2013 STORGY SHORT STORY COMPETITION SHORTLIST
The Property Line
In our part of the country, the fences are covered with large, rusted barbs and stretch for miles. They extend like veins across the whole of North Texas. This is partly the product of a leftover law from the cattle-driving era, and partly a product of our “ain’t broke, don’t fix mentality.” You couldn’t drive cattle across fenced-in property, and if you did, you were liable to get shot by the landowner. Not much has changed; all along the fences are the private property signs. “Private Property: Keep Off.” “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted SHOT.” Sometimes I think they made these fences for kids like me.
At night we run the full length of your property, down from the steady orange glow of your porch light, down to the ditch by the woods where after sunset it gets so dark you can’t see my arms folding around your shoulders. Down by the creek bed where the two lengths of barbed wire are strung so taut they nearly snap me. Tonight, as your mom returns from a date with her boyfriend, while your stepdad stayed in to watch the kids, I learn about the strength of fences.
Solomon said a cord of three strands is not easily broken. Perhaps the proverb guided Joseph Glidden. His fence was the first they employed to keep cattle in, and it’s been used ever since to keep all kinds of animals out. If I knew his name tonight, I would curse it as the headlights of your mother’s car suddenly break the blanket of darkness. I take off towards the property line.
Perhaps the grass is really greener there across the way, but in the dark it all looks black. I know the creek will be coming soon. Then the poison sumac. Then the tuft of mesquite thorns that your neighbors cleared out of their backyard and deposited in the wood line. I never see the razor sharp wire, those signs of the dairy-farm era of the property before it was split. In that thick blackness, I never see the creeping metal vines here and there grown over by the wild blackberry bushes. I don’t realize my error until the steel thorns with their orange and brown edges have sunk in and caused me to flip headfirst and fall, a frightened animal springing from its boundaries. I don’t feel the warm blood gathering at my waistline or the wind blowing through the fresh holes in my shirt until I see the red lights flutter and hear your mother’s voice yelling that if I come back she’ll be waiting. Here by the creek bed that’s long been dry, I wait until she goes inside to find a safe place to cross back over.
When it rains in the sullen early spring, little streams form all down the length of your driveway. Meanwhile, across the two acres that lie between your single-wide and your landlord’s house winds a white, concrete driveway. We walked it once, when we thought he was away, but he came outside and threatened to call the police if he caught us on his property again. Little rivers also form down the sandy, built-up sides of his concrete driveway when the rains come.
His red and yellow house was built with bricks from the old Warren brickyard. In 1936, 35 workers including a Mexican and two Negroes, went on strike for better wages and shorter hours. This strike ended when the owner of the yard gathered 35 hoods and burned a cross out front of the union boss’s house. The Mexican kept a shotgun propped by his front door from then on. The two Negroes directly left town with their families.
In June, your stepfather calls me to help him with more of his projects around the house. He says I’m strong for 17. Your mother is always away when he calls, which suits both of us well. Here and there, along the driveway, we dump and compact sand. In each of the potholes, we drop three shovels full of the coarse, brown filler and then pat it with the rounded backs of our spades. By the end of the summer, you say that my hands have hardened. While I caress your cheek you tell me my palms feel like the palms of a man. From then on, you speak to me differently.
Once the sand has been compacted, your stepfather borrows my dad’s ’73 Dodge, and we drive to the brickyards and buy half a ton of loose gravel. The owner is generous and offers his 12% “friend’s” discount. When we return to the driveway, some of the mid-March showers have washed out the sand from the larger potholes, and we’re set back two days on our work.
After five days, we’ve re-lined your driveway and pulled all of the Johnson grass up by the roots. We spray the dandelions and dollar weeds with herbicide. We spray the edges of the driveway as well to keep the meandering St. Augustine grass from taking root there. To even out the surface, we drag a wide strip of iron with heavy rubber fringes on it slowly behind the truck. I follow this strip with a shovel for displacing any rocks that get jammed beneath it. Now and then you come out barefooted on the porch to watch us as we work.
That night, you and I sit out under the wide, black sky on the dry grass beside the driveway. You lay a quilt down and turn off the porch light before lying down beside me. I lie on my back, and you snuggle in close with your arms draped over my chest and your head nestled into my shoulder. I sigh and quote a line from a movie you’ve never seen. You don’t say anything, but kiss my neck.
