Hot Bikes

 Martin walked up the street back to the flea market place he had seen earlier. It was a beleaguered storefront with boarded up windows and people milling about outside, eyeing items arranged in haphazard fashion on the sidewalk. There was an odd assortment of things—toys, watches, mirrors, and at least two fire extinguishers.

The bikes lured him back. There were four of them out when he walked by the first time. Two had kickstands and the other two were pitched against opposite sides of a fire hydrant. He needed a bike. The day before, he missed a job interview after baking in a polyester suit waiting for a bus that never came.

As he walked, Martin kneaded a wad of cash in his pocket. The sweat from his hands made it soft and more ball-like with each step. Without thinking, he started squeezing it like a stress ball, feeling the paper sink and expand. There was a feeling, a fear that he would drop it. It was eighty dollars, his weekly earnings from clearing brush from the five vacant city lots that John insisted on calling a farm.

When he reached the storefront, he saw there were fewer people outside than when he first passed, and a lot of the items were gone. An old man leaned against the doorway of the storefront. His hair was gray, thinning and combed straight back into thin ripples over his scalp. He wore a dark brown T-shirt that almost matched his skin tone; the shirt hung loose around him.

There was a thin woman in shorts pacing near the fire hydrant moving her hands as if in conversation. As Martin drew closer, he saw that she was, in fact, talking to herself. He hesitated in front of the store, glancing quickly through the items for a bike.

The bikes were gone. He felt the gaze of the man in the door, but didn’t look up. There was nothing there that he wanted. Martin turned and started walking away when the man called to him.

“Ay, you ain’t seen nothin’ you like?”

Martin looked back and didn’t speak. He gripped the money in his pocket, thinking. The woman had stopped pacing and was looking at him now, too.

The man motioned him back. He had a cigarette in his hand now, unlit.

“What you need?”

“Any more bikes?” Martin asked, but it seemed like his voice was swallowed in the space between the abandoned buildings.

The man held up his finger in a gesture for Martin to wait and went into the cavernous doorway of the decaying storefront. Martin walked back towards the store taking time between steps. There was a stench in the air as a breeze picked up but it cooled the sweaty skin around his neck and face.

A car, loud and sputtering, and slowed down at the store. The driver shouted out the window at the woman. The woman walked up to the window of the car, and after a quick exchange, got in. The car sputtered up the street, still at a slow pace, and turned into an overgrown alley between two rows of abandoned houses before the engine cut off and all retuned to the vacuum-like silence.

Martin was still standing there looking towards the alley when the man reappeared in the doorway with two bikes. He set them out against the building in the light.

“What you think?”

They were both fairly new and had sleek, light frames, unlike the mountain bikes Martin was used to riding on the country roads.

“How much for the red one?” he asked.

“A hunnit’.”

Martin squeezed his money again and looked from one bike to the other. “And the other one?”

“That one, well, I’d take a hunnit for that one, too.” His voice was gravelly and hollow.

The sputtering turn of the car engine in the alley broke the silence. Martin took the kneaded wad of cash from his palm and started un-balling it with jittery, slick fingers.

The man ushered him closer to the building. “Ay, man, you ain’t gotta let the world know…” His voice trailed off into a mumble as he went in close to the wall of the store and Martin followed.

“Eighty.” Martin counted the bills out loud, uneasy with the man looking over his shoulder. “It’s all I got.”

“Shiiiit.” The man turned and walked away from the wall muttering to himself. “Broke ass niggas…”

A hot wave of air hit Martin as the car chugged off and the young woman re-appeared from the alley, still in a conversation with herself.

The man turned back to Martin, “Ai’ght.”

Martin parted with the whole damp wad, which the man re-counted.

“You spit on this or some shit?” Then the man suddenly stopped, as if an urgent idea stuck him. “You a cop?”

Martin didn’t reply. He got on the red bike, despite the seat being set too low for his long legs, and pedaled back down the route he came. He couldn’t help but notice the ease of the petals as they worked under his feet; the way the bike propelled him forward faster and faster until he felt weightless on the frame, the only sound was the wind as it rushed past his ear.

