Readers Report: Broken Promises


A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Broken Promises.”

Edited by Susan Clements.


Sometimes promises aren’t broken—they’re mercifully terminated. At 25, I had a comfortable routine. I would stumble out of bed by 8:30, always drowsy and unclean, unaware of what shirt and slacks were today’s uniform. Using a long commute to distract my mind, I became better acquainted with figmentary friends—John, Zadie, George, James, Junot, etc.  But every morning, their worlds faded in a sea of fluorescent lighting; the gray carpeting and white walls and gray cubicle divides of the ninth floor drowning all zeal. An invisible, isolating substance filled that office. Everybody felt remote. Workers on the periphery would acknowledge me with darting glances. Sometimes we would even bump into each other by accident, holding our collective breath before fluttering away.

That morning, walking down the aisle and around the corner, straight to the kitchen area, I grabbed my coffee mug and started the Kuerig. Like fake decor in a fish tank, the smell of coffee and surge of caffeine kept me wide-eyed and oblivious to my surroundings.

Leaving the prop to finish, I went back across the aisle to my cubicle. Without disheveled papers to hide its blank gray surface, the desk looked unbearably lifeless—another prop. My notepads, papers, pens, headphones, recorder and phone charger had been placed in a cardboard box snugly against a stack of drawers nearby. An abrupt irony struck me: I had dressed well that morning, wearing a purple sweater over a pinstripe button-down, with tan corduroy pants and uncomfortable dress shoes.

Leaving my coffee, I ran out.

— Justin Stephani

fish tank office

* * *

The last time I saw him, I touched his feet and asked for his blessings. Sometimes, when I feel like I can’t remember what he looked like, I close my eyes and imagine him that night. I can still picture him with his square, black-frame specs, wearing a white linen kurta pajama. The fabric was so thin that I could easily see the sacred thread slung over his eighty-year-old body—a thread that identified not only his caste but also his creed.

The last time I saw him, the conversation went something like this:

“Don’t forget me, okay?”

“I won’t.”

“Tell your parents to come here soon, together.”


“And you promise to come and visit me, right?”

“Yes. I promise.”

The last time I saw him, he was sitting on a bed in the back room of the flat, which he and my grandmother had been occupying for over a decade. On the other side of the window the monsoon was pummeling away, its raindrops hitting the surrounding flora like unforgiving bullets. In the other room, my aunt and cousins sat gathered around the television, their legs curled up on the satin cushions of a maroon sofa. A year after the funeral, the house was redecorated and the sofa thrown away.

The last time I saw him, he held my hands in his. I remember feeling my fingertips sink into the grooves of his palms. They were crosshatched with lines, which many fortunetellers across the city must have tried to decipher. His fate line, luck line, and love line all came together to make up the story of his life, which was engraved right there on his hand for anyone to read. Now, when I look at my mother’s palms, I search for a line to tell me if she will get sick just like him.

The last time I saw him, I remember leaning down to hug him and then feeling surprised that his frail arms could still squeeze me, despite the many years of fighting a disease that was determined to take away his independence. I remember him blinking a few times before patting me on the back and sending me on my way. But most of all, I remember how I never went back.

— Vaidehi Joshi

* * *

Don’t invite folks in unless you know for sure how to invite them to leave. Tom attributes this advice to his mother, though Phyllis Fogg wasn’t known to show anyone the door. It was she who made a sudden exit, in a merger of viscera and steel on Route 1, when Tom was thirteen. A night nurse who mothered five children, she barely managed to keep Jim’s fist out of her face once Wild Turkey was in him. Her children never saw her sleep and Jim never saw her fully naked. She once offered a Jehovah’s Witness a beer after accepting a stack of pamphlets on The Separation of sheep from goats, ignoring his insinuation that Phyllis belonged to the latter herd. Despite all contrary evidence, Tom credits his long-dead mother with this warning as he waits in the doctor’s office.

He’s not thinking of his mother now, but Danni. Of his daughters, Danni is the only one he named, the one who stole into life like a fugitive even after doctors cut and tied his wife’s fallopian tubes. His favored child, impossibly possible from the first, whose disappointment he felt most harshly—if only because he believed her existence was divined against all odds and rendered his failures all the more damning. If he is conscious of this brutally Catholic logic, it is only sensed and never spoken.

