2017 Barthelme Prize Honorable Mention: Sunscreen

Eric Schlich

On the morning Amelia's husband killed himself—a shotgun, in the garage, he'd laid down towels—his daughter was being watched by Mrs. McClure across the lane. They were in the front yard filling a kiddie pool with the garden hose as they did every morning. It was hot that summer, record highs through June, and Fiona, six, had taken to wearing the same pink and purple two-piece swimsuit every day so that she could spend as much time in the water as possible. She preferred this to the neighborhood swimming pool, where our own children spent most of the summer.

We were used to seeing her soaking there, waving at us while we retrieved the newspaper from the front stoop or jogged past on the sidewalk. We watched the filling ritual from our front windows, in terrycloth robes, sipping coffee, our houses in identical states of quiet, a precarious calm that lasted only as long as the kids slept in.

Mrs. McClure always let Fiona hold the end of the hose while she operated the spigot. When the shot went off, a crack! like a car backfire, they both jumped. Fiona looked up from the cartoon fishes painted on the bottom of the blue plastic. She was Casper-faced where her father had not rubbed the sunscreen into her skin well enough. "What was that?" she asked with the insatiable, bug-eyed curiosity we so love and dread in our kids. Mrs. McClure said she didn't know. "Fireworks, maybe?" Neighborhood boys tend to get fuse-happy in the weeks before the Fourth. We searched our children, confiscating cherry bombs and silver salutes.

It was the detail about the sunscreen that got to us. Mrs. McClure shared this information at the Fourth of July potluck. She said she'd known something was wrong the instant she saw how disheveled Fiona had looked that morning.

"Disheveled how?" somebody asked.

That's when she told about the hair tangles, the missing towel, the sunscreen. We couldn't help imagining his hands then. He had the most beautiful hands. Sometimes we joked that Amelia had married him for those hands. They were the hands of a firefighter, a shipbuilder, a blacksmith. Not a lawyer. Not a man who spent his days filing briefs.

We thought of those too-big hands handling his daughter, the tips of his fingers moving in circles over her cheeks and forehead, rubbing in sunscreen, and doing a poor job of it—leaving bits of lotion shining in the clefts of her nose, beneath the ridge of her eyebrows, on the tips of her ears and chin. We think about this every time our husbands rub our own children down in lounge chairs on the side of the pool, lifting the straps of our daughters' suits to get at the shoulders, streaks of white disappearing into skin, but what we are really thinking of is our own fathers, and what they did to themselves, and if they ever touched us like that.