Made It Way Up
part 17: Bernard
by Ian Donnell Arbuckle
Part 16 appears in this issue.
I never get the chance to just lie there and enjoy the morning. Some bastard was honking his horn. It wasn’t one of the cracked, gargling horns that you get on all the old cars in the valley; it was one of the ones that you used to hear from school buses and, as it turned out, fire engines. The ones with the cord you can go hang yourself on.
I went to the front door. Essa was in her robe, her nose in a mug of coffee. She didn’t look up when I passed through and she smiled when I said, Good morning.
It wasn’t one of the full-length fire engines, but it was sure red enough. A big man was standing next to the driver’s side door, leaning in the window and tugging on the horn cord. As I got closer, I could smell the stale electric smell of the compressed air the horn used to make its noise.
“You wanna cut that out?” I said when it paused to breathe. The big man turned around. He had on a navy blue jacket that wouldn’t button across his chest if he tried. It had a badge on the left breast.
“You the owner?” he asked me. He had a voice that echoed over gruffness but never quite settled in, and I could tell he was trying to be quiet for some dumb reason. I bet he hadn’t brushed his teeth yet.
“Had some reports a couple nights ago of fireworks. Did you launch fireworks?”
“Which of these houses is yours?” He had parked on the drive in between Lane’s and my lots. I had to point over the tall hood of the engine.
“Can I speak to the other owner, please?” He was being as polite as I could expect, after being dragged forty miles from home on an unseasonably cold morning. Population eight hundred and I didn’t know the fire chief. I thought about offering him a cup of coffee, but I wasn’t completely sure that I wanted to know the fire chief. If he ever raised his voice.
“The owner is recently deceased,” I said, though I struggled to find the word “deceased” and make my voice sound intellectual, professorial. “But his wife still lives there. She has a pot of coffee on.”
I was turning to walk with him when Kelly came out the front door, stabbing a chunk of eye booger out of the corner of one eye. She had started down the porch steps before she saw me.
“Morning, princess,” I said behind the back of Chief I-Don’t-Know.
She looked up. “Mom’s on the phone. I’m going back to bed.”
Her voice was a little off. A little lower. Maybe she turned seven when I wasn’t looking.
The Chief didn’t notice that I wasn’t following, so I just walked off to my front door. Kelly had left the door open. I closed it behind me, noticing as I did that she had forgotten to unlock it. Good thing she left it open for me; I didn’t take my keys with me when I went to Essa’s last night.
“Yeah, Patty. What do you want,” I said as a greeting.
“Kelly told me,” she said.
“What did Kelly told you.”
“About your friend.”
“It’s past.” She started to say quite a few things and never got more than a couple of syllables into any of them.
I said, “What do you want?” again.
She said, quiet like a stream, “You get the check yet?”
“Got it a while ago.”
“You agreed to call me after. So we could talk about what to do.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“Good thing you’ve got our daughter around, then.”
I paced back and forth in the kitchen, turning each word I wanted to say into a sharp heel on the peeling linoleum. She said, We’ll talk more later. Then, so we wouldn’t, I said we’d come and visit her next month. That made her kind of happy. Her lawyer told her to show a good presence, because I still had all the papers with me. I kicked my foot against the cabinet they were stored in. I said, Talk to you later. I hung up and went to find Kelly.
She was on her hands and knees in her room, peering under her bed.
“Hey, Kell. What are you looking for?”
“A box to bury Nine in.”
“Honey?” She did that yesterday, when Essa was sitting silent on her porch, still in her clothes from the night before, drinking a cup of cold coffee.
“Just kidding,” Kelly said. She pulled out a dusty shoe box and sat back. She crossed her legs and placed the box at the point where her ankles intersected. Then she opened it. I leaned on the door to watch.
“What time is it?” she asked, fingering the pages of the few of my old Asimov’s and Analog magazines she had uncovered so carefully.
“Two hairs past a freckle,” I said, bringing my bare wrist up in front of my nose as though it had a watch on it.
“That’s what you always say.”
The magazines were yellowing and missing corners. She pushed the box off her legs and shoved it across the floor to my feet.
“You want these back?”
“I didn’t even know they were gone.”
“I snuck them.”
“Did you call mom?”
She breathed in before grinning at me. “Yeah.”
“Can burn em for all I care,” I said, tapping a foot against the thin cardboard shell.
