“Meet Me by the River” by Nels Hanson

“He looks like a bee with honey,” said my partner Sergeant Glad.

Beyond the fake mirror, Frankie “Two Shoes”—“L” painted on one boot, “R” on the other—dipped his finger into one of the full glasses Sheriff Blair had left him.

“I think he saw something—” The good whiskey burned the roof of my mouth and I remembered this morning and the white statue in the river. “You steered it well, Jack.”

“Frankie’s a drunk,” Blair said. “He’s not crazy or a liar.”

“So it’s a saucer?” Deputy Bell frowned. “We back to aliens?”

It had been an unusual day—the tame black bear and deer, an ex-movie starlet, the stuffed X-eyed dummy—the Night Slayer in effigy—hanging from a branch, the turkey bone raised from its fly, “Don’t Do It!” in whitewash across a Brahma bull’s flank—

Blair was non-committal.

“Was it something the Feds said?” Bell asked his boss. “The Air Force involved?”

“They’ve got a saucer, don’t they?” Glad stared at Blair. “Except you can’t say—”

“They’ve got something out at Walker,” Blair conceded, lifting his cup.

“They’re the ones doing it?” Bell asked and Blair shook his head.

“They say no. They’re worried about somebody else. Someone stealing secrets. Or parts.”

Blair set down his cup and reached again for the bottle.

“Somebody trying to stir up trouble. Make the government look bad. They’re watching Sharp’s Hardware.”

“You believe it?” Bell said.

“I don’t know.” Blair poured a small shot. “Phil?”

“Fifty-fifty.” I took another drink, recalling the stern Intelligence officer in aviator’s shades and pressed Air Force blues. He’d turned his back and stared at the county map with 40 little flags as the federal agent filled us in. “I guess it’s possible.”

Blair nodded toward the window. “You want to talk to Frankie?”

Frankie daintily pushed his empty cup to the side. He slid the fresh cup to a stop before him on the table and admired it.  He seemed recovered from his encounter with the shadowed figure on the silent floating platform.

“No, you covered it,” I said.

“What about Sloan?” Bell asked.

“What about him?” Blair said with irritation. “I’m a little skeptical Jim Sloan could build a saucer, no matter what old plans and junk he bought from Frankie. I never heard Frankie’s dad was some genius inventor—”

“Frankie’s dad couldn’t build a corral gate,” Bell said. “Much less something that flew.”

“Jim didn’t build a saucer,” Glad said carefully. “He built a bull—”

“Come again?” Blair held his cup halfway to his mouth.

As Glad outlined his adventure of the night before—“I’m telling you, Jack, I’ve seen some things, but never anything like that, like a robin the size of an airplane!”—I leaned back, closing my eyes as the story of Jim Sloan’s strange contraption unfolded—

Again I saw pretty Viv Stone, the ex-actress, with her deer and black bear, her blue lawn before the white ranch house in the sheltered valley where we’d stopped to sift for clues in the Night Slayer Case.

Blair talked to her husband on the porch, Viv and her animals came out to the car with the cookies and Bell told her that Glad and I were from Fresno, helping out, that I was a widower and should meet Beulah.

“She’s a jewel, an utter jewel,” Viv insisted, “a brilliant girl,” then searched me with her large eyes the color of the purple wisteria on the trellis. “You know she’s psychic—”

“I met his buddy Pete, at the bar in the Grizzly Club. I said he was telling me a tall tale, me being a tenderfoot from California. Then he stands up, he says, ‘Come on, don’t believe my lying eyes—’”

If Beulah were anything like Viv, she would be extraordinary.

“Drove way back in the mountains, we saw a cougar, long tail and big yellow eyes. Pete swings around a hill. There’s this huge dairy barn all lit up, strung with orange lights, in the middle of a scrap yard—”

First full day in Montana and the Night Slayer at large, the local citizenry in a panic, the vegetarian picketer outside the sheriff’s office pelted with tomatoes—and a date was coming up with Beulah, Blair’s sister-in-law. I would let it happen, keep my head free of fantasies and predictive images, to avoid disappointment or humiliation. I wouldn’t fall in the river again.

“This thing’s nearly the size of a truck, white horns six-feet across and a guy up inside working on it. You could only see his legs—”

I had been intimate with two women since Ellen’s suicide 10 years ago in the artist’s apartment in New York.

“So we get out and walk in—I mean the bull is tall, eight or nine feet, all covered in black cowhide. And then the head, the eyes—”

Rona Herbert, the forensic specialist—six weeks of physical passion, until it ended with an argument—she’d insisted Bill Clinton should be impeached for lying under oath about fornication.

“The hooves were big as an elephant’s, each one hiding this aircraft wheel—”

I supported his humanitarian move into Kosovo, and anyway, it seemed unfair of the Republicans to seize on two or three of the hundreds of women the president had engaged in carnal relations—why shouldn’t at least a third of the victims be subpoenaed?

“Pete starts pounding on its side so it bangs like a drum, he yells, ‘Jim, you in there? Come on out—’”

Immediately she’d begun dating her supervisor at the morgue and I was relieved when four months later she transferred to Bakersfield and we no longer had to consult across an autopsy table.

“Then this voice answers, like an echo, like some guy down a well—‘Can’t, got to save Lucinda Olson—’”

For seven months I’d seen Katie Burns, an attractive divorcee my age who lived down the street, a real estate agent with an unhappy teenage daughter.

