By Meagan Ciesla
Followed by Q&A
Pete’s mother bags groceries and comes home with discounted produce. His father works in the steel mill and his ears are never clean.
Pete pays attention to the trains that run out of town towards Pittsburgh and to Luke, the brother who is half a head taller than him. They play by the tracks after school and plot ways to jump trains.
They draw maps in the dirt with sticks.
The boys have breath-holding contests in their room at night. Luke always wins except for once when he swears he has an itch in his throat and lets go to cough. Luke tells Pete in a whisper he’s going to grow up and drive all the trains to Pittsburgh. Pete looks up at the ceiling, notices the paint peeling in the shape of Pennsylvania and imagines thin tracks laid from one end to the other. It looks small to him, like something he could do, so he says to his brother, yeah, me too.
During the ice storm when Pete is ten and Luke is twelve, they steal trays from the cafeteria and grease them with Crisco. They wear plastic grocery bags over their socks and inside their shoes. Pete goes first and wets his pants before he lands at the bottom by the tracks. When he starts back up the hill, his sneakers slip on ice. It takes too long to find the tray next to the tree, to see Luke’s eyes staring up at the sky, red seeping out of his ears and into new snow.
By the time Pete reaches the road for help, Luke’s head is already crammed with blood. He blames himself for his slow speed, the tread worn down on his shoes. The grease, though, that was Luke’s idea.
Pete empties Luke’s school locker and brings home his belongings in a paper bag: a balled-up sweater, a worn baseball glove, a protractor. A sack of peanuts. He gives the bag to his mother, who takes out the sweater and sits with it for a while at the table. Just days later, with sorry eyes, she announces her third pregnancy. Pete throws his plate on the floor and his mother sends him to his room. He goes through Luke’s dresser and smells all of his clothes. There is an empty bed beside him but no space for anyone else.
Pete goes to the train tracks alone and tries to climb on. The cars move fast and his sweaty hand slips from the handle. The train throws him to the ground and starts him rolling.
Pete runs around with Luke’s old friends, but it seems their limbs are always longer than his, always moving faster than he can keep up. They dare him to steal a tin of tobacco from the store when Mr. Richter’s not looking. He nearly gets away with it but trips on the store’s welcome mat and hears the tin tumble from his pocket. He sees Mr. Richter’s reflection in the glass and takes off. When he gets outside, the other boys are long gone. At home, his father has already received the call and is waiting at the kitchen table with the new baby boy on his knee; they have named him Kurt. He tells Pete there’s nothing in the world worse than stealing from a man who’s spent his whole life working hard, then puts the baby in his crib, takes Pete out to the porch. He lights up three cigarettes in a row and makes Pete smoke them all until his face turns green, then sends him to his room to think about what he’s done. Pete falls onto his mattress and feels low for stealing and even sorrier for getting caught.
In high school Pete dates Sarah Faith. He takes her bridge jumping and watches from above as she peels off everything except her bra and underwear. When she lifts her arms he notices her ribs pushing through skin.
They lose their virginity together; she wears a skirt and it is over fast. When she asks him what he is thinking he says, I dunno, and kisses her neck.
He takes a drafting class at school and likes the smoothness of the vellum beneath his hand, the width of the drafting table propping up his elbows. He is impressed by the logic of mechanical parts, how each serves its own purpose, all of them adding up to make something big.
Pete graduates from high school and his father buys him a new pair of steel-toed boots. Pete slides them on, struts around the house in them the rest of the night. His mother makes peach cake and they sit around the table with glasses of milk talking about how grown up he looked when he walked across the stage in his blue gown and tasseled hat. His mother says she wishes Luke was here, that he would have loved this day.
That night Pete goes to the tracks with his friends and they smash Rolling Rock bottle against the boxcars. They talk about big things—about the war and their plans and about buying some land. They ride into Pittsburgh and stay up all night. Get chipped beef at a diner then hop a boxcar back. They rest their heads on the edges of wooden crates and fall asleep on the ride home.
There is a job at the steel mill. Pete reduces the ore and his father does the cold rolling. He likes that he is the beginning and his father the end. There seems to be an order to things. His hands burn and he gets used to the smell of his own flesh. He spends much of his time staring straight into sparks, his tracing the spit and flicker of light.
