Sample Fiction

 HIGH TIDE 

1. An hour before my brother’s funeral, I was drinking something called an Aquarium on the seaside patio of the Rip Tide Tavern. Sitting across from me was Ham Johnson, my closest friend, and a man who was trying his best to interview me for Saw Carving Magazine. Ham kept saying things like, “Maybe we should do this another time”, but no matter how much of my drink I spilled on my shirt collar, no matter how quickly I vacillated between searing contempt and a sputtering, sloppy crying jag, I wouldn’t let him stop.

“Next question,” I said. We were getting looks.

“Come on, Travis,” Ham said, leaning over and trying to light a cigarette out of the wind. “You’ve got other things to worry about right now. This is dumb.” He made as if to turn the recorder off and I batted his hand away.

“Next question, Ham. I’ve got a booth at the Seafood and Spirits Festival this year. It cost me a grand just to register. I need all the press I can get.”

Ham was wearing these ridiculous wraparound shades, burnished ones that reflected my slackjawed face and the cawing gulls that hung motionless in the air as they rode the current beside us. The smell of the sea and the wind assailed us all out there, forty feet in the air, the patio built off of the cliff face. He said, “It’s not like I’m a journalist, man. I’m just reading these questions off. I didn’t even write them. You did.”

“Everything okay, you guys?” Tricia stood above us, holding a stack of empty pint glasses. She looked at my drink. Her gaze was intense, to say the least.

“I’m trying to get Ham to compromise his journalistic integrity,” I said, and Ham laughed.

Trish looked at him. “Did you order this for him? From the bar?”

Ham, two hundred and eighty pounds of him, turned timid. “He looked like he needed it.”

Trish nodded and gave him a tight-lipped smile. “Clearly he needs it. Clearly he needs to be shitfaced at Calvin’s funeral.”

She came back from the bar and placed a glass of water next to me. I lifted my Aquarium to my mouth, wetting my collar again. It was served in a fishbowl, festooned with paper umbrellas, heavy with fruit, and cloudy with various paralyzing combinations of alcohol. There was even a disintegrating gummy fish lying sullenly at the bottom. This was my second. Calvin’s funeral nagged at me like a toothache. I used my tie to wipe up a spill on the table and Trish looked at me. “You sure you want to finish that?” she said quietly. “I don’t think it’s a very good idea.”

“I do,” I said. “I definitely want to finish it.” Guilt, that aggrandizing and voyeuristic elixir, was doing a number on me. Calvin had been dead three days. I was bathing in guilt. I was doing cannonballs in it.

I have no doubt I made her sad. We were used to that by now, me disappointing Trish just a little bit, just this side of too often. We’d been together for five years. She gave me a small, rueful smile and told Ham she’d be back with his coffee. She laid her hand on my shoulder. “You are a jackass.”

“Calvin won’t mind,” I said.

Ham held his cigarette with his thumb and forefinger, like he was smoking a joint. The man was neckless and gigantic; his head looked like a plug of muscle someone had thumbed onto the massive shelf of his body. He had protected me dozens of times over the years, just by his sheer size and the fact that I was his friend.

“I just don’t really feel comfortable doing this,” he said, lifting the piece of paper between us. “Like this one. ‘For versatility, would you suggest using a Saburr wheel or something like an angle grinder with 240 grit disc, for that fine detail work?’ What does that even mean?” I had written the questions the day before, also under the influence of alcohol. The editor at Saw Carving Magazine had said he’d be happy to run a profile on me, provided I sent him the transcribed interview and a batch of photos, and made sure to mention the magazine somewhere in the interview itself. I mean, I was hustling. This was just how it worked. People did not knock down the chainsaw carver’s door; you had to make your own luck here.

I leaned forward and took another drink. An umbrella stabbed me in the cheek hard enough to bring blood; I didn’t even feel it. I took this as a good indication that I was finally drunk. I lifted it again and the world blurred in front of me.

Ham sighed. “Don’t you think you should get going? Shouldn’t you be there early to greet people or whatever?”

I don’t know why, but I felt like I needed this interview. A distraction? Proof that I had made some kind of impact in the world by now, even if it was in a pimped-out interview in a magazine with a readership of what, five hundred people?

“Next fucking question,” I said.

Ham sighed. “‘Tell us a little about how you came to be a chainsaw carver that the Oregonian once called ‘an inspired ruffian gleefully doing battle with the insipid nature of chainsaw art.’ Did the Oregonian really say that?”

