2009 story submission by “Smarmy of One” (Alan Dubinsky)
The alarm chirps at 6:00am. Jack, the boy, the man, the stuck-in-between casualty of pubescence, gropes with a blind hand. He keeps his face buried in the pillow for as long as possible before lifting his head to silence the clock. The red “6:04” taunts him from the nightstand, the altar of slumber, the snooze bar just an inch or so beyond the tips of his fingers as they rest on the wooden surface. Jack slams his hand down on the off switch, and the chirping ceases. His eyes adjust to the dim dawn seeping into his room, gray light finding cracks in the blinds and leaking in thin streams like water through a failing dike, no little Dutch boy to plug the holes. He blinks, stretches. He feels around under his bed for the box, pulls it out—a beat shoebox with a rubber band wrapped around the lid. Jack sits up and turns on the brass lamp next to the alarm clock. He blinks for a moment as the reds and purples burn away from his retinas; his hand still rests on the lamp, a parting gift from his mother.
The brass of the lamp cools his fingers. It is cool like his mother’s skin had been when he touched her hand where it rested in the casket last summer. He wasn’t sure what exactly he had expected. Not warmth, he knew that she wouldn’t be warm any more, but the coldness shocked him. It was less a temperature than a void, an absence of degrees. When Jack touched her hand it solidified the reality and gravity of the moment for him. This was “dead.” This is how “dead” felt. His mother was “dead,” and this corpse embodied the idea of “dead” and demonstrated the principle for him. He had seen the word hundreds or thousands of times in newspaper headlines or in comic books. He had heard it on the news and in movies countless more times. It wasn’t until that moment with his mother’s corpse that the word truly meant something to him. “Dead” carved for itself a grip on his conscience and could now never be displaced. He jerks his fingers from the lamp with a start, as if the temperature reversed and the lamp had become unbearably hot.
Jack pulls the rubber band from the shoebox with a snap. “Fuck.”
He holds the broken band up in the lamp light by one end. It hangs limp and slightly curved. A miniature snake. A tapeworm. An earthworm crawling through soil, digging its tunnels between roots and through the cold ground. Through graves. He throws it in the general vicinity of his trash can (Superman, Christmas 8 years ago, half his lifetime ago). It misses its mark and coils on the floor as if ready to strike.
Jack crosses his legs and leans against the bare wall behind his bed. It is cold on his back, but he doesn’t flinch. He slowly opens the box, carefully setting the lid on the bed beside him. The box is a museum of youth, cataloging the sundry items of value only to a child fascinated with the world he had just begun to discover—flint arrowheads, a piece of a fossilized leaf, various rocks of various sizes and various compositions, a marble, a worn buffalo nickel—mixing with those of a young man discovering himself—notes from girls at school scented with perfumes, fliers from local punk shows, photos of friends doing things friends do in photos, a pipe and a small baggie of weed.
He sparks a Bic a couple times, finds a flame and takes a long drag on the pipe. A corner of a photo sticks out from the middle of the disorganized stack in the box, an inch of blue-ish sky. He exhales with a cough, pulls the photo from the stack. In the photo, Jack and his mother sit on a gingham picnic spread overlooking a creek. Age has saturated the scene with a tinge of red, adding a surreal quality. They are both smiling, he on her lap cheesing hard for the camera. He flips it over. An inscription reads, “Jackie-boy Age 5.” Only she ever called him that. Jackie-boy, dear Jackie-boy takes another hit.
A knock on the door. His dad. “You awake in there?”
Jack coughs, “Yeah.”
“Breakfast is ready. Get the twins up and eat. Then meet me out back.”
Jack lets out an exasperated sigh.
“Boy, you heard me?”
“Yeah, dad, yeah. I heard.”
“All right, then.”
Jack grabs a pair of jeans from the floor by the bed, faded with knees worn through. He puts on an old pair of work boots and a flannel, open over top of his long john shirt. He tucks his hair beneath a black knit hat. He slides the shoebox with its loose lid back under his bed and tucks the photo of his mother into a shirt pocket.
