--FIVE HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND, SIX HUNDRED MINUTES
…I’m back from the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference and I’m so happy to say that my story took 1st place!FIRST PLACE!! Holy Hell. I was honestly a little shocked. I was just certain I wasn’t going to win. Thank God I’m wrong lots of times.
I got a $700 check. That's seven times the next most money I’ve ever received for a single story.
What a thrill.
I’m digging out and will write more in couple of days. Until then, a lot of people asked me to post the story since Blogger has stopped allowing me to add links.
It’s not my typical dark fare (this one’s even funny) and it’s a little lengthy, but here it is:
Last night some men bounced around on the moon, and for that reason or not, by morning the rest of the universe has conspired against me.
We’ve driven hundreds of miles. I shouldn’t have drunk so much soda because my bladder’s the size of a Milk Dud. Not to mention, someone in the car has a bad case of gas. Dad hasn’t said a word, or Bobby, of course, and Mom’s gone nuts twenty times over.
“I knew a boy in high school,” Mother says, applying lipstick while speaking into the visor mirror. “Eddy something. He ran off and married a Holstein. I mean an actual cow.” Mother nods and keeps nodding until I’ve done enough attention time and can look away.
Outside my window, the terrain is nothing but a series of big blonde postage stamps. I’ve never seen landscape so massive or so boring.
I sign my brother: “What are those?”
He signs back: “Farms, I guess.”
The plots are all sharp-pointed squares. Every acre is divided decisively, as are the aligning roads which run remarkably straight. Our dad has a long scar like that, stretching from his belly button to chest. Mother said it was her sister who did the cutting. “She’s an Irish potato with motor oil blood.” Even though you never know with Mom, I’ve got a picture of my aunt stuck in my head. I imagine her as a redheaded gargoyle, reeking of kerosene. I figure she keeps switchblades in her house slippers, a razor tucked inside the hem of her girdle. Anyway, we’ll find out soon enough, since she’s the one we’re on the way to see.
In the back seat, Bobby squeezes my hand. I sometimes forget that he was born deaf because Bobby seems to hear me even when I haven’t uttered a peep, either with my mouth or fingers.
Mother flicks her eyes in the rearview. Her pupils are big bumble bees, fuzzy and electric. “You two look like a couple of stone ponies.”
I don’t understand what that means. Every day Mother gets more and more confusing. I only know that I’m scared and I have to pee and some of it--just a test tube trickle--has already run down my left leg, holding steady inside my nylons.
For the trip, Mother made us dress up, same as if it was Sunday and church was on the docket. I hate how these tights itch. Plus, my Mary Janes are two sizes too small and they pinch my toes. Even this dress was a jar squeeze. When I let out a breath now, there goes a little squirt again.
Bobby’s nose twitches. He’s got a whiff. “It’s okay”: he signs. “Nothing bad is going to happen. Don’t worry so much.”
Mother’s head swivels like a Lazy Susan, her cat-eye glasses nearly swinging off. “What’d you say?”
Bobby spells out “Nothing” in sign language.
“Nuh uh. There’ll be no secrets in this platoon. I’m not getting charged with treason!”
Mother’s face is crooked—smiling on one side, frowning on the other.
My brother signs: “Shelly has to go to the bathroom.”
Mother grips the back of the headrest with her white gloves. “And I have to pay the electric bill! Such are the demands of a burgeoning nation!!”
If this were dinner time, Bobby would nudge my shoe under the table. In addition to traditional sign language, my twin and I communicate by homemade gestures and code. For instance, two finger taps by a plate means: “Pretty loony.” Three taps means: “Wackier than usual.” Four is top billing: “Nuttiest ever.”
Mother’s lipstick looks like melted Red Hots. She’s done a poor job of coloring inside the lines and some pink film clouds her front two teeth. Crazy clown is what I think, at once feeling guilty for calling her a name, even if it’s just inside my head. It’s one thing to mess around with Bobby, another altogether to sin against the person who delivered me into this world.