Danni’s phone call delivered a request in statement form: I need somewhere to stay. How to turn a phrase that turns her away without disrupting his life-giving lie—I am a good father? The physician clears his throat. Tom learns he has cancer. It will kill him, the knowledge slowly boiling on the backburner of his mind. In this windowless room, lies both calculated and accidental fan out in tracks of indigo and gold, his diagnosis a prism refracting every bent beam of light that tried to pierce his sorry, opaque life:  Behave—I’ll see you in the morning as Phyllis rushed off to die in a snowstorm the papers heralded as legendary, and Danni’s steel eyes lowering shut each time he pacified her rage with cash: Don’t say I never gave you anything.

Tom sits, blinded—baptized—in an imaginary flood of light. His vision refocuses in time to see the doc lick chapped lips and recite modern medicine’s holy compromise: There’s good news and bad news.

— Cait Vaughan

* * *

I’ll be the first to admit that not everything I’ve been told about you may be true. I took most things with a grain of salt until I found the journal my mother kept while your marriage was falling apart. If she has reason to twist the truth now, I think that maybe she might have had less reason back then. At least less reason for twisting the truth in a journal.

I’ve never seen you angry or upset or really anything other than detached calm. You’d understand if I had a hard time imagining the conversation with my mother the night it all ended, when you told her that you didn’t think you could be a father to us, that you didn’t think you could have any legal responsibility to the two daughters who weren’t yet in kindergarten. You cried and told her you felt as if you’d sold your soul to the devil.

My mother always encouraged me to become a surgeon, but never to marry one.

In my animated memory of this, my sister and I are stones tied to your legs, pulling you down, sinking, not swimming, not breathing. You were trying to thrash upward to the thing you wanted, to your career and maybe something like godliness. The wife and children, I’m sure, weren’t part of your plan but someone else’s. You are a Southern man, after all. Being a Southern man involves either staying or staying gone, no middle ground, only things in mythic proportions.

After years of cards on most but not all birthdays, we made a conditional attachment to each other. I’m an adult and you can pretend I have just emerged with your genetic material, no mother involved, nothing that smells of salt and drowning. But a few years ago I sat on a cold cement bench in Boston, the city where you loved but never kissed a certain other woman. A man was trying to kiss my neck, and I said that I could only be with him if he never asked me for anything, because I had nothing to give. I heard your voice in my cadence.

— J. Clark

* * *

Dear hair,

Why are you leaving? Was it something I said?

I looked down in the shower this morning and there you were in the drain, bunched up like the line for a redeye flight, all ready to move on. Where are you going?

You’ve always been there for me, hair, why now?

On the street I discreetly look at the backs of heads when I pass. I pat my own to check your status. Are you still mostly there? I think to myself, I’ve still got five years.

When no one is looking I aim my phone at the back of my head and click a photo. I look like the “before” side of those hair regrowth Internet ads.

It’s not fair! I don’t deserve this! Why aren’t the advertising executives doing something? Aren’t they losing their hair, too? Can’t they make receding hairlines sexy this season? The man’s little black dress?

Okay, hair, what if I start tipping my barber bigger? Will you stay? What if I rub you with olive oil once a week? How about if I wash you with sunshine and unicorn tears? Will you come back?

I don’t want to change. This isn’t me. Hair, you’re breaking your promise. 35 years and this is what I get? I feel like I’m falling apart.

And listen to this.

Last night we’re brushing our teeth and I asked my wife, “Am I losing my hair?”
She said, “You’re not losing your hair.”
I said, “Are you sure?”
She said, “Maybe a little bit but you can’t really tell yet. I’ll still love you when you’re bald.”
I said, “Don’t say bald.”
She said, “Well, the good thing is I’m so much shorter than you so I never see it anyway.”

Now I’m in bed thinking about role models.

The Dalai Lama? He’s the guy that said, ““If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”


What about Bruce Willis? No, he’s too old. Wait . . .

Alright, hair, you win. I’ll let you go. I guess even promises have to grow up.

Now pass me that razor and look up Die Hard on Netflix.

— Scott James

* * *

Don’t ask me how I ended up outside of The Cool Down Café that night, my brother and I back to back in the pissing Amsterdam rain with our up dukes up, surrounded by seven or eight very angry Dutchmen.

I scan the crowd for my boyfriend Pieter, the catalyst for our current predicament—a scuffle, a head butt, a kid off to the side still collecting blood in a balled up t-shirt—but he’s disappeared. The bouncers had descended upon us before we’d even made it to the door, my six foot five rugby-playing brother too conspicuous for crowd camouflage and I unwilling to hide. We’re held outside while friends of the wounded amass into a small mob. The police sirens getting closer and closer aren’t coming for our aid, but theirs.

