[Image Credit: “Fire Painting” by Louis Parsons]
There were historic fires that season—all of them of the untamable sort which rips indiscriminately through town as well as through forest and which prompts mandatory evacuations of large parts of the region for the first time in living memory. In a patchwork, new tongues emerged on the wind and brandished themselves. Trees and brush burned in hollow pops. Articles were recovered from the badly smoke-damaged VFW Hall, prompting a gas station attendant to later speak meaningfully about the recent period of drought while eating an Entemann’s old-fashioned. The radio had it that firefighters were being brought in from out-of-state. Three days later, the same program would report that one such firefighter had been caught in the State Forest with lighter fluid and a box of strike-anywhere matches, exacerbating the blaze in a willful bid for job security. It was exactly the kind of narrow cynicism on display in stories like this that made Sadie feel like an overworn cliché for worrying about the world into which she was soon to bring a child.
Sadie stood barefoot on their porch in a technicolor muumuu, pensively tracing the railing’s wood grain. “I don’t want to be this like breast-beating, garment-rending sort of person.” She addressed herself to the space past the screen door. “Whatever I think about lately, I already feel myself half aggrieved.”
“Natality is the mystery,” Robert’s voice returned from the kitchen. He was lately given to quasi-mystical pronouncements. It was Robert’s sensitivity to the quasi-mystical that had landed them in this ranch-style rental on the hill at the end of an unpaved hairpin turn. They had a complete edition of the Foxfire books teaching back-to-the-land principles on their mantle. “Navel. Fingernails. Heartbeat. Treat it as a speculative challenge.”
She considered briefly, charitably what Robert might mean by speculative challenge. She considered as well the wildfires, which only a day earlier had taken down a Mason’s Lodge two unincorporated townships over. Their own lap-sided ranch with its floral pattern linoleum and modest collection of chintz relics would go up in a start should it ever come to that. Up would go the charming, naïve painting of a gas station rendered in at least seven irresolvable planes. Up would go the precarious plywood situation which served now as shelving. A strange catalog. They had no adult friends and they were living in what Sadie’s mother had two weeks ago called, her words chosen dispassionately, bohemian indulgence.
“I’d encourage you to read that Melanie Klein I’ve dog-earred,” he emerged into the daylight, his coffee cup trailing steam in loose curls. “Obviously, it goes without saying that I couldn’t be more excited.”
In his unaccountable enthusiasms, Robert had assumed a distance. Sadie could see in Robert’s distance a gap—could look out over it, could consider that gap as it slowly transfigured into a maw. The vivid, harlequin dreams of pregnancy lent new force to spatial metaphor and its figurative reasonings. “I love you so incredibly much.” She felt the action of Robert’s jaw as he rested his chin atop her head.
On the radio, an advertisement played in which a man complained to his therapist that none of his friends or family could believe the low, low prices at which he was offering the new Dodge Ram. The therapist replied in little uh-huhs and with the audible scratch of his pencil on pad.
Their water was hard water, and to sit in a steaming shower in their home was to have to get used to the sulfurous stink of something drawn from a well. Robert stumbled in after her now as the first, split-second shock of cold rolled over and off her back with the squeak of the pipes.
They washed themselves and one another in familiar silence. Two bath tiles featured granular cracks. The curtain was beginning to gather mold. And in some flash, Sadie caught herself wondering if Robert had afforded her a wider berth than entirely necessary as they traded places just now, their feet soap-soaked, so that he could rinse out his hair. Wondering if Robert hadn’t exaggeratedly swung wide of a girth that, only a shade past its first trimester, simply wasn’t showing. The water felt immediately to be scalding, and Sadie made a point of nearly bowling him over as she reached for and turned the knob.
Distance standing to maw, as figure to ground.
She conjured brief images of Robert thrown to the lions, but her imagination could only figure him taking such a fate with stoical grace and aplomb. She conjured images of herself thrown stoically, gracefully to the lions.
Hard water also meant no drinking from their tap. Hard water left the taste of scrambled eggs served in cold ketchup on the back of Sadie’s throat as well as the feeling of a chalky film coating her teeth. When, on occasion, she would by reflex draw a glass from the sink, she gagged a dry gag—one which reached the very bottom of her diaphragm and hurt like having been winded from some unfair punch. Their pantry was full to its brim with gallon jugs bottled at the source.
