Smithereens – John H. Leavitt

Her name was Shannon and she belonged to a large family of children with broken bones. The bones weren’t all broken at the same time. They got broken one right after the other, like falling dominoes. One child broke a leg and while the leg healed another child broke an arm or a finger and while that mended another child broke.

One of her brothers fell off a pick-up in front of the elementary school. Small herds of little kids were lined up waiting for buses to take them home. Shannon’s brother sat proud on the side of the pick-up bed, waving like he was in a parade, when he suddenly slipped off and smacked onto the pavement. Broke his leg, but he didn’t know it because he was laughing too hard. He flopped fishlike, howling like a fool, while blood soaked his hair and the string of children screamed.

Shortly after that, one of Shannon’s sisters broke both wrists jumping off a horse. Or maybe the horse threw her. It’s hard to remember all the details. There were so many stories about broken children in that family. The Hannigans.

One day it was Shannon’s turn. Toward the end of our fifth grade year, she came to school with her arm in a cast. Said she fell out of a cherry tree over the weekend. A bunch of us wished we could have casts on our arms like Shannon, but she told us it wasn’t that great.

“It itches inside and you can’t scratch it,” she said.

We used Sharpies to write our names on Shannon’s cast. I used green, the color of Shannon’s eyes. I drew a dinosaur next to my name, and she frowned at it.

“What is that? A green dog?” she said, then grinned. One of her incisors had grown in a little bit sideways, which gave her smile a savageness I admired.

Most of the time she was pretty serious, especially about things like softball, dodgeball, and foursquare. She liked winning. All the kids in her family were that way. They were fearless, they wanted to win at everything, and sometimes they broke themselves trying. There weren’t witnesses to all the accidents, and some people whispered that maybe Shannon’s parents hit some of the kids. But I couldn’t believe it. For one thing, it really wasn’t any big secret in our little town about which parents beat their children. Donnie Larison was one of the beaten ones, with red stripes across his back and buttocks. All of us saw, in the showers after gym class. Donnie’s father was perpetually angry, and his mother was a different kind of mad. She wore an old black floppy hat with red faded flowers wilting over the brim. We’d huddle in the grocery store, half-hidden behind pyramids of boxed detergent and marvel at Donnie’s mother as she filled her whole shopping cart with nothing but breakfast cereal.

But Shannon’s parents weren’t angry or crazy. There were no broken windows in their house. No holes punched in the walls. No slammed doors. Mrs. Hannigan was so warm and soft-spoken it was eerie—like those moms on television who are so nice they just can’t be real. And Mr. Hannigan only said stuff like “by golly” or “by heck” when something bugged him—I never heard him cuss. But he did like winning, just like his kids. He played on the town basketball league and his team always won the championship trophy from the Lion’s Club at the end of the summer. Mr. Hannigan had the same black hair and green eyes as Shannon. She sure was his daughter, except for the cussing part. Shannon cussed.

The Hannigans all lived in one of the mill houses on a gravel road that ran parallel to the railroad tracks. The tracks ran along next to the river, making four things lined up next each other: first the river, green with algae; then the train tracks, shining silver; then the gravel road, pitted and potholed; and finally the row of mill houses. The road dead-ended where the train tunnel burrowed into a hillside that marked the city limits. Stenersen Lumber Company owned the road and the houses, and they kept the dust down by regularly oiling the road. The oil was so thick in some places you might think parts of the road were paved.

The Hannigan’s house looked like all the other houses along the road, a single-level with three small bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a living area. Every house was painted white or dull gray, or some combination. Some had porches, a few had covered carports or detached garages with station wagons or pick-ups parked outside. Each house had a postage-stamp lawn that was bright green in the spring, but by the end of summer the grass was yellow-brown, packed flat by children’s feet.

Shannon invited me to her house for dinner one summer night. Her family was Catholic, and we said grace before we ate. They made the sign of the cross when they prayed for the oldest son, James, who was a Marine over in Viet Nam.

I tried making the sign of the cross, too, but Shannon grabbed my hand and hissed, “You’re doing it wrong. Either do it the right way or don’t do it at all.”

I didn’t try it again.

