After being out of print for a while, Broken Parts and its novella companion Blood Gravity are being re-released through Polymathia Press. Both titles are now available in ebook and print format through amazon.com.
As a celebratory teaser, check out the short story below!
The Optimist is a short story prequel to the first full novel in the Broken Parts series, which follows the lives of brothers Jake and Ben as they struggle to bond in the wake of their father’s abuse and evolve in the face of life’s never-ending ordeals.
by Gayle Towell
Sick green—that’s the color of my parents’ house. But in the cold dark of a January evening the yellow glow from the windows washes out the sick green and makes it almost welcoming. I’m sitting in my car in their driveway, picking at calluses on my hands. I showered after work before coming over, but in every crack and crease there is still black grime from welding all day. It never leaves. It’s permanently fused with my skin. It’s in my lungs.
I can see Dad inside through the living room window, sitting on the recliner across from the peach floral sofa, reading a book. I tear a callus too deep and it stings. Dad looks up from his book and spots me. Time to go in.
Today is my thirtieth birthday. In ancient Sparta, thirty was the age at which men became full citizens after having trained in the agoge from the time they were seven. What I get for turning thirty is dinner at my parents’ house with my mother, father, and kid brother Ben. There will be more food than we can eat. There will also be cake, and if I don’t blow out the damn candles and eat a slice, my mother will interrogate me as to the state of my physical and mental wellbeing until I deliver some sort of answer that assures her everything is fine. Because of course it is. It’s always been. Just like our family.
When I enter the house, instead of “Hi” Dad starts with, “Hey Jakey— you know what sexagesimal is?”
I see that the book he’s reading is about Babylonian mathematics. He seems to be forgetting that’s my book. Or maybe he’s paving the way for some later conversation he intends to have. He thinks he’s being subtle, setting the stage so I won’t see it coming, but his tongue is pushed against the inside of his cheek like it always is when he’s plotting.
“Base sixty number system.” I say. That would be where we got our sixty seconds to a minute, and sixty minutes to an hour, among other things.
He looks up from the book and grins, showing teeth. “Very good.”
I find Mom hovering over the stove in the kitchen, wearing a faded purple t-shirt tucked into the waist of jeans that come up too high. The smells of potatoes, pot roast, vegetables, and whatever else she could fit on the stove or in the oven fill the air. She says, “Happy birthday, son,” smiles, and wipes sweat from her forehead. “How was work?”
“Work’s work,” I say, and a pot boils over on the stove. I turn the burner down, and she grabs a spoon to stir it.
“Your brother still isn’t home from school,” she says, looking up at the clock on the wall. “It’s past seven. I don’t know why he keeps doing this. It shouldn’t take him more than three hours to walk home.”
“Stop worrying about it, Helen,” Dad says, plopping the book on the coffee table as he stands up.
Mom gets this sort of fretful, scared look on her face. “Well, I am worried. He should be home by now.”
She drains the peas off into the sink. Steam floats up to the kitchen window behind the mutilated aloe plant growing in a repurposed cottage cheese container on the windowsill. Every time there is a minor wound, an itch, or a bee sting, a portion of the plant is sacrificed, and after years of such abuse the thing looks like it was cultivated in nuclear waste.
Dad disappears down the hallway and returns with something in his palm.
He fills a glass with water, hands the glass and the contents of his palm to Mom.
Valium. So he doesn’t have to deal with her having her own thoughts.
Mom swallows it down and Dad tries to close the cupboard he retrieved the glass from, but it keeps swinging back open because the little magnet that holds it closed has been missing since probably before Ben was born. He gives it two more tries before holding it in place a second so it only swings a quarter of the way open upon release, and then lets it be.
I pick at the calluses on my palms again. One’s almost bleeding.
As Dad walks into the living room and stares out the window onto the street, Mom removes the potatoes from the stove and whispers, “Jake?”
“Could you go for a short drive and see if you can’t find him?” “Leave the boy alone,” Dad says. “He’ll come home.”
Mom looks at me with wide eyes. “Please, Jacob?” “Yeah,” I say.
Dad eyes me as I head to the door. If this were ancient Sparta, maybe I’d be one of the shameful children who never completed agoge training. Or maybe I would have been deemed weak and unworthy as an infant, left at Mount Taygetus to die of exposure, never even making it that far.
I get in my car and sit a few minutes letting the engine idle.
For no reason I start thinking about my high school gym—the smell of paint on the bleachers, the smell of shoes and sweat, sitting there in PE class. I’m probably Ben’s age, sitting all the way to the side against the wall, not participating. I told the teacher I wasn’t feeling well. I was always well-behaved so it took little convincing.
