The Shell

A man brings home a seashell for his son.

“I found it on the beach,” says the man, who has just come back from a business trip in Florida. “Put it to your ear and you can hear the ocean.” The boy takes the shell, which is as wide across as a coffee cup, and puts it to his ear.

“Oh my God, we are getting so burned,” a high-pitched voice says. The boy takes the shell quickly away and examines it.

“Did you hear it?” the man asks. The boy tries it again.

“That’s no kind of moat,” a heavy voice says. “Donovan, look. Look how Daddy made his moat. You have to really dig.”

“See?” the father says, and bends to down to run his hand through the boy’s hair.

In the hour before dinner the boy keeps the shell pressed to his ear.

“I could really go for clams tonight,” a voice says.

“If Kenny calls me tonight, I’m going to totally tell him to go to Hell. Totally.”

“Now those, gentlemen, are some jugs.”

After the boy is tucked in and he hears his parents go downstairs, he turns on his light and retrieves the shell. He hears someone talking about being sick of a song, a woman’s voice wondering if her bathing suit is really chartreuse, and the happy babbling of a baby. Someone says the lifeguard is never paying attention, and that’s why he had to repeat his senior year, and someone else says the ocean looks dirty. “Like muck. Wait, is muck an actual word?”

Then the boys hears his father’s voice in the shell.

“I’m looking for a shell for my kid,” he says. “Or I guess I could buy one in shop.”

“He’s so cute in those picture,” a woman says. “I wish I could just meet him one time.”

“Yeah, well, you know that can’t happen,” his father says. “”That’s nothing but an invitation for trouble. Serious trouble. Hey, there’s a shell. That one is not bad. Baby, look at this one a minute.”

The boy removes the shell and studies the flecks of brown on the outer edge. He examines it from every angle, holding it over his head, then turns off the light.

The next morning, after his mother has left for breakfast and his father is finishing his coffee, the boy pulls the shell out of his pocket.

“We need to go in five minutes,” the father says while attending to his cell phone.

The boy puts the shell squarely on the table, causing a loud whack. The father takes a minute to looks up and sees that his son’s mouth is twisted slightly, his eyes wide, expectant.

“You like that shell, buddy?” his father says. “You like that?”


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I get an invitation in the mail to my high school reunion.  I get my one suit pressed for the occasion. When I arrive at the hotel, an eager woman with frosted hair pins a tag on my lapel that says, “Once a Husky, Always a Husky.” I fill my plate with shrimp and crackers and weave in and out of conversations. After a while it’s pretty clear that no recognizes me, and I don’t recognize anyone, either. I realize that I’ve shown up at the wrong hotel–this is some other high school reunion. But since I’m here I decide to make the most of it. I go up to a guy with patches on his elbows who is gesturing wildly to a couple that that keeps straining to smile.  I cup my hands behind his eyes.

“Guess who,” I say. As if he has been waiting for this all night, he starts rattling off names. He seems to go through the whole graduating class, increasingly baffled but determined. I get bored, though, and cut him off. I tell him who I am.

“Oh right, right,” he says. He turns around and greets me with a vacant stare. “So hey, well, so how have you been?”

I tell him prison was good for me, that I learned some important things in ways that were none too pleasant. I muter something about legal loopholes and tell him he’ll have to read my book to get the whole story. When I’m done he starts to tell me about his twin daughters and the symphony they have written. “See you around,” I say and slap him hard on the back.

After refreshing my glass at the punch bowl, I spot a woman decked out all in gold, with hips that swing like a wrecking ball. I sneak up behind her and pick her off the ground, but I get an awkward grip, and after a few wobbly steps I drop her. An uneasy silence falls between us. “You used to wear a retainer, didn’t you?” I think to say.

