Fiction winners 

First Place
Patrick Dostine, Harper Woods

Killing Time

My Uncle Albert and my dad announced we were going to the dump. So my cousin, my brother and I raced back to the cottages to get our pellet guns.

The three of us hopped into the back of my uncle’s big pickup next to the garbage bags.

“Don’t sit on the sides,” Uncle Albert bellowed. “Sit your asses down and hold on.”

He took off, jerking us off balance. I saw him look into the rearview mirror and smirk. Any chance he got, Uncle Albert fucked with us. Just yesterday he’d nearly took my life in Lake Huron, where our families had spent the afternoon picnicking. He’d grabbed me by my ankles and held me upside down in the water until I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. I’d clawed and punched at his shins and he finally dropped me. I came up choking and gagging. He could be one mean son of a bitch.

He was going pretty good now down the back roads, whipping up giant clouds of dust. We passed by a small lake on the way. The water was flawless and dark like tinted glass. It reflected the sticks of white birch standing all around the shoreline. One solitary man, an old man with a hat, in an aluminum rowboat was anchored near the lake’s center. He was fishing. It was really beautiful.

I saw Uncle Albert point to something, talking with my dad. I noticed his stumpy index finger. He blew it off with a cherry bomb years ago. The cherry bomb also destroyed his right eardrum. As a result he talked loudly.

We continued down the dirt roads. He was an aggressive driver. It was difficult and a little scary to sit in the back. We were all bouncing around, trying to hold onto our guns.

We finally turned onto a soft two-track that dipped and weaved a good distance to the dump. It was the back way in, overgrown with small tree branches that’d slap you in the face if you weren’t careful. We saw a government sign that warned people to beware of black bears. They relished the sour garbage.

“I’d shoot the fucker right in the nostril if one came at me,” my brother Jimmy guaranteed. “It would travel straight to the brain and kill him on the spot.”

“Better not miss, otherwise you’re dead,” my cousin Marty said.

“I never miss,” Jimmy said, stroking his pellet gun and spreading a grin across his face.

And he didn’t. My brother was an extraordinary shot. Back home that was all he did was practice in the basement shooting his pellet gun. He could shoot pellets through the same hole, over and over. It was really remarkable.

The truck slid to a stop. The three of us jumped out and loaded our guns and pumped them with air.

There was an old paneled station wagon parked at the dump a little ways from us. A man and woman were sitting in the front seats and their two kids were in the back. The woman had on a dirty sundress. Her hair was thin and poker straight. The man was shirtless and wearing a baseball cap. He had a cigarette going and was squinting through the smoke searching for a radio station.

Uncle Albert and my dad walked over to us holding the garbage bags.

“Be careful with those guns,” Uncle Albert advised.

We said we’d be OK and ran toward a pond sitting on the property way off to the side of the dump. On the way, I imagined myself a part of a platoon under fire, running from the enemy. The enemy was somewhere in the woods or maybe behind the mounds of earth bordering the pit. I pretended the three of us were trying to stay alive. I was running crouched to the ground, bringing up the rear.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Marty shouted as we got to the pond.

“Nothing.” I was embarrassed that he’d caught me pretending.

“Keep that barrel pointed away from us,” Jimmy admonished. “You had it pointed right at our backs, you little idiot.”

“Listen, don’t worry about me. I know what I’m doing,” I said.

“No you don’t. I’ll kick your ass,” Jimmy said.

Marty threatened to drill me in the temple and throw me in the water.

Jimmy got to business. He walked over to the edge. He had the most powerful pellet gun on the market fitted with a high-powered scope. He slowly brought the gun up to his shoulder and sighted it on something. He squeezed the trigger and a loud crack echoed around the dump.

He laughed and ran to the other side of the pond, reached down and fished out a big fat bullfrog, flipping it on shore. Dead as a doornail. Its belly was opaque with a faint tint of green. The legs were freakishly muscular, strong.

Marty was aiming somewhere along the pond’s edge. Another crack echoed. He ran to the edge and flipped out a bullfrog.

I took one shot at a bullfrog and missed. It disappeared, swam under the water then popped up a few yards away.

“You suck,” Marty announced. He took aim and put a pellet right into the frog’s head. It went limp, its arms and legs spread out like a dead man’s. Marty had to get a long branch to reach that one and pull it to shore.

Those guys stalked the edge of the pond and went on murdering all these giant bullfrogs. In a matter of a little while, they had shot over a dozen, lining them up like humans. It looked ridiculous to me. Every shot I’d taken I missed, but I didn’t really care. Marty kept egging me on. I finally walked away and pulled out a letter from a girl back home I was missing and crazy about. I wanted to read it, again.

“What are you looking at?” Marty asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“What is that bullshit?” Jimmy asked.

“Probably a picture of a piece of ass he jerks off to,” Marty said.

“Hey, why don’t you suck me,” I told him.

Marty carefully set his gun down and walked over to me. He was three years older than me. Taller. Stronger. He and my brother were in high school. I was in the eighth grade. I had some trouble coming.

“What did you say to me?” he asked.

“I believe the phrasing was something like ‘Suck me!’”

He cracked me in the face with an opened hand. I swung my fist at his jaw. He ducked it and came back with a punch to the mouth. I fell backward. He charged and grabbed me. We wrestled for a few minutes until finally he overpowered me. He sat on my chest, kneeled on my biceps. I was quite winded. Overmatched. He started slapping me in the face, telling me I have a big mouth.

The punch had split my upper lip.

My brother walked over and agreed with him that I had a big mouth.

“You never know when to shut the fuck up,” Jimmy said. He looked around.

“Fuck you too,” I said.

