To celebrate the release of US author Willy Vlautin’s new book, Don’t Skip Out On Me, he wrote a short story just for us
Purcell Jenny’s younger sister cut his hair the night before the tournament with electric clippers. She also gave him her bible to carry in his gym bag. His mother made his favourite dinner of hamburger patties covered in mushroom soup, mashed potatoes and peas. Even after that he weighed himself at one hundred and twenty-seven pounds.
He’d make weight no problem.
He was in bed by eight and asleep by 10. He woke only once in the night when their half-blind dog, Malfus, had a barking fit as he sometimes did. Purcell looked at the clock, called for Malfus and the dog jumped on the bed next to him. He closed his eyes again and was asleep until his mother woke him at five AM.
“I have breakfast in the oven for you. Two eggs, two pieces of bacon and two sausages. Two, two, two, ’cause I know you’ll be an Arizona Golden Gloves champion today. Your second time in a row. And this year you’ll win nationals.”
“I need to win nationals.”
“I know you do. Who are you fighting first?”
“A guy named Horace Hopper.”
“Is he any good?”
Purcell shrugged. “I’ve never heard of him.”
His mother smiled. “It doesn’t matter who it is. You’ll beat him.”
“I’ll beat him,” Purcell said. “Thank you for breakfast, Ma.”
“I don’t know how you can sleep with that dog all over you.”
“He’s my pal,” Purcell said and hugged the dog.
“I have to go now. Your clothes are on the kitchen table. Your father called last night and said he’d be here by eight.”
Purcell sat up in sudden worry, “It’s a three-and-a-half-hour drive and my match is at twelve thirty. He said we were leaving at six.”
“I know, I told him he’s cutting it too close but he promised eight at the very latest. He helped train you, this is important to him, too. No matter what he’s done, he won’t mess this up. I know he won’t. I have to get to work now, but I want you to know I prayed for you last night and I’ll pray all day for your safety.”
She then winked at him. “I also gave an extra little prayer that we can get the heck out of Arizona and back to California.”
Purcell began calling his father every five minutes starting at eight fifteen. After that he called everyone who he thought might know where his father was. His mother was in Henderson, over an hour away, and she didn’t have a cellphone. He called the bus stations but they all arrived too late and nowhere near the tournament. He went to the neighbours he knew, but no one was home. He called a kid he went to school with to see if he could borrow his motorcycle, but the kid said he’d forgotten to put oil in it and the engine had seized.
He called a taxi service but he had only $20 and he couldn’t find any of his mother’s money. He called his father twice more and then left a final message saying he was hitchhiking to Mesa. For a mile he ran as hard as he could to the onramp of the interstate. He had never hitchhiked but he just stuck out his thumb like he’d seen people do. It was 11 by the time he caught a ride with three Mexican men in a pickup truck. He sat in the bed, closed his eyes and tried to remain calm. The Mexicans took him as far as Sun City, a suburb of Phoenix. When he got out he began running until he came to a gas station. He went inside and looked at the clock.
Three PM, he’d missed the fight.
He went outside and sat on the kerb. He broke down sobbing in the parking lot with the heat of the day bearing down on him. He couldn’t remember the last time he had cried. He wiped his eyes and started walking back towards the onramp to Kingman. It took him an hour of waiting in the sun before someone stopped. Again, it was Mexicans. Two concrete workers in an old beat-up Toyota. They dropped him eight miles from his house. He walked the rest of the way in the evening sun.
He laid on the couch with Malfus and watched TV. His sister came home and he told her what had happened and she sat on the couch with him. His father came by after that.
He beat on the door three times and then just walked in.
“Guess you didn’t care about the tournament,” he said. His eyes were glassy and his voice swayed but it didn’t slur. He wore red shorts and a white tank top with stains on it.
Purcell got off the couch.
“I was here. I called you 11 times. Why didn’t you show up?”
“Me, show up? Look at Mr. Superstar trying to blame me,” his father said and looked at his daughter. “After all the work I did training him. And what does he do? Hides under the bed, that’s what he does.” He looked then at Purcell. “Too scared to see what you got inside, huh?”
Purcell walked towards him. He clenched his fists. He looked like he might hit his father. “You didn’t show up. Don’t say you did.”
His father began to get angry, but he saw the look in Purcell’s eyes and again turned to his daughter. “He’s a big tough guy now, huh? Well, remember he ain’t shit. I know. I can smell fear on anybody and he stinks of it. You probably still think he’s Mr. Cool, huh? Well, you’re just a kid. Back in my day I could have beat his ass.”
Purcell moved closer but his father only laughed, shook his head, and backed up. He then turned around and walked out the door. They heard his car start and drive away.
Purcell sat down on the couch with Malfus. His sister went to the kitchen and came back with two bowls of ice cream.
“We won’t see him for a long time now,” she said.
“Nope,” Purcell said.
“I thought ice cream might help. You haven’t let yourself have it in I don’t know how long.”
“It’s been three months,” Purcell said taking the ice cream as his sister sat next to him.
Don’t Skip Out On Me is out now, £14.99 (Faber & Faber)
(Illustration: Sam Peet @ GGReps)