the minnesota review is pleased to feature each of our nominees for the 2012 Pushcart Prize in the coming weeks. This week we are excited to bring you an excerpt of Barrett Bowlin‘s “But I Can Only Do It Once.” Please check back next week for more on our nominees and their work.
But I Can Only Do It Once
Before the fire blows out a corner of the house where Jack Marsh and his family live, before my father’s oxygen tank overheats and sends shrapnel into the neighbor’s yard, he opens his eyes in the rental Trendelenburg bed, licks his lips, and tells me a story.
“So there’s this talent scout.”
My father’s face is now as gaunt and sagging as his scrotum, which my mother and I now wipe. He is blotchy and bruised in improbable places, like the top of his head, where all his hair has fallen out but is beginning to grow back in. We’ve been told this is what happens when you stop chemotherapy. He will do this occa- sionally: wake up from the middle of a horrible sleep, pick up on a conversation he thinks he’s having or one we’ve had already and from much earlier in the day. We talk a lot about breakfast.
It’s late for tonight, a Wednesday, and I’ve been having diffi- culty sleeping. Sleep feels less and less necessary, but I’m busy read- ing my Civics primer and learning about U.S. senatorial protocol. Concerned about the dark patches I’m wearing below my eyes most days, my mother has yelled up that it’s time for bed soon, but my father either doesn’t hear her or doesn’t care.
“And he’s taking appointments for new acts, and all these peo- ple are coming through the door, lining up and waiting for their minute with him.”
My father licks at the corner of his mouth. His breath smells like oatmeal.
“Dad,” I say. “Hey, are you thirsty?”
He picks at the new Fentanyl patch that’s driving concentrated morphine into his skin.
“And the talent scout hasn’t seen anything new all day.” He pauses, looks down at his arm. “And he’s just about to close up shop when this clown comes in and starts juggling.”
Next to his bed is the plastic water pitcher he’s brought home from his last trip to the hospital. I shake it. Ice clicks at the sides as the water sloshes.
“And the talent scout says he’s not interested. Packs up his brief- case and papers.”
I fill his cup up again and reposition the straw. Before coming home on hospice care, my father would receive straws in his drinks at restaurants without asking for them, pull them out, and lay them by the side of the glass. He would gulp and leave grease on the rims as he would drink.
“So the clown jumps on a unicycle and starts pedaling around the office carpet. The talent scout? He’s not even looking up.”
My father, Jack Marsh, blinks on and off and on again. He stares at me like he’s sleeping, and I have to stare back to see if he’s unconscious most days now.
“So now the clown knows he’s in trouble. And he’s desperate. So he says all quiet-like, ‘Hold your horses; you’ve got to see this.’ From some pocket or something, okay, he whips out a bottle of nitro- glycerin. Drinks that down like it’s lemonade.” He slurs out lemon- ade and rolls his eyes. “Then he pulls out a stick of dynamite and munches it down to the wick like a carrot.”
“But I Can Only Do It Once” was first published in issue 79 (Fall 2012) of the minnesota review. On his current projects, Barrett Bowlin says, “Short and sweet, my main work in Creative Writing these days has taken place over at Memorious: a Journal of New Verse and Fiction, where I serve as the mag’s prose editor. Since I’ve worked as an editor for so long now, and at a variety of journals and magazines, I feel most comfortable helping to identify these works of amazing fiction whenever they drop into our slush piles, more so than I do trying to make my own short stories functional. (However, I’m really, really, really excited that two independent publishing houses are currently considering my novel-in-stories manuscript.) And on a more personal level, I’ve been teaching my kindergartener and toddler how to play piano, in the hopes that they’ll someday find gainful employment at a steakhouse & bar as dueling musicians.” You can read the rest of “But I Can Only Do It Once” by accessing our online archive at Duke University Press, available here.