Marty slapped my face again. “You got a big mouth for such a little shit,” he said. I was looking right at his flared nostrils and his bucked teeth. It wasn’t the best vantage point.

“You’re fucking dead when I get up,” I said.

He laughed and made a fist and started punching his knuckles into my chest. Hard. It made deep thumping sounds.

I ordered him to stop it, to get off. He laughed and hit me harder and kept calling me a big mouth. Then he leaned over my face and dripped a gob of spit.

My brother must have pitied me because he told Marty to get off. I wanted to shoot the fucker I was so pissed off. He let me up and called me an asshole. I wiped his spit off my face.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“You’re lucky your brother’s here, you little twerp.” He cuffed me across the head and walked over to his gun.

Just then my dad walked up.

I grabbed my gun. I was covered with dust. My elbows and forearms were scraped raw. I brushed myself off a little.

My dad asked if everything was OK and we said yes. He said he’d been farting around the area, sort of killing time. He reported that Albert was by the dump pissed off at those people we’d seen earlier sitting in the station wagon. Then he saw the dead bullfrogs.

“Why did you go and kill all those frogs?” He lighted a cigarette.

No one said anything.

“What’s the difference,” Jimmy finally said.

“The difference is frogs eat millions and millions of mosquitoes, flies, bugs. You couldn’t come to the country if it weren’t for them. They’re good to have around. There’re rats around the dump. Shoot those sons of bitches. But not the frogs. For Christ’s sake! What are you going to do with all those anyway? What a waste. I’ll tell ya.”

“Maybe we can make frog legs from them. You think, dad?” I said.

“Shut up,” my brother said.

“That’s not my point, son,” my dad said irritably. “You guys really pissed me off.” He smashed his cigarette into the ground and walked in the direction of the dump.

I didn’t understand why you couldn’t make frog legs. Their legs were so plump and meaty. Like little chicken legs. Why couldn’t you bread ’em and deep fry ’em?

We all started back toward the dump. I was several feet behind Jimmy and Marty. They were laughing about something. With my knuckle I dabbed the blood off my lip. I brushed myself off some more. My forearms and elbows stung from the sweat and dirt. As I was walking behind them, I pointed my gun barrel right at their backs. They had no idea. I almost squeezed the trigger.

We came around the side of a huge mound of dirt and saw a gaping hole in the earth choked with thousands of plastic bags, yard waste, hot water tanks, old mattresses, tangled metal, a rusted chassis. The air was wet and sour like a pickled mist. Some seagulls were perched on the far edge of the dump sending up cries. Uncle Albert and my dad were standing off to the left looking into the pit. We walked up to them, ready with our guns.

Inside the pit was the station wagon couple, climbing over the junk, ripping into those sour bags of garbage, those cardboard boxes, looking for things. They had found some old board games, some dirty stuffed animals, some clothes and had neatly stacked them off to the side. The five of us stood on the edge of the hole looking down.

You could tell Uncle Albert was completely disgusted.

“Look at those filthy cocksuckers,” he said, pointing with that blown-off finger. “Look at them. Picking through that garbage. They’re worse than animals.” He was loud. I was worried they might hear him. “They probably cleaned out my goddamn truck too,” he said.

The stink was pretty bad. They were stirring droning flies and bugs and swatting and shooing them as they climbed and stepped over the awkward piles of trash and garbage and junk, losing their balance at times. The woman kept wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. At one point, the man looked up at us briefly. It made me afraid for a flash.

Uncle Albert mumbled something under his breath. Then he announced rather loudly: “Let’s go. Let’s get the fuck out of here. I’m sick to my stomach. You should shoot those animals,” he said to us, pointing at them again with that blown-off finger. He stomped off to the pickup.

The man heard my uncle because he snapped a look up.

It embarrassed me. I didn’t like what had happened.

We got back to the truck. Uncle Albert immediately checked the inside of his cab.

“I can’t believe it. Those scuzzy bastards didn’t steal a thing,” he said. “My CB and radio are still here. White trash. That’s what they are. White fucking no-good trash.”

I looked at the station wagon and the two kids who were still in the back seat stopped playing and looked over because they had heard what Uncle Albert said.

“That’s what you’s are,” he yelled at them.

We climbed into the back of the pickup. Uncle Albert started the truck. He sat for a while going off to my dad, pointing at the station wagon and then in the direction of the pit with that finger, that disfigured runt of a finger. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was ranting. Finally he spun the tires and took off, jerking us off balance again, leaving a suffocating dust cloud to swallow the station wagon. This time there was no glance in the mirror.

On the way back to the cottages, the ride was faster, louder, rougher. I held onto the side of the truck. My lip was sore and swollen from the punch. My elbows and forearms burned. I didn’t say anything to Jimmy or Marty. I was cooked.

“We should go riding when we get back,” Marty yelled to my brother.

I noticed we were driving past that small lake again. It was still calm. But the old man was gone. And the water was black like a pan of used oil.

“OK. For sure. Let’s go riding,” my brother responded, all gung-ho. Then he looked at me for a minute and finally shouted: “What’s your problem. Snap out of it, man. If you would just learn to keep that big mouth of yours shut, you’d spare yourself a lot of asskickings.”

Marty smirked then spit off the back of the truck.

“Fuck you,” I said under my breath.

“Well?” Jimmy shouted to me.

“Well what?” I said.

“What’s your problem?” he asked.

I started to tell him that I was thinking about that family when he interrupted me. “You have to talk louder,” he said. “I can’t hear you.”

“Forget it,” I said so he could hear me.

He shrugged. Then he said something to Marty that I didn’t catch.

