Oregon State University

2013 Provost's Literary Prize Winners

Congratulations to the 2013 Provost Literary Prize winners, Kayla Harr (English) and Ben Davis (Liberal Studies). Kayla is also the recipient of the 2013 College of Liberal Arts Outstanding Senior Award. 

Kayla Harr
Remains of the Family

It’s easy to reconstruct

my mother’s guilt-tipped

grief as she failed to conceive.

I can create an imitation

scene of sorrow,

complete with her tears,

absorbed and stored throughout my childhood

to furnish these borrowed memories.

I feel her straining to give life

to me, a child who refused

to enter the world through her womb.

Unable to satisfy

the aching of a uterus

contracting

around its emptiness,

she patches me into her flesh.

Before I formed you

in the womb I knew you,

before you were born I set

you apart, she recites.

God made you for me.

She intones this in a low voice

on first days of school, on the anniversary

of the day they brought me home

and after letdowns and sad stories.

There is a painful parallel

between

my two mothers

that I cannot un-see.

One sabotaged her maternal

mold when she made a husband

of infertility. The other ruined

before innocence

could ripen with maturity.

Before I formed

you in the womb

I knew You.

I’ve heard resignation’s refrain:

The Lord, he works

in the most mysterious of ways.

Did God orchestrate teenage sex,

forceful and confused in the silence

of a late December night,

or fabricate the child molestation charge

that clawed me from

one mother’s arms and fed

me to another’s wanting embrace?

Maybe it’s best to say

He makes what He can

of our mistakes.

There remains a broken

path I cannot follow.

Strange names my

denaturalized ears cannot

swallow. Osaffer and

Toffic, barely discernible

in my fifteen-year-old mother’s

curled and dyslexic print.

One of them raped her,

though she doesn’t know

to call it that. One of them she thought

she loved. One is my father.

Both left before she knew

of me. It is a broken path.

I cannot follow.

I never thought I would get

pregnant. I was only fourteen

years old. Though her penciled

cursive betrays naiveté, I understand

exactly what she means.

A world lies between me

and my would-be parents.

Whether my Pakistani father

returned to a melting land of

smeared kohl, musky scent

and music that saunters through

the soul,

or lived inside the twenty

some miles that have separated

my one time mother and myself,

I feel they exist in separate planes,

though I’ve rubbed shoulders with

their shadows.

A sixth-grade classmate’s mother

cried when she recognized me

from photos her best friend treasured

of the daughter she surrendered.

The next day the girl tried

to lure me to the car. Come

meet your sister, she begged.

The new baby followed two

half-brothers I had seen

in photos sent in care of CSD.

At my refusal came the truth:

There’s someone who wants

to meet you... it’s your mom.

I hated her for thrusting lies on me

with three words I knew were wrong.

 

I hid in the dark cement hall

between locker room and gym

while they searched for me.

Through a back door and pouring

rain, a payphone brought Mom,

frantic, to rescue me.

Now I see vague outlines everywhere.

An older woman with marbled hair

smiles as I pass. Was it she who found

her foster daughter was pregnant with me?

Is the haggard face pumping gas

the one labeled “uncle”

in the scrapbook child services sent?

These fringe

people form the blurred

edges of a puzzle

I don’t want to complete.

I can count on one hand

the people I like to hug.

What could I feel

toward this woman who thinks

she knows the twisted

lines my soul follows through

my body (and might be right)

though to me she is as foreign

as another sex, culture or race?

The strangest stranger I could meet,

how would I cringe to recognize

myself in her face?

I’ve never known the longing

pain of adopted children who grieve

the mothers they could not keep.

I have been grafted onto another

familial tree. Though my branches

clutch cones while theirs bear fruit,

there is no sorrow in my harvest.

Something of that early

separation has made

me a family unto

myself.

