Table of Contents
“The Least Contaminated Moments from 2011-2016” by Riley Hensley
“Hot Potato Birthday Cake” by Noah McGeorge
The Least Contaminated Moments from 2011-2016
The Alaskan waters swallowed my violating experience as a teenage boy on a boat for the first time. As I stood on the edge of the white, independent shuttle, the icebergs appeared to crop up in the middle of the waters just for me, along with the seals, the whales, and the mountain goats on the nearby lands. Grandpa paid for my ticket, my lodging, my souvenirs; but I forgot all that in the sway of the waves. Sea-salt air clung to the electricity in my lungs. The hills and valleys offered me their gentle hands for a brief moment and my shell cracked. I didn’t have to be brave in this moment. I just had to exist. Feel the painstaking awe. Be vulnerable without fear of repercussions. The pristine waves’ vow and breath of my “good enough” presence was the most comforting expression. So when I look back at him offering me this experience while wearing his ragged jeans worn to tatters, I sympathized. Then his invasive hands moved around my waist and I felt obligated to stay there so I vowed to remember salt water salt water salt water.
We were dipped in the amber core of the crackling fire. We set one almost every weekend, sat around an iron pit on the other side of the renovated trailer. We watched the passion build and consume the bark in bites, transforming it into crackles and displays of vermillion, persimmon, burnt orange, brown. Simply staring into the dancing flames like it was an abyss with answers on how to save the world. I thought of justice, peace, whirlwinds of trust. I thought of the human body like a lightbulb—lighting with filament friction and illuminating brilliantly until our energy inevitably runs out, leaving behind a carcass. An empty wish that keeps wishing, paling in comparison to what it used to be. I wondered if, after I was gone, the flames would take bites of me too, if I would disintegrate like this maple bark into the belly of something holy. If I was living a life that could make something else pale by comparison. I stared not in anger, not exactly fear, but like fear tinged with ash—hope? Not hopeless. Like tingling in your arm after sleeping on it. Dipped in molten lava with the consistency of honey, coated in a protective armor of what I thought could be divine. I learned I could not be holy with him.
When I looked out the window of the plane, I thought I was in Heaven. Stretches of pomegranate, periwinkle, and lavender kissed the sky. Our plane traveled over and through the clouds with ease, like a newly sharpened knife. I had never touched the brim of this life that held me captive. I conclude I am a dot on a map of my city and a speck on a map of the world. Zoom out and I am spectacularly miniature on this planet, in this galaxy. Yet I feel my entity consumes every delicate emotion that has ever existed, in all its tenacity and vibrancy, the entire spectacle to scale. My meager existence alone is enough to question cosmos and, for me, there is no life outside myself. There are some things on this earth I will never experience and, in many ways, I wonder about the potential my life holds, what it could’ve been, what my other alternative selves with different decisions are like. I wonder if there is a me that exists in true happiness and what that might look like realistically. I hold this indecision in my hands and welcome it. The world once felt futile and as expansive as my forearm, now lunged into opportunities of perspective and raw growth. What does it mean to be relative, or be a relative? He squashed my perspective to a few aching breaths and I was ecstatic to find I still had use of my lungs, that he was not all there was. It was not the world keeping me captive; it was him. It would be five years before I could put my lungs to practice, but they would slowly expand to their potential.
My feet pounded the dirt floor of the woods. Entangled in the forest’s secret swarms of thorn bushes, the unkempt weeds circled my feet while the upturned roots tried to tangle me. As I ran farther into the woods it got darker. On my left was a path directly on the edge of a fifty-foot drop. I ran this trail, compacted with impact, in meets and conditioning. My first year, I only ran in my moth- er’s old shoes. Then he bought me my first pair of running shoes. As I sweat, I was no longer paralyzed by the parasite of stillness and obligation. I felt peace in feeling connected to the most sacred elements of the earth in her natural state of being. And to think, I only kept running out of habit my first year, which turned into seven years in the blink of an eye. I began to view my own worth when I cut three minutes off my time in my first season, and Coach yelled to me, “You don’t know how good you are, do you?” It is still everyday work to forgive myself for the ties he continues to hold and not dismiss the sanctity and power of these years, despite what they’ve taken from me.
