…summer day and mild, mild weather, a day like no other, a day of sun and warmth, of swimming, friends and beer, a day of just-up corn stolen from the field above the quarry, cobs wrapped in mud, roasted in fire-ash, butter rubbed into the char till it dripped down the fingers.
Later, black clouds rolled across the green-forever. A thunder-anvil filled the world above with miles-high darkness and the smell of how a penny tasted. Late day rain cleared the midsummer heat and brought a chill before the night, a crash-down bang, beauty and wonder, a wonder at the fury of it all, a bombardment, personal, from God in heaven to Chris Harp from out Haul Road, Dolph Station, Texas. As they clamored up the slope, down-rushing mud washed the earth from beneath their feet and hands and they all slid back to the shelf above the water below. Trapped and laughing. At the next down flash and bang, the girls, Lord bless them, Sally Wayne, Jaycee Dogton, Sarah Gonzales, Winnie Border, wriggled, squealing, beneath the blankets. Trapped! So what the hell? Chris dove into the water. Height of the storm, lightning strikes and thunder coming flash/bam and down he dives.
He cleaved deep water, down to where the world was cold and green and the thunder pressed his whole body with terrible immediacy. Little fishies in a mass, shuddered, turned round by regiments.
The guys, Tex Acre, Billy Madeira, Marty Mundt, dove in after. Let them follow, let them not. This was for him, his perfect day, all a game, not for forever. Forever? Hell, forever was inside him, Chris Harp. He carried forever in his every grunt and drip.
Later, with no expectation, Jaycee Dogton was under the blanket with him, in his space and he in her, in her good and sweet, long and quiet so not to be heard, and wholly without preparation. And ah, the smell of sweat and wool and them.
Later, when they hit the diner, the day begins to bleed away. They still roll with joy. When they order, a dozen voices call; as they wait, they rock the eyes of the Sunday folk who turn Methodist stares upon them. Sure they’re the center of attention. And, as this is a dream of perfection, he was the center of that center. They bit old Eulie’s ass, they surely did, but even she smiles as she takes their orders, brings the grub. Had to love them, Chris Harp and friends, Lords of the Earth, holders of forever!
By the window, Chris watches night seep from the trees that fence the joint. Texas night shines the rainslick macadam in the lot. Their pickup kicks back orange glitter from sodium lights.
And as always on the road, walking from nowhere, going who knew where, barefoot, white hair flying ahead, shirt, open, flapping, ragged jeans gray with dust, there comes Walkin’ Will, the Old Guy. Grandpa’d told of Will from down in ’34, told of Walkin’ Will who walked the land preaching judgment at the end of times, who shouts out scripture and who takes offered rides on truck or wagon, then somewhere, nowhere, cries, “God says, walk here!” and out he leaps to walk wherever, down a road, into the fields… Now here he comes, same one, same as always. Looking back at those left behind he calls, “You! Drink, you! Drink for the thirst to come!”
Chris watches. Beneath the table, Jaycee Dogton takes his hand. Day has bled to memories, beer and thunder, chill water, butter, corn, and her. And with that memory, his final convulsion and the tingle as he flows from himself into Jaycee and into the world, the perfect day becomes one more dirty morning and night is gone with the dream.
And there lay Chris Harp: dirty little man of more than middle years, and those years hidden unto his own-damnself, he waked into a dark and ugly morning, as always. He breathed stench. Everywhere, the reek of mold and ash, of long-drowned fire and rust, of rotted teeth and unwashed pit and crotch, his and hundreds more. One bunk above, the One-eyed Kid from Nowhere still cut wood with the rest of the rink.
For seconds Chris held the dream. When he shoved it away, time it was to rise, shinny down the bunks and be.
Johnny’s Icehouse flop was cold. He shivered into shirt and pants, wrapped the static chain around his waist, thin metal, fine and supple as yarn, let it curl in his pocket with his breathing silks. His jacket was balled beneath the blanket. Leather, fur trimmed, it had come all the way on the Walk. In the pocket, his cell. He stroked dead plastic, touched the numbers of home.
He shook his boots over the edge, wagged his socks and threads. Let floormen worry about stray critters, he thought. Slipped into his socks. The Old Guy’s socks! “Remember me,” the Old Guy said (A couple months ago, was that all?), said before he gave his all to the Vendateria. The socks were warm, a little stiff. Chris wiggled his toes. No holes. Good tubes, tight wove, thick.
“They’re new,” the Old Guy’d said.
New they was. By some miracle, bag-new. Survivors of The Day, the socks—a miracle of all the days between The Day and the Old Guy’s finding of them—found in plastic, three pairs full.