“‘Who’s Lucinda?’ Pete yells. ‘You know good and well!’ shouts the guy in the bull. ‘I don’t want to talk about her!’”

We’d had some good times, within the circumscribed bounds of movies, dinners out, a drive in the country beyond Fresno, or a day trip to Kings Canyon and the snow on a Saturday. She was busy, I was busy, we found emotional safety and leisure in quiet recreation, unthreatening pleasant small talk, the occasional release of discreet, nearly platonic sex.

“Then the guy’s legs disappear, he pulls himself up and the trapdoor slams shut—”

Finally we’d set off for a weekend together in Santa Barbara. Over coffee in Paso Robles she’d broken into tears after suggesting a blue-and-white June wedding in Carmel and I’d made it clear I wasn’t interested in marrying again.

“‘You idiot!’ Pete yells. ‘Web Olson’ll have you for lunch!’ There’s this pop, like chainsaw starting up, and the head comes down, the thing starts to move—fast! We jumped back or he’d’ve speared us with his tusks!”

I had felt moderately guilty and then that emotion faded too when she married a fellow realtor who’d approached me with a shrewd offer.

“I should’ve told you first thing,” Glad was saying. “It was just too weird, my first day up here—”

“This is really getting wild.” Blair set down his cup. “Bitterroot Fever taking down Web Olson’s Modified Herefords, according to Frankie Two Shoes. That and flying saucers. Now mechanical bulls and a Junior Ulysses out to save Lucinda Olson.”

“So that’s why you were asking about Lucinda,” Bell said. “You thought Web Olson really had a daughter—”

“No,” Glad said, “Pete said she was made-up, like Sleeping Beauty. I guess Jim went off his rocker when his girlfriend Sally dropped him. Her father’s Web Olson’s attorney. I told Phil and he said Lucinda Olson must be real—”

“What?” Blair asked.

“In Jim’s mind—” Glad said quickly. “Because the bull was so big and real, the way it could turn and charge, lowered horns and all—”

Again, Glad dipped his head and imitated the animal.

“Well,” Blair said, “that narrows it down. The Night Slayer is an armed takeover by the right-wing crazies, an invasion from Mars, or the beginning of the Trojan War. Everybody’s coming out of the woodwork. Who’s next? Sasquatch?”

“Should I pay another visit to Jim Sloan?” Glad asked.

I fought back a chuckle—you could translate Bob’s offer as, “Should I check out the Grizzly Club and get drunk again with Pete, my best friend of two hours, and drive out in the country to see a ten-foot bull with a man inside, Pete’s lovelorn, nutty high school buddy?”

“Later,” Blair said. “He’s a deuce, not a face card. I need to talk to Sharp, run down the Air Force stolen-parts angle. This anti-matter hovercraft or whatever the hell it is—”

He stood up.

“The first thing I’m going to do is call Betty, tell her to wait supper. Then drop by S and S Hardware. We’ve got a squad meeting at eight, all the cars should be back. And the editor—”

“Local press?” I asked.

Blair checked his watch.

“Yes and no. He’s bringing some guy from Rolling Stone—the rock-and-roll mutilation angle, spacemen obsessed with white-faced cattle and filet mignons. It’s nearly six. I better get down to Sharp’s before he closes.”

“Sounds right,” I said. “Make your call and let’s go.”

“Naw,” Blair said. “I don’t want to scare Tommy off. I’ll drop by with Ray, make it look like a friendly visit. You and Bob head on to the cabin. Get your rod and hit the river. Wet your line.”

“If you’re sure,” I said.

“Yeah,” Blair said. “Have Dorothy give you a radio, in case I need to get in touch.” Blair grinned. “Watch out for The Lady in the Clark Fork.”

“I think I learned my lesson.” As I spoke, again I felt the cold water’s shock, saw the pretty smiling face of stone through the current.

“Now he’s ready for Beulah,” Bell said. “Huh, Jack?”

“What a world,” Blair said as he headed for the door.

At the desk Dorothy brought me a walkie-talkie and I went out onto the sidewalk while Glad made a call to his wife.

Sally Mathews, the TV reporter and Jim Sloan’s former girlfriend, and the harried vegetarian picket—“We Have Met The Enemy And His Name Is ‘Meat!’”—were gone. The sun was lowering and the pavement shone silvery between the stains of splattered tomatoes.

Glad came out and together we walked to the parking lot.

“How’s Barbara and the kids?”

“Fine, everybody’s fine.” Glad smiled. “I told them about petting Viv’s bear.”

“You feel like driving?”

“Sure. I feel fine now, getting Jim Sloan and his bull off my chest.”

I tossed Glad the keys.

“It seems like a year since we got here.”

“Yeah,” I said, “psychological time.”

“Huh?” Glad asked as he got behind the wheel.

“The way time goes by, what it feels like.”

“Like a day can be a year.”

“Or ten,” I said, remembering that was the length of the Siege of Troy.

We crossed the bridge and went back along the main street, past the shabby men smoking and milling at the open doors to the Watering Hole and High Hat and the other bars, the sporting good’s plate glass window full of rifles and shotguns with a new sign in red paint—“Night Slayer Special!”—then the plaster palomino outside the saddlery and I remembered Glad’s drunken late-night tale of Sloan’s horned creation—

We turned from the town and drove toward the hills rising parallel with the river where the alabaster statue lay beneath the glassy ripples. This morning I’d jumped in, when I saw the nude smiling drowned woman lying back against the sparkling pebbles.

