Friday, August 5, 2011

"The Guest" - A Short Story - by A. Foster Williams

As she pulled up to the curb underneath the sign labeled “Arrivals,” she shut off the motor and glanced into the rearview mirror. German, she thought. For too many reason, even his name rattled her. Her thoughts were interrupted by a soft knocking on the passenger side window as a boy leaned over awkwardly from the curb. His face loomed uncomfortably close, but the first thing the mother noticed was his bag—a large duffle, faded but clean, with a gaudy patch that advertised NBA All-Star Weekend ’95. After a pause, she unlocked her door and stepped out into the street. As she walked around to the back of the car to open the trunk, she managed a smile in the boy’s direction.

“Welcome,” she said.

“You’ll be staying in Jeremy’s room,” said the mother as the odd couple walked through the front door of the house. “It’s upstairs on the left.” 

German responded with a shy “thank you.” It was the first time she had actually heard him speak. The twenty-six minutes between the airport and home were filled only with her rehearsed questions and his nods and mutters. She walked away, contemplating how bad the boy’s accent actually was.
German lugged his bag up the stairs, eyeing the walls on either side cluttered with family portraits. Every picture was the same: the girl and the boy sat side by side in front, slightly angled toward each other with inside knees barely touching, while the mother and father stood just behind. He wondered what was the point of taking and hanging the same photo so many times, like a flip-photo book where the scene never actually changed. As he entered the room at the top of the stairs German was taken by an eerie feeling—while he was here in this room, its owner was probably in his, a few thousand miles away. He soon became lost in the myriad of paper images torn from random magazines and stapled to every wall, completely hiding the color of the paint. He already wanted to be back home.

German unzipped his bag, unpacking and refolding each article of clothing it contained. By the time he was finished, the brother’s bed displayed four piles: socks and underwear, shirts, pants, and an assortment of outdated accessories, including a yellow and black Walkman and a Reebok fanny-pack. 

With his things in order, German turned to leave the room, but found himself face to face with the girl from the family portrait(s). He retreated a half-step, unconsciously dropping his head a little. The girl held out a bath towel. 
“Hi, I’m Lisbeth. You can use Jeremy’s shower. It’s down the hall.”

“Thank you,” said the boy, almost to himself. He took the towel, but instead of continuing down the hall, he turned to go back into his room. He already felt naked enough—he wasn’t ready for a shower.
The daughter entered the bedroom and watched from behind as her mother rummaged through top drawer of the dresser.

“Where’s our guest?” the mother asked, without turning.

“I think he’s in the shower. What are you doing?”

“Just getting some of my things together.” The mother’s answer was sung, not spoken.

“Getting your things together?” The daughter approached, and when the two stood almost side by side facing the dresser, her mother stiffened. Looking down, the daughter noticed her mother stuffing a handful of jewelry—some priceless and some worthless, but all equally steal-able—into a small box secured by an even smaller lock. “What are you doing?”

The mother struggled do defend herself. “I’m just taking some precautions.” This was not sung.

“Against what?” pried the daughter. There was a pause as the daughter struggled to hide a grin. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with German, would it?”

“With who?” The daughter couldn’t decide if her mother was in complete denial or if she had already forgotten their guest’s name. If the two were beasts in the wild, they would have locked horns at this point. 

“Hello-o—the random person in my brother’s room,” sneered the daughter. The mother turned around, clutching a half-handful of necklaces to her chest and glared back with the look of a cornered animal. “What are you doing with all that jewelry!?” the daughter teased in mock surprise, as if it was news to her that her mother even owned any.

“Don’t be so fucking naïve!” snapped the mother without yelling. Immediately, the daughter realized her mistake, but it was too late. “Am I supposed sit here looking stupid while a complete stranger is wandering through my house? This wasn’t my idea you know, it was your father’s. He was the one who wanted to send your brother away and now I’m stuck here playing host to some kid from Mexico or wherever! Do you have any idea how much he could get for one of these?” 
The daughter hardly heard the question, but would not have had an answer anyway.

“His name is German.”

