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ALEXA BEATTIE

 

 

Alexa Beattie

Alexa Beattie – a Londoner by birth and in spirit – began her writing career as a “cops, courts and schools” reporter for a weekly newspaper just outside Washington, D.C. She went on to become a food writer and producer for washingtonpost.com. Her food articles have appeared in The Washington Post; her fiction in Philadelphia's First City Review. She and her family have since moved to the Connecticut countryside where she has recently completed a collection of short stories, and is wondering about a novel.

 

 

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Cold Cut

 First place, Seán Ó Faoláin Competition

 

The father said the boy had fallen. That the train had jerked forward all of a sudden and the boy, not paying attention, had lurched and blown out his cheekbone on the metal struts of the seat in front. That’s what happened, the father said, popping the cap on a Pabst and putting it to his already moistened lips.

          “Poor little guy,” the uncle said, standing there. “Too bad,” and took a beer for himself from the case in the refrigerator.

 

The children next door were skipping beneath a sprinkler, following under it as it arced slowly back and forth. In the afternoon sunlight, it was as if the drops were held together in one long glittering strand. Backwards and forwards. Backwards and forwards.

“Too bad about that face,” said Bill, the uncle, gesturing toward the boy sitting with his back to them on the step. “A real shiner.” The boy could hear clearly, but he kept his back turned. He listened to the sound of laughter coming from the children next door and watched the trail of an airplane as it inched its way across the spotless blue sky.

“Time for another,” Bob said shaking his empty bottle from side to side like it was a bell he was ringing. As he went inside, the screen door rocked loudly in its frame.

“Another cold one, Bill?”

Bill didn’t answer but Bob would bring him one anyway

In the kitchen where the women were, the light was fingering its way in through the slats in the blinds, shadows of leaves dappling thinly on the counter where the cigarettes and ashtrays were.

“Any cold ones going spare?” Bob said, already pulling on the refrigerator door. “You ladies, what are you drinking?”

“Barb and I were just talking,” Sue said. “I was telling about our journey out here. The train and all. How that was.”

Bob looked at his wife, but didn’t say anything.

“You boys’ll want some lunch, I bet,” said Barb. “I’ve got some cold cuts in the fridge, some pickles and whatnot. We could make sandwiches. Would Frankie like a sandwich, do you think?”

 

Next door, the children were taking turns sliding down the grass to the sidewalk. The muddier their bodies became, the louder they shrieked. The father wiped the sweat off his bottle and pressed it to his brow. He plucked at the neck of his t-shirt where the u-shaped patch of moisture clung. The men had lit cigarettes and were holding them backwards, cupping them behind their hands like there was a strong wind they were trying to shield them from.

“It’s a scorcher alright,” Bill said, wiping his lip with a broad sweep of his tongue. “A real scorcher.”

“So how’d he get that shiner, again?” Bill said, poking his beer in the boy’s direction and holding on to the porch railing. “The train, you said. How was the train, anyway? That’s a long-ass trip.”

Bob said, Yes it was. But if you napped and took frequent trips to the dining car, it actually went by fast. Not too bad at all. “Should do it more often. Or else you guys come out and see us next time.”

The boy was standing now, cupping his eye with his hand and holding his other arm out straight. He looked like he was checking his vision. How many fingers. In the brassy midday sunlight, the bruise looked almost pretty, all purples and blues and ever so slightly green. But the blood had seeped into his eye and was spreading inward towards the green of his iris, captured there like water under glass. It made him look like a boxer, only his frame was too small.

 

On the porch, the men were getting on to the subject of sports. Batting averages, standings, and so forth. They joshed a bit with each other and rolled back on their heels. They lit cigarettes and took down gulps of smoke.

“Fancy another?” Bob said, adding his bottle to the line of “dead soldiers” along the porch railing. He did that at home too and his wife didn’t like it. She’d even brought out a cardboard box for empties because she said it didn’t give a good impression to the neighbors. There were seven of them lined up, but the man couldn’t remember who was winning.

Still with his good eye closed the boy was using his thumb to measure things: a tree, the Trans Am parked a few houses up and finally, the children dancing in and around the sprinkler. It was hotter now and the water from the sprinkler hitting the sidewalk sent up a thick muggy smell like rain on hot tarmac. Standing there, the boy looked for all the world like he might be aiming an arrow, or a gun. The children mostly didn’t notice, or if they did only stopped to look for a moment or two. They weren’t that much younger than him and in different circumstances might have invited him to play.

