Wednesday, March 9, 2011

2011 R. Darryl Fisher Creative Writing Contest -- Third Prize in Fiction

Eight Arms to Hold You
by Kayla Crego, Norman North

Doris loved the river like an old friend, and heard the trickling of water against rock as a melodic voice speaking in a language only she understood. When the river flooded, it was a quarrel, and the friends were treated with a mutual cold shoulder, and when waters receded and tempers cooled, friends forgave. The river was feisty, but generous, and Doris knew no greater joy than taking the short walk from her house with her husband, down a gently sloping path and past frolicking families to the water's edge. There she would sit on her favorite bench with a newspaper or paperback novel or whatever craft she felt best busied her hands while her husband fished or showed the local children his newest toy boat. They all called him “gramps,” though the couple, as far as anyone could tell, had no children or grandchildren. It had been sixteen months since Doris had been to the river.

Ira opened the front door of his house. He squinted at the cheerful sun, twinkling away as though all was well. He grumbled at it disapprovingly.

Clutching a newspaper and an unassuming brown paper sack, he began the arduous walk to the riverfront. Despite the inviting weather, the only other people he saw as he approached the shore were a couple of young teenagers, probably skipping school, gathered in a huddle and keeping relatively quiet as they shared a cigarette. Ira grumbled about hooligans and wrapped his shapeless, hand-sewed coat tighter around him.

Sitting on the bench, he set the newspaper down beside him, and opened up the paper bag. He pulled from it a sandwich, sloppily-made and divided in half, which he proceeded to stoically eat, eyes never leaving the water. Upon finishing the first triangular piece, the old man stopped and set the other aside. He then pulled two small stacks of crackers from the bag, and, like the sandwich, stowed the other portion. Mechanically and thoughtlessly, he followed this same procedure for a bunch of grapes.

Once, Doris went through a phase in which she wanted to learn the art of oil paints. For a few weeks, Ira carried an easel and a bag of paints and turpentine down to the river in addition to his fishing supplies, and Doris gleefully painted splotchy scenes of water running over stone and called her messy results “abstract impressionism” and Ira told her they were the finest works of abstract impressionism he had ever seen, and said seriously that Monet himself would be impressed.

Once she painted an octopus, her amateur hand rendering it almost unrecognizable, and jokingly referred to it as her self-portrait. She planned on painting over it with white, so as to recycle the canvas, but Ira insisted it hung in the living room with the rest of her works.

One of the teenagers looked up from their huddle. “Does that guy ever finish his lunch?”
“Nah. He eats half and then – watch.”

They watched as the old man slowly rose from his seat and carried his small pile of food to the water's edge. He bent over and gingerly floated the half-meal on the water, grapes balanced delicately on bread, and gave it a gentle push. He turned around and trudged back to the bench as the food slid clumsily down-stream before sinking in an ungainly matter.

“So, what, he feeds the fish everyday?”

“And then reads to them. Creeper.”

“Whatever happened to that lady? Bet he killed her. Bet she was jealous of his fish so he killed her.”

They turned once more into the huddle.

“Remember when he used to play with those boats?” The teenager stole a glance at the hunched figure of the old man, before adding in a hurried voice, “What a weird guy.”

“Kinda sad, if you ask me.”

There was a demure murmur of agreement in the group.

Ira opened the newspaper to the same page he always started with, the weather, and cleared his throat.

“Good morning.” Though his voice was lively and content, his grave posture did not change. “Today is Thursday, May 2nd. I miss you.” He paused, listening to the trickling water, and cleared his throat again. “It's going to be warm all of next week. Partly cloudy on Sunday.” Another pause. “Good, less kids here to bother you.”

He was aware that the hooligans had put out their cigarette and began ambling away, kicking pebbles and chatting nonchalantly, and he shifted his position on the bench, satisfied with his loneliness. He continued to read aloud, almost every page, even the funnies. He described every panel, and gave a weak chuckle at the punchline in one. Sometimes the obituary page was skipped; other times, it was read in a quiet voice through gritted teeth. Today, Ira moved on to cooking. “Oh, a recipe for cheesecake. I haven't had any since... well, nobody could compare. You know that.”