“Chicago’s gone but my socks survive. Found outta that mess below the collapsed ceiling, mixed they was with skates, pucks, and bust-up junk from Gunzo’s pro shop at Johnnie’s. In the blastshadow the place was. I believe Sears’s’ Tower saved them socks!” The Old Guy pressed his socks into Chris’s hands. “Remember me. My name,” he said.
Chris kept the socks close. Thank you Sears Roebuck and all things in between. Thank you, Old Guy. Never was no good with names. Sorry. Socks were pure worth. Chris had his own worth, too. He still ate thistle, but was that/close to the Boss table. That/close. He’d get there. Can’s bottom, maybe, but something from the can at least, a little fat, a bit of…
Fuck you Harp, Chris told himself, there’s this day to do. And the next and so it would go until he heard, “Chris Harp. Rise.” Then he’d move on up (“…to that de-luxe apartment in the sky-y-y!” What the hell was that from? What? Cripes, so much gone). If he didn’t rise to the Boss table, well hell, tumbleweed sprout—called thistle in Texas—stayed in him, stayed down anyway, gave him juice to run on. Not everyone was that lucky.
Time to motivate. Early worm gets top weed.
Chris smacked the slats above him. The Kid’s snores gurgled before turning to tears. What the hell? The Kid? What’s his name? Worth plain nothing and that was fact. Chris wondered why the Boss…
No. Shut down that Goddamn plink. He did not wonder why-the-Boss anything.
Down the pole went Chris, by the Mex, past Fireman Bill and the Drooler. He hit floor where tucked last night’s TV Johnny, snoozing still. A celebrity and still on the floors. Lost: the series premiere this Johnny’d been last night. Maybe Chris’d be TV John tonight. He was a tolerable Simpsons but no one—not a one!—was My Name Is Earl like Christian Harp. Now that was one ace shitload of worth.
Watch your hiddens, Harp. Damn hiddens kill.
Gray light shafted through the roof thirty feet above. It lay busted on snoring lumps that quivered and farted across the floor of the rink. Time to move. There’d be shadow today. The Long Season was ending, Boss had said. So there it was. Sky is clearing, five-year Winter verging on Spring.
Then earth returns, bears fruit and…
…and enough of that!
In the lobby, more light knifed through the curving wall and ceiling. For a second he watched the beams crawl. They licked floor, folded over trophy cases, caught the once-glassed pictures of men on ice. One hell of a spot must have been the Icehouse lobby back in the day before The Day.
Fuckit. He skittered, crunching glass and beams of dirty light that cut through pulver-dust. It was a spooked out place—though none spoke of spooks or living dead. “Ain’t no living dead,” Boss had said. Still, sometimes, late, dragging back from a worth-hunt—be it folly or for the Boss—Chris felt shivers in the neckhair. Just wall crackles or creeping skitters among shards and busted brick, sure-sure. But when shadows flickered in tallow flame, yeah, he scooted, ahead of thoughts of Walkin’ Will barefooting the busted earth. Them nights, Chris shinnied to his bunk, wriggled down beneath his blanket like a girl and let the snoring ease him…
Goddamn! Plinking again!
The tin sheet over the doorway thundered as he wiggled into morning. Light cut through the stumps of buildings, Wetward. And there! His shadow, a sun-shade falling through the dust. It dragged westward from his feet, toward the Outskirts and long-gone ’burbs. He felt like dancing his shadow. He did not. And there was the gong, the always and forever bong-bong, bong-bong, distant, tolling out of the Wet. One day he’d like to…
No-no, not his business, them bongs. Still he wondered, in day, night, wind, or none, bong-bong, bong-bong.
Even in light the Icehouse was a black mass, bomb-baked brick swiped gray with pulver. A bob-wire path led, there to the Center. The Boss decreed it: a path of prongs to keep you straight in deep dark, in swirling dust or driving snow. This morning, even poles and wire threw down shadow. They made a choppy lane a hundred yards to the Center. Chris could barely see it now, in the pitch, but it was out there, more char-black brick, more sheet tin, more gray, the forever dust here at world’s-end.
Ditch that, duster, he told himself. He gripped a bob to punish him. Best not plink upon that “World’s End” shit, Harp! The prong dug flesh down to the blood! Boss hears discouraging word, spies an eye in downcast plinks, and Boss will lunch upon said eye and that for him who spoke or plinked it.
A sudden wind from the Wet raised a wraith. A little’n. Vaporized steel, pulverized brick, flour-fine cement, wee shards of beast- and folk-bone raised from the earth, twisted skyward, caught light, reared three, four hundred feet—who could tell? Dusted wind caught hollows in downed walls and busted buildings; it sheared over sheet tin corners to raise a reedy howl. The Icehouse faded. The Center was gone. The wraith matured from pup to wolf like/that. Out of the moan came a crackle. The Boss’s bob-wire fence flickered. Starry static snapped electric blue on every prong and post. Chris wrapped his face in a breathing silk, drew cleaner breath. He dropped his static chain down his leg to trail and drain electric fire into the dust.
