2023 Porch Prize Winner in Fiction
Sometimes you don’t know you’re ugly until someone tells you. I was fifteen when I got the news. My fifteenth birthday.
When I get off the bus that afternoon, mama’s boyfriend Simon Allen is moving fishing gear from his truck to her metallic blue Camaro. A serious car, it sparkles like a trophy in the sea of junk littering our yard. I’m happy—happy Mama has a ’67 souped-up Camaro. Half-way happy Simon’s living with us, but not proud the kids on the bus can see him standing shirtless in our yard. By his own reckoning, he’s the best football player the town has ever seen. Everybody in the county knows him.
As the bus is pulling away, Clifton Lee shouts from an open window, “Fuck you, Simon Allen!”
People act familiar with Simon, and sometimes he doesn’t know if they’re challenging him to a fight or just being friendly. I suspect Clifton’s being friendly, but Simon runs after the bus, gives Clifton the finger, and screams, “Fuck you, too!”
Simon buys and sells junk. Rusted tractor rims and logs from an old tobacco barn are stacked on what used to be our vegetable garden. He sees value in everything; it’s all worth a fortune if he can find the right buyer.
The first words out of Mama’s mouth when I walk in the house is not happy birthday, but “You’re riding with him to the lake.”
I moan, “Why don’t you go?”
I know the answer. She has no desire to waste an afternoon and evening watching him fish. She’s letting him have the car because his truck is broke down. He can be charming when he begs and wheedles, shuffles his feet in a fancy dance step, puts his arm around her and smiles. Still, she knows he can end up anywhere a tank of gas will carry him. With me along, she figures he won’t stray too far.
She pushes a twenty-dollar bill in my hand and says, “Happy birthday. Buy me a loaf of bread.”
Simon white-knuckles the steering wheel and looks over his shoulder to back the Camaro out of the yard. On the highway he shifts gears without building up enough speed, and the car shimmies. When he leans forward to fumble with the radio, the smell of nicotine and sweat lifts from his arms and mingles with the metallic smell of the minnow bucket on the floor. He knobs through the static filled stations until he finds a clear signal from Durham. Then he turns up the volume and sings along with, “There Goes My Everything.”
When it’s over he says, “That’s one of the best slow dance songs there ever was.”
He still goes to the VFW Hall on Saturday nights. He’s not a veteran, but he used to be a good dancer. Now when he goes, he sits at a table with me and Mama, drinks beer, and watches slew-footed men with no rhythm take up space on the dance floor that used to belong to him.
There’s a break in his voice as real as the sad lyrics of the song. He mumbles, a cigarette bobbing on his lips, his eyes half-closed to the smoke. He’s still struggling with the gears, and the car hiccups along the road.
The car lurches into the graveled lot at the bait shop. There’s a woman in a beige Impala parked by the gas pumps. She stares at us. Simon smiles, gives her a little wave, smooths back his hair. Before he saunters her way, he gives me a five to buy him a bucket of minnows and a six-pack.
He’s revving the engine when I get back to the car. He puts the beer in his lap, and I put the minnows on the floorboard between my feet. He waits for the woman in the Impala to pull out, and then follows her, turning the wrong way out of the parking lot for the lake. Before I can ask where we’re headed, he volunteers, “She says there’s a helluva of a pond beside her house.”
He pops the cap on the first bottle with his teeth. I put three LifeSavers on my tongue. A logging truck in front of the Impala is stacked with white splintering wood that looks like roast turkey. I’m hungry. The candy leaves a sour taste in my mouth, and my temples throb.
The woman in the Impala has long hair the color of broom straw and a skinny arm that hangs out the window. He opens another beer. And then another. We turn down a dirt road. He tries to ease through a mudhole but accidentally stomps the gas, and the tires spin up a shower of mud. Ahead of us is a double-wide mobile home. To one side, there’s a goat pen and on the other, a pond half the size of a football field.
I get out and inhale gas fumes and look at the mud caking the fenders. The woman comes around and leans on Simon’s open door while he finishes off his last beer. She says, “You ain’t drunk, are you?”
“Six brews ain’t even likely to give me a buzz.” He drains the bottle and tosses it in the backseat. “Them goats belong to you?”
“The goats was one of my mistakes.” Then she says to me, “Clifton Lee’s my boy. He’s in the same class as you.”
Simon says, “Clifton? Ain’t he that little asshole on the bus?”
“I moved out here and bought those goats thinking I’d make cheese. You know how much they charge for goat cheese? Anyway, it ain’t working out like I planned. Clifton won’t even hardly come out here unless his daddy makes him. I’m lonely.”
“Ain’t we all,” says Simon.
