Short Stories

In the Valley by Michael A. McLellan

1

The child was wearing a collar, like a dog. The attached leash was fashioned from some sort of braided rope. It dragged on the broken and potholed asphalt between her and one of the nine men who walked several feet ahead. Her hands were tied in front of her. She moved with her head down, keeping perfect pace with the men. The distance between them never changed, the slack in the rope never tightened. Her no-color hair hung to her waist in filthy wet clumps. She was dressed in what appeared to be a tattered bathrobe. It might have been pink, once. Her feet were bare.

She wasn’t his daughter, of course. He knew that.

He lowered the binoculars and watched as the group faded into the distance. The landscape around the road was flat and featureless; long abandoned fields littered with the decomposing detritus of a corrupted city. The quickly westering sun was nothing more than a lighter spot in a sky the color of river mud.

They would camp soon. He would move closer then.

           2

Ian had been following the group for six days. Seeing the girl awakened some long buried memory; something hideous and bloated, secretly festering within the deepest reaches of his mind. He was compelled to follow her. He watched their progress through his binoculars, never getting closer than half a mile. He knew if  they spotted him, they’d kill him. A part of him wished for it.

At first there had been another child, a boy. He was younger than the girl, maybe eight-years-old. The boy followed along beside the girl without a leash to restrain him. Sometimes he reached out and held her bound hands. Often he fell behind, and the girl would stop and look after him until her leash was pulled tight, and she was forced to continue forward. Once, she resisted. The man on the other end of the leash turned and gave the leash an abrupt pull. The girl’s head snapped back and she was yanked forward, where she fell and landed face first on the road. The man strode back and unceremoniously lifted her to her feet. The boy he ignored.

On Ian’s third day following , the group awoke early and struck out without the boy. Ian watched as they emerged from the overturned tractor trailer they’d slept in, some pausing to take a piss or squat for a shit, while others readied their firearms and what gear they carried. Ian waited until they were out of sight before walking up the road to the trailer. There was no sign of the boy.

After some searching, Ian found him in a ditch off the road’s shoulder. He was lying half-submerged in the shallow water, naked, his glazed eyes staring sightlessly skyward. Up close, Ian could see how emaciated he was; his thin and nearly translucent skin stretched so tightly over his jaw and cheekbones that he appeared mummy-like. He’s well out of it, Ian thought, as he turned and walked back to the road. He wondered vaguely why they hadn’t eaten him.

There was the remains of a city in the distance. Sacramento. Likely where the group was heading, he surmised. Ian made a point to steer clear of the larger cities, for the most part. There was nothing in them but suffering and death. He looked down at a watery yellow pile of shit left behind by the men. There were thin runnels of blood in it. Ian hoped it was terminal.

He set the Mossburg twelve-gauge on the trailer’s bumper and cinched the oft repaired straps of his backpack a little tighter. He gazed at the shotgun for a long moment. It’s mute muzzle ready to bellow blue fire at the slightest whim of it’s wielder. He recalled the first weeks after; weapons seemed to be the only things not in short supply. Now, twenty-five years later, (or possibly twenty-six), they were still plentiful. Shouldering the twelve-gauge, he scanned the road for the path of least resistance through the maze of hulking automobile carcasses and washed-out road. Still unsure why he was shadowing the men and their captive, he walked slowly, almost leisurely, toward his destiny.

 

Ian splashed through the supermarket parking lot to his Prius, fishing his keys out of his pocket on the way. He thumbed the key-fob, threw open the door and ducked inside. Angry and out of breath, he reached down into the door compartment and grabbed the handful of fast food napkins he kept there. He dried his face and soaked up as much water from his hair as he could. He coughed harshly and hocked up a clump of sticky phlegm, which he spit out onto the wet tarmac after cracking open the door. It was the ash, they said. There was no ash now, though. At least not the floating-in-the air kind. Now it was just in the rain. He lowered the visor and looked in the mirror. A sooty streak ran from his forehead to his chin. He wiped at it with the clump of soaked and disintegrating napkins. Little bits of the off-white paper stuck in his weeks-long growth of beard. He gazed out through the quickly fogging window. In less than two weeks, every single store within a twenty mile radius had been completely picked clean. There were several people standing expectantly in front of the supermarket’s doors, as if someone inside was suddenly going to turn on the lights and welcome them in. Idiots, he thought. But at least they were smart enough to stand under the store’s awning. Another man, dressed only in a tee shirt and running shorts, was standing in the middle of the parking lot, about twenty feet away from Ian’s Toyota. Stock still, he was staring up at the big blue King’s Market sign. He looked vaguely familiar. Ian wiped at the window with the sleeve of his jacket. The man slowly turned his head and stared at him questioningly. Water ran from tip of his nose in a torrent. Ian stared back in disbelief. The dishwater brown, too-long hair; the scrubby unshaven face; the wide, boxer’s nose. He reached a trembling hand to the glove compartment without looking away from the window. He found the prescription bottle by feel, opened it, and shook two of the oxycodone tablets into his hand and popped them in his mouth. He chewed slowly, savoring their bitterness. The man in the rain cracked a familiar smile. Ian’s face bloomed with an identical one.

