Faces in The Flame, a story by N.T. McQueen at Spillwords.com
Malachi Brooks

Faces in The Flame

Faces in The Flame

written by: N.T. McQueen



When Larry Holiday’s only child was born, he arrived at the hospital, gave him his name, and told Glenda he had to check on a shipment of Pabst arriving that afternoon at the store and kissed her before he left.

Glenda held Larry Holiday Jr. close to her breast, his skin upon hers and clung to all she felt was good of her husband. She told him as he nursed that God planned for him to be a mighty man, a righteous and powerful man that would fix all things wrong in this world. Then she would kiss his forehead in little nibbles until he slept.

Most of his childhood, he rocked alone in his father’s old recliner and opened pages filled with ink and scanned the words line by line and the letters formed to words. When Glenda tried to read Dr. Seuss, Larry squirmed and fidgeted until she retrieved a book cluttered with ink or uninterrupted by pictures. By six, he asked for the letters of Thomas Mann and Flannery O’Connor and successfully finished The Brothers Karamazov in one month. He often threw erasers in class and wrote notes to the other boys while Mrs. Foot scratched on the chalkboard and the flabby skin hanging from her arms swayed. The giggles signaled to her Larry’s antics and he, often, spent time after class cleaning the dusty chalkboard.

When he was seven, Mrs. Foot, during a lesson on division, noticed Larry’s forehead pressed to the edge of his desk for several minutes. She called his name and he startled, his lazy eyes shone round. Per her request, he arrived at the front of the class with his hands behind his back. She proffered her palm to him and, slowly, he placed a thick copy of the Communist Manifesto that weighed her hand down several inches.

Later that week, when Mrs. Foot met with the Holidays in her classroom in the evening, she spoke phrases such as gifted and prodigy with such awe and hope, Glenda could not respond for fear she may weep. Larry Holiday Sr.’s bushy brows tensed forward and the red marks of his grip upon his folded arms began to show. He looked at his son then to Mrs. Foot as she carried on about his extraordinariness. By the time she finished, Larry Holiday Sr.’s eyes cast a disappointing glow toward his son as if he deserved pity beyond accolades. The blue caverns vibrant, omnipresent, as if they had surrendered to the ever-presence of his flushed skin. Larry Holiday Jr., holding his mother’s dry hand, sulked behind his father’s reticence and the choked sobs of his mother until they arrived home. After his father left to attend a shipment of Doritos at the store, Larry remained in his room atop his G.I. Joe bed spread and followed the texture on the ceiling, the walls, until he drifted asleep, surrounded by shelves of books he no longer cared to read. He feigned sleep when he heard the door open, when his mother’s weight sunk the side of the bed and her dry hand scraped through his hair and she whispered the same prophecy she had whispered at his birth. Then she left and he only heard the words from the lips of a false prophet.

The times Larry Holiday Sr. spent at the house, he passed slouched in front of the television in his old recliner, canned beer in hand, and flipped between channels during commercials. Larry Jr. sat on the couch and watched fragments of Wheel of Fortune, Charles Bronson films, Giants baseball, infomercials, college football, Ezekiel Clemens sermons, and the local news with his father. He remained stolid and idle, an occasional glance to his father’s chair and synthetic chuckles in response to his father’s statements about the absurdity of the world. Yet his mind often caught a glimpse of what his eyes beheld and he marveled at the task of deconstructing language and the superfluous nature of vernacular signification in the context of popular culture and he hearkened to the words of Grammatology with a desire for examination, a deep longing to speak with Derrida himself. But the channel rested on Mo, Curly, and his namesake and Larry Holiday Jr.’s contrived laugh clashed against his father’s boisterous, blissful comedy.

At school, his antics escalated into disruptive pranks upon peers and Mrs. Foot with such frequency, he knew each desk by the feel of his fingertips. His mischievous smirk elicited glares from behind Mrs. Foot’s desk but he remained obedient and conformed to the standards set before him. His grades descended beyond uninterest and into an almost comical display of base intellect. Math questions answered in stick figures. Spelling tests written in phonetics. His turn at class readings eventually skipped by default due to his deliberate stutters, lisps, and impediments. Once distant and terrified, his peers flocked to him at recess with a curiosity of what Larry would not do. Truth or Dare proved a perilous game for young Larry. With each impulsive act, he scanned forlorn across the chuckling faces around him and fought the need to vomit. But when the urge subsided and the laughter in the halls died away, he sat at his desk and squinted at the distant, dotted heads and the blurry, frumpy blob of Mrs. Foot before him and, above all else, he yearned for the laughter to return.

