Winner of Boston Review’s sixteenth annual short story contest.
July 1, 2009
Jul 1, 2009
17 Min read time
Winner of Boston Review’s sixteenth annual short story contest.
I selected “Canceled” for its stark treatment of a complicated issue, for the language that is focused and hard working. — Aleksander Hemon
In a circle of boys and girls Billy Capri asks, “What do you call a Czechoslovakian abortion?” After a well-timed pause he smiles and says, “A canceled Czech.” A few seconds pass, and the laughter catches. Samuel stands next to Adie, the new girl from Wisconsin, and falls in love—something about the way she stands with her hand slipped into her back pocket, the way her dark hair falls over her shoulders. Capri notices Samuel watching Adie and slides between them.
“Have you guys met?” Capri says, knowing Samuel hasn’t been able to stop talking about her since she showed up at school two weeks ago.
Adie looks at Samuel. “Sure. We both have Thatcher for history.”
Samuel nods and Capri nudges him to say something. When he doesn’t, Capri says, “Samuel’s not feeling so good.” With this Samuel knows what Capri wants him to say next.
“Capri, I told you to keep your mouth shut,” Samuel says and looks at Adie.
“Too much beer?” Adie asks.
“It’s nothing like that. I’m sick. Have been for a while.”
“Sick as in dying,” Capri adds.
Samuel shrugs. “I got a hole in my heart,” he says touching finger to chest.
“I was born with it.” He looks at Capri, who’s trying not to smile, and then back at Adie. “Doctor said it wouldn’t kill me and then said it might and then said it would, no question.” He watches her eyes move from his face to his chest. She is beautiful, alive with concern. She touches his shoulder and he gets the feeling he’s known her, always.
“That’s awful,” she says still touching him.
“The thing is,” he says looking down, “you could fix it.”
Adie sees Capri grinning like mad and pushes Samuel away. “You’re an ass,” she says.
Capri grabs her hand. “Tell the truth,” he says. “You liked him more, a lot more, when you thought he was dying.”
“I felt sorry for him.”
“It wasn’t a complete lie,” Samuel says feeling bad. “I was born with a hole in my heart. Two operations. Six days old. And the doctor tells my parents I’ll grow up like any other kid.”
“That’s debatable,” she says.
“You want to get out of here?” Samuel asks. When she doesn’t answer he pulls at her sweater. “Come on. I’ll take you home.” As they leave, Capri leans in and slaps him on the back. “You owe me.”
• • •
Samuel pulls up to Adie’s house and lays on the horn. The front door opens. A woman with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail comes out. Her face is pretty like Adie’s, only sharper. She walks toward the car and motions for him to roll down the window. “If you want to take my daughter to the movies, you’ll knock on the door like a gentleman.”
Samuel puts the car in park and fumbles with the keys as he watches Adie’s mom grab the mail from the box and go back inside.
A few seconds later he knocks on the door, kicking at the dried leaves scattered across the porch. “Hey.” He points back at the car. “Sorry about that. I wasn’t thinking.”
She opens the screen door. “I’m Adie’s mom, Bev.” Adie steps in front of her and pushes Samuel back out the door.
“We gotta go, Mom. Movie starts at two-twenty.”
“All right. You better get.”
Samuel turns to leave and then turns back, holding out his hand. “Nice meeting you,” he says.
“Likewise.” She smiles, shakes his hand and stays out on the porch ’til they drive away.
They park in the back lot of the theater. Samuel takes the key from the ignition and looks over at Adie’s hand zipping and unzipping her purse.
“Sorry about my mom,” she says. “That was an attempt at playing grown up. Every once in a while she tries to act like a real parent.”
“She seems nice enough.”
“She’s all right, I guess, when she’s not being a pain in the ass.”
“What about your dad?”
“Don’t know. My mom says she doesn’t really remember him, can’t picture his face even when she tries. But somehow she remembers a patch of an American flag sewn on the back pocket of his Levi’s and the way he swung his long hair across his back, side to side, when he talked.”
Adie shakes her head. “Long story short—my grandma owned a duplex where he rented. One day she sent my mom over to drop off an eviction notice because he kept parking his truck and motorcycle on the front lawn. It was killing the grass and pissing off the old man who lived next door. My mom rang the bell wearing a tube top and a pair of short-shorts,he opened the door, she handed him the notice and he invited her inside.”