He was parked in front of Doctor Hill’s office. The doors were locked and the office was dark. He felt foolish, remembering what he’d thought about the people waiting at the supermarket. Doctor Hill wasn’t going to open, probably ever again. Ian considered trying to break in. He knew they kept a small supply of drugs at the office. As if on cue, two large National Guard trucks rumbled by, their oversized all-terrain tires propelling a thick fog of road-spray into the air. Most of them had left the week before to deploy to the big cities where the looting and rioting was the worst: Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles. He’d heard that half of San Francisco was on fire. It seemed impossible with the nonstop rain, but he knew it wasn’t. His father had been a fireman.

He held the prescription bottle next to his ear and shook it. The thin rattle it made mocked him. Only four tablets left; he’d counted them several times. Four days ago he’d cut back to three per day—a third of what he’d been taking for the last year or so—and was sick from it. The monkey’s bony and clawing fingers dug deeper into his back, searching. He thought about trying to break into the CVS as well. They’d been closed for days. Last time he drove by there had been a police cruiser parked in front, one of the large plate glass windows was shattered. The big cities weren’t the only places where looting was going on. A newscaster on KMST, the local radio station, had said that less than half of the local police officers and sheriff’s deputies were even still showing up for work. 

It was getting dark. How long had he been sitting in the empty parking lot? He checked his cell phone: five fifteen. Still no bars. He hadn’t had any cell service for days. In a way, he was glad. Lori, his ex-wife, had been calling non-stop, demanding that he drive their daughter to her place in San Jose. No way was he attempting to make that drive. He didn’t even know if he could get through. It was Lori’s turn to pick Karen up anyway.

He sighed and started the car. He’d left Karen at home alone all day again. Maybe he should have driven her to her mother’s right after the shit hit the fan. It certainly would’ve been easier for him. Now they were almost out of food and he was almost out of dope.

The rain intensified, and he turned the wipers on as high as they would go before pulling out of the lot. The heavy thrumming on the roof of the tiny Prius set his already frayed nerves on edge. The street was nearly deserted, so he mostly ignored the traffic lights. He wondered where everyone was. Hiding in their houses, he guessed. Window shades pulled, comforting each other while rationing the last of the rice and cans of baked beans. Waiting for the cavalry to arrive, for their government to tell them everything was going to be fine. There were a couple of businesses open; die-hard proprietorships: a gas station, a vape shop. A hand-painted plywood sign was propped up at the curb in front of the gas station. It read: NO FOOD. He slowed a little as he approached a woman standing beside a black Mercedes, one of the expensive ones. It was partially in the roadway, as if it had died and she was unable to coast it all the way to the curb. The hood was up and her flashers were on. She was drenched. She stepped farther out into the road, frantically trying to wave him down, but he ignored her. He had his own problems. She could walk back to the gas station.

Less than two blocks from his house, he started shaking violently. He slammed on the brakes and the Prius came to a cockeyed stop in the middle of the street. He pushed himself back in the seat and gripped the wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white. After a few moments the fit began to pass. He reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed the pill bottle. As he fumbled feverishly with the safety cap, he let out a pathetic sounding mewl of frustration. Finally the cap turned. He let it drop to the floor and tipped the last four tablets into his mouth.

Home. He was in his bed. His sheets were soaking wet. He could smell himself. It was the same fetid and sickly yellow smell that had hung around his father as he lay dying, the Alzheimer’s disease eating what little was left of his brain. Karen was sitting on a stool next to him, a twelve-year-old vision of her mother, with her silky caramel colored hair and big round eyes. She gave him a sip of water. He threw it up. She wiped up the mess with a damp towel without a word. He slept.

“We’re out of food,” she said, lifting his head and giving him a drink of water. She looked at him warily, waiting to see if the water would stay down. It did. She set the glass on his nightstand. “Maybe you could try to sit up.”

He stared up at her, feeling dizzy. The water gurgled restlessly in his stomach. He let his eyes close.

She put her hand on his forehead and stroked his clumped and sticky hair away from his face. “Daddy, I need you. I’m scared.” She was crying.

           

Ian jerked awake, startled. His face wet with tears. Rotting headliner hung in tatters from the rusty roof above him. A long abandoned car, not his bed. He sat up. Fibers from the decomposing  seat cushions puffed into the air, the yellowish cloud dancing lazily in the scant light. He coughed once, waving them away. He sat there for a moment, looking out at the shadowy dawn. His chest hitched once, then again; the interior of the car was filled with a wail of shame and despair so loud and replete with loneliness that he jerked his head around to locate its source. Only as the cry fell did he realize the voice was his own.

           3

Standing at the edge of the heaved and buckled highway Ian stared down at the outline of a  squat cinderblock building. He wondered what purpose it had served before. A weigh station maybe. He could see the glow of a small fire coming through the row of pane-less windows set high in the wall facing him. The fire was the only reason he could see the building at all. The dark of night had been different since there were no longer electric lights, no longer stars. It was more complete. Over the last few years, though, he could sometimes see the faint glow of the moon if it was full. It didn’t give him hope. He looked past the building. The blackness of the immediate horizon was a shade darker than the blackness of the sky just above it. It was almost indiscernible, but he knew what was there: The once great Sierra Nevada mountains. They loomed bleakly over the barren and wasted valley below them. A hundred million dead trees lie atop one another like the corpses of soldiers left to rot at the ancient site of a great battle. Only the occasional deep-rooted fir still stood, weathered grey and needleless, like lone sentinels awaiting a reckoning.

