“Helpline” by John Hales
Welcome back to our new series of prizewinning “viral” prose for these days of social distancing. Our staff here at TMR hope that you all are well and staying sane. Today’s essay by John Hales won the 2010 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in nonfiction. In his essay, Hales writes about the challenge of keeping one’s sanity and stability in the face of stressful circumstances–a subject that’s especially relevant to readers today.
By John Hale
Although we weren’t exactly drug-dependent, at least in terms of how drug dependency had been defined in the mimeographed packet we’d been handed while undergoing volunteer Helpline training, and we weren’t stoners compared to some of our friends who toked even more than we did, most of us who worked shifts at the university’s telephone crisis line smoked a lot of marijuana. We joked that it was an occupational hazard. All that stress. All those panicked calls from people not right at that moment enjoying the effects of their own drugs of choice, or telling us at great length the ways their lives truly and deeply sucked. We lit up the second our shifts were over, often on the way to our cars in the union building parking lot, sharing a joint and, if someone had thought ahead, a bottle of something, anything, alcoholic. And then, weather permitting, adjournment to a nearby city park to smoke and drink some more. All that drug talk on the phone; all that human misery we couldn’t avoid ingesting a fair amount of as it cascaded over the phone: fears of where bad trips were heading, thoughts of suicide, more mundane yet really depressing narratives of loneliness—I’m so ugly, I’m so alone, I’m so pathetic I’m calling you.
Adding to the stress was our twenty-four-hour stretch of professional sobriety, begun (like airline pilots) no later than midnight the night before, a Helpline rule we took seriously. Even though most of us didn’t spend the week stoned anyway—our drug abuse mostly began the moment we were off the phones for the night and for us with Friday shifts continued only through the weekend—we understood that we needed to arrive for work straight and sober because in contrast to our relatively inconsequential daily lives, our work here had real consequences, and we didn’t want to fuck up. I was only twenty; I needed all the focus I could muster. But the second we were off the clock, we found release in weed.
We probably would have benefited more from prescription pills for anxiety or depression—pharmaceuticals that targeted the symptoms we’d caught from our callers. But marijuana, the opiate of the Helpline people, had to do, combined with nature in the form of the nearby park we’d head for. Or maybe it would be straight home for sex with a loved one, or somebody at least willing—once almost with a really nice volunteer I’d shared a shift with, she as stressed and stoned as I was.
My most anxious shifts were Friday nights, four P.M. to midnight—shifts I was assigned routinely for reasons probably having to do with the fact that I seldom had plans for the weekend anyway—spent enclosed in the tiny too-bright windowless union building office Helpline had been allotted, just big enough for two small desks, three volunteers and four telephones. One phone was kept available for reality-check calls to Poison Control, or, scariest of all, last-ditch calls to the Salt Lake City Police Department when it looked like our efforts were failing to keep folks from offing themselves or falling off some horrible edge only they could see. We were amateurs, after all, volunteers trained during a frantic pre-semester week of day-long orientations, and so we basically just took in what callers had to say, our responses limited to what the professionals who’d oriented us called “reflective listening.” As in:
“I’m so depressed. I have no earthly reason to keep living.”
“I hear you saying that you feel depressed and that it’s difficult for you to find reasons to continue living.”
Sometimes we were allowed to ask questions that might lead to useful answers: “What did you take? Do you know how many? Can you find the pill bottle and read what the label says?” Sometimes we’d offer referrals, phone numbers of helpful organizations we read off a ragged Rolodex. Sometimes we’d offer sympathy or even suggestions, both of which we’d been told in no uncertain terms not to provide but did anyway. Sympathy was unprofessional, suggestions beyond our competence, and both were beside the point for the average caller. Even so, we couldn’t help reaching out in more personal ways—it was called Helpline, after all, not Reflectline. And because our orientation hadn’t given us much instruction in maintaining professional distance, we were touched more often than you might think, which made our work harder, the dope smoking more necessary. We wanted to help. We cared.
Sometimes we did help, a little. It was easy to mock reflective listening, but I learned that being listened to was not something people experience much, and even our idiotic line-by-line rephrasings occasionally nudged people’s spirits to lift so they finally hung up with a nice “Thank you, I feel a little better.” But too often our clumsy efforts simply weren’t up to the task. When the hallucinations were literally overwhelming—a voice speaking from a really bad trip, saying that the walls were closing in and the caller’s heart was actually stopping (I can feel it! It’s stopping! )—saying, as we were authorized in these cases to do, “Listen to me. Your heart isn’t really stopping. It’s just the drug” was the answer to a question the caller had tripped far beyond asking. And when I heard myself saying into the handset something like, “I hear you saying that you’re holding a gun to your head,” I knew I was way in over my own head. And then the dropped phone, the ominous silence: far worse than the dial tone of a hang-up. By then we’d called the cops, our last resort, which we hated to do.
Most late spring nights, after shifts both harrowing and ho-hum, after the first joint or two, those of us not heading home for the comfort of sex could be found inhaling more quantities of illegal substances, well past the legal hours of one of Salt Lake City’s smallest parks, just off campus and built around a reservoir paved over for tennis, with swing sets and picnic tables and trees that shadowed the streetlights. We talked shop, alas, but only in the brief fragments of attention good marijuana allows, and then gradually switched to subjects not tethered to human tragedy. I wonder today why those of us without love lives wanted to keep hanging out with the same folks we’d just spent eight hours with in what was basically a bunker, and a not very well-defended bunker at that. Maybe that’s why marijuana was our drug of choice. It offered the perfect balance of community and isolation; you share a joint, you sit in a circle, you try to carry on a conversation, but weed carries you deeply into yourself. And after all those strangled connections over telephone lines, and a room that closes in with stress and anxiety and sweat that trickles down your neck during the worst calls, it’s by yourself you finally want to be. Marijuana allowed us to withdraw into ourselves communally, in the proximity of people who understood.
Maybe that’s why my one post-shift assignation was a failure. Either too much smoke, or not enough, the joke went, and we hardly knew each other. But earlier that night Nicole and I had worked through a really bad call, didn’t know the outcome, and so along with being stoned, we’d done way too many straight shots of callers’ despair, and we desperately, and impossibly, needed both connection and withdrawal from human need of any kind. So we—kind of—connected, but I felt somewhere else, and I think she did too. We joked about it later, were less awkward with each other with time, but never tried again.
By late April that year, the first and only year I’d grapple with mental health challenges other than my own, finally it was warm enough at two A.M. to allow hours of outdoor dope smoking, although even during the winter, we’d sometimes huddle in the snow, so anxious were we to get as far as possible from the room’s four close walls echoing with human pain and need. But in the deepest winter we’d more often circle up in someone’s small apartment, and when well stoned and hungry, brave the bright neon lights of Bill and Nada’s, an all-night diner that somehow, in the polarized early seventies, catered to both heads and cowboys, who’d seat themselves according to their outfits in booths on opposite sides of the long room: a United Nations of otherwise mutually antagonistic types seeking late-night comfort without the complication of eye contact or conversation. Outside was best, though—smoking herb in nature, sprawled on the park’s new-grown grass.
One night that spring, the park wasn’t nature enough, so we headed south toward Moab. Apparently we needed sandstone. We’d finished our shift on time. Some nights calls would continue beyond midnight (we tried hard to not think about crises that undoubtedly occurred after hours: phone calls met with a soothing but unhelpful recorded message), and because we cared about the person on the other end of the line, we kept talking until we could hang up gracefully and politely, albeit without solving any problems. But that night, all was quiet at midnight, and we headed out, lighting up as we locked the union building door behind us.
“I want the desert,” Kenny said. “I just need to fucking get out of Salt Lake.”
“So do I,” I said, not having felt any such need until Kenny mentioned it, but immediately recognizing how right he was.
“Let’s get Sal. He’s gonna want to go too.” Sal was Kenny’s roommate, a political science major heading for law school, once he got his grades up. Kenny was a psych major, and Helpline credits actually counted toward graduation. Nice guys—not good friends, but easy to hang with and funny, and Kenny and I had been through some tough shifts. I was an English major. I wasn’t sure why I was volunteering. I kept forgetting to register for the class, so I never got the units.
“Plus, we need his car,” Kenny said. We knew that my piece-of-shit Fiat gave us a place to do a number and might get us back to our apartments but probably wouldn’t make it to Moab. Kenny had a Jeep, but with a ratty, leaky top, and it was a four-hour drive through some mountain passes, and cold, high desert at the end. Also, we needed Sal’s stash, something that went without saying.
Sal was watching TV, half asleep, but he too thought Moab was a great idea. As we knew he would, he volunteered his car, a ten-year-old Plymouth Valiant that he called the Blue Val. It had long since faded beyond something you might have been able to call blue, but it was dependable, and Sal and his car were inseparable.
We stopped at my apartment long enough for me to grab my sleeping bag and a coat. And a war-surplus poncho I’m pretty sure had done a tour in Vietnam, and a bag of cookies and a couple of cans of chili. We chipped in to fill up the Blue Val at an all-night gas station, launched ourselves on I-15 and headed south, lighting up a thick joint for the road. Sal—there was never a question of who would drive—reclined against the angled back of the driver’s seat, inhaled deeply and manipulated the column shift with dignified slow-motion ease.
I passed out before we hit Provo, too often the first to go under, finding in unconsciousness the best escape I seemed able to make that year. I woke in Price a couple of hours later, stirred by bright service station lights and more demands for cash, and stayed happily awake while we sped south. The Blue Val would hit maybe ninety, and with no traffic and the Utah Highway Patrol apparently home in bed, we made it in a couple more hours to the Arches turnoff, a mile or two before Moab, past the dimly lit but unmanned National Park pay station. We drove the curvy road until we turned off on a short dirt track, then motored far enough away from the pavement to keep the Park Service from noticing that we were where we shouldn’t be: far from the official campground, beyond the law in so many ways.
This is the part of the trip I remember, the last leg from Price, the narrow dirt road, our illegal, makeshift camp. Whatever the night sky looked like had been lost in the headlamps, the tunnel of yellow light the Blue Val barreled through, but when Sal switched off the lights, the sky just pounded us with dark. Our eyes slowly adjusted to blackness, then stars, the broad, moonless expanse of what would become in a month or two the summer Milky Way, stars from horizon to horizon, those famous sandstone national-park formations now simply looming black cutouts against all those points of light, each star a cold piercing distance from the others. I remember the eastern horizon, just a little pale, the barest beginning of sunrise, the sun still hours from finally putting those stars away.
We threw down our sleeping bags on the sand and watched the sky as we lay limp, taking it all in.
“Oh, wow,” someone said.
“I hear you saying, ‘Oh, wow,’” somebody answered.
But finally we didn’t anything, just passed one more joint from hand to hand. It was completely quiet, no wind at all, no traffic, no harsh campground Coleman lights. Although Arches had long since ceased being the anonymous outpost presided over unevenly by Edward Abbey in the ’50s, it was a long way from the busy recreational destination it is today, and that night in 1972 it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
I surprised myself by not immediately falling asleep—in spite of the long drive, the stressful shift and my habit of never staying awake long enough to truly enjoy the drug I’d ingested. And by not thinking very much. I lay there on my sleeping bag for a long time watching the sky, feeling the sand shift beneath my neck and shoulders as I made myself completely comfortable.
I remember one thought coming to me that night, at that moment: I don’t care. I just don’t care. I’m not sure I even cared about the beauty we’d driven hours to behold. Other than being somehow beyond caring, I’m not sure what I was actually thinking that night. But I’m pretty certain I’d stopped thinking by then about the dropped phone, the deadly silence on the other end, the long, detailed narratives of abandonment and betrayal and aloneness.
Although I don’t remember exactly how my shift had gone that night, the one I wasn’t thinking about just then, I’m tempted to remember it as a hard one. Today, I recall all too clearly the details of some really bad shifts, when the voice at the other end stopped being merely sad and self-pitying, stopped giving me helpful answers to questions that we were allowed by training and policy to ask, and started sounding at once both matter of fact and slurred, with longer pauses between short, monotone fragments of just giving up.
We hated to call the authorities, but we’d be genuinely scared about what might be happening to the person we’d been listening to for an hour, who’d finally stopped talking, standing beside the open window, we’d imagine, or collapsed beside the phone. We knew the police dispatcher would trace the call, cops would race to the address (or, alternatively and unpredictably, take their own sweet time), break down the door, and assess the situation, calling an ambulance or the coroner. Or possibly they’d just search the place for drugs, having been given probable cause. By us. This was bad enough—the jackbooted-thug approach to mental health services, the drug bust we’d so helpfully narked. But also this: once we’d made the call, we were completely out of the loop. We’d never know what they found. Policy prevented the authorities from telling us, so we consistently imagined the worst. Either way, there were consequences to the decisions we were too young, and not wise or experienced enough, to make.
More likely that night it had been the usual: voices telling stories of simple, awful loneliness, ten o’clock Friday night completely alone. The suicide calls made me crazy with worry, but the routine calls, all those voices connected to all-too-ordinary lives of meaninglessness and just simple profound sadness, in some ways took the heaviest toll.
Tomorrow, like it or not, we’d be up with the midmorning sun, too bright to ignore. There would be a drive to a place with picnic tables, the realization that other than a bag of chocolate chip cookies, we had nothing to eat—no can opener for the chili, let alone anything to cook it with. We’d drive into Moab for supplies, mostly beer, and pay the uniformed ranger on our way back in and find a legal campsite for the night, which we’d pay the Man for too. A nice beer buzz, maybe some more weed, then the afternoon hike to Delicate Arch, that hard, dry sandstone horseshoe, graceful and fragile and literally above everything, above the complexity of green, the danger of drowning. It’s simple up there—just rock and sky.
Maybe that’s it, about that night: it was simple. Nothing to untangle, no bodies to pull from the depths, no frustration with the routine insufficiency of mirroring human tragedy, hours operating on the failed theory that understanding one’s place in the great scheme of human desire and disappointment is the first step toward happiness. Many years later, I can say I wished it worked that way, but I’m still pretty sure it doesn’t. I’m not sure I believed even then the theory, having observed its routine irrelevance in Friday-night practice. So maybe a fleeting sense of one’s place amid all that unfeeling, uncomplicated landscape is possible, when stoned enough, literally miles from what troubles the world you’d been having a professional one-way conversation with, in the company of a couple of guys you liked okay, each in your own stoned fog.
