Novel Excerpt Contest 1st Place: “Take Warning: The Ballad of Sammy Slug” by Glenn Lester

October 3, 2022

“Take Warning:  The Ballad of Sammy Slug grabbed me from the beginning with its disarming and charmingly manic exordium, which introduces us to the rollicking voice of the eponymous narrator. The author does an excellent job of drawing me into Sammy/Andrew’s world, creating a vivid sense of the stakes and themes of the book in a few paragraphs. The excerpt also has an assured sense of scene, character development and milieu, a wonderful ear for clever dialogue, and a strikingly original eye for detail. I’m also impressed by the balance the opening chapters strike between comic and melancholy—there’s a light touch here that makes me trust this writer. Based on these lively opening twenty pages, I’m definitely hooked and eager to read more. — Guest Judge, Dan Chaon.



My name is Sammy Slug, and I faked punk.

This is the story of me, and of Gibbs Mott, and of a poor kid who lost a brother and two fingers when all he wanted was to be my friend. This is the story of a sorrowful young mother, and of my sorrowful mother, and of the many arrays and arrangements of love: some of them true, one of them mine. This is the story of slapdash schemes to make money, of running and running away, a story of basements and bedrooms and back seats of cars, of three deaths and a birth (although not in that order), and of blunders, faults, forgeries, and fuck-ups.

But also:

This is a story about good music, bad beer, plaid sport coats, and malodorous adhesives. It’s the story of learning who you are, and trying to forget who you are, and then trying to be someone else, and later trying to get back to what you started off as, and finally throwing up your hands like whatever, because if you’ve read anything worth reading or seen a single good movie in your life or thought for more than like four seconds about the trends and faults lines of contemporary American life, then you know the simple truth: you can’t go back to whatever it was you thought you were.

And you can’t fake your way forward, either.

They called me Sammy Slug, but I was born Andrew David Steevers on a cloudy afternoon in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, birthplace of a true dork. My mother’s name is Gloria, daughter to an office machines salesman and a housewife, who is at present living in a basementless bungalow near Clearwater Beach, happy as a Gulf oyster, thank you very much. My father taught remedial pre-algebra and coached cross country and once narrowly missed a slot in the Olympics. I have no siblings and good memories of a happy childhood: cookies in my lunchbox, fires in the fireplace, VCR rentals on a Friday night. The world seemed to widen ahead of me like a good cross country course, orange plastic pyramids marking every turn.

Then, without warning, we moved, and my father died, and the first part of this story began.



My father had a speech he liked to give at the beginning of every season. After warm-ups, he’d round up his runners, settle them into a shaded patch of grass behind the bleachers, and wait for everyone to hush. He’d look from one eager, impatient face to the next, and, when he was satisfied that each kid was listening, would ask what they thought they were here to do.

“To run,” somebody would say.

“To win,” another would propose.

“To do my best?” might venture some idealistic soul.

He’d nod, pace, murmur. “To win conference, right? To beat the pants off the other kid?” He’d pause. “For victory?” He said victory like I might say alfalfa? as I picked through a salad.

One of the better younger runners, a kid who hadn’t heard it all before, might raise a timid hand. “You mean lowering my PR?”

My father hung his head and smiled at his Sauconys. “No, no. You’re not here for yourselves at all. You are here, ladies and gentlemen, to participate in a storied tradition, one that stretches from the cradle of civilization to the latest kid to dare a friend to see who can run to that mailbox and back first.”

The freshmen twisted their necks while the seniors said calm down, there’s no actual mailbox, just a figure of speech.

