First Place Short Story Contest Winner

By Penny Van Horn

Before she knew there was really something wrong with her brother, Elaine would tell him that their mother had tried to abort him when she was only a month gone. Pinning him beneath her on the bathroom floor, she'd say that the abortion didn't work and that was why he was so weird.

But regardless of what she did or said, no matter how hurtful or pleading, Baxter didn't change. He continued to drool and grab at his crotch in public, say "pussy-eater" to the boys that called for Elaine, embarrass her endlessly in front of her friends. In their teenage years, his favorite performance was to streak naked through the house during her sleepovers.

She was older when she realized that Baxter couldn't help himself, that the way he looked and the things he did were all connected somehow. His loose muscles and jaunted, irregular walk. The loopy look in his eyes. The slurred speech. Baxter's childish inability to understand that some things were private, not to be touched or discussed in front of other people. They never found out what caused it. His disease had no name, and he remained undiagnosed. His prognosis, anybody's guess.

As for Elaine's own questions, it took their mother's death for her to realize that particular spheres of life, any number of imagined possibilities, were off-limits, colorful renderings of doors that wouldn't open for her because of Baxter. She would always take care of her brother.

Elaine had been having the conversation since she was a teenager. Whenever a boy wanted to go steady -- and many did in her adolescence as she had a beautiful smile and a shaft of black hair that dropped well below her bra line -- she would have to sit him down and explain about Baxter. About what the boy was in for and what going steady would mean.

She was about to turn twenty-seven when she met Howard at the record shop. She had gone in one afternoon and bought a Lyle Lovett CD (for herself) and a Jerry Jeff Walker cassette (for Baxter), and when Howard asked her to write her phone number on her check, she looked up at him and smiled. She wrote the number, circled it several times and slid the check across the counter. Howard called her the next day, and she met him every night that week: Baxter went to bed at nine, she was out the door at nine-thirty, drifting through the summer night toward the main strip, arriving at the record shop just before he closed up the shop at ten.

Three weeks into Howard, they had the conversation.

They sat on the hood of his car, a small and compatible looking pair, and shared a six-pack of beer. Howard listened closely.

"So, that's the story really. He stays pretty calm most of the time, but, you know, some people don't get him."

"So the Jerry Jeff Walker was for him?"

Elaine nodded. "His favorite."

"It's just you and Baxter?"

"Un-huh. My parents died, like one right after the other you know, so I take care of him. And I just thought you should know, just in case. So you wouldn't be surprised."

Howard lit a cigarette as she talked. He was working part-time at the record store and taking classes at the community college in the mornings. He also had lived without parents for many years, which he didn't tell Elaine this night and which made him, although he didn't like to admit it, a gentle sort of guy.

He looked at her and then behind her at the long hair, black and braided. "Just in case, what?"

Elaine started to take a sip of beer and then took the bottle away from her mouth and looked at him. Lines of confusion ran across her forehead.

"You said 'just in case.' So I wouldn't be surprised. Just in case what?"

"Oh." Elaine smiled because she knew that he knew what she was going to say. He just wanted to hear her say it. "Just in case ... just in case you like me."

Howard nodded and looked up into the dark sky. "Right."

At Christmas, Elaine bought a turkey and a ham, not knowing which Howard preferred. Not wanting to ask, she'd rather he notice that she could serve both. That she was able and flexible in the kitchen. She tied on a checkered apron and sailed around the kitchen with her hair up in a knot and streaks of flour on the rear of her jeans. She set the table with her mother's plates, three places.

Baxter watched through the screen door from a stool on the porch.

She said to him, "You need to shower for dinner, Baxter."

"Do not," he said.

She closed her eyes momentarily and stopped stirring. She said, "Howard's coming for Christmas dinner, and I want it to be really nice."

Baxter let the screen door fall behind him, stood at the counter beside Elaine and stuck a finger into a bowl of sweet potatoes. He licked it clean and elbowed his sister. "Do not, Laine."

