You are reading Fiddleblack #2
Not often, but sometimes, a person would ask him what it was that he did. And by that they usually meant, how do you make your money, how is it that you earn a living. His response wouldn’t exactly fill him with pride: hired help, here and there, painting houses or else moving lumber with Jim, most of the time out of work. He was only twenty-four, Jim reminded him. In fact Jim had been reminding Phil of his age with the word “only” in front of it for years—only nineteen, only twenty, and so on. Phil wondered how much longer the word “only” would fit. But for now, it was true. He was only twenty-four. So the fact that he didn’t offer as meaningful an answer as he would’ve liked, the question—what do you do?—didn’t tug at him too bad.
But he did have something in the works—a project, a big one. What he did was he collected old VW buses. So far he had six, all of them incapable of running, all of them rotting with forty years’ worth of “rust and dust and backseat lust.” Jim came up with that one himself.
He found the first bus abandoned in the California part of the Mojave Desert, some twenty miles northeast of Lancaster, Phil and Jim’s town. From time to time, Jim took him out there—far enough from law enforcement—to shoot the rifles and pistols he collected. Jim, a good, playful man double the twenty-four year-old’s size, was someone Phil felt lucky to have on his side. It was Jim who let Phil tag along on jobs, and it was him, too, who talked the park manager into letting a younger Phil shack up there when he needed the help. Jim might have been just ten years older than Phil, but these acts of kindness, and the few final wisps of hair that clung to the top of the big man’s scalp, seemed to give him a type of paternal authority Phil hadn’t sensed from anyone. Sometimes Phil saw him like an old Southern politician, wagging a finger at bureaucracy—making sure of certain things, like no one takes care of your business but you. Like being given a hand up from a friend is different than getting a hand out from a program.
So they’d go out to the nearby desert and shoot together. But this one time, Jim loaded his favorite gun, this .44 magnum Marlin Model rifle—an expensive piece of machinery passed onto him by his uncle—into the covered bed of his Chevy pickup. The gun shot at about a hundred and sixty-five decibels—too loud even for their regular shooting grounds. So they went out further into the desert. Jim drove, careful, once they’d left the road, to avoid the softer sand that collected in patches around that time of year, around May.
And the long and short of it is, there was this old VW bus, dull green, fossilizing out there nice and neat beneath a Joshua tree, like someone searched long and hard for a parking spot with shade. The two men got out of the truck. Phil went, “Hey, someone might be living out of this thing.” Jim unlocked the hatch on his pickup and found a handgun. He checked the magazine to make sure it was loaded, and told Phil to stay put. Then he traveled the fifty feet or so till he reached the van.
The way he held the gun up near his chest, the way he put his back against the van before peeking over his shoulder into its window—it all seemed, to Phil, so televised. Still, Phil watched his buddy pull the VW’s door handle and climb into the thing with a level of anxiety he hadn’t felt in some time, like this was the first moment in a long while that felt even a little monumental.
Not much time passed before Jim returned rattling a set of keys attached to a blue tether.
“Looks like the sons of bitches left it for us,” Jim said.
“Don’t look like it.”
Then they talked about how to rig the van up to the back of the Chevy, how to tow it back through the desert. Wasn’t too tough, really, once they got the momentum.
That was the first one. The other buses, the newer five, didn’t have the same accidental back-stories. These were simply purchased here and there through classified ads Phil and Jim started keeping their eyes on. Always fixer-projects, never running. Dirt cheap, each of them—one of the orange ones was actually given away for free. All of them, one after the other, towed into the unused gravel lot adjacent to one of the trailer parks over on Avenue I, where the both of them lived rent free. Jim’d gotten the park manager, who also owned the lot—an Armenian called Harry Lusparyan—to shave off the rent and put up the fence around the lot in exchange for their working odd jobs around the place, including their big duty, park security in the nights: Jim on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; Phil on the in betweens.
So it was in this way that Phil and Jim started working every day, as much as they could, on the VW buses, gutting them and sweating over their motors, eventually looking to give them all new paint jobs, trying to hawk them to young kids who seemed to find the old things hip. That was the plan. That’s what Phil had in mind.
