Student submissions

Claire Phillips

My father, rather the man who is supposed to be my father, sat at the table across from my mother and me. He sat expressionless, unaffected by the outside world. It’s like this every time, he just sits, glassy eyed, looking at the beige wall behind us, or at us, it’s hard to tell. My mom insists that he was normal, a good man before the war, “a real go getter,” as she put it. She also said he was the salutatorian of his high school class and star third basemen for the Ponca City High baseball team. He gave up a scholarship to play baseball at Wichita State to join the Army; mom said he thought it was the right thing to do, to go to Vietnam. She tells me he was brave, a hero in the war, that he escaped from a P.O.W. camp, saved two other men in the process and received a Purple Heart by doing so. Now he just sits there in his wheelchair, while my mom talks to him like the teachers at school talk to the Mexican kids in class; slow, hoping they understand.

“Hank, Samuel did very well in school this year, his best subjects were spelling and geography. He even got a 105 percent on his geography test last week, it was over the capitals, and for extra credit he named the capital of the Soviet Union.” Mom looked over at me. “Isn’t that right Samuel?”

I shrugged my shoulders and looked at the clock; we’d been there nearly 45 minutes.

I didn’t see any of his heroism, his athleticism; all I saw was a piece of empty emotionless flesh molded into a human form sitting in a wheelchair. A strange, square- jawed man with thinning hair; a set of hazel eyes unable to convey anything. He has never been able to speak to me, never taught me how to snag a hard grounder out of the dirt, and doesn’t know my name, or at least has never said it. He just stared off into oblivion as usual.

Mom stood up from her chair, walked over to my dad and kissed him on the top of his head. “We’ll see you next week, Hank. Love ya.”

She pulled her large purse higher up on her shoulder and motioned to one of the attendants that we were leaving.

Mom pulled her LTD Country Squire onto I-35 and hit the gas. Through the windshield I saw a group of buzzards hovering against the pale blue sky, circling and waiting for anything. I imagined what we must have looked like from their view, a big green beetle stuttering, and then zooming, then with a pop of the muffler, stuttering again. Waiting to die.

My mom rolled up her window and asked me to do the same to mine.

“Why? We’ll get baked in here.” I looked out at the buzzards.

“Because, Samuel, the wind is too loud and I want talk to you.” She pointed her eyes down at me, making sure that I had understood. “You really need to make more of an effort with your father. I know it’s hard and all, but the psychologists say he still can hear even if he doesn’t show it.”

“How do they know?”

“Well, because that’s what they do. All I’m saying is that you need to try and talk to him. Tell him about school, show him your baseball cards, tell him you love him.”

“I don’t.”

Mother sealed her lips tightly and I noticed her eyes well with tears. A few of the tears welled out and rolled down her leathered skin.

“I’m sorry, mom.” I reached out my hand and put it on her shoulder. “I didn’t mean it.”

“No need to apologize, Sam. He’s been like that since before you were born. I understand and I don’t blame you for how you feel. It’s hard to say that when you know he won’t say it back.”

I nodded my head in agreement, although I had never told anyone besides her that I loved them and telling your mother you love her doesn’t really run the risk of any rejection.

“Samuel, there’s very little in people’s lives that they get to decide for themselves, okay. Nobody wanted your father to just up and lose his head, but it happened and you don’t have to like it, but try to accept it.”

The drive home to Ponca City was long and hot. I played around with the radio for a few minutes, but was unable to pick up any stations beside the one playing country music. I let my arm hang out the window; it was quickly pulled tight by my resistance and the wind pushing back. I thought of those buzzards and wished that I had better wings, something to lift us off of the ground and fly above everything.

My mom pulled our big green wagon into the driveway and turned off the ignition.

“Sam, you can go to Willie’s if you want, but only for a while. I’m gonna go get the fans going and see about dinner. Be home by seven, okay.”

I pulled the door latch and pushed open the gargantuan door, quickly exited and ran across the street to Willie’s house; he was already playing in the dusty yard by the roots of the old oak tree.

I had known Willie for a couple of years now and even though I questioned his motives around animals, we still hung out a lot. I even went camping with him and his dad one time out at Kaw Lake; it was fun until I found Willie with a pair of tin snips cutting the shell off of a box turtle. When I asked him what he was doing he sort of laughed and told me he was going to be a surgeon. Of course I knew this was a lie, Willie had never gotten better than a low D on any of Mrs. Curtis’ science tests.

“What’re you doing, Willie?”

“Playing G.I. Joe.” Willie held up his Cobra Commander figure that he had just gotten last weekend. “I’ll let you be the boss.”

“No thanks, I’m a He-Man guy.”

