This weekend we have Delaney Nolan’s “Brat’s Last Things,” about a father who wonders how to make good. These sharp little sections will cut if you let them, may hurt even more if you try to resist. This is prose that makes good. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
On his son’s 6th birthday, Arthur Tate sat in a red booth in Sulphur, Louisiana, and watched his wife through the window. This was two months before he left his family. Arthur can’t tell you exactly what he did on that birthday, only that it left a taste of fatty pizza and cheap plastic in his mouth, that it involved a giant singing rodent, and that it was important to him. He remembers this: looking through a greasy windowpane at his wife squatting on the curb, talking to a waitress in a bright striped shirt, two long plumes of smoke jutting from her nostrils and a burning stem of ash at her fingers.
Nine years later, Arthur walked back into his apartment in Jackson, Mississippi, 300 miles away, after a brief weekend trip to see the boy. It was the end of one of the monthly visitations, which always consisted of short lunches, hotel television, and the staccato conversations with his son. The visitations were always, of course, sandwiched between the long strange drives alone between Jackson and Sulphur.
Arthur set down his duffel bag and surveyed the stained furniture, beige carpets, bare kitchen counter. Art and stale smoke made for the walls of motel lobbies. He took in the alien hum of fluorescence and the smell of moth exoskeletons burning on the bulb of his floor lamp, a smell that would, for years after, remind him of the apartment.
He kicked his bag across the floor and walked into the bathroom, undressing slowly. He stepped into the shower, naked, dry, and stared at the plain cream shower curtain and the black mold overtaking its corners with a tiny and determined malice.
He stared at the curtain for a long time. His hair prickled on his sagging skin, and as he stared he tried to remember what color the shower curtain in his old house had been, the house he had shared with his wife and son.
He couldn’t remember. That was the moment when he stepped out of the tub to drive back to the Louisiana house from which he had just come and take back his son, nearly forgetting to dress. Scrambling into the wrinkled pants and dress shirt he had just dropped onto the floor, he sprinted barefoot into the bedroom. With his pulse in his mouth, Arthur dropped to his knees and skidded across the rug like an excited child, reaching under the bed for an unlocked trunk. From the trunk, he pulled out a sheathed vinyl record. He tucked the record under his arm, grabbed the duffel bag, and hurried back out to his car.
The excitement of secret intentions electrified him into a manic energy as he drove, drumming his fingers, speeding down the dark and empty highway with the windows cracked. He drove this way, unflinching, for hours. The dawn, when it came, was enormous.
It was a five-hour drive back to Sulphur. He barreled down I-55, undoing what he’d just done to come home, back to Jackson. He stopped drumming his fingers. As his nerviness faded, he passed the time by recalling other mornings. He went back more than a decade.
He is 42, his hair only beginning to silver. His wife, a very bad cook, makes pancakes for breakfast. She is humming Ella Fitzgerald. He is drinking coffee with too much sugar, watching her hips. A short vase on the kitchen table holds four yellow daisies.
His son clambers onto his lap, and Arthur has a vivid caricature of his 4-year-old face: mouth lolling open and eyes wide, several tiny teeth like candy in his mouth, snot running from his nose. Colin punches his small hard fist into his father’s knee, and with a yelp Arthur whips him off his lap and places him gently on the floor.
He squeezes the boy’s side under the ribs and makes Colin squeal. “You ready for today?”
“I drew Superman.” Colin is named after his great-grandfather, and in the 15 years between the kitchen and this dark highway drive, Arthur would sometimes regret that name (a pimpled angry teenager declares that he is no longer Colin, but Tuna, because he is sick of all the guys at school calling him Colon, Jesus, Dad). But in the kitchen, in the milky morning light, Arthur squints at the picture the boy is handing him.
A waxy, dilapidated city of bent rectangles is bright orange with a tremendous blaze, the fire of the century. Overhead, a gigantic black blob that Arthur discerns as a spider is firing menacing red squiggles into the inferno at an alarming rate. It is a minute before Arthur finds Superman—a red-blue smudge, paralyzed in mid-flight, stiff as cardboard with his arms out, off to the side and above the doomed city. To Arthur, the caped avenger appears to be lying on the clouds as though lying on his stomach in the grass, watching Metropolis and its citizens burn. He smiles and returns the picture to Colin.
“A real Picasso. You’ve got a future.”
A blaring mattress commercial startles Arthur back to the highway. The road is wide and empty. He is passing billboards that glint wetly: gas ahead, exits, restaurants. Advertisements for healthcare and car insurance. He sees a billboard that is new to him: WORLD’S LARGEST TOMATO! NEXT EXIT!”
Arthur does not like Mississippi. He sees not some bucolic idealism but rural ignorance: the heat, the hay, not enough neon, too much manure. Still, he sees an allure in the hyperbolic simplicity of the world’s biggest tomato. The dashboard clock tells him he will arrive at the house hours before Greta leaves, and the thought of it decides for him, pulling him onto the off ramp towards the spectacle.
