Brett Bender is a 36-year-old native Atlantan. He is finishing his thesis for an M.A. in fiction at Georgia State University, and has begun work on his first novel.
I unearthed the box yesterday. It's against the law to dig in a state park, and it felt good to be against the law. Like old times. Alone on that windy hilltop with my shovel, a passerby would have thought I was burying the evidence, not digging it up. The box was buried deeper than I remembered. I broke a sweat, endured a panic -- This is the wrong place. Even after I hit plastic it took a lot of excavating to pry it free and lift it into the light. My fingers were frozen and there was blood smeared along the splintered handle. I left the hole standing open in the ground, drove home feeling like I had a body stuffed in the trunk. Down in my basement I set it on the workbench and had a good look, and let me tell you, those black Hefty garbage bags have preserved our thing beautifully. The outside, anyway; I won't know about the rest until tonight. But those black bags did the trick like magic.
On These Days:
I wake up at five in the morning to go to work, would you ever have believed it Erin? Or that -- don't laugh -- I teach Senior English at good old Bishop Hembry High? I said not to laugh. Of course I'm "cool." I'm a "cool teacher," a role model even, and I can even say so without vomiting all over everything. The kids are alright, for the most part, they get great joy out of taking advantage of me. As we would have, you and me at seventeen. On days like today I relish the long drive out to East Cobb through the morning darkness. It's best to take the back roads, avoid traffic. Ash my cigarettes out the moon roof and play the perfect music over an absurd six speaker stereo that seemed like a good idea on the lot. Sometimes I even sing along, but not today. Today I'm playing your old all-time favorite, Pornography, and it's never been easy singing along to that one.
Today is Halloween.
On That Special High School Sweetheart:
That Special High School Sweetheart remains in the heart forever. In one of the works among her many important works, adolescent psychologist Hannah Rugby remarks: The first high school sweetheart will remain in the heart forever as a sort of touchstone of the possibilities, as well as the limitations of, romantic love, etc. Some mysterious colleague leaves Psychology Today in the science hall toilet. The thrust of Rugby's research being the heart spends its fifth wedding anniversary smoking cloves beside a bonfire, beating quickly for its touchstone. You've gone out for seafood, hired a sitter, but the heart doesn't want seafood. The heart wants eyeliner.
On The First Time That I Saw You:
I'll ask my heart: You were passing by my locker. Long black bangs hanging over your chin. Black shirt, red skirt, black shoes. Clenched fists, black eyeliner. A smart ensemble, not pinning yourself down, not giving too much away. Keep 'em guessing. For instance: I guessed. I guessed the moon, the stars, the sky ... That's enough for now, heart. Jesus.
It's a bond meant to last forever or so one hears. Remember our solemn oath to never marry and grow boring? Well, but marriage is a wonderful thing, and love changes faces as a person gathers years. That's Hannah Rugby's take on it anyway. It broadens, drops, runs deeper, stretches further, love does, and before you can say "boo" it's all empty gesture and resentment. Remembering the good times. Lots of resentment, which Hannah doesn't much touch upon, but it's all good Hannah. We can't have our role models surrendering to despair in science hallway toilets all across the land. But our child is almost five and her name is Eleanor, and I'm confident, we're confident, we can keep the ship afloat until she's old enough to run away or go to college. A parent hopes but never knows. And maybe we'll hold off divorcing for good, who can tell? We may be too tired from so much waking up to walk away by then. You'd never believe this Erin, but there's a cap on experience, a quota beyond which there is nothing new, under sun or between the sheets. That's why our parents acted that way, they had the whole game riding on us, and we didn't give them much besides shot nerves and hypertension. Life fades and spins, like the song says, but it's only romantic when you're only singing along.
On Robert Smith:
One not-so-well-known-fact is that Robert Smith is afraid of flying.
On Our Old School:
You see purple hair everywhere nowadays, but back then it was so uncommon. Fetch me my pipe, my slippers. Were we really any different? I still have to think so, yes.
On The Future:
We have a lot to look forward to, I don't mean to sound like such a glum goat. Florida beaches, new releases, Saturday night dinners at the strip-mall Mexican down the road. It will take years to sample the entire menu. The number one, the number two, the number three ... they go all the way to fifty-seven, plus fajitas. And when the wife and I have tried them all, down to the last chimichanga, well it'll all be news to Eleanor. Fascinating to observe how her favorites will change as the years stretch away into a glistening distance of salt crystals. Monster margaritas, before, during, and after. Cheap vodka, well-aged and cold, tonight.
You would have liked it. No curfew, and drugs like you could never believe. I played bass in a band called "28G," the "G" for grams or gauge depending on your angle. We made our way around the southeast in a Chevy van powered on pure hate. Oh you bet your sweet dead ass people still remember. I just moved a box of first pressings and T-shirts that had been collecting dust in the attic on eBay, $126 dollars for the lot. We're putting it towards a triangular incidentals desk from IKEA. eBay, IKEA, you're not missing very much in that department.
On Role Models:
Once when I was securing morphia a dusky scoundrel stuck a .380 between my eyes, then relieved me of all my coin. Strangely enough, his nom du crime happened to be "three-eighty." Of course this occurred long ago, deep within the bowels of The Terrence Homes, are any of you old enough to recall old Terra Ho'? Simon? Drissana? "So, what do you guys think about old Gatsby? What might it mean to lose a dream? Boys? Girls? Anyone?" I pick at the ironies like a scab.
