January 01, 1980 News & Features » Cover Story


First Place: henry’s birthday 

Here comes my mother, Wendy, with three-bean salad and spongy banana nut bread. Phone rings, hello, of course it’s for my sister, Ella, and right away she disappears into her room. Our father’s in the kitchen, drizzling orange sauce on the flounder. He’s wearing a slick-looking blue shirt and black pants; usually, he wears khakis and crewneck sweaters, but today is a special occasion.

My father’s house smells like new paint. He’s had painters in here all week, and we have to crack the windows to soften the fumes.

Last night, while we were sleeping, winter arrived in Arcadia Springs. It’s freezing out there — windy, drizzly, horrible. My father and I have gathered wood and now I’m building a fire in the white brick fireplace. Wendy hands me a box of wooden matches and when the fire catches we all go ooh and pretty. I’m quite possibly the best fire builder in the world. God gives everyone a gift — that’s what we learned in church, back when we went to church.

“I’m going for a walk,” Ella says. “Lewis, walk with me.”

When Ella says, “I’m going to go for a walk” what she really means is, “I’m gonna go smoke some pot now.” Last summer Ella turned into a complete pothead, but she still makes fun of the stoners at school.

“Lewis, let’s scoot.” Ella tugs me off the couch.

“But — the fire, the food, the TV — I don’t wanna go.”

“Walk with me — you’re my brother, act like one.”

So, as usual, Ella wins. I pull on my stocking cap and puffy winter coat. Ella’s wearing a thin orange sweater and a blue jean jacket and I say she’s crazy because it’s freezing out here.

We walk through the woods, down to the creek, under a drizzly sky. Ella sits on the edge of a long flat rock that juts out over the creek. She sits there kicking her legs. Our breath puffs the air, and my breath smells like Nacho Cheese Doritos. The rocks around us are covered with the goose crap. Goose crap is a milky green, and cigar-shaped. We learned about goose crap on a nature walk in biology class.

“This weather is oppressive,” I say. I’m not precisely sure what oppressive means, but sometimes I try to forge a richer vocabulary.

“Yes,” Ella says. “We certainly are having a lot of weather this year.”

Ella pinches a little bit of pot from a plastic Ziplock bag and forms it into the bowl of her Pot Pipe. She bought the Pot Pipe last summer at a store in Myrtle Beach called Headz ’n Threadz. It looks like a tiny robot’s elbow.

Ella lights the bowl and huffs back smoke. She keeps her eyes closed and her head tilted back in the classic druggy way. When she exhales the air smells like — well, pot.

Ella stands up and fluffs her hair with her hands. I dislodge a rock by the edge of the water, searching for crawdads. Ella stretches and I can see a band of her white stomach when she raises her arms. It doesn’t turn me on or anything — I mean, she’s my sister — but it makes me think about other girls, other stomachs, and that makes me think about other things. Boobs, for example. And now I’m thinking about nothing at all except boobs, boobs, boobs, and to tell the truth this happens all the time. I think it’s maybe because I’m 14, but one night Dad told me that he thinks about boobs a lot, too.

Ella pulls her hair back and threads it through a camouflage scrunchie, and then she pulls out a pack of wintergreen gum. She offers me a stick and I say, sure, thanks. I can’t see any crawdads and I wonder if they hibernate like bears.

Ella sits down on the rock again and crosses her legs at the ankle. She’s wearing thick wool socks, deeply ugly and practical. Ella used to be a cheerleader but she lost her feel for it after sophomore year. I miss seeing her out there, jumping and tumbling, smiling, her thin brown hair flying all around her face, but I respect her stand on cheerleading.

Ella lights another bowl. “For the road,” she says.

I like the way smoke leaks from her mouth when she talks. On the other hand, it’s freezing out here and I want to get back home. I keep on jumping up and down but it doesn’t help at all.

“It’s macabre,” says Ella. A noodle of smoke spills from her lips. “It’s macabre,” she repeats.

“I heard you the first time, Ella, but I still don’t know what that word means.”

“It’s just — nutty,” Ella says. She touches my elbow and now I know she’s high because she gets real touchy when she smokes. “Don’t you think its sort of nutty?”

“What? What?”

“This whole deal.” Ella smiles her I-have-secret-knowledge smile. Whenever she does that, I just want to conk her on the head.

“I can’t feel my fingers,” I say. “Hey, it’s raining.”

“A party,” Ella says. “A party for Henry, that’s so — suburban. That’s so — sick. Don’t you think?”

“It’s not a party, it’s a celebration.”

“You’re a parrot, Lewis,” Ella says. She touches my hair. I mean, she just reaches over and lifts a hank of my hair with two fingers. Babies do that all the time, but it’s sort of odd coming from your stoned sister at the creek.

“I am not a parrot,” I say. “Mom says I’m a rebel.”