“Irvin,” Mother says, corkscrewing me in the eye, then moving onto Bobby, then back to me, “which of these stone ponies did President Eisenhower commission?”
Again with the rock horses bit.
Our dad is dead. He’s the dead man driving this car. He’s the pale corpse that never says anything. If it weren’t for his hands moving on the steering wheel every so often, any smart person would conclude he’s a cadaver.
But then, miraculously, some of Dad’s fingers actually do come off the wheel, motioning for mother to use her seat belt. “Not a chance on your life,” Mother says. When she shakes her head, a curl springs out from under her scarf. “What do you take me for? A communist?”
This is the first car we’ve ever had with seat belts. I like the harness and being strapped in. Even though it’s just a piece of stiff cloth, the snugness is a reminder that something wants me to stay put. That perfect pressure is what I imagine a grownup’s hug might feel like.
“Walter Cronkite was a communist,” Mother says. “Then he found Jesus.”
The communists have been mostly over with for a while now. Kennedy out-gutted them, but then they got revenge with his assassination. Eventually they went a step further, shooting the other Kennedy, Bobby, the one my brother was named after.
“Oh, I like this tune,” Mother says, turning up the radio. It’s The Monkees, Davy Jones crooning, “Daydream Believer.”
Mom joins in, way louder than little Davy could ever be.
“Cheer up Sleepy Jean! Oh what can it mean! To a daydream believer and a homecoming queen!” As she sings, Mother bounces in her seat, waving her hands like spastic windshield wipers.
My brother signs: “She looks like a batty version of Olive Oyl.” I start to smile, swallowing a laugh, and as I do three jets of piddle splash through my tights, hitting Bobby’s knee. Instead of expressing fright, as I expect, my brother starts to titter. Soon he’s a toppling stack of flap jacks.
I sign: “What’s so hysterical?”
Bobby bumps up against my shoulder, spilling laugh tears.
“Stone ponies!” Mother shouts. “Stone ponies!”
Bobby adjusts, straightens, and stares through the road ahead like a puppet.
Dad is wooden, too. He’s an amazing mannequin, driving stiff that way, not even twitching when Mother’s white vinyl purse nearly took out his eye just then. I study his bald spot, the back of his neck, searching for a pulse.
Mother swings back around, looks out the window, then smooches lips to the glass, saying, “Stone ponies. Stone ponies. Steel pennies. Steel peonies. Stew’s peonies. Stupid meanies.”
I sign: “Oh boy,” propping up a grin, even though my heart has gotten a few miles ahead of itself from beating so fast.
Bobby signs: “As wacky as tobacky.” Bobby doesn’t seem nervous at all, not about Mom or Mom’s hotheaded sister.
Squirming, rocking back and forth, I sign: “I really have to go.”
Bobby isn’t moving at all. He’s as calm as cake. Yet he signs: “I need to go, too.” He looks straight ahead while he does it and I’m not sure if he sees Mother’s face still smashed against the window, drool sliding down the glass.
* * *
My Aunt’s house sits on one of the rare hills around these parts. She’s standing in the circular drive waiting when we pull up.
“Who is that woman?” Mother asks. Sometimes Mom’s kookiness is startling in a scary way.
“That’s Miriam,” Dad says, his first words in many hours. “Miriam, your sister.”
“Why, she certainly is not. I’ve never seen that lady before in my life.”
“Miriam doesn’t have red hair.”
“She does. Just like you.” My father’s voice is so soft, like the sound of snow. His mouth must be dry because his lips smack. A dewy diamond sparkles at the corner of his eye.
As Aunt Miriam approaches our vehicle, Mother mutters under her breath for us to lock our doors. “Gun it!” she tells Dad. “Hit the gas, quick!”
But Dad is out. He walks toward the woman and they both fall into the same hug. We all watch. Their embrace seems to last a week. Miriam is the one to finally pull away, patting my father’s forearm and biting her lip.
“She’s a gypsy,” Mother hisses.
Miriam stops a few feet from the car. “Oh my. Look at how much you’ve grown,” she says, holding out her arms for us.
