Winnie

fiction by Jack Hostrawser
second place fiction winner of the 2017 Blodwyn Memorial Prize, sponsored by BookThug

“‘Winnie’ is an exemplary story in all aspects: from characters to pacing to the prose itself—so clear and crisp it is almost transparent. The story drew us in immediately and never let us go. The moment you finish, you want to jump right back up to the start and begin again, and it never fails to hold up under more and more readings.”

It’ll go like this all night, when the snow’s fine like this. I’ve turned the light off in the guest room and slid a chair up to the window to sit and watch until my mom’s ready. Some high-backed thing that’s not very comfortable unless you fold yourself up in it. Everything in Yusuf’s house is like that. People from the forties have weird tastes.

I’ve got a long view from here down to the fields he rents out and all the dry corn still in them, whispering in the snow. If I had the time, maybe I’d go out later all bundled up and go walking in the storm and try to appreciate it. There’s never going to be any snow at Dad’s place.

Mom knocks once then enters, smelling like the fireplace downstairs. “You don’t want the lights on?” she asks, flicking them on. I pick up my backpack of things and she steps out of the way. Yusuf and her are taking his kids on a whirlwind tour of Egypt for three weeks over Christmas break. They’ll spend what some people earn in a year. Mom really wants me to come.

Instead, she says “Your father will really appreciate the company company this time of year.”

The drive in from the hills to the city is slow and warm inside my mother’s new car. The car is noiseless, and when the traffic parts it plummets downhill like a boulder breaking loose. Cities look really nice in snowstorms, before the ploughs clear the roads. I watch the surface streets passing below us like Christmas village scenes of cars stuck on hills and people strolling with their tongues out. As we pull up to the terminal men in suits waiting on the sidewalk look up at this bright red machine crunching through the white streetlight. Mom pays my fare for the shuttle, both ways.

 

When I was born my parents picked Winnie, after my grandfather (Dad’s side). I never got a good answer as to why they chose that name for their daughter. Winston Liam was a forest-firefighter in Washington and B.C. He worked in the oil sands when the mountains weren’t burning. This was back in the twenties. I was able to find out a lot about him because he posted so much online. The pictures he took on his sorties were actually really good—lots of haze between the trees and predatory, scurrying flames. Family stuff too, but in those he always seemed uncertain. His picture face was to furrow his brow and push up his frown and wait. My dad doesn’t talk about him much.

This is what I figure happened: I think he got blindsided bad a few times, coming home from a season out there in the bush and finding the world changed. He stumbled out of the backcountry smoking or covered in oil and people were asking his opinion about neural interfaces or the businessmen on Mars. And all the while the rains kept failing and his wives kept leaving. I won’t throw stones.

 

I spot Dad as I squeeze out of the elevator. The terminal always smells like sweat and cleaning solvents. He stands up from the bench and smiles awkwardly at me like we’re sharing a joke. I reach out to hug him with the in-flight magazine still in my hand and I feel his bony ribs under the thin sweater.

“Hello, daughter. How’s the weather?”

“Snowing, father. Don’t you ever look down?”

“Making small talk, Win.”

“Sorry.” I smile for him. “How was your big job on the outside?”

“Long.”

“Yeah but… holy shit. EVA.”

He shrugs, pulls a little box from his pocket. “It’s a little early but… I got you something.”

The wrapping paper is an old invoice. Inside is an acrylic cube the size of a golf ball with a rust-coloured pebble set in the centre.

“Cala at work said some really nice things about, uh, what it means—the significance of the rock, that is.” He takes a deep breath and fake-laughs. “I forgot every goddamned word.”

I twist the glass to pick out the details. It looks like a kidney and is definitely igneous, dull in colour and rough. “Holy shit, Dad. Is this real?”

He’s already walking. “Yep,” he says, “There’s a certificate in the box.” I follow with my eyes on the rock, trying not to trip. Fucking Mars.

“How’s your mother?”

“I dunno. Same. She got her new car.”

He nods and starts leading the way to his apartment. The strip near any of the spokes is all hotels and restaurants. We walk through a movie-set version of the Mediterranean with faux cobblestones and hidden fans pumping in cooking smells. A table of people in nice clothes laughs loudly about something as we pass by the patio, and I catch eye contact with a silver-haired woman in jewelry. Her eyes smile at me, while she finishes telling her story to the table. Through the skylights, the moon spins gently out of view. Once, while my parents were fighting, my mother brought me up here, to the Italian place by B-Spoke, pretending to have money in a terrifying, quiet fever.

 

At the door to his apartment he lifts his card toward the sensor but stops. “I’m having the, uh…” He stares at his room number where it’s glued to the door, picking at the edge of the card. “I updated the will. But it’s going to take a while, so there’s a document I’ve had them make up. It sort of supersedes what’s—”

“You expecting to die?”

“No. I mean, I don’t think I’m going to die.” He always shrugs when talking about complicated life things. Right now he shrugs and says “You never know.” After a few seconds he smiles a little and says the next thing almost under his breath. “Now, if something happens to me, it won’t all go to your mother.”

I’ve spent evenings with him, watching shitty action movies and trying to keep him occupied enough. Spite’s a new emotion from him. He taps the card and the door unlocks. He puts his jacket on the counter and orders a pizza.

