What follows is my first published story. At the time when it got published (eleven years ago by a small e-zine that paid zero money) I was headed back to work after quitting and trying to be a novelist in Chicago. I’d pretty much given up on writing, so it was a nice shot in the arm to have someone like my work well enough to publish it. Looking back, it seems like that little bit of confidence was enough to inspire me to try again. Glad I did.
In any case, this is Frank’s Boat:
The two girls must have come from the woods. I never saw or heard them until they were right next to me, standing underneath the yellow Road Ends sign staked in the grass at the dead-end. I was kneeling by the ditch, shoeless and shirtless, when I saw them. I wanted to run home and get dressed, but I didn’t because I knew they’d be gone when I got back.
I pulled my hands from the flowing water and stood. I had a boat–a newspaper section that I folded up and waxed–in one hand and a GI Joe in the other. GI Joe had been about to take a newspaper-boat ride in the ditch, but here were these girls. And here I was, a chubby kid playing with a doll.
They were wrinkle-nosed and pale, freckle-faced girls. Flowery shirts and jean shorts. I felt like I’d seen them before. Maybe an old photograph? One wore pigtails, the other a ponytail. Obviously sisters. They stared at me for a long moment. I squirmed.
“Hi,” Pigtails finally said.
Ponytail smacked her sister’s arm and gave her a don’t-talk-to-him look. Pigtails made a pffft sound and said, “I’m Katie. This is Brenda. What’s your name?”
“My name’s Frank,” I said, careful not to say Franky. I hated it when girls called me that. I stuffed the GI Joe into the back-pocket of my cut-off cords. A week before they’d been full-length corduroys, brand new for school, but Danny Yolan pushed me down at the bus stop. I fell down and the cords ripped at the knees. My mom sighed and cut them into shorts. Now I could wear them anytime.
I stuck out my hand to shake. Brenda rolled her eyes and I noticed they were bloodshot. Katie took my hand and shook it exactly once–up, down, release. Her hand was cold and pruney. It sent a shiver up my forearm; it got itchy and I had to scratch it.
“Whatcha doin’, Franky?” Katie said.
“Nothin’,” I said. And don’t call me Franky, I almost said. My scratching hand moved up to my elbow, crossing my arm over my gut to cover my chubbiness. My foot rolled nervously around. I was ten years old and ashamed of being fat. It was all the spaghetti sandwiches. “No girls are attracted to a fat kid,” my dad would say on spaghetti night, smacking my hand away from the garlic bread.
“You weren’t gonna float that boat?”
“Nah.” I put the boat behind my back. “I just found it laying here. I was gonna burn it.” It was the coolest thing I could come up with.
“That’s too bad,” she said. “We could have raced.” She pulled out a pinewood derby car with the lead weight taken out and the tires removed. It was all black with a red number four on each side. My car. I thought I’d lost it.
Two days before, the car had taken last place in the Annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Yesterday I stripped it and floated it down the ditch. It had stormed the day of the derby, so yesterday the ditch water was deep and moving fast. Lots of crayfish and minnows. The car had really cooked. I couldn’t catch up to it. It slid through a gap in the mesh cages over the mouths of the big culverts under Orchard Lake Road. I could have crossed the road to catch the car on the other side, but crossing Orchard Lake was forbidden. Mom said that years ago some kids were killed crossing the road. “Mowed down by some maniac,” she said, and then stood there shaking her head with her arms folded.
“Where did you get that?” I asked Katie.
She just wiggled her nose and winked at me. I noticed her eyelid was bruised. She dropped to her knees and held the car in the gurgling water. “You gonna race me or not?”
I looked down at her feet. Weird; one of her shoes was missing. Her bare foot was tinted blue and black, and calloused like it hadn’t been in a shoe in years. It looked cold, like a detached body part in a Saturday Afternoon Thriller.
I looked at Brenda’s feet. Both were shoeless. I looked up. She was shaking her head, disapproving of her sister. When she moved her head it sort of dropped to one side, like there was something unhinged in her neck.
The newspaper-boat would be no match for the derby car. The race would be a joke.
“Let’s do something better,” I said. “There’s a stash of old orange juice cans in the woods back there.” I pointed to the woods past the field at the end of my road. A week before I’d discovered an abandoned trailer out there, right at the edge of McPherson’s swamp. It was filled with stacks of old newspapers and a crate of orange juice cans with sticky tabs that you peeled off. The tabs snapped when you got to the end; it was hard not to spill the juice. I declared the trailer to be my new fort and I’d left some of my stuff underneath it, including the sweatshirt my mom made me take with me. If I could get the girls to the trailer I could put the sweatshirt on and cover up.
Brenda turned her head to follow my finger. I heard cra-cra-crack as her neck moved. Katie stood but didn’t look to where I was pointing. She kept her eyes on me. I could see her from the corner of my eye, watching me. I looked down and crossed my arm back over my gut.
“Cans like this one?” She shoved a muddy can of orange juice into my line of vision. It was blue with a white bird on it, identical to those at my fort.
“Where did you get that?”
“From that same trailer. We were over there before we came.”
Brenda turned back from the woods and looked at the can. She made a sucking sound through her teeth. I reached for the can, but she smacked it from her sister’s hand.
“What’d ya do that for?” Katie said. “I wasn’t gonna let him touch it!”
Brenda gave no response. She folded her arms and cocked her little hip.
I bent down to pick up the can, but it wasn’t there. I looked left and right. No can. I came back up. The two girls were locked in a stare-down. Katie had her hands behind her back like she was hiding a candy bar.
The three of us stood in silence for a moment.
“Where’s my car?” I finally said.