Sadie knew there was some subterranean part of her brain, one likely not her own, which took the sulfurous tap as license to go without drinking water almost entirely. She had spent a great part of her life underhydrated. Underhydrated in ways she was only beginning to appreciate—and for reasons unknown to even herself, resulting in chronic fatigue, headaches, a general feeling of deep-seated malaise which followed her everywhere. Sadie had been underhydrated since some time in childhood. If pressed, she could easily remember the countless vomits following youth soccer games, the half hour it had taken the nurse to find a suitable vein for the IV needle when she’d had her eighth-grade appendectomy. Even Sadie was baffled. Despite herself, she took the theoretical scarcity of their pantry supply with an outsized seriousness.
Of course, pregnancy could only complicate the situation. Had Robert been able, he would have put her on a strict water-drinking regimen replete with abstruse-looking time tables, and he’d have made her stick to it. Such things were not beyond him. Instead what would happen involved Sadie holding out until she couldn’t help but drink—waking up in the middle of the night with headaches that rocked her entire field of vision. Sadie stumbling into the unlit kitchen, setting a water jug in the crook of her elbow with two fingers looped around the plastic handle, tipping back the jug wildly as she downed half its content like a moonshiner in five or six sustained gulps. These gulps left her nauseated and gasping.
“Fuck me,” she would have out between panting breaths.
Robert every time came in with bleary eyes to find her brushing her mouth with the back of her hand and he’d offer his broad-grinned congratulations. She always wished he hadn’t done so.
A decision was reached that they might learn to shoot. The instructor at the indoor range was a rope-muscled man done out in denim and a braided leather bracelet who introduced himself as Hiram. Their safety portion took place in an offset little drywalled room, beyond which the business of the range could be heard to happen in muted and irregular cracks. A ten-point buck’s head was mounted next to the fiberboard door—and had they been on the far side of the wall, they’d be able to see the menacingly sharp tips of the supporting screws sticking out the other end.
Hiram explained that a firearm should be understood in the first instance as a self-defense asset, that his own collection of self-defense assets was in the comfortable double digits, that he’d come to them out of an initial interest in Japanese weaponry. With this last, he produced and threw an imaginary shruiken.
“Pretty serious stuff,” Robert said on the end of a whistle.
“Deadly,” Hiram returned. “Let’s talk stopping power on these guys.” Atop the card table in front of him lay the two weapons with which they’d be firing today. On the left was a generic-looking black handgun, semiautomatic, that seemed half-fake for its kind being so ubiquitous in television and movies. Hiram’s tobacco-colored arm hovered over this first as he told them that it was a Berretta M9. He gave a quick gloss of the model’s military service history as well as the provenance of this particular pistol, whose last owner had come to an end bleeding out after accidentally shooting himself in some soft-spot artery—this at least according to the information Hiram had been able to garner afterwards at the police auction. The gun’s matte-black finish suggested unspectacular death, as if the three of them might just as easily have been sharing the room with a can opener.
Next to it lay a pearl-gripped revolver of the cowboy and saloon variety. Eating Burger King afterwards, Sadie remembered more than anything how the revolver’s nacreous handle had glowed under the dropped ceiling and fluorescent lights. That is, alternately warm and cool.
They had to shout on the range to be heard over the sound of firearms and through the insulation of their aviation-grade ear muffs. Sadie’s spread was far tighter than Robert’s—and they shared thin laughter as Hiram held the paper silhouette target at which Sadie had taken aim to his own torso and pretended to gasp and gurgle for breath, like he’d been the one shot. He playacted overlong as a felled home invader, twirling back and forth on locked knees and pressing a palm to the wall for support. “It’s done,” he mock-winced. “It’s done for. I’m a goner.”
Not two days afterwards the wildfires took down a small, highway-side amusement park—the park two exits down from a store which Sadie knew selling furniture that state prisoners carpentered on work-release. The fires rolled over a low hill, the trees of which had previously been bleached a sick marrow color by acid rain.
