“Queen Me” by Margaret Donovan Bauer

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Margaret Donovan Bauer’s “Queen Me” offers a candid perspective on remarriage and the challenge of parenting someone else’s children. The essay was a finalist in our 2021 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize contest.  

 

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Queen Me

by Margaret Donovan Bauer

When I met Andrew’s children for the first time, Griffin, age seven, came into the room sobbing, followed by a sheepish-looking Aidan, five, stopping a few feet behind his brother, waiting to see what would happen next, remaining silent as Erin, who had only recently turned ten, reported Aidan’s offense. All this before Andrew had a chance to introduce me. I was surprised that Griffin did not seem embarrassed to be crying in front of a stranger.

Andrew and I had been dating a month or so by then, and he had told his children about me, but this was the first time I visited him during a weekend when he had his kids, the first time any woman he was dating had shown up while they visited their dad’s house.

I look back and realize how telling that moment was: Aidan guilty, Griffin crying, and Erin reporting. At the time, all I could think upon seeing the children in person for the first time was, They’re so young. But given my track record with men, I wasn’t really concerned. Regardless of the rose-colored glasses I wore during the early months of our relationship, deep down I assumed I would not be around longer than a few months of these children’s lives, so it didn’t really matter that they were so young.

I do not have children of my own, and I was not looking for father material in my search for love. I hadn’t planned not to have children. Fortunately, I divorced before making the mistake of tying myself to an ex-husband I never wanted to see again after I finally escaped him. A decade passed. I didn’t remarry. A few more years, and then I was forty, childless, and recognizing that I was fine with that. Children were not the gaping hole in my life; I was on a quest for a life partner. I was not averse to dating men with children, though I had not liked the son of one man I was deeply in love with, a problem for me that he was largely unaware of (yet likely still a factor in our failed relationship). I’d found the child of another lover an inconvenience to our affair, as we had a long-distance relationship, and his joint custody meant me seeing him only one weekend a month. In truth, distance was probably what helped that particular relationship last as long as it did.

As I say, I did not have a good track record before I met Andrew, and I was afraid to hope that his warm smile, which reached into and flowed out of his big brown eyes, would not grow cold at some point when he decided that the things that attracted him to me in the first place were suddenly character flaws I needed to work on. What would it be this time? “Too ambitious”? “Too career-focused”? “Too many opinions”? What would he decide I was too much of?

***

Following that portentous first encounter with Andrew’s children, during every other weekend of our first year together, when his children visited from their home ninety minutes away, Griffin would at some point melt down into one of the temper tantrums he was prone to, sometimes over a minor physical offense to his person but usually over losing a game or simply not getting his way. He either cried unabashedly or erupted into an unrelenting and inescapable temper tantrum until he wore himself out from screaming. As telling as my introduction to Griffin—he crying over some minor offence and unembarrassed by being caught doing so by a complete stranger—was Andrew’s ability to wait these tantrums out, largely unruffled. Sometimes he would pick up the stiffened, screaming boy from whatever central living space Griffin had chosen for his eruption and move him into a room with a door that could be closed between him and the victims of his ear-piercing outrage. Other times, however, he just let Griffin stand in the middle of the room we were all gathered in and scream while I cringed from the noise, usually saying to me, “There’s nothing I can do once he gets started.”

I would spank his little butt, I thought in response, but I knew it was not my place to propose an alternative to his annoyingly calm response. Griffin’s temper tantrums were disturbing to all, but Andrew’s inaction was infuriating to me, at least. While this incredibly patient man could resume normalcy as soon as the screaming stopped—sometimes even while it was still going on in the background—I’d be on edge for the rest of my visit with him and his children. I envied Andrew’s ability to remain calm in the midst of such thunderous chaos, but I also viewed his not being perturbed enough about it as a problem: Why couldn’t he see that not everyone could so easily recover from Griffin’s jarring temper tantrums and resume a pleasant evening as though nothing had occurred? I was shaken, even angry after these episodes, outraged by Andrew’s response as much as by Griffin’s behavior. Griffin had no reason to care about my discomfort, but Andrew should have.

As the weeks and then months went by, I realized how Andrew’s calm was calming—if not to Griffin, at least to me. He was such a contrast to my stressful career and volatile colleagues. Andrew’s comfort within himself contrasted significantly with his son’s need to win. For once, I was dating a man who didn’t find my often single-minded career focus a challenge to him; it wasn’t unwomanly in his eyes, or emasculating. To his children, he was a devoted father, but so too was he committed to and supportive of the other relationships in his life. He was a man who enjoyed weekly long telephone conversations with his mother and who had close male friends, some that went back decades and others already developing among his colleagues in that first year of his new job in our shared community. And now me. He seemed totally committed to me. Even as the months passed, he did not seem to be trying to change me into some room-for-improvement version of his own dream woman.

