UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Like dust, sadness gathers in Crates' Salvage Yard as it gathers in the city dump, and as it gathers during happy hour at the Sugar Shack, along whose grimy
"You gonna nurse that beer back to health, Florence Nightingale?" Jake says to the whimpering man, returning with Crates' change. He pours another shot.
The whimperer stares at Jake. He squeezes the plastic cup, splashing beer on the bar and his sleeve. "See what you made me do?" He crushes the empty cup and swabs his mouth with the dry cuff. White foam clings to his salt and vinegar mustache. He burps and says, "Keep the beers coming."
"You're cut off." Jake hurls the plastic cup in the trashcan.
"One more can't hurt him," Crates says.
"Yeah, the night's still young," the whimperer says.
"That's the way you like it, huh?" Jake squints at Crates, draws another beer, and slaps the plastic cup on the bar. "This one's your last."
Crates glances at the NFL highlights on ESPN before settling back into his vacant stare, the sadness of the near empty bar a companion against his house's heavy silence, a silence he only confronts after several stiff drinks, and then only as long as the night is dark.
"You be here for the Super Bowl this Sunday?" Jake asks.
"Don't know the date. All I know is the Steelers are gonna spank those Seahawks."
"Gotta be the fifth, since today's January thirty-first," Crates says.
"No use talking to you." Jake looks at the whimperer.
A model of failed restraint, the whimperer leans against the back of his stool, flaky chin planted on chest, entire body heaving. He stands, shoves his stool backwards with a squeak, and stares at his hands still planted on the bar top. He heads to the men's room. The door nearly flies off the hinges.
"Don't be coming to his rescue," Jake says. "If you weren't my best customer, I'd boot you outta here."
Crates takes another shot of whiskey.
"You know who that drunk is?" Jake asks.
"Phil Mecklenburg." When Crates shows no reaction, he continues, "The high school band director."
Crates raises his eyebrows.
"Don't you watch TV?"
"My set collects dust."
"That sicko got fired. He was having an affair with his student. A fifteen-year-old girl."
The men's room door swings open again. Out stumbles a hiccupping Mecklenburg, tie unknotted and hanging like a noose around his neck. He guzzles the beer then shoves one arm into the sleeve of his forest green coat, toppling the stool. He runs his hand through thinning hair and rubs his face with a downward stroke, before starting to the door.
"Hey," Jake shouts. "You haven't paid yet."
Mecklenburg continues across the dingy tile floor.
"I got the tab," Crates says.
Crates pushes his last twenty toward Jake. "And a final shot of whiskey."
Jake shakes his head while sliding Crates' cash off the bar. He wipes up Mecklenburg's many spills then saunters around to pick up the stool. Crates frowns at the two dollars on the bar.
***A few snowflakes flutter in the late afternoon's long shadows. Crates approaches the red AMC Eagle idling in the empty lot beside the Sugar Shack. The car's hood is spray-painted with the word "pervert". Nothing remains of the driver's side window, save the gummy shards of safety glass clinging to the frame. Mecklenburg sits, white-knuckling the steering wheel, exhaling in puffs. Capillaries form a delicate web on his cheeks. He stares out the windshield as Crates sits in the passenger seat. Despite running full blast, the heater struggles against the cold, circulating the stale odor of convenience store coffee. The thin-boned Crates unzips his loose jacket enough to slip a hand into the breast pocket for the flask of Jim Beam. He runs gloveless fingers across the inscription.
"Celebrating Four Happy Years of Marriage."
"January 31, 1992"
He takes a pull, looks again at the flask before handing it to Mecklenburg.
"You could use something stiffer than those Mickey Mouse beers you were drinking at the Shack."
Mecklenburg sucks on the flask. He returns it to Crates, looking at him with bloodshot eyes.
"Believe it or not, but I've got an Eagle in my salvage yard," Crates says. "Stop by tomorrow. I'll set you up with a new door and we'll do something about this hood."
"Don't pay Jake too much mind. He's been bitter since the Steelers lost the Super Bowl in ninety-six."
"Don't try to make me feel better," Mecklenburg says.
Outside, two teenage lovers walk hand-in-hand. The girl smiles, teeth gleaming and eyes nearly shut. The boy wraps his arm around the girl and guides her away from the shabby Eagle, nodding at her continuous conversation. Crates stares at them, and says, "Enjoy it while it lasts."
"Have you ever been in love?" Mecklenburg asks.
"Would you do anything for her?"
"I would have."
"Did her parents hate you?"
"Did she cost you your job?"
"Not at first."
"Did she ruin your life?"
"Did she smell of the purest vanilla?"
"Then you wouldn't understand my problems," Mecklenburg says. Despite the frantic heater, ice crystals have begun to creep down the windshield.
"Is the story on the news true?" Crates asks.
"The news makes me out to be a monster."
"So it's a lie?"
"It's not true," Mecklenburg says. "Sure, she stayed after class, asked questions, wanted help with her fingering and scales. She'd come blinking those eyelashes at me, smelling of vanilla. But she came on to me. She wrote me notes every day that prove it."