Ella quits talking and looks at the creek and I wonder what she’s thinking about. Maybe she’s thinking about Bunkie, but I doubt it. It’s so hard to know what anyone is thinking, and even when you try, you’re usually wrong. Somebody can be looking all forlorn and lost, and you’ll go, hey pal, what are you thinking about? And he’ll go, oh, I was just thinking that I like a little dab of cinnamon on my pork chops.

Most of the time we don’t get each other, but at least we try.

“Henry was such a cool guy,” Ella says. “He was a lot like you, Lewis, only wilder.”

I hope she’s going to say more about Henry, but she doesn’t. Nobody ever does. It’s like a sentence or two is all we can dribble out. It’s the best we can do.

Dinner is pot roast, fried trout, mashed garlic potatoes, three bean salad, coleslaw, butter beans, and creamed spinach. Ella says she’s a vegetarian but she must mean the kind of vegetarian that eats meat all the time.

“Meat is murder, but this pot roast is delectable,” Ella says. She giggles. “Delectable,” she repeats in a terrible English accent. She’s wasted. “I say, dear sir, your pot roast is rah-ther smashing and delectable.”

Our father carves another hunk of meat for my vegetarian sister. I swirl some spinach around a triangle of fish and form the whole things into my mouth.

“Ella,” our father says, “you look kinda logy tonight, kinda sleepy — but I gotta say, your appetite is astonishing.”

“Um,” Ella says, spooning a lump of potatoes into an already busy mouth. “Yeah, I think I’ve got some weird flu thing going on — I took medicine.”

“Yes,” says Wendy. “You certainly seem medicated,” Wendy is wearing a snug white T-shirt under a rumpled black blazer. She nibbles on a piece of Texas toast and smiles at me.

“Flu medicine,” Ella says. She’s a skinny girl with a monster appetite. Our pot roast is dwindling so fast.

“Yes,” says our father. “That’s an appropriate choice, for flu.”

“Did Henry like pot roast?” I ask.

Everyone goes quiet at the same time. In the new silence, we can hear the rain — it’s pelting the roof, graying the windows.

Wendy sips her red wine, Ella slathers coleslaw between layers of creamed spinach, Barclay the basset hound sleeps beside my foot, and my father looks at the pot roast as if it has the answer to my question.

“Henry liked hot dogs,” he says. “And corn dogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches.”

“He liked Captain Crunch cereal,” says my mother. “He liked corn on the cob and roller coasters.”

“Captain Crunch rocks,” says Ella. She waves a fist in the air, giving up the love for Captain Crunch. “But roller coasters are incredibly hard to digest.” She laughs at her own joke. Pot smokers are their own best audience.

“I like the new paint, Kip,” says mother. “It’s soothing — it’s a soothing color.”

“Thanks.” Dad studies the walls. “I wanted ocean blue, but it’s more of a sky blue, I think. It’s a little pale for my taste.”

“This is nice,” says my mother. “This food and all.”

“I like potatoes,” I add. “And fish.”

“You know what?” Ella says. “Flu medicine makes the rain sound sort of beautiful.”

After midnight, Wendy goes home and our father goes to sleep. Barclay’s sleeping, too, on the edge of my bed. I pat his stomach and in his sleep he makes a satisfied sound. Barclay’s getting sort of tubby. He waggles mostly from his couch and his food dish and he never chases birds anymore. He just looks at them, but I’ll bet he remembers how it felt to chase them. I’ll bet he dreams about slow birds.

“Hey,” Ella says. “Let’s go for a ride.” She rattles her keys in the air and it mixes with the sound of the rain on the roof. “We’ll take the Blue Max.”

Dad has two cars. Most of the time, he drives his tan Honda Accord, but he keeps another car hidden in the garage, a 1968 baby-blue Cadillac, the Blue Max. It belonged to his father, and Dad’s too embarrassed to drive it around town because he says it’s ostentatious, but Ella loves that Cadillac.

“I want to watch a movie,” I say. “There’s an Alfred Hitchcock movie on channel nine.”

“Let’s go for a ride,” Ella says. “I don’t want to think too much. When I’m by myself, I think too much. When I’m with you I hardly think at all.”

“Thanks Ella.”

“You know what I mean,” Ella says. “Don’t be a wad. I’ll buy you a milkshake, or a bunny! C’mon, please, let’s go, let’s do this.”

So, now we’re driving — long, slow circles, in and out of our town — in the light falling rain. Ella turns up the radio and sips from her vanilla milkshake. I look out the window at the pine trees and telephone wires. Ella makes a sharp left turn — I almost lose my soda — and we bump down a little dirt alley that opens to a badly paved road. It’s raining harder now. We pass a trailer park that I have always liked because there is a big plaster buffalo beside the manager’s office. Farther down the road, Ella zooms by the public swimming pool. They still haven’t emptied it from the summer and the streetlights give the water an oily green-blue sheen. Actually, it’s sort of pretty. Rap music pours from the radio, and Ella turns to me with a perfectly straight face and goes, “It really is about the bling, bling, Lewis.” And she keeps driving and drinking her milkshake until we reach her destination.

