"Mailman" originally appeared in Bound Off, which presents readings of short fiction. This link will take you to their archive site, where you can listen to me read the story. Warning--pathos ahead.
"Precious Metal Detector" originally appeared in Bartleby Snopes.
Come Saturday, I don’t expect a brown on brown, Rustoleum special van parked at the school yard. Beyond the playground fence, he walks in green work pants and a dark blue tee-shirt, metal detector in his hands, headphones clamped over his baby blue bucket hat. He edges between the see-saws, past the swings, and stops at the monkey bars.
I practically have to stick my fingers through his glasses to get his attention. “Hi,” he says. “How are ya?” He speaks like he could be retired or retarded. Both? He’s got twenty years on me, but he deserves no respect.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Coin shooting,” he says. “This nice little Bounty Hunter Tracker lets me swing all day without aching my arms to death.” He holds up his metal detector and grins, like I might want to buy one for myself. Fool.
“So stealing kids’ lunch money makes you a bounty hunter?”
“Oh, I pick up some clad,” he says, “but that ain’t what I’m after.” He slips the headphones down to his neck to talk. I want to choke him with them.
“What do you mean ‘clad’?”
He holds out a hand full of dirty dimes and quarters. “Clad coins, modern ones with no precious metal, but I’m searching for valuables. I’ve found Indian heads, large cents, a silver bracelet, two class rings, a wedding band. That’s when the fun begins, looking ‘em up in the old yearbooks, town records, so I can return ‘em. The old coins I donate to the museum.”
“You find any treasure today?” I ask him.
“Mostly pull tabs,” he says. “They give off the same tone as gold. You have to dig the pull tabs if you’re going to find the gold. Listen, dig, and sift.” He pulls a plastic kitty litter scoop from his belt and moves it like a magic wand.
“You’re quite the philosopher,” I say. “And the kids’ lost lunch money pays for your fun?”
He looks up as the corners of his thick lips turn down. “Oh, no,” he says. “every Monday I turn all the clad in to the school principal. Then any child that needs it gets some. Ain’t much, a few dollars a week, but you’d be surprised how many need it.”
“That’s good of you.” I offer my hand and give him my name.
“Lenny,” he says. “Johnson.” He waits as I walk back to my car, then he squeezes the headphones over his hat and resumes swinging.
At home I tell my wife about it because I never want her thinking I’m pure cynic. I recognize goodness when I find it, so on Monday I call the school principal and praise Lenny Johnson, finder of lost lunch money.
“I never heard of Lenny Johnson,” she says, “and no one ever turns in any money to us.”
Pull tabs and gold. I don’t bother to call the museum.
"Man With A Comb" originally appeared in Amoskeag
He always carried a comb. Of course back in the old days, when I first met him, we all carried combs. A few years older than we, he set a standard for us. Running a comb above his ears, he’d sweep his dark hair back on each side, then finish with a flip of the long wave over his forehead. His comb held cool in every tooth.
After supper when the small town shops closed for the evening, he draped himself over a parking meter, deliciously disrespectful. When he stood, slipped comb from pocket, and slid it through his hair, we admired his slick grace. He performed this dance as if it were neither act nor art, and we pretended not to know.
Over the years our hair grew wild, then short, wiry, brushed, picked, let alone. We left our combs behind.
Not he. Nor did he change his hair style, frozen as it thinned, turned gray, receded, finally revealing a pool of scalp.
We were sure he was dead, his parking meter held up by his ghost, as empty as the deserted shops, closed now even at noon. We drove down the old street, conjuring combs and grace, and then he emerged from the dark entryway of an old brick building with rooms by the week.
Shorter now, slump shouldered, part lines in his face, his hand shook with timid tremors as the comb made its tired journey. We waved and called his name. He waved back, the comb, as if forgotten, still in his hand.
"What They Did To Her" originally appeared in Word Riot
She refused to tell her husband what they’d done to her, though he asked three times.
First Rob said, “Not telling is worse because imagination creates a forest fire out of a campfire and—”
“It wasn’t a campfire,” she said. She twisted her fingers. “Maybe my imagination is poverty stricken, but I could never think up with what they did, nor could you.”
“I’d never try to diminish—”
“Good,” she said. “You’re a good man, Rob. I know you’d never.”
“Thinking about it makes my hands shake,” he said. “Death for a surgeon.”
She held out her hand, and he thought of a music staff. “Steady,” he said. “Strong phlebotomist fingers.”
“I have to stay steady, otherwise who would trust me to stick them?” Her beautiful voice made him sad.
“Second,” he said six months later, “it’s worse because you won’t trust to tell me.”
“Trust me,” she said.
He pulled her to him. “Hard body,” he said. “Tough body.”
“Why I’m good at what I do. And never sickened by the smell of blood.”
“I envy you that,” he said.
For a year he ignored his curiosity, but it turned scabby, and he had to pick it.
“Third, no matter what you tell me, it can’t be worse than the horrors that play in my mind.”
“And when the horrors turn real—what then, Rob?”
“I’m a doctor. I can only deal with what I know.”
“It will destroy you,” she said.
“You’re afraid it will destroy us.”
“Yes,” she shouted. “Yes, goddamnit, yes. You’ve taken a year to figure that out?”
“I still need to know,” he said.
“More than you need me?”
“I love you.”
“Look, your hands are steady.”
“I’m forty years old. My hand is supposed to be steady. Now, tell me.”
So she told him. And he discovered she had been right all along, about everything.
"Throwing Merton in the Woods" originally appeared in 971 Menu
Susie threw Merton into the back woods. Last week Susie’s daughter Mary asked her to set aside a right away to Merton’s oak if Susie sold the property. We knew Susie was going to sell it because she didn’t keep it secret. Susie brags she’s got no time for secrets. Course with Merton gone, she can’t maintain the property, not by herself.
