What Burns

What Burns

by Dale Peck


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The first collection of short fiction from Lambda Award–winning novelist Dale Peck spans twenty-five years of writing, including two O. Henry award-winners and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize.
The stories in What Burns examine the extremes of desire against a backdrop of family, class, and mortality.
In “Bliss,” a young man befriends the convicted felon who murdered his mother when he was only a child. In “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” a teenage boy fends off the advances of a five-year-old his mother babysits. And in “Dues,” a man discovers that everything he owns is borrowed from someone else—including his time on earth.
Walking the tightrope between tenderness and violence that has defined Peck’s work since the publication of his first novel, Martin and John, through his most recent, Night Soil, What Burns reveals Peck’s mastery of the short form.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641290821
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 5.49(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

Dale Peck is the author of fourteen books in a variety of genres, including Visions and Revisions, Martin and John, Hatchet Jobs, and Sprout. His fiction and criticism have appeared in dozens of publications, and have earned him two O. Henry Awards, a Pushcart Prize, a Lambda Literary Award, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. He lives in New York City, where he has taught in the New School’s Graduate Writing Program since 1999.

Read an Excerpt

An excerpt from “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” the first story in the collection
Davis was pushing a tiny wheeled cart across the living room carpet when I walked through the front door. The cart was attached to a long stick painted some pinkish red color halfway between old white lady lipstick and dog’s penis. As it rolled back and forth a propellor connected to one of the axles batted a bunch of wooden balls around a clear plastic bubble like the thoughts in a crazy person’s head. The cart was John Deere green and if it looked like anything it looked like a lawnmower, but Davis called it his Lectroluck, which where he picked up that word is anybody’s guess. We had a Hoover, and I seriously doubt his mom even knew what a vacuum was.
     Hey, Gayvis, what’s up?
     In my experience gay is one of those words, like penis, that’s always good for a laugh. Davis, however, didn’t laugh, or look up from his vacuuming. He wore an apron made from one of my T-shirts held in place by one of my belts, double wrapped around his soft tiny waist.
     Well look who finally decided to come home? Would it have killed you to pick up a phone?
     I dropped my gym bag in the middle of the floor and headed down the hall.
     Blaine Gunderson! After I slaved all day to clean this house for you, and dinner still to get ready! The least you could do is—
     I slammed my bedroom door on Davis’s rant. Davis’s mom worked as a waitress at the titty bar out by the interstate. She worked the day shift, when there were six, maybe seven cars in the parking lot, tops. One of them was hers, and one of them was the stripper’s, and one of them was the bartender’s, and plus Davis’s mom was a little fat, so you know the tips sucked. My mom said flat out that the only way she could possibly make ends meet was by blowing truckers. I could see how a mother like that could drive you crazy. My mom wasn’t half as bad as Davis’s, and she made me nuts.
     I cracked my laptop just as Davis hipped open the door, his Lectroluck clackety-clack-clacking into the room behind him, my backpack hanging off his tiny shoulders like a catamount mauling a calf.
     Don’t you close the door when I’m talking to you, Blaine Gunderson.
     My mom wasn’t very good at covering her tracks. The cache of Internet Explorer said that after she checked for updates on the gay porn site she read every day she looked up recipes for tuna casserole and green beans almondine, which turned out to be green beans with almonds. Great. Green beans and nuts.
     Davis vacuumed my floor, his little voice barely audible above the racket. All day I slave, and do I hear one word of thanks? One Honey, the house sure looks great, or Is that a new hairstyle, darlin’, or even Screw it, babe, put the pork chops back in the fridge and let’s go to Olive Garden? No. Nothing.
     Davis, if you keep pushing that toy around I’m gonna shove that lipstick penis so far up your rectum you’ll have to vacuum with your ass.
     Rectum: another one of those words. Davis didn’t seem to know this, but at least he dropped the penis stick and pulled his feather duster from the belt of his apron.
     Was it creepy that my mom looked at gay porn? Or was it only creepy because she did it on my computer? The computer’d been a fourteenth-birthday present from my dad, which sent my mom through the roof. Can’t afford child support but he can drop a thousand dollars on a computer? How’m I supposed to pay the mortgage with that? I doubt the computer was worth a thousand bucks new and it was beat to hell by the time I got it, but at least my dad’s porn, or the porn of whoever he bought it from, was gender appropriate, even if the girls were my age.
     Davis’s duster flitted and fluttered over the computer screen.
     Blaine! Looking at those kinds of pictures, and in front of me! Imagine!
     This way I don’t have to imagine. Hey, Gayvis, why don’t you clean under the bed? Or in the closet? Or maybe on a busy highway?
     Davis worked his way down the desk and reached his duster up to the windowsill. He’d had it with him the first morning his mom dropped him off at our house, and before she left he was already running it over the TV and stereo. I caught the scene as I was heading off to school: a five-year-old with a feather duster and a kerchief tied around his head, I had to stop. His right pinkie stuck out as though he held a teacup and a golden cloud enveloped him, iridescent in the morning light.