About the sandstone, though, and nature—the all-night drive that still makes all kinds of sense to me. When somebody—probably Kenny—said, “Oh, wow,” I wish the person who’d reflected humorously (okay, probably me) had said something smarter, less smartass, more true, or at least useful.
“I hear you saying that being in this landscape, stoned, at four in the morning, feeling the chill desert air, smelling sagebrush, watching the eastern sky pale behind distant desert mountains, satisfies a deep need, provides clarity, supports the best kind of spirituality, answers at least a few of the hardest questions and makes us all happy.”
Of course, nature isn’t any simpler than anything else humans negotiate their way through. Trust me on that—I’ve read Emerson. And as I think about it, maybe it wasn’t nature at all, or even the drug that helped disengage my frontal lobes. That night, it was partly where I wasn’t. It wasn’t the place I had done time in and driven miles away from. Space, for sure, the open black sky, stars bright pinpricks, the distant mountains—no sweaty armpits in a tight, floodlit room. Responsible only for my own pathetic self. Not much in the way of consequences, no complicated connections with despairing strangers or even good friends.
I was happy, I think. Or, as I keep thinking about that night, maybe I wasn’t thinking. Or for that matter exactly happy. For example, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about my own sense of not knowing who I was—at all—and where I was going, and come to think about it (which I didn’t right then) my own low-grade loneliness, my anonymous student life, my having no one to go home to, not even the meager hope of some future, less strained hookup with Nicole, the kind and beautiful Helpline volunteer. But I knew this much: I’d put real time-and-space distance between myself and that windowless room of phones and white walls, connected by telephone lines to other bare rooms of despair and heartbreak, the bright, cold city, everything I was running away from that night. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t care. Care was simply not required. Morning was coming, neither called for nor begrudged, but with creeping slowness all its own that may have been just what I needed.
He has published essays in Georgia Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Ascent, and in the anthology On Nature: Great Writers on the Great Outdoors. His work has been cited numerous times in Best American Essays and in Best American Science and Nature Writing, and has been a finalist twice for the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. He has also earned a Pushcart Prize, and he has been profiled as one of Twenty-Five Nonfiction Writers to Watch in Writer’s Digest.
“Ordinary Time” by Carolyn Ogburn
This 2019 Peden Prize-winning story captures universal themes of grief, sacrifice, misunderstanding, and moving forward. A man in the middle of his life confronts the memory of a man at the self-decided end of his—and considers the burdens each of us carries. Intelligent and heartfelt, Ogburn’s “Ordinary Time,” is not at all ordinary.
by Carolyn Ogburn
“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.” http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/retired-pastor-saw-destiny-in-self-immolation
The parking lot was light by six in the morning, but its streetlights still buzzed and flickered yellow in the gray-green dawn. House wrens flitted across the abandoned asphalt, little gray birds that had nested in the electric curl of the still-lit O’s and A’s, the crook of the G. The ditches hummed with crickets, frogs. In a few hours, Caleb knew, the parking lot would seem quiet again, full of everyday traffic: the occasional rattle of shopping carts bumping along the broken pavement, car doors opening and closing, the sounds of ordinary people doing ordinary things. It would seem quiet, but for the yellow police tape enclosing a broad empty space at the center of the lot, a space that still smelled of gasoline.
What Caleb was doing there, in a metal folding chair, might have been appropriately called a wake. His truck was still where he’d parked it yesterday, its Louisiana tags the only out-of-state plates in this dusty Texas town. He’d meant to leave as, one by one, the strip mall’s shops closed. He’d intended to stand up as the county’s social services offices closed; then the nail salon and the Dollar General. He’d stood up when the Golden Rule Family Buffet finally turned off its lights, but his feet somehow never moved him toward his truck, and when finally, at the far end parking lot, only the gas station’s automatic pumps were lit as the sky filled with dark around its edges, he’d found himself seated again, staring at the oily stain on the asphalt where the Reverend Charles Moore had been.
No one had called. Not that they would. Greta, maybe, who thought he was at the hotel where Aunt Lane’s birthday reception would be, the day after tomorrow.
To be fair, he had checked in at the Hampton Inn about an hour from here, just outside Dallas, where he still had “people.” Family is what he meant, but here in Grand Saline, it was the old ways of speaking that came back to him. Where’re your people from? He envisioned a quiet, assembled tribe staring at him wordlessly from ladder-back chairs. Here, he would have said. My people are from here. But nobody was here now. Not even Moore, who wasn’t his people after all. Just a preacher he’d known as a child.
But after he carried his luggage up to the room and after he stopped by Aunt Lane’s to pay his respects, after he’d sat with Dwayne and Colton and Marie and said how well their mother looked, their mother, Bennie, who looked up from the recliner and giggled like a girl, and Greta made sure they all had plates full of green-bean casserole, sweet tea, coleslaw, yeast rolls, three-bean salad, deviled eggs, and thick slices of ham, no matter that it was only five o’clock in the afternoon and none of them hungry, after he’d done what he assumed he’d come here to do, Caleb found his truck moving down US-80, directed toward the strip mall on the bypass where Charles Moore had died.
Even now, to close his eyes would bring the image of what Moore had seemed like to him as a child on those long Sunday mornings when Caleb sat wedged between his Aunt Lucille and his mother, who made sure she positioned herself between Caleb and his sister, Greta. He wasn’t allowed a fan on account of past abuses of that privilege, but wedged in between the two fervent women, he benefitted from their exertion without ever having to do a lick of work. Childhood had been good to him.
Moore had been lean, even then. A tall, rangy man with long arms, so long it seemed he could have reached out and in one easy gesture plucked Caleb up from between the women and thrown him over his shoulder. That was Caleb’s idea of being saved, then: being chosen from the sweaty onlookers, being taken to someplace better, cleaner. He didn’t know where this new place might be, though. He never really got past the being chosen.
It was Reverend Moore he remembered when he felt the stirrings of his own vocation, when he’d confessed to the student counselor that he might be misplaced in the university, might want, instead, to go to seminary. The counselor had looked at him gravely. “You talk with your minister about this?” he asked. Caleb hadn’t attended church since he’d left home. The recognition that he wanted to serve the church had come as a guilty surprise. The Episcopal Church wasn’t the church in which he’d been raised, but it was within walking distance of campus, so it was there that Caleb found the encouragement to apply to seminary programs, and it was within the Diocese of South Carolina that he’d spent most of his career. But it had been the Methodist Reverend Moore’s uncompromising stance, even then, on what was referred to as “the race question” that had carried Caleb through many a long night. He’d never thought to contact his old minister, hadn’t really thought of him in years. Not even when Meg was diagnosed.
Caleb had a sermon to prepare for next week, but when he tried to write, it was the Reverend Moore who came to his mind. Not after he was on fire but just before. A seventy-nine-year-old man pacing the parking lot in the melting heat, his long arms stiff and awkward like they always had been. Like he was put together in a rush, built of different stuff. His face a mask of pride and anger, as when he’d heard about the church’s decision to stay apart from the debates that followed Little Rock, debates Caleb wouldn’t really understand until years later, debates his parents wouldn’t allow talk of at home.
But then Caleb would hear the laughter, as from his childhood pew or the front porch where Reverend Moore would sometimes come for Sunday dinner; the fact was, he couldn’t stop hearing it, like a real thing across the empty parking lot. A surprisingly high-pitched cackle of a laugh: that was the way you always knew the Reverend was there. He’d loved puns, surprise endings. Hee-hee-hee! Made you look! He’d laughed hard, every time, tricking Caleb and the cousins. Made you look!
Where had the gas can been? Did he leave it by the car while he paced? Was it in the trunk? Or did he lift it from the trunk, set it down while walking back and forth? He’d not have wanted to walk with it, surely, gas sloshing in its red plastic container. It was a two-gallon can, but no way of knowing how full it had been. No way of knowing how much gas it takes to burn a body, or, if there was a way to measure, Caleb didn’t know it. The gas can in his mind poured from a long plastic spout, longer than most men’s arms could reach. Surely he’d have taken off the spout: that detail worried at his mind. There was probably a police report, he thought, knowing that he’d never ask, that the information he needed wouldn’t be found there.
He wondered, the vision of the gaunt old man walking the length of the busy parking lot heavy before him, if Moore had known even at the end that he would really go forward with it. Had he known it when he’d filled the gas can? He’d mowed the grass on Saturday, the day after he intended to set himself on fire, according to the letters found on the dash of his car. The day after Juneteenth, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation had been announced in Texas in 1865. The day had passed, and he’d let it pass. He’d seen that the grass needed mowing, and he’d mowed it. Maybe he’d even used the gas he’d intended for his immolation—that’s what it was called, self-immolation; Caleb hadn’t known there was a word for it, an ugly, numb word that stripped the thing of all its fire—just to mow the grass, and maybe he’d thought that was it. He thought how Moore would have felt, seeing the yard after it had been mowed. How nice the yard would have looked, how clean. And he was still alive. How that would have shamed him.
Caleb heard the phone’s buzzing, knew without looking that it would be Shane calling with her first coffee, checking in. It had made no sense to Shane to carry the family all the way to Texas to attend the birthday celebration for a woman who wouldn’t even know they were there. Even when she was drinking, Shane had been practical. She hadn’t wanted to come to the birthday, and she surely didn’t understand her husband’s sudden need to leave three days early to drive six hours to “the piss-poor armpit of a godforsaken state” to pay homage to a man he’d “hardly known, and hadn’t ever said word one about” until he’d seen it in the papers. Still, yesterday, she’d told him, “Do what you need to do.” He guessed that was intended as a sort of absolution.
When she called she was full of news about the kids, what they’d done, what they’d eaten and not eaten, what had happened yesterday at work, her meeting last night. Caleb listened to her talk, feeling as sad as he’d ever felt in his life.
He picked up the phone now, like he knew he would. “Hey.”
“Morning, Mr. Frost,” Shane said. An old joke. “You awake?”
Caleb nodded. “I am,” he said.
“Hotter than h-e-double-hockey-sticks here today. They’re calling for triple digits. I hope you get inside a little. It’ll be even hotter where you’re at, I saw. You just make sure you stay hydrated. Hey, Jeffrey, Jeff, make sure you get that on your ears—Jeffrey got burned yesterday at Little League; I got the fronts of his legs, but the backs rubbed off on the car seat, and he’s just as red as he can be. A-gain.”
She talked on as Caleb listened with half an ear. Since they’d lost Meg, they seemed like people who belonged to someone else. That might have been the worst part, that he hadn’t lost just Meg but all of them. There was still a feeling he had, still recognizably love, but love at a distance. It was like seeing a movie set on a beach somewhere. You knew what it was; you knew what it felt like to be there, but it wasn’t real. You were in a cold theater, sitting in the dark, watching a picture show. You weren’t there, at the beach.
“What have you told them?” Caleb interrupted her to ask. “Have you told them?”
“Oh, honey,” She sighed. “I don’t think it’s necessary to go into the details.”
“Maybe not,” Caleb said. “But what’s going to happen when Kelsey reads about it in the paper?”
“She only reads the paper during the school year,” Shane said. “It’s a civics thing.”
“It hasn’t been on the news at all?”
“Not national.” She paused. “Jeff’s been following the World Cup—did you know that? He’s already telling me to sign him up for soccer in the fall. Do you think we should? I think it’s a good idea. I hope the practice won’t be on Thursday; maybe it’ll be on Tuesdays, that would be the easiest. Maybe I can talk to some of the other parents, I’ll see if there’s any way to make sure . . .”
It seemed like she thought he was in the next room. If she didn’t understand what her husband was doing, that was something she could accept. Accepting the things she couldn’t change was an important part of her “program,” but changing the things she could—making sure soccer met on a day when she wouldn’t have to be driving Kelsey one place and Jeff another—was also important. Caleb heard the click of her heels as she walked around the kitchen, the phone pressed to her cheek while she refilled her coffee, wiped the counters, poured cereal into the empty bowls. “Kelsey,” she called, her voice in another direction. “Jeff, y’all ready? Breakfast.”
The lights no longer buzzed over the parking lot. Cars moved, stopping and going at the intersection’s traffic light. He caught the tail ends of guitar lines, talk radio, the heavy thump of bass.
“You still there?” he heard Shane ask.
“Still no word on when the services will be?”
“They’re thinking maybe this coming Saturday.” Caleb heard her walk across the kitchen to where the calendar was hung, knew she was mentally rearranging the inked events on the page.
“You still don’t want us to come?”
“Nope. I’ll be fine. “Caleb sucked at his teeth. “Love you,” he said at last.
“Love you too, “she said.
Caleb had been to this town only once as an adult, years ago, for a cousin’s funeral. Ellie had been close to his own age, thirty-four or thirty-five, but she’d had cancer since they’d been in high school. Her whole life, it seemed, had been spent in the shadow of death. Not like his parents, who’d passed within a few months of each other, one of complications from diabetes, the other from a botched cardiac surgery. Not like his Aunt Lucille, who’d died in Osaka after she married the second time, and even her body hadn’t come back. Not like Meg, his oldest, who’d been only fourteen, gone within weeks of her diagnosis. Weeks. He heard “I’m glad she didn’t have to suffer” so often that he’d stopped recognizing the words. He did what he was supposed to do: he attended budget meetings, he preached sermons that were full of anecdotes he found online like he had for years. What ministers had done before the Internet, he shuddered to think. “Yes, ma’am,” he would say when he didn’t have another choice but to hear them out. “Yes, ma’am. It was a blessing.”
It had been a long time since he’d attended any funeral at which he had not presided. His friend Sheila, whom he’d known since seminary, had presided. He didn’t know who’d thought to call her. It seemed, like so much of that time, that it had just happened. He barely remembered the service now, grateful only for the prayer book’s well-worn majesty. “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives; and that at the last he will stand upon the earth . . .” The words unfurled over the crowded room like a hot breeze, until there was a sense of commonality in their suffering. At the last, Caleb thought, stupidly. He ached for it to be over, done.
