“Never the Hero”
Sean Williamson’s story “Never the Hero” was the 6th winner of our annual Hamlin-Garland award. Contest judge Michael Byers said this about the winning story:
This story demonstrates a writer in full command – moving across a whole life in a handful of pages, finding damage and solace in unlikely moments, its people carrying their hearts forward into one question after another. Tough, tender, sweet and real, told in a voice of beautiful, persuasive originality, this story will stick with its readers for a long time.
Never the Hero
I woke up bouncing down a dirt road, quick opened and closed my eyes with a feeling hard to place, like it’s hard to punch a hole in a string. Like being born and dying, one inside the other. The side of my face was pressed to the seat. I leaned over and barfed on the floor.
“Did he puke?” the driver said.
“I don’t think so,” I pushed out between slick lips.
Then I recognized Erdy’s voice: “You did. It’s okay. We’re almost there.”
We stopped and the vibrations cut with the key turn. The engine ticked. When I tried to sit up, everything was spinning. Erdy helped me out of the car, leaned me against the trunk like a Christmas tree. The sun was warm on my skin. This made
life better, then worse. I barfed again.
Barry Alomar got out of the driver’s seat. Seeing him there, mostly a stranger, black mud under his fingernails and on his clothes, I knew this day had gone too far. He was smiling, mouth open, braces spit glistening in the sunlight, yellow scuzz built up along the gumline. When he turned and our eyes met, the smile changed. Somewhere in the back of my memory, I heard the ping of a trap about to snap shut. I looked away.
Back then I didn’t even know his name. Now, Barry Alomar might as well be my
name. For how many nights he lived inside my mind, standing behind the question.
Maybe I would have remembered if he ever said anything back then. Maybe he could’ve gotten friends his own age if he said something. Didn’t just stand around with his braces shut inside his mouth, stubbing his Vans against the dirt. Barry came into some cash when his dad died, I heard later, and decided he needed braces. Braces on an older guy like that, it was unnatural, like a bulldog driving a dirt bike.
The only reason we kept him around was he got us beer.
“Why aren’t you in school?” I said to Erdy. Then I remembered leaning against the garage behind Erdy’s dad’s house, drinking vodka and huffing gas. It couldn’t have been more than a couple hours before. A different sunny washed-out daydream.
Erdy laughed and licked the sticky line on a joint. He handed it to me like a flower. “You took your turn, put that rag over your face and next thing we knew you were running, man!”
Barry nodded and stubbed his Vans at the dirt.
I didn’t recall.
“Yeah, I bet you don’t recall. We found you in the field behind the Taco Bell still
screaming. We couldn’t have you out there like that.”
Mud moved up my legs to the middle of my stomach, across my arms. It caked my hair, which I pulled back with the slimy rubber band hanging from my wrist. Clenching the joint in the cleanest spot I could find on my fingertips, I took a rip. My mouth tasted like burnt blood. I barfed again, and felt much better for it.
A few weeks before, Maureen had smiled and laughed and we listened to Tori Amos in the car. We took the bypass around Milton to get to Janesville, passing nothing to get to nowhere. “How’s high school?” she had asked, which sounded like a mean joke. Last year she had been walking the same halls. But now she was free. Free from curfew, free from me.
“I only got seven hundred days left,” I said.
“Stop counting,” Maureen said.
I watched the spout of her bottom lip I’d once bitten softly, when we went swimming at Pleasant Lake and Maureen had wrapped her legs around me, put her hands on the side of my face. The moment had lasted forever, then didn’t.
“You think anyone is looking for us, Officer Haberstrand or anyone?” I asked
“This is Barry’s uncle’s land. We should be good,” Erdy said.
Erdy gave me a beer and a little bag of cheese popcorn from the trunk. I ate popcorn and drank some beer and could see one of everything.
Erdy motioned to Barry Alomar. “He steals the popcorn from the dining hall.”