He and Marty continued talking. I drifted. I began to stare at the trees and landscape whipping by. I slipped into one of those trances. Everything turned dreamlike and smeary.

Some minutes later Jimmy broke in. We were almost to the cottages. He invited me to go riding with them.

I couldn’t answer him. Something inside me had unburied itself and worked its way up the ribbing of my throat. I was keeping it from getting out.

 

 

Second place
Paul Bancel, Ann Arbor

Six fingers and Circumcisions

Joey Jameson was born with six fingers on his left hand. Completely formed with knuckles and a small fingernail like a raindrop, his sixth finger had grown just below the pinky, splaying out at an angle that would someday give him balance if he learned to walk on his hands. In all other respects, he was normal and symmetric. Six pounds, six ounces at birth, his blue eyes would become pale green and his soft, brown baby hair would fall out and then grow back the color of damp straw. He was the one thousand and tenth baby to be born at Pontiac General Hospital since the beginning of the year, and his birth date, June 4, 2004, was bar-coded on a small, white plastic band around his ankle.

Most of the babies born at Pontiac General stayed two or three days. The bilirubin babies with their yellow skin and Hollywood sunglasses stayed an extra day or two under the sun lamps before going home. The AIDS babies, the tiny premature babies, the babies born backward that breathed too soon, sucking the amniotic fluid into their lungs stayed longer. Some stayed a lot longer, and those babies were all behind closed doors in the ICU.

Twenty healthy babies were on display in the nursery behind a 4- by 6-foot picture window. Black ones, brown ones and white ones, wrapped tightly in soft pink and blue blankets like little papooses, their bassinets neatly arranged in rows. The C-section babies had round faces, the rest the egg shape that time took a few days to reassemble. In front of the picture window, in the hallway, stood Sam and Patsy Jameson. She was short and round, and would stay round for some months to come. She moved slowly, stiff and stitched from delivery the morning before, her hands fumbling behind her back trying to re-tie the flimsy hospital gown. He was a head taller and pressed his face to the glass, cupping his hands around his eyes to cut down the glare from the fluorescent lights.

“Which one is he?” he said.

“Can’t you tell?” she replied.

“They all look alike.”

“No, they don’t. He’s in the front row on the right.”

“Don’t they get them mixed up?” he said.

“They don’t mix ’em up. Joey has a band, like me,” and she put her plastic wristband under Sam’s nose. “It tells his name, his blood type, his mother’s name. We match.”

“What about the father?” he said.

“It doesn’t say that,” she said.

“There was this paper at the market last week. Two babies were on the front page. ‘Switched at birth’ it said.”

“That’s bull.”

“They said it happened.”

Balloons and cartoons decorated the pastel walls of the viewing area and a rainbow of almost identical little pictures of newborn faces arced over the window. The nurses would soon add Joey’s picture to the collage.

“When is he coming home?” Sam said.

“When we decide, that’s when,” Patsy said.

“We already decided.”

“No, we haven’t decided.”

Joey’s sixth finger was a genetic anomaly that the resident surgeon had explained to Patsy soon after Joey was born. The surgeon was Dr. Nathan Bernstein. He was 31, the same age as Sam and Patsy, and Patsy had liked him immediately when he came to her room in the early morning hours after the delivery. In a gentle and respectful way, he had held Joey’s little hand in his and showed her how they could remove Joey’s finger. The procedure, he said, would leave only a small scar that would someday disappear in the wrinkles of Joey’s palm. He said he would be glad to meet with Patsy and her husband the next day.

So it was Nathan Bernstein who came down the corridor and greeted Sam and Patsy, his white coat and pale complexion standing in contrast to Sam’s worn Levi’s and deep, weathered tan. When Bernstein introduced himself Sam immediately told him that they liked Joey’s hand the way it was. Sam pulled out a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his T-shirt, slapped the pack on the back of his hand a few times and held it out to Bernstein.

“I’m afraid that there’s no smoking in the hospital, Mr. Jameson,” Bernstein said.

“Tell him, Doctor, tell him what you told me yesterday,” Patsy said. She put her hands on each side of her face as if she was praying, hoping that Sam would finally listen to a reasoned voice.

“Well, polydactyl babies aren’t too uncommon,” Bernstein began. “One in fifty may be polydactyl.”

“Poly what?” Sam said.

“Polydactyl, many digits.” Your baby has an extra finger, so we call him a polydactyl baby. Some babies may have six fingers, some six toes.”

“We like his six fingers,” Sam said, and he walked over and sat down on the armrest of the sofa adjacent to the nursery room window.

“Not all of us,” Patsy interjected. She looked at Joey through the window and then slowly walked past Sam and sat down on the far end of the sofa like a boxer going to the opposite corner of the ring.

“We’ve already talked about this, Doc. I’m sick of her talking. It’s all talking.”

“Dr. Bernstein would do the operation,” Patsy said.

“He’s not doing anything.”

“It wouldn’t be too complicated,” Bernstein said, “but if you wait, it won’t be as easy. Now the bone is soft.”

“I’m not bringing home a freak,” Patsy said.

“He ain’t a freak,” Sam said. “He’s natural. It’s just God’s will.”

“It’s not God’s will.”

“Well, it happened.” Sam ran his hands around his belt, sucking in his gut to tuck in his T-shirt.

“He’ll be a freak,” she said. “Babies born with six fingers don’t go home with six fingers. They go home with five. Five that will fit in a glove, five that can grip a hammer.”

“Well, you made six,” and Sam made the ‘s’ sound like the hiss of a rattlesnake.

As they stared at each other, a nurse came out of the nursery and through the open door they could hear the crying of angry babies.