The girls came to the fence on a Saturday afternoon sometime in November. Despite what the calendar said, the summer hadn’t really ended, not in the daytime anyway, and the girls wore outfits to prove it. There were two of them, a brown-haired girl with freckles and a light-skinned black girl, both of them in short cut-off jeans, both of them in tank tops and flip-flop sandals. They each looked around the same age, maybe fourteen or fifteen, with the black, taller girl maybe a year older than that. They were just walking on along the fence, on their way to wherever they were headed, when Jim mentioned it to Phil, who happened to have his head under the hood of the green bus, the first one.
“Look at these,” Jim said.
Phil turned to see what it was Jim pointed out. “Not bad, not bad,” Phil said. “At all,” he added, and went back to work.
Jim said something to the girls. Phil didn’t hear what it was but he looked back at them to see their reaction. They giggled and one girl said something in the ear of the other. They kept walking, only now they were checking out the buses.
“They aren’t pieces of meat,” Jim said to the girls, motioning to the cars. He grinned. “You can’t just stare at them without introducing yourselves.”
Now the girls stopped at the fence and leaned into it, hanging their fingers onto the holes there.
“The gate’s unlocked,” Jim said, pointing to the girls’ left. “Enter, if you dare.”
At this time Phil said, “You’re going to get me into trouble, Jimmy.”
The older girl said, and you could hear the laughter in her voice when she said it, “Why don’t you come over here?” Then she turned to the other girl, who, once she caught her breath from laughing, called out to Jim, “And bring your friend!”
“You hear that,” Jim asked Phil. Then, to the girls: “We don’t have egos, girls. We don’t mind heading over to you. We don’t…play games.”
He took his time on his way to the fence. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket and beat his left palm with it as he moved. Phil was just behind him.
“Where you girls off to?” Jim asked once he got close enough. The girls, on the other side of the fence still, never stopped smiling.
“The movies? How about that. My buddy Phil here, he was just talking about heading to the movies.” Phil laughed a little and crossed his arms, unsure what to do with them.
Jim slipped a cigarette between his lips and put the pack away. “Oh,” he said, retrieving the pack from behind his back. “How rude of me. Didn’t even offer. You girls want one?”
They both said no. They said thank you. They were very polite.
“Smart girls,” Jim said. “Bad habit. What movie you girls going to? Maybe we’re heading to the same one.”
The freckled girl began to say the name of the movie, but her friend interrupted her. “You first,” she said.
“You know, we’re torn,” Jim said. “Torn between that new action movie with the different cities getting blown up, and that romance with the young girl and the older guy falling in love.” He paused at the last word. “You girls know what love means?”
The girls, still smiling, let go of the fence. They started walking again, not in a rush, and the older girl looked over her shoulder at the men. “We’re fast learners,” she said. “Maybe next time you could teach us.”
Jim loved it. He said, “Next time it is,” and then asked for their names.
“Jean,” the older girl said. “I’m Jean, and this is Caitlyn.” And when they were gone, Jim looked as though they hadn’t left at all. He said, “Are you kidding me,” over and over, socking Phil’s arm. He said, “Which one you like best? I don’t discriminate.” They worked on the buses some more that day, with Jim talking about the girls and Phil talking about the girls, too, both of them wondering aloud what it was they’d do the next time those girls walked along that fence.
That night was Phil’s turn to patrol the park. He was alone, and the heat of the day had become a frigid, windless cold. He was supposed to walk the paved paths between the units from ten o’clock till six in the morning. For the job, Harry Lusparyan had provided him and Jim each a flashlight and a two-way radio (one to share between the two of them, the other stayed with Harry). Phil knew that Jim, on his nights, would bring along some extra equipment, but Phil carried only what he’d been given. He knew that most of the criminals in Lancaster were kids, like he’d been, scared off easily enough by a bright light and a holler.
It was sometime past midnight when he decided to head over to the lot to check up on the vans. Eventually, the space would be used for more units, Harry had explained. But for now, the new fence was all that separated the place from the park on one side, and the uncultivated desert on the other. It used to be that kids would set up a basketball hoop out there. Phil knew the family that owned the hoop, and they’d left a few years back, taking the thing with them. In the time between the basketball and the VWs, the only objects that ended up on the gravel there were either dumped and abandoned, or led there by the wind. Harry Lusparyan didn’t say as much, but he probably loved the idea of the lot being put, finally, to some good use.