“How come you lonely? I thought you was living with this girl’s mama.”
Simon grimaces. “Things ain’t what they used to be. She’s about to put me out.”
“Well, she must not trust you too much if she sends her girl out with you when you go fishing.”
Simon leans in the trunk to get his rod and reel and says, “I’m feeling a little twinge in my back right now so why don’t one of you gals get the minnow bucket.”
We follow him on the path he tramples through the dying summer weeds. I shift the bucket from one hand to the other and every time my knee bumps the tin, water sloshes down my legs. The woman is behind me, talking. “I know your mama. Me and her went to high school together. You tell her I said hey. She still work at Liggett & Meyers over in Durham? You know how much she makes?’
Simon finds a place on the bank and stomps down the overgrowth. Pollen and white-winged seeds fill the air. I scratch my nose. I slap a mosquito on my kneecap and see the streak of red smear from its flattened body.
He unbuttons his shirt, rolls up his sleeves before he lifts the colander from the bucket and squats to put it in some shallow water beside a screen of cattails. He opens the lid and pulls out a fat minnow. He slips it on the hook. He flicks the rod, and the bait flies through the air. A soft smile curls the corners of his lips. He stands still, his boots seated in a nest of weeds and nothing moving but his righthand reeling in the line. My tongue finds a cut in my mouth, one made from the LifeSavers. I know when a fish bites you have to jerk the line to lodge the hook. My mouth throbs and tastes like blood.
When Simon moves closer to the deep water near the dam, I squat at the edge of the shallows and pull the colander towards me. There are things I know about Simon—I know he won’t go home as long as there’s a promise of fish or beer or a woman to flirt with. Inside the colander, minnows thick as gnats make short, darting movements. I scoop out a handful and let them glide through my fingers into the pond. Two more handfuls slide from my palm. One minnow left in the bucket. And it’s dead, not moving.
I wade out to break the cattails, thinking I’d put them in a vase on the kitchen table. Mud squishes between my toes, and I feel little sharp rocks like the fangs of a snake breaking my skin.
The woman continues to talk but her voice is muffled, the red light of early evening softening her words. She’s sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees next to where Simon stands. I’m mired beside the cattails. The stems refused to be broken, turning instead into a mushy pulp threaded with tough strings. I wade back to the bank and leave them dipping their velvet heads in the water.
The woman says, “I don’t know if I’d eat fish from this pond.” A puff of smoke drifts above her head. She says to me, “Has Clifton got a girlfriend?”
I look down at the mud on my feet, the itching welts on my legs. I love Clifton. Everybody loves Clifton. For the most part he ignores me, except for calling me a dork.
I tell the woman, “How would I know if he has a girlfriend?”
Simon smiles and says, “Don’t I hear you talking about Clifton all the time? Why I was thinking he was probably your sweetie?”
The woman says, “Just what I was thinking myself.” She and Simon guffaw and make mouth noises until he shushes her up because she might scare the fish.
I’m hungry. I’ve been here long enough. I’m ready to go home, so I pull the colander from the water for one last look to make sure I’d not left any live minnows. Before I can open the lid, a splash ripples six feet from me.
“You see that?” Simon whispers. “You see that bass jump?” His eyes take on flecks of yellow neon as he stumbles toward me. “Oh yeah! Hand me that bait! Quick!”
The woman says, “She’s done already let all your minnows go.” She pauses to draw on her cigarette. “I saw her do it. That’s exactly like something Clifton’d do.”
The neon in Simon’s eyes turns to slate. He holds his arms high and bangs on the bottom of the colander, and the dead minnow lands on the toe of his boot.
“You wouldn’t want to eat nothing from this pond anyway,” says the woman. “This here’s where I drain my septic tank.”
“You didn’t tell me your septic tank drains in this pond?”
She stands and brushes off the seat of her pants. “It won’t like you was reeling ’em in fast and heavy. For a man, you don’t fish much better than my boy.”
“How the hell you know how I fish? Can you count? Can you count to one? How many minnows did I get to use?” He holds his index finger so close it almost touches her nose. “Count! Count how many minnows I got to use.”
The woman holds her cigarette down at her side and smiles, no teeth showing, and bends her head away from the hand in her face. “Sorry,” she says. “Just kidding.” She grabs his finger and brings it close to her heart.
“Forget it,” he says, but she looks right at him, won’t let go. “Later,” he says and wrenches his finger from her hand. They both laugh.
At the car the woman says, “Come on in the house for a beer.”
Simon shakes a cigarette from his pack and puts it in his mouth. Then takes it out long enough to say, “I’ll wait right here, and you bring it to me.”