Hot Potato Birthday Cake
A young man grew up playing and up walking Huffman Hill. For as long as I lived there, we called him Jimbo, although he had aged past the point of young and even man. His spine was a Roman arch without a keystone, his skin those monkey brains that brown in the road. He had a nose for Crown Royal, I of repul- sion. Camouflage jacket was typical. Furtive looks at the passing cars standard. He liked cleaning roadkill.
His birthday was delicate. If we had accepted it, we’d nudge him closer to the edge. If we ignored it?
“Why’d you even ask him about his birthday?” Dad was eating fish sticks and taco cheese broccoli. “Don’t look at me in your way. You know I always give him money.”
“It’s not like I offered to throw him a party,” Mom said. “He just mentioned buying himself Smirnoff for tomorrow, said it was his birthday.”
Here I began to wonder at what point a person became a hot potato.
My cousin stayed the weekend. Our feet dangled above the floor precisely parallel. She sniffled, “Let’s make him a cake?”
I sobered my open mouth; cake cannot be eaten until dinner deals have been honored. I knew Jimbo got dinner at Speedway, ate roller dogs and red Tornados. I never saw him when I went to Aldi’s with mom, so the man probably never had vegeta- bles in his life. Can anything go in your body at a certain age?
“Yeah—a cake oughta be nice,” Mom said. “I think he has a son around here, but they never see each other.” My cousin and I followed her into the kitchen. “I’m pretty sure I already have batter.”
It was batter for brownies, but that didn’t stop us from helping with every step and licking every spoon. By morning, we had a brownie mass iced with funfetti. We topped it with a candy cane candle; any more would have challenged the lungs.
Like any respectable gentleman of his era, Jimbo got around. I’d see him out from Dad’s Grand Caravan, walking under the dim Blockbuster sign. My cousin and I would run to the Cir- cle-K and there he’d walk. We played life in our complex lot. When we were other people it was fun to watch him.
One time he walked by my bus stop. He wanted to say hey. The driver asked me if I knew this guy, really knew this guy. Is this a test? I know Obama, the alphabet, and Jimbo. I knew Jimbo. The driver had a high spot from which to get a good view of us. Jimbo didn’t mind. Many forgive the injury: he forgave the contempt, too.
I carried the cake down Huffman Hill. From all I knew about cake, the thing might have very well melted. No one told me my summers were cool because of perpetual fall lighting. I kept my head down and my eyes on windows. The sun reddened the clouds like a penlight pressed against skin.
Down in the Huffman valley, we waited by Jimbo’s con- crete bungalow. No amount of knocking produced him. He wasn’t there.
“Well,” Mom said. “We’d better get headed back.” A possum I knew lay dead in the road. He had been there since the day before. Jimbo never got to him. We moved on from the dead possum and on toward home. After some silent moments I opened my mouth to ask for cake but here we heard a shuffling slam.
Jimbo exited a Circle-K pay phone. He came over, and that may have been the first time I witnessed him sit down. He said hey, giving us each a moment of his tired eye contact. He didn’t notice any cake.
“Hey’d you see the possum by Vicky’s?” “Oh, no! I don’t think so, Jimbo,” Mom said. “But how are you? How are you doing?”
“Well, good. Just got off the phone with my son now.”
“How’s he? Did he wish you a happy birthday?” “What? No. Just called to see if he wouldn’t clean up the possum by Vicky’s.” On the exhale we reserve for family news:
“He’s workin’ over at Rumpke, now.”
Satisfied some agent would clean the possum, Jimbo stood. “Gotta stay on my feet,” he said. “Won’t die that way.”
“Wait,” my cousin chimed. “We made you a birthday cake.”
Here I realized that Jimbo could not see the birthday cake. His eyes were wet as pickled eggs and they were rolling along the road. He wanted dead things. He bore them up and down Huffman, up and down. He took our orphaned highway too. Our school and its kiss-you-night bed bugs. The city glow night light—the only stars our good grubs see are sin glitter stickers. Together we hate these treats and lay them to Huffman’s fettered drifter, Jimbo. It’s good: even the roadkill he shrugs up and on he goes.