He’d never seen his daughter again. He’d awoke, and she was gone. The half-full glass of water still on his nightstand. The girl down there wasn’t Karen. He knew that.

With a final look across the liquid black expanse of a dead valley, Ian flicked off the shotgun’s safety and started slowly down the hill.

 

Michael A. McLellan

Jan. 2017

           


The Fence by Sarah Margolis Pearce

        

John Reynolds steered the truck down the drive and onto the main road.  His destination was the caravan park near the river mouth. As he had done for the last two harvesting seasons, an era he privately called After our Richard pissed off, Reynolds posted help-needed advertisements in the caravan park, the pub, the grocery and the surf shop.  The advertisement was short and to the point: “Help required for picking and farm job. Inquire at Reynolds Farm in Northcliffe 8am sharp.” His farm was small but not small enough for him to do all the work. He needed help. His veggies were ready to pick, there was the odd task here and there and lambing season was coming soon. Without his son Richard working alongside of him, Reynolds was forced to hire the seasonals: a constantly changing group of young people, usually surfers, who camped, looked for waves and did short-time labor.

It was a cool morning with a clear blue sky and a warm offshore breeze. Reynolds noted the direction of the wind: east winds. That’d be good for the waves with the offshore adding shape to the curl. The town was nearly vacant this morning. The surf shop was open with one bloke sitting behind the counter reading a mag when Reynolds thumbtacked his advertisement on the bulletin board.

The bloke looked up, all sunburned and haystack-haired. “Hoping for seasonals, are we? Not today, I’m afraid, mate.” Oh yeah, thought Reynolds, there’s a bloody swell running.

Reynolds departed and met a slightly more empathetic response at the grocery.

Marty, the grocer, handed Reynolds an extra thumb tack. “Good group just come in down to Prevelly. They bought HEAPS of tucker. Reckon, they’ll be well-fed for you, John!”

He dropped by the pub and put sign up near the darts, next to the pay phone and by the loo. He nodded to the bartender who was rubbing a spot on a glass and left.

Reynolds continued through town down the hill past Gracetown Bay towards Prevelly Caravan Park. He stuck his elbow out of the truck’s window, caught a caress from the off-shore breeze. How could somebody just stop all work because of the weather? It was surfies weather, he sighed. And there they were! All of them lined up on the beach at Gracetown. The car park was stacked with surfies’ cars, hobbled pieces of crap cars with surfboards on top like a pile of sandwiches. Reynolds drove by and grunted in disgust.

He slowed down at the gate to Prevelly. The caravan park commanded a prime view of the river mouth where the waves pounded, thanks to the swells from the Antarctic. Nestled in a grove of trees, Reynolds saw the tents, vans, camp chairs and grub tables sprawling around the camping grounds. As he drove, a boy or girl would emerge from a tent or glance up and wave from a chair around a dead campfire. Not a hairbrush among them, he thought. At the ablutions station, where the washhouse and sinks were located, Reynolds tacked up the sheet of paper he hoped would bring a few sturdy souls. Small hope, he reckoned. But you never know.

The Reynolds’ farm wasn’t the worst farm in Margaret River. John Reynolds’ place fit somewhere between the austere vineyard estates and the struggling, dust-blown plots of the Outback. It was a small land holding by Australian standards. Most of the acreage was kept free for sheep grazing and this portion extended south edging a Karri tree preserve on one side and, on the other, a clump of rolling hills which ran down to the Indian Ocean. The paddocks and vegetable rows surrounded a handful of structures: a barn, a sheep-shearing hut and the main house. The main house struck a mean bargain with the other buildings and managed to look somewhat tidier than the rest, which were larger but in want of some care. This was a hard-working farm and there was little time for cosmetics. Ellen Reynolds tended the farmhouse with a determined energy and it was a home that fit the character of a hard-working persona: little fluff and no pretense. It was clean and cheerful and a place that husband and wife shared with great satisfaction.

Reynolds was fifth generation Australian. The broad forehead, deep-set green eyes and a long hard chin that disappeared in the shadow of a full mouth bore traces of his ancestors’ convict blood. Like them, Reynolds only knew hard work. It defined him and when you knew what you were about it made it easier to what you had to do. He could see it no other way. That his son was different, and Reynolds could not understand why, bothered him. He was impatient with annoyances that could not work themselves out such as Richard’s indifference to the farm. He would rather that such bothers behave like splinters. Worry them and they settle deeper. Let them be and they surface eventually. He did not want to dwell on Richard yet he could not set it down.

Ever since Richard left the farm, Reynolds worked his sheep and picked his crops as best he could. A farmer was lucky if he had children. A farmer was even luckier if those children stayed home on the farm to work. Otherwise, it was the transients or seasonals that swarm over Western Australia who pick and shear and work, doing the tasks that cannot be accomplished single-handedly. And this reliance on transients stuck in Reynolds’ throat like a piece of tough, overcooked meat.