“They’re hungry,” Bernstein offered. “It’s time for them to go back to their mothers.” He smiled at Patsy; then addressed Sam.

“Polydactylism is genetic, hereditary. Quite often the extra finger is very small, just a nub that is easily tied off.” Bernstein indicated on his hand where a sixth finger might grow. “They’re more common in animals. Cats, to be specific.”

The mention of cats caught Sam’s attention and he looked at Patsy. “The Porters? That damn cat of theirs, Churchill.”

“It’s a Coon cat,” Patsy said. “They have six toes.”

“Churchill’s a common name for a Coon cat,” Bernstein said. “Winston Churchill had six toes.”

Sam had no reaction and Bernstein could see that his little historical anecdote brought no levity to the situation. No need to mention that Anne Boleyn had six fingers.

“Five, six. What the hell,” Sam said. “Do you believe in God’s will, Doc? In leaving things how they are?”

Nathan Bernstein had seen a lot of God’s will in his first years as resident. The emergency room tested his belief in a compassionate God and too often he had seen God’s will interpreted as “an eye for an eye.” His training had taught him to stay out of family arguments, giving information and advice in a kind, yet abstract manner. God’s will and religion had not been in the formal curriculum of medical school. They were concepts and beliefs that tested his medical pragmatism and logic.

“You have a healthy baby,” Mr. Jameson,” Bernstein said. “He just has an extra finger next to his little finger. Like I mentioned, it’s hereditary. Sometimes it’s barely formed and sometimes, like with your baby’s, it’s more developed.”

Patsy looked down the hall to see if anyone was coming. “This is not about five or six fingers, Dr. Bernstein. This isn’t about God’s will … this is about a lot more.” And then she turned and stared at Sam before repeating, “A lot more.”

Sam slipped his 220 pounds off the sofa’s armrest and down onto the cushions and in a quiet voice said to Nathan Bernstein, “I did my part. I delivered my little package whenever she wanted it. For two years I delivered and then what happens? The post office is closed for nine months.”

Patsy blushed at the mention of the post office. “I never closed the post office. You stopped mailing the letters,” and her voice began to rise. “This is not about me.”

“You ruined it,” Sam said.

“I ruined it? We agreed. We made a deal. You ruined it. We made a pact, remember, or has all that beer permanently clouded your brain?”

Sam extended his hands in front of him, looking at his fingers, flexing them as if they were new.

“The operation could be delayed,” Bernstein said, “but it’s not a good idea.” Watching Sam studying his hands he added, “If we do the operation Mr. Jameson, well, he’ll look just like you.”

The moment he said it Bernstein regretted making the comparison. He knew the comparison was too personal, and Sam came off the couch as if Bernstein had just lied to the jury.

“Doc, you don’t know shit.” Sam’s hands were the thick, callused hands of a carpenter and now with his right hand he pointed at the viewing window of the nursery. “This baby, that baby Joey in there. That baby’s never going to look like me. That baby’s going to look like someone with six fingers. Do you see six fingers here?” Sam held up his hands in front of Bernstein’s face. “I’ll be lucky if that baby even recognizes me. It ain’t me he’s going to look like. It’s my cousin. He’s the one with six fingers.”

At the mention of the cousin, Bernstein gave Patsy a quizzical look and he could see the intensity in her eyes before she turned to Sam.

“And that’s it, isn’t it?” she said. “You’re trying to push this on me.” She took a deep breath, her round face now flushed, her hospital gown becoming untied again. “Isn’t that what this is really all about? You still don’t believe me.”

“Maybe I should leave you two alone,” Bernstein said, starting to walk down the hall.

“Stick around,” Sam said. “You gotta hear this. After two years of jumping and humping by the moon, by the temperatures, by the numbers, you know what? Nothing. A big fat nothing. I wanted a baby more than any of them, her, her sisters, and her mother. You can’t be married in our town and not hear about it. Sooner or later the word gets around that you’re having problems.”

Sam now moved closer to Bernstein and in a low voice said, “You know what, Doctor, I confess, it was me.” Sam’s eyes stared at the window for a moment and then came back to Bernstein. “I did them tests.” And both men knew what tests he was talking about and how they reach down into a man’s humiliation, and how when the man puts that vial of semen in the little compartment in the wall and pushes the buzzer he wishes he could disappear along with it.

“I think I understand,” Bernstein said. “We all want a family. Did you try any procedures, like in-vitro fertilization?”

Sam lowered his head and ran his hands over his crew-cut brown hair. “In-vitro? You know how much that costs? More than a good truck, more than a doublewide. I’m never going to be that rich. No, I’m the culprit here, Doctor. They blame me, all of them, and they’re right, but I didn’t want it like this.”

To one side of the nursery window was an empty desk and Dr. Bernstein moved some papers aside and sat down on the polished wood surface.

“No, he wanted the Immaculate Conception,” Patsy said. “He wanted the Lord to come sweeping down off the mountain and plant the seed. It wasn’t my idea. It was his, ask Tommy.”

“Tommy?” Bernstein said.

“My cousin,” Sam said. “He don’t know shit.”

“You’re right. It runs in your family,” she said.

Sam drew his hand up in a karate motion and Patsy matched him.

“It was Labor Day,” she said, turning to Bernstein. “Tommy hardly remembers.” Then she pointed at Sam. “He hardly remembers. We were in Tommy’s hot tub. He has this trailer down by the river, a weekend place, nothing fancy, but nice, private. We were drinking and laughing. Long Island iced teas. Like strong, you know. Then we got talking about babies.”

Sam moved closer to Bernstein and spoke to him in a soft voice as if they were buddies. “She’s right, but I don’t really know whose idea it was.”

