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“Tin Violin” by Matea Wasend

Tin Violin

by Matea Wasend

 

My dad came home for the first time in two years four days after my fifteenth birthday. He usually brought something along with him from wherever he’d wandered to, and this time was no exception: he brought Amaryllis, and Tulip, and Daisy Mae.

You might be imagining him knocking on the front door and presenting me with a bouquet of birthday flowers or something, but let me paint right over that picture. We don’t have a front door; it’s more like a front curtain that just hangs down from the crossbeam we managed to shove into the side of the mountain. It’s no good for knocking, but it’s okay for keeping the house flies and fruit flies and every other kind of fly out while letting the breeze in, when there’s a breeze to let.

Also, Amaryllis and Tulip and Daisy Mae weren’t in a bouquet, since they’re people. Well, two people and a dog.

How it happened was this: Rex and I were fixing dinner and our grandmother was wiring a tin guitar when from outside there came floating in three notes of music, sweet as a spoonful of canned peaches. I dropped my knife with a clatter and Rex whirled around so fast he knocked pieces of slimy onion all over the floor. Only grandma did nothing, since she’s almost entirely deaf. There was a split second where Rex and I both stared at each other, and then we tore through the front curtain and down the narrow trash-packed lane towards the whistling.

Dad!

Rex was up in his arms, whirled around, then deposited back on the ground. I was too big to whirl but we hugged and I touched his long beard, which made him look the consummate drifter, and he laughed as Rex and I asked ten questions each, stumbling over each other like uncooperative partners in a three-legged race.

Slow down, he said. You’ll use up all the question marks.

Come inside, I told him. We’re just making dinner.

How’s your grandma?

Grandma was our dead mother’s mother, and she didn’t much like our father on account of how his wanderlust had dragged him off the mountain and away from our mother for the first time when I was just a baby, and again and again in the years since. But they got along okay by sticking to polite basics whenever my father was around.

She’s fine, I said. Come in and you can see for yourself. There’s junk all over your bed, but while you’re here we can—

Actually, kiddo—I’ve got news for you, he said, and his face split into an infectious grin that jumped over to mine faster than the plague. I’m staying for good this time.

Are you serious? said Rex.

Dead serious, he said, and crossed his heart. Hope to die. Which is why I got my own place.

Your own place?

Yeah. Over by the fence.

Why’d you get a new place? We can all fit here.

Well, he said. This place is a little nicer.

He’d never had his own place before. I pictured his nicer new place—maybe it had wooden walls, and a real front door. Maybe it even had electricity; there were lights and power lines along the broken-down chain-link fence that had once, decades before, contained the trash, though now the trash contained the fence.

It’s a lot bigger, my dad went on. Two bedrooms, and a living room.

I thought about this. Having a real bedroom would be a definite upgrade, even if I did have to share it with Rex.

Perfect for three people, said my dad.

Three people? I said. What about grandma?

Grandma? my father said, as though he hadn’t thought of this. And I supposed he was right—she could stay by herself. Come to think of it, she probably wouldn’t want to leave her instruments anyway; in the last year alone her workshop had been looted three times, so she’d finally moved them all into the house so she’d be there to protect them if someone came calling. Now there were bits of makeshift tin can violin and tuba and guitar and clarinet hanging from the walls and ceiling and cluttering up the floors, to the point where I sometimes felt I was living in the stomach of a large beast with a musical appetite.

Just then a little dog came racing around the corner, tongue lolling, ears flopping like the wings of some awkward flightless bird. It had an orange extension cord tied around its neck for a leash, which was trailing along the ground behind it, and as it neared us the cord got tangled up in its paws and it face-planted right at my feet.

Tulip!

A girl came running after the dog, which had by then righted itself and started jumping up against my legs and slobbering all over the place. She almost tripped to avoid running into my dad. He caught her and righted her.

Zee, Rex, he said. This is Daisy Mae, and Tulip.

Which one’s which? said Rex.

Tulip’s the puppy, said the girl. I’m Daisy Mae.

I stared at her. She wasn’t from the mountain, that was obvious; nobody half so clean or half so beautiful lived here. It was an odd kind of beauty, since she was covered all over with pink splotches, like someone had splattered her with bleach and then laid her out to dry, but the spots only drew attention to the perfection that was her face.