Baxter stared throughout her Christmas dinner. Howard smiled back and ate two platefuls of food, but no ham.

Just as Howard took the napkin from his collar and pushed back from the table a bit, Baxter said, "Have the ham."

"Oh, Baxter ..." he said. "Too full, buddy."

"Have some ham," he said again.

"Baxter, he's too full," Elaine said. She smiled but was thinking, he didn't try the ham.

Baxter reached out and pushed the serving dish toward Howard. "Have ham."


"No, Elaine," Howard said. "It's okay. I've got a little more room." He took up the silver fork and lifted a slice onto his plate. "Baxter, how about you? You want some more ham?"

Baxter nodded and held out his plate.

One morning in February, Baxter spent several hours on the phone with his friends from the community center, which was closed for President's Day, and by the afternoon had rounded up three who would help him -- Francis Bigton, and the twin brothers, Lance and Lonnie Pepper. They were part of a group of men who were deposited at the community center during the days. They played foosball and cards and watched Channel 13, which showed old westerns in the afternoons. Everyone in the group was diagnosed with some problem or another, except for Baxter. And Francis who was just slow.

They met at the 7-11 around the corner from the record shop at three-thirty, and Baxter surveyed the weapons each had managed to sneak out of his house. The twins brought one of their father's golf shoes and a box of matches. When Baxter complained about the shoe -- shoe's not a weapon! -- Lonnie turned it over, pointed to the silver spikes and laughed.

Baxter hadn't done much better himself, only able to find a big flat rock next to the link fence at the back of the middle school. But good old Francis had gotten a baseball bat past Mrs. Bigton, who had long ago dedicated the rest of her life to guarding the back door and wringing her hands over Francis. Over the years, she had racked up more phone calls to the local police than all the town's real emergencies put together.

Baxter smiled, switched his rock to the other arm and slapped Francis on the back. "Good," he said. "Good."

The noise was unbelievable, even from way at the back of the stock room where Howard was smoking a cigarette and putting lopsided half-price stickers on a pile of cassettes. When he came out front to see what was going on, a crowd had gathered and was looking out the front window. People were saying, "Jesus Christ!" and "Look at that!"

The assistant manager yelled over his shoulder, "Howard, man. These guys are trashing your car!"

Howard pushed to the front of the small crowd and pressed his palms up against the window.

It was an '87 Cavalier, over a hundred thousand miles on it and the color of dijon mustard. Howard had paid a little under two grand for the car last year and never really felt any way about it, except lucky he'd never had any trouble with it and that he liked having it to take Elaine out on dates. One night out at the lake, she had pulled him into the back seat and done things to him with her mouth and right hand that he had never imagined. And one time while he was at work, she borrowed it to run some errands and brought it back all washed and Armor All-ed and smelling of pine trees. It didn't have a tape player, just a radio. The lock on the trunk stuck. The tires were going bald.

"Lain-eeee!" Baxter was yelling as he brought the baseball bat up over his head and smashed it down on the hood of the car. "Lain-eeee!"

The Pepper twins were yelling her name, too. Lance was reaching in through an open window and dragging the golf spikes across the seat and Lonnie was kicking the side door over and over, both calling out Baxter's sister's name, whose honor this demolition was meant to defend. Only Francis was standing by. But he was caroling, "Screwing his sis-ter, screwing his sis-ter," as he watched. Baxter danced around the car and smashed out all the head and rear lights and beat on the back window with the bat until it collapsed into the seat in a thousand tiny pieces of sparkle. Francis walked over and picked up Baxter's big rock and holding it in the air he yelled, "Howard's head!" and hurled it through the front windshield. The other three stopped their parading, fell silent for a moment and then cheered and chanted, "Howard's head! Howard's head!"

Inside the record shop, the assistant manager came up behind Howard and said, "What are you going to do? Want me to go out there with you?" Howard shook his head, keeping his eye on Baxter.