“He-Man’s got them AIDS.” Willie giggled a little bit and bent his Cobra Commander figure into a sitting position and placed it on top of a Pony shoe box.

“What’s in the box?”

“Wanna see?” Willie smiled, he had lost another tooth. Like me he was losing them late. We were both ten and were still losing teeth. I glanced at the dark space where his left eye tooth should have been.


Willie opened the box and put his hand over the slit, flipped the box over, his hand still over the small crevice. He quickly brought his other hand over and placed it on top of the other, which was loosely clenched, so as not to crush his possession.

“Come close.”

I moved in slowly, as if any sudden movement would startle whatever was trapped, I stooped near and waited. Willie put his hands closer to my eyes and pulled the thumb of his fist closer to his palm, leaving a small space for viewing.

“See it?”

“I see a beak. What is it?”

“Hummingbird.” Willie smiled a little bit, impressed with his own intelligence. “I found it this morning, it was cold.”

“Are you going to let it go?”

“Nope. It’s mine now.”

“What are you going to do with it then?” I thought of Willie’s tin snips and the writhing agony of the box turtle.

He looked up at me and must have seen something in my face, “I’m gonna save it and do what I’d like.” Willie put the bird back in the box.

For a few minutes we sat there, the box between us. Willie intermittently crashed some random G.I. Joes together and made spit explosions. The ones he wasn’t using he sat on the top of the shoe box. Some of them held their original machine guns and rocket launchers, others held bits of twigs. No character was left without a weapon.

I stood up quickly, planted my left foot on the ground and with my right insole dug into a thick layer of dust and sand. I kicked it onto Willie, half of it going onto his chest, the other half smothering his face.

“What the hell are you doing, Sam?” Willie coughed and rubbed his eyes.

I bent down quickly and with one sweep of my hand I brushed aside all of the little soldiers. They flew into the dirt and rolled to a stop; an uncovered grave of plastic soldiers, their services no longer required. Just then Willie’s hands shot out and took hold of my wrist and pulled it desperately towards his mouth, teeth bared, dingy with dirt. I kicked him quickly in his stomach, his mouth instantaneously switched from attack, to staggered, gasping breathing. I grabbed the shoe box and took off towards my house. I had never felt so scared.

My mom stood at the stove stirring and periodically glancing at a timer, her left hand angled and held against her hip. I could smell the fish sticks in the oven and I assumed she was stirring macaroni and cheese. She heard me sit down at the kitchen table. She turned around to look at me, curiously studying the box and questioning without speaking.

“I took it from Willie, Mom. You know how he is with animals.” I was worried now, I couldn’t bring it back, I wouldn’t bring it back.

“What’s in the box, Sam?”

“A little hummingbird.” I put the shoebox on my lap and set my hands on top of the box, staking my claim.

My mom smiled and moved my hands off the box and picked it up. She stuck her hand in it and pulled out a loose fist, much the same as Willie had done. “These are fragile birds, Sam. You don’t want to handle them too much.”

“I didn’t even touch it.”

“Good.” My mom bent her legs and crouched down and set her forearms across my lap. “Look at the little guy.”


“Yeah, see his red throat, only the males have that.”

It sat shaking in my mother’s hand, barely alive, trembling, cold and scared. She loosened her grip, slowly at first and then all at once and the hummingbird sat in the palm of her hand unable to move. One of its wings was limply set off to the side of the body, the other pulled tight against its miniature frame.

“I’m sorry, little hummingbird.” I smiled at his little body, no bigger than my mom’s pinky finger. The hummingbird just sat there. I could tell it was still alive; its little chest heaved with rapid breaths. This wasn’t what I had expected. “Is he okay, mom?”

“I think he’ll be alright, Sam. Let’s just give it some time, some rest; poor guy’s been through a lot.”

My mom walked over to the laundry basket and took out the top of my Superman pajamas. “Okay if he uses this for a bed?”

I nodded my head yes and watched her fold it neatly into the shoe box with one hand, the other remaining a pedestal for the hummingbird. She gently set the bird down onto to my Superman top, right across the S, then she carried the box over to a little end table, slid the box beneath a lamp and turned it on.

After dinner I walked over to look at the bird. I had half expected him to be dead, but he was still there, little bird eyes staring blankly at the foreign walls. I looked past the shoebox towards the back end of the table and noticed and old picture set back beyond the lamplight; dust lining the top of the forlorn frame. I looked closer and noticed my Father, younger, before I knew him. In the picture he was dressed in his blue jeans and an Oklahoma Sooner’s T-shirt, early spring behind him, new grass, flowers blossoming, sky stretching beyond the sun. His hands were stuffed into his pockets, smiling. I picked it up and brought it fully into the light.