Still, I was surprised to find myself buying a vacation home on the Pamlico River with this man before we had been together a whole year. Our purchase meant that he would put his house on the market and move into my craftsman house near the university where we both worked. By this time, I had been divorced and living alone for fifteen years. I was horrified when I realized what I’d done, allowing Andrew to sell the house he’d bought in the suburbs, which had enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children, knowing that my relationships with men tended not to last. Though I was still very much in love with him, my experience suggested that it wouldn’t last. My parents had divorced after twenty years together, after all, and though I’d had several years-long relationships, they had all ended.

And yet, just a few months past the one-year anniversary of meeting each other, after settling in to spend the summer months at our new river house, Andrew’s children would join us for their eight-week summer stay with their dad. There were enough bedrooms and bathrooms and even a playroom for his children at our co-owned summer home. Anticipating the first lengthy period with Andrew’s children moving into my space—even as Andrew and I were just beginning to share “permanent” space—I worried that I might have made a huge mistake.

But not for long.

***

In early May, Andrew and I moved into our river home for the summer, and soon the children came for a weekend visit before their school let out for summer and they would join us for two months. At the river house, they found the familiar furniture that had been in their dad’s home. His big leather couch faced the river, leaving plenty of floor space behind it, where the living and dining rooms merged, since we had set the dining table in the kitchen, where we had a wide view of the river. That empty floor space ended up being the kids’ preferred board-game playing area in the afternoons while I cooked in the kitchen.

During this first test visit, at Sunday lunch, just a few hours before their dad would take them back to their mom’s, we sat around the same pine table that had been at Andrew’s house, Andrew at one end, Erin and I on either side of him, my chair facing the river view that had sold the house to us; Aidan next to me, Griffin across from Andrew: largely our regular places, it would turn out, though Erin and Griffin tended to jostle each other for the seat next to their dad. I have no recollection of what prompted my frustration at that particular meal, but I was not yet at a place in my own head where I felt comfortable in the role of disciplinarian to another person’s children, and Andrew must not have reprimanded them for whatever had bothered me. Mimicking his calm whenever he dealt with Griffin’s temper tantrums, I picked up my plate, saying, “I’m going to take my lunch and eat on the deck.” A few minutes later,  a concerned Andrew joined me. I told him I was not sure if the whole summer living with his children was going to work for me. Maybe I should just move back to my house in town when they came for the summer and visit on the weekends they went to see their mom.

And then he did the exact right thing, asking me, “What can we do to make this work? What is it that you want me to do differently?” I don’t remember my answer. I just remember my relief. He did not explain to me how, not being a mother, I could not understand, as I’d often heard (still hear) from parents—particularly annoying when it comes from someone whose child you’re expected to take care of occasionally and even learn to love. Maybe Andrew was different from the men I’d previously been involved with. We agreed that this was our house even when the children were there. Andrew would take cues from me in the future so that we would present a united front to them.

Soon, a first test, after we’d set ground rules for the household so that I would not spend my precious summer months, when I was freed from teaching, cleaning up after Andrew’s children, whose stay-at-home mother allowed unmade beds, picked up clothes from wherever they’d been tossed, and didn’t mind toys left out around the house and strewn all over the floors of her children’s rooms. In our house, toys would be returned to closets when not in use. Clothes were to be placed into hampers, shoes put away in closets. Beds would be made before the kids left for swim-team practice in the morning. Upon returning from the pool, as well as after baths, towels would be hung up. Breaches of these simple rules lost them an hour of television or computer games—and we only allowed the use of electronics after the evening meal together, preferring to encourage the children to play outdoors, so those couple of hours of screen time before bedtime were precious to them.

The very first week, when I found a towel and swim trunks on the boys’ bathroom floor, I shook the wadded-up trunks out from the towel and held them up to the other pair, which had been hung over a towel bar. The smaller pair in my hands and presumably the towel they were with clearly belonged to Andrew’s youngest. Exiting the bathroom into the children’s playroom, I reminded Aidan what the infraction meant for his after-dinner activity. His shrug seemed an acceptance of the consequences of his carelessness, but when Andrew returned from work several hours later, his six-year-old suddenly dissolved into tears and climbed his daddy like a tree, sobbing as if he’d just been spanked, though he’d been perfectly happy just minutes before as we were all gathered in the living room, putting together a jigsaw puzzle and taking turns pairing up for checkers on the empty dining-room floor space behind the sofa. “What did you do?” Andrew asked the boy, recognizing the crocodile tears. I was puzzled myself but then recalled the earlier incident, so I relayed the crime and recalled the punishment. “Well, I guess you’ll remember to hang up your towel and trunks tomorrow,” Andrew said as he placed his son back on the floor. Failing to move his father, Aidan resumed the cheerful demeanor that had preceded Andrew’s arrival. A for effort, little man, but this win is mine, I thought. Your dad and I are, indeed, a united front, a “parental unit.”

