Grand Prize Winner, 2006 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award: Sun Kissed by A. R. Kahn
Andrea R. Kahn from New Jersey is the winner of the 2006 E. M. Koeppel $1,100 Short Fiction Award. Kahn's story Sun Kissed describes moments in the fragmented life of Jake, a blue-collar, divorced father who has suffered the murder of a child. It is an unusual story of class consciousness, sexual tension, sadness, longing, and fear, all resulting in an unexpected crisis. Because she liked Jake, the main character of her winning story "Sun Kissed," Kahn says she eventually developed him into a novel entitled The Language of Families. The novel is primarily a tale of two vastly different sisters, one of whom is married to Jake, the main character of "Sun Kissed." Kahn's fiction has appeared in magazines including Prairie Schooner, The Santa Clara Review, REAL/re: Arts & Letters, The Malahat Review and The Santa Clara Review. She won the Thomas Wolfe International Fiction Prize, The Bananafish Short Fiction Contest, and The New Letters Literary Award for Fiction.
A. R. Kahn
The air at Leo’s is dense with the fragrance of rich, warm food. A handful of guys are already there when Jake arrives, way in back, seated in one of the cushy booths. Good guys, most of them, he’s glad to be their foreman. For nearly thirty years Jake has been on the payroll of the Universal Building Corporation. He always passed when chances to relocate arose, opting to keep his little family firmly rooted in one place. But since Grace and then the divorce, transferring to Virginia seemed like his only hope for a break in the repetitious tedium of memory.
“Don’t get up,” Jake says, squeezing himself into the booth.
“We only get up for ladies,” Mike Mann leers. The guy has an unsavory edge to him. Working on his third marriage, to a nineteen-year old company file clerk he knocked up. Once, pointing to a bit of pink silk peeping out of his jeans pocket, Mike smirkingly informed Jake, Everyone’s been admiring my hanky. Turns out it’s his wife’s panties. The idiot was going around showing off his wife’s bloomers like they were the Stanley Cup.
Jake ignores him, picks up his menu. “What’s good?”
“Chicken parm is fresh.” Their waitress clasps her pad in both hands like a prayer book. “Had it myself before going on duty. And the antipasti is light but filling.” Above her right breast a black badge says in white letters: LUCINDA. She is short, in her forties, with a cloud of curly dark hair and fretful eyes. Small-boned and birdlike, she imparts into the churning male air a childish fragility.
“Nice tits,” Mike pronounces after she has taken their orders. “Not a broken-down valise like some chicks her age.”
As a boy Jake once misheard a schoolmate’s pronunciation of “tits” as “treats.” Since then he has thought of breasts as savory mounds of sweetness, treats to be doled out to a good boy. He admonishes Mike, “I oughta send you to that seminar human resources gives; Political Correctness in the Workplace.”
“I ain’t in the workplace. I’m in Leo’s.”
“You want some guy saying that about your daughter?”
“I got a two month old son. And as soon as he can talk he’ll say it about yours.”
“No, he won’t. My daughter is dead.”
Those already in the know stare silently down at their food. The rest look on expectantly, as if this statement is some sort of macabre prelude to a forthcoming punchline. Jake educates them, “My baby, Grace (he feels the need to name her before these men, to make her real), was snatched right off my own front porch. She was nine years old. She was autistic.”
Here Mike Mann interrupts with his brand of empathy, “Yeah, I heard you had a retarded kid. But alive, I thought.”
“Not retarded,” Jake corrects calmly. “Autistic.” Some things are so powerful
they defy emotion. “The perv dragged my kid down to the beach on a freezing winter day. Did his thing and then hit her in the face with a piece of driftwood. Her brain splattered, the bone splintered into shards. Frozen bits of my little girl flew into the wind and were redistributed all along the Jersey shore.”
