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"The Compliment Game," short story excerpt

Saturday 8/14/21

The full story will likely be in There Is No Doubt: Storied Humanness.


There was this overweight girl at my school named Marsha Hilgerton, and the kids would alternately call her “the Hill” and “Ton,” breaking off the rest of her name, and never using the first one.

We’d been friends at that age where you don’t really pick your friends so much as they’re based upon where your house is. Hers was across the street from mine. I had a sandbox, which I remember thinking was really fancy. Or magical. A magical-fancy cross.

You think later about how low-rent that is. It’s basically you sitting in dirt with a pail and a plastic shovel, a watering can crusted with rust—which always seems to smack of bygone centuries—for mud cakes and sand castles sporting sprigs of pine needles for frosting or battlements, depending.

If I went out there to play early enough in the mornings I had to pick the snails out of the sand and throw them towards the woods, which I didn’t feel guilty about, because they had their shells to protect them and they were nasty. I could have done worse. This other neighbor I had named Andy Brett liked to kill them with a hammer. He said it was better for gardens, which made zero sense to me, because even though his mom grew vegetable plants, you’d never have known the tomato harvest was a concern of his.

I even remember asking my dad if the sand was real the day he filled up the box he’d nailed together and Marsha had come over to play, because it just seemed too good to be true—too damn sandy and redolent of the aroma of a faraway place that was really only thirty miles down the coast.

“It’s from a genuine beach,” he said, dumping in what must have been ten pounds of it from a wheelbarrow with Marsha and me standing aside, buckets in hand, ready to dig our way to Timbuktu and build castles up to the eaves.

“Wow,” Marsha offered, then turned to me and added, “My dad says we can go to Cape Cod next summer if we save and I don’t splurge for toys.”

She said the word “splurge” a lot. She called dessert a splurge. She was merely chubby then. No one called her the Hill or Ton, usually just “Marsh,” which was a word we knew, but we wouldn’t have known what a marsh itself was. Just that it was wet and didn’t have sand. It’s not like when it rained and there were these big pools of water in the sandbox with the snails floating in them I ever thought, “What a box of marsh.” I just had to play somewhere else that day, and left the snails to drown or get out if they could manage. I was a Darwinist when it came to sandbox snails.

Marsha had a slip and slide on the back lawn over at her house, and we’d go there, but she’d just watch me, taking all of the turns. I don’t know why I didn’t mind getting wet on the lawn like I did in the sandbox. I guess because that’s the kind of water that doesn’t stick to you, it just drips away. Clean and not clumpy, green and not gray. If water could be alive, I figured it’d be lawn water, at least until you could get to the ocean.

She had this game called the compliment game, where you had to say something nice about the other person, or what you were to each other, and the gist of the game was that you couldn’t say something you already had some other time. She’d remember.

“You did that one before,” she might say, if I told her I liked her raincoat or a toy she had.

“Well, you’re honest,” I recall suggesting. That seemed lackluster, so I added, “People are into that,” which sounded good in theory, but probably inaccurate in practice.

I couldn’t have been honest myself with what I felt at the time, but if I could have been honest with anyone, it would have been Marsha. The first thought I had after my dad had his heart attack was that that made no sense, how could your heart attack you when it was in your body? An attacker was someone who chased you down a street or a vampire in a haunted house, or a boy who put his hand into the back of your pants, which is something I’d been warned about by a movie I saw on TV.

My second thought was, “What happens if the sand goes bad?” or if the snails took over, became especially abundant in some wild, record-setting spring for land mollusks? Who would replace the sand? And that was something I didn’t want to share with anyone. There was no way my mom was strong enough. She couldn’t lift the wheelbarrow when it was empty, probably, let alone get Cape Cod sand, the best kind there is, which I concluded hadn’t been easy for my dad to acquire. I thought a lot about his efforts on behalf of the sandbox once he was gone. There’s no way my mom would have had his sand sources.

And then we stopped playing there entirely. We were too old, I said, which I didn’t believe and I didn’t not believe. I didn’t like the outdoors. The wet grass made me think of lizard tails. A sea of lizard tails without their bodies. I wanted to say inside and it felt like Marsha was always there, too. I never thought, “this can’t be fun for her, this has to suck, why do all my clothes smell like mildew?”

She’d play the compliment game, but it was just her saying what she said to me. About my hair. How she wished she could be as pretty. Anyone would. And that my drawings were the best drawings she had ever seen, and then some, especially the ones of me and my dad. We sat under a lot of umbrellas on a lot of beaches in those drawings, but it’s hard to explain to someone how hard it is to draw magic sand.


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