All posts in “Fiction”

Lines of Perfection

Even in his earliest dreams, Ray saw lines. White lines on roads. Clear lines overhead. Lines when he heard music. Lines connecting him to those he loved, leading him to those he should love. Ray thought about the traffic lights hanging from lines: the monotony of their existence, three colours in sequence, impatient drivers wanting the green. Always wanting to go. The lines from underfoot to overhead were constant and drew him in: hypnotic and beautiful.

Ray loved where he lived. He was born there, went to school there, got a job and lost a job there. All his high school friends had left for Denver, laughing at him for wanting to stay.

Unable to disguise their happiness at starting university or the prospects of a well-paid city job, they said it was a dead man’s town.

It was the horizontal lines that held him, not the vertical. Denver was nothing but vertical. You spent your time looking up, up, up and always away from where you’d started. He’d been there many times. Once, he’d sat cross-legged, beside the giant bear sculpture outside the Colorado Convention Center. As the executives rushed in and out of glass doors, clutching papers to their chests, mobile phones hanging from their necks, Ray waited for the entire morning to see what Denver would give him. He felt himself fading into the background with the bear, watching the talk, the turn of head, the 30 seconds gap to ascertain whether people were useful, the next-big-thing or just-about-big-thing.

In Starbucks, he’d looked straight into the eyes of a man who stared in the window at him. Ray stared at his dirty blond hair and scruffy jeans. He saw intelligence and disappointment, felt a connection. We are alike, this homeless man and I. The lines of Denver unite us, thought Ray. There was something cold in between the glint of the sun off the mile-high glass buildings and the snow-capped mountains hovering, neglected and forgotten. That same evening he walked for over an hour, past the Salvation Army queues for food, the bulldogs and Union Jack flags swinging above pubs long closed, and back around past the Coors Stadium before picking up his Mustang, which he’d parked near 15th Street. There was a moment when it chugged and wouldn’t start, just as a pair of blondes in heels and tight jeans walked past laughing. He asked the Good Lord to do him just this one favour and the Mustang sprang into action. With thanks, he drove west. West on the I-70 to Idaho Springs, the largest town in Clear Creek County.

*

Drinking Jack Whacker ale in the Tommyknocker Brewery at the end of Miner Street, four-tenths of a mile from the spot where George A. Jackson found the first Colorado gold, Ray considered his predicament. The predicament of creating some sort of movement out of the stasis that his life had become. It was just, he realized, that the lines had some sort of magnetic pull – they either sent him away or drew him in. He couldn’t go back to Denver. He would have to stay where he was.

He could try to make a change. He liked the idea of skiing but Pa said it was for tourists or for the rich and he was neither. Pa opened a garage with snow-peaked Rocky Mountains in a round-windowed logo. That was where Ray worked now, after failing to get a tour guide job in the Argo Gold Mines and an unsuccessful attempt at being a cashier in Safeway. You passed Pa’s garage on the way to the heart of Idaho Springs and if you took a wrong turn into the town you still had to pass it to get to the roundabout at the other side. That was the logic: that business would boom.

Pa even made enough to flutter dollar bills in the gambling halls of Black Hawk. Sometimes he’d bring Ray and they’d have a buffalo steak meal in The Isle of Capri Hotel and Casino. Pa hid his winnings in a drawer in the garage because Ma would go crazy if she knew he’d been gambling. Winnings or not, the next day he’d be up at five, at the garage for six waiting for the chance of early morning customers. Business wasn’t booming now. But then again, Pa hadn’t needed to close down like those shops Ray had seen in Denver.

Pa was proud of the confederate flag that hung from the trailer. It was one of those cloth ones that you could wash when it got dirty, especially when the snow turned to slush or the wind blew the dust headlong into the reds and blues, the lines intersecting. The yellow sun surrounded by the red “C” of the Colorado State Flag hung alongside a larger national flag over the doorway, which he saluted going in and out. It was part of him, this place. The visitors who stood in lines as they queued to see the mines, to feel his history, were part of him, too.

Ray took another drink and banged his bottle a little too hard on the countertop of the Tommyknocker Brewery.

“Easy now,” said Teddy, the barman.

“They won’t forget this place,” Ray said screwing his face up.

“Who?”

“The history writers.”

Teddy shrugged. “Forget Idaho Springs?”

“Yeah.” Ray took another drink. “We were the first.”

“Ray,” Teddy stopped cleaning and leaned his bulky frame on the counter. Ray noticed his hair was the same colour as the homeless man in Denver. “What are you talking about now?”

“The Good Lord was right,” said Ray sitting straight and smiling. “He shone down on Idaho Springs and shone the light on the gold.”

“The gold rush.” Teddy nodded. “We’re in the books for that, for sure.”

“I love this town,” Ray said.

Teddy looked at his watch.

Ray stood up.

“Later?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ll come good on what you owe, now?”

“Scouts honour.”

Ray wavered slightly as he walked out onto Miner Street. The strong brew ales had gone to his head. He looked up. The cloudless sky was an optimistic blue on this crisp April day. The street was empty and he wanted to wrap his arms around it, own it, be it. It was his, this place. This place where highways passed overhead, hippies and hicks lived side by side and bars had large signs indicating that disorderly conduct would be dealt with by the Law; the police station had six cop cars parked and on the ready.

The ski-tourists had all gone back to where they came from and the summer season wouldn’t begin for another month or so, at least not until more of the Rocky Mountain National Park opened. Every year they’d hear stories of tourists planning road trips with the crazy idea of driving through the Rockies to get to Grand Lake. They’d either start driving too late to turn back and end up somewhere like Idaho Springs. Or they’d go back right to where they’d started – Estes Park. Not that they’d be bored there. Three summers in a row Ma and Pa brought Ray to Estes Park to walk and hunt. When he was ten Ray got his photograph taken seated between them. The best time to do a portrait is on vacation the advert had said.

“Right,” Pa said, fingering notes from winnings in his breast pocket. “We’re on vacation. We’re getting ourselves a portrait.”

Ma moaned that she didn’t have her favourite dress on as she kept it for special occasions.

“And what’s a damned vacation?” Pa shouted. “Is that not special occasion enough for you?”

Ray looked at the roundness of the camera lens and the stern look of the photographer. When the flash came he blinked. The framed photograph on top of the Smeg showed a distant Ma, a smiling Pa and Ray with his eyes scrunched up. Almost every day on that trip they ate in a diner called The Egg and I. Ray liked to go back there to have his favourite meal, the Colorado Jack Scramble. But sometimes he would go for the regular Steak and Eggs to challenge himself. Ray, like Pa, preferred his eggs over easy and had lost count of the times when he had to send his eggs back because they were over medium. But not at The Egg and I. They always got it right.

After too many arguments with Ma over his wanderings, Ray had left home and now rented a room up past the Indian Hot Springs on Soda Creek Road. During the winter season he had to put chains on the wheels to get to the town. He liked being away from Ma and Pa. It gave him a strong inkling that anything could happen. He was important in this town.

Pa liked to watch baseball on the portable TV, which he’d hung in the corner of the garage workshop. He’d talk to the box of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson. Any hero to erase the boredom. Ray wondered if Pa secretly wished he’d never left New York City the way he sometimes talked. Ray had an impressive collection of baseball cards which he kept in a drawer in the office when he wasn’t showing them to Pa, asking him to name the players in quick succession. Pa was good; he always got them first time no matter how many shuffles Ray gave his pack.

The only pedestrian on Colorado Boulevard, Ray walked down towards the river, avoiding the other end of Miner Street. He knew Ma and Nancy Ann would be in Café Aimee, seated in line with Priscilla the gold mannequin outside the Café. Ma would be embarrassed if she saw him wandering yet again when he was supposed to be working with Pa. He knew they’d be talking about knitting techniques, pots of steaming coffee on the go and Key Lime Pie for their treat. Nancy Ann said it reminded her of New Orleans, where she grew up. The women wore their own creations: Alpaca wool for winter and light cotton for summer. Their latest challenge was to knit blue spruce using pearl cotton to be patriotic but also using Colorado colours for local pride.

Yesterday over dinner Ma told him about Nancy Ann’s simple joy in buying twelve balls of brown wool for $12 – a colour nobody wanted. Ma was proud of her spruce pines scattered on the brown sweater, pleased with how the red stripes down the sleeves and yellow on the ribbed waist and rounded neckline had turned out.  She showed Ray how she did ones and twos and threes on some then fours on some; starting in the middle and following a drawing of the pattern leaving a tail long enough each side to double back. She held the sweater out for him to examine. They laid their hands flat on the wool.

“Everyone has to be darn good at what they do,” she said, looking him in the eye.

Ray thought about the way his hands seemed to merge with Ma’s hands on the sweater as his gaze now automatically roamed upwards. The wires were lower than the electricity ones and suspended on poles, brown with rust and from them hung yellow traffic lights, the red part larger than the orange and green. Ray closed his eyes momentarily; the red in his head was larger too, but it was a black-red of mood, senses that often stopped him moving.

The lights swung slightly, catching a wind Ray had yet to feel. He looked at the silver trees and wondered if their leafless branches could feel the breeze. Beyond them against a perfect blue sky, the pines, scattered on the hills, dry now as the snow had melted away. He continued walking and noticed an unfamiliar old pale yellow Nissan parked in front of the fire station. It too had patches of rust. Perhaps it was the same age as him; born in 1982. Ray looked into the car and saw a rake, a hoe, and several pairs of rubber boots stretched across the back seats. He wondered what idiot would park in front of a fire station.

Ray stared at the traffic lights and watched the wires, loving the way the sun hit off the metal. When he stared at the one spot too long, he had to look away and squeeze his eyes together to get rid of the black spots. In amongst the black spots he saw himself hanging, his body catching the light like a beacon of warning as it swung alongside the traffic lights. His heart beat wildly as adrenalin rushed through him. No fire engine would rescue him with that yellow Nissan blocking the exit. But if he were to hang himself? Would the drivers hoot in temper when the gawking spectators were slow to move on green? Who would be delayed getting onto the I-70, late getting into work and lose their job because his swinging body had mesmerized them?

He jumped as a green Chevrolet hooted. He’d been standing in the middle of the road. He waved his apologies and saw it was John Joe who was in the car.

“Hey,” he waved again.

John Joe nodded. Ray noticed he rolled his eyes. He’d be off telling his wife that Ray was a layabout. His wife would tell her cousin Nancy Ann who would tell Ma. Goddamn, John Joe, he thought, kicking the gravel. He turned right and looped back around stopping on the grey metal bridge. The bridge was formed with lines that hugged, crossed, supported, went on forever. He sighed. He wasn’t hooked into anyone like those bars. The overhead wires gleamed in the sun. It was simply beautiful, he thought. He stood a second and listened to the rush of the river and against the silver trees it looked like a mirage. Ray pictured himself floating, soundlessly in the river, a line amongst the curves of the water. Someday, his body would surprise somebody. Somebody rafting or kayaking. Or hunting. Pa told him he’d seen an advert in Estes for hunters because they needed to keep the elk in balance with the habitat. Crazy as it sounded, there were three times more elk in Estes than in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Ray felt he was in the wrong habitat. There were, he was sure, more men than women in Idaho Springs.

Ray noticed a girl with a purposeful stride walking towards him. He stopped and pretended to be interested in the rain jackets in the shop window. As she passed him, he turned and smiled. He wondered if she were hot in those black knee-high boots. Her legs were tanned. They looked as if they were hanging from the black dress she wore. It was made from material that swung with her body. She looked the type to go on long walks in the snow; a girl with good lungs. She smiled back.

“Hi there,” she said, flicking her long black hair over her shoulder.

Ray felt the colour rush to his cheeks as he winked at her.

“Hi,” he managed.

He looked back at Pa’s garage, the sign swinging in the wind that had picked up.

“See you around,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

“You bet.”

Ray stared after her, the swing of her hips, and the exposed back in her dress showing a long tattoo down her spine in thick, fat, brown letters. It looked like Chinese. Or maybe Japanese. It sure wasn’t English.

Ray turned and decided to go back to his room. He started running, feeling the lines draw him in, hypnotic and beautiful, the wind whooshing past his ears. He felt he was moving past the Indian Hot Springs like an arrow. They said the Healing Waters of the Great Spirit bridged the Ute and Arapahoe Nations and that it was this sacred land which formed the neutral ground between the two tribes. Until Dr E.M. Cummins came along, that was, built a log cabin and changed everything, charging an entrance fee. Nobody had told Ray what had happened to the Ute and Arapahoe. He guessed they’d just moved along. Maybe they’d gone south to Mexico. Jessie James, Billy the Kid and Clint Eastwood all stayed at the Indian Hot Springs. Ray used to go when he was a teenager to pick up girls in the Sulphur Pools. They’d bring balls and pretend to play volleyball or lounge around in the mud room. They never bothered paying attention to the sign that read ‘Patrons have the right to solitude’. Ray wondered if the girl knew about the Indian Hot Springs. He would find her tonight, he thought, and tell her about the mineral content of the water and the heat of the caves. Ray knew the girl was right. She would see him around.

He showered, shaved and changed into neatly pressed Levi jeans. It was past six. A good time for dinner. He thought he might have a buffalo burger with extra fries. He walked down the hill, noticing a lump of polish on his shoes and rubbed it off with his forefinger. Licking the black stain he gagged and looked towards the river. He listened to its movement and wondered how hard it would be to drown. Would his instinct kick in, instantly, and all those swimming lessons Ma insisted he take pay off?  He remembered someone saying that you needed to weigh your pockets with stones. That would stop the spluttering, the swimming. But the Good Lord made the survival instinct far stronger than any stones.  Ray could feel that instinct just behind his eyes.

Ray hoped he wouldn’t meet Pa downtown. It was the second day this week he hadn’t showed for work. If he met Pa his plan to meet tattoo girl and take her to his room would be ruined. He looked up as the street lights with the striped lines down the iron pole and the bulbous illuminations sprung into action. It would be dark when he passed by here again. He hated that there were no lights on the road where he lived. He should have driven his Mustang, he thought. Girls liked cars. He kicked the sidewalk.

