Still Literary Contest Fiction Winner: Kayla Rae Whitaker
Kayla Rae Whitaker is a native of Eastern Kentucky and a graduate of the University of Kentucky. She is currently an MFA candidate at New York University. The recipient of a Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Fellowship, her poetry and short fiction have been published in Wind:a Journal of Writing and Community, Still: The Journal, Motif: Writing By Ear, and Telling Stories: Fiction by Kentucky Feminists. She is currently at work on a novel.
Judge Ann Pancake writes of Kayla Rae's story: "Poverty, child neglect, and substance abuse are common subjects in Appalachia fiction because they are common occurrences in our Appalachian lives. "Low Boil," however, gives its readers an unforgettable experience of all three without ever making an expected move in word, image, or narrative and without ever condescending to its characters. This writer "sees" beyond how we've been taught to see, and therein lies the difference between vision and stereotype."
When Daddy got his first check, he was so happy he tore into the house without asking what we weren’t doing in school. “Payday!” he yelled, jiggling in and swinging the door shut. He did his best impression of clogging before throwing in some of the running man, winking at us before breaking into a whole-body tremble. Had there been knick-knacks or photographs on our living room walls, they’d have been falling onto the carpet. All we had was a Kentucky Headhunters poster shaking above the television set.
Bull and I got up and began to dance, too. We were suckers for Daddy’s happiness. This was the routine he used to do in biker bars to make his friends laugh. He straightened, pointed to the house next door and thrusted his hips in that direction: once, twice, three times. Thrusting, an act of demolition, a thousand times worse than flipping the bird. “See-you-in-hell-buddy,” he grunted, thrusting on each word, saying it to no one, to everyone, to the world. “I ain’t gotta work no more!”
We joined in, thrusting and screaming with it: “See-you-in-hell-buddy! See-you-in-hell!”
The check was a cause for celebration. Daddy cooked throughout the afternoon, dancing between the makings for chilidogs and the soup beans over which he specially parsed pork fat and onions. While we waited for the beans to season, he taught us the boot-scooting boogie. “Not so much shoulder, Bull,” he told my brother, and “that’s some nice little footwork there,” to me.
Bull responded by showing Daddy a move he’d learned from a “Soul Train” rerun. It made Daddy laugh so hard it rocked his entire body, back and forth, for a long minute. “Well, my God,” he told Bull, “ain’t that fancy.”
Bull was my twin brother. We were both eight. His was an apt name for an apt boy. When offended, he often responded by headbutting the stomach or genitals. He was capable of delivering massive, precise piledrivers. “You want summa this?” he’d shriek, slapping his elbow and sailing down at you. He shadowboxed Daddy’s leg while he was at the stove, imitating his impersonations, a smaller version of him. I looked on, savoring the meaty sweet smell of the beans, enjoying our dad’s happiness. He cuffed me light on the head, grabbed me around the collar. The oven steamed. “My gal,” he whispered, squeezing.
Daddy waited until we were done eating to unveil dessert, which he’d covered with a giant washpan so as to unveil it with a flourish. “Because it’s a special night,” he said to us, “I made something so sweet.” He did a drum roll on the pan, then lifted: it was a chocolate cake, porous and glistening. As he sank into it with a knife, we squealed: the two cake layers were fastened together with peanut butter and marshmallow crème.
We took our cake into the living room. Dad called these his “settling down days”: no more late nights out at the bars, no more Bill the Cop bringing him home, Dad’s meaty arms slung around the policeman’s neck as he stumbled up the front steps. On one of the worst, last nights, he hit a guy so hard he knocked a molar from the man’s mouth. He gave me the tooth the next morning, rubbing the top of my head. “You can put it on a necklace or something,” he slurred.
Since then we had become regulars at the video store, schooling ourselves in all manner of badassery: each Rocky volume, all the Die Hard we could handle, and particularly Bloodsport, during which, when Jean Claude Van Damme is forced to battle blind when his opponent throws salt into his eyes, Daddy would always lean forward in his seat and breathe, “Oooh, damn.”
We watched WWF wrestling while eating our cake. Macho Man bodyslammed a dude, the yellow of his suit flashing as he flew down from the ropes. Bull pointed his fork at the screen. “That is awesome,” he yelled.
“You know,” Daddy said, “Macho Man, that guy’s from two towns over.”
“No way,” Bull said.
“Yeah, buddy. Used to fight up on this little elevated stage thing at the American Legion out there. Wuddent no superstar back then. Had a big, long beard, big ole gut.”
“But did he wail on guys?”
Dad lit a cigarette and sighed, shaking his head. “Wuddent no superstar,” he repeated.
