Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Ellen Skirvin

Having a Nice Summer

I found one of my father's fishing flies in my sneaker. It was the size of a grain of rice, a metal bead for the head, blue threaded body, and a shock of yellow on its back. I pricked the hook into my palm. It didn't hurt, which disappointed me. I wasn't sure why. I snuck into my room and placed the fly on my dresser with the others I'd found around the house in drain stoppers or between couch cushions. Daylight yawned into evening and the salty smells from dinner dissipated in our house. I heard Mom downstairs open the freezer and claw for ice. I studied the shiny, delicate flies and placed them in careful rows like excavated teeth.

"Better not be in your room, Robby," Mom called.

"I'm not," I hollered.

I wasn't allowed to go in my room except to sleep, so I wouldn't disturb the house wrens that built a nest in a wreath my mom mounted outside my bedroom window. She made the wreath from fallen sticks and dried mums she plucked from our neighbor's garden. The birds appreciated it more than any patrons at local craft fairs. Twenty unsold wreaths were mounted all over our house or stacked in our living room, along with other abandoned crafts of my mom's.

"What'd your counselor say?" Mom called, more exhausted this time.

My high school counselor told Mom to pay close attention to my progress. This meant I had to sit with her in the kitchen while I pretended to finish my summer school homework. But she just ended up talking to me the whole time, while I drew cartoon owls.

I ran downstairs and joined her in the kitchen, which was much more organized since her boyfriend Phil moved in last month. He cleaned the counter tops and stacked our important envelopes in a pile. He tacked a calendar to the wall that marked appointment times and neighborhood barbeques punctuated with plenty of exclamation points. He crossed out the day every evening.

Mom refilled her drink, the neck of the whiskey bottle hitting her glass hard. She wore a large t-shirt and Phil's running shorts, a tight fit on her. Phil was currently on his evening run. He ran shirtless along the creek behind our house once at dawn and once at dusk. His father and grandfather both died of heart attacks. He said he wanted to outrun his.

While I doodled in my notebook, Mom flipped through cookbooks she'd gotten at the library and ripped out whole pages. She said if you tore close enough to the spine then no one would notice, and nobody cared about books anyway, which was a shame, she told me.

"You know Phil's sister might come for Thanksgiving," she said, opening a large book and running her finger down a page.

"Did Phil say that?" I asked.

She shrugged and sipped. "I mean, what would I even make?"

I added large googly eyes to the owl I was sketching.

"Phil said she's a picky eater, but she's probably just got a sophisticated palate." Mom finished her drink, then gnawed on the ice. "I think I'll tell her that."

After I finished drawing a pair of wings on my owl, Mom looked out the kitchen window and closed her books. "I think it's dark enough."

Mom only allowed herself to peek at the birds outside my room once it grew dark.

Mom only allowed herself to peek at the birds outside my room once it grew dark. She let me look too, but warned to keep quiet, so my teenage-boy voice wouldn't spook the poor things. In my room, huddled together in the dark, Mom and I peered down at the creatures. Our eyes adjusted to the dark, and we spied the wiry nest sitting on the inside of her wreath, pressed against the windowpane. Shards of caramel-blotched eggshell littered the nest and three wet baby wrens slept, their bulbous purple eyes latched shut. Bird poop seeped and bubbled from their nest and dried in white smears against the window pane.

"Angels," Mom said, her eyes floating over them. "Just angels, don't you think?"

Mom thought the birds didn't know about us, but I wasn't so sure. Out of all the quiet corners in Masontown, it seemed the birds deliberately chose to squat at my window. And I hated them for it.

The next morning, I woke to the chattering of baby birds, desperate and hungry. I packed my books for school in the kitchen, when Phil came back from his morning run, shirtless and sweaty. He nodded at me, as I waited for my toast to pop. Phil was short with curly hair and had a shockingly hairy chest. He opened and closed our kitchen cabinets, his breath shaky. Tinny music escaped the headphones wrapped around his neck.

"Top left," I said.

"Right," he said. "I mean, you're right. I mean, correct. It's left." He filled a glass that Mom or I hadn't used in years. It had a silhouette of a fisherman printed on it. Phil gulped the water hungrily, his Adam's apple bobbing. He filled the glass again and took a sip, then poured the rest out. Flecks of dirt peppered his calves and sweat collected in his hair. It broke in streams down his torso and face.

"Something burning?" he said.

The toast popped. It was black and smoking. "I like things burnt," I said.

"Your mom burn a lot of meals?" he asked, smiling and filling his glass again.

