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"Teeth and Hands," short story excerpt

Wednesday 9/1/21

The yard with the house Clete used to live in sloped into a basin from the road, which itself sloped. One boy kneeled on the driveway, as the other moved, circling, unsure how to proceed, but knowing what he would do. A couple baseball bats and mitts lay about them on the ground in the vague, ruptured geometry of a game that was no more.


Clete recognized the circling boy as himself, years ago. He looked about seven. The kneeling boy was this kid from the neighborhood who had moved away before Clete’s family did, named Joey. He never said much. Couldn’t be counted to come out for baseball, not even a catch.


Clete was fifteen now. He had walked here from the Santangelo’s. Must have been five miles. His mother and his sister Rosalie stayed behind with their old family friends, whom they were visiting for a few days. First trip back in years. Not the last, necessarily, but maybe the last. His mom wasn’t willing to see where they had once lived.


“You wanna go, get yourself there,” she said. She viewed the house as the walls within which her husband had died, whereas her kids considered it the place that she changed.


“Do you think mom used to love us?” Rosalie had asked her brother.


“Why would you even ask that?” he answered, knowing his real answer would have been, “I’m not sure,” and that the girl who made him her new father in a way wanted the answer to be “yes,” even if he had to say it as, “yes, once.”


Often he recalled how dry his sister’s hand had been compared to his. They touched a lot for a period of time. Clung in small ways. The hands seemed to push against the insides of his skull as he looked at the house, eyeing for the doorbell, a faraway speck that made him think of the closed back of a ladybug. He wasn’t someone to ring and say words to the effect that he used to live in this place, asking politely if he might take a quick look inside. Couldn’t fathom how some people did that. He just wanted to look, so he stood from the road and watched the two boys in the driveway by the front lawn.


He knew the circling one was him right away, despite first seeing him from behind, and even after he saw the boy’s teeth once he had turned. They were on the outside of his face, as though sewn into the skin.


Joey was kneeling with his eyes closed. Clete seemed to remember that he might have been an altar boy, but that would have been impossible at seven. Too young. Maybe he just talked about praying or something which kids didn’t normally do. Once Joey had said, “I am a person of faith,” and someone called him a queer.


Clete wanted them to be playing a game but he knew they were not. The circling form of himself held what he recognized as his old Swiss Army knife. He treasured it immediately after his father gave it to him for no reason at all, believing Swiss Army knives were rare, expensive, only given to top soldiers. It was for emergencies. Not cutting open the belly of a dead snake on a dare or holding over a match to see if the steel turned black.


In the woods he had opened grooves in poplar trees to mark his path, but the grooves were hard to see and the trees seemed to hide the slices. Swallowed the patterns of the marking. But he made them all the same, as his father taught him.


His seven-year-old self came up behind the kneeling boy, and stuck the longest blade of the Swiss Army knife into his neck. Not a slice but a plunge. Clete was surprised as he watched when Joey left the knife where it was, knew not to pull it out and release more blood. Instead he pressed with both hands at the area, trying to stem the flow, until he fell forward, face first into the drive, and the boy whose teeth were sewn into his skin looked up and saw Clete.