“To get in the hot tub?” Bernstein asked.

“Shit no. We do that all the time. Tommy’s got a nice place, even a view. It’s the other.”

“The other?” Bernstein said.

“The other thing we’re talking about here. You know, getting her pregnant. We’d been trying for two years.”

“That’s what you said.”

Sam looked at Bernstein for the sign that a buddy might get. A nod, a listening noise. If they were in a bar, maybe an offer of another beer, but Bernstein’s gaze was just squinted confusion.

“We made a pact not to discuss my problem,” Sam said. “I guess I gave them permission. I don’t know. I didn’t say no and I didn’t say yes. I had to take a piss from all that beer.”

“And he passed out going to the john,” Patsy said.

“So what?”

“So you never came back.”

“And that gave you permission? Get the picture, Doc?”

“Nothing happened,” she said.

Sam continued to look to Bernstein. “Well, shit, Doc. So she says nothing happened, but a month after Labor Day she closes up and here we are with Joey with six fingers and sure as hell Tommy once had six fingers. Everyone knows that. We’ve all seen the little half moon scar on the side of his hand. He shows it all the time. I just know that for all I done, I deserve better. Know what I mean, Doc?”

Bernstein looked at Patsy, then Sam.

Patsy bit her lower lip. “Makes a lot of sense, don’t it?”

“Things with new babies don’t always make sense,” Bernstein said. He was no longer a surgeon. Now he was a judge trying to disseminate the facts. “We try our best, but things aren’t always under our control.” He turned to Sam from his seat on the desktop. “Are you implying, Mr. Jameson, that you’re not the father?”

“We never talked about Labor Day. She assumed, I guess I assumed that maybe … well, when Joey’s got six fingers I knew.”

“Nothing happened,” Patsy yelled loud enough to wake a few babies on the other side of the viewing glass. “You’re the father. My father had six fingers too. We’ve been all through this.”

Bernstein had to restrain a smile. He hadn’t asked them what small town they were from, but now he wondered who didn’t have six fingers in their town.

“Bullshit,” Sam said.

Bernstein offered the suggestion that maybe more time would help things. Maybe in the afternoon they should talk again.

“We’ve had time,” Patsy said, gathering strength. “A lot of time. He just won’t talk about it. We saw Joey’s finger on the ultrasound and right then he said, ‘That ain’t my baby,’ and I said, ‘Yes it is.’ I told him that we finally got lucky, but he doesn’t want to believe me. His tests were low, but not zero.” She made a circle with her thumb and forefinger. “It’s not impossible.”

“It’s damn near impossible,” Sam said. “We tried for two years. Shit, it’s one hell of a coincidence.”

“It’s no coincidence. Nothing happened. Ask Tommy.” Patsy turned to Dr. Bernstein. “He’s afraid to ask Tommy.”

“I don’t need to ask fuckin’ Tommy.”

“Well, if you won’t ask Tommy and you won’t believe me, and you won’t let Dr. Bernstein here take off Joey’s finger, then all deals are off.”

“Deals, what deals,” Sam said.

Sam was not a poker player. He saw only the cards on the table. Certain things were assumed and they innately happened.

“The deal about his circumcision,” she said. “There will be no circumcision. No operation on his finger. No operation on his wiener. Nothing.”

It took a moment for Sam to realize the consequences of what she was saying, but when he did his face began to flush and he looked at Bernstein, then Patsy. “Like father like son, that’s what we told your other doctor.”

“He’ll be different.”

“The hell he will. I don’t want different.”

“You want him to have six fingers, that’s different. A weird hand is OK, but a different peter isn’t. No one in our little town gives a crap about circumcision. Tell him, Doctor. It’s a custom. We’re not Jewish. We’re not Arab. We’re hardly Christian.”

Bernstein slid off the desk to stand between Sam and Patsy. “I haven’t done one in a while, but I know that they are not a medical necessity.”

“Jesus was circumcised,” Sam replied.

“Well, I’m not waiting eight days,” she said.

Bernstein smiled at her bit of biblical knowledge that Jewish custom requires circumcisions before sunset on the eighth day. He wondered how much further the biblical aspects of this standoff were going to go.

Sam continued to look for some locker room sympathy from Bernstein. “When I stand in the shower with Joey I want him to be like me, know what I mean?”

“I know,” Bernstein said and his acknowledgement relieved some of the tension in the air.

Patsy slowly stood up from the couch and waited as two orderlies rolled an enclosed bassinet past them down the hall.

“Sam, you have two choices and you’re right, we’ve talked and talked about this and I don’t know why it has to all come up again, but you have two choices. Someday you’re going to tell Joey it’s OK to be different or you can both be the same. Like father, like son,” and now pointing at Sam she said, “You are the father. This is not about us and who’s trusting who. It’s about Joey.”

Patsy walked over to the nursery window and leaned her forehead against the glass. “He is your son. He can be just like you, ten fingers, ten toes, and like Jesus.”

Sam shook his head. “I don’t know. I just didn’t know it was me.”

“Sam, nothing happened with Tommy. We wanted Joey. You wanted him? He’s our baby. It’s God’s will.”

Patsy moved to Sam’s side and put her arm around him and together they looked through the window at Joey. Bernstein excused himself and said he would call them in the morning. Then two nurses started to rearrange the babies in the nursery, wheeling some back to their mothers, putting others under the sun lamps; and a new couple came up to look in the nursery window.

“Which one is yours?” the woman said to Sam, and without hesitating he instinctively replied.

“The fourth one on the right. The one with all the black hair.”