Lucinda reappears, arms stacked with plates of steaming food. Jake sees by her face that she overhead. Frowning, she warns, “Careful, really hot,” and scoots off to fetch more drinks. She was right. The chicken parm is good. A surprise run on the TV above the bar gets the whole place howling. Then talk turns to work. Lately Universal Building Corporation has been sending inspectors out to monitor the progress of various sites, Jake’s included. A couple of weeks ago a young man showed up in a shiny new hardhat with the company logo emblazoned across the front. Touring the site, he stopped periodically to bend over the open mouth of a laptop, fingers clicking over the keys like an angry pianist. A week later a memo was issued, the gist of which set nerves on edge:
“…The results of our recent productivity studies have been very disappointing. We request that all employees make every effort to expedite project schedules.”
“Total bullshit,” Jake says. “Corporate scare tactics.”
Tim Roppolo, one of the younger guys, shakes his head. “Sure. Easy for you to blow it off. You’re what, five years from your pension? If you get canned there’s a golden parachute to float you gently to the ground. But if I lose this job all there is for me is unemployment.”
He’s right. Jake feels for the new crop of younger guys, trying to buy houses,
start families. In the years before he was promoted to foreman, Jake was just like them; shouldering heavy palettes of insulation and brick, winding his way up the skeletal altitudes of each new building. Back then there were no ergonomically designed ear-guards to block out noise. Machines screamed around him just as war had screamed around him. But his tour in Viet Nam left Jake with an uncanny ability to anesthetize his terror. After returning stateside he landed in construction. Unlike the other height virgins, without comment or complaint Jake took on any elevation that came his way. Superman, they called him, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
“Can I get you anything else gentlemen?” Lucinda asks timidly. She seems scared of her own voice.
Before Mike Mann can say he would like another helping of her tits, Jake answers. “Just the check please.” Tells the guys, “It’s on me today.” He can afford to buy these goons lunch once in awhile. No more special-ed classes to pay for. No more speech therapy. Nadine didn’t even want alimony, just took the house and agreed to split their remaining assets fifty-fifty. While everyone else shuffles over to the bar TV to see the catcher that was just beaned on the head by a fly ball, Jake tends to the tab. He counts out the money and leaves the mousy waitress a pity-tip, a fresh twenty.
“That’s real generous,” she says, glancing up at him as she pockets the cash.
“You ever heard that saying: the squeaky wheel gets the grease?”
“Maybe you’re in the wrong profession. I mean, a shy waitress? You shoulda worked these guys, they would have given you the moon.” They would have given her shit actually, the moon being reserved for leggy blondes, but Jake figures she could use the encouragement.
“The moon is free. I can step right outside if I want to see it.” Her manner has a slow, thoughtful hesitancy Jake isn’t accustomed to. Nadine had been a fast talker. He never had to think of anything to say.
“Still,” he tells the waitress, “a little bullshit in this business goes a long way.”
She shrugs. “I go to school part-time at night so hopefully I won’t be doing this the rest of my life. I’m studying to be a teacher.”
“Yeah? My wife, I mean my ex-wife teaches high-school. Social studies,” Jake wonders if he’ll ever get used to the idea of Nadine not being his wife.
“I like the little ones, still babies really. I plan to teach pre-K after I get my certificate.”
As she bends to clear the table Jake notices that her hands seem older than her face. Her hair is no particular shade of brown, but a few loose strands catch the light and appear shiny and cinnamon-tinted.
“Have a good one Lucinda,” he says, heading towards the cashier, wondering what would it be like if we all wore badges with our names on them. Their exchange of information seems oddly unbalanced; he knows her name, she knows his youngest daughter is dead.
Leo’s is located on the highway, less than a mile from their work-site at the BelleWood Academy. The campus is comprised of several thousand bucolic acres of rambling woods. For the amusement of its five hundred female students there are sumptuous tennis courts, spacious stables (many of the girls bring their own horses from home), as well as an Olympic-caliber gymnasium. More of a finishing school than an actual college, is what Jake has heard. Little more than a pit-stop between high school and marriage for these girls.