We passed the airport and the motel, the big mountain where yesterday I’d mistaken the distant running stag for a rabbit, before I got my sense of perspective under the Big Sky.

The angle of the sun tinged the grass amber and made the hills stand up taller, bright against the changing sky. Fence posts took on a golden, mythic cast. Glad lifted his hand.

The buffalo browsed far out in the pasture, its brown woolly mane and black horns yellow above the yellow grass. On the way to the cabin from the airport I’d stared for a moment into its sad eyes as it stood just beyond the barbed wire.

This morning Glad had pointed it out again—

“Can you imagine hunting one, on horseback, with a bow and arrow?”

“No,” I’d said, chilled from the cold river and the gaze of the beautiful woman through the clear lens of moving water.

“At least there’s not a guy inside,” Glad had said.

“Now he’s ready for Beulah,” Bell said. “Huh, Jack?”

“A lot happened today,” Glad said. He reached in his shirt pocket and brought out his sunglasses. “The best was the green valley, Viv Stone and her pets. I’ve got to look up some of her old movies.”

Glad nodded.

“I like it— I mean I’m sorry about the butchered cows, and I don’t want anybody to get hurt. Or Blair to get burned. But it’s a switch, from Fresno. Wasn’t Viv great?”

“Maybe we’ll go back again,” I said. “She mentioned dinner.”

“With Beulah.” Glad grinned, looking at the road.

I didn’t say anything. I put my visor down to block the sun.

“What is it?” Glad said. “You thinking of your wife?”

“Sometimes,” I said.

“Maybe it’s time to move on. Smart guy like you, living alone.”

“Like Jim Sloan?”

“I don’t know if you’re in his league, Trojan Bulls and all.”

Glad smiled as he pulled off the pavement and started down the gravel road along the line of aspen. I watched their leaves ripple silver in the afternoon light.

I thought again of the Stones’ farm, of the lawn and tall locust tree, the white house with sky-blue shutters. The dark eyes of the tame deer, Blossom, she and the black bear, Charlie, chasing the homemade cookies Viv tossed gracefully across the clipped sweet grass.

“A brilliant girl,” Viv said, about Beulah. “You know she’s psychic. Part Cheyenne. She senses things—”

In Montana, everything had a different scale.

Through the aspen I could see the sun dancing off the river. I was looking forward to a quiet walk along the bank, past the ferns and yellow flowers. I didn’t need to go fishing, to catch another struggling trout and let it go after I’d seen its rainbow speckles.

“Hurry, put it back,” I’d half heard Ellen whisper at my ear, the spotted gills beginning to convulse. “Before it dies—”

This time I wouldn’t jump in, to save the sculpted woman lying in the shallows, the former owner’s joke on newcomers to the hunting lodge. He’d had a Seattle artist make a copy from a picture in the local paper, Bell said.

Through the watery pane for a moment her smiling face had looked like Ellen’s.

“We’ve got company,” Glad said.

In front of the weathered log cabin a blue Saab was parked.

The driver’s door opened as Glad pulled up and a woman with long, loose, reddish-brown hair, wearing white slacks and a black blouse, stepped from the car.

“Who’s this?” Glad watched her over the steering wheel. “Helen of Troy or Lucinda Olson?”

She waited naturally, as if the cabin had once been hers and she had painted the red door. Her eyes took me in—like Viv’s, the doe’s, the buffalo’s, the Lady’s in the Clark Fork— The string of white beads made her resemble a domino.

I was out of the car and she was moving through broken pine shadows, putting out a shapely hand that flickered and caught sudden light like a hand parting water.

I knew her—her face matched the woman’s in the river.

“I’m Beulah Ransom.”

“Phil—”

Before I could answer she gripped my hand as I looked into her amber eyes and saw my face reflected like the bust of someone ancient and dead.

“Web Olson’s prize-winning stock are over-bred and dying of Bitterroot Fever. Lucinda Olson doesn’t exist, but Jim Sloan thinks she does—he’s picking up real but distorted signals, just as you are, but he’s the compass, the one to follow, to the Night Slayer.

“It’s not Sloan, but Ander, that’s Olson’s real name. He’s the survivor of a crash, of a spaceship, on a mission to find a new world and evacuate a dying planet. He was marooned and attempted to clone a mate, using a heifer as a surrogate parent, but something went wrong, she was born a ravenous cannibal.

“Ander bought the stolen magneto from the Air Force, to build a hovercraft and operate at night, to steal meat for his famished daughter-wife he keeps captive in a cell under the house.”

My hand shivered and burned, like I held a hot wire, and still I was able to answer, I said quickly, “There’s more—”

“Your wife, Ellen, is alive, in another dimension, and breaks through to instruct you, as she did yesterday, when she told you to release the struggling trout. She’s caught too, between worlds, and needs our help to move on.”

Again I felt the steady current, staring hard into Beulah’s eyes. Something moved in my chest and I started to speak, waiting for the words, but her fingers softly stopped my lips.