He was moving so fast, by the time he got back onto his street, he didn’t see Silas out on the porch, only heard a voice calling him back.

He had to crunch the brakes and skid to a halt almost three houses down. He circled back and dropped the bike on the front lawn before starting up the steps. He missed having a kickstand.

“Man, when you start ridin’ them white kid bikes.” Silas was leaning over the railing picking his teeth with a toothpick. He was a little older than Martin, somewhere in his mid-30s. He had a thick well trimmed beard and his hair breaded back into neat rows. He wore a bright plain white T-shirt and jeans shorts that fell just below his knees.

Martin did notice that there was something different about the bike, something he couldn’t put a finger on just yet. He wasn’t even out of breath for the speed he was going.

“Never had a bike like that before!” he blurted, overtaken by a rush of enthusiasm. “Did you see how fast I was going? It moves like a damn car.”

Silas came down to get a closer look. Examining the bike, he rubbed his chin and his brow creased. A half smile spread over his face. “Martin, where you get this thing, man?”

“Just down the way, by the store front on the corner,” Martin said. “It was this guy, he had a bunch of stuff out there; said it was a hundred but I only paid eighty. That a deal or what?”

Silas broke out laughing. He laughed so hard he turned and took three breathless steps away then turned back. Martin stood there looking at him.

“That bike hot as fuck dawg, you better put that shit up before they come lookin’ for yo black ass.” Still laughing, he leaned over and looked under crawl space under his porch.

“Look, I just paid a man cash for this bike,” Martin said, but even as the words left his mouth they seemed thin in the air.

By now everyone there—Blogo and Swish, even Silas’s grandmother—was out looking at the bike.

Silas shook his head controlling his laughter for a moment. “Dawg, I knew you was country but damn, I ain’t know how bad it was.”

He picked the bike off the grass and pushed it under the crawl space so it was hidden from sight in the yard.

For a moment, no one said anything. They all went up on the porch and Martin followed, finding a seat on an overturned bucket. Blogo started split a cigarillo with his long fingernails and dumped its contents over the railing.

A warm breeze blew up again and Martin could see it moving through the grass in the abandoned lots on the far side of the house. In the distance he heard the whistle of the freight train, then, much closer, he heard the hollow call of a pheasant.

Blogo passed the blunt and when it came to Martin, he declined.

“I can’t smoke, it’s for work,” he told them.

“Martin, you ain’t got no job!” Silas said, and they all laughed at something Martin could tell was a reference he didn’t recognize. He smiled to fain familiarity.

After some coercion, Martin inhaled and after a few minutes, everything seemed clearer, sounds and colors. He’d smoked once before with Daniel back in Otton. They were in the barn and Mason was away at a cattle-branding conference. It didn’t have much effect then so he decided it was overrated. But this time was different. He seemed to be picked up and carried further into his brain while simultaneously seeing everything outside clearer than ever.

It took him by surprise when he saw Cheeto, the young bleach blonde guy from Brooklyn, walking up the sidewalk. Martin didn’t know him well, except for rumors from John’s circle. Apparently Cheeto bid on a vacant lot in the city land auction last summer. The lot in question was one that John was cultivating chickpeas on when Cheeto won the bid. Cheeto got the lot, chickpeas and all, which Martin learned was an especially sore spot for John.

Cheeto called from the sidewalk. “Martin! Is that you?”

Martin jumped up and looked around calling back, a little bit too loudly, “Cheeto, how the hell are ya?”

Cheeto came up the steps, his jeans cut off at an awkward place between his knees and his ankles. He wore a second hand cap with a pheasant feather in it and a weathered t-shirt that read, “Got scrapbooks?” He was wiry and thin, medium height, his blonde hair cut asymmetrically with the left side longer than the right.

“Smells good up here that’s for sure,” he said, stopping just at the edge of the porch. “Mind if I partake?”

There was an awkward pause in conversation. “It’s cool, it’s just that white boy that stay down the street.” Silas mumbled to Blogo who was making a direct move to go inside.

Cheeto was more jerky and nervy than usual: Hands in and out of pockets, weight shifting from one foot to another in irregular movements.