During harvests and lambing time, Reynolds had no choice but to hire anyone who showed up at his gate. He would post his signs and wait. And then a crew would arrive in old cars, pushbikes or on foot, standing at his gate in the early morning, smoking or drinking coffee in paper cups that he’d find tossed on the roadside later in the day. Mostly a mixed bunch of workers, never reliable, a bunch of “Richards” really, here on holiday at Margaret River to surf. When the surf was good you could count on not getting a lick of work done.

Richard left a year prior. Reynolds took no great pride in the fact that his son had saved money working his family farm and also in the vineyards of the big wine estates. Money that might have stayed right here in this property. A recent letter home told of Richard’s experiences in South Africa surfing the fine waves in Durban. Actually, it was Ellen, who said this. Reynolds didn’t read his son’s letters. He was still disappointed with Richard for giving in to his surfing fantasies.  Or was it anger? John wasn’t sure.  There was a weakness and lack of resolve in Richard’s pursuit of surfing. He said he wanted to visit every country with quality waves. And while his son lived his particular fantasy of surfing around the world, Reynolds was left with the farm and the lousy seasonals. The part that galled him more than the expense of paying their wages was that he disliked dealing with seasonals. He didn’t like their casual manner with regards to work. Show up when they like. Flounce off for a surf when it suited them.  Richard knew all this but he went off on his lark nonetheless, thought Reynolds.

At 7:30 am, Reynolds opened his front door and stood on the porch with a mug of tea. It was mid-January and already starting to warm up. He felt for the wind and, happily, it had switched on-shore. He hoped that his notices at the caravan park, pub and grocery were stirring thoughts in those needing some extra pub-money. With no surf today, maybe a few would show up.

A few minutes before 8, a car rolled down the drive right up to the porch where Reynolds stood. There were four of them that tumbled out of the car. Once again, not a hairbrush among them, he noted.

He waved them over to the porch. “Morning. Looking for some work, are we?”

The three girls waved back and shouted “Yeah!”

The boy slouched behind and nodded, looking like he would prefer a long nap.

Reynolds hired the boy and the three girls to help pick vegetables. It was tedious work, somewhat strenuous, which required walking the rows of tomatoes and zucchini, bending over, judging ripeness and picking or cutting, in the case of the squash. Later, there would be an hour or two of sorting and packing the day’s pick for market. Reynolds hoped to get the entire crop off the stalk in two weeks. After that, he wanted a new fence line in the east paddock. But he held no real hope for any of it. The three girls, in their mid-20s and old enough to not be so silly, said they were “keen” to work and were indeed silly, laughing and elbowing each other as they danced around the farmyard after Reynolds delivered his grocery-list of tasks. All he could do was stare at them: An American, an Australian and a Canadian. Christ, what a lot! The boy, a Kiwi, was a bit older. He took a look at the rows of vegetables and scanned the east paddock in the distance and said he would bring along another mate, if possible, as if he knew already he was doomed to shoulder most of the hard work.

Reynolds toured them around, got them settled in the veg rows and hovered nearby to ensure that his crew got the hang of things. Ellen brought out tea and cookies for their elevenses. The boy took a smoko down the road. Later, in the sorting shed, Reynolds was satisfied with their work and allowed them to mess around with the tomatoes that came off the stalks in weird shapes. They took photos of the odd-looking tomatoes and even got Reynolds to pose.

Ellen asked about the crew at dinner. Reynolds said little. “They’ll do, I guess. Don’t want to jinx it all by being too laughy.”

That night, a hard, brief rain fell. Reynolds woke up at the first pelts of the shower on the bedroom window. Ellen, too, stirred at the sound.

“They’re tenting it down at Prevelly, didn’t you say, John?” asked Ellen, as if reading his mind as he envisioned the four soaked and sorry lot who would be standing at the gate in a few hours.

“Yeah,” he answered, flopping back down on the bed with a sigh. “They’ll be mucked up good first thing this morning, won’t they? Then come on out here for a bit more mucking in the rows. Crapping and crowing about the conditions, and all…oh, I can hear it now. Jesus, this rain.”

By morning, it was clear and starting to warm up. Reynolds took his tea to the front door and stared down the road that was more a series of muddy canals than a driveway. The Australian weather-band forecasted a hotting trend and Reynolds knew that by mid-day the water would have vanished leaving dust to fill in the ruts.

“At least it’s cleaned up a bit. Looks that way from here,” Reynolds called to his wife.

Ellen joined him at the door, nodding towards the glistening rows, steaming paddocks and their bright, green hedging. “It’s a pretty sight when the grime’s washed off.”

“As if they’d notice.”

I’d notice.”

“Yes, and you’re a bit off, as well,” said Reynolds with a laugh.

The four workers showed up on time. Ellen watched from the kitchen window as Reynolds greeted them. Ellen didn’t need to see her husband’s face to know he was disappointed. The boy showed up with the girls but without the promised mate.

Later in the evening, Reynolds sat down to dinner and told Ellen that the Kiwi said his mate was surfing this morning and couldn’t make it. He might show up the following day. Reynolds didn’t try to hide his disgust. He described the other workers.