“Yes, I’m your true love; you’re mine. I realize I’ve been waiting for you. At last, after many twisting turns, we’ve finally met by the river where my statue lies—”

Then my arms were around her in the sudden cool breeze from the moving water beyond the silver aspen.


Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and his stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, The Montreal Review, and other journals. “Now the River’s in You,” a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Hanson lives with his wife, Vicki, on the Central Coast of California.

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“Consider the Gap” by George Sawaya

STR is proud to present this story as the winner of our 2011 summer fiction contest.


I knew by the way she threw noodles against the backsplash – she was having an affair.

When I found it, I had been pushing deeper than anyone into the cave.  It was as far as anyone would go.  I’d been working as a geological consultant for a small mining operation.  The goal, they explained, was to find any remaining ore in the old mining shafts beneath the Vulcan statue on Red Mountain.

That day, a Thursday, I’d gone about thirty minutes further than the rest of the team.  With my helmet-mounted torch light carving cones through the darkness, I came upon a small antechamber which was dressed from top down in flutes of sharp rock like the organ pipes in a cathedral.  I was looking up, spinning in place and taking the whole thing in when I caught my foot on something and fell.  My helmet light was impaled on a rock benches jutting facet but I was fine, save for a throbbing neck and a pretty skinned-up set of knees.

I sat there in the darkness for a while.  Most days I had an extra key chain flash light fastened to a belt loop, but the day before I’d loaned it to another team member and had forgotten to get it back.  So I sat; nothing but the drip-drip of little drops and my own steady breath for sound.

After a while I began to feel kind of eroded.  Without any light I couldn’t see my body.  I knew it was there, my arms and legs, my head and torso, the stiff wire pulsed in my neck and the damp, stagnant air stung at my knees.  But I didn’t feel there.  It was like I had become a rock, part of the cave, my breathing the earth’s own gentle respiration. The dull pain settled in like eons of pressure.

I got to thinking about rocks and about Susan.  Everything had changed since her office’s Christmas party some five months prior.  We didn’t see each other much, granted, but lately she’d been as distant as the moon.  We got into the habit of a regular Thursday night spaghetti dinner.  Between her demanding law firm and my frequent contracts we’d become roommates more than anything else, passing each other on the way in or out.  Thursdays, we resolved, would be the evening set aside for us and for spaghetti.

I couldn’t remember when I noticed it first.  I think I was at the kitchen table. She must’ve been at the stove.  When the time came to test the noodles she’d pluck one from the pot, spin it between pinched fingers like a marionette’s string, and with a sneer in her lips and thin, impassive eyes turn to the ceramic backsplash and fling it away.  It was her disinterest I noted most of all.  Whether the noodle stuck or not, she seemed indifferent. Neither disappointed when it fell limp behind the sink, nor accomplished when it stuck and slid without a sound between the tiles to the grout.

After that I began to tally the eligible men from her Christmas party. There was one guy, what was his name? Ben or Jim? He had a cleft chin, broad shoulders and small, scholarly glasses. He reminded me of Clark Kent, but with more machismo and bravado; one of those University of Alabama football types who missed the cut to go pro before turning to a law career. And then there was her boss. What was it about him that felt off? He was a svelte 50-year-old, couture in shape, fit and square faced with platinum white hair and one of those winning smiles I’d always heard of but never really seen.  It was something in the way he stood next to her.  Yes, in the months since, it came to me there in the clarity of the greasy black antechamber.  I remembered the three of us standing in a triangle by the copy machine.  To share space and conversation everyone should have faced the center but he, no.  He stood cocked to the side aiming his past prime though still hungry dick straight at her sex and grinning, all the while that big winning bleached teeth smile casting his eyes occasionally at me as if to say something.  He was candidate number one after all.  Clark Kent fell to second.

I pressed a button on my watch.  The face glowed, and for a moment I considered using it to worm my way back through the cave to the rest of the team.  But the light was too dim, the path too slippery with a dozen eager surfaces ready to bludgeon or rip my head open if I fell.  The rest of the team would come soon. When it was time to leave for the day they’d press on and find me. It was 4:15.  Only about an hour longer.

I closed my eyes to a no deeper dark and entertained myself the way I normally did: by considering people as minerals and rocks.  They made more sense that way. I thought about Susan, with her polished black hair and dark olive skin.  I’d known her to be obsidian – sharp, exotic, volcanic in origin, weapon to some and jewelry to others.  She was opaque but only slightly so; a dark glass.  It would be 4 years of marriage in a couple of months.

Ben or Jim (Clark Kent in any case) despite his resemblance to the man of steel struck me more as iron.  He had a solid jaw, industrial shoulders, held himself strong and proud like a furnace.  And Susan’s boss, white-haired, jagged boned with that winning smile, but empty somehow, somehow less substantive – like pumice rock. The porous bastard.

I opened my eyes to find the cavern swollen with a gray light. There was a smooth oblong crack in the cave wall. At first I thought it was the team. I could easily have been turned around in the dark. So I waited for voices or for someone to call my name. After what seemed like half an hour I had heard nothing, so I stood and went in a few careful steps down the path the light struck against the cave floor. As I approached, the crack opened further, wider, just enough to squeeze through. I squeezed through.