“Sorry to crash like this,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe it but my bike was stolen this morning. We went into the park at sunrise to forage for mushrooms and when we came out, my bike was gone.

Martin and Silas exchanged glances.

“It was a Look Cycle. I painted it red ’cause I’m not a walking billboard. I mean that thing is worth more than some cars.”

Martin looked at the ground, thinking, hoping it was a coincidence. “What color was it again?”

“It had a red frame, it has a Brewmasters sticker on it.” Cheeto dragged his hand over his face in distress. Silas offered him the blunt.

“I think I remember it,” Martin said. He put his hands in his pocket. “I bought a bi—-“

He was interrupted by a crash behind him and it was Blogo knocking over some bottles that didn’t seem necessarily in the way.

“Tell him look at the place on the corner,” Silas said, smashing out the blunt. “They sell hot bikes there.”

“Oh, that place by the burnt store front with all those people out all the time?” Cheeto asked.

“That’s the one,” Martin said, almost too quickly. He suffered the silence that followed for a few seconds before breaking it. “So, did you find any mushrooms?”

The topic seemed to ignite something inside of Cheeto. His eyes widened and his posture straightened.

“We found a morel, but not a big one,” he said. “ Anyway, I think Drew got some chicory root he’s gonna to cook up later for the potluck.”

He hesitated as if contemplating something before continuing with enthusiasm. “You should come over, bring a dish. It’s a wild nature theme. All weeds. We went on a foraging medicine walk and came back with some great stuff. I mean, right now I could show you some great edibles growing right in your yard, wanna take a look with me?”

Silas looked at his front yard and then slowly back at Cheeto. “I’m good,” he said.

Cheeto continued like he didn’t hear. “We’ve got some representatives from the Kroft Foundation coming for dinner. We’re trying to get a grant to do some education around foraging for low income families.”

It got so quiet that when Blogo coughed, it seemed like thunder.

“Well…I guess I’ll let you guys get back to …” Cheeto backed up a step. “But if you do decide to come, there’s one thing missing for the dinner and it’s a wild meat. There’s no wild game around here is there?”

“Well this place is crawling with pheasants,” Martin said. “I could catch one right now if I tried.”

“Catch?” Cheeto eyes got wider and he leaned in lowering his voice. “How much? I mean, what could I do to make this worth your while?”

It almost seemed like insult to injury, Martin thought. Here was this guy, oblivious that his stolen bike lay under the porch and here Martin was, about to charge him for something he could get for free. He shrugged, trying to think of the appropriate response.

Cheeto took it for hard ball. “Look, I’ll give you fifty bucks if you can get one of those in my hands before three o’clock today.”

Something occurred to Martin. “I’ll do it for eighty,” he said. “Not dressed or nothin’ like that.”

“Deal,” Cheeto said, almost before the words were out. “So, should I meet you back here at three?”

Martin nodded, his brain still spinning from the smoke; the bright fields seemed to shine around the house like endless summer.

Cheeto took his leave with an ill-timed fist bump to Silas and a hearty handshake to Martin. He disappeared up the street by the lot behind John’s.

Silas leaned back in the plastic yard chair on the porch and chuckled in amusement. “Dawg, you gone need that country magic or whateva it is y’all be doin’ ‘cause dem birds move quick and last time I checked you ain’t had no gun.”

Runaway-Chapter II

The air hung thick and still, an invisible curtain between the world and me. Voices from pickers in nearby rows looped in and out: laughter, cussing, echoes of a life I used to live before I realized I was trapped in a nowhere town full of rusty machines, drowsy streets, and haunted by the smell of livestock.

Endless flats of peaches, red and orange in the sun, sat like two-toned marbles waiting to be scattered. I wanted to overturn all the crates and then whip Jacques to the ground.

The farm truck chugged up. Mason backed in to hitch up the trailer and cart it off to the packing plant. Then I saw it: Mason was wearing my missing long sleeve shirt.

A lightness fizzed in my blood. I was overcome by a feeling of superpower, of limitless ability. What happened next melts into a multicolored blur: I see the farm truck backing up to the trailer full of peaches. Then Mason, a plaid streak, dashing behind the truck and cranking down the trailer hitch; a flash of Jacques stepping backwards, his round eyes bulging.