“Here we are,” she says, parking the Blue Max in front of a tiny ranch house.

Here is a badly lit street near the amusement park that went out of business three years ago. The mayor wants to tear it all down and build a mall, but he’s not getting any love from the business kings of Arcadia Springs. Ella turns in her seat to look at the house through my halfway-open window.

“This is where he lived,” she says. Her voice is almost a whisper, and perfectly flat. “This is where the asshole lived.”

Doug Figgens. We’re parked in front of Doug Figgens’ house at one in the morning. It’s a ramshackle ranch house with all the expected touches — dirt front lawn, dented mailbox, and two beer cans on the front porch swing. But there are other, unexpected touches: freshly painted flower boxes under every window, a flowing crabapple tree, and a red tricycle chained to a basketball goal. Someone is making an effort here — that’s how it feels.

“I drive out here all the time,” Ella says. “One day, he’s gonna come home, and I’m gonna see him — it’ll happen Lewis. It really will.”

“Don’t you get scared?” I ask.

“Nope,” Ella says. “I want these people to see me out here. His mother — she’s seen me. That bitch. She’s seen me a bunch of times.”

Ella opens the car door — the door squeaks — and we blink our eyes in the new light. I follow her outside, trembling like the coward I most surely am.

“Ella,” I whisper.

“Relax,” Ella says. She bends down and picks up some rocks, three or four of them, rocks about the size of the purple potatoes that my mother used to boil with every meal we ate.

Ella has pretty good aim — she used to play third base for the softball team. She hits the bathroom window with her second rock, and almost right away the lights in the house seem to flash on at the same time, and Ella keeps throwing rocks at the windows, and laughing a little bit, and I’m wondering if she is wasted or just crazy. Rain pours down and we’re already drenched. Ella’s only lobbing the rocks; she’s not trying to shatter windows or anything. The front door bams open, and an old woman in a housedress fills the doorframe. She’s a fairly large woman with fly-about hair. I can’t see her clearly through the front door, but I can hear every word she says.

“I’m calling the police, Ella Mason,” she says. “You little whore, you prostitute.”

Ella holds out both hands, palms to the sky. She looks like someone waiting to be handcuffed.

“Go ahead,” she says. “Call the police. Tell them I’m a whore. Oh, and maybe you can tell them where Doug is, OK? Please, Mrs. Figgens. Tell them where your bastard son is hiding, OK? That’d be super Mrs. Figgens.”

“I’m calling the police,” Mrs. Figgens says, closing the door.

“Goody,” Ella says. “I’ll be waiting right here. Bitch. Cow.”

But she doesn’t wait. Instead, she walks slowly back to Blue Max. I duck back into my seat beside her. Rain drips down from our hair and our jeans make squishing sounds when we shift around in our seats. We listen to a radio commercial for the cakewalk this weekend at the new Baptist church. Ella lights a cigarette and I wish she would offer me one because right now my hands are shaking and my stomach keeps flopping around like fried eggs.

“So anyway,” Ella says. “That was Doug’s mom.”

We don’t talk much after that — but Ella keeps on driving until the rain stops. She is trying to calm down, I can tell, and I wish I could help her.

If Henry were still alive, he’d probably take me out for a drive tonight. Ella could’ve gone out with her boyfriend, Casey, and had a good night. She wouldn’t even know that Mrs. Figgens existed.

Henry didn’t wear cologne; he just smelled like soap. He’d drive fast, but he wouldn’t be a dick about it. He wouldn’t punch it just to make the engine holler; he wouldn’t flip off slow drivers or ride their bumpers. He was the kind of guy that would laugh things off, and if he were here tonight, he would let me pick a radio station and we’d listen to Nirvana or something old and slow by the Rolling Stones: Angie or Wild Horses. We’d stop at Hardee’s for some fries and a soda, then just drive in the rain. Neon signs would glow and shimmer behind closed doors and on top of buildings, and the street would shine from the headlights on the water. Maybe we’d see Ella and Casey, leaving the bowling alley because both of them like to get high and then bowl, and Henry would honk his horn two times, and they’d wave all happy to see us, and beside them we’d notice a woman with her hair piled up high; she’d wear a long white dress, a wedding dress, and her husband beside her in a tuxedo and bowling shoes; he’d rock on the balls of his feet, and they’d wave back, and Henry would laugh because it was unexpected and perfect, and because it was his birthday, and because he was in love with a girl named Dori and just getting started in the world, and because life is a shining thing. S

Style Weekly 2003 Fiction Contest Winners


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