only me and Momma’s boyfriend Peat on the Peckinpaugh stage now, holding, holding, holding, that motherfucker him like a pecked scarecrow, me like a parade balloon leaking helium, cheeks puffed, soaked with sweat, all the disqualified contestants sitting with heads in their laps, except the guy who just dropped on his blue face, and now the medics are fanning him and sticking sniffing salts up his nostrils until he sits up blinking and gasping, a feeling very familiar to me as I reswallow the air in my squeezed lungs, my chest burning as the seconds collect on the judge’s pocket watch engraved to my Dandelion, his white beard and bone frame like the dead weed, and as soon as Peat quits and exhales huge the judge will burst apart and carry across the stage smeared with berries from the pie eaters, soggy kernels in the plank gaps from the cob eaters, the CanalFest crowd cheering, chewing corndogs and fried pickles, wearing foam mustaches of blonde beer as they walk around watching Betsy Ross stitch her flag, the blacksmith pound shoes for the barge mules, the Drums Along The Mohawk parade, the eighteen-sixties church, the canal lock’s north gate hydraulics booth, the Antique Barge Pavilion where the judge announces me and Peat have been holding for six hundred seconds, over halfway to the world record of one thousand one hundred and sixty one seconds held by a free diver with lungs like Egyptian tombs, and me with the chronic apnea secret weapon, my lungs used to the lacking, me six when Momma couldn’t wake me for fifteen minutes, sitting on a large toy pile, crying to God not to take me also, rubbing my head and stomach, like she did to Pop when he got skinny, stocking up on blankets, telling me she still had a hard time telling me, I was her fragile button, her bruised fruit, she opened herself to make me, a pain I can’t know and only imagine like the kidney stones years back, like someone reached up into me and struck their lighter’s flint, a feverish ache and puke until I passed them and collapsed in the bathtub weeping, but this is not pushing something out to be proud of, all I can do is hold it in, hold it up to Pop’s expectation, You’re going to be man of the house soon, coughing, the smell of iodine clinging to him like sulfur in the well water, so I’m trying to win the Iron Lung trophy and add it to the lot beside Momma’s golf clubs, buckets and vases and plastic food containers filled with tees and Titleists, trash bags of knickers and khakis in the sizes Pop wore as he thinned, wicker baskets, the cigar boxes or stacks of empty cigar boxes or cigar boxes full of matchbooks, mounds of miscellaneous along the hallway, dozens of blankets and pillows in two tight plots where me and Momma sleep, a photo of Pop tucked under one of hers, telling me Hold on to everything, Bernie when I come home from clerking at the Kwikstop or drive her to doctor Morgan or to the Social Security office to pick up a disability check, parking in the driveway, the garage gill-packed with plastic bottles, sewing machines and dress forms, fabric samples, carpet samples, shoe boxes of playing cards, the one rocking horse and so much else that blurs into one accumulation I call her museum because she likes to move through the narrow paths and tell me where and when she got stuff, a television wedged in each room playing home movies from the VHS bins of our family and families purchased at thrift stores and yard sales, extra VCRs stored in the broken fridge behind a tower of folding chairs that Peat claims is dangerous, that twiggy motherfucker got her laughing, his hand already on her hip when I returned from parking the car, next in the disability check line, leaning on her cane more in his direction than to the right like normal, and now Peat is purpling but still holding, a municipal lifeguard him, but who does he think he is?, what does he think he’s going to replace?, I see some white flashes as the judge announces eight hundred seconds of holding, and I’m going to show Peat that holding is something we Gadwaws take for serious, we just don’t get rid of things, and I know he’s got it in his head he wants me gone with the rest of her museum, my record collection, the baseball gloves me and Pop wrapped in rubber bands, the hundred golf and hunting mugs filled with poker chips left at the foot of the propane grill on the porch, candles melted down to nubs, wax dripping through the cooking grate, all of it Peat wants to hire a truck and just dump, Momma already having slowed her curating since he came around, but no holy way in hell I’m forfeiting, and maybe the white spots are the crowd taking pictures as we approach the nine hundred second mark, a tight heat in my chest rising up my throat, pulling the strings behind my eyes, Peat on his knees and knuckles, the crowd roaring in and out, and I see Momma among them, sitting in her chair because she can’t stand for as long as I can hold, and she’s crying, spit strings in her open mouth, not liking this, me bringing it all back, but it was Momma that said after we buried Pop that no matter what we needed to hold our heads up high, so I am, numb on the same side my mouth droops toward until I’m tipping down down down in that direction, white spots fireworking, Momma younger and prettier before I got fat and Pop got sick because I see kitchen countertops and the microwave and magnets on the fridge door holding a report card, she’s wearing her wedding ring on the hand holding a lobster over a steaming pot, its eyes twisting, claws shackled, and I tell her don’t, but she says lobsters can’t feel hot water like we can, Look she says and rubs its head and stomach and the lobster calms, It’s hypnosis she tells me, Fear alters the flavor of the meat, and I remember this being when things started to change, Pop’s first wheezes and shunts and yellowing, my metabolism slowing, and Momma held on, but the longer you hold the lobster the longer it’s afraid, and if rubbing calms it then the lobster must feel you Momma, so how can it not feel the water?, but I didn’t have the lungs for such a thing then, just a boy who’d come in from a catch with his out-of-breath Pop, learning the slider and curve and change-up, and what I did was turn from the sizzle as she dropped it in and covered the pot with a lid
Zachary Tyler Vickers is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he was the Provost’s Fellow. He’s the recipient of the Richard Yates Prize, The Clark Fisher Ansley Prize, and his work has appeared in The American Reader, KGB Bar Lit Journal, Waccamaw, Hobart, and elsewhere. His story, “Karst,” has been optioned for feature film. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter: @ztvickers.