With a speed and agility I never knew I possessed, I dashed across the row and lunged into the open truck. The keys dangled motionless from the ignition, a still frame lodged in a nauseating rush. Without so much as a slam of the door, I yanked the truck into drive and crashed forward, granite foot to the gas. Rising voices, confused and angry, clamored in the growing distance.

 

My eyes rolled over to the cloudless sky, down the long row, past the ladders and brown-skinned pickers as they flickered by. The truck, a rusted 1996 Ford Bronco, creaked at the ill-connected trailer hitch. It felt like the weight of the peaches was tugging the truck back. For some time I felt like I was moving but getting nowhere, or that the orchard suddenly expanded for miles. The truck hit an uneven patch and rocked violently from side to side slamming the door shut. It began wheezing louder with the growing speed. Just then the gravel driveway, opening like a mouth into the road, jumped out of nowhere. I jerked the steering wheel to the left to follow it. The turn dislodged the hitch on the trailer and the truck veered followed by an awful metallic screech raking over my eardrums.

Before I realized what had happened, the truck kicked forward like its namesake. With the weight of the trailer torn off, the engine power lurched the truck to jump forward so hard it nearly pitched my body through the back of the cab then in the next instant towards the windshield. The bumps and dips of the uneven orchard floor launched Mason’s water jug over the center console towards the back. Loose change ran along the bottom on the cup holders and a loose peach shot from the dashboard to the passenger seat.

I looked in the rearview mirror for the first time. The torque sent the trailer spinning off the truck and onto its side. A warm explosion of peaches blossomed over grass and gravel. I was at the edge of the orchard and Mason, a long-sleeved speck waving his arms like a broken windmill, was running forward as fast as his stiff legs would allow. I couldn’t hear him, but I almost felt the stream of damnation gushing from his lungs.

I turned the wheel, this time to the right, and zoomed out onto the rolling country road that ran through Otton like an artery.

It was Semwick Road; the road Mason told me Mother died on in a car crash. I was four. I don’t remember much about her except what Mason told me and the little, random clips that sometimes flashed into my mind. For instance, I remember her hands. Long fingers, dark skin, soft. I thought about that a lot. No one I knew had soft hands except the guy Mason invited over around come tax season.

My mother’s name was Philipa and she was from Jamaica. She worked as a farm hand until she and Mason got married. I’d wrestled that much out of him. She was the only topic that was off limits, aside from new farm equipment. I’d bring her up and he’d damn near hurl something at me. How she ended up in Otton is a mystery to me. How she ended up with Mason must just be tougher than the mystery of life.

The scene I saw in the rearview is an image I’d store in my head forever: the scramble of peaches, the splintered creates, the wooden trailer leaning broken and helpless on its side. At the time it seemed surreal, like it was happening to someone else. It never occurred to me to stop or to turn back. I felt I could go anywhere. A primal part of my brain told me to keep moving, and fast, toward the expressway.

The town was a four-mile stretch and it was even longer to the nearest interstate. Four miles of Otton, four miles of Mason, of familiar faces and mailboxes, welcome mats and tractors; four miles, too, of local police.

The peach-inflicted burning was now a distant throb behind a roar in my head and slushiness in my stomach. As I drove, I saw plumes of dust billowing from the grain fields in harvest; amber clouds rising from combines back ends. I could smell the seasonal sweetness in the air like fresh-cut grass. The whirr of farm equipment buzzed by; Cornfields fanned out before me, each row ticking past like the second hand on a watch. I couldn’t outdrive them; they seemed to run tirelessly alongside the truck.

The closer I got to the highway, the traffic thickened and at the sight of a state trooper two cars ahead I started sweating to the point were I had to blink the salty stuff out of my eyes. Heat waves tadpoled upward from the road, rhythmic wiggles of the air. I inched forward until the traffic had me hovering right up behind the state trooper. In a nervous flare my eyes started dashing about. How fast would Mason call me in? How long would it take this trooper to find out I was committing grand theft auto? The trooper turned her head towards me. She was a frowning woman with small eyes. For a flash, our eyes met. I quickly looked at the passenger seat.