I was about to pontificate on the nature of art and where carving fit into it, really plumb those depths, when a collective gasp passed among the rest of the people on the patio. People around us rose from their tables, shielding their eyes, pointing.

Down below us at the tideline, there was something there.

Tourists in their windbreakers and neon swimsuits and pale, pale bodies began to slowly walk towards the thing, as if magnetized to it. Ham turned and brought his shades up onto the dense slope of his forehead.

The thing, it lay there on its side in the surf. It must have been forty or fifty feet long, with the bullet-shaped body of a shark. It was eyeless and colored like the hull of a missile. Its bristle-toothed mouth opened and closed as water and sand streamed into its gullet. Where a shark’s side fins should be, a cluster of red, spotted tentacles weakly lashed the sand, leaving complicated filigrees like glyphs. It was an indelicate, horrific joining of things – it looked like a kid’s drawing stitched roughly together and come to life. My eyes kept drifting around, unable to take in the entire wholeness of it – like my brain couldn’t figure out what part of it to settle on.

Ham slowly stood up. “What in the sweet shitting Jesus is that?”

One of the tourists began stepping closer than the rest. With his neon yellow windbreaker and little gray dog next to him crouched with its belly flattened in the sand, you just knew nothing good was going to come of it. The dog kept barking and the man kept walking towards the shark-thing slowly, holding his hands out in front of him like he was urging the thing to just stay calm. Like he was going to pet it or something. I felt dread – honest to God, heart-seizing dread – for the second time in a week.

The little dog suddenly surged forward. A pair of tentacles, red against the dun-colored sand, reared up and slowly undulated in the air, like cobras to a charmer’s flute. A woman next to me said “Oh gosh” – she sounded distracted, as if she’d ordered Bleu Cheese and gotten Thousand Island – and the thing’s tentacles shot forward in a blur and wrapped around the dog’s midsection and rent it in half. Just like that. It was over in two seconds. Blood fell in dark gouts onto the sand and it hurled the two halves of the dog behind it. The man screamed – we all screamed, I think – and fell backwards, crab-marching away, his feet kicking up clots of sand. The thing’s tentacles continued their slow, somehow befuddled gesticulations in the seafoam. It kept gasping.

A man on the patio cried out hoarsely, “Well, Jesus, somebody better call the cops!”

I turned and walked woodenly into the dark maw of the tavern and told Trish I was going. My brain had clearly reached some kind of saturation point. Out on the patio people were screaming. Trish looked between the patio and me, torn.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come?” she said. “I can get someone to cover for me.” I shook my head.  “I’ll see you at your dad’s afterwards then. I’m off at six. Don’t you dare drive. Have Ham drive you.”

I said, “Something’s happening out there. On the beach. Call the cops.” She stepped towards the patio then and I went out to the parking lot. I got into my car, a thirty year-old Lincoln with a muffler wrapped in baling wire and seats that sprang with so much stuffing it looked like a family had died of a knife attack inside. As soon as I sat down, rain started pearling the windshield.

Some unnamable and monstrous thing lay on the beach killing things, killing barking dogs but maybe right at that moment possibly killing people, who knew, and Calvin’s funeral started shortly, very shortly, and what, really, did one do in a situation like this?

I leaned my head against the steering wheel, the world wonderfully dark. Then the door opened and there was Ham, gigantic.

“No way in hell you’re driving right now. Scoot over.”

 

2. The church my father has frequented since we were kids – since our mother died and he quit drinking – is a building dense with unnecessary right angles, as if drafted by an over-excited architecture student with a hard-on for Modernism and a budget for salvaged lumber. It’s made all the more dismal by the chipped paint and slowly rotting eaves, the curling tarpaper shingles on its roof, and the bell tower a roost for seagulls, with its dashing of guano running down the sides. The lot was so full we had to park on a side street. Calvin and I had never subscribed to what I had called my father’s “Jesus fever.” Calvin was aloof but respectful; my own silences on the matter seethed with contempt. I was amazed to feel a kick of that familiar teenage sullenness at the idea of darkening that church’s doors again. It seemed another instance where Calvin had really been just a truly better person than me.

Ham and I entered the mezzanine, which was still and cloying with the incense of flowers. I felt a moment of vertigo – someone had blown up Calvin’s picture and put it on an easel in front of the entranceway to the nave. It was a photo taken from a Forbes article a decade or so before. I smiled; in the photo, Cal had his sleeves rolled up, his jacket slung over one finger. He was fit but had never been a particularly handsome guy, and the photo looked like an advertisement for a discount men’s suit retailer.