I don’t know how long I was in there, but when I came out I saw dim lights approaching from the direction of the cave mouth. The gap closed.  The team found me in the dark, and I followed them out.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell anyone about it. I couldn’t. Every time I went to say something, it was as if I’d swallowed a lump of ore. I’d gag for a second, stammer, then speak of something else. After thanking the team for finding me, I loaded up my Subaru station wagon and went home.

Susan was in the kitchen lording over a steaming pot of noodles. I went without a word, washed up and changed clothes. I bandaged my knees, laid flat on my bedroom floor for a while to straighten my neck out, then went back to the kitchen and took my seat at the table.

After a few minutes of silence Susan cleared her throat and spoke. “Back to the mines tomorrow?” she asked, head still down at the pot.  Her words slapped against me like noodles.

“Yea,” I said.  “Back to the mines.  The contractor thinks there’s still iron ore down there.  But the shafts are mostly flooded.  What are you doing tomorrow?  Maybe we could spend the day together.  I tried to tell them it was mostly flooded down there.  Be near impossible to mine anything anyway.”

Susan sighed, one of those brief, annoyed, poignant sighs she’d made a habit of lately.  “Why keep looking then?”  She tossed the wooden spoon between the stove eyes.

“If there is ore after all, it can be sold – processed here then shipped overseas.  A drop in the pot to Dubai or somewhere.  You working tomorrow?”

She picked up the spoon again, plunged it in the pot to take a noodle out.  Half-way up the noodle slid from the spoon handle.  “No,” she said.  “Work this weekend.  Taking tomorrow off.”

“Oh.”  I took the newspaper from the table and spread it across my lap, but I couldn’t read.  All I could do was consider the gap: the gray light, the smooth, reasoned corridors stretching in all directions and how each floor had a gravity to it, straight up or down at random but always as if walking in any other hallway.  A neon lit labyrinth of indeterminate materials.

That sticky sense of erosion still clung to me.  There, in the full fluorescent kitchen light with my limbs charted out like a road map across my seat, the sensation persisted.  I felt like a puppet with phantom limbs, a spider web in a dark hallway, an ovular mass of rock deep in the earth slowly, surely losing.

It was a familiar sensation.  It felt a lot like college.  My fourth and final year had been an exercise in solitude.  My only acquaintance, a fellow geology major, had graduated the semester prior and made good on his promise to get the hell out of Alabama.  I don’t know where he ended up.

All I had was a small apartment with a busted television, a noisy window unit and the flat heat of a resilient summer.  I was nearly done, I had to remind myself often, but my last semester I learned of a mix-up with my academic advisor.  Unsurprisingly, she had miscalculated my fulfillment of elective credits (of which I was one short, she informed).  A week later I started and art history class.  I had not particular interest in art history, but I was told by the same advisor that it would be easy and good for me to get away from dirt and rocks for a while.  She had battleship hips, chipmunk cheeks and for a woman who didn’t know what the hell she was talking about she always spoke with such enviable confidence.

That was when I met Susan.  We sat next to one another in the front row.  I never spoke to her, but she always spoke to me, or tried to anyway.  I would just nod or grunt in response.  She was far too attractive.  She started saying hello to me on campus.  When we passed each other she would always stop to talk.  If she were on the other side of the street she would cross and chase me down.  From there we began to eat lunch together at the campus cafeteria.  Without much else to discuss she would go over the lectures from class, expounding at length and with passion on M.C. Escher, Magritte, Dali.

The whole thing was organic; we tapered ever down like a stalactite, naturally carried in one direction.  Lunches led to dinner, dinner to drinks, drinks to fooling around and finally sex.  She was my first.

After graduation she applied to every art museum in a five-hundred mile radius.  Wherever she went I’d made up my mind to follow.  After countless rejection letters, however, she applied and was accepted to law school.  We moved back to Birmingham, married, and close to four years later I sat and she stood in the kitchen of our two bedroom bungalow.

“You’ll find ore.”  She turned the heat down and shuffled the tomato sauce and beef in the other pot.

I slid the newspaper back up to the table, stood and went over behind her.  She stared dutifully ahead, like she didn’t even notice.  I parted her hair like a bead curtain, brushed it over her shoulders and planted one small kiss at the base of her neck and then another further up her nape and then another, each straddled side to side like footprints in volcanic sand.  “Have I ever told you you’re obsidian?” I asked.

She sighed.

When the noodles were done, or near enough, we sat together at the kitchen table and ate in silence.

I had no word for it.  Actually, there was one word, but I couldn’t use it.  That place deep in Red Mountain, the gap, a place of such tenuous reality that to label it in such a fantastical way could destroy it all together.  A craft, perhaps, but I wasn’t sure it was a vehicle.

After dinner the previous night, we’d gone to bed.  Eyes closed, I counted the potential suitors from her Christmas party yet again:  the iron furnace, the pumice rock, and – as I meandered towards sleep – I recalled another.  There had been a young, pasty face staring at us always from the crowd’s edge.  Someone not normally noticed, I figured at the time.  Someone as easily overlooked as the furniture – pale and meek like the gypsum in the drywall:  a little gypsum boy.  He couldn’t have been a day over 21, a young temp most likely seven years Susan’s junior.  I began to put a face to the gypsum boy, to reconstruct it, but it slipped away and I with it into sleep.

The morning obliterated all progress on the gypsum boy.  Susan was still in bed after I had showered and had breakfast so I decided to let her sleep.

