Welcome to The Madison Review's web series, The Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not selected for the fall or spring editions of our journal. This week we will be sharing 'It Could Happen to You' a short story by Jordan Daniel Smith. 'It Could Happen to You' was an instant hit with our fiction staff, garnering high praises for its seamless storytelling and the comically relatable Larry as he copes with loss, love, and... The Chin.
Jordan Daniel Smith grew up in North Carolina, graduated from New York University, and currently lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife.
It Could Happen to You
It could happen to you. The words shone up from somewhere deep inside of Larry. He
could no longer remember their origin, but where the phrase sprung from held no real importance. Only the words themselves mattered, and to his ears, they rang solely with truth: possessing a sort of hidden capability, something vaguely weaponized.
They were words of worry, and each one had announced itself randomly in his mind as he prepared for what would be the biggest night of his life, his anxiety rising alongside his body temperature as he fought against the tie which his mother bought for him earlier in the day.
It was a tie with pineapples on it, of all things. Pineapples.
Yes, like the pineapples, the words had come from nowhere, but now they were here, and he caught himself repeating them under his breath without any real intention of doing so.
It could happen to you.
Shuddering, he fastened his belt as tight as he could, forcing The Gut to spill up and over its edge. Tonight would be the first night he’d ever worn his father’s belt. It felt soft against his hands—old and worn as anything else in the world. His mother had insisted he wear it, even though it felt weird to him. It was only for her that he put it on...
An action born out of love, then. Hopefully his night would continue in such a manner.
Larry was unsure exactly how all this had happened to him, but happened it had, and in just over an hour he would be pulling his motor vehicle into Sarah Calhoun’s driveway, the girl whom he had loved since his freshman year of high school. She was, in every sense, the object of his long term affection. He would be the first to admit that it was a rather hopeless brand of love—the bulbous thing attached to him all but guaranteed such a reality—however he couldn’t help himself. It was simply the way that she made him feel.
Larry looked in the mirror: The Gut. Damn thing. Jutting, always jutting. It was the gut of
a lifelong barfly, the gut of a Floridian retiree, the gut of an enormously fat politician who
smoked cigars and fixed elections... not the gut of a sixteen year old boy. For some reason though, over the years, every single bit of fat in his body had coalesced inside his stomach. This was, apparently, the shape he was meant to be, and he had even come to accept it to some extent, along with the fact that Sarah would never love him like he loved her. She was two years his senior and would be going off to college soon. He should’ve never let himself entertain these sort of thoughts in the first place. It pained him, and in that pain there was truth.
Yet, despite it all, here he was. Pushing forward because it was the only option. His
mother’s voice came winding up from the downstairs, characteristically shrill and shaky. He had told her hundreds of times before that he couldn’t understand what she was saying, but for whatever reason it remained her preferred method of communication.
“What?” he yelled to her through his door. “What is it?”
More muffled screaming from below. Larry let out a huge sigh. He just needed a few
more minutes to stabilize, to get everything together before seeing her...
The honest truth was that he was starting to get really worried about where the night
might go. When he had asked Sarah to prom, he had feared she would say
yes only out of sympathy, and this was, perhaps, the current situation. He knew, too, that there was nothing he could do to change her mind if it was so... but he would still prefer to save himself the embarrassment of trying to kiss her, later on, in the event that her motives were purely sympathetic. That’d be easiest route.
She was a lovely girl, and he was at no risk of being “pranked” or anything like that. The
older kids all liked him well enough. She had brought him to a couple of their parties—everyone there at least a grade above him—and they had introduced him to beer, marijuana, and cigarettes. Gotten a kick out of him, he’d heard it said. Even played beer pong with him. They would not pour pig’s blood on Larry or mock him for trying to pretend he was one of them. That was not a risk. In fact, some of the older students might’ve even been rooting for him. And so, he had asked her to go to prom, despite the fact that he wasn’t even supposed to be going, being a sophomore and all. His only real expectation had been that she’d turn him down with kindness.
Somehow, though, Sarah had said “yes,” and following those words his world had been split, instantly, into two separate pieces. Half-mooned: one of pure anxiety, one of pure hope. And it felt like, depending on how the night went, that one side of the coin would ultimately consume the other, and whatever remained would become the sole state of his existence from there on out.
This was it: it, happening to him. He had been chosen. Things had been set in motion. Fortune had smiled favorably on him, if only briefly. And now, he was hoping and praying that it might happen again, that God might explicitly intervene on his behalf, and grant him all the things required of a great night: good breath, undeniable charm, and a fully functional penis (this would be, after all, his first time).
“Please God,” Larry whispered, “conceal The Gut. Conceal The Gut and....”
He looked up in the mirror at his face.
“Conceal The Chin.”