 

 

Ben Davis
All a Person Really Needs

I am fourteen, scrawny, standing lookout for Garrett while he peels the bumper sticker off my neighbor’s minivan. He is crouched, shirtless, his gold cross medallion slung over his back to keep out of his way. He throws down a hand to steady his balance and the sun glints off the tiny cruciform like it’s winking at me, as a wedding ring might on the hand of an adulterer. The sticker tears into a tiger swipe of residue streaks, and Garrett uses his nail to scrape up a fingerhold.

“Come on, man, just leave it. We’re gonna get busted.”

“Busted,” he mocks. “I don’t give a fuck.”

I feel uneasy so I trot next door before he finishes. A minute later Garrett struts into my garage, throwing the crumple of sticker in the trash can. “Where it belongs,” he says, “hopefully they’ll get the message.”

These neighbors just moved in last weekend.

I don’t say anything, not the slightest acknowledgement. It’s easier that way. Besides, in three months he’s promised to get me a job working for one of his father’s companies. Eight bucks an hour, nearly double minimum wage. Once the moment has passed I say, “So I’m gonna need that ten for the essay due next week.”

“I won’t have any cash til Monday. I’ll drop it by then,” he replies, nonchalantly, knowing he’s in violation of our deal: half upfront and half when the assignment is complete. I don’t enjoy doing his work—it began when we had science class together in seventh grade. We were paired as lab partners and he struggled with cell biology. I tried to teach him but he kept getting distracted, changing the subject or making fun of someone, usually me. Eventually he slipped me a five to finish his lab report, which in turn led to other deals, mostly papers for history and language arts. Later he told me his father had threatened him with military school if his grades didn’t improve. Now our symbiosis has carried into freshman year of high school.

He does another set of curls, kissing his bicep, throwing around my cement weights like toys whenever he stops by—we don’t talk business at school—then stretches on his shirt and straddles his bike, saying, “Don’t forget: B-minus this time. That A-plus about got us both busted.”  I nod as I get on my bike. I try to ride his tail but his bright yellow Cannondale quickly pulls away. Not that it matters—he’s heading to his mansion for a home-cooked meal and I’m going to the store to steal chicken fingers and macaroni. It’s the end of the month and the fridge is empty again; things haven’t been easy since Mom’s hours got cut, and anyone who says we can live on food stamps has never had to. He turns a corner far ahead and I trudge alone on my old Huffy, which I have aptly named Rusty. The chain gets jammed between gears but I have just enough momentum to coast to the grocery.

Garrett lives in the new country club across the main highway. The one with the guard station at the entrance, and the stone wall that reads: Pruett Plantation – named after Garrett’s father, Percy Pruett, who developed the subdivision. I know this because Garrett told me, more than once. And because sometimes I heave my bike over the fence of Pruett Plantation and ride around looking at the mansions, and one night Garrett was outside so he waved me in because he had an assignment for me. He flaunted his talent at billiards in his enormous basement, then showed me his father’s arsenal—locked, cocked, and ready to rock. Then his mother called him up for dinner. She didn’t know they had a guest, she’d said, or she would have cooked enough lasagna. Their kitchen smelled like heaven as I left. I watched through the bay window from outside as they bowed their heads around a table billowing steam, my stomach howling for the rich fragrance still thick on my tongue.

I prop Rusty against the building, enter the store, and head straight for the milk. Carrying it makes me look innocent. I find the macaroni and stuff it down my pants, tucking it behind my beltline. The corner of the box digs into my nuts and I have to readjust, looking around to make sure nobody sees. Then I find the open bag of chicken fingers that I stashed under some frozen peas a few days ago. I hold the glass door open until it fogs up, giving me cover, then pull out four fingers and put two in each cargo pocket. Never take more than you need. At checkout I only have the $1.33 that I scrounged from my house. The milk is $1.39, so I dig in my pockets frantically, looking all worried and childish. The cashier purses her lips and waves me through.