“Better get up this hill to get some breakfast,” he said. It too was good when Jimbo crested the hill, no happy birthday to be heard.
A fierce, icy wind rolled over the crest of the hill and swept through the dormant autumn forest that surrounded our hunting blind, the newly fallen leaves twisting and dancing over the rotted duff that carpeted the frosty earth. A chill ran through my shivering body and I shifted in my seat, tugging the collar of my winter coat higher over the nape of my neck. My friend Tylor, who sat cross legged on the ground before me cradling the muzzle- loader in his drooping arms, stirred only slightly as the icy breeze swiftly came and faded. We had been there little more than twenty minutes, but with each passing second the anxiety that churned in my gut crept further into my tightening throat. I wanted to talk to him, about what I didn’t know, but I hoped a temporary break in the silence might alleviate the awkwardness I was feeling about the hunt.
What baffled me as I sat there burying my face further beneath my coat collar was Tylor’s calm and oddly indifferent de- meanor. Only minutes before he had been reading a cheap, dollar store novel and bemoaning how exhausted he was. It irritated me that he could be so collected while I was so nervous, and in a vain attempt to cut through the tension building inside me I began to say something.
“You need to be quiet,” he snapped. “Sorry, I’m just nervous is all.” He shook his head. “There’s no reason to be so wound up about all this, it’s just hunting.”
The thing was, Tylor had done this nearly his entire life. Even from an early age, he and his younger brother had been hunting and trapping with his father. Killing and butchering wild game was commonplace for him, as his family relied on the meat they could acquire. For someone like Tylor, a day such as this was nothing more than a typical afternoon hunt.
For me, however, it was much more. After performing the ritual of killing and butchering my first deer, the people who had hounded me about my somewhat timid nature could no longer question my masculinity. After all, I wasn’t tall, athletic, strong, or tough and I had no idea how to fight. But I could shoot, and if I could do that, I could hunt. Therefore, in my quest to prove my worth, I saw this long-ingrained ritual of acceptance and manhood as my only hope.
The anxiety that crippled me as I sat there gritting my teeth was fueled by that fact that, despite my eagerness, I harbored a strong aversion toward killing. Even killing something as seemingly insignificant as a fish had been almost impossible for me as a child. So, while I had hoped my more mature age of seventeen would help assuage the contempt I felt, it was apparent to me, sitting in the hunting blind that cold autumn afternoon, that this endeavor would be far more difficult than I had hoped. Bashfully, I shrank back into my seat, quietly accepting Tylor’s harsh criticism. Maybe he’s right. I just need to man up and focus on the outcome. The wind had almost died away completely and the forest was unnervingly calm for a moment—only the birds above us seemed to make any sound. As we sat in brief silence, I heard a faint rustling amongst the underbrush to our immediate right. Leaning forward, careful not to make any noise, I peered through the westward facing window overlooking the hill that lead down to the creek. From behind a thicket of briars, nestled at the trunk of a gargantuan Oak, a lean, muscular figure came confidently trotting up the hill. My hair stood on end and my skin tightened.
“There it is,” I whispered.
The buck wasn’t far from our position, perhaps twenty yards at most, but it was well out of my field of view. Tylor opened his bloodshot eyes and looked up from the ground, ask- ing what I had seen.
“It’s a young buck,” I whispered. Tylor hunkered down to the ground, hiding himself below the netted windows of the hunting blind. Lifting his Muzzleloader, he prompted me to take hold of it and reiterated his command to be quiet. So I was. I sat as silent and motionless as I possibly could, not even breathing. The only sound now, aside from the buck, was my racing heart which pounded deep in my chest like a thundering bass drum. The buck methodically stepped its way up the hill toward our hunting blind. With each step the buck took my heart beat faster and faster, the pounding growing louder and louder inside my skull, and before I knew it, the buck came to a stand-still directly in front of me.
This didn’t leave me much of a shot. My position inside the blind left me at an awkward angle and the only option I was presented with was its neck. I didn’t want to shoot the buck in the neck, as I’d always been taught to aim for the heart given that it was the quickest and most humane way to kill. Reluctantly, I leveled the muzzle of the gun at the buck and peered through the scope, resting the crosshairs over the upper portion of its twitch- ing neck. Steadily I brought my trembling index finger down over the trigger and applied the slightest amount of pressure. I’m going to do it. I’m going to kill this young buck.