Ah, yes. The Chin.
While Larry had managed to accept The Gut as a part of his identity, he had not yet man-aged to accept The Chin. At some point in the past week, a second chin had begun to form under his face, and Larry’s anxiety over its arrival was indescribable. His head was not a large one, and so it was impossible to ignore the way in which neck meat located under his lower jaw had begun to sag. Everybody could see it. It sagged like The Gut, but was worse than The Gut because it could not be hidden. This was on his face, after all, and he had no method to conceal the lesser chin.
And forget that it was just a few days before the big dance... for such a thing to have appeared at all on his body seemed entirely unjust to Larry. He was not a truly fat boy and yet he was made to look truly fat, purely because of the stomach-based accumulation of his fat stores. With a more normal distribution of his weight, he would merely look husky, but because of The Gut, he looked undeniably huge. A boy comprised primarily of stomach. And while it was possible to hide some of The Gut, it was still a constant stressor: what shirt hides it best, what pants most effectively mask it, what physical position minimizes it, what colors draw away attention....
The list ran on and on. His life was not easy. But you factor in The Chin? That was sim-ply the end of things. His face was his only true physical asset. The only thing he had going for him, as far as he knew. It was, technically, still possible that he had a big penis, and Larry had even considered measuring his penis a few times, but in the end he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do so. Now, he said, when the boys in his grade prompted him with girth-related questions, that this was simply because it might still be growing, and he didn’t want to bias himself against it unfairly in such a scenario, especially when such biasing could have a negative effect on its future performance and perhaps even its long term growth... but deep down he knew the truth. Larry was simply afraid of the result. It certainly didn’t look like it was going to be a big penis, however so long as he failed to actually ascribe a numerical value to it, who could really say how big it was?
Perspective was a tricky thing, after all.
Only Sarah would be able to say how big or small it was, and while that prospect was nerve-wracking, it was still the best case scenario. He could have the fattest gut and the stupidest chin and the tiniest dick in the world... so long as Sarah was on the other end of that equation, he’d be fine with it.
Why then was he so crippled by fear? Paralyzed by doubt!
This was his reality. This was his life.
It could happen to you.
Where had he heard those damn words again?
“Larry!” came the voice once more.
“Jesus mom, I’m coming!”
He was halfway down the stairs when he said it, slipping his jacket on.
“Oh my God...” his mother said. “Larry! Larry...”
“You look so handsome.”
“Let’s take some pictures.”
“Ugh, do we have to?”
“Of course! I’m heartbroken I won’t be able to meet this darling girl you’re bringing... Sarah was it? Please make sure you take some pictures at the dance!”
“Do you know what you are doing afterwards?”
“You’re not... you’re not going to a party are you? Not with those older boys...”
“No, of course not. Don’t be crazy.”
His mother seemed to know somehow. Generally speaking, it was common knowledge
that a high school dance was really just a precursor to an afterparty—that was pretty much always the case—however she had managed to delude herself before in regard to truths much more obvious than this one. Larry was hoping that any late night antics would be looked upon with similar ignorance. Her face said it all, though: she knew what was going to happen. The poor thing. She’d been a mess since his father died. Not that he could blame her... he wasn’t exactly processing it well either. How could anyone?
They were all sitting around the TV one night eating dinner when his father said “I think I
have to take a shit.” Then he stood up, took five steps towards the bathroom, and abruptly vomited. His body collapsed all at once, like somebody somewhere pushed a big red demolition button.
“Dad!” Larry cried as he turned him over.
His old man’s eyes had seemed to pulse in that moment, alive and aware, but the rest of his face was locked up. A sound came out of him: not from his throat, but somewhere deeper. It was a gurgle... something like an old machine. Something humming... something humming... something stopping. Then his eyes went dead and his face went slack and Larry began to cry, his mother still shrieking half-formed words into the telephone.
All things quieted with the dead man’s heart.
That was four months ago and they really hadn’t talked about it since. The doctors told
them it was a heart attack, one of those things that unfortunately just happens. Larry didn’t know if that was supposed to make him feel better or not. In truth, he felt nothing at all. The weight of his father’s death was terribly soft, something that destroys your life and ambition and capacity for love without even letting you know it was doing so. He felt like he was being crushed by cotton, just barely realizing it.
There was no mistaking it though: the lights inside of him turned off after his father
passed. The storefront remained open, but there was nothing to see inside. He was trying to find a way to fix this, but couldn’t figure one out.
“Say cheese!” his mother cried.
“I am smiling.”
“Honey, why are you making that face?”
“I’m not making a face.”
“Is it... is it...” lowering her voice to a whisper, “your chin?”
Larry sighed. He hung his head.
“Yeah. It’s The Chin. I’m just trying to find a way to hide it, at least for the picture.”