Despite his decline in grades, his mother fed him all he asked for and affirmed her belief in his divinity through passive statements between bites of Hamburger Helper. Her chipped nails scratched along his back as he chewed and she spoke of the great things he would do when he became a man. Larry Jr. chewed and chewed the tasteless mass but could not swallow.
His elementary years found him clinging to the next grade level by tenths of his grade point average. The antics in class had waned along with the laughter he once elicited and Larry sought new ways to entertain his peers. Mr. Thomas, a lithe, rigid man with a jutting upper lip, ruled his class. Larry’s futile jests gained no traction or response for fear of Mr. Thomas’s baleful stare. Larry took to sketching hyperbolic portraits of his teacher with witty, damaging captions. The sporadic chuckles arose like subtle mines until Mr. Thomas confiscated one of his caricatures. Red-faced, he pulled Larry Holiday Jr. by the arm outside and spoke hopelessness upon him and how his life would be nothing but failure for he was a stupid, disrespectful boy from stupid people and he might as well rob the K-Mart because Little View was all he had to look forward to. Though he laughed in the rose-colored face of Mr. Thomas until his teacher mumbled and returned to the classroom, his stomach sunk within him. He leaned on the metal railing of the portable’s ramp and saw the small, prison windows and the young captives they beheld. He imagined each malleable mind victim of this panopticon and pitied them more than he did himself. Across the quad, the alacritous hand of Mary, before she had been named Mouthy Mary, raised high framed in the class window like some Sistine portrait. He watched her from outside the classrooms until the flat bell sounded and the banal captives lined from their prisons for their rec time.

Larry Holiday Jr. continued his disruptions while contained within the walls of his classes into middle school and high school. His name passed with bitter disdain and caveats between teachers in the halls, the teacher’s lounge, even before Sunday services at the First Baptist Church. His name synonymous with Esu or the coyote. Outside of the walls, Larry Holiday Jr. roamed the fringes of adolescence with the observance of an anthropologist. Other than his teachers, he walked free between and among stoners, goths, jocks, and nerds. A mere presence neither wanted nor rejected. During junior year, he roamed the borders of the quad and, between the portables, saw the slumped figure of Darla Vickers. Her now dark eyes bleeding black down her face. His shadow crossed her and she raised her face. They said nothing. He crouched beside her, his shoes crunching against the gravel, and he reached toward her. She recoiled then stopped as his hand touched hers, an ethereal presence upon her skin. She wept again but her hand remained. They said nothing, emerging from between the rooms and parted as the students filed into their classrooms.

Since his freshman year, he began helping his father at the Tower Mart after school. At first, Larry Sr. brushed off his son to helping the elderly pump gas, dumping trash bins, and painting over the scribbled bricks along the exterior. They rarely spoke outside of his father’s orders but Larry Jr. performed what was asked of him with such diligence, Larry Sr. often followed him out of the corner of his eye while taking inventory. By sophomore year, Larry Jr. was stocking potato chips, candy bars, and the miscellany that hung on the tinny metal stands. His penchant for graphic handwriting afforded him the opportunity to be creative with sale signs that his father hung on the glass doors for display. Junior year saw Larry Jr. behind the register when his father had to see about shipment or run to the Bank of America for a deposit. Larry Jr. lorded over his station with his chin high, fingers tapping atop the etched Formica top. His first customer behind the register was a tall, nervous man in fatigues who wandered the store before selecting a clear bottle of cheap vodka. Larry Jr. attempted small talk but the man only nodded with his eyes elsewhere. His only gesture of communication a salute as he tucked the shapely, brown bag into his coat. Larry Jr. hovered his finger over the alarm but could not press down.

On weekends, Larry Sr. helped his son behind the counter. He viewed himself as a subtle example for his progeny and the gregarious banter flowed from him with the customers as if it fueled his being. They closed the store together at midnight every night without much dialogue and, when the fluorescent lights cast only their sleepy glow, the two hopped into the Ford Ranger and drove home to the sound of Stonewall Jackson’s laments. The lugubrious melody snuck through the crack in Larry Holiday Jr.’s window and mingled upward into the stars he watched move in slow motion behind him.

