H.O.W. Contest Winners, Fiction edition
April 11, 2012 § 2 Comments
HOW is proud to present a preview of the winners of our 2011 writing contest. Five writers were chosen out of hundreds of submissions. All finalists’ work will appear in the next print issue of HOW.
When Eddie saw the job candidate’s name, he smelled the Chesapeake Bay, its saltwater and jellyfish, its speedboat oil. He saw the moon roll a thin silver carpet across the water. He felt his blood fill him everywhere, deliciously, and he felt hands on his chest and in his hair and on his cheeks. He felt lips on his lips as cool and inviting as the night.
But the Alvaro López Eddie knew had returned to Guatemala after the summer they were counselors at Camp Go in Edgewater, Maryland. He had plans to go to college in Guatemala City, buy a coffee finca, live with his future wife and children on the shore of Lake Atitlán. The Alvaro López Eddie knew was history.
Eddie was supposed to meet with this other Alvaro López at two-thirty on Friday. Alvaro was the last of three finalists for the position, a late replacement for a candidate who had withdrawn. Eddie had met already with the two other finalists, whom he had found adequate if uninspiring. He wasn’t on the four-person search committee and had no vote on who was hired. The committee simply wanted his input.
A note at the bottom of Alvaro’s schedule said a copy of his dossier was available at the departmental secretary’s desk. But when Eddie asked to see it, the secretary said one of the committee members had taken it home.
Who needs a candidate’s file, Eddie thought, when there was the Internet. But when, sitting at his desk in his third-floor office with its view of downtown Sherman, Ohio, he Googled Alvaro López, he was greeted with hundreds of Web links to three musicians, one a drummer, another a guitar player, the third a saxophonist. He tried to narrow the search by putting “Alvaro López Guatemala” into the search field. This yielded stories about a drug lord and links to YouTube videos of the guitar player strumming in a dust storm.
Late to pick up his son from preschool, Eddie raced down the stairs to the parking lot and his Nissan. During their summer by the Chesapeake, he had driven an ancient Volkswagen Beetle, which smelled of dirt and Alvaro’s nectarine-scented cologne. On their nights off, he and Alvaro sometimes drove into Washington, D.C., to watch movies and drink beer in Georgetown. One time at the Alligator, a club on K Street, Alvaro, who was five-feet, seven-inches tall only by the most generous measurement but had brilliant black hair, skin a color somewhere between copper and gold, and dark eyes with lush eyelashes, spent an entire night dancing with the young women in the club as Eddie watched from a table. Alvaro spun them, twirled them, drew them into his chest. He was masterful, and Eddie found himself becoming jealous, which was, he suspected, Alvaro’s intention. Later in the Volkswagen, before they reached the camp parking lot, Eddie pulled to the side of the dark road, lined with maple and oak trees, and after clicking off his headlights, grabbed at Alvaro’s slacks in a gesture as much angry as lustful. “Gently,” Alvaro said twice before it was over.
Having propelled himself into the past, Eddie didn’t remember the turns he’d made to reach the Discovery Center, where his son, Adam, was in his second year of preschool. Eight minutes late, he sprinted the ten yards from his car to the front door, his breath filling the February air. “Are you feeling all right?” asked Sabrina, the Discovery Center’s director, after she opened the door for him. She was tall and thin, with straight, gray-black hair and a repertoire of sneers. He had never liked her, but she was a high-school classmate of his wife’s, and he did his best to be friendly.
“I’m fine, thanks,” he panted. He peeked into the playroom, glad to see he wasn’t the only late parent. A blond-haired girl—Lila or Layla, he couldn’t remember—was flicking paint from a brush in the general direction of a piece of paper tacked to an easel. He remembered Ona, the art teacher at Camp Go, who was only two years older than he but was rumored to have been divorced. She had brownish-blond hair and enormous breasts the likes of which he’d encountered only in dirty magazines. He wanted to sleep with her, but his desire made him awkward around her, and he mostly found himself answering her questions about Alvaro. “Do you want me to arrange a threesome?” Alvaro asked him one night as they dried themselves after a swim in the bay. He said, “No,” with a kind of panic, unwilling for Ona—or anyone—to know the extent of his relationship with Alvaro.
