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KEVIN KLINSKIDORN

 

 

 

 

Kevin Klinskidorn

Kevin Klinskidorn grew up on the Puget Sound in Washington State and is currently living on the east coast in Philadelphia while he completes an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers University. He is the winner of the Nina Mae Kellogg award for fiction and is currently at work on his first novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Mind the line. Mind the line.

Shortlisted in the 2015 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition

 

 

 

            The boy is coming back today. The man drinks his coffee by the window, looking out at the roiling grey sea, and tries to imagine the boy's face. It must be the face of a man by now. A face like his own, perhaps. It must be twenty years. The boy left at seventeen without a goodbye and the man closed the door to the empty room and the unmade bed before heading down to the harbor like any other day.

            When he saw the letter waiting for him two weeks ago, the careful script, the crooked stamp, he knew straight away the boy would be in trouble.

            His response was a single line scrawled on the back of the boy's own letter and returned to a town in New Mexico no one had ever heard of—come if you like.

            At seven o'clock, the sun already low behind the clouds, a truck engine cuts in the driveway and two figures stand at the door. The boy has brought with him a child. Her hair is trimmed short, dull-scissored and uneven, but her eyes prove she's a little girl. The boy is tall now, broad shoulders slumping inwards, hangdog and dark-featured. He keeps his eyes fixed on a patch of gravel in the middle distance between himself and the man. The child stands empty-handed and silent, wearing an outsized mechanic's jacket with the sleeves rolled to fit her arms. Can't be more than eight or nine years old. 

            This is Frank, the boy says to her. He was my father.

            She stares at the man, her face blank as a doll's.

            The boy meets the man's eye for a moment, nods his head once, and walks back toward the truck without another word.

            They watch him pull away, both casting shadows in the porch light, and the man waits until the truck scuds out of sight before leading the child inside. He clears a pile of catalogues from a bentwood chair and sits the child down at the table. Taking his place across from her, he feels the rust in his knees.

            Who's your mother? he says after two damp minutes of silence.

            The child picks at a rivet on her jacket and swings a leg back and forth above the thinning carpet but says nothing.

            How about you then? What do we call you, hmm?

            Picking. Swinging. She looks at the plate of unfinished food on the table and then gives a cursory glance around the little room.

            Hungry then? Well. 

            The man slides the plate a few inches closer to the child. Half a potato with margarine, canned green beans, and most of a walleye filet. All of it cold.

            The child regards the man warily and then picks up the fork as if doing a reluctant favor. She makes her way through the potato and a few of the green beans, never once going near the fish, then wipes her mouth with a sleeve and slides the plate back toward the man.

            Well, says the man.

           

            Four weeks and still nothing from the boy. Each morning, the man walks down to the harbor with the child – June is her name – following behind like a half-interested puppy to his slip where they both climb aboard and cast off for the day's crabbing. The man warms the engines while the child – a quick study, it seems – takes care of the mooring lines and coils them carefully, never wasting a word in either direction.

            The child, without much hesitation at all now, helps pick out the too-small crabs and drops them into the water with her chin stretching over gunwale of the boat, watching each one careen downward through the darkness until it disappears. She helps separate the hard little red rock crabs from the Dungeness, assessing the belly patterns of each one and keeping only the males. The work goes slower now, but the man can't think of anything else to do with her. Don't you take all day, he'll say. Watch you don't lose that finger. Make fast that bait can. Wind the wire tight. Mind the line. Mind the line.

            Most days, the child sits near the bow, her hair blown up on end. It there is rain, she perches inside the cabin on a cushion and watches the man steer. The boat cuts a path through the oil-slicked harbor, picking up speed as it nears the open water. Chinquapin Bay yawns wide as they set out, the chop growing steadily taller toward the horizon. The man drops pots in the same stretch of water he's been crabbing for thirty years. He could time the route by heartbeat if he had to.

 

            Winter coming on and the weather coming meaner, the man takes the child into Coos Bay to sort out warmer clothes that fit. Grumbling, he finds new boots, socks, two sweaters, and a yellow rain suit. The child holds up a red knit hat but the man says the one she has, a grey watch cap on loan from him, does the job just fine. She puts the hat back and wears the rain suit to the front counter.

            Well aren't you just a rubber duck, says the woman at the register. 

            The child blinks up at her from beneath the yellow fisherman's hat, then unsnaps her new jacket pockets and thrusts her fists inside.

            How old? says the woman, smiling.

            How much? says the man.

            He pays for the clothes and walks out of the store, the child, a gleaming new rubber duck, trailing behind.

