THE VINEYARD David Benjamin B.A., California State University, Sacramento, 2008

David Benjamin
B.A., California State University, Sacramento, 2008
Submitted in partial satisfaction of
the requirements for the degree of
(Creative Writing)
A Project
David Benjamin
Approved by:
_______________________________, Committee Chair
Doug Rice, Ph.D.
_______________________________, Second Reader
Joshua McKinney, Ph.D.
Student: __ David Benjamin____
I certify that this student has met the requirements for format contained in the University
format manual, and that this Project is suitable for shelving in the Library and credit is to
be awarded for the Project.
____________________________, Graduate Coordinator _______________
David Toise, Ph.D.
Department of English
David Benjamin
This collection of short stories explores the human condition and how the experiences we
go through can shape and define the people we eventually become. Whether it is an
experience with a childhood friend, a trip to your father’s house, or your first miserable
job, all these things lend a helping hand in molding our future selves.
_____________________________________, Committee Chair
Doug Rice, Ph.D.
THE STATE FAIR ............................................................................................................. 1
THE 37 ................................................................................................................................ 6
THE VINEYARD ............................................................................................................. 16
THE SHOWER ................................................................................................................. 36
EMILY .............................................................................................................................. 42
I liked taking my breaks behind the row of game tents on the northeast side of the
fair grounds. You know the games: pop three balloons in a row with dull darts, land red
plastic rings around tinted green bottles with a neck too thick for the ring to latch onto, or
maybe try your luck with knocking milk bottles of a platform with a leather bean bag
nowhere near heavy enough to do so. All for an oversized stuffed unicorn that will start
to lose its stitching that same night.
I met up with Bobby. He worked the Ferris Wheel near the entrance of the fair.
We smoked weed, drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, and made fun of the customers we saw
throughout the day; like that fat couple who waddled around together on the south side
near the food court, filling their faces with an assortment of fried moon pies and
chocolate covered bacon; the family outing, led by two or more candy apple wielding
demons dragging their sleep deprived parents close behind; and of course, the teenage
lovers who walked around the fair holding hands and pecking each other on the nose and
lips—obviously in love.
The Bumper Cars were my station. People filed in from the right and chose their
car. The frequent fair-goers sprinted for the yellow one with the black scuff marks and
the dried puke on the steering wheel. It was the fastest. Other kids chose their favorite
color, and one always got stuck with the slow brown car. My shelter sat at the front of
the track. I kept the door closed and locked with my peripheral vision turned off. The
first switch on the right started the cars, the black button sounded the buzzer and started
the music, push green to go, and after five minutes of mayhem it was flick switch number
one back down, slam red to stop. Like cattle, they filed out the left gate and in came the
next group from the right with another curly headed jerk lunging past his friends on a
desperate mission to get to the yellow car.
“This place is disgusting,” I said sipping on a beer. “The monotony of it all.”
“It’s not so bad, Jeanette,” argued Bobby, coughing out smoke. “Quick money
and a fun way to kick off the first few weeks of summer.”
Bobby wore a cut-off denim button-up that revealed his collection of tattoos. He
left the top few buttons undone, exposing his gold crucifix. His greasy brown hair forced
down by an old River Cats hat.
“It’s just these fuckin’ people. You know what kind of people waste their time at
a fair, Bobby? Do you? I’ll tell you—the crappy kind. And the inhabitants of this city
happen to be the shittiest kind of crappy.”
I took the joint from Bobby so he could crack open a Pabst. We slouched down
into the hay and dirt against one of the tents.
“What crawled up your ass this morning?”
“Fuck you.”
“Just sayin’, it’s only week two; can’t be losin’ your mind just yet. Besides, don’t
be so hard on them, they’re just people. Just people like you and me.”
I stood up and paced back and forth, every few seconds I brought the roach to my
lips. Inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling; like some sort of nervous twitch.
“I am nothing like these people, Bobby. Nothing”
I thought about what I just said to Bobby; saying it out loud, I felt even more like
them. Even though I don’t come here with hopes of scary rides and sticky candy, and I
take the bus to my job like a hard-working person should, I keep my glowing cannabis
pupils and beer can hands hidden as to not reveal my routine that begs to be followed. I
took one last hit from the roach, and let it sink in.
From the safety of my booth, I worked the controls. Two kids were fighting over
the yellow car. I ignored it until I heard yelling. Now the parents were involved.
“Who got here first?”
“No, me!”
“Your kid shoved my kid outta the way!”
“No, he shoved back! He got here first, go ride in that blue car!”
I tried to lead the kid I recognized toward the other car. His grip around the
steering wheel tightened.
“But, Dad, the yellow one is fastest!”
“Yeah the blue one sucks!” shouted the other.
“Shutup, Alex.”
“Shutup, Brandon.”
“This doesn’t concern you,” ordered the parents in unison.
These people were hopeless. None of this mattered, but they didn’t seem to care.
I spotted a tiny blue-eyed girl eagerly waiting for the buzzer in her brown car. I walked
over and squatted down.
“Do you like to go fast?” I asked.
She nodded and I helped her out as she stepped onto the track. We held hands
and walked toward the yellow car. By now, the boys had both eased away from their
stations. They tugged on their fathers’ shirts, pleading their case. I put her in the yellow
car and buckled her in. The yelling stopped.
“Brown or blue, take your pick, kids. Yellow is off limits.”
I turned my attention to the parents who both looked at me like I just backed over
their dog pulling out of my driveway.
“And you two, get off my fuckin’ track.”
First switch, black buzzer, green button. Five mintues. First switch back down,
slam red. The next group filed in.
The next day, by the time I got back to my spot behind the gaming tents, Bobby
was already there. He avoided eye contact and sipped his beer. It was not Pabst Blue
Ribbon. On the ground, burnt up tips of old grape and cherry swishers.
“I know, I know. Don’t say anything. Yes, we are outta weed, and no, this isn’t
Pabst,” said Bobby.
“And what do you have to say for yourself?” I asked.
“Woke up late, stopped at a different liquor store and they didn’t carry pbr.”
“And the weed?”
“Forgot to call my guy last night.”
“See how one tiny mishap can fuck up my whole day?”
“It’s just beer, Jeanette, nothin’ wrong with a little change.”
I tried to drink the beer but the absence of weed residue throughout my mouth
only made it more obvious that I wasn’t drinking Pabst. We went through our small talk
and I told Bobby about the bumper cars yesterday. These monotonous lost souls we said
to each other. And here they all come, back for more. That fat couple with their wide
moon pie eyes, those candy coated kids, and the prepubescent lovers. And us, with cans
of beer flashing behind our eyes like dollar signs and imaginary clouds of smoke
hovering over our heads. I tossed my half-full beer can in the corner next to some hay.
The rest of the summer I passed Bobby, every now and then, when he was
working the Ferris Wheel, or at the food court getting lunch. Sometimes we talked real
quick if one of us wasn’t in too big a hurry, sometimes. Mostly, we just saw each other,
and nodded, or waved.
I went to my booth, shut the door and turn my peripheral vision off. There goes
another kid, in hot pursuit of the favored yellow car; stiff-arming anyone in his way. I
thought about the blue-eyed girl and sighed. Tomorrow I would ask for a transfer to the
Teacup ride. A place, I imagined, filled with blue-eyed girls.
First switch, black buzzer, green button. Five mintues. First switch back down,
slam red. The next group filed in.
THE 37
Lights in the shape of giant fishing hooks hanging over the freeway, spaced out
much farther than normal, caused the inside of my car to take on a flash of light every
five to nine seconds depending on my speed. The constant whizzing from the tires
turning over the wet highway remained uninterrupted despite the few times I lost focus
and allowed the car to glide over the grooves cut into the right left side of the emergency
lane—driving by brail, my mom always called it.
That single lane stretch that lead me past Marine World and towards Sears Point
and into Novato where my dad's house was, grew even longer, and even tighter. Once I
crossed the Petaluma River, there would be nothing to light my way except the yellow
and white reflectors stamped down on the highway, the dim glow from my weathered
headlights, and the moon (if it ever peeked around from behind the clouds).