A figure of speech indeed. Soon my father would be deep into his discourse, an epic peroration on that oldest ritual of sport, the foot race, and how what the team would embark upon together was nothing less than the contemporary expression of the ancient Greek virtues of camaraderie, fortitude, and teamwork. Because back then, my father said, each polis, which means city-state (“and if you want to know what that means, I suggest you talk to Mr. Prince about signing up for Latin,” to which everyone laughed), each polis would fashion a team of its fiercest competitors, would remove them from society to train, to be molded into a team, a unit, a corps of runners whose speed, stamina, and commitment was unmatched in the known world, whose unbreakable bond was forged not from pride nor rivalry but from something almost holy. And when this team was ready (my father’s eyes closed, a fist clasped against his chest), it would contend among others, from around the Aegean, each team competing in a contest not so much of speed, but of will, resilience, and determination. Each team would race, with all of its swiftness, and all of its heart, to get more of its runners across the finish line first.

“And for what?” my father would say, his voice rising to a shiver. “For family? For individual glory? No.” He’d open his eyes and stare above his runners’ heads at a dark gap in the trees behind them, where the mouth of a running trail opened wide.

“For the polis and its gods.”

Here, someone might sigh. A junior might elbow a sophomore and snicker. The freshmen would wonder if they should be writing this down.

I still haven’t been able to figure out how much of his speech was bullshit. Some surely came from imperfect memories of Pindar, Alan Sillitoe, and Once A Runner; other bits must have been invented. The more essential question is how much of it my father believed, and when. (I have to assume that my father was like the rest of us: he believed different things on different days.)

“Now, Hannah and Daniel” (or Eva and Rees, or Alayna and Austin—whoever were captains that year), “why don’t you come up and talk goals for the season. I want you thinking big picture, all right? I want you thinking as a team.”

The captains would say, “We were thinking maybe start with win conference?” while the other runners picked dirt from the bottoms of their shoes and wondered if they’d signed up for a sport where the coach was a crazy person, and maybe it wasn’t too late to switch to volleyball? One runner, perhaps, looked away from the circle, and saw a boy of five or six or seven or eight shimmying up the back of the bleachers, or practicing his handstands in the grass, or dragging the hurdles away from the inner lanes of the track.

That was me. Coach’s kid. On the sidelines. Waiting my turn.

I remember fog-bound Saturdays at muddy invitationals, clumps of kids shivering in their singlets as they redid the safety pins on their numbers. I remember bus rides home from meets where we’d lost by twenty, my father fuming behind the driver while his runners whispered in the back, asking each other if it was safe to work on their pre-calc homework. (Sure, they ran for each other, for the polis, but the gods still demanded victory every now and then.) I remember warm sun on cool grass, soft grunts and hard breaths, the endless bouts of runner’s cough, the joy of watching the pack appear around a far bend, and the fearful ecstasy of a mother crying “Go! Push!” as her child struggled to hang on.

On race day, I’d stand next to the clerk, collect bib tags and string them along a length of wire. I’d fill cups from a water cooler and arrange them on the table in a matrix. I’d watch my father crouch near the finish line, clipboard under his armpit, stopwatch tucked in the pocket of his East High polo. When his runners appeared—he liked them to run in a pack and didn’t care so much who led at first—he would rise and fan the air with his clipboard. When it was time to surge, to turn the last 1200 or 800 into a gutsy haul, our gods against yours, he would raise an arm, and it would happen. A runner would break pack and the others would bunch up behind her, laying waste to all comers. For my father, you pushed your fifth runner, not your first. On his clipboard, he made a pencil mark for each time and only turned to the finishing chute when his last runner had made it. And then he was all hollers. He boxed the air with abandon, a one-man dispensary of high fives and hugs. If a runner had beat her PR, or had stuck with the leaders for the first time this season, or had beat another team’s number four for seven points, then he would wait for the others to part and take that runner into a long embrace, lifting their field spikes a few inches off the ground as he whispered how proud he was, how great they’d been, ten out of ten.

I couldn’t have been more than about seven when, during a safe lull in the middle of a mid-week three-way meet hosted at home, my father lowered his binoculars, turned to me, and nodded to the pack of silhouettes moving slowly along a ridge, the low afternoon sun glinting in the trees behind them. “Is this something you see yourself doing some day?”

