Grand Prize Winner, 2004 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award: Dozen Wheelbarrows by Greg Cusick
Dozen Wheelbarrows by Gregg Cusick of Raleigh, North Carolina. Cusick has been writing stories since he was seven. He received an MA in English-Creative Writing from North Carolina State University in 1990. His stories have appeared in The Crescent Review, Alligator Juniper, Raleigh News & Observer, The Mochila Review, and elsewhere. Cusick says he supports his writing habit by bartending.
Alone in the house-his mother on second shift at the hospital-Hank scrapes his plate of congealing macaroni into the dog's dish. He swaps jeans for shorts, double-knots his running shoes. And he takes off into the October night, down the woods road toward the lake, his breath visible in puffs like those enclosing the words of comic strip characters.
Hank doesn't wear his hearing aid, which is often the case, since he wants the near silence of the woods, the muted sounds around him. He is sure that less heard means a heightening of his other senses. The fall air is crisp and oak-smelling, sharp, and he doesn't notice the temperature in the forties. Over a course of seven miles, he sees more than a dozen deer, big and brazen before the season.
Nearing home, still a quarter mile off through the woods, Hank can see his tiny two-story cabin's front window flashing blue television light and, as he nears, an unfamiliar late-'70s pickup in the short gravel drive. The dog's bark he doesn't hear. Hank enters the darkened house and, after two weeks unaccounted for, there is his father on the faded plaid couch. He looks older somehow and thinner-Hank thinks the word husk-thinking only puppies could change so noticeably in such a short time. His father is sipping Jim Beam from the last unbroken tumbler, watching the History Channel and puffing on a filterless Pall Mall.
The History Channel is what his father always watches, justifying an attitude he exudes, one he's explained to Hank and his brother countless times, a stance he's earned he says, surviving fifty-odd years in this small, unfair place, a Seneca Indian-named town most people can't even spell. A simple dictum, that today's world is too easy and rewards the lazy, unpatriotic, and false. Tonight's history lesson remembers The Titanic.
In the cold night, running under a cloud-snuffed moon, Hank had felt that one more sense had been removed and he'd loved the darkness. The pain, too. The burning in his lungs from cigarettes and in his hamstrings from the hills, steep enough but glacier-softened, ground down by ice masses moving just a few feet a year, an indescribable but palpable momentum. He'd entered the house, full of pumping endorphins, a runner's high. Now thinking about what he is returning to, his loaded mind rifling through conflicting emotions that all fit, only able to describe what he feels physically. His father smiles a wry, knowing (God knows what) smile, extends the pack of Pall Malls. Hank takes one and lights it, hands back lighter and package, coughs on the first puff. He sits tentatively in a stuffed chair left by the previous renter.
Green water, with that bluish-cold quality, rushes around the boat and into the wake behind it. Not as cold as it looks certainly, since the day's early September and the summer sun has warmed it for months. The outside air, maybe fifty-five degrees, is much cooler, Hank knows. Of the three on board-high schoolers, know-it-alls, know nothings-Banker is unofficial leader, and he's appropriately at the stern of the fourteen-foot bass boat, handling the tiller of the little Honda outboard. Dobey's at the bow. Hank is in the middle, straddling the mound covered by the army-green canvas tarp that hides what's supposed to look like fishing gear. An awful lot of tackle, if you ask Hank.
Green water, not the clear aquamarine you'd expect, or what it looks like from the air, or how the tourist brochures present it in slightly retouched photos and purple-prose text. The lake was formed by glacial movement, a deep crevasse cut by an ice mass moving in ultra-slow motion, cut over more years than Hank can fathom, much less how long back. Not really deep here, maybe twenty-five feet, a wading pool to a real swimmer, he's sure-they stay close to the shore. At the rear of the small bass boat, low in the water and motoring slowly across this Finger Lake, the Honda engine sounds capable as ever, the steady light click like a sewing machine Hank remembers his mother using, the soft sound a comfort to his even-then near-deaf ears. Behind him Banker has his headphones on (of course), listening to a William Buckley novel-on-tape, crazy for a high school junior, like the young Republican on "Growing Pains" reruns. What's up with that, Hank has asked more than once.
Banker's talking, as always, but he, of course, can't hear a thing Hank or Dobey says, not that they're talkative, especially by comparison. It's "Banker," by the way, for his penchant for hugging the shore. He can't swim, having missed the summer lessons like as a student he had ducked Spanish verb conjugation, totally ignorant of the preterite tense. He's Banker, then, not for some known gift with finances. Hank gazes down into the green water, knowing but not seeing the mossy, snaky flora that covers the lake bottom.
It's nearly five on a Thursday, just two weeks into the fall term, the cool air signaling the abrupt end of summer so common upstate. Yet in the breeze is the smell of both summer and winter: if it were fruit, both crisp apples and rotting bananas would blow past. Hank smells these and looks around as if they'd be carried by the air.
