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The Greatest

Ray sat at a dinner table big enough for just two chairs, a can of Black Label beer in his hand. He’d punched out an hour ago, and often it was here he’d sit – right through the meal with his wife – until he went to bed. Then up before the sun, driving back to that gray building in the damp chill that rolls off the sea. Back to the knife and slitting open cold fish, taking off heads, removing guts.

His hands were nicked and scarred, and he thumbed a flap of skin on his right index finger, a fresh cut from today’s work. This morning, when his grip slipped and the blade sliced in, he’d stared at the blood leaking from the wound for a full 30 seconds before finally getting up and walking to the sink.

The wind swept over the field, tumbled across the driveway and whistled into the crack in the corner of the trailer, entering just to the right of the sink. Ray swore he’d been hearing that sound his entire life, even though they’d been living in the trailer for only four years. But four years is a lifetime, isn’t it, for some things?

Wasn’t he once going to be the greatest?

The young look straight ahead, evenly, at the horizon. But their necks weaken, their chins tilt, their eyes drift downward to rest on the ground just before their feet. It happens to others, he knew; how had it happened to him?

A youth filled with heroic things. A game-winning home run – notable not for the hit but because fate had placed him in that position. Losing his virginity to a pretty girl, years his elder. A friend pulled from a river swollen with spring melt-off. A fistfight won against a man while himself still a boy.

Ray put a slight dent in his beer can with his thumb, then popped it back out. He put it to his lips and sucked at the liquid.

Stealing a neighbor’s car in the dead of a black night, speeding down a poorly lit road, his friend pounding the dash in excitement, shouting encouragement. A short chase by the cops and dizzying speeds, but the wheel had vibrated and the pavement blurred and his friend, scared – both of them scared – had screamed for him to pull over, and it ended.

Thievery wasn’t the point. While his friends had talked and talked for weeks about stealing that car, that rebuilt Chevy, Ray had simply walked up to it that night, seen the keys inside, opened the door, put it in neutral and pushed it silently down the drive. He had always done the things that others watched and marveled at.

He had believed that indicated something about his future.

His wife came out of their bedroom, her shoulders bumping, this one then that, the sides of the narrow hall. She smiled and slid past him, her fingers touching his neck. At the table, his mouth set flat and straight, he said nothing as she grabbed a glass and flipped the tap at the sink.

She was the cause of this, he wanted to believe. A hot night five years ago, a lake, clothes coming off, a body so lean and curved he could not afford to disregard it. After that, long talks in the dark, in that summer’s heat, of dreams and hopes. They had been 18, Ray’s heart had fluttered, and it sure felt like love. Why not get married? And so it went. And here he was.

It wasn’t that she held him back or had dragged him down so much as he’d needed a repository for his angst, and she was vacuous and always present, an easy place to pump despair. The body wasn’t lean any more, though; even her ankles were swollen, her back ached and she slept poorly beside him.

Time had gotten away. With little money but married; buy a trailer for the lot his uncle had sold him cheap. Get a job so he could pay on the trailer. Work at the canning factory because he needed a job. Fish. How many times had he said he would not work with those fucking fish? The smell had been there forever and sometimes he felt it was the only one he ever knew – pungent and meaty, laying over the town like a fog and twisting through his every childhood memory.

In his mind at the time of hire, the factory was just for one year, to pay for the trailer, the lot, a couch. Save some, then go. Take to the road, see where it led them, because Ray had always gotten chosen, had always won, he moved to the front and others followed. His life had proved that to him for his entire 23 years.

But it wasn’t that way now, and the crowd behind him was gone, dispersed across this town to mobile homes and cabins and pre-made houses slapped together. To hunting lodges – just for now, just to get a start – or back into parents’ homes for help with the feedings.

If she weren’t around he could just say fuck it all and – but she was; he’d meant it when he asked her to be his wife, he’d known where marriages lead, and he would not run off and leave them now. There was no fault to lie at her feet. He heard the faucet snap off behind him, and she was brushing by. At the last second, when any further hesitation would put her out of reach, he grabbed for her hand, curling two of his uninjured fingers around her smallest digits. Her head turned, white teeth and a smile, and then she was gone back down the hallway.

He was walled in. The lot and trailer were theirs clear, but the factory did not pay enough so that they could afford to build, this was it, and he could no longer see where the clouds met the ocean.

The fish broiled in the oven, and the smell he could not take. Ray stood from the table, grabbed his jacket off the chair and went outside onto the two-bit porch, shutting the door behind him. It was spring, but dying piles of snow under the trees chilled the air. He closed his jacket with one hand, drank beer with the other.

His truck sat just feet away, the keys in it. It would take no effort to put it in neutral and push it free from the drive, so quiet his wife would not hear, would not go to a window and look.

Ray stared at the windshield, at the salt-stains on the sides, at the snow tires. He tilted his beer and emptied it down his throat. Mindful of the cut on his finger, he crushed the can, then let it drop to the porch. The wind moved out from under the trees, shushed over the field and found the crack.


Brady Huggett is a writer and editor living in New York City.  His work has appeared in Verbsap, The King’s English, Atlanta Magazine, Charlotte Magazine, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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