She has a nice pale face and thin limbs. Her teeth don’t look anything like fangs. I hug her at the waist because she’s a tall lady. She does a little hat-tipping motion (“Hello”) to Bobby and I see him grin, happy to see she’s learned some signage.
Miriam’s hand is in my hair, her fingers working. It’s the most outrageous thing that’s ever been done to me and I don’t want her to stop until I’m eighteen years old, married with a husband who can take her place massaging my scalp.
She asks our ages and when I say, “Nine” she seems surprised. “Are you sure?”
“I am, Ma’am.”
Her eyes take a quick walk over me, then Bobby. “Well, let’s not have any of that old-fashioned stuff.” She flaps her hand. “It’s almost 1970, for Pete’s sake. I’m Miriam. That’s all I am.”
Mom looks like a wax woman. She’s both petrified and terrified, looking out at some distant horizon.
“Go on inside,” Miriam says. “There’s fruit punch and warm cookies on the counter.”
Dad nods at us to do as Mom’s sister has instructed.
Inside, Bobby signs: “Holy crap!” He stuffs three cookies in his mouth, coughing and choking. When I pound him on the back, a bomb of gooey dough blasts the front of my dress. “Smooth move, Exlax.”
Bobby signs that he’s sorry and jams a single cookie in his mouth this time.
I spy through the cracked screen door.
Outside, Miriam is bent over, leaning into the car window. I can’t hear what she’s saying. All of a sudden there’s a loud smack of skin on skin, and Miriam flies backward. Dad shouts. Mom yells, “That woman killed Amelia Earhart!”
Dad lifts Miriam off the ground.
“Let’s get out of here before Khrushchev shows up!” Mom says, swiveling her head birdlike. “Air raid!” Mom drops to the floorboards and stays that way, presumably cradling her head.
Dad’s hands are on Miriam’s shoulders. She shakes her head. Dad takes her face in his hands. When he pulls her mouth toward his, she pushes off and staggers my way.
“I’ll phone,” Dad calls, but a few seconds later Miriam is already through the door, panting, feigning delight at out treat munching.
The car backfires like a canon. Tires crunch across gravel. The vehicle accelerates and disappears from sound.
“Are my parents giving us away?”
Aunt Miriam looks stunned, even paler than ten minutes ago. Mom’s handprint has left a fuchsia imprint on Miriam’s cheek.
“Oh, honey, no. They just, your mother, well, your dad is taking your mom to a place where they make people better.”
“An insane asylum?”
“A care center.”
“How long will she be gone?”
“Not long at all. Maybe a few days, maybe a week or so.”
“And then we go home?”
I watch her tousle Bobby’s hair. He likes it, too.
The house smells like Lemon Pledge. There are a lot of wood moldings and some watercolors of mountains and wildlife.
“Want me to show you around?”
I’ve got a decision to make-go along for the ride or fight.
“Honey, what is it?”
Something bursts inside me. A moan rises up from the core of my belly and before I know it I’m wailing. It takes me a good half hour to stop from shaking and even then I don’t realize I’m standing in a pool of my own urine.
* * *
That night, in my new bedroom, I stare at the moon, wondering if those silly astronauts are still bouncing around on its surface. It seems impossible anyone can travel that far, even with a space ship.
I think about the future, how it’s always one step ahead, knowing everything beforehand. I used to wish for my very own crystal ball, but now I see that’s a lot like cheating on an arithmetic test or having the Lord Christ as a fulltime wish-giver.
There’s something about the moon and it being so many millions of miles away—untouchable yet noteworthy--that makes me think I need to remodel my expectations. A few years ago, before she started getting so eccentric, Mother said I was uptight and tagged me a perfectionist. “Let me tell you something, Shelly,” she’d said. “The world is one big messy place, so it’s okay to get dirty. That’s called life.”
Now I realize I’m going to have to discover things on my own. Not only that, but there’s a lot that I may never know. For instance, I can’t be sure where Dad got that scar, even if I ask and he tells me. People have been known to spare others the truth for all sorts of reasons.