"Want me to call the cops?"

"No." Howard turned and pushed past him and the people gathered at the window. He walked out the door, and as he approached his car, Francis and the Pepper twins backed away from him, snickering and covering their mouths. "Hey, Baxter. Who are your friends? I don't think I've met these guys before."

Having borrowed the assistant manager's car and taken thirty dollars out of the register against his next paycheck, Howard drove Baxter over to The Cat's Meow -- a strip bar situated behind a gas station on the east side of town. He led them to a table near the stage and ordered three beers, one for Baxter and two for himself. He asked the waitress for five single dollar bills with his change.

"Ever been here before, Baxter?"

Baxter shook his head and looked around at the lights circling the stage. The waitress set the beer down in front of Baxter, and he wrapped his big hand around it. The single bills lay on the table between them. Howard noticed the tiny red cuts all over Baxter's knuckles.

"It's only for guys," Howard said.

Baxter smiled.

"And that's what we are. Just a couple of guys taking the day off and coming to drink a couple of beers. What guys do."

Baxter's grin widened, and then he asked, "What about Laine?"

"Elaine can't come here, Baxter. Guys only. If you want to come here, you have to come with me."

Baxter nodded and took a long drink of his beer. He crinkled up his nose at the taste and asked, "They got lemonade?"

"Nope. Guys at bars drink beer, Bax. You'll get used to it."

Suddenly, the room went dark and the stage was ablaze with swirling spotlights. A voice from the back drawled, Ahhhhllll-right, gentlemen. Are...you...ready for the lovely ladies at The Cat's Meow? Give a big hand for Miss Bonnie Brass, the most patriotic girl in Texas!

The red velvet curtains shot open, and a blonde wrapped in a Texas flag strutted up the catwalk and fixed her eyes somewhere over Howard and Baxter's heads. She threw the flag to the floor, revealing a Confederate g-string and red, white and blue tassels affixed to the tip of each wildly large breast. Howard slid the bills toward Baxter, whose face was expressionless, but his eyes danced over the girl's body in jumps and starts.

Howard leaned over to his ear. "Give her these, buddy. Hold one out and she'll come right up to you."

Baxter extended his arm to the stage and the girl squatted down and wiggled the dollar bill into the strap of her thong. She winked at him as she walked toward the pole in the middle of the stage.

Baxter took another sip of his beer, and slapped his hand on the table. "Howard?"


"Howard. I knew this is what it was like."


Baxter nodded and then he told Howard he wanted to go home.

Howard decided not to tell Elaine about the car that night. She'd be upset, and that, Howard reasoned, could wait. She fixed spaghetti for dinner, and they all went to bed early. Baxter in his room, Howard and Elaine in her parents' bedroom, which she moved her things into when Howard started spending the nights.

The room was pitch dark when Howard woke up. He heard his name.


It was Baxter and he was bent over the bed. His face was close. Howard could hear his breath, no, he could feel it on his face. He whispered into the darkness, "Baxter? What is it?"


"Yeah, buddy. What is it?"

Baxter said his name one more time, "Howard," and then he reached down and covered Howard's mouth with his big hand. Howard felt his head being pressed into the pillow. His crotch got tight. He automatically began to breathe through his nose.

"Howard," Baxter said. "Now that I know. Now I know. Now, Howard, I'm really going to kill you," and then he took his hand away and walked out of the bedroom in his uneven gait. The room fell silent again.

Glowing streetlights ran in predictable intervals along the empty streets, connecting the mile from where Howard lay, hollowed out in his panic, and the record shop, locked up for the night. Bathed in one of these street lights, quiet as a mouse, a boy in a black jacket was ripping the radio out of Howard's car.

And for a very long time, Howard didn't move. He listened to Baxter's steps across the upstairs floor, the sound of his own skittish heartbeat, and to Elaine, who breathed softly beside him.end story

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