On Your Blood:
Your sister did a drive-by and dumped the towels in my front yard. This was days later and they still weren't dry. She always was a belching cooz, your sister. Pardon me for saying so. Forgive and forget, that's the accepted line, but I'll never forgive her for that. My poor parents thought I had lost my mind for wanting to keep them, hauled me off to Charter-Peachford that very day. I hadn't lost my mind, I just couldn't stop thinking how that was just about all the blood that had flowed through your body, every last little drop. Years later I learned that my father burned them in the backyard.
On Teenage Lust:
The fondest memories I have are of us doing it in my basement room, can I go ahead and tell you that? A bottle of Barton's Blue Label, incense and candles, burning up the stereo with Joy Division, Gun Club, the Cure. Old Cult, when they were love not metal. Sex beats, pawing like tigers in the bouncing light, your slick body thrumming under mine. Later we would smoke Djarums, watch the shadows race across the walls.
On Teenage Monogamy:
I've often thought it funny how dreadfully faithful we were to one another. The teenage lover, in her deepest heart, desires that the beloved be not only faithful, but entirely committed to the bond of romance. In many ways, it is a form of possession ... And so bourgeois, in light of all the middle-class strictures we were so busy chipping away.
Don't expect an invitation to the funeral if the family blames you for the suicide. Can any one person cause a suicide? I have to think no. I don't have another choice, Erin.
We buried our box and made a pact to return in twenty years, no matter where, no matter who, no matter what we are, but I know we'll still be together, I know the moon, I know the stars, I know the sky. ... Hannah? What do you make of this?
On Your Last Night Alive:
We decided to trip for the Halloween party. Sugar cubes, sodden and amber with acid. By the time we arrived the limbs were spiraling away from the trees in golden ratios and it was nearly impossible to speak. We didn't need to speak. Staring across the bonfire into each other, the whites of your eyes threaded with spider webs, white face paint, black lipstick, red blood. How beautiful you were. The dry ice billowed from the punch bowl, and our music warped and echoed on high through the skeletal branches. A record cold that Halloween, but we huddled saucer-eyed, flushed and sweating. I thought, give me a cigarette, then you were handing one to me. I thought we'll walk away from this together soon, and we did. Not quite soon enough though.
On Later At The Neighborhood Pool:
Nestled on dead leaves in our lounge chairs, cigarettes cutting tracers across the moon, and you wouldn't look at me. I thought who are those guys from your old school, how well do you know them, but the answer wasn't something you could just hand to me. You smoked and watched the frozen water.
I am so sorry, I am so sorry, I am so sorry, I am so sorry. Erin? Erin? Please. Believe me. Listen. ...
On What I'll Be Doing Tonight:
First there's neighborhood trick-or-treating. Then the neighborhood party on the clubhouse deck beside the pool, Amstel Light and soda in an ice chest, burgers and dogs on the grill. Ours is an aggressively friendly neighborhood. Eleanor's dressing as a witch again this year. We chided her gently, asked wouldn't you like to be something new, but she insisted. The child loves those witches. You'd like her. She'd like you, too. After the party we'll help her count her candy, allow her just a few pieces before bed, then sit down to watch a horror movie, just the two of us. After the third time my wife falls asleep I'll tell her go on up and get the sheets warm, I'll tell you how it ends.
On the drive back after dropping you home I'd already decided that I didn't mean it. OK, that I'd give you another chance. So the assholes left a note on my windshield, that didn't mean you'd really done those things. And even if you had, I didn't really want to break up with you, only give you something to think about. Make you sweat it out a little, ha ha. I meant to call you, just as soon as I got a nap. My god, but I was still tripping hard. Were you?
On The Day Of The Dead:
I used to wonder what thoughts passed through your head as you lay bleeding to death on the bathroom tiles. The expected things, did you float up to the ceiling and look down upon your body, was there a great big old fucking light, dead Rover and total peace? I used to wonder would you come back and tell me if you could. For a long time I thought your ghost would haunt me literally. First I was afraid, then I invited it to. I really did. I talked to you night and day inside my head, just like this. But then you never came, so I stopped talking to you, hoping maybe silence would coax you out. Nothing. So when I put my daughter to bed, when I go down and open that box, that's your last shot. I'm just letting you know. ... Well look at me now, I'm driving and crying! Do you have any idea how funny that is?
On What The Box Contains:
A necklace, a mix-tape, pack of cigarettes, a bottle of Barton's Blue. We'll share a drink and step outside. ... A spiral notebook with song lyrics scrawled inside. Leave me to die, you won't remember my voice -- I walked away and grew old. Love letters coming apart at the creases.
On Coming To Terms, Or Redemption:
That is fiction.
Brett Bender reads "Siamese Twins."[mp3]
David Lee Simmons interviews Brett Bender. [mp3]
- Second place: "Resurgens Again," by Caroline Seton Ledlie
- Third place: "Terminus," by Elizabeth Rose Anderson
- Honorable mention: "Ignition," by Jed Brody
- Meet the judges
- Fiction contest party details