The smallest of the group lunges at my brother, pulling nails down the side of his neck and drawing four ragged lines of blood. Instinct takes over and I pounce onto the stranger’s back, somehow knowing how and where to throw blows at kidney level, until he bucks me off onto the wet cobblestone street. My brother sees this, explodes.

He unleashes a flurry of windmill punches, knocking one after another onto his ass, and it’s hard to think—this is real, this is happening.  Only a minute, two at most, before we both see the opening, a hole in the crowd, a small collection of seconds before the next wave of fists. Together we run.

Later, sitting in my apartment on Agamemnonstraat and sharing a pack of frozen peas to ice our wounds, we can hear Pieter snoring in the bedroom. My trajectory over here to be with Pieter included promises of sunshine and tulips, bicycles and canals, sipping biertjes in dark bars, cigarette smoke curling around us like birthday ribbon—as if all of that were eternal. Unconditional Instead I’ve spent four years with a man whose temper I’ve mistaken for passion, allowed loyalty to be mistaken for permission.

My brother looks at me.  “He left you,” he says  “He split.”

Each family has a different coat of arms, but in ours this transgression is unpardonable. I take the bag of peas and press it against my head where it smacked the cold, dark road. I understand what he’s saying.

— Brigid M. Hughes

* * *

The heater hums to life and with it another blast of warm, smoky air. You can almost imagine him down there, short and stocky with a mane of oily silver hair, the third or fourth cig of the morning balanced between his bottom lip and the gap where his front teeth should be. Strains of some Telemundo program announce the arrival of the smoke. It sounds dramatic, two tinny voices alternating between screams of passion and screams of laughter. We’ve talked to Steve, but in the wake of the motorcycle accident and his brother taking over the house, he hasn’t been really up to doing anything about anything. I caught him in the tight space between our security gate and the doors to our respective parts of the house. “Steve,” I said, “I think Miguel is smoking in the house.” He sort of cocked his head at me, as if the notion of anyone smoking ever was a new one; there were flecks of saliva in the corners of his mouth, the expanse of his cheek. “Oh I don’t know, Noah, I don’t think Miguel smokes.”

I’d promised her that if it kept happening, if the balmy gusts of carnival air kept winding their way up from below us, that I’d confront him. I’d catch a whiff of burning cheap tobacco, and I’d throw the back door open, and march down the stairs, kick his door open and find him curled up around an ashtray, a lit cig burning between his fingers. I’d scream something, “Stop fucking smoking!” or “Put that goddamn thing out.” And maybe he’d come after me then, bound up from his couch and charge me. We might scuffle for a moment, hands locked, shuffling from side to side in some macho dance. I’d win of course, and she’d see me, hands covering her mouth as she watched from the doorway as I threw him to the ground. “Stop smoking, asshole,” I’d say with a smile, and then I’d grab her and we’d go upstairs and have a glass of booze and talk about how good the air smelled, how much better our lungs felt.

I can hear her coughing in the next room. She’s been sort of sick lately. I should do something, right now, but it’s been a little bit, and it doesn’t smell so bad. The heat is nice, and I’m pretty comfortable. Maybe, yeah, I’ll just sit here for a while.

— Noah Sanders

* * *

Broken Promises: A Subject Index

Accent: stop being ashamed of. Amazon. Attitude adjustment. #amwriting.

Butter. Book pages: folding the corners of. Barcelona.

Corners: see above. Coffee: industrial amounts of. Clutterringly cluttered clutter. Chips.

Dryer: leaving dry clothes in, for days. Driver’s license.

Eye cream. Emoticons.

Flossing. Fuck: stop using as adjective, adverb, preposition.

Gym three times a week. Grumpy. Gloves without holes in them. Grown up: act like.

Hot dogs. Harry Potter.

Ice skating.

Just let me snooze one more time! Jealousy.

Klout. Karma.

Losing all the important documents. Library. Late fees. LOL: kill people who say.

Matching socks. Midnight: going to bed before. Moby-Dick. Messy.

Novel: the one I keep saying I’ll write. Novel: the one I am not writing every day.


Passive-aggressive: emails, eyebrows, mutterings under breath, tweets. Procrastination. PMS. Poetry.

Questions I know the answers to. Quitting.

Refresh: hitting every five minutes.