The park had been low-capacity, seasonal. It sat now in charred parody. The burnt-out hull of the tilt-a-whirl overlooked a mess of skeletal wiring just recognizable as a troupe of animatronic Wild West prospectors. A pool of luridly colored plastic cooled where once had stood a stroller rental. Sadie had never held even secret intentions to visit, but felt a poignant tug at the idea that she no longer could. Among what was once hailed regionally as a famous miniature collection she might have found, only days ago, scale replicas of Princess Diana, Shirley Temple, John Wayne, Fred Astaire.
The radio dispassionately relayed this and more.
On offer had also been a deer park, with hand-tamed fallow deer as well as pygmy goats whose pre-wildfire lives hadn’t involved a whole lot more than eating kibble out of child-wielded wafer cones. The deer park figured heavily in the business’s promotional materials. Among the wreckage, nothing particularly like a dead goat or deer had been found, and the municipal bodies responsible were operating under the assumption that all 90 some odd animals on-site had been able to hightail it into what remained of the surrounding woods.
Robert supported them working 20 hours a week doing unspecified admin work for a rural community development fund, its mission geared toward ensuring local business owners received only the healthiest capital. This left him plenty of time to dog-ear Melanie Klein and to basically only rarely leave Sadie to her own company, but an emergency with the organization’s audit had put him in the office today.
Their satellite phone was something of a holdover, of the clear plastic kind which enabled you to see the wiring and parts, here metallic and there forest green. As Sadie sat sprawled on the reclining couch, it rang in an electronic whir.
“Hello, beautiful,” Hiram’s voice eked out in a slow crawl from the far end of the line. “Don’t worry. I got this number from your liability paperwork, nothing untoward. I’m sitting in my truck. I’m watching a cicada molt on the hood, right up next to the ornament. This is you, right—I’ve got to think?”
Sadie took a judicious pause. “It’s funny. I was just thinking about how I’ll be having a child in five months.”
The crackle of brief silence on his end. “Oh wow. Should you have been shooting a gun?”
“WebMD told me to use my better judgement. But I might have expected a professional to be able to answer that for me.”
Sadie absent-mindedly reached for a pen and began to sketch a series of stacked cubes as she spoke, the phone cradled under her chin. One atop the other, the cubes transparent. She drew on the back of a junk mail presser advertising the Cherokee casino.
“These little insect legs are flailing, sloughing off old skin” Hiram said. “It’s really a sight to behold. I’m fortunate to be moved by such things. Today is a blessed day, the kind of day where you know things can’t help themselves but work out. Do you ever feel that way, gorgeous?”
“I’m certain I don’t.”
“That’s very hard to believe.”
She took their cordless phone outdoors, pen and paper still pinched between two fingers on her free hand. Her and Robert’s lawn was the kind of overgrown rural lawn that bespoke neglect, but which hadn’t passed through the generations beyond memory necessary for serious trash to accrete. Their grass had gone to seed, but the lawns of the old families in the surrounding area all sported something like three rusted-out car bodies, a perpetually smoldering pile of fire-blackened garbage, dangerous-looking shacks either waterlogged or termite-chewed and sporting nails which threatening at indiscriminate angles. In such company, it became easy to believe oneself an upstanding citizen. She put one tentative foot out in front of another as she walked tenderly over the sun-soaked gravel of their driveway.
“What do you want anyway?” She found herself asking, mid slow stride.
“I don’t mince words, angel. Ditch the creep and come with me.”
Her drive took her across a badly damaged portion of the National Park, through which the wildfires had passed. As she took each broad switchback around the successive hills, a new aspect of the blackened landscape would hove slowly into view before receding in her mirrors and again disappearing. On alternating road shoulders, there were little car parks where drivers could pull off to look out over scenic vistas. Had she herself done so, she could easily have charted the course the fires had taken, could easily have seen the garish tar swath they’d cut through the forest. She accelerated into turns as she passed an acres-wide wake of twisted, choked trees, interrupted only to accommodate the wending road on which she drove.