I had been down this road many times before, but never as a driver. Certain spots
along the highway tickled my bones with a sense of familiarity from adventures to my
aunt and uncle’s house or those day trips to Napa. Whenever my head wasn’t buried in a
video game or my eyes weren’t caught in the collage of pixels streaming from the
portable DVD player, I must have looked up and noticed these parts of the marshy
highway. I remember driving out here to fish early in the morning with my dad, just as
the tip of the sun started to rise over the farthest point of the river. We parked on the
side of the road and took beach chairs down to the edge of the water with our tackle box
and poles; the crust still thick in the corners of my eyes and lids half-closed. At five in
the morning on a Saturday I wanted to be in bed dreaming of the cartoons and pancakes
in my near future. But every weekend he wanted to take me out to fish and waste his
time teaching me how to bait my own hook, or cast my line far out into the river while he
explained the importance of wrist action and patience.
“Don’t just reel it in, son. Fishing is a waiting game.”
Saturday we fished and Sunday was catch in the park, that is, if the weather
allowed for it. We tossed the ball around at the elementary school down the road from
our house. He shot me grounders around the infield and I worked my way around the dirt
from third to first and then, to the grass to catch pop flies. One drop of rain and we were
back in the car heading home. Can’t be getting all wet and sick, he always told me.
Catch on Sundays never happened as often as fishing on Saturdays. I always
thought he checked the weather and planned to go to the field on days it was scheduled to
rain so we’d have to go home early.
He left us nine years ago, when I was only ten. Every year since then he has sent
me a birthday card with twenty bucks in it, and then, a couple months later, a Christmas
card with twenty more. He never came to visit but he would occasionally call my mom
to check in, or see how she was doing, or how I was doing. I wasn’t sure. My mom was
the one who suggested I go see him.
“He’s your father. You should go.”
Father or not, he walked out. What was left to say? He is living in a new city
with a new home and a new girlfriend. He probably has a new car and a new yard and
probably even a new dog.
I thought of what he’d say when he saw me. I know he would tell me it wasn’t
my fault and that he still loves me, wants me to be a part of his life and that he and my
mom just weren’t getting along. It would be typical. He would only say what he thought
was the right thing to say.
The Petaluma River begged to turn to glass despite the raindrops trickling over
the surface. The small rusted houseboats with their spider-cracked portholes and rotting
decks slowed their bobbing and stopped knocking against the small marina. The night
became quiet and the lights on the highway, gone. The sounds of tires racing across the
freshly soaked asphalt and the rain echoing against the windshield fought for dominance
over my ears. Life on a houseboat, even one ready to sink beneath the water, seemed like
a beautiful life; a much better life than the one I have—no one to answer to, nights
ending with barbeques and mornings beginning with the smell of coffee and of water
baking in the rising sun. I wondered for a small moment what it would be like not to
worry about bills and gas, and college degrees and the world, and dads, and moms; but
rather, to only worry about the best type of charcoal for the grill and how to keep warm
during winter.
I rolled down my window and the smell of briquettes and algae ran up my
nostrils, down to the back of my throat, and danced along my taste buds. Rolling over the
bridge, I eased my car off the single lane road and into a circle of dirt designed to be a
makeshift emergency lane that stood overlooking the marina. One of the houseboats had
Christmas lights strung along the railings; some just spiraled around the rusted metal,
pulled tight, and others were secured with duct tape every foot or so after their repeating
low arching swoops. Christmas lights in spring—awesome. Much more exciting than
making sure the lights and tree were up and shining the day after Thanksgiving and taken
down promptly on January 2nd, a rigid schedule my dad had stuck to every year. This
same boat also had tiki torches in every corner and beach chairs and a couch on the roof.
A glimmering pile of brightness amongst the darkness that looked as if it could so easily
devour anything.
A man walked out onto the deck to rotate the food on his grill. He was shirtless
and his over-tanned skin drooped down in wrinkles, like the arching swoops of the
Christmas lights, to the waistband of his faded orange swim trunks. He looked my way
and lifted up the hand with the spatula in it and I put my arm in the air to return the
gesture. A fat cigar stuck out from his mouth and he used the fire from one of the tiki
torches to light it. He baited the hook of his fishing pole and with a quick flick, shot it at
least twenty feet out into the river. He leaned his pole carelessly against the corner of the
boat as if he wasn’t expecting to catch a single fish. He didn’t seem to care about fishing.
I guess he just figured he might as well cast his line since he lives on a boat. That’s the
kind of fishing I like—laid back, easy, no pressure. He sat down and propped his feet up
on the metal railing, knocking his shoes against some of the Christmas lights. By
himself, amongst the noises from the river and the rickety boat, he sat and smoked his
cigar, and smiled with every cloud of smoke that floated away from his lips. From the
edge of the road I stared and coveted his simple life; next to no one and away from
everyone. I had to get one of those boats. I’d save up, get a job at the marina and then
see if I could rent from one of the guys docking there. I’d tell my mom and then send for
a few of my things and let the memory of my old life fade away into nothing. That would
be nice.
I drove this highway as if I had driven it hundreds of times. My eyes glossed over
and got sucked into the horizon. My muscles steered the wheel and my thoughts were in
limbo. I shook my head after what I was sure had only been three seconds, but I had
gone nearly three miles. I remembered where I was now and the sign for Sears Point was
in view, and soon, I would pass long rows of old family vineyards. Rows and rows of
grapes that have stood for years, passed down by generations in order to be kept in the
family. Thick trunks of wood that twirled up like marble staircases turned into branches
and dangled delicate green or red grapes. These stood on either side of the highway;
perfectly spaced out with gaps left in between them and when I passed going eighty I
tried to see how far down I could look and if I could see the large estate or children
playing. Not tonight. Brake lights began to glow so I slowed my car and looked through
the vineyards again. Still nothing. The rain beat against the vines and the tiny grapes
broke away and rolled around the mud and into small dirty puddles of water.
A few miles before my exit, traffic came to a standstill—probably an accident or a
tree blocking the road. The last piece of the 37 that led to my exit, which I now idled
down inch by inch, had large amounts of property on either side. Some, and most were
vineyards, but others were just fenced in never-ending acres for grazing where the owners
kept horses. Along the fence lines the city built in a slender sandy path so people could
walk or walk their horses along the side of the highway. The rain changed it to a dark
brown color but it looked like that slippery, gravely type grain of a baseball infield.
The rain hit harder now that my car remained stuck to the road and it sounded like
hundreds of tiny rocks skipping and ricocheting off my windshield. Outside my window,
a tiny boy, his father, and their dog walked along the dirt path. The boy sported red rain
boots and a glossy yellow jacket with matching hat. Both the father and the dog had
green ponchos draped over them. They were walking to see the fallen tree, or maybe the
accident, or maybe just taking that walk the father promised, and didn’t break, even
though the weather had tried to stop them. Not worried about getting wet or sick, they
trucked along the path. The boy stayed a couple steps ahead. He tried to jump from
puddle to puddle without having to take steps in between, only stopping to squash the
occasional grape under the hard rubber of his rain boot. Just before all three were out of
sight, the boy took a huge leap into a deep puddle. Water splashed up into the air and got
lost amongst the rain falling on the boy’s hat. He looked back at his father with a, “Did
you see how cool that was?” look on his face. The dog’s leash pulled tight, its paws
searched for traction within the mud and water, begging to join in on the fun. The father
pointed ahead of the boy at the next puddle as if to say, “Let’s see if you can get that
one.” The boy jumped, and jumped, and jumped some more, with his father and eager
dog close behind, until they all became raindrops and faded into the watery sky.
The traffic had cleared, and being enamored by the men in hardhats and orange
vests dealing with a huge tree, now on the side of the road, I drove right past the Black
Point/Atherton sign, my exit. I stayed on the 37 for its last few miles until it dead ended
into the 101 which put me on what seemed to be the south end of Atherton Avenue; with
downtown Novato to my left and Apple Market straight ahead.
Redwood Street broke right off of Atherton and ran a straight line through
downtown. I explored all the old buildings, turning down every cross street—first,
second, third, and up to the last one, seventh. On seventh, I stopped at the first place I
saw that had a flickering open sign hanging inside the window—Sam’s Roadhouse Diner.