Outside I pedal away as fast as I can, shaking off the jitters, taking it out on Rusty. If only Garrett had given me my advance. I really don’t have the stomach for shoplifting, but I don’t much have the stomach for hunger either. My legs pump furiously, fueled by frustration; the handle bars jerk violently and the macaroni is a maraca in my pocket, the bungeed milk slushing and slogging on the cargo fender. I’ve asked everywhere in town for a job and they all say the same thing: come back when you’re fifteen. It’s illegal for me to earn money. Just three more months though. Three more months and they can keep their minimum wage. I’ll be making eight bucks an hour.

At home I find Audrey on the couch, lobotomized by television. She lifts the paperback off her chest when I walk in, stealing sheepish glances between me and the book. “Yeah, right,” I say. “What’s happening in that story?” Her eyes cross when she tries to focus on the page and I laugh, “Just come in here and help me with supper.”

It’s Friday night – Singles Service at the church and Mom never misses. A whole room full of lost Christians trying to get found in more ways than one. There’s also a regular Wednesday Night Service and something on Tuesdays too. And Mom has a new therapy group on Saturdays. This all keeps her very busy and leaves me and Audrey alone most nights. And even when Mom is home, she does little more that study her Bible and watch televangelism. She was always religious, but became devout after Dad died. I think she believes that she’ll see him again someday if she prays hard enough. I don’t know about all that, but I’m glad it keeps her spirits up; things were really dark there for a while.

Audrey boils water while I warm the oven and find a pan. She’s only nine but I taught her to cook the macaroni herself in case I’m not home. I put the milk in the fridge on the top shelf, empty but for Mom’s diet milkshakes. There’s one piece of ham left on the second shelf. A mustard packet falls from the door and I consider it for the ham, but I put it back and eat the lunchmeat straight. I’d offer half to Audrey, but all she’ll eat is chicken fingers and macaroni, so we have it every night. Every single night. Unless I sell a paper; then I order pizza.

Our kitchen table is covered in advertisements and overdue bills so I clear it off. Usually we eat on the couch but lately I’ve insisted on proper dining. We sit, but the food isn’t hot enough; there’s no steam rising from it. So I microwave our plates. Once the steam is billowing in the light, we sit and bow our heads. Then we eat.

 

 

Saturday afternoon my new neighbor approaches me outside. He looks about my age, his face a scruffy patchwork of pubescent self-delusion.

“Was that you playing the guitar I heard last night?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say, surprised. I play every night, but “I didn’t think it carried outside.”

“You got some nice licks. I play a little myself. Wanna jam sometime?” he asks.

“How bout right now?” I say, extending my hand. “I’m David.”

“Evan,” he says. “I gotta help my Dad unpack some shit. Maybe in a couple hours?”

“Yeah, hell yeah. I’ll bring my guitar down and knock.”

I go to my basement and play for two hours so that I’m good and warm to jam. I’ve only jammed a handful of times with other people so I can hardly contain myself. Exactly two hours later I knock on his door, ignoring the rectangle of residue on the bumper of his dad’s minivan. Inside is the same floor-plan as my house, only opposite, like a mirror image. In Evan’s unfinished basement – cinder block walls just like mine – he has an electric guitar, a bass guitar, and a five-piece drum set.

“Holy shit, a drum set,” I say, sitting down on the stool. I pick up the sticks and bang incoherently. Evan humors me for a moment but then laughs and waves me out of the way. “Like this,” he says, showing me how to time the bass drum between the snares while tapping the hi-hat. He moves out of the way for me to try. Once I’m holding a half-steady beat, Evan straps on his bass.

We start to groove and a small kid comes thundering down the stairs. Evan introduces Grant, his little brother. Grant isn’t much for handshakes as he snatches the drumsticks from me. “You know how to play that thing or what?” Grant says loudly, pointing his drumstick at my guitar. I’m taken aback by his gumption. “How old is he?” I ask Evan.