“Queen me,” I said as I jumped one of Griffin’s checkers, placing my checker into the king zone.

Griffin, incidentally, never had a problem following the house rules. I believe he found them a welcome change from the hidden land mines in the house where the children lived with their mother and her mercurial husband. So while I might have been stricter about household pitching-in than their mother was, they had a clear idea of what my expectations were for household chores and what behaviors would set my temper off, while they could never (still cannot) predict their stepfather’s loud volatility, which often erupted into punishments involving hefty amounts of yard work.

Overall, it was a good first summer, but it did have its moments.

***

“I’m going to love you no matter what you do,” my father’s mother told him. He often shared this particular life lesson with his children. “But,” she would add, “I’m going to try to raise you so that others like you.”

My chance to pass this parental wisdom on to Andrew’s angry middle child came during that first summer at our river house, when Griffin had one of his temper tantrums while Andrew was not home. My (per)version of my dad’s shared lesson came about following another game of checkers with Griffin, at a time when we were the only two at home. Distracted by a call from Andrew to see if everything was okay, I was not paying attention—certainly not strategizing to win—when I took a triple jump that included Griffin’s only king. “Queen me,” I said as I hung up the phone, not noticing the scowl that had emerged on the little boy’s face.

“You can’t do that,” he said, loudly, startling me out of my distraction.

“Why not?” I asked.

Louder: “It’s not fair!”

Purposefully calm and quiet: “Do you want to look it up in the rules?”

Apparently not. He flipped the checkerboard over, and as checkers scattered, he jumped up and ran upstairs. My calm evaporating, I followed, yelling for him to “Go back downstairs!” and “Find every checker!” He kept going, and when he tried to escape me by seeking refuge in the boys’ closet, I crawled in right behind him.

Get out!” he screeched.

“Right after you. You have a mess to clean up. Then you can come sit in here if you like, and I’ll give you your privacy.”

A bit quieter, but still outraged: “You know I hate to lose.”

“Nobody likes losing, Griffin,” I answered. “But what’s the big deal? It’s a game of checkers.” Silence. “What is a big deal is that nobody likes you when you act like this.”

Not tactful, I admit.

In spite of Andrew’s insistence that there was no reasoning with Griffin during a tantrum, I continued, “I don’t get it. What does it matter if you lose a game every now and then? Your parents are going to love you no matter what you do.”

Still nothing.

“But nobody but a parent likes a sore loser,” I finished undiplomatically. Definitely not as kind and loving as what my grandmother said to my father. I don’t know if my rationale got through, but his anger did not evolve into one of his screaming rages.

I won’t say this was Griffin’s last temper tantrum, but he did eventually outgrow them, and Griffin was the one of Andrew’s children who, unbidden, would seek me out to say good-bye when it was time for the children to leave after a weekend with us, by which time, I was usually ready to resume my child-free life and had found a quiet place alone and away from the chaos. And he was always the first to hug me when they arrived. He still, almost twenty years later, cannot stand to lose, but I like to believe that I got through to him that day and that he accepted my candor as a positive characteristic in this woman who was going to be a part of his life.

 

***

Margaret Donovan Bauer grew up on the Bayou Teche in south Louisiana and now writes mostly memoir, mostly from her home on the Pamlico River in eastern North Carolina. The Rives Chair of Southern Literature at East Carolina University and author of four books on southern writers, she has served as editor of the North Carolina Literary Review for twenty-five years.

 

 

“Two Men” by Andrew Porter

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Andrew Porter’s gem-like short-short story “Two Men” reveals how a particular event, embossed on memory, can take on a significance that transcends the sum of its remembered details.

Two Men

by Andrew Porter

 

The evening of my forty-third birthday, we were all standing around the island in the middle of our kitchen, drinking wine, when I saw them out of the corner of my eye: these two figures moving along the periphery of our yard. It looked to be a father and son, both tall, one older, one quite a bit younger, maybe in his early teens. They were both wearing all white, almost like housepainter outfits. After a moment, they slipped around the back of our house toward the dog run and the toolshed. Everyone was already pretty drunk by then. It was our good friends Allen and Deb, my wife, Courtney, and my wife’s sister, Ellen, and we’d all been drinking since about two o’clock that afternoon when Deb and Allen arrived.

The plan had been to go out to dinner after a few drinks, but now the idea of hopping in our cars and driving across town seemed irresponsible at best, so we’d canceled the sitter and ordered a pizza and put all the children in our bedroom with a movie. We were going to stay in and keep drinking was the plan, but now there was this other situation—this situation with the two men—which I tried to explain to them, perhaps a little too quickly or clumsily, because everyone just put down their glasses and stared at me askance.

