The world of Tell Everyone I Said Hi is geographically small but far from provincial in its portrayal of emotionally complicated lives. With all the heartbreaking earnestness of a Wilco song, these eighteen stories by Chad Simpson roam the small-town playgrounds, blue-collar neighborhoods, and rural highways of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky to find people who’ve lost someone or something they love and have not yet found ways to move forward.
Simpson’s remarkable voice masterfully moves between male and female and adolescent and adult characters. He embraces their helplessness and shares their sad, strange, and sometimes creepy slices of life with grace, humor, and mounds of empathy. In “Peloma,” a steelworker grapples with his preteen daughter’s feeble suicide attempts while the aftermath of his wife’s death and the politics of factory life vie to hem him in. The narrator of “Fostering” struggles to determine the ramifications of his foster child’s past now that he and his wife are expecting their first biological child. In just two pages, “Let x” negotiates the yearnings and regrets of childhood through mathematical variables and the summertime interactions of two fifth-graders.
Poignant, fresh, and convincing, these are stories of women who smell of hairspray and beer and of landscapers who worry about their livers, of flooded basements and loud trucks, of bad exes and horrible jobs, of people who remain loyal to sports teams that always lose. Displaced by circumstances both in and out of their control, the characters who populate Tell Everyone I Said Hi are lost in their own surroundings, thwarted by misguided aspirations and long-buried disappointments, but fully open to the possibility that they will again find their way.
About the Author
Chad Simpson was raised in Monmouth, Illinois, and Logansport, Indiana. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Esquire, American Short Fiction, The Sun, and many other print and online publications. He is the recipient of a fellowship in prose from the Illinois Arts Council and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ conferences. He teaches at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he received the Philip Green Wright/Lombard College Prize for Distinguished Teaching in 2010.
Read an Excerpt
Tell Everyone I Said Hi
By Chad Simpson
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2012 Chad Simpson
All right reserved.
My brother calls and says to get to the bar as fast as I can—he thinks he just died.
Later, he will show me the bruise—a tire-wide swath of mottled purple and pale green—streaked up the inside of his thigh and the middle of his chest, where his own car ran him over. He will be high on something, and half-feral, and he will call it a miracle: how the tire track stops just below his neck; how the car didn't crush him.
And I will imagine him standing next to his car as it began to roll downhill. I will imagine him catching up to the car and getting behind it, putting up his hands like he's Superman stopping a train. I will imagine the car running straight over him.
I will laugh because that's what I'm conditioned to do. I won't tell him how many times I have woken in the middle of the night—my heart beating like a wild thing in my chest—having dreamed him dead.
* * *
When I pull up to the stoplight across from the bar, my brother is lying on his back where it happened, and his friends are making an outline of his body on the street with masking tape. Before I decide to just keep going, I watch him lie there, perfectly still, his hands splayed at his sides. His friends try to work the tape around one of my brother's boots, but the tape keeps getting twisted, folding over on and sticking to itself. His friends laugh, ecstatic, and tear at the tape with their teeth.
I wish I could join them. Instead, I train my eyes on my brother's chest.
He still thinks he may be dead, and his heart. Beneath his shirt, where the bruise has not yet begun to form, his heart is racing. His breath, I can tell from where I'm sitting, it can hardly keep up.
You Would've Counted Yourself Lucky
The boy's sister is missing or has not yet come home. It's only 9:30, still too early to tell, but she was supposed to have the car in the garage and her own two feet on their property by seven.
The boy's mom says to his dad, "Did you get the yard mowed before it got dark?"
The boy's dad answers, "Is that your third Beam and Coke or your fourth?"
What they are really saying to one another, the boy knows, is, I hope Leanne isn't still over at Ledarius's house.
Only the boy thinks his sister might be missing. He kind of hopes she is. He kind of hopes that what's going on here isn't the same old same old, that there's something more mysterious and tragic stirring just beneath the surface of these latest events, about to erupt like hot lava from an old volcano.
But the truth is his parents don't like the fact that Leanne keeps dating black guys. All summer long, ever since she got her driver's license in June and began dating Tony, the first of three black boys, all younger than her, she's been saying to her parents, "It's 2010. Think about who's in the White House." Her parents have been saying back, "That doesn't make it right."
