THE THREE FINGERS
Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 12, Number 1
Copyright © 2017
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Fiction by Siamak Vossoughi
Jake told me the kid had worried his preschool teachers with his
line of questioning. And I have to admit, the first time he asked me what
the correct emotional response was to something that happened in the
schoolyard, I didn’t know what to make of it either. It looked like he
must be very far from his own emotions to ask that, and nobody wants
to see a five-year-old boy look like that.
His name was Matthew Duhon. That kid had a stare on him. He
would look at you like he was trying to see inside you. I was twenty-
three years old and I was trying to make my inside something that didn’t
mind being seen. It was easiest with kids.
That was something Jake had too. He was a kindergarten teacher
and I watched over them in the yard. He was a real artist with kids,
especially because he brought self-discipline into his artistry too, but
every once in a while, you’d catch his flourishes in the jokes he made
with them, which they either got or didn’t get.
He got as much of a kick out of Matthew Duhon as I did, and the
way he would ask, in the middle of a story or a game, “Is this funny or is
I would think about my whole life when he asked it. I would think
about how I ended up here, at a job with kids, amongst their everyday
genius, and whether it would ever mean anything to the world that I got
to be a regular witness to it. It was funny and sad, is what it was. I
thought about a guy like Jake, and how much of it he had witnessed, and
through it all he kept his focus on teaching them, which seemed like its
own particular kind of genius to me. What if the whole thing got to be
too much, and I said to the world that all I could do was be a permanent
witness to it, which did seem like something somebody should be, but
which wasn’t something anybody was looking for? Well, you can go
home and write tonight when you get in, I thought.
Matthew Duhon wasn’t far from his emotions though when he said
it. He felt all of them. They stacked themselves on top of each other in
him in a way that was too much for the present moment, and asking if
something was funny or sad was his way of organizing them. I only
wished that I’d learned something like that. It would be a helpful thing to
ask somewhere like on a date: Should we laugh together or should we
cry together? Matthew Duhon asked it with an implication that he could
go either way. Meaning that his heart was a solitary thing. Maybe that
was what had worried his old teachers. Maybe they didn’t like the idea
of a little boy choosing his heart’s direction.
I had to admit that choosing my heart’s direction was a frightening
prospect for me as well. I’d sit up in my room at night and go back and
forth between writing stories that spoke of a pettiness in the world and
of a beauty in the world, and I’d look for the thing that cut down the
middle of them, and I’d only just barely catch a glimpse of it each night.
The glimpse would help me sleep though. I’d wake up feeling ready for
Matthew Duhon’s questions the next day.
Meanwhile, he was writing as well. He’d discovered that if you
took a few sheets of paper and folded them over and stapled the fold,
the result was something very book-like. He stayed in the afterschool
program, and he made about a book a day. I’d find his books left
behind at the end of the day. I remember one that had a great title.
“Will You Marry Me?” it was called. There it is, I thought when I saw it.
That is the present-ness with which I want to write. The heart-on-the-
table-ness. At the end of the story, the woman said yes.
I looked at his books and figured they settled any question of
whether he was too far from his own emotions.
For a while Jake and I would joke about it and if he said something
like he’d gone to the Giants game last night, I’d ask him if it was funny or
sad. We’d always check to make sure Matthew Duhon wasn’t in
earshot. Jake was about the only guy I could joke about it with like that
because we both knew it was out of our appreciation for him. We knew
it was okay to be funny because in a couple of years a kid wouldn’t
remember what they used to say in kindergarten, so there was plenty of
time to be sad. Somebody had to remember that stuff. We didn’t know
who better than us.
This was before I’d really learned that you can’t take the
magnificent things a five-year-old kid says and pin them to the wall like a
butterfly frozen in time. For the very good reason that they’re not trying
to be magnificent when they ask if something is funny or sad. They’re
trying to answer a question.
I was beginning to learn it though, and maybe Jake was starting to
see that when he asked if I would sit next to Matthew during the school
“He’s going to have a lot of questions,” Jake said. “And he can’t
hold them in.”
I came to the theater that night with a feeling like I had the best
assignment of anybody at the school. When I sat next to Matthew
Duhon, he looked at the stage and he looked at me, and I couldn’t help
feeling like this whole business of a theater and a stage and a play, this
whole thing was what life already looked like to him, and I wondered if
there was some part of him that took in the logistics of the affair, the
lights and the costumes and the sets, as somehow superfluous. It looked
at least like it was one more show to stack on top of the one that was
Once the curtain went up, the questions started.
“Is this part funny or sad?”
“Funny,” I said. It was just a scene to introduce the characters, but
I generally said funny when there was no clear-cut answer. It still felt like
I was touching a wishful part of myself when I did.
Behind us were some parents of eighth-grade students, who were
the stars of the show. I was worried that they would get annoyed by our
whispering. During a scene change, I said, “Matthew, if you want to
know if a part is funny or sad, tap me on the shoulder. If I put down one
finger, it’s funny. If I put down two fingers, it’s sad.”
Our system went along like that for a while, until a scene where the
girl decided she didn’t want to see the boy anymore because she thought
he was out carousing, though it was all a tragic misunderstanding. The
boy moped across the stage.
Matthew tapped me on the shoulder.
I put down three fingers. I had to. It was the truest response.
“What does that mean?” he said.
“Funny and sad,” I said.
He suddenly looked very happy. He looked like I had just given
him something he had been waiting for and that he hadn’t expected in a
million years to receive.
There you go, I thought. Now what you do with that is up to you.
Maybe it’ll work itself into one of your books.
He settled into the show after that and didn’t tap me on the shoulder
The school play was in December and for the rest of the school
year, whenever I saw him staring at me with that stare of his that was
trying to see inside a person, I would hold up three fingers. Sometimes
even from all the way across the schoolyard. I felt proud to do it. It was
better than any salute. I liked to think that if I ever did start a new
country, it would be the national salute.
Matthew Duhon and I didn’t have a new country, but we came
close. Especially after we told Jake about it and he joined in and did it
with Matthew sometimes too.
Matthew Duhon’s family moved away to New York after that year,
so Jake and I never got to know him as a kid who didn’t remember the
magnificent things he used to say when he was little. We could just
imagine that he’d gone on to some new magnificence, and with Matthew
Duhon, we really believed he had.
Jake and I still gave each other the three-finger salute sometimes,
but very rarely, maybe only once every couple of months. It’s one thing
if you’ve got a whole nation doing it around you. When it’s just the two
of you, you don’t want to overuse a thing like that.
Siamak Vossoughi currently lives in San Francisco. His short stories
have been published in Fourteen Hills, Prick of the Spindle, Missouri
Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Glimmer Train. His collection,
Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for
Short Fiction. Vossoughi was born in Tehran and grew up in Seattle.
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