You are reading Fiddleblack #6
At a certain point dark out over the dead prairie, there was a small light that glowed and flickered. Fixed and consistent, it radiated indigo across the black. What he figured was a horizon. There was no good to come from a daze this hard and late at night. Just the rough gradated land, sage and weed. Big wild bushes that crept to the tops of wide dip. James imagined there were lizards and snakes but he was not sure yet. There were rocks. From pebbles that would not be spat up from his boots to the larger kind that caused him to trip and hold his shins and grunt. There were no real paths, only the light ahead. He expected a road to cross him before he reached the light but that didn’t fit any pattern he’d seen since a few hours back. You know maybe BLM land or some snide fuck’s organic farm or some trailer park shithole just too long to walk through. The cracked skull he thought had killed him was only a small hard abrasion to touch. A goose egg from where would ooze his pink brain bound to be crushed like bycatch octopus here in the sand and stomped in the dark and his—he’d walked too far. That was the point, he thought. You know this is too fucking long to go.
There were few sounds, what he’d expected without the roads. Insects formed a sonic blanket A bit of wind and the occasional indiscernible scrape or lumber of loose brush. Going along he tried to abide wandering through different points in his memory, different eras as he’d thought of them. There was a pocket of time: James was very young and living with his mother in a small ranch house in a suburb outside of Cleveland. They had a lawn with crabgrass and a few dwarf spruces that had barely grown above the roof. They had a Chevy truck his mother used to drive him in. He focused on the color but once he could lose himself in detail, the wall of reminiscence would fail and he’d back, walking over rocks in the dark again. The blue truck became the red Pontiac he drove to high school, the same one he’d driven drunk into a stop sign. A memory of the accident that shattered his high school girlfriend’s wrists became Cady’s scissor-cut arms last month. Every so often he heard a sound like a caw from some bird still awake and he’d wonder if it was close to dawn, only to realize that he’d thought the same thing ten minutes ago when he honestly guessed he’d only been walking for two hours. Dawn was a while away and even then it didn’t matter much. You know that missing means missing in the nighttime or morning. And Cady wasn’t looking for him because she was two thousand miles away and out on Ambien and Xanax for something like six more hours. Add another eight hours to that before she’d even think something was off. And it wasn’t his mother because she was in a small rehab facility just as far away and James had already visited her this fortnight. They both know I’m traveling so who the fuck else cares.
He was a systems integrator contracted by small firms and media outlets to make the connections between aging production interfaces. He traveled several times a year and spent those days on the road trawling close encounters ads and amateur models’ websites. There were a few he liked in particular and he’d order used girls’ panties over the internet. Often he’d pay extra since he could afford it and he’d have the girl do something specific to dirty his pair. They seemed to comply but he always reminded himself that there wasn’t a great way to quantify this. He didn’t have the sharp nose required to tell “jog five miles then put them on again after work” from “do lunges and squats and sleep in them after a big meal” but making the girls read his requests and answer him was alone enough to feel his kind of love. Earlier in the year James stole a pair of panties from Cady’s beautiful little sister while her whole family was outside at a Fourth of July. You know those moments at parties when everyone’s all outside and you’re inside and you have to use the bathroom or change into your bathing suit. His heart carried him quiet up to her full pink room and into a wicker hamper in her closet. James ruined those panties after a day because he didn’t know to keep soiled panties paper bags folded over once. The resealable plastic he’d used killed all the bacteria.
He chucked a rock into the black ahead. This was the true prairie like a cowboy’s prairie. A plane navigable only by horseback or truck.
When James was younger his mother was picked up three towns over in a grocery store for instructing customers on her personal shopping particulars like a bum preacher evangelizing a city street. He wondered whether he’d feel better if he just broke down and prayed to God for a moment. Just a second to see if it would harm his atheism and release roguelike him from what he considered a good community of very sound people. You know this is a walk about living. Was he so sad that a little panic was enough to revert him to Catholicism and make him say an Our Father and be shaken instead of complacent with his mother’s instability and feel simply open-arms instead of mostly apathetic toward Cady’s obvious self-harm problem and her potential similarity to his mother. This thought pattern became James wondering about time and about food and water and snakes and the high school girl and Cady’s beautiful teenage sister and God looking down like a winking star and the desert settling with him in a deal for silence if he could just stop himself from thinking. You know just shut up, you dumb dick. Walk a little more and you’ll figure it out.
