February Contest Winner

Posted 27/03/2018 under Magazine,

February 2018 Contest Winner

Jason Purdy is a writer from Northern Ireland. By day, he’s a digital marketing strategist, and by night, he writes short stories, poems, and other rubbish. His first novel, Cigarette, is available on Amazon, and his second novel is available on Inkitt to read for free. He’s appeared in a range of short story and poetry collections. 

Whittling, Man

Jason Purdy

She hadn’t been into the basement since before her father had passed away. She had often stared at that creaky old door at the end of the hallway.

Sarah was scared of dark places; she was scared of being confined in a small area. She was scared of spiders, of snakes, of cockroaches and whatever other creepy crawlies lurked in the shadows of the dirt-packed and humid basement.

All this was to hide the simple truth that she was simply afraid of him, and what he might have left behind. The basement had always been his space, his little refuge from two daughters and a wife from hell.

She had rarely been down there. She could count the times on one hand, in fact. The first time she remembered when The Shining was on television late at night, and her dad was the only one home. There had been another, at the age of fifteen, when she and her boyfriend at the time went into the basement for “The Talk”.

The boy took one look at her father cleaning his rifle, and he was gone.

She never saw him again, not even at school. High school was a place where kids disappeared into lockers, into bottles, and between the cracks in the tiled floor every single day. It was easy to hide.

The last time was just before she left for college, when her dad wouldn’t come up from the basement to send her off. She descended those creaking stairs, car keys in hand, and a look of fury on her soft face.

The single dim light bulb swayed back and forth in a breeze from the grimy window. As she climbed down, she could see his back to her, wearing one of those same starchy checkered shirts.

She was ready to make a goddamn scene, as her dad would have put it. Her mom was always making a goddamn scene.

Whether it was at the restaurant, at church, at the gas station, even at the funeral. Somehow, her mother got the idea that she was the heart of the universe, and all of time and space revolved around her. There were a lot of people like that in this little world, and they seemed to be the only ones who were breeding.

At the foot of those stairs, she fell quiet when she heard his sobs. Low, and gruff, like the sounds of a wounded animal. The temptation was all too real to just turn and walk away, to leave him alone with his grief in his dank little pit that stank of modelling glue, wood shavings, and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

So that is exactly what she did.

She almost wished it was the last time she saw him alive, because that would make the shame and the guilt cut with fresh clarity, but he’d lived on through her graduation and her first real job, her first apartment, and a couple of years beyond.

He lived and they never mentioned his tears in the basement.

That rusty key sat on the table, and she couldn’t bear herself to pick it up and turn it in that lock. She had the strangest feeling it would just be too heavy to lift. Like a penny stuck to the pavement with super glue. She’d struggle to pry it from the table while a pack of snot-nosed kids outside the window laughed at her.

*****

When you’re asked, how are you holding up? Do you lie, lie, or lie?

Choose carefully.

“I’m fine,” she said.

Her sister, Rachel, was nowhere to be seen. She’d gone AWOL after the funeral. That’s how dad would have put it.

She was supposed to be the older, more sensible one. Instead, the house had her.

Sarah, the girl who had a care bear tattoo on her right thigh.

The girl who had framed her poster of Jonny Depp in Crybaby when she moved into her own apartment so it looked a little more like adult décor.

All her old school friends were useless. They seemed terrified of death, as terrified of it as they were of life.

She was coping with her dad’s death just fine. She was in the bar. Her initials were still scratched under the corner table.

She ran her fingers along them, reading them like braille, dodging the clump of desiccated gum that had probably been there since before she was born. Humans lived and died, gum remained eternal.

Whisky, with ice.

This place always had a weird way of making her feel like an imposter, even though the guy behind the bar was likely still eating snot when she first drank here.

It was three on a Friday afternoon and the bar was as quiet as the grave, except for an old man sipping a tin of Pabst Blue. His eyes were locked on the TV, even though Sarah doubted he had any interest in Ellen. His eyes drooped like that dog from those old cartoons.

Then there was her. The home town girl who done good, wearing an old hoody and leggings, squatting in the corner on compassionate leave, struggling to bury her dad before he started to stink.

She ordered another whiskey. Then thought about it for a moment longer, and ordered another one on top of that. There was no point just getting one drink, she’d only have to walk back to the bar for another.

******

The young locals rolled in around eight, banged on malt liquor and the torture of small animals.

She moved to the corner, propping herself against the wall. The room swayed around her, and the music was bad. Bad to the point that she was aware that maybe she was finally starting to get older.

The whiskey was starting to taste sour on her tongue, and her thoughts continuously cycled to her father, swirling in her head like a whirlpool.