The vans, all six of them, were parked in a single row. From where he stood, Phil could see the front ends, those big, bubbled headlights, the VW insignias between them. To save the flashlight’s battery, Phil kept the thing off unless he needed it, which meant that the only light on the lot now came from the orange-bulbed arc lamps that lined Avenue I. In that strange, muted glow, the vans looked new. The spots where oxidation had done its job on the paint hid in it, reflecting and absorbing the hazy light just like the more polished areas. The headlights, all twelve of them, crystallized the light back at Phil like the eyes of cartoon children. He spent a while staring at them, thinking of nothing else.
He moved on, working the perimeter of the place, then inward toward Harry’s office at the center, then back outward again. In this way, in layers, he worked the remainder of his shift.
Sunday, at about the same time as the day before, the girls returned. Phil hadn’t expected them to come back at all, and even Jim was surprised to see them again so soon. He thought, at the very earliest, they’d come back the next Saturday. He said to Phil, “How bad can a girl want it?”
This time, Jean asked the men if she and Caitlyn could get a closer look at what she called the “hippie cars.” Jim let them in through the gate, telling them they could sit behind the wheel of one, if that was something they’d like to try. It turned out that yes, that’s exactly what they had in mind.
So in went Jean, into the driver’s seat of the yellow one, her favorite color. Jim closed the door behind her, and she rolled down the window. With one hand gripping the top of the wheel, she waved her fingers down at Caitlyn, who stood flanked on either side by the owners of the bus. “How do I look?” Jean asked the three of them. Great, they said. They all agreed that the girl looked great.
“Take a picture of me,” Jean said, and Caitlyn slid from her back pocket a thin, red camera. Jean posed in various ways. She made certain faces, many of which featured an outturned tongue. Caitlyn snapped pictures from several angles. Then she climbed up to the passenger seat, handing the camera, along with instructions, to Phil.
“You girls know how to drive one of these things?” Jim asked.
“Caitlyn can’t drive a bicycle,” Jean said. Her friend disagreed, loudly. The girls found this funny. “But I have my driver’s license,” Jean continued.
“Driver’s permit,” Caitlyn corrected.
“No difference there,” Jim said. “But do you know how to drive a manual transmission? A stick shift?”
“No,” Jean said. “Learned on the other kind.”
“Not surprising,” said Jim. “That’s why they call it a manual,” he said.
Jean pivoted her body in the driver’s seat to face the men, letting both of her arms fall from the open window. With her palms she drummed a soft beat against the door. Phil snapped a picture of her this way. “Teach us,” she said.
Phil slipped the camera into his shirt pocket for safekeeping. He said, “Don’t you girls have fathers for that?”
“Quiet all along and the first thing he says is negative,” Jim said. “Don’t mind him, girls. Of course we could show you what you need to know. Only problem is: none of these dinosaurs are in what we call running condition. Good news is, I’ve got a manual transmission in my own vehicle, a working truck, just over there.” He threw his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the park, his home. “What do you say?”
Jean turned her neck to her friend. “Can’t,” she said, turning back to Jim. “Caitlyn has to be home before her mom gets there.”
“And that’s soon?”
“Sorry,” Caitlyn said, genuinely, like she’d forgotten Jim’s birthday. Like she’d broken his heart.
And with that one word, the fourteen or fifteen years Phil had pegged for the girl suddenly seemed exceedingly generous. Now that he looked at their faces in the enormity of the van’s windshield, now that he focused in on Jean’s miniature fingers tapping against the side of it, it hit him. These girls were larvae, still becoming what it was they’d become. The chance to ignore reality had fled. Conscience had stricken again.
But Jim didn’t seem to share the epiphany. “Tell you what,” he said. “What are you girls up to later tonight?”
And the plans for the girls to sneak out of their homes after midnight, to come back to the park, where Jim would be the only security guard that night, were drawn. Phil said, yeah, maybe he’d show up, that his being there that night was a possibility. In all likelihood Jim knew Phil wouldn’t make it, but that didn’t seem to bother him too much. Who knows, he might’ve actually looked forward to the alone time with, what were their names, Jean, yeah, and Caitlyn.