And it was true that I wasn’t feeling well. But I wasn’t about to tell anyone why.
The class played floor hockey. Running back and forth across the gym, piling up around the puck, faces red with sweat. There was a girl I watched, blonde and plain and emanating what I can only describe as a sort of optimism. She locked eyes with me more than once as I sat there.
When class ended, she came over and sat beside me, squinting. She said, “You always look so sad.”
Not “hi.” Not anything like that. Just “You always look so sad.” An accusation. A complaint. I was fundamentally wrong in my way of existing and it offended her. In another life maybe I could have smiled and we could have dated. But I just sat there mute, horrified that my insides were so easy to read like that. Her eyebrows came together in confusion, looking me over as if waiting for me to do something. But I didn’t, and she shrugged and left.
In Sparta, men were considered to be at their peak age when they hit thirty. If they weren’t already, they had to find someone to marry. But I’ve never once even had the balls to ask someone out.
I release the e-brake, roll out of the driveway, and begin slowly cruising through the neighborhood in search of Ben. After only a few blocks, I find him headed toward home. Pulling up alongside him, I honk my horn, and the kid jumps before recognizing it’s me.
I roll down the passenger side window. “You’re worrying Mom with your lateness. Get in.”
Kid looks like a delinquent roaming the streets in a winter jacket he hasn’t yet grown into, hood over his head, hands in pockets. School backpack almost as large as his scrawny-ass, under-developed, fifteen-year-old self. But his face is nothing but freckled innocence. He sucks on his sweatshirt string like babies sucks their thumbs.
“I was almost home,” he says, letting the sweatshirt string fall from his mouth as he opens the car door.
“I can see that,” I say.
He plops his backpack on the car floor before taking a seat. “You going to
ask what I was doing?”
“Not my business.”
“Mom always wants to know.”
We pull into the driveway, get out of the car, and enter the warm glow of the house. Mom is setting food on the table.
Dad gets back up from his recliner and shouts to Mom, “See? I told you he was fine.” Dad meets Ben halfway to the kitchen, puts his arm around the kid, and kisses the top of his head. He pats Ben’s back with a hard smack and then goes into the kitchen to help Mom finish setting the table.
Ben stays standing in that spot where Dad met him, letting his backpack fall off his shoulders and thud on the floor.
“Put your backpack in your room,” Mom says. “And get washed up. It’s almost time to eat.”
Ben waits a beat before grabbing his bag and moving toward the hallway. He looks back at me and says, “I want to show you something.”
I follow him into his room. He drops his backpack on his bed, then opens his desk drawer and pulls out a piece of paper. Handing it to me, he says, “I made this for you,” like maybe he’s five years old and just mastered his crayon skills. But being fifteen, he’s graduated from crayons to #2 pencil, and he’s sketched an elaborate lake and forest scene.
“Thanks,” I say. “This is good.”
“Look closer,” he whispers.
I bring the paper closer to my face and examine the lines carefully. The ripples in the water around the edge of the lake look like distorted letters. It takes a second, but I realize they spell happy birthday. “Nice,” I say.
He smiles his dopey, delusional, too-happy smile, then unzips his backpack, extracting a wad of foul-smelling clothing.
“What is that?” I say.
“My gym clothes.”
“Why do they smell like piss?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Did someone piss on them?”
“It was probably an accident.”
“Somebody accidentally pissed on your clothes? What, did you leave them in the urinal?”
He stares into my eyes a second, as if waiting for me to draw the conclusion he isn’t willing to offer.
“Look, Benny—if kids are pissing on your clothes you can tell a teacher
He looks away and pulls out some stapled papers and hands them to me. “I got an A on my English essay.”
I grab the paper from him—something about Voltaire’s Candide—realize it’s half damp with piss, and drop it on his bed. “Nice,” I say.
Voltaire also wrote an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus. Another Greek child who was left at the foot of a mountain to die in infancy. Except he lived and came back and killed his father. Not that it actually improved things for him in the long run.
I look around Ben’s room and notice two empty beer bottles on the floor near the foot of his bed. I look back up at him and he does that thing where his eyes go sideways before his head follows them.
“You should probably get rid of those before Mom finds them,” I say. Ben’s mouth gets small and drops open, and his face loses color as he looks
back down at the bottles. He swallows, then stares at his backpack, zipping it closed. “Dad left them there,” he says.