When the band takes a breather, I jump on stage and take the microphone. I tell everybody about how great it is to be back, to see old friends. I say I now realize that everything I was taught in my history classes was just a pack of lies, but that this is no occasion to hold a grudge.  “Not counting all the stuff I’ve blocked out,” I say, “those were the best days of my life.” Tepid, scattered applause follows. “Let’s all have a good time,” I say, “and forget, if just for this one night, all the misery we inflicted on each other.” By now the musicians have sauntered back on stage and picked up their instruments. I count off and the band leaps into overdrive. I jump down and grab the first lady that walks by. She is startled, but I move her into a fancy two-step, and after a minute or so she settles in.

“I’ve been wondering whatever happened to you,” she says. She bats her long eye lashes.

“I was never one to hang around,” I say.

“Don’t I remember,” she says.

We dance a little more, then slip outside for some fresh air. There are things she clearly wants to say, but she seems unsure where to start. So she asks me if I remember our old Geometry teacher, the one with the nasalish voice.

“Remember her?” I say. “I’m still trying to forget her.” Just for measure I talk out of my nose, and we both bend over laughing.

We catch our breath, then get comfortable on the hood of a car.

“You were always a loner,” she says, now serious and even. The moon just catches her face.

“And you were always a dreamer,” I say. I reach out for her hand and slide my fingers in between hers.

“Would you have believed it?” she says. “The two of us, back here again like this?”

She is misty eyed. Her lips quiver. We let the rest go unspoken. We lean against the windshield of the car and watch a guy get sick at the other end of the parking lot. A friend of his is with him, trying to help out.

“Oh, man, are you all right buddy?” the friend says.  “Are you going to make it or what?”

After a while the drunk guy staggers back inside, weaving all over the place. The friend tries to steady him.

“Now that’s a page right out of yesterday,” I say.

A light autumn breeze nudges some dogwoods. We turn to each other.

“You and I have a lot of catching up to do,” she says. She reaches over and plants one on me, lingering a while before she pulls back.

“Hey, how about doing that little cheer you used to do?” I say. “You know the one.”

She offers me a mischievous, knowing smile, then looks around to see if anybody is watching. She gets up, takes a few paces back, and tests the loose gravel under her feet. Then, as if a switch had been turned on, she starts to shout “Huskies Huskies High, Huskies Huskies Low!” Her voices gets louder and louder, bouncing off the glass windows around us. She kicks her legs out with a frenzied, almost violent motion, and her arms, sleeved in white satin, twirl through the night air like propellers.

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A man finishes reading a Green Lantern comic book to his son. When the story is over, the father studies the ad for bubble gum on the last page and says, “When I was a kid and read comics, they had all this stuff you could order on the back page. These amazing-sounding gizmos.”

“Like what?” his son asked.

“Oh, ray guns, X-Ray glasses, little eggs that were supposed to produced these space creatures. I used to order that stuff, and I’d just wait and wait for the mail to come.”

“Cool. Did those things really work?”

“Oh, no,” the father said and let out a chuckle. “It was all junk. Worthless stuff. The real fun was the anticipation of it, really.”

His face fell into a dreamy arrangement. 
Later that night, he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a slender velvet case. He removed a pair of dark, plastic glasses with white spirals painted on the front of each lens. Then he reached over and turned the lights off and gently closed the door. He moved to the window and got into a crouching position and eased the blinds up until they were just above his head, then slid the glasses on. He wiggled the bridge over his nose until he had it just right. 
“All right, Mrs. Remington,” he whispered to himself. “What are you up to tonight?”

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A man dreams he is falling down a manhole. He has had this dream once before, but when he wakes up this time it is Stephanie Plunkett that he thinks about. Stephanie went to his high school, and her notable trait was that she had one large nostril instead of two. Despite this rarity, her teenage years weren’t marked by the unkindness of others; kids did not call her Hoover or ask if she always scored a hole-in-one when playing Putt-Putt. She was in her Biology class, and once, when she dropped her test, he picked it up for her; she smiled sweetly at him. But sitting up in bed now, he is not sure they ever spoke. At least, he cannot recall the sound of her voice.