It was a small old time diner across from and even older full service gas station with
attendants running around in raincoats pumping gas and checking oil. I still had over
thirty minutes until my dad expected me, so I parked my car and tried to dodge the rain as
I jogged towards the diner. The smell of gasoline lingered in the raindrops, only to be
outdone by the thick aroma of fresh pies and bacon.
I took a seat by a window so I could watch the water spill over the awning like a
skimpy little waterfall. I pictured myself knocking on my dad’s front door. Would he
hug me? Should I hug him? I was so unsure of what to do it made my stomach twist and
tighten into a knot that wouldn’t leave. I thought about the last time I saw him, nine
years ago. I thought about how I just stood on the front lawn and watched as he wheeled
a suitcase down our front steps. I held a soccer ball underneath my right arm and my
mom was crying. He cupped the back my head. “Take care of your mom, kiddo.” He
stepped into that taxi and drove off.
A gray haired man sat in the farthest corner booth smoking a cigarette. The diner
was non-smoking but I think they let it slide as long as he sat far away and business
stayed slow. I could tell because all the heavy-set wrinkled waitresses behind the counter
looked back and forth between me and the man at least a hundred times before I took my
seat. I didn’t mind. I found the smell of tobacco—this particular tobacco—soothing. I
could taste the smells of wood and earth on my tongue from the floating strands of
smoke; as if he reached into the ground with his own seasoned hands, plucked the plant,
and rolled it himself.
A waitress came and asked what she could get for me. Coffee was all I needed to
soak up the time but she talked me into some fresh blueberry pie which was now, over
half gone.
“Good?” she asked.
“Very,” I replied, scooping a giant bite into my mouth.
She dawdled at my booth for a while like she was bored, or had something more
to say, or just had nowhere else to go. It seemed to be just me and the gray haired man in
her section of the diner when the bell above the entrance jingled and a woman walked in
with her son. She kept the door open and shook the rain off her umbrella before she
stepped in and then took her son’s jacket and slung it over the coat rack. Her son, he was
all decked out in baseball gear. Cleats, bright orange socks, tight white pants pulled up to
the knee like they should be, black Giants jersey with the number seven stitched to the
back, and a black Giants hat. The dirt on his pants and the mud he tracked across the
diner floor meant he just finished a game. He still had his mitt on his left hand, ball still
stuffed inside. They took their seats in the spinning stools up at the counter. They come
here regularly, I figured. Before the boy could even slip his glove off, a waitress served
the mom a mug of hot tea and brought the boy a giant slice of cherry pie with two scoops
of vanilla ice cream.
“I remember when I played little league,” I told the waitress.
She nodded and eased backwards away from my booth, pulling the steaming
coffee pot from the counter.
“Can I top you off?” she said, asking and pouring at the same time.
“I played right field and never got the chance to catch many fly balls.”
“And when I did, I always missed.”
“Here is some sugar.”
“I remember the first ball I caught. It was the third out of the fifth inning. My
mom nearly tumbled down the wooden bleachers with excitement and shook the fence
behind the dugout like a caged animal. Afterwards, we went to Leatherby’s, even though
my team lost the game.”
“Let me know if you need anything else.”
The little boy had moved to his mom’s lap. The hard end of the crust and a warm
pool of cherry swirled vanilla ice cream was all he left on his plate. The weight of his
head rested on his mom’s shoulder. His cheek was squished towards his face and his
Giants hat had slipped to the back of his head, exposing the matted brown hair beneath.
A dry ring of cherry goop and a tint of white from the ice cream ran in a circle around his
mouth; his baseball mitt, now tucked away under his mom’s arm.
In one beautiful execution, she got up from the stool, pulled out her keys, grabbed
the boy’s jacket from the rack, opened the door with her right foot and popped open the
umbrella, all without waking the boy—a practiced skill only perfected over time. And as
quick as they came in, he was buckled up in the backseat, and they were gone.
It was getting darker and the lights meant to brighten the town shrank, and grew
dreary as the night progressed. I drove down Atherton Avenue. Hypnotized by the twists
and the turns and having to squint at every sign made dark by the hovering trees, I drove
right by Olive Street—the street that lead to my Dad’s house—but I didn’t turn back
around. I kept on driving down Atherton. I bumped into Black Point a few miles down
and it threw me right back on the 37. I just kept driving. I pictured my dad at the
window, spreading the blinds every few minutes to hopefully catch the headlights of my
car dipping up and into the driveway. But I don’t think he was doing that. I don’t think
he expected I’d even come anyway. That, I think we both knew.
The rusted tractor near the backside of the house—between the tool shed and the
vineyard—had started to sink into the earth from the years of neglect. The solid rubber
tires, once too tall for Aaron to even see over, were beginning to bury themselves in the
ground, deeper and deeper with each rain. Now, Aaron was able to place his elbows on
top of the tire, amongst the dry, river like cracks, and rest his chin in the giant gaps
between the oversized tread. Aaron liked to sit up in that old tractor. The driver’s seat
had no more padding and the springs beneath it sounded weathered and stiff. The broken
steering wheel was easy to spin in circles and the levers were all stuck except for one.
Aaron could sit up in that tractor all day plowing imaginary fields and scooping up piles
of invisible dirt or gravel.
Old cans of Top tobacco (his dad’s favorite brand) lay spread out across the dash
and scattered over the floor between thin rolling papers and half-crushed cans of Pabst
Blue Ribbon. Aaron picked up one of the empty tobacco cans and shoved his face in as
far as his bony cheeks allowed him. He liked the aluminum smell that stuck to the
tobacco from being packaged in the can. The thick odor of dirt and oak passed through
his nostrils and then changed to a smell that reminded him of some candy he couldn’t
remember the name of, and finally, leaving that slight metallic taste near the back of his
throat. Aaron did this with a different can every day, or maybe the same can, he could
never be sure.
The screen door at the back of the house squealed as the hinges rotated and then
snapped back into place, slamming into the dried-out wooden jamb, bending the
aluminum frame. His father stood beneath the shade of the overhang.
“What are you doing with those cans, boy?” said his dad, Lloyd, from the back
“Nothin, Pop.”
“Well get your head out of there and get in here for some supper.”
“Sure thing.”
Araron gripped the frame of the tractor. Like a rock out of a slingshot, he flung
his body out of the tractor and flew towards the ground. He lost control midflight and the
impact from the fall threw him forward, but he was prepared, and braced himself with his
hands. He paused, not getting up right way. His hands sank past the crumbled dirt on the
surface, and he enjoyed the cool, almost moist soil beneath it that had crept up and
underneath his fingernails.
“And don’t forget to wash your damn hands.”
Dinner was the same as last night, and the night before that, for Aaron and his
father—a can of black beans and a cut of stale bread. They ate the beans right out of the
can and attacked the bread with their teeth like wild animals who had missed a few
meals. Despite the lack of hearty food, Lloyd was a big man. His brown boots covered
his size fourteen feet and made his over six foot frame appear even larger. The denims
around his waist were held up by suspenders draped over a white tank top, all covered by
a thick blue or red flannel. The hair on his chest traveled up until it got lost in his beard,
which had been growing for as long as Aaron could remember, and made his face larger
too. The beer can looked dwarfed as Lloyd gripped it inside his hairy-knuckled hand and
took continuous gulps. Aaron was much the opposite; dainty, small, more like his mother
than like Lloyd. His skinny little arms poked through the sleeves of his dirt and sweat
stained V-neck, and he wore corduroys, not denims. He’s had his black PF Flyers for
over two years and his toes were starting to press too hard against the front of his shoes.
His blonde hair was straight and getting long. It fell softly, over his forehead and just
past his eyebrows, causing him, every so often, to push out his bottom lip like a monkey
in an attempt to blow it away from his line of sight. Aaron bent back the metal lid of the
can and scooped up some more beans with his spoon.
“Hey, Pop?”
Lloyd didn’t respond. He took another swig from his beer and raised his
“Think we could go into town tomorrow? Get me some new shoes?”
“What’s wrong with the shoes you got on? They ripped?”
“No. It’s just they’re getting small and my toes—”
“They ain’t ripped?”
“Well if they ain’t ripped then you don’t need any goddamn new ones do you?”
Lloyd poured the rest of the beer down his throat, leaned back in his chair,
crushed the can with his hand and tossed it on the floor. He scooted back and rose up
from the table with a big stretch, like a grizzly on its hind legs ready to attack at any
moment. He grabbed a fresh can from the fridge and headed to the living room.