I’ve parked my car at the end of the driveway. We walk down it together, through the thick blackness of the property line, all the way out to the cul-de-sac. There, at the end of the paved road that leads back into your neighborhood, I place my hands on your hips and draw you in. You say you have to hurry; your mother will be up soon. I reply, I understand, and kiss you quickly as I open my car door. Through the window, your face looks lonely beneath the pale yellow streetlamps, or maybe it’s my own reflection; it follows me home.
The dairy farm had outlived its use around the end of 1947, so the land was divided into five nearly equal parcels and sold. Over time, a neighborhood grew up, and houses were built where barns once stood. All but one of the properties were bought. When the final property sold, the new owner built a large brick house. At the far edge of his property, he placed a single-wide trailer house to rent.
That orange light is always on. Here, on the 4th of July, we finally turn it off and break out the bottle-rockets and the brown, bulb-shaped fireworks. Streaks of silvery blue, gold-rimmed red, green and orange, and long streaming tails of pure white whistle through the sky and shine in your hazel eyes. The ash and smoke drift off into the distance. Across the yard, your little brother and sister light up Roman candles and fire them towards each other in a mock battle. The ash from the third shot follows the wind into your sister’s eyes, and your stepfather brings around the garden hose to flush out the little black specks.
The county has issued a burn ban because of the drought. Twenty-five square miles have burned in our county alone, but here in the outskirts of town, the sheriff turns a blind eye to the fifty-some-odd people shooting miniature mortars into the night breeze.
As your family and friends enjoy hot dogs around a bonfire, I light the last bottle rockets. Your stepfather gets so drunk that he falls backwards off the cooler; his laughs ring out louder than the fiery pops. Your mother slaps him and runs inside the single-wide. The fireworks and friendly banter begin to fade.
Slowly, everyone else wanders away from your porch, some down to the creek bed, a few inside, most to their cars at the cul-de-sac beyond the driveway. This is the first time I meet you. Really meet you. There, in the fading light of the last grand finale, my hands begin to shake. Then my arms. Then my body. I don’t tell you I’m afraid, but you say, I know, it’s okay, shhh, it’s alright, do you want to kiss me? I nod but can’t respond. And all of me and all of you meet for a second; I don’t feel afraid. Then you step back, open your eyes, and smile. My heart pounds. My hands stop shaking.
It was a common habit when the corrals were built next to the barn to nail up horseshoes on the fences and above each stall for luck. Woodworking tools and branding irons were hung close by for convenience. Later on, when many of the barns and corrals of the property were torn down, the horseshoes were buried three feet down in the earth to bring luck for whatever the land was to be used for.
In the two months since your 17th birthday, I’ve helped your stepfather rebuild the old barn. He says that soon, if things work out, you’ll have a new horse. In the meantime, I begin work on the corral beside it. While digging postholes for the new fence, I hit a horseshoe and toss it aside.
That afternoon, you bring out a pitcher of sweet tea. The heat of summer has come early, and my shirt is drenched from hours of digging. I finish mixing the cement in the wheelbarrow. As you watch, I dip my spade into the thick gray mixture, and shovel six inches of cement into each post hole. When each of the thirteen posts is anchored, I plant my shovel and walk over to meet you.
As you pour the tea into two glasses, I reach out to brush back a strand of your hair. Don’t, you say, your hands are dirty. I haven’t heard that tone before. You turn and hand me a glass with a lemon slice in the bottom. You know I don’t like lemon, but I smile and drink it anyway.
Five minutes of silence wander by, and I ask if you’re feeling alright. With a simple, yep, you pick up the pitcher and head back inside. Later on, when I’m finished anchoring the posts, I walk inside to talk to your father. On the counter by the door, I see the summons and petition.
I’m 18 now. After my family and friends come over to my house, after you make a cake for me from your grandmother’s recipe, after my grandmother tells me that I’m finally a man and can no longer expect a free ride, and after the presents and questioning from my family –When will you get serious and marry that girl?– I tell them that I have to drive you home. They disperse as they say, it is getting late. We climb into the Dodge as my parents turn off the porch light to show that they’ll no longer be waiting up for me.