Once, Doris picked up a book about octopodes from the library. “Octopodes is the correct pluralization,” she had informed him enthusiastically. “It's Greek, not Latin.” She loved words, and learning, and eight-legged cephalopods. She mused about taking a road trip to the city to visit the zoo and see one, but they never got around to it.

The teenagers were restless in a way only a Thursday spent away from responsibilities can produce. They had smoked their last few cigarettes, and could not scrounge the change needed for a new pack.

They agreed on the lack of activities provided to them by their location, and the general uselessness of Thursdays in any location. It never occurred to them to return to school, because they were restless youth and restless youth could do better, honestly.

One of these teenagers, who thought himself (quite romantically) the most restless of all, mentioned the old man from the river. He had a big old house, right? Big old houses had tons of interesting things. That old guy would never notice if they just took a look inside.
There was a disconcerted shifting and mumbles of dissent. This reaction convinced the teenager that he was on to something.

“C'mon. We don't have to touch anything. Let's just go look around. Maybe he's got cool old weapons or something. Maybe tons of fish. Maybe his wife's dead body.”

The gang hesitated, then tentatively agreed that it was a great idea and they'd better go quick, before he finished reading his paper.

They had thought it a brilliant plan all along, really, because restless youth do not think about what sort of effect a home invasion might have on a sad old man.

Once, Doris and Ira had wanted a restless youth of their own. Doris loved the sense of adventure all children possessed, so they had a child. They devoted every second of their lives to doting on it, but the river wanted it more. After a few weeks of avoiding the water at all costs, and much to Ira's surprise, Doris eventually forgave her friend.

“Mother octopodes die shortly after their eggs hatch. I got so much more than I could have hoped for.”

Ira did not understand this outlook for a long, long time.

Every day for fifteen months, Ira struggled to find a way to say goodbye.

“Well. The sun's going down. And. Um. That's all of this newspaper. So. Bye. I love you. I miss you. Bye.” He picked up the newspaper and the empty brown sack. “See you tomorrow.”

The walk back up to the house was demanding, but different from the one in the morning. His brow was not quite as furrowed. His mind was empty of everything but the thought of laying in bed, waiting for sleep. It was what he most looked forward to.

A thin line of sunlight shone through the slightly ajar front door.

Immediately Ira's tired mind sprang into a sensation best described as panic. He ran up the steps of the porch and threw the door open the rest of the way. The room was empty, and though he strained, he heard no unfamiliar sounds. He warily advanced to the kitchen, doing his best to remain silent, and tossed the newspaper and paper bag into the recycling. His mind raced – had he left the door open on his way out? He never had before, it wouldn't make sense to make such a careless mistake all of a sudden.

Heaving a sigh, he gave up on speculating and climbed the stairs to his room. It was an old house. Maybe the lock needed to be replaced. He dreaded the thought of a trip into town to buy a new one – a day away from the river, just to buy a tool he wished he didn't need.

Only moments before he finally climbed into bed, there came a scuffling sound from downstairs.

The teenagers had experienced very little trouble coercing the old lock into surrendering. They pushed the door open and scampered like a pack of mischievous dogs into the front room, marveling at their own courage.

The house, they found, was very much like its owner – a grey version of its former self, waiting for some solid entity to fill the hole in its existence. The old man had not replaced any of the bulbs for months, so the only light in the house came through the windows, filtered by the thick cloud of dust that hung like makeshift curtains in the raspberry-colored light of the sunset.

They found their experience in the house mostly underwhelming. There were no weapons – Doris had passed her disapproval of these on to her husband – nor were there any corpses, of fish or wives or otherwise. There was mostly old pictures and knick-knacks arranged meticulously on even older-looking chests and shelves. Downstairs, there was the living room and the kitchen and an extra room, with sewing supplies, piles of cloth, and projects both well-worn and never finished on one side, and shelves of toy boats on the other.

The teenagers didn't have a chance to make their way up to the second floor before they heard the front door fly open and the mad tramping of the old man running into the house. They immediately went silent and looked at each other with wide, fearful eyes. Holding their collective breath, the sound of the old man crossing into the kitchen, then back across the house to the stairs and finally up into his bedroom seemed to last a lifetime.

