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New Fiction


by Samuel Snoek-Brown

      In the dim paneled living room, the boy sat on the floor between coffee table and couch and considered his textbook with his face close over the pages. Four bulbs in their frosted glass bells spread from the ceiling fan like an alien grasp, but they burned only a faint orange, the little coil inside each distinct in its weak light. Everyone who came to the small single-wide, even those who visited for the first time, knew without warning to leave the lights this way. The boy’s father said the light hurt his eyes. For all the eight years of the boy’s small life, the living room had swum in a murk of filtered curtain-light and cloth-draped lamps; a year ago one such lamp caught fire and melted into a fist of plastic and fabric. His father’s brother, Uncle Hurley, had installed dimmer knobs that previous Christmas, and the boy’s father kept them turned low the last several months.
      The boy’s mother hated the lights, as she had hated the curtains and the lamps before. She used to retreat to the small utility room off the kitchen, where she kept no curtains over the high tiny window and held her face into the sunlight. But she did like the wood paneling, said it felt romantic with wood in the house. Uncle Hurley had installed that, too. The flat couches, the mottled shag carpeting, the conspicuous absence of television, none of these mattered to the boy’s mother once the paneling was in. The only things she still could not abide—the things his parents fought about now, again, in the kitchen—were the two deer heads mounted on steel pins driven through her romantic panels to the studs beneath. His father had shot the deer before the boy had been born, when his aim and his head were clearer, and he referred to them as his greatest joy. His mother disliked their eyes. But this fight now was not a terrible fight, not as bad the fights could get. This was an argument from their store of arguments, one they used when they couldn’t fight about anything else. The boy’s mother knew the deer heads were as irrefutable as the dimmer switches, and no contention would amend.
      Kid—the name his father called him, so everyone else did, too—uncurled his legs and stretched them beneath the low coffee table. On the glass set into the fiberboard, scattered across it in a loose mess, sprawled plastic building blocks, a tangle of thin black wires and a few white wires, a roll of clear adhesive tape, some scissors, an old pocketknife, a glue stick, and his mom’s tiny tool kit from her sewing machine. Kid’s textbook lay open in his lap, turned uselessly to a diagram. He’d called Uncle Hurley ten minutes ago. Uncle Hurley would be arriving soon.
      A low-watt lamp came on behind him, and Kid realized his parents had stilled their dispute. His mother’s fatigue had overcome her taste, and she’d given up for now and stepped into the living room; her eyes were low and dark and sleepless. Outside, a surge of wind pushed a light rain against the curtained window. She rubbed her eyes and looked at Kid on the floor.
      “Honey, what are you doing sitting here in the dark?”
      “Waiting for Uncle Hurley.”
      She tilted her head, put a hand on her hip. “Oh.” Then, “Is Uncle Hurley coming over?”
      “Yes. I called him.”
      His mother muttered shit, as though Kid shouldn’t hear her say it, then she said, “Why did you call Uncle Hurley, Kid? And what’s with all the stuff on the table?”
      “I’ve got a project in school,” Kid said. “I’m supposed to make electricity with food.”
      “Goddamn it, Kid, you need to tell me these things.” She stepped further into the room, peered in the dim light at Kid’s table. “How are you making electricity with food?”
      “I don’t know. That’s why I called Uncle Hurley.”
      His father came into the living room then, a thin vagrant passing through it seemed on an errand elsewhere in the house. He stopped.
      “Hurley’s coming over?” he asked.
      “Yes,” his mother sighed. She returned to the kitchen doorway as though to ready her retreat through it to the utility room beyond, though with the rain outdoors there was no evening light left to soothe her.
      “Damn it,” his father said, looked hard at Kid’s mother. “What’s with all the shit on the table?”
      “I’m supposed to make electricity with food.”
      “What the hell for?”
      “Why is Hurley coming over?” he said to Kid’s mother, that same hard look.
      She was watching the deer heads on the wall, her lips pressed thin. She said that Kid had called.
      “What?” the father said to Kid. “I can’t help you with school?”
      “I don’t know,” Kid said.
      His father rested a can of beer on the arm of the couch and leaned over the coffee table and squinted. His face smelled of Aqua Velva and yeast, and a chunk of his hair shot off at one angle. “Well,” he said, “what are you supposed to do with all this crap?”