Pete meets Carol after the third shift. He has known of her his whole life but has never noticed her until he is seated at the edge of the bar drinking a bloody beer. It is something about the way she makes the sandwiches, cuts them carefully into diagonals, eats the chips that have fallen off of plates. Her upper arm jiggles slightly as she shakes steak sauce into little cups. Pete likes the fact that he can’t see the push of her shoulder blades against her shirt and that she takes such care with her work. He gets nervous thinking about her now and shakes his knee when she comes over to ask if he wants another round. She is patient while he decides what to say and the smoothness of her voice steadies him. He tells her he’d like to switch to coffee.
They marry fast.
They both work overtime to make a down payment on a small two-bedroom at the edge of town. Pete tries for a promotion at the mill, but is passed up. They bring him in on his lunch break and tell him he is a hard worker but lacks leadership skills. Pete looks around the room as they are talking and feels a great well rise to his throat. He thanks them for their time and says he understands, that it was worth a shot.
Pete’s father retires after losing 30% of his hearing. Along with eight others, he receives an engraved watch and a banquet where they serve baked chicken and green bean almandine. Pete stays through the speech but waits outside during the reception. Carol comes out in a baby blue skirt suit that pulls at the seams. Pete admits that his eyes have been blurry from the factory sparks. On the way home, she drives the truck as he falls asleep against the window.
Pete quits his job at the mill and gets work at the Discount Liquors late shift. He misses the noise of the mill but likes that he can fix the coolers when they leak and read when it is slow. The job pays less so they take out a second mortgage on the house. Pete finds a Shepherd in the store parking lot. Her ribs show through fur and her ears come up to his hip. After a week of no one claiming her, he takes her home. He stops at the library and checks out a few books on dogs, reads through Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes. He hangs a bell from the doorknob and trains the Shepherd to ring it when she needs to go outside. Carol laughs at them together, two peas in a pod.
Discount Liquors gets robbed twice in eight months. Both times it’s kids from out of town stealing the till and cheap canned beer. The second time they have a gun and shoot the front window’s plate glass before putting the barrel to Pete’s temple. With the metal against his head, all Pete sees is a single bottle of Old Crow, askew, on the wrong shelf. He doesn’t tell Carol how she didn’t cross his mind. How cold the gun felt against his brain. How he pissed his jeans.
He takes the Shepherd to the train tracks and lets her race the cars. When she runs, her ears stick up like a jackal’s. She waits at the top of the bridge as he jumps into the Conemaugh, then leaps when he signals. Pete dives under, tries to skim the bottom with his stomach. When he surfaces, he laughs at the worried dog barking angrily from shore.
Carol gets pregnant. He starts to feel small beside her as her stomach swells. He scrapes the walls and paints for a nursery while Carol stays at her mother’s to avoid the fumes. When he’s done he drinks a six-pack and throws the cans at the Shepherd to fetch. She brings them back to him in her mouth and drops them at his feet. He trips over the drop cloth, brushes his back against the wall and smears a patch of fresh yellow paint. He looks at the dog, patiently awaiting his next command, and tells her to go on and get.
The baby is a boy and they name him Hank. At the hospital Pete notices the blotches on the child’s face and checks the other babies in the nursery to make sure nothing’s wrong. He holds his son for the first time and worries the roughness of his hands will scratch his fresh skin. He goes back to find Carol in the room, asleep. Lifts up her gown and sees the extra skin on her stomach hanging on like a loose sweater.
He watches the baby during the day while Carol works. He reads him the paper and counts the baby’s toes with newsprint smudged on his fingertips.
Pete sets the baby next to him on the couch while he watches Lawrence Welk, then gets up to pee. The baby wriggles off the sofa and Pete walks in to find him wailing on the floor. The Shepherd licks his downy head. He shoos the dog, picks up the baby, is relieved to see the boy’s tiny tonsils vibrating from his scream. Pete re-counts the baby’s toes before setting him into his crib.
Carol comes home and asks how it went. Fine, he answers, just fine.