Still headed toward the light, he stopped at a riverbed. Water did not flow but east of him there appeared to be a bridge. Maybe a mile, he thought, but what did he know. The light or the bridge. The light was the plan. The light was nearly constant, wavering if only in accordance with the nature of lights. The bridge was black against the sky and the sand and the cold about him and the crack on his skull. The bridge may not be functional, he reasoned, with the river having run dry. He thought a bit further: there’s not a road to meet either end of the bridge. Not a public road. He began toward the bridge, deciding this was BLM land after all. To the east was the bridge and the distance led over the bridge was a service road and led along the service road was a clear path toward the light. Clear as day. It was the same path and he felt ashamed of himself for thinking otherwise.
In the accident that broke the high school girl’s wrists, he’d busted his teeth to the degree that, lying there half out of the truck with glass in all his hair, he needed veneers to replace what was gone and mixed with road silt. James felt confident after that. Not handsome or sexy but pretty with a big white ridge that beamed each time he smiled. That was his only other accident, his only other injury really. He’d gone over a decade since then, without a twisted ankle or a split lip. At home in Cleveland he’d begun to notice friends and friends of friends going gray or getting ill. He first heard cancer come to his generation four years back with a boyhood neighbor. Later it touched his younger cousin. James had decided life gave up rough moments at a regular clip and when one begins to keep count of them, one becomes a castle beyond the law of averages. After the high school girl broke her wrists, she stayed home from school. You know it wasn’t like I put her in a wheelchair. She could have come back to school but she never did. The girl’s father worked at a stamping plant and her mother was a seamstress. The girl rested, James figured, and went to work like one of her parents early on after that. But at school, it felt like she was missing or he’d murdered her and no one saw them both in the same room again. For a while, it probably seemed plausible.
The rocks that lined the riverbed were all hard stones lain there by pushing desert wind and a landscape that dried and cracked and was wetted seldom in the cooler seasons. He noticed there wasn’t as much shale as there was in Ohio. No rocks to skip or crack together with his hands but moonstones that looked slick and heavy. As he approached the bridge, he tried to remind himself how long he’d been walking but there was no telling now. There was light in the north and the road to the east. I’m not lost, he said. He traded with elation his stomach that soured when he saw a tall shape move ahead and toward the bridge. It leapt up from the same riverbed as if it previously lay flat against the ground like a collapsed bale of sticks. It strutted up around the big earth that ate up the bridge’s concrete base, climbing to the top and pausing. James waited as well. He watched it for a moment, to see if it would scan the desert for anything approaching. It did seem to scan, looking all over without changing place. At this impasse, James did not think the figure saw him and he continued to walk along the riverbed. Slower now and away from the moonstones for fear they might shift and draw attention.
An absolute sadness sometimes came to him when he was very hungry or after he’d been out all night drinking without any water and on the half-lidded drive home or after staring at a toilet bowl of vomit in a single moment of drunken clarity. The sadness came sometimes at night too. As he slept or when he was too anxious to sleep.
There was an old stairwell at his grandmother’s when he was a boy. It wasn’t so old that it looked like something leading to a dirt floor but it was a stairwell made with steps just a hair narrower than the normal carpeted ones he’d been used to in his suburbia of the eighties. The stairs marked by dim lights at the baseboards, James had always noticed the harvestmen that clung to loose webs. Lined along the steps were quart-sized cans of tomato sauce and stewed tomatoes and even cans of tomato paste just that large. There were plastic bags full of cans on every step until you crept more than halfway down. From the bottom floor, the doorway at the top was an impossible hustle back upward. The narrowness and the harvestmen and all the dusted cans. One foot onto the basement floor and your sole’s leeched the home’s whole humidity. First, to the left was a closet of flour bags and pickles and shelves of potted meat festooned at the rear with black amulets of mold ironed flat and fused with the cinderblock that cornered a large hot water heater whereat there was surely the king of all spiders who walked with his long patient arms and let the needle hairs of his body and his black agate eyes be his armor as he slept. James never gave the storeroom further exploration. Second, into the actual room the mood shifted as a kind of trick. There was a sofa with a hip casino pattern. A wall of decanters and playing cards and old copies of Argosy and photos of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. There was a map of Nevada’s ghost towns and a desk and several emptied tumblers and an ice bin that hummed gold foil against the olive-colored walls. Across from the desk was a pool table and above the pool table was a filthy swinging fan and opposite the pool table was a sliding glass door through which daylight shone. It was at that free end of the room, near the bright doorway in an otherwise darkened place, where James’s cousin once built a racetrack with glue traps. The boy wanted to test the strength of his church festival baby turtles because, he told James. they could go on their own into the wild if they really wanted.