This latest place is about nine hundred square feet, white paint on drywall with recessed lights. Probably not renovated since they built the station. It was a two-bedroom, but one turned into his office. I fold out the couch when I visit, which is fine by me—I slept on a coffee table once at a party, and Dad’s saving money. He really loves making the joke about not quite being able to afford the balcony option yet, and after the first visit I started having this recurring dream of there being a balcony, and a sliding glass door instead of tall windows. I would lean on the railing and watch the sun set over and over behind the curve of the planet. The vacuum smelled like a winter night. In reality, it stinks like ozone. When the cargo ships come in, the docks reek of it.

The dishwasher, I notice, is in pieces on the kitchen floor, parts labeled and a how-to guide printed out. He steps through it and goes into his office to finish work. I open the shutters on the windows and find myself staring down onto wrinkled white tundra, falling slowly away under scattered cirrus clouds. I stare at the floor until the vertigo fades. (The little wooden tiles are the exact shape of Jenga blocks.)

When Dad’s finished I reheat up some slices for him and we watch a movie in the dark, about a man stuck on a hijacked shuttle. The bad guy is trying to distract the authorities while he steals a secret briefcase of money in the cargo hold. People squint and grimace before shooting each other and Dad falls asleep halfway. As the credits roll he inhales and lifts himself out of the armchair, slow as a scuba diver, and walks in stiff steps across the room to the short hallway. The bathroom fan squeaks as it spins up. I’m too jet-lagged to sleep, so I lie awake and browse through articles, looking up to watch the sunset. I fall asleep somewhere in the middle of a feature about famous nuclear weapons accidents.

 

The first time I went into the hills to eat dinner with my mother at Yusuf’s house she told me the story of her new life: the car, the landscaping, the painting classes at the adult education centre. She served dinner to his daughters and me, and then to Yusuf, telling me there was going to be an allowance.

“You understand, I just never want you to ever feel trapped anywhere. You’re such an amazing young woman and I want you to be free to do the things that matter to you.”

“I guess. I could get a new place of my own.”

“Yes, exactly. Even more than that, though. I want you to think big. It’s so important to travel when you’re young and see the world and not get stuck thinking you have to be one thing or that you have to do a job you hate.”

Yusuf picked up the gravy and poured it onto his duck, looking at me. “Do you have anyplace you’d like to see?”

“I don’t know.”

The three daughters laughed incredulously. “Anywhere in the world?” one asked.

I sipped my wine. “Maybe the Rockies?”

“Oh my God,” my mother said, “yes, you have to see the Rockies. I’m saying you can do that now. Or, when the papers are all signed, but you know what I mean. I want you to really live, Winnie.”

I must have said something nice. I know I picked up a forkful of meat and chewed it, thinking about my own kind of greed. This time last year my mother was drunk in front of the TV while Dad worked in lieu of coming home. But I said nothing and took the money she gave me at the spaceport afterward. The first transfer arrived a week later.

 

When my dad’s biological mom died last summer he had me sit the house until it sold, and while there I went through her computer. The videos went way back. My favourite is from some camping trip Winston took with three friends after high school, with no idea what they were doing and blackflies in their hair. They’re in canoes, drinking hard and fishing illegally. It looks like they probably don’t expect to hook the huge pike that they do. Winston’s holding the rod and he panics, making his friend panic and that plus the fish’s thrashing almost tips the boat. The guy filming can barely hold up his phone, he’s laughing so hard. The two fishermen somehow get the fish out of the water and then Winston starts beating it with his paddle as hard as he can to make it stop thundering around in the boat. Finally it dies, or passes out, and the two guys just stare at each other for a moment, panting, then they both begin howling with laughter until they can’t breathe. I watched that one over and over. I can’t… I don’t know why.

 

Dad’s already gone when I wake up on the couch, but he’s left a note saying we’re going out for dinner tonight. I step over all the pieces of dishwasher and make an omelette, which I eat while I try to see how the pieces fit together. He has the parts all labeled in his squared-off handwriting and the littlest bits are taped up in plastic baggies. The trick to repairing stuff is just to fiddle with the pieces until you start finding connections. Yusuf said that. He keeps a yacht in Alexandria, and the first time he took Mom and me down to see it we set out for Cyprus, then broke down. So instead we hung out in the middle of the Mediterranean and stargazed while he crawled below deck, basically learning how to do marine diesel engine repair on the spot. He’s clever like that. At some point in the night he woke me with a bribe of tea to come help him dismantle a water pump so he could fish the broken impeller blades from it. When we had the thing disassembled on the floor he got up and stretched and raised his eyebrows mid-yawn when he noticed the time.

“I started out as a mechanic. Did I tell you that?”

“Mom mentioned it.”

“If you wanted to eat where I grew up you figured something out, and you charged for it.”

“Wow.”

“Can’t be afraid to break things. You just,” he made a chopping motion at the engine with his hand, “try things. Nothing ever fixes itself.” He thought about that for a moment. “Entropy.”

When the pump had a new impeller and the engine was running again, my mother woke up and dragged him off to bed. I climbed up onto the foredeck and stared up at the sky, watching for satellites.

JACK HOSTRAWSER’s writing has been published in The Dalhousie ReviewIn The HillsSewerlid MagazineThe Fieldstone Review, Steel Bananas, and The Quilliad. Check out his website, jackhostrawser.com