Dante's Barn by Kelly Griffiths

Kelly Griffiths's thoughtful flash story about Jude, whose life has a flat tyre.

Without warning the steering wheel sprang to life and jack-hammered in Jude's hands. The vibrations rocked all the way up his arms and clattered his teeth like plates. Jude knew what had happened. But did it have to happen in the snow? And not just any snow. School would likely be closed tomorrow. Jude pulled off and killed the engine.

The memory lanced him.

"You what? Bought a - you bought this piece of crap? You know what Ford stands for, don't you? F-O-R-D. Fix or repair daily. And what th'hell you need a truck for?" His father slammed his hand down on the tailgate. "You haulin' somethin, pretty boy? I know what you plannin' to do. Only one reason pretty boys need a truck bed. You just keep yer di -"

"Pop!" Jude got in his face, nose to nose and noted with a measure of satisfaction his father broke the stare first.

His father kicked the tire. "Bald as bedrock, Jude. You gotta change 'em 'fore you drive anywhere," he wagged a finger like he did to the dog. Jude indulged himself in a little daydream of ripping that calloused finger out like a weed.

"What's wrong with you, Jude? You on drugs?"

Jude rolled his eyes and stomped off to work his shift. That was less than six hours ago. Now Jude needed that finger and the other nine. He scrolled down his favorites, passed Mom to get to Pisshead and hit the field to dial.

"You know the game's on, don't you?"

"Yeah, um, sorry Pop."

"Well, what d'you want?"

"My tire blew out."

"Jeezus-H-Christ you friggin' imbecile. I tole you! I tole you, didn't I?" On it went. Jude held the phone at arm's length so the words became bugs without stingers that missed his ear entirely and whizzed off into the air.

Jude was on his way home from his miserable job at Buehler's Hardware & Handy when the tire blew. Out of one hell and into another. Wasn't it Dante who said there were layers of hell, like cake? No, it was levels. But Jude was hungry. Hell cake was what Jude had been stuffing into his mouth ever since Mom bravely fought but lost her battle with cancer. Jude hated when they said it that way, like Mom was some sort of hospital-robed gladiator, swinging, yawping. Like she shook a fist at malignancy with go-ahead-make-my-day grit. Clint Eastwood.


Cancer made you whimper and beg for death's sweet release. It cored and paralyzed, left you stunned and shrunken. Along with the cancer cells, radiation burned away the mind.

Where was his father? Waiting for halftime, no doubt.

Should he try to change the tire? Jude didn't even know where to find the jack or if there was a spare. Handy, Jude was not. Which was why it was ironic, him working for Buehler. He only got the job because Buehler and his father went to school together - and Buehler pitied Jude because of his mother. Maybe because of his father too.

Jude's ignorance on all things home repair turned frustrated, coiled customers into exploding Roman candles. All they wanted was someone who could tell them what they needed to fix the damn X or seal the damn Y or for-God's-sake. "Don't you know anything, boy?"

Jude had long ago learned that question did not require an answer.

"Where's Buehler?"

"Out, Sir."

"Well, hell's kittens! Of course he is...You tell Buehler..."

Buehler practiced a form of magic on his customers, hypnotizing them with his amiable and self-effacing manner and southern drawl. Next he employed a wonderfully warped Socratic method that could sell a dog to a dog warden and which convinced his customers they'd solved their own home repair problems. At Buehler's Hardware & Handy, free with every purchase came the most essential home-improvement product: confidence.

Of course Jude would never tell Buehler.

Buehler was at the casino slaying his dragons. Buehler's phrase. The slaying urge would come randomly. Jude could anticipate when Buehler was about to bequeath the store to him like a seismograph sensing earth's nerves. A dark cloud would pass over Buehler's face after a victory like a top-of-the-line snow blower or a high-end tractor mower. He would get introspective and slide away into another place, a glitzy room where Lady Luck did her lap dance on his eyeballs. Next thing you know Buehler would amble to the door in a forced-casual way like he really wanted to sprint.

"Take over, Jude. Back in a jiff," and the jiff would be till past closing. That was how John Buehler tossed control of the whole store to Jude as if it was just the most natural thing in the world.

And that was how Jude got a retail ass-kicking. You tell Buehler...

At twenty minutes past closing time, Jude would turn the open! sign to closed, turn the lights off, and leave the door unlocked because he didn't have a key. John Buehler couldn't run his store and slay his dragons at the same time. 100% off at Buehler's, walk on in. This was the third time in two months.

The next day Buehler would appear cowed and dark under the eyes (slain) and admit he was down, but it wouldn't end that way. He'd make it back.

Jude saw his father's dinged-up Volkswagen crest the hill. He could always tell the car because it had circles for lights that looked like vacant eyes. The car suited his father.

Jude got out.