The house smelled faintly of mown grass and bread dough. There was an antique coffee grinder on a wood table in the living room. It was assembled from dark-stained wood and it was cube-shaped, with a little drawer in front that had a brass pull-knob on it. There was a metal handle on the top that you could crank. Shannon told me not to turn the handle.

“You’ll probably bust it,” she said.

There were pictures of all the kids on the walls. Some of them still lived in the house, while others had grown up and moved out. A wood stove was stuffed into the fireplace, and a black stovepipe climbed up the chimney flue. There was no fire in the stove, and a large gray cat curled gently on top of a small stack of split firewood.

The kitchen was bright yellow and on one wall, over the kitchen table, there was a picture in a frame—a copy of a Winslow Homer painting of a man and three boys on a small sailboat with “Gloucester” written across its stern. Mrs. Hannigan explained, “My grandparents came from Gloucester.” I nodded.

Shannon’s mother cooked mushrooms that the family had picked in the woods nearby. The mushrooms looked like brains. She said their name, “Morels.” There were also green beans and little red potatoes from their garden, along with roasted chicken or rabbit, I wasn’t sure which—I didn’t ask. I was looking at the steak knives they used to cut the meat, and I was thinking about the day I first met Shannon.

It was August. It was morning, but it was already hot. A light breeze stirred the dust. Shannon was in the field behind the company houses, hovering over a tree stump with a steak knife in her hand, cutting away at something. I moved closer to see. It was a grasshopper.

I asked her, “Why are you doing that?”

I felt the sun burning my scalp. She didn’t look up when she spoke.

“Because. It’s in the Bible, you know.”

“It is?”

“Yeah, they read it to us in church. This guy cuts up his wife in twelve pieces.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, still not looking up, “That’s the way they did stuff in the olden days.”

“Huh.”

She stuck out her lower lip and huffed up her bangs, which were cut in a sharp line across her forehead. But her hair fell back down in her eyes. I reached over and smoothed it back for her. She squinted up at me. The summer sun glinted off her eyes. Her pupils were so small that all I could see were the bright green irises. Something tore inside my chest.

She said, “You might want to keep your hands to yourself, buster.”

I looked away, out to the field, where the afternoon sunlight frosted grass seedheads. In the soft blue sky a full moon floated near the horizon like a cataracted eye. I looked back at Shannon and she turned back to her work. I watched her systematically cut off the grasshopper’s legs. Then she beheaded it. She rose up, pointed her knife at me and asked, “Who’re you?”

I said my name and she repeated it.

“Mike, huh? I guess you look like a Mike.” She told me her name.

“You’re new here, aren’t you?” I asked

“Yeah,” she said. “No shit.”

I had a blister on my thumb and I rubbed it against my index finger. It felt like a small marble.

“What’ve you got there?” she demanded.

“Nothing. Just a blister.”

“Let me see.”

She examined the blister closely, then she stuck the point of her knife and squeezed until the blister’s surface broke and water came out.

She dropped my hand. She scratched an eyebrow. Then she scanned the field and said, “Let’s go find some more grasshoppers.”

Most of her older brothers and sisters were married and had jobs at lumber mills, grocery stores, and cafes. But that life wasn’t for Shannon: “I’m not going to be anybody’s God-damned wife.”

She wanted to be an artist. I asked her what kind of artist.

“A famous one.”

We watched The Wizard of Oz at school, and then we were asked to make a picture based on a scene from the movie. I drew the flying monkeys because they scared the hell out of me. I drew them nice and smiling, not evil. Shannon wrinkled her forehead at them.

“They look like flying clowns.”

She drew the witch riding her broom, circling the sky and writing “Surrender Dorothy” in white against the blue. It was perfect.

Shannon was skinny and sharp-edged. Her knees and elbows were always skinned. She played hard. She was rough.

One hot day we were both thirsty and we raced to the faucet next to my house. We ended up in a tie, but she pushed me down and pinned my shoulders to the ground with her knees. She sat on my chest and thumped her hard fists on my sternum until I cried. Then she jumped up and ran home while I lay there next to the faucet, breathless and sobbing.

I never told on her. She never said she was sorry. The next day we sat together and watched some ants carry off a squirming green inchworm. We were both wearing shorts, and she pressed her knee into mine. Her skin was hot. Something in the air seemed about to explode. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, but I willed myself still and pretended to ignore the feel of her bare skin against mine.

