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October's Selections:
Bruce Henricksen

Minnesotan author Bruce Henricksen taught writing and literature at Loyola University New Orleans, where he chaired the English Department and edited New Orleans Review, before returning to live in Duluth, MN with his wonderful wife, Victoria. His literary commentary includes a book on Joseph Conrad, Nomadic Voices: Conrad and the Subject of Narrative. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and his story collection was a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the St. Lawrence Book Award, and the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award .

His debut collection of short stories, Ticket to a Lonely Town, from which "The Boy in the Attic" comes from, will be published by Atomic Quill Media in January 2006. The book consists of pieces previously published in various literary magazines and in two anthologies, French Quarter Fiction and Mota 4: Integrity. This month we're pleased to add thedetroiter.com the list of those featuring Henriksen's work. (More info on Henriksen can be found on his website. Also, please see our companion feature, an interview with Atomic Quill Media President Timothy Dugdale here.)

The Boy in the Attic


           When Tommy was a child there was a story about a crooked man. Everything about the man was crooked. He lived in a crooked house on a crooked road. And so on. That was a long time ago. Tommy was also crooked, but then things went all crooked in his life, too, and he and his father left his mother tangled in a heap with a strange man in the bed in a dilapidated house. It was an old bed, and Tommy would hear it creak and rock like the boat his father took him on once. The tangled heap and the strange man were thanks to drugs, and drugs happened after Tommy's mother had started to be a stripper to keep her weight down.

           "Lemme get this straight," his father had said, and then he got the puddles in his eyes.

           Then they came north from the big city with the dilapidated house and the creaky bed to this city, Tommy and his father did. But his father only stayed three months because he had a calling. It came on the phone. Leaving is what you do.

           Now Tommy is the crooked man. The avenue that he lives on wobbles uphill at a funny angle. Tommy climbs this avenue in the late afternoon, passing the fat lady with her grocery bags. When the old gray house comes into view, it does not stick straight up. The sidewalk to the porch twists and turns through bushes, and the boards of the porch seem to have collided together like pieces in a kaleidoscope. Tommy must be careful climbing the steps to the front door. Like Tommy himself, everything is just a little off. A little off is what his mother used to say when she didn't feel good.

           "I'm just a little off today, Sweetie. Pass Mama that bottle and that pillbox like a good boy."

           The staircase also twists and turns, and the ceiling of Tommy's room in the attic slants down toward the outer wall. Only someone as small as Tommy could stand straight up by the window, which Tommy himself cannot do because he is always bent thanks to being born that way almost thirty years ago. If you put your pennies and nickels or your pack of gum on the windowsill they might slide off, because the windowsill tips down like the lip of the man who puts things in bags along with Tommy.

           In the early evening, Tommy stands in the window, which looks out into a backyard with trees. Further off, the different avenues are lined with houses, and the avenues and houses are scrambled all the way down to the lake. People tug their shadows up the hill like overcoats, and when fog comes in from the lake the people become ghosts.

           Sometimes Tommy walks the different avenues, even when the manager reminds him to go straight home. The manager has a scar on his cheek like a pirate. On Tommy's own avenue is the blue house where he saw an old man crying on his porch. And one day on one of the streets, which go the other way from avenues, Tommy saw a person leave in an ambulance. He had things coming from his nose, and they slid him in the back door of the ambulance like when you slide a stick of gum back into the pack.

           Some days Tommy is late, and Aunt Susan scolds and talks about God at dinner as Tommy bends over his bowl and stirs a wreckage of crackers in his tomato soup, or as he squirts a wiggly line of ketchup along his hot dog. The scolding makes him want to go away, which is what you do, and he tries to think where he would go.

           Tommy is shaped like an egg-an egg on two toothpicks that certainly are about to break. I'm Humpty Dumpty, Tommy thinks as he stands in front of the mirror before bedtime. He must clean the toothpaste from the mirror or Aunt Susan will scold about that, too. I'm Humpty Dumpty in a nest, Tommy thinks, pulling the sheets to his chin and waiting for sleep. I'm a little Easter Egg, but if I had the right pills I wouldn't be.