Ham smiled too. “He looks like such a tool there.”

The pews were full. There were people standing in the back. My father’s church and golfing buddies mingled with Calvin’s employees, people we’d gone to school with. I recognized most of the people there, by face if not by name. The coffin gleamed white, flanked by a sea of pastel bouquets, and my heart thudded against my ribs like kicks from a clumsy horse. Where had I been while all of this was being planned? Drinking? Chainsawing my stupid bears and eagles and mermaids? When calamity fell, some people rise above. And some people drink themselves into a stupor, or immerse themselves in work. Either way, it was a cop-out. I knew it. My father stood at the front of the room, immaculate in a dark suit, his white lion’s mane of hair tamped down. He was talking solemnly to another man and greeting those who approached him.

Ham squeezed my arm and headed to the back. I walked up to my father, who shook my hand and cupped my elbow in his other palm. He leaned forward and hissed, “You smell like a brewery, Travis. This one thing I need you to do.”

“I was over at Trish’s work,” I muttered. “A shark chopped a dog in half. Well, pulled it apart, I guess.”

He stared openly at me and shook his head, gave me a look couched somewhere between contempt and pity. He sighed and motioned towards the man next to him. “Travis, this is Al Winters. He’s Calvin’s attorney.”

Winters wore a suit that put even my father’s to shame, and made mine look like I’d worn a hair-shirt to the funeral. Lights shone on his scalp. “Very sorry for your loss, Travis,” he said, shaking my hand. “Would it be alright if I took a moment of your time after the ceremony?”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, sure.” I looked at my father, who couldn’t hold my gaze. “Go sit down,” he said, and it was the same tone, the same voice he used when I was a kid, when Calvin had beaten me at some game and I’d come to him crying. It was the voice of resignation, the voice of a man who felt like there was too much damage done, too little to be salvaged.

The three of us sat in the front pew next to Wendy, my father’s second wife. She was a mousy, devout woman only a few years older than Calvin. She and my father had met in this very same church. Wendy seemed continually in the other room or out doing something else, as if actually being with my father frequently proved too difficult. The watery afternoon light cast itself through the stained-glass windows. The room was murky; Calvin’s casket glowed like an extracted tooth. I closed my eyes and listened to the hushed murmurings of people behind me, the flutter of programs being opened and closed. I felt saddened, and in shock from what I had just seen on the beach, but also enveloped by all the relentless living going on in the room.

When the ceremony began, an organ sounded, some sonorous, vaguely upbeat dirge that seemed as appropriate for a wedding as a funeral. Brahms’s “Oh World, I Must Leave Thee”, the program said. The music was punctuated by drifts of sirens out on the highway. The pastor was an old man who looked like he belonged in a miniature car wearing a fez. He started talking about Calvin’s love for the community, his entrepreneurial spirit, his love of family – that while he had never wed, his employees and colleagues in the vending-entertainment business had been his family. People got up and spoke – one woman, a vendor designer at GoNuts, cried so hard she couldn’t finish and had to be lead back to her seat by the pastor. My father spoke woodenly of his great pride in Calvin and tottered back down to his seat. I said nothing. Anything I had to say would just be an excuse to lower myself into a pit of self-deprecation.

Afterwards, my father and I stood together shaking people’s hands as they filed out. Winters hovered nearby. “You didn’t drive, I hope,” my father said to me at a break between handshakes.

“No.”

He sighed. Winters said, “I’ll be happy to take you, Travis. It’ll give us an opportunity to talk.”

Ham stepped up and shook my father’s hand. He took his hand in mine, clapped me once on the shoulder.

“I’m getting a ride,” I said.

“Sounds good,” he said. “I’ll drop your car off back at the Rip Tide, take my truck to the service. See you in a bit.”

We stepped outside to a peal of thunder, more rain.

 

3. Calvin died skimboarding. How’s that for ridiculous? He owned beachside property out at Seal Cove, a few miles outside of town. He frequently went down to the beach at night, a way to battle insomnia, he said. He’d done it for years. He’d suit up – even playing around in the surf here you need a wetsuit, it’s that cold – and go. That whole stretch of beach, I knew, was illuminated by floodlights he’d had installed when he bought the place. He’d get on that stupid little tear-shaped piece of fiberglass and just fly. He could pull 360s and pop shove-its with his eyes closed. He had finesse, was detail oriented, so this was perfect for him: this is a surfing town, but since childhood skimboarding had spoken to him in a way that nothing else did, regardless of how goofy a sport most of us actually thought it was. It was a blast to watch him. He made it look effortless. He just floated.