And yet when the services had been read, as Sheila raised her right hand to deliver the blessing, her palm facing Caleb and his family, and said, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” he longed to cry, “Wait, no,” for once leaving here, the world would once again press its concerns against him, so hard he could barely breathe. Caleb had suddenly remembered how, when he was a child, the Reverend Moore had done the same thing: “May the Lord make his face to shine upon you. And grant you peace.” His large hand had been steady, pale in the shade beneath the tent. How many funerals had there been, how many palms raised toward how many grieving flocks?
No one lived here anymore, but four generations of Caleb’s family were buried in a rambling acre a mile or so from where the service had been held. Caleb had been born here, like Charles Moore. Here had been Charles Moore’s first ministry, the church Caleb attended as a child. The church where they’d held his cousin Ellie’s funeral that had, once upon a time, been Moore’s church.
That had been the last time he’d been to Grand Saline. They’d gathered for Ellie’s services at Aunt Lane’s house in Dallas, caravanned to Grand Saline in a line of minivans, hatchbacks, and sedans. It was the children’s first funeral. Meg had been old enough to stay quiet, a terrible grace evident in her composure. Shane had to walk Jeff and Kelsey outside the church while the funeral was happening. They’d caravanned again, the two or three miles from the church to the cemetery. Ellie’s oldest boy, only a year older than Meg, had played a stuttering “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the trumpet. They’d sat around among the flower arrangements, slapping mosquitoes and fanning themselves with the church bulletins. Then they’d all driven back to Dallas, the kids asleep in the backseat. All three of them.
Before reading the letter that was in the paper, Caleb hadn’t known that that first flock, the one here in Grand Saline, had sent Moore packing after he publicly agreed with the school decision at Little Rock. He’d advocated the end to segregation here in Texas, called it a stain on the Christian conscience. Apparently, the flock hadn’t felt stained. Reverend Moore would have been barely twenty-two, newly married, and newly ordained. If he’d seen that the people who’d been so kind to him, who’d praised his sermons and welcomed him into their homes since he was a boy, didn’t welcome their black neighbors along with him, he’d assumed that it just hadn’t occurred to them. That they would do what he called “the right thing” if only they’d known how to do it. Even though he’d quickly been disabused of this fantasy by that particular flock, well, he still thought that somehow his message just needed to be clearer.
“I brought you some coffee cake,” the woman said.
Caleb blinked, rubbed his eyes, and looked up at her from his folding chair. He must have been dozing a little, because he hadn’t heard her walk up. The woman wore a dense coil of reddish-black braids, bangs flatted and cut in rough angles around her weathered face. He held up a hand to block the sun. “Good morning.”
She thrust a tinfoil container toward him, her dark fingers tipped in swirls of blue-and-white nails. “Here,” she said. “You may be hungry.”
“Well, thank you, ma’am,” Caleb said, embarrassed. He took the package. “I’m fine, but, well, that’s mighty kind of you.”
She tilted her head, waiting. He put the foil package to his nose, took a deep breath. “Cinnamon,” he said. “Thank you.” The swirls, he saw now, were like small globes, like seeing the earth from space, each one painted onto the nail.
“I didn’t make it,” she said, “but I thought you might be getting hungry. Anything else you need, you just ask. I’m here all the time, right over there.” She nodded toward the salon.
“Thank you,” he said again.
She looked toward the police tape. “It happened there,” she said. “What I mean is, I saw it.”
“You saw him?”
She nodded, a tiny shake of the head. Took out a pack of GPC menthol 100s, picked one out with her fingernail. “He’d been walking around the parking lot for a while—I work over there, at the salon. It’s slow.” She lit the cigarette held between burgundy lips. “So I was there watching, and he’s just walking back and forth, and I said to Darryl, my boyfriend, ‘Darryl, what do you think that fool man is doing? Lost his keys?’ I was getting ready to send him out to help him look. But then he got some square thing, like a towel or something, and he kneels down on it. He picks up—well, I didn’t really know what it was, but then something told me to think, ‘Is that gas?’ and the next thing you know he’s pouring it all over himself, and then he’s on fire.”
“You saw it,” Caleb said; it was all he could think to say, but the woman didn’t respond.
“Darryl knew before I did. Grabbed the fire extinguisher, runs out there.” She took another drag, her eyes toward the pavement. “He’s, standing up like he’s trying to walk, but—” another drag—“well, and then Darryl’s spraying him down. I don’t know. It seemed like forever to put it out.”
She stubbed out the cigarette with a little left on it, put the butt back in the carton. Her fingers were shiny, as if freshly oiled or lotioned. “I thought he was a Muslim, like a terrorist. I thought we were being attacked. I mean, what kind of person sets themself on fire?”
“I’m Caleb,” Caleb said, holding out his hand.
“Katrina,” the woman said. She stepped closer to shake his hand, then moved slightly away again.
Caleb said. “He was . . . a nice man. A good man.”
Katrina shook her head. “Darryl was in Iraq, and he says he never saw nothing like that before. He’s still messed up about it.”
Caleb said, “He was upset about racism.”
“Racism? Huh. That man was crazy,” she said. Then, quickly, “I’m sorry. But he’d have to be depressed.
“I saw you here yesterday,” she said with a different tone.
Caleb moved the tinfoil coffeecake from one side of his lap to the other. “I’m trying to . . .” he said, then stopped. He took a breath. “I’m just wanting to think about what happened.” He gestured toward the police tape. “This seemed as good a place as any.”
“He your kin?” she asked.
Caleb shook his head. “I knew him. When I was a boy.” He started to say, “He’s the reason I became a priest,” but something stopped him. The same something that had kept him from putting on the clerical collar that morning.
They sat in silence, listening to the thrum of slow traffic on the bypass and their own thoughts. Caleb unwrapped the coffeecake, broke off a piece of it. He hadn’t known anyone who’d gone to Iraq, except Shane’s friend’s son. As far as he knew, the boy was still there.
“Well,” Katrina said, “I’ll be getting on.”
“Thank you,” Caleb said again. Then heard himself add, “I think this is the same kind of rolls my daughter likes.” The present tense still the default, he observed as if from a distance.
“You married?” Katrina asked. “How many children?”
“A boy and a couple of . . . and a girl. Back in Louisiana.” He blushed. “You?”
“Oh, Lord, yes. Two boys. Both of them grown now.”
“Moore had two boys,” Caleb said.
Katrina’s jaw hardened. “How could he do that to those babies? No matter how old they got to be, they still his babies.” Then, softening, “Maybe it’s different for men.”
Caleb wondered if it was, in fact, different. “I don’t know. It’s hard to figure. I mean, he was old, right?”
He’d worn his collar yesterday, but sometime in the night it had irritated his skin, and he’d stuffed it in his pocket. Now he wished he had it on still. The truth was he had no idea what the old man had been thinking. “He knew he would be dying.”
“Well, no,” Caleb admitted. “It doesn’t seem like it. He was in fine health; that’s what everyone says. It’s not like he had cancer. But still, he was seventy-nine.”
“He still has a family, doesn’t he? He’s still married. What’s she supposed to do now? Poor thing must be just sick. Paper said he didn’t even talk to her about it ahead of time. Racism. Huh.” Katrina pursed her lips. “Well, you come on if you need anything.”
“Thanks,” Caleb said. He didn’t look at her as she walked across the parking lot, her heels echoing hard judgment.
The little brown dog looked like it was used to living off scraps. It approached Caleb as he walked from the gas station, tail wagging, nose respectfully sniffing the pavement, eyes hopeful. “Nope, I got nothing,” Caleb told the dog. He held out his hand, let the dog sniff how little was there. “Go on.”
The dog looked away, then back at Caleb. It wagged its stub of a tail again, and circled around twice, nails clicking on the pavement.
Caleb sipped his coffee from the plastic travel mug. The coffee was too hot, burned his tongue, syrupy with powdered creamer. Caleb sighed. “What the hell,” he said. He didn’t know if he meant about the scorching coffee, his sore mouth, the dog that was even now following him, Caleb saw, hopping along on three legs, or the fact that it was the morning of the second day he’d been sitting here staring at an empty patch of parking lot. He thought of his Aunt Lane, her eyes blue as a broken vein. Caleb, the outlier, adrift in the parking lot where a man had died.
His folding chair was where he’d left it, to the side of the police tape, its back to the two-lane highway bypass. He sat down. “Well, come here, buddy,” he whispered. He lowered his hand, held out his knuckles for the dog’s inspection. The little brown dog hopped across the asphalt. “What happened to you?” he wondered aloud.
The dog gave a few soft whimpers and pushed its ears beneath Caleb’s hand. Caleb rubbed, and the little brown dog pushed harder. “Good boy,” Caleb told him. “Don’t you have a person somewhere?”
Around this town, the town that Charles Moore had indicted with all the fury of the righteous, local congregations had given over their regular services to prayers for Charles Moore and his family. It was on every church sign. “Prayers for the Moores,” or, more obliquely, “Prayers for All Who Mourn.” Caleb wondered what that meant. He envisioned a priestly shape draped in black, laying hands on the indistinct figures of Moore’s wife, his children, grandchildren. His flock. Caleb thought of the casseroles, the pies, the tins of brownies and lemon squares, the frozen lasagnas and potpies stacked in his own freezer, brought by the women of the parish as a generally recognized response to hardship of any sort. Moore’s widow’s grief, like his own, unanswerable by anything less tangible than casserole.
His sister, Greta, had moved into his house for a short time after Meg’s death. It had been Greta who’d directed the flow of traffic that arrived with cards and flowers and food wrapped in tinfoil. People who know what to do in extraordinary times aren’t always those with imagination, he’d observed. “We’ll keep you in our prayers,” was said over and over again. “We’ll pray for you.”
And yet Caleb had been unable to visit Moore’s family, even though he’d driven right past the house. The house had a white wreath of flowers on the front door but otherwise looked like any other suburban Texas ranch house, with its empty expanse of front lawn and silvery cottonwood oaks. He couldn’t stop in because he couldn’t not say the things that he knew to say. “We’ll pray for you,” he would have said. “I’ll pray for you. I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
But Moore’s dying request was not to be answered in the form of prayers. He’d requested justice, and that request, far as Caleb could see, had been met with the same stony silence he’d known all his life.
What was it for, then?
The little brown dog sighed as it settled next to Caleb’s feet. There was a blast of diesel as a delivery truck pulled around to the back of the Dollar General. Caleb thought about the typed letter Moore had left on the dashboard of his car. In the letter, he’d written about being a boy, growing up in the backwoods less than a mile from where Caleb’s family once lived. About the road he’d walked with his unnamed friends to their usual fishing stream, and the encounter in which he’d learned why they’d called that part of town “pole town.” He and his friends had been invited by a man they knew as Uncle Billy to accept a glass of water. “But his real purpose was to cheerily tell us about helping to kill the ‘niggers’ and put their heads up on a pole.”
This had already been history by the time Moore heard about it. It was already in the past.
If there had been lynchings, if postcards were made, if the town’s whites had come out for the entertainment of dark-skinned arms and legs hanging up off the ground. It had already been long ago. If heads had been nailed to the tops of poles, Moore had never seen them, either. It was already far in the past, even then.
“Segregation, well, it was just the way it was,” Caleb remembered one man telling him. They’d been seated next to each other on a flight; the man was going to Tampa for a sales convention of some sort. “We didn’t think there was anything wrong about it,” the man had gone on. “It was just normal. I don’t think anyone I knew ever really thought any less of black people, not like they make it out to be.” The man’s eyes had blinked rapidly behind his bifocals. Caleb had turned away, shocked. This history wasn’t something people talked about. Maybe Moore had thought he would change that. In the letter, he’d written, “Many African Americans were lynched around here, probably some in Grand Saline: hanged, decapitated, and burned, some while still alive. The vision of them haunts me gravely.” But why hadn’t Caleb ever heard Moore say this when he was alive? What had he ever heard about racism, growing up? If Moore had tried to have the church welcome black people, back then, why didn’t Caleb remember anything about it? The police tape taunted him: You don’t remember? You didn’t listen? Caleb couldn’t remember anything out of the ordinary. A nice guy.
The coffee rose, acid searing the back of his throat. He put the cup down. The little brown dog barked softly in its sleep.
The stores were open now, and cars moved in and out of the parking lot. It made Caleb think about the ocean, the way the waves just kept on coming in whether anyone was there to see them or not, when he suddenly recalled fishing with Moore; and maybe his Uncle Odum, Lucille’s first husband, had been there too. Was he imagining it? The long empty hours waiting for a bite, quiet but for Moore’s machine-like laugh, his terrible jokes. “Why do you always bring at least two Baptists fishing? Because if you bring one, he’ll drink all your beer!” It might have even been Uncle Odum with those jokes, Caleb couldn’t remember.
His coffee cup was empty, and the little brown dog had polished off the crumbs of the coffee cake. The police tape moved gently in a breeze Caleb couldn’t feel. He’d attached an umbrella to the back of the folding chair with duct tape, but his legs were hot in the sun.
A young man in khakis and a collared shirt ambled out to the end of the parking lot, where Caleb sat. When he got close enough, he gave a little wave. A ring on his pinky finger glinted in the sun, and his belly pressed the plaid cotton weave against the glint of his belt buckle.
“Hey,” said Caleb. He nodded cautiously.
The younger man’s hand had raised, as if to shake Caleb’s, but instead he gestured toward the tape. “Is that where it happened?”
“Ah,” the man said. “Here.” His eyes filled with tears. “Right here,” he said. “Right here.” He stumbled, dropped to his knees, his hands on the pavement, eyes closed.
Caleb turned away, embarrassed. Then, ashamed of his embarrassment, he turned back. The little brown dog sprang to its feet and began to bark, a high-pitched friendly yip, nails clicking against the pavement as it circled the man.
“Oh, a dog!” the man quickly rose, wiped his eyes, put a hand out to the dog. “What’s his name?”
“He’s not my dog,” Caleb said, apologetically. “He just showed up this morning.”
