|Jul/Aug 2014 Fiction|
Image credit: Darryl Leja, NHGRI, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov
Chancer tore the yellow tag from the kiln door that Hicks had tacked up the day before, wadded it up and stuffed it in his pocket.
"It's a $150 spark arrestor," Hicks had said. "On a $12,000 kiln. Don't be an idiot." But Chancer had to draw the line somewhere—he thought he did anyway—and so the spark arrestor had become this ridiculous token of rebellion, a final self-inflicted obstacle. Hicks had taken it as a personal and professional slap; he gouged his pencil into the shut-down notice like he was writing out the Ninety-Five Theses.
Chancer looked up at the lodgepoles and ponderosa pines crowding around the kiln. The needles were pale, the bark brittle and rivered like old skin. The smell of sap, usually so strong, was faint and sickly, with a stinging tang of ammonia to it. Hicks undoubtedly had a point—they'd go up like matchsticks.
He opened a beer and dropped into the decrepit butterfly chair on the back deck. He left the door open so he could hear the phone if it rang, and to air the place out. The block of clay by the potting wheel had dried out; he sprayed it with the hose while he sat in the sun and drank his beer. He tried to picture the thing hidden inside, the way Michelangelo could supposedly see David in the raw block of stone, squinting and clenching his jaw until a dull throbbing moved from the back of his skull toward the front. There was nothing there. He threw the hose away from him. The head thumped off a flower pot with a single dead zinnia inside, then snaked across the deck, twisting and spraying, the water pooling on the seared ground that was too dry to take it in.
Inside the kiln, two of his fish pieces sat on shelves, waiting to be fired. One was a cutthroat above a gravel bed, the other a Kern River golden tucked into the lee of a boulder. The parr marks and spots and the red dash at the gills were dull now, but after firing they would become rich and luminous. That was his specialty, the glazing. He had developed his own blends to mimic each fish's wild markings. He knew exactly how they would look after firing, something not everyone could claim. It was what set him apart.
He sat on the floor in the center of the gaping dome and looked around. It should have been full of work. The orders had slowed to a trickle, and even those he couldn't fill. He knew he'd either lost the knack, or the knack itself—reduced to a gimmick—wasn't enough. There was no life in any of the pieces, and the idea of cranking out undistinguished fish for undiscerning people made him physically sick. His unspawned schools of ceramic dullards weighed down on him so that he could hardly get up in the morning. He felt weak and shrunken, desiccated—and now this bullshit with the county.
"You don't know who this is, do you?"
He looked at the caller ID.
"Of course I do."
"You forgot all about me."
He laughed at the unlikeliness of that. In Maisie's voice, even from this distance, he could hear the intensity he'd felt sitting across from her in the San Rafael Denny's after that first concert, her hyper-focused eyes fixed on him, her hair almost glowing under the tube lights. It had scared him a little, her compact electricity, but not enough. He remembered seeing two futures like roads forking up ahead of him as she cupped her hands over his, her wedding ring clear as day, and rubbed her thumb in slow circles. He felt the cracks in his skin as she skimmed over them and became aware of the dried clay under his nails and the red stains in the whorls of his fingerprints.
One future with her, and one without her.
She turned his hand over and traced the long line—his lifeline or whatever—with her finger. The tip vibrated faintly as it moved along the crease of his palm. He pulled back gently but steadily until she let go.
"That last set was killer," he said.
It wasn't what he wanted to say, wasn't anything like what he wanted to say. He wanted to say something kind, something to make her finger stop trembling.
"Music can only take you so far, John."
She was the only one who called him John, outside of his family.
"You ask me, it can take you all the way."
"All the way to where, though? Where is that?"
She sipped her coffee and smiled a private smile that tucked itself into her cheeks in a way he wasn't crazy about. All night she'd been saying things like that, things that might mean one thing or might mean another. It made him nervous; it gave him the feeling she was expecting something from him he didn't have.
"To the peak," he said. "The summit."
"What if you're already there?"
"What if you can't go any higher. What if you're already as high as you're going to go?"
Chancer stirred some more cream into his coffee. Stirred and stirred.
"I don't know," he said finally. "I guess you start down."
She nodded slowly and looked away. He lowered his head, blew on his coffee. He was bound to disappoint her, given time. That was obvious.
They overtipped the waitress and went home in opposite directions, across separate sets of hills. Chancer watched the river of towns strung up through Marin like spilled milk ripple across his mirror, each with its strip of unacceptable motels—plywood doors and divoted beds, bug lights outside the rooms crackling and popping. The next time he brought a tent and a bag, and they camped in a state park near the Valley of the Moon.