The world’s largest tomato weighs seven pounds, eight ounces, and sits off I-55 in a shaded barn. It unfurled itself to a surprised Gordon Graham, beginning its tenuous life by blushing green to red off of a 53-foot, eight inch vine tangled with cantaloupe plants. It was fertilized by the droppings of a near-sighted pet rabbit named Hubble, and earned Gordon a seven pound eight ounce replica of the tomato from Miracle-Gro (which he carries in his wife’s bowling bag), as well as, it would seem, one billboard off of the interstate.
Getting out of the car in the empty driveway, Arthur closes the door softly and surveys the still farmland. He is surprised to see no gift shop, no gaudy T-shirts, not a single paperweight crowing “A TOMATO IS A FRUIT!” He does not see Gordon Graham or his truck. He does, however, see a very pale man sitting on a bench far in front of him, in the barn, near the tomato, watching it glumly in the jaundiced light as if he is expecting it to sprout red pulpy legs and gallop into the night.
Arthur enters the barn. It is cool in the shadows inside, lit at harsh angles by the single hanging light. The barn smells gritty and old, and the word “authentic” lodges itself in Arthur’s mind, where it sits, cheesy and irritating. Hands jammed into pockets, he moves across the dusty space. He surveys the tomato from all angles. It sits in a wagon lined with hay, shining from the glare of the overhead. Seven pounds of tomato is significantly smaller than he had hoped. He wanted to be overpowered, towered over, to press his palm against something significant in its sheer quantity. It comes barely to his knees. Quiet and still, not what it was, pumped with preservatives and surrounded by fencing, the stem ash and gone. Gleaming and red. He could swear it pulses. He makes a circle and comes to where the man sits hunched. Arthur sees he is older than he thought. He sits nearby.
Arthur swallows, his eyes forward. His nervousness makes him want to talk. “That’s something. Isn’t it.”
The man has thick stubble and wears sun-bleached clothes, dusty all over; his hands shiver in their place. He glances up at Arthur and takes a minute to answer. “Guess so. I didn’t grow it.”
“I—I know. I didn’t think you did. I figured you would have said something, if it were yours. Something protective? Or, to explain its history, how it grew. Don’t know how whoever grew this grew it. Just crazy.”
“All you ever need, probably. Some water and Christ’s love,” and the man wheezes or laughs.
Arthur considers his still ticking car, but stays seated. “That and some fertilizer. I guess.” He stares at it, imagines reaching past the chicken wire and piercing its translucent skin with his thumbnail, the dark flesh inside oozing out and dripping down its fragile skin. It’s quiet for a long time. “I’m going to Louisiana.”
“Seeing my ex-wife. See my son.”
“I didn’t—I wasn’t around all the time, before, so I’m going now.” The man doesn’t say anything. Arthur shuffles his feet like a child. “I do wonder how he did it. I wonder. Guess we’ll never know.” He gets up to leave.
As he stands, the man says, “It’s radio waves.”
“Radio waves. Made the tomato big. Gordon been keepin’ it right next to his CB radio. Says it makes the tomatoes twice as big. Guess it must be true, ‘cause it worked. Them invisible things, makin’ it grow.” And he spits.
Arthur wants sorely to leave. He turns, reaches through the wire, presses one finger to the soft peel of the tomato, and walks from the barn, leaving a soft shriveled print in the false thing, pulsing in the artificial light.
The car is still warm when he returns to it, but he leaves his coat on and sits in the barn’s drive for a while, watching the old man, who doesn’t move from the bench. Wants him rotting. Finally, he starts the engine, and after being lost in back roads for twenty silent minutes, he finds the highway again.
Arthur keeps driving, more somber now. The highway humming. The smell of hay on his jeans makes him want to get out of the car again, to shake off the feel of the dirt country with its tacky promises. The road narrows, and houses dot the sides of it with long patches of grass in between. The car passes something dead on the side of the road, huge and furry and wet. If it weren’t Mississippi he’d think it was a small buffalo.
He leaves the radio off and grips the wheel tighter. He’ll be there in just a couple hours, now. He sees another sign and slows too abruptly, pulls into the driveway next door to the sign before he is fully aware of any kind of intent. A yard sale— no lookers, but he’d seen bodies in beach chairs in the yard.
He gets out of the car and crunches gravel towards the house. The air is thick and heady with the sour smell of poor suburban grass. He comes to the front yard and surveys the sale: a leaning low stand with tables in front, everything gray and sullen with the pale thumbnail of dawn coming in the east. The sky tinged. The hollow in him blooms like a bell hit wrong, a bone ache, as the sky lightens and the first bird rallies a timid song.
Laid out before him, glinting with cool dew: one rusting bicycle, a tray of oranges, a Daffy Duck alarm clock, chair with one leg half-sawed, empty suitcase, canteen, crooked birdcage, stack of musty children’s books, three flower pots ringed with soil, a bin of bats and rackets and gloves and one ski, brown dead wreath, a jewelry box overflowing with tarnished silver and glass beads, lumpy stuffed rabbit, and everywhere old clothes with the tags ripped out of their backs.
