Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
by Lionel de Maine
We drove with the windows open. Dad gripped the blue plastic steering
wheel with his right hand. His other hand was bandaged and hung
over one of the spokes. The fingers protruding from the white bandage
were stained with tobacco. He chewed on the stem of a briar pipe
clamped between his false teeth and smoke brushed my face.
About Lionel de Maine
The third time's the charm for Lionel de Maine. This year's
third-place adult author almost didn't participate in the
contest until his wife persuaded him to submit the winning
short story two minutes before the official deadline.
was on the verge of not entering," he said.
de Maine was born in Zimbabwe, and immigrated to Pennsylvania
at age 21 to study at Pennsylvania State University. His parents
and brother immigrated two years later. His story "Rhubarb
Pies" is loosely based on the friendship he forged with
his father after his mother's death. He considers central
Pennsylvania home even after living in Canada, England, Israel,
and finally California for over 15 years.
"My father was a good friend," he said. "At
some level, I was exploring my relationship with him in this
story." His father battled a rare form of cancer before
his death. According to de Maine, "Rhubarb Pies"
is adapted from entries in a journal he kept while his father
After leaving a job in the hi-tech industry, de Maine decided
to start writing fiction in earnest. His father was one of
his major supporters in this endeavor and advised de Maine
on many of his stories. de Maine considers as literary influences,
author Somerset Maugham and Roald Dahl, best known for his
novel "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
A recipient of the Willamette Award for another of his stories,
de Maine has also established -- in honor of his father and
mother -- the Peter and Jean de Maine Award. The award recognizes
short stories by emerging writers published in the Clackamas
Literary Review. He is also a fiction editor at Red Wheelbarrow
Magazine, a literary magazine published out of De Anza College
de Maine is currently working on an anthology of short stories
-- Erik Wong
"Your pipe smoke smells worse than a horse's fart."
I hoped for the usual comeback. A normal response might counter
the signs of worry I had seen elsewhere. A hearing aid forgotten
beside his bed. A bottle of marmalade open on the kitchen counter.
A slice of burned toast in an unwashed dish in the sink. Our antique
family Bible open under a newspaper on a coffee table with the sixteenth
verse of John 3 (For God so loved the world...) underlined in pencil.
"This bandage is too tight," he said. "Next time
make it looser."
Last night he had asked me to bandage his hand. His rough, leathery
skin reminded me of the day he delivered a calf for a neighbor.
After the birth he washed his bloody hands under a steaming tap.
Without thinking the neighbor plunged his hands under the same tap.
He had yelped with pain. I grasped Dad's hand in mine and examined
the growth on his knuckle. A shiny red bump the size of a rat's
nose pushed through the skin flaking from the tumor. I squeezed
the bump gently.
"Ouch." He snatched his hand away. "That's damned
"Sorry. Maybe the doctor will inject the knuckle again."
"The lady professor's good," he said. "I see her
Hershey Medical Center was two hours away. I offered to drive.
"What for?" he asked angrily. "There's nothing wrong
His words had started me thinking "cancer?" My mother
had died of the disease the year before. Our family doctor had ignored
her complaints of stomach pain until the cancer was terminal. After
her death Dad and I talked each day by phone. During those calls
we never allowed ourselves to cry or show emotion. We never mentioned
cancer either. He only spilled the beans about his knuckle when
I invited myself home for a week's vacation. Later I learned he
was being treated at Hershey.
"I'd rather visit the chocolate factory than the hospital."
"There's nothing to worry about at the hospital," he said.
On the road ahead a lantern swung like a pendulum from the fender
of a black Amish buggy. Dad slowed and then passed. The sound of
horseshoes tapping on the concrete soon faded. A mile later a roadside
billboard proclaimed, "He that believes in the Lord shall be
saved." The next buggy we saw was yellow. The paint was fresh
and called to mind sunflowers slowly turning to follow the sun across
"Bright yellow is unusual for the Amish," said Dad.
"Maybe he's not a true believer."
"It doesn't really matter -- we all die eventually."
"I thought you believed in eternal life?"
He laughed. "The worms get us all sooner or later."
Silence crawled between us again. I closed my window and opened
one of the newspapers I'd tossed into the car. My mind refused to
settle on the news. I cranked the window down again. Pennsylvania's
fields gave way to tangled woodland and air laden with the smell
of rotting leaves. We passed the remains of a deer. Tires had crushed
the body to a pulp and smeared scars of blood onto the road. The
skull lay on the gravel verge with black holes for eyes. A shock
of putrid air rushed into the car.