Bill knew lunch wasn’t far off because he could hear the clatter of plates from the kitchen, the tinkle of knives and forks. Barb would be going out of her way to make things nice. It wasn’t often they had company. He was feeling hot now. The sweat was running in beads down his back, and the idea of lunch in the cool dining room was appealing to him. He was watching the children in the water, their liberated play. He and Barb didn’t know the neighbors that well even though they’d lived there some time. But Bill was sure to say, “Hi” when he saw them getting out of the car. They gave candy to the kids at Halloween. He liked to see them out like this, playing happily in the street. It reminded him of when he was a kid.

Someone had taken the sprinkler off the hose and now all hell had broken loose. The little boy had it and, by putting his thumb over the hole, made chaotic squirts that were sending the girls running. Frankie had stopped his measuring and had gone to sit down on the grass between the two houses. It was almost as if, in this heat, he wanted to get hit, to be as drenched as they were.

“Five minutes ‘till lunch, boys,” Barb shouted from inside. “Better be hungry.”

“Hear that, Frankie” Bill said. “Lunch in a few.”

Frankie still had his back to the men. He was watching the little boy hold the hose more like a pistol and blasting it into the bodies of his sisters. He could feel the blood in his eye as a tightness, like his eye was bulging. Where the skin had broken beneath the eye, the blood was dark and clotted like whatever had hit him had done a damn good job.

Bob said he was starving. That there was nothing like travel to give him an appetite. He said he hoped Barb would have made her famous potato salad.

“That sister of mine sure can cook,” he said, snapping the bottle out of his mouth and holding it up in a mock toast.

When Sue came out to say lunch was ready, she looked at Bob and the bottles, and then at Frankie who was still sitting on the lawn between the two houses. The children had stopped their water games and were sitting on the steps stripping bits of candy rope. One of them looked at Frankie and gave a quarter smile. Then he got back to his stripping. The girls looked around then and one of them waved.

 

Sue and Barb had been having their own little party in the kitchen, smoking cigarettes and loosening up with their talk. They weren’t really drinking, just smoking, taking puffs between chopping or whatever it was they were doing. Barb said it was a shame about poor Frankie and wondered how long eyes like that lasted. Did they manage to ice it on the train, she asked. It must have hurt, she said, falling on metal like that. Was there anything she could give him to make him feel better? Just one of her lunches would do the world of good, Sue said, hooking her finger into the potato salad.

“Mmmm, just like I remember.”

 

Out on the porch, Bill looked at the sky and said he thought there might be a storm coming. The clouds had banked up and some of them were looking dark around the edges. But they could use the rain, Bill said, gesturing towards a band of yellowing perennials. “It’s been a helluva summer what with all this drought.”

Bob said it was the same back East and tocked his butt into one of Bill’s planters where, through the leaves, it sent up a fine thread of smoke. He was just about to head in for another beer when Sue came out to the porch to say that lunch was ready.

“Where’s Frankie?” she said, seeing him sitting on the grass. The children had gone inside and the street was quiet. Frankie was ripping tufts of grass and tamping them back into the soil. Ripping and tamping, ripping and tamping.

“Where’s Frank,” Sue said again as if she couldn’t actually see what she was staring at. “It’s lunchtime.”

As they sat down, the first drops were starting to fall, smacking the air conditioning unit in the window and making a tinny sound. Barb had already brought out the potato salad and was now bringing the platter of sandwiches.

“Sue made these,” she said, parking the platter in the middle of the table. “Turkey or beef.”

“Speaking of beef,” Bill said. Hadn’t he heard that it was good for black eyes. That a nice slab of rare meat held against the eye like a compress worked wonders. When he suggested they try it now, Barb said he was drunk and it was a disgusting idea.

“You could kind of see how it would,” Bill said. “I mean blood on blood, nice and cold. Could work well for sporting injuries, too.”

Bob didn’t appear to be listening. He was tinkering with his sandwich, using his fork to hook the pickle out. The tomato. It looked like he was thinking about his sandwich, lost in thought and not listening to Bill’s talk about beef and black eyes. Next, he pulled out the beef and piled it to the side of his plate, like he wasn’t going to eat it. Like he was saving it for something.

Looking at Bob, Sue said she was sure the eye would be better in the morning, that black eyes always looked worse than they are.

“Yes,” said Barb, “it was really mostly surface.”

“Sure looks that way, anyhow,” Sue said.

Frankie had helped himself to potato salad and was eating his sandwich. He was listening to the drum beat the rain on the air conditioning sent up – boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom – and tapping his finger in time.

Bob reached for another sandwich and Bill said, “Dig in.” He also said all that travel must have built up an appetite in them. “I know it does me.”

Barb said everyone should make room for dessert, especially Frankie, because she’d made something special. She looked outside, the raindrops on the windows, the dripping leaves, the sodden, bruised sky.   

“Will this rain ever let up,” she said, even though, really, it had only just begun.

©2009 Alexa Beattie

 

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Author Links

'The Perfect Imperfect Dessert'- Beattie review with the Washington Post

 

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