Universal Building Corporation has been contracted to erect two new buildings on campus; a computer lab and a center for modern dance. Both were designed to complacently dwell alongside the existing buildings; red brick Victorian-style structures ornamented with vaulted ceilings, arched windows and white steeples tipped with gold. Etched on bronze plaques just above the doorframe, each structure had been given a pious-sounding name, like FLETCHER or ELIJAH. They’ve been on the job two months. Time enough to get the foundation laid and a section of both steel frames up. Fuck management, Jake thinks angrily. But these days he’s always angry. A simple, searing fury lying just beneath the surface of his skin, ready to erupt at any moment like some sort of biblical pox.
The disproportionate ratio of students to space makes the campus seem more like a spiritual retreat than a buzzing campus. Although Jake often glimpses conservatively attired young ladies walking alone or in pairs along the tree-dappled paths, within the wrought-iron gates of this institution he wears a cloak of invisibility. None of the girls spare him a glance as he passes, they in sweaters and pearls, Jake in mud-ravaged workboots.
He parks in the empty lot behind the gymnasium. Classes have concluded for spring break and far fewer students than usual dot the campus. Although it’s against company code, something about intruding upon private areas belonging to the client, it seems deserted enough so that Jake feels okay about taking a shortcut through the gymnasium building. The floors of the quaint edifice are freshly waxed and the massive wooden door has been propped open to facilitate drying. He drifts through the silent marble hallways lined with photographs of girls playing volleyball, field hockey, rowing in tandem upon a lake. Sturdy-looking girls in striped knee socks lunging at volleyballs, faces grimacing with effort as they strike the air with closed fists. Staring out an arched bay window at the dazzling green tennis courts below, Jake bends to take a tennis ball from a thigh-high basket filled with balls. It fills his palm like a small fuzzy breast.
Giving the ball a bounce, a sharp sound echoes through the empty halls. As Jake dutifully returns the ball to its basket, he reads aloud in sing-song the Xeroxed flier taped to the wall just above:
BelleWood Tennis Team
Beth Annette Chamberlain
Christine Hilary Maxwell
Tracey Blair Farinholt
Skylar E. Kneece
Kathleen Van der Hoff
Caitlan Torence Tasso
He considers writing in Grace Calderone, knowing full well that even if she had lived to be a teenager, his daughter would never have been invited to volley with Courtney or Skylar. At the end of the hall a door labeled GALLERY opens onto a balcony that skirts the entire perimeter of the pool; Olympic-sized and divided into ten long lanes. The air is warm and sweet with chlorine. The water is sea-green, luminous and utterly still. Next stop, the locker room. Jake opens the door to sneak a peek. Empty. He steps inside. Spacious and brightly tiled, skylights inset into the high ceilings drench the space with sunlight. A hothouse designed to nurture the bodies of five hundred privileged young flowers.
Dangling from the partially open door of locker number 357, a black bathing suit spangled with yellow daisies drips a puddle of itself onto the tiled floor. Cut with a bit of old-fashioned modesty at the legs and breast, the suit is crafted from a soft, stretchy fabric that reminds Jake of baby pajamas. At the seam, a label holds secret information about the owner. Jake draws the swimsuit near to enable his eyes, so hopelessly myopic without his reading glasses, to puzzle out the tiny type:
98% Cotton/2% Spandex
The owner of this suit would be a confident young woman, fueled by the hearty fare of the BelleWood cafeteria and the protective excess of parental money. Jake glances up as she emerges, unexpectedly naked, from a distant corner of the locker room adjacent to the showers. The girl stares at Jake quizzically, water dripping down the tender rise of her belly.
“Oh my,” she says, in a slow, stunned voice. She turns to dash back into the sequestered safety of the shower. Jake turns and takes off in the opposite direction. But just as he reaches the exit there is a small shriek, then a thud. Never run on slippery tiles with wet feet. Countless times he warned his own daughter. But she couldn’t listen. Just the other night before dozing off, Jake read an article in Reader’s Digest that claimed the deadliest falls are almost always taken in the shower.
This recollection launches in his mind a free-association of fatality: Broken glass, arterial hemorrhage, blood loss, coma, death. He sees the college campus emptied for spring break. Then the frantic search for an A-student who failed to show up at the airport where her parents worried and waited. In the end the discovery of her lifeless body, which could have been revived if only someone had known.
