Way Back, Well Before My Divorce

Equally comedic and poignant, Adam Prince’s story “Way Back, Well Before My Divorce,” winner of our 2021 William Peden Prize in fiction, examines the many faces of naivete, from hopeful crowd members betting on a rigged shell game to a young man unknowingly crossing an invisible boundary with his girlfriend’s sister.

Here’s what novelist Michael Byers, the guest judge who selected this story as the winner of our annual best-of-volume prize, had to say about the story:

“It builds a portrait of a clueless young man who thinks he has all the answers while also, and this was especially gratifying, making me appreciate the form of the short story in a new way, i.e., it never says what it’s about but is firm enough in its shape to be entirely clear; it asks questions rather than delivers answers; and it too is vivid and memorable–all while being quite short! In itself a kind of sleight-of-hand game.”

 

Way Back, Well Before My Divorce

by Adam Prince

There was this other thing that happened. Or really two things bundled. While visiting my then girlfriend’s older sister in New York City, I got pulled into a shell game. Then, later that night, the sister asked me to help wax her armpits.

It was a day approaching Thanksgiving—clear and wincingly bright. Just off Washington Square some guy shifted a raw pea under three shells on a cardboard box. He was balding and potbellied with a five o’clock shadow—or more like nine thirty. And something wrong with his eyes. One of them pulled toward his nose.

Five or six people gathered around: a white guy in a gray suit, a black guy in a white suit, a gypsy-looking woman with ragged flowers on her hat. Some others.

I liked their diversity. Their liveliness, too. Jumping around when they won. Throwing their hats down when they lost.

I’d just moved east for college Upstate, and remembering this now feels like watching an early-twentieth-century melodrama, with the villain twisting his mustache and the naive young man.

What happened later that night resembled no genre I’ve ever heard of.

In a narrow apartment, my girlfriend’s older sister and I were eating Ethiopian food off the same plate with our hands—which is how you’re supposed to do it—when she said, “So Gwendolyn tells me you’re into processes.”

I’d never thought about whether I was into processes or not but guessed it was probably true. Gwendolyn had gone to a better high school than me and attended a better college. And once, out of nowhere, she’d proclaimed that I was interested in the way men and women interacted. I’d never thought of it before but then realized she was right. It was one of my main interests.

So, “Yeah,” I said now to Gwendolyn’s sister about the processes.

And the sister said, “I thought you’d want to help wax my armpits.”

Which I did. But I mean, who wouldn’t? Or maybe it’s just me, interested in processes.

This shell guy had all kinds of tricks. A shift. A mix. A back-and-forth where they ended up in the same place they’d started. Still, I could tell where that pea went.

“Young man knows,” said the shell guy to himself, while the gypsy kept losing dollars, crumpled and ragged as the flowers on her hat.

“Where ya think?” she whispered to me.

I told her; she won. It made the shell guy mad. He looked me in the face—or as much as he could with his eyes the way they were—shifting the shells as he did.

“Where’s it at?” he asked.

“I don’t want to bet,” I told him.

“Never mind the bet. No bets. Where’s it at?”

I pointed. And was right.

Now, I admired my girlfriend’s older sister. She was in graduate school doing gender studies. She identified as bisexual and looked like a Norwegian milkmaid, but an empowered milkmaid who sometimes wore a beret and totally pulled it off. Blonde and broad-shouldered, a dusting of freckles on her wide cheeks.

For the record, though, I didn’t see this as any kind of sexual invitation. More like a dare.

The whole family was very open-minded. They traveled to Kenya every Christmas. The dad kept almost winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry; the mom did metal art with a blowtorch. And though I’d never actually seen it, I knew for a fact they walked around naked at home.

Open-mindedness was another thing I was into.

So, “Okay,” I said. “Sounds good.”

She heated the green-gray wax in a saucepan, stirring with a popsicle stick applicator, a good start for a process.

Then she took off her shirt. Stood in the middle of the tiny bathroom while I backed up against the tile wall, trying to be polite.

She aimed her sky-blue eyes at me. And casually slung off her bra. Which I didn’t understand at all, since anyone could see that the armpits were perfectly accessible with the bra still on.

