Literary Upstart Winner: Penny

07/21/2010 5:00 AM |

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?”

“Sort of.”

“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.

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