He just stands there playing with the zipper like he’s waiting for me to make the next move. Maybe waiting for me to ask why Dad left them there or what Dad was doing in his room drinking. But I don’t care to hear the answers.
I carefully fold the picture he drew for me and tuck it in my pocket. Then I pick up the bottles and leave his room.
“You don’t believe me?” he says, following me out into the hall.
“I do,” I say, and head for the kitchen. Ben follows like a shadow, but with a fair amount of lag. Dad watches me throw the bottles in the trash while Mom is distracted putting pans in the sink. He stands up straighter and lifts his chin as if asserting his dominance.
The table is set. Mom sits beside Dad, and Ben leaves the seat open for me between him and the other side of Dad. Food is passed around, and plates are filled.
Mom grins, eyes squinting, pleased with herself. Her muscles are all loose like the Valium has kicked in. This family is the only thing she has in the world. But I suppose that’s sadly true for all of us.
“Always glad to have you here,” Mom says. “You really should come over more often.”
I was just here a little over a week ago for Christmas, but apparently I didn’t return soon enough. I offer her a nod.
“When are you going to find yourself a nice girl and settle down?” she says. Mom would have done well as a 1950s homemaker in one of those
wholesome TV shows.
Dad grabs my shoulder and furrows his brow at Mom. “Leave the boy be,” he says. “If he’s not ready, he’s not ready.”
They’re all well aware that I’ve never dated anyone, though maybe Mom clings to the fantasy that I have a girlfriend and just never bother to bring it up. Dad, on the other hand, sees no problem with me remaining single indefinitely. Probably because I’m still a “boy.” He squeezes my shoulder, then lets me go and returns his attention to his food.
I make a circle in my potatoes with my fork all around the ridge holding in the gravy. 360 degrees. I think about Babylonian mathematics and how it was incorporated into Greek mathematics when Alexander the Great took over the Persian Empire. 360 degrees again. Archimedes came up with an estimate for pi by inscribing and circumscribing a circle with polygons.
“Marty Granger came into the pharmacy the other day,” Dad says. “He said he was looking for a new assistant accountant. I immediately thought of you. Numbers are right up your alley. I put in a good word.”
I should have known.
“I have a job,” I say.
“I don’t know why you got into welding in the first place. Certainly doesn’t seem like it makes you happy.”
“I am happy,” I say. “It’s a noble profession. The ability to forge metals into weapons and tools led to the greatest advancements of early civilizations.” Though going lame or insane from adding arsenic to copper was par for the course back then. And let’s not forget the dangers of lead smelting. Score one for modern technology. I may have welding byproduct permanently embedded in my skin, but it won’t likely kill me.
“You really threw your future away when you dropped out of college.” To my left, Ben chews with his mouth open. Crunching and smacking and
wet mouth sounds. “Benny,” I say. “Close your damn mouth when you eat.” He stops moving his jaw mid chew, and stares at me, face blushing like I hurt him.
Mom looks at me. “Why aren’t you eating?” she says.
I fork a bite of peas into my mouth.
“We should all go camping again,” Dad says.
By “we” he means me and Ben and him. Mom has always been excluded from such excursions. Dad prefers the father-son bonding scenario. Though it’s been a decade since the last time, and I intend to make the not-camping-with-Dad a permanent thing.
I shake my head. “Don’t really have time.”
“You don’t have time to go camping with your old man? Jesus, Jacob.” Under the table he kicks my shin hard enough that I expect a bruise there later.
I stare at my mashed potatoes, combing through them again with my fork, forming thin gashes for the gravy to bleed through and spill out all over the plate. Ben still chews with his mouth open.
Mom turns her attention to Ben. “You need to stop staying out so late. Where is it you even go? It’s cold out.”
“I’m just walking,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere, just walking.” Mom shakes her head and purses her lips like Ben is some out of control teenager and she’s at her wits’ end. But the kid isn’t even socially mature enough to be out of control. “He’s fine, Mom,” I say. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Ben sits upright and grins ever-so-slightly as though I just imbued him with some sliver of confidence. Mom relaxes as though I’m the authority on this matter.
“Exactly,” Dad says, lifting his chin with a smirk. “The boy is fine.” “You really should eat more,” Mom says, making careful observation of
my plate again. “You get too scrawny and you’re never going to get you a girlfriend. And you should maybe shave, too. All that scruff makes you look older than you are.”
“I shaved yesterday,” I say.
Dad just sits there grinning like he finds the whole exchange amusing on some infinite level.
“You’re exactly twice my age now,” Ben says.