I said, “Those look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.” Because they did look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts: exact same areolae and everything. Except the sister’s breasts were bigger and firmer and honestly more appealing overall, which I absolutely did not say.

Anyway, I meant it in a friendly way, a breezy, beret-wearing casual way, like “Hey, wouldn’t you know it, those look a heck of a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.”

And the sister said, “Thanks. I guess.” Which could have meant almost anything.

A cheer went up. The young man was right! The beleaguered, hat throwing crowd had their hero.

The shell guy said, “One hundred dollars to this boy if he’s right again.”

“I don’t have any cash. I don’t want to bet.”

“No bet. One hundred if you’re right.”

The shells went around, circling and shifting and blurring all over. The pea ticking from one to another.

I picked the shell on the left.

“You sure?” asked the shell guy.

“No!” cried the crowd. “Not that one!”

But I was sure. The young man knew.

Shell guy tipped up the left. And there it was.

But this shell guy, he just shrugged. “No bet, no money.”

The rest of the crowd knew an injustice when they saw one. They’d thrown down hats before. The white guy in the gray suit came over, leaned close. He looked like my dad, except with a ketchup stain on his tie and like he’d made worse life choices

“This son of a bitch,” he said, “been screwing us all day.” He walked me to a nearby ATM. “You’re gonna take out fifty and stick it to this son of a bitch,” he said.

I told him the ATM only gave out multiples of twenty, and then I suggested we take out forty instead.

But this guy who looked like my dad, whom I’d always admired— very straightforward—said, “Sixty. We’re gonna go for it.

***

Gwendolyn’s sister raised an arm, applied the goo to a furry armpit, and told me to rip it off.

I’d peel; she’d wince. Flushed and sweating. And when she moved, her breasts moved, too. They swayed and wobbled.

The green wax came off with the hair stuck to it, standing up as if the roots grew there from this whole other Frankenstein skin.

“Let’s wax you next,” the sister said, her bra still off.

She spread hot wax over my armpits. I was running out of places to put my eyes so tried keeping them closed. But then she ripped off the wax. And sudden, burning pain forced them open again. I had to make sure my skin hadn’t peeled off with the wax, and god, those breasts were close. Sweat running down them.

She grunted each time she peeled. And I grunted, too. Sexy and gross and painful all at once—but mostly just confusing—while I tried to pretend that this was how sophisticated, open-minded grownups behaved.

***

The guy who looked like my dad and I strode back to the shell game like lions of Wall Street. Or anyway, that’s how I felt.

I laid my money down on the cardboard box. Real money. Ten hours at the college cafeteria where I worked. A real bet from the young man who knew the pea.

He started his shifty business. All kinds of shenanigans. Shot the pea into the middle nut. Shot it to left nut, then back. But I knew. Called out middle nut.

Then he moved it left. I saw. Or, I mean, I was pretty sure. But I’d already called out middle, and he pulled up middle nut to reveal no pea.

I said, “You moved it after I picked!”

And the crowd said, “He moved it after you picked!”

And I said, “Did you see him move it after I picked?”

But none of them could say for sure.

Nothing for me to do but give up the money. Walk away. Out into the bleary light, figuring out the con as I went and feeling as foolish and ashamed as I have in my whole life.

Except for maybe later that night, when we were all done with the wax, and Gwendolyn’s sister shrugged her bra back on.

Or maybe on Thanksgiving Day in the shower with Gwendolyn, showing off the wax job and walking her through the story—breezily, open-mindedly.

But Gwendolyn’s face didn’t seem open at all. It had this rigid, judgy look.

“What?” she said. “Wait, wait, what? She did what? And you did what? And you were thinking what?”

But all that was a long time ago. Way back, well before my divorce.

 

 

***

Adam Prince earned his B.A. from Vassar College, his M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, and his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee. His award-winning fiction has appeared in the Mississippi Review, the Southern ReviewNarrative Magazine, and Sewanee Review among others. His short story collection The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men was published with Black Lawrence Press in June of 2012. He is currently at work on a novel and several screenplays. He serves as the visiting writer for the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and works as a freelance editor. See Dr. Adam Prince – Writer, Freelance Editor (adamprinceauthor.com) for more information.

