The audio excerpt above from The Last Orchard in America, read by author Michael Peck, sets the tone for what is to come in the voice of narrator and antihero of sorts, private dick Harry Jome. The book is available today via a Kickstarter campaign launched just a week back to fund its printing. If you haven’t taken a look at the book as yet, the main page for it is set up at this url here in THE2NDHAND’s books section. The Kickstarter campaign you can contribute to here. We’re getting closer to the goal of $1,000 or more there — big thanks to all of you who’ve contributed thus far, seeing lots of familiar names there among the writers and readers who’ve supported THE2NDHAND over its 14 years of existence thus far. Rewards at the $25 contribution level include past T2H collections — Peck was featured in the 2011 All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10 — and other of our books. At higher levels, a variety of prints from Last Orchard illustrator Vinson Milligan remain as well. All, of course, coming along with a copy of the new novel itself. Read the story of how the book came to be via this link to the Kickstarter campaign, and, for now, here’s another brief chapter, No. 2, picking up where the above audio section leaves off.
I was at the window looking out over the intersecting bridges spanning the city. Great hulking sculptures of metal and steel, able to withstand the fleeing and the returning with equal ease, layered on top of one another like a crazy staircase. Bridges are the strangest of modern conveniences, a street with no land underneath, a nowhere boulevard that can carry you across seas and lakes and rivers, transporting you to the elsewhere you yearn so vaguely to be. A bridge is neither the beginning nor the end of any journey.
The river beneath the webwork of bridges was sleek and consoling in its dangerous malaise, condemned to thrash, like all good rivers, against the encroachment of civilization.
A drop of rain struck the glass and eased down reluctantly. A siren careened three stories below in the street for a while, found its miserable destination and became a loose, fragile memory among a thousand others that one soon forgets. Then another siren joined in from somewhere beyond the first and the duet spun off to opposite fringes of the city, a cacophony of parting goodbyes in a town that is built of them.
It had been raining for weeks and the buildings out the window were becoming coated in a slick mirror of water that reflected the faded sky. I studied a calendar on my desk, trying to intuit what day it was, but the calendar was from last year and I’d never been keen on math. I sat back in my chair and grimaced at the ceiling.
I yawned, trying to surprise myself.
There was a blue and white marble on my desk that I began to roll back and forth on the uncluttered surface. The ninth or tenth time I was too slow and it bounced against a copy of a dog-eared Dominic Early novel that I’d been meaning to read. The marble dribbled onto the floor like any other sad, useless thing. I peered closely at the little round speck dreamily, urging it to keep rolling, but my momentary optimism wouldn’t take. I left myself alone.
Sitting in the same position for hours, romanticizing the days you wasted in the gutter, you tend to disremember that the street exists, that there is something beyond the flickering wall clock in the berserk simplicity of a familiar room. That maybe you’re a self-propelling organism with the nerve to feel all right; your body an urban development project and the brain a ticket-window to a carnival that is always vacant, though some silly bastard keeps the hallucinatory rides well oiled and moving along.
Lousiness doesn’t achieve much more in one day.
That morning a middle-aged woman visited my office and offered me $400 to investigate the death of her husband. She was a babbling matron with the physique of a sack and lips purpled by wine, barely able to subvert a speech defect that slurred her words. The husband was decapitated by a train as he attempted to switch the tracks at some remote outpost beyond the suburbs. I tuned out what she was saying for a couple minutes, her mouth jabbering, until she noticed me not listening, and raised her voice.
“It was mysterious,” the woman said. “In a week he was going to blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union and some people—and by that I mean some people—didn’t like the idea much. And so you can imagine what I think.”
“Why was he going to ‘blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union?’” I asked, and the woman must have heard my stultified tone, because she looked like she was going to spit on my desk.
“Roger said something about,” the woman paused, recalling, “black market goods being loaded onto freighters by certain squalid switchmen.”
“What kind of black market goods?”
“He never mentioned.”
She gave a harrowing account of the switchman’s life, replete with dinner routine, the hour his alarm sounded each morning, his Sunday yard work. Finished and breathing hard, gray hair clinging to her forehead, she expounded some more and fell silent. Perspiration slithered on her exposed skin like she’d just enjoyed a bath of swamp water. It was disgusting to me.
“Any witnesses?” I asked.
“Just the engineer.”
“What does he say?”
“He was asleep.”
“So he wasn’t really a witness.”
“He was there,” she spat.
As bluntly as I could I told her that her personal grief was not a good enough reason to suspect assassination. People get in the way of trains sometimes. “Basically I don’t like or trust people who sweat profusely,” I said aloud without really meaning to.
“You have the mouth of a dog,” she said.
“Not every freak death is a conspiracy,” I said. She tore into a plastic bag of tissues. “Stupidity is extremely unregarded as a transport to death.”
“Roger wasn’t stupid, if that’s what you mean.”
“I do, and I’m sorry, but anybody who gets his head knocked off by a slow-moving train is challenged in some special way. Wouldn’t you agree?”
I could have taken her dollars and done nothing but sit around and stare at them for a week, then report to her that I’d been unable to uncover anything conclusive. Maybe I was feeling lazy; possibly, I simply did not care. From Malthus one learns that the cause of all evil and crime is overpopulation, and ever since Pinkerton it has been good private policy for someone in my line of work never to meddle with unions.
“I thought you did this kind of thing,” she said, rising with tissues clasped in each hand.
“Honestly, I don’t know what it is I do anymore. It’s not your fault. I’m disillusioned, is all.”
“It certainly isn’t mine,” she hissed. “I ought to spit right on your desk.”
She sobbed out to the hallway. As the elevator descended her whelps grew distant and stopped altogether, then resumed through the open window. I watched her hustle across the street against the light, nearly getting plowed down by a dump truck.
Thinking about the easy $400 I could have acquired, I tucked in my once-white dress shirt and propped a suit coat on my shoulders. A year and a half ago I’d nailed a portrait mirror to the backside of the door. Intended as security to inspect every angle of a client, it served mainly to deflate my vanity. Not a handsome man, perhaps, rather plump and grim under the eyes, the kind of looks certain women appreciate from a distance and realize, on closer scrutiny, they are very mistaken. But I wasn’t out for any woman. I’m sure they’d had enough of me, too.
Well, Harry Jome, I said to myself, stepping into the plank-floored corridor, whose walls were painted in indignant swipes of yellow and red. Let’s you and me get a couple of eggs. It’s about time we had some excitement.
You can order the book via this link.
Paul Lask, formerly of Chicago, has been living in Santiago, Chile, since mid-2012. He is at work on a novel.
They left town at dawn, heading east into the mountains. When the sun hit it exposed lines in Carlos’ face that weren’t there the night they met. She had seen the scars of two barbell eyebrow piercings on the dance floor that night. They struck her as warning signs of trashiness. He turned out to have a good sense of humor, though. He was a little full of himself — enough to keep a short goatee and hand her his business card when he thought he was losing her in the conversation — but Sarah told herself it was a healthy vanity. Plus he hadn’t made the first move, even after they sunk the bottle of Carmenere at his place afterward.
Now they were driving the curvy roads at the foothills of the Andes. They told each other travel stories. They had already (that night with the wine) done the backstory thing. Sarah was from a small town in southern Wisconsin, and he was from Buenos Aires. That was where his wife lived while the couple took their break. He had no children.
She had just finished a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, turning 23 in July. Carlos was 34 and had dropped out of college years ago.
She told him about her post-high-school-graduation trip, when she and a girlfriend on a whim bought cheap plane tickets to Cancun. Carlos told her he’d traveled throughout South America, and once backpacked from Rome to Barcelona.
He smoked too much, she now noticed.
Sarah smoked only when she went out. She didn’t know the last time she’d bought a pack. The cigarettes in Chile had shock photos on them, hard not to notice, and she turned to look out the window; it was early November, springtime here. Just outside Santiago the land opened up and turned to flattish, bushy desert dotted with paddle-armed cacti blooming pink and white flowers. After an hour the road dipped in and out of valleys, where a river fed the willow and cottonwood trees that were deeper green and moving in the light wind. The trees, and the water, which was the muddy color of the Wisconsin River, reminded her of home.
Though this was the most non-touristy thing she had done since being here, she kept cool. She asked for a cigarette. She thanked him for remembering she was a vegetarian, and after smoking made them Gouda-on-white-bread sandwiches with mustard. They ate. Carlos was one of the many she’d met in Chile who drank mate tea in a gourd with a silver straw that looked like a spoon. She partook, pouring hot water from his thermos, and they took turns sharing the gourd. After 15 minutes or so she felt the mix of caffeine and nicotine and food move her bowels. She doubted she could wait until the border to use the restroom.
He pulled into a gas station off the two-lane road. There were no toilet seats in the damas bathroom, a whitewashed cinder building aside the station. She listened to the river outside the window near the ceiling, doing her best to balance herself.
When she came out she saw he was petting a stray dog, a charcoal greyhound that was the envy of the small pack of dogs watching from across the road. There were rags of snow left on the mountains in the distance. He asked if she was OK. Sarah was warm with embarrassment, and evenly said she was fine, thanks.
Getting in, Carlos made a joke about how hard she slammed the door. She hadn’t noticed, but was glad he had changed the subject away from her health.
As they drove she talked about Santiago. She soon found she was just telling him things she’d seen and done to keep the conversation moving.
She asked if he’d seen the locks on the bridge over the Mapocho River. They were supposed to symbolize love, she said, attaching a lock to the gate of the bridge and throwing the key into the water. She told him a student told her that they did the lock thing in Paris. She taught English as a Second Language for an institution, and went into the skyscrapers and drank coffee with people she considered powerful, those who needed to learn English so as to give talks to others like them, those in the mining and telecommunications industries — they knew what was going on in Paris.
He said it was a strange form of love. Locking it up and throwing away the key. She hadn’t thought about it that way, but could see what he was getting at.
She didn’t want to talk about love anymore, and so brought the conversation back to her disappointment with her work.
It was not why she’d studied literature, she said, to spread English like some missionary. Then again, Sarah wasn’t sure why she’d studied literature, other than she had always loved to read and write. She told him this was pretty much her essential dilemma, not wanting to teach businesspeople anymore. It was going to be the determining factor for how long she would stay in South America.
He told her he sometimes had the same conflict with his work. That he had not gone into photography to make money, originally. He wanted to shoot boxing and street art, two of his interests.
No, Carlos said when she asked — he did not box anymore. Or make street art. He joked that when he was old he would like to vandalize billboards. But really, he said, you have to make a career. If you can make money doing something you love, then you’re lucky.
* * *
She had already OKed him online. His business card had a link to his website, where his portfolio with the corporate photographs (mostly of sports drinks, cars, and 7-11-style snacks) confirmed he was on some level successful. She emailed him and said she’d enjoyed hanging out that night, and they began a conversation. They avoided social media, sticking to email, and after two weeks she admitted that her visa was expiring soon, and that she needed to cross the border to renew it. He had offered to give her a ride. Now they were here.
They began their climb into the mountains. His car reminded her of her friend’s shitty cars in high school. A couple of the heating vents on her side were busted, the CD player face was either stolen or forgotten, and it was dusty inside and out. She liked that he’d left a moccasin bead bracelet around the base of the gear shifter. It added personality.