When he brought her to his room she would fall in love with him. She wouldn’t mind the walk back, he decided, in fact, she would be a runner like him, so together they would run to his room holding hands and she would declare her love. She would leave her dull job in the bank and move to Idaho Springs where the air was fresh. Ma would be proud. Ray tried to remember what she looked like. Her face. All that he could remember was the tattoo, mocking. But he’d see her soon. She’d told him.

But maybe she wasn’t even staying in town. And he would meet Pa, sneering, who would be with Ma who would shake her head and not look him in the eye. She would ask if he wanted to go walking and he would have to say yes. Ray got on his knees and prayed to the Good Lord that the girl would be in town. He prayed that she was lost and had to stay. But maybe, he thought, his heart quickening again, she was staying at the Indian Springs and he had, in fact, passed by her bedroom! Or maybe, even, she had watched him pass by her bedroom and was following him! He decided to skip dinner and go straight to Tommyknockers.

*

She sat at the bar. Same dress, black heels instead of boots. A turquoise choker with a teardrop stone hung around her neck. Ray could not contain his smile. It was clear Teddy had worked hard on the small talk to keep her there for him.

“So, lady,” Ray said, sliding into the stool beside one of them. “Good to see you again.”

She turned. She had an Indian face, he thought, a square jaw, chocolate brown eyes. She looked different, somehow.

“Again?” she frowned.

Ray could see fear in the frown which made her look ugly.

He remembered seeing lightning shoot across the bridge and wanting, desperately, to know what it would feel like if it struck him. Would it be quick and glorious?

“Ray,” Teddy was looking at him. “Ray,” he repeated and nodded at the girl. She was waiting on his answer.

“We met earlier,” Ray said slowly before taking a deep breath. His voice sounded high pitched. “We met downtown. You said you’d see me later.”

“Ah, yes. By the bridge.” She exhaled smoke.

“Yes, that’s it.” Ray felt pleased again. There was something sexy about women who smoked. He wondered if there was something wrong with her short-term memory.

“So,” he ventured, “what brings you to these parts?”

“I left my girlfriends in Denver and came here for some me-time.”

“That’s my friend Teddy,” he said, accepting a beer from Teddy and placing it carefully on the coaster.

She nodded. “We’ve met.”

“Have you been up to the Hot Springs?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “Did you know that the mineral content of the water is one of the best in the world?”

“That’s where I’m staying,” she answered, holding out her hand. “Alice,” she said.

“Alice in Wonderland,” Ray said, grinning, thinking that Alice was definitely the girl for him.

“Randy,” Ray said, taking Alice’s hand. “Randy from Nashville. Nashville, Tennessee.”

She smiled. “An outsider like me.”

A wave of nausea passed over him. He’d never even been to Tennessee. As she spoke Ray found it difficult to look at her mouth with those crooked teeth. The lines were just…wrong.

“Ha!” he said slipping on his stool, holding up his glass. “That’s what too many fine ales does to you.”

Alice laughed loudly. Maybe, he thought, she would be easy. He wouldn’t have to look at her face. He could take her from behind.

“So what brought you to Idaho Springs? It can’t be the gold,” Alice said, twirling her hair around her finger. It was that funny black, like a navy black, thick and strong. She could wrap it around her neck, like a scarf, or a necklace. When they embraced, he would wrap it around his neck.

“Nah,” Ray said, “broke up with my girlfriend and came to work in the Argo Gold Mines.”

Alice took a drink. She had a suspicious look on her face.  “This Pick Axe is pretty good.”

“Damned good,” said Ray, “like Dorie and I used to be together.”

“Her name was Dorie?”

Ray nodded. “You fly, I buy, she used to say,” he said.

“What in the hell is that?” She laughed a little too loudly.

Teddy came over. “You okay, my man?”

“I’m doing just fine,” Ray winked.

Teddy nodded at Alice. “Fixed for drinks?”

She paused before answering. “I’m good.”

“Like I said, welcome to Colorado,” said Teddy, grinning.

“Like I said, thank you, Teddy.” Alice sipped her drink, staring Teddy right in the eye.

“Never touched a cigarette, me,” Ray said loudly, “only ever liked the real good stuff.” Ray closed a nostril and sniffed through the other.

Alice slipped off her stool. “Be back in five.”

Ray watched her dress move with her hips. He let out a silent whistle as she turned into the Restrooms.

“You fly, I buy, she had that much money she just got pleasure out of watching me fly,” he said. He threw his hands in the air, like his arms were the wings of a plane. “Fly,” he said, laughing. In his head the sound of the river came and he looked behind him to see John Joe raise his glass. He raised one back. He thought of the wires holding the traffic lights and a picture of his neck breaking as he swung flashed before him. He wondered if it would break at a right angle.

“Have you looked at the wires overhead here?” he asked when Alice returned. “They’re all straight but if you look carefully you see the tanks are rounded.”

Alice slid onto the stool. She took a drink.

Ray felt silly for mentioning the lines in the brewery.

“Dorie was crazy,” he said a little louder. “She had all this money from her Pa, just didn’t know what to do with it so I was like her bit of rough, you know, like Billy Joel, the poor boy…”

“Dorie? Your rich girlfriend?”

“Ex,” Ray said loudly. “Ex-girlfriend. The Good Lord ain’t given me a new one yet.”

Alice smiled. The lines on her face were rounded, though the crows’ feet around her eyes were dead straight. For a second her eyes seemed blue like the sapphires on Ma’s ring. A brilliant combination of lines and light.

“But you gotta ask,” Ray said, “you gotta ask the Good Lord for help when you need help.”

“Ray,” said Alice standing down from the stool, “the Good Lord’s telling me to get back to the Indian Springs. I’m up early to sample some of that water in the caves you were talking about.”

“Oh,” Ray looked towards Teddy.

“Leaving so soon?” Teddy asked slapping the wet cloth with the blue ribbed line around its edges against his palm.

“Want me for something?” Alice said.

“What does it say?” Ray asked nodding at her back.

“Aha, the mystery letters.” She laughed.

“Well?”

“Well. I’ll just catch you later.”

Alice walked towards the door.

She said it. She said she would catch him. Ray rocked on his stool and watched her leave. The Good Lord always provided. She was staying at the Indian Hot Springs. She’d had a drink too many. She wasn’t from here. She didn’t know that the lines overhead pointed to shortcuts and secret places. She didn’t know the lines of this town like he did. The door swung shut. John Joe laughed loudly. And Ray saw that Nancy Ann was right by him wearing a brown knitted short sleeved sweater, looking at him with a worried expression.

He looked towards the brewery pipes and visualised the letters of Alice’s tattoo moving in time with his hands, across her back. Then he would know the meaning. He imagined he was running with the sweat nearly killing him, running at the speed of light to….he took a deep breath…to – no! – to  John Joe and punching him, scratching at him until he had no more laughter inside. Nancy Ann was right to be worried. John Joe had put himself in danger with that laughing of his. And now he was running with Alice and she was laughing. Hers was a beautiful laughter because it came from true happiness. Not this false laughter that he had to listen to every night in the bar. And Alice was loving every minute with him. Having the time of her life.

I buy. You fly.

A flash of silver came before him. He looked around, feeling he should go. Follow her. Find her. Feel the connecting lines between them, the sharpness of the wires, the softness of her body, the push of his body against hers. She’d want it; she’d told him she’d see him later. She told him. There was a connection.

“Ray.” Teddy stood in front of him, his face serious, yet again slapping the wet cloth against his palm. “Go home.”

author-pic-shauna-gilliganAbout Shauna: Shauna, from Dublin, Ireland has worked and lived in Mexico, Spain, India and the UK. She currently lives in County Kildare, Ireland. Her writing has been published widely and she has given readings of her short and long fiction in Ireland, the UK, Spain and USA. Her debut novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere (Ward Wood, London) was published in 2012. Visit her website.

excerpt from The Tide King

MONTANA – 1947

When he hit McDonald Pass outside of Helena, Montana, where the two-lane blacktop curved and disappeared into mountains of pine and fir trees, Johnson had been on the road three days, his tires were sizzling, and he prayed to God for the first time since the war. He’d gone west past Helena, looking for some cabin that a man in a bar back in Kansas had told him about, a hunting cabin that wasn’t locked, where he could spend the night. But the details, scribbled in pencil on a napkin in the man’s drunken, unsteady hand, made less sense the farther west Johnson went, and he looked for a place to turn around in the winding mountain road that resembled the man’s arched, urgent script. He prayed that his tires, leaving black horizontal smears of rubber across the road as he braked, would not blow out and send the truck tumbling into the Rocky Mountains. The chassis shuddered as he fought against the steering wheel, sending silt to the edges of the road.

He slowed the truck to a crawl and coasted to a spot where he could see a good mile in front and in back of him. To his right the Rocky Mountains climbed, obscuring his view of the North, and to the south, the road dropped away into the deep blue Montana sky. He inched the truck back and forth across the width of the road, noting where his rear tires grabbed the edges of the narrow shoulder before it descended. He pulled at the steering wheel, traces of last night’s whiskey from some whistle stop in North Dakota beading on his neck and forehead and the palms of his hand.

He spotted a late-model truck heading east in his rearview mirror and pushed on the gas pedal, backing the truck westward before grabbing the clutch to move into first and forward. But he idled, in the transition, perhaps a second too long, his thoughts bottoming into the dark well of uncertainty, what he was doing in Montana, if he would find Stanley, where he had gone off the path, a side route where roads disappeared into mountains without the promise of emerging, and he felt the right rear tire spin because there was nothing under it. He pressed the pedal harder and leaned forward in the seat as rocks and dust swirled behind him and the right wheel sank into a soup of stones and silt. As he and truck tilted backward, moving toward the sky, Johnson pushed open the driver’s door with his left arm. He dropped from the truck and rolled to his left, the ground unforgiving to his shoulder and face. From the corner of his right eye he saw the front of the truck, wheels in the air like a bucking bronco, the engine whining for a moment in the rush of motion, the futile spin of suspended tires, before sound and truck were sucked into the below. A second passed, two, and the sound took up where it had left off, like a radio coming back into reception, as metal twisted and glass shattered and tires exploded, a vehicular accordion moving through the chords of its swan song.

He heard the other truck, now only hundreds of feet away, its brakes slowing the tires, its engine shifting downward in gears, and he became aware of his body, of the raw abrasion that clung to it like a dew, and he bent his elbows and knees and neck without moving from the ground, where gravity had locked his stomach and chest and back until the enormity of what had happened could be processed by his head. He laughed, feeling a tough loose in his bottom jaw, a stiff, unbendable left index finger, and he saw boots, scuffed bald on the toes, the steel of the toe almost peeking through, little caulks on the soles, by his head.

“You all right, buddy? Jesus.”

He forced his eye upward, toward the young man, blond, cleft chin bristled with stubble, with deep-set eyes looked at him from a height that may have been heaven.

“I think I need a ride into town,” Johnson answered, closed his own.

§

“I think I heard of a Stanley at the Fire Service,” the man, Lane Gustafson, answered. “You looking for a forestry job?”

“Yeah, Stanley’s my friend. We served together.” Johnson sat on the passenger side of Lane’s truck, patting his face with a handkerchief. A dotted pattern of blood emerged on the yellowed fabric as he moved it over his cheeks and forehead. He was sure his index finger was broken. The middle joint had swelled to a plum, almost as purple. He could not bend it; it was as immobile as a knife in a full jar of peanut butter.

“You want to go to the hospital, have that looked at?” Lane nodded at it as he steered them along mountain roads at speeds that made Johnson a little queasy.

“Naw. I’ll get a little ice somewhere. Back in the war, we called this a boo-boo,” Johnson answered.

Lane laughed, and Johnson took note of the throbs reporting from the various centers of his body: his lower back, his left forearm and elbow, his neck, his left thigh. The memory of his stumps entered his consciousness as randomly as a lightning flash on a clear day, and his first instinct was always to bury it in a stiff drink. Johnson turned and watched the buildings roll by on main street¾the Martha Hotel, F.W. Woolrich, the Harvey Hotel. Mountains towered over the far end, a protective giant that closed the valley of firs and pines and bright peaked houses in its arms. Lane guided the truck off the main strip and eastward out of town.

“I know a bar,” Lane seemed to read his thoughts. “Let’s get the shake off you, man.”

Johnson settled his shaking hands into his lap, where Lane could no longer see them. He seemed to skirt harm more than most people. Perhaps that was an understatement, or perhaps the strangeness of it kept him constantly vigilant, afraid that the truth of this statement would catch up with him and pronounce itself boldly; that he was actually a freak, a demon, a ghost. That something really had happened over in Germany.

The handkerchief he pressed against his face stopped absorbing blood. When he flipped open the sun visor and glanced into small rectangular mirror, covered with a paste of smoke and dust, to his surprise he noticed that his cuts were pink and closed, on their way, he supposed, in another moment, to disappearing completely. He curled his hands into fists and realized his index finger bent along with the other fingers, its plum-sized joint now just a peach pit. He covered his left hand with his right and hoped Lane would not notice, but he was too busy trying to find reception on his radio, the thick tuner bar moving lazily across the numbers.

“Can you pull over for a minute, buddy?” Johnson turned in the seat, unrolling the window, letting the wind dry the sudden sweat on his face and neck. Before the truck’s tires had stopped rolling, he jumped from the seat and crouched on the rocks and dirt by the shoulder, vomiting up God knows what from whenever he’s eaten last, acidic brown plumes tinged with red that singed the dirt and leaves and sent up an ominous smoke signal in the wake of their destruction. His clothes were drenched in sweat. He was in the middle of crisis in the middle of nowhere. He looked at his hand, wriggling the jammed finger, bending the joint. It moved as free as a stick through the air. He felt his skin, the sides of his face, as if they would supply him with answers. He felt his heart clicking in his chest—he could not be a vampire or a zombie or countless other versions of the undead he’d seen at the movies.

