national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014


Brian Smith  • 
Guilford College

A spider-web pattern, they call it, when tempered glass cracks this way, not breaking all the way through but broken just the same, useless now. A spider spends—how long? an hour, a lifetime?—literally hanging its life on a thread. A broom handle in the hand of a bored schoolboy brings it down in no time; broken, lifeless now. Residual matter. Sticky.


The first time my car hit something that was alive it was a squirrel that had run out from a ditch in front of a pecan grove on a quiet two-lane highway in Macon, Georgia (that must have been paradise to a squirrel). I didn’t see it but I heard it whump under me, saw it bounce like a beached trout on the blacktop in my rearview. My car kissed the ditch when I was asleep at the wheel one time, and it rattled me awake, my heart pounding in my teeth all the way home. In the morning, I saw a crumpled groundhog in my ditch-side tire tracks, maybe taken in its sleep, and I had slept right through it.

I hit a possum once; scurrying across the road in my high-beams, it turned to face me. I had just finished a 16-hour shift, but I stayed awake wondering if there were possum children waiting for a mother who wasn’t coming back – or worse, that they were still alive for a while there in her pouch on the side of the road where I had left her, many tiny deaths from a split-second pause. They say a rabid possum doesn’t play dead; instead it spits and hisses. I saw one do that in my yard once, when the flashlight hit its eyes it bared its teeth and the hair on my neck sent me back into the house.

When I was 12, a fawn walked out in front of my dad’s truck. From the shotgun side I braced against the dashboard—no seat belts in a ’68 Ford—and Dad slammed the brakes, stopping just inside the space where the tiny deer’s body was, making a sound like the thump of balled-up sweatsocks in an empty hamper. The deerchild fell and we stepped out of the truck to see what the damage was. No stain, no dent to see, just that soft wet thump. As we watched, the spider-legged thing pulled itself off of the ground and ran away. “Huh,” my dad said. “Must’ve knocked the wind out of him. Or he was playing possum.”


That year in gym class, on a day I didn’t dress out but just watched, I saw my friend Joey catch a horseshoe with his face. His feet left the ground, like a Tom-and-Jerry cartoon, and I laughed (but it sounded like I was choking) for the split-second it took for it all to sink in. He just lay there. There was no sound, I think. And then the gym teacher ran to him, screaming.  I thought about what my mom had always said about clean underwear when the ambulance took Joey away. He was gone for a year. I didn’t go see him in the hospital, I just heard what the others said.

When Joey came back to school, he had a scar on his forehead that told the world about his amazing feat, and that he had lived to tell about it, if you call what he was still able to do living. He would try to tell jokes from his wheelchair, but the punch lines took forever, and a lot of us got tired of waiting to see if we still thought it was funny. Like. Cobwebs. Joey would say. In. My. Brain. Articulate but glacial. Joey nodded off in study hall once and I used a couple binder clips to put Uno cards in the spokes of his wheelchair. When he started off down the hall, he sounded like an eight-year-old tearing it up on a Schwinn. He felt down his tires and touched the cards in his spokes, and he laughed and he cried a little, too, and his laugh sounded like the dry heaves even though I didn’t know what the dry heaves sounded like then. Pink-faced, Joey asked me to help him. Get. The. Cards. Off. of his spokes. It embarrassed me, too, because I hadn’t even thought that he might not be able to unprank himself anymore. We didn’t talk about the Uno card incident, or much else after that.


Annie Lomax lives about a half-mile from me, and I wave at her when she bikes by the house, all pink helmet and machine-gun Bicycle cards. I wave again when she pedals back from the One-Stop, asking myself why her parents let her take her bike through that ill-conceived S-curve just before Mishkin’s store, what with the traffic and all. Everyone says that someone is bound to get hurt there. I imagine her buckling her helmet as she leaves the store some time, dangling a plastic bag from her handlebars before she heel-kicks her kickstand up. I imagine the distinct shape of a Cheerwine bottle, Barbeque Fritos, a roll of butter rum LifeSavers, a little sweat from the soda clinging to the bag, the bag swinging to the right as she pushes down with her left foot first.

I can see the hood of the Plymouth that she doesn’t—she’s no match for that thing. Right there in front of me as I round the S-curve. Cheerwine spews. I hear it hissing, like a radiator does when you shouldn’t twist off the cap. Corn chips bounce off the top of that behemoth, tiny hailstones on a tin roof, sleeping weather. The wet with the crunchy, the salty with the sweet. Things stop for a moment. I just watch as the butter rum LifeSavers sail over the Plymouth, getting bigger and bigger before they make a spider-web of my windshield.