Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story
by Anna Hartley
Sam is sixteen and likes to sit on the fire hydrant on the corner
with a cigarette hanging out of her pouting mouth. She lets it
hang like this because she likes how it sticks to her black lipstick
so slightly that she forgets that it is even there. She never lights
Today she is sitting there; it is four o'clock and she knows
it by the sound of the bell ringing at the elementary school down
the street. Her cutoff shorts are tickling the back of her legs
but she does not scratch, instead she leans her head back slightly
and holds her pose. A gray van pulls up in front of the hydrant
and the world is accosted by the incessant howl that issues from
the horn of the outdated vehicle. Sam looks at the car, unperturbed,
grasps her backpack in her fingers and climbs in.
"Jesus, why are you always sitting there?" Jess asks, leaning over
the steering wheel. "It's creepy you know." Jess is Sam's best friend,
perhaps because they share the common bond of misfits. They met in third grade
crouched under the play structure when the other kids started calling them
names and pelting them with red rubber balls.
"Yeah, I know it's creepy. I've gotta prepare those little kids for the
real world." Sam gestures to the tousle-haired kindergartners who troop
out of the chain link fence that surrounds the elementary school. She glares
at the ones who peer in the car window, frightened.
"Missed you in fifth."
"Yeah, well, you know." Sam adjusts the numerous black
rubber bracelets that cling to her fragile wrist.
"No, I don't. Please, elaborate." Characteristically, Jess rolls her
eyes and pushes her cropped hair behind her ears. "Enlighten me."
"I had better things to do."
"Like what? Read?" The car halts suddenly at a red light and Jess grabs
Sam's backpack and rips open the zipper, a pile of books toppling out and landing
in a heap on top of the emergency brake. "You know, nobody will ever know
you're so smart if you don't come to class. I mean Jesus who
reads this?" She picks up Mansfield Park by
the spine as if it were toxic.
"Some people. It's Austen. It's romantic."
"Never woulda pegged you as the romantic type. I think it's your hair." Sam's
hair falls down in black chunks in front of her eyes, dreadlocks
in the making.
"Gotta fly under the radar screen. Thanks for the ride."
Sam jumps out of the car in front of her house, slamming the door
and watches as the dust particles are released from the fibers
of the seat
cushion. She sets her teeth sardonically in a "Miss. Teen USA" smile,
waving as Jess drives away. She is left in the overgrown grass of
her front yard which
and breaks like brittle threads of hair when she steps through
her backpack and pulling the zipper closed she climbs the fence
and makes her way
along the side yard before pulling open the sliding door to her
room. This form of entrance is advantageous in two ways: Sam doesn't have
to worry about her
mother's stream of invasive questions, and she is certain to
avoid her mother making out with her most recent boyfriend. Sam has never
these men seem to see past the chipping fingernails, thinning
and inexpertly applied lip liner (the one dead giveaway of her mother's
she is starting to wear makeup for the first time this late in
her life.) The men are equally sad, but in a different kind of way. They
car salesmen than anything else -- they wear polyester pants
"Sam? You home?" A light knock on the door indicates
her mother's anxious presence on the other side of the partition.
Sam cringes knowing
that her mother will enter in hopes that they will have a meaningful mother-daughter
Oprah-inspired talk. She hates that look of expectation in her mother's
too much daytime television does to you, Sam thinks, imagining
her mother watching the Women's Entertainment channel with one eye and collecting
distractedly as she tries to memorize the Ten Essential Tips
and Your Loved Ones. Jesus.
"What?" Sam asks, opening the door, the flimsy wood
bending as it catches on the rug.
"Oh, I just wanted to say hello, you know, and to introduce
you to Mike. We met at work."
Oh God, Sam thinks, it should be a sacrilege to allow two toll-collectors
to date. The prospect is just too depressing. "Hi," she
smiles, sticking out her hand as the man steps shyly into the
frame of her
doorway. He is shorter
than her mother with hair that is either very blonde or slightly
gray, a developing beer belly and terrible white and blue shoes
"How are you doing?" He is overly formal and she can
tell that he is made uncomfortable by her black fingernails, her
the music that is blaring from within her room.
"Oh I'm just dandy."
"Sam, no need to be so sarcastic. Mike and I are going to
get some food. You're welcome to come, although I expect you would
sit in you room and listen to Alanis Morrisette for hours."
"You know me too well," Sam says disdainfully, pushing
the door shut. It catches on the carpet again, and through the
crack she can
see Mike taking her mother's hand in his as they walk out the door. The gesture
endearing, but Sam's mouth curls scornfully as she thinks of the
of her father,
an Adonis compared to this sad excuse for a man. They all are,
really, those car
The photos of her father are gone now, stuffed angrily into
the back of drawers when her mother realized that he wasn't
used to spend
her evenings at the local truck stop hoping that he would come
through some time. She stopped going the day that the waitress
in and whispered
ain't never comin' back, hon. I've seen this a thousand times.
Just don't keep comin' here, you're breaking my heart."
Too bad, Sam thinks, trying to dispel the thought, that's life.
She catches a glimpse of her face in the mirror as she turns
Approaching it she pushes the clumps of hair back out of her
face and reaches compulsively
for the black lipstick, carefully concealing the soft pink
of her mouth. Maybe next week she'll go and get her nose pierced.
out the next guy. Sam smirks as she walks back to her bed,
her face is softened
as she pulls out her novel and quietly turns to the dog-eared
copy of Mansfield Park that she has read fifteen times. Sam reads hungrily,
passionately until her eyes are weighed down and the song of
crickets fills her room.
Her mother returns later, turns out the light, gently removes
the book that is
clutched so desperately in her daughter's youthful fingers,
and sets it on the end table.
Sam wakes soon after to the empty sobs of her mother who is crouched on the other side of the thin walls that separate their rooms. Sam pushes her sliding door open and walks out into the velvet night, refusing to accept this world, this house, this life, and the familiar coldness that enters her chest when she is awakened from dreams.
One more week to vote!
Don't forget to cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 29th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 21st issue of the Palo Alto Weekly.