"What do you mean?"

He shook his head. "Never mind."

Mom entered the kitchen rubbing her eyes like a child. Her hair mostly clipped back, except for a few sweaty curls that stuck to her neck. The older I grew, the younger my mom looked to me. Phil handed her the glass of water. She sipped, then looked at the fisherman glass. "Where'd you find this?" she said.

I was taking summer class since I failed most of my freshman courses. I didn't think of myself as someone who needed summer school. I smiled at my teachers and my fingernails were clean. But there I was, sitting glass-eyed amongst the other failures, who were often sweaty and stoned. Sometimes I found it difficult to listen. I would stare at my teacher's lips and think about how weird lips were until everyone was writing in their notebooks. Then I stared at my blank page wondering why the lines in it were blue until the bell rang.   

A few months ago, at the end of my freshman year, I took a test to see if I needed special-ed classes. I thought I did pretty well. But after finishing, I saw my mom crying in the hallway and my guidance counselor rubbed her back, and said, "We all want what's best."

The counselor said the results came back inconclusive, which made me feel like I failed upside-down and backwards. I think she just felt bad for my mom and didn't want to break bad news. She decided we'd know better about what's best after I finished summer school.

Our school was under renovation during summer. A constant drill and periodic bang echoed throughout the building. As I walked through the halls, I passed clouds of dust and muscled men in overalls. Inside the classroom it sounded like we were weathering the apocalypse. Mr. Grout sat at the front of the class, feet propped up. A battery-powered fan clipped to his desk. His heart-shaped face was red and freckled.

There were eight kids in our class. Most looked like grown men to me, especially Tyler who had bloody acne and struggled to fit his knees under his desk. On the first day of summer school, he asked if I loved my mother, I said yes, and he called me Penis ever since.

"Penis," Tyler said when I walked in the room. I sat alone with my head down.

Mr. Grout talked about his life for most of class, telling the same stories over and over. No one corrected him, but I was afraid there was something wrong with him. His eyes looked in different directions, and I wondered if that had something to do with his habit of repeating everything. Today he laced his fingers over his stomach and launched into one of his favorites. "My wife and I have this game where I pretend to punch her in the nose. You know, like a joke." He straightened, and his metal chair groaned, the legs bending. "But this one time my depth perception was off for some reason. She says something stupid and Pow! I punch my wife right in the face."

Two boys in the class stood up and cheered. "I mean right in the face," Mr. Grout repeated, his shoulders lifted in a shrug. "My own wife. Can you believe it?"

As we finished our worksheets for the day, it was hard to tell if Mr. Grout was sleeping. I drew bubbles over my owls that said who, who, who? A boy who had a tattoo of our zip code across his forearm stuck his tongue out at me, placed a square bit of paper on it, then smiled.

After class, I went to cross-country tryouts. I didn't tell anyone I was doing this. And by anyone, I mean Mom and Phil. I didn't want them to get the wrong idea, like I idolized Phil or something. It was the first day of tryouts since regular classes started in two weeks.

Tryouts were held at the community college track about a mile away from the high school. We didn't have our own track since the school voted to spend last year's donation on the football field. I ran like hell to make it to tryouts with my book bag bouncing every which way. I ran past the football field where faceless helmets ran in place and coaches yelled insults at them. The new scoreboard loomed over the field, blocking out the afternoon sun.

"Run, Penis, run!" I heard from the field, as I cut through the woods.

When I reached the community college campus, there were about ten kids already stretching on the grass in the middle of the track. Rows of metal bleachers lined one side of the track, where a bald man ran up and down the concrete steps. I threw my backpack under a bench and jogged toward the field, joining the circle.

The coach was the tallest person I'd ever seen. "Where are your shoes?" she asked me.

"What do you mean?"

"It's okay," she said. "Just bring running shoes next time."

I looked at my shoes and wondered what she meant. "Okay," I said.

While stretching, I looked at everyone else's shoes. I pressed my lips together and held my breath.

"Let's start with grapevines," the coach said.

We completed several drills with names like suicides and fartleks, and everyone knew what to do. I stumbled over my feet and people waited with their hands on their hips while I came in last for every exercise. The sun winked against the bleachers, blinding me and giving me a headache deep behind my eyes. I held my breath when we took breaks to make it seem like running was no big deal to me.