Sugar. Snoozing. Sweeping under the bed. Sarcasm. Sand on the bottom of my purse.

Tattoos: lily, ladybug. To-do lists. Tiramisu. Temper.

Unfinished: stop leaving things.

Voicemails that go on an on.

Wine: cheap, every night, more than one bottle. Whiskey. Write like a motherfucker!


Yelling at inanimate objects.

Zoo. Zorba the Greek. Zumba.

— Adriana Cloud

* * *

“I will keep my big mouth shut!”

Usually the lines the naughty kid is forced to chalk across the big black board, ten times her height, forcing her to rub her tummy across the expanse and accumulate the powder onto the nice clean uniform Mama ironed late last night.

My uniform is clean, for the time being, but I kept repeating the phrase to myself in my very best ‘I mean business’ staccato.

“I will keep my big mouth shut!”

If I did, I wouldn’t have to take sides in the girl-gang wars.

If I did, no one would disturb me and I won’t end up saying things that I will regret next December.

Going to an International School means two things in Sri Lanka. One, you’re a sucker who’s paying your lifeblood to an institution when you can get education for free from the beloved government.

Two, you are constantly juggling two different cultures and ways of life; the International which is Western oriented, and the values of being a Sri Lankan.

You can’t have a boyfriend in school. It finally boils down to that. ‘Affair,’ they call it, the aunties and uncles who inflect on the word as they would a swear word.

They don’t like girls who are heard louder than seen, either.

My New Year’s resolution was a sound one, and armed with it, I marched into my class, ignoring the yells of “Good Morning machan!” and “Oy! I called you a million times, why didn’t you answer?”

I kept my head down; my shoulders hunched as I shuffled into my seat near the window and proceeded to attentively ignore the girls I had grown up with.

“It’s her New Year’s resolutions!” They giggled. “Look at her! All serious and distant!”

They left me alone, after a few tries at getting me to talk.

I pretended to stare out at the mountains rolling past the window, not listening to them talking about how ‘that one’ had dumped ‘that guy’ and was now dating ‘him.’

“I heard he asked her out first!”

Silly fools, that’s not how it happened! Get your facts right!

“He asked and she said no?”

“No, you idiot!” I shouted, rising from my seat. I pushed past them and climbed onto the table, swinging my legs. “She started it! She told me so!”

And that was the end of that!

— Dash Cooray

* * *

It’s 4 A.M. one summer morning when my boyfriend and I are woken up by the upstairs neighbors’ door creaking open. This happens often; the walls in my building are embarrassingly thin and the woman who lives there works odd hours. I gulp down some much-needed water and turn my pillow over to the cool side when I realize something’s off. We hear a woman’s muffled apologies until her partner drowns her out with his yelling.

“Are you . . . fucking . . . kidding me? You promised me you wouldn’t, then you went ahead and did. You went ahead and fucking did it even though I asked you not to. You promised me you wouldn’t.”

He screams this repeatedly, as if in a trance, then a door slams. After a few minutes of silence, my boyfriend starts to snore. I doze off shortly after.

A few hours later we sit at my crooked kitchen table, excitedly discussing the theatrics over breakfast and too-weak coffee. He’s positive that she cheated, sure that’s the only situation that could prompt an extreme emotional response in a man. I think of the slight, fresh-faced woman that I often ran into on the stairs.

“Nah, that’s not it. I think she told him she’ll be gone for a while. Maybe traveling, or she accepted a job somewhere else. He doesn’t want her to leave him.”

My boyfriend is unconvinced, but drops it.

“Jesus, though. What a way to end things.”

I nod in agreement, then cram the last bite of English muffin into my mouth and chew deliberately, suddenly grateful for my own peaceful slice of domesticity.

The next week, she moves out. My neighbor’s gone at the end of the month. Two grad students take the apartment upstairs and that summer fight is long forgotten.

One Saturday in November, I wake up to find my boyfriend already dressed and sitting on the edge of my bed. I have cotton mouth and my head’s pounding something fierce. I know what happened the night before. I brace myself, then quietly move towards him and start scratching his lower back. He flinches and pulls away almost imperceptibly, but that centimeter of space might as well be a chasm.

And so it ends quietly, without either of us yelling, or saying much at all, but with that refrain from months ago on our minds: “You promised me you wouldn’t.”

— Gabriella Paiella

* * *

For sale:
Notebook, pen.
Never used.