Now and again she saw train tracks along the side of the mountain. He told her they were there for when they the days train cars hauled minerals from the rock instead of semis. The tracks were skinnier than American tracks, and at some points they disappeared into what looked like a landslide. In other parts there were long barns built to protect the train cars from the weather, the barn walls and roofs collapsed here and there. Road signs indicated the number of the curve they were passing. She didn’t like how hard he took the turns, often whipping around and having to hit the brakes before a lumbering 18-wheeler. He would hop over to pass the trucks, and Sarah couldn’t help but grip the handle above the door. To distract herself she read the Spanish words on the truck doors or along their sides. They passed a matching trio with dusty blue canvas tarps over their trailers, and she recognized the word Bolivia among the faded gold-lettered words.
He apologized again for the heat not working. He had suggested in his last email to bring something warm, that the altitude at the border was high, the temps low, and sometimes the traffic backed up. She had worn the hand-knitted wool sweater she’d bought from the open-air market the week she arrived in Santiago. It was still cold then, two and a half months ago. She had successfully passed through a season. Though she Skyped home weekly, she had no yearning to go back. She harbored a vague idea of graduate school but feared the loan, as well as having lost the patience to study literature academically.
At one point she pulled the visor down to block the sun. She selfishly studied her face in the mirror for a few seconds, her sunglasses, honey-colored bangs riffling in the cool air, the point of her nose pinkish from having been outside with a book yesterday, her lips dry. Before taking lip balm from her bag she peeked over at him. He also wore sunglasses. There were smoker’s crags in the black stubble growing on his cheeks, deep smile lines and the onset of crow’s feet spreading out from behind the glasses. He tamped out another smoke, his third or fourth this hour. She liked that he smoked soft packs. There was something older and rugged about it. He put the pack back in the little nook against the odometer glass, next to the pack of cinnamon gum he chewed between cigarettes.
About halfway up the mountain he pulled onto a gravel fan and suggested they get out and take pictures. She had her pocket digital, he a bulky camera with a big lens. She looked down and saw the road corkscrewing up and he told her the Spanish word for this, which sounded like escargot — a road that resembles a snail shell. She took a picture of the road, as well as the jagged mountaintops around them.
He set his camera on the car and set the timer. Sarah raised her sunglasses as he walked over, and at the last second reached over and raised his. He laughed. She felt his hand on her hip, just above the waistline of her jeans. It was a firm hold. She also had her hand on his side and was a little disappointed in his softness — if you were going to smoke so much, then you shouldn’t also eat too much. They got back in the car and started the last leg to the border.
* * *
He pulled into a huge tent with fans in the ceiling twisting out the exhaust smells of vehicles waiting to cross. She gave the agents in the booth her passport, its pages crisp and its visa boxes empty of stamps. Another agent looked in the trunk, tapped the Ford’s bumper with his baton. A few minutes later they were granted access to Argentina.
They began driving down the mountain to a town halfway to a bigger town called Mendoza. The plan was to have lunch in this halfway town.
Carlos had told her there were beautiful things to see on the way. That this was one reason he’d like to take her into the outer heart of his native country. The other reasons were still in her inbox — he had fun that night, dancing and drinking and talking. He thought she was smart. He thought she should consider staying in Santiago for a while, making sure to add that he didn’t want anything serious, just a friend. She could not say what she wanted. She did not want to go home and face the next step in her life yet, not even knowing what it was. She didn’t want to be a cliché, falling in love with someone in another country, either. Of the two options, the love one to her seemed better. Ultimately, she’d let life take her where it wanted for a while. To read and run in the morning as she always had, but to give some months up to contemplating her place.
They stopped at what translated to the point of the Incas. It was an area in the rock where the Incas had built bathhouses. A resting place. Leading to it was a natural bridge formed of the rock, whose bright yellow resembled limestone. There was a wood fence blocking it, so they walked down behind the few small hotels and shops. It was warmer down here. Desert again. There was a man far away raising and dropping what appeared to be a sledgehammer. But he was too far to hear, and there were heat lines rising off the ground, further obscuring him.
She refused another mate gourd when he offered a few minutes later.
But please, she said, have one, I like it here.
They sat in plastic chairs at a small table facing the gravel parking lot. She listened as he spoke with an old man in a ballcap and dark denim coat. The old man sounded jovial. Through translation she was told that the old man said the wind was going to pick up in about two hours. That a group of Chileans had asked him to put the upbeat music currently playing on the speaker attached to the awning of the restaurant. The lyrics to the song translated: When the singer stops / Life stops / Because life is a song
She liked that. She would have been happy staying at the point of the Incas― perhaps she could get a job here cleaning the tiny hotels, washing dishes.
This time when Sarah got in the car she was conscious not to slam the door.
They drove another three kilometers. He called them clicks. He asked if she had heard them called that before. Clicks. She had not. They say it in the war movies, he said.
He pulled off the road to a cemetery boxed off by a rock wall, explaining this was where they bury people who die in the mountains. If they don’t find the bodies, the family can still petition for a spot. He said he had taken good photos here.
She said she had a friend back home who had shown her some pictures taken in a cemetery one day. They showed weird orbs of light, which the friend claimed were ghosts.
That’s cool, he said.
The cemetery was centered by a big but climbable slate rock, a mini snail trail twisting up to it. Along the trail were the shrine-like graves. Flat headstones fastened with the fork and spoon the climber was using when they found the body; a bottle of wine for a lost relative; carabineers and rope and shoes in the dirt next to graves. Cemeteries did not move Sarah. Aside from her sister’s grave, she did not visit them, especially random ones, where she felt disrespectful, if anything. But she had gleaned from talking with Carlos — his music and movie preferences, his website — that he liked darkness offset with humor, and perhaps had a latent patriotism. It seemed his favorite memories were from Argentina. She wondered how long he and his wife were going to be separated. She wondered what his wife would think if she saw him with her. She was ready to go back to Santiago, slightly worried that the wife would be at the halfway restaurant, even though it was over a thousand clicks from Buenos Aires.
It was as they were turning to leave the cemetery that she saw the horses coming down a mountainside trail. She told him to look. There had to be eight, no, ten or more in the line. Nearby was a dilapidated train bridge over the river she assumed the horses were on their way to drink from. The dust they kicked up swirled in the first hints of wind the old man had predicted. They went to the riverbank to get a better look. He corrected her — they’re mules, he said, which the closer she got the better she could see their stunted size. They had a good laugh at that.
As they approached the bridge she could hear their hoofs clacking along the wet rocks below. The water was about 30 feet down, and on the bank the first thing she saw was a dead mule. Its head was missing, and its ribcage was shined clean from the running water. The others paid it no attention. Raised and dipped their heads in the stream. He snapped photos. It bugged her that he took seven or eight pictures at a time — digital laziness, she thought. If he was using film he’d have to work harder for the shot. She didn’t want to look at the dead mule anymore.
They walked the ties of the train bridge to the other end. There was a rusty banister along the side she used to steady herself, not looking down. She felt they were being childish like this because they’d run out of things to talk about. They crossed back.
As they left she saw the mules, various shades of gray and black and brown, stepping out of the water and up the bank to continue their mysterious journey.
After a long lunch and an espresso they started back. There was no wife surprise. But she knew from the morning and talking at lunch that she would not be seeing him again, and this made it easy for her to seem lighthearted. He pointed out the pope-hat peaks of one mountain range. She smiled and thanked him again for bringing her. She was enjoying the way the late afternoon light exposed crevices and folds in the walls of the towers.
They had to wait in a line of cars on the slight hill down to the Chilean border. It was just steep enough for him to cut the engine and drift in neutral when the line moved. This wasn’t a tent, but a few kiosks, and being out of things to talk about he smoked quietly while she studied their surroundings.
Up here it was cold again. A handful of goldfinches were weaving around, their bellies bright in the last of the sun. A couple guys about her age got out of the car in front of them. They wore hair gel and sunglasses, and started to dance a little, the sort of dancing that involves shoulder shrugging and light bouncing. She could hear the low thrum of the bass from their car.
When it was their turn they got out and he spoke with the border worker through the kiosk window. She handed her passport into the window. Was relieved to see the worker bring down the heavy stamp. Was soon back in the Ford heading down the mountain toward the desert.
It was there that she thought she said goodbye. The sky was a mix of orange and pale blue and the dark hills in the distance rose and fell softly. She had gathered by now that Carlos had a temper, and she didn’t want to put herself in danger or walk away with bad memories. She was being nicer than usual. Anyone who knew her would have seen through it.
In an hour they were passing lines of shanties along the river, swift with snowmelt, then were in the outlying region of Santiago. A million lights twinkled across the bowl of the land. The sky was more navy now, not quite dark, and the graffiti on the bridge tresses and shuttered stores was like a story both discombobulated and somehow coherent. Sarah was quick not to linger in the car when he dropped her off. It was normal here for people to kiss on the cheek when greeting and departing. She leaned across the gear shifter and hugged him goodbye, and he kissed her cheek. She was afraid he might try to hold her firmly again, but he did not, and she knew that he knew they would never see each other again.
Maizell lives and writes in New Jersey.
1. In which you dream of birds
Four nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. There are a thousand of them perched in a great tree, their white wings drooped elegantly down their sides and their feathers trailing behind them like wedding veils. They sing a thousand beautiful songs each night, and you know this because they are singing them to you now. But one of them has no beak, and you know that if you catch it, it will grant you a wish.
When you wake up the sky is like frosted pearls, and you know that you must have a bird.
2. In which there are ants in the walls
You have no idea why you didn’t think of purchasing a bird before. It is easily the best idea you have ever had. You can hang out with the bird on your shoulder and feed it crackers and teach it foul language and you simply must have a bird.
But there is one small hurdle to leap before you can get one, and that hurdle is your roommate.
Your roommate’s name is Narandal and she is from Mongolia. You didn’t know that was even still a place that had people in it, but apparently it is because every time you come home she’s right there in your apartment being Mongolian. Narandal is a sweet girl with a round face and dark hair, but she has obsessive compulsive disorder. You think it’s a little weird, but you guess you’re OK with it. You try not to make a fuss out of anything she does. Besides, her OCD means the apartment is always clean, and as far as you’re concerned that is swell.
But it’s also why a bird may be a problem. You will need to go about this proposal very delicately.
When you get home, your roommate is sitting on the living room floor, peering earnestly at the couch. It is white and spotless, as is the carpet she is sitting on. There is a length of yellow measuring tape in her hand.
“Oh! Hello,” she says.
“Hey Nina,” you say. You call her Nina because you do not know how to pronounce her real name. “What’re you doing down there?”
“Oh, the couch, it needs to be two inches away from the wall.”
“Well! You know, there could be ants in the walls,” she says, looking at her hands.
“Neat,” you say. Narandal smiles at you and continues her meticulous calculations. You pause for a few moments before continuing. “So I was wondering, do you mind if I get a bird?”
“A bird?” she asks. Her expression does not look promising. You grapple for a way to get her to agree. You must have a bird.
“Yeah it’s uh, it’s not my bird. It’s for … my friend. She’s going to … Canada. She needs me to watch it.”
“Oh,” she says, “How long will your friend be in Canada?”
“A while,” you say.
Your roommate looks uncertain.
“I’ll keep it out of the way in my room! And she says it’s like really quiet.”
“Well, all right,” Narandal says. Your heart explodes into multicolored confetti.
“OK, cool. You need any help with the couch?”
“No, no. I’m fine,” she says, eyes fixed on the cushions. But you barely hear her. You are already in your room looking up pet stores.
