, but Benon figured they could fend for themselves as he had done.
He had received no help from his own father, why should they? It would
be good for them to show their mettle by earning their own brides just as Benon had done.
Besides, he needed every shilling from the cows to buy enough bricks to build a house.
Those bricks were much better than the sun-dried ones he had used in the house by the road. They were harder so they would last much longer and more uniformly shaped so they could be set in neater,
more compact lines with less mortar making a stronger bond. Above all, they spoke
of richness, of accomplishment that put the owner of such a house apart from his fellow villagers. Benon set the newest house back from the road on a little hillock that raised it above the surrounding
fields and made it clearly visible from nearly everywhere in Rwenkagi. When the
new house was completed, the older one would become a store or perhaps a tavern by the road.
The missing screws were delaying the whole project, though. Benon carefully folded the two remaining screws into
the paper and tucked it into his shirt pocket. He contemplated the sturdy door
with its sheet metal panels welded to two rails and three stiles and crisscrossed by steel bars for extra stiffness. He had already painted the outside a brilliant cobalt blue and the inside gunmetal
gray using left-over sign paint he had found in the dump near the gorilla camp. The
hinges were riveted to the door ready to be screwed to the wooden frame around the opening in the brick wall. Now, that step would have to wait until Benon had the hardware to complete the job.
The door wasn’t to be the ultimate glory of the new house. Benon
hadn’t told anyone yet, but he intended to roof his newest home with kiln-fired clay tiles like those atop the headman’s
mansion in Bugota. Such a roof would be wildly expensive, but that would also
make it utterly out of the reach of any potential rivals. Benon thought it might
be just the touch he needed to cement his own selection as headman of Rwenkagi, a position that would be open once the current
village leader died without an heir. As the most prosperous man in the village,
Benon would be the logical choice. A roof of kiln-fired tiles atop walls of fire-hardened
bricks and a shiny cobalt blue metal door would surely ensure his selection.
Benon told Felicity he would be home late because he had to return to Bugota to replace the screws. As he mounted his bicycle, she meekly suggested that one of their neighbors might have a few screws on
hand that he could buy, but he dismissed her and pedaled away. What did a woman
know? To beg hardware from his neighbors would be revealing to them a weakness. What would they think?
He pedaled past the shops selling carved gorillas and small baskets woven from tough-stemmed grass, the tea shed
where his least-capable neighbors brought their bags of freshly-picked tea leaves to be sold to the company buyer for a pittance
despite the painstaking hours spent gathering them, past the houses where entrepreneurial neighbors operated beauty parlors,
vegetable stands, and even a pool hall with one moth-eaten table, two warped cues, and sixteen nicked and beaten balls. On Sundays, Benon took a few bottles of gin to the pool hall to sell.
As Benon coasted to the bottom of the hill past the pool hall, he was nearly knocked over by a truck full of tourists
rounding the curve from below. Benon jumped off his bike just in time to drag
it safely into a ditch, but the call was a close one. The truck didn’t
slow as the driver wove furiously back and forth across the dirt road to avoid the worst of the ruts and washouts. Pedestrians—and bicyclists—weren’t visible to him, although a white woman with an expression
of horror on her face looked out the side window to see if Benon was all right. As
Benon caught his breath from the close call, he remembered the story Joseph Mkala had told in the pool hall after a glass
of Benon’s banana gin.
“Did you hear of the good bad fortune that a man in Kicheri had last month?” Joseph asked, his words
only slightly slurred by the gin.
“What man?” Benon had replied.
“I do not know his name, but everyone there knows him. He became
very wealthy in an unfortunate way. That’s why I said he had good bad fortune.”
At the mention of wealth, Joseph had Benon’s full attention. “What
did he do?” Benon asked.
“He did nothing himself,” the storyteller answered. “His
child—I do not know if it was a boy or a girl—brought him a fortune by running across the road.” Sensing Benon’s interest, Joseph fell silent.