Until one night he didn’t. He fell off his board, and in one of those one-in-a-million events, severed his spinal cord at the C5 vertebrae. It paralyzed him from the neck down. He drowned in less than five inches of water as the tide came in. The coroner judged he lay there for a day and a half or so. That far out of town, that stretch of beach is very quiet. A tourist going on a morning run finally found him; like the shark-thing, he’d been taken out and then cast back by the sea a mile or so from his home. The seagulls had had at him. It was the kind of needlessly gross death that Calvin probably would have found hilarious. His entire business had been built on that kind of irony: even in death, Calvin thought outside the box.

 

4. Winters drove a Jag and wore leather driving gloves with little holes in the knuckles. I sat in the passenger seat smelling my own alcohol stink, the headlights of our procession small jewels in the dim light of the afternoon. I couldn’t hear anything outside the car; the engine itself was a distant hum. We passed fire trucks and emergency vehicles going the other way, and their sirens sounded like a television playing in another room.

“Again, I’m very sorry about Calvin,” Winters said. “He was a hell of a businessman, and a good friend.”

“Thank you.”

“He cared about you very much, Travis.”

“Well, we’re brothers,” I said. “We didn’t always see eye to eye.”

“How many brothers do?” Winters said. He smiled, that cragged profile softening a little. “Good God, my brother’s a libertarian. We practically go at each other with knives every holiday.”

The town gave way to forest, scrub pine and Douglas firs on one side, houses nestled in among the greenery, the gray band of the sea on the other.

“What is it that you do, Travis?”

“I’m a wood-carver,” I said.

“An artist, then. It doesn’t surprise me.”

“I make dolphins and whales out of hunks of logs for tourists. I still don’t know if that’s art.”

He winced then, which I assumed was his way of approaching matters he viewed as indelicate. “Well, I have a matter I’d like to discuss regarding the company. It concerns you.” We passed a camouflaged Humvee then, boxy and menacing, its antennae lashed to its rear window like a coiled snake. We were nearing the cemetery.

I felt something start to slowly rise inside of me then; it started at my stomach and slowly pushed towards my heart, which seemed to rise up in my chest like a cork in water. It didn’t hurt. It was just a pressure, a feeling. I considered the monstrous storeroom of memories one person could hold for another, that amazed me. It seemed monumental, unfathomable. In death, it seemed ruinous. I thought of the way my brother held his fork and knife at exact right angles when he ate. His wristwatch catching sunlight as we walked to our cars after visiting our father. How I had seen him bust his ass on that skimboard for twenty years and never seen him really hurt himself. When we were both just starting out – me a swinging dick just out of art school, thinking I would be the next Egon Schiele, and Calvin back in town after two disastrous years working in LA – he had bought more of my art than anyone. All these years later, the majority of my commissions could be traced back, in some way, to him. It’s the same guilt anyone feels when someone dies, probably – I should have been nicer to him. He was my brother, and I should have been nicer. But God, it weighed so heavy on me.

“What kind of business matter?” I said. My throat was lined in sandpaper. It came out in an odd little croak. We passed two more Humvees going south, one of them with a machine gun mounted on top.

“Strange,” he said, watching them in the rear view mirror. He sighed and then turned to me. His smile was entirely unreadable, opaque.

He said. “Well. He’s leaving it to you. Calvin’s left everything to you.”

 

5. Calvin started GoNuts – the stupidest name on earth, I insisted, but a company that would later have gross profits in the tens of millions – with two grand that he borrowed from our dad, who loaned it to him but claimed it would be the first and last time. It was hard to believe now, but there had been a time when I, a college graduate (even if it was a BA in Fine Art), had been the favored one. With the loan, Cal bought a dozen vending machines of varying sizes from an old man who ran a junk shop, and he got to work. He drafted contracts – he’d learned some things from his seventy-hour weeks interning in Los Angeles – and got the machines placed in bars, coffeeshops, comic book stores, the restrooms of lowbrow art galleries. The thing about Calvin, he was the least linear-thinking person I’ve never met. He thought in concentric loops. He thought around corners.

