by T.E. Cowell ((Header art is a photograph from Alban Grosdidier’s series aptly titled Drowning.))
A duo of flash-fiction that functions as a warning, calling attention to the consequences of counting your chips before they’ve been cashed…
Keep Your Head Up
Tucker feels like celebrating because suddenly he’s on top of the world. He’s just received an email saying his novel, his baby, the thing that’d consumed him for roughly the last sixteen months, through good times and bad, has won a contest for first-time novelists and will be published by the end of the year. He is, for lack of a better phrase, beside himself. Ecstatic. Deranged, almost. Who knows what this will do for his writing career? Tucker certainly doesn’t. He has no idea, not really, and this, not knowing, is perhaps better than knowing. He sees fellowships and grants in the near future, working with agents and editors in cozy coffee shops. Maybe, he thinks, he’ll be able to quit the freelance work he does sooner rather than later and just write what he loves, fiction, full-time. How great that would be!
Tucker is now walking aimlessly around the apartment, from one end to the other, from the front door to the bedroom, past the bathroom and through the living room, back and forth, again and again, unable to think straight, and too thrilled to stand still. He wonders if he should call his girlfriend, who has deemed herself his biggest fan since day one, to tell her the good news, but knowing she is still at work, knee-deep in ad copy, most likely, he refrains. He’ll tell her when she walks in the door in a few hours’ time. She will beam, he thinks. Then they’ll hug. Mid-hug, she’ll tell him how proud she is of him, which is what she’s told him each time after he’d managed to get a short story published somewhere. Perhaps, Tucker thinks, she’ll even shed a few tears of joy. They will have an unforgettable evening together. A bottle of wine, some music, good food and sex.
Tucker is too roused up now to work anymore on the fourteen-hundred word article proclaiming the scientifically-backed health benefits of standing versus sitting, so he laces up his boots and dons his coat and hat and leaves the apartment for the gas station across the street to buy a bottle of the most expensive beer they carry.
It is the dead of winter, another snowy, windy day with the temperature in the teens. Tucker’s boots crunch the frozen snow along the sidewalk, then find soft, virgin snow beside the curb. He glances both ways, his eyes narrow slits against the wind, sees no cars and starts crossing the street, his head down as he pushes forward.
He still can’t believe his luck, or skill, or both. A published novelist! A contest winner! He shakes his head and grins. Him! Tucker Wilson! This is the beginning, he tells himself. This is it.
His head is still down as he nears the gas station’s entrance doors, but not from the wind anymore––he’s in a momentary shelter thanks to a row of buildings he’s now in front of––but due to the excited, still-borderline deranged thoughts he entertains.
He enters the store without thinking to first glance through the windows, and when he finally looks up he sees a man with a ski mask standing only a few feet away pointing a gun at him. The man is large, tall and broad-shouldered, wearing a camouflage jacket; his eyes are tiny, unreadable beads. Instinctively, suddenly shit-your-pants terrified, Tucker yanks his hands up in the air. He can see out the corner of his eye the cashier, also with his hands up. Tucker focuses his attention back on the man with the gun pointing at him, and before the gun fires he sees how it shakes in the man’s hand and he’s reminded, very fleetingly, while there’s still time, of the hip-shaking hula doll his girlfriend has on the dash of her car.
I was a senior in college, home for spring break when I saw him in a bar. I had to do a double take, but there he was, sitting five bar stools down from me. One doesn’t easily forget a bully.
There was no one in the bar except the bully, the bartender, and myself. It was early enough in the day that, though the sun wasn’t out, the light in the sky was still bright. I was bored, plain and simple, so I’d gone into town to see if I could find any amusement.
I watched the bully size me up as I’d entered the bar, but then he’d directed his attention to a TV overhead. That’s when I sat down and did the double take. The victim, in this case, remembered more than the assailant. The bully kept watching the TV. A football game was on. To the bully’s credit, though, I was bigger now, a lot bigger than I’d been back in grade school, when the bully had tormented me, so there was really no way he’d remember our encounters. I’d essentially gone through a transformation.
After the bartender set my drink before me and I started sipping it, the past came whirling back to me like a boomerang. I recalled all of the bully’s antics, starting from the beginning. In elementary school he used to stand in front of me after the final bell rang and block my way towards the bus, so that when I finally got on all the good seats would be taken and I’d have to sit closer to the front of the bus, which is where the less cool kids sat, which in turn made me less cool. If, on the footpath leading to the parked busses, I tried to get around the bully to the right, he’d move to the left and vice versa. He was unnaturally big, both tall and strong, though I wouldn’t know just how strong until he put his hands on me in middle school for the first time while I was in the hallway in between classes. He came out of nowhere, wrestled me to the ground easily, then picked me up by my ankles and lowered me headfirst into a trash bin. He let go of my ankles and then walked away, leaving me to climb out alone. By the end of middle school I had perfected the art of rocking back and forth until I’d finally tip over, trash bin and all. I’d hurry off to my next class while peeling bits of trash off my clothes, sticky candy wrappers and banana peels. I think the bully had picked on me more than anyone else because I was an easy target, a late-bloomer. I was particularly small for my age until I was a senior in high school and suddenly shot up six inches, almost as fast as it’d happened to Tom Hanks in Big. After my growth spurt the bully didn’t pick on me anymore because at that point I was as tall as him if not taller, and there were smaller kids for him to bully, easier, weaker prey. Yet each time I ran into him in the hallway he’d snicker at me and I’d shrink back a little in fear, afraid he wasn’t through with me yet.