That morning he does some Internet research, and it seems that she lives in the next town over. He spies her picture in a PTA newsletter. After typing in a few more pieces of information, he is pleased to learn that she is divorced. 
That evening, he discovers there are three Stephanie Plunketts in the area. He calls the first, but there is no answer. When he tries the second, a whisper of a voice comes through—so quietly he is not sure she said anything at all. “Hello, I’m looking for Stephanie Plunkett,” he says. And then he cannot think what else to say. There is only silence.

“The one with the nose,” he says, and then winces. 
“Who’s calling?” the voice says, a little louder. 
“Oh, this is Ned McArdle. I’m looking for the Stephanie Plunkett from Waynewright High. Is this she?”

There is a loud sniffing sound. He had forgotten this from his days in Biology class. It comes through over the line like a strong wind whipping through a barren street. He presses his ear harder to the phone, waiting.

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For Christmas I get the Zando Magic Kit. I spend all hours of that week practicing the Floating Coin, the Ink-a-doodle-do, the Endless Number. I perform for my family over and over, and my aunt, who is principal at a nearby elementary school, says I should come over and perform for all the kids. I am only a few years older than the oldest kids there, but I readily accept.

At school they give me a cart to hold my props as I go room to room, but nothing goes right. The elastic chord that lets my wand go up my sleeve snaps. My pitcher of invisible water pours through my silk scarf, and one of my Dice of Death rolls into a hole behind a radiator. The kids call out that they can see my finger behind the little plastic vase, the string in my pocket. When I stick a pencil into the balloon, it pops. When I return the cart at the end of the day, I am embarrassed and ready to be done with magic for good.

Out in the parking lot I see Zando’s black Cadillac. He is standing by the painted image of himself on the driver’s door, his fierce eyes drawn to little slits as I approach, the long cigarette holder dangling from his teeth. His cape ripples as the breeze picks up, and his top hat is so tilted it nearly touches one eye. I watch as a little burst of flame flickers from one white glove to the other.

“And so,” he hisses in his thick Hungarian accent. “It has begun.”

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The Yard

My best friend, Wyatt, lives two houses over, and we’ve always cut through the Kinleys’ yard to get back and forth. The Kinleys never said they minded, but one day, Mr. Kinley, who’s probably twenty years older than my dad, says the next time he catches us in his yard, he’s going to shoot us. Sure enough, the very next day, as I’m carrying my Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots over to Wyatt’s, Mr. Kinley opens a window on the second floor, sticks out his shotgun and takes aim. He misses by a good foot, blasting a hole in his oak tree the size of a soft ball. I make it over to Wyatt’s with my heart beating so hard even Wyatt can hear it. So can his dog.

But habits are hard to break, and Wyatt and I keep crossing through. Wyatt’s mom says we must like getting shot at. She shakes her head in bewilderment. But as we keep explaining, it’s just faster this way.

Summer goes on, and some days, when we go back and forth, the shots ring out so that it sounds like the Fourth of July. That’s all Mr. Kinley does is look through his window and wait for us to go get our bikes or come home for dinner. The smoke from his gun spirals over the tree tops.

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Guiding Light

Until I was seven and entered first grade, a woman named Docia took care of me during the day. She smoked Kool cigarettes at all hours as we played with my plastic animals and cut out pools of water and fields of grass out of construction paper.

It was our secret that we watched “The Guiding Light” without fail. Docia would say, “Oh my goodness,” when someone planned to do something bad, or “That’s some foolishness there—why she going to fall for him after what he did?”

Docia had a boyfriend who came to the house sometimes, and that was our other secret because he wasn’t supposed to be there. He had shown up at the house drunk once, when my parents were there.

On a cold day in April, I could hear her and her boyfriend arguing in the backyard. He said, “You’re too old to play these kind of games, woman!” A few minutes before noon, she came back in and turned the TV on, and this time she held me in her lap, but she remained silent. Instead, she stroked my hair the whole time.

A year later she would get in the car with him, and he would drive straight into a Lay’s Potato Chip truck; both of them were killed instantly. But on this day we were taking solace from the misguided actions of Kit and Holly and Roger and Jerome. And we were taking solace from each other. When the show was over, Docia kept her hand on my head and let out a deep sigh.

“How come you so sweet?” she asked.

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