“Gumballs and condoms, that is some weak sauce,” Calvin had told me. “Look at the crazy shit the Japanese are doing, Trav. Gumballs and condoms are done. I’m doing art, I’m doing books, keychains that you put your picture on right there, mousepads, t-shirts, whatever. Cupcakes. Gourmet, fresh cupcakes and pastries, man. We should do some of your paintings, put little paintings in one of these guys. You think?” He was living in a studio apartment then, surrounded by those twelve empty machines. He had to slide sideways between two of them to get into his kitchen.

At that time I was still stuck on doing these little paintings that coupled Japanese Shinto designs with Native American mythology. I was also egotistical enough to think that this was something new, and not horribly appropriative. My ego was huge. I remember rolling my eyes and saying, “I am not putting my paintings in a vending machine, Cal. I am a gallery artist.”

He looked hurt for a moment and then turned away. He ran his fingers down the glass of one of the machines – to his credit, that old man had cleaned them up nicely, and I could hear Calvin’s fingers squeak down the glass. That’s one of those moments that I remember, one of the millions that just want to seize my heart and squeeze if I let it. I’m at the mercy of it: that brief flicker of hurt on his face, how he turned away from me. Maybe that moment was nothing to Cal, or just not as important to him. I don’t know. I know that in the grand scheme of things, it’s practically inconsequential. But for me, it’s one of those moments, however small, that still have the power to jar me awake at night.

Cal went to art openings, talked to musicians, writers. Bakers, poets, comic book illustrators, graphic designers. He worked his shitty commissions at a telemarketing gig and spent his paychecks on products and refurbishing machines and, yeah, occasionally one of my idiotic paintings for his apartment, with Wolf and Crow perched on a Shinto shrine. To support me. He made contacts, he worked double shifts when they were offered. He was ferocious. His talent matched his ambition. One machine dispensed t-shirts with ironic sayings, another handcrafted jewelry. One sold local chocolates. Tucked away in the corner of a bookstore, I once saw one of Cal’s machines that held exquisite two-inch-by-two-inch oil portraits of famous writers. They were selling for a hundred dollars a piece and there were empty slots in the rack. “Do you need change?” the barista said to me. “That machine only takes twenties.”

“Uh, no, that’s fine. Thanks.” I was counting the empty slots. There were forty-eight slots in all, and twenty of them were empty.

“I love those paintings,” she said. “My mom bought Vonnegut and Octavia Butler.”

I knew there was overhead to consider, and clearly Calvin took his cut, but still. My last show, I’d framed a dozen of my paintings – the frames meant I didn’t eat all that much that week – and put them up in a coffeeshop near my apartment. The show was up for two months and I sold one painting. At that moment, the entire trajectory of my life seemed thunderously dumb.

Our town was not poor – being on the Oregon coast, we were a haven to wealthy out-of-towners looking to retire. I mean, we weren’t Laguna Beach or anything, but we had our share of gigantic, gaudy summer homes tucked away outside the city limits. But this. I had no idea. A hundred dollars could have kept me afloat for two weeks.

Calvin had arrived. I knew it. The surety of it clanged inside me like some movie convict loudly running a cup over the bars of his cell. That had been, what? Ten years ago? He hadn’t even started, you know?

 

6. “I can see you’re in a fragile state,” Winters said. “This is a complicated issue. I should have waited. I’m sorry.”

“He left me the company? Is that what you mean? The entire goddamn company?” I felt poised on the edge of some precipice, the depth of which was entirely unknowable to me. I could on my best days handle a miter or sanding disc with some level on confidence, and here was Winters with his English driving gloves informing me that Calvin’s legacy was now mine. Jesus.

“Well, the issue will be in probate for a time while the court reviews the matter. And the Vice President is acting as CEO until the issue is completely settled. But yes.”

“Mr. Winters. I don’t know the first thing about Calvin’s business.” The gentle hills were populated with gravestones; I remember being enthralled as a young boy every time we passed a cemetery in a car – feeling a small and quiet wonder every time the graves intersected in a perfect line as we passed them, there and gone.

We parked. “You certainly have options, Travis. You may liquidate the company – though I’m sure there are plenty of people on town who vehemently don’t want that to happen.” I saw my father standing in a cluster of other older men, their dark coats hanging around them like a clutch of gathered birds.

“You may seek a merger with another company, though it seems unlikely that the company would still stay situated here in that case. But I have no doubt there would be many interested parties in acquiring it.”

