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Pen Your Pride

Spring in the Land of Broken Dreams

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With the wrinkled paper held fast in one hand, Keith Harper stomped along the cracked sidewalk to the back gate of his father’s house.  The rusty hinges of the gate shrieked as he opened it and stepped into knee-high crabgrass, where decrepit tools, auto parts, and toys lurked unseen like landmines.  The smell of charred meat and electric buzz of voices reminded him of the birthday party tonight for Harriet.

He glanced down at the paper in his hand and then back at the gate before plunging into the semi-circle of relatives gathered around his sister.  Harriet, with her hair chopped off at the base of her neck and gut thrust forward, had often been mistaken for a pregnant girl.  Since her thirteenth birthday, she had accumulated a pile of business cards with the number of charity organizations scribbled on the back.  Even now, one of her senile aunts patted the belly seeping out from under the hem of Harriet’s yellow T-shirt and asked, “How far along are you, dear?”

“Three hundred months,” Harriet said.

The aunt took a step back and her eyes glazed over as she began counting on her fingers.  “Oh dear,” she said before another crone led her away.

During the distraction, Keith sidled up to his sister.  “Happy birthday,” he said.

Her eyes fell on the paper in his hand and she asked, “Is that my gift?”

“This?  No, it’s just schoolwork.  I had a meeting with Professor Foley.”

“With Sarge?  Poor you.”  She shook her head.  “So how’d it go?”

He showed her the title page with a letter ‘E’ written in four precise red lines.  The former drill sergeant, his white crewcut still regulation-length, had leaned forward across the tidy expanse of his desk and said, “This is shit, Mr. Harper.  It’s a poor imitation of Jack Colvin’s work.  You have three days to show me your own writing or you will fail this course.  Is that understood, Mr. Harper?”  When Keith nodded, Foley leaned back in his chair.  “Good.  Dismissed!”

Keith didn’t recount this tale to his sister; instead, he said, “He didn’t like it.”

“That’s obvious.  What are you going to do about it?”

“He said I could turn in another story.”

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t see anything wrong with this one.”

Harriet, who had taken a course with every professor at Freepoint State during her six years of searching in vain for a major, shook her head.  “Jesus, you know what a prick Sarge is.  Just write what he wants.”

“You don’t understand.  There’s nothing wrong with this story.”

“Fine, fail the class then.  It’s none of my business.”  As he stomped away, Harriet said, “Hey, where’s my gift?”

Standing between Keith and the safety of the sliding glass door leading into the house, Keith’s father presided over a flaming bed of charcoal.  Steaks—more fat and gristle than meat—sizzled on the grill while Keith’s father downed an entire Budweiser without pause.  Keith slouched down to pass by unnoticed, but his father motioned to him with a barbecue fork.  “What’s going on with you and your sister?”

“It’s nothing,” Keith said.

“Good to hear it.”  His father wiped his hands on a grimy ‘King of the Grill’ apron and said, “Watch the grill for a second while I grab some more beer from the fridge.”  His father handed him the fork and Keith stood over the glowing charcoal.  He poked at the meat with the barbecue fork in one hand while holding the other back so no ashes or sparks would damage his story.  His father returned with a case of beer that he left on the rotting picnic table for Keith’s chain-smoking uncles to consume between puffs.  Keith’s father took the fork and jabbed at one of the steaks.  “You got to turn these over before they burn.”

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