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.
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
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
“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.
fills a glass with water, hands the glass and the contents of his palm to Mom.
So he doesn’t have to deal with her having her own thoughts.
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.
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
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.”
“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
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
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
“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
“Thanks,” I say. “This is good.”
“Look closer,” he whispers.
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
“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.”
accidentally pissed on your clothes? What, did you leave them in the urinal?”
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.
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
“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
“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
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
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.
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,”
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
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.
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,”
“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.”
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,”
He’s still tense, the blush in his cheeks growing deeper, mouth hanging open,
eyes beginning to redden like he’s just been slapped.
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.
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.