• Stuart Phillips

A Family Swim in short story collection

My short story "A Family Swim" is included in Running Wild Press Anthology of Stories 4, vol. 2 (page 198, if you're looking).

Below is an excerpt from the story:

From Running Wild Anthology of Short Stories 4, vol. 2, 201-204.

Spring 1981. My fifth-grade class spent the spring swarming the streets of Clarksdale, strong-arming neighbors and relatives into buying slightly-melted chocolate bars emblazoned with dubious claims of “world’s best.”

Thanks to our salesmanship, and a lopsided class vote that beat the teachers’ preference for a visit to Flowood (a “working plantation” outside Greenwood), we were set for a full day at Libertyland.

Memphis’ home-grown amusement park was a red-white-and-blue Mid-South hymn to the departed bicentennial. To a Delta kid who only saw it on commercials on WREG, it was easy to be jealous of Memphis kids, imagining their visits to the promised land to be as commonplace as a box of milk with lunch.

On the rare occasion when my family made the drive through midtown Memphis to visit my mother’s family, I scanned the line of water oaks on Airways Boulevard for the graceful arch of the Revolution Roller Coaster, and just imagined.

Monday before the class trip, I started having headaches. On Tuesday, I added a fever. When my cheeks swelled overnight to the size of small suitcases, my mother took me to Dr. Fraser.

“Mumps. He needs to stay home until he’s not contagious.”

When I realized I was going to miss the trip, I took to my bed. I moped away Thursday and Friday, littering my nightstand with melted bowls of ice cream and slightly congealed instant potatoes. I wouldn’t even read the supply of comic books my mother left.

By noon Saturday, she hit on the cure. She came into my bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“My brave little Will.” She dabbed at my throat with a cool, lingering hand. “I know it’s hard being sick, and even worse to miss the trip you worked so hard for.” She sat back. “Why don’t we make next Saturday a special family day, and go to Libertyland?”

I cleared my mouth with a painful swallow. “Really?”

She nodded. “As long as you’re well.”

My smile stretched my swollen cheeks.

Back in class Monday, I heard about the blue cotton candy that fused into wads of sugar in your mouth. I heard about the bone-rattling bumper cars. And, most of all, I heard about the Revolution Roller Coaster. Even Warren Jones had ridden it. I didn’t mind, because as they talked, I pictured my father nodding as I hit target after target with the air rifle. I could see my mother’s face as I sank a free throw for a stuffed tiger.

Saturday finally came. A bolted breakfast, and I was waiting in my room for my parents. I heard voices through the wall to Poppa’s study and went in to see when we were leaving. He was in his recliner, socked feet up and lap full of photocopies. His yellow highlighter squeaked as he moved through the pages.

“Are we going soon?”

The highlighter kept moving, but he spoke. “You still want to go?”

“Yes, sir.” My chest fluttered at the thought of losing the trip twice.

My mother stepped between us. “Poppa can’t go today. He’s got a hearing on Monday.”


She touched my shoulder. “Don’t worry. You and I are still going. We’ll make it our special day.”

Poppa never looked up.

I sat alone in the back seat of our Chevy Caprice Classic for the hour-long ride to Memphis. Once we arrived, I was lost in the magic. It only cost eleven dollars in free throws to win a stuffed tiger in a Memphis State jersey. The rails of the roller coaster clacked as we climbed, then roared as we dropped. The cotton candy made my fingers blue and sticky, and the frozen Snickers nearly broke my teeth. My mother hung back with her tiger and a purse full of singles.

After two hours, I was ready for air rifles at ten paces. The carny leaned against the counter, clacking the lid of a silver Zippo open and shut.

“Hey, kid, want to win a genuine Zippo lighter for your Daddy?” He flipped the cover open and shut.

Click. “Three shots for a dollar.”

“He doesn’t smoke.”

Click. “Don’t matter, kid. Every Dad wants one.”

I had never heard this before. I caught a flash of brown teeth and fingertips as I watched his ritual. “Really?”

“Yep. Just knock down three in a row, and she’s all yours.” He gave three rapid flips of the lid to show how easy it was.

Click. Click. Click.

Eighteen dollars and fifty-four clicks later, I was out of money and shots. I set the rifle down on the carpeted ledge.

“Boy, ain’t your daddy taught you how to shoot?”

I looked at the twisted sights on the air rifle and shook my head.

“Well, you run find him and bring him back with some more money. We’ll get you figured out.”

I shook my head again. “He didn’t come. It’s just me and my mom.”

A slow glimpse of brown teeth. “Is your momma pretty?”

I fled. Underneath one of the giant oaks, my mother sipped a tall cherry limeade.

“Did you spend that twenty already?”

“No, ma’am. I think I’m ready to go.”

“You don’t want to ride the Revolution again?”

“No, ma’am. I really just want to go home.”

She chalked it up to the mumps. The whole ride home, I thought about how Poppa would’ve punched that guy if he’d been there.

The anthology is for sale from July 2020.

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