"Prove what?" Crates asks.
"She came on to me."
"You have letters?"
"Of course," Mecklenburg says. "I kept them in a box, a pirate's treasure chest."
"Why not show the letters to your boss?"
Mecklenburg stares straight at Crates. His eyebrows raise, as if behind that tight stretch of skin, there is a glimmer of thought. "I can't."
"It's worth a try," Crates says. "What's the worst they could do? Fire you?"
"My mother threw the box away."
The snow has begun to cover the asphalt, piling on the power lines, falling in endless specks. It filters through the broken window, dusting Mecklenburg from shoulder to fingertip.
***Fine snow clings to the sign, which rattles in the breeze. Red letters rusting around the edges read, "City Dump: No Trespassing By Order of Rupshire City Council." To Crates the dump is an admission of defeat. At least at the salvage yard he tries to make the most of it, salvage what he can and sell the rest for scrap. But the dump is a dead end. The organic matter returns to the earth, but everything else—caustic chemicals, metal casings, plastic containers—sinks beneath the weight of each passing day. The refuse builds up until it forces the site to close down. But the trash never stops piling up. It's just shipped to another valley landfill.
Crates boosts Mecklenburg over the fence. His penny loafers kick at the empty air until his toes get a purchase on the chain link. He snags his pants and rips them from ankle to ass, tumbles to the other side, smashing snow into mud. Dirty and disheveled, he looks like a scavenging vagrant. Or a rat striking out for food. He scans the horizon. Snow stretches toward the ridge. Nothing besides the sign and the stench announces the existence of garbage. Crates hops the fence and they both climb the hill that opens onto a vast swamp of waste. No snow gathers on the landfill for the heat. Visible fumes rise from the expanse of trash scattered with television sets, folding chairs, and damp newspapers returning to pulp.
"We're here," Mecklenburg says. "Now what do you expect?"
"Find those letters." Crates knows the discarded letters can't be found. But experience has taught him that grief sucks dry every vein. Hope is a beacon brighter than a missed chance.
"If I can't find them?"
"At least you tried."
Mecklenburg blocks the methane stench with a scarf tied like a bandit's over his nose and tears across the landfill's perimeter. His footfalls pad over Tupperware, mixing bowls, boxes of papers, magazines bloated, assorted receipts, through baby dolls, video games, and action figures, by maggoty meat and crushed jugs of milk, past raggedy arm chairs, badminton rackets, and mounds of ooze mashed into purple-gray stink.
Crates slugs the whiskey and this time it hits like a charge of buckshot. It weighs him down, drapes a woozy veil between his senses and the biting chill. There comes a turning point in every binge when you tip back the drink that hurtles you over the edge. The fire scorches the throat and the poison burns the stomach lining. Crates rubs his fingers along the flask's engraving. Clarice. Another shot and in the distance he sees a woman's head sticking out of the garbage, as if she has sunk to her ears. He approaches slowly, expecting her to breath, or yell, or struggle against the dead weight. It is only a matter of time before she drowns. He calls to her. When she fails to respond, he bounds across the junk.
Not until Crates stands over her does he realize that it isn't a woman at all, but a discarded mannequin head. He pries it loose and carries it back to the couch. The mannequin's body, missing an arm, lies nearby. With red, stinging hands, he drags the body to the couch, where he fastens it to the head. He finds a three-legged stool for an end table. On it he places an overturned hubcap, a makeshift candy bowl serving oily bolts, springs, and plastic tabs popped from a keyboard. A damp refrigerator box sits before the couch as a coffee table. A snapped curtain rod stuffed into a molding juice pitcher makes an elegant bouquet.
***The dozing Crates is unmoved by Mecklenburg's yelling, "I found it," while holding a latched box in one hand, spilling light from his emergency flashlight. Mecklenburg kicks Crates, whose eyes are still closed when the flask falls from his loose grip. His skull throbs, as he lifts his head slowly, ear frozen to plastic. A presence, not Mecklenburg's, lingers in the space between heartbeats. Beside him on the couch sits the mannequin wearing a ripped summer dress. He promises himself not to drink any more whiskey, at least not until he gets home.
"I found it," Mecklenburg says, standing between Crates and a television with a burst tube and wires dangling from the back. "Let's take these letters to Superintendent North."
Mecklenburg holds a plastic box covered in coffee grounds and sludge. The cheap box has been fashioned after a pirate's treasure chest, complete with fake pine paneling and an aluminum lock.
"That's the treasure chest?" Crates rubs his eyes.
"I had to find something with the dignity to match her letters."
Delicate snow powders the television, but melts into the garbage on the ground. An old issue of People sits on the three-legged end table. A lamp with a torn shade and no bulb stands over the disintegrating domestic scene. The mannequin lies stiff as a two-by-four on the couch. Beside her a dusting of snow covers Crates' flask, filling in the engraving, blotting out Clarice's name.