I sat paralyzed in my seat for what felt like an eterni- ty, the muzzleloader clasped tightly in my frozen but sweating hands. Slowly, I loosened my grasp on the weapon and untensed my finger, debating if I should spare the buck and let it run free or finally take its life. I’d almost decided to drop the muzzleload- er from my shoulder and admit to my defeat when I thought of Tylor lying on the ground in front of me. What would he think of me if I let the buck go? How could I look him, or any other man in my community, in the eyes and expect them to treat me as an equal if I shied away now? As much as my mind willed me to lower the weapon and let the buck escape, there was no way I would allow myself to come all this way only to leave empty-handed because I didn’t have the courage pull the trigger.
I was going to shoot. My hands were shaking so violently I could hardly keep the muzzleloader steady as I readied my shot. Faster and harder my heart pounded in my chest. A lifetime of angst and anxiety crept over me as I cleared my mind of any second thoughts. My body was shivering. My heart was racing. My lungs inflated in my chest like two balloons filled to bursting, and I began stiffen- ing my finger, tensing it around the trigger. Everything in that frigid forest slowed to a snail’s pace. My heart froze. My muscles tensed. I drew one last breath.
I had practiced for such a moment for as long as I could remember, standing in my backyard struggling to steady my grandfather’s old twenty-two caliber rifle as I took potshots at a small tin soup can propped up on a rotted stump. The pride I felt welling up in my chest every time I made contact and the can skipped and tumbled wildly into the weeds at the edge of the forest. My grandfather would always commend me on my shooting in his tender but critical way, mentioning how much I had improved.
All of this in preparation for my big hunt, the moment in which I would be like my grandfather, father, and uncles. I was still naïve enough at my carefree age to liken the shooting of a can to the shooting of a deer, never fully realizing the terminal consequences of doing such a thing. Still I would excitedly prop the can up on its top, run back to the mark I’d made in the gravel with the heel of my shoe and take aim; beading the front post as close to the center of the rear notch as I could. Subconsciously repeating a single phrase every time I was about to shoot: That can right there, it’s a deer’s heart. If you can hit that can then that means you can shoot a deer and kill it, just like grandpa taught you. Then, taking a deep breath and exhaling steadily, I squeezed the trigger.
The muzzleloader spoke with the utmost authority, spitting fire and a blinding cloud of white, sulphurous smoke from its muzzle, choking the blind and screening my view of the target. The deafening boom tore through the cold, tranquil forest and quickly faded over the countryside. My head pounded with each rapid pulse of my heart and my ringing ears stung horribly. As quickly as the moment had come, it had gone, and a morbid peace again fell over the forest. The gentle wind had resumed its course across the knoll and the dense cloud of white gunsmoke swirled away with it. Coming into view twenty yards from our hunting blind was the buck, now lying limp on the frigid ground.
I couldn’t believe it. I had killed my first buck. As I looked upon its struggling body, things seemed almost surreal. I had seen dozens of butchered carcasses before in the beds of my neighbors’ pickup trucks or hanging from the rafters of a decrepit barn somewhere. This, however, was the first time I had looked upon a carrion and realized that I was the one responsible for its death.
My hands trembling and heart still pounding, I laid the smoking muzzleloader across my knees and nudged Tylor with my boot.
“I got it.” I said, the words sticking in my raspy throat. Tylor rose from his knees and looked through the tattered window at the buck.
“I’ll be damned. You sure did,” he grinned. “Come on, let’s get out to it.”
Tylor clambered through the small flap door while I stood and leaned the muzzleloader against the arm of the lawn chair. My body was numb, my head was hot, and my limbs shook violently as the adrenaline that coursed through my veins slowly began to dissipate. Quickly, the shaking subsided and my nerves regained control of my body, the dull sting of the recoil swelling up in my right shoulder as I stepped through the doorway and headed toward Tylor who was now standing at the buck’s side. I was silent, and to my knowledge, so was Tylor. If he had said anything to me as I approached, I didn’t hear him. I was miles away from the scene. I loomed over the buck’s crippled body, taking the full brunt of the emotions that were spinning rapidly inside my skull. As I stared into the buck’s black, emotionless eyes, I noticed some- thing. A chill fell over my body and a cold memory that troubled me far more than I expected raced through my mind. It’s still alive.