I piloted the Subaru station wagon onto the Red Mountain expressway.  Through the haze and green, just over the hills in the distance, I caught the top of Vulcan’s head and the flat gleam of morning light against it.  The largest cast iron statue in the world, if I recalled correctly.  Though now it was little more than a taunting mascot of a bygone era in which men pulled wealth and industry from the earth.

When I got to the mines I noticed the team standing in a circle around the foreman.  I parked the car and took my place at the back of the crowd.  The foreman was making apologies, telling us how hard we’d worked.  “Insufficient evidence to continue operations,” he said.

The contract had ended two months ahead of schedule.  My dejected team members kicked the dirt, shuffled back to their cars and left.  The foreman followed suit and drove off, and I was left alone at the cave mouth.

For a time I stood there, glancing as far as I could into the dark of the cave, then up at the sun through the trees, then down at my boots.  I had made a mistake in any case.  If she had a lover I who drove her there, spending my days in the black chambers of the earth, digging where I couldn’t even make a phone call, couldn’t even check in to say I loved her.  Flowers were in order.  But what did I know about flowers?  I remembered the little scrap of iron ore I’d found at the start of the contract, the only piece left in the whole mountain.  It was a flake no bigger than a thumbnail, but I figured it would make an appropriate gift as it was the culmination of a three-hundred thousand dollar, 4 month operation.  It was in my glove box still, wrapped in a little rag and stowed away.

I went back to my car, found the ore flake, tucked it into my vest pocket and drove home.

The house was quiet still.  I’d only been gone and hour or so.  I took off my vest and boots, un-tucked my shirt and grabbed the ore flake.  I’d slip into bed like I never left, fit myself against her like a puzzle piece and when she woke I’d give her the ore and declare it all geology, the cumulative mineral wealth of Red Mountain.  I went down the hallway, pressed open the bedroom door and went in.  Susan was squirming under the covers.  I whispered her name to see if she was awake, then went in a little further.  “Susan,” I said.  She shot out against the headboard.  She was naked.  Her mouth open and closed, her lips shaped as if she were about to say my name but nothing came out.  Another body, another pair of restless legs, a slender torso and head came out from underneath the covers.  There, white as the sheets, as easily overlooked as the drywall, was the gypsum boy in all his pasty uniformity.  Even there, with the dim light through the curtains, he looked featureless, like a blur.  I could just make out an unapologetic look plastered like wallpaper across his face.  His pink nipples were his only color.

I stretched out my hand, met eyes again with Susan.  She still gasped for air.  I held the ore flake in my palm, looked at it then at Susan.  “All geology,” I said.  I turned my hand over and dumped the ore onto the carpet.

I made the trek back through the cave to the antechamber.  I didn’t even need a flashlight.  My legs knew the way.  The gap opened.  I went in.


George Sawaya received his BA in English from The University of Alabama and is currently seeking a graduate degree in English with a focus on creative writing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

“Carolyn Park Elementary” by Louis Bourgeois

Being in a public school for the first time is like being at the bottom of a lake; no nuns and priests, no Holy Water or Catechism, or Crucifixion—just a herd of confused children, everywhere, and not a single person knows your name on this first day, or wants to know your name; there are black kids twice as tall as you who lick their lips as you walk by and teachers as petrified as the solid green concrete walls, and there are rows and rows of yellow buses sitting idle like so many train cars shuffling you off to an inane destiny. You’ve never been on a school bus before but now you’ve been assigned one and even told to sit in a certain seat for the rest of the school year. Styx blares away through the scratchy sounding speakers at both extremes of the bus. You still can hear the song as if you’d just heard it yesterday,

Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me
Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me
Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me

and the music makes you feel quite unlike you’ve ever felt before, some ultra identification with some schoolgirl’s face you’ve never quite known before and you are somehow made sad by the morning rays that penetrate the thick school bus windows and the strange whispers of the other elementary school children cover your mind with darkness you’ve never experienced before.

At the school, which is a brand new school, just opened by the State of Louisiana for mostly working class children, you try to piece the puzzle together in your little second-grade mind. You can’t but help to wonder why Mother took you out of Catholic school in the middle of the year; there was talk of debt and bills that you remember hearing vaguely at the kitchen table this morning. Already you’re being persecuted for some unnamable reason. It is X-mas time and you are enjoying a small fold-out box lined with various
flavored Life Savers. The cherry ones nearly take your feet off the ground, but on the degrading minimalist state-made playground which has no character at all and only a lone swing set and a set of monkey bars to play on, you become frightened because something is not right here, your child/animal intuition tells you so; you run away from the other children who seem to appear all at once as cardboard figures and you try to escape the school ground by opening the latch on the aluminum gate, but some ugly teacher sees you and catches you before you can make your escape and grabs you at the back of the neck and punishes you by making you sit on one of the new metal benches that are too cold to sit on this time of year.  Everyone stares at you with their vacant un-human eyes because you are the only one who is alone.

Frightened by your own loneliness, you somehow gather the courage to ask the teacher if you can play with the other children and after a rather severe admonishment she concedes, but as soon as you try to kick the ball around like everyone else a tall fourth grader, Lisa, you’ll never forget her dreadful personage and the name that was attached to it, tells the other children not to play with you because you’re new and your hair is too long and somehow she found out you’re parents are getting divorced and all at once you become as rancid to them as rotten meat.