“What? I don’t understand,” Benon said.
“I said I do not know if it was a boy or a girl, but there was money involved.” Joseph glanced nonchalantly at his empty glass, but did not touch it.
Benon took the bait and filled it anyway, then leaned forward.
“A truck carrying a rich tourist and his wife to a game drive in the Lake Virunda circuit ran over the child. It was killed instantly right before its father’s eyes.”
Benon sat back in his chair, horrified at the thought, while Joseph drained the glass.
Benon could imagine his own despair at seeing the mangled flesh of a child, blood seeping from the eyes as he had seen
in a goat struck by a speeding truck one time. His stomach wrenched as he imagined
Dennis suffering such a painful death.
Joseph Mkala cleared his throat as he put his glass on the plank serving as a bar.
“It was very sad,” he said, “but also very fortunate.”
When puzzlement replaced shock on Benon’s face, Joseph pushed the empty glass toward him. Benon regarded it, weighed the price of the rest of the story, then reluctantly gave in and dribbled out
a few drops more.
The old man sipped again before he continued. “A policeman
was summoned, of course, but the driver claimed the child ran in front of him so fast he could not stop. The people of Kicheri raised an uproar, however, and the policeman ordered the driver to surrender his
license. It was then that the rich tourist took the policeman aside and spoke
quietly to him. They stepped behind the truck for a moment, then the policeman
came out and summoned the man whose child had been killed. The policeman talked
to him behind the truck with the rich tourist. When they came back, the man carried
away his dead child without a word and the policeman told everyone to go home. The
matter was settled. The next week, the man bought a motorbike and everyone knew
what had happened. It is a common thing.
I thought everyone knew of it.”
When Joseph Mkala said it that way, Benon dismissed the story as an unreliable rumor on its way to becoming a
legend, embellished in the telling, repeated with just enough detail to sound true but not enough to verify. He regretted the two glasses of gin the story had cost him. It
was probably no more true than the tale he had heard the rangers tell the tourists many times on the gorilla trek to scare
them into following the rules. In the rangers’ fable, a visitor just the
week before violated the rules and slipped away from his tour group to get a better photo of the silverback. The poor fool fired his camera’s flash in the massive male’s face, the rangers always said,
and lost not only the camera but his arm, which the gorilla ripped right out of its socket.
The story wasn’t true, but it excited the tourists while helping to keep them in line during the trek.
Now, Benon tasted the dust from the truck as he got back on his bicycle and continued toward Bugota. He tried to shake off Joseph’s story, to bury it again deep in his mind where it had lain festering
since he first heard it. What a horrible thing for a man to do, accept money
for the death of his child. Such a thing was as bad as the stories Benon had
heard of people who sold their children into servitude. At least the man in Joseph’s
story didn’t purposefully push his child in front of the tourists’ vehicle—or did he? Benon wondered.
He also wondered whether it was a boy or a girl child who was killed. Each
would have different value. A boy would work for his father until he became a
man and set off on his own. You had to feed him and clothe him, of course, and
there was the cost of his education, which was now mandated by the government, but a male child was generally a money-making
proposition. A girl, though, couldn’t do as much work. She still had to be clothed and fed, too, although school was optional.
A girl became prohibitively expensive if she didn’t bring a large bride price, which was much more common than
not. Benon knew he had been very, very fortunate to receive the high price he
got for his older girl. The young one might well not ever marry, which meant
she would be a burden for the rest of her life. Unlike a boy, you couldn’t
just push a girl out into the world to fend for herself when the time came.
The man at the building supply lot where Benon had bought his door that morning was getting ready to leave when
Benon pedaled into his lot. He paused, his hand on the padlock already threaded
through the hasp on his shop door.
“What can I do for you?” the man asked.
“I need some screws,” Benon answered as he stepped off his bicycle.
“Like these you sold me this morning.” He pulled the twist
of paper out of his pocket and unwrapped it to show the screws to the man. “I
need four more.”