The first thing Phil did when he got home that night was he poured himself a glass of water from the tap. From the freezer he grabbed the only ice tray he owned, which he discovered hadn’t been refilled before being put away. He spilled the water from his glass into the slots of the ice tray, and placed that in the freezer. Then he refilled his glass and swallowed the water warm.
What he did next was he ate in front of the TV. He changed the channel a lot, focusing on nothing for too long, though he did pay some attention to a show about saving money at the grocery store. Their big thing was websites with coupons, but Phil didn’t have a computer, let alone access to the web. What good is saving money when you don’t have money?
He realized, while undressing, that he still had the girl’s camera. He removed it from the pocket of his shirt, turning it in his hands like a puzzle cube. He pressed the power button at its top, and switched a small dial from the icon of a camera to the icon of a “Play” button, like Caitlyn showed him, so he could look through the pictures the girls had taken earlier, the ones he had taken, as well. He searched through them backwards, clicking the left arrow button. There they were, the girls, smiling from the yellow van, making faces, alternately flipping the camera the bird or the peace sign. Then, further back in the camera’s history, the photos Caitlyn took of Jean alone up there, pretending to look out onto a road. On the edge of the picture Phil noticed himself and Jim. Just standing there in the harsh light of the sun. Phil’s arms crossed and Jim’s akimbo, hands in back pockets, both of the men looking into Jean’s direction, mouths open like laughing, like two proud fathers spending the day teaching their girls how to time the clutch. Phil thumbed the circular button next to the icon of a trash bin, and the image was gone.
But he kept going. The photographs were innocuous, childish things, pictures of four pairs of feet in a circle, toe to toe, or else the bottom-up image of a Joshua tree against the clouds. Phil didn’t know what he was looking for—pornography or what—but he didn’t find it. He guessed he just wanted to be surprised. Find something in there that he wasn’t expecting. So, to give the girls what he’d been hoping for himself, he flipped the dial back to the camera icon, aimed the thing at his face, and shot.
He’d been in bed for some time—an hour?—when he heard the knocks at the door.
“Phil,” the voice said from outside. “It’s me.”
Phil caught the accent. He made his way there and opened the door to let Harry inside. They spoke just in the kitchen, not far from the entrance.
Harry asked the question like a reward had been posted for Jim’s scalp, a tone that made Phil question if this was the same Harry he’d come to know. Harry was a nice man, is all, and Phil had never pictured him as a guy with a temper. He even asked Phil over for dinner from time to time, citing his wife’s culinary skills. And that part turned out true enough—Harry’s wife would serve Phil whatever it was that she’d cooked—exotic foods with names Phil couldn’t pronounce at the time or remember now, always at the tip of his tongue. All of it Phil had never seen before, most of it some of the best food he’d ever tasted. Now Harry, lankier than normal in an oversized white jacket, puffy in the chest and arms, seemed more like a pissed off dad than a dinner partner.
“Jim, I think, is patrolling,” Phil said.
“That’s where he should be,” Harry said. “Isn’t, though, as far as I can I tell. Got a noise complaint from the woman in number four-oh-three. Sarah. Says she thinks someone’s messing around in the lot back there, with your buses. So I call Jim on the two-way, get nothing. Know what I do next?”
“No,” Phil said.
“I get up. Out of bed. It’s tomorrow already, but how could you tell? Exactly why I let you keep the buses out there, so I can sleep these hours and not be forced up by a noise in the lot. So I head out there to check it out, what do I see? Nothing. Nobody sneaking around—and no Jim, that’s for sure. So I’m thinking, where the fuck is this guy? I spend the next twenty, twenty-five minutes driving around the park to find this man, the one I’m letting live and keep shit here for free. For the work he’s not doing.”
“It’s not right,” Phil said. “What he’s done isn’t right, and for that I’m sorry.”
“You know I’m a good man,” Harry said. “I don’t give people shit for things. I let people be happy so long as they’re not making me, my family, unhappy. I’m a fair, good man. I know that about myself so I can get upset once in a while.”
“No, you are, I agree. Let me cover his shift tonight and we’ll figure out why he dropped the ball tomorrow morning. How about that?”
Harry considered it. He removed the big white jacket and placed it on some newspapers spread over the kitchen table. “Wear it when you go out,” he said, heading to the door. “I saw you last night, no jacket. It’s cold.”
