While I struggle with writing new stuff, I’m working on submitting existing stories. One of my current projects is to put together a collection of short stories for consideration by Willow Springs Books, which is running a contest for the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. All I need is a collection of short stories that totals at least 98 pages. What I’ve got so far is a collection of about 120 pages and I may add one or two very short pieces to it just to provide a little variety.
In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote a number of years ago. It was my first story accepted for publication by The First Line. I post it here as a good luck charm for my current and future efforts to get noticed and published again. Hope you enjoy it.
The Smokers’ Club
When my brother, Andy, went away to college, he left me his fishing pole, a well-read copy of The Wind in the Willows, and a stack of Playboys. “Tyler,” he said, in his eighteen-year-old voice that still cracked occasionally, “these are all you need to understand life.”
“Thanks, Andy.” I wiped the tears from my eyes, brought on by the knowledge that he would be leaving the next day. My big brother, my idol and protector, the guy who had taught me how to make armpit farts, burp the alphabet, and eat a chocolate-dipped soft-serve cone without getting a brain freeze, was leaving me.
Unlike other big brothers, Andy had rarely used the six years that lay between us to his advantage. He didn’t make fun of me for the things I didn’t know and he didn’t care if I tagged along with him and his friends no matter how much they complained that his snot-nosed little brother was slowing them down – or worse – was going to tell on them. Andy knew I’d never tell on him.
Andy and I had formed a brotherly bond when I was eight. Our parents weren’t home and Andy was supposed to be watching me. He wasn’t. He was in his room. Growing tired of watching the television, I walked up the stairs towards his room hoping to talk Andy into playing catch. “Andy,” I said as I turned the corner and walked into his room. My thoughts of a game of catch were immediately washed away when I saw him hunched over in a chair next to his half open window. He had a cigarette in his right hand and he was blowing smoke out the window. “What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like?” he replied, snuffing the cigarette out on the ledge and flicking the butt out the window. I could tell by the arc of its flight that it would land comfortably on the other side of the fence we shared with the Swansons. For a brief second, an image of an ever-expanding pile of butts on the Swansons’ side yard flashed across the movie screen of my mind. I wondered when Mr. Swanson would realize those butts weren’t his and come talk to our dad.
“I’m telling,” I said and began to back out of Andy’s room.
“Oh, no, you aren’t.” He was on me before I knew it, grabbing my arm and squeezing so hard it hurt.
“Ouch!” I yelled and tried to pull away.
“You can’t tell mom and dad.”
“Let go of me.”
“Not until you promise not to tell.”
“Let go of me,” I said again, regretting the whine of my voice but not able to sound stronger. Andy’s fingers were digging into my arm and he was starting to shake me back and forth.
I shook my head. I was afraid I was going to cry. Andy had never hurt me before and the anger that I could feel in his fingertips and hear in his voice was a new experience for me. “Lemme try one,” I said.
The suggestion shocked Andy into easing his grip enough for me to wriggle my arm free. I stood there, rubbing my arm where his hand had left red marks in the shape of his fingers, waiting for his response.
“Then I tell,” I said, backing one more step towards his door. I knew I was another step from being able to turn and flee. One step from turning and dashing down the stairs and out of the door, where I could roam the neighborhood until mom and dad got home. Andy ruined my escape plans.
“Huh?” I turned back to Andy. “You’ll lemme try one?”
Andy didn’t say a word. He just went back to the chair and leaned over his desk. Moving a couple of books out of the row that lined the back of the desk he pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a book of matches. Andy motioned for me to sit down in his chair – what we would refer to as his “smoking chair” in the years to come. Andy stood before me, shaking a cigarette out of the pack, and then removing a match.
Unable to speak, I nodded my head and then watched the match strike the sulphur strip and flare brightly. Andy put the cigarette in his mouth and touched the tip with the match’s flame, sucking in as he did so. He blew a small puff of smoke out the window and then looked back at me. “Last chance,” he said, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth and offering it to me.
I took the cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand and guided it, shakily, to my lips. When the filter end touched my bottom lip, I encircled it and sucked in. The immediate hit of the nicotine on my mouth and lungs brought tears to my eyes and a coughing fit so severe I thought a lung was going to come sliding out of my mouth. “Easy, easy,” Andy said, patting me on the back. “You ever want to do that again?” he chuckled.
“Here’s the deal, Tyler. You can’t tell mom or dad about this.”
“I won’t. But, you can’t keep throwing your butts outta the window. Mr. Swanson’s gonna figure it out.”