As the three pulled out from the lake house dock, Dobey was uncharacteristically exuberant. Good haul, men, he says, best of the season. Dobey's got a leg an inch and a half shorter than the other from a skiing accident, nearly died and maybe'd be better off. Like the rest, he's handsome in an athletic, boyish way, and like the rest he's flawed, limps only slightly to walk but can't run for shit. But all that's a story for someone else.
Banker guns the engine, and it responds sluggishly, like a runner into an uphill, Hank thinks, a member of their high school's cross country team, though he misses a practice every few weeks for their "runs" on the lake. They got more than they could ever put in a dozen wheelbarrows, Dobey had said more than once about the people who live on the lake. And it's true, Hank thinks, though he finds the image odd, disturbing. Hank thinks of Moby Dick, their current English reader, how the whalers and others moved their few belongings in the carts, borrowed because they didn't even own them. Hank pictures these now, filled with the electronic toys and nouveau-riches of the lake-house entrepreneurs, the soft-handed twenty- and thirty-something computer geniuses. Juxtaposition, Hank's English teacher might say.
Hank watches the lakeside homes pass them, thinking of the comedian, was it Billy Crystal, saying Trump's the only one who can look at the NYC skyline and say got it, got it, need it, got it, need it, need it, got it. Thinking as he visually marks the docks and their accompanying houses, we've hit them but not them, hit 'em, not yet, etc. He pulls at his left ear's hearing aid, dislodges and pockets it, happier in the steady whir of the engine and no voices at all.
When the tiny overloaded boat tips to port, it's no surprise to any of the three. Banker's fond of clowning with the rudder, exercising control, a show of his new-found confidence. Last summer he was the near-blind, coke-bottle-lensed butt of jokes. Then came the growth spurt and the contact lenses that transformed him overnight into a popular figure, got him a girlfriend in a matter of weeks. And changed his attitude, too. Banker had become sometimes cocky, sometimes even showing a mean streak that for Hank brought to mind the ones who'd picked on Banker since the early days.
It's not a big tip Banker causes, but an unsteadying jolt just the same. And for Hank, he senses something injected into his system, electric-like, perhaps fear and adrenaline, almost like what he feels before a race. And time slows for him then, movements clipped and jerky like photos on a storyboard he's seen in a film magazine. Like Zapruder's maybe. Or a lazily constructed cartoon, where too-few images are used to represent motion. Hank sees in that second a snapshot, himself racing through the woods on the cross-country course, cool fall and trees a red-yellow blur whipping past, a moment at the height of his training when he is flying. He's feeling that runner's high, his strides seem long as Buicks, and what is more often for him than most, the world is silent but for his steady breathing, so even he might be in sleep. If the photo is a race shot, he could be far behind the pack as easily as leading, since no other runners are in sight; but he's far ahead, with a still-lengthening advantage.
And so slowly then again, as Banker reacts to counterbalance the listing of the boat, the pendulum swings back with slightly more and still slower force. The small bass boat tips back then, a tiny amount of lake water swishing over the gunwale. The three passengers are all well-coordinated, athletic, yet their movements are again jerky, cartoonish, but at the same time slow and overreactive. Hank sees a second flash of remembrance, feels a second larger jolt of adrenaline, more panicked than at the first rocking of the boat not two seconds before.
In this photo Hank sees family, just for an instant, his brother and mother around the breakfast table. His father-this before he moved out to a construction job in the city, to send money sporadically and inconsequentially home-appears, too, workboots heavy on the stairs, then sitting at the table, declining cereal but taking black coffee. Hank's father wears the jeans and flannel shirt of the day before, smells of cigarette smoke and bourbon. But if one of Hank's lakeside classmates had peered in the kitchen window, there would be nothing in the scene that would lead one to think anything different here from their own kitchens.
Hank often doesn't wear his hearing aid at home, prefers the silence and in it the chance that it just might be that things here in the rented house are as they are in the giant homes on the lake, down the long paved driveways past the iron gates that are padlocked when the residents get away to ski Steamboat or dive the Keys. Dobey works part-time at Sanford Animal Hospital, which offers boarding, so it's simple enough to find a time when this or that lake house family will be out of town, the right time for their boat runs.
In the image, though, Hank sees a flicker of something-perhaps he's right, he thinks, that their home life is no different. But the sameness is not in its contentedness, the peaceful family picture; the similarity may be in the illusion of harmony. The rich and advantaged people in the lake houses drink too much and slap their kids and lose jobs, too, but wear pressed slacks and polished shoes to church, parking the BMW on the end where it's least likely to get bumped by a pickup.
