The Windfall by James Alex Veech


Cans of food began appearing on a small side table in the kitchen a few days before the long weekend. Unfortunately, Father was gathering provisions for the Sierras again, and I could tell another trip was in the works.

I recognized a few of the cans that had been set out. A tin of beef which he liked to have for backup in case the fish weren’t biting. Soups and juices in cans with silvered tops. A can of Carnation milk for his coffee.

In the middle of surveying the weekend’s provisions I noticed a label on one of the cans was not well glued and starting to peel away. I picked it up and finished the job. The can looked funny, undressed as it was with all its silver fully exposed. I’d seen a picture of a plucked chicken once that had made me laugh out loud. This naked can was funny the same way, as though I’d caught it in a moment that should be private. 

I found another can, its label not falling off like the first one, but with a spot where the glue was loose, and I could slip in my finger under the label. I gave it a tug and this label, too, came off. Then I found another where I could do the same, then another, then another and denuded each of the cans in turn. When I finished, I had produced a bunch of cans now completely anonymous, contents no longer knowable to the naked eye.

While my father was at work, I was at loose ends as only an unsupervised ten year-old on summer break can be. At least playing with the cans was fun, more fun than the trips we took, which were notable for the boredom of the car ride and the long silences. I began bringing books to read to pass the hours in the shotgun seat. The best trip was the one when I read War of the Worlds cover to cover on the trip home. I could remember the excitement of aliens in New Jersey, but recalled no sense of excitement over fish in a lake. The worst was the one when I complained of car sickness coming on.

He stopped by the side of the road then and got out his Primus stove to heat water to make bouillon. It seemed to take forever for the water to boil. I sat on the shoulder of the road, waiting. When it was finally ready, he said, “Here, this will settle your stomach,” and he gave me some – lukewarm – in a camp cup. The cup left the unpleasant taste of tin on my lips; the soup was weak and salty. Drinking it felt like punishment. I’d had my mouth washed out with soap once. I would have preferred that.

I had a sudden flash of Father being angry with me for removing the labels because he wouldn’t know what was inside the cans. A can opener was on the table, ready to be packed together with the cans for the trip. I picked up the first can that I’d peeled the label from, wondering if I could open it, so he would know what was inside.

I’d never had a chance to use a can opener before, just seen him do it. I fit the opener to the edge of the can and yanked. The sharp metal point broke through with a satisfying grinding noise of metal on metal and left a triangular opening. I liked the breaking sound the can opener made. With a child’s enthusiasm for overdoing fun, I moved to the second can, then the third, then the fourth, till I had opened them all. 

I admit I got carried away. It is what happens to youngsters who aren’t clear on limits or consequences. I had no malice aforethought in breaking all the cans open. I clearly remember thinking I was helping him. I knew the cans had to be opened sooner or later. Why shouldn’t I have the fun?

When my father arrived home and saw all the cans for the weekend broken open, all he did was set his jaw and say, “Damn your eyes. There’ll be no camping this weekend. And you’re going to pay for this.” He didn’t mean physically pay, although I didn’t realize it till the next morning. He meant pay literally. The next day, Saturday, when he would rather have been heading to the mountains, he took me instead to the Bank of America uptown. He told me to wait in the car. When he came back out, he had money in his hands and started in on me. 

“This money was going to be yours,” he said. “It was in a savings account for you. This was Christmas gift money for you from your grandparents. We were saving it for you. Now, guess what?  You’re going to buy what you broke!”

This threat had no effect on me, for I had no idea I had any money at all, and I didn’t know what a savings account was. He peeled off three five dollar bills and waved them under my nose.

“There. That’s what your stupidity’s going to cost you. That, and a nice camping trip.”

Says you, I thought.

As we drove away from the bank, he said, “I’ve closed the savings account.” His jaw had the same angry set as it did the day before. He had one five dollar bill left in his hand.  “Here, boy. This is what’s left over.” 

There was an air of finality in the way he handed me the money. I felt the chill of his attitude, but if he was trying to punish me, I didn’t feel punished.

I had five dollars in my hand. I felt good, like I’d stumbled into a windfall.   


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