“He’s adorable,” the man said. He seemed to mean it. His voice raised an octave. “What’s your name, little fellow? What’s your name?” The transformation was so rapid that Caleb had to wonder. A man whose emotions came so quickly to the surface.
“Well,” Caleb said. Then, “Did you know him? The Reverend Moore, I mean?”
The man turned to Caleb then, brushed his hand against his pants as if to wipe it clean, and raised it to shake. “That man was a great, great man. The Reverend was . . . I’m sorry, I can’t believe I’m like this. I didn’t know it would be so hard.”
“Thank you,” was all Caleb could think of to say. He found himself standing. “How did you know him?”
“I’m sorry—I’m Dale. I forgot you wouldn’t know. He did our wedding, Keith’s and mine. No one else would, you know. We’d just wanted it to be in a church.” He sniffed, wiped his eyes. “Sorry.”
Caleb shook his head. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It’s what he wanted,” Dale said. He shrugged. “He thought it would make a difference. He always thought that it would make a difference.”
“Oh, no.” Dale laughed, a quick gasp. “No, that’s not what I meant. I just mean, that’s how he was. I didn’t have any idea that he might . . . He just, he thought he could change things. Maybe he was right, maybe not. I don’t know. But look around. What’s different?”
The two men were silent a moment. Diesel engines idled at the far end of the parking lot. Dale said, “He probably thought it would be a bigger deal. You know, that the press would . . . that people would see how bad it was. He thought, I don’t know, that we, our society, hadn’t made amends, I guess you’d say. And without that, we were in trouble.”
“But he wasn’t in trouble, right? That you knew of?”
Dale shook his head. “Everybody loved him. I mean, not everybody agreed with him, but he was who he was.”
“Who kills themselves over amends?” Caleb muttered. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“It was a bust anyway,” Dale said.
“Me and Keith. He left me a month later, after three years. Three and a half.”
“He left you a month in? After you got, um, after the wedding?”
“Well, six weeks. Not quite six weeks. There was someone else, as it turned out. Isn’t that always the way it is?” Dale knelt down, rubbed the dog, which rolled over onto its back. Its little belly was hopping with fleas, dark against the light brown fur.
“You know the secret of a long marriage? Just never want a divorce on the same day.”
“That sounds just like something Reverend would have said!” Dale exclaimed. “Damn! It does! Just like him. Oh, my.” The little brown dog sprang to its feet, nails clicking as it pranced. The edges of the parking lot blurred in the heat.
Dale returned with a Styrofoam ice chest, a case of Miller High Life, and a bag of kibble. He was now sporting a Marlins baseball cap. He carried a folding chair that had a tag still hanging from it. “It’s five o’clock someplace,” he said, cracking open a beer.
“Cheers,” Caleb agreed. He raised his can. “To Moore.”
They both took long, cool swallows. Dale pushed open his chair—they’d moved to the gravelly, weedy edge of the pavement. No shade but Caleb’s umbrella and Dale’s ball cap. From here, Caleb could see that the asphalt wasn’t as clean as it had seemed. That it was crumbling, breaking apart, white and gray. Weeds pushed their way through only to be flattened by traffic. Black streaks, oil stains, water dripping from leaking air conditioners. Butterflies dipped and lowered to the pavement, lifting to dive again. Plastic bottles, candy wrappers, empty chip bags, bottle caps, Styrofoam flecks: these things drifted around the lot. He saw the bodies of worms, dried where they’d been stranded by the sun. From somewhere within the grass, a cicada’s song twitched and soared. Dale shook out some kibble for the little brown dog, which they’d come to call LB. “Good dog,” he said, approvingly.
Caleb cracked open a second. It was almost as good as the first. “Do you suppose they’re going to bust us for open container?”
“This is Texas,” Dale said. “I thought you were from Louisiana?”
“Well, it’s been a while since I acquainted myself with the law on this particular subject.” The truth was that he had pretty much stopped drinking when Shane did.
“I’m more likely to be busted for being openly queer,” Dale said. He was on his third. He belched and grinned. “Don’t worry about it.”
Caleb nodded. This was what his life had come to, then. Drinking High Life with a gay man in the middle of godforsaken noplace Texas. “As long as you don’t make a pass at me,” he said.
“Honey, as if.” Dale laughed, and Caleb grinned, took another drink. The heat together with the beer was making him giddy and swollen, sloshy.
“Reverend Moore—that was the thing, you know? I always thought, how much different my life would have been, if he really were my family. Like, if he were my dad. Because let me tell you,” Dale jabbed a finger in Caleb’s direction. “Let me tell you, my family did not have the same AT-titude toward me that the Reverend did. Not a-tall, no sir. “
“Well, I’m, um, sorry for that,” Caleb said.
“Spilt milk now. Their loss.” Dale tossed his head. “But I just always wanted to know, how did he get that way? Because it was like he didn’t even bat an eye. He accepted folks for who they was. Always did. No matter what, you could tell them, Oh, yeah, go to Moore. He’ll help you. But who helped him?”
“I don’t know,” Caleb said. “Maybe he didn’t think he needed any help.”
“Everybody needs help,” Dale said. “I mean—well, look. What happened.”
“But was it wrong?” Caleb set down his beer, and his hands clenched and opened as he spoke. “I mean, if he’d told someone—anyone—his plan, they’d have said, ‘Let’s get you some help.’ And they wouldn’t have meant, let’s get you some help getting people over racism. Getting people to act in a kinder way. Getting, you know, better schools for poor kids, getting access to health care for everyone, doing something about the criminal justice system. No, they would have meant, ‘Let’s get you help because you’re crazy. You must be depressed, out of your mind.’ And what would that have helped him with, exactly?”
“It would have helped. It would have. I know it,” Dale said. “He was working on all that stuff. We all were. Are. I mean, Jesus. Sorry, but, isn’t that what we’re all doing? It’s not going to happen overnight. And now we got one less captain in the fight. I think he bailed. I think he cut and run.” Dale’s eyes were bright with tears, and Caleb looked away.
“I hear you,” he said. “I know what you mean. I just, well, I’m not sure.” Jeff was probably at soccer practice right now, Kelsey still at the after-school program at the Y. Thinking of a fight felt abstract, distant. Shane would be sitting in the minivan, biting her nails, reading The Grapevine, talking on her cell, checking Facebook. He would have been at work on his sermon for Sunday, meeting with the vestry about that ceiling repair and planning the next Interfaith Celebration committee meeting. None of this felt real to him, either. He picked up the beer again, but it was hot.
“Okay,” Caleb said, “maybe I don’t know what you mean. What do you mean, ‘in the fight’? I mean, what do you do, to fight? Besides just stay alive?”
“That’s the main thing,” Dale said, his mouth twisting wryly. “Pretty low bar, don’t you think? Well, apparently not. Sorry. I have a terrible sense of humor. Or timing,”
“I’m just asking,” Caleb said. He felt a stab of pain behind his left eye and closed both eyes for a moment.
Dale sighed. “Right. So, what I was thinking about was all the stuff we do to try to make changes. Like pride marches and petitions and ‘It Gets Better.’ Like making sure we have people of color, like they say, on our school boards and police forces and in our churches. I mean, I don’t do all that much. But Moore did. He did that stuff.”
“Does it make any difference?”
“You tell me! Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have walked over to you and told you about me and Keith. Once upon a time, meaning five years ago, which is no time. My cousin Toly, he didn’t get that chance. So, hell, yes, I think there’s some difference.” His voice was pure, shrill as birdsong. LB sprang up, sniffing the air anxiously, then circled a few times before settling back down into the rough grass at Caleb’s feet.
“I hear you,” Caleb said. “I reckon you got something there.” But he didn’t really know what difference the man had made. The couple hadn’t even lasted. What was the point in marrying someone you weren’t going to stick with? But then he thought of Shane, and Greta, and all the wives everywhere, and freezers full of food, and silence. His beer was empty again.
“Listen,” Dale was saying, “it’s folks like Reverend who make change happen. It’s like, they remind you that just because something is a way, it doesn’t have to always be the same way. Shit, I don’t know how to say it. I guess I just mean he was a good man. Maybe that’s enough.”
“It wasn’t for him, though. Looks like he needed more.”
“What did he need? Somebody to gun him down, you know, like MLK or Bobby Kennedy? Where was the grassy knoll for Moore? He didn’t even get a grassy knoll.” Dale’s words were slurring a little.
“Yeah, most of us don’t get a knoll,” Caleb agreed. He needed some food. Shane would be calling, and he needed to sober up a little. That’s the last thing he needed, her flipping out on him. Could pizza be delivered to a parking lot? Worth a shot. He was drinking a cold beer now, so it must be a new one.
They ended up not being able to find a delivery place—maybe there was one, but it wasn’t listed when they called 411. After what seemed like forever trying to explain what they needed to an automated system, Caleb and Dale ended up staggering over to the gas station for some plastic-wrapped sandwiches. It was cool inside the gas station. Hot dogs turned on little industrial roasters. They had a kind of pizza service there, but the glass display was dark, with a sign written in magic marker and stuck to it with tape: out of odr. Giant ice drinks were less than a dollar. Caleb bought two, even though they came with free refills, and stuck a large bag of Funyuns on the counter alongside the sandwiches. Dale was insisting on paying for everything.
“No, no, your money’s no good here,” he kept saying, even while Caleb was pushing past him, wallet in hand. “It’s okay, I got it.”
The woman at the cash register just kept ringing things up without looking at either one of them. Caleb thought about explaining how his wife would be calling any minute, so that she didn’t get the wrong idea, but then the words didn’t put themselves into his mouth. It sure did feel good in the air conditioning. He found himself walking to the men’s room and wondered why he’d waited to go. He closed his eyes to the wonderful release, even though the room smelled like Lysol and pond scum, and the florescent light was flickering so badly that he could see it even with his eyes closed. The fart fan clattered overhead. Caleb was sitting now, his head bent towards his knees. He could hear Moore’s high-pitched laughter, mixed in with the rattle of the fan.
“I don’t know what to do,” Caleb whispered. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you wanted.”
Someone was turning the doorknob, but they stopped when Caleb yelled, “OCCUPIED!”
The laughter continued. “I got you that time! Whooo-ee! Got you!”
“You got me, yes, sir, you got me.” Caleb rubbed his palms on his pant legs as he sat, jackknifed, on the toilet. Was it all a joke? he wondered and felt the familiar slow burn of being the last to get the meaning. What the hell kind of joke would it have been? “What the hell?” he heard himself saying out loud. “What the hell?”
Dale was knocking at the door. “Buddy, you okay? How you doing? Let’s get going.”
The gas station light blinded Caleb as he stepped out. There were some late afternoon thunderclouds building to the west, sun streaking through them in a way his mama used to call “Jesus clouds.” The wind was cool across his shoulders. He tugged open the cellophane wrapper and took a bite of the sandwich. His mouth filled with dry bread, ham so thin it was more like flavoring. He tore open the mayonnaise packet with his teeth, squirted it on the top of the next bite.
Dale walked behind him, feeding LB the Funyuns. “Good boy!”
Together they made their way back to the chairs, one with the umbrella flipped upside down by the wind. Caleb picked it up, sat down, still chewing. The police tape had torn, and now it drifted toward them like a streamer.
“Ordinary time,” Caleb murmured.
“Sorry. I was just thinking, about how every part of the year, in the church, is a season. This here, where we are now? It’s called “Ordinary Time.” It’s the season that follows the Pentecost, back around Memorial Day.”
“Ordinary Time, huh?” Dale chuckled. “What are the others?”
“Well, there’s Easter, you know, and there’s Christmas. Lent, the forty days before Easter. Ordinary’s the longest. It runs all the way through till Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. I think Methodists used to call it Kingdomtide?” Then, “I’m actually a priest, you know? Just not wearing the—” and here he circled his hand to his neck.
“That right?” Dale asked. “Well, I’ll be.”
Caleb shrugged. “It’s during Ordinary time that the liturgy contains the miracles,” he confided. “Not Christmas or Easter. Those commemorate his birth and resurrection. But the miracles? Ordinary time.”
“I sure didn’t know that,” Dale said.
“Well,” Caleb said. He laughed, apologetically. Dale propped his feet up on the cooler, examined his fingernails. As if something had been settled, Caleb opened the second sandwich. When the phone rang, he let it go.
The trucks started to arrive about an hour later, just as the sun was setting. The trucks idled on the far side of the parking lot, their trailers painted with clowns and freckle-faced children. They carried giant plastic slides to be inflated and colored lights that were lit. Ferris wheels, Tilt-A-Whirls, even a miniature roller-coaster arrived and were assembled as Caleb and Dale watched, speechless, LB barking furiously and circling the chairs.
“It’s a carnival! A dad-gummed carnival!” Dale said, more than once.
The scent of diesel filled the night air; the engines still idled noisily. Caleb could hear pale-skinned people shouting to one another as they moved between the trucks setting up for the evening, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Caleb thought about the call he’d missed. About Shane, who’d be getting back from her meeting just about now. The kids would have been over at Judy’s, and Shane would be worrying that they didn’t have their homework done before now. Why did she pay Judy? Etc., etc. He thought about his Aunt Lane, moving around the house that somehow managed to be crowded and empty at the same time, and about Greta snoring on the pullout. He thought about the woman who’d brought him that coffee cake this morning, the one who’d seen it (“I saw it,” he heard her say again and again) and about her friend Darryl, the vet. He wondered what else Darryl had seen, what else that he saw again once he’d seen the vision of a man in flames. In Caleb’s mind, the vision was silent, flickering like an old movie, but the flames were always yellow, orange, and there was never much smoke.
Dale was breathing heavily beside him, his head resting gently on his chest, LB curled now at his feet. Caleb stood, feeling the stretch in his legs, his feet cramped in his shoes. He smelled the stink beneath his arms, his damp T-shirt. He scratched his crotch. It was dark now in the parking lot, even though it was lit by streetlights; they seemed like nothing beside the bright lights of the carnival. Music pulsed from the trucks, heavy bass mixed with almost inaudible guitars, maybe accordions. A plastic grocery bag floated gently across the parking lot, then another. As Caleb watched, they drifted gently into the night sky and disappeared.