 

 

Third place
Jennifer Sperber, St. Clair Shores

The Only House in the Neighborhood

There was a murder house in my neighborhood. That’s what all us kids called it, but you had to live there to know which one. It was a brick ranch aligned, precise as encyclopedias, with all the other brick ranches on that new street in Sterling Heights. The whole subdivision was new, sitting raw and unfixed in its former cornfield. And kids were everywhere, with mothers watching from screened doors. Not fearing for our safety, but in case we wandered onto fresh laid sod or trampled baby shade trees, thin and knobby as our own limbs, ready in a moment to scatter us like a flock of blond sparrows back to the white, white sidewalks.

Doors were seldom locked that early summer, before the murders. We slammed in and out of each other’s houses, fingers sticky, smelling like grape Popsicles, comfortable being scolded by our friends’ mothers. They were always on the phone to each other, our moms, and we’d dance around them in the kitchen demanding butter tubs for our worms or old blankets that we made into forts. Daily, our fathers climbed into their Fords and Chryslers headed toward their obscure Detroit jobs, but our mothers remained, a benign hedge on our world.

Years later my parents, looking back at their empowered selves, would sigh and say life was good then, better. A polished retelling that ignored things like layoffs and gas shortages and presidential scandals, or two children they once knew who died.

Kids’ names, back then, were a bouquet of diminutives, full of Johnnys and Timmys, Dannys and Debbies. The kids who lived in the murder house, before it was called that, were named Susie and Patrick. Always Patrick. Call him Paddy and he pushed you down. And always Susie and Patrick. You never saw the one without the other. They were regular kids but a little older. Susie, who was two years older, sometimes brought out her Barbies to share. She had strict instructions on Barbie’s behavior. If you didn’t follow orders, Barbie would get nervous, or decide the light gave her a headache and have to lie down. Patrick was three years older and knew it. He always won at kickball; your whole day was ruined if you weren’t picked for his team. He had the best ball and made the rules. Arguments with Patrick mostly ended with a punch in the arm. Nobody but Susie could yell at him. We liked them and we didn’t like them, depending on how we were treated.

They were like us but different, Susie and Patrick. The difference may have been that their house was one of the few not open to our barefoot parade. There were no Oreos in their cookie jar, no Kool-Aid in their refrigerator, no racing in breathless to use their bathroom. Susie and Patrick’s mother never stood checking at the screen. When she shot them that summer, we’d seen her only a few times.

Their father found them. Confined to the house, I watched him bent and sobbing in the drive, washed red and yellow by the lights from police and ambulance. Watched as paramedics managed black-bagged gurneys past the screened door. They looked like the bags used to store winter clothes at the back of my closet. Neighbors were gathered in small groups on the cool night grass up and down the street. A couple of the women dashed over to my mother on our porch whispering that she had been found folding towels and watching the news. The whole neighborhood froze when the police finally led her out, guiding her to the car, a hand on each arm. Her head was covered with a coat. It slipped off as they pushed her into the back seat. She was smiling. She didn’t say a word but looked around until she spotted Susie and Patrick’s father. Her eyes never left his face as the cruiser pulled away.

Mentally unfit, the Free Press read a few days later; the front page carrying colorless school photos of Susie and Patrick. Years before, the story ran, she had been struck by a car, closed head injury, severe headaches, mood swings, medication. What the papers didn’t say was that Susie and Patrick’s father had asked for a divorce. Someone said someone told someone that he had been seeing a woman on the next block, mother of a boy I played with at school. It must have been true. A sign appeared on their front lawn a month later and I never saw that boy again.

After that, Susie and Patrick’s house wasn’t just a ranch. As if feeding off the murders, it grew huge, expanded, becoming the only house in the neighborhood. It was all we talked about, the only thing we saw. Its front door remained crosscut in yellow tape that glowed in the shadow of the porch. No one had drawn the curtains to the big picture window and it looked like an open mouth in the sunlight.

Kids were kept inside for days after the shooting, as if death could be tracked in on the rug. At my house I flopped from room to room boneless with boredom. My mother, her voice heavy, had ordered inside play “until things settle down.” Over the next few days she would appear suddenly, watching from the door, a fierce look on her face. Or, walking by, she would swoop down for a bruising hug, my punishment for being small and vulnerable and loved. My father showed it too, this squeezing pressure. In the evenings, my parents spoke in low voices, stopping when I came in, so that I knew what they were talking about. There was a guilty tension in them, a sort of complicity in the satisfaction they took at their good marriage, their vital child. The sidewalks up and down the street stayed empty for days, but constant whining will anesthetize even the most apprehensive. Kids re-emerged.

No one had seen Susie and Patrick’s father since the night they were murdered. News of the affair apportioned his blame. There was no viewing; the caskets were closed. At the funeral a week later, he hunched alone in the first row, his eyes drifting from the white flowers draping black coffins, to the floor, to the hands in his lap pressing and twisting on each other. It was warm in the room and his face shone with tears and sweat. Men, embarrassed to watch, fixed their eyes on the preacher, while their wives, rigid beside them, glared at his rounded back. People spoke very little afterward. My mother held my hand out to the car. The light was brilliant outside and everyone put on sunglasses. When I looked at her she smiled, but I couldn’t see her eyes, only myself. Susie and Patrick were buried on the hottest day of that summer; the polish on the two little caskets reflected everyone like a mirror.

It became a ritual that summer after the funeral; my mother at the screen watching me play — she liked me to stay in sight — watching my father cut the lawn, wash the car. Sometimes, if he stopped to chat with a neighbor, she would step out and casually claim his arm in hers. She didn’t talk on the phone so much anymore, but might give a little wave at another mom down the street. She’d stop at the door again at night just before she locked it, when the sidewalks were dark and you couldn’t see the neighbors.