“I remember you,” the man said. “You gave the screws
to the little boy, didn’t you? Did he lose them?” Benon nodded sheepishly. The man didn’t say anything else, just pulled the padlock out of the hasp and
went inside. As Benon started to follow, he came back out with four screws in his palm.
“You were lucky I hadn’t left yet. Anything else?”
Benon started to shake his head as he twisted the screws into the paper and put them in his pocket, then thought
of something. “How much do you charge for kiln-fired clay tiles? Like the ones on the headman’s house?”
The man didn’t answer right away, and Benon thought he was sizing him up to see if he could afford such
extravagance. Finally, the man named a price that was higher than Benon had imagined. He did some quick calculation and realized the roof tiles would cost more than the
rest of the house. The only way he would be able to afford them would be though another windfall, although he didn’t
say that to the merchant.
Benon kept his expression neutral as if he shopped for such luxuries all the time.
“I’ll figure out how many I need and get back to you,” he said.
“Of course,” the merchant said. Benon felt the man’s
gaze on the back of his neck as he pedaled away. At least he doesn’t live
in Rwenkagi, Benon thought. With luck, no one from the village would come into the shop before the man forgot how Dennis had
lost the screws.
Anger at the boy again bubbled up as Benon pedaled down the rutted road.
He pulled over to let pass a truck loaded with plantains. It wasn’t
a close call, but the sound of the huge tires crunching on the road was scary. He
imagined what they would feel like rolling over a leg stretched on the ground. How
they would grind it into a mangled mess.
Benon’s younger daughter was in no pain from her twisted leg, although it slowed her considerably. Unlike
her older sister, the girl would never marry, of course, and Benon frequently complained to Felicity that the girl was likely
to become a burden. She retorted that at least he didn’t have to pay for an education for her like he did for the boys.
What’s more, she reminded him, the girl would be around to care for the two of them when they became old, so he should
be grateful to have her. And he was, most of the time. Still, it would be nice to get a bride price for her or some other ready cash.
About half way home, Benon had to swerve around a stalk of plantains that had fallen from the truck. He started to stop, but realized the edible ones had already been stripped from the stalk. As he passed,
he remembered Dennis tagging along behind him in the banana grove behind their old house. Like he always did, the boy was
imitating his father’s every action: as Benon stacked the spent banana stalks to dry so they could be burned, Dennis
made his own little pile of dry fronds; when Benon stopped working to wipe the sweat from his face, Dennis rubbed his grubby
hand over his own forehead. Benon bent over to yank a particularly stubborn stalk
from the ground but didn’t get it on the first pull. As he straightened
to gather his breath for another try, Dennis darted over and wrapped his stubby arms around the thick trunk. He pulled up with all his tiny might and the stalk, looser than Benon thought, popped free. Dennis toppled backward rolling head over heels. The thought
of it made Benon laugh.
It was almost dark when Benon pedaled past the pool hall. Joseph
Mkala was leaning in the doorway. His head turned to follow Benon but his eyes weren’t focused so Benon figured he probably didn’t recognize him. What a disgusting waste of a man, Benon thought. What a horrible
story he had told, a lie no doubt.
Benon chained his bicycle to a porch railing on his sun-dried brick home.
Tomorrow is Saturday, he remembered. It is market day in the village and
a new wave of tourists would be arriving as others depart, clogging the road with their vehicles. He thought it would be a good day to set up a stand by the side of the road where his daughter with the
twisted leg could sell yams and bananas and perhaps a few bottles of gin. Dennis
could help her; he was big enough now. The perfect spot would be at the bend
in the road where the tourist trucks slowed to make the blind curve.
Donelson based this tale on stories he heard in Africa while researching his most recent book, Heart Of Diamonds,
a novel of scandal, love, and death in the Congo. Dave is a fulltime freelance
journalist, the author of three books, and a regular contributor to dozens of national magazines and newspapers.
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