His existences cusped on the borders of each other, somewhere between the earth and sky, heaven and hell. He lived inside a conundrum, batted from one side to the other without the resolve that he ever loved or hated anything. Yet behind that counter some foreign safety warmed him and soon his tardiness turned truant. He often ditched at the first break and wandered across the baseball fields to head toward the Bends. Each day, regardless of weather, a cluster of trench coats, studded belts, and smoke gathered around home plate. The frumpy gait of Brenda Decker often passed him and he nodded when he caught her eyes the moment before they passed. A contained wanderlust prodded him as he roamed the limits of his town. The hills surrounding beckoned but, at the moment, he disregarded them as eyes forever watching. By the winter break, he had abandoned the notion of education and his presence drifted away from Port Lake High School, a ghost surrendered. Without opposition from his father, he spent most his time working at the Tower Mart, giving free Ring Pops to the children from Catfish lane who bore blackened, naked feet and worthy of a salute from Oney each Wednesday. He smiled as they scampered out the door but the bells hung from the door ringed his mother’s daily words upon him and a melancholy rode the rays of artificial light.

He spent his Sundays as he had done his entire life, with his mother, sitting in the first pew of the First Baptist Church. He refused to clap with the hymns and concentrated on singing despite the toneless choir surrounding him. He listened intently to Pastor Olson’s sermons and fought the nature to deconstruct the binarisms so blatant in the doctrine he imbibed.
Larry Jr. assumed his father was pleased but his father remained reticent. Orders and instruction the only words spoken. When May of what would have been Larry Jr.’s senior year, Larry Sr. came through the back of the store and told him that he needed to go to Dave’s Auto Repair and help out Coleman Bevel. When Larry Jr. asked why, Larry Sr. acted as if he had not heard and counted cartons of cigarettes behind the counter. Without a goodbye, he walked across the street and waited for the bus outside the Chalet. He arrived at Dave’s Auto Repair by two o’clock and found Coleman Bevel hunched over a Pontiac Grand Am, a wrench clanking against the engine. He introduced himself and Coleman wiped his grease stained hand across his overalls and shook. A gentle wound lurked behind the old man’s eyes and Larry felt it through the fragility of his handshake.

Coleman spoke in hushed tones and instructed Larry in how to replace spark plugs, change oil, and install a radiator. All of these he failed to accomplish but Coleman kept his gentle hand on his back and ushered him to clean the tools. The summer at Dave’s Auto Repair started in Larry a new hope and, radio loud, he performed his duties with the vigor of a child. His voice sung soft along with Lithium and Wonderwall from the tinny speakers of the garage’s radio. Coleman often chuckled at his new employee and agreed in unintelligible grunts to Larry’s natter, discussing abstractions and philosophies that engaged the closets of his mind. Coleman’s reticence posed as agreement and, despite his constant tinkering, Larry knew Coleman’s interest was sincere.

By the end of summer, Larry told Coleman he planned on leaving Port Lake to pursue a real life. Though this news saddened Coleman, his ageless teeth beamed from between his lips, brilliant with a pride he was certain he would have reserved for his own son. At the end of Larry’s final shift, Coleman approached him with a smeared envelope and shoved it into Larry’s pocket. Before he could protest, Coleman wrapped his weathered arms around him. The sensation so foreign to Larry, he ceased to breathe yet breathed for the first time. Walking from Dave’s Auto Repair, he turned back to the dark shadow with his hands in his overalls and waved a hand with no reply.

The real life Larry sought was supplanted by reality. When he returned to the Tower Mart to inform his father of his intentions, only the buzz of the lights could be heard. He called his name several times with no reply and walked through the back doors into the storage room. He saw the worn soles of his father jutting from behind a man’s height of Pepsi crates. At his side, he rolled him onto his back and felt his wrist and the subtle, distant pumps that pulsed from his soul. He called the paramedics and they drove him away north toward the hospital, wailing as they disappeared. He returned to the counter to phone his mother and noticed blood smeared on his palms and he could not tell whose blood was upon him. He informed his mother by phone and her distant voice only purred her son’s praises and Larry heard the rattle of the pill bottles against her palm. He returned the phone to the receiver without a sound. His eyes looked to the bells and saw Oney scurry into the store, a quick salute his greeting, and conducted his predicted business. When the bells signaled his departure, Larry stood behind the counter and sobbed.