I couldn’t tell you how I stumbled across the story of the Reverend Charles Moore, who on June 23, 2014 poured a can of gasoline over himself in Grand Saline, Texas, and lit a match. It received little direct attention at the time, despite a letter typed and left on the dashboard of his car that explicitly stated the reason for his decision: to honor those killed by lynching and to implore his fellow white citizens to repent and make amends. Moore’s actions were quickly judged to be a result of mental illness, thus calling for individual, rather than collective, action.
I was interested, like the narrator Caleb, in sitting with this a while longer. Caleb also has a history he can’t talk about, the death of his fourteen-year-old daughter, “gone within weeks of her diagnosis.” I didn’t want to put words to Caleb’s grief but to have this empty space in a parking lot that’s marked (with police tape and a gas-stained scar on the pavement) as holy and gave us a space to sit and listen.
Charles Moore was not invented, and I hope that my characterization of him will honor the real man. As a white Southern queer woman who shares, with Reverend Moore and Caleb, Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted South,” I wanted to amplify Moore’s struggle to reconcile the kindness of white people with the abject violence we’ve committed and continue to commit. This violence is a part of our histories, both personal and public, that we don’t talk about.
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the southern Appalachians. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been awarded fellowships from Ragdale and Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She’s been a regular blogger for Ploughshares, contributing writer for Numero Cinq, and her poetry and essays can be found in a variety of online and print journals. This is her first published short story.
“Salt Land” by Amanda Baldeneaux
Timely and fresh, Amanda Baldeneaux’s Editor’s Prize winner—her first published work— is one of those eerie fiction stories that rhymes with reality. “Hydrolic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ is endemic in Colorado,” Baldeneaux says, “with three hundred new well applications pending in my neighborhood alone.” She explores an essential question: how much of our environment are we willing to sacrifice for economic progress, and who gets make that decision?
by Amanda Baldeneaux
Many things lay buried beneath the fields of the Gillie farm: splintered seed dibblers tangled in sorrel root, Ute arrowheads, their edges chipped by plows, snapped cattle bones, and the rusted heads of severed scythe blades and spades. Those things were shallow, no harder to find than the bottle of bourbon Harlan hid beneath the bench seat of his mud-caked truck. Every family in Kester had them, relics revealed with little more than the scratch of an uncut fingernail.
Evaline knew—had always known—it was the deep things that brought ruin if exposed to sunlight: the name of Joanne’s real daddy, the scar on Jake’s cheek, the floor of the ancient seabed beneath the shale. Too long ago to fathom, the sea’s first inhabitants, soft-bodied squids, jellies, and cucumbers, had swum where corn now grew, then died and dissolved into methane and crude oil deep beneath the topsoil and bedrock of the Gillie farm land. Harlan’s family had owned the land long before Evaline came along and discovered the shale.
Before Kestract Oil & Gas gave a damn about the clay-packed tract, the first Gillies mined a living in turnip roots, rutabagas, and collards. The land fought back, and the farmers took to hanging their broken wagon wheels like trophies on the broad sides of the barn, the rims and spokes snapped in the trenches of mud where the Gillies worked themselves into graves forcing greens from the clay-thick ground. The broken wheels still hung there like phases of the moon charted across the peeling paint of the old boards.
With Harlan dead, though, farming was finished. Kestract saw to that, even though Evaline would be blamed. The neighbors didn’t know the brine water had spilled, though, so they busied themselves with other concerns that weren’t their own, like what Evaline should do with Harlan’s remains.
“Bury the body” was the consensus, but on the question of whether it should be in the Presbyterian churchyard—Harlan’s old religion—or the Baptist, Kester remained divided.
“Ashes to ashes,” Evaline took to responding. The way she saw it, Harlan hadn’t left much for her to dispose of, anyway. Pieces of his body had been calling it quits and taking their usefulness with them for as long as she’d been married to him. That would have been be fine, if the elements of Harlan hadn’t taken pieces of the Gillie farm with them each time they packed up and left. His left knee had been the first to go: years of high school track and morning PT in combat boots made that departure inevitable. His knee took the chicken coop with it. Sure, a bad storm had blown in the night and leveled the coop after the doctor declared all the cartilage shot, but over the years, Evaline saw the pattern. By the time Harlan died, there wasn’t much of him left to bury but calcium-bereft bones and the pooling skin draped over them. With the Kestract drilling rig slowly chewing away at the shale beneath the farm now, it only made sense to let Harlan’s bones be burned and ground down, too.
“Burial is God’s way.” This always came after Evaline told neighbors that she meant to cremate Harlan. God forbid anyone in this town might respond with a simple nod and a tending to their own business. Laissez-faire had never been a motto that Kester residents knew how to live by. Hell, Evaline doubted anyone born in Kester could even spell it. She couldn’t, even after three years of French in between her geochemistry courses at Bauxark College. No one had approved of that decision, either—a Kester girl shipped off to study rocks and beakers—where’d her momma gone wrong? She’d have stayed away, too, if not for the anchoring rocks holding the mud of the farm fields in place. And Harlan. As a child, Evaline had spent summers digging quartz and limestone out of the roadside, looking for streaks of crystal in the discard piles cut by bulldozers after the county roads were built. By the time she left for college, Evaline already knew about the shale and what it kept hidden inside.
Beneath was where most of Kester like to keep old things: secrets, bodies, and now the oil and gas that soaked the shale rocks just under the layers of cornstalks and soil. The Gillies had always been a farming family, naming their acreage “Gillies’ Retreat” after the turn their forefathers had made at the first sight of a salt pan stretching across the Utah desert. The risk of cracking open the salt pan’s crust and drowning drove the Gillies back into the delta lands bordering the swamps and the bayous that stretched into the sea further south. After that, the first Gillies were content to homestead the mosquito-filled bog they’d sneered at not six months prior.
The Gillies might have retreated, but at least they hadn’t joined the fraction of settlers nestled forever in the soft mud traps hidden beneath the crusts of salt out West. Those were the ones who didn’t retreat. Those settlers had left the swamps with seeds and spades in hand, following the promise of Zion and fields of ripe, dry soil. In the end, all they’d planted were their own bodies, from which nothing grew, not even stones.
“Retreat” for the Gillies, back then, had meant to run. With Harlan, though, it’d been a place. Now that he’d died, Evaline prepared to run again, and not just because she’d delivered Harlan cold to the crematorium twenty miles east and driven him back in a cardboard box on her lap, earning more scorn from her former friends.
What she did was not their business, but most Kester residents would argue that the fate of a soul is everyone’s business. Evaline never could get a straight answer out of one of those damned evangelicals about how the buried dead, with nothing but pewter coffin pins to show for all their living, would manage to rise their mud-packed remnants on Judgement Day.
Evaline had been out at the cemetery laying flowers on her momma and papa’s stones when Howard Mortuary came to move the bodies buried in the south field. All of them had died back before the century even turned, and there was nothing left in their holes but a few screws and rusted trinkets. The mortician boxed up each bit and reburied the junk, with all the pomp of burying dead royals, on the other side of the freshly paved state highway, its new lanes the gleaming black of polished shoes. Evaline had watched the “funerals” for the reburials through the smudged window of Kester Café, wondering how those folks who now fit in shoeboxes were supposed to up and wake with Christ’s second coming.
That magical thinking—the belief in walking corpses and ghosts who cared about the preservation of their coffin pins—was why she’d left Kester in the first place. She’d gone after graduating Kester High and had received her geochemistry degree as each of her brothers shipped off to the army and seminary, in that order. She’d never intended to come back here, but Harlan Gillie always had a nice smile, and Kestract Oil & Gas was willing to pay heartily for her knowledge of regional minerals. Her daddy was ashamed that she’d got all that schooling just to marry a bog pit farmer, but not nearly as ashamed as her momma after learning that Evaline had no plans to baptize her daughter or son. Harlan had talked her into it, though, and Evaline’s momma had gleefully stuffed two-year-old Joanne and six-month-old Jake into white ruffled gowns for christening. The same baptismal font where the preacher turned his hands into scoops to speckle the baby’s heads with water still stood, a little dustier, near the pulpit during Harlan’s memorial service forty years later. Harlan himself sat neatly in an urn on the communion table, the most polished he’d ever presented himself. That didn’t stop the whispers during the service, though. What could be drawn up from ash? Even Jesus needed something to work with.
Evaline found everyone’s over-keen interest in the dead suspect, but she kept that to herself. At the least the chorus of disappointment over Harlan’s cremation paused—just briefly—the speculation over who among themselves had betrayed Kester’s code of keeping buried things buried. Some Judas among them had signed a sale of mineral rights over to Kestract Oil & Gas, forcing everyone into a pool that stripped their rights to royalties as punishment for not signing in the first place. It had landed a stadium-sized well pad where the cemetery used to be. Maybe if Kestract hadn’t chosen to drill over land claimed by the dead, the town would have been more considering, but people here believed there were some things not even money should mess with.
Everyone suspected Evaline—Kestract shill in her white hard hat and unladylike boots—of the signature that stole their Veterans Memorial Parkway, their cemetery south lawn, and Kester Memorial Gardens gazebo, where hotdogs were roasted on Decoration Day. A new gazebo was almost finished over the relocated grounds, but it wasn’t the same. The worst grievance, though, was yet to be discovered by the townspeople. Evaline hoped they wouldn’t know until she was settled in the Aspen Grove Retirement Home out of state, near where Jake lived. She’d signed the lease on the place a week ago, after Kestract closed on the final acres of the Gillie farm. In two days, Evaline would hold the condo key and be far away by the time Kester found out about the saltwater spill, 500 gallons leached from the shale and now seeping into the fragile ecosystem of the soil, devouring each pill bug, earthworm, and protozoa it passed. Nothing would live in its wake; a rapture of microbes.
Saltwater spilled from a frack water pipe meant a cocktail of salts meant to stay buried in its confines of shale, hydrochloric acids, and methanol, all immune to the borders of the Gillie farm’s fences. By the time the neighbors’ fields started dying, the documents that forced the pooling would be public record, and the signer who had sold all of Kester’s mineral rights to Kestract would face their reckoning, if they were still here. Evaline wouldn’t be; the movers would have every last box out by the end of the day.
Evaline cracked her knuckles. Her joints had grown stiff, and the fall rains didn’t help. She set her coffee on the porch rail and retrieved the urn by her feet.
“Last coffee?” Jake came out and sat in the rocker behind his mother.
“I’m not dying.”
“I meant at home.” Jake twirled a spoon in his mug. “Don’t spill Dad.”
“Wouldn’t he like that?” Evaline asked. “He was the one professed he’d never leave.”
“You like it here.” Jake grinned. “I see you for what you are, Ms. Kester County.”
“You rummaging in my things?”
Jake dug in his pocket and held up a black-and-white photograph of Evaline in an embroidered sash and a dress sewn from plumes of netting and silk. A tiara gleamed on her head. “No wonder you caught Daddy’s eye.”
“Let me see that.” Evaline snatched the photo. Her momma had spent weeks sewing the dress for the county fair pageant.
“You’re going to take him?” Jake nodded toward the urn and stretched his long legs, his knees almost to his chin when he set his feet down to rock.
“It’s not Gillie land anymore.”
“It’ll always be Gillie land. There’s enough of them buried out there.”
“Amazing any of them are buried there. Do you know how many bulldozers were busted digging graves in this bowl of clay? Fools don’t learn.” Evaline set the urn on the table beside Jake. “Ashes or buried, it all ends up the same.”
“Spoken like a scientist.”
“Am I wrong?” Evaline ran her finger around the lip of the urn’s lid. Out across the fallow fields, truck engines roared to life, melting the autumn’s night-wash of frost off windshields. “Can’t stay here,” Evaline said. “Who’d find me if I died in my bed?”
Evaline laughed. “I don’t have those anymore.”
Jake waved his hand. “Small town. Give it a week.”
“It’s been years.”
“If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t gossip.” Jake leaned the rocker back against the siding.
“Didn’t you come here to help me pack?” Evaline tugged at the collar of her quilted coat. Jake didn’t know about the forced pooling or the salt spill. Evaline had always worked to keep her kids out of Kestract business, but then Joanne grew up and left to work for them, too. “Where’s your sister?”
“Here soon. Her helicopter got delayed on the rig. Winds or something. I don’t know, it was hard to hear.”
“The funeral could have waited a day.” Jake dredged the sugar crystals from the bottom of his coffee.
No, Evaline thought, it couldn’t.
No matter to Evaline what Kester thought about what she might or might not have done, though. Kester had been dying for years, since the highway went in and the train depot closed. What difference did it make if death came by economic or ecological disaster? Kestract had already put fat checks in the Kester County School District’s budget and finished the reconstruction of the mayor’s white-columned mansion. Kestract was life support, buying time God hadn’t granted. The bars were full. Boys who would have dropped out of high school and shelled peanuts now earned upward of sixty grand a year working the well pads. It was one of them, no doubt, who’d spilled the wastewater in the first place, but Evaline couldn’t bring herself to ask for names. Unlike the rest of the town, she believed knowing “who” just made everything worse. (Evaline and Constance Wimberley used to be friends. Knowing “who” put an end to it.) The spill had happened; the water had leached as she stood there, soaking into soybean fields and bog mud, killing everything on its way toward Kester proper. They already hated her for signing the forms—or so they figured she had—and nothing she said would make right the salt lake burning up plant roots and rabbit holes as the seconds passed. All she had to do was finish packing the house. Then Kestract and Kester could eat her retirement dust.
Evaline had almost laughed at the funeral yesterday, seeing Harlan in church for the first time in years. His irreverence had started simply, with skipping communion and the temptation of a spoonful of wine. He couldn’t even be trusted with a thimble of booze in the minister’s hand. His liver had already left him, taking off with the farm’s east lot, the departures always in pairs. The day Harlan collapsed in Campbells’ Meat Market, they’d sold a parcel to a cattle rancher next door to pay for Harlan’s appointments with the therapist for PTSD. Harlan was too proud to even file the insurance claim; his old buddy worked in the office on Main, and god forbid he see the request sent in from a shrink. The therapist kept Harlan’s mind around a while longer, but the liver went quickly, trailing its stench of bourbon and beer down the road with its bags. Liver be damned. It was the loss of fidelity that’d been the hardest for Evaline to take lying down. And Constance Wimberley, friend for the ages, had the nerve to sit not two pews behind her at the service. Evaline regretted not throwing his ash in her face. Constance had never gotten over Harlan staying with Evaline. She was the one who whispered loudest that Evaline had signed those papers herself, selling out all of Kester out of spite. In middle school, Constance and Evaline had been home ec partners, fixing each other’s stitches on skirts sewn with fabric too ugly to ever wear. Evaline didn’t ask for names anymore. She wished she’d never asked, “Who?”