I staggered through sharp grass to find a piss spot. Lawnmowers with filed off serial numbers sat halfway under the shelter of termite-riddled sheds. A mask of gasoline burned inside my face. I turned to the sound of a truck blatting, but it was far-off. It moved across County H like a toy. The station wagon sat on a rock-jutted path overlooking a cornfield. Stalks were bent and cracked. It wasn’t pretty like the corn on the sides of the highway.
Barry Alomar sat cross-legged on the side of the hill. A string of cigarette smoke ran up from his fingers. From the hill you could see County H. Barry Alomar was smiling. Erdy wasn’t saying anything, just throwing rocks down the hill. Barry Alomar started chuckling.
Good christ what is that idiot chuckling at? I thought now, looking on the field. What am I doing here? Maureen didn’t come around for people like this, I thought. But Maureen didn’t know, because I hardly knew. Chemistry was happening just over that hill. Algebra was happening. Soon baseball players would take the field behind the school for practice.
At Toys “R” Us that last visit we rode scooters up and down the aisles. Maureen’s hair had fluttered. From behind I couldn’t see if we had matching smiles. She got off and told me she really didn’t want to do it. Maybe it wasn’t as fun as before. She grabbed my hand and held it for a second. I thought about playing the tutorial on the new Mario game, but instead I pushed a Rugrats display over and we got the fuck out of there. At Rock Theater we bought a bag of popcorn and snuck into 8 Mile. Maureen touched my hand but wouldn’t kiss me. There was nothing to be disappointed about. Maureen had been doing me a favor. She could go back to college anytime she wanted.
I took a couple more steps away from Erdy, away from Barry Alomar. A busted-out truck, a couple snowmobiles were choked with long thorny weeds. Just beyond that I stepped to the lip of a ravine, where birch trees knifed up through the soil like a primitive trap.
My piss was like thick gasoline. It pooled in a pile of leaves then disappeared. A cold wind moved through. I buckled myself in, looked down and saw it, something that couldn’t be but was. A body bent crooked against one of the birch trees, like it had been chucked naked into the ravine. The face looked up at me.
“Hello?” I said. A stupid hope.
Nothing. The skin was as white as the flaky bark of the trees. Marks the color of grape soda ringed around its neck. Then I screamed for them. Was it: help! Was it: hey! Was it: no! It was impossible to remember what I said. I just remember that in a couple seconds Erdy was gripping my arm so tight his fingernails punched in.
That Barry Alomar was breathing behind us saying, “Well, well, well.”
Erdy tried to pull me away and I wouldn’t go.
“Just leave him,” Barry Alomar said.
The body wasn’t just a body. But a naked woman. Was it Maureen? No. I had never seen this woman. But how can you know if someone is dead if you never saw them alive? The black outline of her eyes, the cavern of her open mouth, that cold dark space, was drawing me in. We were engaged in a cruel staring contest. If she blinked maybe she would disappear. If I blinked maybe I would disappear.
I flipped open the back door and jumped in, just as they were pulling away.
Erdy kept muttering, “I don’t get it, I just don’t get it.”
All that out there: Algebra and baseball practice and Maureen saying, “Stick it out. Stop counting all the days.” All that life I had out there. Then the dark language of that rotting face. Then Barry Alomar chuckling, then belly-laughing as we swerved through the ruts.
“What are you chuckling at?” I said, about to be sick again.
“Did you see that?!” Barry said. He turned his head back, eyes wild and braces
spit glistening. “We can’t tell anyone. They’ll string us up without thinking twice.”
There was a time I wanted to tell someone about the ravine. Had I played it right, everyone would have said I did the stand-up thing. Or maybe the opposite. It would’ve happened just like Barry Alomar said, they’d string me up, assume the worst about me. I’d come to the station, still fucked up from huffing gas, someone they always had their suspicions about. Then they’d drag me through town by my neck. Maureen would have screamed on the side of the street, “That son of a bitch!”
