First Place | Flash Fiction Writing Contest

57th New Millennium Award for Flash Fiction

Doug Crandell of Douglasville, Georgia for “Blank Many Days”

Crandell will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.


Blank Many Days


Zeb Brance was a union brother. He ate Hostess Apple Pies and bologna sandwiches, four each, every night, and dabbed at his mouth with a cloth napkin from a lunch bucket that held real utensils. I’d known him all my life, his massive stomach, timbered arms, his long beard, size sixteen work boots. Once, when I was five, he came to our house to help my father with a broken truck axle. The jack wouldn’t work, so Zeb hefted it up with one arm, held it like that as swallows dipped in the pink evening air. I stared at his superpowers. He winked at me, a purple vein pulsing at his temple. He had long dark hair, and hands the size of dinner plates. I assumed he was a giant.

When my mother drove supper to my father for the 8 p.m. break, Zeb would put me in his lap and take my small hands in his massive ones, and he’d diligently push back my cuticles, as if he might be working on some kind of delicate mechanism. His breath held the scent of toothpaste, cologne that smelled of balsam and tangs of firewood. I loved him. After doing my nails, he’d ask me to read things, ingredients off a food wrapper, the names on the maintenance men’s shirt pockets, and my favorite, a huge circular sign that spelled out how many days it had been since an accident took place in the Celotex ceiling tile factory. When there was a zero on the sign, and the workers seemed sad, Zeb would not ask me to read it. Instead, he’d pull a folded newspaper from his back pocket, and he’d read to me the comics, usually Peanuts, and Zeb would say in his baritone voice, “Featuring good ol’ Charlie Brown.” He told me the words that were formed by a sound were called onomatopoeia, which I thought he had made up. “Wham, boom, pow!” he would say in a whisper into my ear and my arms would prickle and a warm feeling in the center of my chest made me want to tell Zeb I loved him, but, of course, factory men, union brothers, didn’t talk in that way.

When I went to work at the factory, he told me stories of my father’s kind feats, which I knew were embellished because Zeb wanted me to understand he admired my father so much, he’d change the past for him. In that way, I became friends with the giant from my childhood. He taught me the union rules, how to sign up for overtime, the correct way to operate a forklift, and which vending machines gave you the best deals on Hostess Pies. I met his wife at the neat mobile home they lived in, spotless, and smelling of pine and bleach, a little rat terrier named Cecil they treated like a toddler. I found out Zeb liked poetry, enjoyed even more orating the poems from old copies of the New Yorker.

Union and management alike paid attention to the sign in the front of the factory, one of the few things that didn’t require a strike threat, pension overhaul or discussions of scabs. The sign was next to a guard gate, above chain link, steaming waste lagoons behind. If something terrible had happened, a person run over by a dump truck, or a leg caught in a cog, it read: Blank Many Days since Last Accident. On that summer shift, where we had pulled sixteeners together, slept in Zeb’s station wagon, the sign displayed 512 days, and I calculated the year equivalent each time I went to work. In the factory, all math was done in your head.

Zeb ran the buzz planer, a contraption with steel teeth like a shark, guardrails that wobbled, boxed-in danger that whorled and sounded every bit like a dragon monster caged and temporarily subdued by OSHA rules that management said were akin to socialism. The management men wore neckties and made sure to stir clear of the machinery, so they could play golf, comb their hair, pick up their babies.

It’s about 1.4 years. That’s how many years 512 days is.

Zeb’s arm up to his shoulder was butchered in early April. In like a lamb, out like a lion. I was in the warehouse when the sirens went off, first inside the factory, then outside, where two ambulances and three firetrucks blared into the parking lot. They bagged Zeb’s mammoth arm in a trash sack and rushed him to the emergency room.

I was nineteen when I rode the county hospital elevator up to his floor. In the bed, he appeared a goliath under tarps, the television turned low, a station broadcasting Bobby Knight’s tortured players, boys with no fathers but primo jump shots. Zeb saw me in the doorway and smiled, waved me in with his massive head. “Good God,” he said, “you didn’t have to come here, pull up a chair.”

We watched the game, as the wind blew outside. In three days, it would be Easter. Zeb told me a story about my father, one I’d heard before, where my dad covered for Zeb, took his shift, so Zeb could be with his wife Sarah, while she gave birth to his only child, a girl who was now a mother herself. Zeb offered me some of his ice water, then smiled broadly at me. “I ruined their streak I suppose. I guess the sign is now back at zero. Blank many days…”

A buzzer beater from Illinois sunk the Hoosier’s chances. The guard who made the shot was a lefty. Zeb raised his eyebrows, and said, “My lefty is gone,” and he grinned at me. I shut off the TV, and Zeb asked if I would read a poem to him. I did, then put the magazine aside. I pushed back the cuticles on his hefty right hand. Zeb wept quietly; my giant wounded but alive.



Doug Crandell has won fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Arts, the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Big River Association, and the Jentel Artist Residency. He is a former Barnes & Nobel Discover Great New Writers pick. His fiction appears in the Best American Mystery Stories 2020 and 2024. Essays have been selected for inclusion in the Pushcart Prize for the 2018 and 2023 anthologies. NPR’s Glynn Washington chose Doug’s story for the 2018 COG Page-to-Screen Award. Stories are forthcoming from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the SUN Magazine, Missouri Review, and the Raleigh Review.

Blank Many Days © 2024 Doug Crandell 
• • • Thanks for Reading • • •
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11 thoughts on “”

  1. Hey Doug,
    What an intricate and well-wound story.
    Definitely worth the time, and emotion, I didn’t think I had.
    I’m learning, I’m learning…
    Thank you,

  2. Constance Campana

    Doug, this is a wonderful story of a place many of us either know or were transported to through your writing & a portrait of a man you made everyone love. Thank you for this. I will look for your name.

  3. I grew up in a working class family. Our world was full of hearty men who did sweaty, dirty work with hands big and calloused from pouring cement, framing houses, digging holes. We knew they were in danger at work. Watched them drive away before the sun came up and said prayers that they’d return to us safely. This story reminded me of all the gentle giants in my life, how lucky I was to have them, and how fortunate they were to survive their daily grind intact. I saw them all in Zeb, even as I read the last lines through a pool of tears. Thank you for such a lovely story. Enjoy your well-earned prize 🙂

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