Maisie looked out through her kitchen window at the webs of fog strung between the eucalyptus trees. She could see herself reflected in the window, a little ghostly, her features overlaid on the ragged bark of the trunks. Behind her, Ella stood watching, her hair matted into near dreadlocks, her pull-up hanging halfway off. Maisie ran her sleeve across her eyes and went to the little girl. She swung her bottom past her nose as she lifted her in a motherly gesture, heartening in its naturalness. Maybe she wasn't too far gone.
She set Ella on her stool, poured some oatmeal and water into a melamine bowl, and popped it in the microwave. When the fan started whirring, Ella made an O with her mouth and pointed.
"It's okay. It's not a monster."
She'd told David she didn't use it anymore, which seemed to satisfy him. He stopped lecturing her, anyway, about the tumors it was gestating in them. It was fast and easy, and it saved her from washing another pot. She valued her time, even if he didn't, even if she did shamefully little with it. It was still hers, and it was still precious.
The melamine bowl crackled. It sounded, admittedly, unhealthy. She burned her fingers taking it out, and it crashed onto the floor. Ella cried as she ran her hand under the tap and felt the burn transferring to the stream of cold water in one of the few physical processes she still had faith in. In contrast, for example, to the shoddy performance of her neurotransmitters.
"How about some Gerber's?" she said without turning. "Daddy will never know."
Ella cooed, or grumbled—she wasn't sure which. She dug in the back of the utility cupboard and pulled out a jar of turkey and rice. She tried it herself before giving it to Ella and ended up eating the whole thing. Luckily, there was another jar stashed away, and she fed that one to her daughter while the sun beat against the fog trying to get in.
She heard the concert announcement on the community radio station while Ella was taking her nap. The deejay's voice when she called to get the details was as aloof and lethargic as it was on-air. She could hear the music behind him that hadn't reached her yet, a couple of steps ahead like a premonition. She ignored him when he tried to hit on her, thanked him and hung up.
The room was starting to warm up, everything in it ticking as the chill left it. She tore the top sheet from the Co-Op notepad by the phone, felt the pencil impressions with her finger. Then she picked up the phone. She was giddy, that was the word for it. A ridiculous word for a ridiculous feeling.
"You don't know who this is, do you?"
The swing started to twist, and at its highest point it hesitated for a second, a little slack built up, then snapped out as it started down again. The drop jarred Ella, and she stopped crying. Maisie smiled at her and hummed a song she couldn't remember the name of. It didn't matter, it was the façade that counted, the illusion of contentment. They learned from watching—their emotional education.
They cut across the field behind the hotel, above the beach. They could hear the waves breaking, but they couldn't see them. The fog was still thick over the water. The grass in the field was wet, and Ella begged to be carried. She hung onto Maisie's neck, playing with her hair and with the little skin tag on her shoulder. The grass swished against Maisie's legs, the fine hairs clinging briefly to her jeans before letting go. By the time they came out the other side of the field, her pant legs were soaked.
They paused often at the little back gardens of rosemary and peas in the alley by the lumberyard so Ella could look for butterflies. When they came out onto the street across from the school, class was just letting out for recess. The kids filed out in an almost unnatural order. David stood outside the door to his classroom watching them. Maisie could tell they were aware of him, she could see it in their careful movements, in the coiled resistance of their posture. He would have made a good schoolmaster out on the prairie somewhere, she thought. With slates and chalk and homemade lunches wrapped in wax paper. Back before all the world started intruding. Ella pointed, and Maisie pushed her arm down gently. He hadn't seen them yet.
She stepped back into the shade of the buildings. David rocked on the balls of his feet, his hands behind his back. A quick glance left, a quick glance right, a quick scratch. The kids moved hurriedly away from him, veering off into groups like the branches of a river system splitting and converging. A tight huddle of girls formed at the edge of the blacktop. Maisie longed, briefly, to be one of them—whispering back and forth, trading rumors of love and sex like tales from the South Seas, farfetched and no more than half-believable. Waiting impatiently for something they had no doubt would come to them.
The children's voices rolled in waves back and forth across the playground. At one point, in a sort of undertow, a tense quiet rippled back through the groups. Maisie followed its course and saw, half-hidden by the wall of the farthest wing, two boys squaring off. They fidgeted and shoved each other half-heartedly, unwilling or unsure how to proceed. Then one of them pushed the other a little too hard, and his head snapped back, cracked sickeningly against the bricks. He started crying, and David came running.
