To read about the three Inner Loop Contest winning entries, and interviews with the winners and judge, read Nicole Schaller’s coverage on the contest.
My father called himself an entrepreneur, always chasing the million-dollar idea. He wouldn’t tell me what it was. I used to think a time machine would be nice. Or a pill that cured cancer. He would travel to California for week-long meetings with investors, leaving me a stack of twenties for pizza delivery and the same 213 area code number where he could be reached in an emergency. I never had to use it. When I was 13, he took me to California for the first time.
“Are we staying at a hotel or a motel?” I asked, as we pulled out of LAX in a rental car.
“Neither,” he said, eyes on the road, gripping the steering wheel tightly.
We drove for a couple of hours. First freeways, then straight two-lane highways across the desert. We turned down a long gravel driveway and stopped in front of a house with jagged rocky hills looming behind it.
On the porch were wind chimes hanging and a wicker mat at the front door that said, “Welcome. Please remove your shoes.”
“Shoes,” my father snapped at me.
He ran his hand — like it was a comb — across his hair. I took off my sneakers. The door opened. It was a woman smiling at me.
“Hi Brian,” she said to me. “I’m Janice. It’s wonderful to meet you.”
We went inside and stood in a living room with white shag carpeting. My father walked over to a television set perched in the corner.
“How’s this piece of junk holding up?” he said, smacking it on its side.
“We need a new one,” said a kid lurking at the edge of the living room.
He looked about my age. Skinny, glasses, a flat top haircut.
“Ernie, meet Brian,” the woman said. “Ernie, why don’t you take Brian into the backyard and get acquainted?”
Ernie stared at the socks on his feet. They were the same as mine. White with red and blue stripes ringing the top.
“Now,” my father said.
“I’ll fix us some lemonade,” the woman said. “Maybe something stronger for the adults.”
“Definitely,” my father said.
Ernie and I slipped into our shoes on the front porch, and I followed him around the house to a metal gate that opened to the backyard. He lifted the latch.
“Make sure this gate is always closed,” he said.
This was the first thing he said to me. The backyard was manicured and landscaped, a plush green lawn ringed with trees. A little brown Shih Tzu dog ran up to me. I bent over to pet him, and he licked my hand.
“Do you have coyotes in Maryland?” Ernie asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“We do. Do you know what a coyote would do to a little dog like this?”
“Kill him and eat him. That’s why the gate always has to be closed.”
Through the back window of the house, I could see into the kitchen. My father and Janice were talking and laughing. They drank a bright pink liquid out of tall skinny glasses.
“But couldn’t the coyote just jump over your fence?” I asked.
“What are you, a coyote expert?” Ernie said.
Behind him, I could see a tree with lemons hanging off the branches.
“Is that a lemon tree?” I asked.
“Duh,” he said. “Haven’t you ever seen a lemon tree before?”
Ernie smiled. He pushed his glasses up his nose.
“If you can eat a whole lemon off that tree in one minute, I’ll give you a quarter.”
“Okay,” I said.
Ernie plucked the biggest lemon he could find and tossed it to me. He pushed a button on his watch. It made a beep.
“Go,” he said.
I tore the lemon apart, stuffing section after section into my mouth. The juice ran down my chin. I was squinting, it was so sour. I kept going.
“Done!” I said.
“Shit,” he said. “Shit.”
His head hung. His mouth twitched.
“Where’s my quarter?” I said.
“Nobody’s ever eaten the whole lemon before. You must have cheated.”
“Give me my quarter.”
Ernie’s face scrunched up.
“I hate my mom,” he said.
He started to cry.
“My mom died two years ago,” I said. “She had cancer.”
Ernie nodded. He stopped crying and sat down on the grass and petted his dog. I sat down next to them and scratched behind the dog’s ears. His fur was soft.
“Never mind about the quarter,” I said. “How often do you see my father?”
“Lots of times. Since like forever.”
“Has he ever told you his million-dollar idea?”
“What million-dollar idea?” Ernie said. “What are you talking about?”
Through the back window, we could see that the kitchen was now empty. We were on our own.
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