Short Fiction by Kevin Sharp
My life changed when I turned seven.
It seems so long ago now, and I guess it was–especially with everything that’s happened to me since.
In 1976, my mom and I lived at the Starbrite Mobile Home Park outside Flagstaff, Arizona. I divided most of my free time there between reading in my room and playing in our yard (really a square of rocks occupied by some faded plastic flamingoes). I could stay in my fictional worlds for hours, until Mom called me for dinner or bed or because the approaching siren meant that something was going down (again) at one of the other trailers.
My mom’s name is Cinderella. Really. She hates it, always going by Cindy or Cin. She told me over and over not to name my future kids anything weird, that to parents it may be a spur of the moment thing but the kids had to live with it.
“For instance, I wouldn’t have named you Galahad,” she said.
I didn’t tell her that I wished she had, because Galahad is a way better name than Herman.
I knew my dad only as a faded image of blonde hair and sideburns. The card he sent for my seventh birthday showed an astronaut, untethered to any rocket, floating alone against a blue-black galaxy. Inside: Have An Out Of This World Birthday! Printed below that: Love, Your Pop.
Mom cried as she watched me sound the words out.
She took me to celebrate on January 1, 1977 – I’d been a New Year’s baby – and to give us both a break from our usual Rice-A-Roni or plain pasta dinners. The restaurant was called the Squat & Gobble, which doesn’t sound too fancy, but to me anyplace with cloth napkins and hardcover menus was like dining as a king. After I blew out the candle on my slice of chocolate cake (chosen off the silver dessert tray), the waitress, Dot, leaned down and whispered in my ear, “My mama poisoned my stepdad and made it look like an accident. He was a terrible man.” Then she gave a big smile; she had a smear of lipstick on her front tooth.
I lay in bed that night playing with my new Aquaman doll, wondering if Dot had told me something from a movie or a grown-up book.
The next day, my friend Richie and I waded in the creek behind his house, looking for crawfish or tadpoles. “Guess what, Herman.” His eyes were wide behind the giant lenses of his glasses. “I peeked through my parents’ keyhole and saw my mom tied up to the bed with my dad’s neckties. She shouted at him to…” Here Richie listed phrases whose meanings neither of us were sure of, exactly, nor did we know who to ask.
The school bus driver, Ms. Brenda, held me back Monday morning after all the other kids. She told me about the time she and her friends stole the principal’s car in high school. Only they didn’t know the principal needed his car to drive his sick wife to chemotherapy. There was a big mess – that’s how Ms. Brenda said it: “a big mess.”
“Not a day goes by I don’t think about that poor woman,” she told me. She wiped her eyes with a wadded Kleenex from her jacket sleeve.
After Ms. Brenda came Mrs. Nelson, my first grade teacher. The yard duty supervisor at recess. The assistant principal. The kids I talked to, on the playground, in the lunch line, in the bathroom. Even kids from the other classes, whose names I didn’t know. People who probably never even knew I existed.
They would all lean in and whisper to me, even if nobody else was around. Like what they were about to tell me was the biggest, most important thing ever.
Pug-nosed Tommy Gregson, who I guess would’ve been categorized as the class bully, told me his mom put a wad of toilet paper in his underwear every day so she wouldn’t have to wash brown stains out of it. Do you know what I could’ve done to Tommy with that information, especially as his reign of terror expanded in later grades?
What had happened when I blew out that candle? Since when was seven a magical age? In case you’re wondering, hearing all this stuff wasn’t my wish; I’d asked for the same things as every year: a life-size Batmobile, and for my dad to come home.
But whether I wished for them or not, my collection of secrets grew day by day, with every person I encountered.
My dentist said he ate chocolate at every meal, which I thought was a pretty cool secret for someone with that job. But then he added, “I fantasize about your mother every time you come in here. I hope you get lots and lots of cavities, young man.” (I didn’t know what fantasize meant; I pictured my mom with fairy wings, riding a unicorn.)