A sign as she entered the park bid drivers to turn to 640 AM for traffic and wildlife information. On the dial, an avuncular voice over thin folksy strings welcomed her—only to be abruptly interrupted by a different, soberer broadcast voice urging public safety, bidding visitors to take seriously the indicated road closures. To the southwest rose three slow-moving pillars of white smoke flecked with blues and ochre.
Sadie was insistent from the beginning that this was only a social call. She said so before even clearing the doorjamb—this as she privately wondered, for the first time in recent memory, whether she trusted herself.
Hiram lived in a mobile home off the highway, not a trailer park, but on a large plot in a nearby valley—with uninterrupted view of the summer’s electric blue, dome-shaped sky above. Several hundred meters down the road was a gas station that hadn’t seen use in the better part of a decade, plants shooting wildly out of the parking lot’s asphalt. Other cars gliding by at a slow, irregular clip.
“Sadie, my love! I knew you’d make it.” It occurred to her that Hiram’s jeans might have been distressed manually. “Make yourself at home, mi casa and you know the rest.”
True to his professional background in East Asian sword craft, Hiram had several decorative katana and other blades mounted on the wall. Immediately on view as well were three heavily stylized maps, each depicting one or several islands in the Japanese archipelago.
It was also apparent on entering that Hiram drank Tang in a pretty serious way—this kind of orange-flavored powdered drink which in her childhood Sadie’s father used to tell her had been developed for the space program by NASA, alongside dehydrated ice cream. Dotted about the place were glasses on almost every available surface, some as yet half-full, some with only dried particulate clinging to the glass’s lip and bottom. A glass on the stereo sported a spoon sticking out at a jaunty angle.
“I’ve got a surprise for you. One I’m pretty excited about.”
She followed his beaming eyes to the coffee table. Atop it lay last week’s revolver in a rosewood veneer case, just as she remembered it, to the last detail.
“Caught you eying this number when you were at the range. Don’t think I don’t know love at first sight.”
She walked, mesmerized, over and traced with her finger the firearm’s volutes where it lay recessed in dark fabric. The cylinder sat in a clean, machinic flush to the frame. The front sight menaced like a backlit dorsal fin. Sadie marveled at the intricacy of the mechanism—which seemed to defy the one-to-one simplicity of what a gun is there to do. She lost herself, for the entirety of one distended moment, in the luster of the grip’s inlaid pearl.
“Yours to keep. Honestly, it’d be a crime to keep you two apart.”
Sadie wheeled wild-eyed around and told him he couldn’t be serious. Hiram continued to talk as he made for the kitchen. His sink-stacked pots and pans were pretty badly stained from either high-calcite dishwater or else just simple bachelor neglect. The pressurized whooshing sound of a faucet. “I absolutely could not be more serious,” he said, again emerging, stirring fluorescent Tang into a jam jar with his index finger.
“You’re trying to woo me by giving me a handgun? What would Freud think? Forget Freud—what should I be thinking right now?”
“Now you’re joking. And I’m confident that I’ve never ‘wooed’ anyone. Anyways,” a dodgy, playful turn of Hiram’s head as he looked over both shoulders as if he was about to tell some great secret concerning a third-party presence. “You can think about it over a coffee break.”
Hiram turned to his bookcase, which served a double duty as medicine counter—Sadie only now realizing that the body powder lying on its highest shelf was likely what contributed to the antiseptic, mentholated smell hanging about the place. She registered a small surprise as Hiram took down a well-thumbed 2nd volume of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, soon resolved as Hiram bore the book to the couch and cracked it open to reveal its hollow cache. Several baggies with intricate knots. One of which unmistakably cocaine. He took the coke, and he cut the coke out into two lines on the dictionary’s cover. He did both lines on a single fell inhalation, and then he cut a third.
“I didn’t realize you could get good coke out here.”
“Good coke?” Hiram made an awful noise like he was exhorting his chest to work again. “No, you can’t get good coke out here.”
Hiram proffered her the dictionary bearing its third line. and there was a long, loaded silence. As his chemical drip began, he addressed his gaze to her midriff like there was something unspoken between them there to be found. Which, obviously and dawning on him only perhaps at this point, there was. His eyes grew just slightly more remote.