            The man feels her eyes on him as they drive along the coast highway, a girl-sized pile of yellow vinyl in his periphery. I expect you to work off the cost, of course, he says. She nods, then takes out the folding knife he'd given her and uses the marlinspike to pick grit from her fingernails.

            Frank, the child says after a few miles, how long will I stay?

            Oh, the man says, at least a while. At least until your father comes for you.

            He won't come back, she says. Mommy didn't come back.

            You knew your mother, did you? The man looks over at the child for just a moment, her legs tucked up under her on the bench seat, lips pursed in an inaudible whistle, head bobbing with the rhythm of the road.

            She had too much medicine.

            The man lets her answer hang in the air like a dark little cloud for another mile. That why your father brought you out here then?

            The child huffs a short breath, a careless affirmative sigh, settling the conversation with a pleasant mmhmm, as if she's just confirmed her favorite color.

 

            The two return to Coos Bay again in February. The hospital parking lot is nearly empty and the man pulls the truck into a spot near the front. A nurse greets them at the counter.

            She's broken her wrist, says the man.

            The child had been pulling in a pot and slipped, taking the pot down on top of her with her wrist in just the wrong place for a fall. She didn't cry more than a few tears.

            Did this happen at school, sweetie? asks the nurse.

            School? says the man. Happened on the boat. She was bringing something in and fell, that's all.

            And are you her guardian, Sir? says the nurse, looking at him over the top of her glasses. A relative?

            Suppose that's right, says the man. She was left with me until her father comes back. How long will this take? He says this with the natural suspicion of a man distrustful of all things bureaucratic and organized. An inborn aversion to paperwork and fluorescent lighting.

            The nurse hands him a clipboard and tells them to have a seat. An hour later, an orderly escorts the man and the child down a corridor and draws a blue curtain around them. The child stands next to the papered hospital bed, her right hand resting inside the pocket of her yellow raincoat like a sling

            X-rays are taken. Questions answered. Does this hurt? And this? And this? The doctor asks about the child's father.

            Timothy Holcombe, says the man. Best of luck tracking him down though. Haven't seen him for a few months now. How much longer is all this going to take?

            Just a few more questions, says the doctor. She looks at him steadily.

            Well the wrist is broken, isn't it? the man says. Doesn't take a whole hospital to tell that much. It's purpled up and swollen as a pig's foot.

            Sir, says the doctor with a flat calm that makes the man uneasy. In cases like this, involving a child, we have to be as thorough as possible. We have to open up a case file. I'm sorry, she says, it's hospital policy.

            It is three more hours of hospital policy and doctoring before they can leave. A whole day's catch is lost. The man begrudgingly agrees to a follow-up with a caseworker and is told that the child's father will be sought out. He also agrees to put the child in a school for the time being, though what she will learn of any real use there, the man cannot imagine. The child's wrist, broken in two places, is wrapped from knuckle to elbow in a plaster cast. She walks out of the hospital with her arm held overhead like a prize. 

 

            Still nothing from the boy. The man puts off finding a school for another week. The child goes with him every morning – her log-stiff arm wrapped in a garbage bag – and rides along in the boat. The man pulls the pots. The child picks the crabs with her one good hand. In this way, they get through each day together.

            On Sunday, for no reasons to do with any church, the boat stays put at the dock. The child wanders the craggy shoreline, occupying herself with the exploration of purple starfish and barnacle-sharp rocks, squinting through the light drizzle, crouching over limpets and cracked clamshells. The man sits on the tailgate of his truck, mending a split crab pot with steel wire and a pair of pliers. He looks up from his work every few minutes to mark the distance of the child down the beach. At noon, he walks out to the water's edge and calls her over. 

            Hungry? he says to her.

            The child nods, swinging her garbage-bagged arm through the air like a melancholy kite.

            The man wades out into the water, to just before it reaches the tops of his boots, and bends down. He dips his hands several times and comes back to the child with oysters the size of her feet. 

            These are called Olympias, he says. Ever had one of these?

            The child frowns. Nope, she says.

            Pretty good, the man says. Got your knife?

            The child takes the knife from her pocket and holds it above her head.

            You take it at the back, like this, says the man. Have to be careful. Real careful. He lifts off the top shell of the oyster and tosses it into the water, revealing the milky petal of flesh sitting in the other half. There, he says. A real beauty.

            The child is suspicious. Cautious. You don't eat those, she says. She moves her head close to the oyster in the man's hand.

            Course you do, he says. Delicious, he says. You don't want any? Fine. Fine. Suit yourself then.

            She looks up at him. Studies his face for cracks. Searches for the lie.

            Hold this one, he says, and I'll open another. We'll eat em together.

            The child takes the open oyster, cradling it like a baby bird, afraid of its capacity for movement, for flight. The man shucks a second and holds it out to her in a toast.