“Aw, hell, ol’ Mr. Swanson smokes like a chimney, and Mrs. Swanson does, too. They’ll never figure out those are mine.” And Andy was right, either they never figured it out or they never let on that they did. As far as Andy and I knew, mom and dad never found out about our little smoking club. Until Andy left, I’m sure he smoked whenever he had a chance. Occasionally, I would, too, just to make sure Andy knew I was still on his side.
Before I left his room, Andy turned back to his desk and rummaged around in one of the drawers. “Here it is,” he mumbled to himself. Turning to face me, he commanded, “Hold out your hand.”
I did and he put his closed hand over mine. “This is a gift from me to you, Tyler. We are brothers forever. We must be loyal to each other above all else. I will never hurt you again as long as we remain brothers. This is a promise I make to you. In exchange, you must promise to always be true to me. To trust me and defend me. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said. I was awed by his words. In my young eight-year-old mind, this was serious stuff. Andy opened his hand and released what he held inside. It was a small pocketknife. As it dropped and I reflexively closed my hand around the knife, I knew that we had a bond that couldn’t be broken.
From that point on, Andy taught me about the ways of the world. He taught me to smoke and not cough up a lung while doing so. He told me that Pabst Blue Ribbon was the best beer there was. When I asked him how he knew, he just looked at me and said with a sly smile, “You’ll have to wait a couple of years for that.” Andy took me on day-long adventures in the woods that surrounded our town, telling me things about the wildlife that I’m sure he made up as he went along. I’m still not sure if it’s safe to drink water from a mountain stream or if it can make you go blind if you do so.
When I was in the sixth grade, I developed my first crush. Her name was Olivia. She had dancing blue eyes and the most beautiful cascading blonde curls. I couldn’t approach my dad to seek his advice. He was an impenetrable wall of silence, sitting in his chair, drinking a martini and watching the news, talking only when he needed to tell me to be quiet. But Andy was imminently approachable and helpful. He told me how to treat a girl right. How I should act interested, but not so interested that I looked desperate. When we talked about Olivia, I learned the meaning of the word “aloof” for the first time. That was what Andy said I should be.
* * *
I’d like to say that the first thing I did the day Andy left for college was crack open The Wind in the Willows and read it cover to cover. I didn’t. I started reading it, but after reading a few pages about Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, I couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve never liked stories that give animals human qualities. Even all of the Disney movies that have been made over the years turn me off. There’s something about those stories that disturbs my sense of logic. Animals are animals, not humans, and they can’t have human qualities. They can’t talk and don’t have the same range of emotions that we do. Stories that try to suggest otherwise are just ridiculous.
Similarly, I leafed through a few pages of one or two of the Playboys, but the titillation I felt looking at the pictures was unsettling and something I wasn’t ready for. I was fascinated by the breasts of the women pictured on those pages, but not knowing what to do about the stirring I felt in my groin, I shoved the magazines into a box and hid them in the back corner of my closet. Soon The Wind in the Willows found its way into the same box.
Two things Andy gave to me I didn’t hide — the pocketknife and his fishing pole. The pocketknife was always right where it belonged, in the right front pocket of whatever jeans or shorts I was wearing at the time. Since the day Andy gave it to me I kept that knife near me. It was a talisman. It would ward off evil and protect me from harm. As I grew into adulthood, I was able to leave it behind occasionally, but never too far. It sits now, more than thirty years later, in my bag of toiletries on my bathroom counter and goes with me in that bag whenever I leave town.
The fishing pole was what really captivated me. Andy caught his first fish with it, a three pound spotted bass. It wasn’t much of a fish, but he had caught it all by himself. He beamed for a week afterward telling anybody who would listen about his catch. And as with any fish story, by the time Andy left for college, that fish he caught so many years before fought him for over an hour before he was able to haul it out of the water, had grown to twelve pounds, and was the “largest bass caught in these parts.” That’s how Andy would always describe it. The fact that Andy had given his fishing pole to me meant more than anything else he had ever done.
Once Andy left, I initially took every opportunity to go fishing. I knew where Andy had caught his first fish and was convinced that if I kept going back to that spot, I would catch a fish, too. Much like the pocketknife was a talisman that kept me from harm, the fishing pole was a charm that would bring me good fortune. Soon, though, as with most things for a twelve-year-old, I grew tired of fishing, which didn’t have the same lure for me as it had for Andy. After a few weeks of regular trips to the creek behind our house, I gave up the pursuit for a fish.
* * *
It was August 1968 when Andy went away to college. He went to the state university in Charlotte without much of a plan, only the vague notion that he wanted to do something more than work at the mill where our dad worked, along with virtually every other able-bodied man in Stewartsville, our little town on the eastern edge of North Carolina. My protector was gone, temporarily he claimed. He promised to come back every holiday and during summer breaks. And, then he’d see what happened once he finished college. But he promised me he’d never really leave me. The fishing pole, the book, and the magazines were one way that he’d always be nearby.