"Jude! D'ya see this? Tire's turned clean to dust! And you got gators all over the road... don't just stand there, pick 'em up!" Jude protested he couldn't learn how to change the tire if he didn't watch his father do it. Besides, the tire pieces would get cleared by the snow plow. Jude didn't relish picking tire shrapnel off a hillcrest in a holy snowstorm.

But Pop wouldn't hear it. "Not loosening a single lug till you get going on 'em gators. You should've done 'em while you were waiting." He crossed his arms over his chest, oblivious to the puffs of vapor that gusted out and died off with each word.

So that was it. No tire-changing lesson.

Jude trudged toward the last road gator, a chunk the size of a dog. For some reason he looked up. At just the right moment he gazed through the branches at the white-washed field. There, hidden behind the brown bones of trees was a little rainbow-painted barn. Just the roof was painted. The snow cover diminished the hues to pastels but could not blot them out entirely. The barn leaned radically and its drab sides were randomly holed where strain splintered the planks. But the roof - like a headdress crowning an ancient chief, the colors threw out their powerful creed: anything's possible.

Who would do such a thing? Jude conjured up images of himself sitting cross-legged on the parlous roof, brazen, dabbing paint. It would be a warm and sunny day. A maternal wind would touch his bare back. Tiny pockmarks would stamp his skin, the result of hours spent against the asphalt shingles. Like he was born for it, Jude could vandalize that barn. Someone did.

Jude considered pointing out the barn to his father, asking whether he knew of it, but his father grumbled oaths as he wrenched the lug nuts tight. The words Monday night, sonofabitch, and football stood out clearly from the rest. His father's red nose dripped; Jude could see trails on the leather gloves where his father swiped away at it, trying to catch what the cold wanted to thrust from him.

Jude learned how to change a tire. Mostly. He'd missed the beginning, but after watching his father put away the jack, Jude figured he could rewind the process. For next time. Surely there would be a next time. Next to his father's hunched and grappling form Jude stood, hands clasped in a cupped prayer, head down like a graveside mourner.

"There." His father straightened up.

Jude supposed his father felt he'd done his duty, that he expected a "Thanks, Pop." Jude gave it, but not because he felt it. Jude gave the words the way you give to the compost pile. You give because what's in your hands is dead.

And Jude made a decision as he uttered the lie thanks-pop, the one all sons of humiliation make. Resolved: I. Will. Not. Become like this loser man. Or like Buehler. I'll be smarter, luckier. Happier.

"You can't drive on this except to get home," his father said.


"It's a donut. Donuts won't last."

Until payday Jude had no money. Even then, it would cover only half a tire. He tried to mask the stricken feeling rising in his throat.

But his father saw. "I could loan you the money."

At that, Jude's spirit buoyed. To an inner horizon his attention turned. To a shining sun on a verdant field and a precipitous barn.

"Thanks, Pop."


  1. Fine writing - lovely phrases e.g. "the words became bugs without stingers that missed his ear entirely and whizzed off into the air.' and excellent characterisations. I think maybe it could end with your penultimate paragraph? However, a superb piece. Very many thanks,

  2. I agree with Ceinwen, this is excellent writing. I wondered about the ending, but then I thought it showed Jude as an indecisive character,which I Think fits.
    Great piece
    Mike McC

  3. Beautiful language. I liked the ending--how often do we want to be something but previous choices or life in general deems we have to take a different path at least for the moment. The character rang true to life and hit a chord close to home. Beautiful.

  4. I know there's big virtue in writing flash fiction but I wanted more. I got the picture of Dad and Buehler, but what I really wanted was more glimpses into the past, specifically with Mom, which would have told me more about Jude, why he is as he is. I also wanted more of the rainbow barn - more visits in his mind in order to allow that concept to slowly build in the reader's consciousness, as they're reading on about other things I love some of the phrase images; '...a dark cloud passed over (his) face like a top-of-the-line snow blower or high-end tractor mower.' I'll be seeing that snow for days to come!
    B r o o k e

  5. All good stories should grab the readers attention and hold it throughout the story. This story fulfils that requirement.

    We have a conflict between father and son which isn’t unusual. It’s been the theme of literature and short stories since ancient times, and like Romeo and Juliet, will be the theme of many stories in the future.

    I’m not sure why the author stereotyped the father, maybe to give a sense of old rural America.
    A stereotype character has its place, but it’s best to make the character unique around the stereotype mold.

    The old rainbow-painted barn gives us symbolism. I believe that it represents that something old can be liked. Perhaps something old can be unique or even beautiful, but the barn had drab sides and leaned radically. Yet, the roof appeared alive in its colors.

    His father might be drab, but his thoughts certainly had color to them!

    An interesting story with different interpretations possible with the barn.

    Good job.

  6. I'm the Anonymous posted October 6, 2017. George T. Philibin. I messed up when posting.

    Thank you

  7. Thank you for reading and sharing your perspectives. :)