The Great Laws and Harmonious Combinations and the Fluids of the Air

2013 Short Fiction Contest

Of the stories we pored over for this year's contest, none featured the sort of dialogue and detail found in John Whalen's story. The back and forth of its two main characters bring to mind the absurdist theater of playwrights like Tom Stoppard or Samuel Beckett. With a familiar setting for Inland Northwesterners, this story features excellent storytelling while remaining delightfully ambiguous at times. It's a crazy read, for sure. — Mike Bookey

"The heck, Grandview," the old man said.

In front of his building on Jefferson. Tail end of my lunch break. A hundred degrees downtown. The sun giving all it had, then flaring the light even brighter.

"A trip'll get you out of this place." The shine off the sidewalk had me squinting. "Break your routine."

Harry said, "What damn routine?" Now clenching his fists. A boxer in high school, district champion, if he got going, he'd smash his knuckles into your chest.

"What — the Rocket, you and Sandy, mornings. Huckleberry's for soup. The Swamp all afternoon? That's not a routine?"

"That's just, uhm." He leaned hard into me, flexing his shoulders. He was the bull moose. He was showing off. At eighty-two, the black-eyed pole star, the uncabled mooring.

I owed Uncle Ray, that's what it was.

For the loss on our house, the house I sold after Janet the Giant moved her boys to Las Vegas. They were twin eight-year olds, basketball junkies and I was in the middle of teaching them to dribble behind the back. One bounce. Goodbye, she had said to me, waving her big floppy hand out the car window. To the end of the block waving and honking.

Ray said get Harry out of town. The push was to get Harry into a retirement place. Things would go easier without Harry's supervision.

I sold nurse call systems for a small local company who had just been acquired by a competitor, Chicago suits who craved our client list. The following day I had customer meetings at the hospitals in Yakima and Sunnyside and Prosser. My new boss was going to meet me over there. She wanted to meet all my customers.

She said, "Jack, you're redundant. Sorry, but there it is. We have enterprise reps for your patch."

Harry bumped me again. Harry had grown up near Yakima. He could see Grandview. His hometown.

Janet the Giant was gone. Janet the Giant said Las Vegas would have a million jobs. A casino dealer, a red-headed six-foot-five former basketball player, Janet the Giant wasn't going to put up with me anymore. Get off the Internet, she said. I should learn to talk.

I told her I was a sales guy. Talked all day.

She said to real people. Grown-ups.

In a truck is how Janet the Giant left. A month later I was calling only once a day. She never answered.

Harry stamped his feet. Leather smacked the pavement. Maybe he had a hangover today, but Harry had been grumpy since I was a teenager unloading pallets of paper at Uncle Ray's print shop with him.

"I'm going," he told me.

"Let's talk nice, okay?"

I needed to get things set for the next day. An early start, a three-hour drive. Uncle Ray said the earlier the better. Get him out of there. They'd start packing soon as we left.

Harry was a guy that Uncle Ray always brought to Thanksgiving. The two of them sipping the Knob Creek that Ray drank once a year. Yakking it up like old college roommates.

Forty years ago, Harry robbed grocery stores in the Midwest. Going in with a buddy at closing time and walking out with the day's cash. All this from Uncle Ray, who met Harry in prison. Ray in for embezzlement, fifty-thousand dollars he'd lifted from a construction company's books. Harry so combative that they put him in solitary for six weeks with a Bible. Between push-ups and crunches, he memorized Genesis. Harry moved to my uncle's cell. Ray relied on Harry's fists. Now, a straight businessman, Ray's always done for Harry. Brought him out west close to Harry's old stomping grounds, gave him a bindery job. Taxied him home from the Swamp, or asked me to, whenever the bartender called.

The next morning I filled a thermos with coffee. Put some boiled eggs in a plastic bag. When I pulled up at six, Harry was crouching at the curb. In his old fedora, a wool blazer and tan corduroy pants. Beside him a small black bag. He clambered in before I could get around the car to help him.

"Harry, the seatbelt. That's the beeping noise."

"What noise?" He clipped the belt. We caught the highway and shot up the hill past the incinerator stack and the airport tower.

I called Janet the Giant from my hands-free.

To voice mail. "Hey, baby," her voice said, real syrup. "Leave that message. Goodbye, baby. Goodbye."

First time meeting her I made up her song. "Janet the Giant, Janet the Giant. No more bad times, only good times. Giant Janet. Giant Janet."

Harry and I got out into the desert. Across the hills and up the side of the bluffs was sagebrush — blue-green-gray, half fluorescent, half dusty sage. We'd had a wet spring. The sparse grass was long and thick and brown. Dried out in the heat.

"Grandview. I can't believe it," the old man said. "Dad had cottages out back of the house. Rented to Mexicans." Harry had escaped to the state college on a boxing scholarship.

"He was the school superintendent. Dad. I told you that. Taught me to box."

"What century are we talking?" I said.

He clipped me with a blink-of-the-eye tap on the cheek. I bit my tongue. Tasted blood. I knew nothing about boxing, but figured I could find a two-by-four sooner or later.

"Grandview was all white. Mexicans didn't live in town. Nobody wanted them."