“Oh, sweetheart! Don’t be silly. What are you worried about?”
“Honestly mom? I’m worried that I’m going to look like a forty year old man at my first
“Larry, baby... you look so handsome. You look just like your father. He had a chin just
like that. It’s practically a family heirloom!”
She took a swig off her vodka bottle.
“You have nothing to worry about. He did just fine with the ladies.”
She was wearing her pink fuzzy bathrobe and kept glancing at the television, still trying
to follow the episode of CSI Miami that she had been watching. After taking the pictures, she sat back down on the couch and tucked the bottle back under her arm for safekeeping.
“This is a good one,” she said. “They’ve almost caught the guy. He’s a real pervert.”
“Nice. Well, hey, I guess I better get going,” Larry said.
“You drive safe, baby. And have fun!”
“I will mom, thanks.”
He let his hand fall on to the door knob, wrapping around it spider-like as a sense of loose cold came flooding into his skin, the air outside kissing easily along his nose and pale streetlights revealing all manner of indistinguishable shapes scattered out past the road.
Then he touched up his collar and then took a step outside.
“Larry!” came that voice one last time. Tired but warm, the voice of the woman who
loved him most...
Looking back at her, sitting on that couch, his own heart felt impossibly heavy for a moment. His mother wrapped in pale pink; partially stained. He felt, for just a second, that he should stay here with her. That this was where he belonged.
“What your dad used to do,” she laughed, “what he used to do...”
She stuck out her tongue as far as it would go.
“He’d stick it out like this, Larry, to work that muscle under there. To pull it up. They all
did that. Like I said, that chin runs in the family. His family, not mine! But they all did it.
Seemed to think it’d fix things. Which it didn’t. But they did it anyway, Larry. They did it anyway.”
Larry laughed. “Thanks mom. I’ll give it a try.”
Before leaving the driveway, Larry sat in the car and stuck his tongue out as far as he
could. He looked at his face in the mirror and observed the way that it turned his double chin back into a single chin. His mother was right: the maneuver worked. If he did it frequently enough, for a period of weeks or months, then surely he could make the change permanent. The problem here was, of course, that he didn’t have weeks or months or even days. He had about twenty minutes in the car and three neighborhoods to traverse, then he would be with Sarah. Sweet beautiful Sarah, of perfect figure and ample breasts.
Emerald eyes and alabaster skin, freckled playfully and just barely flushed with red...
He put the car into reverse and backed out into the street. It was time. Larry drove
through his sleepy little neighborhood—sun now sunk, way barely lit. He passed by the homes of his neighbors and wondered what they were doing in their lives at this specific moment. Were they playing a board game or taking a bath? Reading a book or making tea? What would they be doing when he arrived at Sarah’s? When he took her hand and they went, together, to this indescribably important event. He was approaching a particularly decisive moment in his life: the type of moment that steers a person in one direction or another for years to come... the type of moment that holds up as some golden vision of youth well into your later years, or haunts you forever across the edges of sleep.
The stakes were high. He had to make this damn chin retract!
Stopping at a stop sign, Larry stuck it out again and looked at his face in the rear view
mirror. He was handsome, there was no doubt about it. And when The Chin went up, up and away—well, he might just be the best looking guy at the dance. He felt his father’s belt tight around his waist, forcing blood up through his body to supply oxygen to the muscles which were currently supporting the tongue. Strength surged through him, but then his jaw went slack—he was really pushing it, there—and his mouth clamped shut. A car behind him honked, and Larry jumped slightly in his seat. Then, looking left but not right, he passed the stop sign and proceeded through the intersection.
Usually, driving through these neighborhoods was frustrating. The roads were not large, and cars dotted the right and left sides of every street. It reduced the road’s size to one lane, despite being two lanes, and so the cars had to wait for one another to pass before proceeding down their own path. It was a nightmare to drive through, and yet when he encountered other cars tonight, Larry was happy to wait and let them have the right-of-way, even though it meant he would be a little late for Sarah. Truth be told, his nerves were going absolutely wild at this point in time. He was starting to worry about everything: The Chin and so much more. Dancing, drinking, smoking, chatting... everything was going to be a trial tonight. He was beginning to think that this was all a huge mistake, that he never should’ve asked out Sarah in the first place. He wasn't ready for this.
Stop at the stop sign, stick out your tongue. That was what Larry did. He stuck it out to where it could almost touch the tip of his nose. Rear view mirror says: The Chin looks good, Larry! Hidden, secret, burrowing deeper. And yet, despite this, he stuck his tongue out even farther, pushed it even harder, felt his neck muscles stretch and strain. His teeth, white like a dolphin’s belly, grazed along the under-edge of the tongue, and he could feel the muscle and meat of it all holding tight, thick as a scallop.
