“Try unearthing something fresh” is Amelia Gray’s advice to writers of short fiction. “The best stories have something that needs to be said urgently: now, today, this very moment.”
Freshness and urgency is a difficult combination for a writer to achieve, but many entrants in this year’s Observer short story contest, guest judged by Gray, hit the mark. The five finalists are arguably our strongest batch yet, but getting there required some punishing decisions.
In September we published the four runners-up: “Melanie Lewis Plays Dominoes,” “Lee Harvey in His Element,” “Only Animals” and “Navigation.” Today we’re pleased to present the winning story, Ben Reed’s “My Neighbor the Pilot,” about which Amelia Gray says the following: “Funny and sad, this story captures in a few thousand words a sense of love and life in a chaotic world.”
Reed lives in Austin and teaches writing and lit at Texas State University. After the story you can read about its genesis in Reed’s words. Following that is our list of honorable mention stories.
The man who lived in the house behind mine was an amateur pilot who built his own airplanes. I suppose it was his hobby. His planes were comically small, so small that he could barely fit his body inside the cockpit. Each wing was usually about four feet long. The landing gear ended in lawnmower wheels and the propellers were made of some sort of rubber he had vulcanized himself. His planes were always painted yellow and blue and red, and I was never sure if he had intended them to look like toys.
One day, he crashed into my backyard. I found his plane crushed up and lying among the dried dogshit and weeds. My neighbor the pilot was nowhere to be seen. The wreckage was exceptional, but I didn’t put a picture on Instagram or anything, because he was my neighbor and I didn’t want to embarrass him, either for building small planes or for not being able to fly them very well.
The day after the crash, his wrecked plane was gone. He’d found a way to remove it without even speaking to me. Maybe he used a crane or something; I don’t know. Where the crashed plane had been, there was now a shallow crater. The weeds — my weeds — had been matted down by boot prints.
A few weeks later, he crashed into my backyard again, but this time his plane hit the earth violently, nose-first, like a lawn dart. My neighbor was killed. I saw just enough of his tangled and bloody body to know he was dead. When I discovered this, I was already late for an important engagement. Well, that phrasing is too elegant, really. The actual situation was that I had quit my job in marketing and was trying to become a stand-up comedian and maybe an actor. I had already become a regular at this one comedy club downtown. Usually I just did open mics, but that night I was going to be an opener for a veteran road comic, this guy who used to be famous and was still pretty well-known. (You’d recognize his name if I said it.) Like I said, I was running late, so I didn’t tell anyone about the corpse in my backyard.
That night on stage I bombed for the first five minutes; nobody in the audience was into my material. So I started talking about my crazy neighbor who builds and flies his own little planes, and people started laughing. I talked about finding his crushed-up plane in my backyard, and his broken and dead body, while comically pantomiming my surprise and confusion as I ducked and peered into the mangled fuselage to verify that yes, he was indeed dead inside the cockpit. The crowd ate it up. They loved me. I found a way to segue back into my planned material and it ended up being my best performance ever.
A rather short yet very attractive woman was waiting to talk to me after my set. This had never happened before. She said her name was Emily and she asked if she could buy me a drink at the bar in the lobby. I said OK, great, even though the club gave me drinks for free. (It’s a thrilling experience when someone — attractive or otherwise — gives you the entirety of her attention, and I was afraid that declining her offer out of simple practicality might have somehow rocked the boat.)
Anyway, we really hit it off. She forgot about the famous comic, who was why she had come to the club in the first place, and later she gave me her phone number and I walked her to her car. After that the club’s manager introduced me to the famous comic and I shook his sweaty hand and smiled enthusiastically and gave him an empty compliment because I hadn’t heard a word of his set.