“I need you to take me to Stanley now,” Johnson said when he climbed back in the truck.

“Calm down, buddy.” Lane laughed at him before pulling off the road. He picked up his cigarettes from the dashboard, waving them up and down, back and forth, as if to tantalize him. “I don’t even know where this Stanley is. We’ll need to ask around a bit, and we may as well do that at the places that men usually go, right? Now, have a cigarette and calm down. Where are you from?”

“Ohio,” Johnson answered, pulling one from the pack, slapping his jacket pockets for a match. “I think my lighter was in the truck.”

“That’s a shame about your truck.” Lane held out his Zippo. “Maybe later we can get down there later, have a look, get your stuff out. You gotta be careful on these roads.”

“I’m just happy she got me here. This is where I needed to be.”

“You run into some trouble back there in Ohio?”

“No.” Johnson shook his head. He stared through the windshield before him, trying not to look at his finger, trying not to think. His brain pressed against his skull, and he put his fingers in his ears for fear it would seep out. “Just need to find Stanley real soon. What about you?”

“I’m taking it easy. They’re starting building on the new dam soon. I’m going get a job there¾the money’s great. You oughta come and get a job with me at the dam, Johnson.”

“I really want to try and find my friend at the fire service. It’s kind of important.”

“Well, not before we get you a drink, my friend. You almost met with the angels back there.” They watched as lightning, silent, cracked over the mountains. “Besides, it might rain. Keep ourselves under cover until it passes, you know.”

“Couldn’t hurt.” His feelings were fire in his pores, sweat on his skin, knots in his stomach. “I am feeling a little thirsty.”

“Can get mighty hot in Helena, my friend.” The Pint, a little roadside bar, came into view. “You’ll have your work cut out for you at the Park Service.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The land is dry grass in some of those gulches up there in the mountains, and it’s damn hot in the summer¾hundred degrees in the middle of the day. Lightning strikes, and the fire races right through them.” Lane laughed, a raspy cough punctuating it. “You’ll be praying for a job at the dams, then.”

Johnson followed Lane into the green-paneled one-story building. Lane was taller than Johnson, lankier, with a relaxed gait about the hips, shoulders back. A man who never felt in trouble, Johnson figured. A man who was not apologetic about having a whiskey at eleven in the morning. Lane rolled the box of cigarettes into the sleeve of his undershirt and swung the door open wide. In the darkness Johnson could make out the outlines of men at the bar, and when his eyes adjusted the lines of them deepened like carved rock, the only soft things about them were the worn white undershirts or plaid and the knees of their canvas pants.

“Well, if it ain’t the good-time boys.” One of the men said. He held a shot glass in his fingers that disappeared down his throat with efficiency and ease.

“Coming from one to another.” Lane slid onto the vacant seat next to the man and patted the stool on the other side. “Sit down, Johnson. What’s your poison?”

“Whiskey,” Johnson answered and nodded at the man. Overtop the bar, behind the counter two timberjacks were mounted in an X. Faded photos of lumberjacks, logging competitions, and woods dotted the walls. A musty billiards table rested under the dim halcyon of a hanging lamp, and some woman with a child-like voice sung a slow and pretty country song on the jukebox.

“A midget.” Lane nudged Johnson and pointed his head over to the jukebox. “Can you believe it? Little Cindy, she calls herself.”

Johnson ceded she sounded familiar. He’d probably heard her on the radio on the miles from Ohio to Montana. He listened to the radio or he sang out loud, out of tune, to crowd out the other songs that cried like mythical sirens from just beyond his ears: the war, his parents, Stanley, and Kate. He did not know whether second chances existed, and if they did, whether he was deserving of one, but he was alive, by chance or by design, and he did not want to dwell on the choices he had made to his point. He was afraid that he would choose to relive the past, to rearrange facts that had no bearing on the present situation, a ghost walking across the foyer, its ancillary object long disintegrated.

“This here is Johnson,” Lane said to the leathered man to his right. “His truck rolled off MacDonald Pass this morning.”

“No shit.” the man laughed, moving empty shot glasses on the bar like a magician trying to hide a ball. “Your wife in it?”

Johnson took his own whiskey and set the rim of the glass to his lips. He drank before speaking.  “You know Stanley Polensky at the Park service? I come to see him.”

“Never seen him here. Probably a boy scout. All the rangers are, mostly. The only boys who’d touch a drop are the smokejumpers, and hell, I’d be drinking too if you were going push me outta plane into a forest fire.” The man coughed, wet and phlegmy, wiping his bulbous nose and stubbled jowl with the back of his hand. “What, you looking into forestry work?”

“Maybe.”

“This here is collateral central for the fires, ain’t that right, Lane?”

“They have been known to round up the drunks here, give them a Pulaski axe, and tell ‘em to cut fire lines.” When Johnson’s face didn’t register, Lane waved his hand. “You know, dig ditches in front of the fire¾contain ‘em.”

“I ought to go find Stanley right away, see about a job.” Johnson stood up as Lane’s hand pressed on his shoulder.

“I’ll drive you over there, Johnson. It’s only over in Nine Mile. Let’s have a few drinks. Let’s celebrate your good fortune. Who knows, maybe you’ll want to take the summer off, like me, wait out the dam jobs. All right?”

“All right¾just one more,” Johnson agreed as Lane signaled for the bartender.

§

The bar’s occupants had multiplied steadily over the hours, and not because Johnson began to see two of everything. The sharp clack of billiard balls, laughter, smoke, bodies, and heat crowded into Johnson’s back and in his brain, a sweet confecture, and he had not thought of Kate for a few hours, making him happy and disappointed at the same time.

He thought about his truck, a pulverized animal in a gulch of the Rocky Mountains. He tried to remember whether there was anything he needed in it—personal papers, a clean shirt, everything and nothing. He thought about his finger. If he could only find Stanley, straighten this out. Perhaps he’d find him today, tonight, and it would all be over. He stood up and went outside. The heat hit him like a train as it wafted up in waves from the road. The sky, so far away, seemed like blue glass, reflecting the heat back to the earth, cooking the drunken stew in his blood and his stomach. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. He wanted to go home, back to where everything made sense. He was not sure where that was.

When he opened his eyes he saw the smoke, a small plume from the mountains, like a giant smoking a pipe. He heard the heavy clank of suspensions, the churn of engines as the trucks came down the road, trucks that bore the green and white shield of the Forest Service. Equipment rattled around in their beds, and instead of passing by the bar they slowed and pulled into the crowded parking lot.

“Get in.” One of the rangers, a thin, wiry man who emerged from the first truck nodded at him. “We need all the warm bodies we can get.”

He found Lane cradling his head on the bar and hooked him under the armpits, dragging him out onto the dusty gravel before climbing in a truck full of men with bulging eyes, lopsided grins. He looked around for Stanley, even though he would not be among these men, the flotsam and jetsam of Helena. The smell of burning wood and brush had reached the road, and the smoky plume had become a monstrous cloud. He felt the shift of gears in the truck, its wheels begin to roll, and they were on their way, drunks to a forest fire.

From the truck they climbed into a boat that took them down the Missouri river. There were no roads; pine studded cliffs rose hundreds of feet on either side of the river, as if the hand of God himself parted them. In pockets of lower elevation bobbed little docks for boats that ferried picnickers and sportsmen and rangers into a territory had seen little taming since the days of Lewis and Clark. From the boat the cliffs grew, straight, long molars that had erupted from the ground.

They could feel the heat before they even got to the base of the gulch, where the fire burned. They could hear it along the road that wound around the base of the gulch. It snapped branches, sending random pops through the air, along with the crackle of drying, burning leaves. Johnson could feel the heat and the smoke line the bottom of his lungs, a velvet aftertaste of soot and carbon. They disbanded the trucks in single file and a man, tall and pocked-faced with a prominent nose and high forehead, stood before them. Johnson studied the quick efficiency with which the man moved, as if every second on earth were calibrated with the same urgency. The man studied them quickly as he assigned them their tools: Pulaski, two-person saw, shovel, water can. He assigned Johnson the Pulaski, a wooden shaft with an axe on one end of the head and a pick on the other. Johnson felt he must have appreciated his broad shoulders and back, certain that he could chop down small trees standing in the fire’s path and break open the earth, parting the dirt into a chasm, a fire line, that the fire could not jump across, thirsty for more fuel.

“All right,” the man, Mantee, spoke, and his voice was sharp, like metal, clipped. Johnson wondered whether he had been a corporal or sergeant. “We’ve already dropped thirteen smokejumpers in to flank the fire and keep it on the south side of the gulch. You’re to meet up and support them, building a fireline and clearing shrubbery. I’m your foreman; you listen to everything I say. At no time during a fire are you ever safe, so always keep yourself between the river and fire. You might need to escape to the river if the fire gets out of control.”

The twelve men seemed to slouch collectively as he set them at rest, the saws and axes suddenly more burden than they could care to handle. The memory of ice-cold beer in frosted glasses back at the bar grabbed at their hearts like a first girlfriend. The heat swooned heavy over them, buckling their knees and soaking their brows, and they had not even broken camp yet.

“Okay, let’s move.” Mantee picked up an oversized water can with one hand, clutched a compass in the other. “Last report from the radio tower had the front of the fire about two miles from the river.”

Johnson found himself next to last in line. Lane had made sure to get behind Johnson, giving him a wink and grin.

“What the hell happened to your hand, Johnson?” Lane pointed to his left hand, his smile wiped into a frown. Johnson expected to find it suddenly missing, mushroomed to the size of a sausage or covered in blood, oozing gangrene. The way it should have been. Relief washed through him warm, like piss. But he held his finger up to the sky and found that nothing was wrong¾the peach pit from earlier that morning had shrunk to its more regular shape of oversized marble, the color and texture of skin uniform with the rest of his hand. He squeezed and wriggled, felt no pain.

But Gustafson had seen it too, the malformed member before its renaissance of health. And Johnson knew, for the first time, that he was not crazy.

He could not think about it now. They walked through a thick growth of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, a tinderbox of needles that lashed at their faces. Above them a blue china sky became milky with grey plumes. Ahead, a clearing beckoned; beyond, one could see the slurry orange lollipop of fire that tumbled slowly down the south side of the gulch like a slinky. As they got closer Johnson could see that it moved in waves, dancing a little bit forward, backward, before making short sprints across fuel-heavy areas. Still, it kept under the tree crowns, away from the branches and leaves. They would start the fire line in the clearing, he heard Mantee say from the front of the line, men separated ten or twelve feet apart, digging trenches that would meet up at both ends. It was not much different than the war, he reckoned, except the enemy could grow exponentially and unexpectedly. And these men were not soldiers; they were drunks, slurry smile good ‘ol boys and liars.

“Johnson,” Lane said behind him, and Johnson glanced over his shoulder as Lane doubled over against a tree, the remains of his last three or four whiskeys watering the base. “Christ, the smoke’s so thick.”

“Come on.” Johnson felt the little earthquakes in his stomach as he straightened up Lane by the armpits. “Don’t think about it.”

Before them the faint smoky shadow of tree line seemed to go on forever, thicker and with a glimpse of an upward slope¾perhaps the northern side of the gulch. They were on the far arc of the fire trench, working toward its middle. But already they could not see the men twelve feet in front of them; the smoke and the heat crackled as intimately as if they were in a closet. Johnson bent his knees low, trying to find the heavier, cooler air near the forest floor. Each time he swung the Pulaski behind his back and speared it into the ground, it was as if he was spearing himself and not the earth. Pain and nausea zig-zagged through him, and he could no longer see the trench he had begun. He thought he heard the voice of Mantee calling to the men.

“What is he saying?” He shouted to Lane, who rested on his knees behind him. He did not know whether it was fire or voices, the screaming white noise, but he knew his hands burned with such intensity he could see the flesh begin to redden. He nudged Lane, who fell to his side. A roar swept around them, like an eighteen-wheeler or a train bearing down on them, and Johnson turned to see if such a calamity was possible.

But it was the fire, the giant swell of burn that consumed the oxygen in ragged, hungry breaths through its insatiable mouth. The fire had moved upward into the crowns of trees maybe seventy-five yards away.

“Run!” He shouted to Lane, but he couldn’t even hear himself, only knew that his mouth had formed the words, and to back them up, he grabbed Lane’s arm and began to pull him through the growth and up the slope. They were a quiet breath machine, tongues leaving the caves of their mouths as they opened them wide to breathe the thin air, hot and filled with smoke. It burned at their lungs and stung their eyes; bright red and blue stars filled their vision and their legs seemed filled with cement.

The fire was twenty yards, maybe less, and Johnson could hear the heat in waves at his back, his lungs gasp for the thinning air. He saw Lane drop beside him, his boots kicking stones and roots down the hill as he scrambled for footing on the ridge. They were thirty yards, maybe more, from the top of a ridge and would not make it. Johnson thought of his finger and had an idea. He pinned Lane to the slope with his body and tucked in his flailing limbs as the fire burned over them, a howl of flames and crackling wheatgrass and smoke and wave upon wave of searing air until it was quiet and they lie on the black slope, the ashes falling over them like snow.

“Jesus, are you okay?” Lane wriggled underneath Johnson, but Johnson could not answer. He rolled slightly to the side, feeling cold on his back and legs. He reached around and touched where his shirt, his belt, would be and felt oily, separated flesh, hard blades of rib. He looked down at his feet and saw the heels of his boots melted against ankles, his pants burned away or grafted into what remained of his skin. He opened his mouth to dislodge the sandpapery sack of his tongue from the roof of his mouth, and when he worked up enough precious saliva, he spoke.

“Are you all right?” he asked as Lane scooted away from him.

“Oh dammit, Johnson. Oh jeez. I’m okay.” He patted an earlobe, singed, and brushed at some minor burns on his hands and legs. “Oh Christ, look at you.”

“Give me some of your water.” Johnson looked, reached for Lane’s canteen, which had been buried under his stomach.

“Sure, buddy, sure.” Lane made a face as he unscrewed the cap. His hands shook as he held out the canteen to him. “Where do you hurt?”