“Well... German could probably feed his family for a month with this,” she pointed out while delicately holding up a thin gold chain by its clasp. “Look, I’m all for loving thy neighbor, but nobody said I had had to be a damn a fool while I’m doing it!” The daughter had never heard her mother talk like this, and she wasn’t sure if she was embarrassed, scared or impressed by the outbreak. The mother seemed to loosen her grip on the necklaces a little and when it was apparent that her daughter had nothing more to say, she turned her back and went back to hiding her booty.
As he sat on the bed in the brother’s room, German tried to ignore the conversation he had just overheard, For the first time in his life, he wished he didn’t understand English so well. He had so many ideas, and knew so many things about this place, some things that even he doubted were true. America had always seemed to be a part of his life, yet after seventeen years, today was his first day here. His eyes again reverted to the cluttered walls of the brother’s room. Somehow, the mosaic of magazine pages seemed more American to him than any exported TV show or song that had ever reached him before. There were more torn-out pages reassembled together than the wall actually had room for. The different layers seemed to hint at changing fads—a clean cut boy band peeked out from behind the corner of a fully visible, diamond-clad rapper. What did the mother think of that guy? The girls—in swimsuits, on cars, in almost nothing—made German want sex without actually noticing it. As he stared into America, he decided that he didn’t actually care what the mom said or thought about the wall, or about him.
Days and weeks passed, and although German managed to shelter his ears from most conversations between his hosts, he still felt the weight of the mother’s eyes resting on his back, even when she wasn’t home. Aside from her suspicions, German had his hands full with the daughter. With each day she became more comfortable talking to him, even though she never received much more than a one- or two-word reply. Her attempts at conversation seemed to be a sales pitch for a friendship that neither of them actually wanted. It wasn’t that he disliked her, but that she made him feel more awkward, if that was possible. He saw through her increasingly frequent attention and thought he glimpsed a fifteen year old girl looking for a new and creative way to irritate her mother. Their interactions became like a one-sided game of Truth, where she prodded him with questions that never seemed to draw out the answers that she needed or wanted to hear.

On most evenings, German would lie on the brother’s bed with his eyes closed, trying in his imagination to draw the details of his life back home. This time he was working on a mental inventory of his mother’s bathroom cabinet when the brother’s bedroom door creaked open and the daughter into the frame. “Jeremy never really lets me come in here.” Laying artificially stiff, German silently prayed that the she would respect her brother’s wishes. “But it’s kinda your room now, so whatever, right?”

Feigning sleep would not work. German sat up on the bed, blinking and rubbing his eyes to give the impression that he had been inches away from dozing off. His eyes met the daughters as she entered with short, quiet steps. As she approached the side of the bed, German saw that she was carrying a small brown paper bag. She pulled up a chair from the brother’s desk and placed the bag on the nightstand by the bed. Suddenly the small bag felt like the biggest thing in the room—bigger than either of them. 
She started to ask, “Do you drink?” but instead she reached over and slowly rolled down the edges of the bag, eventually revealing the blue and white “Royal Gate Vodka” label. Instead of taking out the bottle, the daughter sat in the chair and rested both hands in her lap. She strained, but it was impossible for her to see through his expression into his thoughts. Eventually, she reached for the bottle and slowly unscrewed the cap. She brought its glass opening to her lips and tilted both her head and the bottle back, but her tightly clenched mouth stopped any vodka from entering. After a few seconds in this posture, she pulled the bottle away and exhaled with her mouth wide open, just like she had seen her brother do once. She placed the bottled back on the table, crumpling the bag, and to finish off the effect, she licked her lips thoroughly. She immediately regretted it. The stinging taste on her tongue made her glad that she had not actually taken a sip.  
It was his turn, but the daughter made no move to pass him the bottle. Even though German had never tasted alcohol and didn’t particularly want to now, he knew that he was about to pick up the clear bottle. The liquid’s visible likeness to water fooled his mind, but not his tongue— he was not prepared for the bitter, burning flow of vodka unleashed on his mouth, throat, and stomach. His grip on the bottle loosened and it fell, splashing the daughter’s bare ankles with vodka before he half-caught it at their feet. He was relieved that the bottle didn’t break, but wished he had spilled more first. There was still plenty left.