He manned the Tower Mart for two weeks before his father was released from the hospital. He had hired an odd man named Homer Bagby who had inquired about the brief help needed. Larry Jr. hired him for $100 a week and gave him minimal duties. Though punctual, Larry had little patience for Homer and his stained, uneven teeth that bore from his grin. A grin displayed after he whispered some perversion to Larry Jr. after the bells rang. Larry would smile and busy himself with anything at hand. During Homer’s second week, Larry Jr. stood where he found his father and struggled to focus taking inventory of their products. He mourned but he knew not what for and tallied the bottles of Pepsi on his sheet. A loud pop came from the other side of the EMPLOYEE’S ONLY door and Larry froze, hearing Homer’s faint chuckle and some Frito Lay bags crumbling in a commotion. Larry shook his head and began counting the boxes of Snickers when he heard the loud pop again. But then a crack of gunfire burst above the door and a shrill, tortured scream erupted. Larry burst through the door before his clipboard had fallen and caught the fatigued back of Oney and the wild-eyed terror imbued in his face, Army issued black metal in his hand. Homer clutched at his eye over shards of debris, screaming obscene threats as blood trickled from between his fingers. Larry drove him to the hospital but never picked him up.

Larry Holliday Sr. returned to the Tower Mart straight from the hospital. His pale, jaundiced skin clashed against his deep, blue eyes and Larry Jr. nearly shrieked as he came through the doors. Larry Sr. lingered in the doorway as his eyes surveyed the store from left to right. He nodded at the bullet hole and shards of plastic embedded in the drywall and Larry Jr. explained what had happened. His father grunted and scratched the speckled stubble under his chin with a long nail. Larry Jr.’s eyes caught the puncture from the IV in his forearm and the hole gaped and wept before him and a strange comfort nursed the silence. Larry Sr. passing his son to the back of the store, told him to mop the floors and then disappeared behind the door’s swing. He left without his foot meeting soap.

He did not see his home on his sojourn. On the nights he could not find shelter, he shivered outside home with creaking knuckles. The urge to knock, to be opened unto, so great his feet reached the porch but he would not lift his hand to ask. The grace of others provided him a bed and some food, some stays longer than others. He assured those of hospitality he needed a place until the money came in for his train ticket away. Yet his life nomadic started from sleep to stations of drink and cigarettes, banal conversation with those who had abandoned academia for paper blankets and cardboard abodes. He spoke around barrelfire of DeLillo and Joyce, of how Yoknaptawpha dwells inside us all and of Signifyin(g)in California Love, and they, cans raised, agreed in boisterous ignorance and he reciprocated a raise of his tab-less can.

He hovered between dumpsters to avoid the wind on his ears and made rounds behind restaurants for the end of day food. He often passed the library’s siren song and resisted the pages whispers. But, on a wet day of hail, he entered through the glass doors, an ancient presence whispered between the rain drops. The silence allowed words and quotations to flood him, as numerous as the hail stones that battered the composite roof and dinged the air vents. Words long dormant whispered like rubbing pages within his veins and his mad fingers pulled file-cards from the cabinet in frantic passion. Alone in the library save Mrs. Nettles, the widow, he saw in a solitary table, centered among the opaque shelves, and read. His ten high stack decreased per hour. When Mrs. Nettles touched his shoulder, he looked at her with red eyes and she told him they had closed a half-hour ago. He nodded and placed the books into the return cart without a sound.