“Ten,” Evan answers, though he’s nearly cut off by Grant yelling, “Eleven in November, motherfucker!”

Then Grant starts drumming furiously. Evan joins in with his bass but I can’t take my eyes off Grant; his rolls are mesmerizing. He even twirls the drumsticks between snare pops.

I crank up my amp and strum chords to get the rhythm. Then I stomp my blues pedal and start to wail, bending the strings until they cry for mercy. Evan and I jam our hearts out, but we don’t seem to matter beside Grant. I’ve never seen anyone play the drums like this in person, let alone a ten year old kid. Eleven in November.

Evan’s dad yells “dinner” so we shut it down and climb the stairs, reeling from the musical high. “You guys sound good together,” he says as we close the basement door behind us. The kitchen smells like heaven. I inhale deeply.

“You’re more than welcome to stay for dinner, David, as long as it’s okay with your mother.”

“Oh, it’s okay. Trust me. You’re sure there’s enough?” I ask.

“Of course, there’s always enough. Take a seat,” Mr. Perone says, setting out a clean plate for me as we all sit down. Three plates are already on the table, covered with buttery peas, creamy pasta, and caramelized pork chops. Mr. Perone scrapes the pans from the stove onto my plate. Then he cuts a slice of pork chop and rations some peas and pasta from his own plate onto mine. Evan and Grant do the same, until all of our plates are even. The steam rises to my nose and my breathing gets heavy; I try not to hover. I start to bow my head but Grant grabs his pork chop by the bone and rips the meat with his teeth like a junkyard Doberman. Then we all start shoveling.

 

After dinner I go check on Audrey and she has already eaten her chicken fingers and macaroni. Mom’s monthly paycheck came this morning and she finally bought groceries. “I couldn’t wait,” Audrey says.

“That’s okay,” I say, “I already ate next door – our new neighbors made pork chops. Best meal I’ve ever had.” She makes a disgusted face and I shake my head at her. “You might like it if you’d actually try it.” I am pleased to see she’s halfway through the book I gave her: The Giver. It’s not Shakespeare, but when I was her age it got me thinking. And thinking is all a person really needs.

Evan knocks and I open the door for him and Grant. As they walk inside, Grant swipes a glass plate off the counter by accident and it shatters on the floor. Audrey comes running and stops short at the sight of Grant. “Sorry, I didn’t see it. They shouldn’t make glass invisible if it breaks like that,” Grant yells in earnest. Yelling appears to be Grant’s normal speaking voice. Evan tells us that Grant’s nickname is “the Tornado. He causes more damage a year than Kansas gets in a decade.”

Audrey hands Grant the broom. Then she holds the dust pan for him, backing it up an inch at a time. Mom will be home soon so I herd us out the door, leaving Audrey to her book. We skateboard down to the square as the sun fades and the fireflies begin to flash. We’re heading to the record store because Secondhand Smoke was just released and Evan saved up for it. The cowbell on the door announces us and Grant yells across the store, asking the clerk if they have The Who.

Evan heads straight for the “S” section and I wander over to the poster rolodex. As I study a Temple of the Dog poster, a sticker below the incense shelf catches my eye. A glance toward the clerk and I pocket the sticker without thinking. I mosey over to Evan, who is now browsing vinyl. I start to panic. There could be cameras. Someone could’ve seen. I tell Evan I’ll be outside and exit casually, suppressing the adrenaline.    

I’m practicing kickflips on my skateboard when Evan comes pushing Grant out of the store. “The fucking Tornado broke a lava lamp. He can’t go anywhere without leaving a trail of destruction. No Sublime until Category Five here pays me back,” Evan gripes. Then we go behind the dumpster and smoke cigarettes. Evan snagged a pack from his dad’s carton, so he and I light up. Grant tells us how disgusting it is to smoke. We ride our skateboards home, reciting movie quotes the whole way.