3. In which you have waking dreams
That afternoon you head out to purchase your bird. The pet store you decide on is called Basically Birds, which you think is a bit silly because how could anything be Complicatedly Birds, but you are just an accounting undergrad so what the hell do you know about bird stores anyway.
You park your car in a drab shopping plaza filled with sidewalk cracks and angry mothers. Basically Birds is nestled between a thrift store and an Armenian bakery. The smell of burnt sugar wafts over you as you head inside the shop.
Basically Birds turns out to be a very self-explanatory name. It is basically filled with birds. There are cages of birds on the walls and hanging from the ceiling and standing on the floor and just about anywhere a cage could possibly go. The birds that fill them are multicolored and numerous. Tufts of their feathers wander through the air like flecks of prismatic ash. Some of these birds you immediately recognize: a fat, ruby-red macaw, a slim ivory cockatiel, a shy brown finch. Yet others seem strange to you, the patterns on their feathers complicated and alien. They regard you with wide black eyes when you draw close. You can see your face, awkward and flat, reflected in their eyes’ glassy surfaces, so you stare at the floor instead. The carpet is some kind of brown, and dust puffs out from it in tiny A-bomb clouds whenever you shift your feet.
Eventually the owner of the store shuffles sleepily through the corridor of cages to greet you. With your nose still saturated with the scent of sucrose from the bakery outside, you immediately compare her to a cake. She moves toward you, large and lumbering, as though she may tilt too far and topple over at any moment. Her face is framed by lazy curls of russet hair that spill out from her scalp, her clothes candy-colored and puffy. Her eyes, deep and tired, examine you skeptically before she welcomes you to the store.
“Hi! I’m, uh, I’m here to buy a bird,” you tell her. You find yourself raising your voice to compete with the squawks and chirps around you.
“Obviously,” she says, moseying over to the counter near the door. You note disappointedly that her voice is bored and gray and not very cake-like. “What kind?”
This question, though simple, catches you a little off guard. You didn’t really think about what kind of bird. You just want a bird. You are going to feed it crackers and teach it foul language and train it to bring you tiny objects that you are too lazy to fetch across the room. Who cares what kind it is?“Well, maybe one that can talk?” you venture, “And … that’s friendly?”
“Parakeet,” the store owner responds before leading you over to a tall gray cage filled with small, flashy birds the color of almost-ripe bananas. They flutter excitedly from perch to perch at your approach, chirping pleasantly and preening their feathers. A few of them hop closer and turn their heads to the side to view you with one eye before scampering away again. You decide that parakeets are adorable.
“Which one?” the owner asks.
You lean forward to give the flock a closer examination. They all seem pretty wonderful, but pretty identical too. How does she expect you to choose? You spend a few moments watching them quietly, trying to see if there are any personalities that stand out, but none do. They nibble at their yellow-green feathers and climb up the walls and squabble with each other for rights to the food bowl.
And then you see it.
Hidden away at the very top of the cage, above your head, is a bird the color of a pale summer sky. It is the sort of blue Aztecs wore in beaded flecks in their hair. It’s the indigo-gray that swallows up the sky after a deep storm. It’s the kind of sapphire that splashes up from the sea when it meets an ancient cliff. It is the innocent cobalt of a fresh-picked berry. It is the brilliant cerulean of a cloudless dawn. It is all of these, and yet none of them at the same time. It is beautiful. It is perfect.
“That one!” you say, pointing up at it.
“Huh,” the owner says, “You sure?” You nod enthusiastically.
She shrugs and reaches over your head to open a small latched door at the top of the cage. Several birds scatter out of the way of her hand, but the blue bird does not seem to mind the invasion of its space. She gathers it up in her palms and, holding it gently, removes it from the cage and places it into a small box. You hand her several crumpled bills from your pocket, take the box, and head for home.
4. In which there are two thousand eyes
Three nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They circle their great tree as a flock. Their fluttering sheds the small, fluffy feathers beneath their wings and these fall around you like snow. You call up to them, asking them to come down and sing for you, but you cannot hear your voice above the discordant ruffling of their wings. They do not land. One thousand white feathered heads turn to look at you from above.
They watch you until you wake up.
5. In which you speak to the wings beneath the sun
Your roommate is not interested in seeing the bird. She is incredibly busy. When you wander out into the kitchen to give your new bird some quiet time, you find that she has removed everything from the cabinets and has set to lining them with very precisely cut lengths of cardboard. She’s good at it, and you wonder where she learned to cut cardboard for lining cabinetry. You speculate over what she did when she lived in Mongolia. Sometimes you hear her speaking in Mongolian over the phone, and you wonder if she is talking about you.
Narandal never speaks to you about her old home, which is probably because you never ask. The one time you did, she told you that her mother had abandoned her when she was very young, and you weren’t sure what to say about that, so then she told you her real name.
“My mother chose it,” she explained, smiling and patient.
“How do you say it? Narndle?”
“Narandal. Roll the R,” she said gently.
“Narrrr-andle,” you said, butchering it as much as is possible.
“Nina is fine.”
“What does it mean?”
Narandal paused a few moments before responding, looking thoughtful. “Sort of like … a pair of great wings spread out beneath the sun.”
“Yes. I think choosing it is the one thing she did right,” Narandal said with a frown, and it was then you decided not to ask again. At the time you meant you’d never ask her about Mongolia, but somehow not talking about Mongolia became not talking about anything at all. You don’t ask her why she thinks there are ants in the walls, or why covering the cabinets in cardboard will keep them safe, or why she scrubs the counters even when they’re already glittering.
You leave her in her life and you stay occupied in your own.
6. In which you wait for silence
After sitting silently for an entire day, your new bird has begun to move. It slides slowly across its perch to examine the toy on one end, and then back to the other side, over and over. It does not seem to be doing anything similar to the excitable fluttering you observed at the pet store, but you are sure that it will take up more entertaining behavior in time. It is cute with fluffy feathers and you are going to teach it foul language and feed it crackers and take it for walks in the bird park, if that is even a real thing. You just need to be patient, as the woman you bought it from suggested.
So you leave the bird to get comfortable. While it settles you work on knitting a hat for your friend’s new baby. You can’t remember if it’s a boy or a girl, so you make it green. You work on a paper for your Auditing and Corporate Governance class. You pick up your room a little while Narandal washes the living room walls. You check your work schedule for the coming weekend. You quietly, and patiently, wait for your bird to notice you.
And that patience is rewarded with a shriek.
There is no other way for you to describe it. Suddenly, without provocation, your bird has begun to scowl and scream. The noise is high-pitched and unpleasant in every possible way. It flaps its long, beautiful wings and clicks its tiny orange beak and shouts and shouts and shouts.
This is not what you expected at all.
You phone the owner of Basically Birds, and she answers in a manner that suggests a recent nap. You picture red velvet cupcakes in the place of her hair as you speak to her.
“Hi, I bought a parakeet from you the other day and it’s making this really loud, squawking kind of noise,” you tell her.
“Yup,” she says. “They do that.”
“What do you mean, they do that?” you ask.
“They do that. They make all sorts of noises. That’s one of them.” She sounds bored with you.
“Well, you didn’t say that before,” you say, confused and worried.
“Yup, well, they do that,” she says again.
“Is there a way to make them stop?”
“Just give it attention and don’t stress it out. Should shout less. But they still do that. It’s one of their sounds.”
“OK. Thanks, I guess.”
It takes another 10 minutes for your new bird to calm down. Its vocal chords exercised, it takes to sitting silently once more. You are left feeling nervous and unsure, and you do not even think about feeding it crackers.
7. In which something is wrong
Two nights before your birthday, you dream of birds. They funnel into the sky like a glorious waterspout, but something is wrong. They are not beautiful and elegant. Instead, they are ragged and afraid. They flee their great tree as though it will bite. “What’s wrong?” you ask them. “Where are you going?” One of the birds lands on your shoulder.
“We have seen one thousand silver suns in the sky,” it says, “and they light the way to freedom.”
“But where?” you ask, watching the cloud of wings above you. “Where are you going?”
You turn to look at the bird and it is gone. The bird with no beak has taken its place, and it cannot speak to you. It turns its head to face you with one eye. It is wide and black and deep, like a chasm that falls down to the center of the earth. You shiver, and find that you can wish for nothing but for it to leave.
8. In which you take the bad luck
Your roommate is too nervous to drive anywhere, so the next morning when she tells you that she needs groceries you are the one to take her. You’re happy to go this time. Your new bird is still having shrieking fits about once an hour and you would be lying if you said it wasn’t a little annoying. You wait quietly as she examines the expiration dates on every item she selects, sometimes rifling through a shelf for several minutes to find a specific one. She blinks nervously at the shelves as though they are plotting to kill her.
When you get back to the apartment, Narandal refuses to go inside. There is a white cat lounging near the door. “We have to wait,” she tells you, grasping your upper arm. “We have to wait for someone else to go near to take the bad luck, or it will be ours.”
“That’s black cats,” you tell her.
“No,” she says, her dark eyes fixed on the animal’s fur. “No, it is white.”
You walk up to the door and shoo the cat away. You don’t think OCD makes people superstitious, so it’s probably just one of those Mongolian things. She probably has all kinds of crazy foreign ideas about bad omens and spirits and junk. Your roommate smiles cautiously at you as you walk inside together.
While Narandal spends the next hour putting her purchases away in carefully measured rows, you go to check on your new bird. It screeches at your approach.
“Hey, shh, shh, relax. It’s OK, little bird. It’s all right,” you say in a voice that could be soothing. The bird only shrieks some more. “Shhh, shhh,” you say. You promised your roommate that it wouldn’t be noisy, and you know she can hear it screaming from your room. You have to get it to quiet down, but it won’t. The more you try to assure it, the more it yells and flutters and squawks.
“Just shut up!” you eventually hiss, but it does not.
9. In which you dream of nothing at all
The night before your birthday you dream of nothing at all, and this is because you do not sleep. The bird will not stop screaming. You are sure that at any moment Narandal will come in to confront you about it, but she does not. Why won’t it stop screaming? It seems to you that it barely even pauses to breathe. It just shouts and shrieks and screeches. You resolve the next morning to take it back to the pet shop. Thoughts of teaching it foul language and feeding it crackers are far behind you. You barely think anything at all. It’s too loud to think.
Your fingers clutch at the quilt of your bed and the sweat of your palms rubs off on the blue-gray pattern of the fabric. Why won’t it stop screaming? You turn your head and yell back at your bird, but it is too loud to hear yourself above its shrieks. It’s too much. You leap out of bed and hurry to Narandal’s room. You need to apologize. She spends her life worrying about ants and cats and dirt and now she has to listen to your new bird and you just can’t stand it. You shove her door open and you are startled to find that she had been asleep. She sits up and asks you something. You know this because you see her mouth move, but it is too loud to hear what she is saying. She gets out of bed and clasps your hands, asking again. But you cannot hear her, and she cannot hear you when you respond. The bird isn’t just screaming now, it’s wailing and howling and squealing and roaring and you just can’t think at all.
You tear back into your room with the sun rising on your back and to your new bird’s cage. Its wings are the blue of old midnights and cold stars. You scream back at it to stop, to shut up, to keep quiet, but still you can hear nothing.
You rip open the door of the cage and seize the bird, its small beak open wide in an unholy outcry. You shake its tiny feathered form, begging it, pleading with it to be quiet, and it is only when small splotches of red begin to dye its indigo feathers that you realize it is dead.