Pete’s father dies in his sleep and the wake is filled with men from the mill. Carol and Pete’s mother make casseroles and cookies. Kurt comes in from Mississippi where he sells flood insurance and when the visitors leave, they all sit around and eat whether they’re hungry or not. They tell Hank stories about his grandfather’s sleep walking. How his grandmother would wake up in the middle of the night to find him standing over the sink peeling orange after orange.
The Shepherd’s back legs sag and she starts to pee in the house. Pete loses his temper, boots her in the ribs then regrets it when he hears her yelp. He mixes in peanut butter with her food for a week to make it up to her, but she sulks around in corners, learns to stay out of the way.
They go to the river the summer that Hank turns ten. Pete wades in close to shore and watches the boy skim the bottom. Hank pleads to jump off the bridge and Pete finally agrees, holding onto his shoulder until the moment the boy’s toes take to air. He pays attention to Hank’s descent, how his shoulders have widened since the summer before. Pete tracks the top of the boy’s head until it sinks and then resurfaces. He applauds him once his eyes open, wild and ecstatic from the fall.
Hank is good at math. He does well in high school and plays varsity soccer. Pete still works the late shift, but makes his home games when he can. He doesn’t cheer, but stands on the sidelines, hands in his pockets, watching how fast the boy can run.
Hank talks about college. Carol signs him up for course catalogues and he checks the mail every day. He spreads the glossy pamphlets on the carpet in the living room and sits cross-legged as he reads each one line-by-line. Pete sits back in his recliner and watches Hank crawl on the floor to reach a pamphlet under the couch. He worries about money and thinks how fast Hank has grown, how there is never enough time.
After college Hank has a job lined up at an advertising agency in Pittsburgh. He will start with office work but they assure him there are chances to move up. Pete and Carol help him move into his first apartment. They give him their old bed and two oak side tables that had been sitting in their garage for years. They order pizza and stay the night but Pete can’t sleep. It is hot and humid and he sweats through the sheets.
Before they leave Pete slides fifty dollars cash into Hank’s palm. Just in case, he says, then grabs his bag and follows his wife to the car.
Pete and Carol get a new bed. It is the first time since they got married and they spend a Saturday picking it out. Carol sits on each one and bounces up and down. Pete looks at the price, weighs the benefits of a warranty. Carol has her heart set on a pillow top. She takes Pete’s hand in her own. Tells him, for once, to throw caution to the wind.
They have a hard time working the mattress through the door. When they do, Carol flops down on it with the plastic still attached and Pete sees the backs of her arms jiggle. She opens the bed’s new sheets then starts on dinner. They eat chicken potpie and canned corn. Pete whisks butterscotch pudding for dessert and serves it up in a dish with Cool Whip.
Carol takes a bath and heads to bed. Pete follows soon after. He feels her back against his, the gentle push of her shoulder blades as she breathes in and out and thinks how good it feels to know she is there.
Pete has never had allergies before and has no way of knowing he’s allergic to the down. Or that the anaphylaxis will work fast to constrict his breath, slow his heart.
He closes his eyes. Considers peeing, but decides it can wait until morning; he likes the feel of the new mattress under him, holding his weight.
Meagan Ciesla’s novella Me, Them, Us was published in Fall 2009 by Iron Horse Literary Review. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online and has appeared in Redivider and Heat City Literary Review. She is a graduate of University of Wyoming’s MFA program and a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: What I intended to do with this story—and what took many revisions—was to find an alternative to a traditional narrative arc. Most of all I wanted these moments in Pete’s life—big and small—to define his character. Since a person’s life typically lacks a real climax or epiphany, I leaned heavily on sentence construction and suggestive imagery to keep the story’s momentum going.
Q:Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?
A: I wish I knew! For no reason at all I’m terrified of walking on ice. Sometimes I think that’s how I met my end in a past life. Maybe an ice fisher?
Q: Straight road? Or winding road?
A: They both lead to the same place, so either.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A: Getting a story to the point where I know it’s where it’s intended to be. It’s not over- or underwritten, but just right.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m finishing a collection of short stories titled Me, Them, Us that will include my novella by the same title.