The boy listens from his bedroom to his parents yelling more questions at one another and plays a video game on his handheld. The screen is cracked. The emitted music is damaged, warped—the notes last longer than they should and are slightly off-key. After a while, he tosses it onto his bed and starts sketching a dinosaur in his drawing book.
He is ten, too old to draw dinosaurs according to most of the kids in his class at school, but it's not like he's just tracing them out of some stained book from the library. He is creating them.
This one has a head much too small for his body, super-short arms and tiny hands with enormous thumbs. This one has tattoos on his belly and lips that are caved in like the lips on old people or meth-heads. He likes the way this looks. When he puts the finishing touches on it—a half moon of bruise beneath one of the dinosaur's eyes and a pair of broken glasses ringed with tape at the bridge—he laughs and closes the book.
In the living room, the boy's mom holds her drink in the air and says in this defeated way to the boy's dad, "Could you maybe just add a couple ice cubes to this?"
The boy's dad rises from his chair and says, "Sure." When he returns with the freshened drink he tells the boy's mom that he'll mow the yard first thing tomorrow.
It is just past ten o'clock. What they are really saying to one another is, Do you have any idea how to proceed from here? When Leanne comes back, what are we going to say to her? What are we going to do?
Neither one of them acknowledges the boy as he passes through the room. He feels, as is often the case, a little like a ghost. Just before he enters the kitchen, he raises his hands in the air and whispers, "Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha."
He grabs a flashlight from under the sink and steps out the door that leads to the backyard. The door slams shut hard. It echoes in the thick and humid air, and the boy can feel the sound the door makes in the small of his back.
Near the garage, near the place where his sister should have parked the car over three hours ago—because tonight, just one night this week, her parents didn't want her driving god-knows-where at all hours of the night with that fifteen-year-old boy in the front seat with her—there is a basketball hoop and a large square of dirt in the yard where the boy has dribbled the grass dead. He clicks on his flashlight and crouches low, begins searching the dirt for earthworms.
It is mid-August, and the dirt is hard-packed and cracked like dry skin in the flashlight's beam. There is not an earthworm in sight. The boy wonders whether the worms are still living there in the ground. He wonders how deep they've had to burrow in order to find mud moist enough to move through.
He hovers his hand over the dirt and makes shapes in the air that cast cool-looking shadows onto the ground. Here is a bunny rabbit with fangs like samurai swords. Here is the meanest junkyard dog in all of Kentucky. The boy is trying to remember what other things he knows how to make out of shadows when he hears a noise. He can't tell whether the maker of the sound is human or animal, but he is aware suddenly of the downy hairs, now gone stiff, on the back of his neck.
He clicks off the flashlight and sets it near his foot. The darkness for a moment transforms into its own living and breathing thing, and it occurs to him that he's gone earthworming in this same dark about a million times but never quite so late at night.
The boy listens for the sound, prepared to sprint toward his house's back door if necessary, but hears only the pulse of bugs, like the nighttime's beating heart. He picks up his flashlight and turns it back on.
First, he points the flashlight at the sky, which is starry and brilliant. He takes aim at a particularly bright star that might actually be a planet, high in the sky, and clicks the flashlight on and then off again a few times. The boy doesn't know Morse code, but he's pretty sure aliens don't either. He wonders how long it will take his little stutter of light to reach the stars. He wonders who will be there to translate what he has communicated when it does.
This is an easy and comforting line of thought for the boy. He loves the night sky over Kentucky. He loves the idea of aliens, of beings out there in the universe more powerful than anything here on earth. Beings capable of ending our little marble of a planet just because they were bored, in only seconds.
The boy is imagining a quickly destroyed world—water rising up out of the oceans, insects and birds falling from the sky, each and every human being's skin bubbling like milk in a pan on the stove and then turning to paste and dripping from their bones—when he hears the sound again. It's human, he realizes this time. It's a voice. It has just said, "You."
The boy clicks off his flashlight so that he can slip back into his backyard's darkness, in case the voice means to cause him harm.
"That didn't make you invisible, you know," the voice says. It is female. Older than him, he thinks, but not so old as his parents. Maybe his sister's age.