She knows, I thought. The lonely peach resting on the seat suddenly became interesting. I noticed there was a scar on it scabbed over with a clear dried sap. We never got every worm with the pesticide.

I stared at that peach until a blast from a truck’s horn made me look up. The traffic had moved on, more than a football field ahead.

 

Runaway-Chapter 1

(7/14/14) - (Quicksburg) ----- Turkey Knob Grower's employees Jabet Rivera, (top) and Luis Cepeda, harvest peaches at an orchard near Quicksburg, Va. in Shenandoah County Monday July 14, 2014. A late frost in May has reduced yeilds at some area orchards in the Shenandaoh Valley but spared the blooms at Turkey Knob. ({Michael Reilly/Daily News-Record})

I remember the morning I lost my mind. I sat in the cluttered kitchen of the farmhouse engulfed by a feeling of bleakness; the dirty dishes piled in the sink, the sound of the truck sputtering outside—it was so familiar that it was desolate.

A thought nagged from the bleak: Where was my long sleeve shirt? I hung it on the back of the kitchen chair last night, now it was gone. It was the only one that was remotely clean.

That’s how I ended up in the middle of peach harvest in a T-shirt, arms ablaze from the fuzzy chafe of peaches. A coating of sweat slicked over my arms and reminded me of the time when I was a little kid and I crawled through a patch of stinging nettles in the rain, chasing after a chicken.

Part of the problem was that Mason, my stepfather, refused to update the farm equipment. Sometimes, when the creaky old combine was leaned up in the field waiting on repairs, he’d strut into the rows with the walk-behind corn picker he won at a small farm expo. just to prove a point.

When August peach harvest came around, he had the same mentality: Pick ‘em the old fashioned way. That meant climbing a ladder and getting the fruit into the basket and then personally emptying that basket into a crate.

Once, I spent all night poring over farm catalogs, circling tools and modest machines that had the power to ease our summer days. Our thirty-acre sliver of Otton farmland barely passed as a proper farm compared to the Lasky’s ocean of corn, yet somehow we were working harder than them to keep the land producing.

I left my selections on the table next to Mason’s newspaper and every time the catalogue ended up in the black plastic bin by the door.

“You wanna spend all our cash so you can plop our ass in an air conditioned hole and call it a harvest?” He said. His squinted glare sent wrinkles through the skin around his blue eyes. His cheeks sunk in further than usual and I could almost see the contours of his skull. “You ain’t no farm boy.”

I agreed with him.

“You’re right,” I said. “I was meant to be a professional.” I sat up straight at the kitchen table. For the first time realized I was actually taller than him.

Mason got to his feet.

“’The hell you think this is, some kinda fuckin’ doodle?” His voice was hoarse and his fist fell to the table like a gavel. “You’re a farmer, you’re a goddamn professional. An’ if for some horseshit reason you don’t think you are, then I don’t know what the hell you’ve been doin’ all your life.”

The room got quiet and he returned to his seat with the slow jerkiness of an old man, still fixing his glare on my face. I turned my head and stared at the wall.

“I don’t understand what the hell’s wrong with you, Martin. Would’ya rather be stuck in some dipshit college in the cornfields with your thumb up you ass waiting for someone to tell you how to wipe it?”

There was stillness before he tore into his egg sandwich.

There were other roadblocks to my daydreams. When my high school counselor asked me what I wanted be when I grew up, she didn’t wait to hear my reply.

“Farmer Martin,” she said smiling.

Otton, a speck of a Midwestern town, was only significant for the amount of grain it produced on an annual basis.

It was when my best friend Daniel took off to college that I felt the full stagnancy of my life. He got a football scholarship to Boise State University and I got a reality check—I looked around as all my daydreams vaporized: there I was standing in a mucky chicken coop ankle deep in ripe shit.

Here’s the gist of my summertime life in Otton: Bent over from the first peep of spring until the last stand of fall, lifting, stinking, and grunting through each day sunup, sundown.