I knew what the answer was supposed to be. But even at that tender age, I harbored doubt. I knew what it took. The early mornings, the hill repeats, the side stitches, the hours of stretching. Six a.m. Saturdays, pancakes and cartoons sacrificed for a ten-miler through the woods. Dodge mosquitos, hope not to lose a shoe to the mud. I’d seen the heat exhaustion. I’d heard a captain announce eight one-mile repeats at 10 seconds sub 5K pace and seen the steely grimaces as the runners prepared for the pain. I’d seen kids pass out at the finish line. I’d seen the no pop pledges, seen a pair of freshman girls approach my father trembling in the hallway, still in their school clothes, informing Coach tearfully that they had had talked it over, they had given it a lot of thought, and they were deciding to quit. They just couldn’t do it. And I had seen him stare, say nothing for a long time while they shuddered and swallowed. Finally, he asked, “Did you think this was going to be easy?” And they burbled no and wiped snot from their lips with their knuckles and he glared, waiting for them to break. One of the girls did, staggering back the way she’d come, a mess of sobs, while the other sniffled and looked like the one thing that would keep her from coming apart at the corners was a kind word from my father. But all he said was, “Suit up, then.”

So was this something I could see myself doing some day?

“Absolutely,” I said. “Ten out of ten.”

He patted my tricep and stood to blow his whistle.

Did he have any idea I was lying? At this point, it’s useless to ask.



The funeral home was close enough to walk, although we didn’t. The limousine smelled like a basement; I managed to chew through two Lifesavers on the way. The storms had scattered leaves, seedpods, branches, and dirt, and when we arrived, a boy in an ill-fitting blue corduroy suit was clearing the parking lot with a push broom. Objectively speaking, the day was beautiful: the clouds had cleared and the sun was soft and the sky had taken on the color of my favorite dress shirt, a worn, light blue Oxford that hung in my closet because my mother said it didn’t match.

Across the road, the cemetery was pitched solemnly at the top of a hill. Follow the paved path down among the headstones and you will find yourself in a riverside park: playground, baseball diamond, boat launch. The river glinted with sunlight, already filled with boats headed out for a nice day on the lake, maybe the last good Saturday of the season. I stepped from the car into a puddle; water seeped through the stitches in my shoes.

The funeral director was a clean man who gestured with his wrists and seemed incapable of either smile or frown. His name was Mr. Chambers, and my mother and I had met him two days earlier, had sat in his tiny office and selected from pictures in a leather folio while fronds of dust waggled from a window unit.

“Please,” Mr. Chambers said now, holding open the front door with his head bowed. “Please.”

Inside, he clasped his hands and said that now was a good time to view the body.

“The day will become hectic,” he said.

My mother handed him her purse and marched to the double doors at the end of the hall.

The parlor smelled like baby powder and fresh garden, along with something sharp that made my eyes sting. The casket was set on a folding stand along a wall. My mother held my hand and said, “Shall we?” I nodded, all of the sudden as nervous as when at the beach that summer, a girl from school had asked me if I wanted to play beach volleyball, they needed another for their side, and all I could do was stare at her forehead, so I wouldn’t look anywhere else.

And then there we were, and there he was.

The casket was open. Satin bulged around his face like a boxer’s mask. His cheeks had flattened, his nose seemed to have sunk, his lips drooped down the sides of his face, and under his makeupped skin were strange colors, greens and purples and reds, like fish at the bottom of a clear creek. I thought of what the eighth grade art teacher had said, that the reason Impressionist paintings looked like they did was because the artists painted the colors we saw but our brains canceled out. Look long enough at a white onion on a white backdrop, the art teacher had said, and you’ll see every color imaginable.

Well, here I was, looking.

He’d hardly ever worn a tie but he wore one now, red with blue dots, the knot sunk low against his esophagus. His hands were folded across his chest, way higher than anybody would fold their hands if they were alive.

My mother leaned into the casket, placed her hands over his, laid her cheek on his chest, and began to whimper. For a second, I thought she would climb in. Instead, she shook, rattling the casket on its flimsy base. This was not completely normal behavior. I looked around for help, but all I saw was the boy in the blue corduroy suit hauling three flower arrangements to a glass table along the opposite wall, setting them up to hide a peeling seam in the wallpaper.