“I don’t hurt anywhere,” Johnson answered. He was euphoric, actually. “Just thirsty.”

“Yeah, I imagine you wouldn’t,” Lane answered, and Johnson knew vaguely what he meant. He remembered when he was in the army and received treatment for a shrapnel burn, how one of the nurses had explained that sometimes burns can be so deep that the nerves are burned as well. Those patients, she added, usually died. “We need to get you out of here.”

Johnson stood gingerly on the slope. He felt the bone of his heels touch the warm, soft carpet of soot that now covered the hill. The backs of his legs were a pastiche of exposed muscle and skin and strips of canvas, a white glow of bone at the heel. He touched the back of his head and felt only skull.

“Get help,” Johnson said.

Lane moved up the slope, looking back at him, not with concern, but with sadness. Johnson would be dead when he returned, he thought, and Johnson figured he would be right. A vacuum of air and popping rocks, twigs surrounded him. No birds or wind. He thought he could hear the Missouri running downgulch of him, but it sounded so close at times he thought maybe it was the rushing in his ears. He felt asleep and awake at once, a dreamy happiness flooding his circuits along with the uninhibited endorphins and toxins. He strained to hear other men, a rescue party, cursed Lane for leaving him to die on purpose, even as he knew at some logical level that it would take hours for a team to get here, whether by boat down the gulch or helicopter. But he could not tell one minute, one hour from the rest. He stood on a hill, ashen and pocked with stumps, black stones, and he wondered whether he had time traveled back to Germany, whether he was in Dresden.

Damned if he was going to stay here. He crawled slowly up the slope, trying to stay off his heels. He had gotten twenty feet before he realized he left the canteen behind. He kept moving upward, reasoning in some way that the river was closer, that there was more water in the river than in the canteen, and he could not waste any more time. He thought about Kate, in New York, and was saddened he would not be able to tell her of his demise, even see Stanley, so close, somewhere in these woods.

At the top of the slope was a reef barrier, tall white saw rocks jutting out with little space between them. Johnson squeezed himself through a slit and saw the glint of the moonlight river below. If he could make it to the river, baptize himself in its cool embrace, he could fill his mouth and his reserve and he could make it. At the very least, he could quench the terrible thirst that scraped his throat and glued his eyelids together, that spasmed his stomach like a wrung-out dishcloth. He stood up, and in a minute of hysteria, thought he would run like hell, that he could feel no pain, and that it would be over fast.

He took a few large leaps before losing his balance on the impacted stones of the slope, and he rolled and bounced, airborne at times, down the hill and into the river with a rush. The water filled his back and legs with white-hot pain, and as he drank the dark water it seemed to leave him as quickly as he drank it in. He vomited hot into the cold space around him. The basin of night was bare on the east side of the Missouri. A skeleton of trees scraped the cloudless sky. No owls or night creatures convened as was their ritual to discuss all matter of nocturnal importance. It could have been hell on earth, or it could have been actually hell. All he knew was everything was dead, and he was alone, too tired to get out of the water.

attachmentAbout Jen: Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press; winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize), the short story collections From Here (Aqueous Books 2013) and Close Encounters (So New 2007), and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc 2013). She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a ‘Best of Baltimore’ in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and tweets @MichalskiJen.

Read an interview with Jen Michalski
Return to Issue 8

Tragedy and Wreck

Bud Walrod had never seen anything like those disappearing junkers.

Call it salvage, or call it “dismantling,” Bud had dealt with junk for 40 years and knew that nobody wants to hear about wrecked cars.

Lately though, those heaps had been disappearing from the yard leaving nothing behind but puddles of safety glass and strips of chrome.

The first one, a 1957 Fairlane, had belonged to Richard Rhodes, After high school, he’d gone to work driving one of his Uncle Dusty’s big dump trucks.

I-80 was going through north of town, and there was plenty of overtime. Richard saved and saved and finally bought his dream car, a black and white two tone Fairlane with FordoMatic three speed and 292 T-bird V8.

He loved cruising that 57 around south county roads drinking cold PBRs from a cooler on the back seat, listening to top 40 radio hits with his pals.

But late one Friday night, when he’d dropped off his buddies and was on his way home, he’d fallen asleep at the wheel and rear ended a girl.

Betty Johnson’d just finished a late shift at the 169 Diner a couple miles North of Walrod’s. She’d served Richard and his pals cheeseburgers and fries only an hour earlier.

The crash had whiplashed her head onto the steering wheel breaking her neck and killing her instantly. Richard had walked away untouched and sober.

They towed both cars to Walrod’s and parked them side by side in the yard. Bud had hosed out the Johnson girl’s Belvidere although there’d been no drop of blood. Richard never drank or drove again.

After the Ford’s disappearance, Bud reported a theft to the Sheriff’s office, but the case produced no lead, no evidence of theft, no suspect.

A couple weeks later, when the next car vanished, Bud had heard a big wind out in the yard and thought he’d seen something like lightning, but low to the ground.

The disappeared, a little four door Nova, had long ago belonged to Bud’s classmate, Lynn England, who’d driven it in high school.

She’d been a sweet quiet kid, dark skinned with straight hair, a slim, pretty girl. A boy in Bud’s class, Michael Schmidt, had fallen in love with her and she with him.

With Michael at the little Chevy’s wheel Lynn rode scooted over close to Michael on the Nova’s bench seat so she could rest her head on his shoulder.

Lynn soon ended pregnant. Her parents sent her somewhere for the abortion, Wisconsin maybe, and Michael joined the Marines. He disappeared near Hue, just after his deployment in Viet Nam.

Bud remembered now, that it had been Michael who’d painted the bright red racing bar on that Nova’s hood and roof and trunk… the faded stripe still visible when the car vanished.

This time, when Bud reported the incident, the Sheriff acted skeptical. He’d liked to have proven malfeasance, an insurance scam.

But junkyards carry only liability, and that mainly against cases of tetanus. There was no motive, nothing to prove.

By the time the third car disappeared, Bud had noticed sudden lulls in the breeze, rain microbursts from otherwise blue skies, cold humid calms that trailed him around the junk.

And Bud had felt an emptiness that he, a very simple man, had never known, a vacuum that sucked out his being, leaving a pit in his stomach leaving him nothing, knowing nothing but nothing.

The third car disappeared had belonged to Mrs. Dolores Carter, the Minister Charles Carter’s wife. Mrs. Carter had often cried in church over Paul’s imprisonment and had often quoted Isaiah 56.

On her way to K-Mart one day, she’d wrapped her 1962 Dynamic 88 around a telephone pole after suffering a brain aneurism.

Bud got a good price for its Rochester carb Olds Rocket motor. But no one ever knew whether it was the aneurism or the collision that had killed her.

The night that 88 disappeared, Bud had watched talk shows until midnight, then turned in. He thought he must have been asleep an hour when a shaking and rumble from somewhere below awakened him.

He’d guessed this must be an earthquake, like they have in California… some kind of earthquake. But then there was that cold calm again that trailed him to the door.

And once outside, he saw a light moving under the cars out in the yard, illuminating the earth from inside as if the ground were translucent, an intense blue light that grew brighter and brighter as it moved ahead and reached upward.

When it stopped at the Oldsmobile, lighting the wreck from below, the rumbling ceased, and the air went dead calm and thin, as if all oxygen had been sucked from it, and Bud, watching from only a few yards away, felt light headed.

When the illumination finally broke through the earth, blindingly blue, an intense calm and peace settled over Walrod Junk, over the wrecks, over Bud… with nearly pure silence in the yard.

Then, as the light faded, and the air returned, parts of the Oldsmobile reappeared, a rear brake lens still glowing red, a license plate holder, a bit of upholstery. But all else was gone.

Bud stopped on the way back to bed for a drink of cool sweet water, the finest water he’d ever tasted, and then he slept the deep refreshing sleep of the innocent and the clean.

In the morning, he thought of calling the Sheriff again, of reporting what he’d seen, what had happened, but decided against it.

After all, he felt fine. He felt good. He knew he’d be OK. He knew how to keep quiet. Bud Walrod knew how to shut up about tragedy and wreck.

Steven GowinAbout Steven: Steven Gowin produces corporate video in San Francisco. His fiction has appeared in Blue Fifth, Extracts(s), Defenestration, Untoward MagazineDark SkyThe FiddlebackEmprise Review and others. Gowin holds an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Return to Issue 8

Phone Phone Gun

Phone, says Austin. Phone, phone!

She really was quite a woman for her time, Anne continues. Not every 19th-century woman marries a man twice her age and then shoots herself in the thigh to bail out of the marriage. You got to hand it to her.

Mm, says Todd, wetting an index finger to turn the page of his sports magazine. Griffin’s having a helluva year. Free agency, wonderful thing.

Phone.

Austin, what’s with the phone thing, honey?

Austin rocks in his seat as if in the grip of a death-defying carnival ride, perhaps the Crusher or the RollerWhirl or the Kingda Ka, in turn rocking his mother and father and three other passengers who have the bad fortune to be seated in the same bank of black vinyl chairs.

Phone, says Austin again. Phone, phone, phone!

Stop jerking around, son. Stop it now. And stop with the phone business.

Oh, says Anne, watching the foot traffic as it outpaces the languid moving sidewalk, I get it. You’re counting cell phones, aren’t you, honey?

Phone, says Austin, abruptly becalmed. Nineteen. Twelve people without one.

An airport cop walks by, bristling with sidearms and handcuffs and a bulletproof vest, his fingers rummaging in a bag of chips like a baseball fan at leisure. Austin’s eyes track him with curiosity, examining every detail of his gear. Walkie-talkie, he says conclusively. Kind of counts.

So, says Anne, as I was saying. She marries this aristocrat at age sixteen and moves out to his Scottish estate, but won’t consummate the marriage. That must have taken guts. I mean, he had all the power, right? He was in the power structure. But she said no.  Good girl.

Would King Adjei please report to the podium at Gate 21? King Adjei, please see me.

Phone, says Austin, rocking again. Phone twenty-one. Twenty-two.

Anne raps her knuckles against her husband’s leg. Look at that, she says. Todd looks up to see an apparition rise before him: on the other side of the departure gate a tall young man with blue-black skin, loose African clothes in a riot of colors and a talking drum tucked under his lanky arm floats to his feet and begins strolling toward the podium. The gate agent looks up without a trace of surprise.

Mr. Adjei, she says.

King Adjei, replies the traveler in an unhurried way. Everybody call me that.

The woman hands him a boarding card. Center seat okay for Cincinnati, Mr. King Adjei?  It’s all I’ve got.

Phone! says Austin, watching a businessman hurry by in jeans, tasseled loafers and a rumpled dress shirt. A kid with a yarmulke and white fringes flying out from under his Got Freedom? tee-shirt zigzags past, chasing his brother through the crowd.

Whoo-ee, says Anne, there really are some types here.

I heart New York, says Todd without taking his eyes off the magazine. It’s a real circus.  Wild animals and everything.

In the mean time King Adjei smiles broadly at the airline agent, pirouettes on one thin leather sandal and gracefully transfers the same smile to the little boy who sits rocking between his parents a half dozen yards away.

Todd, says Anne, rapping her husband’s knee again with her knuckles. He’s looking straight at Austin.

Todd flips another page. Sure it’s fine, he says.

Bothers me, Todd.

You got something I can blow my nose in?

Phone, says Austin. Thirty-two.

Not kidding, Todd. Look over there.

King Adjei settles himself directly opposite the family, ignoring several open seats and gliding crosslegged to the floor with the grace of a falling leaf. He nestles his drum in beside him like a cherished infant and looks over at Austin with a spacious smile. His teeth are wondrous, his hair braided into perfect plaits.

Look, Todd. It’s National Geographic sitting right there.

Really need something to blow my nose in. I’m going to go and find the head.

Todd! You’re leaving us alone here?

Anne, what the hell. He’s just some African guy. He won’t bite.

Phone, says Austin. Phone phone.

I wish he didn’t smile like that.

You want people not to smile? I’ll be back.

In response Anne sits up straighter, taking her son’s hand in a punitive clutch and watching Todd shamble off.

Phone, phone, phone.

Stop that, Austin! And don’t look at that man. And quit rocking.

They sit silent for several long minutes, watching the parade of tinsel-hatted tourists and rushed pilots and bearded Indian men with projecting bellies and black-hatted Orthodox grandfathers and whippet-thin gay men. All the while King Adjei regards mother and son with a pacific expression, not a trace of the world’s frenzy on his face. Anne makes a point of not looking at him. Todd is gone for a very long time.

How many are you up to? she asks Austin.

Forty-four. Plus five walkie-talkies.

At this moment an aqua cloud passes before them, a shapeless mass of color that resolves itself into an elderly man with a spreading chest that has been imperfectly buttoned into a pale blue guayabera shirt.

Oh-yo, the old man says, looking down at them. Oh-yo, little lady and little man.

Anne notices that there is a yellow smile-face button pinned to the man’s breast pocket and, alarmingly, a fist-size stuffed giraffe suspended from a shoelace around his neck.  He walks in a strangely mechanical way, swaying from side to side as if to evenly blend the contents of his insides, and as he walks the stuffed giraffe rolls to and fro across his aqua chest.

So, the old man says, leaning toward Anne with a glassy look, I had a clogged toilet and you know what I did? I called the Über-plumber, Hans Goldman.

Then he wags a finger at Austin and says, You can always call Hans, young man.

With this he wanders off toward the fast food court, arms swinging behind as if only provisionally attached to the large torso.

Across the aisle, King Adjei is shaking his head in amusement, sending Anne and Austin a conspiratorial look as if to say, It takes all kinds. The smile won’t let up.

Phone phone phone phone, says Austin.

Stop it! says Anne, swatting him.

But at this moment the African takes up his drum and begins to tap out a hypnotic groove, his eyes retreating quickly into an inner place, perhaps a place of large shiny leaves and ochre dust.

Oh! says Anne, scanning the concourse for her husband.

Phone, says Austin.

Todd!