I lie in bed until one o’clock in the morning, debating myself over what to do. Finally I sneak out through the basement and creep next door. I crouch behind Mr. Perone’s minivan and carefully smooth the sticker I stole back over the rectangle of residue. It looks exactly the same, I think, though the dark of night mutes the spectrum of the rainbow flag.

 

 

The next day I jam with Evan and Grant all afternoon. I bring Audrey down to listen and she tries to join in with her clarinet, but it doesn’t go well so Grant gives her a tambourine. Music feels so good that I want to skip school tomorrow and play all day, every day. Mr. Perone says Audrey and I can both stay for chili if we want. My eyes light up, but Audrey sneers. When I tell him about her pickiness, he is appalled and becomes determined to expand her taste, so he makes chicken alfredo instead. The kitchen smells like heaven again.

Later, Mr. Perone asks Audrey, “Why do you like chicken fingers and macaroni so much?”

Audrey just shrugs, but when she leaves the room, I tell him what I think. “It’s what Dad used to make us a lot. She doesn’t remember all that much; he died in a car accident when she was five, I was nine. I heard once that smell is the most nostalgic of the senses, so I think she’s trying to connect, you know, to his memory or something.”

After a long moment, Mr. Perone starts to speak and then stops. I hope he doesn’t ask about Mom, I never know quite how to explain her. “Well,” he says, rising from the table, “you and Audrey are welcome to eat with us anytime. Every night, if you want. As long as it’s okay with your mom.” He lights a cigarette and pulls a deep drag, then goes to his recliner and turns on the tube.

 

 

For the next week, Audrey and I take Mr. Perone up on his offer. Evan and I write songs while Audrey helps Grant with his homework and then we all eat dinner; every night that week except Thursday, when Mom is home and microwaves hot dogs. Garret gives me my ten dollar advance for the essay due next week and I buy Secondhand Smoke from the record store for Evan, settling Grant’s debt.

 

 

Sunday morning Mom insists I attend Service with her because it’s the grand opening of the new chapel. I’ve been wiggling out of church for months now. Mostly because it’s a bore, but also because I had an incident during Sunday School a while back: in the hush of closing prayer, flatulence took me by surprise. It eased out at first – all wind, no flap. Then the flapping crescendoed until it was a full-blown whoopee cushion. Only then did I realize what was happening; but it couldn’t be stopped. As the prayer ended and we lifted our heads, the muffled snickers became laughter. The worst part was that Brittany Sorrell – the most beautiful girl in Georgia – had been sitting right beside me and looked at me as though I’d pissed in the baptism tub. After that nobody wanted to sit by me. Garrett was there too. I thought maybe he’d put in a word for me with Brittany, since they’re friends and he knows I like her, but afterward in the lobby he made a fart noise with his mouth and pointed at me and everyone erupted again.

Mom is still getting ready but I walk outside because the morning is clear. Grant is in his driveway; he rolls his skateboard into the grass and runs over. I tell him we are going to church and he sees Audrey walk outside and asks to join. I go inside and ask Mom. She says yes, but hurry. Grant scurries down the little hill to his house and we can hear him pleading to his dad. It takes some convincing, but a minute later he comes running up the hill yelling, “Don’t leave without me!”

In the back seat Grant tells Audrey about a drum solo he performed at his school in Tampa. Then she tells him all about how she quit the tuba because it was too much to lug around so now she plays the clarinet, which she finds boring because she loves the deep tone of the tuba. Grant says he’ll carry her tuba on the bus if she wants. I tune them out but they chatter and giggle the entire ride.

We’re only staying for the sermon; I already pitched a fit about Sunday School afterward. We’re seated and given pamphlets with pictures and factoids about construction of the chapel – triple the square footage of the old one, stained glass from Italy. Two big skylights in the ceiling have angled mirrors in them to rain sunlight down on the stage. At the bottom of the back page is the Pruett Construction logo and phone number.