“And they got it on.”
“Yep,” she says pointing to herself.
“So you never met him?”
She shakes her head. “I miss him though. My mom says it’s impossible to miss someone you’ve never met but she’s wrong. I see him in myself where I don’t see her—my mouth, my hands,” she says holding them out palms down. Samuel puts his hands under hers, palms up, as if to play a game. “I usually lie, tell people he’s dead.” She pulls back and smiles.
He leans in to kiss her. She closes her eyes and he slips his hand up her shirt, touches the small of her back. “You’re so soft,” he whispers.
Later Samuel brags to Capri about how easy she gave in, how she didn’t try to stop him when he lifted her skirt or unfastened her bra. After listening to the story, Capri sucker-punches Samuel in the gut and says, “No shit, Sammy got it on in his old man’s wagon.” What Samuel doesn’t say is how desperate he feels to have Adie close all of the time.
• • •
Samuel sits on the roof of Capri’s garage. His legs dangle over the side. “Put the ladder back up,” he yells. “I’m not jumping.”
Capri can’t stop laughing. “Come on, you wuss.”
“Bet’s off. My leg hurts.”
“Come on, chicken shit,” Capri says holding up a five-dollar bill.
Samuel stands up and steps to the roof’s edge. His body tightens. Capri sees he means business and shuts up. Looking down Samuel gauges how far out he’ll need to jump to clear the shrubs and land in the piled leaves. He takes a deep breath and steps back. He kicks one leg behind him and rocks from heel to toe, arms swinging at his side. He lunges forward and jumps, holding his breath as he falls. For a moment he is weightless, hollow, until his body crashes down on the leaves—his feet and legs stinging from the impact.
“Son-of-a-bitch, you did it,” Capri says kicking the leaves over Samuel, who stares up through the bare branches at the sky.
“Something’s happened,” Samuel says sitting up.
“She dumped you.” Capri looks down at Samuel and grins as he drops a pile of leaves over his head.
“I got her pregnant,” he says batting the leaves away.
“You’re full of crap.”
“I’m serious, Billy.”
“Jesus, Sammy. What’re you going to do?”
“I haven’t told anyone, so keep your mouth shut.”
Capri picks up the ladder and climbs onto the roof. “Pile them,” he says pointing at the leaves. “And push them back.” He waves his hand above his head. “Farther. Past the tree.”
Samuel shields his eyes against the sun and watches Capri soar.
• • •
Autumn ends with the first snowfall. Samuel wakes up early and from his bedroom window sees the neighbor’s roof covered with snow. He calls Adie and asks her to hang out at his grandparents’ house, tells her they’re away, so the two of them will have the place to themselves. She hesitates at first. But he pushes ’til she agrees.
Adie gets in the car, slides to the middle of the seat close to Samuel. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says touching her hand.
“Me too,” she says and looks out the window. He wants to joke, to poke at her side and make her laugh.
“Why so gloomy?” he asks.
When Adie doesn’t answer, he turns up the radio and drums the steering wheel, wishing he kept his mouth shut.
They make a left on Maxfield and Samuel counts each house they pass, something he used to do as a kid. The quiet street is lined with winter trees and a single brick house holds and repeats, holds and repeats as far as the eye can see as if this were everywhere, everything. He stops at eight and parks along the curb. Adie points at the bare tree in the front yard. “It looks so sad without leaves, doesn’t it?” she says.
“Nah. Just looks hungry to me.” He puts the car in park and opens the door, letting in the cold air.
Adie pulls on her gloves and waits for Samuel to open her door. They walk up to the house, arms linked. The falling snow melts against the warmth of their parkas. Adie glances back at the tree. “What do you think it’s hungry for?”
“Birds,” he says. She laughs and grabs hold of his hand. For a moment he feels like everything is going to be okay.
Inside Adie sits down in the rocker and takes off her shoes and cuffs her wet jeans. “My feet are freezing,” she says.
“You want a pair of slippers? My grandma has a closet full of them.” Adie follows Samuel to the bedroom and notices the photograph sitting on the bureau. “Look at you,” she says pointing at Samuel, age five. He looks at himself tucked under his grandmother’s arm, her blond wig piled high with lacquered curls.
“Sit.” He points to the bed,takes off her damp socks and slides a pair of terrycloth slippers on her feet. Samuel sits down next to her and kisses her neck.
