What Happens Next
In celebration of 2015's Short Fiction Contest judged by Roxane Gay, we present 2013's short fiction award winner, judged by Elliott Holt.
a) Ray up and hits me because I said the bad thing about his girl. As I’m passing out, Ray catches me by the leather lapels and lowers me tenderly to the sticky floor. Basically he tucks me in.
b) Ray swings once and I swing once and we’re dancing. There is a hush in the bar but not a silence. We bounce on our toes like our daddies taught us, and soon we’re both swollen and leaking a little. We get so tired that by the end we stop using our fists and just press together like two palms praying.
c) I can’t stop hitting him.
d) Ray shouts me down like his girl probably sometimes does to him, and I do feel a little bad about what I said so I sit there and take it, even though he is saying some really very uncharitable things, and his spit is collecting in the strange folds my face has developed now that I’m getting old, and I am deserving of a little respect too, and it takes a considerable degree of restraint and kindness not to respond to some of these accusations that are obviously coming from a place of self-loathing, and everyone in the bar is staring at me like I’m the asshole. I sit there and take it and feel as though my heart is brimming full with goddamn goodwill.
e) Ray lowers his voice and explains that the bad thing I said about his girl is sexist and oppressive and he knows I’m better than that and he doesn’t want to hear any more of this kind of talk out of me, tonight or ever again.
f) Ray beams and agrees that his girl is the epitome of the bad thing and gives me a high five.
g) The ladies in the booth behind us get wind of the bad thing and circle around, puffed up and squawking. They are animated talkers and their manicures flash near me. Ray knows how much I hate long nails and does this thing where he kind of tries to hold all their hands at once and murmurs at them in his soothing way. Soon they are all ducking their bleached heads and cooing and touching Ray’s shoulders and saying how lucky Ray’s girl is to have him, and each positive thing they say about Ray has a very clear implicit negative flipside about me, like Ray is so buff and gentlemanly and I am a greasy weasel, like Ray could have his pick of whoever and I will never get laid in this town again.
h) The guys flanking us at the bar order a round of shots for them and us, explaining that they too were momentarily in possession of some bad things, and one of them had even married one, but sometimes a man has to take what the good Lord sends his way, and not just take it but fall down on his knees in goddamn gratitude because it’s not the pile of shit that He very well could have sent, and someone pays for another round, and they clap our backs and wheeze like our daddies wheezed, saying, God bless the bad things, what would we do without them, dirty old men like us.
i) Ray gets real quiet and I’m not sure he even heard the bad thing I said. He touches the back of my hand with just the tips of his fingers, like an old woman might do to her Alzheimer husband. He tells me how he had a real scare yesterday in the mine, how he was leaning up against the rock taking a breather and everyone else had already gone up for lunch, and his hard-hat LED up and died on him, and what he saw then, there in the dark, was something no one should ever have to see, something older and deeper and uglier than the mine, something ancient and bad but also beyond these words or any words that Ray knew, and the worst part, upon reflection, was not the thing itself, gruesome as it was, but rather the fact that Ray couldn’t tell if the thing had come out of the mine or out of him.
j) We two stay frozen here forever and the men in the town go to work every morning till it kills them.