“Don’t forget to clean up after you’re done eating, boy.”
Aaron heaved a bulging black garbage bag over his right shoulder and bumped
open the screen door with his foot. Making his way down the steps, he whipped the bag
off his back and it landed next to groups of other week-old bags, rotting contents spilling
out onto the ground. Aaron peeked back through the screen, and just as he figured, just
like every night, his dad lay asleep in the recliner in front of the television with a pile of
empty beer cans at his feet.
A can of Top was on the porch by the screen door. This one was full. Aaron
liked to roll himself cigarettes whenever he knew he wouldn’t get caught. He squeezed
the tobacco between his fingers and spread it along the paper. He pinched the sides and
then gave it a quick lick and a final pinch and roll. He lit up a good twenty feet away
from the house and it was usually around this time—a good hour or so before the
sunset—that he could spot Evelyn walking down the quarter mile stretch of road from her
property; tonight was no exception. Evelyn was thirteen—a year older than Aaron—and
they always spent this time after dinner together. Soon, school would be out and they
would spend all day in each other’s company. Aaron took unskilled puffs from his
cigarette and watched Evelyn skip down the road. Her bare feet kicked up a long trail of
dust, like a jet stream in a cloudless sky. Her white summer dress danced around her
ankles and her hair matched the color of the sun on those nights it set beyond the
mountains and behind the clouds and made Aaron wonder how there could be that many
colors he’d never seen before.
“Pops sleeping?”
“Yup,” said Aaron taking a pull from his cigarette. He tried not to cough.
“That’s bad for you, you know.”
“Says who?”
“Says everyone.”
Aaron rolled his eyes and Evelyn walked passed him and made for the vineyard,
or what was left of it. The property used to belong to Aaron’s grandfather. Back then,
people called it Ravens Creek Wineries. It was a bountiful twenty acres filled with rich
soil and bright green plants as far as the eye could see. His grandfather made the wine
himself and sold it to the local stores in town and on the hottest days of summer sold
fresh grapes out by the main road. The property got its name from the tiny creek near the
back of the vineyard. Near the edge of the creek by the rocks and sand there were always
piles and piles of black raven feathers, but never any ravens in sight. Aaron’s grandfather
loved collecting the feathers and would attach them to his bottles of wine with yarn for
that little something extra. The creek was dried up now. Nothing but a trench filled with
pebbles and rocks and the feathers had disappeared and the trees were nothing more than
wiry wooden stumps protruding from the ground. Aaron followed Evelyn and listened as
the sun-dried soil crumbled under his shoes. He picked at the old branches that once
dangled hundreds of bright purple grapes, pulled off a withered piece of bark, and sent it
into the sky like a Frisbee. The white dress tailed behind Evelyn in the soft breeze like a
giant kite. It chased her and billowed in the air like a shape-shifting, when all of a
sudden, a gust of wind caught the dress, only for a moment, showing Aaron her
underwear—even whiter than the dress—and the tiny pinched corners where her white
butt met her brown legs. Aaron wanted to tell her or go push her dress back down. He
wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. He kept his head turned away but his eyes
remained on Evelyn, and as quick as the wind came, nature had settled and the dress
relaxed and resumed grazing about her ankles. Aaron, almost immediately moved his
eyes back to the horizon, for Evelyn stayed a couple paces ahead, always looking back
over her shoulder to make sure he was still following.
They made home against an old grape tree next to a wine barrel they had rolled
out there last summer. Aaron dropped his cigarette and squished it with his shoe and let
his back slide down the barrel until his corduroys met the soil. Evelyn caught her breath
and took a quick puff from her inhaler.
“Think any of these trees could still make grapes?” asked Evelyn.
“No, been dried up too long.”
“I’d love some grapes.”
“Well you came to the wrong place then, Evelyn.”
“Oh hush, Aaron. You’ll never know unless you try, now will you?”
“Guess not.”
Aaron slid off both his shoes and sat cross-legged against the wine barrel. He
took out an old pocket knife and cut through the rubber into the toe of the shoes.
“Aaron, what are you doing to your shoes?”
“Don’t fit no more.”
“Well then you should get some new ones.”
“They ain’t even worn out yet, Evelyn.”
Aaron continued to slice through his PF Flyers. Once the cut was wide enough he
put the shoes back on and now his toes hung out the front instead of being jammed
against the rubber all day.
Evelyn pulled her dress tight behind her knees as she sat down on the dirt and
then laid flat on her back. Aaron joined her. They took a moment to stare and listen to
the sound, the only sound, of the wind carving through the branches of the trees.
Evelyn’s eyes scanned the sky left and right. Aaron’s eyes scanned Evelyn.
“What do you think clouds are made of, Aaron?”
“The clouds. How’d they get there? They have to be made of something.”
“Gosh, Evelyn, I dunno. What kinda question is that anyways?”
Aaron thought they looked like the cotton candy he got at the fair last summer,
but said nothing. Evelyn’s eyes dropped from the landscape of the sky and focused on
the dirt. Aaron adjusted his body to get more comfortable. He looked over at Evelyn and
put his arm over her shoulder like he would a sister because he wasn’t quite sure what he
was doing yet. Evelyn’s eyes widened and she stayed frozen in her place in the dirt, but
she didn’t know what she was doing yet either.
They stayed there until the soil beneath their clothes became cold and the sun
stretched out of view behind the horizon. They could barely see the fading light through
the cracks and spaces of the old grape trees and the sky turned from blue to grey to black.
They didn’t go back right away. They decided to stay there until someone came
looking for them, until someone missed them. Evelyn played footsie with the dirt. They
let the sounds of grasshoppers and rustling leaves take over as they closed their eyes.
Aaron imagined what it would be like to have a different life, and Evelyn did the same.
It was the first weekday morning since school had let out. Lloyd worked all day
which meant Aaron was alone, and the world was his. After his beans and bread, Aaron
sat on the edge of the porch in his underwear and smoked. “Nothing like a smoke after
breakfast,” he thought to himself.
The hot summer air still blew cool this time of day and Aaron closed his eyes and
smiled as the wind passed over him. He coughed out some smoke and when he opened
his eyes, Evelyn was standing in front of him.
“C’mon, let’s go to the creek!”
“Already? Can’t we wait until the sun warms everything up a bit?”
“Don’t be lazy, Aaron.”
“What’s in the bag?”
“I think you should mind your business, boy.”
“That’s right. And if you come to the creek maybe I’ll show you.”
Aaron and Evelyn zigzagged through the never-ending vineyard. Aaron had
picked up a walking stick along the way and began whapping branches off the dead grape
trees. Evelyn skipped ahead in her white dress; bag in hand, eyes on the sky. He
wondered what the wind might do to her dress. They cut left, right, left, right all the way
through the vineyard until they arrived at the creek. Aaron jammed his walking stick into
the dirt and sat down near the bank on a big rock. Evelyn walked inside the dried up
creek making sure to avoid the sharp rocks and kept an eye out for the smooth ones.
When she found one she liked, she picked it up and ran her thumb across the surface and
then dropped it in her bag. Aaron watched her closely as he fiddled with dirt and tossed
skipping stones at the bridge down the creek.
“Gonna share what’s in that bag?”
“Maybe,” said Evelyn with a smirk, dropping another rock into her bag.
“Whatever. I don’t care much anyhow.”
A moment of silence passed between them. Evelyn continued to pick up rocks
and Aaron went back to throwing stones. He threw as hard as he could but not one stone
got close to the bridge. Aaron let out a deep breath, braced himself with his walking
stick, and jumped to his feet.
“Oh c’mon, Ev! Just let me see what’s in the bag!”
“I thought you didn’t care to see in my bag anymore?”
“I lied. C’mon just show me.”
“I’m not sure if I should.”
“Calm down, boy. I’m coming.”
Evelyn tip-toed across the rocks and jumped to the edge of the creek once she
knew she was close enough to make it. Aaron skidded down the bank holding his
walking stick and met her by the edge. Aaron grabbed at the bag with his hands and tried
to dig inside it.
“Let’s see it, let’s see it!”
Evelyn ripped the bag from his hands and raised her eyebrows.
“Watch it, grabby.”