“The Yank and the Canadian hung in there pretty good. Shocked me. We did a full pick today and they lasted it out. But they don’t know farming. The Canadian says she worked an animal husbandry lab in Calgary, processing bull sperm. Had a laugh over that bit. The Yank is a nurse back in the States. Never did no hard work like this. But she’ll tough it out, I reckon. She’s one of those isn’t this all so interesting types. God help us. I don’t know if she’s with the Kiwi bloke or not. Seem cozy and all. But he’s a bloody-well fit punker-type; I’ll give him that. He’s a bloody mule at his picking.”

Reynolds paused and leaned on his elbows. “This Australian girl, can’t figure her out. Guess they’re all stopping in the same camp spot. Seems like she come along seeing she’d get left alone at camp if she didn’t. They’re all pals, and that. But this one’s a real pisser. Got a chip on her shoulder a mile wide. Told me straight off that she worked the paddocks at home all her life and she don’t like the shit any better because of it. ‘Keep me away from the bloody sheep’, she tells me. Sulked around a bit in the tomatoes today because I says she’s picking too many greenies.”

Ellen smiled. “Well, if she did it all her young years then she is probably sick of the paddocks. Comes here looking for a change and ends up back in them? Not everybody takes to it.” Ellen continued, “Maybe you remind her of her dad.”

“Charming. Then she don’t take to him neither. Thanks, mate, wherever you are. Now I’ve got your bloody daughter because you shit her somehow.”

Reynolds shook his head. “Ah, well, there’s one good thing. They’re all palling around together, them four. Pissing it up down the pub right now, I reckon. So maybe they’ll stick it out if they’re in it like mates.”

“Get them on the fence line, then, while they’re still all mate-like, John”.

“You’re right there. Yeah, that’s bloody shit work, all right. Best get that going before they all pack it in and shoot through.”

“Now, they’ve just started, John. You can’t—“

“Yes, Ellen, I can. Been down this road before. And typical of the blighters, they’re probably already making plans”.

“Well, maybe you’ve got to ease them into it. Particularly if they’re not use to the work.”

“Why? So they’ll think I’m a good mate or something. What’s it to them if I’m a bloody prince? Just like what’s it to them if they stay or if they go? A little extra money, but it don’t matter. That’s why they take off in the first place. So they can live like it don’t matter where they go or who they leave.”

The next day, Reynolds started work on the fence line. He told his crew that they were taking a short break from the veggies. Reynolds and the Kiwi sunk the posts. They took turns working the donger. The three women follow behind pouring cement and tamping the posts home.

Later on, the cement was firm enough for the wire to be strung along the posts. Reynolds was clueless as to how this last step would be accomplished. At least two strong arms were needed at opposing ends of the fence line to work the tightening ratchets and a third person was needed to follow along at each post to haul the wire up, against great tension, and clip it in place. The blasting midday heat on the open, soaked paddock was cutting down the middle of his head.

Reynolds called a halt for a water break. He’d forgotten to set the canteen in the shade, so the water they passed among them might as well have been tea water. Above them, in the high branches of the Karri trees, crows husped-husped their calls stunted by the heat into short, wheezy breaths.

“That there is a murder of crows,” said Reynolds, standing up and wiping his mouth.

All eyes turned to him and there was a snicker or two, the Australian girl probably, thought Reynolds.

“What? That surprise you? I got it off Trivial Pursuit,” Reynolds said, smiling. Evidently, the mention of his ever playing a game elevated him to human status.

Reynolds and the Kiwi started to work with the ratchet when the sound of a truck engine came from across the paddock. Ellen drove down the side of the paddock and stopped by the first of the new fence posts. There was a young man with her and together they walked towards Reynolds.

“I’ve found more help,” said Ellen.

She introduced Reynolds to James who shook the farmer’s hand and nodded to the others who evidently knew him. The Kiwi said that James was the friend who was supposed to have come along the first day.

“I’m late, sir,” said James. He spoke in the Dutch-tinged English of an Afrikaner. “I hope you can still use me.”

Reynolds saw the South African’s deeply tanned face, sun burnt nose and salt-bleached hair and figured the tardiness was caused by another session in the waves at the river mouth. Reynolds was tempted to tell him straight off that the job started at eight not nine and he might take that into consideration before traipsing in all smiles and handshakes. But the farmer knew enough about surfers to realize that time schedules were of little importance and he would do better to shrug off the lateness and put the South African to good use.

James went directly to the ratchet and expertly geared it up. Reynolds told the Kiwi to run the other ratchet. James knew a way to set the tension on the ratchet so he could move down the line and clip at the same time. Reynolds found himself clipping alongside James, working at a good pace between posts.

“I know Richard, your son,” James said. He lifted the taut wire with ease. “He’s a good mate of mine, actually.”

Reynolds stopped for a moment and looked at James. Reynolds was no good at hiding his reaction. He frowned and grunted.

“Is that right? A surfing mate, are you?” asked Reynolds.

“Yeah,” answered James. “Richard’s been down at my Dad’s place in Capetown working sheep for him this past spring. But we’ve done our share of surfing, as well.”

James laughed as he continued. “And from what Richard tells me, you’re not too keen on the surfing bit. Dad’s the same way.  The farm’s everything.”