He never said it but Phil had a better answer to the question, What is it that you do? He imagined telling it to people who had asked him before, and hoped to tell a person who’d ask him in the future. He’d say: What it is that we do is we gain or we lose momentum. He’d say, We’ve only got the verb to do because we’ve got the verb to become. Some things we do without knowing why, or caring, till after. Sometimes the answer is simple and easier to know beforehand. That’s it. That’s sort of what he had so far, but he thought about it every day.
A for instance: why Phil brought the camera with him when he left the trailer was an easy one to understand. He didn’t say it, of course, didn’t think it in sentences, but the knowledge was there. He knew that he was looking for Jim and the girls. He knew that Jim would be up to something tilted with them, more than getting the girls to giggle, more than teaching them how to drive. The camera, he thought, made Phil a part of it. So he brought it to discard it. If he found the girls, great. He’d hand it back on over to them, tell them have fun growing up, and head on home. And if not, he’d figure out some other way to relinquish it. So, yes, he knew why he brought the camera, even if it sounded weak later, after the fact.
That made it so that other than his sneakers and his jeans and his t-shirt, the only things he brought with him were the camera and the flashlight. And he wore the white puffy jacket. Didn’t even bother to lock his trailer or bring the key. Those were the things he had on him, the camera, the light, and the jacket. None of them actually his. That thought more than crossed his mind.
Nothing moved, nothing sounded. Phil passed the cars lining the streets of the park. Fog, inside, and frost on the outside clouded their windows. He half-expected a kid to finger-draw a happy-face in the fog from inside one of them. In front of Jim’s place, an empty spot where the Chevy should have been. Phil skipped the layers he usually worked through to get to the park’s perimeter and headed straight to the gravel lot, figuring that Jim, for sure, would be there, and the girls too, if they’d even made it out that night.
But when he got there, he didn’t see anybody. There were the six buses in that orange light, and that was about all there was to find. Jim kept the keys to the gate on his patrol nights, so Phil looked at the vans through the fence. He stood on the sidewalk along Avenue I, just before Twentieth Street East, exactly where the girls had stopped that first time. He took the red camera out and placed it in the gutter along the curb there. He debated leaving it. Maybe he’d keep it until the next time the girls stopped by. Maybe he could keep it for himself, but what pictures did he have to take, and what good is a digital camera without a computer? Selling it crossed his mind, but not seriously. The truth was that it didn’t matter what he did with the camera, because before he made up his mind, a gunshot went off somewhere to the east, away from town, and another one, out in the desert.
Just the two shots, the second after the hum of the first had ended. Two sharp and hollow blasts, like the drum strikes of a tribal ceremony. Phil removed the flashlight from his pocket, let it hang at his side toward the gutter, and flipped the switch, on and off, on and off. A spot of light on the cement, unsteady, then gone, then there again. He had on his mind at that moment two things: first, a number, and then a name. One hundred and sixty-five—one hundred and sixty five decibels. Then the word “dolma”—he’d remembered the name of the food Harry’s wife—Arpi was her name—had made for him, when he’d first moved into the park as a teenager, alone at nineteen. She removed the stems from grape leaves, boiling the leaves and rice separately. In a large bowl she used her hands to mix the rice and the tomatoes and the lemon juice she squeezed in there, careful to pluck out any seeds that might have sneaked in. She said that in Armenia, she had her own grapevines and her own lemon tree, and the taste—you couldn’t imagine the taste of a real grape leaf, the strange sweetness of an Armenian lemon. Then she filled the grape leaves, spread across a cutting board now, with the stuffing she’d created in the bowl—you can use meat, she said while she did it, you can use lamb or you can use beef, but why not spare a life? She poured salt into the center of her palm and spread it over the rice on the leaves just before rolling them perfectly into little green tubes. You could see her fingers shine there with the juices and the oils of the dolma, but it didn’t seem to bother her. She was a beautiful woman. Once, she’d been—resting in the crook of a lemon tree’s branch—a beautiful girl, and Phil felt for her and for all of them.
Chris McCormick is the author of Desert Boys (Picador, 2016). He earned his BA at the University of California, Berkeley, and his MFA at the University of Michigan, where he received two Hopwood Awards. He lives in Ann Arbor, where he is a Helen Zell Fellow.