But its screams do not go with it. They cling to your ears and rattle at your ribcage and leap down your throat and you begin to realize that the shrieks are coming from you and it is just too loud to think, so you think of nothing at all. Every sound begins to amplify itself in your mind’s emptiness. Your heart beats staccato rolls of thunder against your chest. Your blood pulses in ocean waves, crashing and roaring on the surf of your veins. Each ear-splitting exhalation that rushes through your teeth comes as a monsoon melody, dripping down into the cavernous bellow that is boiling in your stomach. It reverberates in a harrowing cacophony of sound, jumbled together and leaping from wall to wall, breath to breath, and ear to ear. Your eyes are filling up with the red of disharmony and your hands are filled with blue feathers and hollow bones.
You sink to the floor, surrounded by the remains of your new bird.
It all stops when you run out of air. The sound dwindles into the emptiness of your lungs, shirking away like a scarlet shadow.
There is no noise, now.
And that silence, quietly deafening, is the loudest of all.
Herein the final installment of Peck’s long-running serial noir. In the previous installment, private eye Harry Jome was running off the rails in pursuit of an elusive truth. At the orchard itself, he was about to meet the proprietor and father of the woman whom he can blame, maybe, for the pursuit — or at least this iteration of it. Things were getting Shakespearean, and they continue thusly…
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I pulled up to the mud outside the cottage. Trees had collapsed all around the square pasteboard building, badly-fitted planks covering holes where windows should have been, and there were hints of light in the cracks. The grass was four feet high except in those spots where some heavy-farming implement had been abandoned. I wasn’t sure why I was waiting for darkness to come. I was drained and tried closing my eyes, but I was too tired for rest. I was too tired for anything, especially this.
Night fell in sharp checkerboard dividends around the branches and squat hills. A playful moon and a timorous solitude made the orchard look quaint and innocent. I waited until the horizon was dark, the motor humming me back to childhood. I noticed streams of chimney exhaust blankly descending into the gravelly sky above.
The orchard brought a feeling I had experienced at my worst moments. Maybe it was a metaphor, but I didn’t think much of metaphors. Besides, the presence of death everywhere doesn’t beg poetry to have much of an imagination. The orchard was a symbol in a drawing, and I was entering that place where a symbol and a reality were difficult to tell apart.
I shut off the motor and got out, immediately breathing in the dread that seemed to have constructed the place. From somewhere near the main road I heard the acceleration of a vehicle, and perhaps the creak of a door opening and not closing. And I heard nothing else but my own footfalls crunching on dead leaves.
I let myself in to the cottage without bothering to knock. The stench of dead fruit had me incapacitated for an instant. I felt at the grip of the pistol tucked into my waistband.
The space was nothing but a wasted accumulation of old tools and sacks full of spilling apples, a compact fusion of kitchen, living room and bedroom. Daddy Longtree blinked at me from behind a table that was really just a long door propped up by concrete blocks. He was eating an apple pie with a butter knife, and there was a lantern in the middle of the makeshift table, providing only enough light to find the lantern itself.
“I heard you out there in your car for about an hour or so. Hope you aren’t scared of me.” Longtree groaned. He had a strand of gray hair combed toward his eyebrows, slight gray stubble that rose high on his prominent cheekbones and close-set dark eyes that were like bubbles on the surface of a swamp.
“I was thinking of being afraid,” I said. “But I decided against it. There’s enough fear in you for the both of us.”
“I’m not afraid of you. I just met you.”
“Right now I’m a little afraid of me. And not to get on a tangent, but what’s that kid’s problem out there?”
“He’s just mean. He’s an orphan. Orphans can be mean.”
I grabbed a chair by the sink and brought it over to face him. He munched contentedly on the spoiled, mold-green pie. Moving things rummaged in the crust.
“They’re going to build a lunatic asylum on my land,” Longtree said. “What should I think of that?”
“They won’t have to look far for inhabitants.”
Longtree smiled, then grew serious and smiled wider.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“That doesn’t sound hopeful.”
“It isn’t.” He scooped a large helping, bending his head and using his free hand to scrape a rogue apple slice into his mouth. Something pried its way from between Longtree’s lips and skittered away.
“We all of us,” he said, “have one day to go back into the dirt. I’m getting a head start.” He scraped what remained of his brown teeth with the butter knife. “It’s around that time when I should ask who you are,” he said.
“Whoever I am doesn’t matter.”
“Are you selling something?” he asked.
“I’m not selling anything.”
“Everybody is selling something.”
“What are you selling, Longtree?”
He lifted his eyes to the ceiling and contemplated the tears in the plaster. “I honestly don’t think I’m selling anything.”
“Who were you with that night at the bar?” I asked.
“That night you were there. Was it Florence?” The overpowering stench of vinegar was becoming familiar and less noxious.
“Who?” Longtree asked coyly. “Who is that? Florence?”
I was beginning to doubt someone and it wasn’t me. “What about Ben Bergen, your son.”
“I don’t have any son,” he said wistfully.
I stared at him as he plunged back into the pie.
“You think that’s a good angle?” I asked.
He peeked at me above a scoop of pie. “I’m not being cagey. I did have a son. Now I don’t have a son. He died off a few years ago.”
“How?” I blurted.
Longtree only shook his head. Frustration was getting a clawing at me. I pulled the pistol out of my pants and put it on my lap.
“And what about your daughter?”
“I do have one of those. Sue. She’s a belligerent girl. Sue has problems. It is a Longtree trait.”
“Sue’s dead too. Drowned herself in a tub.”
Longtree had nothing in his face. “I sort of supposed that,” he said.
“William Florence?” I said. “And I’m not really kidding. Who is he?”
“Yes, Will is an insurance man. He was digging in the Longtree family — something about a policy taken out on Sue by her sleazy husband. It’s possible that he discovered more about the Longtrees than anyone ever had and was planning something. He was coming here to grease his hands. Which is probably what you’re here to do as well.”
“Ever read the papers?”
“I think Florence was the guy in the motel with the bullet in the back of his head.”
“Does that concern me?”
“That depends on whether it concerns you. So Florence got something on you and you paid him.”
“I didn’t pay him.”
“What did you do?”
Longtree breathed and his breath was stale and wretched. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Somebody did something.”
Connections were piling into my head faster than I could sort them out. If Sue was lying about Ben she’d done a nifty job of covering it up by changing the last name and making sure I couldn’t trace it here. Which I did anyway.
Longtree reached under the table and I tensed. The object in his hand was a book and he set it down between us. One apple-encrusted thumbprint was visible on the cover. He sighed. I looked at the flap: A History of Death. By Dominic Early. Of all people.
He said, “It’s loosely based on the history of my horrific family, which you might know something about. All the names are changed, obviously, but it’s a thrilling work. My father was a murderer, as was his father, and his father, etc., etc.” Longtree belched. “There’s no reason in it. Just inheritance of very bad genes, I guess. Every Longtree is a monster. You should be careful, Mr. Jome. They say that whoever struggles with monsters is likely to become one.”
“Who says that?”
“My dead wife, actually. That’s why I’m alone up here. I like being alone up here.”
I crushed a beetle that was climbing up my pants leg and said nothing because there was nothing to say.
“I am the commonest man,” Longtree said. “Aren’t I? Wouldn’t you say that I am the commonest man?”
I put the gun on the table and pointed it at him.
“Sure,” I breathed. I couldn’t stand his frazzled smirk any longer. Longtree only cut another dollop of bug-infected pie and pretended that the gun and I weren’t there. Finished, he bent over and took something off the floor and handed it to me. It was the drawing of the orchard, although in this one the charcoal had been scratched off in places.
“That’s the original,” Longtree said. “I’d like it if you had it. I used to give copies of it to people I respected.”
He paused and licked crumbs out of his facial hair with a wide tongue, laying the drawing on the table.
“I’m glad you’re here though,” he said. “Just to remind me why I’m here.” He gazed longingly at the pie. “I am awfully glad you’re here. I made the discovery long ago,” as though reciting from a fairy tale, without pausing, “that I was a murderer. What made me kill Ben? I had no option. He told me how hard it was for him to function without the urge to kill someone. I don’t think he ever did. But before I stopped telling him it was going to be OK my hands were around his neck and I had no control at all and he just let me do it.” Longtree stared off calmly. “When he was dead I hung him in his garage. First time I’d been away from here. Everybody was sad for me. I was sad for me. Even now I don’t have any guilt or anything. I wonder why that is?”
I slumped back in my chair. He continued to sputter on as he ate.
“I couldn’t have anyone suffer. Ben was going to be a murderer like the whole course of his ancestry and I had to prevent that. And then I did prevent that. I was thinking of his little girl. I was also thinking of everybody else too.”
Now he didn’t use his utensil, but just dug into the pie with his hands and stuffed a mound of apple and insects into his unperturbed grin.
“So now you are aware. You probably would have figured it out sooner or later,” he said. “So how much do you want?”
I stared hard at Longtree.
“You know about farming?” he asked me, pricking up his eyes to meet mine. “First you have to care for each tree like it was a part of your own body. That’s why my orchard is so successful,” he said. “I got 50 pickers at least. I make such a nice apple pie. Mm hmm,” he mumbled. He tapped his ring finger twice on the pie tin. On the third tap his hands and his head dropped at the pistol’s retort. I was mildly surprised that I had shot him. A billow of acrid smoke erupted to the rafters and stayed there. Longtree’s legs twitched, kicking out an absurdly fast dance. He had one last breath to say something pithy, but it came out in a whisper that I couldn’t hear and smelled rankly of bitter almonds. I hadn’t thought death would smell of bitter almonds. There were a lot of things I didn’t know.
On my way out I had to laugh. Because of the Longtrees and my role in wiping the rest of them out, directly or indirectly. Except for the daughter, Dot, who was the last of them. But she couldn’t be a part of this grisly tale. My laughter fell flat in the cramped and anguished room, dying the split-second it pushed off my lips. Head turned to the ceiling, still seated at the table, Daddy Longtree was just a shadow, and not an imposing one either.
For a minute I stared at the drawing of the orchard up close to the lantern, a hint of something important tugging at me, just off the border of the picture. What was it in the dark shapes and swirls that was I missing? My mind was all puckered, waiting. It seemed that it was all right there; the problem was that I couldn’t be sure what “it” was supposed to be, “all” signified, or “there” was. The upturned furniture and the apples were starting to bother me, and so I folded the drawing and brought it with me. I imagined a voice coming from somewhere nearby, looked at Longtree, as inert as an ice sculpture.
The night was warm with the musty smell of imminent rain. Just outside in the grass I unfolded the drawing and peered at it some more. There was still something I was not getting but that was spelled out plainly in the charcoal smudges. Again I heard the muttering voice, the way someone might talk on the telephone from the other side of a thick wall, coming from a batch of tall trees to the east.
I waited with the drawing in my hands, not certain how to handle my delusions, or if they were delusions. For the third time I wound the drawing into a tube and simply stood there listening.
There was no moon, and I was forced to go by what scant noise there was. Owls fluttered and sang, the trees soughed, animals moved about. It took a lot of effort not to think about anything. Underfoot the dirt crackled, and when I had my hand on the car door I heard something I shouldn’t have heard, namely a man’s voice starting to sing a lovely song and then instantly halting the lyrics.
“Jome?” the man said from the trees. “I was just thinking about you.”
I swiveled, fearing for a second that the voice was my own and then fearing more that it wasn’t. I was so sleep deprived I could no longer tell whether or not I was talking.
“Jome,” the person said again from a copse of trees surrounded by a clearing of fallen saplings.
