Pull a String

A figure in the spotlight is pulled by numerous strings connected to their various appendages, similar to a marionette.

by Melissa Chen
Art by Joy Song
Issue: Phosphene (Summer 2019)

When I was young we were rich in a way you are when you live with people who are dirt poor. We didn’t live in a good neighborhood, but my father was the police chief. We didn’t have everything, but my father could find a way to just about get anything.

He had connections.

Once, when I was five, I asked my father for a swing.

A week later, I met Don.

He came to build my swingset. I was picking armfuls of dandelions in the backyard, wading through the wildly overgrown grass. The broken screen door wriggled open and my father stepped out with Don, who towered over him. Don was thin and a little bent-over like he couldn’t hold himself straight. It was a hot day. My father and I matched in sleeveless cotton shirts, stiff from sweat and lack of proper washing. Don’s clothes were heavy and dusty but he
didn’t seem bothered by the heat at all. In his hand was a rattly old toolbox and he wore a beat up baseball cap. I’ll always remember that cap because back then in town everyone who wanted to be cool or tough wore their caps backward but Don always wore it the right way. My father was shaving, and he beckoned me over with his other hand.

“Clara, this is Don.”

Don tipped his hat at me and went to measure out a corner of the yard. I tried to follow, but my father pulled me back.

“You stay inside this week. Leave him be.”

I snuck out to to the backyard that evening after dinner. The sky was growing dark, the grass was thick and warm around us, and he was gathering up his stuff.

“Are you going now?” I asked, a little shy.

He nodded.

“Will you be here tomorrow?”

Again, he nodded.

“How long does it take to build a swingset?”

He pulled his hat. “I haven’t built many. We’ll see.”

There were shadows around him and I fancied he had a wizard’s face: crooked, thin and twinkly-eyed. And I used to think he was almost magic when I was little, the way he’d build things from scrap wood and metal. He stood up and dusted himself off, which was useless because his clothes still remained dusty afterward. He tipped his cap at me again and left.


Don became my best friend for the next few years. No kid in our town wanted to hang out with a cop’s kid. In fact, no one really wanted the cops at all. The only person my age that ever came close to being my friend was Nolan. He and I were in the same primary class before I transferred to private school in the next town over. His family lived in the apartment complex beside the Tracks. My father never permitted me to go near there, but Nolan came over sometimes when he could, and we’d swing on my swingset, eat drippy popsicles, and read my comics. He was a bit of an outcast too. For one thing, he used to be an “avid reader”. That’s what he called himself. Come to think of it, that was all that was ever “wrong” with him, besides his
mostly intelligent vocabulary. Even at eight, he had the beginnings of a stocky build like his older brothers, and a terrible temper.

Nolan had a habit of tucking in his oversized shirts into his brother’s old gym shorts. So one sweltering afternoon I thought it would be perfect to put my popsicle down his shirt. I snuck up behind him while he sat on the swing, absorbed in a Marvel comic. I had a last lick and in one swift motion, I nicked up his collar, and dropped my half-eaten Bomb Pop.

“FU*K!” Nolan yelled, springing up.

In our neighborhood, kids were pretty much born swearing. It was a toss of a coin that landed you with “Mama” as your first word or “Shite!”.

I doubled over with laughter, and stuck out my blue-stained tongue at him.

Nolan squirmed around with his hand in his shirt, trying to fish it out. I danced around him.

“Weiner! Weiner! WEINER! WHEEE—

Caught between a blink, I was flat out breathless on the ground, and my jaw felt funny. I looked up, and Nolan was there holding a sludgy popsicle stick in one hand, and the other was balled up. He was changed in an instant. Concerned, rolled out.

“You okay?”

The feeling crept over me when you know you had it coming but it was unexpected and now you feel hurt but also guilty but mostly hurt and it all crumples up into two hot tears in the back of your eyes and one big one stuck in your throat. I stared away.

“You should probably go,” I said, moderating my voice.

“‘Kay.” He went along with it, but he had a sheepish look.

I couldn’t help it. I laid down and it leaked out of me a little. Nolan darted back in my face, and he looked scared.

“You aren’t telling your dad, are you?”

“Nope.” The most I could manage.

“I don’t hit girls.”

“You just did.” The bitterness in my voice steadied me.

“Don’t tell. I don’t want—” He stopped, and I felt something cool slip in my hand. I looked down. It was a quarter. I blinked at it.

“Hush money,” Nolan said proudly.


“Don’t you know? Your dad takes it.”