When my mother stood back, a strand of her hair was stuck to my father’s face, and a smear of his makeup dotted her forehead. She pulled me close, smushed my nose against her ear, and her tears ran hot down my neck and onto my collar while she made sounds that reminded me of birds. I was almost as tall as she was, I realized. I would be taller before the year was out.

Her hug slackened, she wobbled a little in her pumps, and we made our way to the main hall. People were already beginning to arrive.

What I remember best are the smells. Flowers, fresh like rain but also a sweet hint of rot. A mix of perfume and sweat. That faint familiar whiff I recognized from dissection day in seventh grade biology, when a third of the class had rushed to the bathroom to puke.

Everyone kept saying what a shock it was. Such a terrible surprise. He was so selfless. So giving. He gave so much of himself. We cannot imagine what you are going through right now, Andrew, but we hope, we know, that you will carry on the work that he did. Everything happens for a reason, son. You must believe that.

Stories of tiny kindnesses. He had once volunteered to finish another teacher’s copying so she could rush off to take attendance, and he’d collated and stapled and brought the copies to her classroom, so kind. He had given a man advice about shoes that would alleviate back pain, shoes that the man wore to this day. (He lifted a foot to show me.) During a faculty meeting on revised policies for after-school clubs, my father had raised his hand and said, Excuse me, but has anyone here bothered to ask the kids what they think? Dr. Markley, my former elementary school principal, was here too, wearing a tie that featured teddy bears. He gave me a long hug and said to make sure I ate today, it’s easy to forget.

“Everyone here is here because they love you,” Dr. Markley said. “Remember that.”

By mid-morning, the room was packed so tight you had to turn sideways to move. I stood in a receiving line far from the casket and shook hands.

Close to lunch, the room quieted, and people turned. For a moment, I thought this was it: it was all an insane prank, a practical joke, in would step my father, grinning in running shoes, his arms wide, hugs for my mother, hugs for me, all a big gag, a big misunderstanding, he was alive, he wasn’t even dying.

But no. The crowd split into slices, Red Sea style, or maybe red carpet, and in strode a man, a woman, and their daughter, tall and beaming. The Paths. Superstars, even at someone else’s funeral.

First Mr. Path, a smart double-breasted black suit, cuffed slacks, black wingtips polished to mirrors. He shook hands and frowned; so shocking, isn’t it? Next came Kelsye, the one true star my father ever coached. She’d appeared in Sports Illustrated, in Runner’s World, was a Fighting Illini with the most credible shot at lowering the NCAA record in the 10,000 meters. She’d placed at the Peachtree Road Race the summer before, attended an invitation-only camp in the Andes with Alberto Salazar, and was an early favorite for next year’s Olympic Trials. At my father’s funeral, she wore a simple black dress with a gold belt and a blue pendant on a silver necklace. Last was Mrs. Path, a small black hat pitched atop a cropped bob, a purse, a Bible. She placed her hands on other people’s forearms and tugged them close. Soon enough, her gaze found me. She extended her arms and reeled me in from across the carpet. I could smell her hairspray from six yards away.

“Honey. Oh, honey, honey, honey.” Mrs. Path pressed my cheek into the crook of her neck, which smelled like lavender and oatmeal. She patted my back like burping a baby, quick firm raps.

“Let’s pray.”

Her hug turned to a tackle, and she brought me kneeling to the carpet. Mr. Path joined us, clasping a wet paw around the back of my neck, and they closed their eyes, bobbed their heads, requested, in a sort of call-and-response duet, that the Lord shine His grace and love and mercy upon this brave child today, let all of us remember the awesome power of Your holy grace, O Father, Your power revealed in Your Son, O Lord, and we know, Lord, that everything Coach did, for generations of boys and girls, was in Your holy name, and so, Father, give us strength this day, O Lord, strength, for though we know he is in a better place, with you, O Father, we are still really sad.