— Jack Waters

for sale

* * *

I woke up on January first next to a skinny white nerd for whom I had oxytocin-induced feelings, and thought, “This is the year that I stop consuming artificial sweetener.” I spent the entire day sure that 2013 would be the year that I give up my vice of these carcinogenic agents. I would no longer need the yellow and pink packets to sweeten my coffee.

After all, I wouldn’t be going to Starbucks anymore; this guy brewed his own coffee! He also put real sugar in it. I was also sure that this was a metaphor for my dating life. This was the real thing. No more sad one-night stands or thinking about my favorite food during bad sex! Be gone lonely nights reading by computer light! In a few months’ time, I would no longer be browsing the internet for something to do Friday night, and my skin rashes from excess Splenda (I know this happens; I’ve Googled it) would cease to mock my semi-soft skin!

It seemed like it would be a clean, healthy, home-brewed year. Not to mention, he made it sound like it would be that way, too. “Things are different now, Mallory!” However, a few weeks later, not only was I mindlessly clicking through a sea of Internet men again, but I was putting six-plus Splendas in a venti Starbucks coffee. I hate myself, I thought, as I added a seventh packet. I was not disheartened to be alone, because I didn’t need a man judging my corporate choice of caffeine, or the little yellow packets that I stealthily put in my purse.

2013 will not be the year of all natural.

— Mallory Schlossberg

splenda rash

* * *

The first memory I have of looking at myself into a mirror was when I was twelve. It was Sunday morning. The night before a couple of my friends and I had a slumber party. My living room was converted into a home movie theater, complete with the scary movies we always rented, while laying on the blankets we spread over the carpet on the floor. We ordered pizza, and got high off of all kinds of soda and sugary candy until we crashed and fell asleep. The next morning my friends were packing and waiting for their parents to pick them up, while I was in the bathroom. I don’t remember if before that, I’d been the type of kid who was fascinated with her reflection in the mirror or any surface that made it seem there were two people instead of one.

Though, I do remember this one morning after brushing my teeth and fixing my hair, when I took the time to look directly into my very own eyes. It wasn’t about liking or not liking what I saw. I looked into the mirror out of habit. Nothing had happened to me which would make me do otherwise.

I lived this way (out of habit) until something did happen to me. I almost died. When I was eighteen years old, got hit by a bus. As a result of the accident, I broke my right ankle and badly damaged my left leg which eventually had to be amputated below the knee.

I’d been knocked off my own two feet, and could barely move. The world existed in a blur. My glasses broke at the scene of the accident. It took over a week to get new ones, but, even when that happened there was nothing to base my appearance on because I couldn’t get out of bed.

Months after I was discharged severe symptoms of trauma followed. Panic attacks in traffic. I shook. I counted to numbers at random times during the day. I folded and refolded my laundry. I ate little and lost a lot of weight. I avoided mirrors: Bathroom, bedroom, and ornamental were a terrifying trio. I didn’t recognize myself, nor did I understand what was happening to my body.

A few years ago, I made a promise that I would one day look directly into my own eyes again. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I do sometimes take a peek. I squint as if I really am curious to see what’s there. I wonder if that counts.

 — Margaret Westley

* * *

Broken promises  have an afterlife.

Making a promise allows someone to put their best self forth and then walk away untethered. Maybe I’m bitter, or blocking something, but I can’t remember ever believing in promises.

The ghosts of broken promises continue fogging in and my heart does not have the strength to thaw to this asthmatic grey landscape. I refuse to explore the geography of it.

It is the disfigurement of family. I’ve learned to view families as glimpsed ligaments, the living tissue connecting our bones to their bones. Something like a tree, the branches spoked, the gnaw of creatures at the roots, and the tree emptying, dismembering itself.

— Ashley-Elizabeth Best

* * *

I am a fraud.

I think I have always been a fraud. I don’t have much of a connection with my younger selves, as I’ve always been immersed in my pseudo being. Whatever the reason, I don’t remember me.

In the elevator, I become uncomfortably aware of my body, its shapes and the clothes and colors draped over it. When the elevator doors open, people see a face, and the lips, eyes, and cheeks form expressions. It’s my face and they are my expressions and I am a fraud.

Once people see me, my face and its expressions, and my body with its shapes and colors, I often say words. They might say words back, they might not. They might laugh and I might laugh, or maybe no one laughs.

Word exchange is crucial in the whole formula. Not only is it necessary for avoiding close scrutiny from others, but it is also pertinent to safeguarding the true person; for not talking at all is suspicious and generally unproductive, while saying too much can be risky.