All the time Merton lived with her, Susie never claimed him for a husband or lied about him being just a companion, like some will say. She called him a souse and said she’d outlive him because liquor was licking his liver. Never made her too proud to take advantage of poor Merton, though, have him drive her from one end of the state to the other looking for those fancy little dogs she likes. Or make him paint every ceiling in the downstairs, even though it was never going to be Merton’s name on the deed. Only favor she ever did for Merton was at the end when she set him by that oak he liked to look at.
Daughter Mary was putting flowers by the oak right over Merton couple times a week. She says, souse or not, he treated her better than her own father. I go for a plant myself. Dig it in in May and tend it until frost. Didn’t I tend to Merton through his last sickness? Listened to Susie all the time on him to get behind the wheel and drive to some kennel clear over in Vermont when he couldn’t even put on his slippers. “Least you’re sober,” Susi told him, “but that won’t save you.”
Daughter Mary tried to sneak him some whisky, but Susie wouldn’t have it. “I’ve got him where I want him,” she said.
I gave him a taste now and then, a little whisky with his medicine. Susie never suspected because she thinks I’m just a sober version of Merton. She treats those fancy dogs better than she treated Merton. After Daughter Mary asked about the right away, Susie dug him up and threw him in the woods. Said, “I’m not having people traipsing through the backyard at all hours to stick flowers on Merton. I don’t know if he even liked flowers. I never heard him say he did.”
Course he liked flowers, everybody does, but that’s Susie’s way of talking like she’s straight and keeping secrets at the same time. She didn’t even rebury Merton. Just spread him out there like old manure in the lady’s slippers and fiddlehead ferns and jack in the pulpits. I guess God’ll have to tend him now.
But she’ll find out I’m a different customer than Merton. And it ain’t just because I’m female. I don’t pull into no take-out when I’m driving her from breeder to breeder. I pull into a place will make Susie yank out the plastic to pay. And I got her where she’ll keep the place ‘till it’s my name on the deed.
Until Today (originally appeared in Night Train)
My old man taught me when you give something up, give it up. I always thought that about myself. Until today. Me and Ritchie are outside on break talking, like we do, How are the Sox going to do this year. Why ain’t there nothing on TV no more. If you had to pick your last meal—well, that was an ironic one. He’s smoking, smoking for both of us, really, because I give it up over a year ago. You’d think it’d bother me to sit with Richie puffing away, blowing smoke out the side of his mouth, and him smoking the same brand I used to, but once I gave it up, I gave it up. I’m like that. Until today.
When me and Lisa split, I walked in the house after my shift, and she goes, “I’m thinking we need to talk about where this marriage is going.” And I go, “No, we don’t. We need to talk about who gets the house—you or me.” And that was the end of it. I got the house because it turned out she didn’t want nothing reminded her of me. That’s the way she put it. Course she could have just been covering up her feelings. That’s what Richie said.
Lisa moved over to Northfield and hooked up with a guy there has a little flooring business. She does books for him. “More suited,” she says to me when I run into her at the grocery yesterday. I hadn’t seen her in a year. No, two years ago, because I was still driving that Chevy half-ton. I didn’t know if she meant the guy or the job suited her better.
I told her I sold my truck because it didn’t suit me anymore. Just like that, she walked away. I guess she thought I was putting her down.
“No,” Richie goes. “She was still covering up her feelings.”
Richie, he’s always saying that, and sometimes I argue with him, but it won’t be today, because right after he says she was still covering up, the supervisor comes out and tells me about Lisa’s accident, and that she didn’t make it. Richie goes, “Jesus.” Me, I don’t say nothing, just reach over and suck a big drag off Richie’s cigarette. But I think maybe my old man was full of shit, and definitely I’ve got to get out of here.
Before moving my mother to the nursing home, I sorted the personal stuff with her. I did it without my brothers because I knew they wouldn’t want anything. When we were nearly finished, Ma pointed to the wooden jewelry box with the cameo carved on the lid. I swallowed, thinking she wanted to pick out the jewelry to wear in her coffin. (Only daughter always brought these duties to me.) She lifted the tray to reveal not pearls and gold but a packet of cards, tied with common string. For a moment I thought they were my letters, sent over the years from a thousand miles away. Then I saw they bore no stamp.
Her speaking fractured and faded, Ma wiggled her fingers, catching light on nails I’d polished. The paper was dry, like her skin if I forgot to grease her up. I worried the knot, old and tight, until Ma’s clipping fingers showed me to cut the string. Not bothering with scissors, I bit through the knot and caught the cards as they cascaded into my lap.
Ma poked me to hurry. Anniversary cards, the kind you buy at the drugstore, but not the big ones, not the ones with ribbons or embossed flowers she might like. I opened the first, started to read the verse, then went straight to the signature.
No “love,” no “Ron,” which she usually called him, or “Appy,” which she’d say in a tender moment or from the kitchen floor so he wouldn’t kick her again.
“Ronald?” I said. “Appleton?”
She allowed tears to come down. I’d put her teeth in, so her mouth looked full.
On the envelope’s upper right, in faded pencil, she’d written 10th. I read the 20th, 25th, 30th, 40th, 50th, all signed Ronald Appleton. When I finished, she’d stopped crying.
He’d died after the 50th, seventeen years ago.
Ma’s hand on my wrist, still strong, her voice harsh, mean, “Don’t show boys.”
I, the girl, was to keep her hurt.
Mean myself, I showed the cards to my brothers as soon as they arrived, but in the kitchen where Ma couldn’t hear.
A native of Northern New England, Merle Drown is the author of Lighting the World, Plowing Up a Snake, and The Suburbs of Heaven. _