Flesh bore through the heels of his socks and belt loops hung limpid from his waist. He returned to Dave’s Auto Repair but found a crude lease sign hung cocked from the glass door and obscenities etched into the thick glass. He cupped his hands to peek inside but only saw dust. He made the rounds behind the back doors of restaurants and managed remnants of pastrami and cold potatoes. Behind the China Palace, he rummaged for forgotten take-out boxes in the dumpster. His numb fingers scraped chow mein from inside a box saved from rats hunger. He wiped the oil from his fingers onto his pants and fumbled for a loose cigarette in his coat and lit the end, oily fingerprints smudged on the paper. The back door opened and he crouched between the dumpster and the stucco. He knew how those feet scraped the floor from those days at Port Lake High School and he watched her pensive face grind papers into a fire barrel. Her soft cheeks dimpled with a hidden reserve and the match trembled at her fingertips. The flames rose and she continued to feed the flame. The flash of paper revealed something beautiful to him. So beautiful it pulled him from the shadows toward the light of the flame. He showed himself before her, awash with the abnormalcy of his actions, but exposed. Her worried black eyes looked at him and he said his name through his cigarette. She fought her eyes from him as he inched closer and leaned over the barrel. Still-lives gathered mist in her hands and his dry eyes fell into those moments on paper, such brevity of moments captured by her hands and, despite whatever her desires were for burning such beauty, there he saw purpose in their moment. He asked, as she held the paper over the flame, if he could have that one. She looked from the paper to him and, absently, automatic, she handed him the paper. He held it with his fingertips, cradled the momentary life close to his warmth and nodded as he turned.

He kept the sketch with him several weeks later when he arrived for his interview at K-Mart, folded clean in his back pocket. A pimple faced worker led him toward the back of the store toward the employee lounge and he sat, hair combed, and waited. A beer advertisement pinned to the corkboard had a catch phrase he recognized from his father’s lips and Larry Holiday Jr. reached in his back pocket, rubbing the textured paper between his fingers. The door opened and a rotund, giant of a man sauntered toward him with an extended hand. Larry had never recalled seeing someone of his build. He said his name was Jerome Peppers and he eased himself into a chair next to Larry’s, the sides of his body dangling over the edges. He asked questions from his sheet in robotic, empty utterances and Larry answered against his normal vernacular. When he had finished with the questions, Jerome asked more informal questions, some of which circled upon themselves, and spoke as if they had grown up together. Jerome paused then gave a quick point of his finger and said he had the job. Larry’s shoulders hung of relief and he was told he would start training tomorrow.

The banality arrived sooner than expected. His arms languished as he mopped between aisles. The uniform products and taking inventory and refunds based off whims and regrets nagged at him. He told himself he just needed enough and struggled his best to ignore Jerome Peppers impulsive remarks in reference to his performance. When his shift ended, he retreated to the library and read. The nights when the doors had been locked he wandered around Port Lake and glanced in the lit windows and watched fleeting scenes unfold, creating his own narratives. Some nights he strolled past his old house and lingered long enough to catch a glimpse of his mother watching television. No truck in the driveway.

The light signaled work and sighs leaked from him against his knowledge and he entered through the back entrance with elastic arms ever dangling. The critiques and banality held constant, the lack of movement built within his bones and his mantra of grace that had sustained him waned. He missed spots when he mopped and the yellow CAUTION A-frame discarded. He returned products without receipts. His red vest hung open and flaccid across his torso. Jerome hovered around Larry, a visible haunt lurking and prying. Larry often glanced at Jerome and shrugged him off, continuing his passive defiance. On his last day, Jerome berated Larry’s apathy before Niles Biffle and two other employees. Larry rolled his eyes and attempted to brush past Jerome but a swollen hand planted into his chest. Larry’s mouth opened and he spewed forth his intellect and derision upon the wide-eyed fat man. His voice ruled the breakroom and, when his words ended with his adrenaline, Jerome stammered a weak rebuttal of absolutes and opinions. Niles laughed and made a mention of Homer Bagby, drawing a retort from Jerome. Larry shook his head and brushed past, tossing his vest in the trash bin as he exited the automatic glass doors at the front of the store.

He cashed his final check and, counting the wad of bills, he had enough for his bus ticket and a real life. The sun hung low behind him. He started for the library but stopped. Instead, he turned and walked past Dave’s Auto Repair and the empty lot of the old Ford dealership until he saw Winkie’s chipped sign glow red from the sunset, set back fifty feet from the road. He entered through the doors and the smoke and jukebox and the clang of pool balls imbued his senses. He breathed a sigh from deep within him and slid onto the stool. A hand slapped his back and Vlado Brinkerhoff filled a shot glass and floated it into Larry’s hand. Shot after shot, he sang along to the jukebox and danced with women whose faces blurred behind his eyes. Light yet clumsy, he waltzed in and out of the smoky haze and hollered to Vlado for drinks for everyone and the cheers and laudation soaked his already drowned mind.