“He was more than twice your age up until now,” Dad says. “The ratio only goes down.”
“Oh yeah,” Ben says. “Still, he’s older by a lot.”
“Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative,” Dad says. The more Dad looks at me with his eyebrows slightly raised, that smug grin like he owns me, the more a deep sickness grows in my stomach. The more my chest hurts. I tap at my plate with my fork. “I think I’m full,” I say. I don’t bother looking up at anyone, just stand and leave the dining room. I head down the hallway into my old bedroom—now filled with boxes of random crap, having been converted into a makeshift storage unit in my absence—and sit on the bed. Ben follows like a lost puppy.
“You okay?” he says, clinging to the doorframe, his cheek pressed against the molding.
“Yeah,” I say.
“You worried about getting old?”
“Are you gay?” He says, eyes big, face serious like he’s worried I might be offended at the suggestion. “Is that why you’ve never had a girlfriend?”
“Sorry.” He looks to the side, staring at a blank wall. “It was just a thought. Because if you were, I wouldn’t tell anyone if you didn’t want me to.”
“Thanks,” I say.
Dad appears behind him, looking at me from over Ben’s shoulder. “Don’t upset your mother,” he says. “She’s clearing the table for your cake. You need to be out there in five minutes.”
“We will,” I say.
Dad leaves us be, and Ben’s eyes follow him until he’s all the way gone. Then the kid takes a step toward me, his face serious, he whispers, “Can I tell you a secret?” His eyes are big again, his face blushing with nervous worry like he’s been working up the courage to drop whatever bomb it is he’s about to drop.
“I’m not really good with secrets,” I say.
“Why?” He’s still tense, the blush in his cheeks growing deeper, mouth hanging open, eyes beginning to redden like he’s just been slapped.
“Because they’re a burden.”
He nods staring down to the floor, and now I feel like someone’s got my stomach held tight in their fist. I never mean to hurt him, but I always do anyway.
“Kids!” Mom shouts from the kitchen. “Cake time!”
“Hey,” I whisper to Ben. He looks up. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to fake appendicitis or something in an effort to thwart the singing.”
Ben smiles. I let him lead the way back to the dining room where a flaming three and zero perch atop a chocolate masterpiece. Following ritual, Mom leads the singing and Dad and Ben mumble along. All the while my stomach is in freefall, my chest tightens, and my consciousness floats somewhere above me, watching all of this.
When they stop, Mom says, “Well? Blow them out already.”
I comply. Only two candles, but it leaves me dizzy. Then Dad slaps my shoulder and kisses my cheek, his hot breath right in my ear. I close my eyes and let them stay closed a second. I want to peel all of my skin off. I can’t be here anymore.
“I need to get going soon,” I say. “I have to get up early again for work tomorrow.”
“Won’t you at least stay for cake first?” Mom says.
“I’m full, Mom. I’ll take some with me though, okay?” My voice has flattened into monotone.
She sighs and proceeds to assemble my paper bag. Always when I come over, I leave with a paper bag filled to the top with leftovers whether I want them or not.
Ben has that pleading look on his face he always gets when I leave. For a split second I want to grab him, take him in my car, and drive far, far away, never looking back.
But I look up at Mom, smiling. She can’t even handle Ben coming home late from school. The disappearance of her sons would devastate her, and she doesn’t have proper coping skills.
Dad would be pissed off and organize a man-hunt. After all, as citizens of Sparta, we can’t leave town without explicit permission.
And besides, it wouldn’t take long before Benny would start asking why I waited so long. He’d soon realize he should hate me for it. He’d run off, start doing drugs, and join a street gang, and there’s no way he’d last long in a street gang.
It’s too late for him anyway. That ship has sailed.
So I pretend my family is normal, like always. We just had a nice dinner. Everybody is happy. Nothing wrong or bad could possibly be happening here. I smile Ben’s dopey, delusional smile. The nothing’s wrong smile, and he reflects the same damn smile right back. And maybe he can be a naive goddamn optimist like Candide from his English essay. He can wander through the secret shit same as I did at his age, and cling to the notion that life is as peachy as the peach floral sofa in the living room, and this is the best of all possible worlds.
But I know full well I’m doing the wrong thing leaving him here again with Dad and with his secrets that I’m too afraid to hear. It leaves me hollow as I say my goodbyes and drive home to my tiny studio apartment, retreating like a disgraced Spartan hoplite who refused to go into battle. It sticks to me like the burnt metal welding grime from work that never washes all the way off.