The twins, Ellie and Eli, still sleep. Ellie breathes heavily, not quite snoring. Eli lays with his feet on his pillow and head tucked deep beneath his blanket at the foot of the bed. Jack flips the light switch and tears off their blankets. Ellie wears some sort of Viking get up, a gold plastic breastplate over a flannel nightgown with a not-quite-dangerous looking plastic sledgehammer from a construction playset tucked at her side. Mjolnir by Playskool. Eli wears a plastic Incredible Hulk mask sideways on his head; its face covers his ear, a freakish Janus with purple sweatpants and green foam fists.
“All ten-year-old twins are hereby required to report to the kitchen, as per the orders of el capitan!”
The twins writhe about like moths caught in a flame, thrashing on the bed, resistant.
Ellie, “C’mon Jack…” She draws his name out to four syllables.
Eli, “What the hell, Jack?” “Hell” is emphasized with a level of exasperation only available to a ten-year-old tragically thrust into reality from a dream of dragonslaying heroism or dirtbike domination or Martian extermination.
“What did you just say? Did you just… just… swear?!” Jack raises his hand to his mouth in mock mortification. “Punishment must be delivered!”
Eli raises his legs in defense, “Jack! No, Jack!”
“What should it be, Ellie?”
“Tickle torture!” she pipes.
Eli’s eyes widen at her betrayal. “Shut up, Ellie! Jack, wait! Wait!”
Jack hovers over him with fingers curled in anticipation of the tickling. “What?”
“Okay. Okay. I’m sorry.” Eli face displays the somberness of a repentant criminal.
“That’s good that you say that. It’s good. I believe you.” Eli relaxes. “Unfortunately, the tickle machine has already been set in motion. And. It. Is. Unstoppable!” Eli lets out a shriek as Jack swoops in and manipulates his ribs. Ellie also shrieks—with delight—from her side of the room. “And what are you laughing at, little girl? The tickle machine needs fuel!” Jack snatches Eli up in one arm and grabs Ellie with other. Together they all fall back on Ellie’s bed. The twins struggle to catch their breath through their laughter.
Jack sits up. “All right, up and at ‘em! Breakfast in ten minutes. Report for duty with clean clothes, clean hands, and clean teeth.” The twins groan. “Do I need to recall the tickle machine?”
They both let loose a drawn out, “No,” and move to their respective dressers to gather clothes for the day.
“Ten minutes!” Jack repeats as he heads down the stairs.
“Ten minutes!” they parrot in unison in a mocking tone.
The kitchen is a mess. Jack picks up a blackened piece of bacon, grimaces, and places it on a plate with a spatula each of scrambled eggs and hash browns. These are also slightly black. The toast is somehow black on one side and white on the other. Jack makes a note to pick up a new toaster while he prepares a second plate. He hears the twins arguing their way down the stairs as he fixes a plate for himself. “Hurry up, you two.”
Jack smiles as they race for the table. Ellie slaps her hand on the formica and squeals, “I win!”
Eli retorts, “You cheat!”
“How do I cheat?”
Jack interjects, “Hey hey hey! Let’s focus on breakfast.” All three look at the charred food on their plates. “It’s… it’s just well done. Look, don’t focus on the food; focus on getting through it. Like a race. It’s a food race.”
The twins look unconvinced for a second before Eli picks up a fork and shovels a heap of eggs into his mouth. Ellie hurriedly grabs a piece of toast, takes a bite and shrivels up her nose. She hesitates, but Eli goes for his bacon so she holds her breath and tackles the hash browns.
Jack pours himself some coffee and looks out the back window. He sees his dad standing in the open door of the garage looking out over the neighboring pasture, smoking a cigarette with a beer in hand. A truck beeps its horn as it passes, and his dad raises a hand in response. Jack grabs a piece of toast and takes a bite. He grimaces and sets it back on his plate. He glances at the clock and tells the twins to get it together. “Bus will be here any minute. You can’t miss another day of school.”
“What about you?” Eli asks.
“Yeah!” Ellie adds in the same accusatory tone.
“I gotta help Dad. And this isn’t about me. This is about you two learning the basic skills required to keep you from growing up to be total dimwits. You want to be total dimwits? I didn’t think so. Your lunches are in the fridge. Eli, don’t forget your books again.”
“Yes!” they both exclaim and race down the hall to the front door.
