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Mini Sledgehammer: November 2011, Blackbird Wine

The days have turned blustery, and the beautiful leaves have begun to fall, but that didn’t keep writers away this month. We started the evening off with a reading by Dora Raymaker, 2011 Sledgehammer winner of the Individual category. Then we announced the prompts and had at it!

character: someone with a quirky phobia
Action: affixing reflectors
Setting: next to a broken-down car
Phrase: I’m torn

The prizes went to Elissa Nelson for the following story, though she graciously shared her entry to that Saturday’s workshops at Indigo with another player. Such generosity!



by Elissa Nelson


“Eating foods out of cans is dangerous,” the woman tells him. “I see you’ve got your cans there. Six of them. That’s not good.”

“I’ve got my beans, my fruits, three kinds of veggies, and that potted meat I love so much. No carbs—it’s a well balanced meal, isn’t it?”

“Fruit cocktail?”

“I like the fruit cocktail the best. You get em all, you don’t have to pick. Maraschino cherries too. Good stuff.”

“That dye—it’s toxic.”

“Toxic. You drive that car around. That’s toxic.”

“True, true.”

“Course I’d drive a car too, I’m not too good for that, only mine’s broken down. There it is right there.” He points. “So I can still sleep in it, but she doesn’t really go places these days. Unless you push her. I’m not much for that. I just leave her be.”

“I see you have reflectors on her.”

“That was Pearl did that. She scavenges all that kind of stuff, came over one day for dinner—black beans, peaches in heavy syrup, creamed corn, these fancy red peppers, and those little onions? And I had some Spam, but she didn’t want any. So she came over for dinner and brought the reflectors along. Susie—that’s the car—Susie had just broken down and a couple guys helped me haul her off to the side there, but Pearl said it’d be better if people could see her, if she reflected light when people drove by. So now she does.”

They’re quiet for a moment. The guy eats, the woman stands there, not sure what she’s doing. At least that’s what it looks like to the guy. He finally asks her: “What’re you thinking?”

“I’m torn,” she says.

That’s all she says. He waits for her to say more but she doesn’t.

“Torn about what?” he asks finally. He doesn’t really care—if she’s not going to eat, he’d just as soon that she gets out of there and lets him eat. Eat and have his evening. Sit by the fire, smoke his pipe. It’s old-fashioned, but he still doesn’t like to smoke around a lady. And she’s a lady. At first he thought she was one of those social worker types, or just a do-gooder—she’s got the nice clothes on, her hair done, no clipboard but she might’ve left it in her car, a late model Mercedes, not one of the real fancy ones but it’s still a Mercedes.

“I guess I might as well just tell you,” she says finally, about ten minutes later. Maybe not really ten minutes, but it’s a while.

“Tell me what?” he says, when she doesn’t tell him.

“It’s about Ed.”

“I don’t care anything about Ed. What do you know about Ed? What’s he got to do with you?”

“I’m his—he’s my brother-in-law.”

“He married your sister? Must be, because you couldn’t’ve married his brother. He hasn’t got one, far as I know. If he did, he’d be lots younger, because he never did as long as I knew Sally Jane.”

“He married my sister. Married Lydia three years ago.”

“Three years? Has it been that long?”

“Says he hasn’t seen you in ten years.”

“Nah, he’s lying about that. Ten years. Last time I saw him was—shit, ninety-eight, it must’ve been, and what’s this, twenty eleven. Okay. That’s fourteen years. God damn. Pardon my language.”

He’s really on his best behavior.

He’s not what she was expecting at all, either. Okay, he lives in his car and he eats out of cans he cooks on an open fire. But he’s so nice to her.

“What did Ed tell you about me?”

She shrugs.

“Told ya I was a crotchety old asshole, didn’t he?”

She shrugs again.

“I am. There’s other bits to me, but I am a crotchety old asshole. I was a hell of a dad to him, that’s for sure. How’s Sally Jane?”

She shrugs again. She sure isn’t about to tell this guy what she thinks of Sally Jane, who now regularly comes to all family gatherings, not having any family except Ed.

“How’s your sister since she married him? Changed much?”

She wasn’t expecting that question either. What was she expecting? She thought either she wouldn’t find him here, or he’d be here and drunk, maybe passed out. He might be drunk now, but he’s coherent. Cogent, even. A decent guy. She likes Ed, she’s liked his stories about his drunk of a dad. Is that wrong to say she’s liked them? She has. He wants you to like his stories. And there’s a lot of affection in the way he talks about his dad.

He hasn’t sneezed yet, though. The way Ed tells it, his dad is all about the sneezes. That must be why he hasn’t chased her away yet, though—she doesn’t make him sneeze. That was a sad story Ed told about his dad. “I went to visit him once, this was a while back, and showed up with a bag of food for him. Cans mostly. I know what he likes. He took it. And we were sitting by his fire. Then he starts sneezing. And he says, ‘Sorry, son, got these allergies. Allergic to people. Different amounts of being allergic—I can put up with about as much of Pearl as I ever could, and the sneezing’s just a good excuse to get her out of here—but man, went to the grocery store last week, waiting in line to cash in my cans, and the lady behind me was wearing some kind of hippie perfume, I started sneezing so hard I had to get out of there and go back the next day.’” She remembers that she and Ed and Lydia sat around for a while guessing what the “hippie perfume” was. Sandlewood? Patchouli? One of those oil blends you buy at the co-op that’s called, like, “Peaceful Mist”? But she also remembers Ed saying that was the last time he saw his dad. They had a good conversation for a while, then he started sneezing “all hard and dramatic,” Ed said, “and I just never went back. Only so much of that a guy can take. Bad enough he was a drunk and a bum but allergic to me? Fuck it.” And Ed didn’t talk that way.

“Guess I’m not allergic to you,” he says to her.

She tries to look like she doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“Ed told you anything about me, he must’ve told you I’m allergic to people.”

She’s still sort of trying to look like she doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but she also knows it’s no good. She shrugs and nods, like maybe Ed’s mentioned it, but he hasn’t said much, hasn’t told the whole story. Which he hasn’t. He doesn’t know the whole story. Doesn’t know the past thirteen years worth.

It’s like he can read her mind. “It’s just gotten worse and worse since Ed stopped coming around. Gotten so mostly Pearl’s the only one I can be around at all. Gotta be careful going to the store… bought one of those masks to cover my nose and mouth, it was just getting to where I kept having to run away in the middle of an errand or whatever.”

She’s still standing there.

“Want to sit down?” he offers. “We could make some coffee—or you want some hot cocoa? I got some of that mix in the trunk, it’s the really good kind. Don’t got milk, though it’d probably keep, it’s cold enough.”

“Tea?” she asks.

“Only kind I like is peppermint,” he says, a little sheepishly. “But yeah, you want peppermint?”

“Perfect,” she says, and it is.

So she sits down next to the fire with him.

© 2011 Elissa Nelson


Elissa Nelson lives in Portland, Oregon. She teaches high school English, which she loves, and is currently finishing a novel (which she also loves, but she’ll be glad to be done with it). She has recently produced two issues of a very small zine: The Hundred Most Influential Writers in My Life to Date, As Best I Can Remember and Mostly Not Including Zines.


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