With no time to cook, Mason and I lived on cold lunchmeat slapped on white bread that was on sale at Wal-Mart. Or sometimes, if Mason was in a good mood, we’d mix hot dogs with canned chili and eat it with corn chips mashed up in it, topped with maybe some grade B sour cream from Lasky’s Dairy. As long as it wasn’t a peach or another egg looking back at me I was happy, and it kept me full.

My favorite, though, was Chinese. Sometimes I would sneak downtown to the China Buffet with ten dollars pocketed from the farm stand and gulp down all the sweet n’ sour goodness I could fit in before wobbling home, top heavy.

Mason never approved of spending money on food unless it was on the ten-for-ten rack at Wal-Mart or Meijer, Grade B dairy products, or the better part of a large animal. The rest we got from our farm.

In the summer we mostly ate crap out of a can because we were just too tired to cook. Actually, it didn’t bother me. Even on the slowest days in the middle of winter Mason and I had a very limited idea of cooking and it involved throwing a chunk of meat in a pot with water and onions and boiling the shit out of it. Come March I would kill for a slice of cold ten-for-ten lunchmeat.

So there I stood, sleeveless and baking in the orchard. It was a Friday and I was sure that I hated my stepfather, roommate, boss–Mason Specter.

On a midmorning break, Jacques, the sporadic and unpaid university intern, propped his picker stick against a tree and eyed me up and down. A bee buzzed by. There was a stiff silence. He jutted his chin at my arms.

“Should’ve worn long sleeves,” he said. His words broke something inside of me.

First, I felt a fiery lump expanding inside of my chest. Then I felt my muscles tightening and my jaw gripped down on itself like a vice.

I’d felt these anger spells boil up before; sudden volcanic fury that hit the nearest person on the way out. After an unfortunate incident involving a sheep shearer, I dedicated myself to learning to contain them: I’d seal up, Tupperware style. But that day, there was no sealing.

Stale, Hot Cheetos

Hot Cheetos. Stale Cheetos. Stale, hot Cheetos.

I was well known in the city as a food critic, but no one knew the intricacies of my daily routine. They didn’t know, for instance, that every evening I filled my sink with warm water, opened a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and set it at the edge of the sink basin to sit overnight. They didn’t know that every morning, after washing my face and making coffee, I poured those soggy red morsels into a small flower-printed bowl, plopped down at my desk, and savored them one by one. They never crunched under the weight of my bite but slowly curled around my teeth and the salt and oil within each piece wrung out onto my tongue. It was then that I knew the true meaning of bliss.

For ten years, this was my morning ritual and as a result, my left fingertips have become permanently red—a telltale tattoo exposing my once secret vice. That, and I have become paralyzed from the neck down. But what bothers me sometimes more than the paralysis is the way it happened. And still, wherever I go, no matter how many times I wash my hands, it looks as though I have just plowed through a bag of hot Cheetos. I mean, like, inhaled them.

The only reason I never got a telling red rim around my mouth is that I was (and still am) careful not to let the things touch my lips. I do this by placing each Cheeto on my tongue like a pill and then drawing it into my mouth.

Over time, the discoloration of my left hand became the cause for much social anxiety and, eventually, the accident. In public, I found myself frantically reaching for a drink to hold, or a pocket to jab my hand into—anything to draw attention away from my glaring fingers. If I were a construction worker or a surgeon, I might have had the small luxury of wearing gloves to work without scrutiny. But given that I was a freelance journalist and often had to meet with clients and conduct interviews, the Cheeto-red fingers left me in an unenviable position.

The beginning of the end was a writer’s networking event. I forgot to hide my left hand in my pocket when introducing myself to a potential client. He was the editor of a glossy publication known in the city for its grandiloquent features and culinary reviews. His suit fit so well that it seemed to be a second skin, moving exactly how he did. He was disarming with his bright smile and dark skin and whenever he moved, it was with intention. I had pitched stories to him over e-mail before but had yet to get a story in his magazine.

When he got a glimpse of my left hand I actually saw him flinch. He politely strode out of arms reach despite the apparent cleanness of my other hand.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, and with a perfectly timed glance at his smartphone and a warm nod, he retreated one step before turning and gliding back into the crowd.