***The curtains in Superintendent North's living room window are not drawn. Light from the television flickers against the windowpane, but from Crates' spot on the sidewalk, knee-deep in snow, the family photos are too distant to make out. North answers the door wearing a buttoned cardigan and gold-rimmed glasses. He looks nervous at first, unsurprising since he opened the door to a man whose face is mud-spattered, whose coat sleeve is ripped at the shoulder exposing white fluff, a man who holds a pirate's treasure chest. But, the whiskey-soaked loiterer is just the disgraced band director. North gives a slight, professional smile.
Mecklenburg grips the treasure chest between bony hands. In the porch light, it glistens. From the sidewalk it looks like a real treasure chest. Crates reaches for the flask, but stops. He smiles, allows himself to believe he's done a good deed.
The men exchange words inaudible to Crates, who wants to be with the family in the warm house, drinking hot cocoa, wearing flannel pajamas, the television burning like a fireplace.
North steps onto the cold concrete porch in his slippers, pulling the door closed behind him, propping open the screen door with one toe. A sudden seriousness passes over his face.
Mecklenburg grabs North tightly by the shoulder, pressing the box into his chest. He lunges his ratty nose so close that North's glasses fogs over.
North pulls out of Mecklenburg's grip, crossing his arms. A gold-banded watch slides down his wrist.
Crates shifts his weight from one leg to another. It's cold and he can no longer feel his toes.
Mecklenburg unzips his coat and reaches down the unbuttoned collar of his shirt, pulls out an aluminum key tied to a yellow satin strand. He inserts the key into the lock and turns it. Nothing. He wiggles it furiously, but the box remains locked. His arms tense up. He throws the box to the ground, breaking the lid. No letters. Just plastic jewelry, a pink My Little Pony, a roll of Smarties.
North shuts the door behind him.
The deadbolt clicks. Mecklenburg sits on the cold concrete steps. He doesn't sob, but his bottom lip quivers as the open treasure chest fills with snow.
***The dusting that had covered Crates in the city dump has grown thick and brilliant in the orange glow. Street lamps melt like embers into the falling snow. Two blocks into the walk home and he is guided only by instinct. No landmarks remain, as the entire town has dissolved into white powder. Tiny flakes swarm in the distance. He stumbles to a corner, holds out his freezing hands until they strike a street sign and shake it loose of snow, barely enough light to see Evergreen Lane, Sedgewick Street. No car tracks in the road. The yellow line that divides the lanes has disappeared. Just white on white. The snow clings to his pant cuffs, weighs down his knees; his aching legs grind like rusted gears. His spleen fires splinters through the bloodstream, each step another stab to the abdomen.
He falls into the powdered snow.
Waves of new flakes cover him.
The rim of snow looks black from beneath. The rectangle of sky is the dull white of a dying flashlight shimmering through a ghost. The flakes continue to patter on his chapped red hands and numb cheeks. Lying flat on his back, he unzips his jacket and slides in his hand. Nothing. He slaps his chest with both hands, pats the pockets on his pants, but the flask is nowhere. He considers trudging back to Superintendent North's house, to retrace his steps and find the flask. Tomorrow. A moment longer risks burying his remains until the spring thaw. With difficulty he rocks into a seated position. A battle with balance and he's on his feet.
He crosses the Poe Bridge over the frozen Rupshire River. On the other side stands the Harris Spool Factory. He can't see the bashed-in windows with carbon burn marks around the frames. Each breath forms a white cloud around Crates' head, dragging him deeper into the horizonless white.
An endless half-mile and he hits a fence. His sodium arc lamp hovers as a beacon behind chain links. The car frames are puffy white lumps in the snow. He clings to the fence and follows it around to his house. His heart flutters as he sees the porch light's pale halo. For a moment he thinks she is waiting for him. The front steps are covered, but the snow doesn't drift onto the covered porch. No snow gathers in the doorway. He slips the key in the lock and tracks snow across the threadbare carpet into the kitchen. He finds an orange Tupperware cup, fights his way through boxes of macaroni and cheese, until he finds an empty bottle of Jim Beam. Drinkless, he enters the living room, where the television collects dust.
He strikes a match to light a candle, which he places in the shrine. The candle flickers against many pictures, most of Clarice, some with him. They are black and white and color, a couple curl at the edges. One yellowed Polaroid with schoolteacher script reads "Christmas '89." The picture shows a dashing young Crates wearing a bushy mustache, a wide smile, and a double-breasted suit with his arm around a laughing Clarice. In another, she is sitting beneath a willow tree in a green summer dress and straw hat. Crates occupies a thatched chair, staring at the shrine. A gust of wind blows the front door open. He looks back, but only wisps of snow burst through the door. A small dune piles inside the doorway.
Come spring, soot channels will slice the snow and clear the way for crocuses. Water will drip from gutters, cut streams along dirty windshields, and form breeding pools for tadpoles. The nice weather will drive people out of doors and bring a steady stream of customers to Crates Salvage. They will search for hubcaps, alternators, demolition derby clunkers. Winter's driving blizzard will flicker and fade in their memories. The snow will have melted. But every snowflake's center holds a fleck of dust. That waterdust layers grime over everything once silent and white.
William Haas eats, breathes, and bikes in Portland, Oregon
© 2008 Underground Voices