“What are you talking about?” Allen said. “Two men?”

“Yes,” I said. “Actually, a man and a boy.”

“Where?”

“Around back.”

“Around the back of the house?”

“Yes.”

“Just now?” Courtney squinted at me, as if trying to judge how much I’d had to drink.

“Yes,” I said. “And just wait. They’re going to have to come back. The fence is too high on the other side. The only way to get out is to cross the yard again.”

“How come none of us saw them before?” Courtney said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “You were all talking. Maybe you were distracted.”

Courtney eyed me skeptically, but Allen was already motioning everyone to come over to the other side of the kitchen. He said we’d have a better vantage point from there.

So we all moved over to the window above the sink, which looked out directly onto our backyard, and waited. Our house is surrounded on all sides by a fence, but the door on the far side of the yard is never locked, so that’s how they must have gotten in.

“Why don’t we call the police?” Ellen suggested after a minute or so had passed in silence.

“No, let’s wait,” Allen said and poured himself and Deb another glass of wine. Down the hallway, I could hear the sounds of gunshots and tires screeching on the movie the kids were watching.

“You know, I heard there have been some break-ins in the neighborhood,” Deb said, taking the glass Allen had poured her. “Two on our street and another on Oakview.” Deb and Allen had lived three streets down from us for almost a decade, maybe longer. “It’s possibly the same guys.”

“Like I said, I think we should call the police,” Ellen said.

But for some reason no one replied to this, and nobody moved. We just stood there in the kitchen waiting, all of us a little intrigued by the situation, excited by the possibility of watching a burglary in progress, even if the burglary was happening to us. To be honest, if I had had anything of value back there in the shed, I might have cared more, but I didn’t. It was mostly just tools, which I rarely used, and a water purifier and maybe a few ceramic pots. I probably hadn’t been back there in close to six months.

Anyway, something happened after that. I don’t remember. I think Courtney got a phone call from her mother, and then the pizza arrived, and pretty soon everyone forgot about the two men in the backyard—or, I should say, the man and the boy. We opened up another bottle of wine and then some champagne with dinner and another bottle with the cake. We had all agreed by then that nobody would be driving home. Deb and Allen and their two sons would walk, Ellen would sleep on the couch in our family room, and Ellen’s daughter would sleep with our daughter in her room.

“The motto of the night is safety,” Allen said. “That’s what we’re going to be concentrating on tonight.” He was sitting on the kitchen counter as he said this, his eyes glazed over, his jeans stained with the red wine he’d spilled on them earlier. Deb, who was equally drunk, was sitting by herself at the breakfast bar, trying to find a song by some band from our youth, a song whose name she couldn’t remember but that she swore we’d all recognize the second we heard it.

In a year from now, Deb and Allen would be divorced, and in three years, Courtney and I would be too. But at that moment, I don’t think any of us could have imagined anything like that. And maybe that’s why I return to that night so much. Aside from it being my birthday, it was also one of the last times I can remember the four of us all hanging out together happily, without any tension or awkwardness.

After a while, Deb and Allen said their goodbyes—this was probably around two or three in the morning—and Ellen retired to the couch, and the kids went to sleep, and Courtney and I went back to the kitchen for one more drink.

I’d had way too much wine by then, but a part of me didn’t want the evening to end. On the other side of the kitchen, Courtney smiled at me warmly.

“A good birthday?” she said. It would in fact be the last party she ever threw for me.

“A good birthday,” I said. “Thank you.”

I raised my glass then, and Courtney raised hers, and then I walked over to the other side of the kitchen and took her hand, and we walked back to our room.

It had in fact been a great night, one of our best. But what I never told anyone about that night was how earlier I’d come into the kitchen—this was in the middle of dinner—and I’d seen them again, the man and the boy, moving quickly across the yard. The boy was carrying an armful of shovels and rakes, and the man was carrying a weed wacker and hedge trimmer. All things considered, they probably had about three hundred dollars worth of equipment with them, reason enough to call the police, yes, alert them, but for some reason I didn’t. And this is what I can’t explain, even now: how I just stood there and watched them, watched them as they took these things that I had worked for and paid for, these things that I had never taken much notice of before, these things that I hadn’t even realized I’d wanted until months later, long after they had disappeared, long after they were gone.

***

 

Andrew Porter is the author of three books, including the forthcoming short story collection The Disappeared (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022), the short story collection The Theory of Light and Matter (Vintage/Penguin Random House), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the novel, In Between Days (Alfred A. Knopf), which was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Porter’s stories have appeared in The Pushcart Prize anthology, Ploughshares, One Story, Southern Review, Threepenny Review, and on NPR’s Selected Shorts, among others. Currently, he teaches fiction writing and directs the creative writing program at Trinity University in San Antonio.

 

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.