Garrett’s mom is in the choir and above them is an enormous cross, backlit with yellow bulbs to give an aura like it glows from within. I see Garrett and his little posse sitting up front, behind his dad and the other Deacons. Garrett’s father, Percy Pruett, is Head Deacon.

The choir starts up and Pastor Larry Britt makes his entrance, singing and clapping, stopping only to shake hands with Deacon Percy. He points and winks at someone and I remember the glint from Garrett’s medallion. Then the song ends and Pastor Larry seats the choir, all eyes on him. He mentions the Falcons and how God so loves us to have kickoff at one o’clock, while theatrically reading his wristwatch. Then he delivers the Truth about love and marriage, between man and woman. His followers encourage him with Amen and Praise Jesus. The subject is hot because everyone’s been talking about the case in Florida that made headlines: a landmark decision awarding a homosexual man custody of his two sons.

I realize suddenly that the Perones are from Florida. The wheel begins to spin. Two sons, the rainbow flag sticker. It wouldn’t be strange for them to move after something like that. Mr. Perone told me once he had family in Atlanta, but found a job here in Douglas county.

Pastor Larry segues into Choice; what is and is not a choice; how the choices we make lead us down roads and how all roads lead to Judgment, for the Rapture will come “in the twinkling of an eye.” I glance down at Grant and am relieved he’s passing notes with Audrey, oblivious. I led him straight into the belly of the beast. The choir sings again and Deacon Percy leads the ushers down the aisles, passing offering plates up and down the pews. As the shiny gold plate passes Mom she drops in an envelope and I wonder what it contains. I’ve asked her how she always has something to give, even when bills are past due and the fridge is empty. She says the first ten percent goes to the Lord, no exceptions. Then she tells me this story about a boy who wanders into a church and throws his last nickel into the offering. Everyone in the congregation had given far more than a nickel, but because this boy gave all of his money, he gave the most in God’s eyes.

Deacon Percy waits at the end of our pew for the plate.

I pass it to Audrey and she passes it to Grant, who pulls his gum from his mouth and puts it in. He looks at Audrey and realizes what he’s done and reaches for the plate but it’s moving away too fast. We start laughing loud enough to draw attention and Mom elbows me so I send the elbow down the line, cracking us up even harder. I catch eyes with Garrett, who has turned around from the front row, and I nod my head upward at him. As my laughter wears thin, he just stares for a minute, shifting his gaze between me and Grant, and then turns back around.

Mom drops us off at home and heads back to church for Bible Study. We go straight to Grant’s basement to jam. Evan teases Grant about being Saved with a palm to the forehead. Later that afternoon, Audrey wants to learn the drums, so Evan and I run to the store to get scallions for dinner while Grant teaches her a beat. Mr. Perone is still trying to expand Audrey’s taste, so tonight he is cooking tortellini soup, a recipe from his grandmother in Italy.

On the way home from the store we encounter Garrett and his little posse. One of them makes a fart noise and they laugh. I ignore it. “The new chapel turned out real nice,” I say to Garrett.

“Yeah, I could tell you had a real high respect for it, laughing through the offering ceremony,” he says, though his eyes are fixed on Evan. “What’s your friend looking at?”

Evan and I exchange glances. Garrett says to Evan, “I said, what are you looking at, faggot?”

That last word causes Evan’s eyes to well and his face to harden. He drops the scallions and clenches his fists and charges, surprising us all. Garrett throws a flustered right hand that lands low, into Evan’s collarbone. Evan works his right hand into Garrett’s ribs while Garrett connects twice in the side of Evan’s head. Though Garrett is bigger, his swings are wide and uncalculated. Evan’s swings are solid and precise and their damage is evident in the way Garrett winces, guarding his ribs. Then Evan lands an uppercut into Garrett’s lip and Garrett exhales an aerosol of bloody saliva. It’s clear this isn’t the first time Evan’s ever addressed the issue.