“You coulda been a wrestler,” Bull said, licking chocolate from his fingers. “You coulda been a superstar.” There was something to Bull’s tone that made me uneasy. I shot him a look.
“Well,” Daddy sighed, “ain’t no place like here, I guess.” He grimaced, pulled on his smoke.
On TV, Rowdy Roddy Piper grunted. Bull mimicked, practiced his tough guy look at the screen. At this, Daddy smiled. “Hey,” he said. “We wild, man. We swingin. We free-wheelin. Ain’t that right?”
Neither of us answered him at first. The crowd on television roared in the silence of our living room. Finally, I said, “Yeah, Dad.”
“Yeah, Dad,” Bull repeated.
Bull and I fell asleep in front of the television. I awakened to the sounds of Daddy stepping heavily into the kitchen and turning on the oven light, leftovers caking to the pans.
In that soft circle of yellow, he home-rolled himself a smoke. The TV flickered as, one eye open, I watched him release smoke ropes from his nostrils. He stood at the kitchen window, facing the acres behind us, ashing into the dirty plates. His silhouette was a curve against the dark, the swoop of his belly levitating. He was a loose piece drifting toward the fit, a night man, an in-the-dark man.
I felt something weird and hulking in his silence—the undertow, the quiet pacing of what I could not see but knew was there, the sour things that were about to happen. I could smell something crouching, exhaling through the keyhole. I watched my daddy until my eye stung.
Daddy awoke early to cash his check. He put on a clean shirt, tucking it into his jeans- a sure sign he was going somewhere official, the bank or the doctor. But he could not find his car keys.
He scratched his head and paced through the house, confused. “Baby, you know where my keys are at?” he asked me, repeating himself. “You know where they’re at? You seen em?”
We were enlisted to help. As Daddy built speed and volume, crashing against the furniture, thundering over the living room carpet, throwing couch cushions across the room—the keys, the keys, where were those fuckin things, he kept repeating, where were the goddamned keys?
We cringed. Bull whimpered as a thrown pillow sent a lamp crashing to the floor. “We can’t find em, Daddy,” he cried.
Daddy pushed Bull out of the way, dove under the couch and shoved it to the right, nearly tipping it over. There they were—the silver handful, surrounded by stale cereal bits and old candy wrappers and dirt. He held it in front of him and stared, eyes watering, mouth stretched tight. He walked quickly into his room, shut the door and clicked the lock. He was in lockdown.
Our house was an outpost at the edge of the county. Past eleven at night, there was no light, no noise. Even the cattle seemed to stop breathing. The trees on either side of the road spread wide and braided their branches into a canopy above the U.S. 60 median, creating a green, leafy double-dark.
The front yard was barren. Bull and I used it to play dirt bikes and, in wet season, mud racing. The backyard was a snaky labyrinth of tall grass and knotty sour apple trees. Just beyond, a sharp rocky ravine spilled into a thin creek.
Our house was like us: the deep yellow circle of the toilet, its perpetually lifted seat. Fudgesicle sticks lay tacky on the coffee table. One day, Bull and I found an old package of souse in the fridge, rising and curling from its package in a fauna of mold. We spent an entire morning dissecting it on the front porch with sticks, delighted and terrorized by the smell.
Bull and I were truants. I liked school; I was good at it when I went. The routine chafed Bull: the blonde, strident teacher, the kids who teased him for reading so slowly. We preferred to be at home.
We drank as many pops as we wanted. We jumped on our beds until we clapped the ceilings with our palms. Our shirts were permanently stained with red popsicle dribblings. We both had an ongoing case of the worms. Sandy dirt was tracked into our bedsheets and remained until Thanksgiving. And sometimes, our dad would have a spell, take to his room, and not be seen for days.
Something—a run of overcast days, a stubbed toe—would set him off. Something would fall in his face, defeat him. “Hold on,” he’d say, “hold on a sec.” Then he’d go to his room and shut the door.
Often these spells would last only an hour. Sometimes, it was a few hours: he would eventually surface to curl up on the couch, covering his legs with an old afghan, prone from The Price is Right to The Late Late Show.
Surfacing was better than lockdown. Anything was better than that door remaining shut.
When we were younger, we would beat on the door and cry. As we grew, we learned to tap on the door, ask questions, see if he needed anything. There was no point in throwing a fit. It just made him stay in there longer.