“It is what it is. The farm, I mean,” Reynolds said this and paused for a minute, his back ached a bit from bending over. “I can’t make anybody love it, can I?
James nodded. “Richard told me to look you up. Said you’re always after sheepers for the lambing time. I’ll be staying on in Margaret River, probably into lambing. If you can use me, I’ll do you right. The least I can do for Richard.”

Reynolds smiled. “I suppose it’s an even trade, then. My boy works for your dad and his boy works for me.”

They worked in silence while a gang of flies feasted on the rivulets of perspiration flowing down their backs. Reynolds wiped his brow. The sweet, fetid aroma of the paddock clung to his nostrils. Down the line, he saw the Kiwi pulling hard against the ratchet and Reynolds wondered how he was holding out.

Reynolds thought of Richard. A boy’s small grip turns into a man’s hard strength. A strength that can break things and hold an infant’s shivering cries in the same moment. He saw Richard at age nine careening towards him like an unwinding top, arms wide, lungs filled with a war whoop, to clamber aboard his dad for a tumbling session. Then he saw Richard, a few years older, no longer boyish at all, carefully pinning surfing posters on his bedroom wall. One poster showed a tremendous wave, a great smooth sheet of blue water and foamy flumed edges, and a surfer poised on its twenty-foot face as if he turned a corner in a dark hallway and found himself looking down through a hole in the floor. Reynolds wasn’t sure if surfing was much more than posing and sunbathing. He was never much of a waterman. But Reynolds often thought of that poster and how it wasn’t sheer force driving the surfer’s perfect line across the wave but rather a relinquishing, a kind of succumbing to a greater will in order to maintain balance.

Reynolds dug in his heels and hauled the last section of wire up to the final post. James clipped it on and stood back, panting.

“God, that’s a bitch of a job,” said James.

“Got two more lines to string, mate,” Reynolds told him.

“No worries. I’m just getting primed.”

“Good waves, then, down there in South Africa? Is our Richard up to the task?” asked Reynolds.

“He’s decent.  No style whatsoever. Good enough, though. But he’s fucking brave; I’ll give him that. He doesn’t loosen up till it’s double overhead. Then he cooks, the crazy fool.”

Reynolds decided to withhold that last piece of information from Ellen. She worried about Richard anyway. It would do no good for her to imagine her boy out in perilous conditions simply for sport. Still, Reynolds thought, bugger if he’s not proving himself somehow. He pictured Richard, like that surfer in the poster on his wall, standing at the top of a great roil of water, looking for a line to run along with his board. That is something, mate. Yeah, that is, I reckon.

Reynolds hoisted the bale of wire over his shoulder and unwound a length. His hands hurt a bit. But they were working in the shade now. Ellen would back shortly with their elevenses. James set the ratchet his special way and picked up the clipper. Down the line, thirty-five posts waited to be strung.

Sarah Margolis Pearce

 


 

Of Things Forgotten by Michael A. McLellan

1

Sam Burnside stared with disdain at the ten-year-old Hewlett Packard desktop. Although he used a computer every day for his construction consulting business, he’d never really embraced the technology. The fact was, he missed his stationary: From The Desk Of Samuel A. Burnside. Even more so since he could no longer write.

Unlike other signs of his condition, he’d lost his ability to write not gradually, but all at once. His wife, Sharon, had called him one afternoon and asked him to pick up a couple of steaks on his way home from the office. He’d done as she asked, stopping at the neighborhood market where they’d done most of their shopping over the last twenty years. When he arrived at the check-stand, he laid the steaks on the conveyor belt, then set his checkbook on the little pull-out table at the counter as he normally did. He removed his pen from the sleeve inside the checkbook and…nothing.

He couldn’t fill out.

He just stood there with his Mark Cross pen hovering over the check. He knew he should be writing the words Tenth Street Market and Deli on the Pay to the Order of line, but when he touched the pen to the check, the words simply weren’t there.

“Twenty-five fifty-two, Mister Burnside.”

He looked up. Tony, one of the market’s clerks, was gazing at him expectantly.

Sam looked back down at the open checkbook. After a moment he snapped it closed and shoved it back in his shirt pocket. “I’m sorry, Tony, I just noticed I’m almost out of checks. I’ll pay with my debit card today.”

“Sure thing, Mister Burnside.”

Sam removed his wallet and held out the debit card.

“Oh, you have to slide it,” Tony said, smiling reassuringly and pointing to the card reader attached to the counter.

“Of course,” Sam said, sliding the card. “Long day.”

“Don’t I know it. You need help out today?”

“No, thanks.”

“You have a good evening, then. Enjoy those steaks.”

Sam picked up his bag. “We will.”

He was halfway to the door when he heard Tony call from behind him: “Mister Burnside?”

Sam turned.

“Your pen.”

2

When Sam arrived home he set the steaks on the kitchen counter. Sharon, who was busy chopping lettuce for a salad, thanked him for remembering. He kissed her on the cheek and went straight to his study. Once inside he shut the door and walked over to his desk. He sat down, opened the top drawer, and removed a yellow notepad. He set the pad on the desk-blotter, then took a pencil from the painted tin can his granddaughter Lisa had given him for Christmas several years before.

He stared at the paper.

Nothing.

