As a special online supplement to the Spring 2011 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2010 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest.
Every couple years my sister Sarah uses my apartment as a sort of way station between schools that award degrees you’ve never heard of. She’s got a paper certificate from a program in Lithuania with some dean’s signature Xeroxed along the bottom, and above that Sarah’s small name penned in her own hand. By now she’s an associate of astronomy and something to do with animals, and I’d ask her if she plans on racking up the qualifications until the money runs out, but the money never runs out, and worse is that she’d ask me if I have any better ideas, and I’m tired of losing arguments.
Sarah was due for another visit and Mom and Dad were in Greece. They’d sent a crate of pomegranates, each wrapped in a sheet of crepe paper, and I ate them on the sofa, tearing them apart with a silver letter opener. There was also an envelope with a fresh bolus of cash, and a note that read, “please share.”
I tweezed out a bill and spent it on milk and Lucky Charms at the bodega around the corner. I could’ve sent Pete, my doorman, but the bodega is good for me, it gets me out. It’s run by a couple from Pakistan and they are very old and appear to love each other and seem to have been made kind by way of some violence I might have seen on the news. The husband reaches for tea bags that his wife stores on the highest shelf. It’s good for me to get out and see that. You can’t eat pomegranates three meals a day. It’s just seeds.
When I got back, Pete was standing at his desk.
“Got a girl here for you. Says she’s your relation.” Sarah was in the lobby, folded up in a big leather chair. Pete’s hand sat on his phone, waiting to dial a doctor or a cop.
Pete was new and didn’t know I had a sister, and so I entertained some unbrotherly options that I might have chosen in nastier times. Once, when I was supposed to be watching her, I left Sarah at a party in a London apartment and took a young woman to Amsterdam. When I returned three days later, Sarah was in the same place, folding her laundry on the floor. But this time I had just come back from the bodega and had made some sentimental promises to myself, so I picked up Sarah’s duffel and she followed me to the elevator.
“You dyed your hair,” I said. The bodega had filled me with good feelings that made me talk loud.
“It’s black now.”
“It is.” She asked me what I was doing these days.
“Stuff,” I lied, then asked where she’d been.
“School,” she sighed, “in Beijing.” We hadn’t spoken in a while and that was enough words to get us to the sixteenth floor.
“Is this blood?” She stood before the sofa speckled in crimson. Mom and Dad had sent it from France. Its back is curved and asymmetrical and lined with fancy wood. Two men in weight belts had set it by the elevator, and it looked like you’d get in trouble if you touched it.
“Who’s hungry?” I called from the kitchen, feeling happy and a tad dumb. I took a bowl from the sink and thumbed off a line of congealed milk.
Sarah had moved to the balcony, where she squatted by the railing to inspect a row of miniature horses carved from pine. She held one with a missing leg to her big eyes. I’d dropped it earlier and its leg had gone skittering through the rungs and into the air. “I’m not sure I can eat right now,” she said, taking the bowl and crying a little and walking back inside.
Maybe, I thought, I should be worried. Maybe this was a hugging situation. But I am not the kind of person who can enter a room and wrap my arms around another human being. And maybe anyone would’ve looked that heartbroken, standing in their socks under a gray sky, staring at a maimed toy at close range.
I grabbed a pomegranate and lobbed it high, and it sank into a thick oak, and little birds rioted. By a hotel entrance, a squad of tourists took cover behind a luggage rack. A jogger in a magenta tracksuit stopped to ponder the pre-rain sky, and at some point Sarah lay down on the sofa and took a nap.
Then Mom called.
“We’re reconnecting,” I told her, not technically a lie, depending on your standards. “We played checkers,” I added, untrue from all angles. I worked toward a cheerful moment when I could ask for money. From the sofa, Sarah’s mouth made tiny popping sounds.
“That’s lovely, darling.” A helicopter whined awake in the background and I thought I could hear my dad arguing with someone, maybe Daniel, their driver, who is also their pilot. Mom checks in on me like this sometimes. She asked me if I’d received the porcelain soap dish.