Someone turned the strobe lights on, and she between the flashes of red and white, she saw the basement door, she saw the key sitting on the table near the photos of the family, and the now wilting flowers.

She saw a guy with a grin on his face making a beeline towards her room, moving in staccato as the lights flashed.

She felt frustrated to the point of tears in an instant. Her dad had died and she stood in a bar black out drunk while a guy asks her if she went to NYU to make shitty small talk while he assesses if she’s drunk enough to be tricked into coming home with him.

“Hi,” the guy said.

He was holding a whiskey in each hand like they were a pair of pistols.

She pretended not to hear. She turned away and scanned the bar, as if looking for someone else.

“I noticed you have good taste in whiskey,” he said. “Have you tried this one?”

He offered her a drink that was probably mostly whiskey.

“Are you serious?” she said.

“Yeah,” he said, completely mistaking her tone. “Completely free, no strings.”

She saw red. It wasn’t the lights.

“Do you seriously think I’d just accept a drink off a guy I’ve never met and gratefully chug it?” she snapped at him. “I’ve no goddamn clue what you’ve put in that.”

She surprised the two of them with that outburst.

“There’s nothing in it,” he replied.

Five years out of college and every guy was still a fucking moron. Five years out of college and her dad was dead.

“What’s your angle here?” she said.

He was wearing expensive jeans and a white t-shirt that barely covered his nipples. He had about as much muscles as a prisoner of war.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” he said, still laughing, but it wasn’t reaching his eyes.

This conversation would happen fifty times tonight, and it was probably his fifth attempt.

“I just want to give you a drink, Christ,” he said. “If you don’t want it, just say.”

“I don’t want it,” she said.

Apparently he wasn’t expecting that response.

“I wasted seven dollars on this fucking drink, just for you.”

“I didn’t ask you to,” she said.

“You could at least thank me.”

“Thank you for a potentially spiked drink that you’re trying to guilt trip me into taking,” she said.

“You’re a stuck up bitch,” he said. “I don’t know why I’m wasting my time.”

“Me either,” she said, feeling numb. “I don’t think I could look any less interested in you if I tried.”

She thought about telling him that her dad had died.

“Fuck you,” he said. Then inexplicably, he added, “Slut.”

He stormed off.

Her half empty drink was shaking in her white knuckled hand. She thought about how her dad dealt with that spineless high school boyfriend of hers. It suddenly seemed more and more like the appropriate approach.

Maybe she should go open the basement and come back here with that rifle. Maybe she should point it right into that dick’s face and blow the entitlement out of the back of his skull and all over the already sticky dance floor. Hatred bubbled in her stomach like acid.

She screamed, but nobody heard it.

*****

“Sarah, you know that your mom means well,” her dad said, at the time.

“She’s a crazy bitch,” she said in response. “She doesn’t have a clue what she means; she has no idea what she’s doing. As long as she’s got a bottle of red wine and a few Xanax, she doesn’t give a fuck.”

This was the point in the well-worn argument where she’d be told; don’t talk that way about your mom. They had both read the play back to front and done seven shows a week on Broadway. It was a roaring success, but the critics had panned it as contrived and repetitive.

“I know,” her dad said.

She doesn’t have a response ready for that one. Line?

“What?”

He rose from the kitchen table, and she thought that he might just head down to the basement and lock the door behind him. That was often his default response when confronted by three screaming women.

“She’s a crazy bitch, but we love her,” he said quietly. “Don’t we?”

She wasn’t sure on that lately. You didn’t have to love your parents, not by default. We were all born loving only ourselves, and the rest of the world had to go some way to earn that love.

“Maybe I don’t,” she said quietly, looking at the floor.

She thought he might hug her, even slap her across the face. Instead he moved to the cupboard.

She was sixteen years old and her mom had told her that there was no point of looking at colleges because she was as dumb as a post and they couldn’t afford to send her even if she did get in.

She wasn’t drunk when she said it.

“She’s a horrible bitch,” Sarah said, feeling her voice break into a whine.

Her dad lifted a bottle of whiskey from the cupboard.

“Want one?” he said, turning and raising the bottle.

He wasn’t sticking to the script.

“I…” she said, stammering. “I don’t drink.”

“Bullshit,” he said, grinning. “You’ve drank from this very bottle before.”

She felt her cheeks burn red.

“Don’t think I don’t notice,” he said. “It’s seventy dollars per bottle. Your sister only drinks gin; your mother only drinks wine. You’re the only one with good taste.”

“I’m sorry, Dad,” she said.

He shook his head and poured her a drink. She took the tumbler of amber liquid from his hard, soft hands.

“Your mom is full of horse shit,” her dad said. “You’re going to college.”

