Capping off our reprint series celebrating Short Story Month, we are pleased to share Bret Anthony Johnston’s breathtaking “Caiman.” An excellent example of the first-person direct address, “Caiman” demonstrates the power of precise language and subtext. Notice the mother’s worry for her son, not simply as a result of the pet the narrator brings home. Notice the tension in their dialogue, compounded by the weather: “The kitchen was gummy with the day’s heat.”
She flipped the fish in the skillet. The sound of frying started up again like distant applause. She blew hair from her eyes, stood with her hip cocked, holding the spatula. The applause quieted. She slipped the fish onto a plate she’d covered with a paper napkin to soak up grease. She put two more pieces in the pan and watched them sizzle.
Your mother wouldn’t let me bring the ice chest into the house, so I left it in the garage. Earlier, I’d knifed four holes into the styrofoam lid. One of them looked like half a star, which I remember liking. This was years ago, a windswept Sunday. This was Texas.
When I returned to the kitchen, she pointed at the sink. She said, “Wash your hands. With soap.”
She was breading flounder. She’d been listening to radio reports about that little girl who’d been abducted. So had I. Probably I pulled over and gave that man eighty dollars because I thought it would keep you safe. He was parked under the causeway, a handlettered sign propped against the tire of his van, as if he were just selling pecans.
Your mother had flour dust on her neck. She’d already fried okra, boiled potatoes. Soon we would call you to the table and you, our little man, would bolt in like you’d heard a starter pistol. You were seven, a boy who liked bedtime stories with fantastic monsters and twisty, unexpected endings. You liked sneaking up on us. You hid behind closed doors and in the laundry hamper, then jumped out screaming and laughing. You loved the word “maybe.” (Maybe I’m a kid who’s a million years old. Maybe we should be a family with a pet. Maybe someday my eyes will turn blue.) Your mother swiped her forehead with her wrist. The kitchen was gummy with the day’s heat, the windows open. Before leaving that morning, I’d mowed the yard—you helped me rake, you wore your cowboy boots—and now, with dusk coming on, the cut-grass smell was rising and trying to cool everything off.
“She’s still missing,” your mother said. “Now they think the uncle did something.”