The other boy was explaining immediately, paddling frantically with his arms, trying to wind back time. David tilted the injured boy's head sideways to examine the wound. He called an older student over and sent the two off toward the office. Now comes the lecture, Maisie thought.
But David didn't lecture him the way he would have her. Instead he pulled the boy's hand out, straightened his arm, and rolled his sleeve back. He gathered up a fold of skin between his thumb and forefinger and started to squeeze. Maisie could see the effort in his face as he bore down, waiting, she knew, for a specific reaction. The boy tucked his lips between his teeth and fought against crying until, eventually, David stopped. Whether he'd gotten what he was looking for or not, Maisie couldn't tell. Probably. He usually did. In any case, he rolled the boy's sleeve down and buttoned it up again. Then he roughed his hair playfully and watched as he hurried off toward a cluster of other boys, where he was quickly absorbed.
As they walked home, Maisie held onto Ella's hand, curled up in a little ball inside hers. She also held onto the image of David's face as he delivered his punishment—that smile of righteous satisfaction—alongside the hateful looks of the children. Amazing. He was an asshole. What took her so long? Ten years of convincing, the length of the average murder sentence.
The sun was breaking through the fog in earnest, and she was suddenly very hungry. She'd been given the gift of knowledge, and now, just like Eve, all she could think about was food. She began picturing meals she'd eaten in the past, alone or with others, favorite dishes she could almost taste. She couldn't remember the last time she was really hungry or had enjoyed food. Maybe she'd take the recipe box out when she got home, fill the house with the smells of cooking and life, rather than what was there now—salt air, mold, a little bit of dog, neglect, and distance.
They took the long way back, looping out past the artists' shops and studios along Mar Vista to the quieter north end of the beach. She let Ella chase the shorebirds along the surf line, sending them flapping out low across the water, their wingtips just touching the surface. She watched from a log that had washed up onto the beach years ago. There was no danger. The waves were small, the wind calm now. The sun was enormous and kind.
Chancer sank deeper into his chair. The heat was sapping his strength and what was left of his ardor. What was he doing? Maisie had been married before, sure, but now she was a mom. Jesus, a mom. With a van, and lunches, all that. His sister had shown him a picture—a nervously smiling Maisie, a howling little girl. A kid changed things, that was something else. Besides, it was a good three-hour drive. Going there wouldn't be any trouble, but getting back... he couldn't say no, that was the problem.
When the phone rang a second time, he picked it up quickly, thinking it might be Maisie calling back to cancel, but it was just Renton.
"You got that oven going yet?"
"It's a kiln."
"Whatever. You got it going?"
"No. The county won't give me a permit."
"So I can't fire it up."
Renton snorted, then coughed, the foul syrup of his blood making its noisy circuit.
"Jesus. Where do you think you are?"
"I'm not getting hit with a fine. I've spent a fortune on the thing already."
"Well shit, you can't take it with you."
Somehow it always slipped Chancer's mind how much he disliked Renton. They were drinking buddies who would one day end up killing each other, he was sure.
"What do you want?"
"My dog died."
"Yeah. I liked your dog."
"Me, too. He was a good dog. My better half."
Renton laughed, and another coughing fit shook him. Chancer decided he wouldn't have anything more to do with him. They weren't each other's futures.
"You want to help me out, then? Give Buddy a sendoff?"
"Jesus, I don't know man. That stuff creeps me out."
"Death's a part of life, bro."
"You're not dressing him up or anything are you? Burying him in a suit or something?"
"I'm not burying him at all. I was thinking cremation."
Chancer dragged his cutting wire through a block of clay, parted it out into four cubes he had no idea what to do with. He mashed one into a lopsided ball, kneaded it half-heartedly. There was no drive to it anymore, no urge to make something out of nothing. He looked at his hands: there was nothing special about them—they weren't an artist's hands, they were a journeyman's hands and always would be. He walked into the kiln, picked up the Kern golden and studied it. The eyes were dull, the fins sloped at a careless angle. Its tail arched and loaded, body poised in an attitude of striving, it was going nowhere.
The repulsiveness of Renton's idea—it was an almost blasphemous use of the pristine Geil—decreased with each beer. By the fourth there was a comforting inevitability to it. Dreams had to adapt to circumstances, after all. There was bound to be money in it—and death was an art, too, wasn't it? Or should be. He wondered if you needed some kind of license. Probably. But, like everything else, that could be worked out. He'd talk to Hicks.
"Do we burn the blanket, too?"
