A Fall Tale

HARD NUMBERS
A Flash Fiction

Apparently someone was poisoning Jenkins. It was a national election year, one side promising the earth, the other side giving them hell. But all through that campaign we were concerned about Jenkins, the poor bastard, who seemed to be dying in inches.

In the middle of the March primaries, his wife gave us a call, told us to come on down and be quick about it—Jenkins had had it, would be dead by Easter. We loaded into a car that night, driving south, and the next morning we were in our raggedy hometown at Jenkins’s place, a two-bedroom shotgun that needed a coat of paint. The guy had come down in the world.

At the door his wife whispered, “He’s feeling a little better now.”

“Jenkins,” we told him, crowding against his gurney-sized bed, “you look great. Man, you haven’t looked better. Fire your doctor, buddy, get a golf coach.”

Jenkins himself mouthed something, but who could hear him in all the excitement? Truth was, he looked yellow, yellow as a summer squash, and just as feeble. In the car back north we all agreed something was undoubtedly wrong with Jenkins, maybe even some kind of poison, though there was no getting around the fact that he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the marquee. When the shoe factory bit the dust and the union folded, Jenkins had lacked the gumption to bounce back. Maybe the guy was dying of terminal dimness.

In July, during the conventions, we got another frantic message from his wife: Jenkins had one foot in the grave; this was the end. Some of us had the idea that maybe Jenkins’s wife was a hysteric, and how could that be good for a man in his condition? Still, you couldn’t just ignore a plea like that forever, so down we drove again. This go round we took our time, saw some Civil War battlefields, caught a Redskins game, and pulled into the burnt outskirts of our hometown on a perfect summer day. Jenkins had moved into a trailer on cinderblocks, something about his unemployment running out. There was a dead chicken in his driveway.

“How you been, pal?” we asked him.

“Been better,” Jenkins murmured.

“Jesus, buddy, you sound like an old woman. What you need is some fresh air.”

So we hauled Jenkins out of his bed and put him in a lawn chair on the patch of grass out front, angling his chair away from the view of that dead chicken in the driveway. His wife took a picture, all of us standing around behind Jenkins, Jenkins himself grinning a death’s-head grin from his chair, looking like an experiment with teeth. Why couldn’t the guy act normal for once? Who wants a picture like that? When we headed north we were unanimous on one score: Jenkins was a bit of a putz and, though we were sorry to say it, a whiner to boot.

In early November we got word that Jenkins was about to kick the bucket, fall off the twig, buy the farm. Nobody else wanted to go down. We all had jobs to show up to. Jenkins was unreliable. We’d done enough, been there, done that, all that jazz. But I went. The election had reached a fever pitch, too close for anybody to call.

I took a last cruise around the stomping grounds. Where the old grade school had been was a line-up of fast food joints, the trees beside them blackened with the soot of fried meat. I found myself cooling my heals in a little parking lot off Main Street, behind one of two gas stations that still plugged away. On the radio the latest exit polls had everything neck and neck and the winner anybody’s guess.

By the time I got to Jenkins’s trailer that night it was completely dark, so dark it’s possible I wasn’t even at the right place. I made a half-hearted attempt to remember the Jenkins I’d known as a kid, but the fact of the matter was, I couldn’t remember that Jenkins. It made me wonder if there had ever been another Jenkins, since the only version I could conjure was the poisoned one, the dying one, the whiner, the loser. My old friend. They were already announcing some hard numbers in the early results and I hunched forward, all ears in the dark, to find out what would happen next.

A summer flash fiction

SMOKE

One August night my sister, Julie, saved my life by mistake. It was a summer of troubles—our mother was about to run off with a still-life painter and our father, who never got over it, was about to play right field for a sanitarium softball team. But we didn’t know any of that yet. My sister and I weren’t speaking, hadn’t said a word to each other since the second week of June. Granted, I’d scorched the hem of her junior prom dress after setting a small fire in the closet we shared, but the stain almost came out with bleach and anyway, she’d borrowed the dress from somebody else.

I set twenty-two fires that summer, mostly in the woods back of the house, a couple in the new housing development they were building down the street, though I only got caught for the closet one. The day Julie saved my life I set a beauty of a blaze in the front seat of an abandoned car on Mr. Gaultney’s farm. “Got damn it,” I yelled, jigging like a savage in the next field, “Got damn it!” At home in bed I wondered whether the furnace in our basement would explode like that in contact with a lit match, whether a timer would work so that you could be playing basketball at the park when it all happened. I sucked on a big marble, daring myself to swallow it, wondering about the furnace.

Julie and I shared a bedroom and hated it. Four years and seven months separated our birthdays. She thought I was a dirty tomboy, a loser, a little shit. I thought she was a girly girl halfwit, trying all the time to be like everybody else, only cooler. All of her sentences started with, “One of these days…”and ended with “leave this place forever” or “be somebody famous” or “kill you.” Still, for weeks she hadn’t said a word to me, even when our parents went at it in hammer-and-tong fights across the hall. In bed that night I sucked on my marble and pondered high explosives. I could hear Julie breathe, the sound like twigs clicking together. Things needed to be shaken up.

I eased out of bed, crouched on the floor of the bedroom with my nightgown hiked up around my waist. I wasn’t sure what my game plan was, but I kept so motionless even the marble didn’t move against my tongue. After a while I moved a few inches forward on all fours. Grit from the floorboards pricked my palms. Something, maybe my own heart at work, made the air pulse and flicker around me. I moved another few inches. Straight ahead I could see Julie’s profile against the white of her pillow, her nose and chin exactly like mine, which was weird. I tongued the marble onto the back of my throat, crawled a little closer to Julie’s bed. Maybe it was all that business about her prom dress. Maybe it was the thought of the furnace exploding right under her bed. That nose and chin like mine disintegrating into little pricking pieces. Whatever: six inches from her pillow I decided to swallow the marble.

It was a fat marble, a cat’s eye, and it caught halfway down my throat. I couldn’t breathe, I scrabbled at the air around my face with one hand, I tried to speak but couldn’t. Suddenly she sat up in her bed, her eyes wild with rage, and gave me a sharp thwack on the back. It dislodged the marble, which I spit on the floor.

“One of these days,” she sputtered, “one of these days somebody’s gonna kill you, you little shit.”

She stared at me with those raging eyes and I stared back, frozen in astonishment. After what seemed a lifetime, she lay down on the bed and I crawled backwards to my own bed. Soon after that our parents started it up across the hall, smacking each other in the middle of the night, a drawn-out shameful brawl. I knew Julie was awake. She knew I was awake. We didn’t say anything. But everything was going to be different between us, that much was certain. I knew I’d not set another fire or swallow another marble or say another dangerous, mean-spirited word to my sister.

When the building is burning, people have to take their lives into their own hands.