“Where’s Adam?” Eddie asked. The answer came from Adam himself. He burst from the bathroom at the far end of the room, his pants down by his knees. “I’m here!” He had a piece of toilet paper in his right hand and a Matchbox car in his left. The blond-haired girl made a squeaking noise before resuming her painting. Eddie ushered Adam back into the bathroom, where he tidied him up.
On their way out of the Discovery Center, Sabrina, who stood beside the door like a witch awaiting trick-or-treaters, said, “Please say hello to Jenny for me.”
Sabrina was the only person Eddie knew who called his wife Jenny. It spoke to an intimacy they had once shared, and from time to time, on little evidence, he speculated about how intimate their relationship had been. “I will,” he said, and passing by her, he drew in a breath of perfume, as strong as a reproach.
In his car, he thought about the candidate. What if he was the Alvaro López he knew? What if he was hired? How long would their history stay secret?
“Go, daddy!” Adam shouted from the back seat of the car. “Go, go, go!”
Eddie dug in his pocket for his car key, but he realized he had already put it in the ignition. He started the car, then turned around to look out his rear window. His eyes fell on his son in his car seat. With his reddish-blond hair and pinpoint orange freckles, he looked like Jennifer. He wondered how he would feel if his son grew up to be gay. Of course what he and Alvaro had done at Camp Go had nothing to do with being gay; they were simply young and curious and full of displaced lust. He wondered if what they’d done had been a never-to-be-repeated experiment for Alvaro as well. He wondered what Alvaro would think of Sherman, whose voters had recently declined to reelect the two openly homosexual city council members because they had proposed a gay-pride parade.
He turned on a CD—Free to Be You and Me, his wife’s nostalgia purchase—and listened to two babies speculate about whether they were boys or girls as he and Adam drove home. They lived in a two-story redbrick house in The Summit, a gated community in the hills on the west side of town. The realtor had spoken of the spectacular views, and while it was true one could see the Sky River from the guest bedroom, the most prominent landmark within eyesight was the coal-fired power plant north of town. Eddie had once compared it to a serial masturbator, its long, thin smokestack shooting carbon dioxide into the sky in a never-ending orgasm of pollution.
His wife wasn’t home, but the house was Jennifer personified. There were photos of her, and her and Adam, and her and the three of them, on the piano, on the mantel, on top of the television. The rooms were painted, by Jennifer herself, in her favorite colors. The place smelled like she did, of a perfume Eddie remembered from their first date; of coffee, which she drank by the pot; and of horses, which she rode twice a week at a stable half an hour out of town.
“Well, what do we want to do, A-man?” he asked his son. Adam wanted to watch TV, which Eddie wasn’t supposed to encourage; Jennifer thought TV stifled originality and creativity. She was right, of course, but Eddie was tired, so he grabbed a beer out of the fridge. He walked back into the living room and plopped down on the couch. Adam had already commandeered the channel changer.
An hour and twenty minutes later, when he heard Jennifer’s car pull into the drive, he turned off the television to a cascade of disapproval from Adam and rushed out to the back porch to bury his four Sam Adams bottles in the recycling bin. Jennifer had been horseback riding, and she smelled of horses and hay. Adam raced up to her, wrapped his arms around her legs, then darted off toward his toys at the back of the house.
“Welcome,” Eddie said, suppressing a burp.
“What’ve you been doing?” Jennifer asked, glancing around, suspicion in her eyes.
“Relaxing,” he said.
“Father-son time. All good.”
“I’m starving,” she said. “I don’t suppose you made dinner.”
Eddie snapped his fingers. “Forgot.”
She shook her head, but she was smiling as she slipped past him and into the kitchen. He might have joined her to peel carrots or cut apples, but the beers had made him languid, and he plopped back onto the couch. The sounds from the kitchen were a soporific; anything shy of a thunderclap would have been. Before he closed his eyes, he tried to remember the last time he and Jennifer had made love.
He awoke to his son’s loud voice: “No more dreams, Daddy! No more dreams!”