Opposite the sliding glass door, there was the bottom of a cement walkway that stepped down from the lawn and to the basement. Wet grass clipping from his grandfather’s mower and storm runoff and green moss and caked mud. The bottom of the walkway was a place where frogs in their spring confusion gathered in a pool to mate. It seemed to the cousin that the turtles could meet the frogs in the false pond and no matter the seasonal nature of its existence all the amphibians and reptiles under his kingship could fuck and dance after passing through an unkind gauntlet or be taken to the back of the storeroom by the footlong spider as they slept.
James had always imagined the boy borrowing several traps from the garage and placing each single-file with the egg-sized hatchlings on a slow march toward the threshold between the damp vinyl room and the warm aired suburb. Gene Krupa battled Buddy Rich and Sammy Davis Jr. presided and Sinatra sang at the Desert Inn as the five turtles pushed toward the open doorway. When James found them after the cousin had gone for dinner, they’d piled up shell onto shell in an odd hedral cluster like mussels or toadstools. If they could make any sound at all, they’d have mewed and let themselves echo against the wood panelling for help. When he found them they were blinking together, their telescopic heads, and some grinding small claws into the paper traps. And after he told, his mother put the glue traps in the trash.
Sometimes when James went to sleep at night or when he was too drunk to sleep, he saw the foot of the stairs, long hairy arms motionless and through a Crown Royale dreamworld to the end of a time where a hard metal line between an unaccounted interior held back young church goers from black tadpoles like sperm at a cellar door and two boys and a mother and an elder and its long legs from the storeroom motionless until the stairwell door was closed. Motionless until you passed by, still as your small ankles vaulted up the passage to the first floor.
After so many yards, he was certain the figure was hidden by some kind of parallax. James had made considerable progress toward the bridge but now without moving the figure seemed to stand not on the bridge but beside it. Farther east and presumably floating. The figure grew definition. It was a lanky person in something fluid like a blanket or a long coat. There had been wind pushing the dirt and sand all evening while James walked and it pushed harder now as the figure’s shape wore itself like a flag. James let himself feel something supernatural. He took in his mind a suspicion that the figure might be a destroying angel come straight out of Hebrews to take him. James let himself feel this without stopping his walk because he knew if he stopped and considered the night, he might have believed himself. The figure was probably a BLM agent and the bureau was probably alerted somehow. Maybe by his mother. From rehab, she’d deduced the whole thing and called the police. Yes, Officer. My son was picked up and I think he was sedated against his will because he’s a man in good shape. Yes, he was left for dead I think. Oh, he’s someplace on business in Las Vegas. Oh, how I don’t like that he has to travel so far. Yes, Officer, I’m sure she took him. Her name is Cady. She’s an awful woman. Won’t think of anyone but herself. Oh, she hates me. Hates me to death. She tried to bring a bottle of vodka in here. You can’t have vodka at a hospital. Yes, I’m sure. Yes. I’m sure of it, Officer. She led him out there and drugged him I’ll bet.
After the Fourth of July party, he lingered too close to Cady’s sister. Her family didn’t have a son or a good neighbor to help her father with the heavy lifting and home projects. When James did linger after errands and dinners, her father would ask him for favors. Take the back end of this new dresser, help me lift it up the stairs. I bought some lumber, help me move it all to the shed. Her father asked him to help with an addition to the driveway. They had to dig a trench for the foundation and tamp the ground and add limestone. He’d lay the concrete himself. In July, in Cleveland it was hot. Her father started the dig and James resumed it during the week when he was off at odd times or handling project launches that shifted his off-time past the weekends. He was eventually down to his knees in the orange-gold dirt. There were fewer groundlings than he’d expected to see on the way down. Fewer worms he accidentally halved. No snakes or moles and not any spiders at all. James would dig and a car would pass. He’d dig and Cady would call and check on him from her job at a jewelry store near the mall or wherever else she was. James sweated and dreamt through her phone calls and he’d lumber inside her parents’ house mud-covered and tip-toeing, taking bottled waters from the refrigerator. Cady’s sister was almost always there, deep in the air conditioning and splayed on the couch. Her blond hair amass on the cushions. Her eyes sedated and tracing the TV for hours. James would pass her and say something about the television show or the heat and she’d stir and turn and wiggle teen shape and put back to the TV and smile and say What are you even doing out there? Though she knew what he was doing. He believed she had to.