“How long do you think she’ll stay?” I yelled over the helicopter, and I imagined my parents arcing away into a red and inflamed evening, and soon I was running down the emergency exit and past Pete in the lobby and was at the bodega again, perusing gum and thinking about my life.
I stood before a shelf of vitamin drinks and watched the way the Pakistani couple drank tea and didn’t talk, and I thought that I should be able to do that with the people I was supposed to love, and how that might require some unpleasant efforts, and how on a few glum days I’d promised myself a better, wholesome attitude. The Pakistani wife said that I did not look healthy and suggested ginseng, that a little ginseng tea would make me right, and I felt reassured and embarrassed for thinking I’d run through my stock of chances. On the street corner, beneath the oak, lay the hairy wreckage of a nest. I set a vitamin drink on Pete’s desk. My elevator ride was calm.
Sarah had gotten into a box of stone animals and tossed one up and down. It was a red lizard with beady lapis eyes. She let it drop on the floor and it broke into five clean chunks that clattered into the trim, making red dents and then resting beside other chunks of other quadrupeds. I could see that she was near the end of an unsavory period and was waiting for it to sputter out, and that being here wasn’t her choice. I wouldn’t want to live like me, not all of a sudden. You’ll sprain something if you just start doing nothing all the time.
“Sorry,” said Sarah. “I didn’t think you’d mind if I broke some things. I’m in a mood.”
“Everybody has them.”
She tried not to smile but did, then attended to a thin black box with a silver clasp. “So. How’s Samantha?”
She meant Susan, probably. Last time Sarah was in town, the three of us went out to an expensive sushi meal, and they had seemed to get along well, chatting about hair, and I believed peaceful times lay ahead. But Susan threw some parties in my home and brought friends I had never met, and one evening I caught this guy emptying a champagne magnum into a backpack lined with plastic. He had a red beard braided into a tight nub on his chin, and by the end of the night the bag leaked a trail that ended at Susan’s apartment, and the next day I had my locks changed. Since then I’d been cutting down on people-related activities. For a while I’d enrolled in some classes and attempted some poems and believed I had a plan, but now as long as I kept paying tuition, no one bothered me.
“Samantha’s great. Did you like China?”
“I did, up till the end.” She opened the box. Inside was a pair of sealskin gloves, and she pinched them at the forefingers and held them to the side like something dead. “Do you know where they are?”
“Greece, I think. These days they like islands.”
The gloves slapped the floor. “They don’t answer when I call. Isn’t that weird? Do you still talk to them?”
“Kind of. I’m hungry. How about we eat a sandwich? I’ve got bread and stuff.”
“How are we supposed to live like this?” she asked me. “Don’t you ever worry about that? About how we’re supposed to live?”
“Same way anyone else does, I guess.” I wasn’t good at these sorts of questions. “There’s probably some unifying principle.” I could feel the room turning sad, so I went to the kitchen and foraged a can of tuna, then went to work on a dinner. We ate on the long and thin table in the dining room and I counted the months since I’d eaten there or since I’d eaten with anyone. At the table’s center stood aluminum salt and pepper shakers shaped into futuristic lilies, and Sarah held one to her nose and frowned, then sat with her arms crossed and glared at a spiderweb that hung in the glowing chandelier. Light prismed through the chandelier crystals and bite-size rainbows decorated her mouth.
“Good, huh,” I tried. The bread was, I thought, a touch sour.
“I hope so. You’re the one eating it. Did you hear about Nana?” she asked, summoning the largish Mexican lady who’d fed and dressed us until we hit an age legal for boarding school. “She died last year.”
“Geez. That’s awful.” Nana would force me into tiny stiff suits and then take us to a grassy pond with some ducks, and she’d watch me throw pebbles at them while she ate crackers and petted Sarah’s head. One day, when I was a little bigger, I pegged a mallard in the neck and it tipped over and floated into the reeds, and Nana pinched my shoulder and told me I had some hard thinking to do. I wanted a big snake to crawl out from somewhere and eat her. “How’d she die?”