With her back turned and the bag hidden, Evelyn reached in and pulled out a
shoebox. Aaron knew exactly what was inside that bright green container. Before
Evelyn had even let go of the box, Aaron flipped off the lid, seeing exactly what he
expected—a shiny new pair of black PF Flyers. He ran his hands along the crisp canvas
and the thick rubber of the toe and sole. He looked up at Evelyn in disbelief.
“Well, put them on already.”
Aaron tied his old shoes together and slipped into the new ones—perfect. They
cradled his foot with every step he took. He felt like he could do anything.
“Evelyn, how—”
“I used the money my mama gave me for having a good report card. Can’t have
you walking around everywhere with your toes hanging out, Aaron, that’s ridiculous.”
“They’re great.”
“Do you feel fast?”
“Faster than ever.”
Aaron blinked, and when he opened his eyes, Evelyn was sprinting towards the
vineyard with her bag of rocks. Aaron picked up his old shoes and took off after her.
The old PF Flyers whipped back and forth against his arms as he charged down the
property trying to follow her path and keep the white dress in view.
They ran through the dirt and dodged trees as they cut through the vineyard. Just
as Aaron got within arm’s reach of Evelyn, she started to slow down and then fell to her
hands and knees. Her bag dropped to ground and a few rocks spilled out. Aaron slid to a
stop and knelt down next to her. She rolled to her back and grabbed for the collar of
Aaron’s shirt. Her breaths were empty like the air was right in front of her but she
couldn’t get any in. Aaron cradled her and she tried to say his name.
“Evelyn! Evelyn! Tell me what to do!”
She kept cocking her head back with every gasp for air. Her grip on his shirt got
tighter and her feet flexed. Her toes spread and then curled deep back into the dirt.
Aaron finally remembered—asthma. He searched for the inhaler, finally pulling
it from her front pocket and pressed it to her lips. He gave her two quick puffs and
watched as her breathing started to slow and air began to fill her lungs. He remembered
something he saw Evelyn’s mom do one time when this happened before. He lifted her
from the ground and brought their chests together. Aaron began to take deep, controlled
“Just follow my breathing, Ev. Feel me breathe.”
Aaron held her there until her breathing returned to normal. Evelyn’s face was
still pale from fright, but she was smiling and breathing on her own. Aaron brushed the
hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ears. Evelyn tried to do the same to him
but Aaron just blew the hair away from his face.
Evelyn’s eyes widened when she looked passed Aaron, over his right shoulder,
and pointed at a grape tree.
“Aaron, look!”
Behind Aaron was just another dry, crumbling grape tree free of all the hard work
and care that had been put into it all those years ago. But this tree had branch sticking
out, and dangling on the end was a bright green leaf holding onto a tiny bright green
grape. Far from being ripe, it hung from the tree all by itself like a lone Christmas
ornament with a rusted hook that if it even experienced the smallest bump or a gust of
wind from the right direction, it would fall to the ground.
“I knew it, Aaron. I knew there were grapes!”
“Just one.”
“Yeah but if we come back here every day and water it I bet hundreds could
“Gosh, I don’t know, Ev. Don’t get your hopes up.”
Evelyn took the bottom of her dress between her teeth and ripped a long piece of
fabric off from around the hem. She reached over Aaron and tied the piece of her dress
around one of the branches.
“Now we can find it easy when we come back tomorrow.”
Aaron tossed his old shoes over on top of some stacked firewood next to the back
porch when he got home. When he heard the metal from his father’s fork scraping the
inside of the can of beans, he knew he was late for dinner. Aaron kept his head down
when he opened the screen door just enough for his body to slide through without making
any extra noise.
“Sorry, Pop.”
“Supper started ten minutes ago, boy.”
“I know.”
Lloyd scraped at the bottom of the can and fished for the last of the beans. He
gulped down his beer and blindly tossed the empty can across the table, hitting Aaron on
the head before it fell to the floor.
“Don’t think I don’t know you been smoking my top too, boy.”
“Just once, Pop. I swear.”
“Once my ass. That why my can out on the porch is damn near empty?”
Aaron stood at the counter and began to help himself to a can of beans.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“Getting some supper.”
“You missed supper. Now clean this mess up.”
Aaron set down the can of beans before he walked towards his father. He
hesitated, but he knew he’d have to. He crept over to the other end of table and when he
reached for the can of empty beans his father snatched him by the wrist.
“Where’d you get those shoes?”
“Evelyn, huh?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Those are some good lookin’ shoes. Take them off and let me have a look.”
“But, Pop, I have to clean—”
“Take them off, boy!”
Aaron used the dinner table to balance himself as he untied his double-knotted
laces. His hands shook as he pried the shoe off and the canvas stretched over his heel and
his foot popped out. His father ripped the shoe from Aaron’s grasp before he had a
chance to give it to him. Lloyd leaned back in his chair and eyed the shoe. He felt the
fresh canvas with both his thumbs and flexed the rubber toe with his hand to see how
much give they had.
The sole of the shoe had dirt and small rocks stuck between the rubber grooves.
Lloyd was quite quick for a man his size, and without the slightest backwards draw of his
hand, his big paw landed on Aaron’s face.
“What was wrong with your old shoes?”
Lloyd asked him again, and again, each with a sharp smack to side of the head.
“That little bitch think I can’t get you your own shoes? We don’t need any
goddamn handouts.”
Aaron tried to block some of the swings and back away from his father. Lloyd
took a rag from the counter and threw it at Aaron.
“Clean, boy!”
Aaron brought the rag to his nose and inhaled as deep as he could. He could still
smell her lavender dish soap. Lloyd grabbed another beer from the fridge and went to the
living room, taking the shoes with him.
“Just like your damn mother!”
Aaron wiped down the counter and stared out the screen door at the vineyard. He
felt the flush side of his left cheek and picked around the tiny cut at the corner of his
mouth. His muscles made memorized circle patterns across the counter but his eyes and
mind floated out of the house. The grape trees had to be at least five, six feet tall now,
bursting with leaves and giant purple grapes dripping with juices on the verge of
explosion, begging to be picked. The soil underneath was rich and dark, moist with water
and life. Everything around the vineyard was green. Huge fields of grass too thick to
walk through surrounded the vineyard and stretched all the way around his house. Aaron
could hear the water rushing through the creek at the back of the vineyard, making its
way over and through all the stones. Covered by clouds, high up in the sky was a
waterfall coming from nowhere that poured and poured and kept pouring fresh water into
the creek. Running from the back of the vineyard, zigzagging through the trees and
picking grapes was Evelyn in her white dress. Aaron could see her. That white dress
danced behind her, playing catch-up with her body. She picked more grapes, pulling
huge bunches from the trees. She was bringing him grapes. He could hear her voice
calling to him.
“I told you, Aaron. I told you the grapes would grow. I told you.”
Ash from Aaron’s cigarette floated down and landed on his toes that were
wiggling out the front of his shoes. His mouth was dry and when he yawned, the scabbed
up blood at the corner of his lip cracked. He kept his head down and watched the bright
red cherry of the cigarette diminish with each puff.
Aaron pinched the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, extinguishing what
was left of the burning cherry. Just as he had shut the screen door and started to turn
around, he heard footsteps plopping up the stairs and onto his porch.
“Aaron, let’s go. Let’s go to the grape tree.”
Evelyn stood with her nose almost touching the screen door. Her hair was pulled
back tight and covered with a blue bandana. She held a red tin watering can in her right
“I don’t really feel like it, Evelyn.”
Aaron’s face stayed hidden behind the screen and the darkness of the kitchen.
Evelyn grabbed the handle of the door and started to pull it open but Aaron quickly
yanked it shut.
“I said no!”
“What’s going on?
“Tired. Now just get outta here!”
“But the grapes.”
“I don’t care about your stupid grapes! Just leave!”
The watering can clanked against the aluminum frame when Evelyn pressed her
face to the screen door. Aaron’s head was turned away but she saw his toes poking out
the front of his old PF Flyers.
“I’m coming by in the morning. We’ll just get to watering tomorrow.”
Aaron turned his eyes and saw Evelyn smile through the screen door. She pushed
her hand to the mesh and he put his up pushing back. The stayed there only for moment,
letting their skin warm one another’s palm. Evelyn’s hand slid down the screen as she
backed away down the porch, and finally, out of sight.