“You mean this?” Katie said, thrusting the car at me while holding her sister’s stare.
I reached out for my car but she pulled it back.
“You can’t touch it,” she said.
“Why not?” I said. “It’s mine.”
She was right. By rule it was hers. I was the proud owner of a handle from a broken umbrella I found in the field last summer. It was one of those that had a push-button to eject it and make it longer. The umbrella part was gone, but the handle was good for launching GI Joes and things. Currently it was at my new fort, hidden under my sweatshirt. Should anyone make a claim to my umbrella handle, I was prepared to use Finders-Keepers.
“Are we gonna float boats or not?” Katie said, turning to me. Brenda smirked, happy to have won their stare-down.
“Okay,” I said, and knelt down to the ditch, fully aware that my gut looked extra fat when I knelt. Katie knelt down next to me and thrust her hand into the water, holding the derby car in place. I moved closer to her and set the newspaper-boat in the water beside the derby car.
Our arms touched. I closed my eyes to the sensation. It was the first time I’d ever touched a girl. She moved closer. Her ribs touched my back. I flinched. I opened my eyes to meet hers. She smiled, giggled.
It was the sound of my umbrella handle ejecting. I turned back to see Brenda holding it up like a starter’s pistol.
“Go!” Katie said. She dropped the derby car. It sped away so fast I never saw it. She was up and running down the dirt road.
I released the newspaper-boat and chased her. My bare feet stung as they pounded the rocks. The county maintenance trucks had graded the road that morning. It felt like I was running on spikes. Katie seemed unaffected. She was way ahead of me already. It looked like the back of her head was covered in maggots. The current was fast, too, but it had slowed since yesterday and I was able to keep up with my boat despite the pain in my feet.
“You’re going too fast!” I called ahead to Katie, assuming she was way in front of the derby car. I looked back to see if Brenda had kept up with us. She had. Her head bobbled to the side as she chased. She’d pushed the umbrella handle back into itself and was holding it out like a switchblade.
I checked the boats. The derby car was gone. It must have been really cooking. It would surely win the race, just as I thought. The newspaper-boat struggled along, bouncing and spinning off the ditch banks. “C’mon,” I yelled at it. Then I saw their faces in the folds of the paper. Black-and-white photos along the top triangle of the boat. One wore pigtails, the other a ponytail. Grade school picture day.
The boat spun in the current and the faces were gone. I looked up. Katie was no longer running, but waiting for me just past the driveway to my house, hands on her hips, smiling wide. A bunch of her teeth were gone.
Brenda gained on me. How could the rocks not hurt her feet?
I looked back to my boat, it had spun again and the faces were back, smiling at the little birdie. The boat bounced off a rock and twisted back around. The headline above the two girls had been folded over to the other side. Only part of it was there. I read it. Two Sisters Killed in Tragic-
A dot of cold metal stung my back.
“Gotcha!” Brenda said.
I turned and leapt over the ditch. My feet sunk into the mud on the other side. I jumped forward and popped my feet loose with a slurping sound. I somersaulted. Up and running again. My front yard. The grass was cool on my feet. No more sharp rocks. My mom was standing behind the screen door. She looked at me the way she looks at the dog when he runs around like crazy, muttering that he must be insane or just plain stupid.
I turned and ran across Mr. King’s yard, where I caught a glimpse of Katie. She hadn’t moved. She was just watching me and smiling with her toothless mouth. Brenda slammed into her and pushed her along.
They both chased me now.
After Mr. King’s yard there was the Burrell’s. They never did yard work. Sticks cracked under my feet as I ran past their huge willow. Dad said he hoped it would get struck by lightning someday. He said that everyone hated the Burrell’s.
I looked back. Brenda had crossed the ditch and was running behind me in the yards, getting closer. I could feel my fat jiggling as I ran. I hated it. “Look at your bitch-tits,” my dad would say.
I was starting to lose my breath.
There were only two more yards before Orchard Lake Road; the Wilson’s and some new people that just moved in a few weeks ago. Katie was parallel with me now, still on the road. She was pointing my umbrella handle at me. Had Brenda given it to her? She didn’t stab it at me like her sister. She looked like maybe she wanted to give it back.
Brenda was behind me.
I crossed from the Wilson’s to the new neighbor’s yard. I could sense Brenda closing in, though I couldn’t hear her footsteps. My thighs ached. My throat burned. A car zipped by on Orchard Lake. I felt its wind.
I wasn’t going to stop. I was stupid and fat and I was going to cross Orchard Lake Road. On the other side I could float boats and eat spaghetti sandwiches and drink orange juice all day.
I looked for Katie. She’d passed me and was now kneeling in the middle of Orchard Lake Road. It looked like she was picking up a penny. Brenda’s cold hand touched my shoulder. I tried to pull away but she kicked my leg. I tripped and slammed down on the gravel shoulder of Orchard Lake Road. I could smell hot asphalt.
“No!” Brenda said.
I lifted my head and watched her run across the shoulder. She crossed the yellow line and caught up to her sister, knelt down with her. They both turned in time to see the truck. Their eyes went as wide as can lids. The vehicle never slowed. Its wind was cold against my sweaty body. The girls screamed, and then they were silent.
The truck passed and they were gone.
I sat up. There were rocks and pebbles stuck to me. I brushed them off. They left red dents on my skin where they’d been stuck. I rubbed my face and my hand came away bloody. I got up. I could see something on top of one of the culverts. Something small and black. It was my pinewood derby car. I picked it up.
I’d made the car myself. It took last place. Danny Yolan told me it was sucky before he pushed me down at the bus stop. It was sucky. The worst derby car ever made. But it wasn’t a derby car anymore; it was a boat.