Mrs. Path kept squeezing my fingers and cooing, “Yes, Lord,” and “Yes, Jesus.” When the prayer was over (a dozen or so had joined in, kneeling on the carpet around us), she began to stroke my fingers.

“For these hands,” Mrs. Path said, two tears the size of chocolate chips clinging to her tear ducts, “the Lord surely has a plan.”

Only Mr. Path’s intervention stemmed the sickening tide within me. “Shall we?” he said, nodding to the casket, like he was asking was it time to serve dessert. Mrs. Path let me go, and I was alone with Kelsye.

She wore dark eyeliner and some kind of bruise-yellow shadow on her cheeks, and stood with her hands at her sides, not frozen exactly, but separate. Apart from all of us, distinct, discrete, detached, on some other plane, where she had no part of death or dying. She was the fastest woman in the Big Ten, after all, and third-fastest nation-wide. People moved around her, gave her space, as if they were afraid to let her see them.

“Sorry,” Kelsye said to me.

“It’s okay.”

“They get like that.”

“Oh.” Her parents were now bowing their heads over my father’s casket.

“He was a pretty good coach, you know. Considering.”

“Considering what?”

She looked at me, and then at her shoes. “I don’t know. So, you going out?”

I didn’t know what she meant.

“For cross country.”

“Oh.” She cupped the points of her elbows with her palms and swallowed, betraying the slightest hint of sorrow. She seemed about to say something—her mouth had formed the shape of a You know–but then two girls from school wandered over to ask, sorry, this was sort of a weird time, but could they possibly get an autograph?

I weaseled through the crowd and into the hall, past the door to the room where Mr. Chambers said we could retire if we needed to, and to the great outdoors.

The parking lot, anyway.

The storms hadn’t cut the heat or humidity, and everything sagged. I dipped a hand in my jacket pocket. Earlier that morning, I had gone to the basement, found the box of all his old medals, and found my favorite photograph of him: cut from a piece of newsprint, the image a bit askew (poor alignment at the campus print shop). Here comes Jon Steevers, junior, taking first place with an 8K conference record of 23:39. Four colors, above the fold, he emerges alone from a green-gold woods, the pack he’s just broken a mere smudge far behind. He is floating, as if someone has erased the ground underneath his cleats. His lower legs are the size and shape of baseball bats and his hair is long and dark and held with a fuzzy headband; his eyes are wide, not with fear or anger, but attention. One wrist flops slightly to the side; he wears a mustache. Steevers plans, the sidebar states, to try out for the 1976 Olympics.

Here he was, the height of his power. The best race he’d ever run. The ability taut in his body. That mix of terror and sureness. Looking for something he wanted, something he deserved, something he was determined to have. And his eyes might reveal something, I decided, might tell me some truth, if only I could look upon them longer.

I figured I had better practice my Bible verse.

I’d read through fourteen options in the leather folio, had selected more or less at random. Now, I said it aloud, reading from a photocopy:

“‘Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.'”

I made it this far and sneezed, a good glob all over the shoulder of my jacket. Someone nearby was smoking.

“Not bad.”

The voice sounded like it came from far away but also right up close. A hollow quality, but textured, like wood.

“Not bad at all.”

From around the corner peeked a head. The boy in blue corduroy. A cigarette in his mouth; he was jotting something on a steno pad. When he finished, he gave the pad a shake, flipping the cover to the top, and slid it into his back pocket.

“Now try again. A little slower this time? Think of it as music. You want a little melody.”

He sucked the last bit of his cigarette, stubbed it out against the brick, and dropped it into a jacket pocket.

He was a few years older than me. Maybe even graduated. He wore glasses with scratched lenses and thick black frames that kept falling down his nose. His skin was pocked with acne scars and the tiny bulge of skin that hung under his chin reminded me of a turtle. His hair was black and scraggled and seemed to float around his head like a dark cloud. In one ear: three holes for earrings, but no earrings.

“Go on.”