“Okay.” We sat in the car a moment longer, watching people make their slow trek across the wet grass to the gravesite. I saw brother’s casket and the hole cut in the earth, sectioned off with a velvet rope, something you’d see in a bank. I saw the canopy they’d set up in case the rain came back. It was blue, occasionally shivering in the occasional breeze. Winters’s gloves creaked as he flexed his hands.

“The Board of Directors is also more than willing to purchase your share of the company’s holding, your stocks, for dissemination among the other stockholders. This would be quite a sum for you, and would renege you of any administrative responsibilities.”

I put my hand over my eyes and exhaled. My own rank breath blew back in my face.

“Lastly, while I personally wouldn’t recommend it – as you said, your experience in business in relatively slim – but it was something your brother made clear allusion to in his will: you may always go ahead and try your hand at it.”

“We should go,” I said. “We don’t want to be late.”

“Absolutely.” Again, he fixed the smile at me. Cordial or viperous? I couldn’t tell. He seemed as glad as I was to end the conversation. I wanted another drink.

 

7. I met Ham when Calvin’s business really started taking off, when his business honestly began to affect the clothes he wore, the car he drove. Personally, my paintings weren’t selling, and they’d cut my hours at the art supply store – which was the only job my degree seemed to have qualified me for. I was hungry. And I don’t mean some metaphysical, suffering-artist shit there: I was hungry. I was eating ramen with hot sauce, loaves of white bread and peanut butter, and spending everything I had on paints and ink and canvasses. I once had nothing but popcorn and coffee for five days straight, and Jesus, you talk about getting strung out. You can eat popcorn by the barrel and it does nothing, there’s nothing there in it for you.

I reached a point then. I reached a point where I decided to quit art – or at least the version I was playing with then. It brings me little satisfaction now to think how quickly I buckled under the weight of a little criticism and suffering. How quickly I folded. But I’d ingested too little food and too much fey irony from art dealers and gallery curators since graduating, and that ego of mine, it turned out, had been wrapped up in a lot of doubt, too. Art itself is pure gamble, one that’s tightly wound up with doubt and self-worth. I didn’t know jack shit about Hopi mysticism, and less about the Shinto concept of a kami or spiritual essence. I just didn’t. After seeing those portraits in Calvin’s coffeeshop vending machine, it became clear to me that I was little more than an appropriator, something all of those dealers and collectors had been telling me, just in different ways. I didn’t feel it, there was no thunder there. I was done with art, at least for a while.

I got a job on a road crew with the Highway Department. The work was consistent; I had more money and less time than I had ever had in my life, both of which helped. Initially the rest of the crew hated me. I was thin, and small, and desperate to be liked. I had a vocabulary that included words like “dictum” and “arbitrary”.  I had a college degree and had clearly spent the majority of my life mired in some sort of academia or another. The other men were big burly guys with sunburned forearms and bluejeans stiff with dirt, or furtive, rat-faced men seemingly made of sinew and a taste for manufactured narcotics. Ham squarely fell into the first category. He once found me sitting in the seat of a front-loader reading Plato’s Republic on my lunch break. I worked for the Highway Department for two years, and Ham never stopped calling me “The Philosopher” after that. Every day.

Given the nature of the Northwest, we tried to do as much as we could in summer. That August of my first year, we were repaving a stretch of 101. The work was stressful sometimes – the bleat and palpable impatience of drivers stacked north and south as traffic backed up. The stinking blacktop, the thunder of the machines. I frequently directed traffic – which meant turning the Stop sign one way and then the other and waving my free hand around – and most of the work consisted of simply deflecting the psychic rage of impatient drivers as the rest of the crew stood around smoking and one guy drove the steamroller or held a tamper and smoothed the edge of a lane of blacktop.

When I wasn’t wielding the Stop sign, being the new guy, I would clean up the men’s lunch garbage from the roadside, square their paving lines, fill sectioned-off squares of cut blacktop with gravel, usually with Ham driving a tamper behind me, barking orders. “Don’t dig a hole to fill a hole, godammit!”

My world changed – it sounds dramatic, but it’s true – the day after an unseasonable storm had ripped across the coast, flinging hail and tearing down trees and powerlines. A spruce was laying across the roadway, its branches pulped, its trunk yellow and oozing. The smell filled me with a longing I couldn’t name. Somewhere between nostalgia and a sweet sense of being lost. I don’t know. Youth.