Garrett gets an arm on Evan’s neck and they tangle up until a man runs over to break them up. The man isn’t gentle, shoving them in different directions and ordering us to vacate the area in five seconds or he’ll call the cops. The neckline of Garrett’s shirt is ripped and he is fuming, but the man ensures they go the other way after we ride off on our skateboards.

 Evan says, “Dude, whatever happens, you can’t tell my dad about this, okay?”

I nod in understanding. Evan stops to think. Then he says to follow his lead and we start running. We run all the way inside his house and Evan huffs out a story about a pit bull that chased us, which is why he dropped the scallions. Evan’s dad picks up the phone and calls animal control, says don’t worry about the scallions; it’ll still be good. Audrey and Grant go back to the living room to finish a movie and I follow Evan downstairs.

“Who the fuck was that douchebag?” Evan asks, still gathering his breath.

“Garrett Pruett,” I say, “His family pretty much runs this whole county. His dad’s the sole commissioner, owns a bunch of businesses around town.”

“What a fuckin’ prick!”

“No shit. It was pretty sweet to see him bleed.”

Later, once we’ve calmed, I show Evan a song I’ve been writing. I play through the chord progression and he starts walking a bass line to it. Usually I only sing in my own basement, but it feels okay so I start singing the lyrics I wrote: my lovesick blues for Brittany Sorrel from before the prayer fart.

A commotion upstairs interrupts me; we rack our guitars and bolt upstairs. In the kitchen we find Mr. Perone kneeled before a hysterical Audrey. She is panting with tears smeared all over her face, struggling to speak between sobs, “he wanted the scallions because he said I had to eat better and if it didn’t taste perfect I might not eat it, and then they started hitting him and wouldn’t stop and now he won’t move…” Mr. Perone grabs his keys and we pile in the minivan.

By Audrey’s direction we come to a place in the neighborhood that hasn’t been developed. Grant lies in the ten feet of grass between the curb and the woods. He struggles to one knee and falls to the ground in a disturbing crumble. One eye is swollen shut and the other looks half asleep, but there isn’t any blood. One shoe lies in the street and his left pinky makes a ninety degree angle at the middle knuckle.

My Mom comes to the hospital to pick us up after Grant is stable. He has a tube in his arm and a breathing mask over his mouth. The doctor put a cast on his hand and said he has a cracked rib and a concussion. He’ll need rest but eventually he should be okay.

Evan and Mr. Perone stay overnight with Grant and they all come home the next afternoon. Audrey and I walk over to deliver the card she made for Grant. It is tied to a bouquet of dogwood flowers she picked from our yard.

We open the door to Grant’s room and he greets us in a strained speaking voice. I hold up my yearbook from last year and Grant nods yes at a picture of Garrett. Evan is sleeping so Mr. Perone pours me lemonade and sits me down at his kitchen table and I tell him everything I know about Garrett Pruett and his family. When I ask Mr. Perone if he’ll press charges, his eyes gloss over and he says, “I don’t know.” The words choke him and I can only imagine the scales he is balancing, after all he’s been through.

When Audrey and I leave, Mr. Perone walks out behind us and I look back and see him kneeling behind his minivan, holding a razor scraper and cleaning spray. My own scales are see-sawing. Eight bucks an hour and opportunities. What are you looking at faggot?

Waiting for the bus in the morning, I stare at the bumper on Mr. Perone’s minivan, the faint rectangle of residue. Garrett approaches me in the hallway at school before our third period class. “What’s up, David?” he says with an edge. I know he is sizing up my reaction because he never talks to me at school unless we have lab. “Not much,” I say, “still thinking about that sermon on Sunday. It’s like the Truth is truer in that big new chapel.” I hold his eyes.

His mood slowly lightens and he says, “Yeah, what a turnout, huh?”