Maureen and I had plans that weekend. I was going to take the Badger Bus and visit her dorm. Which I had never done. But I couldn’t do it. I never called and I guess she didn’t notice. I kept my mouth shut for a couple days, then a couple weeks, then graduated. Maureen never came back to visit, anyway. Instead she went with an exchange program to Uruguay, or Paraguay—and it’s not like I’m too stupid to know the difference, it’s just I can’t remember which. I rented a house on the long end of Franklin Street. My landlord was a cop. When I brought the rent check to his house, a mansion on AstroTurf lawn in the good part of town, he would come to the door in a tank top so stringy his nipples showed. He’d be clutching a tiny dog with a pink bow in its hair.
My house was just down from the quarry. Kids would get too close to the quarry and fall in sometimes. It happened every summer.
Erdy came by one day and we stood in my room. The carpet was thin and cheap. I felt tall looking down at the two paper nubs resting on the strip of tinfoil in his hand.
I was skeptical. What could those nubs really do?
We put them under our tongues. I chewed mine between my front teeth. Erdy drove us down by the lake and we watched the algae buzz electric. After a hundred years, I moved up from the water. Shook down in the sand next to the BBQ pit.
Erdy stood at the shore and looked out. We never talked about that day. It was
I barely saw Barry Alomar. I saw him once at The Real McCoy’s with his head on the bar, sleeping. Then at the Mobile Station, picking through the breakfast sandwiches, chuckling to himself. Each time, I took off before he saw me. Each time he was soiled with black mud.
Maureen ended up moving down to South America to live a different life. In a way, it was a relief. I could let go of the fantasy. I didn’t have to love her. I wouldn’t have to disappoint her. She wouldn’t be there when they stoned me in the Whitewater Town Square.
Then a couple years barfed by. By then, I didn’t know what I saw. I got to thinking, I didn’t see that woman, that horrible face. When the image slid across my mind I could say, “No, that just didn’t happen.”
Erdy stood at the shore and looked out. Boats hummed down the alley. They sounded far away and right there. I put out my hand and imagined grabbing the boats out of the water, bringing them up to my eye.
We pulled up at the big farm on County H. There were balloons tied to the mailbox. A bouncy house was jiggling in the front yard. “My aunt just turned 50. Be sure to say something to her. I’ll point her out. You’ll be fine, buddy.”
“Does that say 3 p.m.?” I squinted at the dash clock.
Erdy moved through the barn like he wasn’t going insane. Clasped hands with aunts and uncles. He pointed at me from across the room while talking to old teachers, old coaches. Better not be telling lies about me, I thought then laughed. What lies?
I got a plate, to look normal. Spread was great but how could I eat? I sat down with grandparents and drunk uncles and looked down at my plate: imitation crab pasta salad, chicken wing, seven-layer dip. I could taste cheap liquor in the air, could taste the plastic of the big bottles it was coming out of.
Chicken was squirming around the bone. I bit it anyway.
Ignored, I got up and lit a cigarette. People were everywhere. Good christ, I hope my gym teacher doesn’t see me. A few old timers with pretzel-stick legs shooting down out of their khaki shorts, clipped guitars over their shoulders, clicked on tiny amps and gave “Free Bird” a try.
When I was at Oshkosh Correctional, I met Roy. He was seventy and blind, but got on alright.
“I can’t tell you how many times I got off just because I was blind. They’d find me coming out the back door with a TV in my hands and I’d say, ‘How did I get here? I’m so confused.’ Cause I wasn’t always full blind. The true dark came later.”
I ate my peanut butter sandwich and nodded along. I served just under a year, had T-boned an old guy by the water tower in Eagle. It was icy and I probably would have hit him even if I was sober, probably wasn’t anything to be done about it.
“Yessir. Being old and blind can get you out of most anything. After a while though, I just committed too many crimes. They had to put me in.”
Roy waited and then pretended I asked him what got him locked up for good.