The dog was wrapped in an old blanket of Renton's, peppered with cigarette burns and blotched stains made by god knew what.
"I don't know," Chancer said. "This is my first cremation."
"Yeah. Well, it doesn't matter, I guess. I could probably use it, though."
"Then take it."
Renton carried the dog into the kiln and set him on the long shelf against the back wall. He started to unwrap the blanket, then changed his mind.
"I guess he can keep it."
They drank a six-pack while the kiln heated up. Every so often, Renton would walk down the path to the little window and look in at his dog.
"He doesn't look peaceful. Everybody always says that, but it's bullshit."
The sun dropped slowly through the trees, lighting up the pine pollen in bright yellow shafts. They could hear the bricks ticking and another dog barking down the hill, probably a mile away. Renton threw an empty bottle toward the sound. It thumped quietly on the soft ground, the layer of needles and duff under the trees too giving to break it. It wasn't the sound he was looking for.
They huffed up an eight-ball of crank, and Chancer felt his doubts turning to certainty. He couldn't go down there again, couldn't meet Maisie anymore. What if she got serious?— she had sounded a little serious. He pictured her daughter out here on the scuffed-up ground, on the edge of this spare hill that dropped so steeply down into a litter of rocks where there was at least one rattlesnake nest; the wall of the kiln hot to the touch, the smoke of dead animals pouring out the chimney. No. No, it wasn't right. It couldn't ever be right. He stumbled up and across the deck, crashed in through the screen door.
"Where the fuck are you going?" Renton yelled. "This is a fucking funeral!"
He dug through his drawers, found the picture underneath a yellowed concert T-shirt. It would go up with Renton's dog, and that would be that. Ashes to ashes. It was bent almost in half, and the finish was scratched up, but Chancer could reconstruct what he couldn't see: Maisie standing in front of a redwood with that buddha smile of hers, her hands folded in front of her. Behind her a bird flying out of the frame, blurred by movement. There was the corner of the tent, the shock cord staked by her foot, and out of sight beyond that the little creek with the salamanders whose bright, slick backs looked like they'd been glazed. She'd caught one their first time there, giggled and danced with it trapped in her cupped hands, its tail tickling her palm.
The smell of smoke curled in through the window, and he heard the crackling of burning wood and the spit of sap igniting. For an incongruous moment he thought it was a campfire. Then he saw the stripes on the glass and the flames licking through the lower branches of the ponderosa pine where the kiln chimney let out and the spark arrestor should have been.
He did what he could, but of course the hose didn't reach. He pressed his thumb down on the nozzle, arcing a stream up into the burning tree, a meager piss trickle that only sizzled on the roof of the kiln. Renton sat and watched, immobilized by drink and mourning, seeing something in the flames Chancer didn't—an omen or a vision, the soul of his lost dog climbing a burning ladder to heaven.
The fire department got there before it got out of control, and had it out in less than five minutes. Chancer heard some of the bricks crack as the water hit them. One of the firemen peered through the window in the kiln and drew back.
"He was dead already," Chancer said.
Hicks pulled into the drive in his county truck as they were coiling up the hoses. He looked at the blackened branches and clicked his tongue. Rocked on the toes of his boots. He must have heard the sirens. Or somebody called him.
"Go ahead," Chancer said.
"I've got nothing to say," Hicks said. "Words are wasted on you."
An hour later Renton carried his dog's remains in a plastic tub out through the gate, crying all the way.
Once the pot of quinoa was simmering, Maisie sat beside Ella on the couch and told her a story. They didn't have TV, of course, and David's taste in books ran to the Grimm Brothers and C. S. Lewis, who Maisie found either too frightening or too ridiculous. Tonight, in one of her few cherished subversions, she recounted an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies to her daughter. As much as she could remember anyway, doing all the voices and a few bars of the theme song. Ella watched her crookedly, and when the story was done, she sat tight-lipped and expectant, staring at her mother. Maisie had to ad-lib an ending that would fit in with the expected pattern, the somnolent lilt of a moral.
"Ellie May could, in fact, talk to the animals. But she was the only one of her kind—and that was her downfall."
Ella scrunched up her nose and crossed her arms. Maisie sat back on the couch and closed her eyes. She wished they had a TV.
Tomorrow, things would be different. For a little while, anyway.
She was in the kitchen when the phone rang, washing the big pot and not minding for once. Ella was still on the couch, watching her through the kitchen door.
"There was a fire," Chancer said, his voice thin and hesitant.
"I had a fire. Up in the trees."