At several points during dinner, Eddie thought he might bring up Alvaro’s name, if only because Alvaro wouldn’t leave his thoughts. He was relieved when Jennifer finished dinner and asked Adam if he wanted to take a walk. Eddie had declined these outings so often Jennifer had stopped inviting him. He heard them leave with a soft shutting of the front door.
What would Jennifer say if she learned he’d had sex with a man? Would she be horrified? Probably. But he would explain that his relationship with Alvaro had occurred half a lifetime ago, when he didn’t know himself, when he was experimenting with everything. She might ask him if he had been afraid of AIDS. He probably should have been, but he and Alvaro were so young, it didn’t occur to him to worry. If Jennifer blanched at his disclosure, however, he could point to her own experiments in same-sex sex. During college, she’d become involved with a fellow horseback rider, also named Jennifer. Eddie had found something comic about a Jennifer bedding a Jennifer or vice versa, and his reaction had been to laugh and tease her. He doubted she would find his revelation funny. Besides, the time to confess had been early in their relationship.
Presently, he found himself on the second floor, standing in front of the full-length mirror nailed to the closet door in his and Jennifer’s bedroom. He removed his sweater and T-shirt and stared at his chest. Hair swirled around his nipples, met in the middle of his breastbone, and cascaded toward his bellybutton. He’d borne this hirsute letter T since he was sixteen. What was new, or new within the last half decade, was the relative flabbiness of his chest, his budding man-breasts, his rub-a-dub-dub-three-men-in-a-tub paunch. He used to run and lift weights, but since Adam’s birth, he’d given up regular exercise.
He remembered how he and Alvaro, at midnight, used to leave their campers dreaming and slip down to the shore. They would walk to the end of the pier and strip in the moonlight, piling their clothes into two tiny volcanoes. Alvaro’s chest was hairless and flat, like gold slate. His other features—his feet, his thighs, his ass—were as small, as dainty even, as a girl’s, and sometimes Eddie would have him before they dove into the water. After swimming and floating on their backs and talking in the radiant moonlight, he would have him again on the dry dock.
Eddie had pushed his trousers and underwear to his feet, and he was gazing at his naked body, at his tangled brown pubic hair and his circumcised penis, swelling in his hand.
“What’re you doing, Daddy?” Adam stood in the doorframe, gazing at him with a half smile. He marched next to Eddie. “Can I show the mirror my penis too?”
Before Eddie could answer, Adam pulled down his pants. He mimicked the solemn look on Eddie’s face. A moment passed. “What are we doing, Daddy?”
Eddie thought to say something about a testicular exam. But Adam would follow up with questions, and his lies would find their way to Jennifer. He sighed, gazing at himself. Somewhere beneath the body he owned now was the body he’d owned when he was eighteen, like a beautiful, hard Russian nesting doll. He said, “We’re seeing who we are.”
Adam puffed up his chest in imitation of his father. “Yes, we are,” he said.
But when Eddie heard Jennifer coming up the steps, he quickly pulled up his underwear and pants and whispered, “The show’s over.”
As Jennifer read a goodnight story to Adam, Eddie grabbed his running shoes from the closet. They were at least five years old, but they looked new, the silver outlines on the black swoops shining. They even had a new-shoe smell. He changed his clothes and put on sweatpants and a T-shirt. He popped into Adam’s room to tell Jennifer where he was going. “Running?” she asked, as if she hadn’t heard him. But she gave him an encouraging smile.
Outside in the crisp air, he felt exhilarated. This lasted all of ten seconds before his body recognized what it was being asked to do. He felt a dull ache from feet to ears. His breathing became the breathing of someone on Mount Everest whose supplemental oxygen had run out. But even as his body said stop, his brain, fearing a capitulation to soft and flabby, urged it on. He ran a mile to Sherman High School and ran two miles around the school’s track. The route on his return was uphill and he found himself slowing to a near walk. But he never gave in entirely, and when his house was in sight, he sprinted like a man in pursuit of a medal.
In the kitchen, Eddie dropped to the floor. He was on pushup twenty-two when he heard Jennifer’s steps. He continued, finishing thirty (he’d wanted to do fifty). He collapsed and looked up at her standing in the doorframe. It was only nine o’clock, but she had on pajamas. They were baby blue and baggy and hid all of her curves, which were subtle to begin with. “You’re very cute, in a mid-life crisis kind of way,” she said. “Keep panting, I’m going to change.”