She pulls away, looks around the room. “Nice,” she says looking at the wall tiled with antique mirrors.
She picks up a photograph off the nightstand. “This has to be your dad, the one holding the dead bird.”
“Yeah. Everyone says I look just like him.”
“And the one with the rifle, your grandpa?”
“Yep. Nothing they’d rather do than shoot birds from the sky.”
“Who’s the guy in the wheelchair?”
“That’s my uncle.”
“What happened to him?”
“My dad shot him on accident. Turned him into a cripple.” Samuel smiles.
“Give me a break.”
“He’s got some disease.I forget the name. He was almost sixteen when his legs started cramping and going stiff. At first his doctor said it was just growing pains, told him he was going to be real tall. But they were wrong.” Samuel gets up off the bed. “Come on. Let’s watch TV.”
In the hallway Samuel reaches his arms out, presses his palms to the wall and digs the sides of his feet into the floorboards, his body shaped like an X. “When I was little, my uncle could get around without the chair. He’d inch his way down the hall like this.” Samuel walks his hands forward on the wall and then slides each foot, weighted like lead, along the floorboard. “At the end of the hall, he’d drop to his knees and call for my grandpa or dad.”
Adie follows Samuel to a room filled with mismatched furniture. A brown, plaid sofa and a teal recliner, a wooden rocker and brass coat rack draped with leather belts and purses.
“Ancient,” Adie says touching the rabbit ears on top of the TV.
“It works.” He turns the TV on and twists the pliers.
“If you couldn’t walk,” Adie says curling up on the sofa, “what’d you miss the most?”
“I don’t know. Everything, I guess. Sometimes when I’m with my uncle it makes me feel bad to get up and leave the room. I watch my feet, one stepping in front of the other, and wonder what he’d give to walk out of here.”
Adie looks down at her feet, flexes and points. “I think I’d go crazy,” she says. “Like I was trapped.”
Samuel lies down next to her and they watch a blurry episode of M*A*S*H—the one where Hawkeye and Margaret make out while bombs explode all around. “I used to watch this with my dad,” he says. “In fifth grade I had to write a paper about a hero. I picked Hawkeye Pierce because he made my dad laugh. Mrs. Wiggins informed me humor was not heroic and made me pick again.”
Adie laughs a little. “So, who’d you pick?”
“Lincoln, of course. I liked the hat and his sharp face. He seemed tough.”
Samuel curls up against her and they fall asleep. In a dream Samuel sees his father from the back, his hands raised above his head. Then he hears his voice—What the hell, Samuel. What the hell, he says laughing. Samuel looks past his father and sees what he sees. Their backyard is filled with sleeping girls, beautiful like Adie. Their bellies are swollen and each one glows like a paper lantern. Some empty. Some filled with legs and arms and faces.
It’s late afternoon by the time Samuel wakes. He rubs Adie’s back, and she pulls away. He gets up, looks out the window at the houses across the street. The falling snow blankets all of the rooftops and trees. The sky and the hills are white, making it difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Even though it makes him sick, he wonders what he’d be doing now if Capri had been the one to ask Adie out. Capri would have scored with her, but this wouldn’t have happened, not to him. That’s why Samuel liked being with Capri. Nothing got to him. Like the time he showed up at Samuel’s house carrying a dead frog inside a baggie along with a plastic briefcase (stolen from Mr. Ewings’s homeroom) containing a tray, pins, scissors, scalpel, forceps, rubber gloves, probes and step-by-step instructions on dissection. Capri held up the baggie and said, “Let’s open this sucker up.” Even though the thought of dissecting it made Samuel’s stomach turn, he played it cool and followed Capri’s lead. First Capri unfolded each limb and pinned them down. Then he handed Samuel the forceps and told him to pull up on the skin between the rear legs to separate it from the muscle. Capri took the scalpel and made two incisions, one up the middle and one across the belly, like an upside down T. He pinned the skin back and sliced into the muscle. When he felt the chest bones he laughed and said, “We’re in.” Methodically he cut each organ loose and Samuel feigned excitement ’til Capri sliced into the belly and found a black beetle, whole and complete. “Holy shit,” Capri shouted. “Get a load of this.” He pinched the beetle between his fingers and Samuel threw up.