Bull and I spent the first day of lockdown imitating our best selves, trying to charm him out. We vroomed past his bedroom window, initiating Dirt Bike Death Match. I fried our last eggs in butter the way he liked, attempting to lure him out with the smell. That evening, Bull and I took to the backyard so he could practice punching on the bags Daddy had constructed from pillowcases and sawdust. Bull worked the pillows over, grunting and circling them. “Whoop em,” I yelled, the way I had heard Daddy coach him. “Beat the tar outta em. Come on, now.”
Bull crouched, then struck. He sunk his fist into the pillow, breaking the surface. “Yeah, buddy,” I whooped.
Bull walked over to where I stood against the house. Behind him, sawdust streamed into the grass. He grinned, flexing his chubby arms. “Yeah, boy,” he said. “Gettin pumped.”
We fell silent, waiting for a response from the house. Nothing. “Daddy, Bull killed the pillow,” I finally called. It was nearly dark.
I fell asleep on my bed, the room’s lights blazing into the darkness of the hallway. I rubbed my eyes, looked at my Mickey Mouse clock. It read three. I peered outside. No moon tonight.
In the living room the glow from the TV made shadows of the couch, the tables. I could barely make out the roundness of Bull’s head, his hair bobbing and weaving in the screen’s flicker.
He sat in the floor holding a spoon, which he jabbed into a hole in the cushion. He drew out a spoonful of stuffing, dumped it on the floor, then sunk the spoon back in, digging expressionless.
“Bull, what are you doing?”
He turned, spoon in hand. His eyes were dark spaces in his head. “What are you doing?” I repeated.
He looked at the spoon, looked at the cushion, then back at me. “I dunno,” he said.
Daddy had spent a day and a night in his room before the toilet backed up. Our toilet chronically choked on anything with more substance than rote pee. It seemed to respond to the household, stuttering and shutting down when we did. Murky water was growing closer to the rim.
I knocked on Daddy’s door. “Dad,” I called. Silence. I knocked again. “Daddy. Are you awake?” Nothing. “The toilet’s broke.”
There was a grunt, a creak of mattress springs. He opened the door. His wide, hairy middle drooped over his pajama bottoms. “Huh?”
His eyes focused for a moment. There were knots in his beard. “Oh. Huh.”
“It stinks really, really bad.”
The screen door slammed. Bull ran from behind me, the red band of his Underoos visible above his jeans. “Daddy’s up,” he yelled, throwing himself at him.
Daddy nearly toppled. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, now. S’okay, buddy.” He blinked at me. I stared back.
“I got Doritos in here,” he said.
The room’s smell of sweat and sleep was drifting into the hallway. The curtains were drawn. On the nightstand, I could see a pile of magazines next to an empty coke can overflowing with cigarette butts. Time. Guns and Ammo. Penthouse. A complimentary copy of The Watchtower. I found myself unable to move, to cross that threshold into whatever stayed in that room, to join my father.
“Maybe later,” I said, backing away.
Bull darted into the room. “Bull,” I called after him. Dad looked after him, mildly surprised, then back at me. I took a deep breath and followed Bull.
We made a tent fort under Daddy’s bed while he leaned against the wall, rubbing his face. We found Doritos, warm cokes. We ate sitting Indian style. Daddy stooped to avoid hitting his head on the boxspring.
“I got an A on my spelling test,” I told him, even though it had been the week before. “I spelled ‘separate’ right.”
“That’s real good, baby,” he said.
“I got a A too,” Bull said.
“No, you didn’t,” I countered.
“Yeah huh, did too.”
“You didn’t even go to school yesterday,” I said. “You got a big fat F cause you didn’t go.”
Daddy pressed his eyes with his hands. “Shoulda gone to school, dude,” he said to Bull.
“I’ll go tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday,” I said. Bull gave me the finger on the side of his leg. I ignored it. Daddy scratched his chest.
“Do you still feel bad?” I asked him.
“Ayuh.” He nodded, staring at something past my head. He plucked absently at his beard knot.
“Where do you feel bad?”
“I dunno, baby.”
“So you don’t feel bad in any one place?”
He shrugged. “Guess not.”
“Just all over?”
He nodded. Bull watched him, cramming the rest of the Doritos in his mouth.
Food supplies were dwindling. Bull and I opened all cabinets and stood on kitchen chairs, surveying the wares. “We don’t have any pop left,” he whined.
“We don’t have any anything left.”
He walked the kitchen from end to end. He kicked a cabinet in frustration. “Quit it,” I told him.
In the cabinet to the right of the empty fridge was a can of Vienna sausages, a jar of grape jelly. Half a bottle of Hot Damn sauce stewed dustily in the back. I looked over at Bull, who was sourly fishing something from his belly button. “Well?” I said. He shrugged.