And here comes Lenny.
And there Lenny came, limping, leading with his shoulder, head, and elbow, out of the wraith. And there Lenny went, gimping the other way from breakfast, mumbling.
Lenny had smoke again. What was it about that old Kicker? Son of a bitch could flop in a can of turd and come up smoking! Lenny’d been somewhere, not here, two days back. Doing Boss bidding, something Chris would not ask about and did not need to know, no sir. Anyways, since he’s back, Lenny’s worth is up, up, up. Up with the Boss, up with the Kickmen and the Bits—even soft and fragrant Bits glommed onto gimpy Len, begged to suck him dry or be just his own Little Bit for the night. With everyone, Lenny’s worth is through the clouds.
Now, he’s shoving wind, Chris realized. “How’s morning thistle, Len?” Chris hollered against the wind, letting pulver flake sneak by his silk, suck up his nose, scour his eyes.
Lenny swatted the question back at Chris and put his ass to the wind. “I ain’t ate!”
A Boss job, sure. “What! Haven’t had your breakfast, Len?” Chris shouted.
Lenny shuffled sidewise, plinkage filled with mumbles and murder. “Fuck no, ain’t ate yet.”
Enough. The man’s doing for the Boss. Son of a bitch’ll be back with more weed and… “Hey, Len. Len, I gottcher back,” Chris called above the moan.
Lenny’s limp. Good and faithful kicker he once was, Lenny took a bolt from the Wet. Who knew? From a Niggertown kink, from ’Tweeners, from somedamnone, but he took it for the Boss! Good Lenny. Boss himself dug it out of Lenny’s thigh, first chance he had! Chris helped a little. He’d flopped across, held down the big lug’s bottom parts so Len would not disgrace himself in jumps and kicks, not jolt the procedure or the Boss.
A good kicker before that bolt, Lenny’d snap a neck like/that! One windmill twirl from standing still and crack! A thing to see!
The bolt was rusted rebar, probably shot from a leaf-spring cross’. Not dangerous eventually. Might have been a poison bolt or one soaked in sick but it healed. Still, his left leg, his kicking leg, was fucked. So Lenny now cannot kick. He is slow coming when called and is certainly not the kicker he was. Being too damn dumb to admin others, his worth is seriously shit-lined. So now the presh is on. “Deliver or get you gone!” the Boss might have said. “Thanks for taking that bolt, old Len, just the same…”
But he sure could dip that smoke! And smoke was worth!
“I’ll dip grunts for you, okay Len? Be back soon, yeah?” Without waiting for a “sure-sure” or “fuck y’self,” Chris dodged the slanting shove of the wraith wind and grabbed the Gimper’s tin, forgetting—
…a whack-crack static shot and—
…Chris was down hard. His drag-chain saved him the worst of it, but a snap-slap arced from Lenny’s plate to Chris’s mitt, walloped like the old kicker might have done himself and Chris, who should have known, was down. An old Dust-Walker like him!
Lenny leaned against the wind and appreciated the moment. He laughed and laughed. He shook his paw—he’d caught a clout of static, too—but Chris’s flop was just that damn funny and worth a tingling mitt.
Rising from the dirt, Chris joined, laughed at his own damnself. Better, Chris figured, take a clout offering a worthy thing. And he’d pry smoke from the old kicker. Sure.
Then Lenny stopped and stared. He’s thinking, ‘What’s this? He gets my thistle, saves me space, and what’s it cost me?’ Chris almost smelled Lenny’s brain working.
“Nice,” Lenny said, not looking at Chris, his stare fixed on the rising beauty of morning.
Len’s looking at light and don’t mind hunger, Chris realized. Chris peeked. Sun-up was making dustbows, the color refracted from particulates wilding in the air. It was all so damn pretty! Old Lenny! Then it was done. Strands of wispy gray hair whipped Lenny’s face and he was off, a galloping limp. Boss work.
“Sure-sure.” The wind tossed Lenny’s words to Chris. “I’m over the Jordan! Back in no time!”
Chris waved Lenny’s tin above his head.
The Jordan? What the hell’s the Boss doing with the old stadium, now taboo, off limits, stay out, this means you? Well, huh?
Chris dug another bob into his hand. None of your business, he told himself.
Another couple tons of pulverized city kicked high and hung ’round whilst sunbeams split the clouds. A couple strakes of light reddened, then goldened the Goddamn air. Shit, it was damn near pretty. Until you wanted to breathe.
Chris snugged silk across his nose. Yeah. The Long Season was ending.