By the time Aaron had made his way through the vineyard and found the tree,
Evelyn had already been there for a while. She didn’t look up when Aaron came over to
her. Her hair covered her face and eyes while she stared at the dirt. The watering can
clung to her fingertips, just on the edge of slipping. Aaron didn’t have to ask her what
was wrong. He saw the grape next to the trunk of the tree, dusted with dirt. It must have
fallen off late last night or maybe early this morning. For sure, the entire vineyard must
be dry now; lost, never to return. The tiny fruit of hope that made both Aaron and Evelyn
picture themselves selling crates and crates of grapes in the summertime down by the
main road now sat dying on the ground, detached and lifeless.
“Let’s water it anyways,” said Aaron taking the can from Evelyn’s hand.
Water rained from the spout of the can as Aaron tipped it over and flooded the
base of the tree with water. The tiny grape spun around and floated in pockets of dirty
water amongst the mud.
Evelyn squatted to the ground and rested her back against the base of another
grape tree. With her knees tucked tight to her chest, she dug her toes into the newly
formed mud. Aaron sat down across from her. Sometimes, he would look up and either
his eyes would widen just a bit or his mouth would open as if he was just about to talk.
But he was afraid to say the wrong thing, so he kept quiet. Aaron took the premature
grape from the shallow puddle it floated in and rolled it around his hand. It rolled up into
the grooves of his fingers like a ball on a track and bounced around the moguls that were
the thick calluses on his hand.
Aaron watched Evelyn curl here toes back and forth in the mud, digging deeper
and deeper. With his shoe, he pushed a pile of mud onto her foot. Her toes stopped
digging and he thought for a moment that she was going to look up, but she just shook
the mud off and went back to what she was doing. Aaron tried this two more times but
Evelyn had the same reaction. It wasn’t until his fourth try that Evelyn grabbed a pile of
dirt with her hand and hurled it at Aaron’s face. Seeing only the whites of his eyes and
watching Aaron spit out mud from his mouth finally got Evelyn to smile. Aaron cleaned
what he could with his shirt then went back to rolling the grape around his palm.
When Evelyn tried to relax and adjust herself by laying one leg out straight but
keeping the other tight to her chest, Aaron stopped fiddling with the grape and caught
himself looking right up Evelyn’s dress at her underwear. It was so different from her
last pair. It was whiter and he thought it looked softer. Little purple dots covered the
front and there was purple lace on the waistband. Aaron kept looking. He had never
seen anyone like this before. He tried to look with just his eyes by keeping his head
down. He didn’t want her to move; and when she did move, her legs inched a little
farther apart and her underwear slid to the right and Aaron saw all this new skin. It was
her skin; the same skin, he was certain, but it looked different. He thought it looked
thicker and softer than the rest of her skin; soft like the bottom of his wrist where no hair
would grow, or like a peach layered with fuzz but still soft to the touch. More like a
peach, thought Aaron as he made sense of the crease between Evelyn’s legs. He rolled
the grape between his thumb and forefinger and sometimes held it to rub his thumb
across its unripe skin. He wondered if she knew he was looking because she moved just
an inch every so often and Aaron kept seeing more and more. He wanted to touch it. He
wanted to ask Evelyn if he could touch it but what if she didn’t know he was looking and
hadn’t wanted him to ever look in the first place? Again, Aaron fiddled with the grape
between his fingers, wondering what it would feel like to reach up Evelyn’s skirt and
slide his hand behind the purple lace.
They spent the rest of the day away from the vineyard, back near Aaron’s house.
Up in the tractor he let Evelyn sit in the seat and pretend to drive. Aaron stood braced on
the outside of the tractor with one hand holding on to the big metal frame, and the other
picking up old cans of tobacco.
“Ev, smell this,” said Aaron shoving the can near her nose. “Cool, huh?”
“Yuck! That’s nasty.”
Evelyn swung her arm towards the can, batting it away from her face and out of
Aaron’s hands to the ground. She had one hand on the wheel and the other pretending to
work the broken levers. Aaron teetered back and forth on the edge of the tractor
watching Evelyn, thinking about what was under her dress. He reached his hand out
towards the steering wheel, covering hers with his.
“C’mon, Aaron! What are you doing? I’m trying to drive here.”
Aaron pulled his hand away and picked up another empty can of tobacco from the
floor of the tractor. He sniffed as hard as he could but it just wasn’t the same anymore. It
only smelled like stale metal. He threw the can to the ground, picked up another one, and
tried again.
By the time the alarm clock began its morning song, Angie had already finished
preparing breakfast. Two strips of bacon, three eggs topped with a touch of hot sauce,
lightly buttered wheat toast, and a cup of black coffee—two spoons of sugar. Angie was
quite impressed with herself. She was getting closer to duplicating her mother’s
breakfast, and this time, she was damn close.
Angie looked just like her mother; this, her father made sure to tell her daily.
They shared the same olive skin and thick brown eyes that grew vibrant under moonlight;
like two pools of chocolate atop vanilla ice cream. Their tall, slender build
complemented their long legs and high cheek bones with ease. Their hair spiraled down
in infinite curls and draped their shoulders like a black silk shawl. Angie’s hair, however,
was a touch brighter; as if the sun was always setting, just over her shoulders.
She heard her father coming down the hall; the rubber soles of his slippers
dragging with every step.
“Morning, Dad.”
Arthur sat down at the table and relished over the meal she had cooked. He let the
harmonizing aromas lingering off the steaming foods fill his nostrils. He took a quick
gulp of coffee and began to wake up.
“Breakfast smells great, Angie; may have surpassed Mom with this one,” said
Arthur crunching on some toast.
“Oh, I doubt that,” Angie said with a smile. “Just hurry and eat up or you’ll be
late for work.”
Angie stood on her tip toes and brushed the remaining lint from the shoulders of
her father’s suit jacket. She adjusted his tie, took a step back, and eyed him head to toe
with a smile. An act which meant she approved and he could now leave for work.
Before she pecked his cheek and sent him on his way, the look on his face had
again caught Angie’s attention. It wasn’t so much a pointed stare, but rather, Angie felt
as if somehow he was able to look into her and see someone else; someone that was not
his daughter.
“God, Angie, you know you look just like her.”
“I know, Dad,” said Angie smiling.
“You’re definitely—”
“Your mother’s daughter,” finished Angie. He smiled, and with a quick kiss on
Angie’s forehead, was out the door.
Angie always returned home before her father, which gave her just enough time to
clean and prepare dinner. She had it timed perfect. When her father walked through the
door, dinner was on the table and she was starting her homework on the couch.
Arthur arrived, relieved to see the warm dinner on the table. He tossed his
overcoat and briefcase onto the couch and loosened his tie.
“Hey, Ang?”
“Yeah, dad?” she replied, not looking up from her biology textbook.
“Where is the salt and pepper?”
“Top cabinet, left of the stove.”
“Ah, there we are.”
Arthur grabbed the salt and pepper then went to the fridge. Puzzled, he stood in
front of it for a few moments, repressing the urge to speak.
“Steak sauce?”
“Second to last shelf in the fridge door.”
“Ah, got it.”
After her mother died, Angie began to drift into the role of housewife; everyday
slipping further and further away from her former life as a graduating senior at Irvington
High School. It only took a few months for her friends to stop calling and for boys to
stop asking her on dates.
Her father could certainly take care of himself, and had in all his years before he
met Angie’s mother. But he had grown accustomed to being taken care of, and after his
wife’s death, even the simplest of tasks posed the greatest difficulty. He had lost the
ability to function without the care of another; luckily, there was Angie.
The hours following dinner, Angie sat on the couch next to her father. He
watched the news while she forced her eyelids open and tried to retain the information on
the page in front of her. Whenever Arthur pulled out the photo album is usually when the
news transformed into late night talk shows. Tonight was no exception. He never asked
Angie to sit and look with him. Angie set her homework aside and scooted over to watch
him flip through the pictures. They never spoke to each other during any of this. They
went page by page, studying and touching each photo; occasionally, stopping to smile or
wipe the tears from their eyes.