“Who’s asking?” I shouted.
“I am.” The man’s tone was high-pitched, recognizable, though I couldn’t place the cadence, and possibly drunk. “I heard what you did. What’d you do anyway? In there with Longtree? You gone lunatic or something?”
I squinted through the twisted foliage, raising the pistol towards the sound. I couldn’t make the man out.
“Longtree killed his son,” I said. “So I killed him back. The story has a happy ending for everybody.”
“Not for Longtree it doesn’t.”
Neither of us said anything for a minute.
“Which one are you?” I asked.
“I’m Walt Wald.”
“Do you have it figured, Jome? What do you think you’re going to do now that you have it figured?”
“I haven’t really gotten to that part yet. I was planning on getting in my car and driving back to the city.”
“Tonight? That’s a long drive. Maybe you should stay somewhere and start fresh in the morning.”
“Are we talking about something, Wald? This has lost some track.”
“Look, Jome. I’m a private investigator and Sue hired me to watch Lewishom and I just came upon him after you killed him in his car. Not very nice of you, Jome. I know what it probably looks like in Longtree’s and I won’t argue. But I thought you’d let me take you in because you’re going to be in regardless and it would be nice if I could be the one to do it. That’s two dead people. Knowing you I’m sure there’s more somewhere else.”
“Lewishom killed himself.”
“That could be claimed about everybody in a way.”
“That doesn’t sound convincing.”
“That Sue is a crazy bitch,” he said. “Can you believe it?”
“She was,” I said. I crouched low, aiming into the darkness. The moon was sneaking coyly out from a cluster of clouds now and when it did the clearing would be illuminated.
“Why the past tense, Jome?”
“She drowned herself,” I said.
“When did she do that?”
Ahead, the spot where the man was concealed was being slowly lighted.
“I just talked to her little while ago,” the voice said. “That’s too bad. How am I going to get the money she owes me for this?”
“I’m not sure, Wald.”
“I’m not either.”
“She told me she was going to Florida after all this.”
And the moon flared, revealing the clearing and the tall, upright figure that was just a glancing silhouette and nothing more.
“What do you mean Florida?” I asked. “And what do you mean, all of this? What is this?”
“I mean,” he started to say, and just then my gun interrupted him and the silhouette dropped hard with a scattering of twigs. I stood and got into the car. On the way back my headlights swept over the stoned kid from the office. He was wide-eyed and he was running for the cottage. I rolled the window down.
“Kid,” I yelled at him. “It’s a real mess up there.”
His mouth said something and he kept running.
The strong breeze was invigorating and I was suddenly awake.
I returned through the wreckage of trees, all mold and utter sorrow. Nestled into a turnaround off the path a green sedan was parked, belonging, I guessed, to Wald.
I drove too fast, skimming into culverts and narrowly missing a few trees. Maybe I’d killed Longtree to offer some kind of resolution; then again, I could have simply not known what to do. I blamed it on fatigue and confusion. But killing Wald couldn’t be rationalized. Maybe it could.
Additionally there seemed to be a gathering of private dicks out for me. Why had Sue hired all these people and had them follow me and each other? Nothing made sense.
Sue Longtree, I thought, probably deserved everything that she did to herself.
Why anything anymore.
And so Ben Bergen was what he’d always been: a name, and a face I’d never seen.
I was coming down with a rotten head cold, and endured a bout of sneezing while I drove.
I really wished the suit was done already.
Coming into view of Sutter Falls and back on paved roads I was overlooking the lake and the moonlight dinging off the surface. I braked and for five minutes I admired the water and the air, and then I felt stupid and kept driving. It was just past nine.
I passed fields and lonely farmers on tractors inching through the fields.
I was sure that I was being followed, and a moment later I was sure I wasn’t. Then I wasn’t sure. Cars appeared and reappeared in my rear-view with inconstant regularity. I was convinced that both Wald and Lewishom were behind me somewhere in the night, still tenaciously on the case. I couldn’t shake them. Every few miles I pulled off to the side. Twice I thought their respective cars had bypassed me when I was stopped. I learned to stop looking behind me.
The drawing was on the seat beside me and I repeatedly held it to the dome light, looking into the amateur lines for some kind of meaning. Finally I stuck it out the window and let the rush of wind have it.
The wipers were on the whole drive. Twenty minutes away from the city and it was pouring again. At each off-ramp into town I kept driving, until there weren’t any more exits and there was just the highway and the static lights of the highway.
Eventually I turned back. I was obsessing over my tailor and getting mad that the suit wasn’t finished yet.
The city, suddenly — the things and places that were familiar — felt somehow foreign.
At the office a legion of dust stalked the air and settled over the ruins of furniture. The reddish shadow from Parker’s head had dulled to a milky relief, like the pigment you’d see in a Rothko.
An hour and 20 minutes to midnight. Sleeping would have been the right thing to do, but I was too exhausted and too haunted for the idea not to seem like a nightmare. Instead I stretched out under the window like a cat. Ants bustled on the wood near my face, and I felt like drowning some of them in my saliva. The gash in my throat was still bandaged and the sting had gone away but I could feel my heartbeat throbbing in the wound. I pried myself off the floor without any ants being harmed and gobbled a handful of aspirin. From a desk drawer I pulled a tissue, the cold now filling my head and eyes.
I was finished.
In a lunge of exotic dread I was suddenly emptying the contents of the filing cabinets one by one, yanking bygone cases and files and items from the drawers and just piling it all on the floor in a mania I couldn’t explain but for an odd reason enjoyed.
I blamed it on the Longtrees, along with everything else that was wrong.
After 20 minutes I’d tired myself out and sat and watched the neon city bounce around inside the room. The office was now a tangled mess of clutter, a broken mug scattered in the midst.
Maybe I was looking for something and by not finding it I was coming closer to realizing that there was nothing to find. The Longtree fiasco was itching me and I couldn’t do anything about it. What had it been about?
I stood and tried to shake off my brain.
Rain smeared the windows and the lights outside. Then lightning flattered the night in an afternoon glow.
I smiled at the man in the window. He didn’t smile back.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.
“I got a cold or something.”
“That’s too bad.”
And then I punched the window, but it didn’t shatter and I tried again. Then I tried again and it still wouldn’t shatter.
I looked at my knuckles. At the wall. At the dust. At the broken mug. Everything didn’t feel right.
I was drifting off into a black-and-white dream when the call came in. I thought I recognized the soft-spoken, uneasy voice. “Harry Jome?” the man asked.
“I think so. Let me check.”
“Could you meet me right away? I’m at the diner near your building?” He said it like a question.
“I’m a little busy here just now.”
“It’s not unimportant. It’s about Sue Longtree and some other things.”
“I don’t care about Sue.”
“You might care about these other things,” the man said and wasn’t there. I pried myself into the elevator and got to the diner a minute later.
At a far booth inside the diner a skinny teenaged couple were necking with every part of their bodies except for their necks. Both of them pimpled and as carefree as quantum physics. The place was drenched in artificial warmth. Behind the counter the waitress who’d caused the commotion a few days ago had returned to her job, obviously pregnant and obviously angry about it. The teenaged boy glared at me as though I was his girl’s uncle come to take her home.
The man at the counter was in a gray tweed suit and brown spats. He had a stoic profile. He was too poised and pale to belong there. His salt-and-pepper hair was long and parted and hadn’t been touched by a barber in months. A mustache fit perfectly on his upper lip. His umbrella had fallen underneath his stool, and near his elbows there was a stack of stapled papers.
I wedged into the stool beside him and shook my head when the waitress asked me what I’d have.
“Jome, isn’t it?” the man asked. When he turned his eyeballs were crystals, very blue and very careful.
“You Florence?” I asked back.
“No, but it’s still nice to know you. Sorry about the circumstances.”
“I don’t know what the circumstances are.”
He shrugged. A cup of coffee was pushed off to the side.
“Are you Florence?” I asked. “Or Bergen or some other asshole?”
“I should be somebody,” he said, using his fingers to taper his mustache.
“Whoever you are you’ve caused a lot of stupid dying and I’m the one going to be chained up for it.”
“People sometimes die,” he said casually. “Isn’t it better that it’s for a reason?”
“What’s better for a reason?”
“What I’m telling you.”
“So far you haven’t told me anything.”
“I thought I had. Well, I’m saying that those deaths were kind of not my fault. By the way, how many people have you killed in the past couple of days?” His mustache twitched like it was trying to leap away from his mouth.
“OK. So I don’t know what you have or if you have anything,” I said. “Ben Bergen is dead but used another name and I can’t track down Florence, which is the name he used. And Sue is dead and a couple of nerds called Parker and Porter,” I realized that I was counting the dead on my fingers. “Lewishom. Wald, I think. Maybe even somebody I’ve never heard of.”
The man nodded and bit both his lips at the same time.
“Maybe I’m the guy you’ve never heard of,” he said. “Dean Bruckner. We’re in the same line of work.
“How did that happen?”
“The Longtree lady needed somebody good to follow you and the guys following you and to keep eyes on how it was going.”
“I never noticed you.”
“Because she needed somebody good. I just told you. And I’m a little proud of that.”
“You shouldn’t be.”
“I am though.”
“So what?” I said. “What about Bergen and Florence.”
“I don’t know anything about them but I do know that neither of them has anything to do with this.”
Bruckner’s troubling eyes were mellow with the intensity of brooding over intense things. The light in the room was all crooked, like an origami construction of shadows.
“Ever hear the name Dominic Early?” Bruckner asked.
“I know all about Domoinic Early. He and Sue are the same person. A hack writer of juvenile stuff.”
“I’m glad you know Early is Sue because that’s the big explanation.”
He slid the stack of pages over to me. I flipped the manuscript over. The title was big and blatant and contained five words: The Last Orchard in America. And below that, A Novel by Dominic Early.
“Jome, you were just research for Sue’s latest dumb potboiler and I was the researcher,” Bruckner said. “She hired me to track you around town. She was all blocked up, she said. The case was only for a plot of hers. All she wanted to do was stir things up by hiring a bunch of investigators and see what popped out of the disorder.”
“Is it any good?” I asked without knowing why I asked.
“She’s not a good writer and it has no ending. It does include her suicide though. Maybe you can conclude it if you want to.”
Somewhere within me everything halted. The answer I had was to the question I hadn’t asked. I was so enraged I felt almost weightless.
“So what do you want?” I asked. “You and Sue got away with something. I was a character in her book. I’m not sure what she got away with, but something happened and you must have been causing something to happen. Or else you wouldn’t be here with my phone number in your pocket. So what about Bergen? What about anybody? What the hell went on?”
“The answers are all there Jome. Your problem is that there are no questions.”
“So what do you want, Bruckner?”
Looking at me, he puzzled over how he was going to phrase it. “I thought you should know about her manuscript,” he finally said. “And I also wanted to tell you how bad of a private investigator you are.”
He curled his mouth into a smile that didn’t spread to the rest of his face.
Halfway out the door, yanking up his umbrella, he turned and asked too pleasantly: “Is it ever going to stop raining?”
The horny couple was staring at me and they were frightened at what they saw. I followed Bruckner out to the drenched street. Lightning burned the sky a crimson blush.
It was never going to stop raining.
I had Sue’s manuscript in my hands, and I raised it above me to shield off some of the downpour. I wasn’t going anywhere, if I ever had been.
