From January to Memorial Day, our sixth annual Search for Pocket Fiction received over 350 submissions of previously unpublished short stories from writers toiling across the five boroughs and beyond. Fifteen of them were invited to read across three raucous spring nights at the Slipper Room and Spike Hill, and the semifinal winners—as declared by our panel of discerning, frequently sober literati, headed by Distinguished Spokesjudge Ben Greenman—faced off earlier this month. Here is the winner; you can read the other finalists at the links below.
My marriage was ending. This was at the end of 2001. My wife Penny and I had moved out to the suburbs in order to have children two years prior, but it wasn't working. Next door a family of Mormons with five Biblically-named children of varying sizes seemed to mock our best and frequent efforts. But now we had stopped trying altogether.
Sex, as a rule, had become mechanical, regulated, bad. Thermometers were often involved. Cramp-inducing positions. Manuals.
Then came winter, a long, excruciating downward slide to nothingness, like a frozen hunk of Tofurkey released down a wet windshield only to break into two smaller chunks upon hitting the cold and godless pavement. I knew that Tofurkey. I had just bought it. Once home, I had placed it on the roof of the car while trying to wrest the other grocery bags out of the backseat.
Naturally, my wife, the vegetarian, took the accident as a sign.
"Accident schmaccident. What would Freud say?"
"Freud ate meat."
What are you trying to say? That I should eat turkey for Thanksgiving, like a reasonable person?"
"I drew no correlation."
"You are always doing these veiled, hostile sorts of things."
"What ‘veiled, hostile sorts of things'?"
"Oh, please. You're always saying stuff like, ‘I have a bone to pick with you,' or ‘So-and-so's accent is thicker than a summer sausage' or ‘he walked into the lion's den wearing a porkchop suit.'"
"You have completely lost it."
"Those are expressions. They're sayings."
"On the surface. But did you ever think that you say those things because I'm a vegetarian and you resent the fact that I'm a vegetarian?"
"I could give a shit that you're a vegetarian!"
She gasped, then looked away for a moment, lip quivering. I immediately regretted the harshness of my words.
"I want a divorce," she said.
I didn't say anything. She went into the house.
A week later, I got laid off from my job.
At home, I lay on the living room floor for hours, my arms crossed over me like a mummy, or, varying the catatonia a little, stood against the wall and stared at the opposing wall. I fished my childhood security blanket out of deep storage and masturbated into it.
My wife no longer touched me.
On Sunday, I had brunch with my friend Jean-Baptiste Zazou, transplant from Paris, architect, amateur rower, and international womanizer. He tried to bolster my spirits by reminding me of the promises of bachelorhood, which were, in no particular order, travel, anonymous sex, team sports, and gadgetry.
It was not helping. Nor was November, with its spitting icy rain and gunmetal skies. I switched the subject.
"Rowing today?" I asked. He was in his pristine gray and white athletic gear with many zippers.
"Rainy day for rowing."
He nodded. "It will be hard to hold the whores," he said. His accent was thicker than a summer sausage.
I paused for a second. "Nothing worse than a slippery hooker."
"You mean ‘oars,' Baptiste."
"That's what I said."
"No, you said ‘whores.'"
He sipped his black coffee and snickered. "Ah. The ‘h.' Oars. Maybe I should say ‘it will be hard to hold the wood'?"
"Maybe not, Baptiste."
"It is also dirty?"
"Like a minivan skidding down a muddy field."
One night I woke from fitful dreams to the sound of mysterious groans and deep exhalations. The room was shaking. My God, an earthquake, I thought. And in New Jersey! I turned over to alert my wife.
But she wasn't there.
It was dark.
Then I saw her at the foot of the bed, rubbing herself against one of the posters of our four-posts bed.
She looked happy.
Soon thereafter, Penny installed herself in the guest bedroom. At least I got the room with the TV.
"Now you can sleep with that disgusting baby blanket, just the two of you."
"It's not disgusting. I wash it."
She gave me a pointed look.
"You're a grown man."
"People who hump the bedpost should not throw stones."