The boy turns the flashlight back on and swings it in a slow arc at the houses across the alley from him. Here is the Johnsons' busted trampoline. Here are their stacks of PVC pipe that've been sitting around forever, doing nothing but squashing grass. Next door, where an old lady who has her groceries delivered to her lives, there's a sad-looking doghouse with three holes in its roof and no pet in sight. The boy pauses the flashlight for a moment. He's not sure how it's possible, but it seems as though everything looks worse in his flashlight's beam than it does in the light of day. Everything seems to look more miserable and ruined. It's like the flashlight is revealing the place's true nature, which up until right then had been hidden from him in plain sight.
The boy can't believe that this is where he lives. That this is where he has been growing up. It's no wonder his sister has become the kind of person she has become.
"You're getting warmer," the voice says. "Keep going. Just one more house to your right."
It's kind of an ugly voice, the boy realizes. It sounds like it is coming from a girl who is chewing the insides of her cheeks while she talks, and he recognizes it now. He hasn't heard it for months, not since school let out, but it's Rebecca.
Heat lightning flashes in the sky over the row of houses across the alley, and the boy imagines for a second that someone out in space is responding to the blips of light he'd sent up that way a little bit ago. Whoever it is, the boy thinks, they have misinterpreted his signal. He'd meant it to be friendly.
The boy shines the flashlight in the direction of the next house over, and there is Rebecca. She is sitting on a screened-in back porch, and the boy can see most of her torso. The steel braces she uses to help her walk glint in the light. Rebecca shields her eyes. She says, "Down, boy. Holster your weapon."
The boy isn't sure what to do. He knows he should be nice to Rebecca—she's been through some sorrowful and agonizing shit—but she is mostly a total pain in the ass. He turns off the flashlight slowly and soundlessly and lets his arm fall to his side. He is still facing Rebecca's back porch, but if he began walking backward, he would reach his own house's back door in probably thirty steps. He would become invisible inside his own house again, and Rebecca would probably forget that she ever even saw him out there looking for earthworms, shining his flashlight at the sky, hoping his sister would just come home already. Hoping maybe she wouldn't.
Above him, the boy knows, there are stars that have been shining since fish had feet, and this, too, offers a kind of comfort. He wipes some sweat from his forehead and runs his hand through his hair, begins walking forward.
The story people tell about Rebecca goes like this: Two years ago she was as beautiful as any girl in Nelson County. She was a gymnast and a cheerleader. She liked history and had a decent GPA and dated a boy who was runner-up at the state wrestling meet in the 185-pound division. Then she went to a party one night in the summer before her senior year and got wasted on wine cooler–spiked gin. A little while later, she was in the passenger seat while some other gymnast/cheerleader-type was drunkenly navigating the bendy roads out near Maker's Mark.
The girl driving the car walked away from the wreck with a broken occipital bone and some superficial scratches. Rebecca shot through the windshield and past the tree the girl's car had collided with, the boy has heard told, like the prettiest cannonball ever.
Leanne was in driver's ed around the time this happened, and the boy's parents drilled this story into her head even before Rebecca's family moved from the country to Bardstown six months ago so that it'd be easier to get her to school and her doctor's appointments. Since then, the boy has encountered Rebecca mostly on his way to school in the morning. He walks, but she stands near the street out in front of her house and waits for the short bus to come and pick her up. Once, she called the boy over and counted from one to ten in German while staring him right in the face. Spit drooled from her mouth as she spoke the phlegmy and hard-edged words. The boy couldn't imagine a less beautiful language.
Another time, she yelled to him that she'd bought a new bikini and asked the boy if he wanted to see her try it on. When he kept his head down and his feet moving, when he didn't even swivel in the direction the words were coming from, Rebecca's voice turned mean. She shouted, "Before my accident, you would've counted yourself lucky to receive such an invitation! And I mean lucky!"
The next few months, she usually said something to the boy about a hot tub. She would tell him how warm the water in her hot tub was, and how good the jets would feel on his back. She would ask him if he wanted to come and sit in it with her, and then she would cackle out a broken laugh. She didn't even seem to get mad anymore when he zoomed right past her, afraid to look. Though it made no sense to him at all, it was like the shyer he became, the more fun she had goading him.
His sister, he is certain, is beautiful. She has long and wavy red hair and skin as white as the belly of a bass. It is impossible for him to imagine that Rebecca was ever beautiful the way Leanne is.