He thought, I’m just going to write my name.

            Nothing.

The words were there; he could say them aloud: “Samuel Burnside; Samuel Alton Burnside.” But just like at the market, when the pencil touched the paper, they simply vanished.

Built up anger suddenly exploded. He took the pencil in his fist and repeatedly stabbed it into the notepad, breaking the graphite and tearing ragged holes in the first few sheets of paper. He snapped the pencil in two and threw the pieces across the room. It wasn’t enough; he picked up the tin-can pencil holder and chucked it at the wall where it struck an Andrew Wyeth print before clattering to the floor and scattering pencils everywhere.

There was a tentative knock on the study door. “Sam?”

“Just dropped Lisa’s pencil holder, hon,” he said, standing up and moving to pick up the pencils. “C’mon in if you want.”

Sam’s wife of thirty-five years opened the door and looked in. “I just wanted to know if you’re going to want to eat soon?”

“Whenever it’s ready.” He was on his hands and knees, shoving pencils back into the can.

She looked dubiously from him to the crooked Andrew Wyeth. “Okay, well, I’ll put the steaks on, then.”

He caught the look. He’d seen it often over the last year or so. He smiled. “I’ll be right out if you need help.”

“I’ve got it,” she said. “Maybe you can catch the end of the ball game.”

“Good idea. A cold beer and watching the Giants lose is always a good closer to a busy day.”

She nodded obediently and closed the door. He picked up the last of the pencils, straightened up the Wyeth, and walked back to his desk. He set the pencil can on the blotter and sat down heavily. Things had been strained between him and Sharon for some time. Ever since she’d suggested he see a doctor.

3

His memory loss crept up slowly, over about two years. He’d find himself grasping for names; familiar names, like a client’s, or a neighbor’s. He’d forget what day of the week it was, and he, along with whoever he was with, would laugh and shrug it off. He’d say things like, “Must not have been important,” or “Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart,” and people would chuckle and say things like “Tell me about it,” or “I know how you feel.” No one, including himself, thought anything of it.

At first.

Things got worse. He began forgetting important things, like appointments, paying bills, and feeding Nathan, their Yorkshire terrier.

Sharon had noticed the latter and began double-checking with him when he got home from the office. “Did you feed Nathan this morning?” she’d ask.

“Yes,” he’d say, not certain at all whether he had or not.

“Are you sure? He’s been following me around a lot today, mostly when I have food.”

“He’s a dog.”

“He’s never begged before.”

“Maybe I forgot this morning. I’ll feed him now.”

Finally she had started feeding Nathan herself. They didn’t talk about it.

One day she called him at the office. He’d been sitting at his desk, napping, when the phone rang.

“Burnside Consulting.”

Sam, there is a man here from the electric company. He says he’s going to shut off our electricity if I don’t write him a check for two hundred and ten dollars. Didn’t you pay the bill?”

“Of course I paid the bill. It must be some mistake. Put him on the phone.”

There was a brief, muffled conversation. Then: “Hello, sir?”

“This is Sam Burnside, who am I speaking with?”

“My name’s Joe Rosowski. I’m with Western Gas and Electric.”

“There must be a mix-up on your end, Mister Rosowski. I always pay my bill on time.”

“That may be the case, uhh…Mister Burnside, but our records show you haven’t made a payment since April. That’s nearly two months—”

“I know how long it is,” Sam said angrily. I’m telling you I paid my bill. I always pay my bill.”

“Sir, I’m  not going to stand here and argue with you. If your wife can’t make a payment for two hundred and ten dollars. I’m going to have to shut off your gas and electric.”

“This is how you treat good customers? Put my wife back on the phone, then I’m calling your supervisor.”

More muffled conversation.

“Sam?”

“Just write him the check, hon. They probably had a computer glitch or something. I’ll call them.”

“Okay. What time will you be home today? Are you busy?”

“Swamped. I’ll try to make it by five. I love you, sweetie.”

“I love you too.”

Only he wasn’t swamped. One by one, in less than a year, he’d lost nearly all of his clients. The fact that he handled all of his and Sharon’s finances was the only reason he’d been able to hide the business failure from her. He’d been using their retirement money to keep them afloat for months. Most days he just sat at his desk, staring at a blank computer monitor. Some days he just sort of blacked out, and he’d come to himself at a park, or at the bar. Or he napped. He napped a lot.

Sharon finally confronted him.

She was on the phone, he was eating an English muffin at their little breakfast bar. He used to read the paper with his breakfast but he’d stopped. It had started giving him a headache and it made him feel irritable. She’d turned to him, holding out the phone. “Lisa wants to talk with you.”

“Lisa who?”

“Your granddaughter.”

He stared at her blankly. “My granddaughter?”

She put the phone back to her ear. “Honey, let us call you back in a little while…yes, okay. Love you.” She hung up.

“Who was that?”

“It was your granddaughter, Sam.”

“You should have let me talk to her.”

She kneeled in front of him and took his hand. “Sam, we need to get you in to see the doctor. Something is wrong.”

“What do you mean, something is wrong?” he asked waspishly, pulling his hand away.