“Not to get all afterschool special, but I think it’s time I was going,” she said.
A pause that was something like a computer’s buffer as his brain accommodated itself to its newfound speed. “Don’t think I haven’t given a thought to your little guy and the home we’re going to give him. White picket fences, a Scandinavian-engineered sedan, security, hearth, home, a two-bedroom house in a real estate development with a disused tennis court. We can be three red blooded Americans in a Red State. Together, we can.”
“I don’t say this to offend you, but you have no idea what you’re doing. Baby, we can die within weeks of each other!”
He was still screaming about the things on which she would be missing out as the close of her car door sounded with its hollow crack and Sadie lost his voice in the engine’s turning.
Probably the most irritating thing was how Robert affected not to notice, or at least how he elected not to say anything suggesting he’d noticed that she’d been out. She figured something in his mien betrayed a pertinent question or two, on Robert’s part.
Sadie returned around dinner time, as she’d never once before, to find Robert in his novelty graphic cooking apron and elbow deep in what looked like ground beef. World music poured out from their speakers. The graphic on Robert’s apron showed a muscular male midriff, which hung loose from his lithe frame even with the strings drawn and had been part of a gag gift exchange between them several years ago.
“Hey, love,” Robert greeted her over the squelch of meat through his fingers.
“Hey,” she said, placing her car keys in a ceramic door-side dish. Halfway trying to follow the involutions of some stringed instrument’s riff on the radio left her ear disoriented. “Your day was hectic? Dire actuarial straits?” Sadie tried briefly to imagine what dire actuarial straits might actually involve, could only figure fingers stabbing hurriedly at graphing calculators and white color workers with their shirtsleeves soaked through at the armpits. She repeated silently once more her secret resolve never again to hold honest work.
“I think that’s fair to say.”
She leaned in for the peck. He asked her how her day was as a public radio personality came on with the name of that last song and a piece of gnarly trivia concerning the political situation in the country from which it had come.
“Oh, I don’t really have days here.”
With this last, their telephone rang out in a conversation-deadening ring. Robert answered and hadn’t a word in over the high-register babble before he was holding the receiver out to Sadie at the end of a long arm. He made to return, nonchalantly, to whatever his business with the meat was. Hiram’s frenzied breathing came over the receiver.
“Babe, this is bad. I need you.”
“Uh,” she said, wondering how she might get off the phone as quick as possible, not one bit entertained by whatever Hiram was at here. “You’ve got—”
“I think it’s an overdose. Cocaine. Recreational hazard. I’ve been known to imbibe now and then to take the edge off. My vision’s tunneling. I’ve got what I’m not sure to characterize as a twitch or a tremor. If this is it: remember me.”
“Hiram, put yourself in the recovery position and call an ambulance.”
“This may come as a shock to you, but the health insurance situation at Dixon Shooters Supply and Indoor Range, LLC is decidedly sub-optimal.”
“Jesus Christ. Okay, I’m coming over.”
She’d nearly made it to the door before Robert insinuated himself into her path and made it absolutely clear that he was coming along.
The only way that Sadie could think to describe Hiram’s flush, screaming palette as they entered was newborn red. While he rocked back and forth on the fake hardwood clutching his head, Sadie could not stop thinking that his feverish and sweat-soaked skin made him look like somebody only minutes old.
“We have to get him into the car,” Sadie said. Robert accidentally elbowed a near-full glass of Tang and it fell to the floor in a liquid crash. She’d forgotten that Robert was basically shit in an emergency.
In a bound, Hiram leaped from shivering and whimpering on the floor to standing atop the couch’s back, screaming something at the top of his lungs about how he’d never be taken. He had to stoop under the mobile home’s low ceiling. “Yeah, except that’s not true, is it?” she said, trying to match his frenzied tone with one all-business. The last time she’d had to talk a cocaine-gilled person back from the ledge, she’d been in a band. “Because we’re your friends, and we’re here to get you to the hospital.”
“It’s not happening, babe. Change of plans.”
Robert was inexplicably lost in study of an Edo Period print map of the Mutsu Province. None of the three addressed the Tang spill and its attendant shards of glass.