Richard Bauchmann sat near the end of the bar and raised a streaked glass toward Larry in gratitude before staggering out the front door and driving home. Larry watched him leave but soon forgot about him at the end of each glass. He made out between the restrooms with a girl who tasted of Wild Turkey and peanuts named Bernice or Lucy. His hands explored her robust curves until his balance abandoned him and he crashed into the wall phone, laughing. Two more shots and a Rolling Rock and he stumbled out the door with the moment’s lady friend, confessing his intentions to escape this life and he asked her if she would join him. An anxious hand gripped behind him and he reared up playfully. Seeing her in no condition to drive, he jerked the keys from her hand and escorted her to her Pontiac Sunfire. She fell into the passenger seat, gasping for breath, and he maneuvered around the hood and collapsed behind the wheel. After several minutes, he managed the key into the ignition and started the car. Her curious hands sought him all over and, distracted, he sped off in a squeal for Highway 29. The meager streets passed black in the darkness and he knew not what time the clock read, nor did he recognize the red of stop signs until the shrill howl and flash rode against his new chariot. He pulled onto the shoulder and felt the thud and heard the spilling of aluminum cans.

The shape emerged from the squad car and approached his window. When the neat cop asked him where he was going, Larry mentioned the highway cause I wanna ride it all night long and the voice behind the bright light chuckled and said you are going the wrong way. When Larry glanced ahead, he thought he saw the faint sign of the Tower Mart in the horizon but it disappeared.

The officer cuffed and placed Larry in the backseat of his car without the need for a test and called another officer to escort the woman home. Larry’s temple sucked at the cool window and the fading lights in the darkness held their familiar glow. The power of ammonia and air freshener lulled him into a new haze and he slept. He awoke when the car stopped outside a twelve foot chain-link fence topped with barbwire. A uniformed guard opened the gate and the squad car rolled in. Larry watched the gate shut behind them and ticker tape reading Discipline and Punish passed before his vision and the text he had devoured scrolled across his vision. As he recalled Foucault, the door opened and the officer lifted him and held his elbow as Larry stumbled to keep up. Through a massive door with a massive lock, the wash of light startled his eyes and he cowered. The intake officer sat behind a desk and Larry recognized him from high school, even without his letterman jacket. Larry leaned against the counter to balance himself and caught fragments of words and phrases between the two officers. Any priors? What is his level? This is Larry’s boy? Officer Carrol Pribble, badge 137. Mr. Holliday? Do you hear me? Hey? His hand signed a paper and the cuffs clicked open. Another guard led him toward a holding cell. The clank of the lock rattled his skull. He laid on the metal bench and saw the fluorescent lights through his eyelids and blood red of tissue through his eyelids.

The next morning, they woke him and informed him of his charge. The words ached in him. They released him since his bail had been paid and told him that he should consult a lawyer before his court date or the court would appoint an idiot to represent him. When Larry asked who paid, they would not answer and handed him his possessions. He declined his phone call and, after gathering his possessions at intake, left through the series of doors and gates until he stood before the yellow hills. He checked his money clip but found the clip serving no purpose. The sun light just above the hills oppressed his senses and he walked the lonely road in the only direction he knew.

He left the hills and Highway 29 and headed toward the lake until the stop sign blown through from a shotgun signaled him right. Under the heat, his soles warmed from the asphalt. Tall grass from dead lawns and bent, mutilated cans lined his way, passing cars blew the familial smell of algae against his moist skin. The derelict docks grew heavy with reeds and spattered duck droppings and he recalled night fishing for catfish before the growth overtook it and the putrid stench of bait that never seemed to wash from his hands. His shirt stuck to his back as he turned the bend and walked between the pumps at the Tower Mart. A handwritten note taped to the glass door said the store would be closed due to a family emergency and he recognized his mother’s handwriting.

He cupped his hands and peered through the tint then turned toward Lakeshore Blvd. He continued to walk north toward Main Street, snaking along Lakeshore wedged between decrepit homes and the water. The afternoon sun made its descent and he hoped he would make it. After stopping near Roundtable Pizza and begging some water, he slumped on his aching feet until he reached Library Park. The screech and laughter of children hung under the heavy cover of trees and funneled through the gazebo as he passed. The rapacious cries of gulls echoed like gunfire across the docks.