In utter confusion, you enter the cafeteria and the first person you see is your future step-grandmother who stands suspiciously behind a plane of plastic glass where she works serving food—a deep embarrassment nestles down in the pit of your stomach although you’re not sure why.  Is it because she’s practically a stranger yet knows you so well and already expects you to call her grandma?  Are you embarrassed because she works in the cafeteria where she has to serve everyone, no matter who?  Is it already that class-consciousness is sweeping its evilness across your brain, destroying you by degrees?

You have the strength to cry in your disarray and you sort of circle the cafeteria hoping no one will notice you, but at the same time hoping someone will tell you what do with yourself, and then, as if awakening from one nightmare to another, a long line of Down’s Syndrome children from the special school down the road are all lined up to eat in the cafeteria. Your step-grandmother-to-be glances at you pensively as if she knew this was doing you great harm, and then she anxiously prepares her place in the line where she administers the mash potatoes and gravy. You’ve never seen such expressions of idiocy before, you’ve never seen such strange and pure fear and blissfulness before, but even at this age you know it’s wrong to be embarrassed by their presence, but you can’t help it, you stand in the cafeteria with your back against the wall where you now are suspected by the authorities of wrongdoing undoubtedly. You dare not get in line with the retarded children nor can you bring yourself to be served by quasi-grandmother and you are impossibly hungry, so very hungry that you faint, and before long strange faces above you tell you to get off the floor and get into line and you do, and you sit with the Down’s Syndrome children and eat in the worst silence you have ever known in your too young life.

By day’s end, you’re nearly insane, and you want to go home to Momma-Daddy which can’t ever happen again, or to be quite dead, but they’re loading up the buses and to your internal horror, you can’t at all remember which bus you came in on. You panic deep inside and you know quite well there’s a perfectly good chance you’ll never get home again, wherever home may be for you now. With Momma you just moved to a strange part of town near a bayou, but you don’t know how to tell anyone which bayou and even if you did you wouldn’t know how to pronounce St. Genevieve, even though your very life depends on it. You pant and pant because not only do you not remember where you live but you can’t at all remember the number of your bus, because you didn’t know you had to remember the number of the bus because Momma-Daddy always did everything for you and wanted to do everything for you, but now there is no more Momma-Daddy, just Momma and Daddy in separate horrible intervals. Some enormous adult catches sight of you finally seeing your real tears flowing from your immaculate eyes where you are half-pacing under the bus alcove and she asks you what is the problem, but what the adult doesn’t understand and what you couldn’t possibly tell her, is that for the first time you know what death is and death is not knowing what to do next. You think you will disappear forever, you would like to tell her this, to describe it, but you have no words, to describe it, you open your mouth but nothing at all comes out.

She catches on and says without shame, and you think she should feel shame because you feel shame, she asks you with the utmost confidence and certainty in her words, and it’s like an echo in an empty school hallway deep in the afternoon, she says, Where do you live? In a hopeless manner, you mutter something, words falling out of your mouth not even in fragments, and suddenly the expression on her face changes and then you are brought to even a greater level of horror because you realize this teacher feels your shame of not knowing where home is,  at least for the moment, and she is stunned that you could affect her this way, yet you do, you are falling, in a state of collapse, and death now seems kind to you, so very kind. She asks, regaining her composure, somewhat, What’s the number of your bus? This of course is the same thing as asking you where you live, which for you, no longer exists. You don’t even have a good concept of what numbers are and only a vague comprehension of words, and even if you knew numbers one through ten, that still wouldn’t help you much as the bus’s number was two numbers set side by side, it was a double digit number which for you might as well be the Quadratic Equation.

The teacher presses on and asks you again, What is the number of your bus? You couldn’t possibly say, nor would you want to say because you do not like numbers neither thinking of them nor saying them out loud, but somewhere in the farthest reaches of your mind, something like God is issuing forth two numbers side by side, He is working out a miracle of sorts, numbers you’ve never seen before begin to form themselves in your mouth, against your will even, and the teacher asks you once more, What is the number of your bus? and the numbers are going through you like blood; this is an act of God and finally the numbers appear to be piercing your skin, as if your body was still fighting the numbers off yet considering to accept them for your survival, because it’s your body, not your mind that wants to be saved on this afternoon. Without the least bit of difficulty, you hear yourself; the number 52 leaves your tongue. Suddenly, everything stops and just a few minutes later you’re on the same bus that brought you to this place so very long ago, some seven hours ago, and indeed the bus takes you right up to the front steps of that rented warehouse of a house on Bayou St. Genevieve where you do not live and will never live with Momma-Daddy ever again.

1977


Louis Bourgeois is the Executive Director of VOX PRESS, INC. His latest book, Hosanna, is a collection of aphorisms published by Xenos Press. Currently, he lives and writes in Oxford, Mississippi.

“A Good Snow” by Brent Stauffer

We found the best hill in town. Some other guys had already been sledding on it, so there was a nice deep groove in the snow, past the powder and into the good hard slick stuff. The snow was thick everywhere, about eight inches, which was more than Birmingham had seen in thirty years or more. It had stopped snowing that morning, and the sun was out making everything beautifully bright and sharp. The hill was steep and long with a tiny valley at the bottom. It was a great hill. It was probably the best hill ever seen by anyone. About twenty-five yards behind us was an off-ramp to the freeway where cars occasionally smoothed by, and behind that, green and white pines.