1969 was the last year I saw Shannon. We had sent men to the moon, but we were still at war in Viet Nam. Just before we were going to start our freshman year of high school, Shannon’s family got a telegram. James was MIA. I found Shannon crying near the river. I thought maybe I should reassure her. I thought maybe I should tell her, “He’s all right. I’m sure he’s OK. He’s just missing.” I thought maybe I should hug her, but I didn’t. I felt stuck. I thought maybe I’d do or say something wrong, so instead I stood like a tree and just watched her.

That day she wore a red baseball cap that belonged to her brother, and she watched the river rush past while a half dozen blue-green hummingbirds sparkled around her head like tiny comets. The little birds were drawn to the color of the cap that gave the false promise of food. Disappointed, they flung themselves away only to return shortly afterward, as if attracted by some powerful magnetic force they could not resist. The morning sun reflected off the skin of the river directly at Shannon’s face, which was turned full away from me. I saw only a bright fractaled halo surrounding her dark form, as if her life existed outside her body in some sort of luminescence. I had a dizzy feeling that I was looking at Shannon, but that, at the same time, I was looking at someone else.

I was wrong about James. An Army major showed up at the Hannigan’s door. The Viet Cong had fired a rocket that blasted his Marine helicopter from the sky.

It was my first funeral. Lots of folks were there, people from town and people from out of town. Some guys in uniform.

I sat next to Shannon as she stared stonily at her brother’s coffin. It was covered with the U.S. flag, white stars on a navy blue background, with white and red stripes crossing it, falling over the sides like waterfalls. The casket was long and rectangular and sharp-edged, and the flag draped as if it was a bed sheet that had been specially made for the purpose of covering the box. I pictured James sleeping inside with his head on a pillow and blankets pulled up to his chin. I thought of him as a little boy, just tucked into bed by his parents, one of his arms in a cast signed by his classmates.

The air inside the church was heavy and hot. The windows were closed and the organ echoed off the walls and ceiling. Amazing Grace. I touched my knee to Shannon’s knee.

The priest spoke but I didn’t listen. I whispered to Shannon. I asked her why it wasn’t an open-casket funeral. Wouldn’t his family want to see him one last time before they buried him? I guess I was curious. I’d never seen a dead person before.

“Jeez,” she whispered back. “You don’t know anything about war, do you?”

“What do you mean?”

She chewed her lip, and slowly closed her eyes and opened them. Her breath was hot and soft.

“He got blown to smithereens. My brother’s not in that box. There’s nothing in that box. Not a fucking thing.”

I have been to many funerals since. Friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, my mother. And today, my father’s funeral. It’s what brought me back to town. And when my father’s funeral was over I came back to our house, to my room, where I am now.

I’m looking through my scrapbook while I sit on the edge of my childhood bed, the bed I sat on with Shannon when she kissed me goodbye on the cheek. I remember thinking that when Shannon was about to kiss my cheek, her lips might feel cool, like the surface of an iced-over lake in deep winter. But her lips burned.

She pulled away and said, “We have to move. My dad got a new job at the lumber mill in Veneta.” I didn’t know where Veneta was. “It’s still in Oregon,” she told me. “It’s a little town, just like this one. I’ll write to you, and you write me back, OK?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise.”

“I will. I promise.”

She began to cry and I held her while her tears wet my shirt, and my fingertips found and caressed the little valley of her spine.

Now I hold her letter, postmarked “Veneta, Oregon, October 24, 1969.” It’s the letter that starts out: “To Mike (my boyfriend)”, the letter I read so many times. The letter I kept in my scrapbook for all these years.

I never wrote back to Shannon.

I look out my bedroom window and into the front window of the house across the street. There’s a white cat perched on the back of a pale blue sofa. It’s watching the cars pass, the people pass, the birds and the squirrels, and I think how funny it is that the neighbors have had that same cat and that same sofa for so long. I turn back to the letter and I see Shannon’s green eyes, shining in the summer sun, and then I look out the window again toward the house across the street, and the cat is gone, the sofa is gone. The house was demolished long ago.

 
 
 
John H. Leavitt was born in Eugene and raised in Oakridge, Oregon. He received his MFA in fiction writing from Portland State University in 2016.
 
 

Categories: Fiction, Short Story