After high school I left my hometown for college, and there I started hitting the gym like mad. Working out became a way for me to try and fill a gap, a way for me to try and deal with my array of insecurities, a multitude of them thanks in part to the bully sitting five bar stools down from me.
My drink was nearly empty now. The more I thought about the bully, about all he’d put me through, the angrier I became. Finally I turned my head and looked at him. He was still watching the TV. He looked pretty pathetic sitting hunched over on his barstool with his elbows on the counter. Before I’d left for college I’d thought of him as huge and powerful, like a giant. He’d been able to lift me up so easily into those trash bins, but now he had this defeated and shrunken look to him, like he was already starting to get old and go downhill, even though he was twenty-four at most. His face was scruffy and his cheeks looked sunken, like he didn’t get enough nutrition. He was wearing jeans speckled with flakes of white paint, which made me think he was scraping by as a painter.
He turned his head and and saw me looking at him. I held his gaze. He looked me up and down. “What’re you lookin’ at, hotshot?” he said.
So he still thought he was a tough guy. So he still hadn’t changed. A part of me was glad. I wasn’t proud of this part of me, but it justified my anger. I held the bully’s gaze, hating him. I’m sure he could see the hatred in me, directed at him, but he didn’t flinch. Not that I could see. We were in a kind of staring war. Though he was skinny, at least compared to me, he still appeared as confident as ever. I wanted to break his confidence, to take it away from him as he’d taken it away from me back in the day. I wanted to give him a taste of his own medicine.
“A ghost from the past,” I finally said to him. But he didn’t remember me. It was clear that he couldn’t place me.
He said, “You got a problem there, big boy? You forget to drink your protein shake today?”
I looked away from him then, straight ahead at the liquor bottles lining the wall. I looked for the bartender but didn’t see him. It seemed he’d gone through a door into what I presumed was the kitchen. I finished off my drink and slammed the glass back on the counter, and then I got up off my barstool in one fluid motion and, stepping toward the bully, made a fist and cocked back my arm. The bully was suddenly off his barstool now too, and seeing my arm he tried to duck but unfortunately for him, for his face, he wasn’t quick enough. I clocked him square in the jaw and then watched his body meet the floor with force.
I was surprised and also a bit scared by the fact that he dropped to the floor like a rock. This marked the first time I’d ever punched someone with malicious intent and I was afraid that maybe I’d hit him too hard, that I’d hurt him more than I’d set out to. But to my relief he started to move, to wriggle about on the floor like a worm. He put his hands over his head as if to protect his skull against further blows.
“Remember me?” I shouted at him. “Remember me?”
He wouldn’t look at me. He just kept holding his head in pain. He didn’t moan or say a word. Nothing. He started kicking at my ankles in a meek effort to knock me down. Then, perhaps seeing that this wasn’t working, he grabbed my ankles with his hands and tried to pull me off balance, also to no effect. I was a solid two-hundred-and-twenty pounds and it felt just as if a dog were pawing at me. I lowered myself and put my weight on top of him. I pressed my knees into his ribcage.
“Fuck!” he gasped. “Get off me!”
I relented and stood back up even though I was still full of rage. I took a step back to give the bully a chance to get back up and try to take a swing at me if he felt like it. He got up slowly, first onto his hands and knees before standing, finally, a bit shakily. He looked me in the eye then, and, sure enough, swung a sloppy punch that I easily dodged and that, in effect, nearly toppled him back to the floor. It was then that I was given an understanding of just how drunk he must’ve been. Even so, I pushed him, watched him fall back to the floor with another loud thud.
Suddenly the bartender was shouting from behind the bar: “Get the hell out of here! Get the hell out or I’m calling the cops!”
I got the hell out and never saw the bully again. Spring break ended and I went back to college and got my degree and soon found a job at a gym as a personal trainer. Even though the bully deserved what he’d gotten, I’m not happy with what I’d did, for having let my anger get the best of me. In the end I’d stooped to his level. If I were stronger I would’ve bought him a drink. I would’ve forgiven him. I would’ve tried.
We at Across the Margin have had the privilege of publishing a handful of T.E. Cowell’s stories. Because we wanted to shine him as a writer and expose our readers to where else they might find his words, we asked if he would like to share a bio. And we are pleased to present what he gifted us with in response:
“On an island in Washington State.”
“An island in Washington State?”
“I didn’t know there were islands in Washington State.”
“There’re a few. More than a few.”
“Huh, didn’t know that. Learn something new every day, I suppose.”
“And forget what you learned the next day.”
O-kay, Mr. Cynical. Work? You work?”
“That’s all I want to say about it.”
“Because life is short and work is work.”
“Fair enough. On to the next question. Credentials. You have any?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Didn’t think so.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Didn’t think so.”
“Let’s just continue here. We’re almost done. Um, email.”
“What’s your email?”
“Why would you want my email?”
“I don’t want it, but other people might. Maybe. Probably not, but maybe one day, for some reason. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but…”
“firstname.lastname@example.org. Perfect. That was easier than I thought it’d be. Thank you.”
“Always changing, daily, it seems.”
“Good answer. Height?”
“Tall enough that I’m glad I’m not any taller.”
“No. I think we’re done here.”