"What a horrible death," I said. "To be crushed by
Dad's pipe had gone out. He flicked his lighter alight and sucked
orange flame into the bowl. When the tobacco was burning he blew
smoke at me. I coughed and beat the air with the newspaper. Some
of his usual humor twinkled from his eyes before the breeze whisked
the smoke away. I kept fanning with the newspaper.
"Well," he said, "at least she died quickly."
The growth had burrowed into Dad's knuckle like a worm. The injection
was only one of the possible treatments. Doctors could cut the joint
away. And the finger. Maybe two joints. Two fingers? Three? Four?
A shiver crawled up my nape. I shushed my brain and turned my eyes
to the scenery. We cruised through a string of farming towns with
unexpected names. Locust Run. Center. Mexico. A harvester spat out
tightly coiled barrels of hay. Silver grain silos thrust skyward
like missiles ready to launch. Tall barns painted rust red broke
the lazy green of pastures perfect for sheep farming. Men dressed
in preachers' black raised a barn ribbed with tanned timber. In
an adjacent field, loose sheaves of hay stood in crooked rows like
"Looks like that hay was cut by hand," I said without
I pictured a scythe slicing through yellow stalks. Some of Dad's
favorite stories were about harvesting hay with a scythe during
his childhood. A bulky farmer swung the blade back and forth as
regularly as a heartbeat. His fingers were rough and the knotted
creases in his skin stained with accumulated grime. Straw collapsed
over the hand and scythe. Suddenly the hand gave way to white wrist
bones. The joints rattled as the hand swung the gleaming blade.
My nose crinkled with the smell of putrid flesh.
"Horse drawn mower," said Dad. "The cut's too even
"Do you have cancer?" The words tumbled from my lips.
"You know," he said. "We used scythes when I was
"Why not listen," I said. "I didn't ask you about
He clamped the pipe stem between his teeth and inhaled deeply. The
plug of tobacco in the bowl glowed like hot coal for five seconds.
He pursed his lips and blew a lazy smoke ring. I hadn't seen him
blow smoke rings since childhood. The ring of smoke collapsed and
then he blew another and another. He sucked on the pipe again but
the tobacco was exhausted. He handed me the pipe with his bandaged
"Time for a refill," he said. "My tobacco's in the
I stuck the warm pipe into the pouch and scooped tobacco into the
bowl with my forefinger. The strands of tobacco were rough and oily.
While my fingers recharged the pipe I prayed silently, reminding
anyone listening that Dad had believed all his life even though
today he sounded contrary. I packed the tobacco tight with my thumb.
Dad grinned and said, "Why not light that when you're finished."
"That's your job," I said. "Your tobacco tastes like
I handed him his pipe and kerosene lighter. He sucked on the stem
and yellow flame dived into the bowl. Wayward strands of tobacco
frizzled and then smoke swirled from the pipe. The car drifted across
the two-lane highway while he inhaled.
"That's better," he said. "This tobacco is super
"Yeah," I said. "The horse in the back seat agrees."
He smoked steadily until we arrived at the hospital. Fluorescent
tubes bathed the waiting room with sterile light. Dad disappeared
into the intestinal maze of corridors. I opened a Conde Naste Traveler
and willed myself onto the dude ranch described on its glossy pages.
Wind and sun scrubbed my skin while I roped cattle. At night I squatted
around a blazing campfire with craggy-faced cowboys and drank whisky
from a tin cup. Warmth from the fire oozed into my boots. My only
worldly concern was moving a herd of bellowing longhorns. Insects
sang me to sleep. Dad's voice woke me.
"Everything's fine," he said. "Are you ready to leave?"
"Is the growth dead?" I asked. "What did the doctor
"She squeezed and pus squirted from my knuckle."
"Wow," I said. "That must have hurt like hell."
"I hardly felt anything," he said with a grin.
He suggested stopping for a fancy lunch in a town called Fishing
Creek. The restaurant was squeezed between two Victorian houses
dressed in pealing paint. A scrawled note tacked to the door read
"closed for vacation." Thirty minutes later we saw a billboard
shaped as an arrow advertising homemade meals. The road to the restaurant
had a crumbling surface. We passed a pigsty and a sign to an Amish
bakery. Dad had discovered Amish pies after Mom's death. He liked
telling the Amish that the only pies better than theirs were Mom's
rhubarb pies. I liked Amish pies too.