A middle-aged woman sits with an oily-looking teenage girl, both with slack dumb faces. The girl is thin-lipped, small-breasted; it is so early to squint at him with eyes ringed in cheap blue makeup. Arthur shoots her the quick forced smile. Paws through the items, walks slowly. Turns a corner so he will be out of the way of their staring. A long, mostly empty bench, a tangle of Christmas lights. One pumpkin lamp that grins at him around the dark socket inside it, mold edging the smile.
He’s never been to a yard sale before, but has always wanted to go. He’s always listened closely to stories of treasure found at these places, old baseball cards worth thousands and long lost heirlooms remarkably discovered in the next state over. The charm of their potential. He pockets a gift shop piece of quartz, feels it weighing heavy in his pocket.
He stands in the wet grass away from the two quiet women and feels the sharp dusty stone with his thumb, looking around the tables. He picks up the strand of Christmas lights. Wondering if they will work, he runs them hand-over-hand until he finds the plug, and sees frayed copper wires bristling out. Sees junk. Things discarded and useless, only some brat’s last things. He hates the women in the beach chairs, drops the rock on the ground and walks quickly to his car without glancing back.
Driving again with the sun curving up behind him. He pulls off the road in dim but rising light at the first stop he sees for breakfast, craving pancakes and sweet coffee. He parks the car and hesitates before getting out, then reaches under the passenger seat and grabs the record that he had fished from beneath the bed. He turns and leans against the car, looking at the record he holds in front of him, ankles crossed and shoulder slumped casually, like a high-schooler examining his first pack of cigarettes.
It is an old Bob Dylan album, the first he ever bought, and thus of course his nominal favorite record of all time. He knows he has a battery of memories tied closely to this record, none of which he can pull from the air just then, but he is keenly aware that they are from the era of Before: before his wife was an appointment with a lawyer and a metallic cranial buzz he swatted at after a few drinks; before she was tumbled sheets, shed brown hair, a bright red shower curtain; before ad agencies in Jackson, clicking apartment heaters; before even the tiny sharp fists of Colin. It is from an era so far back that the softening dusky veil of age has begun to draw it away from him with the amiable composure of a pickpocket. It is a time he remembers as rounded edges and suffused light, and he feels a thrill now when he pictures giving the record to his son during their daring escape:
“Dad? What are you doing here? I thought you left.”
“Get in the car! We’re going!”
“Anywhere! Las Vegas! Fuck ‘em all! We’re leaving. Like Old Times. Come on!”
“Dad…you’re crazy. Let’s go!”
“Here, Colin. This is the first record I ever bought. It’s my favorite. I want you to have it.”
He won’t even need to call him Tuna.
Arthur shakes it off. He walks into the greasy diner. Through the front door, he finds that it could be the sum of all new and broken Southern things: a greasy podium covered in children’s menus and crayons, barstools and vinyl benches patched with the stuffing spilling out, placards for specials sticky with ketchup. It smells of sanitizer and orange cheese, and the waiters and waitresses all wear slacks and polo shirts with nametags, and he sees a powerful contrast between the diner he stands in, with its sharp angles, and the placid barn that lay behind him with its strange and quiet child. He thinks of it, the red heart of the garden, dark and pulsing, dying slowly, cut from the vine. He seats himself and surveys the menu briefly. A waitress hurries to him, flashes a smile disharmonized by braces. If she were younger, Arthur would have sweet-talked, winked, tried to get her to come out back. But she’s not.
“Hi how you doing, my name is Britt I’ll be your waitress today what can I get ya.”
Her voice tumbles out of her freckled face in a heap. Arthur orders pancakes and coffee, hands her the menu, smiling, and replaces it on the table with his record.
“Oh God ‘Blonde on Blonde’! My nephew loves this album. You got, what, like, the original? So cool. Which’s your favorite song? C’mon.”
“Well—,” and he stops.
To Arthur’s confusion and surprise, he cannot remember a single track on the album. He racks his memory and finds it empty.
This does not bother Britt, who goes on, excited. “My nephew’s is Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat. He’s a weird kid.” She bares metal at the silence. “Well, your breakfast will be right out.” And she trots to the kitchen.
Arthur holds the table edge and stares at the album. It shines, marred with oily thumbprints. He tries to wipe it clean with his sleeve and only smudges it more. He wonders when the last time he played it was, the time and place, exactly. He thinks of the rust and rot of the wasted night and puts the album back down. Thinks of the silent radio waves on the false and rotting heart. The beach chair girl in her caked blue eyeshadow. Dylan, wrapped in a scarf, squints back at him from the cover and tells him: it was not his wife sitting on the far side of that smeared window pane the night his son turned 6, all those years ago, but Arthur himself. Arthur was the one with his back to the birthday, pulling at a Marlboro and winking at the striped waitress, and all of a sudden he wants more than anything in the world to be in his empty apartment, drawing a picture of Superman as he watches the city burn, because it is nothing. Nothing. It’s just a terrible drawing. It’s only some colorful wax.