           The boy who comes in Tommy's store from the Target store told Tommy about the pills. The Target boy had to go away from his mother too. As he goes to sleep, Tommy imagines what he would do with the pills. He would become rubber and pull his body into any shape that he wants. For instance, if the girl he likes drops her keys over the fence, he would make his arm long and thin and get her keys back. Or if she wants to know, standing with Tommy on the sidewalk after work, what they are saying about her inside, Tommy would stretch his ears out as big as a satellite dish and listen for her. And if she says she wants a pet, Tommy would yank himself into the shape of a puppy or turtle. Then she'd smile and put her hands on him like his mother did.

           These things happen in his head. The girl works in the part of the store where they bake things, and in another part Tommy puts what the people buy into bags after first saying paper or plastic, which he says better than the man with the windowsill lip. He doesn't know the girl's name. Finally, as he snuggles in his bed, these thoughts go away, turning and turning like water going down.

           Sometimes as he goes to sleep, a dark person that Tommy heard about in a story, a person from a far away country where everyone rides camels, comes in the moonlight through Tommy's window to talk about the sadness. He has cloth wrapped around his head and a large coat like a woman's dress, and he tells Tommy that he must keep the sadness inside and not let it hatch. If you let the sadness hatch, people will sew up your lips.

           When the story person is there, Tommy says very little. The person sits in the chair by the window where the moonlight falls on him. After warning Tommy not to let the sadness hatch, he gets to the good part. The good part is, if you remember why you are here and do what you are supposed to do, the Great Powers will let you live in a house where the porch is okay and you will have a room with a straight ceiling and a bathroom on the same floor. Oh, and the house won't creak in the dark. Then, seeing the hunger in Tommy's eyes, the person from far away says that, yes, the girl will talk to him too, just like his mother did before she started to lose weight. Tommy smiles, and the dark person finishes by explaining to Tommy what he must remember to do. Then he leaves, dissolving into the moonlight like brown sugar in cream. Then the moon goes away, and the night is as black as Aunt Susan's Bible.

           Birds awaken Tommy with their squabbling. Hey fuzz butt, this branch is for robins! No, it's for sparrows! And so on. Tommy laughs to think what they are saying. Then, with the sun bubbling up beyond the trees and the houses and the lake, Tommy is a crooked person in his tilted window watching the birds and further away the whipped-cream clouds that fold themselves together over the lake.

           It is early in May. The snow is gone, and Tommy wonders if the mama birds are laying eggs. In the fall they will go south. All down the hill different houses jostle each other, and maybe they squabble like the birds. But we can't hear how houses talk. Above the houses, treetops are hands stroking the sky in the wind. Then, looking down to the ground below his window, Tommy thinks about all the king's horses and all the king's men.

           The window is very dirty, and one of the panes is cracked. When Tommy moves back and forth and looks through the different panes the world outside wiggles. He pretends that the dust on the panes makes little scenes from stories and that the crack is a giant hill. He must look through the story scenes to see the real scene outside. And then there are the tiny squiggles like Tinker Toys that float in his eyes. There are many things to see through before you can see.

           A man standing on the next avenue, pausing as he walks his own crooked mile, might gaze up past the nearest house, past the trees, and through the dusty attic window where a ghostly shape stands and looks down on him. But the man would not see from such a distance that Tommy's eyes are lost. Certainly he would not see the eyes turn inward in grief and rage as Tommy tries to recall the words of the story person who came at night in the moonlight. Nor would the man on the avenue hear Tommy howl at his inability to remember what he has come here to do. The howl would stay in the attic.

"Boy in the Attic" and cover photo of "Ticket to a Lonely Town" Copyright Bruce Henricksen 2005

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