42nd Writing Contest • First Place, Flash Fiction
William Polsgrove of Frederick, Maryland has won the New Millennium Flash Fiction Prize for “Highway 61.”
He will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
–This award is William’s first literary prize and his first published story.–
“Polsgrove’s story captures perfectly the angst of growing up in a place you can’t belong, a town where the best things in your life are the ones you can’t tell anyone about, and where you make your escape every chance you get.”
By William Polsgrove
I sat wedged between my father, who was driving, and my Uncle Buddy who was smoking and talking nonstop—and I was choking on his smoke and the same sad stories he always told…
“Matamoros pussy—best goddamned tail in the world, excepting of course Juarez pussy, but as you know, I have some hard feelings concerning Juarez. A month in a Juarez prison makes you come to Jesus.” He winked at me and passed me the pint of Ancient Age.
I looked at the almost empty bottle and passed it to my Dad. We’d been on the highway since 4 a.m. driving a load of shorthorns down to Cleveland, Mississippi. The rumbling truck’s air conditioner blew lukewarm air that smelled of dirt and diesel causing my stomach to grow sour from the warm whiskey and truck stop breakfast. I was fifteen and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“I’m sick Dad. Can you stop?”
“What? For Christ’s sake kid.”
“I’m going to throw up.”
“Well hell, you’d best hurry. That’s a bad cloud coming,” Dad said as he pulled the big four-wheel drive off at a turnout by some abandoned shacks standing forlorn amongst the cotton fields.
“Why’er you sick?” Dad asked.
“I don’t know, just sick.” But I thought as I got out of the truck, I’m sick from the goddamned cigarette smoke and the way the truck weaves because the homemade cattle trailer we’re pulling never tracked right. I’m sick of the smell of cow shit, and mud, and trying to be a manly boy, just to make you proud. I’m sick of preachers, and country music, and all of these stupid stories. I’m sick that you won’t tell him to put the fucking cigarette out, and that you always take Uncle Buddy’s side even though he’s an idiot who got the calling from God and left his wife and five kids to go off and preach to the heathens in Texas and fuck Mexican whores for seven years. I’m sick of the blood, and of killing my friends, the cows. I’m sick of that last look in their sad brown eyes as I pull the trigger. I’m sick of the way they stumble to the ground before we string them up.
You say that it makes me tough.
I don’t name them anymore.
I whispered this like a prayer through the tears and sweat as I retched into the ditch amongst the tall golden rods, honeysuckle, and assorted weeds. A large black and yellow grasshopper hanging onto a cattail stared at me with huge golden eyes. He shook his grasshopper head and said, “Storm’s a coming,” and flittered off.
I stood up and stared as the crows fled east before the line of hard, blue-black clouds rolling fast across the river. The land glowed in that strange yellow light. I smelled and tasted the arcing electricity and felt the cool winds pushing the stagnant July air before the coming storm. I thought of the coming night in Frankie’s room. His mom was away. He had many books, and a window air conditioner and his own bathroom with a shower. He always had clean sheets on his bed. He read history to me. He would clean this smell off of me.
“Hurry up, prissy-boy,” my uncle said.
I turned and walked over to the truck. He leaned against the hood next to the door flung open. My father stood on the opposite side of the truck, taking a leak. I looked at Buddy’s twinkling blue eyes. We were the same height, but his skin was like leather stretched taught over iron bones. He was nasty in a bar fight. I’d seen him hurt people bad. I knew he’d hurt me if he had the chance. He smiled that Devil smile and lit another Camel. “Get your ass in…boy.”
“I’ll ride in the back,” I said.
“You’ll get drenched,” Dad said as he climbed into the truck. “There’s still cow shit back there you never cleaned out.”
“I’ll ride in the back.”
“Suit yourself, but I ain’t stopping till we get through Memphis.”
“Them city niggers will snatch your ass out of an open truck bed,” my uncle said.
“I’ll be all right.” I crawled into the bed of the truck as it lurched forward and the big fat drops of rain plopped down. I shoved the nasty straw aside and sat hunkered down like a Buddha. I looked west as the storm tumbled in. Up near Clarksdale, I saw a dark dip in the cloud, swirling round and round. I saw laundry hanging on lines lifted skyward, like the fluttering flags of a great medieval army. The wind tore three sheets from the line and they swirled in long circles upwards disappearing into the dark, dipping cloud. I thought of Frankie’s cool sheets and the hum of his air conditioner and the histories he would read to me. We were studying the Hundred Years War. Henry the Fifth’s speech to his men at Agincourt, the French knights, heavy in their armor, stuck in the muck—arrows from the English longbows raining down on them. Hundred Years War, hell—more like a thousand.
I watched as the tornado took form and skipped over a shotgun shack. The wind blew the fat raindrops sideways. My uncle looked out the back window at me and grinned. He took a long drag off from his Camel. He winked at me as the tornado dipped down and lightly touched a barn. The barn exploded into a million bits, and I was washed in the torrent.
William Polsgrove grew up on a farm in West Tennessee and graduated in 1981 with a BFA degree in painting from the Memphis College of Art. As a somewhat effeminate, unemployed broken-hearted painter, he joined the Army in 1984, and much to everyone’s surprise, he discovered he loved soldiering, so he stayed for twenty-two years. William received a Masters in Public Administration from Central Michigan at the Pentagon in 1999 with a concentration in public policy. He recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT.
–This award is William’s first literary prize, as well as his first published story.–
Highway 61 © 2016 William Polsgrove