He is coming back at last, gargantuan bags of candy in his hands and a newspaper under his arm. When the African’s quiet drumming comes to his attention he raises a brow at Anne.

You certainly took your time, she says coldly.

They’ve got the game on at the bar. Bottom of the eighth, but I was afraid you might be eaten by the cannibal so I beat it back.

Phone, says Austin, beginning to rock again.

Should be boarding pretty soon.

Gun, says Austin.

You’ve got the boarding passes, right? Anne asks.

Todd taps his pocket.

A moment later the gate agent announces the start of boarding with the usual rigamarole—women with strollers, infants and so on.  Austin is on his feet instantly, though it has been some time now since he was small enough to give his family the gift of early boarding.  King Adjei stops drumming, then draws a cell phone from the depths of his dashiki and places a call. Quickly the smile turns to a rigorous frown, the sort of frown that should be reserved for genocide or plague.

Time to go! says Austin.

Cool your heels, young man, says his mother. We’re not till group four.

The African is gesticulating now, overwrought, lecturing someone on the other end of the line as if urging the immediate commutation, before it is too late, of a death sentence. The language he speaks is percussive, unhinged, the perfect antipode of his gentle English.  It rolls across the aisle in jumbled breakers, the leading edge of a squall that might turn dangerous.

Trouble on the Dark Continent, says Todd, nudging his wife.

They watch as the agitated conversation plays itself out, and with the deliberation of a president launching a nuclear weapon the African holds the cell phone out in front of his chest and depresses the off button with a long index finger. As the gate agent calls for boarding group four he rises from the floor without need of hands—a tour de force worthy of Baryshnikov—and taking up his drum begins to saunter toward the boarding door, suddenly at ease. Come on, says Anne, taking Austin by the hand, and the three of them slot into line, the African falling in behind them. Austin begins to turn and look but his mother says Eyes forward, young man! and takes his small hand in a tight grip.

Phone times three! says Austin, watching a trio of businessmen walk onto the jetway as they talk on their phones.

Looking forward to seeing Grandma, son? asks Todd.

Sure. Why not.

Boarding passes scanned, they move onto the jetway with its ads for white beaches and turquoise waters and gaunt women with flowery drinks, Austin towing his Green Hornet roller bag behind him just as his mother is towing him. As they near the end of the jetway—the white metal skin of the plane frighteningly touchable where the accordion passageway rests against it—he sees the handsome captain emerge halfway from the cockpit and smile directly at his mother. Austin feels the pressure of her grip relax and then vanish entirely, her hand lifted in a tiny wave as she steps tentatively onto the airplane.

Austin hears a voice behind him say, Green Hornet. I love that Green Hornet. You know we have Green Hornet in Ghana? I had a Green Hornet shirt when I was a boy your age. My favorite.

Stealing a look over his shoulder, Austin sees the generous smile of the African nestled deeply in the long black braids, all its serenity returned. Ahead, his father is bantering with the flight attendant and his mother with the tanned captain, her genial and attentive host. The captain must be saying something funny, because suddenly she is braying in a loud voice, filling the jetway and probably the entire aircraft with the sound of what Austin will come to recognize, in a matter of some years, as entirely false amusement.

Your mother, says King Adjei from behind him, she got a sense of humor.

Not really, says Austin.

Then why she laugh like that?

It occurs to Austin that perhaps he should not be talking in such detail with an exotic stranger. Now it is his father laughing, up ahead in the front galley of the plane, and it seems to him that his parents have completely forgotten him.

I don’t like it when she laughs, Austin says, and the King bends down with hands on knees.

Not everybody know how to laugh like they mean it. It doesn’t mean they don’t have joy in their heart, my friend. You can’t blame your momma. You honor your momma always.

You a real king?

That’s what they say.

Austin is the next to board, but the line has stopped for some reason—some passenger who can’t find a place for her bag, perhaps, or perhaps it is only that his parents are wasting everyone’s time chatting up the crew. Austin shifts from one foot to the other at the lip of the jetway, waiting to be given permission to step over the threshold onto the plane. He can feel the African hovering behind him like his own elongated, late afternoon shadow, familiar but also out of proportion to his small body.

You love your momma, don’t you? King Adjei asks.

The question makes Austin shiver, makes him want to run away, but there is nowhere to go. It is then that his eyes fall on the little bank of controls that operate the jetway, and without a moment’s hesitation he knows what to do. The key is already in the lock; he turns it clockwise and a square green button lights up. He pushes the button and feels something engage with a small thud. Ahead, in the cabin, he sees a flight attendant look quizzically in his direction, but her gaze flies right over his head, warily searching the faces of the adults around him: she does not see the small hand on the controls.

Austin has the little joystick in his grip now, a familiar feeling from all the hours he’s spent maneuvering two-headed avatars through peril-fraught galaxies and G-men through Capone’s Chicago and Navy Seals through torpedo tubes and the Green Hornet and Kato through Tong gambling dens in Chinatown. As the jetway breaks contact with the airplane, retreating back toward the terminal and then weaving right like a blinded thing seeking cover, Austin hears shouting from behind him and a piercing scream from the receding cabin: his mother is trapped there like a terrified woman doomed to watch her only child float away into the maw of the sea on a piece of ship’s wreckage, a mysterious African looming over him and grinning with delight.

Austin! she cries, Austin!

In the next instant the young master of the jetway sees the flight attendant snatch a phone from the wall of the aircraft and speak tersely into it.

Phone! says Austin, and a drum begins to beat behind him, a lively rhythm that makes him nudge the joystick forward a little more. The needle on the speedometer flickers and subsides and flickers again as the great beast explores the tarmac, a man in headphones frantically waving his orange batons below. The jetway extends its snout into empty air, grinding in a slow shimmy to the rhythm of the drum, and something in Austin is dancing and free and afire with the heat of pure joy until a broad hand covers his and removes it firmly from the joystick, stopping the forward motion of the jetway with a sudden lurch. The big machine halts in its tracks twenty feet from the airplane, felled by the press of a small red button.

In the commotion that follows, all Austin can see is his Green Hornet roller bag toppled against the curved wall of the passageway and a powerful thigh in navy-blue uniform pants planted before him.  Holstered against the thigh is a black snub-nosed revolver that swallows the light.

Gun! says Austin, his high voice cutting through the commotion like the bleat of a horn.

In an instant a powerful hand grips his arm. Passengers are scrambling now, desperate to escape the narrow confines of the jetway. Somewhere in his mind Austin hears his mother screaming her special scream, the one he’s heard her use only once before, on the day when his father shoved her down the deck steps and cursed at her with every bad word Austin knew and many he didn’t.

Where’s the gun? demands a hard voice behind him. Where’s the gun!

The policeman tightens his grip on Austin’s arm, hitching it up until Austin squeals in pain. Then the policeman whirls him around toward the gate. For a suspended moment Austin meets King Adjei’s eyes and notices a faint yellowish tint around his pupils as the drumming shifts into a lower gear.

Let go of my son! Austin hears his father thunder across the chasm separating airplane from jetway.

He’s the one that made him do it! his mother shouts. The African! He’s the one you want!

A moment later a hand quells the joyful drumming and suddenly the African is on the floor in front of Austin with a businessman’s knee pressed between his shoulder blades. To the surprise of everyone the businessman produces a pair of handcuffs from beneath his suit coat and locks them onto the African’s wrists in a single fluid motion.

Son, where’s the gun? the policeman asks more quietly, relaxing his grip on Austin’s arm and bending down to meet his eyes.

Gun! Austin cries, pointing at the officer’s own weapon.  And with this Austin begins to sob, not even hearing his mother as she frantically calls his name from the distant hatchway of the stranded airplane. The contrarian sun emerges from a dull white cloud bank and floods the open mouth of the jetway as the policeman’s face softens.

I’m sorry, son, he says, crouching beside Austin now, but you just can’t go saying gun in a place like this.  You understand?

Gun, replies Austin in a voice so low that only the two of them can hear it.

But there is no more time for talk. Two more policemen arrive, barreling down the jetway, and haul the handcuffed African to his feet. His eyes have gone flat and black as if to shutter out the world. But when they see Austin accepting his roller bag from a kindly-looking woman, the broad face relaxes into a smile of simple delight, a smile that is perhaps stolen from another world, one that Austin has not visited for a very long while.

The Green Hornet strikes again! says King Adjei triumphantly, and with a shove from behind he starts his journey back into the world of men.

Edward Hamlin headshotAbout Edward: Edward Hamlin has been writing fiction, poetry, and drama for many years. Since moving to the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado five years ago he’s focused exclusively on fiction, both short and long. Recently, he’s had stories published in the Bellevue Literary Review and nominated for the Pushcart Prize; his story “The Release” was selected as a finalist, from among more than 800 entries, for the Colorado Review’s 2012 Nelligan Prize. Another piece, “The Italian Afternoon,” appeared in the December edition of In Digest Magazine. The story published here, “Phone Phone Gun,” was presented theatrically in November 2012 as part of the Stories on Stage series. Mr. Hamlin has also completed a novel, Sleeping with Her, about dream life and the unconscious in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Return to Issue 8

Hell or Antarctica

Nemo travelled on the boat for days. He remembered it was the smaller man, the one called Peccadillo, who with a bored and unsatisfied air of ennui, flicked his cheek with a sharpened fingernail, and slapped it just to make sure he was awake, before injecting him with the sleeping drug. After that, he awoke in lightless room, walls of wood, where there was a little light slipping through a dank port window, and a starved smudge of clouds, and sea birds. When night came he felt disembodied. In the darkness, the lost light adjudged from the window noshed his sense of space and time away, little by little, especially when there were too many obstacles for the stars. Sometimes the boat seemed to change direction, or maybe it was the work of the waves, the chugging that awoke him, the drummel of rain, reminding him of his confinement.

Whenever he fell asleep is when they came. He knew they came because in the morning there was food on a peeled plastic platter. There was milk and meat, a little corn porridge. He ate abstemiously, and rationed. Whoever it was who’d imprisoned him was intent on keeping him healthy, even remarkably so, with a certain quality of freshness to everything he ate, and soon he found that he was not simply within the jurisdiction of torturers or murderers, but someone intent on his blindness, like stonemasons or other, less savory guilders intent on hiding their domain.

He remembered his father and mother. And Jeffrey Westcott. He dreamed in bursts of inaction and longing, of not being able to walk, or having his knees crumple beneath him.

Prickles of blood awaited him in the morning along and down his forearm. He felt like he’d awakened on the fringe of a coma, but unlike before couldn’t dig up the strength to become afraid or call out.

One morning beyond other mornings he awoke in a different room where there was light, small portal windows and a humming sound above and below him and bumps in the ground. Little hiccups. His ears were plugged with nothing but air, and he was in a stiff seat, blue canvass, across from a very handsome old man wearing a furry, and noticeably too hot, Ushanka.

“I’m not interested in most of what you’re going to say,” he said. He wore straight legged jeans, and a button-down white cotton shirt with an Aztec border, where six spear-armed Indians in leather breechcloths and warbonnets made their stampede.

“You can ask questions, but it doesn’t mean I’ll answer them.”

“Where am I?”

“You’re on a plane.”

Nemo looked around him, adjusting to what he always felt was a Mesopotamian sort of light found on aircrafts. It was a small plane, and stenciled squares of land monotonized the horizon out the window.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“To get The Book.”

“Why?”

“Next question.”

“What’s your name?”

The older, handsome man smiled. “Call me…B.”

From his side he drew a large carving knife, a Kukri, holstered in lambskin. He removed the scabbard and set it on the tray between he and Nemo, where he could see it better.

“What is a knife?” asked the man after a moment.

Nemo looked at him askew. There was a comical aspect to him, dressed as someone who took himself too seriously.

“I asked, what is a knife?”

Nemo then realized this was his question to answer.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“It would be better if you try.”

“Well,” said Nemo, hating why, as opposed to fear, he felt a ticking slowness in his fingers and brain. “A knife is used to cut.”

“And?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do know.”

“But…”

“Pick it up.”

Nemo obeyed, picking up the knife, too heavy for his hand. He took it in both hands and held it before his chest.

“Now answer the question.”

“To hurt?” he asked, more guessing at the man’s desires than the knife itself.

“Yes,” said B. “And no. A knife can do too many things to be referred to by just

one word. A knife can be used to kill. A knife can be used to share. I had a brother once, who shared everything with me. He was, in essence, a big, beneficent blade.”

His mouth opened wide, not in a smile, but in readiness to swallow something arbitrary.

“What do you think about infinity?” he then asked.

Nemo began to put down the knife.

“Pick it back up,” B. ordered, taking his hands to his knees and leaning forward. His teeth horsed out between his lips.

“What do you think about infinity?” he asked again.

“It makes me scared,” Nemo said, watching the sliver of blade tremble between his crossed eyes. Due to the drugs they’d been giving him, ‘scared’ was something he knew but could not feel. “Like bats and the ocean.”

“Well, that’s pretty damn specific of you,” B said. When he spoke his pupils remained still, so much so that all those comical aspects Nemo had seen in him before began to evaporate. “There’s an order of things, isn’t there?” he asked. “Like a food chain.”

“I don’t know,” Nemo said.

“I remember, when I was young, staring at clouds in the sky like they were little presents from heaven…sheep and bunnies and tiger cubs. Fur. So I started to look at them everyday. I just loved all those faces from God, up there and unknown, sleepy angels with perky wings and even…perkier ambitions.” He bent down, began to remove his boots.

“But then I realized that white, fluffy clouds could become steaming cirrocumulus—as if they had teeth—and beyond them, if you went high enough, a vast ionosphere, and beyond that ionosphere, ozone, and beyond the ozone, a thing called space, and beyond space, more space, and more space, and more space, and more space, and more space, and, well, it just didn’t stop going, you know.”

Nemo nodded, head dipping towards the knife.

“But,” B. said, watching the boy suddenly with shocking interest. “You seem to be a person who knows much about nothing. I can see it in you, right now. You’re a clever boy, and you’re going to turn into a brilliant man. We’ll have too much in common for either of us to be friends.”