Foreword: Fighting Back

Fighting Back

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray

from the straight road and woke to find myself

alone in a dark wood.

—Dante, The Divine Comedy

While temperamentally many of us imagine human lives to be stable, a simple factual recounting of what happens through time proves that they seldom are. Surprises and shocks are in store for most of us. Bruce Feiler’s new book Life is in the Transitions discusses this idea abstractly and by example from detailed interviews of hundreds of individuals. They show that fixed patterns do not work well as life predictors in such areas as jobs, health, and personal commitments. They also suggest that insofar as we need a set of presumptions about our futures, it should allow for and expect transitions—not just small alterations but big changes. I appreciate this idea because it matches my own life experiences and because it is suggested by the radical changes in understanding in most areas of knowledge, from economics and history to the hard sciences.

Feiler points out that early worldviews were based on natural and cyclical time, partly because of the prevalence of agriculture in human life. Early mythologies were seasonal, though there were exceptions that admitted to linearity or the unexpected, for example in classic religious thought and literature. The nineteenth century moved to a worldview based on mechanical time, which is regular and linear. By the early modern era, the idea of life following a circle had been replaced by a concept of its proceeding through ages or phases or stages that were essentially predictable and fixed.

Poems: Jamaica Baldwin

Forbidden

 

Let me go back to my father

in the body of my mother the day he told her,

Having black children won’t save you when the revolution comes.

Let me do more than laugh,

like she did.

 

Let me go back to my mother and do more

than roll my eyes when she tells me,

I think deep down, in a past life, I was a black blues singer.

 

My mother remembers the convent

where she worked after I was born;

the nuns who played with me while she cleaned.

 

My father remembers the bedroom window

of their first apartment; his tired body

climbing through. It was best,

 

they agreed, if she signed the lease alone.

 

Scholars conclude

the myths of violence that surround the black male

body protect the white female body

 

from harm. I conclude race was not

not a factor in my parent’s attraction.

I am the product of their curiosity, their vengeance, their need.

 

They rescued each other from stories scripted

onto their bodies. They tasted forbidden and devoured each other

whole.

 

Let me build a house

where their memories diverge.

 

Let me lick clean

these bones.

Murphy, Murphy

Murphy, Murphy

One of my names is Cece. It has many iterations. When scolded, Cecelia. At my worst, Cecelia Rose. In bed, I am named to the rhythm of my pumping fingers, Ce-Ce-Ce-Ce-Ce, I become pulse, I become breath. When I dissociate, I watch my teeth in the mirror make Cece like a snarl, I name myself until the word becomes a vacuum, until I slip in and out of it like a fist through a bangle.

In the years after my sister was abducted, I was only ever Cece Sister-to-Murphy Gowan. Murphy’s Sister Gowan. The Girl Whose Sister Disappeared. If you knew our story well, I was The One Who Slept. Sleeping Cece.

Only to Murphy, I was Sissy—for sister, for Cece. My two selves made one. “Sissy come here, Sissy I hate you, Sissy be quiet.”I hear her still.

Not All That White

Not All That White

Everyone on the raising gang notices when the journeyman connector, Joseph Bogoslavsky, reaches into his fifty-pound leather tool belt for four massive bolts and then sinks them, one by one, into the steel corner beams, his toes balancing on a two-inch ledge ninety-four floors above the street.

But no one sees him dive headfirst into thirteen hundred feet of open gray mist, his legs trailing behind him like loose streamers.

The crane operator, Butch Barlow, who had the best view of the site, contended months later in a sworn legal deposition that yes, he had seen Bogoslavsky connecting the beams, but then Butch had to look the other way to guide another eight-ton beam down to the deck under the direction of the lead connector—“Tuck, uh, what’s his name, you know, the big Indian guy. I was having a little problem with this Tuck guy,” Butch said, “on account of attitude and him signaling me I was coming in too fast, so I slowed it and laid that sucker down real gentle, like it was a feather on a baby’s ass. When I look over my shoulder, this Bogo guy was gone, so help me God.”