He arrived home closer to evening and saw his mother through the window eating in the glow of the small, kitchen television. He watched her from the corner of the window before knocking at the door. When she opened the door, Larry heard a garrulous voice present what the survey said. She cried out and wrapped her arms around his neck and sobbed into his already moist chest. They lingered in the doorway until the show ended.

They sat in their old spots at the dining table and Glenda told of how two days ago Larry Sr. had sat in his chair, drinking a can of Mickey’s and watching the Giants and Dodgers and the crunch of the can she heard from the kitchen and how she turned the corner drying her hands and how his lips frowned and the mumbling of a demoniac dribbled from his lips and the Mickey’s spilt over his hairy chin and onto his lap. She broke as she recalled the scene and Larry Jr. held her hands across the table. Such love spoke through her grip Larry turned from her toward the house and the same pictures, figurines, stains, all evoked from his mind and he wondered had he ever left.

When she regained herself, she told of the ambulance ride to the hospital and seeing him unconscious on the gurney and how Doc Rob’s words felt nailed into her. Larry Jr. told her everything will be ok. She smiled and dabbed at the corners of her eyes and she gazed at her prodigal and repeated of how her angel had returned, her blessed son had returned to make things right.

The following day, Glenda asked Larry to join her at the first service over at the First Baptist Church and Larry, conjuring the images of the previous night, agreed and grabbed a collared shirt and tie from his father’s closet. They sat in the back and Larry slouched, arms crossed, and recited passages of Gramsci and Marx as the new young pastor stood behind the pulpit and preached. Though he never heeded the words he spoke, he felt a nostalgic loss at not seeing Pastor Olson behind that pulpit. He watched his mother as she bowed her head throughout the sermon, nodding, and then, after the dismissal prayer, they drove the truck to the hospital. Larry could smell his father’s body in the cloth seats and receipts piled behind a rubber band wrapped around the visor. He felt blasphemous with his hands behind the wheel.

They parked and Glenda left the truck but Larry remained. His hands clasped around the wheel and he, for a brief moment, believed he could never go in that room. But his mother spoke his name and he shut off the engine. After they signed in, they visited him in the ICU. His father, prostrate and immobile, startled him and he wondered if that formidable man still resided in this body. Glenda gripped his hand and squeezed but only the sounds of machines replied. Larry stood near the door and glanced toward the nurse’s station without purpose. They visited a half-hour, Larry made no attempt to speak to his father and Glenda kissed her husband on his cheek. On the drive back, Larry asked his mother if she had paid his bail but she denied it. He asked her again before she rose for bed but she only laughed and said he jokes too much. Larry heard that laugh when he closed his eyes and when he awoke.

After a bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats and a cigarette, he drove the truck to the Tower Mart. He entered through the back and organized the inventory, mopped, and set up the register. It was still dark outside and when he flipped the remainder of the fluorescent lights, he squinted at their brilliance. He hesitated a moment behind the counter and surveyed the aisles, the drinks lined across the walls, in the fridge, and the frigidity of the place reminded him of his father upon that gurney. The lock turned and he opened the doors. Customers poured in a steady stream and all offered condolences and hoped the old bastard would make it back while a few of the regulars required an explanation. Larry obliged and conversed, leaning on the register the way his father would. Sometime after lunch, Mouthy Mary meekly slipped in, paused seeing Larry Jr. at the register and flitted a wave or swipe of hair across her swollen cheek. She gathered her groceries, tissue, and items fitting to her trade and placed them on the counter, letting her hair hang over her eyes. Larry rang up the items, catching glances at her and wondering if she still laughed. He told her the total and she slipped the dirty bills across the chipped counter. When he returned the change, he wished her a good day and smiled. Her lips flexed and crunched in some awkward fashion and he watched her turn, cradling her plastic bag as she slipped through the slit in the door.