The yellow tape stayed up ten days, becoming part of the neighborhood, then it was gone. I was surprised at how bare Susie and Patrick’s house looked. A few days later a van pulled up to the house and by that evening, their lives were labeled, folded — boxed away. Banded with my friends on the sidewalk, hot cement keeping us high on our toes like wading birds, we watched, anticipating some delicious horror. Before the first carton was carried out, though, I was exiled to the basement to play. But my mother watched. She stood vigil at the screen, her face pinched and slightly averted. I’d seen that look before, at the doctor’s when the nurse pinned me still for some shot. She didn’t like what was happening but knew it was necessary, so she watched. The movers piled black bags of trash at the curb. Along with two stained mattresses. Later, one of the neighbors helped my father haul them to the dump.

We watched the house a lot in the beginning, us kids. In the evenings, as shadows began to finger the sidewalks, we would gather at the curb, dipping our toes in the soapy puddles left by freshly washed cars, and watch the house, huge across the street. Somebody said there was blood on the walls. That Patrick had tried to hit his mother and that’s why she shot him. Then she shot Susie. “Momma why?” were Susie’s last words. I said Susie and Patrick were leaving with their father, getting a new mom. She wouldn’t let them go; waited until they went to sleep then shot them two times, each, in the face. Covered their faces with a washcloth first. That’s why the caskets had to be closed.

One of the movers had left a light on in the basement. Standing on the sidewalk you just could see it through a window on the side of the house. I swore the light moved and we dared each other with little shoves to look inside, but nobody did. After a while we forgot to keep watching. No one noticed when the bulb finally burned out.

Susie and Patrick’s mother was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Neighborhood sentiment was divided, some thought it was an act, others believed her, all agreed she should never be let out. But it had been true what I told the other kids, how she had killed them. Couldn’t stand the idea of losing her children, vowed that if she couldn’t have them, no one would. But it was also true about the car accident and the headaches, always headaches. She had tried to be a good mother, truly. Medication helped, though sometimes she forgot to take it. She knew if people could only see inside, look inside the house, they’d understand how much she loved her children, how hard she had tried.

The hospital let her out five years later. And heaven, as if deliberating all this time, handed down its own judgment. She died a year later of an aneurysm. My mother went to the funeral.

It was beautiful the summer they died. Best weather in years, everyone agreed. The house, Susie and Patrick’s house, the murder house, sat empty under a cornflower sky and got a little smaller. Every day there was a little less and a little less until, finally, it looked like all the other brick ranches. Neighborhood men took turns mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges. Four doors down there was a new “For Sale” sign. The couple was moving out of state. I overheard my mother say they were having problems.

Once, years later as a teenager, I saw Susie and Patrick’s father. Mortified to be at the Chatham’s with my mother, I was slumping along behind her when he appeared at the far end of the aisle. He was smaller than I remembered. His face was deeply grooved and even from a distance I could see red veins like tree roots breaking the white of his eyes. His harried expression was divided between the toddler in his arms and the woman beside him filling the cart. The baby looked like Patrick, I didn’t know the woman. Did he ever talk about his first family, the things he did? Did she go with him to the cemetery on Sunday mornings? Was it Patrick he saw as he carried this new son? I might have asked my mother these things, but I was busy hating her and not speaking. She simply turned our cart in the opposite direction.

The murder house sat empty, unobtrusive, for almost two years. By then, hardly anyone gave it a thought. When a young family finally moved in, neighbors eyed the home half expecting some unnamed disaster. But the new couple merely smiled and introduced themselves and sent their girls out to play.

We didn’t like those new girls at first, us kids. They were younger, babies really. But they followed us around, pestering, until we gave in and taught them how to play kickball. They cried when they were knocked down. I shared my Barbies with them at first, but they kept losing her shoes in the grass, so I stopped.

Now I barely remember those girls or their names. They were there for a while; now someone else owns that house. Many of my friends moved away. It seemed like there were a lot of divorces after Susie and Patrick’s murder, but divorces happen everywhere. My parents still live in the neighborhood. The last time I visited, my father was having two trees in the front yard cut down; the roots had buckled the old sidewalk. They were beautiful trees; images fully realized from all those years before. But underneath, no one could see the roots.

 

 

Honorable mention
James R. Tomlinson

The Therapeutic Needs of Bainesburg Bob

Bob bobs bobberlike in the Bainesburg Community High School pool; his blood pressure cuff water wings clamped on flabby biceps, afloat; his fine filament hair on his bobblelike bobblehead reaching across goggled eyes like evil black fingers. Bob, for lack of a buoyant explanation, struggles slowly, shortening his distance to the pools inner trough. Is he quitting? — Upon closer inspection one can only surmise that he is having difficulty doggy-paddling with conviction.

Bob has this reoccurring nightmare. He has mentioned this to Ruth Mondo, whom Bill contacted two months ago after Lucinda combed the personals of the Bainesburg Beacon (circulation 12,852 and climbing). He described in horrifying detail the ground-ivy spiraling around his neck and the silver telephone-pole-crucifix towering above him (an obvious sign, Ruth says, of miscommunication) and the dewlapped German woman shouting, You’re tangled again! and unraveling him and studying his chart during his interruptions (he says he mouthed something to her but you can never hear yourself talk in dreams) and her heavily accented response: Quit asking me! Only the doktor can release you!