Near the end of tryouts, the coach said we had to run the Mill trail that cut through the woods surrounding campus, then turn around when we reached a wooden foot bridge. We broke into the woods at once like spooked deer. Boys pushed each other and fell over and popped back up and ran like it was nothing. Clouds of pollen lingered in the air, set loose from the bulldozing in the surrounding forest. The brush had been cleared and large oaks had pink spray-painted markings on their trunks.

A boy who had red hair and lanky limbs ran past me in the woods. When he reached a few yards ahead of me, he pulled down his gym shorts, exposing his pale butt. Then he turned around and gave me the finger.

I waved to him and gulped for air.

He smiled, pulling up his shorts. "Don't be so nice. Just tell me to fuck off."

"Okay," I said.

He laughed. "You're all right."

A thin girl who wore a floral headband was running the opposite direction. She ran the fastest out of anyone and smiled at the boy who mooned me.

"There's like a homeless guy down there," she said.

"No," he said.

"I'm serious." She fixed her headband as she jogged past.

"What's he doing?"

"What do you think?" she said then disappeared on the trail behind us.

The boy and I crested a hill. He barreled down toward the creek, taking large assured strides, and I tried to keep up, while loose dirt crumbled beneath my feet. I looked ahead beside the wooden footbridge, rebuilt last year after the creek swelled to triple its size. A man stood ankle deep, a fly-fishing rod in hand. Fresh, crisp clothes hung over the railing of the bridge and muddy boots stood on the bank. The man was shirtless in boxers, my mother's name tattooed on his bicep.

The boy with the pale butt touched the footbridge then turned around, smiling and winking at me. He knocked my shoulder and said, "Guy's wasted." I jogged slowly until the boy disappeared up the hill.

"Dad," I said.

Dad turned around, looking more scared than ever, and lowered his rod. His face melted into a smile, then scared again. He looked larger than I remembered, like he'd been filled with too much air, and his tattoos stretched strangely across his skin. I told him I was there for a school thing and wasn't following him and, no, Mom wasn't with me. I asked what he was doing there.

Dad turned around, looking more scared than ever, and lowered his rod. His face melted into a smile, then scared again.

Two beers sat in the creek, lodged between stones and I remembered how he used to keep sodas cold for me like that when we went fishing. I was more interested in lifting rocks, so he stopped taking me. He thought I didn't like it, but that was years ago.

My dad lifted his rod. "Enjoying the day. Give me a second."

"That's all right," I said.

He looked down at his nearly-naked self. "Didn't want to ruin my clothes."

"Right," I said and looked at my sneakers.

"We can get dinner after your school thing," he said.

"It's fine."

"I'm packing up." He finished the beer in his hand and crushed the can. I hadn't seen my dad since last month when he drove onto our front lawn, smashing my mom's garden, and yelled for Phil to come outside and be a man. He shaved his head since then and it was lumpy.

"I'll wait for you in the lot," I said and touched the foot bridge, then ran back up the trail.

When I returned to the track, the other kids were telling our coach about the naked tattooed drunk man in the river. They never mentioned the fishing rod. The coach pushed her bangs back and said we'd skip the trail run tomorrow.

When the other kids piled into cars together, our coach asked if I needed a ride. I said I was waiting for someone. She nodded. "Do you really want to do this?"

"I think so," I said.

She smiled without teeth as if waiting for a punchline. "Everyone makes the team. Just try to have fun."

I found my dad's truck in the campus parking lot. The crack in his windshield had grown a new limb since last I'd seen it. It wasn't long until Dad breached the woods, wearing the clothes he had hanging on the bridge. I'd never seen him so clean. He packed away his fishing rod and leftover beers. His movements were deliberate and steady, and I wondered if the boy with the pale butt knew what wasted meant.

"College cafeteria isn't horrible," he said.

When we walked into the concrete school building at the community college, my dad paused with his hands on his hips and looked at the beige walls. "I take a class down the hall. Teacher's all right actually."

"You wanna show me?" I said.

He studied my face and pulled at his beard. "No, that's all right."

The cafeteria smelled like microwaved chicken stock and washcloths. We grabbed trays and passed a variety of fast food options with bug-eyed cashiers under cursive neon signs. My dad stopped at one place called Scitino's and asked if I wanted a cheesesteak or pizza, and I shrugged. The woman behind the counter wore a visor, a thick layer of make-up, and a sour smile. "Dis your boy?" she asked.

"Little man," he said.

"Oh." She smiled tighter.

Dad ordered a pizza, foot-long cheese steak, and fries.

"Hungry boys," she said, pulling on plastic gloves.

Dad doused our fries in vinegar then paused. "You like vinegar?" I nodded.