"I'll buy you a pie for dinner," I said rubbing my stomach.
"Find the restaurant," he said. "My stomach's growling."
"Don't be mean," I said. "You're the one with a sweet
He spotted the restaurant first, a squat building beside a green
field. Inside the door was a rack of religious brochures. "Be
Born Again," urged one of the pamphlets. Skin showed through
the fur of a stuffed bear that adored the lobby. The smell of fresh
bread and pies filled the restaurant. I insisted on a non-smoking
table. Our waitress brought us menus and put some religious brochures
on the table between us.
"Here's a message from the Lord," she said. "He loves
"I don't want these," said Dad. "They're a waste
"Sorry," I said uneasily. "But my father needs redemption."
"Everybody needs help sometime," she said. "The Lord
saved me when drugs took my soul." She flipped opened her pad.
"And when cancer took my husband the Lord comforted me -- he
sat with me at the hospital every day. Without him -- "
"Time to order," said Dad. "What do you want to eat?"
"Entrée du jour is turkey," said the waitress.
"It's real good."
When the waitress had gone I read a brochure titled The Matchless
Pearl aloud to Dad. In the story a pearl diver wants to make a sacrifice
to smooth his way to heaven so he decides to walk to Delhi on his
knees. Before leaving he gives a missionary friend a priceless gift-a
pearl that his only son had died harvesting.
"This is bullshit," said Dad. "Why are you reading
it to me?"
"Because you won't talk about the growth on your hand."
"You ask too many foolish questions," he said angrily.
"They're not foolish," I said. "I just want to hear
Dad stared at me fixedly. His glasses magnified his pupils.
"Okay." he sighed. "This is my fourth... no the fifth
The waitress returned midway through his sentence. Our plates clinked
on the tabletop as she set them down. Dad started eating while she
served me. He gripped his sandwich with both hands. Tomato seeds
squished from between the wheat toast and juice trickled into his
beard. I forked some turkey into my mouth. Two slices of Wonder
Bread and a thick slab of turkey on my plate were smothered under
"Jesus," I said. "This gravy looks like... like...
"There's more," he said. "The growths are only half
"How's your sandwich?" I asked. "I hope better than
"There's more," he said. "You wanted the truth didn't
I shook my head and looked away. After that we ate in silence. Once
or twice my eyes touched his by mistake. I noticed things I hadn't
seen before. A cataract clouded the lens of one eye. His eyelashes
had turned gray. The edges of his eyelids were swollen and sore.
We finished eating and walked over to the cashier in silence.
Dad examined the pies inside the display case. Some had scorched
edges and some had cracks across their crusty faces. One had a wedge
missing. The apple filling underneath was stained with cinnamon.
Purple juice oozed from the holes pieced into the face of a blueberry
pie. A boyish smile spilled over into Dad's eyes.
He said, "I'll bake you one of my rhubarb pies for dinner."
"Sounds risky," I said. "Unless you use Mom's recipe."
"What do you know?" he asked. "About baking pies."
He grinned when he handed me the keys and said, "Drive."
The road we followed back to the highway twisted through rich farmland.
A field heavy with corn waited for a farmer's harvester. Green rows
of a late-season crop squeezed from the earth. Sprinklers tossed
water onto a distant field. A tractor hauling cattle rattled along
the road. Cows bellowed and the smell of manure wafted into the
car. When we reached the highway Dad lit his pipe. Thick smoke filled
the car. He opened his window and the draft sucked the smoke away.
"Doesn't this tobacco smell good?" he asked.
From the judges
Tom Parker: A vibrant, live-affirming story driven by a
son's interrogation of his vital, yet aging, ailing father. I was
alternately amused and affected by "Rhubarb Pie;" by the
son's musings. The waitress' proselytizing and, above all, by the
narrator's indomitable Dad.
Kim Silveira Wolterbeek: Rhubarb Pie" is a well-crafted
first-person journey down the meandering road of truth, hope and
acceptance. The author creates a sense of physical and spiritual
space with the use of realistic detail.
Ellen Sussman: Here's another story that transports us to
a different world. This story moves through the terrain of Amish
country, of fathers and sons, of illness. The writer has a remarkable
ear of dialogue, and the ability to find the right gesture or action
when there are no more words.