I was holding the Stop sign, metronomically waving cars forward while stalled traffic sat at my back. It was still cool that early in the morning. Ham pulled something from the back of one of the trucks. “Hey, Plato!” he barked. “Get your ass over here. Your prosthetic penis has arrived.”

The man relieving me cawed laughter and I walked over to the truck. Ham handed me the chainsaw, and I almost dropped it on the ground. There was an inherent, indescribable weight there. I won’t say there was a premonition of what was to come, how the chainsaw formed a kind of bridge for me – the way I can pull an image from a piece of wood now, the way it relieves me of the great weight of creating important art, but rather just allows me to make. The freedom in that. That first day, though, it just felt like power. It felt like a weapon.

Ham grinned and walked over to the spruce. Behind his back, he said. “Here’s where you start to learn something. Come on over here.”

 

8. It started to rain. The pastor, a small man with a delicate and graying combover, had to nearly shout over the rain rattling on the canopy. It was the kind of morning that contained everything I love about this place. How the world hushed and slowed as the rain fell, the grass so green it almost hummed, the sky like an iron band beyond the scrim of leafless trees. In spite of the rain sputtering off the pavement and the headstones, there was a wonderful stillness. I watched my father stare at my brother’s coffin as if he were furious at it. I knew this would be as close as he would get to weeping. Wendy dotted her eyes with a tissue but otherwise was as stoic. I wondered if I looked as serene.

“We are like the threads,” the pastor said, “of a tapestry. We are too small to always see the pattern, the beauty of the design, the wisdom in it. Being mortal, being of the earth, the design is lost to us. But God, His divinity, His design. This is where faith comes in. The loss we feel is natural; this young man was taken so early in life, leaving so many beloved friends and family members behind.” He cleared his throat and looked for all the world like a man who needed a glass of water.

 

9. I got bit. That first time, sawing first the treelimbs and later the trunk itself into manageable pieces, I got the chainsaw bug. We loaded hunks of the tree onto the forklift and I swear I could see the images inside of the whorled rings, half buried. Something imposed over the grains, underneath the cracked pastiche of the trunk if looked at from just the right angle. It was like magic to me, a switch that had simply been turned on, and art had never been that way before.

I did research, talked to Ham about it. I bought a used Echo gas-powered saw with a sixteen-inch bar. I bought a dime-tip carving bar with a quarter-inch chain for the detail work. Within a week I bounced the blade off a knot and opened up a line in my knee the same way you could drop a knife in butter. Eleven stitches. After that, I bought chaps and safety glasses. A dremel and sanding discs. Within a month I rented a two-room shack outside of town with an attached lot – I could run the saw without getting any complaints from neighbors. I felt so electric it seemed that things should crackle when I touched them. I was free.

Cal visited one day. “Dad’s worried about you,” he said, looking around the chip-strewn, mudded driveway. He’d bought a new car. Wendy had told me that he’d rented a warehouse down on the bayfront, had a half dozen people working for him at this point.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’m good.” I had my goggles up, the Echo in my hands. I was impatient.

“Yeah,” Cal said. “You look good. You look really good.”

“Thanks.”

Cal shook his head. “I’m kidding, Travis. You look like shit. What is this?” He leveled his arm across the lot and I wasn’t sure what he meant. The lot itself? The wood blocks? My house?

“I’m working. This is, like, my art now.”

“Really,” Cal said. He walked up to one of the dozen pieces laying around the yard in various stages of completion. He pointed at one – I had yet to stain or paint it – that could arguably be called a grizzly bear. It had a protuberance that could be considered a snout. It jutted out, at least.

“That’s a bear. It’s not done,” I lied.

“That’s a bear. Right. I’m trying to understand this. It’s just a big jump, compared to what you were doing.”

“It’s still art,” I said. But did I believe it? Wasn’t there something particularly freeing in the fact that it wasn’t? That it seemed nothing like art, but instead blatant, pandering, tourist shit? This was commerce, and more importantly, it was gaudy. I knew it was gaudy. That’s what was so freeing about it.

Cal looked around the lot, that familiar look on his face. That look that said he had settled on a trajectory, regardless of the outcome. How I admired that about him, his resoluteness. We stood there amid the beautiful stink of gasoline and cut cedar, and when a bird timidly chirruped in the trees above us, another returned its call.

“I want to buy one then,” he said.