“You’re forgetting things, Sam. You can’t remember to feed the dog, you forget names, dates—you missed your dental appointment last week. I know how you are about your teeth. You haven’t missed a checkup since we’ve been married. You never set your alarm clock anymore. You wake up at five, or five-forty-five, or six-thirty. You eat breakfast twice on some days and not at all on others. I call you and ask you to stop at the store on your way home from work and when you finally come home, you’re empty handed, then you insist I never called. You’re angry most of the time. You started calling our next-door-neighbor of twenty years ‘What’s-his-face’ because you can’t remember his name is Mike. You can’t even remember your own granddaughter’s name—”

“YOU SHOULD TRY DEALING WITH THE SHIT I HAVE TO DEAL WITH EVERY DAY AND MAYBE YOU’D FORGET A FEW THINGS TOO!” he suddenly shouted in her face.

He shoved the barstool back and stood. “It must be great to be you,” he said venomously. “Having the luxury of staying home and watching Regis and what’s-her-face, then maybe tooling around in the garden for an hour or two before attending your book club meeting. For years I’ve carried all of the weight, building a business from the ground up, dealing with the pressure of deadlines, putting up with asshole after asshole, catering to their unrealistic demands, and…and…shit. Wait, Sharon. Hon, I’m sorry—”

She stopped, already most of the way to the back door, and wheeled around. “What’s your granddaughter’s name?”

“It’s Lisa. There. Satisfied? Look, I’ve just been a little stressed-out lately.”

“What’s your son’s name?”

“My son?”

“Yes, your son—our son. Do you know his name?”

“Well, yeah. Of course I do.”

“I’m waiting.”

Seconds ticked by. At last she turned, opened the back door, and walked out.

4

He made an appointment with the doctor the following day—not their doctor, who Sam hadn’t seen in almost three years, but a doctor nonetheless. The man was a GP with a medical group across town that accepted new patients and their insurance.

The wait was long, the visit was short. The doctor, who looked to Sam to be old enough to have graduated medical school around the time Franklin Roosevelt was president, had some blood-work ordered and referred Sam to the University of San Francisco’s memory clinic.

Two weeks later—he made sure he wouldn’t miss the appointment by taping notes he’d printed at his office to the inside of the office door and over the speedometer of his BMW—he drove the hour to San Francisco for the afternoon-long appointment.  They performed an MRI of his brain in one building, then he was escorted to another building where he was evaluated by a team of doctors who asked him countless questions before subjecting him to a slew of cognitive tests.

The diagnosis was Alzheimer’s. Early onset, they called it, because he was only fifty-four.

He walked out of the UCSF clinic with a splitting headache, an armload of papers, and an admonishment to make a follow-up appointment on a day he could have a loved one accompany him. After dumping all of the paperwork in a garbage can and searching nearly an hour for his car, he drove home.

5

Sam suddenly realized he’d been off somewhere again (that’s what he’d come to call it) and after a long pause he bent down and switched on the HP desktop. With a few clicks and clacks and the familiar, odd sounding humming noise, the monitor came to life. His wallpaper was a photo of Sharon. He’d taken it while she was squatted down, weeding the small, vegetable garden she liked to keep. She was looking up at him. She was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and there was a dirt smear that began on her forehead, ran across the bridge of her nose, and down her left cheek. She had a faint, exasperated smile on. It was the one she reserved for him when he was doing something she thought was childish.

God, how he loved her.

He sat down and slid the keyboard toward him. The anger wanted to return when he thought of how he could still type but couldn’t even write his own name. He bit down on it and opened up MS word.

Sharon,

When I think about all of the years we’ve spent together it boggles my imagination. Through all those years, when most of our friends were divorcing, (some twice) we stayed together. And do you know what? I love you as much now as I did thirty-five years ago, when you were all grace and I was all thumbs. You are a wonderful wife, an amazing mother, and the most kind and generous human being I have ever known.

             I have Alzheimer’s. I was diagnosed a few weeks ago…or a few months ago. I’m not sure exactly how long it’s been because I have trouble keeping track of time now. I have a pocket calendar I’ve been keeping but I can’t find it. I know the diagnosis comes as no surprise to you.

             By the time you read this I will be dead. I have some pills and a bottle of Chivas that will do the trick nicely. I’m going to drive somewhere in the mountains and leave this world as Sam Burnside, not some drooling, jabbering thing with crap in his diapers who doesn’t remember his own name. I love you too much to sentence you to that horrible future. Please tell Kevin and Lisa that I love them, and don’t be sad. We had thirty-five years of real love. Not everyone gets that. I want you to remember me as the man I was.

 Love, Sam.

            He sent the document to the printer and waited. When he heard the sheet of paper eject he reached under his desk and retrieved it. He stood and took one last look around his study before walking out to the kitchen. Once there, he set the note on the black granite countertop where he knew she’d see it when she came home from her shopping trip.

Several minutes later he blinked and looked around the kitchen. His eyes passed over the note without really noticing it. “What the hell did I come in here for?” he asked the empty room. Finally, he opened the refrigerator.

 

Samuel Alton Burnside sat down in his favorite chair and took a long swallow of his beer before setting it down and picking up the TV remote. Giants might be playing, he thought, turning on the TV. I wonder what Sharon’s cooking for dinner.

Michael A. McLellan

October 2016

 

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