“No one’s about to steal my wild blood. Not tonight.”
“Okay, whatever. We’re going now.” As she made to take him by the shoulder, Hiram executed a kind of dive for the coffee table, pitching himself and the table’s contents flying across the floor.
The revolver spun from its case and came to a rest with a clunk against the opposite wall. Sadie had a split second to reprimand herself for not remembering to count the weapons involved. Hiram scuttled maniacally after it, prone on his stomach like a green plastic GI. He grabbed it, bounded up once more, turning to face Robert and Sadie and drawing the pistol to his own temple with a world-rending grimace. In that second, the room took on a nauseous curvature, like something was about to happen which would violate the laws of any physics hitherto known. Hiram pulled the trigger six times, each time thumbing back the two-pound hammer with practiced speed.
The mechanism clicked pathetically with each, the cylinder empty. The space resumed its normal gravity. He hung his head and let the revolver fall in a clatter like a disused toy.
“Great. Can we get on the road?”
Hiram’s nod was that of a child who’d just been disciplined.
Despite themselves and the situation, Hiram and Robert engaged in that kind of masculine jockeying for shotgun. Sadie tried to let the eyeroll enter her voice as she pressed them to get the fuck in. She was reasonably certain that the extent of Robert’s knowledge of coke came down to the fact that he had read Bright Lights, Big City as a high schooler. Hiram ended up in front and took immediate control of the music. A kind of psychedelic surf rock accompanied them on a low-frequency station as they took off for the community medical center lying on the far end of the Park.
Sadie took the turns wildly, but with reasonable safety. She had driven these roads just long enough to know exactly what kind of speed she could get away with. Hiram meanwhile had hit that level of cocaine psychosis at which he could hold forth at length on just about anything. He gripped with his right hand his pained left forearm as he told them about the evils of the American Medical Association. How thanks and all, but they were going to have a hell of a time getting him in front of a certified physician. Robert, enamored with the frenetic speed at which Hiram was putting together thoughts, kept putting him on with leading questions. Sadie did her level best to lose them both in attention to her driving. Her high-beams cut a path before them through the night’s well-bottom black.
And then, suddenly, as Hiram was yammering at Robert about how he’d sooner have his heart explode than submit himself to medical attention, Sadie’s eye caught motion on the road. She slammed on her brakes and the car was sent into a centrifugal spiral. Her arm shot by instinct across Hiram’s chest as that of her other hand held white-knuckled to the wheel. There was the horrible sound and smell of rubber peeling off her tires as the car came finally to rest, facing a full 180 degrees in the opposite direction from that in which they’d been traveling, the taillight bumping the abutting aluminum guardrail with comically outsized softness. They were all dead silent for the space of a breath.
And then into her headlights moved first one followed by another set of cream colored four legs. The shapes moved at a slow gait, and their figures were even slower to intelligibly resolve. Fallow deer, crossing the road. They seemed to multiply endlessly, passing the car to the front as well as back, as Sadie saw in the rearview mirror. Silently, as though nothing at all had happened, they continued in their dozens about their way. Punctuated among them as well, at odd intervals, she caught the horns and beards of a pygmy goat. A single farmyard bleat carried through the night and over the radio’s electric swell, which Sadie now lowered.
“Deer from the park,” she said in a reverent whisper. “I’ve heard about these.”
“I guess they’re so used to people.” Robert from the backseat.
Finally, in front of them, a buck stood stock still. His muscles were handsome and tensile. Sadie saw that the velvet of his antlers had been singed, that the tips of his antler were a darker color than they ought by right to have been. The rest of the domesticated herd pulled ahead. Though similar in coloration, he was far smaller than any whitetail buck that might have been indigenous to the region. Hiram, continuing to spasm in the passenger’s side seat, shouldered an imaginary rifle through his drugged haze and drew invisible bead. All parties considered one another. Of particular interest were the buck’s eyes, which glowed electric green in the sodium light and which saw without understanding.
Drew Dickerson is a writer currently living in Duisburg, Germany. He has written previously for The Onion and its sister site, ClickHole. His fiction and essays can be found online at Full-Stop, The Fanzine, and Queen Mob’s Tea House.