And that’s the thing, you see? That willingness to follow me through to wherever I went, wherever I wound up? I never returned that, I never gave that back to him. I never gave anything back. And it begs the question, one I’ve thought about a lot – how could I inspire such loyalty in him?

 

10. Two men lowered the casket in the grave and the pastor threw a handful of sand on the casket. It made no sound at all. I heard someone hiccup a sob. Calvin would have thought the entire ceremony ridiculous. Even with his machines – he admired his artists, his vendors – he had enough art in his house that he had to rotate pieces out – but the man’s refrigerator looked like he should be living in a dorm room. He cared mostly about the idea.

A sound grew in frequency and pitch, a thup-thup-thup that I felt in my ribcage. We all raised their heads, some of us risking the rain as we stepped from under the safety of the canopy to look up at the sky. The pastor paused.

A helicopter rocketed overhead, the undersides of its stubby wings dense with missiles. I heard a murmur pass through the crowd so like the one on the patio. Calvin would have been able to calm us all with a word or a gesture. He would have put us all at ease. I said nothing.

The pastor lead us in a last prayer and then our party drifted away. Wendy stood next to my father, graciously shaking hands and accepting hugs, kisses. My father nodded brusquely, his eyes red and watery. He looked limp in his suit, and I couldn’t imagine how tired he must be – the two of them had made all of the funeral arrangements. I saw Winters kiss Wendy on the cheek, patting her hand. She laughed quietly at something he said – even my father smiled, some of his hardness leaving his face.

“We’ll talk,” Winters said as he approached me. He handed me his card. “Call any time. I would love to discuss with you your options in finer detail.”

“Okay.”

Winters pulled his gloves from his pocket and gave me another of his winces. “Calvin believed in you, Travis. Very much. He admired your adaptability. He thought it would serve the company well.”

My head throbbed. I wonder where Ham was, what had held him up. “My adaptability was born of fatigue, pretty much.” I smiled. “But thank you.”

“Do you need a ride back into town?”

“No,” I said. “I should probably be with my father.”

 

11. Wendy drove and my father sat in the passenger seat, small and still, like a boy. We parked in the driveway and turned off the ignition and the three of us sat there listening to the ping of the cooling engine for a moment. “I guess that’s that, then,” my father said. We all sat there wondering, I assumed, how this newly formed hole would fit into our lives. How we would get used to it, how we would move around it. I hadn’t even known what I owed Calvin until he was gone.

The sky hung low and gray and promised more rain. Always more rain. Glass and foil-topped dishes lay on every surface of the kitchen, spilling out onto the dining room table, hand-written cards taped to them.

“Help yourself,” my father said absently. He took his jacket off and laid it slowly across the back of a chair. It was as if some buried and integral gears inside him were grinding against each other, slowly seizing up.

I walked out onto the patio. It too faced the sea, the deck bracketed by potted plants, a ceramic Jesus gesturing towards a school of lambs. The horizon was thumbed with reds and pinks. Staring at it, I called Trish on my cell phone and got her voicemail. I said, “We’re at my dad’s. Call me when you can, or just head over. I love you.” Moments later my phone rang. I answered, thinking it was Trish.

“Hey,” I said.

“I went back to the bar, man,” Ham said, sounding breathless.  “But there’s all these Army guys everywhere. They’ve shut the bar down. They’re taking everyone’s phones and not letting anybody leave. It’s fucked up. That squid thing is just running up and down the sand. It’s killed a few people. Hold on-”

“Ham-”

“You should get down here, dude.” I had never heard Ham sound afraid before. Ever. “I don’t know where Trish is, they’ve got us fucking packed in here. People are freaking out. They shot a missile at it, dude, and nothing even happened. They don’t-”

I heard a distant, arrhythmic chatter, and realized it had been going on since I’d stepped outside. Gunfire of some kind, of course. Of course we were attacking it. Or course we were afraid.

“Ham? Ham.”

Just pure roaring silence.

I stepped back into the house and Wendy turned towards me with a dishtowel in her hands and I saw my father in the den raise his head from his recliner like an old hound as we heard the scream of jets overhead, a rising scream and then a thundering boom felt all the way in the bones. The patio door shattered, the floor became a sea of pebbled glass, Wendy screamed, and I knew, I knew the thing would never die, not by our hands, not by any act from us. I knew that no matter what we did, we would always be at its mercy until it chose to leave.

 

*originally published in Northwind

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