I tore my eyes away and I waited for my dad to offer an explanation, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry. Rex came to the rescue with his standard forthrightness.

Why are you here?

My mother is Amaryllis, she said, as if another flower explained everything. Then a woman came walking around the corner—a pale and wispy vision of a woman, like something off the kinds of scrap advertisements for laundry detergent my grandmother used to hang around the house for decoration.

This is Amaryllis, said my father. My wife.

You better be careful of that dog, Rex told Daisy Mae, not seeming to blink an eye at the addition of two people and a dog to our family tree. People’ll eat dog around here, if they can get their hands on it.

***

Neat, huh? said my dad, as Rex plugged and unplugged a small television into a power cord and the screen flickered on and off. Place came with a television—can you believe it?

I sat there on the bed with my arms crossed, feeling as though someone had stuffed my eyes with pins. Every movement was excruciating; everywhere I looked I saw what my father had bought for his new family, and not for me. The place had electricity, like I’d suspected; it had a small and functional-looking kitchen area, two queen-sized beds in the bedrooms, and fake flowers tacked up all over the sturdy walls. I couldn’t tell one flower from the next, but I wish I knew which ones were the daisies.

You can come on over whenever you want, alright, bud? my dad told Rex, and ruffled his hair so he looked like the roosters our neighbors kept in a pen behind their house. It’s as good as yours.

Awesome! said Rex.

My dad turned to me. You too, kiddo.

Right, I said. Thanks.

I was thinking, my dad said. Maybe tonight you guys could come over for dinner? Zee, you could bring your violin. I’ve told Amaryllis and Daisy Mae all about how good you are on the fiddle.

He did, Daisy Mae put in enthusiastically. He said you’re like a prodigy.

I stood up. I have to go, I announced. I flicked Tulip off my bare feet, which he’d been licking as enthusiastically as if they were covered in molasses.

Where? said my father. School doesn’t start for another hour, does it?

I’m not in school anymore, I said.

Then where are you going?

His eybrows went up. Work? You on a crew now?

The Riddler’s, I told him. In spite of my anger I actually looked at him for a moment, to check for the pride in his eyes. I found it. The Riddler was one of the best collection bosses on the mountain, and even my dad knew that

That’s great, he said with an electric smile. Good for you, Zee.

I turned off my face before my own smile could appear. Yeah, well. I better go.

Hey—I have an idea, said my dad. Why don’t you take Daisy Mae with you?

My stomach fell faster than a tumbling trash-slide.

What?

Yeah, he said. You can show her the ropes. Let her see how things are done around here.

Dad, I said. I—she can’t.

Why not?

She’s—she’s not on the crew. She can’t just—

Why not? You’ll increase your haul. Just swing by the Riddler’s and ask. I’m sure he’ll say yes.

That’s not how things work, I said. It took me months to get in. You don’t—

If he says no, you can send her back home, said my dad, who was obviously in one of his irrepressible moods.

But dad—

I realized suddenly I was putting on a whining show to rival Rex’s long-ago toddler tantrums, and stopped myself with an effort.

You know what? Fine. I turned to Daisy Mae. Let’s go.

Thanks! said Daisy Mae, and she practically bounced to her feet. Can I bring Tulip?
***

Tulip seemed not to have learned to walk very effectively yet. He tripped over the extension cord just about every thirty seconds, which was why after five minutes or so Daisy Mae ended up scooping him into her arms.

How can you find your way around here? she asked me, gazing around at the trash landscape that was the mountain—that particular glinting gray that, if you squinted at it in just the right way, became a prism of color. It all looks the same to me.

I ignored her question.

Wait out here, I told her when we’d reached the building—the only cement structure in a five-mile radius of refuse. This was where the Riddler lived, which put him among the elite percentage of mountain residents who didn’t have to put out buckets when it rained.

That’s okay—I’d rather come in with you, she said.

I clenched my teeth.

I nodded to a couple of other collectors inside, then headed for the Riddler’s office. He was on the phone when I stuck my head inside the door, but he shoved his hand over the receiver mouth to block out the noise and mouthed What Is It?

My dad’s in town, and he’s got—well, this girl is with him, and he wants her to come collecting with me today to get to know the mountain, I said, gesturing at Daisy Mae behind me.