The next day, I revisited the crashed plane in my backyard and my neighbor’s body, which was beginning to smell like rancid milk. But still I didn’t call the police, even though I knew I should have. I thought I might get in trouble, having let the plane and the body sit there for so long. Maybe people would think I hadn’t called the police earlier because I had something to hide. Maybe people would think he hadn’t been dead when I first found him. Maybe people would blame me for gravity and Newton’s laws of motion and the ultimate frailty of the human body and also other things I only knew about from high school, and vaguely.
I woke up the following day to the unshakable realization that things would only get worse for me if I continued to not call 911, so I called 911. I told the dispatcher everything I could think of, and I was especially clear on one point in particular: that I had absolutely nothing to do with it.
The fire department arrived three minutes later. They honked furiously. I had to put on pants and move my car out of the driveway so they could park their fire engine as near as possible to the crash site. The firefighters clambered out of the engine in their firefighting helmets and coats, carrying their canvas bags of lifesaving gear, even though there was no emergency.
The firefighters made various whimsical comments to each other about my neighbor’s tiny plane and also the sorry state of my backyard. One knelt near the wreck so he could climb partway into the crushed and contorted fuselage and evaluate my neighbor’s body. This firefighter’s head and torso and arms disappeared into the wreckage. Another firefighter crouched behind him, squeezing and probing his partner’s back and shoulders to demonstrate what the first firefighter needed to do to my neighbor’s body in order to assess the damage. To me, he looked like he was giving his partner a massage, but then, I didn’t know very much about emergency medicine. As the firefighter who had crawled into the wreck palpated my neighbor’s chest and neck and upper shoulders — as he was being nonverbally instructed by the firefighter standing behind him — words, apparently, were pressed forth from my dead neighbor’s mouth. The first firefighter held his ear against my neighbor’s parted lips, then nodded, turning to relate what my dead neighbor still had left to say.
“This guy here works as a waiter in a restaurant,” the half-hidden firefighter called back to us, “but he realizes a lot of people think being a waiter is unmanly.”
A third firefighter, who was just standing around, scoffed and said, “Oh yeah? What an asshole. Take pride in your fucking job, that’s what I say.”
I stood there, because it was my backyard and so I assumed I had to, but also because I wanted to be present, but not so present that I would have to see or touch the body, or to be asked for my opinion, or to do anything at all, really.
The first firefighter, still half-hidden in wreckage, reported back, “He says nobody cares about the people who bring you your food.” Then: “‘A human being should be more than a method of conveyance.’”
The firefighter standing nearby, the one who had suggested my dead neighbor take more pride in his fucking job, said, “Hey, I tip 20 percent. On tax. Even when the service is of no great shakes. What more does he want, my firstborn?”
As the firefighters packed up their gear, it became clear they weren’t going to remove my neighbor’s body.
I said, “But what about the body? Aren’t you going to do something with it?”
The firefighter who had been palpating the firefighter who had been palpating my dead neighbor said, “Sorry. We save people who are in various forms of significant distress. Dead bodies aren’t our purview.”
“But I thought you would take care of everything.”
He smirked. “Oh, I’m sorry. Is this my backyard now?”
“No,” I said. “It’s mine. It’s my backyard.”
“So, homeowner, call the fucking medical examiner. And clean up all this dogshit.”
I said, “But I don’t even have a dog.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. “You know that makes it worse, right?”
“I used to,” I said.
“Clean up the shit?”
“No. Have a dog.”
“It ran away.” This was true. My dog had left so long ago that I had forgotten its sex, name and breed.
Emily and I met for lunch a week later. I picked a place downtown that I had been told was nice. I had heard the menu was creative, but not too creative. Right in that sweet spot of semi-creativity.
We were seated at a booth in the back. I was looking at the menu when I sensed the waiter appear. “Hello. I’m Evan, and I’ll be your server today.”
“Oh my god,” I said. “You were my neighbor.”
“I’m still your neighbor,” my neighbor said.
“This is him?” Emily asked. “The guy with the planes?”
“Yes,” I said to Emily. To my neighbor I said, “I thought you died.”