She sipped the whiskey, relishing the burning taste. It was a better burn than the tears prickling the corners of her eyes.

“The only person who decides what you do with your life is you. I can’t boss you around, you mom can’t control you. Do whatever the fuck you want to do.”

He raised the glass to her.

“You do you. Sarah.”

They both drained their glasses, and set them back on the table.

“Can I have another?” she said.

“Fuck, no,” he said. “What kind of father would that make me?”

*****

She felt like she was being followed the entire walk home.

She wondered if there was any more alcohol in the house, but when she saw her mother sprawled and unconscious on the sofa in front of a television showing nothing but static, she knew that the well was likely dry, at least for today.

She staggered down the hallway towards the kitchen, trailing her hands along the wallpapered walls, feeling her way like a blind man.

She wondered if she had ever touched that particular part of the wall before. Was there an inch of this house she hadn’t run her fingers along? It was a strange thought.

The key was in the door to the basement. She wondered if her mother had been down there. She felt a moment of absurd, white hot fury. She imagined putting one of those embroidered cushions; maybe the one with the pug on it, over her mother’s face and holding it there until her body went limp and lifeless.

She had thought the basement was her own cross to bear. That once she had the courage to go down there, she’d have the guts to put everything else in motion. Her mouth was dry and the world was spinning around her, and she might just break her neck tumbling down those old wooden stairs. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?

She turned the key in the door.

The abyss stared back at her. One rotten wooden step at the top, disappearing into a deep well of the darkest ink. She fumbled for the old light string, a piece of dirty, brown rope with an Optimus Prime toy tied to the bottom of it. She tugged from his waist, and the dingy single light bulb at the foot of the stairs brought the basement back to her.

The smell of her dad hit her immediately. Old Spice, sawdust, the faint, tangy undertone of spilled beer and old whiskey. She imagined this was what the interior of a bar would smell like in the Wild West.

Push open those saloon doors. Ask for milk, in a dirty glass.

She laughed to herself as she descended the stairs. She instinctively skipped the forth step from the bottom, it had broken several times, taking Rachel’s ankle with it once when she was just twelve and was much less of an insufferable bitch.

“That’s not nice,” she slurred to herself, aloud.

Rachel wasn’t so bad. Sure, she dodged every responsibility and was flakier than croissant pastry, but at least she hand made all her Christmas gifts.

Sarah remembered the Christmas goose tea cosy. She didn’t drink tea, she ran one hundred per cent on coffee, but still, it was the thought that counted.

She saw her dad’s old workbench, with that high backed leather chair sitting before it. It always looked so strange to have something so elegant down in this dump, with the brick walls and the dirt-packed floor, but that was typical of her father really.

He was a patient and considerate man, who would sit down here, busying himself with cleaning his gun, or whittling wood, playing noise on his shitty old guitar, or just writing rubbish in his notepads.

Sometimes he’d build those weird air fix modules then destroy them right after. He stopped that when his glue started going missing. He thought it was Rachel that had been huffing it. She was fairly ashamed to admit she let her sister take the fall for that one.

Stacks and stacks of paper filled with short stories. Small wooden sculptures of everything in the world. Squirrels, cats, Transformers robots, a huge pug with an inane grin for their mom, which she hated and sent back to the workshop. It was all down here.

On top of the old desk, there was a small wooden family. The edges were rough enough to give you splinters, but she could clearly make out herself, her sister, her mom, and her dad, holding hands like on a Christmas card.

A vignette of the American dream, but family were the friends you couldn’t choose.

She sat heavily in his chair. She couldn’t bear to think about him in a box with his arms neatly crossed over his chest, wearing a suit he wouldn’t be caught dead in…

Ha.

Thinking of him sitting at the desk, alive, breathing, singing to himself, carving wood, writing stories, that was different. The man who saved his whole life to make sure she could leave him alone in this dank and dark place when the time came. The man who cried for her, and she was too stubborn to comfort him.

She put her head on the desk and cried for hours. Quiet, keening sobs that make her throat ache and her chest burn. She soaked that old desk in her tears, the way it had been soaked with spilled beer and whiskey and coffee so many times before.

 

She woke in the morning, with a shard of sunlight cutting through the grime of the little window, warming her hair. It almost felt like someone running fingers through her tangled brown locks.

Her mouth was dry, and she was profoundly hungover, but upstairs, someone was cooking bacon.

She felt not as though the weight in her heart had been lifted, but rather that she had shifted it to one shoulder, like that heavy duffel bag of old gym gear she kept in the nook beside her apartment door. She could manage this. She lifted the wood carving of their family and carried it upstairs.

Turning out the light, she locked the door behind her.

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