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The Provider by Anne C. English


To provide is to be a breadwinner, but it is also to take precautionary measures. “The Provider,” Anne C. English’s first published short story, is narrated by a man who does both. Before it was a finalist for the 2018 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Jim Shepard, our readers and editors took note of this piece for its steady tone and pitch-perfect voice. We are delighted to learn that English started this story from a prompt (head over the Author’s Note to learn more).

The setting—both the strained coal town as a whole and the protagonist’s home within that landscape—is effectively rendered, giving us a real sense of specific and shared loss. From Quillen’s Drug Store, “where men logged their hours during the day, drinking coffee at the counter while they wished they were working,” to the main character’s front porch, “where the paint was cracked and peeling back like the edge of Dry Fork Lake when the water got low in the summer,” English quietly shares the intimacy of a small community.  —CRAFT


 

Green was the name of the man from the bank that took my house.

He angled his body toward the door the whole time he sat in my home, both legs turned and twisted to the side, feet pointed toward our front porch. He was thin, bent, and sharp, folded like a praying mantis.

We gave him coffee.

He gave us a green folder with color brochures and paperwork.

While Michael and David played outside on the wooden swing set I had built last year, Green told us first how the bank wanted to help us. They didn’t want to own our house, he said. There were programs, we just needed to help the bank so they could help us. He used words that made it sound like we were in this together, but I knew better. Beth did too.

Then Green told us what he was there to say. He told us what would happen if we couldn’t catch the payments up. He barely moved his lips as he said it. Beth had to keep asking him to repeat himself. That was the worst part—listening to that man tell me I was losing my house twice.

I asked him if they were hiring down at the bank. He shook his head no and looked down at the shiny pennies in his loafers.

They were hiring down at the lumberyard, Green said. Just a few guys were needed and the pay wasn’t nearly as high as in the mine, but my experience as manager would help me if I put it on the application. I told him I wasn’t a manager, I was a straw boss. He shrugged his bony shoulders toward his ears, like the distinction between the two didn’t matter.

Green finally unfolded himself and stood up. He told me to call him if I had questions, handing me a business card. I walked him out, as I should. He reached to shake my hand on the front porch, like we were friends, like we would both be better for his having visited. Seemed rude not to.

I watched him pull out of our gravel drive, stood there watching the dirt kick up behind his black car. I spit off the porch, just over the railing where the paint was cracked and peeling back like the edge of Dry Fork Lake when the water got low in the summer. David asked me who the guy in the suit was. I didn’t answer him. I just turned and walked back in the house holding my folder.

Later that night, lying in our bed under the quilt Beth’s mom had made for our wedding, I told Beth I wouldn’t have worked at that bank even if they had been hiring. She laughed and called me a liar. She said she would work there, too, if they’d let her. She would keep her pennies in her shoes if she worked at the bank.

We’d never had so much money that we had to keep it in our shoes.

We had known he would be coming. Not Green himself, but a man like Green. I didn’t see what they wanted with my house. They already had the Martins’ and the Profitts’ house next to theirs. It started when the big mine shut down. The rumor was that the Slones had lost their house the week before Green showed up at our door. Beth and I knew our home wouldn’t be far behind. They didn’t need ours too. They had more than enough houses for all the bank employees. As far as I could tell, the bank employees were going to be the only ones left before long. If anyone asked me which business should be the last one standing, I’d save the Quillen Drug Store rather than that bank. It’d been there as long as anyone could remember. But there’s no telling how long it can stay open when people are only buying two-dollar coffee.

Lately, Quillen’s was where men logged their hours during the day, drinking coffee at the counter while they wished they were working. After the smaller mines started shutting down, we visited Quillen’s more and more; the bank less and less. The bank wasn’t even downtown now. They’d moved it out to the bypass a few years ago. It wasn’t anything to look at. Come to think of it, Beth had come home one day all excited because she thought they were building a McDonald’s out on the bypass. We’d never had a McDonald’s. We only realized it was a bank when they started building the additional lanes for the drive-thru tellers. I would’ve preferred the McDonald’s.

I took the lumberyard job. The bank took the house.

I stopped by the bank to look for Green, right before we had to hand the keys over. I didn’t tell Beth; I didn’t want to get her hopes up. I thought my new job might change things. Plus, Beth had picked up some shifts at the grocery store. Green wasn’t there, but I left a note for him to call me.