With a sigh Jake sets out to do what he must. Even after all these years he is still a good soldier. Silent and precise as a Vietcong guerilla, he backtracks to the shower. Sees first the water-blanched undersides of her prone feet. Then the rest. Face up, eyes shut. But the gentle rise and fall of her bare breasts signals breathing. The pinkness of her nipples is striking. Once Nadine had told Jake as he hungrily suckled hers, that the nipples of a woman who has given birth are telltale brown, while those of a childless female remain careless and pink. She cited hormones. It seemed right to Jake, that once you become a parent your body is irrevocably altered. Deep in the DNA something shifts, the blood cells, red and white, are permanently transformed. Even more so, he thinks, when your kid is murdered.
Forcing his attention back to this girl, Jake assesses with a medic’s accuracy, the condition of someone else’s daughter. By tomorrow, he figures, she’ll be sporting a dramatic lump on her noggin. But there’s no bleeding. No broken bones. Her pulse is sluggish but acceptable. A gold cross at her neck is dotted with two intersecting rows of perfect diamonds. Her young face, round as a pie-pan is tilted upwards, the bridge of her nose stippled with a few fine freckles. Her eyelashes, still wet from the shower, are drawn together in spots like the pointed ends of stars.
He’ll be long gone when Sleeping Beauty wakes, dazed and with a whopper of a headache, perhaps unsure if she had really witnessed a strange man pawing her bathing suit. Back in the hallway, while Jake studied the roster of the tennis team, he was picturing colossal cleavage jutting out from tight tennis whites. Like in that porno he watched at the hotel when he first arrived in Virginia and was still in the process of looking for an apartment; Backdoor Blondes. In step with current porn couture, the women flaunted breasts big as soccer balls and bald, angry-looking vaginas. By contrast, the verdant tangle of this girl’s genitalia seems old-fashioned and quaintly protective, a garden of damp pubic hair shielding her from his prying eyes.
Jake drops to his knees and kneels before her, awed. Lying heavily in her own flesh, the girl is sodden and guileless. He leans over and breathes her in, seeking beneath the chlorine and shampoo her true scent; the untainted, living odor emanating from within. Jake can no longer recall the smells of his family, of his wife and child. Once they were a pack, their odors mingling together; familiar, enveloping.
But then a drifter who enjoyed doing terrible things to little girls put an end to that. Jake sees in his mind the frigid driftwood striking Grace’s forehead, the life leaping out of his child like a puff of sharp steam from an engine. This image rattles furiously at the locked cage inside himself, the place where all the other memories are imprisoned. Rather than release them, Jake succumbs instead to a potent inner sleeping powder. His thoughts grow cloudy and a suffocating exhaustion turns him weak.
Lowering himself onto the naked girl as a tired child might climb into bed, he stretches himself out upon the damp cushion of her body. Skin upon skin, mouth upon mouth. Her flesh is not the goal, but the impediment which stands so impossibly between Jake and the unconscious girl’s bloodless, sun-kissed dreams. He lusts only for the shelter of her entitlement. Her naïve beliefs. Her Goddamn good luck.
At first the voice seems to be coming from some great distance, but in an instant Jake realizes it is actually no more than a whisper, a soft sob pressed into his ear.
“Please,” the girl is saying beneath him, her voice thick with fear, “Please don’t hurt me.”
A blinding surge of adrenaline floods his veins. Limb by limb Jake extricates himself from her. Staggers out of the locker room and hurries down the stairs, out the door and onto the cobblestone path leading back to the site. There the afternoon shift has already begun, but Jake is still back on the job before Eddie Mann, who probably stopped off on the way back from Leo’s to bang his wife. It’s pretty windy, but Jake spends the rest of the afternoon high up on deck. Checks out the welding of all the C-shaped flanges. Calculates the span of the floor joists. Watches as the campus security vehicles and police cars down below swarm the gymnasium in a cluster of flashing red lights.