“I did. They were able to bring me back.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well. Good for you.”
My neighbor didn’t look all that bad. A little sallow, sure, with this bluish hue under his eyes. Still a bit of that sour milk smell. And he looked gaunt, maybe, but he’d always been thin. Although you couldn’t say he hadn’t made a remarkable recovery. Plus he looked smart in his starched white shirt and long black apron. He said, “Do you want to hear the specials?”
“Yes, please,” Emily said.
“Beef tongue three ways. Also fried prawns. Both come with two sides. Get the garlic fries, they’re great. And wines by the glass are a dollar off until four.”
Emily asked, “What are the three ways?”
My neighbor sighed, looking briefly over his shoulder. “Honestly? We don’t have the tongue. I’m supposed to come back to the table and say we just ran out, but we don’t have it. We’ve never had it. The whole tongue thing is a ruse.”
“How are the prawns then?” I asked, trying to be helpful.
“I’ve always wondered,” Emily interrupted. “What exactly are prawns?”
“Well, you know,” my neighbor said confidentially. “They’re basically sea spiders.”
Emily shuddered. “Ew. Like, they’re bugs?”
Evan crouched and slid into the booth beside me. “No,” he said. “That’s the thing. Prawns are more like arachnids. Spiders, ticks and mites, which have eight legs and therefore aren’t ‘bugs’ per se.” He leaned across the table, closer to Emily, who was riveted. “People don’t know, but when you eat a lobster tail, you’re basically eating a big ol’ chunk of buttered spider.” He relaxed and sat back against the booth. “I mean, in the bigger picture.”
I nodded. But what I was thinking was, He’s one of those waiters who sits at the table.
“Amazing,” Emily said.
My neighbor nodded.
“Hey,” she said. “Do you still build the planes?”
“Actually, yeah. I have a new frame started in my garage. It’s going to be a two-seater, actually. If you want to come up sometime.”
“Sure, you’d love it. The rush. The altitude. Total freedom from everything. No sea spiders, no garlic fries or buffalo wings.”
“That sounds awesome,” Emily said.
“I think I’ll get the prawns,” I said.
“What? Oh, sure,” Evan said. He slid his pad of guest checks toward me, and also a pen. “Just write it down, if you would. Don’t forget your sides.”
“What are my options?”
Just then someone in the kitchen shouted for my neighbor. “Dang it,” he said. “Lunch rush is picking up. I should go.”
“Do you have to?” Emily said. “I’d like to hear more about the planes.”
“I’d love to stay and talk,” he said. “But I have three other tables.”
“Ben can take care of them,” she said, looking at me. “Right?”
I was a little bit tripped up by this but we were on a date and what my date wanted was to talk to my neighbor about his airplanes. I shrugged and said, “Sure. I mean, I guess I could.”
“Great,” my neighbor said, untying his apron. He handed it to me. “Table two is still waiting on their bread. And don’t let Mike give you any shit about not wearing a white shirt. He lets Ashley get away with it all the time.”
As the restaurant picked up, I started to lose track of time, hanging tickets in the kitchen window and making sure everything came out the way it was ordered. I’d check on Emily and my neighbor, but all they ever wanted was more water. The lunch rush was finally starting to taper off when Emily found me scraping plates at the busing station. She had her purse.
“Look, Evan and I are gonna get out of here.”
“What? I thought we were on a date.”
“I know, but there’s just something about him. He’s exciting, right?”
“You mean the planes? He can barely fly them!”
She crossed her arms, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “Well at least he’s trying. Evan hasn’t forgotten his dreams, and… I don’t know, I just find that really attractive.”
I reminded her that I had quit my job to become a comedian, but she shrugged and said, “Yeah, OK. Sure, I guess. But Evan just quit this job to spend time with me.”
“But he hates this job!”
“So?” she said. “Who wouldn’t?”