In class he makes a joke in the corner and his friends laugh, tilting their heads back and high-fiving. All I can think about is Mr. Perone’s watery eyes staring out the window and the sticker of residue on his bumper. After I class I watch Garret at his locker, casually tossing in the books that he never takes home, slamming it shut, putting his arm around his girlfriend. He has everything, and yet still takes more from people.

 

 

After school, I jump the fence to Pruett Plantation and watch Garrett’s house from the woods. An hour passes and finally he pulls up on his bike and pushes buttons on a keypad by the garage. The door lifts up and he goes inside. I wait five more minutes to knock.

Garrett opens the door, surprised, and I invite myself in with a loud but shaky confidence, nervously barging past him while slipping off my backpack. “Nobody’s home, right?” I ask, though I already know from my stakeout. “No, but my mom will be home soon.”

“Cool, I want to try a trick shot on your pool table,” I say, heading downstairs.

“Uh,” he hesitates, but I override him: “C’mon dude, it’ll only take a sec.”

He’s heating a snack and I see 1:22 left on the microwave timer, so I know this will be my best chance. I rush downstairs and head straight to his father’s collection.

I pick up a special edition chrome nine millimeter pistol. The traction grip feels steady in my hand and the weight of the gun is sobering; I’ve never held one before. For a moment, I reconsider things. Then the image of Grant: eye swollen shut, pinky broken. I pull back the action like Garrett showed me and the round in the chamber falls out—I fumble to catch the bullet, dropping the gun in the process. He starts down the stairs and adrenaline floods my veins.

I hear him blowing on his snack to cool it off as I kneel to carefully grab the handgun. He speeds up when he sees the door to the gun room ajar, then pushes it open and freezes, cheese stringing from his calzone to his mouth, at the sight of me holding the nine.

The moment lingers. Without looking up I say, “So I guess those faggots got what they deserved, huh?” Then I flash him my most sinister smile, breath on the gun to polish my smudge marks, and put it back in its wooden box.

He slowly starts chewing his calzone, and his eyes narrow, “It’s an abomination of God.”

“Then it has no place around here,” I say, walking past him. I setup a trick shot on the pool table that I once saw in a movie, trying to jump the cue ball over two solids in order to knock a stripe into the corner. It doesn’t go well. The cue ball flies over the rail and onto the carpet.

“Wow, impressive,” he mocks. “So, thanks for dropping by and all, but my mom will be home any minute and then we’re going to dinner with Pastor Larry.”

I ride my bike home and Audrey is walking out the door to go visit Grant. I decline her offer to join and go lie in my room.

 

 

For the next three days I hardly sleep. I eat very little because my stomach feels constantly queasy. On Tuesday night, I eat next door with Audrey and the Perones. At dinner Mr. Perone asks me, “You okay? You look like you’re shaking, David.”

“Yeah, I’m a little cold I guess,” I reply.

Evan keeps busy doing his schoolwork that they let him take home, so we don’t jam much at night. Audrey hangs out with Grant though, and says he’s getting much better.

Then in third period on Thursday it finally happens. The teacher leans over Garrett and he stands and follows her out the door. In the hallway I see Principal Thurgood, holding in his hand Garrett’s essay. The essay I dropped off at Garrett’s house on Monday. The essay I knew he wouldn’t bother to read because he never reads them, though that risk was nerve-wracking. The last piece of work I’ll ever do for Garrett, or any Pruett for that matter. In the fourth paragraph, Garrett said this county should be purified of “faggotry,” and he’d see to it himself, starting right here at Ralph Abernathy High School with his father’s nine millimeter if he had to.

He’ll tell his little posse I double-crossed him and they’ll plot revenge, as sure as a snake will still squirm after its head is cut off. But they too were mentioned in Garrett’s essay, so the scrutiny should keep them at bay.

I watch him turn the corner and hear the fading footsteps down the hallway. They’ll take him to the counselor’s office and talk therapy options and suspension sentences, but it won’t be quite enough to expel him and secure his bunk at military school. Until they find the bullet in his locker.

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