I act purposefully, calculatedly. Is this right? I wonder. Good job, they confirm. The sham of a me works hard to put every lesson into practice.

My thoughts are perhaps the second most threatening constituents of my everyday. They address ideas I fear others might pick up on. They give rise to fantasies so lucid, I doubt their confinement to my psyche. My thoughts give rise, also, to the foremost threatening constituents of my everyday—my real emotions.

Sometimes when I look at the back of my hand, I feel scared. I am surprised to see my nails have been polished and my left hand is adorned with a freckle below my index finger, a darker freckle below my thumb, and on my middle finger is a silver ring with my name engraved in it. I notice my wrists look frail, then I feel altogether too delicate.

I’m on the bus at around five or six in the evening, it’s cramped and I step on people’s feet. I enjoy the bus because I forget I have a body and time passes gently. I’m neither myself nor my notself.

But at home, the anxiety hiding in my chest intensifies and grabs hold of my throat. I notice the back of my hand and feel delicate and remember I am a fraud. I look at my face hoping to feel some relief—some sort of connectedness to my flesh—but my eyebrows furrow and I panic. I look forward to sleep and its conviction.

— Taara Khalilnaji

* * *

Rabbit looked at her husband to be in two minutes and hesitated. On one hand, he was the best-looking man she had ever seen in real life. On the other hand, would she look back on this day and remember her love or her dress? It was excruciatingly tight but as beautiful as Austin.

Where had she met him? It was either the fourteenth, at the Rum Runner, or the next night at Susie’s. Regardless, she knew him before she saw him. He had his palms wrapped around two drinks filled with generosity and brilliant optimism. He was the eye of the hurricane.

There would be the quiet and surly time before even one drink or the promise of a drink lifted his spirits, and after there would be the end game during which he’d make love to the nearest body, wake up in some mysterious location, or both.

Bite the bullet, bunny, she told herself. Squeaky needs a father, and the candidate list had dropped to one after I’m just going out for coffee/Saturday morning at the clinic. It would be good to have Austin around, she thought, especially at the beginning, as his promises to stay dry often lasted as long as several months. This would get Rabbit through the tough times at the beginning when sleep was time-shared and one pair of arms would get tired. After that, she might return him to the Rum Runner.

“I do” Rabbit said, in one two-syllable word. She wasn’t looking in Austin’s eyes, she couldn’t, but into the eyes of the friendly court clerk, who had seen it all. Unlike Austin, he was unlikely to bolt from the ceremony. “I do,” drawled Austin, in Rabbit’s own accent.

— J. Bronfman

* * *

A few days after we found the eviction notice tacked to our door, my father told me he wanted my help with something—a secret mission. It was early and my mother was still asleep. We were staying at my aunt’s house temporarily. All our things had been packed up, loaded onto my uncle’s truck, and crammed into a storage container on the other side of town where it was accumulating a bill of twenty-five dollars a day. My mother wasn’t speaking to my father or, for that matter, me.

 But my father had been talking a lot. He’d been making promises to my mother she didn’t expect him to keep. He promised to quit smoking (he took out the pack of Lucky’s he kept in his right coat pocket and threw them in the trash for effect), he promised to stop gambling with my mother’s paycheck (his exact words were that we’d be able to answer the phone again), and he promised to call his friend, a longshoreman in San Pedro, and get a stable job with benefits and a pension. She didn’t press him for details.

That morning, he told me he was driving to Burbank to sell something. He wouldn’t say what. I looked at my father, rumpled in his tan corduroy pants and Notre Dame T-shirt. It was the middle of August and I was twelve years old.

 In the backseat of the Mustang convertible my father had bought at auction was a small unmarked cardboard box filled with tiny bundles wrapped in newspaper.  We’d wrapped dishes the same way when we packed and as my father started the car and eased out of the driveway I wondered if we were hawking my mother’s good china while she slept. He must have noticed me worrying because he flipped on the radio and punched me lightly on the arm.

 “Buck up,” he said.

 The radio station was playing country western classics and my father had no trouble singing along. Halfway through “Sing Me a Song of the Saddle,” he hit a red light and rolled down the top. The sun was out now and blinding hot but it felt good, and we basked in it for a few seconds before the light turned green.

 “What’s in the box?” I asked with my eyes closed, the brightness turning my eyelids amber.

 “The solution,” he said.

— Alex Peterson


Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.

You can find Susan Clements at her website and follow her on Twitter.