A short story from Ploughshares
- Anything That Floats
A short story originally published in The Paris Review and reprinted in New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 2005
- On Rejection; or, Dear Author, After Careful Consideration
An essay originally published in Shenandoah
- Ode to Southern Heavy Metal
A short essay from The Oxford American
- Ode to Giant Cowboy Boots
A short essay from The Oxford American
- Back in the Day (Just A Few Years Ago)
A short essay from The New York Times Magazine
- Best New Novelist: Per Petterson
A short essay from Men's Journal
- A Love Affair With Skateboarding (MP3)
A short audio essay that originally aired on NPR's "All Things Considered." The commentary was produced by Ellen Silva for the January 17, 2005 edition of ATC.
- Outside the Toy Store (MP3)
A recording of Bret reading "Outside the Toy Store". The reading was recorded and produced by Dianna Stirpe, and originally aired on WSUI, the NPR affiliate in Iowa City, IA.
The Caddy was cream-colored, a 1978 Brougham. Whitewalls, chrome, power windows, locks and mirrors, and leather seats and a retractable antenna. Even at thirteen years old, the Fleetwood wasn't a car my family could normally afford—my father drove a Datsun pick-up, my mother a Chevy hatchback—but an old woman had pawned it and when her loan expired, my father brought the keys home. Things had already soured in their marriage by then, but my mother had always coveted a convertible, and my father knew her boss drove one, so he must have hoped that a luxury sedan could turn things around for our family, deliver us to a different destiny.
He was the manager of Blue Water Pawn, and he believed everything you'd ever need would eventually float through the pawnshop doors. My mother's opal earrings and pearl necklace, her espresso machine and electric range and Tiffany lamps, my ten-speed bike and computer, my cordless phone and bowie knife and Nikon camera, all of it had once belonged to someone else, and either the owners or the people who'd robbed them had sold the stuff to Blue Water for pennies on the dollar. My father once paid twelve bucks for an acoustic guitar that had belonged to Elvis Presley, and he gave it to my mother for one of their anniversaries. I'd been forbidden from telling my friends about the guitar, but I regularly bragged about it. Sometimes I lifted it from its fur-lined case and strummed its strings.
That the Cadillac came through the pawnshop surprised everyone except my father, and for a while that surprise buoyed my parents. Every couple of weeks they soaped the car with sponges and waxed it until their reflections emerged in the hubcaps. They took it to open-air restaurants on the Laguna Madre, and on weekends they drove into the hill country with the top down. When they returned the seats were littered with pine needles and mesquite leaves, the floorboards dusted with sand like confectioner's sugar. Once, they stopped at a rest area outside Austin and had someone snap a photo of them with my Nikon. They're wearing sunglasses, leaning on the Fleetwood with the tawny hills rolling into the horizon behind them; the landscape looks like a solemn, arrested wave, and studying the picture closely, you can almost sense that my mother is poised to tighten her scarf around her hair and walk out of the frame for good.
On the second anniversary of the night she moved to Arizona with her boss, my father calmly walked outside and cut the Fleetwood's ragtop into ribbons with my bowie knife. When he came back in, he said, “Pop quiz.”
Ever since I'd started high school he'd been quizzing me: Name the capital of Delaware. What was the shortest war in history? Who invented wallpaper? When I botched the answers—I'd never answered one correctly—he'd say, “Time to hit the books.” My father had his GED.
I couldn't tell if he knew I'd watched him shred the vinyl, so I tried to act casual. I was also worried he'd ask me about my mother. She called me every other month, but sometimes my father answered before I could reach the phone. I hadn't heard from her in a while, so we were both anticipating her call.
I said, “Ready, professor.”
“Tonight's prize is a 1978 Fleetwood Brougham, the King of the Cadillac line.”
I didn't know what he'd done with my knife. Maybe he'd stabbed it into the steering wheel or one of the whitewalls. My father twirled the keys around his finger. He'd been trying to unload the car for two years.
He said, “What's the beginning of wisdom?”
I knew the answer immediately. A bronze plaque with the words engraved on it hung in his office at Blue Water. I said, “The beginning of wisdom is the acquisition of a roof.”
“Touchdown,” he said and chucked me the keys.
Later that night I walked by his bedroom and heard him crying. His door was closed, but his sobbing was hard enough to carry into the hall. His room wasn't the one he'd shared with my mother—he'd converted the master bedroom into a storage space and pushed his bed into our old study—though when I pictured him, I couldn't help imagining the furniture as it had been before she left. I saw my mother's vanity under the shuttered window, saw my father trying to muffle his weeping with one of her tasseled pillows.
“Jay,” he said through the door. “Jay, are you out there?”
“Just returned from my maiden voyage, professor.”
For a moment I thought he hadn't heard me, thought maybe I hadn't spoken at all. Then he said, “I left the paper on the counter.”
I wondered if this was a new kind of quiz. I said, “Ready, professor.”
“Roofs cost money. I'd say it's time you found gainful employment.”
“Right away,” I said. I thought he'd say something more, or that I would, maybe I love you or thank you or I'm sorry Mom hasn't come home, but finally I just walked into the kitchen and read the classifieds. I called La Cocina because a delivery job would afford me more time in the Caddy.
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