      “I don’t know,” Kid said.
      “Oh, cut that shit. You know the assignment, don’t you?”
      “Lynn, would you leave the kid alone and let Hurley do this?”
      “Shut up, Melissa. If my goddamn brother can do this shit, I can, too.” He pointed a finger at her and the tight cuff of his iron-blue work shirt rose several inches up his wrist. He sneered at his wife and said, “You oughta know”
      She looked away from the deer and peered at him. “What are you talking about?”
      Kid’s father ignored her and said, “So, you’ve got wires and stuff here, right? You need a battery, don’t you? Melissa, get me a battery. What sort of food are you supposed to run electricity through?”
      Kid shrugged. “The teacher didn’t say.”
      “Liar. You just don’t remember.”
      “Lynn, lay off, damn it,” his mother said.
      “Kid, why don’t I have a battery?” Kid shrugged and shook his head. His father smiled and shook his head in imitation of the boy. “Because your mother didn’t go get me one like I goddamned asked, that’s why.”
      “Damn it, Lynn,” his mother said, but she turned into the kitchen to rummage in the catch-all drawers.
       Kid’s father sipped his beer then shouted into the kitchen, “Melissa, while you’re in there bring me a bell pepper.” He shuffled the plastic blocks like dominoes, plucked a long yellow one from the assortment and studied it close before his nose. He tossed it back to the pile, rose like a skier with one hand on the arm of the couch and then collapsed into the cushions. He pulled Kid’s textbook into his lap and stared at the diagram a moment, scratched his cheek, then flipped over several pages without much looking at their contents. Kid watched the book, his eyes wide in the dim light and his mouth open but he dared not speak to stop the disarrangement of his text.
      The knock came at the door. Two quick raps followed by a hollow thud on the coreless wood, the knock his Uncle Hurley always used just before announcing “Yello!” and crossing into the living room. Kid scooted out from under the coffee table and jumped up but did not run, stayed instead at the couch where his father watched like a dog trainer. Uncle Hurley took off a damp denim jacket and ran his fingers through his wet curly hair.
      “Go home, Hurley,” Kid’s father said. “I got this one.”
      “Yeah?” Uncle Hurley said. “What’re you running the juice from?”
      “Melissa’s getting me a battery and a bell pepper.” Then, in a louder voice aimed at the kitchen, “If she’d hurry her ass up!”
      “A battery?” Uncle Hurley said. “And a bell pepper.” He shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck, his lips tilted into a smirk. “Well, tell me, Lynn, when you’re done cooking your pepper, what are you going to run the electricity from?”
      “A pepper will work, damn it!” He levered himself up from the couch and chucked his empty can into the darkest corner of the room where it clattered down a short hallway toward the bedrooms. Kid watched it out of sight then took to switching gaze between these shouting brothers, grim giants the both of them. His father pointed his finger again, his sleeve straining over Kid’s small head. “Look, asshole, don’t you come into my house and tell me what I know and don’t know.”
      “The kid needs to do his work, Lynn. A pepper won’t work. Come on, man.”
      “Hurley, shut up. I mean it you son of a bitch.”
      “It won’t work, you ignorant ass. Go take a shower and let me handle this.”
      Kid’s dad stepped around him and swung at Uncle Hurley. There was a loud smack, and Uncle Hurley fell back against his paneling. Kid’s dad swung again but his bony fist succeeded only in ripping open his cuff and firing his cuff button into the wood paneling. He reeled but recovered and Uncle Hurley held up his hands, then thought better and swung himself, a meaty thump in Lynn’s sharp cheekbone. They moved in closer to each other, swinging wild punches and bringing up a sporadic knee each so several times they nearly toppled. They went on like this for a minute, until they’d gotten too close and had to resort to grappling and tugging each other around. They wrestled to the floor. Uncle Hurley rolled, then Lynn rolled, then they slammed against the coffee table so plastic blocks and wires fell onto Kid’s feet, and Uncle Hurley grunted.
      “Hey!” Kid shouted. “My project!”
      A small projectile shot past Kid’s shoulder and landed hard in his father’s back. Lynn shouted and let go of Uncle Hurley to stand up. Kid’s mother stood a sepia silhouette in the bright kitchen doorway. “Cut it out, you assholes!” she said. “And there’s your stupid battery!”