She returned in black underwear and a black bra, and after a brief attempt at sex on the kitchen floor, which proved cold, hard, and the bearer of two smashed grapes, they walked upstairs to their bedroom. She threw a towel over the lamp and turned on the CD player on their bedside table. It was Tori Amos’s latest, her voice high and elongating syllables beyond recognition. Eddie remembered one night when lightning and rain had spoiled their midnight swim, he and Alvaro sneaked into the boathouse, whose second floor hosted the camp’s drama classes. Alvaro discovered a long, red wig and a toy pistol, and after he slid the pistol over to Eddie, he put on the wig and pretended to be Tori Amos singing “Me and a Gun.” Eddie had heard the song a few times, and he found the lyrics chilling and disturbingly stirring, but Alvaro changed the words, and Barbados became not a place to dream of while being sexually assaulted but an oasis they were creating, a paradise of heat, lust, and soon-to-be fulfilled desire.
In their queen-sized bed with rose-colored sheets, Eddie and Jennifer climaxed simultaneously, something they hadn’t achieved since before Adam was born. “My God, that was good,” Jennifer said, collapsing next to him. “I don’t know why we don’t do that more often.”
Although Eddie had reviewed Alvaro López’s dossier that morning and realized exactly who the candidate was, it was hard to accept him as real, so profound a part of his fantasy life had he become. But after Seymour Stolzenberg, the department head, with his crooked glasses and gray beard stubble, said, “Fifteen minutes and I’ll be back,” Alvaro—his Alvaro—was alone in his presence. Eddie’s first impulse was to rush up to him, embrace him, say, “How the hell have you been?” This, he remembered, was how the two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain had reunited. No, they’d done an embrace one more by kissing like they hoped to pull the breath from each other’s lungs. But he hadn’t loved Alvaro. They’d been two boys full of life and lust, and he, anyway, had outgrown this manifestation of his curiosity and desire. At the same time, he remembered lying on the dock with Alvaro after their swim, after sex, and staring at the stars, talking about whatever they wanted. He seemed to remember holding Alvaro’s hand.
Alvaro hadn’t changed aside from his face, which seemed heavier around the mouth and chin. His hair was the same vivid black, and he was as slim as an exclamation point. “Come on in, Alvaro,” Eddie said, and he offered him his hand to shake. Alvaro’s hand was cool, small, smooth. “Here, have a seat.”
As Alvaro sat in the hardback chair in front of Eddie’s desk, Eddie found it difficult to read his expression. Was he nervous? Pleased? He couldn’t have been surprised: Eddie’s name had been on Alvaro’s interview itinerary. He’d had time to wonder if Eddie was the Eddie. Their eyes connected, moved off each other, connected again. “Well,” Eddie said, and he was about to launch into his usual speech about what he did at the company when Alvaro said, “It was because of you.”
Eddie’s heart rumbled. He’d wondered if his employment with the company was the reason Alvaro wanted the job. To have his suspicion confirmed scared him. But beneath his fear, there was something less frightening or, rather, frightening in a thrilling way.
“My career,” Alvaro said. “You helped start my career.”
Eddie released a breath, relieved but also disappointed.
“Do you remember how, during the inventions contest at camp, you built the solar shower?” Alvaro asked.
It was a twenty-gallon tank lined with tinfoil and surrounded by magnifying glasses to intensify the sun’s rays. For three straight days before the judging, the skies were overcast. The water in the shower was as chilly as if it had been pulled from a mountain creek. “It was a colossal failure,” Eddie said, smiling.
“For the contest it was, yes. But do you remember a week afterwards, during the evening of a very hot day?”
They’d tested the shower together, first in their bathing suits, then, assured no one was around, without them, and the water had been perfect, a few degrees shy of hot. He nodded, smiling more cautiously this time. He didn’t want to engage Alvaro in a reminiscence of their relationship. He was worried it would give him permission to mention their connection casually to whomever he met today. “It was long ago,” he offered.