Halfway through the album, Angie had fallen asleep on Arthur’s shoulder. She
let out a faint snore with every released breath. Arthur smiled. It reminded him of his
wife’s snore. The breathing was feminine and cute; nothing like his own, which sounded
like he was being strangled; in a constant fight for air. Arthur closed the photo album and
slid silently off of the couch. He slipped a pillow under Angie’s head and covered her
with a quilt.
He perched on the edge of the cushion and made sure Angie was comfortable. He
turned off the table lamp, leaned in, and kissed her forehead. Arthur lingered there for a
moment, watching Angie’s chest pump with each breath. He took her curls and twisted
them around his finger over and over. His thumb rolled over her cheek bone and down
her lips. He leaned in and gave her another kiss. Arthur hovered past her forehead
towards her nose. He must have woken her with the heat from his breath because he felt
her eyelashes brush his face as she blinked. He glided past her nose until he was over her
mouth and could taste their exchange of air. He slid his lips into place with hers. To
Arthur’s surprise, he felt her muscles relax and before he knew it his tongue had slipped
passed her teeth and he had a handful of her curls in his hand.
The next morning, Angie woke before her alarm sounded to the smell of fresh
bacon and coffee; something she hadn’t experienced since the death of her mother. She
shuffled into the kitchen where her father was already dressed for work and had just
buttered the last piece of toast.
“Good morning, Angela.”
Angela? He never called me Angela. Arthur set the breakfast on the table and
pulled out a chair for Angie.
“Morning, Dad.”
He stood in front of her by the door; briefcase and overcoat in hand. He stretched
out his arms in unison with an impromptu hop-skip as if he was a tap dancer.
“How do I look?” asked Arthur. “Tie straight?”
Angie gave him a once-over. Then another, slower this time, just to be sure.
“You look great, Dad.”
He smiled. And after a quick kiss deep within the curls of her hair, he was out the
door. Angie poked at her fried eggs. She preferred over-easy. The sausage had been
cooked to a char, beyond recognition, and the bacon looked fresh from the pig. She
shook her head and revealed a blushing grin. The toast and coffee filled her up so she
scraped the rest of the breakfast into the trash and covered the evidence with a few paper
Angie got home from school early so she put dinner on hold and headed for the
bathroom. She fiddled through the cluster of cleaning products and toilet paper stored
beneath the sink. The tube of dye was pushed to the back corner; a splash of water and it
regained its original viscosity.
After combing it through her hair and waiting twenty minutes, she started the
shower. The water latched to her hair and pulled the dye from her follicles. The black
water poured down her back and legs, escaping into the drain. It shed her old skin like a
molting snake, reviving her, replenishing her. She stepped out of the shower, reborn.
She stepped out of the shower, someone else.
Arthur returned home from work. Angie, with the same impeccable timing, had
just set his dinner plate down on the table.
“Looks absolutely wonderful, Angela.”
Angie had her back turned to her father as she was doing the dishes. She could
feel his stare. The in-ceiling light above the sink illuminated Angie in a spotlight. The
shine coming from her curls glossed the kitchen in bright black; as if the sun had just set,
and a full moon had been painted on an ever-expanding starless sky.
“Your hair,” said Arthur. “Something is different.”
“Yes, it’s a shade darker,” said Angie. “Do you like it?”
“I love it.”
“Eat your dinner, Arthur, it’s getting cold.”
On Wednesday morning, August 17th, 1994, Ronald Stromgren’s wife left him.
“I’m leaving you,” she said, at the breakfast table. That was it. She scooped up her bags
and shuffled out the door. She left her eggs and bacon untouched.
Ronald worked at the Hanford Tribune located in the small building on the corner
of Grant and Third. The rotting, jaundice colored wood that layered the tiny building
refused paint. It was here that Ronald had devoted himself to journalism after graduating
from Hanford Junior College over twenty years ago. He reported on everything from
Miss Gershenson’s award winning county fair squash, to the litter of kittens that got
trapped in the old brick well on the Peterson’s farm for three days; no food, no water.
“Ronald! Ronald, get in here now!” George screamed from his office.
“What is it, George?”
“That’s Mr. Patterson, Ronald.”
Formerly known as George, Mr. Patterson used to work in the cubicle next to
Ronald until he graciously took over the newspaper due to the untimely death of his
father, the real Mr. Patterson. George never quite fit into his chair and always stood up to
yell at Ronald; making sure to shimmy the waist of his slacks above his slab of belly fat.
“What the hell?” asked the fake Mr. Patterson throwing down papers in front of
“That’s my story, sir.”
“I didn’t ask for this! No one wants to hear about this
“I just thought—”
“No one cares about trees god damnit.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Rewrite—my desk—tomorrow morning.”
From his cubicle, Ronald peered out the window at the busy front steps of
Hanford Town Hall. Last year, the hall was torn down and rebuilt to try and achieve a
“fresh” and “updated” look. Ronald sniffed the air and remembered the smell of wet
paint and sheet rock that loitered in the hallways during the grand opening tour. He
wondered if it still had that new town hall smell.
Ronald was soft and lanky; had been his whole life. Not a single callous on either
of his hands or any scars or any scrapes. Early signs of arthritis from a career behind a
keyboard was the depth of Ronald’s toughness. He kept a beard, with minimal gray hairs
amongst the dark brown, which still grew in the same patchy and stringy way it did his
freshmen year of college. He never played any sports, but rather, spent all his leisure
time working on the school newspaper. Each day the hair towards the front of Ronald’s
head was getting noticeably thinner. The different tricks and combing maneuvers weren’t
fooling anyone. Was that why Amy left? Did she desire a hard, broad man with rough
hands and childhood scars? Did she want a full head of hair to run her hands through,
and a beard so thick it tickled her lips when they kissed causing her to let out a giggle and
a cute smile? Did she want the former captain of the football team? Someone with
The breast pocket of Ronald’s gray suit held his soft pack Parliament Lights.
Ronald felt there was integrity in soft pack cigarettes. It meant you were a smoker
because you liked to smoke. You didn’t care if your cigarettes got smashed in your
pocket, you were happy because they were more comfortable sitting in your pocket. You
didn’t care about the design of the box with its updated flip top, or whether or not you
could roll it in the sleeve of your t-shirt, you were just happy the local store sold your
Ronald took his breaks at the cracked wooden bench outside the bakery two doors
down from the Hanford Tribune. He read the bronzed plate for the millionth time, “In
Loving Memory Of Mama Jo. For Without Her, This Bakery Would Not Be As Lovely As
It Is Today.” Mama Jo has a legacy; etched into bronze plating for all of eternity. People
knew her, and know her family, and can still tell you stories of the pies Mama Jo used to
bake, and how the alluring smell could wake the entire town from even the deepest sleep.
Ronald thought about her two to three times a day; he gazed at the bronze plate and let
the ash of his cigarette grow longer, and the cherry fall dim. Perhaps, he was born into
the wrong generation. Perhaps, his newspaper articles would be discussed decades from
now over hot lattés and cinnamon flavored cigarettes by undergraduate journalism
students as overlooked and unappreciated prose, as articles ahead of their own time
worthy of some type of literary merit. Perhaps, professors would teach overloaded
classrooms using his editorials as examples of perfection; as unattainable goals presented
to the students merely to show them what visionary greatness looks like in the medium of
He pinched a Parliament out of his soft pack and blew the loose tobacco from the
recessed filter. Ronald dusted off the bench and sat down thinking of Mama Jo and how
good her pies must have been. A young girl, no older than nineteen, stepped out of the
bakery and walked towards Ronald. Flour and dry dough littered her apron and hands.
Her hair was a mess of what seemed to be an attempt at a bun. Two plastic chopsticks
crossed like swords kept her hair from crumbling down. Ronald wished it would.
Ronald was attracted to her; the sweat that trickled down her forehead, the dry batter that
crept underneath her fingernails, it turned him on. Red nail polish flaked from each of
her fingers. She didn’t care. Pink flip-flops slapped against her heels with each step.
“Mind if I bum one?” asked the girl.
“Sure,” said Ronald tossing her the cigarette.
“What kinda cig is this? What’s with the filter, man?”
“They’re Parliaments,” replied Ronald. “I like’em because they have a story, they
come with baggage.”
“Luggage?” said the girl.