     Static electricity draws dust bunnies like bees to honey!
     I looked at the mother of the freak. A couple inches of stomach rolled out between her cutoffs and a Double-O Inn T-shirt. The Os circled her boobs and the inn had an arrow at the bottom of the second N that pointed to her vagina.
     Don’t you worry about Davis, she said, sucking on a cigarette. He just has his little routine.
     I know how housework can get away from you, Mrs. Gunderson, Davis said, lifting a china figurine from the TV, dusting it, setting it back down. But don’t you worry, I’m here now. If you’ll just show me where you keep the cleaning supplies, I’ll have this place spic ’n’ span before you know it.
     I get off at four, Davis’s mom said, reaching a finger into the fold of her navel and pulling out a belly ring. But sometimes I run a little late. She let go of her belly ring and it disappeared again. I looked up to see if maybe her hair had gotten longer.
     Blaine, Davis said now. I want to talk to you about your mother. I know I must sound like a broken record on this, but I’m not sure how much longer I can continue to live with that woman.
     On screen, Tina told me she’d been saving it all for me, but I knew she hadn’t.
     Always with the telephone, and the TV, and the nail polish. All day the woman does her nails. Would it kill her to do one load of laundry, or even rinse her toothpaste blobbies down the sink? And our love life has suffered since she moved in. I hate to say it, Blaine, but you know it’s the truth.
     No, Tina hadn’t saved anything. But she was willing to show me what she’d learned from giving it away. That’s what I liked about Tina.
     And her friends! Don’t even get me started on her friends.
     My mom’s “friends” were the other kids she babysits. This had been her brainwave last spring, which coincided with her getting canned from the café for spending more time flirting than working: unlicensed day care. Substandard service at bargain basement prices. The business didn’t actually have a name, but my mom referred to it as Broken Homes, Not Broken Bones.
     Meanwhile, Tina wanted me to take it out of my pants. Just then there was that knock/open thing my mom did, and her face appeared in the doorway with the phone tucked under her ear. As a well-prepared teen, my computer faced away from the door, and I glared at my mom over Tina’s teased hair as if it was me who’d caught her doing something.
     Davis, honey, your mom just beeped in. She’s gonna be late so you’ll be having dinner with us, okay? It’s tuna casserole, your favorite.
     Davis had clambered on the bed and was running the edge of his apron—i.e., my shirt—between the posts of my headboard.
     It’s not Could we have tuna casserole tonight? or even I’m feeling like tuna casserole, what about you? No, it’s It’s tuna casserole, your favorite, as though it was my idea all along.
     Green beans almondine, honey. You’ll love it.
     And does she even ask what my husband, her son, who pays for the roof over her head, wants for dinner? No-o-o.
     Your husband hates tuna casserole. And green beans. And nuts. Except his own, of course.
     Oh, Blaine, don’t encourage him, he’s weird enough as it is.
     With a little scrolling I was able to make Tina’s face disappear, and my mom’s took its place. The result looked like one of those caricatures you get at the state fair, with the head all big and the body tiny, and the boobs sticking out from either side of the skinny abdomen like balloons tied to a stick. It occurred to me that the creepiest thing about my mom looking at gay porn on my computer was that she looked up recipes immediately afterwards.
     I do not like it when you look at me that way, Blaine Gunderson. You are a very disturbed boy. No, Dan, not you, she said into the phone. My other boy. And baby? The yard is looking a little raggedy. You think you could get out the mower and—not you, Dan. My other baby. She closed the door, her giggles faded down the hall. An afterimage of red nail polish hung in front of my eyes, although I couldn’t remember actually seeing her hands.
     Fine, I’ll make your tuna casserole. Anything you want, Mother Gunderson.
     I closed the laptop on Tina’s headless body, swiveled the chair to face Davis. He was taking the soccer clothes out of my bag. T-shirt, shorts, socks. Despite the fact that they were soaked with sweat and caked with mud he folded them one at a time and put them in my dresser. He stopped when he came to the jock, which he held up with a questioning look on his face.
     It’s the wrapper from some head cheese I bought today.
     Davis put his free hand on his hip and frowned skeptically.
     No, really, smell it. It smells like head cheese.
     The jock was gray and kind of caky, the cup still in it. Davis brought it close to his face and his nose wrinkled. He sniffed once, then a second time. Then a third.
     I don’t believe I care for head cheese, dear. He threw the jock in the wastebasket beside the bed, which was mostly filled with tissues.
     Oh, do you have a cold? He pawed through the wastebasket, taking out tissue after tissue and lining them up on the windowsill like sharp-edged snowballs. You should tell me these things, I could have picked up some Nyquil while you were at work. You’ll be up all night. Blaine! Davis called as I walked out of the room. I hope you didn’t forget it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow!
     It was July 20, 2005, seven months to the day into George W. Bush’s second term of office. Davis was still five years old.

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