The Riddler frowned and I felt vindicated for my earlier whininess.

I told him you wouldn’t like it, I added quickly. If you say no, I’ll send her back home.

Daisy Mae stepped into the office beside me, Tulip still in her arms, and it was like she’d brought the sun in alongside her the way the Riddler’s face brightened. He pointed at her as if to say This Her? and I nodded. Then his waving hand said Take Her Along.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if there’d been smoke coming out of my ears. I stomped all the way back down the hall, out the front doors and halfway to my route-start before I realized I’d forgotten my basket and had to go back for it.

***

Daisy Mae carried Tulip in one arm and a bushel of questions in the other. She slung them at me one after another and I offered up the bare minimum in return.

What are we looking for?

Anything valuable.

Like what?

I bent and snatched up a gleam of silver, which revealed itself to be a necklace with a teardrop pearl hanging on by a tenuous broken clasp.

Like this.

I dropped it into the basket on my back.

What do you do with it?

Take it to the Riddler.

And what does he do with it?

Sorts it.

Then what?

Sells the good stuff.

To who?

People, I said, not knowing a more specific answer.

Unders?

I guess.

You’ve been under, haven’t you? Your dad told me. He said you got to play the violin in a real concert hall.

The audition that could have changed everything settled in over my eyes like a layer of film strip, the fancy stage chair and the snob-nosed judges and the sparkling water they’d given me to drink afterward that had made my throat burn. My grandmother had been hopeful, my father certain to the point of using words like When and Next Year. That had been just before the last time my father had left, and I’d been half-sure he’d been so disappointed that he’d never come back.

I’d love to hear you play, said Daisy Mae.
I don’t really play anymore.

Why not?

I sighed. Look—it doesn’t really make sense for us to search the same spot. We’ll just end up in each other’s way. Why don’t you go over there? Anything you find, just make a pile and I’ll come get it later. Yeah—all the way over there by that flag.

I directed her far enough away that she couldn’t talk to me without shouting. As I watched her for a moment, thrusting her clean hands into the garbage while Rex began digging enthusiastically beside her, the discolorations on her face seemed to squint and wink at me under the blazing sun.

***

Zee?

Hmm?

I’d found a treasure trove—a bag of old mobile phones. Some of them were damaged completely beyond repair, but a lot of them looked like they’d hardly been scratched. I was sorting through them and placing them carefully in my basket, not wanting to damage them.

I think I might have found something.

Just wait, I said, and sorted through the rest of the phones. Then I walked over to where Daisy Mae was sitting with Tulip in her lap, pleased at my haul for the day; I’d get a good return. I found myself returning her smile automatically on the high of my own discovery.

What is it?

I’m not sure, she said. She gestured at the briefcase leaning against her leg. It’s just got paper in it, but I—

Paper? What kind of paper?

She undid the latches and flipped it open. Inside were stacks of green bills, the kind you’d be lucky to find one of in a month. I reached out and grabbed one stack and flipped through it—at least thirty twenty-dollar bills, all their balding puppy-eyed Benjamin Franklins looking up at me in quick succession.

What do you think? said Daisy Mae. Tulip found it.

Tulip found it, I repeated. My voice shook.

Yeah, said Daisy Mae. Think it’s worth something?

I threw the stack of bills down into the briefcase and stared at Daisy Mae’s eager face, at the beautiful contrast between perfection and malformation. I found that I was near tears.

This is worth more than everything I’ve ever hauled in put together, I said. Period.

Seriously?

Seriously. You’ll get a huge payoff for it. I turned away. Congratulations.

Me? said Daisy Mae. No—it’s yours, Zee. I was just helping.

You found it.

Tulip found it, she said. And you told me where to look, anyway. You told me this was a good spot. It should be—

It’s yours, I snapped.
I’m—

Look, I said, turning back to her. That’s just how it works here, okay? You found it, you collect the money. I don’t want your charity.

I’m sorry, she said. I was just trying to—

Let’s go, I said. You need to get that in before someone takes it from you.

***

My father took us all out to dinner at one of the slightly respectable mountain versions of a restaurant the next night—really just a set of broken-down picnic tables under holey umbrellas—on Daisy Mae’s money.