The boy stops well short of the screen door, but he can smell the mesh and dust of it. The porch is dimly lit by a window that looks in on the house proper. Rebecca, he sees, is wearing shorts.
"Name, rank, and serial number," Rebecca says.
The boy stands there smelling the door, trying not to look at Rebecca's horrible legs, thinking about how it wasn't just her face and body that were damaged in the accident. She missed an entire year of school, and they let her come back as a senior so that she could graduate, but her brain, he has heard, isn't what it used to be. He isn't sure what to say, and he feels this uncertainty as a hollowness in his throat. He starts to say his name, but Rebecca interrupts him.
"I'm kidding," she says. "Come in, come in. I'd get up, but—" She touches the tops of her metal braces. It's hard for him to believe the person sitting before him is only nineteen.
He opens the door and steps inside and smells something. It's not a bad smell, and it's strong. He can't quite identify it, and when he inhales more deeply, trying to figure it out, Rebecca points to her left. "It's eucalyptus," she says. "Look anywhere in this house, you'll probably find eucalyptus."
The door closes behind the boy. He can hear a television playing somewhere inside the house, the volume up high. He doesn't know what to do with his hands. He remembers for some reason that when he first saw Rebecca using her poles to board the school bus he thought they were kind of cool. It was like she was part robot.
"My parents fall asleep with the tv on like that every night," Rebecca says. "I come out here for some peace. Plus, it's supposed to rain sometime soon and I want to see it."
The air is humid like rain, the boy thinks, but there were no clouds in the sky earlier. "There are stars," the boy says.
"For now," Rebecca says.
The boy tries to remember whether he had seen the moon earlier. Maybe, he thinks, it was hidden by clouds.
The boy is trying not to stare, but his eyes keep flitting back and forth between Rebecca's face and her legs. He saw her face up close that one time she was shouting German—which she called Deutsch—at him like an SS officer, but all he was really seeing then were those ugly numbers. Her face, he sees now, is swollen and bumpy, puffy to the point of fat, but jagged in places, as if there is glass buried beneath the fleshy surface. Her legs aren't any better. The boy knows a little bit about skin grafts, about how doctors sometimes take skin from one part of a person's body to build up another part, and it looks like doctors have spent a lot of time gouging her legs. They're still big and jiggly-looking, but her thighs and calves are pocked with pink crevasses. The boy wishes it were darker there on the porch.
"You can sit down," Rebecca says, swiping a hand through the air at a chair across from the glider.
"OK," the boy says. He squats and sets his flashlight down near the door and then crosses the porch. The sounds coming from the TV inside are more like vibrations now. He can feel them more than he can hear them.
As the boy lowers himself into the chair, he feels his throat going dry. He thinks about those earthworms in his backyard, chugging through dry dirt, looking for mud. Once he's sitting, though, he realizes that the light over Rebecca's head is no longer illuminating her the way it was when he was outside. Now that he's closer, it's as if the two of them are sitting in almost utter darkness. All he can see of her is a vague outline, like a shadow.
"If you've come for the hot tub," Rebecca says, "I should tell you now that it's a little under the weather." She moves an arm—a thumb, maybe?—in the direction of the house. "Repair guy is supposed to come later this week."
The boy wonders whether the hot tub even exists, and he hopes, in a way that hurts, that it does. More heat lightning flashes in the sky, lighting up the porch like a camera flash, and the boy remembers how desperately Rebecca used to call out to him when he was hurrying past her on his way to school. "Hey, cutie!" she would call. "I have a hot tub! You want to come and sit with me in my hot tub?"
She had this way of leaning on her braces when she spoke. She would drape a chubby forearm over the top of one of her poles and then rise up onto the toes of her thick-soled shoes. She looked like she might topple over with want.
The boy isn't sure what to say about the hot tub. It occurs to him to say something about not having his swim trunks with him, but that seems stupid. He decides to stay quiet and sits there hoping that Rebecca asks every single boy that passes—and not just him—to come and sit with her in that hot tub that may or may not exist.
Excerpted from Tell Everyone I Said Hi by Chad Simpson Copyright © 2012 by Chad Simpson. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
You Would've Counted Yourself Lucky....................3
Tell Everyone I Said Hi....................62
The First Night Game at Wrigley....................92
Two Weeks and One Day....................109