I watched them leave together. They walked out through the front doors and then passed by the restaurant’s large front window, my neighbor with his arm around Emily, who was laughing wildly at something he’d just said. I guess I didn’t really mind, not when it came down to it. I barely knew Emily, and my neighbor had been through an awful lot recently.
The restaurant manager offered me my neighbor’s job and I took it because you can’t really count on being a comedian for income. After a few months I grew bold enough to take smoke breaks after the lunch rush, even though I didn’t smoke. I’d stand in the alley behind the restaurant, trying to think of new jokes, but nothing ever came to me, and Evan no longer being dead had ruined my best material. I think I knew I was done as a comedian.
Stray dogs would come by, sniffing for scraps. I didn’t shoo them away as I’d been told to. Instead I’d crouch down and speak to them in reassuring tones, trying to get them to come closer, saying, Are you my dog? Are you my dog? I wanted one of them to come home with me and live in my backyard, but they never seemed to trust me, or to see what might be in it for them.
Ben Reed on “My Neighbor the Pilot”:
The germ of this story came as a bad dream that disturbed me into wakefulness, asking to be written down. It wasn’t supposed to have been a “story,” and that might have been the end of it, but soon after I was invited to read at an event in a friend’s South Austin backyard, and all I had ready was my little scrap of nightmare. I nudged the narrative around a bit, but I wanted to keep the original dream as intact as possible. I was still poking at it when I saw that the judge for this year’s Observer contest was Amelia Gray, who is one of my favorite writers of what I like to call “psychologically active” short fiction (along with writers like Etgar Keret and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya), which seems to me to allow for the total accident that “My Neighbor the Pilot” is at its heart. This is partly why I’m so thrilled that this story was selected — it is now more or less what it has always been; I was kept from massaging it to the point of organ failure.
“Ana and Clemencia and the Arroyo” Luis Guerra, Austin
“Anytime She Goes Away” Randall Arnold, Keller
“The Autumn of Abigail Williams” Deb Czarnecki, Asheville, NC
“Bowling and Oklahoma” Denise Tolan, San Antonio
“Burl” Drew Buxton, Arequipa, Peru
“The Changeling” Matt Jones, Cincinnati, OH
“The Chosen” Marilyn Abildskov, Emeryville, CA
“Cold Light” Kim Henderson, Idyllwild, CA
“Dear Fat, Burn in Hell” Paige Shay, Refugio
“The Elsewhere” Sarah Rogers, San Francisco
“Fire Horse” Christopher Cantwell, Claremont, CA
“Fun Person” Deirdre Coyle, Brooklyn
“Gladiators” Daniel Peña, Houston
“Hermann! Can You Hear Me?” Anni Talwani, Houston
“It Must Be Beautiful in Berlin This Time of Year” Ron MacLean, Roslindale, MA
“Laps and Small Victories” Marta Balcewicz, San Diego
“Learn to Dream Again” Mayra de Catalan, Des Moines, IA
“Live a Little” Jessie Xiao, Houston
“The Magic Carpet” John Matthews, Des Plaines, IL
“Monsters of the Natural World” Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Dallas Fort-Worth
“Move on Down the Line” Rachel Perkes, Corpus Christi
“Oeuvre” Ernestus Chald, Chicago
“Paper Shadows” Nick Wade, Austin
“Rebirth” Frank Blazquez, Albuquerque
“Rot” Nicole Hughes, Bend, OR
“Sailing the Interior” Heath Dollar, Ft. Worth
“Sex Brainiac” Nicole Beckley, Austin
“Silly Putty” Cliff Avery, Pflugerville
“Smiling Small” Alberto Nissim, Hillsborough, CA
“Stage Fright” Clive West, Valtopina, Italy
“White Butterfly” Dick Sheffield, San Angelo
“The Woman Who Was Done With Men” Meredith Counts, Whitmore Lake, MI
“Words on Wheels” David Athey, West Palm Beach, FL