When the boat tips again, Dobey feels it most, being farthest from the fulcrum of the rudder. Bank's laughing, in fear and false confidence, part from the Maker's Mark he swigged off the wet-bar of the last house, part from the joint he lit as they shoved heavily off from the thirty-foot dock, all loaded down. And in this tiny instant that's as strangely drawn out as the other two, Hank sees a flash of their sophomore English class last spring. Dobey and his girlfriend, Julie, both in the class, and they had to write short stories. Hank gets called on to read his aloud, first, and he stares at the pages feeling the eyes on him. Especially hers, Julie's, whom he's barely spoken to, but Hank believes he somehow understands, can hear beneath her tough-girl talk, can see beneath her over-applied makeup. And Hank begins, in a voice he can hardly hear and is sure sounds like that of a deaf person who's learning to talk.
But he guts it out, reads his story about a guy who makes himself what people want him to be, called "Potemkin," using the idea of the Russian soldier who may have built fake villages to impress Catherine the Great. He reads and Dobey and some others laugh at inappropriate places, but he remembers Julie doesn't.
Dobey's not laughing at present, nor is Banker, who'd been playful with the tiller, just for a scare. There's none of that now.
Wish we had your skis, Banker yells to Dobey above the engine noise, over the novel-on-tape in his ears, lamely with false confidence. And Dobey nods his good one, don't mistake me for someone who gives a shit head, while Banker keeps futilely at the Honda engine, over-correcting as they veer out away from the shore. The third tip is a doozer, and they're suddenly all wet.
Doozer in the sense of turning things upside down. The three, their cargo, and the bass boat itself, with its unevenly distributed load, its engine blaring, though Hank hears but a low rumble. The propeller spraying, then the motor coughing, then stopping, suffocated. To Hank, the water's not cold exactly, just heavy. Downward pushing, he thinks, not the way gravity must be, but more like the way his mother asks things-her vulnerability, his sympathy, how can he refuse--or his father demands with the implicit or else.
Water conducts electricity, Hank's thinking, remembering his hearing aid safely in the buttoned top pocket of his flannel shirt. Thinks again of the equipment on board, not that anything's plugged in. When Dobey comes at him, Hank is without normal human resistance, just lets him grab on and feels himself begin to sink slowly, calmly as if he's drifting off to sleep. And they go down together, thoughtless of Banker, except for a last glance over. In his silent vision, Hank sees Banker grab for a big Sony TV, he can see the logo lower right of the screen, grabs it of course like an anchor as it tips last out of the boat. Hank can't know whether it's to save himself, as if the television would float, or if he grabs on to save a piece of their haul, so sure he is that this drowning thing's a lark, a sit-com scene where the most he has to worry about is explaining later why they all got so wet. And at this Hank starts to laugh, soundlessly under Dobey's wrapped arms, laughs and takes a great mouthful of the lake. Not a hundred feet from shore, that's what the Lakes' Journal would say two days later. The scene could be so catastrophic, but it's more just quiet.
Hank with the worthless ears, Dobey with his short leg, Banker, besides just eyesight, had the reading problems (and was supposed to be listening to Melville tapes for school). And the paper called them "models." Which Hank would have found funny, too.
If I was a reporter, Hank thinks, I'd write the story of the haves and the have-nots, of the things that gotta be done to level the playing field. I'd let them know that it's not fair, not fair that the water fills the mouths of some and not others. Hank thinks, he wishes, he longs suddenly for his mother and father, and not Dobey hugging his neck. His parents-who at times lately asked Hank howya doin; and if he'd answered at all it was fine, no problems, no shit. Because what could they have done, he thought.
Into a very relatively shallow amount of water the three went, not so deep but deep enough in the green lake that they had to be dragged up.
And quite unexpectedly, said the Journal, the dredging revealed two Sony TVs, a JVC CD player, a couple receivers of unknown make. Enough equipment to flip the Queen Mary, somebody at the BP on Lake Avenue said, one of the first to the scene, an hour later when the water's surface was back to smooth, glass. Good kids, others said, putting the blame on the schools. Or the parents, fine. All doing fine, thanks.
And the scene Hank never recalls is one his father would have thought he would. When Hank came in not two weeks ago from a run along the lake and his father had been watching the history channel on television. A feature on the Titanic. Hank had come in, had lit one of his father's cigarettes and sat for the end of the story. Spellbound. A granddaughter, an infant survivor, voices her grandmother's perceptions: screams of the sinking, the dying, horrible. And then after the ship disappears beneath the icy surface, worse, so much worse: the silence. Haunting. Something you'll never, whatever joys life holds for you, forget.
And his father beside him, now passed out, snoring comically-loud like the fourth Stooge, Shemp. But his father will remember every bit of it, Hank knows, could recite it back some day, word for word. Stuff no one would recall but him, just like the stuff he uses against people. Again, the emotions Hank can't name, only the physical he could describe.
Hank sits smoking in the television light and thinks, wanting to cry out or to head into the woods running again, that a few more miles and more sweat and it will all have changed somehow, in some way, he's sure. Even if just that he'll be a different person then, older by minutes, or that the arrangement of atoms beneath his unblemished skin will be somehow altered because of the cry or the perspiration or the exertion or the night air. And Hank thinks there's something serious here, between the silence and the snoring, and maybe he has no choice but to laugh.