“Can I put down the knife?” Nemo asked, feeling weak in the arms. They were already shaking a little from the weight.

“After you do something for me,” said the man in the black Ushanka. He set his boots against the ground, came out of his chair and crossed the airplane floor, warping his steps, to Nemo’s level. His breath was scentless, but the smell of his aftershave was so cheap and heavy it could have made the air-conditioning cough.

“You’re going to cut off the very tip of your least necessary finger,” he said.

Nemo blinked.

“You’re going to cut off the very tip of your least necessary finger. As a choice.”

Nemo shook his head at the knife.

“No.”

“Oh, yes.” He spoke to Nemo like one should speak to a child, but too sweetly.

“I can’t. They’re—they’re all necessary.”

“You can,” he said with enthusiasm, even friendliness. “And when you do, you’ll realize that you’re wrong. See, the point of most exercises in dispelling denial,” he took the boy’s hand, made it grip the knife, “is discovering something new about yourself.” He forced it towards his left hand. “I’ll help you choose.”

“Sir.”

“Call me B.”

“B?”

The cowboy pulled the boy by the hair and stuffed his face to the table.

“Get ready.”

He took Nemo’s hand and made it hold the knife to the other hand, which he pinned down with his elbow.

“Now watch it as this unnecessary little nothing leaves you,” he said.

“Please don’t.”

“No apologies. Concentrate. Watch what happens. Slow as it goes. Permanent as a piece of marble from the dick of the David.” The knife broke the skin. “Through, through.”

Nemo screamed.

“The bone.”

EEEEEE!

“There,” said the man, hand and stampeding Indians splattered with what seemed to be the terminal endings of their hunt. “All done. Now isn’t that better? So much easier to see how beautiful things are after they’re gone.”

Nemo bucked over his hand, holding it, rocking and too numb to shed tears.

“Oh, come on,” said the handsome man in the black Ushanka, making a fist around the severed finger. “Don’t be so dramatic.” He began to laugh and nudged Nemo with his hand, almost kindly, before shaking his head and taking a bottle of Wild Turkey from beneath the chair. He unscrewed the bottle and took a little swig. Firewater down his chin. He dumped whiskey over Nemo’s hand, soaking his clothes and seat with blood and liquor.

“The pinky is the least necessary digit, Manatonian,” he scolded. “It’s not like I asked for your hand.”

About Samuel: Samuel Sattin is a graduate of the Mills College MFA in creative writing and the recipient of NYS and SLS Fellowships. His work has appeared in Salon Magazine, io9, Kotaku, The Good Men Project, J Weekly, Cent Magazine, Out of the Gutter Online, Ink Well, and Generations. He is The Minister of Propaganda/Contributing Editor at The Weeklings, and his debut novel, LEAGUE OF SOMEBODIES, is being released by Dark Coast Press in April, 2013. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife and a beagle.

Rope Swing

She couldn’t take one more turn on the old rope swing Steve had put up when they first learned they were expecting. Like buying a football and a new tricycle, it meant there was a future, that there would be a child, that they would be a family.

She set her feet firmly and resolutely on the unmown grass and stood up from the swing, letting it lap against the back of her thighs, then turned slowly back toward the house and the realtor’s brand new, cherry red mini-van. The upstairs windows were open and the voices of that other family drifted down to her. She could hear the children, a boy and a girl, running through the empty halls, the mother yelling at them. The realtor was pulling back the gauze curtains to display the view that had sold her initially, out across the eight acres to the pond and beyond the pond to the grove of redwoods and beyond that, the ocean.

Steve had decided not to come this time. He hadn’t been back to the house since they spent the three months in the hospital. Three months of hope and planning. He would shuttle from the house to the hospital with Polaroids for her of the work he’d completed. He took several panoramic shots of the view from their bedroom window and she had propped them up against her stomach, memorizing every mote of light and planning when she could be back in the big bedroom with the fireplace and the basinet.

He hadn’t told her about the swing. That had been a surprise. She’d found it when she returned alone to the house, to pack it up after the baby was gone and after Steve was gone. And every time since, whenever she’d come back, she’d stop at the swing and sit down and push herself back and forth. It was comforting. Swing time was time standing still. As long as she was on the swing, Steve was cooking dinner on the backyard grill, the baby was napping upstairs and she was making plans for the future. When she stepped away from the swing, she had to walk back into her new reality.

Peg, the realtor was practically skipping out across the driveway toward her. “I think we have a live one,” she said, about to explode.

“Great, that’s great.” She felt as if she was smiling with all she had at Peg, but Peg’s face wrinkled up.

“What is it? Having second thoughts? You just say the word and I’ll drive them right back into town, no problem.”

She felt Peg’s hand on her arm as if someone was trying to reach her from far away, as if she was in a boat that was slowly drifting out to sea and a voice somewhere back on land was calling to her.

“No, I’m sure.” She tried for the right words, the words to describe the mood she was not feeling.  “I’m thrilled you’ve found a buyer. Really. This is exactly what I want.” She watched carefully as Peg’s face lightened. “I really appreciate all your help in getting it sold.”

Peg squeezed her arm, then turned and rushed back in to continue shepherding her buyers.

Maybe if she just sat right down here for a moment, yes, that would feel good. She turned back around toward the meadow and instead of sitting down she started walking. The sun was hinting it might be about to go down. Somewhere fog was rolling in, she couldn’t see it, but she could feel the chill in the air, feel it envelope her face and start to cut through her summer dress. She wondered if the water in the pond was chilly, if the fish were out of hibernation, if the foxes had gotten to them. She wondered if the woods were full of hunters, if she walked into the redwoods would they completely block the sun. And if she lay down in the underbrush, would her body make an impression, would the needles cut into her flesh and leave a tattoo.

In the distance, something like a horn honking, maybe some voices. She quickened her pace. When she got to the pond, she took off her sandals and waded in up to her thighs. The water was cold and murky. She could feel small fish swimming around her ankles, brushing up against her skin, taking nibbles.

She waded out the other side of the pond and headed into the woods. The sun became streaks of light stippling the ground, her face and everything around her. She put a hand out and stripped off a piece of redwood bark, held it up to her nose and took in the clean, earthy smell. Then she came to the place she had seen in her dreams, a circle of redwoods with a perfect bed of new growth needles below. All was in shadow.

The night they lost the baby she made up her mind to come to this place. It was the only thing to do. The one good thing to do.

She looked up through the arms of the redwoods and watched as the light drifted away. She gathered fallen branches and loose needles to cover her arms and legs, then turned her face to the night sky biting down on the bark. It turned into flowers in her mouth. Redwood seedlings sprouted up between her fingers. A family of mice took up residence in one of the large pockets of her cotton dress. A pair of western tanagers collected strands of her hair. A red fox chased away a vole that had taken up residence in one of her discarded sandals. He pushed his nose up against her cheek and closed his eyes against the coming cold.

CDKidderAbout Cheryl: Cheryl Diane Kidder’s work has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She was also short-listed on storySouth’s Million Writer’s Award. Her work has appeared in two anthologies: Ava Gardner: Touches of Venus, and Meg Files’ Write From Life. Cheryl has a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in: CutThroat Magazine, Brevity Magazine, Pembroke Magazine, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Penduline, Dogzplot, Watercress Journal, The Northville Review, JMWW, Identity Theory, Map Literary, The Atticus Review, The New Purlieu Review, Eclectica, Word Riot, among others. Her blog is Truewest, and she’s at Poets & Writers.

Einstein’s Riddle 20XX

Einstein wrote a riddle that only 2% of the population could solve, by his math. This should be even easier. No trick questions, just trickiness:

Five dwellings sit west to east at the outermost fringe of the city. Each Home is unique amongst its neighbors, and each owner has a source of Income, an unshakeable Vice, and a Philosophy they extol or have been influenced by. Each lives in its own coordinate of Love. Answer the final question using the clues available. Write things down. Use Excel on the computer at work and make yourself a table.

  1. The person in the center house lives, for now, off the paltry offerings of Disability. Works through all their problems spiritual and physical in the couch area, strategizing forays into the kitchen. The circumstances are clearly temporary. Any day now this back will heal itself and the world out there is full of money for those who know how to get it.
  2. The Bokononist, a devotee of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, is happily married to a man plunked into her duprass by a funny God. He came into her life to facilitate her chaos. In fact, or de facto. At night, they often lie on the floor and press their bare feet together. He doesn’t believe, and she knows this, but he does find it fun. And in this universe, that itself is a kind of faith.
  1. The neighbor who follows the life-lessons of Donald Trump, a proud Trumpian, lives in a McMansion purchased in large part via catalog. Once, the home was a proud beacon on a hill. Now the scrub-brush has seeped in, the siding has grown a fan-shaped stain of mold from a maladjusted sprinkler head, and the cobwebby upper windows remain reliably unlit.
  1. The multi-story Igloo defies sun and dust, keeps perfect, computer-controlled temperatures in its rooms and halls. To the west of this, an Apartment was airlifted from whatever downtown high-rise it was wrenched from. Propped here crumbly-walled on stilts, exited out the bottom as in tree forts. The owner of the Igloo watched it dangle from a long tether behind a helicopter. A bug-eyed maniac waving it down and bricks falling from the compromised walls like grains of sand.
  1. The Absurdist is a Garbage Collector. Riding through the city clung to the back of a garbage truck, dumping barrels of trash into its chomping maw and then returning a week later for the very same barrels topped-off with the nearly-same trash. Mopping up brow-sweat with a sleeve, coming home to scrub themselves and the stink staying with their skin so deep there’s hardly a point.
  1. The dude who lives in the Apartment, his own from the wild days down in the city, earns money Delivering Pizza in a car full of painful memories. He’s too broke to get something else. He listens over and over to the CD stuck in the dash player for years now, bitching to himself about poor tips and yeahyeahyeahing his way through the next drop-off because of it. There had been a vague end-game to this gig, but he’s forgotten it in these long desert drives.
  1. One of the homes was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and its stark linearity cantilevers over a fish pond fed by illogical pipework the plumber cannot understand or explain. Whirring tubular fettucine, its switch best left in the off position. The insomniac owner watches Television through the night in pulses of channel-change every blink of the eye until sunshine is born on the floor in a precise constellation and begins its crawl up the wall.
  1. The American Dreamer lives in the first house. It is gospel within the walls that hard work can conjure anything. Almost anything. And yet the beautiful idyll view they moved here for, a creek and its oasis, has given way to flat desert and a trickle of gross black effluvia making reptile noises below the window.
  1. The Widow’s neighbor smokes too much Weed. A great deal of it, anyway. Sometimes they sit plain as day out there trying to pass it off as a cigarette. The Widow has nowhere to go on nights off and sometimes will watch the dark figure sit totally still save the slow floating metronome of the ember from mouth to armrest. She thought of going out to ask for a puff, though it’s been decades since her party-girl days. Someone to talk to, if nothing else.
  1. True totals would be six to eight hours of Television a day, mostly at night, but also for awhile in the mornings getting ready. The Good Morning show in orange colors and pleasant smiles. Plus what is broadcast while fixing a quick dinner or stepping into the bathroom or glancing out the window at the doings of the street. The set is never really off.  Right next door, the young man has a Live-In Girlfriend. Certain nights she can hear them making love. Eerie sounding like birds outside when you’ve stayed all the way up. It used to be she was talking when that happened. Now it’s the Late Late Late Show or whatever’s after it, and the screams of a nostalgic pleasure from across the narrow yard.
  1. Among the homes, one neighbor pays land-taxes and food-bills with donations gleaned from being an Internet Personality. Four times a week they broadcast a webshow powered, as everything in their life, by a steady stream of off-label Adderall. The little pills keep them teeth-grinding and excitable and lost in tedium, because tedium was all there was, and only through tyranny of will could all that nervous jittering be turned into something. Though if the audience is laughing at them, or with them, is yet unclear. The-emails split somewhere between disgusting and sweet. The only thing ever really talked about on the show is the beautiful inevitability of everything. And The ugliness of cities. The charming ignorance of the people who run the world. They take call-ins about travel plans and religious awakenings and healthy recipes.
  1. The only smoker of Cigarettes lives by the code of the Hedonist. But all the excess has winnowed down to these cheap, lethal bastards, one after the other. There was booze and girls and many times blow and money certainly blown on temporary pleasures and if the world weren’t so weirdly wrought, one could live like that forever. Life can seem too long gone through with these rules. He blows smoke at the ceiling, out the window, like a tracer dye for how badly he’s affected the world. Every Cigarette is a mistake, and so smoking puts one in the mind of errors and missteps and blindnesses ten to forty times a day.
  1. The American Dreamer feels often that their every effort has been foiled. But bad luck is not a personal indictment. Or it is, maybe, and there’s not much can be done. Luck always the trickiest variable in having a family and a bit of secure money. Most recently the interference takes the form of an Airstream parked in the gravel lot next door. A dingy chrome slug on bricks and the tires sun-damaged to peeling and the thing intended to be there for a long time with no truck adequate in sight. It collects flies. She’s certain. She can smell every little thing they do over there.
  1. The person next door sells Real Estate. That’s all the Weed smoker knows about them, really. And it seems a spitable job, shuffling paper around and clicking a mouse and taking ten percent whether five minutes of work or five hundred thousand. The value all abstract, and speculative. Nothing certain about any of it and the Weed smoker wonders if that uncertainty bleeds through into what the Real Estate agent buys with it. Does it all seem a bit transparent? Are things missing some days and they are not sure if they ever had it or it was a dream. Weed is expensive. But it is what it claims. There is nothing to be uncertain about. A fixed entity staked out in a gelatinous universe.
  1. Among these neighbors lives a degenerate Gambler who has not spoken to his Estranged Wife in four years. The last time on a glaring morning after he drained their joint account for the third time and stumbled in bloodied and starving. She tried for years to help him, but her compassion unit broke and she finally saw some knothole of true bastardry she could climb through guilt-free. And he’s glad, for her, that she left. That there is maybe time left for her to get what she needs and if he stays out of touch her life can be as beautiful as he imagines.