We pulled over an extra table to fit all our food. A girl I recognized from school sat at an empty booth and rolled silverware into paper napkins. She had written in my yearbook that science class sucked, but I made an okay lab partner. Everyone else wrote have a nice summer. She had hair like a boy's and freckles. Dad cut our cheese steak with a plastic knife and when it broke he said, "Shit, can we get a knife?"

The girl from the booth walked over and gave us a butter knife. I told her thanks, but she didn't seem to know me.

"I saw Phil running," Dad said. "Thought he was running from me, but he was just running."

I gripped my cheesesteak and set it back down. It was too hot.

"Mom said you're not doing well in school," Dad said.

"I don't know."

"Said you failed some kind of test." He took a bite of his steak. "And your teachers say you're, I don't know, spacy." He wiped his hands on his jeans. His knuckles looked swollen.

"I failed the test?"

He folded his pizza and took a bite while talking. "They say you need this counselor and that specialist and whatever."

I picked up my steak and its insides spilled out the other end.

"I know you're having trouble." He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin on the table. "But you're not, you know."

"No, yeah," I said.

"You know I felt stupid my whole life." I thought he'd say more but he just kept eating.

He sighed and looked at his plate. "You know I felt stupid my whole life." I thought he'd say more but he just kept eating.

That evening, my mom heated up a leftover rotisserie chicken for dinner and didn't notice I pushed it around my plate. She hardly ate either and flipped through her cookbooks. Phil was on his run.  

"Phil's sister lived in France for two years," Mom said, scanning recipes, her drink firm in her hand. She wore the same clothes from that morning, and her hair curled at her temples.

I sketched more owls in my notebook.

"France," she said.

Phil burst through the front door and pushed off his shoes. He was less sweaty in the evenings. He paced the kitchen, catching his breath, then opened our cabinets. He put a hand on my mom's shoulder as he drank from the fisherman glass, his bare chest close to her back.

She leaned away from him. "What did your sister do in France?"

Phil rubbed her back. "Gained a ton of weight."

Mom grimaced and refilled her whiskey.

"I don't know." Phil washed his glass, then started on the other dishes in the sink. "She cried a lot. Called me all the time."

Mom sipped, staring intently at the chicken carcass on our counter.

"She was massively depressed then." His eyes turned tired. "And our dad just died."

"Phil," I said louder than I expected. "Can I borrow your running shoes for tomorrow?"

He dried his hands. "Uh, sure, I have an extra pair that—"

"But, what did she do there?" Mom asked.

Phil crossed out the day on the calendar. "I'm gonna watch TV." He placed the rotisserie chicken on a dinner plate, then went to the living room without utensils.

Mom finished her drink and looked out the window. "I think it's dark enough."

That night I woke up to my dad sitting at the bottom of my bed, talking to me and pulling at his beard. I sat up, my eyes still adjusting to the dark. I was trying to understand it all.

"…And I just can't get it out of my head," he said.

I saw the bedroom window open, and the wreath was gone. "The birds," I said.

"But wasn't it nice?" Dad's eyes were desperate and far away and completely wasted.

When Dad used to live with us, he sometimes climbed the trestle on the side of our house and snuck through my window. But he never stopped to talk to me when he did.

"We had all that food together. Normally I wouldn't do that. I've been saving up. Trying to do better." He still wore the same clothes from dinner, but they were wrinkled and damp now. He studied his palms like it was the first time. "And I thought it would be nice and didn't you think it was nice?"

"Sure," I said.

"I just need to know it was nice."

"It was nice."

He stared at his shoes and burped.

My bedroom was an inky blue. I rubbed my eyes and blinked heavily. "I found some of your fishing flies and saved them for you on my dresser."

Dad walked over to my dresser and scooped them into his palm. I imagined them twinkling in his hand but couldn't see them from my bed. He swayed while examining them. "There's nothing wrong with you," he said.

The next morning, I woke to silence and found my dad's fishing flies scattered on the floor in my room. When I walked downstairs, Mom was crying in the kitchen. She found the bird's nest in the yard. The babies' necks were broken. She said it was Phil's fault since he slammed the door when he left last night after I went to bed. On the counter beside our stack of important envelopes, Phil left a note for me. I read it several times, because I couldn't concentrate with Mom carrying on about everything. But he said it was so nice to meet me and nice to live with me and that I would grow up to be a nice young man. And that I was so so so smart with plenty of exclamation points.

Ellen Skirvin is a fiction writer, currently teaching and pursuing her MFA at West Virginia University.