In these nightmares Bob feels a certain affinity to his chart. He emphasizes over and over again that there must be some underlying meaning to all of this. Ruth points out that his chart, in such a dreamlike state, could represent an astrological sign — "Are you a Taurus?" Bob doesn’t understand the relevance of such questions. He reminds her that even though it is not his money, she is being paid by the hour. She bases her next comment on the many variations of the same dream. "Or maybe you’re falling into a big black hole." Bob agrees. He has told her about the German woman dropping his chart, how he felt the gravitational pull of it swallowing him, the giant whale of a mouth mattress caving in on him, how he panics, how he hinges forward in his sleep in a cold cold sweat, afraid to be alone. Ruth reaches out, touches his wrist, "I know how you feel." She tells him about her husband, they’re separated, he coaches track-and-field, he survived a plane crash, suffered second and third degree burns. "You need to overcome your fears," Ruth says. She hasn’t quite figured out the correct approach. How do you tell someone that twelve years of cleaning tables and trays and mopping floors in a dining area is worth going back to? How do you tell someone that filling orders at a service counter is a fine way to meet other folks, good folks, honest folks? "You’re strategically located," she reminds him.

Thirteen years ago Bob bobbed for apples at the Bainesburg Fighting Burros Halloween Bash. Most kids came up empty, begging for treats. Bob didn’t. He pinned a Delicious Red against the zinc-bottomed tub and brought it to the surface where everyone could clearly see that a chunk had been missing from the other side.

"Disgusting," Bill said. Bill’s Bob’s bestfriend.

Bob cupped his hand around the contaminated fruit before letting it drop to the hay-splattered floor. They smoked marijuana on the north side of the silo with Lynyrd Skynyrd pulsating from the barn. They devoured Snickers, Almond Joys, and yes — Baby Ruths, before meeting LeAnn and Lucinda on the senior class hayride near Jay’s Cider Mill. Back then they filled out placemat applications honoring their dreams of escaping a small-town atmosphere; As luck would have it, New Allen Road became Highway 90 and Old Allen Road morphed into the business loop which, in turn, meant their getaway came to them. But Bill saw the sick elm trees stretching on the horizon, may I take your order? he’d say, all the while thinking that those trees had to come down. So he bought five reconditioned chainsaws with his savings, attached a magnetic sign to his rusted F150: "Bill’s Tree Removal Service," and hired a crew. Bob politely turned down Bill’s conditional offer of employment.

Bob bobs below the surface before breathing out, before bobbling-up and chopping at the heavily chlorinated water. He sputters and somehow gets turned around. On the opposite end of the pool, in the four-foot section, senior citizens perform water aerobics under the careful tutelage of Lana Applebaum. Lana’s more Bob’s age than Ruth. Ruth’s eighteen years his senior. It is Lana who notices Bob’s flailing about and yells, "Are you in trouble? Do you need help?"

Ruth’s closer, at the downward slope, one foot firmly planted near the jagged, inky black racing line of lane numbers six and seven, her left hand generating a steady undercurrent to help keep her balance, the other hand waving Lana off. "Use the ladder Bob! Behind you! — To the right! — MY RIGHT!"

Bob last visited Bill and Lucinda unannounced. They knew he’d come. He needed advice. "Let me see if I understand," Bob said while Bill poured over his paperwork, "due to the rising cost of my company’s health insurance, I’m no longer eligible for physical therapy?"

"It’s not what you need, Bob." Bill turned away and yelled for Lucinda to come in. Bob saw her from the doorwall, a half-smoked cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. She was pushing a gas-powered lawnmower around a little tikes shopping cart and readjusting her halter-top. She turned behind a woodpile, her coiffure barely visible. "The number’s on the fridge!" She yelled.

Bill gave Bob the piece of paper. He said he wished he could do more, but they needed to move farther north and he wished Bob the best of luck in Bainesburg.

Nothing. No response. Just Bob’s drawbridge-neck lowering his unshapely head onto the arm of the couch in time for "Hogan’s Heroes." Bill offered to pay for the personal coach as long as Lucinda didn’t know. Bob quickly agreed as long as Bill set it up. "I’ll try real hard to become more active," he said. "Now if you could pass me the remote, I have a show to watch."

Bob somehow reaches the side and wedges his water-winged arm in the gutter and plants one knee in the inner trough and fans out his hands on the skid-proof tile. Up he goes, his torso meeting the stubbled floor like the forgotten touch of a woman’s unshaven leg. He deflates the water wings and peels them from his arms. Next are the goggles. He tosses them. Then he towels himself off and heads for the locker room where he sees powdered soap all over the mesh locker containing his clothes. He over spins a number on his combination padlock and starts over. He hears movement. He stands perfectly still — waiting. He hears it again — movement. Not wanting to give himself away, he carefully uncradles the lock from his hand and tiptoes toward the bathroom stalls. He sees two callused skeletal feet standing at attention. The door swings inward, revealing a man, his ribs jutting out, and his burnt orange nylon running shorts draped over pencil thin thighs.

"My name is Yekuno."

"Excuse me?" Bob asks.

"Yekuno. Ye — ku — no."

"Did you just put something all over my locker?"

"No sir."

"Where did you just come from?"

"ee tee OH pee uh."

"Huh?" Bob’s confused. "Ethiopia? I didn’t see you in the pool. Where’s your clothes? Why are you hiding in this stall?"

Yekuno moves forward, explains how he ran through the woods and across the field.

Bob blocks Yekuno’s point of egress. "You’re not going anywhere until I get some answers."

Yekuno smiles. Hunched shadows twist dripping swimwear as Bob topples over.

"Call 9-1-1," someone yells. Yekuno seals Bob’s mouth and gives two slow breaths followed by fifteen chest compressions. He knows that the shadows have grown accustom to reviving the dead.

Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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