He continued, “Neighbor of mine ran over my dog. So I went over to his house and killed him. I walked up to his front door and I listened for the screen door to swing, and I raised the shotgun up and BANG! When I squeezed through I heard his protest running back down his throat. Problem was, he was holding his infant girl and they both caught it. So that is my burden now to live with.”
Things were usually bad for kid killers, but Roy got a pass around there. He was okay, harmless really. And in prison you don’t worry about the murderers. After all, they live there. Everyone else is just visiting.
“Wasn’t always blind. Came upon me. After I lost my sight I started having these visions on the other side of my eyes: long hallways, mountains, grand pianos, waterfalls.”
“Really?” I finished my sandwich and leaned back some from the table.
“Sure. There’s a name for it that I forgot. Visions lasted a few years, then poof!”
“That’s kind of cool.”
“Well, it wasn’t all good. There’s another part to it. I saw people too. Mangled, deformed. They were too small. Their mouths kept moving. Trying to tell me something.”
I listened mostly and didn’t tell him about the visions I had when I closed my eyes, how the body appeared every time the laughter tapered out. Or how I loved this girl named Maureen. How I wished I had taken the Badger Bus to visit her dorm. Could see myself then, in the bus crossing over the river in Newville. On the other, right path. She would pick me up when she was home from college. I would wait for her by the window. I’d think, but not tell him.
Some mornings I’d lay in bed and play a game. I’d live out a whole life where I told someone. Then another whole life where I stopped it from happening. Then another whole life where the woman in the ravine and I fell in love. Where we were damaged but tender. Where she was a waitress and I was a fry cook and we hurt each other some, but kept afloat.
On the last stretch before release I kept to myself. Didn’t talk to Roy much. Didn’t talk to anyone. Kept my head down. Found God, recreationally at least. I feared for Roy though, feared for the day when small mangled figures and waterfalls came back.
After all the trouble. Twice divorced and a bunch of years since I last got locked up, I was lying with Connie in bed. Packers lost and looked like shit on Sunday Night Football, but I’m dry which had leached some of my anger, some of my thirst for getting into it. Connie was mad anyway and was on her side, staring a hole through the wall. The phone rang. It rang all the way down the hall like the explanation of a dream.
Must have been halfway there when I wondered if I should answer. It was hammering away against the kitchen wall. I didn’t even say anything to Connie before I got up and for some reason started creeping like there was an intruder. Like I had a pistol in my hand. Which I didn’t because Connie wouldn’t let me keep one.
But my arms were curved like claws at my side, T-shirt hanging around my bony-ass neck and I keep stepping. My feet go from carpet to kitchen linoleum, pat softly. Outside the window I can’t see anything because the kitchen light is bouncing right off the glass. By the time I get to the phone I’m shaking. Why would I be shaking?
I reach for the phone but miss it the first time. It’s funny, half-sleep funny.
But you aren’t sleeping, bud.
I imagine I pick up the phone. The ring echoes as I bring it to my ear.
The voice on the other end, a voice that didn’t say much, a voice that would whistle through its braces, back then. “Hey, about that body in the ravine that day. . .”
Not a chance to say a word, I gulp.
The voice goes, “I want to tell you what I’ve done.”
And the whole time he’s talking I look right at the kitchen window, right at my own self standing there in the loose white shirt, just a big ball for a stomach, skinny gray chicken arms and legs. Christ, how did I get so old? How did I end up with my feet to the cold kitchen floor? How does every house I’ve ever lived in smell the same? With ripped up vinyl in the mud room. With dog hair stuck to the La-Z-Boy in the corner.
He tells me why WOMAN’S BODY FOUND AT COUNTY H LOT never made its way to the cover of the Whitewater Register.
In the window, I stand with the phone to my ear, eyes worried but not wide, thinking about the dreams I had when I was locked up. In the reflection, I’m afraid to turn out the kitchen light and make the window clear. I’m afraid I’ll see him out there in the yard, smiling with those braces, hands covered in black mud.