      “You stupid bitch!” Lynn yelled.
      “Watch it with that,” Uncle Hurley said. Lynn whirled to face him again, his arms wide and taut.
      “Shut up, damn it! She’s my wife!”
      Uncle Hurley wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He said, “You were never even married.”
      “Butt out, goddammit. This is my house, and I know about you. You stay out of my house!” Kid’s father retracted his arms and pivoted, and he backed Melissa into the kitchen to fight with her instead.
      “Uncle Hurley, are you OK?” Kid said.
      “Yeah, Kid, I’m all right.” Kid knew he was lying. His upper lip was swollen and split like a salted slug and he sucked on it and chewed his words. On the wall behind the couch one of the deer heads tilted at an angle.
      “Let’s pick up this mess, huh?” Uncle Hurley said. So they did. Kid’s parents yelled in the kitchen, their grievances indistinct despite their proximity, and Kid knew this would be different than the argument about the deer heads.
      “Uncle Hurley?” Kid asked. “I don’t want to go in the kitchen. Can you get the bell pepper for me?”
      “You don’t want a pepper, Kid. What you need is a potato.”
      “A potato?”
      In the kitchen, Kid’s father roared, “Don’t you dare light that cigarette!”
      “Yeah, but let’s wait on that part,” Uncle Hurley said in the living room. “We need the right wires, and a light bulb, I think. You got a flashlight around here?”
      Kid climbed over the couch and went to the little sideboard beneath the deer heads, one upright and the other askew. They looked down upon him, mouths set firm but even. The one had tipped toward the weight of its asymmetrical antlers, but the plumb head was antlerless and serene. He groped in the top drawer without looking and retrieved the flashlight his mother kept there.
      Uncle Hurley unscrewed the top and extracted the bulb and housing together, but he refused the D cells inside. He righted Kid’s textbook and paged through it until he found the diagram Kid had earlier studied. He pointed to an amoebic lump tentacled with thin black cords and embracing a cartoon bulb. “See here, Kid? You’re going to use the potato as the battery. Go on out to my truck and get my toolbox from under the seat.”
      Kid ran outside into the thick drizzle, covering his head with his arms. At the truck, he jumped up and swung wide the door, then climbed in and shut it again. He bounced on the wide bench seat a few times, then inhaled and relished the dusty smell of Uncle Hurley’s pick-up. It smelled broken in, it smelled the way his favorite tennis shoes felt, the way his old bear sat flopped over on the bed by his pillow. And, of course, it smelled like canvas and rust and like Uncle Hurley. The truck cab was warm and mostly quiet and very dry, and Kid abraded his little hands on the coarse woven upholstery of the seat. He bounced a few times more, then he settled back to listen to the static of thin rain on the steel roof of the cab. He decided that maybe later Uncle Hurley would take him for a ride.
      After a few moments he opened his eyes and bent to root beneath the seat until he found and withdrew the shallow Giller tool box, pale blue and warm and longer than his arm. Wrenches and screwdrivers slid freely within, small metallic collisions with untold canisters of screws and washers and—Kid remembered—a green plastic army man Uncle Hurley had found in the road and stored for Kid’s amusement. Uncle Hurley always had such things on hand. He had always been that sort of uncle.
      When Kid returned glazed in rain and lumbering with the long tool box, he saw that the antlered deer head was level on the wall, and Uncle Hurley had organized the coffee table into piles, wires untangled and in coils, plastic blocks snapped into stacks, landmarks of glue and tape and scissors. A city silent, waiting for light. Uncle Hurley put his fingers into the flapped pocket on his shirt and produced a handful of pennies, and these he sorted by date in his big palm until he’d placed the oldest on the table and pocketed the rest. A drawer slammed in the kitchen and his mom yelled a cuss word Kid had never yet heard.
      “Tough stuff for an eight year old, huh, Kid?” Uncle Hurley said. He unfolded a pocketknife with his thumb and set to stripping the plastic ends of two long wires.
      “Yeah,” Kid said. “What about the potato?”
      “Later,” Uncle Hurley said. “First let’s set this thing up.”
