Featured Prose | December 10, 2021

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.

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