The Boiler ladled out the grunts. “Salt your thistle, Dusty,” he said. “Sparse picking so we’re stretchin’ with don’t-ask-won’t tell!” Paste gray tumbleweed stew hit Chris’s tin like mealy buckshot.
“Cheer up, brother. See the light?” Chris slinked his smiley words by the Boiler’s shaking head. “Season’s ending. Boss says.”
“Feed me Boss stuff. Moveit!” The line growled with late snoozers and the shiftless. “C’mon, c’mon. Next!” Boiler yelled.
Chris lay down Lenny’s tray. “For Len.”
The Boiler squeezed his eye on Chris. The line grumbled all the way downsteps into the World.
“Hear it, brother!” Chris leaned near the Boiler’s ear stump. “Lenny’s on a run.” He pitched his voice just so. “Jordan’s House!” as though he knew what! “Time he’s back,” he waggled his thumb at the growlers, “this’ll be done-’fer.”
“Yeah?” Boiler said.
“You getting suck, ain’t you, Harp?”
“I hope to and that’s honest!”
The eye squinted. “You let the Boss to know I’m serving twice-to-one here and tomorrow you go beg. Tomorrow and tomorrow forever-more you beg!” A slop of stew hit Lenny’s tin. “And I take some suck sticks.” He held up a three-fingered hand. “For risk.”
“Three sticks. Done.”
“Full hand’s five!” Boiler yelled.
“Five then! Absolute!”
“And because I’m so pretty!” The Boiler opened mouth and laughed.
Burnups who’d got better were not pretty: flash-flesh, scarred white, bald, a wee black hole where once an eye had peeped. Laughing made it worse. Least he could cook. Saved Boiler from turning ’Tweener.
Chris found a sit to eat his tumbleweed upon. The thistle needed salt indeed, more salt. Never salt enough.
“You.” The Boss voice came over the bent necks in the Round Room where Chris ate. Not a shout. No need. “You,” meant Chris, meant now.
Goddamn! Chris downed his spoon and scurried, let his breakfast to the tender care of Whitey, the One-eyed Kid from the rack above him. Whitey’d care for, touch neither his nor Lenny’s grub, not for himself nor give anyone else taste, touch, or smell. Whitey needed worth.
“Yeah, Boss?” Chris twitched. His body wanted to get doing, doing whatever.
“You need some work, my man.”
He surely did and glad to have it too. Chris was middle pole. Stuck. Another twitch would help.
“Got you a task. Think you’re up for it.”
“Didn’t ask, Duster. You’re going to the Wet. You get yourself out to the Heath and Hollows and see a man. Señor Temoco. He’ll have something for you.
“Wait! The something will be a box.”
“Small box.” The Boss showed him. A foot by a foot by a foot.
“You’ll be careful with that box.”
“You’ll not open, bounce, drop, or break it.”
“No I won’t!”
“Wait! Cripes. You’ll bear it back like it holds a Boomer. A big bad Boomer!
“You’ll treat it like your only pair of balls.”
“’Cause it will be.”
“You’ll need trade for this box. You draw you some goods.”
The Boss and Chris let that hang dust.
“Yes. Okay. Mm.” Sees me sweat, feels me shake, knows I’m…
“What’s done with the goods, here to there, that’s your lookout.”
“Just… Cripes, I’ll nail your dick to a wall you start hauling before I give you leave! Just make sure the goods is fresh upon delivery. It’s for sure Señor Temoco will want fresh for this most valuable box.”
“And how will you know Señor Temoco?”
“I’ll.” He was nodding but that was all Chris had. Some eye passed between the Boss and Chris. Cripes. He’s having fun.
“You will know Señor Temoco by his bearing.”
“His bearing. Yes.” This time he waited. The Boss’s look? Could have been friendly, might have been a smile, could have been pity, never could tell. You also never took for granted. And the Boss never pitied, so that was out.
“And you’ll do what when you get the… what is it again?”
“Box. This big. I bring it to you.”
“And you look.”
“Hell I do. I treat it like my nuts.”
“And you wonder what it is?”
Chris blinked twice. “You’ll tell me if I need to know.”
“Okay, Duster. Haul.”
Chris lit out, spring-shot past his bench in the round room. Cripes, cripes, cripes. There was Whitey and what was left of morning grunts, his and Lenny’s. Cripes.
“You grip that grub, Whitey.” He gave the kid a plinking eye. “You give it all to Lenny and you let him know it’s thanks to me he’s eating. Got it?”
“Yeah!” the Kid said. “From you. And you…?”
“Are working Boss stuff.”
And Chris was down the torch-lit stairwell, tallow-black smoke spinning in the suck, rising to the busted roof.
…to the Vendateria. Early. Good.