The two continued on like this for at least an hour, passing the bottle between each other. Each sip became easier for German until the burning poison became nothing more than a slightly bitter juice sliding down his numb throat. He began to gain his reason and lose it all at once, half-realizing that while he subjected himself to the burn, the daughter kept letting the tilted bottle rest against her clenched lips with a small hand wrapped around its neck to disguise her act. He knew he had been taken advantage of,  but was unable to produce a second clear thought beyond that. At some point the daughter had abandoned the chair to sit next to him on her brother’s bed, and now her left thigh was flush against the outside of his right. He kept his eyes trained forward on the wall, as if the pages had been torn from his own favorite magazines, not the brother’s. 

As his eyes drifted from black athlete to white actress, the thought occurred to German that this would be a good time to practice his English. Gazing at the wall, he began silently to sound out the names of the pantheon of American celebrities. When he got to Kirsten Dunst, he realized that he had forgotten about the daughter sitting next to him—he couldn’t even remember what she looked like.

German rolled his head to the right, but before the daughter’s face came into sight he noticed the near-empty bottle resting between her legs. He reached for it, but was struck by a wave of dizziness, spilling himself into the daughter’s lap. She pushed him off and he slid from the bed onto the floor, where he remained for some seconds. The collision with the daughter had done something to him. With some trouble he regained his feet, only to fall back on top of the daughter, this time pinning her to the bed. Her body, mind, and voice screamed in unison in an attempt to free herself, but it was useless— German’s mind was quiet.
At eleven o’clock that night the mother returned home. All was quiet, but that was what she expected as the boy had always gone to bed early, and her daughter spent most nights in her room with her earbuds in, watching a muted television. The mother headed up the stairs, and as she passed the door to the her son’s bedroom she felt the familiar desire to peek inside. She may have told herself that she was checking to make sure that German didn’t need anything, but in truth she sought security in the knowledge that he was fast asleep and accounted for. She was disappointed to see the light leaking out from beneath the door, then frozen by the sound of weak sobs coming from inside. The second or third whimper hit her chest before it reached her ears and she knew immediately that the sound could not be coming from the boy. She opened the door, but before her second step could bring her fully into the room her knees buckled. There sat her daughter, with her feet hanging off the side of the brother’s bed. Her shirt was torn around the right shoulder, and her hair almost did enough to hide a tear-stained face. As her quiet sobs ebbed, the mother’s began to flow silently. Neither had ever been welcome in the brother’s room, and now both wished they had never entered. 
German followed the trail of street lamps down the empty suburban street, hoping they would lead him away from that house that was never his. Eventually, he began to feel like he was passing the same three houses over and over again, and he began to wish that the street lamps would go out, or at least not be so bright. It wasn’t until he reached the last lamp at the corner that he noticed the tangle of necklaces and bracelets clenched tightly in his own hand. Slowly, without breaking his stride, his grip loosened and the jewelry fell, piece by piece, onto the sidewalk. 
German kept walking.

I hope you enjoyed this short story. It is adapted from a story that I wrote for a high school class 1999. I´ve been meaning to dust it off and rewrite it for years, and now I finally have. Most importantly, this short story does not reflect my relationship with my host family here in Cape Verde, or any other family that has ever opened their home to me. And no, the Peace Corps did NOT make me include this disclaimer, I just wanted to be clear. Any feedback is welcome, unless you didn´t like it!
- Drew
August 5, 2011
NEW NOTE: Above is a re-revised version of this story was posted on May 8, 2013. Thank you to my editor and stepmother, Lalita Tademy, for your input!


  1. Wow.. I couldn't stop reading it and found myself wanting to yell at the girl.. I also find myself wanting to know more! Brilliant job at creating such a deep character in just a short story.. Maybe it's because I've been fortunate enough to have lived with families in study abroad.. I've definitely experienced cultural ignorance but never in a negative way.. Please keep writing!

  2. Fascinating!!!!!!!!!! Engaging, engrossing, and definitely something to continue (now that I am totally hooked on knowing more of these characters and situation). You've definitely got the makings of a fine author.

  3. Drew, awesome stuff. First I was revisiting memories of home and looking in to the feelings of my friend Martin, the first exchange student in the history of Swansboro High School (he happened to be a German kid, so the word German tied to the relation of cultural exchange brought me there). I felt his intense sense awkwardness in eastern NC, then I saw not just the struggle of this boy, but the struggles of many kids that can't escape sick dynamics within a home. I enjoyed getting to know the characters, and the flow was incredible. Keep it up