It wasn’t long after we moved that Rob Slone, who lived in the next apartment, started talking about the gas company. He’d heard rumors down at Quillen’s that the company was buying up the rights to the natural gas around the area. Rob kept talking about his aunt and telling us all how she had sold her rights to some property further north and moved to Florida. He was convinced that he still owned the gas rights to the ground under his old house. He kept talking about what he was going to do with the money and where he and his wife Cassie were going to move. Cassie just shook her head. But when we tried telling Rob it was too good to be true, he just smiled and kept on talking.

The bank was able to sell our place and the Slones’ and the Martins’ and the Profitts’ houses too. All of them. Nobody at the bank would say what they got for the houses, which we figured meant that they sold for a lot.

Not much later the heavy equipment arrived. The gas company tore a bunch of the houses down. They set up a drill at the Martins’ place. The Slones’ and the Profitts’ homes were torn down so they could get a road in to the drill.

Beth cried the night we saw the sign outside our house that said “Office.” They weren’t the first tears she had shed on account of us losing the house, but they are the ones I remember most.

“That’s where we marked Michael and David’s heights on the trim by the back door in the kitchen,” she said. “I’ll never see those little marks again. Or the outline of the tree that David drew on the kitchen cabinet during the snowstorm. I never could paint over it. He was so proud. Now it’s not even going to be a home for another family.”

She’d asked if we could take the trim with the kids’ heights on it when we were moving out, but I said no, mostly on account of what Johnny Profitt had done. I didn’t want to give the bank any reason to be upset with me.

I suppose if the guys at the bank had known Johnny like we knew Johnny, they would’ve handled his house a little differently. Johnny Profitt hadn’t been the most stable guy even when things were going well. We heard about him staying out too long, drinking too much, before we knew they were losing the house. Even then, we couldn’t predict that he would do what he did.

Johnny took his wife Sheila, the kids, the dogs, and the furniture they hadn’t sold to Sheila’s parents’ place. Then Johnny went back to the house that night and got real good and drunk. He would’ve had to have been drunk to mess up like he did. He should’ve known how it would all play out. He knew that the gas from the stove alone would’ve burned the whole house down. He knew he didn’t have to pour kerosene on the stove and the rest of the kitchen to help it along. The problem was he spilled kerosene on himself, too, as drunk as he was. He was in the hospital for two weeks, probably wishing he was dead the whole time.

The bank waited until he got out of the hospital before they had him arrested. It turns out that a man can’t burn his house down, especially if the bank already owns it. They used him to set an example. It worked, because when the bank took the Martins’ place, and the Turners’ and the Webbs’ and the others after that, nobody else tried to burn their house. None of us did anybody any good in jail.

So when Beth asked me if we could cut out the piece of trim on the doorframe to the kitchen as we were moving out, I told her no. The bank didn’t need to set an example with me.

The day after we saw the sign, I set out for my old house that was now an office for Burton’s Natural Gas Company. I walked right in and who did I see sitting there? Green. Folded behind a big rough wood desk in the middle of my living room, wearing a suit and looking as out of place as he had the first time he’d been there. His head swiveled towards me, still a praying mantis, with angled legs, arms, and motives.

Before I could say what I went there to say, I looked over and saw our stove, our countertop. Our kitchen was still painted the same pale yellow. Beth always said the yellow matched her favorite plates, the ones she and her mom had bought when they were in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

There were still little round marks in the carpet where our sofa and coffee table had sat. A purple stain from where Michael had spilled his grape juice when he had just barely started walking. Beth had cried trying to get that stain up. She hadn’t slept for days, it seemed. I came home and she was just sitting in the floor scrubbing all the purple fibers out of the carpet, until the carpet backing, stained just as purple, was showing through.

Green looked at me like I was a stranger. He asked if he could help me.

I asked what the bank had to do with the drilling.

“Nothing,” he said.

Turns out, Green left the bank when the gas company started the drilling rigs. When “we” started drilling, he said. I knew a man like that wouldn’t remember me, wouldn’t remember sitting in this very room telling me that the bank wanted to help.

I asked Green if the gas company was hiring. When he said no, I thanked him and turned to leave.