The suffocating flow of people forced Larry to hire help. He mentioned the idea to his mother but she would not protest to such an intelligent business decision. He placed an ad on the door and, by the end of the day, he had hired a mannish woman whose tattoos had skin. Berta drove an Indian and cut her graying hair short and spiked and punched anyone who confused her for a lesbian. Her crass demeanor and gruff exterior terrified Larry so he hired her on the spot. Despite her rebellious looks, she worked hard and arrived on time. Three days a week, Larry was afforded a lunch and, often, he took his pack of Winston’s and headed down to the overgrown dock down the road and jumped the chain-link gate. He sat with his legs dangling inches above the water and blew smoke into the blue sky. He fought his mind backward but his thoughts remained stationary and he feared dementia had set into his youth. He worked harder and longer, sometimes sleeping on crates of Frito’s and Skittles in the backroom. His restless dreams startled him awake like baleful alarms and the haunting of words sped through his embattled skull. The next day, he took his mother to the hospital but stayed in the truck listening to the local station play Tubthumper until she returned and urged him to see his father.

He stayed home that night but suffered through visions. He sprang up from the bed and swept his hand across the desk, the items crashing against the wall. Among the clutter, he saw a folded paper, wrinkled at the edges next to his court date letter. He picked it up and saw it was the still-life he had saved from the fire. He sat soft upon the bed and stared at the picture, absorbed the detail, the essence behind the image and the words of Baudrillard returned to him in colors. Warmth surged through his body and he placed the drawing across his chest and he dreamt.

The next day, while Berta watched the store, Larry drove to the library. Passing through those doors, he imagined a procession of such joy bellow around him and he left with old friends bunched in his arms. His appetite consumed his free minutes and he read and read, the words soaked through him and surpassed the veins and imbued across his skin. The more he read, the more he knew and the aisles of the Tower Mart closed closer and closer around him. At night, he locked himself in his room and slaved under the bulb until his eyes rebelled against him. His mother called to him, Larry, are you alright? But his fingertips chafed from page to page to page. His thoughts moved again, forward, backward, words floating and shifting cataclysms like little beloveds he cherished. They soothed him. Sustained him. Spoke life. When he did stop, he left the folded paper between the pages in hopes of capturing the moment when he stopped reading.

He awoke and a silent voice spoke to him. He knew. He gathered his money clip and drove to the Tower Mart to unlock the store. Berta arrived, roaring on her Indian, and he told her he needed to run some errands today and she could close the store and he handed her the keys. Her rough eyes bore at the keys then Larry and murmured an alright. Larry hugged her and she recoiled then relaxed, her arms taut at her sides. He dropped off the books at the night drop and, taking his truck key, etched his initials into the glass door of his cathedral. The sun hung red in the sky and the presence of smoke filled his senses. He remembered the time they camped in Fort Bragg and how his father fished for trout in MacKerricher Lake with cubes of cheese and him handing the rod to Larry Jr. but the fish spit the hook and they laughed. This image carried him to the hospital and he passed through the doors and the white walls until he found himself standing in his father’s doorway.

He took that first step and sidled by his father’s head. In the hospital lights, he saw the sallowness of his cheeks and the robust features dwindle. He sat in an uncomfortable chair and lingered under the gaze and sounds of machines. He thought upon what he should say but when he attempted to speak, the words choked him. He paused, swallowed, and then the words poured from him. Words he held within him and only him. Words uncontained to pages, uncontained to mouths. He spoke his dreams, his failures, he told his father how at times he hated that he was his son but knew the blood in his veins made him. He thanked him for his sacrifice for all dreams cannot be fulfilled or there would be no dreams. He felt the single drop slide down his cheek and he grabbed his father’s cold hand and squeezed his love. Then he felt that callous hand squeeze back and he did not want to let go but he knew he must. He thanked him again and leaned forward and kissed his father’s forehead. And he left.

After dropping the truck off at home, he headed for Main Street with the picture folded into his pocket. He walked hand out, seeking among the sirens and smoke around him. A pickup hauling dirt pulled over and a bony man with a crooked nose asked where to? Larry smiled and said anywhere. He hopped in, feet crunching chip bags, and slammed the dust from the door as the truck barreled toward Highway 29. Fire engines zoomed toward the hills and their call echoed across the valley, across the waters. They reached the highway and sped onward.

Larry stared out the window, familiar faces in the shadows passed. On the horizons, dancing atop the hills, the fire waved toward him and he saw the faces of his life blazing in the flame, all calling for him but he would not listen.



This is the final story of my collection THE HILLS ON ALL SIDES. Previous stories from this collection published in Spillwords are ‘Badon-napoti‘, ‘Paper Ashes‘, and ‘Lower Lights

Latest posts by N.T. McQueen (see all)