On his second or third trip for more water, she followed him out, claiming she needed the sun. If she lay herself quiet on a towel in the grass there would be sun enough from the unshaded to stay tan without looking too much like she tanned or so James thought he’d parsed through her verbose and high chatter full of likes and ums. When they went outside together and arrived at the trench, he hopped back down and a small plume of fine rusted dirt rose up to her perfectly painted toenails on crescent white feet that ran from large to small in a perfect tangent to curve he’d long admired. The sister kicked dirt back at him from her slight elevation and hit his gray t-shirt and he took it off. His own milk white skin bright in the sun he felt was unsightly but he had to break himself of feeling unreasonable and there was too small a window for the moment to recur. She laughed at him, pointed and touched his chest around his pectoral. She pressed her rounded nail into his skin and pushed him playfully. Fighting himself for control, he stepped back and dropped his shovel.
I’ll shovel, she said.
You’ll shovel? Do you want to get muscles?
Hell no, I don’t. But I’ve got to stay tight.
What happened to tanning, he asked.
She pulled off her tank top and slid off her yoga pants and tossed them in the grass near the towel where she’d planned to lay. Her yellow bikini, the lycra skin of a downed angel.
You should wear some shoes around this hole, he said.
She didn’t reply and instead took his shovel and scrapped the sides of the trench wall that he’d taken a good amount of time to edge neatly. Gold hairs on her stomach caught beads of sweat played like a film at half speed. She only shoveled for a few seconds, sure not to ruin her nails. When she stopped and looked at him, he put his hand on her arm and they walked back inside together.
There wasn’t much reason to ignore the figure and cut north under what cover of darkness was left. If there was a figure and if the figure really was a man, there was a vehicle somewhere. He had no reason to hide but he let himself consider the possible interaction as he had with his thoughts of the angel. James was close enough and he hallooed for help. The figure turned in his direction, no longer floating in parallax, and it peered west at James who waved like a coal miner just out of a collapse. Been walking a while, he shouted. He dropped the “G” in walking to seem more folksy, Could use a lift if ya have some time. Sure do, the figure shouted back. It definitely was a man—a man in a black leather duster. Couldn’t be a BLM agent. He wasn’t in uniform. He didn’t shout back and ask James’s name or tell him to freeze or anything like that. He stood there on the bridge and waited. James huffed up across the riverbed to the north side and went around to the road he’d been assuming was there, more a worn path than anything else. Tire tracks rutted either side and marked both edges of the bridge.
Casper, the man spoke. James’s eyes had long since adjusted to the dark and Casper still squinted. He wore a big hat to match his coat, boots with spurs. His handshake was knotted and boney but stronger than James’. The man who was the figure looked a bit tired, like he’d been out all night too. Stubble on his face, eyes behind wireframe glasses. James, he repeated. Your vehicle break down somewhere?
No, James said, realizing he’d not yet formulated a story to explain himself. These thoughts all the while and not a good lie to his own. Stalling, he said: I hope yours didn’t either.
I’m usually out all night. Not so much around here, but I like to stay out if you know what I mean.
I do, James said. He smiled at Casper and willed himself into a radiant, warm stranger. How about that car, he asked. He shortened his “about” to “bout” and punctuated the question with a white smile.
They walked a short distance south from the bridge and cut down what felt like a recessed, fanning estuary to the riverbed, though the area opened only to more desert and rock and much less any flowing water. James wondered at how he’d been so near Casper’s jeep, so near the road and this half canyon alcove that continued the road and rested entirely out of the light’s view.
He got in the vehicle, having to sit in the rear passenger seat to avoid the small scattered cages and jars kept on the front seat and the floor and in the rear and beside him. The jeep was not a BLM jeep but a regular civilian one that James figured could use a good washing. Casper hadn’t yet asked him what he was doing out in the desert at night and he hadn’t asked Casper the same. Neither had acknowledged the light that shone again as the jeep rattled its bowing struts and summited the small recession’s ridges.
What are all these?
Lizards and snakes and tarantulas and whatnot, Casper told him.
It was true. James’s eyes relaxed after the cabin lights shut off and in the moonlight he could see movements in the various containers. Long shapes that rose like inch-thick branches, fistful squat shapes that kept their balance despite the ride. What for? James asked.
My brother’s zoo.
Your brother’s zoo?
Yeah. Brother’s got a zoo for snakes and things off the interstate around Elko. Catches the tourists going cross-country, kids coming down from Provo. Don’t got a lot of big animals but a bear and a tiger which most everybody’s seen at a normal zoo. I get all these reptiles and scorpions and these kids like to buy pinned on a box or set in some bubble glass.
The jeep roared through highway dust that swirled at night in their dim lighted path like crystal fog and the desert itself ran and ran on. They passed James’ car upturned in a brown field of prickly pear and splintered old electric pole and James could see it dead with its lights off and its wheels still and the doors open and the downed pole quiet and not whipping lightning across the sand.
