By Chad Pelley Second-place winner of the Cuffer Prize 2013
My father isn’t dead. There was no overturned kayak in Bay Bulls. No bloated body dangling upside down, with its limbs spinning around and around like a ceiling fan, into the sway of the sea. There was no salt in his eyes, no cold creaking in his bones. There were no fish biting at him, as he hung upside down like easy bait.
The Cuffer Prize
He’s not dead, because a man like my father doesn’t drown. A man like my father grows gills in a survival situation. Or he grabs a fish, or a whale, and he uses them like a scuba tank, sucking the oxygen out of their mouths or blowholes. A man like my father would punch a hole in the ocean floor, and it would drain like bathwater.
Dad could have out-thunk the water trying to drown him. He’s smarter than “Jeopardy.” And my homework. I’ve learned words from him like “Sunday best” and “esoteric.” He’s also the best prankster, and that takes smarts, too. Every time we high five, after pranking someone, our hands ring like bells.
But when it comes to surprising Mom, I always blow it for him. I’m only a kid see, and Dad says a poker face takes years to master. You’ve got to be old enough for moustaches and jobs and stuff. I accidentally spoiled it when he proposed to Mom. He’d baked us cupcakes for dessert, and baked an engagement ring into hers. I was so excited about Mom finding a ring in a blob of chocolate, I stared at the cupcake, poking it with a fork, trying and feel it in there. I was a little worried about her choking on it, to be honest.
She knew something was up. She wasn’t half as surprised as she should have been, by the ring. So I can’t blame Dad for not letting me in on this new prank.
If they really found my father upside down in a kayak, it would mean he choked like when I swallow orange juice down the wrong pipe. He wouldn’t have just sat there and let it happen. He would’ve flailed his arms around, his oars. It’s what they’re for. He taught me to swim. He knows how.
Dad and I are kind of brilliant. We watch game shows, and do better than the contestants. He says that having me sitting there, thinking along with him, affects his brainwaves, and helps him channel the right answers. Sometimes we invent things, because that’s what truly smart people do — they make things that never existed before, like peanut butter, space travel, and snorkels. Kayaks, too, I guess.
Our last great idea was the SnowBlock 3000. It’s a Plexiglas shield you put up along the end of your driveway when you see a snowplow coming. It blocks the snow from going into your driveway. Dad says normal jobs are horrible. He says they’ll steal your life away. So we’re trying to be inventors.
Last night I dreamt my father was a scarecrow. When I poked him, he was made of hay. Brittle hay. It snapped like dry spaghetti sticks. I was sleeping in my mother’s bed for the first time in years. She was warm and crying, and I cried, too, for some reason. Then she cried harder, because I was crying.
“Why’s Daddy pretending so long?”
“Honey, you have to stop this OK?”
She rubbed my hair, hauled me in. Kissed me on the forehead.
“Why was there two wakes?”
“Last night was for family only. Wednesday night was also for Daddy’s friends, and co-workers.”
“He should F-off now!”
But it’s true. Last night was horrible. Everyone wouldn’t stop crying. Even my Aunt Belinda. While I was picking the tuna off my tuna sandwich, she started crying like a broken donkey. Almost everyone left before me and Mom, saying, “See you at the funeral,” and kissing me out of sadness. Nan’s scrape-y lips like burnt toast across my forehead. I pictured them all throwing dirt down on Dad’s coffin, and I heard it banging in my ears. I tasted worms in my mouth.
I gave Dad two minutes to pop out of the coffin, and when he didn’t, I ran over to the casket and I pushed up the heavy lid as far as I could lift it. Everyone panicked, and Mom shrieked like missiles shooting at me. When she yanked me away from the coffin, she almost tore the wrist off my body. The glimpse I saw. He didn’t look like my dad. He looked like a mannequin, who looked like my dad. It made my teeth hurt. I threw my tuna sandwich at a man I didn’t know, and Mom took me home.
When she fell back to sleep last night, I went to the garage and got my bike. Either Dad is dead or he’s coming to find me. My father is the only one who knows I’ll be in Nan’s root cellar. Her root cellar is a maze of tiny closets, and altogether, no bigger than my kitchen. Most Sundays, Dad and I play all sorts of games down here. Like, we hide something, and the other person has to go find it. Or we play hide-and-go-seek, even though it’s a tiny space and easy to find each other.
To keep the animals out, the door to Nan’s root cellar had to be heavy iron. It’s like a trapdoor, and the grass hides it. You have to know where to find it: 10 paces from the biggest tree in her yard. There’s a crowbar in the grass, next to the door, and the trick is to use the hook end, around the door handle, to pull it open. The other trick is to make sure the door doesn’t fall down on you when it comes open. It’s boulder-heavy and would pin you to the ground. You’re not supposed to shut the door behind you, but it was raining and I didn’t want the place filling up like a bathtub, because I’m probably gonna be in here a while. Waiting for Dad to clue in about where I am.
Even with the crow bar, it took eight tries to shut the door behind me. It clapped shut, loud and scary, like this was a bomb shelter or something. Without Dad here, it’s just a cold, black space that smells like bugs. Every minute or so, I’ll scream, in case there’s mice in here, because I don’t want them at my feet. I tucked my jeans into my socks so they won’t crawl up under my clothes. I can’t see my hands or my feet or my green jacket, and I’m afraid I’ll see rat eyes in the dark: red and blinking, darting around too fast to keep track of.
I’m trying to think of what Dad would do. I’m trying to invent something to poke through the soil so I can climb out of here. But all I have is a stick, and I’m just not tall enough. When I jump, to stab the soil, dirt falls in my mouth and eyes. It makes me think my father was the biggest liar in the world.
Chad Pelley’s fiction has been recognized by 10 literary awards, among them first, second and third-place awards in the
Cuffer Prize. His novels include “Away from Everywhere” and “Every Little Thing.” He is founder of the blog Salty Ink.
Next week: Kerri Cull’s “The Musher”