How much longer could we go on this way? What was going to happen to us? What was going to happen to me?
Travel, anonymous sex, team sports, gadgetry.
From outside came high-pitched, feral squealing. I looked out the window. The Mormon children were chasing each other with sticks.
After days of grim and frosty silence, Penny announced that she didn't feel much like celebrating Thanksgiving this year. I figured I was still being held responsible for the doomed and unceremonious fate that gravity, a hunk of imitation meat, and a wintry windshield taken together are bound to meet. So I drove by myself across state lines to my parents' house. They had just returned from a trip to New England. My mother presented me with a large glass bottle shaped like a maple leaf. It was filled with syrup.
"Sweet," I said.
I didn't tell them that my life was falling apart like a thirty-something's already-fraying baby blanket washed on the permanent press setting. I told them Penny had bird flu.
It was rare to see them so happy. All my life, they had been card-carrying bickerers, malcontents, underminers. Now they had the non-comedogenic balm of life spread over their faces, what the French call joie de vivre. Baptiste had it. Babies had it. My wife after she removed herself from the bedpost had it. And now they had it. Seeing them glow was like standing in the presence of pregnant ladies, astronauts, or the recently forgiven. Nature works, I told myself. Just as the Romantics in their lush bosoms of greenery and sentimental mist would have us believe. Was that the answer for Penny and me? A week-long vacation in Brattleboro, Vermont? Hiking in Acadia, Maine?
"Show him the eagle," my dad said from the kitchen sink. He was voluntarily, happily washing dishes.
"The pictures!" My mom knelt in front of their new flat-screen TV and popped a disc into the DVD player. A slideshow began. She clicked quickly through images of leaf-carpeted paths and picturesque barns, then stopped on a picture of a large oak tree.
"See that?" She pointed to a gray and jagged branch of the tree that stood nearly perpendicular from another branch.
"It looks like an eagle, right?"
"Like an eagle perched on the tree?"
"Okay, yes. Like an eagle perched on the tree."
"It's a branch!" she said triumphantly.
From the kitchen, my father's voice echoed, "It's a branch!"
That night, I slept in my old twin bed in my old bedroom, its faded red and blue truck wallpaper now starting to peel at the corners of the walls. When I turned out the lights, I saw my glow-in-the-dark solar system appear above me, the stars and planets and comets still a bright alien yellow-green. At least some things were forever.
In the morning, I heard a familiar voice downstairs. I lay still for a second and listened to be sure. It was Penny. She'd decided to show up after all.
Within the next two hours, relatives large and small trickled into my parents' house, nieces and nephews, my sister and her lesbian lover, their chow-chow. Penny was as cheerful as I'd ever seen her, passing around bean dip, making small talk. She could really turn on the charm when she needed to.
Needless to say, the bean dip got offered to everyone but me.
So I sat in the corner and talked to my sister, who had just finished a popular large-group therapy session with boot-camp-like tactics and cartoonish jargon. Instantly she sensed the tension between Penny and me.
"Can I coach you?" she said.
"That's the term we use."
"Okay, fine. Coach me."
"What's broken here?"
"No, here," she poked me hard in the chest. "You. You are what's broken here."
"Well, Penny too…"
"Right now we're talking about you. Take responsibility. Now what is the one thing you most fear about yourself?"
I paused for a moment.
"That I'm just an ordinary, average guy…?"
"That you're worthless?"
"I didn't say worthless. I said ordinary."
"You don't think you're worthless?"
"I don't think so."
She frowned, disapprovingly. "Are you sure? Most people are afraid they're worthless."
"No. I think my fear is of being ordinary."
"Okay, fine. Ordinary. So what's wrong with being ordinary?"
I thought for a long time. She was staring at me—wide-eyed, evangelical.
She exhaled with deep satisfaction and hugged me hard.
"What I hear you saying is that you think you're worthless. I'm so proud of you." Then she got up, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye, and took my hand in hers.
"Wait. What are we doing?"
"There's someone I want to introduce you to." And then she began walking me across the living room, toward my broken and beautiful wife.