Larry looked at his eyes in the mirror. They were shallow pools of water and light. Lacking in depth. Sarah would look into them, and surely she would see him for what he was. She’d play with him like a little girl along a stretch of seaside rocks, picking creatures up out of the tide pools and tearing them apart.
He took his foot off the brake pedal to let the car roll forward, tongue still pushed outward, making use of every second. As he glanced at the mirror yet again to check The Chin, a flash of light appeared in the rear view mirror, and just as his car had barely inched into the intersection, something rocked into it from behind. A terrific sound of scraping metal rang true in the air, and Larry’s head went smashing forward into his steering wheel, which returned unto him an airbag: an airbag blooming like a wet flower, driving his teeth down deep into the outstretched tongue.
The car lurched a few more feet into the middle of the intersection, and in what could’ve only been seconds, the driver of the minivan behind Larry was already barreling out of his own vehicle.
“What the hell are you doing just sitting there!” the guy screamed. “You fucking asshole!”
Larry looked up at the road in front of him. He was in her neighborhood now, right? Sarah lived just a few more blocks up, he was pretty sure. His head felt heavy and loose, and a numb tingling feeling was shooting down the left and right sides of his neck. He tried to focus his eyes but failed to do so. Everything was blurry, screechy, white and wrinkled. He looked down at his lap and saw the color red.
“Hey... shit. Oh man. Are you ok? Are you ok?” someone said.
Larry stared up at the guy outside his window. He was bald and had a plain white T-shirt on. A total stranger whose expression changed dramatically as soon as Larry made eye contact with him.
Sarah was so close. Larry tried to find The Chin in the mirror. It was somewhere, somewhere of course, but he couldn’t find it: all he could make out was his face, stained half-red. He opened his mouth and his vision focused, hot goop spilling down into the interior of his shirt, but when he tried to speak, all that came out was a gurgling sound. A murmuring sound. A sound like the sound his father’s body made when it died.
Larry looked at his mouth in the mirror and saw that it had become a red hole, jettisoning specks of blood around the interior of the car with every audible groan.
“I’m ok,” he tried to say, “I’m ok.”
It just came out as more gurgling.
“Holy shit. Holy shit, kid.”
Larry looked down at the gas pedal. All he wanted was to leave this place, to get to
Sarah’s house. He tried to press his foot down but was unable to do so. Something strange was happening to his body; he felt very sick all of a sudden, cold and sweaty and unaware of his surroundings. The voice from outside was melting, melting into some foreign shape.
It could happen to you, the voice said.
Billy Bunk. That’s who it was. Bill Bunk, a local guy who was known all around town for
a pretty successful competitive fishing career in the 80s. He won a couple tournaments, and did a stint of commercials for a regional insurance giant more recently. Larry had seen the commercial with his father, five or six years ago, and his father had laughed when Bunk delivered that exact line. It played out on a lake: the legend himself had lost a fish, out in the middle of the water with nothing but a pack of cigarettes and a cooler of beer. His line broke, and all Bunk could do after losing what must’ve been one serious catch was have a good long laugh and finish whatever remained of the Budweiser in his hand, delivering those words one at a time, cool as anything in the world, giving each the perfect syllabic length to stretch out and present itself, handing them
down through the screen to Larry like little crusts of truth.
“If it could happen to me, it could happen to you. That’s why I’m with Fisher Insurance... because you never know when that line just ain’t gonna hold up.”
“If it could happen to me... it could happen to you...” his father had mumbled. “I like
Laughter had ensued. Another Budweiser was cracked. Larry had pushed his face into his father’s shirt, and even though it was sweaty and old it smelled kind of sweet to him. The sound of the television became more distant, and he could hear his father’s heart beating, long and slow, just like he spoke and just like he fished and just like he lived and just like he died.
The moment felt like it was forever ago, like it had never really occurred in the first
A hand grabbed Larry’s chest. Someone pulled him out of the car. Someone else
screamed. He was being put into something, taken somewhere. Disappeared. Oh God, oh God it really was happening to him. Life had decided to murder him, or at the very least, seriously fuck up his night. And as his vision went black, he looked back at his car one more time—well, his mother’s car—and he looked at that gas pedal once more, door still hanging open, that pedal which only needed another five or ten minutes of weight to get to Sarah’s house... just another five or ten.
Larry looked at the gas pedal and saw beneath it the majority of his tongue, still wriggling across the dirty old carpet like a fish out of water.
And as what was left of his vision fell into itself like tumbling leaves, his mind succumbing to some vague realm of unconsciousness, he continued to think of that commercial, the warm laugh of his father continuing to resound in his head, ringing or singing like a siren, a siren alive in the air.