When not bowed to pray, the Kester women spent Harlan’s funeral chattering, whispering. Well. Half those women had their first babies six months after marriage; not that Evaline could judge there. Joanne still didn’t know, and Evaline intended to keep it that way. Harlan had been willing to claim the baby, Kestract had already offered Evaline a job, and Evaline’s daddy had suffered a stroke the summer before. Marrying Harlan and moving back home had made the most sense at the time. Evaline had never even bothered to tell Joanne’s real daddy that she was pregnant. Let what’s dead lie, she always said, and she meant it both figuratively and literally.
The phrase crossed her mind again during Harlan’s service, as the preacher recounted the resurrection of Christ. Out across City Park, a drilling rig roared, rumbling its way onto the highway. Evaline squirmed in her seat as everyone watched to see if she would blush, display some semblance of shame over the sellout. Wouldn’t they like the truth, Evaline thought, clasping and unclasping her hands. None of the people in the pews had even spoken to her since the city council declared forced pooling in effect and the first big trucks puttered down the crumbling country roads into the town, throwing chunks of asphalt with their double-stacked wheels. At least Kestract had paid for the roads to be repaved, which was more than the city council had bothered to accomplish in the past ten years.
As children, Evaline and the women now fussing about the lack of a casket and the rig crews filling the diners and the shade of Evaline’s black hat had all sat together in the Presbyterian church, passing notes back and forth about which altar boy had the handsomest face. The answer had always been Harlan.
The Presbyterian church was shuttered when Evaline’s kids were in middle school, as all of Kester migrated here, to the new brick Baptist church that Evaline thought looked more like a barn than a sanctuary. There hadn’t been enough Jesus in Presbyterianism to fill these women, her old friends. There wasn’t enough of their husbands to fill them, either, Evaline figured, as she eyed both Constance and Ida McCleves down the aisle. Ida had run through three husbands, the new ones in bed before the old ones were out the door. Evaline knew. She’d been to two bridal showers and every baby shower before Ida stopped calling. It wasn’t Evaline’s fault that Ida’s third husband died in that explosion. Someone hadn’t tapped a well right and then lit a cigarette beside it. Ida smiled now at the minister’s words, hips and hat brim wide as the length of a pew, tutting her tongue over every hymn selection Eveline had made. If Jake hadn’t been there, squeezing Evaline’s elbow, she would have had a mind to slap the fabric flowers off Ida’s head.
“Ye are the salt of the Earth,” the preacher finished and stared directly at Evaline. she squirmed in her satin-lined dress.
But that was yesterday. Today, the sun rose on a world without Harlan in it, the service finished and the wake dishes washed and stored. Evaline clutched Harlan’s urn, morning light filling the small chip of a diamond on her ring. He’d offered to buy her a bigger stone years ago, but what sense was there in that? She’d laughed in his face, warning him not to touch the ring he had given her back when she was still just a girl with a waistline no bigger than a chicken’s plucked neck, a twelve-week Joanne in her belly, a college degree, and a job panning the dirt around Kester County just like she’d done since she was a child. Harlan couldn’t have afforded a bigger ring, anyway. Evaline always made more money working for Kestract in a year than Harlan could make in a decade trying to squeeze fruits from the soggy fields. She’d never rubbed that in his face, though. Not that it mattered.
She sat on the porch beside Jake, sipping coffee, calculating the viscosity of saltwater over waterlogged fields and dried cornstalks. She had hours now, maybe less, before the spill went public. Roses grew in front of the porch between the remains of lilac bushes she’d planted after her wedding—Harlan killed those with overwatering last spring. Blight set in, killing the enormous plants, their stalks blackened like someone set a blow torch to each. Harlan took everything.
A vegetable garden sat frost-crisp out back. The soil wouldn’t survive the salt or any of the other chemicals mixed into the wastewater brew. Sodium and chloride, chromium, cobalt, lead. Evaline recited the metals drawn up from the bedrock and steeped into the frack fluid in her head. As a child, reciting the periodic table had calmed her, made her feel infused with elemental properties: strength, resilience, the ability to dissolve completely and then return whole. She looked at her coffee, wondering if the tap water was already contaminated. They were on well water out here, and all of Kester on alluvial aquifers. She’d warned Harlan about this before he signed. She’d given him statistics and historical accident records till she was spent. She’d screamed at him that it was her job to know what a horizontal drill could do: she’d seen the full gamut up and down the coast. Spills, explosions, poisoned water and air. “Some things should stay in the ground,” she’d said. But leaving things there never made anyone money. He’d signed the papers, anyway.
Evaline handed the photograph back to Jake.
“Think I’ll keep this one,” he said and tucked it into his pocket. “Brody will get a kick out it. Grandma fluffed up like a queen.”
Evaline stood, studying the coffee in her mug. Was that a fleck of aluminum? She dumped her mug over the porch rail, steam rising off the mulch. “Coffee’s stale.”
Jake sipped his. “Tastes fine.”
Evaline took the cup from him anyway. “Better safe than sorry.”
“I’ll brew another pot. Don’t drink any more tap water.” She hooked the mugs by the handles and pushed through the screen door into the kitchen and took a bottle of water from the fridge. When the Gillies first chose this land, there’d been a stream running through the property, a tributary of the river that filtered the water through stones and silt before flowing past the original clapboard cabin. The stream had dried up in the ’70s, back when canals were dug into farm fields and the water bled down to a trickle. Now all that remained on the property was a thick slice of mud snaking from the peanut field and out into a drainage ditch alongside the gravel road. The ground here had always been muddy, with swamps bordering the towns to the south and the preferable farmland up north, where old oceans had left crushed mollusks and minerals composting in the rich, black soil. Here, Evaline and Harlan had fought clay since Harlan got the land from his grandfather. The clay came from the shale beneath it, and all of the shale from decomposed feldspar, mica, and quartz. The mud and the clay had compressed over millions of years, hardening into layered rocks permeated with the crushed and liquefied bones of the creatures who’d lived here before. Evaline wondered how long before the dead Gillies became gasoline, too.
The clay didn’t detour Harlan, the only brother willing to take over the farm. The ink was still wet on the title when Harlan carried his bride across the farmhouse’s creaking threshold. Clay soil didn’t much matter when pasturing cattle and sheep, as his grandfather had done, declaring his ancestors fools. Harlan, though, wanted things rooted.
“You could mold a man outta this stuff,” he’d say, trying to run a plough through the field back when his hair had been brown. His grandpa laughed when the plow snapped off its handle and pointed at the museum of broken tools on the barn wall. Harlan’s father hadn’t even tried to farm—he’d sold small appliances door-to-door down the coast.
Evaline fitted a new filter into the pot and filled it with coffee. Out in the Gillie graveyard, the bones of those who’d retreated here back in the 1800s still slept, rotting away. Maybe the Baptists were right: soil like this, the clay, could fill in the spaces between ribs and make the dead whole again. Like rhodium: resistant to corrosion and capable of converting back to its elemental form after exposure to high heat. Maybe they all could come back: Papa, Momma, her brothers, Harlan, and the baby she’d lost in between Joanne and Jake. All of Kester, way back to its founding, could be remolded out of Kester clay, fired in a kiln, and set to walk again.
Far afield, a pop of metal from the rig startled her. There could be no new bodies from this clay now, she thought, picturing the saltwater worming its way back into the ground.
“Joanne’s here.” Jake pulled the screen door open. “Movers, too. I’ll go pack up the shed.”
“Wait—” Evaline called, but Jake was gone. He did this on purpose, trying to get mother and daughter to talk. Someone had to be the peacemaker in a family of grudge holders. A car door slammed, followed by the rumble of oversized tires on gravel. Harlan would hate this much noise. He hated the churn of the drilling rig, even after the sound walls went up. He hated how the towers lit up like lightning strikes that never flicked off, keeping him up at night. Then the smells. Diesel so strong his migraines returned. He drank again to relieve the headaches. To sleep. Then the phone calls when he needed money: a quarter more of an acre. Half an acre. Whole. Evaline bit her tongue every time he reached for a bottle of Advil or beer.
She doubted that Harlan could have imagined that the expanse of acreage he’d inherited back in 1947 would shrink as much as it had. Hell, how could either of them imagine how much they’d shrink, too; bits of the body sold off to age like parcels of property at auction.
“He lived hard,” the pastor had preached over Harlan’s urn. “But he died easy.”
“He died easy.” The coroner told her that too, and the phrase was repeated by the few in town who’d respected Harlan enough to stop by with potted lilies or cold cuts and cheese trays. Easy dying: the consolation for widows whose husbands passed in the night. No cancer, no stroke. No chest-seizing heart attack or race to the county ER. Harlan went easy, unlike how he’d lived. Sometime in the night, as Evaline slept in a floral gown beside him, Harlan slipped out. He disappeared without so much as a “Goodbye, darlin’,” the most he’d ever said each morning when he left for the fields, mug brimming with coffee and brandy in hand.
She leaned against the porch rail, wishing he hadn’t taken her lilacs with him. She’d have liked to take a cutting with her to the condo, but a rose twig stuck in a bucket of sand would have to do. She liked roses well enough, but the lilacs had been her mother’s. Where she’d grown them, out back of Evaline’s papa’s store on Main, had since been paved into a parking lot. Paving everything, Evaline thought. One more obstacle for the dead to overcome in their rising.
She dumped the rest of the coffee into the trash; she wouldn’t need it tomorrow. The can would work well for the rose canes. At least he’d left those, if nothing else. Now, with the salt spill, he’d take the whole damn farm, even after his death. Evaline closed her eyes. She would have stayed, if he’d let her, if he hadn’t insisted on signing the papers.
But he had, and Kester would see that it was Harland who’d done it, and they’d say she had made him, the minion of Kestract. Or worse, they’d believe the truth for once: Harlan Gillie had sold Kester with the swipe of his pen. The last of him would be gone, then: his reputation. Evaline couldn’t bear it.
So senior living, a condo in a retirement community, just a few steps from a nursing home , where old folks like her went for their bodies to finish their wearing out. No forwarding address to be left. She’d go off grid. Underground. Whatever it took to keep the town’s respect for Harlan intact. Her own for him was already so tattered. And yet. There’d never been a fight big enough to dissolve the marriage; she loved him too much. Or Kester loved him too much, and she wouldn’t share. As long as he was hers, she’d won. The handsome altar boy. The hometown farmer and regional peanut king, savior of soil, war veteran, Elks Club President. Each feather in his cap a star in her crown. No one could touch Evaline, no matter what wrong they thought she did, as long as Harlan was hers. Plus, his damned smile.
She wondered if a day would ever pass when she wouldn’t catch herself crying for him being gone. Point three milligrams of sodium in each teardrop. Another salt spill of his making.
Evaline and Harlan had other plans before he died, but he took those with him, too. “Blood from a turnip,” Evaline’s mother had said when Evaline told her that Harlan planned to sell the cattle and farm the Gillie land. “It’s valuable land,” Evaline said, knowing already what Kestract would pay for it if she found oil anywhere near it. She’d been wrong only in that the price had gone higher than even she could have imagined.
She touched the gray pencil marks on the wallpaper beside the refrigerator. Joanne and Jake, each one’s height marked in meters up through their high school years, when both refused to stand against the wall with a ruler stuck across the tops of their heads anymore. In the corner of the floor, saturated into the tongue-and-groove oak planks, was a round purple stain from the jar of pickled beets she’d thrown at Harlan’s head when he told her about the affair. First the affair. Then his death. The quagmire of their marriage, of the town. All of it inescapable. Here were the two worn bowls on the floor where feet had stood in front of the stove every night for a hundred years, stirring, stirring. Upstairs, the room where Joanne was born, and out back two placentas planted beneath grafts of loblolly pines. Somewhere out east, Joanne’s real father, oblivious. There were many things Evaline regretted.
Joanne rapped on the door.
Evaline called, “Since when you need an invitation?”
Joanne stepped in, her tennis shoes clean and white like they were bought yesterday. They probably were. “What’s that?” She pointed at the coffee machine spitting into the brown-tinged pot.
“Don’t start,” Evaline said.
“Where’s the one I sent you?”
“The thing with a thousand buttons?” Evaline opened a cabinet and pulled glasses out onto the counter to pack. “Your father fixed this one last month.”
“The espresso machine does not have a thousand buttons.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Evaline handed Joanne a mug. “He had to prove things could be fixed. Air conditioners, baby birds.”
“Glad you’re home, Joanne.”
Joanne took the mug but wrapped it in a sheet of packing paper. “The movers are outside. Have you even started prepping?”
“I taped those boxes together.”
“They charge extra to pack it for you.”
“Since when does an upcharge bother you?” Evaline handed Joanne another cup. “When is Kestract’s cleanup here?”
“They’re sending a crew,” Joanne said. “Don’t worry about it.” She reached for tape. “You didn’t have to retire, you know. You’re too young for a nursing home.”
“Retirement community. I can’t stay here.”
“So, work up at headquarters.”
“I’ve done all I should.” Evaline sipped the new brew. “It’s 500 gallons, Jo. There’s mercury in it.”
“I said they’re coming. Jesus, Mom, I just got here. It’s not like I dumped the water, personally.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
“You didn’t do it, either.”
“Have you had coffee?” Evaline turned off the pot.
“Not enough.” Joanne grabbed another mug from the cabinet. “Should have gotten Styrofoam for moving day.” She examined the mug, dried glue smears sealing the handle to the cup. “Daddy’s work?”
“I told you,” Evaline said. “He had to fix everything.”