Mrs. Hooper from the trailer next door told me she’d once secretly dated a black boy even though her parents were super-racist. (I pictured checkered flags as her mom and dad drove fast around a track.)
Richie’s mom, when I was playing over at his house, told me she was pregnant. I thought from TV that this was good news, but she kept saying, “What was I thinking?”
Mom’s hairstylist. The gas station attendant. The red-haired girl who scooped at 31 flavors. The mailman with the cowboy mustache.
After a couple of weeks I felt all those stories dragging after me wherever I went, like the ghost’s chains in a Christmas movie I’d once seen. Mom and I were watching a show called Charlie’s Angels on our itchy green couch one night, when I told her what had been happening.
She ground out her cigarette in the abalone shell ashtray. “What do they say?” she asked.
I paused, wondering what the etiquette was in such a situation.
“No, you’re right. Always respect a secret.” She lit up a new one. “So what’s mine?”
I thought this over while one of the TV ladies karate-chopped a guy. I knew everything about Mom already, like that her hair wasn’t really black and she never wore underwear. But, no, it would have to be something she’d told me since my birthday.
“Um, that you didn’t pay for your new scarf. The purple shiny one.”
She stared at me while smoke swirled around us in the blue light of the TV; every other light was off to save power. “Hell, I’m just taking that thing for a test drive. Stealing is wrong and you shouldn’t ever do it. Okay?”
When she shook me awake however long later, Godzilla roared on TV and half my face was numb from the couch. Mom said, “I have an idea.”
I never saw any of the men she dated, because she’d never let them pick her up; instead, she’d put on her finger-length eyelashes and her one fancy dress to go meet them in our old blue station wagon. “It’s not as glamorous as a pumpkin coach,” was how she described the car. It used to crack me up, picturing the poor guy seeing that thing driving up and wondering what he’d gotten himself into. Then Mom would get out, all beautiful.
I’d stay up late reading comic books with a flashlight so she wouldn’t see my lamp on through the window shade and worry that I wasn’t sleeping again. Only when she was home, when I’d heard her kick off her high heels and the click-click of her lighter, could I relax. The walls of our trailer were thin as cardboard; it felt like we were right next to each other even when we weren’t.
She always said her dream man was “a young Elvis Presley with the soul of John Denver.”
Anyway, Mom’s idea…
She reached out to the TV knob with her bare foot, turned down Godzilla’s volume. “Baby, you’re gonna help me find Prince Charming.”
The pretty nurse at my doctor’s office led me into the exam room and told me she was head over heels in love with the doctor. Then Dr. Schwartz tapped my knees with his little hammer and told me he was gay.
A girl named Winnie Munson joined our class well into the school year; Mrs. Nelson put her in the only empty desk, which happened to be right next to mine. And so, five minutes into her time there, while everyone else focused on their subtraction problems, Winnie told me that her father locked himself into her older sister’s room every night. I didn’t respond; whatever weird games her family played were none of my business, and it wouldn’t be good for me to be seen whispering with a girl.
Mom stopped going out on dates – now she invited men to dinner at our trailer. If he was supposed to be there at 7:00, she’d start preparing around 6:50; the guy would show up and Mom would say she got stuck at work or had car trouble (both lies). Then I’d be in charge of entertaining him – except it was more like a job interview he didn’t know he was on.
Roger, who seemed like a giant in my tiny room, looked around and asked what sports I liked to play. “None, really,” I said. “I can’t run very good.”
His voice dropped to a familiar whisper. “You’re looking at a former college wide receiver. I was plenty fast enough, but I missed a lot of practice because I was boinking my coach’s wife the whole time.” He illustrated the concept using his finger and a closed fist.
Oh, Roger. It was nice meeting you. Sort of.
I signaled to Mom when we came out of my room – blink twice slowly – and she pretended she was getting a migraine, clutching her head with good authenticity. Then the two of us ate the nice dinner on the checkered tablecloth.