We had some flattened cardboard boxes, but soon discovered the best sled we had was this shiny red Pizza Hut thing, one of those huge insulated plastic bags they carry pizzas around in, keeping them warm until deliverance. We also quickly discovered the best way to sled with it was to get face down; it only covered your chest, so you had to raise your legs a little. The first time you go down, you get going so surprisingly and blindingly fast, fish-tailing and basically out of control, you let your legs fall, hurtling fragmented waves of snow on all sides, but this doesn’t seem to slow you, so you dig in with your booted ankles and heels, your clenched toes, which does slow you up quite a bit. Then you hit the valley, and thud! You’re dead in the water. Actually snow. Your timidity has robbed you.
Then Chris goes. He gets a running start and belly flops onto the thing and zoom! tears down the hill like an electron leaping between atoms, and when he hits bottom, goes flying into the air and everybody laughs. Then Wyn goes. Then Lee. Then Wyn’s wife Laura. Then Laura’s sister Shelly doesn’t feel like trying it yet, so it’s your turn again.

You hold the large red square in front of you and sprint toward the trail, throw your body at the snow and pow! you’re zipping along at sixty miles an hour, with your chin only three inches away from the amazing white blur of ground, like a yo-yo after gravity snaps his gigantic wrist, with your gloved hands curling the front of the plastic box up for better speed and so your knuckles won’t graze; the cold wind strips you of everything but an awful swiftness and drive, then you hit the tiny valley and zing! fly up the far side up out into the air, you to the right, the pizza bag to the left, your arms and legs outstretched, back arching, like a receiver high up and trying to reach the ball, then getting hit hard, then tumbling and twisting like Neo or Njinsky through this sudden slow-motion footage, violent and elegant, and then, well then you bounce the way a drunk bear might bounce and roll several yards through the snow. You lie in the snow and laugh. On your back, you breathe out and briefly close your eyes. Then you get up and shake a layer of snow off your black raincoat. Some of the snow slipped into your right glove at the heel of the palm, and some of it clouds your fine hair, but it feels good to be cold, now, where you are.

You look around for the pizza thing, grab it, and trudge up the hill. It’s a bitch getting back to the top. You have to pull at the sharp air to breathe, your nerves tremoloing. Helter Skelter, you think. I‘m coming down fast so don’t let me break you. Well you might be a lover, but you ain’t no dancer. …now here she comes, Oh…. …look out!

You look up from your brown boots wounding the thick surface as you lift your feet and let them fall. Looking up, you see everybody standing at the top of the hill. From here it looks like a postcard because the top of the hill is your horizon, and everybody’s crisp and black against the blue sky, standing, talking, looking, enjoying the day, the snow, and the air. You think of the childhood Christmas memoir by Dylan Thomas, of the vinyl album Wanda had, probably still does, that had Thomas reading the story, you and Wanda lying on the throw rug in the loft in the deep dark, lost in the lilting roll of his sure sweet voice, wonderful to be lost in his snow and far away church bells, with hot broth somewhere steaming and waiting for you. You wish Wanda were here now for the last two days of snow.  The slipping and rising and sliding with Shaeffer and Miller Lite and mushrooms. The communion over thin naked trees beautiful under full white burdens easily borne. Now, on this last day of good snow, clearheaded and brilliant, you think how much more all of it would mean if Wanda were here. There’s nothing to do about it. So you think about your next jump, planning to run even faster, to really let go this time, looking forward to it even though getting up this hill is a real bitch. You think that if somebody wanted to draw a picture of somebody but couldn’t draw feet, or shoes, or boots, they could draw the person standing in this kind of snow. Once when you were a kid, your dad hand-built a sled for you, but you didn’t come home until late evening, and all the snow had turned into slush.

Finally, you reach the top of the hill and stand for a moment with your friends, catching your breath in little pulls. Chris and Wyn are talking about Dali verses Magritte. You hold out the pizza thing for whoever wants it next when a car slides by fast on the off ramp not twenty feet away, a boxy silver Nissan. You see inside only for a second, but obviously it’s a family, older couple in front either parents or grandparents, and in the backseat a very young boy with cropped brown hair, a puffy blue jacket maybe Patagonia or Land’s End. The way his round face so close to the window peers out, you know this boy has never seen snow before. He gazes at all of you, you grownups playing in his wonderland doing whatever you want, his small bare hands pressed against the window like dried flowers. The car slides by, you watch it merge onto the freeway, falling far behind a semi in the gleaming distance.

You turn back and notice the breath leaving Wyn’s mouth as he proposes the superiority of Magritte’s imagery. You’re still holding out the pizza thing and Lee walks up and takes it. He says thanks with a slight fog of breath. You notice your own breath. You notice Chris’s breath while he says Dali was a master in the classical sense. You notice the breathing of Laura and Shelley as they whisper about something. It’s good, you think, to see that everyone’s alive.


Brent Stauffer lives in a basement on top of Red Mountain, sometimes working on
a collection of poetry; “Knuckles Tickle Pulsars.”  Occasionally he writes for
and edits the Birmingham Free Press. Often he plays double bass and fiddle in
the Mayberry Rollickers, Three Man Stone, the Mississippi David Hornbuckle Band,
and other local bands of note.