Way Back, Well Before My Divorce

Way Back, Well before My Divorce

There was this other thing that happened. Or really two things bundled. While visiting my then girlfriend’s older sister in New York City, I got pulled into a shell game. Then, later that night, the sister asked me to help wax her armpits.

You’ll Look Back on This and Laugh

You’ll Look Back on This and Laugh

The woman behind the bar used to smile. These days her face was shielded in a frown distinct despite the eternal woolen cap. Matt was scrupulously polite and friendly, respectful of whatever had prompted closure in a demeanor formerly open and welcoming. She lined up drinks on a thick, darkly varnished bar top streaked by beer-tap lights. The heavy stools were richly upholstered in leather. Over her shoulder, a wooden eagle on a podium addressed the high-ceilinged room with a sneer of cold command. Following the eagle’s gaze, Matt observed that the after-office crowd had thinned; the place was at its best, midevening, oddly quiet at this hour for a central London pub, a good proportion of the sparse drinkers already deep in their cups. The atmosphere was intimate, like a lock-in.

Taking the drinks back to his colleagues, Matt found the conversation had grown raucous after only one round.

Magnet Man

Magnet Man

I shift from foot to foot. Both my feet hurt. I’m packing magnets at my dad’s factory, and the rubber mats meant to cushion my joints from the floor don’t help.

A little to my left is bald-topped Tom, and a little to my right is chatty Candy, and in front of me is a concrete wall. If I go further to the left of Tom, the warehouse door opens out onto the parking lot, where my dad eats lunch in his car. I understand why he does—he’s a salesman, albeit one trained in the physics of ferrite, who draws complex equations for his clients in China—but still, he spends a lot of time on the phone: yak, yak, yak. I’d hate it: I’d rather pack, although I’m not allowed to pack the rare-earth bundles, so strong they could crush my fingers without enough cardboard between to keep their relentless attractions apart. Plus, the packing jobs I do are not always so good to start: a few broken shipments have come back in the mail, and sometimes I wonder if I ever properly learned to count. Candy shows me how to weigh the smaller pellet-magnets properly in batches, and that helps a little.

Poems: Janette Schafer

Elixir

When I was five, I discovered alcohol in abandoned red cups

scattered about the Green House, the first place we lived

in Detroit after Venezuela.

 

Dad rolled blunts on a burned-out coffee table while Mom

played with his wiry black hair. Aunt Sherry put her hand

on his knee, slid her fingers up to his zipper.

 

I went from cup to cup, from room to room

as motorcycle after motorcycle parked

in our front yard.

 

The beer, a healing bitter herb,

a toy kaleidoscope, swirl of orange, yellow,

and red in fragmented shapes

 

amid the noise of black leather

and silver chrome. I fell in a slow arc,

mother’s laughter, liquor in my ringing ears.

Poems: Ronda Piszk Broatch

I’ve Got an Asinine Affinity (Infinity?), a Clumsy Love Song

The bees of the heart weave stillness into a conversation.

String theory is smaller than the bees in the honey tin,

larger than the bats hanging from the DO NOT DISTURB

 

sign. If I wasn’t so tired, I’d rearrange my family’s lives

above the upright piano, would spring a new theory in a blue-

me world, where wandering beyond the yard sets my laughing

 

gear in motion. If only my iPhone had a zapper app

I’d deploy it at the movies, but for now I just use my keys.

Tell me about your everyday love, and I’ll tell you how

 

the worm bin is haunted, and the fact that I hid the rules

in back of the cider house, in a can of Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Sticky

sunrise, and UPS brings a broken administration all the way

 

from the America, the box intact. I miss my life, I really do.

The bees of my heart sing the Mad Girl’s Love Song

so often my quarantine has an earworm, and the rat

 

in my compost pile steals the worms. If I wasn’t so tired

I’d be detachable, capable of reliability, but that’s debatable.

In an old insane world, the able are constantly bewitched, which

 

is good, in my book. Close your eyes, pots and pans, running

water. Can’t you hear the phone ringing? The Mad Girl’s

in the Bee Box, and I’ve got a sloe-gin theory about that.