So, which of these neighbors would write “Broken-Hearted” in their last empty slot? Rejection after long intimacy, their ego fractured, the whirring parts that let them love stripped useless by bearing down too hard, just once. Bonus points for deciphering the whole slate, west to east.

bradkellyAbout Brad: Brad Kelly is former party kid and Engineer from the Detroit area. Currently, he holds a James Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas. His work has recently appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Barnstorm, and The Underground. At the moment, he is working on his debut novel Unsayable City, an epic graffiti tale set in the heart of Detroit.

Ambistoma Mexicanum

To Gabriel.

He’s got five fingers. I thought all animals had a max of four. Ambistoma has five, and he extends them as though begging, reaching, as if he lacked something. But that’s just the way he looks. He is happy. He smiles, floating in his crystal house. Mamá looks up to the tank and says an ajolote offers healthier entertainment than TV.  I agree about the entertainment. But never in calling him ajolote, as if Ambistoma were some underdeveloped frog. He is not a tadpole, I explain. Call him Axolotl. That is his real name. Ambistoma is a salamander. Ambistoma Mexicanum—endemic of the channels of Xochimilco. More Mexican than enchiladas. Mamá twirls her hair: a salamander living in water? Don’t salamanders live in fire? What can I do. My mother is smart, but she’s not into biology. She spends her time reading legends. Leyendo leyendas, on the couch.

Ambistoma’s gills stick out of his head instead of being tucked to his flanks. The gills are like Mamá’s hair when she wakes up.  Her hair is so curly, orange, crazy. In the mornings when she pulls away from Papá’s arms, she walks towards the bathroom as if she were electrified. Her hair is knotted in tiny corkscrews, tangled here and there like coral branches. It jumps all over like thoughts of fire.

Mamá doesn’t rest, nor her eyes, always observing, supervising. Papá’s eyes, instead, go one place. To her. Wherever she walks with her head in a blaze. When she closes the bathroom door Papá’s eyes stay open. But they are asleep. That’s what Ambistoma has of Papá: the sleepy eyes, black without white, no depth. But only when Mamá is not around. When she leaves the bathroom his eyes wake up and follow her. Then her hair is tame. She parts it in the middle, she winds it up in tight braids, close to her skull. Who knows how many bobby pins she uses to secure those braids. She has boxes and boxes of them in the bathroom.

When I come home from school Mamá is sitting in the couch with her computer on her lap, wrapped in a blanket like a taco. She’s always cold. She says hello. Do your homework, Mijito, she says, while I finish mine. I do that, but first I feed Ambistoma. Some fish food pellets and then, when Mamá isn’t looking, his dessert: the juiciest worms I can find in the brook out back. I smuggle them in my backpack or in my pencil box. I have to take them out when she’s not looking, or she would die. Once I put some night crawlers in my lunchbox by mistake, so disgusting with the mud and the dirt and the ham sandwich leftovers. But Ambistoma did not care. He opened his huge mouth and expelled water though his gills as if they were turbines. In one go he sucked all that was in front of him—the ham, the bread crumbs, the night crawlers. The current he creates is like little water hurricanes. His pink skin is translucent. I swear you can see the worms squirming in his gut. Hoover, Papá calls him.

When Mamá gets up the evening begins and we can talk. But also the cleaning frenzy, her rummaging around to see that everything is in its freaking place. Her eyes are like wrens. She looks here and there, as though afraid of finding something. Papá watches her. Ambistoma watches us.

She checks the rug for spots. She carries a bottle of cleaner in one hand; on the other, a sponge. Who would chose wall to wall carpeting when you care so much about cleanliness—and white carpeting? Papá and I have chores too. But Mamá wins with her nervous hands, her roaming eyes, her quick breathing. She pants. I don’t know any house tidier than mine. My friends joke that their Moms want to have her over some time. But Mamá doesn’t go out a lot. Maybe she doesn’t want to have to clean other people’s homes.

At the end of the day her braids have metamorphosed. Sometimes she has four instead of two. Sometimes, only a fat one. Sometimes she makes cornrows, and then her white skull looks like a field of fire coral. She has this thing about doing and undoing her hair. Once Papá asked her how many times she had done her hair that day. She shrugged and said, two, maybe. We laughed. How many times have I seen her with a book on her lap while her fingers tangle in that red bush, weaving and unweaving the mess? Once I counted five hair styles in one hour. She didn’t believe me. But she told me about Penelope, the wife of King Ulysses, how she waited ten years for him, weaving and unweaving. I have to ask her what happened when the king showed up.

I walk from the bus stop every day, and come in through the kitchen door. Today the sink was full of cups, some with tea, some with coffee, saucers with crumbs, spilled milk. On the counter was sliced bread, unwrapped cheeses. In the living room, Mamá was not wrapped in her blanket, nor pressed under her laptop. She was sitting on the floor on a large cushion: straight-backed, her legs curled as though meditating. She held a glass of wine, took it to her lips like a kiss. Through the window, the afternoon sun spilled on her back. Her braid was a torch. She smiled at me.

“This is Raquel.” She offered her upward palm. “She just moved around the corner.”

I followed the direction of Mamá’s hand, and saw Raquel sitting on the rug. She jumped up. She wore a miniskirt with frills on the bottom. I don’t know how she got up without showing her underpants. Her thighs are like Venus Williams’s. She’s a little taller than me.

They say I am tall for being eleven. I’ll be tall when I reach Papá.

Raquel shook my hand. She has long, warm hands.

“I love your Ambistoma,” she told me. She untied the orange scarf from her neck, covered her head with it and moved it up and down, like Ambistoma’s gills. “Hello,” she said. She’s that weird.

§

Today Raquel and Mamá fixed a massive dinner. Ambistoma enjoyed it too. He loves pork.

“It’s okay, Luis,” Mamá said when I got up to throw away the leftovers and get the sink ready. That’s what I do every night.

“First we’ll have dessert. Raquel, don’t even think of getting up.” She placed her hand on Raquel’s forearm. Mamá’s hand is like milk with dots of cinnamon. Raquel’s arm is coffee. Black coffee with brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon.

“Guests don’t do chores,” Mamá said. And then, incredibly: “Luis, have a seat.”

Mamá served ice cream with dulce de leche.

At the end of the night we were all potbellied like Ambistoma after ten night crawlers. Mamá smiled at Raquel, her eyelashes half-way, her braid all neat, her hands sleeping birds. I have never heard her breathe so slowly. Papá looked at her. Black eyes, like Ambistoma’s. No white to be seen.

I asked for more dulce de leche.

When she said goodbye, I walked Raquel to the door.

“I’ll bring him some big fat slugs, you’ll see.”

She leaned over to kiss me. Her neck smelled like dulce de leche.

Then she left. I closed the door, turned around, leaned back, let out a long breath. The whole house was dark, except for Ambistoma’s home. When I went to say goodnight his orange gills went up in a startle. A flare, a solitary rock in the middle of the ocean.

§

I am adding some bamboo to Ambistoma’s tank. Raquel brought it over. It’ll look like a swamp, I said at first, unsure. And she, that’s how chinampas are underneath, silly. They are man-made islands that the Aztecs started as floating gardens. He needs protection. He needs to hide and get out when he wants. I know, I said. I’m not a child. While she stood next to me her caramel odor seemed to get stronger. Sometimes it is hard to breathe.

Mamá is humming softly, organizing her flowers. She’s not working, or cleaning or running around. She’s not doing or undoing her braids. She takes a calla lily, checks it slowly, adds it to the vase. She takes a step back to see the arrangement come along. Her hair is loose. Her little coils bounce around her cheeks. They shine as if they were oiled. She wears a silk headband to free her face. Her head is a steady fire.

Papá comes home from work. He holds Mamá. He cups her hair in his hand. “You finally let it loose. So pretty.”

Mamá takes one ringlet between two fingers. Carefully, as if she could dent it. “It’s the conditioner Raquel gave me.” Her face is red. Her hand bumps against Papá’s.

He pulls away, as if she could burn him.

§

I think I did well in Algebra. So lucky Mamá didn’t make me clean last night. Just a month ago she would have told me with her sweet voice: you finish your homework and then do your chores. She would have ran around the entire house with her sponge, and would have made me run after her, forget the equations. But now things have changed. The house is clean, but without overdoing it. Full of flowers. After work, Mamá decorates and sings with a voice you can hardly hear. Ambistoma peeks from his underwater forest.

I wonder what he does at this time when I’m at school. Today there were tadpoles in the brook. You find different things at different times of day. I hope he eats them.

I come in through the kitchen. A sweet, hot smell makes me hungry.

I walk into the living room. On the couch there’s only the crumpled blanket. I pick up the computer and a few pillows strewn around the floor; a shredded flower. I feed Ambistoma his tadpoles—he gobbles them up. Now she won’t be able to call him a tadpole. I hope she doesn’t call him a cannibal.

The amphibians book I picked up at the library explains that he is a salamander—just as I said. Ambistoma Mexicanum breathe through gills like tadpoles, but they stay all their life in that larval state. They reproduce and die as juveniles! But they have rudimentary lungs, and can develop them if a bad year dries up their water world. Then they turn into tiger salamanders and roam the world.

Maybe one day we’ll take Ambistoma out of his tank. Will he learn to breathe? Who will he sleep with?

I walk around the living room, and my gut growls. That sweet smell is everywhere. I go to the kitchen. One spoonful of dulce de leche before Mamá gets here.

The beams upstairs creak.

“It’s me, Mamá, don’t be scared,” I holler. “They let us out after the exams. I’ll show you a book I brought.”

“Sí, Mijo. I’ll be down in a minute.” Her voice echoes hollow, like bottled.

Many minutes pass. I hear steps upstairs. Obsessive steps and voices, like Mamá used to do and undo her hair. I eat the dulce de leche quickly, wash the spoon, dry it. It’s a sugar bomb, but Mamá won’t know.

When I’m about to put the spoon in the silverware drawer the stairs creak. I wipe the counter off. I lean over—is the dulce de leche smell getting stronger?

“Hola, Mijo.” I almost jump, and look up. Raquel stands in the kitchen doorway. Her hair is as curly as Mamá’s, but black, of course. She’s barefoot. Her naked arms circle her in a tight hug. The dulce de leche smell is everywhere.

I stand, the spoon in my hand. Upstairs the shower is going.

“Your parents will be down in a minute.”

§

Saturday mornings are for Ambistoma. I like this new habit my parents have of sleeping in. Today I did an experiment. I carried him in a bucket to the willow out back. I took him out carefully, he’s so slimy. I placed him gently on the grass. He opened his mouth big, like he was choking. I panicked, and rushed to put him back in the bucket. But then he did some kind of snort. He was startled, panted, panted. Then he calmed down. He crawled around on the grass! He probably smelled some worms.

I wonder when I can call him Salamandra Tigre.

It’s almost twelve when Papá comes downstairs. Showered, shaven, with a clean, old face. His voice tinkles, an actor in the theater.

“What time is Raquel coming?”

“Later in the evening, Luis. What do you want to do today?”

Estela Gonza_lezAbout Estela González: Estela González holds a Ph.D. in Latin American literature and an M.F.A. from the Solstice Program at Pine Manor College. Born and raised in Mexico and educated in the U.S., she writes stories in English and in Spanish about characters straddling gender orientations and cultures. Her work has appeared in Palooka, the Barcelona ReviewSol: English Writing in Mexico, and the Revista de literatura contemporánea mexicana. She has aired a series of Vermont Public Radio commentaries on Latino immigrants in Vermont, and is currently seeking agent representation for her novel Limonaria.

Friday

Marlene makes a sandwich spread out of bologna, mayonnaise, and sweet pickle relish using an enormous antique grinder that attaches to the side of a table. After thirty-nine years of marriage, she can never remember that Pete hates the spread. Fortunately, she doesn’t have the means to make it in their Winnebago (the grinder didn’t come with them), so instead she slathers mayonnaise onto Pete’s bologna sandwiches. Even when Pete scrapes it off with a knife, it’s still there. Mayonnaise has a way of setting into bread like mildew in grout. Once it’s there, you can never get rid of it.

The Roman soldiers, those of lesser rank but as stern and chiseled as their superiors, have herded all the Winnebagos and recreational vehicles into an expanse of muddy land. Marlene and Pete arrived later than they’d planned and it seems that miles stretch forth from the location of their Winnebago to the site of the event. Two retired fellows, Vic and Holmstead, occupy the recreational vehicle nearest theirs. The fellows wear matching yellow polo shirts, crisp khakis, and white tennis shoes. They pull canvas chairs with arms, cup holders, and attached pop-up parasols from skinny canvas bags.

“Hello,” Vic and Holmstead say in unison every time Pete emerges from his Winnebago. One time, Holmstead is carefully applying sun block to his ankles. Another time, they’re both drinking from iridescent green plastic martini glasses.

Pete suffers through his bologna sandwiches while Marlene smokes Newports and works on a crossword puzzle. “What’s a four-letter word for chicken?” she says.

“Wing,” Pete says.

She looks at him with disgust and gets up from the table. Her ass is as fat as it’s ever been, Pete thinks when she stands at the Winnebago’s little sink washing coffee cups.

Down at the site of the event, the soldiers attach the three men to their crosses. The protesters light candles and hold their signs up a little higher. They sing and weep. Groups of young people have gathered around the site; they, too, sing, and some play guitars and harmonicas. Young girls dance with one another in somber rhythms, their brown or black or golden hair abundant, dresses loose for hot weather, feet bare in the grass. Angry people shake their fists. The soldiers, smug and stoic, barely glance at one another, though a wave of solidarity passes through them, one to another. Vendors sell soda, beer, hot dogs, cotton candy, popcorn, and peanuts, and the Son of God, the God of Man, the Son of Man, hangs from long nails on the largest cross between the other two, the squirming criminals mounted like butterflies. The Son of God forgives the two their crimes, and he forgives the soldiers, the executioners, everyone. The soldiers who’ve lifted the crosses are allowed by their superiors one beer each and a bag of peanuts to share among themselves.