I tried again. I paused occasionally, emphasized a word here and there. When I’d finished, he pursed his lips and nodded.

“Can you do a little less Vincent Price? Just give it some shape.”

I tried again, and his face brightened.

“‘The last trumpet.’ I love that. What is that, Isaiah?”


“Right. Isaiah is a big one. ‘Fear not, for I am with you.’ And Matthew. ‘Blessed are those who mourn.’ Which, yeah, the sentiment, I get it, power in the hands of the powerless, the meek shall inherit the earth. I’m down with pacifist Jesus, who isn’t?”

“We looked at those.”

“In Chambers’s little book. Ha. The secret dossier. This, though. This is the good shit.”

He signaled for me to try again, which I did, and when I looked up, I saw that he was mouthing along, and this gave me confidence, as if I were not standing on a patch of sidewalk near the back entrance of a funeral home, but was in a woods somewhere, mysterious under moonlight, or spotlit on a stage, or just in some fast car, hurtling away to parts unknown.

As I finished, the sentence no longer sounded like words from a page, but like something that mattered.

“At ease, sailor.” The boy held out a fist for me to pound. “Now, forget all about it. Just get up there and go.” He reached into his jacket pocket and fished out a handkerchief, which he wiped deftly against the shoulder of my suit, where I’d sneezed. “Geez, a slug crawl over you or something?” He folded the handkerchief into a neat package. “Back to work, Sammy Slug.”

He straightened his tie, hitched up his pants, took a sheaf of papers from another pocket, and handed them over. “If you’re looking for supplementary reading material.” The papers were folded and stapled, like a little book. On the cover, written in shaky bubble letters that reminded me of the Dunkin Donuts logo: Scene Shout!! With two exclamation points. The rest of it looked like what might happen if a photocopier caught the flu.

Just then, Mr. Chambers appeared at the door, his arms folded and his face proving that he could, in fact, frown.

“There you are,” he said to me. “Come. And you.” He pointed at the boy in blue corduroy. “That’s quite enough of dawdling, Mr. Mott.”

The boy’s elaborate bow included two middle fingers that only I could see.

The parlor had emptied and the mourners waited in line for sandwiches in another room. As he ushered me past, Mr. Chambers whispered in a brittle voice that many found this occasion an important moment of closure, a last chance to say goodbye.

“Five minutes,” he said, and shut the double doors behind me.

Everyone had said how much it looked like him, but the truth is it didn’t. It looked like a life-size action figure that had melted. No pores, no follicles, no razor burn. His forehead a completely different shape. Or maybe I’d never really looked at him. Maybe this was who he was all along.

Last words? I couldn’t think of what might do. Goodbye? I’ll see you soon? No. I would never see him again. What is going to happen next? Everything sounded inadequate, dumb, literally dumb, as in, Does not adequately express any meaningful sentiment whatsoever, and so I nudged the pamphlet aside in my jacket pocket and removed his photograph, unfolded it, placed it on top of his hands, and looked back and forth between the two: my father, his eyes glaring with attention, his mustache wet around the corners of his mouth, his entire body tensed and pointed toward a win. And my father, eyes shut, face flat, dead.

What was he, when he was alive?

I was touching his chin when the doors rattled open.

Two boys, maybe eleven and twelve, darted in, chasing each other to exchange shoulder punches, to see who could take it without flinching. When they realized which room they’d flung themselves into, they quit laughing.

“Oh. Oh, sorry. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” I walked up to them, tugged off my jacket, tapped my bicep with a finger. “Right here,” I said. “As hard as you can.”

They turned and ran.

On the carpet: candy wrappers and impressions of heels.

The food was awful—ham on bun, potato salad, iceberg lettuce turning red where it had been sliced—and the service started sleepily in the parlor, where the boy in blue corduroy had arranged chairs. One of my father’s former assistant coaches read a quote from Bill Rodgers and a dozen of my father’s former runners approached the podium as a group, bawling and saying not very much. I kept looking over at the Paths, who sat at the end of our row, their legs crossed in the same direction, their hands folded the same way, their eyes closing simultaneously each time a runner broke down into phlegmy sobs, nodding along as if they, too, felt whatever this kid was feeling.