I drive across the warm autumn night, taking the long way past the pond whose water has sunk six feet and some-odd from last summer’s drought. We cross the railroad tracks at the end of the long country road. No one is driving tonight, but a state trooper sits just past the crest of the last hill before Exit 451, with his lights off and the lull of his car’s powerful engine whirring as we pass.
When at last we arrive at the cul-de-sac, I park the truck and cut the lights. We don’t say anything for a while, but I roll down the windows to let in the breeze. There’s a distance to your smile as you take my hand, and I wait in expectation of a final gift. Instead I’m met with a silent kiss to my neck. You lay your head against my shoulder and breathe a warm sigh.
Time passes, and my hunger grows, and I try to ignore it. I kiss you and say you’re beautiful. You tell me that you’re just not ready. I shouldn’t want that anyway. We’re not married yet. We both know it’s wrong. I reply, you’re right, and quietly curse my luck and turn back to the wheel. Your little brother and sister appear from the black cocoon at the edge of the property line and ask us if we love each other, and you tell them to go away, and I say it’s none of their business, and we lie to ourselves as well. I kiss you goodnight, and you hang a rosary up on my rear-view mirror.
The Brown Brick House
My grandmother’s first husband died in 1935 while working on a highway expansion plan that was to stretch from Waco to Dallas. When, after five days of heavy rain, what was left of the hill collapsed on him; she was sent an insurance check, which she used to cover his funeral expenses and later to build a house. The contractor she hired placed the brick order at the Warren Brickyards only to learn that they were on strike. Out of respect to her, he then drove 248 miles south to the brickyard in Brady where he stayed until the order was filled. Upon returning, he built the house for her in two weeks and thereafter weekly inquired as to its state and her satisfaction. No one was surprised when he proposed to her a year to the day after the house’s completion, though there was some murmuring when their first child was born seven months after their wedding.
February bleeds out in the waiting room where your mother and stepfather sit, hands locked, in the opposite corner. The complications that arose from one impatient life have wasted yours. I leave Parkland and drive in silence back to the brown brick house. Back to the family who waits with grim faces. Back to the silent remorse for the pieces of myself that have gone cold. I want to pray. No words pass.
My father sits silent on the couch waiting for the news he can already read in my face. My grandmother stares at the dying embers in the fireplace, her eyes distant. My mother’s eyes are red and swollen in the waning light. I place the rosary on the table. No words pass.
Along the two strands of double lanes divided by a grass median, I press the accelerator nearly to the floor. In half-curse, half-prayer I mutter a few words under my breath, something to Jesus. I look at the rosary your grandmother gave me last October that you hung with all of our hopes on my rearview mirror and that dangles there silently, chastising me for my poor discretion.
I hear my grandmother in my head, Repent! Repent! God’s kingdom draws nigh. I bite my lip and hear myself saying something to shirk responsibility. The white stripes begin to blend into a solid line on the road beside my window. In my head I reply to her, If there were something to repent of, I would, and then my stomach grows sour. I have plenty to confess. I bite my lip and keep my mouth shut.
Repent! Repent! I press the gas pedal harder, and the needle steadily rises as the February air begins to fog my windshield. I want to pray. I want to curse my own stupidity. I want to hold you. My hands begin to shake like they haven’t in a while. The tremors move through my arms and body. They grow along the way to Parkland, through the glass sliding doors, and into the sterile room where I know what’s happening and what’s happened. God’s kingdom draws nigh.
Here by the pond, I park the car. The lights reflect on the water, and the moon is just bright enough to etch out the white shale outcroppings all the way around the edges of the pond.
“Silent night, holy night,” I say as I slip my arm around your waist. We sit quietly a while before you lean across to kiss me. There’s a movement in this kiss. Our bodies stay still. I lay my backrest all the way down and brush the hair away from your eyes. You look past me now when you say, I love you.
I slide my fingers across your cheek, then down your neck to your shoulder. I trace a line down the length of your arm, across the veins of your wrist until I feel the smoothness of your left hand. I grasp it and pull you towards me. There, in the fading light of this last grand finale, your hands begin to shake as our bodies move together.
In my mind we’re running the length of your property again. Down from the steady orange glow of your porch light, down from the green, the blue, the explosions, down from the blanket on the grass beside your driveway, back down to that heavy darkness where I run full speed into the sharpest points of the fence, and all of me and all of you meet once more, where I feel the warm blood gathering at my waistline, and where I now search for a safe place to cross back over.
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