      They sat together at the table, and Uncle Hurley probed among the tools and tin cases in his box until he found a dull gray nail. He explained how electricity moved through wires, what a conductor was, how the potatoes would generate power. Kid tried to concentrate through the resurgent yelling in the kitchen, and Uncle Hurley’s voice rose smooth in volume to cover the argument until it seemed muffled and distant. Uncle Hurley pointed to one of the stacks of plastic blocks and together they constructed a platform and taped wires to it. Kid wrapped a wire around the nail head while Uncle Hurley did the same to the penny and fitted the wires onto the light bulb. He moved the penny and nail near each other then laid them on the block platform; in the middle was a large gap. “Just big enough for a potato,” Uncle Hurley said.
      He uncreased and roused himself from the floor and went into the kitchen. The house fell silent for a moment, a yawning disruption issuing from the bright kitchen door, but then Uncle Hurley said something softly and Kid’s parents irrupted acrimony once more until soon all three adults were shouting against each other. Kid looked down at his project, nearly complete, then up to the deer heads. He wondered if they, too, were unmarried or common-law on the wall; he wished for a smaller fawn’s head for himself, a family complete. He had to look back to his project, awaiting only the charge of the potato, in order to cheer himself.
      In the kitchen, Kid’s father called his mother a slut. Uncle Hurley told Lynn to stop acting stupid, and Lynn told Uncle Hurley to go to hell. Melissa shouted, said “Let go!” and a drawer opened and slammed with a rattle of metal shuffling across the wood; Kid closed his eyes and guessed it was the drawer with the knives and the ice cream scoop and the big serving spoons. Lynn said, “Don’t you fucking dare,” and Uncle Hurley said, “Then let her go, goddammit, you’re hurting her.” Melissa said, “Hurley, put it down, it’s OK,” then Lynn told her to shut up and called her a slut again. There was a slapping sound as before between Hurley and Lynn in the living room, but it was Melissa who issued an asphyxiated cry, then someone grunted heavy, someone gasped, and Kid’s mother set to coughing and screaming at once. A thud resounded on the thin hollow floor, and the kitchen light went off. More thuds, and grunts, and Kid’s father shouted suddenly like a kicked dog. Melissa ran out of the kitchen and down the unlit hallway into the bedroom, clutching a dark stained scrap of Lynn’s shirt and trailing cigarette ash behind her like debris from a damaged fighter plane. There was a long silence in the kitchen, and in the back bedroom only a muffled moan, extended mute without aid of breath. Kid sat in the dim living room and watched the black rectangle of the kitchen doorway. The refrigerator light cut a wedge across the linoleum floor within, then the light sliced closed and extinguished, and Uncle Hurley emerged from the doorway with a potato in hand. Kid’s father neither spoke nor made any other noise in the kitchen, in the dark.
      “Watch this, Kid,” Uncle Hurley said, but Kid watched Uncle Hurley’s face instead. Uncle Hurley face looked like old wood—he sounded so tired.
      “Kid, I’m serious. Watch.”
      Kid looked down and watched Hurley take up the wire-wrapped penny, which he then embedded in the russet skin of the potato, his wrist tense and shaking. His knuckles were purple and there was blood on his hand, though Uncle Hurley was not cut.
      “OK, Kid. Now take this nail here, and stick it in the other end of the potato just like I did the penny.”
      “Are you OK, Uncle Hurley?”
      “I’m fine, Kid. Just stick in the wire, OK?” His voice quavered and his eyes were heavy and wet. Uncle Hurley would not look at Kid. He said, “Let’s get this over with.”
      The deer heads watched. Uncle Hurley leaned against the front of the couch and waited, his eyes closed and damp, his hands discomposed worse still. Kid’s mother wept and wept in the back of the house, and then she was wailing to someone on the phone. Down the street, in the misting rain, a siren started up. Kid’s father was still in the kitchen, quiet. Kid held the nail in his small fist and drove it into the potato deep, and the flashlight bulb sparked and burned. And the living room grew brighter suddenly.

Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in Portland, OR. He also serves as production editor for Jersey Devil Press, and he lives online at His work has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Bartleby Snopes, Ampersand Review, Fiction Circus, Eunoia Review, Red Fez, and SOL: English Writing in Mexico.

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