            Now all you do is just tip it in. Just—pop—like that. One bite. You ready?

            The child nods.

            One. Two. The man eyes her. Just tip it in. Remember. Two and a half. Three.

            The girl eats the oyster. Salt water runs down her chin and slips into her collar. She grimaces. The man, still holding his uneaten oyster, smiles. He smiles perhaps for the first time in recent memory. He feels it stretch across his face, strange as a new limb.

            Well? he says, what do you think? Tastes like the sea, right? People eat em all the time, you know. But I wouldn't.

            The girl wipes the brine and sand from her lips and stops him before he can throw his oyster into the water, taking it from his hand and tipping it back as if she's done it her entire life.

            Well, says the man.

 

            The man drives the child thirty minutes north to the elementary school. He tucks five dollars into the pocket of her raincoat and walks her to the front office.

            Hello, says a woman in a blue dress. You're June, aren't you?

            She needs to keep that arm dry, says the man. Else it's liable to turn to rot.

            I think we can manage that, says the woman. She smiles at the child.

            Suppose I pick her up right here at the end of the day? What time?

            We let out at ten minutes after three, says the woman. We'll have her ready for you.

            That's fine, says the man.

            The child looks at him, as if for the last time, then takes the woman's hand and follows her down the hall and through a doorway.

            In the office, the man waits for the secretary to sort the necessary registration papers. He stares at a map of the coastline on the wall. There. Chinquapin Bay. Thirteen neat little letters floating out to sea. On the water, he can locate himself simply by the sound of the waves. The distant screes of the gulls high up on Tanager Rock.  The harbor is a sickle, drawn in a thin black line, and he can see where the pier juts out into the water like an accusatory finger, motionless, in just two dimensions. False as a photograph of his mother's face. The harbor he knows is a thing of movement. Of size and scale. Only real to him with the salt and the smell. The sea spray.

            The man returns a few minutes after three o'clock and the child climbs into the truck. They drive back to the house and he makes a dinner of boiled hot dogs with mustard and baked beans. The next morning he takes her to school. He picks her up in the afternoon. They keep to this routine for three weeks, and he worries about not making enough catch with the wasted hours and shortened workday.

            It is a Wednesday when the county caseworker comes by the house. A sapling of a man, probably just barely through the first half of his twenties, with wrists no bigger than the child's. 

            Mr. Holcombe, says the caseworker, my name is Nathan Whitman. We spoke on the phone, I believe. Thank you again for making the time to meet. 

            Fine, says the man. Fine.

            The child comes in from the other room to peer at the visitor.

            Hello, says the caseworker.

            Go on back in that room, says the man. Let me talk to Mr. Whitman here. Go on.

            The man pulls out a chair for him and sits across the table with his elbows astride a bottle of beer. The caseworker fidgets with his hands, first folded in his lap, then on one knee, until settling on a prayerful tent of fingers on the tabletop in front of him.

            Mr. Holcombe, I'm afraid I have some news. 

            The man clears his throat.

            I'm sorry, Mr. Holcombe, but it's June's father. I'm afraid he's passed away.

            Yes, says the man. I thought that might've been it.

            He doesn't feel surprise. Not anger. Not sadness. He takes up the boy's face in his mind. Holds it there. Not his face when last he'd seen him, but his face when he was young. He wonders if there had ever been a photograph of him. The boy had become a man. Then, a dead man.

            I'm very sorry, Sir. He was found down in California. Two months ago. Apparently the police tried to reach you but were unable to make contact. It was only when we ran a search on June that anything popped up about your son. I'm so sorry, Sir. Really.

            How? Did they say?

            All we were told was that he was found dead outside of Truckee. I can put you in touch with the officer we spoke with. If you like.

            The man leans out to see the child flipping through a catalogue in the other room. The caseworker folds and unfolds his hands.

            He wasn't my son anyhow, says the man. Not sure if he ever knew that. His mother was my wife for a time, but there was none of me in him. I just brought the boy up is all. 

            I see, says the caseworker. And June's mother?

            No, says the man. She's got no one else. She'll stay here. I've got the room.

            The caseworker fills out his papers. The man answers his questions. There are questions for the child as well. She tells him her cast will come off in another month, explaining proudly how she lost a butter knife inside while trying to manage an itch. She smiles and laughs at the caseworker, brightened by the fresh company.

            After the caseworker leaves, the man sits the child down at the table. He makes his face a stone. The child sits up a little straighter, sensing the shift in the air.

            You're going to stay with me, the man says. Understand? Your father, he died. He's dead now.

            The girl nods.

 

©2016 Kevin Klinskidorn

 

 

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