“Don’t talk like that.” Evaline tore tape off a dispenser with her teeth. “He did his best.”
“AA would have been better.”
Evaline closed the box. “You know they used to grow cotton here?”
Joanne shook her head.
“Destroyed the soil. Dust Bowl came. Then cattle. Weeds. Harlan always had to prove something could be brought back from the brink.”
“But you’ve given up on it.”
“I wouldn’t call moving closer to grandkids ‘giving up.’ Jesus, Jo, did you forget how to have a decent conversation with another person while out on that platform?”
“I’m just saying, Daddy would never have left this place. You run out the moment he’s gone.”
“I’m sure Kestract would lease you back the house if you want it that bad.”
“It’d go to weeds, again,” Joanne said. “Not the same without Daddy here.”
“I don’t want to fight with you, Jo. You haven’t been here five minutes, and all I want is your help putting things in boxes and taping them shut. Can you do that?”
“I tried to come earlier.”
“The funeral couldn’t wait.” Evaline threw open a cabinet beneath the sink.
“Daddy wasn’t going anywhere.”
“But the spill was. Is.” Evaline began tossing boxes of trash bags and parchment paper onto the floor.
“Screw this town. What’s it done for you lately, anyway?”
“Stay here, screw here. Which is it, Jo?” Evaline straightened her back. “I need to speak to the movers.” She pushed the door and went out onto the porch. Harlan still sat on the table.
Evaline watched as the movers rolled a furniture dolly down a metal ramp. Stray seed and corn kernels crunched under boots. There’d be no corn next year. No beans or beets or even turnips, which Harlan had grown out of spite toward Evaline’s momma. With the land all sold, oil rigs could move even closer, keep pumping the dying land like defibrillators.
Evaline surveyed the dead lilacs and then looked past them.
Out across the field, the saltwater crept like fingers out of a grave, sliding through the plow furrows. Evaline swallowed. She’d found dozens of sites for Kestract to drill, but all of them had been far away from her home; she hadn’t wanted them here, exploiting the cracks in the Gillie farm’s shale. Harlan, with his soaked liver and stubborn pride, had left blight in his wake every way he could. She considered knocking the ashes across the porch, sweeping him under the boards to lie forever with the bones of raccoons and rabbits. She picked up the urn, felt the metal ribs running from lid to foot like furrows.
In geologyit was“fissility,” the ability of rock to split along planes of weakness. It happened in marriages, too. Friendships. Whole towns. Fissility happened when the clay particles that first formed the shale aligned during initial compaction. Evaline shook her head. The only way for things to break was to line them up nice in the first place. She looked out over the land. She’d been so busy since Harlan died that she hadn’t had a chance to go further than the length of the driveway to the road; she’d like to see it one last time, before Kestract owned it forever.
“Be right back,” Evaline called. “Left some tools out in the field.”
“I’ll come,” Joanne said. “I’m supposed to be working while I’m here. Checking the site counts as work, right?”
“Boxing plates counts as work.”
Joanne rolled her eyes and handed Evaline the truck keys off the hook from inside the door.
“You never do listen.” Evaline turned the truck key over in her hand, feeling for an imprint of Harlan’s thumb in the worn plastic. The truck door screeched as she opened it.
“Hold him.” Evaline handed Harlan’s remains to Joanne. The engine fought turning over, just like Harlan on mornings after drinking at the Elks Club bar. It heaved into gear, and Evaline turned off the drive into the grass.
Away from the house, geese swept the plow furrows of shorn cornfields, rooting for kernels spit from the thresher before fall. In late September, when the stalks were tall, she’d cut corridors through the fields, tracing with her finger and the tractor’s tires the design Harlan had drawn years ago on yellowed paper. The maze had been his idea, something for the kids. He’d sketched the first maze when Joanne and Jacob were little enough to sit beneath the kitchen table at dinner, passing rolls back and forth in their fort buttressed by table and chair legs. Each year he’d updated the design, adding more corridors and forced turnarounds. Dead ends.
“You remember the mazes?” Evaline asked.
“I remember getting lost in one. Took you an hour to realize I was gone.”
“Should I have tied a balloon to your wrist?”
“I liked balloons.” Joanne turned the vent toward her, her nails white-tipped and glossy at the ends of her long, slender fingers.Both Evaline and Harland had large, panhandle palms. Harlan’s were strong; he’d dug his pencil as deeply into paper as he’d dug plow chisels into the resisting fields. In winter, after the maze-goers were gone, the candy booths closed, and Harlan too blind and blurred to drive the tractor, Evaline had returned, cropping the field for the last time, leaving what fell for the geese.
“Your daddy never could do anything in a simple line.” She drove into the ruts in the field. “Couldn’t even till straight.” She sideswiped a puddle.
They drove out to the back line. Despite the cold morning, barehanded workers clipped wire threads from poles, fencing that Harlan had unspooled and stapled himself back before they were married. Constance Wimberley’s son, Ronnie, worked in the crew. He snapped a line, severing a section of fence. Evaline stared at his bearded face, searching, as always, for Harlan.
Months prior, the rig workers drove in bulldozers. They drove in fenceposts long as telephone poles on the backs of flatbed trucks, and mosquito-tongued machines whose reels of cable tickled the dust of the bones of the first Gillies, buried a century ago here, their wooden crosses as gone as their bodies.
“Red-tailed hawk,” Evaline said, pointing at a bird perched on a fence pole down field, scanning for mice. “Remind me to mark it in the book.”
“What book?” Joanne leaned, trying to spot the bird.
“The book,” Evaline said. “I told you. Your daddy took to bird-watching before he died.”
Sometime in old age, they’d become people who wrote down in notebooks the kinds of birds they saw. They’d puzzle out the species and genus of birds by the angle of wing tips and degree of slope to the beaks.
“Getting old is easier than getting young,” Harlan had said. “’Cept for the dying part.”
“You’d be dying less fast if you’d finished your drinks slower.”
“I survived war,” he’d answered. “Everything else is dying slow.”
For all his pain, Harlan had liked his birds. He drank less the days he heard meadowlarks singing from the fenceposts or owls calling out in the pre-dawn dark. Leasing the land and selling the mineral rights beneath it had meant money—his money—would be there for things like trips to ID birdsong in Costa Rica and haul long scopes into Colorado forests, hoping for glimpses of snowy owls in flight.
With the money, they’d get an RV, drive far enough away that they couldn’t smell the diesel or see the lights on the drill glaring all through the night. They’d visit Jake and his family.
Harlan hadn’t lived long enough to hold a check from the lease, though.
“I need you to know something.” Joanne took a cigarette out of her pocket.
“You started smoking?” Evaline tried to snatch it out of her hand.
“Why’d you bring Daddy’s urn out here?” Joanne asked, dodging her mother.
“If I left him, the movers might pack him.”
“You’re going to spread him at the old graveyard.” Joanne lit the cigarette.
Joanne sucked, the end of the cigarette glowing red. “I know about Daddy,” she said. She cracked the window.
Evaline flicked the wiper blades, clearing frost and fog off the glass. “Know what?”
“That he raised me as his, even though I wasn’t.”
Evaline stopped the car, the sound wall of the drill site rising in front of them like a padded fortress.
“Where did you hear that?”
“When I came last,” Joanne said, eyes fixed on the dash. “When he was in the hospital. Probably the morphine made him do it, but at least he was finally honest.” She turned to Evaline. “That’s more than you ever were.”
“Harlan is your daddy,” Evaline said. “He raised you. That’s all that matters.”
“No,” Joanne said. “It’s not.”
“That your cleanup crew?” Evaline pointed at a line of trucks rumbling down the back road toward the drill pad. “Where’s the clean dirt?”
“I found my real dad.”
Evaline started the engine and drove up to the walls. “That’s your real dad in your lap.”
“Edgar Stills. You slept with him in college. He’s retired. A rig worker out in the gulf. Has three kids and never knew I existed. Didn’t believe it till the DNA test came back. You think I wouldn’t want to know I have two other brothers and a sister?”
“You couldn’t make the funeral but you had time for all that?”
“That’s your response?”
“Yes,” Evaline said. “Satisfied?” She put the truck in park.
“No.” Joanne set the urn in the middle and threw open the door. “My mother lied to me my whole life. You are my real mother, right?” She dragged on the cigarette, then tossed it in the mud beside a collection of spent butts abandoned by drillers. “Least he was honest with me. That’s backbone you never had.”
Evaline stiffened. Harland had used the same words when he argued for signing the lease and she’d resisted, anticipating the fight from the town. “Have some backbone.”
“Morning, Ms. Gillie. Mrs. Gillie.” A man in a hard hat patted the hood of the truck. “Heard you were coming.”
“Heard we had an accident,” Joanne said. “Too bad. We’d had a clean record here.”
The man handed Joanne a hard hat and extended another to Evaline through the open door. “Crew will get it contained in no time. I can show you the extent of the spill,” he said. “It won’t reach the house.”
“What’s it matter?” Evaline asked. “Aren’t you tearing it down tomorrow, anyway?”
The man smiled. “Not my paygrade, ma’am.”
“Wednesday,” Joanne said. “In case moving takes longer than expected.” She turned to Evaline. “I signed the papers.”
Evaline took the hat. “I’ll be a minute.”
“Movers will need you,” Joanne said. “Don’t wait for me.” She followed the man behind the sound wall.
In the pickup, Harlan’s urn rested in the dent on the bench seat. The dent was deep, pressed round from years of Evaline’s widening bottom. She shut off the truck, her body suddenly hot and spots dancing at the corner of her eyes. She glared at Harlan’s urn. He’d found one more thing to take with him before dying: Joanne. She felt her blood drain into her stomach. Her fingers went numb, and she flexed, trying to shake out the tingles. “How could you?” she asked.
Joanne had been right; Evaline did want to scatter his ashes at the graves of his kin. But now.
She tucked Harlan under her coat and slid out of the cab, grabbing gloves from the dash as she went. She set the hard hat on her head and trailed after the man and Joanne, then veered away from the direction of the incoming crew and toward the drill. A tanker truck, sloshing with water, waited beyond the sound wall. The enclosure was unfinished, but Evaline had watched it knitting closer together each day, swallowing the back field whole. The tanker’s reservoir vibrated as generators revved, ready to blast the fresh frack water through cracked shale and deep into the broken Gillie ground. The drill exploited the weakest planes of the bedrock.
Evaline went cold, seeing everything in her life as a drill: Constance Wimberley, Harlan’s dereliction to drink, her own decisions to let some things stay buried and others rise up, poisoning everything in their revelation. She’d led Kestract up and down the coast, signed a lease that ruined ancestral fishing shores, made farmland sprout pump jacks; she’d been foolish to think they wouldn’t close in around her home, too. No place or thing existed in isolation, Evaline realized.
She rounded the tanker and tugged the worn leather work gloves high on her wrists. She climbed the ladder, the rungs slippery with frozen spray. In her old work coat, hard hat, and boots, she’d look just like field crew from behind, her ponytail tucked down the back of her shirt. Evaline unscrewed the fill cap and poured Harlan inside.
“Here’s your backbone,” she said as the ash dust plumed up in her face. “Two square miles of rigid shale.” She emptied the last dregs of Harlan into the tank. When the water fired, the fractures it made would fuse Harlan’s burned bones with the bedrock of the farm, forever. He would seep up through the cracks and into the soil. He would rise, whole, like the day she met him. The way she wanted him to stay.
She resealed the tube and climbed back down the tanker. She left Joanne and drove back to the house, the empty urn by her feet.
Out in the field, a tanker backfired like a gun, and the geese, no strangers to the sound of shot, erupted off the sleeping fields, honking. They lifted together like a congregation rising and soared away to other fields. The survivors of winter and the long flight south would circle back like the loops in the maze Harlan had drawn each year, like the pattern of forward and backward momentum that was living and dying and living again. They’d pass back through come summer, after the salt-stained soil had been scooped out in chunks and the ground filled in with dust and crushed rock from some foreign place. Spring would sow young cornstalks and grass in the dead roots of the old, when Harlan would flow into the veins of unfurling green stems, rooting like he’d always wanted.
She parked beside the moving truck, stepping out and sinking into the clay; the ground tried to keep what it wanted.
“Momma, where’s Daddy’s urn?” Jake handed a box to the mover.
“I scattered him,” Evaline said.
Jake nodded. “I figured you would.” He went back inside, the storm door slamming behind him.
“Buried you,” Evaline said to the field. “Now tell the old ladies to hush.” She wiped the mud off her boots on the steps.
Evaline went inside. She pushed aside boxes to the wall where the height marks marched up like ants. She took a knife from a box and dug into the wall, peeling the strip like skin from bones. The house had sheltered them from heat, rain, and dust. It had kept the town out and the secrets in, burying them within its walls. Evaline rolled the wallpaper and rubber banded it tight, then dropped it in a box. Harlan was the land; but she was the house, and the house was her, and she would take what was hers in the end.
“Salt Land” derived from plans for a collection of linked stories about a family in the South. Each story has an ecological bent, stemming from my interest in ecology and environmental protection. Religion sneaks in often, too. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is endemic in Colorado, where I live now, with 300 new well applications pending in my neighborhood alone. My concern for what havoc this chemical industry might cause in residential neighborhoods led to my researching health and environmental impacts of fracking—and down a rabbit hole of stories about the destruction inflicted on communities and ecosystems by the oil and gas industry.
My family hails from Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri, so my stories started in the South, but as I’ve settled into Colorado, my characters have begun migrating westward, too. Stories like “Salt Land” mix my love of the natural environment with my fears for its future. I hope they’ll serve some small purpose in tuning a reader or two into the uphill battle we face to rein in carbon emissions, restock the seas, protect and preserve open lands, and reckon with our culpability in bringing the climate to this dire state. I’m hopeful, though, as I must be—I want my three-year-old to grow up to get lost in the mountains, the plains, or the woods, if she wants to.
Amanda Baldeneaux is the development director for a nonprofit serving children with special needs. She’s also a contributing editor to Fiction Unbound. She holds a bachelor’s in English with an emphasis in creative writing, and a master’s in teaching secondary English literature. She is a graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s two-year Book Project program, a Lighthouse Lit Fest Masters Class Workshop, and the 2019 Tin House Winter Workshop. An army brat, she now lives in Colorado with her husband, daughter, two dogs, a cat, and a pollinator garden for native bees. This is her first published work of fiction.
