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The Short Form

“Quail Haven, 1989”

Andrew Malan Milward

Full Story

Our father comes home from work, grumbling and flatulent. He steps out of the old Ford and into the house and grunts, brushing past my brother and me as we try to grab hold of his belt loops and pull at the cuffs of his trousers. We follow him around, picking up his tie, abruptly loosed at five o’clock, and gently we lay it at the foot of the bed. And then our mother appears, smoothing the lines of her apron, unaware of that spot of flour that has collected on her cheek, spat from a thunderous rolling pin. She follows a step and half behind him, asking questions, as he paces around the room. Our father pushes her out of the way and sits on the corner of the bed, slouch-backed, because he’s been “answering questions all day and needs to fucking decompress.” He takes off his black nylon socks, balls them up, and throws one at us—“Here, catch, you little monsters”—while the other hits the rim of the hamper and falls to floor, swallowed up by some dark corner of the bedroom. When no one’s looking we can’t help but raise the damp sock to our noses and inhale.

At dinner he jabs at the food on his plate and then stands, grabs a dripping Miller from the fridge, and moves to the window. He looks out at the sky that illuminates the land, his land, all these acres that had been his father’s and grandfather’s before him. “Going out to the barn,” he might say, though sometimes he just breaks wind and leaves. Our mother’s mouth opens, as though she might rejoinder, and then she looks to us, hoping for answers. “Why do you never speak?” My brother looks at me, then we at her, silent. We tine through our food while in our minds we follow our stumbling father out to the barn, and in doing so we begin to understand him.

The barn is where he keeps his secrets, the echoes of long ago that toll endlessly still, the unspeakable and sad: the greening class ring and broken-armed trophies; the lacy underwear of girlfriends gone by that on occasion, when the loneliness is overwhelming, he wraps around his index finger and brushes against his cheek, remembering; the letters his buddies gave him during the war to give to their families just in case—those epistles he could never bring himself to deliver when he returned home from that other world, still reading over his friends’ words, so familiar now, mouthing along. Our father is a stark mosaic of his past: his maimed seven-year-old feet, dappled by a friend’s errant buckshot; the 8-to-5 creases framing his adulterous eyes; the broken-down All-State throwing arm, forever aching; his red, swollen knuckles and Vietnam brain.

We watch the lights of Quail Haven (or others of the like—there are hundreds of them across the Kansas plains falling apart or being torn down, disappearing) turn on from the window above the sink. Our mother scrapes plates and then goes to stand before the washer and dryer, mesmerized by the synergistic pulse. She silently curses the day the state decided not to build a highway through this stretch of land. She holds out a dim hope, like a smoldering ember, that someday she will be allowed to sell this place and move to Kansas City like so many old friends, because “Who the hell lives in the country anymore?”

Of course, we’re not totally imagining him, our father. We know a little. There was that night when, after a small promotion at the office and several slugs of bourbon, he brought us out there with him. And as we reached the entrance of the barn he stopped and held us up to pull the lever that would give us light to see in the dark. Against his chest we could smell the heat on his breath, causing our eyes to water, and then the lights turned on one by one, illuminating a single section of Quail Haven at a time. And at this threshold, our father was unable to say anything—no stories about how our great-granddad built Quail Haven all those years ago, or how he lost his virginity right over there in the hardwood loft, or the boxing matches he used to have here with his brother (the one who died in the war, whom we know only through a single picture, warped as parchment) while their father looked on, grinning, leaning against the splintery siding, thumbs snaked through denim belt loops.

This is where our mother will find him a decade later, on the cusp of the millennium, hanging from a cross beam, slowly turning in the still air, and feel the immense burden fly from her shoulders. But that night, the night he brought us out there with him, was different. When the last light came on inside Quail Haven, the vast silence of it all shot fear through my brother and me, like the time we entered an empty church before our first funeral, causing us to grip him harder, tighter. We stood there, the three of us, unmoving. And that silence seemed to offer two possibilities: one that would finally let us speak, and the other, like a gaping mouth, that would swallow us whole.

Word Count: 894

This story was run as a supplemental reading to Tips for Writing Very Short Fiction.