“Okay,” she said, all grown-up compensation. Maybe she had turned seven when I wasn’t looking. She stood up, dusted off her palms, bent over for the box, and marched out of the room. I stood there for a moment, staring at all the puffy cloud crayon drawings taped to her walls. The wind came up and rattled her cheap single pane window. I felt everyone leaving me in the dust. I stood there long enough to see my daughter heading toward the hill with a box of kitchen matches balanced on top of the shoebox of stories.
I went to join her, rushing because, really, I was afraid to let her play with the fire by herself. Stubbed my toe on the damn filing cabinet. The one with all the stuff Patty didn’t want me to have. Some people have the right idea, etching the past into stone or diamond or whatever. A gravestone. It makes a lot more sense to stick what has already happened on a big ass chunk of rock; things you can’t change. Right then, it made a lot of sense to me to have the future written down on paper. And I got frustrated, sure, at the smart in my toe. And at her for being such a bitch and not even lying about it. It’s been a long time since I felt like the kid that killed Goliath, since I got down on paper the things she did at the office with other people’s money. I don’t understand a single black digit, but that’s the thing about power that got me: didn’t need to understand it to use it.
I was a stupid kid from backwater Virginia, screwing like a jackrabbit every night with Patty because she’d come home not drunk but just a touch peppered and ready for it. But damn it, there was nothing big about any of it. She had Kelly and let me take care of all the changing and feeding. Seemed like a pretty even trade to me. I didn’t even expect to eat those first couple years away from home. Always liked seafood, which is the lame-ass reason I chose Seattle. She would have let me get away with lobster every evening if I wanted. And then she’d go off to a meet and greet and I’d stand with Kelly in my arms, jumping her up and down and forgetting, only once in a while, to keep her head steady, and I’d stare at the Space Needle all lit up and dwarfed by the other scrapers.
Never figured on being anything big. Didn’t get a degree; didn’t go to much college; didn’t even graduate high school. Letting all the authors down, yeah, but didn’t feel too bad about it. Not like Bradbury’s going to come around after dark with a shotgun, or Asimov’s going to rise out of his second grave to introduce me to the boys.
That’s how I became a father. By not doing much. Kinda makes me want to hallelujah. I didn’t fall in love until I brought Lane back from the hospital and saw her sipping her coffee and heard her sarcasm bite out like a blade.
But but but me no buts, man. None of it was that big. Not like these half bald hills and mountains in the distance. I gave up the gruesome life, after I’d learned a thing or two. Like where she kept all the stuff she used to blackmail her shark friends.
I yanked open the drawer. Damn near took my finger nail off, and it reminded me of how it damn near broke my back carrying that shit from the truck and back, however many times I had to move it. Just one more. I picked it all up, felt a paper cut crawl thin blood across my palm.
She got the fire lit on the first try. I never taught her how to make the log cabin that lets the air through, but she had it perfect anyway. A few twigs as a foundation and then a couple late nineties issues as starter. By the time I got there, the names of the authors were all but carbon. I set Patty’s papers down.
She looked up at me.
“What time is it, daddy?”
“I dunno, princess,” I said. She nodded and turned her eyes back to her creation. It was getting going pretty good. She fed it a couple more issues and then sat back on her grasshopper haunches. “Something happening later?” I asked.
“No. That’s not it,” she said. “Where’s your pocket watch?”
“Um.” I had always wanted a nice silver pocket watch, but never had the spare money to pick one up. I put a hand on her head and felt a shiver slip across her body. She turned it into the toss of another magazine onto the pyre.
“I thought...” she started to say. Then she shrugged and put her hands under her chin. “Pretty,” she concluded, hunching her shoulders into the blossoming warmth.
It was as good a time as any. I stooped and shoveled the last of Seattle onto a spiky orange tongue. The fire bit down and it wasn’t long before I was dodging huge chunks of white ash, buzzing with orange along their edges. I got this funny picture in my head of little people guiding those sparks straight at me, hurling invisible spears and screaming, Forget the Alamo! at the top of their lungs. Tops of lungs higher up than mine.
Kell threw the rest of my magazines on now that the flames were hungry enough. Then she put her hand in mine and said, without looking at me,
“Wanna read to me?”
I put my arm around her. She was burning up.
“Sure,” I said.
We left it alight.
Copyright © 2004 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle