You are reading Fiddleblack #5
It was dark but during daytime sun shone on the wheat fields and limned them like glass. From the high points in town you could see calcimine fences and rows of corn for miles, and outward toward the edge of town were roadside stands where the corn was sold until the warm summer mid-mornings gave way to autumn, and like any other southerly place in Ohio there were cows that grazed along the thoroughfares between the hard blocks of suburban developments where every street’s name bore the call of some old-blood Indian tribe. And on a good night from where Somers stood in the high school parking lot he could even hear the highway whilsting and the jake breaks and diesel engines that caterwauled and passed on down to Kentucky. He could hear the laughter and loud music of kids that rushed to their cars and even a few cheap limos for the night’s after-parties, and from his very place monitoring them at the middle of five miles-per-hour exit street he high-fived nearly every driver and backseat pair of thin white hands that waved to him as they drove out.
Their homecoming dance was over, and the traffic flow that left school eased itself in fair sections as it passed over the last speed bump before merging onto the double-yellow road that ran through their town. Somers smiled with his small beard, his always-flannel shirt buttoned near to the top. It had only taken him a year to win all their esteem when he had thought it would have taken him two. Cars with open sun and moon roofs echoed hollers and sped away, and Somers looked back and remembered what it was like to have existed in that space. He walked back through school doors, to the principal who patiently tidied and listened in a gnat cloud to the chaperone mothers that had brought in baked good as a payment to speak their quiet hosannas to the local district and its waining budget and board.
After the women cleared out Somers began his short walk home, carrying with him a briefcase of ungraded papers and pens and nothing else. He kicked at loose gravel and listened to field insects chirr from the older homes near the school. He watched the sky turn color and lose shape, and he watched his feet shuffle on the ground. He made his way just past the schoolyard when he saw what he swore was a tooth lodged in a split between patches of pavement. He stopped and spied it with one eye closed. The enamel had been brushed and cracked, but it was a molar—a tooth Somers reasoned to be unlikely lost in an accident. Just the sight of it upturned with bare roots gave Somers a phantom pain in his jaw, and he crouched on the ground and steadied his hands for a closer look.
A car with a woman inside had begun idling beside him: What is that? she asked.
A tooth, he said.
Do you think it’s a good idea to touch someone else’s tooth?
I wanted to be sure it was real. Somers thought to kick the tooth and keep it out of sight long enough that he might forget it but instead he turned to the car.
Yes, he stood.
She chewed bubble gum in a dress, and maybe it was the red color of her hair or her car, but she seemed to have the kind of youthful long spent from the other boys’ mothers. It was rare for him to meet a father, and it was the school secretary who told him on his first day that men in this town worked and they worked hard.
I’m Ellie Casey.
Danny’s mother, he answered.
Well I was hoping you didn’t know too much of him.
He’s never any trouble, Somers told her. Did he have fun at the dance?
I believe he did, but I could only say from watching.
I didn’t see you inside.
I came late, she said. Do you know we live in the same neighborhood?
Leaves scattered on the sidewalk and were upswept in the air, and Somers sneaked glimpses of Ellie’s skin at all the odd places where it was still milk-white and untanned and peeking: Well that’s where my folks live. I’ve been staying there. Maybe you saw me running.
Yeah. Maybe you were running.
Good to meet you then.
I’m going to get a drink while it’s still Saturday, she told him. You should join me.
Somers almost laughed, and yet he kept himself straight. He ran his fingers along the outline of beard, and he pulled his shoulders back in the way that made him feel like his posture was good. He wished his shirt were nicer. She had a clean car, no wrappers or dirt on the mats. All boys’ shit kicking, all their fights, he was sure, but it was spotless. Something, finally, he thought, and he smiled and walked around and opened the passenger door and let himself in. They drove and he thought about the tooth. Ellie smiled and hit all the traffic lights in sequence, and Somers let himself lean back in the seat and relax. He was there to see what happened.
I’ve noticed you out running a few times, now that I think of it, she said. Your parents don’t mind your late night running?
You know I used to be with someone, he said. We had a condo lease for a while but she took off with some guy in Las Vegas.
You’re still young. It doesn’t matter where you live.
Which house is yours?
I don’t think I could describe it well enough. They all look the same back there.
Is this something you do often?
Pick up my son’s teachers?
If you want to put it like that.
I’ve never picked up one of his teachers before.
Oh, Somers said.
From outside the bar they could see down the road to a small arcade alive with many of the students from the dance, put-putting on small greens decorated with lighthouses and faux statues and colored flags, and over the door to the bar a mix of old yellow lights hung from wires, the bar sign a busted jumble of letters. Inside they sat on stools under the head of a pronghorn no doubt bought online and shipped from out west, mounted there with its dusty glass eyes, and Somers pushed the sweat on his glass in circles.
Okay, I admit it. I’m nervous, she said.
I’m thinking you’re married.
I am, but it’s okay.
What about Danny?
What about him.
Him seeing me with you could be very damaging, I think.
He’s not old enough to be in a bar, she smiled.
You know what I’m saying.
Somers looked up at the pronghorn looking back at him. He could see its coarse hair. It made him wonder about virility, how all things had to converge to rise, evolve. He thought about age and stasis and how most churches have Christ mounted like bars have these relic animals stuck, staring in frozen time. Somers looked long enough at the thing to forget where he was, and before he knew it a silence had happened. Ellie ordered him another drink. Beer while they talked and water thereafter. On the stools and in booths were probably other students’ mothers or fathers and maybe even some boys with beards who left before senior year. Somers had begun to smell her fresh skin and the softener she used on her clothes that hung victorious above the room’s awful staleness. He realized that this was a new smell, something sharp and possibly unkind, and Somers saw now that he was alone with a stranger.
You know where I work, he said.
What’s wrong with that?
Well I need to know where you work.
You’re here with me aren’t you? We had drinks. I didn’t pry much.
I work at the town hall. I’m an archivist.
An archivist. It’s the kind of job that lets me know everything that goes on here.
How old were you when you got married?
Is that why you’re here?
Because of my husband? No. I’m just here. Anyone can have a crush right?
I don’t know. I’m not married.
Well do you feel like you can have one now?
To be honest I never had one when I knew it was okay. I mean why do that at all. Why pine. Why want?
The wanting is all that we need. Think back enough and I bet you wanted everything. You have time though.
So you’re getting what you want then. You’re doing what you want. I’m here and I’m listening and you’ve got me.
I’m not getting you. I’m just here with you, and I’m on the edge of my seat.
This is ridiculous.
It’s not though. What did you want? Something? A girl, I’m sure. Maybe the one that left.
All the things we think we want are so because we don’t know what it’s like to have them. Is this really the kind of conversation you meant to have with me?
Can I tell you about this theory I have?
Okay, I work for the town. I’m an archivist. I log every birth and every death. I keep city records. I log elections. I see how we enter pass through and leave. But there’s this wide in-between that looms, at first when its very long, when we’re so young and when it’s first conceptualized. Then it continues to loom, shorter now but darker, when we know that we have to do something. We each have to be a person with a role. And the looming is what we do in the space between what we have to do.
You mean we have to validate ourselves, personally, or whatever.
Are you validated?
I still live with my parents.
I have all these things, right? I think I’m validated. When I go to parties or when I see my family they know what I do and they know how I do it. My husband needs me every minute, and we have children so we’ve already made ourselves up. We’ve done our biological part and killed the urges. And now I can try and want just for sport. This is the sophisticated real estate agent in the hotel on the shitty side of town, legs in the air, getting plowed.
But it is, you know. I know you’re a smart guy.
How the hell would you know that?
Oh, please. You can pretty much tell when someone’s going to be an idiot or an asshole. Every day we go to the post office or the bank or the grocery store we’re trained in this. Everyone’s bullshit and their bullshit kids. You put up with my bullshit kid, and he tells me things I think I learned in college. So I think know.
So what about raising your kids then. You’re not entirely made up, right? You can’t go on wanting sprees when you have to raise kids.
Kids raise themselves.
So your solution is to falsely start the cycle again, and—and let life loom expansively?
Is it working?
Listen to us now. How far we’ve gotten with each other, and you barely know me.
I think that’s because you’re picking a fight, and I’m that kind of person. Does it even work if we talk about your method? If we spell it all out like this?
It’s not like a wish, I don’t think. It doesn’t disappear.
Okay, Somers paused, tapping a nervous finger on the table: What do we do then?
Well let’s go, she said.
She parked in their neighborhood and left Somers far down the street on the cul-de-sac where he lived, and he walked to her house with a warmer pair of clothes and some kind of confidence he had to muster between a through-the-door conversation with his mother while he slapped cologne on his neck and plucked hairs from his nostrils and silently screamed. They would loom somewhere like she wanted. Like he thought he wanted, and he counted the manhole covers in the clean street on the way over.
A fat man sat in front of her garage on a lawn chair with a can of beer in his hand. He had sideburns to his jowls, and his stomach pushed out and from under his torn army t-shirt. It was very dark out, even with the neighborhood street lights, but he wore a pair of neon green-framed sunglasses. You could have expected the man to be holding a gun in his lap and wearing hunting brogans, but instead he held a fly fishing pole, and he whipped its line across the yard and across the driveway pavement. Somers made a small attempt to hide himself, but he was sure that anyone could see him behind the electrical box at the foot of the yard. The fat man just watched the ground, his pole’s long lash was cast and cast, forward and back in a four-click motion. Somers tried calling Ellie but her phone rang to voicemail, and after what seemed twenty minutes Somers stepped into plain view.
Howdy, the man said.
Hi, Somers said.
The man burped like a toad and crushed his beer can and kicked his slippers out and slouched further down in his chair. A beat-up Honda pulled alongside the curb, and Danny stepped out from the backseat.
Mr. Mast, he said.
Somers heard in his head all the bullshit things he could imagine a person like him telling the boy. But that was not him. He was the cool teacher, the one people liked. He was not there for anything other than himself.
The man’s fishing line snapped and scribbled words out of shapes from its shadow left hung in motion. Danny walked past them and stopped at the front door, unknotting his tie at his collar: He was in a bad accident. My dad, he’s basically not alive anymore.
Okay, Somers said. He put his palm on his face and pressed his fingers into his eye. Fuck fuck fuck. Danny walked in and shut the door, and through the glass Somers could see the boy squatting to remove his shoes. Somers walked away from the man and sat on the grass in front of a flower bed and looked at the night. He had a small bottle of gin he kept in his jacket, and while he waited for Ellie to come out he lay between hedges with his head rested on a crooked arm, his sprawled feet out over the walk. The stars over Ohio were always bright and the same, even with the hot glow of pollution and light from Cincinnati they never seemed much less dim.
A door slammed, and Ellie found him there on the ground.
You weren’t going to tell me about your husband? he said, standing up.
I told you I was married.
You didn’t say he would be here.
We could have met at your place.
What with my parents around? I don’t think so. They were mad about dinner. That’s how bad it is.
Well don’t worry. He doesn’t notice a thing.
Well your son noticed me.
I know, she cooed. But can I confess something?
I’ve actually had a crush on you since like last year. At one of the conferences or the play or both, I don’t know. I know how it seems. I know it seems desperate.
Somers cracked his neck and put his hands at his sides. Okay, he said. You know it’s kind of funny we both saw that tooth. It was almost going to be one of those times. You know, when something happens that would take too long to explain. But you saw it. I saw it. You even saw it from the car.
Come on, she said.
She drove them to a colonnade of mid-size corporate buildings in an industrial park with man-made ponds on either side of a beautiful green that ran all along the row, more perfect than any yard in their neighborhood, and on both sides of the road and gaggles of sleeping geese rested with their necks relaxed in their wings. Somers and Ellie stood on the pond and listened to a train that rattled in the distance, and he took her hand and they watched the fountain push foam out to the shallow water at the edges.
What do you call this? she asked.
Laissez Corp, I think.
I mean what do you call this, what we’re doing. Where we are. Is this some kind of date?
I don’t know. It’s doing something different. Breaking a rule or two, right? Looming?
Everything. Everything is beautiful. To loom is to be beautiful. It’s beautiful to see this at night. The lovely geese. Perfect grass. Do you know how fucking hard it is to get grass this good? Do you know what a pain in the ass it is for a woman to mow and edge her lawn when every other matching yard on the block has some asshole perfectionist working for it?
I guess I don’t.
This is what I want. No people, no nature. Why can’t someone live here?
Somers took a hard sip of gin from his bottle and passed it to Ellie.
They drove through an apartment complex with all its labyrinthine short streets and found a swimming pool unguarded save for its aluminum fence and gate. Beside the pool were a set of swings and behind them were dozens of cropped pines and dropping cones down to the rust-colored beds of needles that formed beneath, and facing the pool were stacked townhouses and cars parked along the street. Somers lifted himself over the fragile fence and stood there on the cement, his foot unshod and skimming the water. Ellie hid behind the pool house and peed. Leaves floated over most of the lighted water. Should have been closed a month earlier, Somers thought, and he kicked water at her when she emerged pulling up her pants, and Somers turned and unzipped himself and urinated through the fence bars toward the trees.
This is just crazy, she said.
Well this is what I would do if I were sixteen.
A car passed but did not slow or turn around. The power lines that swept overhead could be heard humming down to the earth and their sound of industry mixed with that of the pool, and here all they heard was alive and plangent and looming and steeped in night. Ellie undressed until her breasts were exposed, her hair tousled and tied back. Somers took off his clothes and lifted themselves into tepid water and sank down to its bottom. Somers opened his eyes and saw the light at the end of the pool like the eye of some mad kraken, and their bodies of things shifted and made gurgled sounds underwater. He could see her body treading water and the soft husks of insects and frogs dead on the pool floor. They took turns staying under as long as they could, watching the other up through the underside surface of the water. They would bob up and gasp, and Ellie would hold her nose with an arm covering her tits and she would go back under. Somers watched her shape fall down from the shallow end. When Ellie got out of the water she pulled the back bottom corners of her underwear at both bottom ends to cover her cheeks there, and she hoisted herself back over the fence and shivered, pulling on her clothes. Somers stayed in the water, shivering too, half his body exposed.
I’m going to go, she said.
Where are you going to go?
I don’t know. Maybe that’s what I would do now if I were sixteen. I would leave you here.
Well this was your idea.
I know. This is how it works.
So is that really what you wanted to be, an archivist? he asked, fanning his arms in the water.
We had our talk.
I know, but I’m serious.
I wanted good schools for my son. A community and some stability. It’s really an easy job. Who knows. No one ever knows what they want. My husband never wanted anything. Now nothing is what he’s got. He can fish all day.
I guess I was good at sixteen, Somers said. I was fine with going out with girls like you. I had no pressure. We’d drive around and look at the stars. Touch each other a little. But I don’t think anyone ever ditched me.
So what. This was a mistake.
Let’s be honest. This is no legitimate thing. Who are you even. An archivist? What is that? Who cares. Go home and take care of your family.
You’re getting upset.
I know when I’m upset. I know that. Are you my mother? Is everyone my mother? My mother isn’t my mother. She doesn’t know when I’m upset. When I’m spending thousands of dollars I don’t have.
Somers, she said.
Somers looked at her. She seemed heavier than she looked when he saw her on the sidewalk. It was in her legs and her face, the weight in her arms. Somers was not sure how he had been wrong about this. Her waist protruded above her jeans slightly. Had he not just seen her naked? Somers could hear a woman on the phone in an apartment. He could hear himself breathing. How was she this big. He hoisted himself out of the pool and wiped himself with his shirt and looked at her more closely. The wet cleavage between her toes puffed at the start of her shoes.
No, he said. Tell me. Tell me what you want. I show you mine and you show me yours. What. What did you want to be when you grew up. It wasn’t this. You didn’t picture being here with me.
Okay, she said. Okay. I wanted to be swept up and carried off and locked up in a man’s house, cleaning his dishes and washing his sheets while he mowed my lawn. I wanted to be a Christian. I really wanted that. I wanted something that was pure. I’m not very pure, but I guess I do have the rest of it. I wash his dishes and I clean his sheets. But it isn’t for anything. It’s so he can live and feel clean if he feels anything. I don’t feel clean. I don’t make dinner, and he doesn’t come in the door. I don’t relax with a glass of wine, and he doesn’t make me get him another beer. He shouldn’t have any beer, but I give it to him anyway. A man should drink beer, and that’s the least I ask of him. And I look like some kind of asshole to you. Look at me.
Somers realized he’d missed the onset of some confusion. He was tricked into feeling elated, and he’d ignored everything else, and at some point, he realized, they’d started to fight. She drank the last of his gin and threw the bottle into someone’s backyard. He walked to his car and took another pint they’d bought and opened it. He handed her the bottle: Don’t throw this one, he said. Don’t do that.
Ellie sulked outside, standing with her forearms on top of the pool gate, watching the leaves on the water and listening to something and imagining something else.
Somers walked back to the car and sat in the backseat. Who ever heard of an archivist, he thought, and after a while he fell asleep and was woken when Ellie shut the car door and turned on the vehicle and let the engine idle there on the street, still drinking the gin, which she passed back to Somers who drank and looked at the clock on the dash.
This one time there was a dream I had about California, he said. I had it once and then I had it again when I had to move here. I dreamt it was a very clean place where there was no salt to disfigure the roads. And where everything had this great Mexican name or whatever. All the good food. It’s not like Ohio or Kentucky or Tennessee. It’s a beautiful place. And when I woke up I understood that the idea is you one day get drunk and don’t feel any kind of sadness at all. Then you’re there.
Ellie didn’t respond, but she placed her hands on the steering wheel and kept them there.
There’s no looming or any need to fuck guys in motels or fuck your sons’ teachers or whatever you do. There’s just a moment when you stop being sad.
Ellie adjusted her seat backward and laid her head on her side with her arms folded beneath.
The thing about the dream is, and I realized this a lot later, is that I could go out to California and be in this beautiful place, like I said, and maybe I won’t be all that sad, but one day I’m going to get drunk and I’m just not going to feel sad anymore, you know. Do you know what I’m saying? You go to California, you feel a little better. You stay out of California, eventually you feel the same thing.
Ellie mumbled and pushed her wet hair behind her ears. What was with the tooth, she asked him.
I guess what I’m saying is that you’re going to be sad anywhere until you’re just not sad anymore, you know. There are towns and suburbs and cities everywhere in this country, and they’re all pretty much the same. There are nice people and fucked up people and the kind of people you meet at the post office. There’s a me teaching someones kids, and there’s a you keeping track of everyone that passes through.
That tooth could have been from a murder, she said.
Somers began to trail off and lose focus on his end of the conversation. He looked at Ellie sleeping and he stopped and got out of the car. Far off in the complex the woman on the phone was still talking. The sound of Ellie’s car idling was no louder than any of the crickets or the highway or the night echo or the whirling filters and machinery that governed the pool, and he opened the passenger door and turned the heat on and set the blower to a low speed, and he shut off the lights and quietly closed the door, and he relaxed his seat and put his hand on her hand, and together they slept, and the sun it loomed somewhere else.
Elias Marsten is a lifelong Midwesterner, writer and hobbyist hacker. He briefly attended classes in the Ohio State University’s creative writing program as an academic auditor.