“I don’t know, her daughter wasn’t specific.” I’d forgotten Nana had one, and Sarah must have seen this in my face. “We have a letter thing going,” she explained. She looked out to the balcony, where suddenly it was night. “You really should have visited her. Queens is what, five miles away? When I went she’d make me tea and read me those stories she used to tell us at bedtime.”
“I don’t know, Sarah. That wasn’t so much my thing. How about you stop picking at it?” I turned over a wad of tuna in my mouth. I wanted to forget about it so I could swallow it and be done.
“Fine.” She took a wrinkled joint from her jeans pocket and lit it with a match, then set the match on the table where its head smoldered into the lacquer. Sarah smiled at it. “Remember that story with the grumpy cat?”
“No.” In the end, the grumpy cat had made friends with a troll. But if it hadn’t made friends then the troll would have gobbled it up, and I grew up acting nice to the people who could hurt me. I tallied the envelopes of money that I’d crammed in my goose-down pillow and thought about a hotel. “Listen, are you comfortable here? I wonder if you should be in a place where you can eat something and sleep and be comfortable.” The Ritz, I thought. “Yes, the Ritz. Wouldn’t you like the Ritz?”
Sarah gave me and my half sandwich a hard look, and told me not to worry, that she planned to leave tomorrow, that a friend would pick her up in the morning.
We watched TV. Soon it was just infomercials and we settled on one with a woman who’d invented a plastic tube that filled with steam and cleaned your toothbrush. “Jesus Christ,” said Sarah. She chewed on a finger and placed a ragged sliver of nail on the armrest.
Outside, a pale morning began, and the clouds lowered. Sarah fell asleep with her neck bent like a crooked doll’s, her hair falling past the edge of her shoulder, and she snored through her mouth while I poured some breakfast and ate it on the balcony, using my spoon to wrangle the green marshmallows to the side of the bowl. I flicked one of the tiny pine horses over the rail, but it vanished before it could hit pavement.
Sarah awoke and stood as if she’d forgotten something important, and looked around the upper regions of the room and along the extravagantly layered trim. Her face tensed as she pulled together some key facts about this place that recent events had delivered. She said she should probably be going, saying the words slowly, and she gathered her duffel and I followed her down to the sidewalk.
“Where’s your friend?” I asked.
“His name’s Tim. We’re meeting at his place. But hey, we should all go out and do something.”
“Sounds like fun.” My stomach cramped somewhat, and in the area above it there flared a brief itch to grab Sarah by the neck and pull her into the bodega. I wanted her to witness the Pakistani wife drop pinches of fragrant powder into her husband’s loafers, or some other irreducible act of kindness.
A cab slid into the street before us, and Sarah took her duffel in one arm and hugged me with the other, and left.
It was good that we didn’t go to the bodega, because to go there that morning might have put a crack in it, and I’d need those Pakistanis for years to come, because they would see me through my mom’s snowmobile accident, and then Sarah’s marriage to Phil, who had a not-so-bad pill addiction, and then my own much worse pill addiction, and then Sarah’s miscarriage and divorce. But none of that had happened yet, and I puttered through a cloudy morning and wondered why sad days descended upon me. Most everything I’d learned about people turned out to be wrong and so I hoped I hadn’t learned much in the first place.
Pete had just begun his shift when I entered the lobby, and he asked if my sister was having a nice visit. I asked him about his life and he talked about night school and a pending CPA license, and his eyes softened as he described the condo that his wife wanted.
I couldn’t go back to the place where half a tuna sandwich waited, so I circled the block, then paused by the oak that I’d rained fruit upon.
From a low branch, a finch glared.
I thought of my dad, shooting skeet on a high Scottish bog by our summer estate on the coast. Nana was somewhere cooking and Mom and Sarah and I lounged in plastic recliners and watched Dad assassinate clay discs, interrupting their calm arc over a gray and corrugated sea. A gull rose past the edge of the cliff, and my dad took aim, and it fell with the grace of a used dish towel, and my mom clapped, and then Sarah and I clapped, and from then on I thought we were supposed to applaud when someone killed something that lived in the sky.
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