To Daisy Mae! he said exuberantly, raising his beer in a toast, and the rest of us echoed To Daisy Mae, me just lip-syncing along.

And her incredible, fortune-finding dog! Rex added.

It wasn’t really a fortune, of course; it wasn’t the kind of find that could get you off the mountain and down under, into a life of air quality control and soft towels and fresh meat. Old paper currency was worth only a fraction of its original value. But it was definitely the biggest haul any one person had made in a year or two, and made all the more remarkable by the fact that Daisy Mae had found it on her first day as a collector—as my father reminded us all through dinner and over the course of three post-dinner drinks.

He was slurring a little by the time we made our way back to his, Amaryllis’ and Daisy Mae’s television-containing house in the fading light.

Good on ya, kid, he said, his arm slung around Daisy Mae in a fatherly way.

I saw the way she looked up at him, and knew that here in front of my own eyeballs was the very look I’d worn so many times before. My father was larger-than-life, and when he turned his gaze on you it was hard not to feel like you’d been singled out for a miraculous destiny. It hit me that I was watching my life on repeat, only played out by an un-scrawny, un-dour-faced version of myself. At first I’d hated Daisy Mae for stealing my father, but now I realized I hated her for how pathetic she was—the way she ate it all up, every little lie he promised her, just like Tulip scarfing down whatever half-rotted food he could get his little teeth on.

And I hated her extra because she did pathetic more beautifully than I ever could.

***

Once I’d realized this I stopped going over to my dad’s house as his daughter, and went over as an outsider to his family. And as an outsider, I could see all the telltale signs, starting about five weeks after my fifteenth birthday.

First my dad got all big-spirited and expansive, doling out affection and compliments and taking us all to the leveled trash pit beyond the fence to kick around a soccer ball, where he made dramatic diving saves while parodying the commenters we’d heard on his new television.

After that it was snappish irritability, and a cold detachment that lasted for a few days.

Then there were about twelve hours of cruelty, during which he hurt nobody physically but emotionally bruised everyone but me, me being pretty much protected by my new truth-seeing eyes.

You okay? I found myself asking Daisy Mae as we scavenged on the far end of my assigned route. The Riddler had made her my permanent collecting partner after that first day, and usually she asked the questions and I fended her off, but today she seemed to have left her voice at home. The night before, my dad had made a jibe about the discolorations on her face that had set her to blushing and petting Tulip in a pitifully transparent attempt to hide the fact that she was crying.

I’m okay, she said, and I wondered suddenly if she had a good singing voice. She sounded like she would—or maybe it was that she looked like a love song.

I was just thinking about our old home, she went on.

Where are you from? I asked, realizing that I didn’t know. My dad tended to dominate conversations, both as speaker and topic.

Colorado, she said.

I nodded, having no idea where that was. What’s it like there?

Beautiful, she said. Trees and flowers and mountains—real mountains, not made out of trash. You would love it.

Do you think you’ll ever go back? I asked, a large part of me hoping she’d say yes.

Never, she said.

Why not?

Beauty isn’t everything, she said. The land is sick there. The people are sick. My mom… She trailed off, and I thought about Amaryllis’ big, glassy eyes and sickly demeanor.

That’s why I have this, she said, pointing at her discolored spots.

Zee? she asked me a few minutes later. Can I ask you something?

What?

Why’d you stop playing the violin?

Though I felt like I’d kind of fulfilled my quota of Daisy Mae-outreach when I’d asked her if she was okay, I somehow found myself answering her with a portion of the honest truth.

No reason to play, I said. And nobody to play for.

What about Rex? And your grandma?

That’s not what I meant, I said. I meant—nobody important. Nobody who could make a difference.

We dug in silence for a while.

I think family is important, Daisy Mae whispered, but I pretended I hadn’t heard her and I said What?

And she said, Nothing.

***

After the cruelty, my father got drunk and repentant.

I’m not good enough to be the head of this family, he slurred to me outside the mountain’s closest approximation to a bar at two in the afternoon, after I’d been informed he was making a scene and left my route to go drag him home. Or any—any—any family. I’m not a g-g-good man. He swallowed hard, like he was force-feeding himself this guilt. I don’t deserve a f-family.