Another flash of lightning exposed Bruckner conferring with someone under an archway. I couldn’t see who it was. I took a handkerchief out of my pocket and daubed my cheeks and forehead. I looked at the handkerchief and saw that it was moistened with wet gray ink. The manuscript’s print was dripping all over me and I choked a little on the ink as it swept into my mouth.
No, it wasn’t ever going to stop raining.
Standing there soaking on the stoop of the diner I imagined the oceans and the rivers and reservoirs outside of town that nourished the city all breaking loose and ripping apart and absorbing the brick facades and the embellished cornices and the stairwells and small sports cars and vending carts and street signs and deck chairs and expensive dresses. I realized that I hated everything that had ever been. Because it was not going to stop raining.
I conjured an image of my suit and the image wouldn’t leave me. It was a flawless suit, and in my pondering it fit me better than my skin. I wanted that suit.
I walked and walked and there were low voices all around me in the night. Soon I was in front of my tailor’s and my rage was ballooning. His basement shop was brightly lit. I let myself in through the front door and descended the stairs. The room was inhabited by five or six faceless mannequins in various postures. Cramm had his back to me in a monogrammed bathrobe, his black hair disheveled.
“Where’s my suit, Cramm?” I asked, startled by the ferocity in my voice.
He spun around and backed up into one of the mannequins, dropping a piece of chalk. One of the figures was wearing what I imagined my gray suit to look like, white lines running up and down the sleeves and pants.
“It looks pretty done to me,” I said.
“Almost, sure,” Cramm said, fear set in his dark eyes. After a second he said, “The cuffs aren’t sewn on yet.”
I advanced toward him. “I don’t give a damn about the cuffs. I never figured you to be this kind of person, Cramm. I’m disappointed.”
“Sorry,” he said. “But the suit is not done.”
Cramm was shaking when I went by him and tilted my head at the suit. The fabric was satiny. I hadn’t seen a better suit, even considering the white tracings. This suit was the clothier’s version of a ballad.
The tailor was crying and going for the staircase slowly. I pulled the pistol and fired, and the shot caught him in the hip and he fell behind some cardboard boxes.
I lifted the three-piece job off the mannequin and stripped, putting the rain-blanked manuscript on a stool. Removed my pants and jacket and slipped into the smooth seersucker I’d been waiting for. The fit was grand. I took the manuscript and passed Cramm clawing at the bottom stair.
“What’s all this for?” he said.
“For not having my suit done faster.”
“The cuffs still need to be measured,” he said weakly, and then I think he died.
“I like it how it is,” I said.
Soon I was under a streetlight and some men were scurrying around the dark buildings. I turned down an alleyway, glancing back to see some fellow entering Cramm’s shop and gesturing for others.
I felt better with the suit on.
A sirocco wind had sprung up and the bridge swayed over the river, and the river smelled of beached fish and that peculiar lachrymose pungency that water gives off before dawn. It was 4:20. I hadn’t been to my apartment. Hadn’t slept in how many days I couldn’t remember.
There was a barge somewhere off in the night. Foghorns throttled out every few seconds like a slow, dense clock. The bridge was empty of pedestrians and vehicles, the parapet below shaded by trees, the starless-ness of the sky jumpy with accumulating storms. I put two hands on the metal supports and whistled. I hadn’t whistled in a while. The resonance across the harbor was like some lost lullaby repeated from someone I’d never met. I whistled and whistled, a whistling maniac standing on a bridge. Wearing a fresh suit.
I held out my palms. It wasn’t raining anymore. I was glad. I was so glad I upped the volume of my dirge.
And then I wasn’t whistling anymore.
The same is true for the end of a story as it is for the beginning: where do you say it’s done? At the moment all of the various stupid actions make fate inevitable? That moment, however, could have been all along.
Endings are always the same because they’re usually not the same.
Below me, the river clashed with the pale banks, flooded onto the grass of a park. The night was a everywhere.
The ending could have been a batch of spotlights from the north side of the bridge, and the anomalous quietude of daylight shining through the darkness.
Could have been the silence of the men holding the spotlights steady and the displaced whispers of their supervisors.
Or Cowper materializing out of the spotlight, the way you can tell by his posture that he’s serious. Bent cigarette held in between his lips that looked as though he’d forgotten about it since last he’d visited me.
Any ending could be what he said to me on the bridge.
“Why’d you do it, Jome? All those people? Any reason whatsoever?”
Could have been my response, that maybe I was just frustrated with the whole goddamn idea. “I haven’t slept too well lately,” I said. “If only you understand how much of this I don’t understand.”
The end could have been the rain slaloming off Cowper’s hat or the men behind Cowper who were giving themselves shapes in the spotlight.
Suddenly I felt the great thrill of feeling nothing and the feeling was good. And that would have been a partly decent ending.
Cowper approached casually, as though we’d planned to meet here. Some of the men were close behind him. Now that I had my suit on I was ready, and it didn’t matter that the suit wasn’t finished. I pulled myself onto the bridge’s railing, head lowered to the clamorous river.
The end could have been that I didn’t care, or it could have been something as simple as a nod, because these kinds of things usually end on a bridge.
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. “Last Orchard…” is his first book-length work of prose.
Rowan edits Untoward Magazine and has been published in (or has work forthcoming in Emprise Review, Red Lightbulbs, Everyday Genius, Metazen, and others. You can find him on Facebook if you’re looking for a friend.
“It would be better for him and it would be better for us if he no longer existed.” So had words been written in their implacable red ink, referencing the failure of an esteemed senior party member to smile. Party bylaws dictated that in order even to be considered for party membership one must always smile. One must show one’s bright teeth, which needn’t be white but certainly bright. This was the command of the general secretary, all the way at the very top.
Surgeries were granted to those in the party who worried they might be caught without an acceptable smile.
VERBOTEN! and a picture of, among other expressions, a frown were drawn to posters, which appeared around the capital city. The capital city was the city in which almost all decisions of this nature were decided. Another such decision was that party membership was required.
You were either in the party, smiling, or not and in prison, about to die or dead.
Except for one man, who was still not admitted to the party though he smiled as hard as anyone and damned if he hadn’t attempted every conceivable recourse.
He worked in a mail room at the consulate of an ambassador from a nearby state, where things were handled differently than how the party preferred. He was disturbed by the trend of differences he observed. And he continued to intercept and censor mail that went through his purview, all with hopes of ingratiating himself to the party and, subsequently, gaining entry. Instead, he was fired by the consulate.
Now jobless and penniless (he had spent much of all he had on smile-widening surgeries), he wandered the capital city as a vagabond. He remembered being told by a very old party member, when at age 19 he’d first applied for membership and been denied, “Give it time, my boy, just time. Things like this take time, and not everyone makes it on the first try. Just give it time and patience. Time and time again, that’s what’s needed, only time. Time and patience. Just realize that time is the course, proper and good. And have I yet mentioned patience? Why I remember the time I first joined the party, yes, that took time. So much time, but then it happened, in due time. Now’s time for you and I to go our separate ways, due time. I will no doubt see you tomorrow.” The man never saw the old man again, though not because either had in some way shoved off their mortal coils or become otherwise bedridden and/or detained by scheduling conflicts. They simply were not to cross paths again.
And contrary to what the old man had said, everyone was granted membership after the first attempt, because by law you must be in the party or in prison, and few chose the latter of these options. The man and only the man was left lingering on the outside, like a clerical error smiling brightly and, even, whitely.
But it had been no clerical error. Something that could be described as sinister was in play. The general secretary wrote this of the man who wished to be in the party, repeating a phrase which had now become his usual refrain in such circumstances: “It would be better for him and it would be better for us if he no longer existed.” It was one of the general secretary’s few good lines, and he liked to make use of it whenever he could. It was furthermore all he had written regarding the matter of the man’s party status, which was plenty enough to seal the man’s permanent partylessness. There was little made public in the way of why.
But if one investigated a bit more deeply one could easily determine why the man had been singled out. Despite what the man had thought to be the case, the case was that he — like marginalized groups of previously extant totalitarian regimes, Jews, Bourgeoisie, intellectuals and so forth — was at heart the single cause of the state’s various economic, social, cultural, historical, philosophical and political woes. He was the lone scapegoat to which all problems of every nature were indefatigably yoked. It had been routinely stated that he refused, on principle, to smile — no matter how hard beatings were meted as consequence.
And slowly his rights were removed. Anti-vagabond laws went into effect, and he was thrashed with truncheons as a matter of patriotic duty by those with whom he crossed paths. The saddest of all of these thrashings was one delivered by an old woman who much resembled the man’s grandmother, and against whom he wouldn’t have attempted to defend himself regardless. She thrashed him most spiritedly of all.
The man, whose name was Abe, subsisted on nothing and gradually grew sallow and gaunt. And soon he finally died. He died in a gutter, while someone urinated on him as he clawed listlessly for help. And he was conscious of the warmth of the piss stream, which was the most warmth he’d ever experienced in his short miserable life. But let’s not allow such qualifiers to lessen the fact that he was definitely pissed on whilst he died. He expired in a puddle of urine, at which point, at least, he presumably felt nothing, and hopefully that was an improvement.
Abe wasn’t missed. In fact, some opined that he may well be alive and in need of doing away with yet. They searched for him up high and down low, and in so searching, killed probably more than a few innocent people.
Meanwhile, the secret police continued disappearing people, which included the general secretary, whom no one had seen in a really long time.
Andrew Battershill is the co-editor of Dragnet Magazine, a quarterly publication of short fiction. He lives in Toronto.
Fungible Smith never did find the perfect moment to ask her parents about her name. In this way she was fortunate because, whatever reasons her parents may have had for naming her as they did, it is almost impossible that their reasons were as varied, charitable, or whimsical as the ones Fungible imagined over the course of her long and varied youth.
After a hard day of work tagging frogs in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, our hero called her friend James on the way back to her vehicle and, after a couple of non-starts, Betty rumbled to life. Betty was a 20-year-old pickup that Fungible had bought for $435 on Craigslist. The truck was a faded red, its paint bubbled up with rust. It had no internal heating whatsoever, but Fungible loved the car, in part because Betty’s constant overachievements, like starting on cold days, reinforced her good feelings.
As she slowly made her way toward James’ house, our hero smoked a king-size Player’s out the window and mentally re-checked the fact that she was not a cynical person. Several of Fungible’s close friends had recently been taken in by a particularly obnoxious strain of doomsday prophecy and historical revisionism. When Fungible disagreed with their certainty about aliens having built the pyramids and a dark Cabal of (mostly) Jewish people running all the world’s affairs, she had tried to communicate to her friends that it was (mostly) the strength of their certainty that troubled her. Her friends had not understood what she was saying, and by the end of the conversation had all decided that she was just too cynical to believe their truths. She had dropped the issue, but had been deeply troubled by their use of “the c word” for several days after. As she passed the “Welcome to Medicine Hat!” sign the correct response occurred to her, and she told it to the open road in front of her, waving her cigarette in a sinuous pattern that corresponded with the dips and rises in her tone:
“I’m not cynical. Let’s get that clear. I am not a cynic, I believe in complexity. I believe that the world is a beautiful, challenging, wonderful place, and to think that you have, or need, anything more than a guess about how or why things are the way they are is just disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to the confusing things that make life worthwhile. So don’t call me a fucking cynic because I don’t believe something you read on a forum, when you’re the one talking about aliens and Armageddon, and I’m the one talking about how nice it is to sleep in freshly washed sheets, and how pretty the trees are.” She paused and took a long drag. “Motherfuckers.” She laughed into her softening filter and flicked it out the window. She patted Bumpy, her stuffed elephant purse, twice on the head, and then rubbed his stomach before using the lighter, which was attached to her bag with a tiny retractable cord, to start another cigarette.