He asked if he could take my information in case things changed.

No need, I told him, reaching for the door.

I spit off the porch on my way out.

Beth and I fought that night. She got mad because I had taken an extra shift on Saturday—the same day as Michael’s birthday party. She kept telling me that she worked at the grocery so I could take a weekend off. I had taken those extra shifts so she could go back to staying at home like she used to. She told me I was being selfish and went to bed in a huff.

I went back to the old house. Dressed in black like a proper cat burglar, like in the movies. I’d never gotten around to fixing that back lock.

I walked around inside, trying to picture what it looked like before. I looked in the bedrooms, but they were full of file cabinets and desks; nothing like that belonged there. It didn’t even smell the same. But I could still walk through that house in the dark, even avoid that squeaky board in the hallway outside the boys’ room. I washed my hands in the bathroom, stopping when I touched the handle at the sink. I hadn’t known that I missed it until then.

I sat on the front porch and thought a long time about what to do, how to do it. Johnny didn’t seem so crazy while I was sitting on that porch. But I still wasn’t Johnny.

It took me longer than I’d hoped. It wasn’t my best work, but good enough that a man like Green wouldn’t notice the difference. I couldn’t risk Burton’s security guards hearing any noise, so I didn’t use my power tools, but I was still gone by dawn.

I’d never stolen anything, not in my whole life. I had expected a rush, but there’s not much thrill when a man’s carrying what belonged to him once. When I got to the apartment, I left the trim next to the salt and pepper on the kitchen table for Beth to see when she woke up. The side with the marks was facing up. At least I could provide that.

 


ANNE C. ENGLISH is a writer, mother, and attorney (not necessarily in that order) living in Lexington, Kentucky. She has written fiction since she was a teenager, although she only recently began submitting pieces for publication. “The Provider” is her first published story. She is also revising her first novel. Find her on Twitter @annecenglish or Instagram at anne_c_english_writer.

Author’s Note

This story began as a simple prompt, “[b]egin with the word ‘green.’ Write for at least ten minutes.” This little “free writing” exercise, which was meant to be practice before my “real” writing for the day, created a narrator and a character, Green, who I couldn’t get out of my mind. The magic of a story most often appears when I am not looking for it. It shows up in those moments after I’ve already solved the plot problem, or I’ve already written what I sat down to say. In those moments when my agenda is complete, but I’m still putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, that’s when the story takes on its own life. It’s often only after I’ve pushed aside my preconceived notions that anything interesting starts to happen.

I did not sit down that day intending to write about my hometown, or the shifting economy in coal-producing regions, or the personal hardships that those shifts created. But that is what ended up on the page.

“Green was the name of the man from the bank that took my house.”

From that sentence, I began to think about why someone might lose a house and how a character might feel about the man who personified the process. However, what drove this story was the narrator and his voice. I could practically hear the voice in my head as I wrote, which meant that the words often fell into the rhythm and cadence of the narrator’s voice. I repeated words out loud through each revision of “The Provider,” hearing my narrator’s slow, deep voice telling his story. His quick pride through parts and his melancholy about the changes in his life rang in my ears. This piece fell into a natural language, but not necessarily proper English or correct verb tenses on the page. During each revision, I asked myself whether this was a word my narrator would say and whether each phrase was one he would use. Then I tried to reconcile his manner of speaking with what looked right on the page and would be clear for a reader.

I found the ending to “The Provider” only after I put aside what I believed a reader might find interesting and how I wanted the story to end, and finally focused on who this narrator was, what he wanted, and what he was capable of in these circumstances. I know much less than my characters and my stories fare better when I remember that. While the narrator may not have the words to analyze the economic forces around him, he has a deep personal understanding which transcends any journalist’s or scholar’s view of the data. He is no particular man but reminds me of many in my hometown. “The Provider” was a fun piece to write because the voice in this piece is not fully mine, it is his, and I hope that I have done right by him.

 


ANNE C. ENGLISH is a writer, mother, and attorney (not necessarily in that order) living in Lexington, Kentucky. She has written fiction since she was a teenager, although she only recently began submitting pieces for publication. “The Provider” is her first published story. She is also revising her first novel. Find her on Twitter @annecenglish or Instagram at anne_c_english_writer.