It’s a sweltering day. Fortunately, vendors are selling floppy white hats, and everyone buys them. But soon the sky grows dark. Vendors sell glowing necklaces and glow sticks. Everyone buys them in the curious dark of day, and above the mass of bobbing rings and waving sticks, the two criminals die. The God of Man, however, persists and the crowd wonders, “When? When?”

Pete and Marlene pass their binoculars back and forth; Vic and Holmstead each have their own pair. Holmstead is quite drunk and snaps frequently at Vic, accusing him of infidelities. Pete grows bored and hungry. “Let’s get the hell out of here, huh?” he says to Marlene. “Let’s go get something to eat. We’ll stop on the road.”

Holmstead and Vic make amends as they have a hundred times before, and Holmstead falls asleep at Vic’s feet. Pete and Marlene leave the site and find a diner. They’re finishing up their fish fries and coffee while the waitress, face lined by nicotine and compromise, reads a tabloid. Back at the site of the event, the Son of Man says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” while at the diner, the cook lingers on the toilet under the flickering bulb in the diner’s bathroom.

About Emily: Emily Glossner Johnson lives in Baldwinsville, New York. She has a B.A. in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo and an M.A. in English from the State University of New York College at Brockport. She has had short stories published in Lynx Eye and Literary Brushstrokes, and has short stories forthcoming in Dinosaur Bees and The Linnet’s Wings, as well as by Musa Publishing in their Erato (GLBT) imprint.

The Burning House

She was just going to dress her daughter in her Sprockets Brand Infant and Toddler Girl’s Butterfly top.  She had bought it off the Sears page on the internet, as a part of a prolonged Easter sale.  $5.49 after the discount had been taken.  She would also give her daughter her black and white checked cords which she, Marian, had sewn on her own machine.  These were clothes they could afford.  Let us believe, Marian said to herself, let us believe in our sustainability.  They lived, now, in the lowest cost rental they could find in the neighborhood—not four blocks from where they used to stay.  She would go out, having placed Laura her daughter in her stroller, and they could visit their refurbished, their reconstructed, home for the first time.  Of course it was no longer theirs.  It had taken Effort Construction nearly half a year to get things up from the ground again.  The place they lived in now was affordable, but her husband Dana, working ten hour days at a caretaking unit for the head-injured, had never gotten around to mowing the lawn so far this season, and the grass was nearly waist-high now; the splashy scarlet peonies, flying up from nowhere, bobbed their heads on the green top like birds on the wave.  The answer to the old burnished golden rod carpet in the living room was to pull it up and to vacuum the disintegrating rubber pad which had gone to gray powder.  The ceiling was in cracks from overuse of the radiant panels up there.  The renter before them had been an old woman whose bones had been easily chilled—at least that was what she had said.  But she had not known how to regulate the heat.

Let’s make a clean sweep, Marian decided, as she finished helping Laura dress.  Laura, appropriately, was flitting around like a pink and blue striped butterfly because she might be seeing her old playmates again.  They might be out on the sidewalk on their red-enameled trikes.  Breakfast was over; the yellow dog was on his leash, and the month of June had brought in sun after a soaking and debilitating spring.  The roof had leaked, their Goodwill television had died, and she had gotten spyware on her computer.  Besides paying to have it removed, they had had to go to Next Step Recycling to find an obsolete replacement fan for the old hard drive.  February through April had been months of clumsiness.  Her mother the poet had died–celebrated and remembered up in Seattle.  Marian had not done a sterling job of getting everyone together.  How could she?  Their home had burned down last September.  And there had been no money forthcoming from her mother’s estate.  But now, but now, the Iceland poppies—orange, yellow, red, white—were raising their delicate, pollen-colored centers to the light, and the California poppies in their own wild backyard were forming their own arsenals of orange, as she moved out the door pushing the awkward red stroller with Laura in it.  Laura had to have the “peek-a-boo window” down, regardless of whether there was a heavy wind or not.

Today it was not.  The heavy sounds of the traffic near their somewhat ramshackle new home passed away.  They were going down West 53rd into the well-paid-for silence of a neighborhood that was actually a different neighborhood.  In it, their old street bowed toward them.  It moved out into an arc of flowers and purple, lace-leaf maple.  And the Iceland poppies again, more thickly gathered and more stunning against the green in other people’s yards.  Their old home, for all that, was only minutes away, now newly done; the beech tree, the one that had gone into flame, had vanished.  It was from the mixes of strange varnishes and colors—colors that had dripped across the canvas—that the combustion had come.  It was as if her husband had had a veritable garden of carnations and lily foliage which had simply sent up smoke and then fire—fire which had caught the ceiling of the garage and then spread into the house.  Perhaps some rags had been left in a corner.

She had awakened with the sound of the smoke alarm.  Quick, Dana, quick, the baby!  (Laura was no longer a baby then, but that had been her first thought, “baby.”)  They hustled into Laura’s room and snatched her away with only one cover around her.  Dana had had the presence of mind to get Luke their dog from the kitchen.  All four of them were out the door before the ceiling of the living room fell in.  The parched beech outside was aflame as though taken over by the colors of autumn rather than by real fire, or as if it had been lit like a candle.

The neighbors were already pressing forward.  In their bare feet and hastily donned robes.  The policeman who lived next door was even trying to make an extension of his garden hose when the three fire trucks arrived.

“Solomon!  Solomon!”  They had forgotten their cat—it came to them just as the roof went into a veil of orange sparks, followed by a huge jet from the fire truck.

“Solomon.”

But it had been too late.  Now Marian pushed the stroller to the edge of the path leading up to the front door of the house that had once been theirs.  A half a year later, broad daylight was gracing this “new” house.  Of course she would not go any further; the door, newly hung and painted a gleaming red, reminded her she would be trespassing if she went into the property.  Even for a view.  The place was not their place.  And the high cost of the spontaneous combustion from all the art materials had been Solomon; the price of one cat.  They would never get over it.  Solomon was belied by the new pale green siding.  By the circle of garden, freshly dug, at center of the grass; it sported a tulip tree, one which had already gone through the shedding of its petals, making way for the healthy foliage.  You could look at the roses and tell that the beds had been recently planted.  Nothing looked that perfect.  The buds, pink ones, were carefully sprayed and stood out on the single stems.  The bushes were freshly dug and put in the evenest of rows.

She faced the music of this scene of renewal, which did not belong to her.  She felt she could survive anything, and her family had rallied—that was undeniable.  Marian had even gotten through the failure of her tea shop, the one that also sold spiritual statuary and “ritual objects,” as well as semi-precious stones.  The magic in a garnet, brought in from Idaho!  Caught in a gold-mining pan and glowing purple.

Laura, in her stroller said, “The trucks were here one time.  I said, ‘Fourth of July!’  ‘Fourth of July!’”

Because, as Laura had explained the next day, the three fire trucks all flashed red, white, and blue.

“We got Luke,” Laura went on, reaching out and patting the flank of the dog, who turned and smiled at her with the full, pink tongue of a yellow lab.

“Yes, Laura,” Marian answered, patting the dog also.  “We saved him.”

“But not the monkey,” Laura said.

Once they had stayed that night at the family shelter, Laura had cried the next morning because they had failed at retrieving not only the cat but also her stuffed monkey.  So Laura needed reminding that Luke, who was billeted with a neighbor, had been rescued.  In the next few days, while Laura had worked the tea shop, had dusted all the divine icons for sale—even a Zeus and an Athena—she had prayed there would be a way of keeping the family afloat.  Dana would not paint for a while, not for a long time; no peonies, which he had planned, nothing.  He was too heart-stricken over what his art had done to their home in the first place.

“It is literally a home-wrecker,” he had said.

“Come, come,” she’d answered.  “Let’s not get too symbolic about this.  It was just a mishap.  You can’t give up your beloved art.”

Now she just stood there with Laura, staring at the freshly painted red door.  “That isn’t our door,” Laura observed, and just as she spoke, one of her former neighborhood playmates, Sean, came up wheeling on his trike from behind.

“Hello”—in a slightly bored tone.

“Hello.”

“Hello,” Sean said again.  “Your house burned down.”

“I know my house burned down,” Laura said, disgusted.

“They have a new one here,” Sean said.  “Are you going to live here?”

“No,” Laura answered.  She looked at Marian.

“No, Sean,” Marian said, taking her cue.  “We have a new home also.”

“Oh,” the red-cheeked boy answered, clasping his head, as if he had missed on a precocious math problem.  He looked flushed, suddenly.  “What will I tell Solomon?”

“Solomon?” Marian asked.  “Solomon died in the fire.”

“Yeah,” Laura echoed.  “Solomon died in the fire.”  She was acquiring some of that bored tone.

“Solomon’s on this street,” Sean said with great assurance, almost arrogance.

Sometimes, during the days before the tea house and “metaphysical gift shop” had gone under, Marian would send out a prayer among the icons that Solomon would “turn up,” even when they all had known Solomon had been in the basement when the roof had gone in.  Still, this marmalade cat had arisen in her dreams.  His topaz eyes and very studied expression.

“I told Solomon,” Sean said.  “To come back here.”  And pointed to the red door.   “Because I thought you would live here again.”

Solomon.  If Solomon were to come back, maybe Dana would take up his art once more.  There would be no loss, then, really, to haunt him.  Lately, Dana, closet acrobat that he was, had been given to “wire walking” across dangerous chasms—his back muscles a roadmap of tension.  Compensating for the loss by taking his life in his own hands.

So she now said in her daycare center voice (she worked at one afternoons)—a balanced voice, determined but patient, “Tell me, then, Sean, where Solomon is.”

Sean pointed to the west end of the block.

And so, as a retinue, they moved forward.  Looking for the splotches of orange which were Solomon’s coat along with the white bib.

There were many splotches of orange—in the form of California poppies—in all the rockeries.  And then the peonies which Dana was supposed to be painting—red and white.  The zinnias—yellow and red—and then yellow again, for Solomon, or his double, came out from a clutch of them at the end of the street.

Laura let out a high-pitched yell of “Solomon,” but the cat, while first turning to give back a studied glance, went on ahead of them.

Marian hastened from the stroller—Laura was already out—to bend down and call.  They were both reaching out their hands.

At last the cat made an arc and approached them.  Marian picked him up.  It was a male and collarless.  “See,” Sean said.  “See.”

The cat felt thin.  And it was overpoweringly humbling not to know whether this “Solomon” was theirs or not.  “We’ll have to ask around,” Marian said to the children.  “We’ll have to discover whether he belongs to someone else.”

“No, no,” Sean said, getting back on to his trike and trying the pedals without moving.  “Everybody feeds him.”

She stared into the cat’s face.  There was no affection coming, but Solomon had always been independent, not particularly loving, except at meal time.  “The mercenary feline,” Dana had called him.

But she looked into the oval pupils surrounded by topaz and said to herself, If only you could tell me.  Was there a window open—did you escape?

She put him down now, and Laura stroked him—to the very end of his tail.  Marian gathered up all the energy inside her.  It was going to be quite a project moving from door to door and trying to make this mystery come right.  But this seemed the next thing to do.

They had come to their old house again.  Laura held on to Solomon, who didn’t seem pleased but still didn’t struggle.  Marian went up and knocked, not expecting an answer–for who could live here except themselves?  Yet an old woman opened the door and gazed out, looking surprised.  Marian recognized her instantly as one of the long-term residents of the town, written up in the local paper as someone who had been a painter for decades.

“Yes, yes,” the woman said, her streaming silver hair reminding Marian of portraits of Wagner.  “What may I do for you?”

“We want to know if this cat”–Marian pointed–“might be yours.  Or if you might know who he might belong to.”

“He belongs to us,” Laura said, defiantly, still holding tight.

“No, no, he’s not ours, but he’s been around since we moved in.  His owners I couldn’t tell you.”

“We used to live here,” Marian explained, “then we lost a cat in the fire.  Now we’re not sure if he’s the one.”

The woman seemed to blossom.  “Oh, you are the family.  We bought this house, because they said a painter lived here.”

“Yes,” Marian said, starting to back off.  She was beginning to feel envy for the woman.  The news article had said that she and her husband simply sold paintings whenever they needed money.  Through the door, she could see a full oil of two garish roses, red, grand, streaked.  “Yes, well, I appreciate your time.”

“Wait a moment,” the woman said.  “I have something for you.”  And was instantly gone.

Marian stood there while she heard the high hum of a blimp overhead, shimmering, silver, when she looked.

Soon the woman reappeared, like prophetess, out of the still heat, so new to spring.  “Here,” she said, and handed her the stuffed monkey, its tail burnt.  Laura screamed when she saw it, and, letting go of Solomon, came up running.  “And this.  I found this also in the basement.”

It was the portrait of the family, taken by a friend, showing Dana, Marian, Laura, and cat and dog.  Charred around the edges, in full color, with photos of ancestors on the background mantelpiece.

“Thank you,” Marian said.  “We had given up on these.”

She put the picture in the storage flap of the stroller.  She picked up Luke’s leash, which she had let drop.  Laura came along aside, and then moved down the sidewalk.  She knew if she stayed any longer she would have to yield to her infinite curiosity to see what was inside.

“Come by again,” the woman said.  “We want to know about all about the burning paintings and if there are any left.”

“Yes,” Marian answered and pushed the stroller forward, leash in hand.

The cat, undecided until now, followed at last.

About Henry: Henry Alley is a Professor Emeritus of Literature in the Honors College at the University of Oregon.  He has four novels, Through Glass (Iris Press, 1979), The Lattice (Ariadne Press, 1986),  Umbrella of Glass (Breitenbush Books, 1988), and Precincts of Light (Inkwater Press, 2010).  His Leonardo and I was winner of the Gertrude Press 2006 Fiction Chapbook Award.  His stories have been published over the past forty years in such journals as Seattle Review, Outerbridgeqreview, Virginia Quarterly ReviewClackamas Literary Review, Gertrude, and Harrington Gay Men’s Quarterly Fiction.