John Fulton: “Box of Watches”
John Fulton has published three books of fiction: Retribution, which won the Southern Review Short Fiction Award; the novel More Than Enough; and The Animal Girl, which was short listed for the Story Prize. His fiction has been selected for The Pushcart Prize and has been published in various journals, including Zoetrope, Oxford American, and the Southern Review. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts–Boston. You can read his interview with TMR intern Allyson Sherwin here.
Box of Watches
by John Fulton
That Friday afternoon in AAA Guns and Jewels, Shaun’s life flashed before his eyes, just as they said it would when you faced death, though it wasn’t his death but his grandfather’s that made the events of Shaun’s twenty-two years begin to reoccur as soon as he heard the old man shout, “Go right ahead and shoot me, you little shit!” Shaun was in the back room on the phone with a woman who was calling from Feed the Children. “Most of the people who live on our planet are hungry—and most of those people are infants and children,” she’d been saying when Shaun heard A. J. shout these words, turned around, and froze because of what he saw in the yellow, dirty electric light of the front room: the emaciated customer wielding a Beretta .38, which had, as his grandfather knew even better than Shaun did, one of the most unreliable hair-triggers of any firearm. The slightest shiver could set this cheap, overbought street weapon off. But this didn’t bother the old man in the least. He smiled right into the barrel, then laughed a large, open-mouthed laugh, just like George C. Scott in Patton, one of A. J.’s favorite movies ever because the old man liked stories of contrary heroes who rose above history, who built rockets and shot themselves into space, who settled the American West, who killed Germans and bested Rommel, who did anything other than what A. J. had been doing for the last three years, which was to die slowly of old age and cancer, melanoma that had spread to his liver, his colon, and, finally and most painfully, to his bones, placing him not at all above history but deeply and painfully inside it.
They’d been robbed in the past—eight times, in fact—and their rule was: always do what the guy with the gun says, no matter what because, of course, at the end of the day you wanted to live more than anything else. You wanted to get away with your life, as they always had, climbing the stairs after closing time to the one-room apartment above AAA Guns and Jewels where they had shared, since Shaun was a small boy, the same bedroom and kitchen, the same bathroom and black-and-white TV, the same record player playing the same records (because A. J. didn’t see any need to trade up for a flat screen or a CD player, dozens of which they had in the shop below them anyway). For years, they’d listened to Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Neil Diamond, The Duke and The Count. A. J. liked the big band music best. His eyes soft, he’d say, “Those were the days when people used to dance. You had to know how. You had to learn. You couldn’t make it up.” They prepared the same meals week in and week out—egg salad, BLTs, grilled cheese, club sandwiches, and, on Sundays, steak sandwiches with melted Havarti and martini olives right out of the jar. And sometimes, when Shaun was still a boy, A. J. might make a Jell-O concoction—the same sort of thing that Madeline, Shaun’s mother, had often made—because his grandfather seemed to understand how terribly Shaun missed her after she had dropped him off at the age of six in front of A. J.’s shop, not even coming inside. The storefront’s two neon signs—“Money For Guns” and “Cash Fast”—flickered at Shaun’s back and the wind blew in Madeline’s dark hair as she shouted out the car window at him and his grandfather,“You’re going to stay with Granddad for a few days, all right?” And neither Shaun nor A. J. ever expected those few days to become sixteen years.
Now he was about to lose his grandfather as quickly as he’d lost his mother. He needed to act, to do something. But the woman on the phone was droning on, was saying, “Just a few dollars every month will make a real difference,” and Shaun wasn’t moving. He was scared, it seemed, as he watched A. J. lift his hands above his head not to surrender but to show his hoped-for killer, as the old man’s shirtsleeves fell away from his shriveled wrists, the tumors splattered like thrown mud over his forearms. “I’m already dead!” he shouted. “Do it. Shoot me in the mouth, please. Right in the kisser, you yellow-faced, dickless, candy-ass.” And the indecisive kid raised the gun and then put it down again and then raised it and put it down.
A. J. had always had a passion for cussing, for saying and savoring the profane—cocksucker, shit-for-brains, asswipe—despite the fact that he had never allowed Shaun the same privilege. “Do as I say, not as I do,” he always told Shaun. Or, more simply, “Don’t swear, goddamn it.” And Shaun,who had been a timid and compliant child, obeyed, perhaps because he feared losing him. During those first few years, he would wake in the dark blue of early morning and expect to see the rumpled sheets of the old man’s empty bed across from him and not, as he always saw instead, the good, respiring lump of his still sleeping grandfather.
Nonetheless, Shaun did rebel, did throw fits on occasion, as on the night at the dinner table many years ago when A. J. shook his head and said, “Your mother seems to have traded in her horse for good,” after which he pointed his fork at himself and added, “How about this horse instead?” which was when Shaun threw his plate of cheese steak to the floor and shouted that he wanted Madeline back. He wanted her smell of lilacs and soap and tangerine shampoo, even the occasional scent of booze on her that meant she’d have trouble getting herself in bed and even more getting out of it the next morning. But he wouldn’t complain—not even about the men she sometimes brought home. The one who made candy cigarettes, nickels, and dimes appear from Shaun’s ear was the one he liked best. He just wanted her back. He wanted her soft, tickling fingers and her voice singing “Hush Little Baby.” His grandfather had liver spots all over his hands and face and the stink of cigarettes on his breath, and the more potent rank of his bowels came all morning from the small bathroom at the back of their apartment. “I don’t want you!” he shouted. “You’re an old man and you stink! You really stink!” And A. J. said and did nothing, just put his head down and attended to his meat sandwich, remaining silent for the rest of the night, even as he bent his frail body to clean up the steak from the floor. It was clear to Shaun then that as tough as the old man seemed, he was, in fact, easily hurt.
But what made things still worse was that Shaun had struck out at A. J. more harshly than ever only a few days before, when his grandfather threw one of his fits, brought on more and more frequently by the pain. They’d been at the breakfast table, and A. J. had slammed his spoon down, shouting, “This is my last Wednesday ever. My very last goddamned one. I swear it! I’m done with this day. I’m done with Thursday and the next fucking day, too,” to which Shaun responded as he always did. “Please don’t say that. Please just eat one bite of your oatmeal.” Shaun was the horse now, the beast of burden who did all the care taking, who’d even had to drop out of the state college a few years ago to keep the shop, to take A. J. to chemo, and to stay with him for the days afterward when he was sickest. Oatmeal was on the list of cancer-fighting foods he’d gotten from the clinic. He’d even read on the Internet about a woman who’d consumed a pound of oats every day until her tumors had just fallen off her—she’d literally seen the wasted pieces of cancer hit the floor and knew that she was cured forever. And so he’d said, “Please just eat,” though Shaun didn’t really believe anymore in miraculous, last-minute recoveries and he saw, with every passing day, that too much suffering made his grandfather vicious. Instead of eating even one bite of his oats, A. J. shoved the bowl aside, poured a generous portion of whiskey in his coffee, and lit a cigarette.
“Those things don’t help, Granddad,” Shaun said. “In fact,” A. J. said, “they usually do help me take a shit, and that happens to be what I need to do right now.” And so Shaun, as calmly and patiently as any twenty-two-year-old who would rather have been in college calculus than with this dying old man, stood and executed his duty, as he did every morning. He walked A. J. to the bathroom, undid his belt and zipper, shimmied his pants and boxer shorts down to his knees, and gently set him on the seat while his granddad shouted, “Take your hand off my cock, if you wouldn’t mind very damn much not making us feel like perverts, please!” It was then that Shaun did it—left him on the toilet and sat out in the living room for thirty minutes, long after A. J. started calling through the door, “Are you there? I think I need some help. Shaun? Jesus Christ. Please come.” Some minutes later, he added, “I’m sorry, kid.” Even then Shaun made himself count slowly to sixty before he hurried into the bathroom to see A. J. grasping at the edge of the sink, using it as leverage to stand himself halfway up, his pants down around his ankles, toilet paper flagging out of his backside and a trail of urine running down his pale leg, marbled with varicose veins, and into his sock. “You left me,” he said.
“No,” Shaun said, sitting his grandfather down, cleaning the urine away, removing the tissue, and cleaning him there, too, tucking him in and zipping him up until he looked decent and cared-for again. “I’d never leave you,” Shaun said, and then he flushed the toilet so that the tiny, black stool that floated in a haze of bloody water would disappear forever.
“You want me to die,” the old man said, staring off at nothing. And though Shaun denied it, he thought—and not for the first time—that maybe he did. And the sooner the better because then Shaun could sell the shop, could start classes again. He could go out at night, maybe even get drunk. He could meet girls, dance to the sort of music his grandfather hated, never mind that Shaun didn’t much care for it either. Maybe he’d even get stoned and play video games with Jared and Mark, friends he hadn’t seen in months, late into the night and not worry about the old man telling him that that was a sure way to become one of the dope fiends or meth heads who were always in and out of the shop, and so to betray and undo all the work A. J. had done in raising him, all the years the old man had got him up and off to school in the mornings, brushed his teeth at night, read to him from old Louis L’Amour novels, the Old Testament, and his grandfather’s favorite book ever, In the Ranks of the Green Beret, because A. J. respected men who understood the importance of duty, men who acted when it was right to act, even though his size-thirteen flat feet had kept him out of two wars.
But perhaps Shaun’s greatest failure opposite the old man wasn’t leaving him on the toilet or wishing him dead or tossing his plate of food on the floor all those years ago. Perhaps it was what he’d done only moments before, when he’d left him with this customer to answer the phone in back. A bony, pale, sick-looking kid, he’d come in at the very end of a long, slow day. Shaun should have known, at least suspected, that the kid was desperate. After all, it was brutally cold, a snow as fine and white as cinders blowing sideways in the burnt-out light of February, a day on which they would be lucky to have any business, since freezing temperatures tended to keep the homeless, the drunks, and the junkies off the streets. But the kid had come in nonetheless, their first and only customer that afternoon. He was wearing only jeans and a bright red, short-sleeved T-shirt, his face as pale and ashen as the air outside, and he sat down on the trade counter before A. J. and Shaun one of the stranger pawns Shaun had seen: an old, half-collapsed cardboard box full nearly to the rim with used Timex wristwatches, most without bands, some with only half a band, their crystals cloudy and scratched, so that Shaun should have guessed that this person carrying a box of used-up time had come to finish his grandfather off, never mind that he didn’t carry a scythe or wear a dark hood. His eyes were all black, dilated pupil, the work of some drug. Shaun sunk his hands beneath all those watches, sifting through them, lifting a handful of them up like gold coin and thinking of a price—fifteen or twenty bucks because they could no doubt salvage some of them—while down in his wheelchair A. J. lit a cigarette, just as he always did before starting a deal, using that small moment of fire and smoke to put his poker face on. He took a slow drink of his whisky-spiked coffee and said, “That’s a lot of watches you have there, son,” to which the kid answered, “I don’t have time for conversation.” That response had made Shaun chuckle because this guy with at least a hundred watches didn’t have a minute to exchange a few words. “You want them or not?” he half shouted. “They work?” Shaun asked and received an affirmative answer that he found hard to believe until he listened to one and then another and learned that at least these two did. And so he’d bent, put his ear to the mouth of the box, and heard a gentle roar of ticking, of multiple, tiny metronomic beats overlapping in a whisper of fragmented and shattered sound without beginning or end, in which Shaun had found himself sinking, then suspended, and which was like the rush and mess of all the things that Shaun had done and might want to undo, not the least of which was the simple fact that he wasn’t acting now, that he was still in the backroom when his grandfather needed him in front, that he was just watching, hiding, while the woman from Feed the Children was saying, “A lot of businesses in your area sponsor our organization not just to feel good but also because their customers appreciate it, too.” And his grandfather kept on shouting, provoking the guy, “Come on, shit-for-brains. What’s the matter? You don’t know a trigger from your ass? You don’t wipe it, kid. You squeeze it. That’s how it works.”
“You old fuck,” the kid said in a tone of irritation that seemed to ask Why are you making me kill you?
And then he did it. He pulled the trigger, after which nothing happened, even though A. J. had let his cigarette drop to the floor and crossed his arms at his chest and closed his eyes, a long-may-he-rest-in-peace expression settling over his shriveled visage until he resembled a pleasant corpse, which nonetheless opened its eyes, came alive, at first perplexed and then pissed as he shouted, “You fucking dipshit junkie! The safety’s on,” whereupon the sickly kid looked at the gun, studied it with deep confusion, as if he’d never understand the thing in a thousand years, which gave Shaun the time and courage he needed to put the phone down, take three strides out into the light, and shout, “Get out of my store! Get out! Out!”
The young man, trembling and at least as terrified as Shaun, turned around to face him before sprinting out the front door and not returning despite A. J.’s loud demands otherwise. “You left your watches! We don’t want your stinking watches! Come back and get your shitty box of shitty watches!”
It was over then. Shaun locked the three bolts of the front door, turned the Open sign to Closed, and stood directly in front of A. J., right where the kid had stood, and looked at his shriveled, half-dead grandfather. “I thought I’d be afraid,” A. J. said. “But I wasn’t.” In fact, his hands were trembling so badly that he couldn’t light the cigarette he kept dropping over the glass counter and having to pick up. “Did you see how I wasn’t afraid?” “I saw,” Shaun said. And because the old man still could not light his cigarette, because all he could do now was look down at his shaking hands, Shaun, who normally would have said, “Those things aren’t helping, Granddad,” stepped up to him now, took A. J.’s hand, the one clenching the cigarette, held it steady, and slowly fed the Carlton to his mouth, where it quivered while Shaun lit it. “Thank you,” A. J. said. And then he said again, “I wasn’t. You saw that I wasn’t.” “I saw that,” Shaun said, though he knew that A. J. was. And he was surprised in the next moment when the old man reached out, took Shaun’s hand, squeezing it hard, holding on, before he said in a stern whisper, “You’re shaking, kid. Why are you shaking?”