When Adie stirs, Samuel sits on the floor next to her and brushes her dark hair from her face. With eyes closed she is unfamiliar, like no one he’s ever met. He looks at her face trying to see Adie, the girl from Wisconsin. But the longer he stares the stranger she becomes—thick brows and dark lashes on a paper face. The idea of her, of the baby, sickens him.
After a while, she opens her eyes. “How long have you been there?” she asks.
“I had a dream about you,” he says. “About the baby.”
She shakes her head, rubs her eyes. “You’d think I’d feel something.” She looks up at the ceiling. “But I’m telling you, I don’t.”
“I’ll marry you.”
Adie sits up and curls her knees to her chest.
She looks at him, tries to keep from crying. “I know you would. It’s just that I don’t want this,” she says.
“You’re just scared.”
She shakes her head. “No, I don’t feel so scared. I want to be me, just me.”
“But what about the baby?”
“What about it?”
Samuel gets up from the floor and shuts the TV off. He wants to tell her about the film he saw in health class about how the embryonic heart is too small to hear, even with amplification. But if a doctor were to put an ultrasound to the mother’s abdomen a flickering light would appear.
“Adie,” he says quietly. When she looks at him, he points to the coat rack filled with belts and purses and asks if she wants one.
Adie walks over to the other side of the room and picks through the purses. “My god, how many bags does a person need?” she asks sarcastically.
“My uncle makes them. There’s more in the basement, hundreds. Take your pick.”
Adie pulls her hair back and twists it into a knot. “I like this one,” she says touching the purse with yellow and orange flowers.
“He hammers the designs into the leather, paints them by hand.”
“What’s he making them for?”
“It started with some kit he ordered on TV. He wanted to make his girlfriend a birthday present. Carol—she had big red hair, white skin. Real pretty. Not in the ways you’d expect. One year for Christmas she made my brother and sister and me plaster dolls. And they looked like us. Blond, blue-eyed. On Christmas Eve she lined them up under the tree. Mine was riding a skateboard.”
“They together still?”
“No. I don’t know what happened to her. But when she sat in his lap and held his hands steady on her hips, he looked like any other guy. Like his body wasn’t broken.”
Samuel hooks his fingers through her belt loops, looks down at her cuffed jeans and pink slippers. “I love you, Adie.” His voice is quiet, strained. He pulls her close, feels her thin body trembling. “It’ll be okay. You’ll see,” he says, and the quiet house holds as they turn in slow circles.
• • •
The following day Samuel calls Adie’s house thirteen times. He leaves eight messages. The first few are casual, easy. By the last he is crying, begging Adie to pick up the phone. When her mother finally answers, she tells him her daughter needs time to think things through. Before hanging up she says, “Trust me, Samuel. Kids have no business having kids.”
Samuel holds the phone to his ear till the dial tone goes busy. From his bedroom window he sees his father shoveling the drive, a lit cigarette pressed between his lips. He can hear the sound of the shovel scraping against concrete as his father fills it with snow and tosses it to the side, breathless, tired. He flicks the cigarette and looks up at the house, one hand lifted to block the glare.
Samuel picks through a pile of clean clothes lying on his bed and dresses in layers. He pulls his snow boots over thick wool socks and zips his parka.
“Want help?” he calls from the side door.
“Sure. How about clearing the walkway.”
Samuel gets a shovel from the garage and squints as he steps out into the white light. The walkway is buried in two feet of snow. He works slowly at first and then falls into a rhythm. He repeats each movement in words—scoop and toss, scoop and toss—so as to forget. His father calls out, “Keep it up. We’re close to done.”
They finish and Samuel scatters salt along the drive and walkway. His father sits on the steps and lights up. Samuel sits down next to him, watching as he inhales and turns his face to the sky, eyes closed. A few seconds pass before heexhales and looks at Samuel, eyes narrowed. Samuel wonders if he can see how things are with him and he wants to tell him about the dream, about Adie. But when he opens his mouth he laughs because he is afraid.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Samuel says trying to keep from laughing.
His father smiles and then laughs with his son, and for a moment Samuel feels light, easy.
When the laughter dies, his father takes another drag off his cigarette. After a while he asks, “So are you going tell me what’s so funny?”
Samuel looks down the street. The entire block is white, clean. The powdery snow glares like broken glass, touching everything as if all of the rooftops and trees and lawns were made of light, as if there were no such thing as darkness.
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July 01, 2009
17 Min read time