Cypress Hills was the home of North America’s largest dark sky preserve, no artificial lights were permitted in the area. And almost every night after work Fungible would drive into town, pick up a friend, head right back to the preserve and smoke perfectly rolled joints under the dark, glittering sky.
They were re-paving the highway into town, and a thin layer of dirt floating up from the gravel was always in the air. As Fungible rolled cautiously by she saw Karen, a girl she had known but not spoken to in high school, walking along the road and pulling marked pieces of rebar out of the ground before the paving machine came by. Karen pulled as hard as she could on one rebar, and it didn’t move. She lost her grip and fell down, and when she hit the ground her helmet flew off, her bangs fell into her eyes and she started laughing. And then, without moving any other part of her body, she blew upward and got the hair out of her eyes.
Fungible didn’t own anything that she considered replaceable. Her room was filled with garage-sale trunks and hard-sided suitcases, each suitcase stuffed with artisanal crafts, clothes, and other objects that reminded her of someone or something. To her, every object represented its own unique set of memories and people, and each suitcase represented its own cobbled-together universe, memories grouped together as living creatures are grouped together: randomly and with a deep, unspecific care. Even the stuffed animal purses she switched between were not interchangeable. They were carefully chosen observers of different distinct eras of her life.
Although she’d only been using Bumpy for a week, tufts of his fur were already congealed in hard clumps along his side. But Bumpy was an exceptionally reliable stuffed animal purse, he had an incredible amount of storage space, and his trunk curved upwards and slightly to the side in a way that Fungible found endearing.
By the time she arrived at James’ house she felt calm and glad to be spending the evening with, by far, her most relaxed friend. When she pulled up he was pacing, happily, and inspecting his apartment building’s plants. He saw her and, as if it was part of his pacing plan, shifted his direction toward her car, his limbs hanging customarily loosely. He struggled with the door for a second before getting in the car with the sheepish, contented grin with which Fungible had become familiar.
“Hi!” He reached over to hug her and Fungible stopped him with a straight arm and leaned back to her window.
“No hug unless you finished your painting.”
James’ smile grew slightly wider as he dropped his head to his chest. “Umm, I’ve thought about it, but, uh, yeah. Not done.”
Fungible cocked her head to the side, to look him in the eyes. “You remember what this means? What you asked me to do?”
His smile reached full capacity. “I remember.”
“Are you ready?”
He raised his head and turned to face her, spreading his hands down to his sides. Fungible wound up and slapped him with an open hand across the face, and immediately afterward dove into a warm, firm hug. She pulled back and rested against her window again and watched in the streetlamp light as a slight pink flush went through his right cheek. James paused, looking at the floor for a few seconds, before he looked back at her.
“Wow, that was nice. I might not ever finish this painting, if I have that sort of cheap thrill to look forward to every week.”
Fungible laughed, put the key in the ignition, and started Betty. “You be careful smart-ass, or I’ll pink your other cheek.”
“I’m always careful.” He shifted in his seat, as Fungible shifted Betty’s only partially willing gears. James rolled down his window and poked his head out, looking at the stretching land beyond the roof of the car. He swung back in, with both cheeks appropriately flushed. This was one of Fungible’s favorite things about James, his cheeks flushed reliably at the perfect moments, which she took as evidence of genuine feeling. He ran a hand through his hair. “Now let’s go look at some STARS!”
Although Fungible had a very slight frame, and was about five foot four, she had an uncommonly rugged quality about her. She wore vintage dresses on most days, but would not hesitate to hike them up aggressively and climb a rock, or pull them up and pee behind a dumpster. She was in the habit of spitting strong, tightly packed balls of phlegm into the air. Her hair changed colour about once a month, and was at this time a gentle, faded green. She was not a vain woman, but was intensely proud of her calves, and would take any opportunity to point her toes and highlight the strong, curving line of her muscle, or to rest their sturdy sinew in someone’s lap.
She pushed Bumpy towards James. “Hey, get Snowflake ready.”
James took the elephant and started rummaging through it’s back. He removed her pipe case and bent-up pot-tin and started hand picking a bud into the bowl. Snowflake was a pipe Fungible had bought at an Arts Fair. It had a brown, dotted body, but the very top was white and sparkling.
James began to shake his head slowly. “I’m still pissed you didn’t take my name for this pipe, it was perfect.”
“What was that again?”
“Old Man with a Bowl Cut. Perfect fucking name, I’m telling you.”
Fungible laughed. “Well, Snowflake is a nicer sounding, and less long, name. Plus the fun I get in seeing you get mad every time we use that pipe is way better than the five chuckles I would probably get out of naming my beautiful glass-work Old Man with a Bowl Cut.”
James nodded his head from side to side. “Fairsies.”
As they got into the preserve light gradually disappeared. She turned off her headlights, and drove her car, illegally, into the empty park. The stars and moon were fairly bright, and the two friends were close enough together that their movements and facial expressions were still clear to one another, but it was impossible to make out their own feet under the dash. Fungible drove directly to her favorite part of the reserve, an area below a tall layered cliff that was sheltered from the wind but still allowed a perfect view of the sky.
Our hero tried to swing out her window and into the bed of her truck in one smooth motion, and on the way she hit her head against the outside of the window. She settled in beside James in the bed of the truck.
“I remembered a funny story just now. I hit my head and it reminded me.”
“Is your head OK?”
“Yes, yes, but so not the point. So, anyways, I got this text from a guy I knew from work inviting me to a party at his place. So I decided to go and I went at like eleven, because I thought it would be a house-party type deal.” She wagged her eyebrows. “But I got there and it turned out that that it was more of a gathering than a party. Annnnd obviously not such a good gathering because everybody was gone by the time I got there, so it was just me and this guy in his house, and whatever. So, he offers me a Coke and I drink it and then I get up to go and he gets all nervous. He’s like: ‘Can I have a kiss?” And I’m like: ‘fuck no, buddy,’ then he leans in and I pull back and hit my head on this weird stickyouty statue and he says: ‘Are you serious?’ So I just peaced the scene and then halfway home I realize I’ve forgotten my cell phone in the hallway. So I have to go back. I show up, and he opens the front door, and… Oh James” — she reached over and grabbed him, rolling her face into his shoulder — “you should have seen the look on this guy’s face. He really, truly, looked like he thought he was getting laid, like there was no way I could resist his question and lean technique. And I could see my phone, and I, gingerly is the perfect word, I gingerly step around him and pick up my phone, and back out without saying anything.”
“Well, after that I went home and knitted until like 3:30 in the morning.”
“That is not something that should happen to anyone over 15, and even then.”
“Dude, he was 35.”
They both started laughing, and James began tapping Fungible’s shoulder with an open hand. “No more, no more. I can’t even hear shit like that, it just kills me.”
They sat up, resting their backs against the cab of the truck, and looked up as they casually passed Snowflake back and forth. There were no clouds in the sky, but if there had been Fungible would not have begrudged them.
They sat in this manner for about an hour, smoking several bowls and talking about things they had noticed or thought about since the last time they saw each other. Afterward they both lay down flat in the bed of the truck and looked up. Fungible thought it was important to think about the world that was spinning underneath her as she looked up. She did not think about aliens, or astronauts, or the pyramids. After several minutes of silence James leaned over and kissed the top of her head, and they looked each other in the eyes for a beat, before he rolled back over and stretched his arms to their full length in front of him. Fungible looked over and laughed. She poked him once in the ribs and then raised her legs straight out. Her patterned polyester summer dress dropped down, exposing her whole legs and her conservatively proportioned tie-dyed underwear. She felt the summer’s cool night air against the back of her thighs, and then she lowered her legs and James lowered his arms. Fungible felt his arms bump against the metal of the truck as he brought them to rest behind his head. She reached down, straightened and smoothed her dress and took a long, slow breath.
A few days later she bought a small, pink snake, and named him Snakey.
Find Chicago writer Pine’s second story for THE2NDHAND below. For more of his work, visit his site.
He’d be dead before lunch, if the mark showed up. But there were all sorts of cops in the Loop: on bicycles, on dune buggies, in squad cars, on horses, on Segways — a clash of transportation eras, downtown, at least when cops were involved. The mark was late.
The sun fell between buildings in milky strands and the air was cool, which gave the day an autumnal feel, although this happened in early spring. He wore sunglasses, a windbreaker, and carried a folded Redeye. He paced, trying to look like he wasn’t pacing. Intermittently, he took pictures on a disposable camera of the buildings he thought might appeal to tourists. The camera was out of film, but he continued to raise it to his eye, align the viewfinder with glass window grids, and press the button.
He was looking for three officers traveling on foot, two men and a woman, career friends to all appearances. Most days they walked out of the pedway beside the cultural center, laughing, twirling billy clubs, walking three abreast and entirely dominating the sidewalk. If he’d done any more planning, he’d have learned the cops’ names — or maybe he wouldn’t have, because that’d’ve meant getting close enough to read their nametags, and they might’ve read the look in his eyes, and that’d’ve spoiled everything.
But he knew their routine — hopefully that was enough — how nearly every day for lunch they cut over to Jewelers Row on Wabash, beneath the El tracks. One by one, they filled the doorway of a diamond shop, where in the back the owner maintained a falafel counter. Many times he’d watched them order three lentil soups, three chicken shawarmas, and three cans of Diet Pepsi. The male cops were white, with matching push-broom mustaches and large guts that squeezed from their bulletproof vests like frosting from Double Stuff Oreos. The female cop was also white, with a lesser gut and a fainter mustache. Most days, they took lunch between 12:45 and 1:30. But then some days they never came, and he didn’t know why, and there was no pattern to it. It was 1:35. Most days, they came.
He waited, and for a change, he was lucky. Real lucky, because just as the three cops came out of the Pedway, huffing from the double flight of stairs, a Brown Line train approached overhead going north, and a Green Line train looped overhead going south. This was too perfect! This was great luck! he thought, as he threw away the sunglasses and disposable camera. He took an X-Acto knife from his pocket and slipped off the safety cap. He crouched beside the door to the diamond shop.
Gianatasio (illustrated by Andrew Davis), a somewhat regular contributor to THE2NDHAND, is featured in a special section in our soon-forthcoming 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Preorder the book ($16) for $15 here.
Inside is a smaller box, and inside that a smaller one still.
“Keep going,” the first box says.
“Is there treasure — some kind of prize? Because, if this is one of those stupid metaphorical things…”
The box chuckles. “There’s just one way to find out.”
The boxes keep decreasing in size. The last few I can barely see. I handle them with tweezers.
Finally, I’m left with empty hands and lots of boxes strewn across the carpet.
“That’s how it goes” the first box says.
Panting, shirt stained with sweat, I viciously stomp up and down, grinding the boxes beneath my heels. Finally, I tear the first box to shreds, cardboard fibers flying in every direction.
Wiping perspiration from my forehead, I stretch and step outside for some air.
All the houses on my street are boxes.
My house is a box.
The sky’s corrugated brown. It opens wide and a voice shrieks, “It’s one of those stupid metaphorical things, jackass!” as a humongous black heel stomps down.
Rhoads lives in Tennessee with his wife, Emily. His work has appeared previously in THE2NDHAND as well as Unicorn Knife Fight and the Red Mud Review.