When it was deemed safe, one of the teenagers nodded, and one-by-one they tiptoed out of the room, across the oh-so-creaky floor to the front door. Each sound seemed magnified one thousand times – the door hinges practically shrieked as the first of the boys slowly, deliberately turned the knob and pulled it open. The boys spilled out into the cool evening air, taking deep breaths as they scurried away from the house, none bothering to look back or check on his friends.

Each sound seemed louder, but the sound of the very last teenage boy tripping on a moth-ball of a rug and smacking hard on his elbows was loud enough.

This teenage boy recognized one of the toy boats. Several years ago, when he was small enough to admire teenage hooligans of the sort he had become, the boy's mother took him to the river for a few hours. There, he had frolicked with other children and ran entirely too far from his mother's sight, and happened upon an elderly couple, whom he bravely introduced himself to and interrogated innocently, as small children who stray from mother are wont to do.

The woman answered all of his questions and asked him even more and seemed genuinely delighted to meet the boy. The man was more soft-spoken, but did hesitantly offer the opportunity to cast a boat into the river, like a real captain.

The boy told his mother about the old couple and was chastised for putting himself in such a dangerous situation.

“You never know with strangers. Anyone could be bad. Anyone could be looking to hurt you.”
“No, Mom. They were good people.”

At the sudden sound from downstairs, Ira's tired joints suddenly awoke, and he found himself sprinting for the first time in years. The teenager scrambled to his feet and bolted for the exit, but not before Ira had bounded to the bottom of the stairs and leapt in front of the door.
“What are you doing in my house?!” The bellowing voice sounded strange to his own ears.
“Please don't hurt me!” was all the frightened boy could manage to reply.

Ira paused to consider this. “You break into the house of a weak old man and then act like a victim?” There was a hint of amusement underlying the weariness in his words.

“Are you going to kill me?”

“Out of curiosity, what part of my behavior would suggest I was the sort of person likely to pull off such a stunt?” Ira recognized this boy as one of the hooligans from earlier. He did not recognize him as the inquisitive young boat captain from several years ago.

The reply was a meek question. “You killed your wife?”

A hollow laugh tumbled out of Ira like a limping dog. “That's cute, but Doris died in her sleep.”





An awkward pause. “You should. Um. Take those boats to the river again.”


“I – ahh, my, uh, brother... remembers when you used to do that. He thought it was cool. Why do you just go down there and read? And throw half a perfectly good meal away?” He thought, then added, “No offense.”

Ira pondered this. There was no way he could explain to this hooligan exactly what his motives were. Hooligans were incapable of comprehending such complex matters.

Sometimes, old men were too.

“Well, you know,” he finally replied. “There might be someone down there who appreciates it.” He glanced at the room with his boats. “Maybe I could dust one off sometime.”

The teenager nodded awkwardly, and Ira moved aside for him to pass. He muttered a final, sincere, “Sorry,” and shuffled through the door.

Once, a few weeks after their child had been lost in the river, Ira awoke Doris, who had been sobbing quietly in her sleep.

“What is it?” he asked. “What were you dreaming about?”

She wiped her face on the soft sheets and sniffled. “He was an octopus. In the river. He wanted to know why we never visited him. He said he was so hungry and lonely, and he wanted you to sail boats for him, and me to read to him, and...”

Ira wrapped her in his arms.

“... and he said one day we'd be together again.”

Ira hung Doris' oil painting of the octopus over his bed the day he came back from the hospital alone.

The teenagers questioned their friend, much in the same way a small child questions everyone outside of mother's sight. He refused to answer their intrusive, leading questions, and neither confirmed nor denied whether the man had seen him, beaten him, or tried to read him the news.
Finally, the teenagers agreed that, if nothing else, it was the most exciting Thursday any of them could remember. When one suggested the possibility of consequences as a result of their actions that day, another chimed in.

“Nah, listen. If word gets around, we'll just tell everyone the old guy threatened us, or, like, stole something. Or killed his wife. Whatever, y'know?”


The teenagers looked at their friend, who had remained silent until this point, despite their frenzied questioning.

“Oh, c'mon, I know he probably made some crazy threats, but–”

The teenager shook his head. “No. You don't know.” His gaze turned sheepishly to the river, where the moon was casting long, tentacle-like shadows as it shone serenely through tree branches. “He was a good person.”


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