“Yes, but it was the spark I needed. I went back to Guatemala and I founded my company, and soon we were selling low-cost solar ovens in poor villages in the orient. And before long, we were even selling—yes,” and he smiled warmly, and Eddie, recognizing his smile from a lifetime ago, smiled back, “solar showers.”
There was a long pause. The smile left Alvaro’s face. “But then I had to leave the country.”
“The war. We had begun selling in the Petén, and when you sell cheap to campesinos in a war zone, no matter the profit you make, the army thinks you are a communist. So I began to receive death threats. And, one day, as I was driving in Chiquimula, far from the war zone, an army jeep pulled next to me and—.” Alvaro made a pistol of his right hand.
For Eddie, there had always been something at once terrifying and titillating about the casual violence in Alvaro’s country. He justified his occasional roughness with Alvaro by thinking of what he might be facing at home. “They shot at you?”
“They shot at my engine. Destroyed my car.” He paused. “It was a warning.”
“So you came to the States,” Eddie said. “And you’ve been working here ever since.”
“You’re a U.S. citizen now.”
Alvaro gazed at him. Was his look conspiratorial? “I was married. It lasted two and a-half years. No children.”
“I have a son,” Eddie said. He didn’t mention Jennifer. There was more Eddie wanted to know about Alvaro, more he wanted to tell about himself. But the situation precluded this. “Why would you like to work here?”
Eddie half expected him, perhaps even wanted him, to say, “Because you’re here.”
“Your great spirit of invention,” he said. “There is cautious invention, and there is your fearlessness. You risk ridicule. You continue anyway.”
Eddie wondered if “you” was intended to refer to him or the company. They’d been so reckless; it was amazing the entire camp didn’t know about them. He was terrified they would be discovered. But night would fall, the camp would settle down into cricket chirps and sleep, and he and Alvaro would escape to the lake. Yes, I haven’t seen Barbados—but I’m going to tonight.
“I’ll mention this to you only,” Alvaro said, his voice lowered. “I have another offer, from a company in Spain. It’s attractive, but I love what you do here. This is where I’d like to be.”
Eddie felt his heart race again. What if Alvaro moved to Sherman? He’d ask him to keep their past a secret, and they could be friends. He would introduce him to Jennifer. It might all work out.
There was a brief silence before Eddie said, “I’ll tell you a little about what I do here.”
“I know what you do,” Alvaro said.
Eddie must have looked surprised because Alvaro held up his hand and, smiling gently, said, “But of course I would like to hear this from you.”
“All right,” he said, and he began his usual spiel. It was as if he had memorized lines to play a part, and because he knew them perfectly, he could think about anything as he spoke. He wondered again what would happen if Alvaro was offered the job. He felt terror, and beneath it something like the opposite, and he reached the end of his talk at the same time Seymour Stolzenberg opened his door and said, “All done?”
The answer, Eddie thought, depended on what his colleagues decided about Alvaro.
Alvaro stood and so did Eddie. “Nice to meet you, Alvaro.” Eddie couldn’t keep the grin off his face as he shook Alvaro’s hand.
“Very nice to meet you, Eddie. Very nice.” A smile—and a wink? Eddie might have imagined it—and Alvaro was gone.
Distracted, his mind wandering, Eddie didn’t finish what he’d hoped to at work until late. It didn’t matter. It was Jennifer’s turn to pick up Adam, and he’d called and told her he wouldn’t make it home in time for dinner. It was eight-thirty by the time he left the office.
His route home took him downtown past the Hotel Sherman, where Alvaro was staying. He slowed and pulled into a parking space across from it. A doorman in a ridiculous red top hat stood outside. Eddie was happy to see he was sneaking a cigarette. Eddie considered what would happen if he walked into the hotel and asked whoever was at the front desk to let Alvaro López know he had arrived. Alvaro would invite him up to his room. He would open the mini bar. They would have a drink.