The first time I remember killing an animal, I was still quite young, and far too innocent to fully understand the state of death and what it meant to be the cause of it. My father and I had just returned home from an afternoon fishing at my uncle’s pond. I had only one fish in my bucket, but at eighteen inches from mouth to tail and five and a half pounds even it had been the biggest largemouth bass I’d ever caught.
Proudly, I marched up the gravel driveway, my prize sloshing lazily in the murky pond water I’d poured in earlier. Once standing on the sidewalk, I sat the bucket on the broken concrete, my tiny arms too strained to carry it any longer, and asked my father when he was going to clean it for supper. He studied me for a moment, breathing a heavy sigh.
“I think it’s time you cleaned it.” Naturally, I protested, arguing that I’d never done such a thing before, but he insisted.
“Boy, you’re gonna have to start doing this sooner or later. As you get older, I’m not gonna be able to do these things for you. Now, you’ve seen me do this dozens of times. Just go slow and you’ll be fine.”
He pulled a small, cheap fillet knife from the plastic tackle box he carried and handed it to me. Reluctantly, I took it, laying it beside my knee as I reached inside the bucket for the bass. I took hold of its large, fleshy belly and lifted it from the stinking water. A chill came over my body, and I glanced up at my father.
“It’s still alive,” I said. “And?” he asked. “You want it to be fresh when you clean it.”
“But I can’t kill it, I – I can’t,” I protested, having no viable reason not to kill it.
“It’s gonna die anyway and we can’t take it back to the pond. Now do you want it to suffocate or do you want to end it right now?”
“Can’t I just put it back in the bucket and let it die first?” I asked naively.
“If you put it back in the bucket it’s gonna suffer, son. You don’t let an animal suffer.”
With a trembling hand I took hold of the knife, press- ing the fish against the concrete with the other. Tears welling up in the corners of my eyes, I placed the tip of the knife against its slimy scales and applied the slightest amount of pressure. I drew a deep breath and thrust the knife into its flesh, severing the spine.
The buck lay sprawled out in a bloody pile of duff and dried leaves between two fallen, rotted logs, its chest quivering as it drew its last breaths. The bullet had severed the spine and its head lay cocked at an awkward angle. A ghostly cloud of steam wafted upward from the stream of crimson blood that oozed from the thumb sized wound in its neck. My shot had only crippled the buck, not killed it, and it was still fully conscious as it lay there suffering in a spreading pool of its own blood.
Tylor, a wide grin plastered across his face, patted me on the shoulder.
“Great job, man. Clean kill, and it only took you seven- teen years to do it. I told you I’d make a man out of you.”
With my eyes still fixated on the dying animal I said nothing. I breathed a heavy sigh, the last of my pent up anxiety flushing away with it, and turned toward Tylor who had walked back toward the hunting blind.
“You know, I feel bad for it,” I said, fadingly. “I mean, it was just standing there grazing and I fucking shot it. Shot it right through the neck.”
Tylor turned, his face twisting with disapproval. “Jesus, dude. You ain’t gonna cry are you?”
“Oh, fuck you, dude,” I returned. Tylor laughed then ducked through the door of the hunting blind for his muzzleloader. He told me he was walking back to his garage to get his ATV as he didn’t feel fancy dragging the buck back through the mess of trees and underbrush we’d struggled through earlier. I nodded in agreement, but said noth- ing.
Tylor jogged off into the woods toward his house and I turned back toward the buck, sitting on a decaying, moss covered stump just a few feet away. The most complicated feeling of tri- umph, shame, and sorrow came over me as I watched the buck’s life drain from its limp body—any sense of pride or masculinity I had gathered from the hunt dribbling away with it. At last, the buck’s chest grew still, the bleeding stopped, and I knew it was dead.
“Clean kill…” I said, burying my head into my hands.