Bewildering Stories

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Made It Way Up

part 19: Bernard

by Ian Donnell Arbuckle


We curled up like beetles on the old green couch. She picked Roots and asked me to do the voices.

“What voices?” I asked.

“You know. Sydney’s and Mister Dresser’s and all those guys.”

She smiled like smoke. I mean she smelled like smoke and smiled. I had no idea what she was talking about.

I was only a couple paragraphs in on Chicken George when Essa knocked on the door. I shuffled Kell off my lap, yelled, Come on in.

“Hey,” Essa said. “Fire chief wants to talk to you.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s out there. Beating down your fire.” She grinned. “Thanks for the diversion. He was trying to be friendly.”

Ever seen somebody get distracted doing something important, like driving? I hate it when people listen to music in the car when I’m a passenger. Everyone I know likes to sing along. They get real into it, closing their eyes and just busting it out all over the windshield. As if that wasn’t bad enough, when the album’s over, they go digging for a new one. And I just want to reach up and grab their shoulder and yell at them to watch the road; I would if I wasn’t sure that I’d be worse than the music.

So I didn’t say anything to Essa about Lane. Not then.

The weather was coming up, sweeping black clouds overtop us. I pulled on a windbreaker and jammed my hands into my pockets. The fire chief was stamping on a few small flames that were tunneling around him through the dry grass.

“Can I help you?” I called.

“What the hell’d you think you were doing out here?” He was breathing hard. I came up next to him and stepped on a couple of tongues to show willing. It wasn’t bad. I looked up at him. He breathed with his mouth open. I could see tar stains on his teeth. Poor wife.

“Getting rid of some trash,” I said.

“Ain’t you got a burn barrel, son?”

“No, sir.”

“What about those’nth I saw behind the barn?” He pointed. I followed his finger slowly out and back, giving him time to notice the hazard stickers plastered all over the barrels in question. When I got back to his eyes, they were still angry and no more intelligent than before.

“Sure. We can use those ones.”

“Jesus! I’m going to have to take you into town, mister.”

“What for?”

“For launching a big fucking rocket that could have burned the whole foretht down.” While he was occupied with being agitated, a lisp had snuck into the corner of his mouth. Not married, then. This man would go home tonight and be satisfied with a beer and network television. He would fall asleep in his recliner and, during the night, would never go further than the bathroom.

“My best friend died in that rocket,” I said, not quite sure what I was expecting from the chief. Mostly I think I just had never been able to say that before. Never even been able to say the first four words. The look on his face put me in mind of a pig trying to wrap its thoughts around theories of hydrodynamics. Of course your best friend died, his small black eyes said. You are amateurs. You can tell by the way you almost burned the goddamn forest down.

But he was a professional, my knuckles said. And he knew what he was doing, my left foot said. I am a man of my failures; I made him a memory of same, said my other foot. I felt his nose bone crunch back but thought at the moment it might have been only his skull sinking into the soil.

Essa, green eyes, stared at me from her porch. Violence doesn’t solve anything. It’s the wounds that do the work. If there was some way we could get straight to the bruise without the interfering fist fight.

The chief was trying hard to gain his feet. Essa was walking with a measured pace. I spit at the chief’s shoes. He mumbled something bloody and ran to his truck, hunched like a pregnant woman protecting her baby. Essa timed her hand on my arm to coincide with the state’s door slamming shut. Soon after, the engine gunned and the truck spun out backwards.

Then I noticed Kelly, hiding in Essa’s skirts.

“Get in the house, girl,” I said.

“I am grown up, daddy. I grew up last night--”

“I said get in the house.”

“No!” She knew right where to go for. Her tiny bullet fist caught me where it hurts a guy the most. I doubled over, grabbing for her wrists. I caught a good scratch across my cheek before I got her under control. I looked up at Essa, while Kelly struggled like a fish in my arms, and realized I had tears in my eyes. Everything was blurry; I couldn’t see at which of us the green eyes were looking.

“Take her inside, would you?”

“Which house?” she asked, bending down to take Kelly out of my grip. When my hands were free, I wiped my eyes clear. Kell had her face buried in Essa’s hair and fists knotted between Essa’s breasts.

“Just put her to bed. God.” Some of the blood on my hands was mine. Chief must have had a face chiseled out of obsidian.

Essa took Kelly inside, patting her on the back. I sat down hard next to the remains of our fire. Smoke follows beauty. I watched it coil around the house, tap on the windows, sneak down the chimney, and then blow away on the breeze.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

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