I thought you were with BLM, Casper told him, reaching for a half fistful from his tobacco can.
Funny, I thought the same of you.
The light was an aluminum-domed halogen lamp that guarded the door to a modest conservationist’s observatory, which they passed as the jeep emerged onto raw black highway. James was not far from saving himself. Casper drove wildly, spinning up dust as he swung onto the asphalt and clattering rocks across the empty road behind them. They drove for long enough that James fell asleep with his head against the back window. Like a woman, Casper might have told him, putting the car in gear. When James woke, they’d reached a trailer at a Chevron called “Exotic Outpost” by a hand-markered placard and Casper was already inside. James exited the jeep and stood in the lot He looked both ways. A tanker idled across the way. The dark was the same here as it was in the open desert, cast unending around him and met big with stars and somewhere the moon. Casper came back out of the annex and hauled a milk crate of scorpions inside. The door opened again and a different man came out. He carried a tire iron and a can of spray paint. Jesse Freeze, he said to James.
That’s James, Casper hollered with another crate of somethings. James James.
So you were lost out there, huh?
Couldn’t find my car, James said. I stopped to piss and walk and keep my eyes open.
Uh-huh, he nodded back. That a tattoo of what you got there?This state?
It is, James said, adjusting his sleeve. He touched his head, remembering his wound.
Real nice, Jesse told him. You want to use the phone then? Call someone for help?
I’d love to.
Inside the annex, James found himself among racks of terrariums put together with wrought iron shelving, illuminated with buzzing grow-light fluorescence. The floor was cheap sticky plastic like the kind under his desk at work. He leaned against the cash register and touched his head again. He reached over the counter for the phone. An ashtray held a dead wasp and punched cigarettes. Dirty pennies were wedged under the scratched glass countertop. Post-It notes, business cards and styrofoam cups and chewed pencils with their erasers gone. Who should he call. He thought for a moment. He was going to Las Vegas, you know. And this was supposed to be a good trip. He was thirsty. He should have asked for water. In a tank across the very narrow observation path a footlong gray lizard clawed desperately at the glass. James could not see the other end of the trailer. The shelving and enclosures ran sidelong toward some end but what was down there, the short way, he could not see. He’d nearly worn through the bottom of his boot: he could feel the shape of a quarter sugar-stuck to the ground. The back of his neck had beaded with sweat. The top of his lip and his underarms. Outside the aluminum door, he heard them talking. He raised the phone and dialed.
What time is it? Cady asked.
Early morning, I think.
I wanted to see if you were home asleep.
Of course I am.
Are you okay? Yeah. Why are you asking?
I fucked up.
Why? Where are you?
Elko, I think.
Where is that?
You didn’t make it to the convention.
I had car trouble, he said. Are you home or at your parent’s place?
My mom’s. We’re getting our nails done in the morning. Where are you?
Elko, he said.
The trailer door opened and Casper walked and Jesse walked in behind him. James, Casper said. You ready then? You all set?
James clasped the phone receiver.
Come on boss, Jesse said, grabbing James’ shoulder.
James placed the handset in the cradle. Far at the end of the trailer a space heater flickered on and there in the glow were only more aquariums. More lizards and snakes and tarantulas and scorpions harvested from the sand. James patted his pockets as if his phone were in tow all along. He looked for a clock in the trailer. Jesse shut the door and outside the jeep turned over or another car started.
The phone still on the handset, not ringing. Not her calling back. Not her bottle blond sister who listened through the wall, in her panties ready for bed. The lizard pushing its hard nose against the glass. James’ whole head opening up at the wound and bleeding a trailer aisle of fluid. Cady calling the number back. Her little sister calling him first: hey, I heard you’re lost somewhere. Hey, I’m going to come out there and find you. I’m going to borrow my sister’s car. I’m going to take some of my dad’s money, and I’ll be there in a few days. Easy drive from the airport, right? I went there once when we were growing up. Just get the directions online or something? We can probably go back to Las Vegas after, right? I’ll take some extra money for that. Don’t worry, I’ll tell my sister something. She’ll handle it with my mom. She’ll tell my her I’m with friends or whatever. Did you want me to get any of your stuff from Cady’s place? Should I tell someone you’re gone? How much should I pack? What is the flight? Five hours? How far are you from the casinos? Will you buy me drinks when we get back to Las Vegas?
How far is his wrecked car. How far is this from Cleveland. How does the Our Father start, James asks the phone. He starts his recital: Our father who art in Heaven hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom—
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.