Just before I was to say my verse, Mr. Path stood, smoothed his tie, checked his cuffs, and took the podium.

“Folks, this is a little out of order. But I think you’ll join me in saying that Jon Steevers touched many lives. He was truly, truly a man who shaped and molded a generation of our children. Things have not always been right between our two families, but I want to tell each of you today that because of his guidance and his leadership, my daughter Kelsye, who many of you know, Kelsye and I have decided, with the Lord’s guidance, that we will offer this—” he held up a CD-sized medal hanging from a ribbon “—Kelsye’s gold from this summer’s NCAAs, to the Steevers family. A gift.” He stepped to my mother and set the medal in her hand, the ribbon coiling in her palm like a snake.

My mother was in shock, to say the least. Her face distorted into one of those frowns you see on the masks above a theater entrance. I could tell she wanted to do something, to throw the medal in Mr. Path’s face or kick him in the shins or maybe just run, but she didn’t, she sat shaking as Mr. Path went back to the podium to continue.

“He was truly, truly a champion. But there is one champion greater than any of us, one whose victory means more than any medal on earth. Let us pray.”

What. The. Hell. Who does that? Who stands up at a funeral to brag about how their daughter placed first at nationals, says a prayer when a prayer doesn’t come until the end, makes it about them and God, not about the deceased or the people in the room who are mourning?

The rest of the day went quickly. The Paths had an event, a charity event actually, one of those tuxedo and gown deals, they were sorry they couldn’t stay. Mr. Path gave me a knuckle-crusher of a handshake on his way out. We rode in the limo to the gravesite, even though the cemetery was literally across the road. Our shoes sank into the soil as we walked to a large tent. I reached into my pocket for the photograph of my father, only to realize that I had left it in his casket, the casket we were praying over now, the casket that was being lowered into the earth, and I would never see it again.

As the vault hit bottom, I looked up the hill, where two backhoes sat near the monuments with names so big you could read them from here. The boy in blue corduroy stood among them, speaking with two men in overalls. He must have seen me look: he raised an arm and waved.

The headstone would take four to six months, a backlog at the engravers, and so, in its place sat a temporary block of granite, affixed with the kind of sticky letters you can buy at the hardware store: JHON STEEVERS.

As we were waiting to turn right out of the cemetery, another set of cars began to arrive, just two or three, nothing like the crowd my father’s funeral had attracted. I thought of whoever those people might be, their lost father or daughter or cousin or co-worker, how they’d sit in the same room my mother and I had sat in a few hours before, whether they would lean in to kiss the body in its casket, whether that casket would be open at all.

* * *

At home, the first thing we saw was the toaster on the counter, right where my father had left it. A loaf of bread sat next to it, missing its twisty-tie, and a plate strewn with crumbs, a butter knife slick with apricot jam. My mother and I stared together for many minutes before she picked up the knife, drew her finger across the flat, and licked the jam away     .

Outside, a group of my father’s old runners were running past the house. They would do this all day, running laps around our block, past the front window every five or six minutes until the sun got low, like Joshua fit the battle or funeral games for Patroclus. I looked and saw Kelsye Path with them, high knees, draggy toes, the slight lateral swing of the left arm that my father had tried so hard to correct. I’d forgotten that someone’s stride could be beautiful. Easy on the outside, all alone.

When I turned back to my mother, she was sitting on the linoleum, the butter knife in her mouth, crying.

Glenn Lester’s previous publications include “I Was Offered A Kingdom” (
Barrelhouse) and “Thumbtack” (Revolver Reader). He teaches writing and literature at Park University, a small liberal arts institution just north of Kansas City, Missouri. He earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where he also served as fiction editor for The Greensboro Review, and a BA in English from Hope College. Glenn lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with his family. “Take Warning: The Ballad of Sammy Slug” is an excerpt from his first, as-yet-unpublished, novel.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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