I made a sauce for the dogs with the jelly and hot sauce, garnishing the dish with saltines. We were surprised by how good it was. In celebration, Bull mixed a bowl of miniature marshmallows and dry chocolate chips for dessert.
We turned the television up loud as we could while we ate.
That night, Bull lugged Dad’s toolbox into the living room. “What are you doing?” I asked him.
“Gonna do something,” he said.
“You’d better be careful with that.” Daddy loved his toolbox. We had been warned never to touch it.
Bull ignored me and opened the drawer containing nails. He knew I was irritated, which made him prissy, precise. He drew a nail out and held it up, pinky raised.
“Idgit,” I said.
“Butthole,” he sang. He skipped to the kitchen and returned dragging a chair behind him. He went to the front door, parked the chair, chose a hammer and climbed up. He hammered the nail once, twice, three times before he mashed his thumb. He gasped, then wailed.
“I told you,” I said, gathering up the toolbox. I dragged it back to the garage, grumbling. When I returned, the door to Bull’s room was closed. Daddy’s car keys were hanging on the nail.
The water in the toilet was higher. I took my business to the backyard, gingerly, aware of snakes. This had happened before; I always went after dark when no one could see me, save for Bull, who usually threw acorns and pebbles at me, yelling “Poop. Poop.”
I just covered what I did with leaves so I could go back in the house. The toilet would get fixed eventually. I chose to believe this, fervently. Sooner or later, everything would be fixed. Everything would revert to a sort of rightness it had never been.
When I went to remind Daddy the next day, he simply rolled over. “Just waiting to hear back from the plumbers, baby,” he said. He repeated this that afternoon. The third time, he twisted in his yellowed bedsheets, dug into his wallet, and handed me his credit card. I stared at it blankly.
Our kitchen cabinets had gone completely bare. I walked to Speedy’s in the dusk with money I kept hidden in a jelly jar in my closet. We needed peanut butter and cokes. Daddy needed smokes.
I knocked on Bull’s bedroom door, where he had stayed since the night before. “Bull, come with me to Speedy’s,” I said. No reply. I gave up and went on my own.
The cashier was an old red-haired lady who knew me. She didn’t bother me about buying the cigarettes, and threw in candy bars when her boss wasn’t looking. She winked kindly at me. “You be careful, hon,” she said. I could feel her watching me as I walked across the parking lot and into the field beyond.
It was starting to grow dark. The handles of the plastic bag were cutting into my palms. I concentrated on counting the sets of headlights passing me on the road.
The way to Speedy’s was easy: cut through the backyard of the closest neighbors, hop the fence to the tobacco farm on the other side of the property, wiggle through a row of plants, climb the fence on the opposite side, and walk the shoulder until you hit gas pumps and the red-and-yellow sign advertising gas and cigarette prices. Bull and I kept to the ditches when we could, and made the time pass by poking at each other, racing each other. The walk seemed longer without him. I wished I had started earlier, when there was more daylight.
I was picking through the weeds before the tobacco field when I heard the sound of an engine slowing, a car’s brakes lightly wheezing. There was the mechanized hum of a window rolling down.
The bag was heavy. I shifted it to my other hand. A pair of headlights slid as the truck pulled alongside me. I began to sweat. There was a sinking feeling in my stomach. Something I couldn’t hear was said in the truck cab.
I walked faster. I felt my shoulders squeeze in, as if my body was trying to make itself smaller. I broke into a run. The field was less than five yards away. The bag swung as I ran. I threw it over the fence, then scrambled up and over quick as I could, kicking up dry soil. A loose barb sank into the skin of my shin and ripped. I cried out, grabbed the bag and ran. I could still see the headlights gliding on the pavement. The sky was starless and red, as if someone had held a match to it.
When I returned, the door to Daddy’s room was open. My heart leapt. “Daddy,” I called, setting the bags down, clenching and unclenching the soreness in my hands.
“In here,” he called.
The door to the bathroom was open. The smell was overwhelming: stale, crammed shit, pooled pee. Daddy was naked in the tub, his belly rounding pinkly over the rim. There was a small, secret bobbing in the water below: his genitals. He was staring blankly ahead at the opposite wall. I turned my head, embarrassed.
“Do you feel better?” I asked him, staring at my feet.
He sloshed the water. “Hey darlin,” he said, his voice wavering. His eyes were red.
“Are you okay, Daddy?”
He nodded, blinked, then looked down at himself. “I smelled bad,” he said. “Needed a bath.”
“Okay.” I caught sight of my leg. Blood had run into the rim of my sock. Daddy sniffled.