I had to open my window because of Tom’s cologne. He looked at my bookcase and my pile of comics while I looked at the curly carpet of chest hair he showed off. Tom seemed nice, and he knew about the Hardy Boys. If the worst problem had been his grooming we might’ve been ok. But then he had to kneel in front of me. “I took money from some bad people. Real bad. Now I sleep with a gun under my pillow.”
Bye, Nate, with the night terrors you brought back from Vietnam.
Bye, Frank, with your five ex-wives and the reason why all of them left you.
Bye, Anthony, with your glass slipper jokes after seeing Mom’s name on the electric bill. (He didn’t even make it to my room.)
As the weather got warmer on its way to brutal, Mom took me to the public pool each weekend. I usually spent my time there lathered in Coppertone, watching the lucky kids whose dads played with them in the shallow end. Now it was all whispers in my wet ears: swimmers, parents, lifeguards, the lady at the snack bar. I got pretty good at holding my breath – and ignoring the blinding sting of chlorine – because I tried to stay underwater as much as possible. Finally I told Mom I didn’t want to go anymore; instead I’d sit three inches from the squeaky fan at home and mist myself with a spray bottle.
I didn’t want to go with her on her usual errands, either. People who had confessed once left me alone, but strangers were too risky – the man in the grocery store who was planning his suicide gave me actual nightmares. The only places I felt safe were at the movies (where I could sit way down in front by myself) and the public library (where I could hide in one of the carrels).
I thought Clay might be the winner of the Prince Charming sweepstakes when he offered me half a Kit-Kat bar outside the trailer while we waited for dinner. I’d been trying to avoid chocolate (and thus more cavities) but my seven-year-old will was weak.
Clay looked both ways before lighting what I knew was a joint. “I spend every day stoned – it’s the only way I can get through my shitty life. You’ll understand someday, kid.” When I was in bed later I heard him and Mom giggling; the smoke smell rolled in under my door. But I never saw him again after that.
Yale the draft dodger got to stay for dinner. So did Ben, who hadn’t been on a date in nine years. And Leroy.
But none of them were Mom’s guy. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her not to be lonely.
“Oh, baby,” she said as she tucked me in one stuffy night. “There’s a world of difference between alone and lonely.”
This went on through the spring and summer. Richie’s mom had a baby. I lost a front tooth. Two girls vanished from my life: Winnie Munson, who stopped showing up to school, and the red-haired girl from 31 flavors (probably because the boss found out what she was doing in there after hours). Star Wars came out. Elvis died; Mom drank beers and sang along to his records all day.
The phone rang during Saturday morning cartoons. I held the receiver in one hand, my bowl of Cocoa Pebbles in the other. “Herman?” the man said. He spoke loudly over music and chatter in the background.
I didn’t know the voice, but I knew the voice. “Dad?”
“Yes, son.” A song played about blue eyes crying. “Say, is your mom there?”
“No, she said she’s splurging on a new haircut.”
I heard a sound like ice cubes. When he spoke again, he was much quieter, as if the phone was stuffed inside his mouth. “My folks had a terrible marriage. Fought all the time, cursed, hit each other – like they weren’t in love and never had been. I didn’t want me and your mom to end up like that. I didn’t want me to end up like that. Like maybe being a violent asshole was something my dad passed down, and then I’d pass it down to you. So I made myself leave.”
The operator asked him to deposit more money. Coins clinked.
He said, “The last time I saw you and Cin was the last happy day of my life.” A new song started: something-something country roads. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”
And there in our tiny kitchen, for the first time when someone had finished whispering to me, I smiled.
Kevin Sharp teaches high school creative writing in Northern California. He is the author of the YA novel After Dakota; his work has also appeared on The Weeklings and in Bookmarks magazine. While he has technically grown up, Kevin has yet to outgrow Looney Tunes, The Price is Right, fantasy novels, or comic books. This story makes him want to confess his secret celebrity crush on Kate Winslet. Visit him online at www.kevin-sharp.com.
Image courtesy of Pawel Kadysz at unsplash.com
Also published on Medium.