“No,” chuckled Ronald. “Baggage, like a burden of sorts. People used to stuff
cocaine into that little recessed area so they could take small hits in public places without
being too obvious.”
The girl stared at the cigarette, fiddling it between each of her fingers. She
brought it to her nose and took a quick sniff and smiled at Ronald.
“Just like that, huh?”
“Just like that,” said Ronald.
He struck a match in the cup of his hand and guided it towards the girl then back
to himself.
“Thanks, man,” she said, and shuffled off towards the bakery.
Ronald stared as she walked away. He cocked his head and watched the bottom
of her ass create a smooth crease where it met the thigh with each step she took in the
daisy duke shorts she was hiding underneath her apron during their whole conversation.
Her white tank top exposed her back and Ronald imagined his hands running across her
shoulders, giving ease to her muscles and joints after a long day of mixing batter and
kneading dough. She would look back at him and smile and comment on his perfectly
soft hands. Perhaps, she had some erotic fetish with soft, pale older men. Perhaps, she
would like his thinning hair and his soft lanky body. Maybe she wouldn’t be into sports
and didn’t like men with too much scruff. Was it possible his soul mate was a bakery girl
who bummed a cigarette from him right outside his work? He jolted out of his assinduced daze and nearly fell off the bench. His cigarette ash flicked onto his hand and
singed his knuckle hairs.
“Hey! I’m Ronald,” he said jogging after her and brushing the ash into his slacks.
“Emily,” she said exhaling her smoke.
“You know, I get off around five…and…uh…I don’t know do you want to get a
drink maybe?” asked Ronald.
“I’m not old enough to drink,” chuckled Emily. “Besides you’re like my dad’s
age, man.”
Emily took a long drag from her cigarette and tossed it in the gutter.
“Thanks for the smoke,” said Emily. “Come by and try one of my pies
Ronald nodded. He about-faced in a flurry of shame and reached in his breast
pocket for a Parliament. Nothing.
The radio fought through the scratchy blown out speakers of Ronald’s ’87 Honda:
“This past Friday the MLB has officially gone on strike ending the 1994 season.” Tap,
tap, tap, Ronald flicked the seek button to the next available station: “Only one word can
describe Metallica’s performance in Saugerties last weekend: UN-BE-LIEVABLE.” He
turned the radio off and slouched into his seat. It was a short drive anyway. Truth was
he could have walked. He probably would have gotten there a lot faster without hitting
red lights or searching for a place to park. But to walk meant to walk past the bakery.
The man behind the counter at the liquor store on Grant and Fifth was young and
trimmed; probably the owner’s son, or maybe his nephew. Ronald sauntered around the
store pretending to be interested in other merchandise besides cigarettes. He conned
himself into buying a Diet Pepsi and bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
“Anything else?” asked the man as Ronald set his food on the counter.
“Parliament lights.” said Ronald. “Soft pack.”
Ronald reached into the back pocket of his slacks and grabbed his wallet.
“No soft pack.”
“What?” asked Ronald, completely startled.
“I said we don’t have those in soft pack,” snarled the man.
“What?! Why not?!” replied Ronald with both hands pressed against the counter
nearly shouting at the man.
“Nobody buys’em anymore, they’re outdated.”
“I buy them,” said Ronald, almost pouting now, as if he was hoping the clerk
would sympathize and somehow fulfill his request. “I buy them every week.”
“Sorry, man. You still want’em or what?”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” sighed Ronald.
“That’ll be 9.83.”
Outside of the liquor store Ronald fought to get his cigarettes open. By the time
he was finished he had worked up a good sweat and the box looked like a toddler had
gotten a hold of it. Plastic shards of the wrapper littered the ground around his feet, there
were holes and rips all over the cardboard box and two broken cigarettes sat in the gutter
soaking in the city’s juices. One by one Ronald carefully removed each cigarette and
placed them in the old soft pack in his breast pocket. Satisfied, Ronald took a deep
breath, chucked the box somewhere over his shoulder, and sat down on the curb. He
pinched a Parliament out of his soft pack and blew the loose tobacco from the recessed
Ronald had to park his car in the small lot across the street after returning from
the liquor store, which meant he had to walk past the bakery. Emily was posted up
against the window with a new cigarette. Is this what she does? Bouncing from man to
man bumming cigarettes and breaking hearts? Who was her victim this time? Was it
poor old Rudy from the hardware store? Or Mr. Jameson who ran the gas station on the
corner? Ronald puffed up his chest and marched toward the bakery. He gave Emily a
quick up-and-down with his eyes, and pulled open the bakery door. Ronald stepped onto
the white linoleum, the little bell jingled above his head.
“Good afternoon,” said the woman behind the counter. “What can I getchya?”
She was old; mid-forties like Ronald. Much older than Emily, who still leaned
her back against the glass window of the bakery. The old baker stood amongst a thick
fog of flour, sliding trays into the oven, and placing fresh cinnamon rolls, cookies and
pies in the glass showcase.
“Your pie,” said Ronald.
“Well, what flavor, darling? We got blueberry, apple, cherry, key lime—”
“I want one you baked. Whatever you baked.”
“Well, darling, my specialty is cherry. And this one happens to be fresh from the
She pulled out a tray from the cart behind her and set it on the counter.
“Would you like a slice?”
“Two,” answered Ronald.
Outside, on Mama Jo’s bench, Ronald ate that pie like it was the first time
cherries had ever graced his lips. He stared at Emily and took bite after ravenous bite.
He licked his lips and pulled out a cigarette from his breast pocket. Nothing better than
smoking on a full stomach.
Ronald eyed Emily through his peripherals. She smoked her cigarette, leaned
back all nonchalant against the glass window like she hadn’t the slightest clue what she
was doing. Teasing, torturing Ronald with that throat ripping menthol smoke. How
could she inhale that garbage? The thought of its piercing mint flavor and Styrofoam
filter raised the hairs on Ronald’s arms. No doubt it came from a cardboard carton.
Ronald leaned over and rubbed out the remainder of his cigarette into the sidewalk next
to some decade-old blackened chewing gum.
“Was it good?”
Emily appeared next to him on the bench. Her eyes looked like two blueberry
pies; her cheeks, bright red like two piles of cherries. The remnants of last night’s eye
shadow that brushed her lids looked like key lime. She smelled of apples.
“Amazing,” replied Ronald. “I love cherries.”
“I meant the cigarette,” chuckled Emily.
“Even better.”
“I hate smokin’ that menthol shit, but it’s all my boss had.”
“Your boss?”
“Yeah. I didn’t see you when I came out for a smoke so you kinda left me with
no choice, Ronald.”
With a flick of his wrist Ronald popped a single Parliament from his soft pack and
held it in front of Emily. She leaned in and pinched in between her lips.
“You’re a true smoker,” said Ronald.
“How can you tell?”
“Never have your own smokes, and never have a lighter,” said Ronald, striking a
“So you really liked that cherry pie?”
Ronald pinched a Parliament out of his soft pack and blew the loose tobacco from
the recessed filter. He borrowed Emily’s cigarette to light his own.
“Mrs. Watson can’t bake pies for shit,” said Emily.
“She seems like a nice enough lady.”
“Ronald, I bake a blueberry that makes her cherry taste week-old and storebought.”
“Is your offer still on the table?”
“Bring those smokes with you tomorrow and there will be a fresh slice with your
name on it.”
When he got home, Ronald tossed his keys on the table and slung his jacket over
the wooden chair—Amy’s breakfast, still cold and untouched on the table. No need to
waste a fine breakfast, thought Ronald. He placed the plate of food and a cup of coffee
into the microwave. Breakfast for dinner; a luxury he hadn’t enjoyed in over nine years.
This, he could follow up with a cigarette; which he now realized, he could smoke inside
the house. The ding from the microwave echoed through the empty house. Ronald
smiled, shoving mushy eggs and chewy bacon into his mouth.
He pulled a cigarette from his jacket pocket, kicked his feet up, and struck a
match. The smoke lingered in the air and the scent of fresh tobacco filled the kitchen.
Nothing better than smoking on a full stomach. Tomorrow morning, he would go to the
bakery and get a slice of Emily’s blueberry pie. Maybe, he would also get a slice on his
lunch break. He would eat her pies, she would smoke his cigarettes, and that was good
enough for Ronald.