“I brought you your smokes,” I said, limping over to the bags. I handed the carton into the bathroom, face still turned. I could hear him tear it open, still sniffling.
“Are you okay, Daddy?” I repeated.
He sighed heavily. I realized with certain horror that he had been crying. “I’m fine,” he said. “Just fine, darlin.”
I knocked softly at Bull’s door. The hall was dark. There was another sniffle, the sound of a lighter clicking gently from the bathroom.
“Leeme lone,” I heard Bull say.
I knocked louder. “Bull.” I opened the door. He was lying on his side, facing the wall. “How’s your thumb?”
“Can I see it?”
“No.” I wanted to pile on top of him and start pounding. Practicing on that stupid punching bag all day, then turning into a baby when he mashed his thumb. Stop being such a wimp, I wanted to say. Now he and Daddy really matched, and Bull didn’t even have to try. I wanted to burst into tears.
“Just remember to dig a hole this time when you shit outside,” I snapped.
“You cussed,” he cried. “I’m telling.”
I walked out and slammed the door.
Going back to the living room, I reached in and slammed the bathroom door shut. There was a sloshing of water, then silence.
On the table closest to the couch, I spotted a stack of papers: Daddy had never gone to the bank to cash his check. It, and the envelope it had arrived in, lay on the table. I picked up the receipt that had come with it. I had been reading for a few years, and was faster than Bull, quicker with the words. Department of Worker’s Claims, it read. Disability Compensation.
The Simpsons came on at eight. I was able to claim the remote before Bull came out of his room. “I wanna watch American Gladiators,” he said.
I stared at him for a moment, then slowly, deliberately, sat on the remote.
“Sissy,” he whined. “Sissy, it’s my turn. You ain’t bein fair.”
I stared at the screen, pretending not to hear him. I felt glee at my silence: pretending not to hear Bull when he screamed drove him nuts. After not being heard all day, it felt good to ignore somebody.
“Sissy.” He shook my arm. “Sissy sissy. Gimme the channel changer.” He shook harder, his voice winding into a screech. “Quit bein a bitch. Come on.” He hit me softly on the side of my head.
I righted my butt on the remote, blinking. He hit me again. It hurt. He did it again. My heart was pounding. “You’re bein a bitch,” he cried, close to tears.
He reached around and hit me in the nose. Tears sprang to my eyes. When he reached to do it again, I flinched, then grabbed the remote and bashed it into his face.
Bull was surprised. His hands flew to his face, then he came at me with his hands and teeth. “Bitch,” he cried, the worst word he knew, and bit my arm.
I lifted the remote high, brought it down on top of his head. He tackled me. We fell to the floor, upsetting an ashtray, a half-full can of pop. Soda splattered down on us. He bit my shoulder. He balled his fist, sent it into my stomach. He slapped me.
Then he reached behind us to the coffee table, where a spare saltshaker remained from our last meal there. He grabbed it. He was aiming for my eyes, I could tell, just like in Bloodsport. He expected me to battle blind. I panicked.
The bathroom door swung open. Daddy stepped through, fat and dripping and naked. “What’s goin on here,” he said.
I sunk a last punch squarely between Bull’s legs. His scream was so high it was silent.
Daddy separated us, one with one hand, one with the other. We tried to claw at each other, and avert our gaze from his nakedness, at the same time.
I awoke in the morning to voices, high and excited. I climbed from bed, picked the dirt from between my toes. The scrape on my leg had scabbed. My shoulder was throbbing. I pulled my shirt down and looked. A bruise the color of a strawberry, the imprint of teeth.
Bull and Daddy stood together at the window. Daddy held a baseball bat. Bull was cradling a BB gun. “What are you all doing?” I asked them.
Bull turned, grinning. His cheek was bruised. I felt immediately sorry when I saw it. “Groundhog,” he said.
Dad looked at me, wearing the same grin. He had combed his beard, pushed the hair out of his face. His shirt was clean, buttoned, tucked into his pants. “We gonna get it,” he said. “How do you feel about groundhog stew?”
I said nothing. His grin grew small. “What’s wrong, babydoll?”
Someone had cleaned up the cigarette butts, taken a few swipes at the soda spilled by the couch. The sofa filling had been replaced, stuffed back into the cushion, the hole mended with electrical tape. Just looking at the room made me exhausted. Bull turned from me, preening his gun.
“Just wondering what we have to eat for breakfast,” I said.
Bull positioned himself over the gun and squinted one eye shut. “The man just told you. Groundhog.”
“We’ll find you something in a minute here, babydoll,” Daddy said. He turned and patted Bull on the shoulder. Bull raised his weapon.