The splatterpunks caught us completely off-guard. First, they cut off Emily’s legs with a chainsaw. The walls of the apartment were crimson within the hour. After the punks got Emily, they went for the building manager. She was easy to dispatch. Her frailties were even more emphasized without her eyeballs.
I played in the back of theatres throughout my childhood. When I was a boy, my mother took me to see a play. I don’t remember the title. I just remember a monologue where this man stood on a black stage. He told a story of flying razor beach balls that chased him and cut his limbs one by one.
Upstairs, the kids cornered me; the sword made a satisfying chok as it met with my neck.
In the prior installment, high-schooler Sam saved Daylene Hooker from a crew of debuntante-terrorists during a class field trip to the college in Bismarck. In this installment, parental dread permeates, as we learn part of what has happened to Sam on that field trip. This serial excerpt fro Zurhellen’s Nazareth, North Dakota first novel concludes in one more installment this week. Read part 5.
Joe slowed down as they reached the far edge of town, the truck bed squeaking like an old mattress when the road turned from smooth asphalt to red dirt and gravel. James was slumped in the passenger seat, heavy eyes fluctuating between full and crescent moons, lunchbox cradled in his lap like a sleeping baby. They had been getting home late the last couple weeks, the jobsite an hour away at the southern lip of the county. There was no adventure in putting up a plywood fast-food joint across the street from the Rodriguez outlet mall, but paid work was paid work. They needed the money. Another month and it would be too cold for any real carpentry work; Joseph Davidson & Sons would have to get by doing indoor add-ons and emergency roofing calls until April when the ground thawed again.
As he made the turn off the main road he noticed a girl he hadn’t seen before in front of their place, standing out by the battered mailbox. Then things got a little more strange: Joe saw the sheriff’s cruiser parked in front of the house. James jerked up in his seat, eyes wide now as he looked around the yard. He had his door open before the truck stopped.
“Easy,” Joe said to him, putting it in park. “Could be nothing.”
He could tell by the look on Roxy’s face that it wouldn’t be that easy after all. She was standing on the front lip of the porch, arms folded, foot tapping a hole into the floor. Two men were on the steps, leaning on the railings and looking up at her like a pair of suitors. He recognized Anton Rodriguez right away, but he had to get closer to make out the other as the football coach, a round man with a sheepdog look on his stubbled face.
“Evening,” Joe said as he came up, putting his own foot up on the porch steps.
“They left Sam in Bismarck,” Roxy said. “They just left him there. He could be dead in a dumpster, and nobody seems to give a damn.”
The coach backed up a step, his voice cracking. “Ma’am, I’ve been at the school for going on thirty years now. When a kid gets lost, that’s one thing; we’ll find him. But when a kid doesn’t want to be found? That’s another.” He turned to Joe. “I’m telling you we looked everywhere. Bismarck ain’t New York City, you know. Sooner or later we had to get the rest of those kids back home.”
“You know how Sam is,” Anton interrupted.
Roxy’s voice was now somewhere in the stratosphere. “Oh, and how is that, sheriff?”
“Well, he hangs around with some unsavory types,” he said, his fingers smoothing the brim of his hat. “You could say he’s got a reputation for being a mite difficult.”
“I don’t believe this,” she said, throwing her arms up. “You’re not going to do anything?”
Joe stood silently at the bottom of the steps, listening.
“Nothing to do,” Anton said, putting his hat back on. “He’s a big boy, almost eighteen. Come on, Roy,” he said to the coach, whose head was bowed as the two men sauntered away. “If I do hear anything,” Anton called back to the porch. “I’ll be sure to let you know.”
Joe had been silent all this time. But he followed them back to the car, towering over both men in the dark. “One thing,” he said, putting his hand on the passenger door, preventing the coach from opening it. He spoke softly, making sure Roxy and James couldn’t hear from the house. “If anything happens to that boy, I’m going to come find you,” his voice low and calm, like a teacher giving simple instructions before an exam. “Both of you. Do you understand?”
Anton tried to laugh, but the chuckle only trickled off his lips as a thin wheeze. “Now Mr. Davidson, you’re not threatening your local sheriff, are you?” It was something his father might have said, but from Anton’s mouth it was only a pale imitation, an obvious fake.
Joe leaned over the hood. “Listen close: I don’t care if you’re Moses and this asshole is Mother Teresa. Anything happens to my son, and I’m coming back for you. Period.” Joe took his hand off the door and turned back to the house, his wide shoulders tensed. Roxy was crying now, pacing in crazy circles on the porch like a broken toy. James was up on the steps now, watching his father’s face in the dim light for any clues. He watched the police cruiser back around the truck and disappear down the road. “If you’re going to look for Sam, I’m coming with you.”
“Someone’s got to stay by the telephone,” Joe said, running a hand under his ballcap. “And looking at your mother here, I’m guessing she doesn’t want to be the one waiting around.” He trudged up the steps and put his hands around her shoulders. “Come on,” he said, pushing her gently in the direction of the truck. “Let’s go.”
“I guess I always knew he was going to leave us,” she said, wiping tears from her face. “I just didn’t think it would be so soon.”
“Don’t say that, Rock. We don’t know for sure,” he said, leaning across her to put on her seatbelt. “Kids stray off all the time. You remember back in Cairo when James decided to run away? Came back after a few hours when he was hungry.”
She looked over at him. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“Yeah,” he said, not returning her stare. “I know.” He turned the truck around on the grass and headed back toward the road. As they reached the mailbox, they both noticed the short girl standing there, hands dug deep into her black leather jacket.
“Hey stop,” Roxy said, rolling down her window. “I know that girl. Stop the truck.”
“Hey,” Roxy said. “Daylene, right? Did you go on that class trip today?”
The girl nodded slowly. “You going to fetch Sam back?”
“You bet,” Roxy said. “You have any clue about where he might be?”
Daylene kicked lightly at the mailbox post with her sneaker a few times before she said anything. “Well, me and him spent the whole day together at the university, going from class to class. He wanted to talk to all the professors,” she said. “It was kind of weird.”
Roxy and Joe looked at each other, giving each other a knowing nod. “Thanks, Daylene. Can we give you a ride back to your house?” Roxy said. “Your folks might be worried.”
“They ain’t,” Daylene said quickly, pulling out a hand to point back toward town. “I live right there on Main Street, just a few houses down.” She dug her hands into her jacket. There was a restlessness to her body, as if it was moving in a thousand directions while still standing in place. She bit her lip. “I hope you find him.”
Joe leaned over the wheel and patted the dashboard with his big hand. “Don’t worry, Daylene, we’ll find him. This old truck is part hound dog.” Roxy waved to Daylene as the truck pulled slowly onto the main road and lumbered back to town, toward the state highway. In the rear-view they both watched the curly-haired girl start on the quarter-mile back.
“You mean it smells like hound dog,” Roxy muttered, gulping air from the open window as they picked up speed. “Damn Joe, what died in here?”
“Ah, there’s the sweet-hearted devil we all love,” he said, reaching over to gently rub the back of his wife’s long neck. “Welcome back.”
“How fast can the hound dog get us to Bismarck?”
“Maybe two and a half hours, with no traffic.”
“This is North Dakota,” she said, settling into her seat. “There is no traffic.”
As they neared the Gas N’ Sip that sat on the edge of the dusty highway, Joe looked at the gas gauge and clicked his teeth. He pulled the hound dog up beside the lone pump. “We got time for a coffee? Maybe even a danish?”
She nodded; she’d forgotten that the poor man hadn’t had dinner yet. Roxy elected to pump the gas while Joe went inside to pay and get snacks. He looked into his wallet. “Put 20 in, that’ll be enough to get us to Bismarck.”
As she leaned against the high bed of the truck and looked around, her eye caught on the three guys standing out on the side of the cinder-block gas station, smoking cigarettes and drinking out of paper bags. Unsavory types. One of them seemed woefully out of place, though, with strange clothes and a fancy hat that made him look like some kind of private eye in those old black-and-white movies where a girl with a black veil raps on the glass door. She wondered if any of these guys were friends with Sam; at that moment she realized she had no idea if her boy even had friends. A deep chill ran up her back. She felt it in her teeth. Roxy finished filling the truck and hustled back into the cab.
The first half-hour of their trip was silent, Joe munching on donuts while Roxy lost herself in her thoughts. The air was getting cold and she rolled the window up. Joe thought about turning on the radio to help keep himself awake but he started humming under his breath instead.
“Joe,” she said, blowing on her coffee. “Do you think Sam and Daylene… I mean–”
“Well, let’s see. She doesn’t talk much and she thinks he’s ‘kinda weird.’ Sounds like a match to me.”
“I’m such a bad mother,” she said. “I don’t even know if he has a girlfriend, or if he’s got friends, period,” she said. “He’s 17, and I don’t know shit about him.”
Joe jerked the wheel and pulled off onto the loose gravel on the side of the road. The truck bounced to a stop in the dirt. Roxy held on to the doorframe, hair tousled now and covering her eyes. “What are you doing?”
“Listen,” he said, turning off the ignition. “You’re a good mother. Wait: fuck that, you’re a great mother. Not just for Sam, but for Lydia and James and Van too. You understand?”
“If I’m such a great mother, why am I driving across the state to find my son?”
“You know why,” he said. They were alone for miles on the deserted highway, but still his voice lowered to a whisper, burdened by secrets. “He’s got to find his own way.”
“So he disappears, just like that?” Her hands took flight. “I didn’t sign up for this, Joe. Damn it, I’m his mother.”
“He doesn’t want to hurt you,” he said. “But he knows he will.”
They sat like that for a while, cold creeping into the cab until they could see their breath dance in the spotted moonlight. Every few minutes a pair of headlights would show on the horizon. “You’re a great mother because you’re there when he needs you. Yeah, it’s a shitty job,” he said, finding her hand in the dark. “You feel like you’re not worth as much as you used to be. Hell, I miss Lydia every single day. And I know James isn’t going to stick around forever. But when they leave it doesn’t mean they love me any less. It just means they have to find their own way.” He took a deep breath. “I didn’t know you as a young girl, but I’ve heard stories — and if I had to guess I’d say Annie had her hands full with you. When you up and left her, she must’ve gone crazy with all that waiting. Hell, I know it sucks. But right now, it’s all you can do.”
She rubbed her runny nose, a tiny smile sprouting on her lips. “I was a bit of a wildcat,” she said, her voice now raspy with old tears. She caught her pale reflection in the rear-view mirror. “God, I feel so old, Joe. I feel like a worn shoe.”
“Well, you look amazing to me,” he said, starting the truck again. “And trust me, you’re still one hell of a wildcat.” They pulled back onto the blacktop, picking up speed as the truck rattled east toward the county line.
“Joe,” she said, reaching over and grabbed his near hand from the steering wheel, bringing it to her face. “Thanks.” His rough skin felt warm on her cheek. She moved closer, leaning her head on his shoulder, the sawdust on his jacket making her nose twitch. “Your truck still smells, though.”
A few more miles and they would turn south, cutting across North Dakota’s empty backroads until they reached 83, the four-lane expressway that ran north-south from Minot down to Bismarck. Roxy worked the knobs on the truck’s ancient radio and found Bruce Springsteen singing “Darlington County.” They hadn’t heard it in years, but they sang the words they knew. Suddenly they were back in Cairo, parking on a deserted stretch of the levee and watching the grain barges slip south along the Mississippi in the night. Come on baby take a seat on my fender, it’s a long night and tell me what else were you gonna do?
Together they rolled along the twisting highway, a mother and father in search of a son.