It was the spring of 1969 when Andy flunked out of college and returned home. After a month or two of aimlessness, Andy took a job at the mill. Nobody ever really knew what happened. In high school, Andy had been a top student. Once he got to college, though, he lost interest in his studies and was gone after that first year. Years later when I really became aware of what was going in the late ‘60’s, I came up with my own theory. Andy’s smoking in his room, puffing the smoke out the window, and flicking the butts across the fence into the Swanson’s yard, had turned into something more potent. He had found something more interesting than sticking his nose in a book and he had succumbed.
It was October 1969 when Andy got his draft notice, calling him to serve his country in Vietnam. At the ripe old age of thirteen, I knew that there was a war going on, that it was growing increasingly unpopular, and, most of all, that U.S. soldiers were dying in a country far, far away. Once again, Andy was leaving me. This time he had nothing to give me other than a ruffle of my hair and a “take it easy, little dude,” before he got in my dad’s car for the ride to the train station.
It was May 1970 — a week after my fourteenth birthday — when Andy’s remains came home in a body bag. He had stepped on a booby trap somewhere in the jungles along the Laotian border. There wasn’t much left of him to put in the bag. To this day, not having had the opportunity to actually see that it was Andy that we buried in a closed coffin on a muggy Thursday afternoon in the little hillside cemetery that overlooked Stewartsville, I wonder if Andy is really dead.
* * *
Thirty-five years later, I rediscovered my box of Andy’s things. It was a sweltering August afternoon and my eleven-year-old son and I were cleaning out the garage. At the bottom of a stack of boxes in the corner, was a box that had gone through several generations of packing tape to hold it together. “What’s in this?” my son, Andrew, asked, picking it up from the floor. As soon as I saw the box, I thought of his namesake and the journey the box had taken from my parents’ home, to college, to an apartment I shared with a girlfriend, to the first home I bought with my wife, and to its current resting place.
Andy started to open the box, trying to rip the layers of tape off of it. “Don’t open it,” I ordered him, immediately remembering the stack of Playboys that resided inside. He was only eleven, not quite as old as I was when Andy first gave me the magazines. I wasn’t ready for him to discover their contents. I knew something else I could give to him.
“Hold on a sec. My brother gave me what’s in that box years ago. I haven’t looked in there for years. I have something else for you, though.” I climbed the ladder up to the rafters and pulled out Andy’s old fishing pole. When I got back to ground level, I handed it to my son. “Here, this was your Uncle Andy’s.” I remembered then what the fishing pole taught me about life.
After Andy’s death and days of listening to my mother’s grieving wails and observing the wall of silence my father surrounded himself get thicker than ever, I pulled the fishing pole out of the corner of our garage and went to the creek. I learned that day that the point of fishing wasn’t actually to catch a fish. Instead, I discovered that the solitude of the endeavor is all that is important. That first day back at the creek, I sat by the rushing water, paying little attention to the pole and the line that led off of it. I listened to the leaves rustling in a slight breeze and watched the sunlight dancing through the canopy of trees. I allowed the gentle peacefulness of the woods to envelop me and came to terms with my brother’s death. With the fishing pole by my side, Andy was there with me. His death was something that couldn’t be reversed. I accepted his presence in whatever form it would take.
When I got home, I gave my dad a hug and accepted his silence. It was the last time I would ever hug him, but I no longer would be troubled by his mood. It wasn’t my fault and I knew that. It was a silence that he needed. I gave my mom a hug, too, and gradually her grief lessened and she came back to me. Two or three times a week until I left for college, I would find a way to get back to the creek. I would cast my line into the creek’s waters and then sit quietly, paying no attention to the pole. I couldn’t tell you now whether a fish ever even nibbled on the hook, but I can tell you that whenever I was there on that creek I felt my brother.
* * *
I think I’ll give my son the box when he turns twelve. I’ll tell him the same thing my brother told me, that the contents of the box will provide him with all he needs to understand life. I will tell him what the fishing pole taught me, but I hope that my son does what I wasn’t able to do – read The Wind in the Willows and discover its secrets. Maybe one day I’ll be able to sit down with Andrew and tell him about his uncle Andy and he, in turn, can tell me about that book and what it meant for my brother.
As for the Playboys, I have a few ideas about what Andy meant but I’ll leave those for my son to learn as well. Those secrets are ones that every boy needs to figure out on his own as he becomes a man. Maybe he’ll learn something different from the pages of those magazines than what I did when I finally cracked them open a few years after Andy gave them to me.