"History is great," I said, "if you can find somebody who cares."

We moved through the morning desert. Sharp hot light touched down everywhere.

Harry had a photograph in his apartment. The frame propped up against the window overlooking the tracks. A young, black-and-white Harry, bare-chested, wearing boxing gloves and long shorts. All lean muscle and dark intensity, his arms hoisted high by a referee. The boxing ring was surrounded by more black-and-white people. All standing and cheering.

Harry said, "Keep your hands in front of your face, elbows straight ahead."

"If this is going to be another history lesson," I told him. "I'll let you out right here." Nothing but desert and light. A road shooting both directions into nowhere.

"Bumping, Naches," Harry started singing out the names of rivers he knew.

"American, Skagit." He'd surprise me sometimes. His interests. Had a bunch of poetry memorized. I bet he knew all the rivers in the state. Louder, his voice was a load of gravel downshifting across a ribbed, steel bridge.

"Okanogan, Klickitat, Satus." Keyed, wound up, Harry bleated.

At the bottom of the hill on our left, Sprague Lake was an improbable spread of water in a dry land.

Janet the Giant had ball handler hands. Soft and sure. She was gone.

Twenty minutes later, we exited at Ritzville, a pop-in, pop-out collection of trees and gas stations surrounded by wide parking lots. I pulled in next to a pump at one of the stations. Harry disappeared inside the convenience store, while I filled the tank, subtracting the mounting digits from the hundred-and-sixty-six dollars in my checking account. On my other card, out of five-thousand in total credit, I had three-hundred-and-eighty-one dollars remaining. When the pump handle clicked off, I squeezed the trigger while raising the hose. Slick as snake piss, more gas, gas I'd already paid for, slid into the tank.

On my way to the restroom, I found Harry coming at me through the double glass doors.

"Let's get out of here," he said. Harry was carrying a coffee in each hand.

"I need to piss," I told him.

"Bad timing." Head down, Harry hurried to the car and pulled the door shut. I hesitated, then followed.

Ripping from park into second gear, I made a quick right. Harry grabbed my arm.

"Easy," he said, as a cop car came at us.

I accelerated up the merge lane onto the freeway. The alarm was still going.

"Harry," I said.

"Hell," said Harry. He was still holding the coffees. His breathing shallow and harsh.

"Put 'em down. Put 'em down." I took a cup from him and set it in the drink holder between us. Harry put the other in and fussed with the belt.

"Heck was going on?"

Harry pushed a fistful of firecrackers toward me.

"What'd you do?"

"You know how much they want for coffee?"

Harry stuck his head into the rush of air and shouted, "Suiattle, Sauk, Stillaguamish."

More rivers.

Janet the Giant was pulling down her swim suit. A purple one the boys had given her. The whale of her perfection stepped into the tub.

"No more bad times, only good times. Giant Janet, Giant Janet." I was getting loud as Harry. I banged the wheel and tumbled my fingers over themselves. Keep 'em coming.

Spittle spraying the dashboard, Harry sang. We sliced through the landscape. Harry was still going but I had to stop singing.

Janet the Giant was somebody who was always going to be gone. The boys were going to grow up without me.

Harry shut up and the air got thin and quiet. The split-open sky went on and on.

Like a dog pointing its snout into the scent kicked up by our heedless passage, he had his head out the window. Now he was inside again, chin on the dashboard, his fingers drumming.

"The shadow. You see that?" he said. "There, going up the cliff, God, we're alive! Huh?"

The road ahead curved, climbing the hill. I kept my foot on the pedal. Isn't that the way? Slamming squint-eyed through the landscape, intent on whatever over the sun-struck horizon is rising.

The old man was carrying on again. "Nooksack, Cowlitz. Cascade."

Even with dry air shushing at us, I could smell those rivers. I could taste them. I held on to the wheel.

Harry knew lots of rivers.

"Duwamish, Nisqually." In between his cauliflower ears, somewhere deep in the ancient pilings of his liver, he had a list.

"Skykomish, Snohomish." Harry was winding down.

Ten minutes later, Harry was snoring.

When I called Janet the Giant again, I imagined this tall bridge crossing the distance between us, desert, mountain, forest, river, sky. Just a fake bridge, a fake bridge for just a few fake seconds. She was going to answer this time. I knew it.

"Hey, Baby," she said.

"I was gonna call you, Jack." A honeyed, whispered, pretty say-so percolating the air.

"Janet," I said.

"Hey, Baby."

I tried to say her name again.

I stared at the sky in front me. Seventy miles of open country. She was gone.

"Hey, Baby, I know you can't talk. But I love you, Baby, I do," she said.

"Gene," she said. "This guy." Gene.

Her name was right there on my lips.

"Goodbye, Baby. Jack, I love you, Baby. Goodbye," she said. ♦

About the Author

John Whalen lives in Spokane. He was born in Michigan and grew up in Tennessee before moving out west. He has published two books of poetry, Caliban and In Honor of the Spigot, with additional poetry appearing in Epoch, The Gettysburg Review, CutBank, VQR and other journals. This is his first fiction to be published.

Mirror, Mirror: The Prints of Alison Saar @ Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU

Tuesdays-Saturdays. Continues through March 12
  • or