But he didn’t allow himself to imagine what would happen next. He wasn’t like some reckless politician who would risk everything to consort with pages and prostitutes, videographers and interns. Such men—and they were inevitably men—had no foresight. They couldn’t see past the pleasures of their blowjobs and sock-wearing tumbles in hotel beds with Russian émigrés who haven’t outgrown their acne but charge a thousand an hour. They couldn’t see how stupid it is to treat a good, steady life—a life anyone would envy—like a chip on a roulette table.
Alvaro had only a one in three chance of being hired. If he didn’t get the job, Eddie might never see him again. He could at least say hello, catch up a little more on his life. He stepped out of the car, but only, he decided, to breathe the air. The doorman tossed his cigarette stub into the street. It rolled, its orange light sparking. He and Alvaro could have a drink, couldn’t they? Two old friends? This wasn’t reckless or stupid. This was civil and polite.
From somewhere nearby, Eddie heard a baby crying. He remembered the night he and Jennifer had brought Adam home from the hospital. At three in the morning, Adam, sleeping in a Moses basket in the middle of the bed, had released such a terrible howl, Eddie sprung immediately for the phone, prepared to dial 911. But Jennifer wasn’t concerned, and she quieted their son soon enough with her breast. Eddie had been unable to fall back to sleep. He had realized his life would now be dedicated to staving off whatever would cause Adam to feel such anguish.
He returned to his car and drove home. The house was dark. Jennifer had forgotten to leave the porch light on. She’d locked the front door, and in the darkness, he put the wrong key in the lock. For a moment, he thought it might be stuck. But he was able to extricate it with force. He stepped under a streetlight in order to find the right key, then returned to his front door and let himself in.
Jennifer had gone to bed but had left his dinner on the kitchen table. The salmon and asparagus were cold but he didn’t put the meal in the microwave. He drank a beer with dinner and drank another in the living room, the lights off. He thought about Alvaro. He thought about Adam’s cry. There was something—no, everything—primal about its anguish and plea. But if a baby’s or a child’s cries had simple remedies, an adult’s—a man’s—well… But I should be happy. I am happy. I am.
The weekend came, and if Eddie hadn’t forgotten Alvaro, even for an hour, he had saved serious thought of him for private moments, when Jennifer and Adam were asleep, when he had the night to himself. On Monday, he picked up Adam at preschool, and it was Adam’s teacher, Veronica, instead of Sabrina who remained after school. Veronica was his age, slim and dark-haired and unmarried. If he’d wanted to have an affair, here was his chance. But there were good reasons he’d chosen a life straight and narrow. He was a good father, a good husband, and this mattered to him. It would be easy to make his life implode, but he wasn’t this dumb.
The next day, there was a knock on his office door. He opened it to find Seymour Stolzenberg and the three other members of the search committee standing outside. After Eddie invited them in and they’d sat down, Seymour said, “Well, as might have been expected when we decided on a four-person committee, we’re deadlocked. Instead of flipping a coin, we thought we’d employ you as the tiebreaker.”
“Alvaro,” Eddie said, as if he’d been prepared for the question. At the same time, he was stunned by his impulsiveness, his reckless desire to have his cry answered the only way it could be. He saw the future light up in fire, but his heart dashed like a boy racing toward the bay. “Alvaro López,” he said, as if they might misunderstand.
Seymour looked at his colleagues before turning back to Eddie. “He wasn’t one of the two we had in mind.”
Already Eddie had bolted ahead to Alvaro’s welcome, to the help he would give him in finding a place to live. He imagined the realtor waiting on the front porch as they revisited the second floor, the master bedroom.
Eddie recovered, offered the name of another candidate. But after the committee members left, he heard the echo of his voice enunciating Alvaro’s name—like a lover would in bed—and he felt transparent, exposed. It was as if they’d known about him and Alvaro and had only been waiting for his confirmation. They’d wanted to embarrass him. They’d wanted him to speak his humiliating desire.
But of course they didn’t know anything. Only he knew, and maybe this was worse. Only he knew what he’d been willing to lose. Only he knew what he’d lost.
Mark Brazaitis’s most recent book of stories, The Incurables, won the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in the winter. He is also the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and An American Affair, winner of the George Garrett Fiction Prize. His book of poems, The Other Language, won the ABZ Poetry Prize. He directs the Creative Writing Program at West Virginia University.