Jack watches them struggle into their coats and push their way out the door. He thinks it is nice to see them acting like kids again. For the first month or so following their mother’s death, the twins hardly spoke. None of them did, really. The shock had been too much. He had been sitting on the couch watching the news with his dad; the twins, luckily, were playing out in back of the house. It always made him feel more adult to sit there watching television with his dad, mostly news and sports. That day they sat in the room silently as they always had, exchanging a syllable intermittently in response to one thing or another that popped up on the screen. The head news anchor cut into the sports report with a news bulletin about an accident on the highway outside of town. The anchor had said, “Thankfully, it’s not every day that we have something this tragic to report…”
His dad had cursed and got up to grab a fresh beer. Jack had leaned forward to watch the live footage of the accident. What he saw gave him chills. “Hey, Dad, this car looks just like—“
The ringing telephone had cut him off. He heard his dad answer in the kitchen. “Hello. What? Yeah, who’s this? Who? Wha… What did you say? That… That… Where at? I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Jack had stood watching the doorway. His dad walked through, his face ashen. “Jack, there’s been an accident. It’s your mom…”
That was six months ago come Tuesday. His dad couldn’t shake the effects of it. He spent most of his day in the garage, tooling around with this or that neighbor’s car for a few bucks or looking for a job, which seemed to be code for reading the paper in the garage with a case of beer or heading down to Blackie’s Pub or just disappearing until all hours of the night. Jack had taken over the household duties, dropping out of school to make sure the twins were all right. He started helping with the odd jobs, fixing cars and baling hay, whatever popped up that his dad couldn’t handle alone. The closing of the mill had stolen the livelihood from a lot of folks in the area; that coupled with his wife’s death proved to be too heavy a load to carry for Jack’s dad. Jack feels the tension still, like a rubber band stretched to its weakest point. And so he tries to compensate.
Jack grabs his coat and walks out to the garage. The brisk air shocks his lungs for the first few breaths. He slides his arms into the coat as he walks, a cold gust of wind ballooning it behind him as he fumbles for the zipper. The frozen grass crunches underfoot as he walks across the yard. His breath crystallizes as it passes through his lips. He shoves his hands deep into his coat pockets, but they offer little protection against the cold.
His dad leans against the wall outside of the garage door. Jack takes his place next to him. His dad nods, “There they go.”
Jack follows his gaze to the yellow bus pulling away in the distance. “Yeah.”
Jack suppresses a smile. “Yeah, thanks for breakfast, Dad.”
His dad sniffs. “Cold day. Kids need a hot meal.” He coughs and spits. “Damn cigarettes. Don’t start this shit, Jack.”
They stand listening to the static of the classic rock station on the radio buried somewhere in the garage behind them. His dad takes a long drag on his cigarette. “Radio says snow, probably later this morning. I’ll need you to help me hook the plow to the truck. Probably get a few bucks plowing driveways. Dale, down in town, he said he might be able to get me on the payroll for the season if it comes heavy. Hit some of the side roads out here the township don’t have time for.”
“That’ll be good.” Jack reaches inside his coat and fishes the photo form his shirt pocket. “I found this picture this morning. You remember where we were?”
He hands him the photo. He marvels for a moment at the size of his dad’s hands, how deeply-lined they are, calloused and rough. Lines that map out a life. He looks at his own smooth hand, still fresh, not yet hardened by experience. He looks up to find his dad’s features have softened. He carries an expression Jack noticed once before, at his mother’s grave a couple days after the funeral. He had watched his dad laying flowers on the grave with this same thoughtfulness. It held degrees of curiosity and a kind of forlorn amazement. Jack hadn’t understood that day at the grave, but now he thought maybe it was a mixture of joy and appreciation for the love he had known. It was more than that, though, a sense of awe at just how loving she had been, how willing to accept him despite his flaws. Jack sees in his dad in this moment a vulnerability he had only suspected prior, a crack in the facade. He sees a man reflecting on the loss of something pure in his life.
“Yeah, this was at Cedar Creek. Look at how young you were, the both of you. Damn.” He sniffs again, maybe from the cold. He hands back the photo. Wet eyes betray his hardened features. “She was a beautiful woman, Jack.”
They stand in the cold without speaking, the crackle of the radio filling the gap between them. The first flakes of the season start to fall, light crystalline puffs. Jack’s dad drops his cigarette to the ground and snuffs it out with his heel. He turns to Jack with red rimmed eyes. “Snow’s here.”
© 2009 Alan Dubinsky