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah. I mean, pretty much."
"You're not hurt are you?"
"No. It's just—" She held the phone, warm and humming, to her cheek. "I started thinking, maybe it's like a judgment or something."
Out the window she watched a set of waves crumble and fall against the jetty. They broke noiselessly, the sound swallowed up by the fog.
"Since when do you believe in judgments?"
"I don't know. Maybe since this."
"It's not a judgment. So—what? I'm the devil?"
"No, come on. It's not like that."
"What's it like?"
She heard the muffled hiss of a bottle being opened.
"There's the insurance guy too. I've got all that."
"I'm sorry. Really, I am."
Her body felt heavy, pressed into the edge of the countertop. She tried to picture him on the other end of the phone, his skater's ridiculous gravity.
"I don't care," she said.
It sounded pitiful, like something a child would say in the dark to convince herself she wasn't afraid. A little mantra of deception. She said it once more: "I don't care," knowing that there were things in the dark, no matter what you told yourself, that were stronger and longer-lived than you.
David wasn't hungry when he got home, and the tabouli was overcooked anyway, so she scraped the plates into the compost bin and carried it out into the yard. The compost pile wasn't supposed to smell, but it did. David would be on her about that.
Down beyond the fence and the mud flats, she could hear the waves breaking against the jetty. A fisherman had been swept off the rocks there a week earlier, caught out by a sleeper wave. They could come on you like that, out of nowhere. Your day would be calm and peaceful, an idyll composed by someone with sentimental leanings, when suddenly the world would invert and the air would fill with water. Shells and sand would wash through your hair, blind your eyes, drive into every fold of your skin. People would call from shore, but you wouldn't hear them. The only connection you would have left would be your line, tangled around your foot, leading up out of the water toward your tackle box and the ice chest packed with a couple of beers and the sandwich you'd made that morning.
It could happen like that, no question, Maisie thought as she carried the plastic bin back up through the yard. There was a light on in the living room where Ella and David were. It flickered as David passed in front of it, moving from room to room, locking the windows and drawing the curtains. The fog thickened between them, and Maisie wasn't convinced there'd be a door when she got up there, or even a house, so dim and insubstantial was everything.
Chancer got the news of her death a week later, from his sister.
"Remember my old roommate, Maisie?"
She mentioned it in passing, fascinated and horrified. No one knew anything about them, not his sister, not any of their friends, nobody. Maisie had kept it a secret for obvious reasons, but why he hadn't told anybody he couldn't say. He could have told Hicks or Renton—it never would have gotten back. But he hadn't.
After his sister hung up, he sliced a wedge from the big, semi-hardened block of Missouri clay and wetted it down. His fingers were stiff and ungainly at first, but they loosened as he went, kneading and forming. The thing he made was nothing like anything he'd made before—a misshapen fish-like creature, certainly not a true fish—eyes buggy, tail chewed and gnarled, salmonid mouth twisted into a grin. He glazed it recklessly in outlandish, unreal colors, and when it was done, he drank and studied it, perched indecently on the table. He finished the last of the vodka and found two neglected lines of crank on a picture frame in the kitchen. The fish glowed under the moon, sending off jagged shards of light.
The next day it was gone.
He had a peripheral memory of Renton, his face twisted into a sneer like the fish's, staggering in and then out again. He dragged another block of clay from the shed, unwrapped it, and started in.
He worked all afternoon and through the night, shrugging off sleep. It was so easy, making these things with no connection to the world. They laughed at him, they were obscene and unnatural creations. At some point Renton appeared waving $200. Chancer sent him off for more beer and meth. He worked quickly, watching himself without much interest, glad at least to have something to do until the point at which there was nothing left to do.
In his pocket, the picture dug into his leg. It was almost blank now, creased and cracked so that the only discernible feature was Maisie's crossed hands holding the little vase he'd made for her, the glaze a deep blue he was never able to duplicate. He wanted to reach in and snatch it back, smash it on the rocks along the creek bank. Her hands should have been empty, resting on her hips or flipping him off.
When the phone rang, he felt a little rush of undeserved hope, but it was just Hicks.
"You learn your lesson, Chancer?"
"You don't even know my name."
"All right, John," Hicks said. "You fucked up, John."
He meant the fire, of course. Chancer looked past the ranks of leering sculptures at the spark arrestor sitting on top of the chimney like the head of a prophet, the scorched lower branches of the ponderosa pine splayed nakedly above it. Here and there, pockets of sap had welled out to seal the scars.
"Tell me about it," he said.