“No, stupid,” Nolan said. Again, changed. He was confident, smart. “Hush money. My dad pays it to your dad all the time. Well, sometimes. He shuts up whether he does or doesn’t like what my dad’s doing.”

“But my dad’s the police,” I said. “He wouldn’t do that. He catches bad people. Like this.”

I nudged the comic that Nolan had been reading with my toe.

“Dad isn’t a bad person,” Nolan said. “He doesn’t even have to pay. Some people don’t and your dad still hushes up.”

I couldn’t do anything but blink some more.

“It’s dangerous to not. He’d rather be alive. Animated. Respirating. You know? So you going to take the money or leave it?”

I threw the quarter at him and never said another word about it.


After that, I didn’t speak to Nolan anymore. Don retook the swing beside me and we resumed things as they had been before my short-lived friendship with Nolan. Don showed up just about every weekend to do some kind of errand or task for my father. After he was done, we’d sit on the swings in the evening for a little ice cream bar (I never went back to popsicles again) and conversation.

“Don, you graduated high school didn’t you?” I asked him.

“Yep. Barely. You stay in school though.”

“Please, spare me the lecture.”

We swung in synchronization for a moment. Then I went up, and he went down, and it was off again. I tried to keep it together but it didn’t work.

“But not college?” I resumed.

“Nope. Couldn’t do that.”

“So, let’s see…how fast do you think an ice cream bar melts?”

“Faster than you can eat it, that’s for sure.” He smiled and passed me a napkin.

“You don’t laugh,” I said. “That’s a little sad, don’t you think? I’ve never heard you laugh. In almost four years, not once.”

“I’m too old to laugh.”

“That makes absolutely no sense.”

“You’re right.”

Somewhere in the dimness of the yard, our screen door squeaked.

“Clara? You out here again? I told you to stop bothering Don.” My father’s voice was tired. “You better get your butt in here. You have school tomorrow.”

I shoved the leftovers of my ice cream in my mouth and spoke with my mouth full. “Sorry for being annoying again, Don. I swear I’ll stop asking you so many pointless questions.”

“I’ll just get more answers so they won’t be.”

As I headed back in the house, I heard my father come out and talk to Don behind me, and his voice was even wearier than when he called me.

“Shouldn’t you be going, Don?”

In the darkness, Don bowed his head and mumbled.


Even if you are a quiet person, words are like a cup of soda. You try to contain them for a while—maybe an entire week—but eventually they’ll run over. Sometimes, my father ran his words over with me.

Clara, be quiet. Clara, take a bath. Clara, I know it’s overcooked, but eat the meatloaf. Clara, pick up your socks. Clara, your room’s a mess. Clara wipe your face. Clara, I’m not your mother (ironic isn’t it?).

But two people usually can not run their words over at the simultaneously. So I ran my words over with my only option left: Don.

“Do you ever get paid, Don?”

“I have jobs here and there.”

“Not working for Dad.”

His hand went up to his hat. “Not for your father, no.”

“So why do you come over all the time?”

“I’m helping him out.”

“Why him? Dad and you aren’t exactly friends.”

“I help a lot of people.”

“But they don’t pay you?”


“Then why—”

“Your father helped me out in a tight spot.” He didn’t sound very grateful when he said that. “A lot of people did.”


Don left us at last when I turned eleven. I answered the door when he knocked. I was wearing a sunflower dress that matched our wallpaper. It felt much too cheery for the occasion. He was very gracious to my father, as I expected he would be. In front of my father he performed his little show I had come to know well. Bobbed his head humbly. Wore his cap straight.

“Always be grateful to you, Tom,” he said in his quiet syrup-slow way.

I couldn’t stop feeling the sting of Don’s desertion.

“I’ll see you around Clara,” he turned to me.

I nodded because a snort would have been rude. Another lie. He was walking across the Tracks, heading away from here. He wasn’t coming back. But we had our sincere goodbye already. That one was for me to hold on to. That and all the Sunday nights on the swings we had.

“If you ever need anything. Both of you. Just—”

What? Call? He probably didn’t have one, but he didn’t even leave a phone number.

And then he was gone and the stoop was empty except for a little dust settling. Though he had never told me, I knew he couldn’t have stayed. And there was really nothing keeping him back.

Still, something—a string—seemed to have formed between us. Only now, as it stretched with his departing steps, did I realize that it had been created by both of us, that he had allowed this one strand out of a web of millions to remain, and that it was never snapping.

The sad part is not that you can not pull someone back with a single string.

The sad part is I wouldn’t.