Well, you have two of them.

He nodded, and then vomited his repentance all over the trash mountainside.

***

I woke in the middle of the next night to a scuffling at our front curtain, and my hand was on my knife before I was even sitting up straight. But then someone whispered my name. I stepped outside to find Daisy Mae crying fat tears under my flashlight beam, Tulip looking sleepily up at me from where he sat on her foot.

Daisy Mae? What’s wrong?

My—your dad, she said. He’s—he’s gone.

I looked at her in exasperation.

You came all the way here to tell me that? It’s the middle of the night, Daisy Mae.

I—I thought—Daisy Mae looked down at the ground. I thought you’d want to know.

Why should I?

Because, said Daisy Mae. He’s your dad.

Not since you came, he’s not.

Zee, I—

You thought he’d stay for you? I said. Because you’re pretty and always get what you want?

She just looked at me. Tulip gave a little yip.

You’re an idiot.

I tried to slam the curtain, but it just flapped in the breeze.

***

Daisy Mae wasn’t at our meeting place by the chain-link fence the next morning, and I spent the whole day trying not to think about her, which meant I thought only about her—the flashlight hurt I’d glimpsed before I left her standing outside my house in the sweltering heat. I’d thought her a fool for expecting him to stay, but how many times before had he told me he was staying for good? He was a born salesman, my dad; he could sell a glass of water to a drowning man, just by flashing his pearly whites. And there was irony in that, since he could have made a good living at the mountain as a crew boss like the Riddler, if only he didn’t have that itch inside he could only scratch by staying on the move.

Even seeing all that now, it still hurt that he’d stayed longer for them than he ever had for me.

***

Three days later and Daisy Mae hadn’t showed up, so I grabbed Rex after school and we went over to the house that was my dad’s and now just belonged to the dried-and-pressed flowers he’d left behind: Amaryllis, Tulip, and Daisy Mae. Nobody answered when I knocked, though we heard Tulip barking and someone shuffling around inside.

Daisy Mae? I shouted.

Daisy Mae? said Rex. Open up! It’s us! It’s your family!

There was nothing, even though we knocked for five minutes and Tulip didn’t stop barking the whole time.

Come on, I said to Rex. I have an idea.

***

Rex was a smarter kid than I’d ever been at his age; he’d told me he’d known dad was leaving for days.

Whenever he starts complaining about the smell, said Rex. That’s when he leaves.

You mad? I asked him, as we walked back to our house.

He shrugged. I just hope Daisy Mae lets us back in so we can still use the tv.

 

***

 

The sky was darkening by the time we made it back, but we had our flashlights—all three of us, since grandma had insisted on coming along when I’d picked up my long-silent tin violin.

I miss your music, she said, as she’d told me every day since I’d quit, but this time I allowed myself to truly consider it.

Why?

She chuckled.

Nobody else plays my trash instruments quite so exquisitely.

What about me? said Rex, clutching his own, smaller grandma-made clarinet.

Except you, darling, she said, and it was a kind lie because Rex was abysmal at the clarinet.

We stood outside the house by the old chain-link fence, and the smell of rotting trash rose up around us in the heat, and somewhere my father step-by-stepped away from us to wander once more, and I played my violin until Daisy Mae opened the door.

© 2014 Matea Wasend

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4 Responses

  1. Oh my! I don’t want this story to end. I wanted to read about Grandma learning to make the trash instruments. I want to read about Daisy Mae singing to accompany Zee. So visual, and filled with hidden treasures of words: large beast with a musical appetite; protected by my new truth-seeing eyes. Most of all, the assuring, strong voice of the older narrator guiding us through this horrific place: “And I hated her extra because she did pathetic more beautifully than I ever could.” Thank you and please write a big novel with these characters.

    • Thank you so much! It was hard to fit these characters into a short story because I did originally envision them in a novel. I will definitely revisit them–thanks for the kind words!

  2. Matea —

    This was awesome. I love how abruptly we’re thrown into mountain life through Zee, as well as the hopeful undercurrent flowing despite her tragedies. Your phrasing and vernacular work wonders to draw us into the mountain yet also keep some mystery shrouded about their universe. Would definitely be interested to explore these characters further. Great stuff, hope to read more of yours in the near future!

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