The air takes on a chill, and I imagine I will be cold, smelling like pond water by the time we finally make it home. “Simon,” I say, “we gotta go. Tomorrow’s a school day. And we gotta get Mama a loaf of bread.”
The woman snorts, jumps up on a rock and scratches her side and makes ape noises. “Come on, Simon,” she teases. “You know we gotta get Mama a loaf of bread.” Then she stands still and says softly, “You look just like your mama. Clifton’s always saying you’re an ugly little old thing, and I say, ‘Clifton, she looks just her mama.’” She pauses to take a drag off her cigarette and measure my looks. “You know what they used to call your mama in high school? Twenty-nine. They called her twenty-nine ‘cause they said she had a twenty-nine cent face.”
I get in the car but can hear Simon saying, “Ain’t no need to be talking like that. Why’d you even want to say something like that to that girl?” He finishes lighting his cigarette before getting in and slamming the door. The two of us sit, staring straight ahead. Finally, he looks at me. I want to cover my face with my hands, but my arms won’t move. He says, “You and your Mama ain’t any uglier than anybody else.” He stares straight ahead again before saying, “We’ll leave as soon as she brings that beer out.”
Crickets chirp in the grass. It’s night already and the air drifts up in purple light as the sun floats behind the break of pines on the far side of the pond. When she comes out, she stands by Simon’s open window and hands him the beer. Then she holds her wrist to his nose and asks if he likes her perfume. He smiles, shakes his head, and says, “Ain’t no way it’s gonna happen.”
He doesn’t speak again until we’re on the paved road half-way home. “Got some advice for you. Ain’t nothing worse than a person feeling sorry for theirselves. Self-pity and hateful people’ll kill you faster than cancer. Stab the sons of bitches in the eye and just keep moving.”
I hold my breath to keep from sobbing.
“Just look at your mama. Nice house. Nice car. Good paying job. You think she gives a shit what anybody thinks about her?”
I hang my head out the window. The wind stings my cheeks, dries my eyes. It’s a cool, clear night, and stars dot the sky. In town the lights are out at the A&P. Neither one of us wears a watch, but it has to be after nine if the A&P’s closed. Nothing stays open past nine so there’s nowhere to buy mama’s bread.
When we get home, the porch light is off, the house dark. He eases the car to a stop at the edge of the yard. Mama has to be up by five every morning so the last thing I want to do is wake her. The steps to my bedroom squeak so I step lightly and wait a while between each step, making it sound less like footfalls and more like an old house settling in the wind.
I wake for school the next morning and hear her downstairs moving around the kitchen. I hear water singing through the pipes, the ka-ching of silverware sliding back and forth in a drawer being opened and closed. I hear the screen door snapping shut and Simon coming in from feeding his bird dogs. I am on the steps going downstairs when I hear Mama tell Simon, “You can’t even buy a goddamn loaf of bread.” And I see Simon put his head in his hands and press his palms into his eyes and say more to himself than to Mama, “I can’t take it anymore,” and Mama screaming, “And you’ll what? Move out? Be my guest!”
When he leaves at the end of October, he takes his dogs, guns, and fishing gear. Six months later, an early spring arrives and honeysuckle and poison oak grow over the tractor rims, stacked logs, paint scaffolding and abandoned car he left behind and makes our yard look like a sea of green animals. It’s just then, after our yard leafs into this lush jungle, somebody at work leaves a note on Mama’s windshield telling her Simon had taken up with Clifton Lee’s mama and was getting ready to move into her double-wide.
Mama walks in the house with the note in her hand. It looks crumpled and sweaty, like she’d clutched it the whole thirty-mile drive from her job. She tells me to get in the car, and we drive around until we spot Simon’s truck at a beer joint. She pulls up to the door and sits on the horn until he comes out. She tells him to come move all his mess out of her yard.
Before light on a school day he shows up with two pick-ups, a flatbed, and three able-bodied drunks from the pool hall. It’s April. It’s drizzling rain, cool enough for a jacket, and I watch from the house as the men chop vines and fill trash bags with old paint cans and wrench a rusted car from the soil it had settled into. Simon is limping, smoking cigarettes, not offering much help to his friends. Mama walks toward him with a cup of coffee. They stand close to each other, and he wraps her in an embrace to warm her bare arms before he takes the cup from her hand.
These were the steps to their dance—she would throw him out and then welcome him home, until one day he moved back and it kept.
In their old age, they donned their Sunday best and as a Christmas present, I took them to a photographer in Durham. Their portrait hangs in my den. The thing I hear most often is, “You look just like your mama.”
Always, always I smile and say, “Thank you.”