And I have no idea how long Mother’s going to be in the loony bin, or even if they can help set her straight, but I make a decision that I’m going to love her as my own regardless. No more wise cracks or ratings. Same with Dad. If he wants to run through the rest of his life as silent as a slug, that’s okay. The planet’s made up of all kinds of people, so why should I expect families be any different? Trying to stick together is what matters.
Around midnight, Bobby slinks through the door and craws into bed. Even with moonglow coming through the curtains, it’s too dark to see, so he signs against my arm: “She’s nice, isn’t she?”
I decide to keep a secret of my own and not tell him the hunch I have, that Miriam is our real mom.
I sign against Bobby’s back: “We could always run away from here.”
He hesitates, as if he knows I’m testing his loyalty. “I’ll go wherever you want to go.”
I hug his shoulders. He’s shaking, either from the draught or because of the uncertainty of our situation.
Then I feel the slickness sliding off his cheek onto my fingers. He swallows the first sob, but nearly croaks on the ones that follow. I sign: “It’s okay. It’s all right as long as we’re together.”
I tell him a story about two wild horses that are out roaming when marauders sweep down a canyon and lasso the animals, loading them into a trailer, then selling them off later on. A hippie artist buys the pair and gets the bright idea to cover the horses in cement so it’ll look like he’s sculpted them.
Bobby signs: “That’s cheating.”
I sign: “It’s a story.”
Bobby signs: “But it’s still cheating.”
I keep on.
The artist hippie throws a party at his mansion, planning to auction off the cement ponies during a ceremony in the backyard. Guests gather around tables filled with fancy food snacks and lots of alcohol.
Bobby signs: “Champagne?”
I sign: “Sure. Champagne and Old Milwaukee.”
The ponies breathe through slits drilled near their nostrils and they have small openings to see through. Other than that, their range of motion is restricted by the epoxy resin.
Bobby signs: “I feel really sorry for those horses.”
I sign: “Will you just let me get on with the story?”
It’s a beautiful night, the twilight lit up by the largest moon that’s ever visited the sky, a moon so big and bright, in fact, that people on earth can see actual astronauts dancing on craters.
Bobby signs: “How cool.” Then: “Sorry. Go on.”
Party-goers wave at the astronauts. “Come join us!” they shout. The astronauts give them the thumbs up sign. “Come on,” the spectators insist. “At least shoot off your ray guns.” When they do, the sky lights up in a terrific explosion of color. Sparks fall through the atmosphere, landing on the lawn like flares. A few hit the stone ponies, creating cracks here and there.
The horses see this as their only shot. They snort and buck and whinny and shimmy until, bit by bit, their shells start to break off.
Bobby signs: “Hooray!”
Yeah, but freed, the horses find themselves not knowing what to do. They’re a long ways from the canyon where they were caught. Freedom suddenly doesn’t seem so swell.
But then one horse says to the other, “I know. Let’s go there.” He jerks his snout toward the moon and the waving astronauts.
“How’ll we possibly do that?” asks the other horse.
“Horses can’t fly.”
“But we’re not ordinary horses.”
Sure enough, something magical—or maybe it was just plain old chemistry-- transpired during their time being encased, for now each pony is fitted with a very fine pair of wings. Just like Pegasus.
“Let’s do it,” the boy/brother horse says. “Let’s go to the moon.”
“Okay,” his sister agrees.
By the time they arrive, however, the astronauts have already left. The moon isn’t so special with no one else on it. In fact, it’s cold and lonely.
“Let’s find a new place.”
So the ponies keep flying. They fly for weeks, months, years. They soar for decades.
Exhausted, they take a breather, stopping at a weigh station. When the horses look up, who do you think they see? Exactly. Their parents.
The mother horse is pretty and normal-acting. Father horse seems quiet and shy.
“Is this Heaven?” the girl horse asks.
“No, but we can take you there if you want.”
The girl thinks and thinks. After a while, she looks at her brother and grins. “Nah,” she says. “This is about as perfect as I ever want things to be.”