With the money he’d gotten for his eleventh birthday, William bought a fan.
“Is that supposed to make me feel bad?” his father asked, as William hefted the fan into their shopping cart. William and his father were at Home Depot, pushing a cart full of paint cans, paint rollers, and brushes. Their air conditioner had broken at the beginning of summer, back when William’s mother still lived with them. Back before William’s father began repainting all the rooms in the house. William’s room, once white, was now cornflower blue with lavender trim. “It’s just a fan,” William said.
“Because it seems like you want to make me feel bad,” his father said.
William turned the box so that its price tag faced out. “It’s on sale,” he said.
“I no longer understand what anyone expects from me,” his father said.
On the drive home, they passed a chicken truck with tiny white feathers trailing behind it.
The fan had three speeds and an oscillating head, which made it sometimes turn air upon places where William and his father weren’t, like the corner of the kitchen, where his mother used to lean her mop, or the space behind the TV, which his mother had never allowed them to watch during dinner, as they did now.
“I’ve about had it with that fan,” his father said.
“Keeps things cool,” William said, and the fan, as if to prove his point, turned upon them both, and blew William’s napkin from his lap.
“I’m not a fan of that fan,” his father said, but William didn’t say anything.
At night, William put the fan at the foot of his bed. He liked the way it blew his curtains against the window and fluttered his posters from behind their tacks. He liked the sound it made. In the morning, William was always surprised to find he’d turned the fan off during the night. He could never remember doing so.
William’s mother called him on Saturdays. William’s father let him use the phone in the study he was never allowed to use otherwise. William sat at his father’s desk and waited for the phone to ring, which it always did at exactly four o’clock, since this was the time his mother had arranged with William’s father. At four o’clock on Saturdays she would call William and William would answer the phone he was never allowed to use otherwise and say, “Hello?” William always felt a little foolish saying hello since he knew who was calling. His mother must have known that it would always be William answering on the other end—who else would it be?—but always answered him by saying, “William? It’s me, your mom.” Then she would ask him what was new and he would say nothing, even though he was holding his face just inches from the fan.
One morning William and his father painted the master bedroom. William’s father allowed him to stir paint with a wooden stick and later had him hold one end of a king-sized mattress as they scooted it out into the hallway. “This mattress is heavy,” William said.
“This mattress is where you got your start,” his father laughed. William felt embarrassed.
By afternoon it was raining. Hard. William moved the fan away from the bedroom windows, positioning it towards the drying walls. “That’s not going to do much,” his father said. William shrugged. It felt strange to be in the bedroom with his father. He kept expecting his mother to walk in, but that was a stupid thing to expect. He set the fan to the highest speed and watched his father paint the ceiling with a long roller. The ceiling light flickered whenever lightning fell nearby. The storm worsened.
The electricity went out.
William looked at his father, but his father was watching the fan, which still turned along its course, defying logic, defying science, defying everything, until its blades whirred to a halt, and William knew she was gone.
Anthony Varallo is the author of This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, and Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. His third story collection, Think of Me and I’ll Know, will be published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in Fall 2013.