I stood still for some seconds afterwards, my head reeling. His reaction was worse than rude. It was polite. It was my rock bottom: My Cheeto-stained fingers had joined the ranks of disfigurements and political land mines that people ignore in the name of comfort.

The encounter set into motion a near tragic series of events. I still blame that editor for my globular condition. Here is how it happened:

I left the mixer shortly after in a sudden panic. Something had to change. I was weighing my options. Would skin bleaching cream work? I had already tried Clorox and it only left me with wrinkled, scaly fingers that for two days looked diseased.

Keep in mind that the stain on my fingers, now bright red, was a gradual disfigurement. It took almost seven years before I realized what was happening. It started with a slight discoloration that I chalked up to the need for more exfoliation. With my hectic unpredictable schedule, I put off taking pumice to my fingers.

About a year after I first noticed the yellowing of my left index finger, I was at a restaurant with white linens and I noticed my left fingers had an orange hue in contrast with the bright whiteness of the cloth. The first thing that came to mind, again, was that I needed a manicure. Again, I shrugged it off, placing my left hand out of sight whenever possible. Again, my schedule crumpled my manicure plans. A year later, when I signed a contract for a big project, my eyes fell on my hands against the white paper and I was aghast. My fingertips had the thick red color of one who had just groped through a family-sized bag of Cheetos and neglected to wash their hands.

I left the office and went directly to the nail salon. The manicurist there stung me with a disapproving look, but didn’t say anything. She immediately plunged my left hand in a bowl of warm, soapy water. What followed was the second worst moment of my life. The manicurist scrubbed and scrubbed, getting more violent with each pass of the pumice. And with each swipe, she wrinkled her forehead at the stubborn unfading redness that had become the white side of my fingers and spread all the way into the dark skin on top of my hand. She continued like this for four whole minutes—I counted them off on the digital clock on the wall. By the end she was rough and careless with my hand, treating it with the same regard as a gritty potato being prepped for a pot. It was then that the full gravity of the situation clenched me at my core.

My heart started beating like I’d just climbed a flight of stairs, and a seedy prickle washed over my skin. Sweat beaded on my forehead so that I felt a chill on my face when the fan passed me in its rotation. My lips felt dry and my tongue was thick and out of place between the roof and floor of my mouth. To quell panic I made a point of noticing small details about the place—the sky-blue color of the walls, the way strips of paint curled from a darkened spot on the ceiling, the whirr of the fans blowing the odor of acetone into circles in the enclosed salon. A sick ache started in my stomach and radiated out. I swallowed and a rush of thin saliva poured from under my tongue, the kind that pre-empts vomit.

In the distance I heard a voice. “It won’t come off.” The manicurist was breathing heavily from her efforts and looking on in what could only be described as disgust. I looked down at my limp hand, irritated to a new level of redness and covered with patches of white suds. I could hardly hear anything but it was as though my vision improved. Everything seemed still and clear; bright and sterile—like a gleaming incision instrument made of surgical steel.

“Ma’am?” The raised voice of the manicurist came to me as a jolt that rocked me from my trance. Immediately I was back in myself, all senses restored.

“It’s a stain?” I asked with the tone of one asking about the weather. But the feeling of horror persisted.

She let my hand flop onto the rolled out towel and without reply started on my other hand with much less force.

I rolled my left hand over the towel to remove the suds and soaked in the full details of the damage. The once white pads of my first two fingers and thumb were discolored the unmistakable red of hot Cheetos. My index finger was the reddest, as if I had pressed it into a swab drenched in red ink. But the pads of my fingertips were not what triggered the disgust. Had that redness been the only mark it may have been passable as some form of artistry or at least neat rounds of misplaced ink—a clean alternative to the greasy, cheap truth. But the red fingertips bled out into a messy, botched pattern that faded into a skanky yellow orange. The color condensed in the natural creases of the joints near my fingertips, and it looked like a satellite image of a yellowing watershed.

I left the salon after opting out of any nail color; just a clear, inconspicuous coating of polish.

I went home and finished an interview I had scheduled. Afterwards, I met a friend for drinks at happy hour. I quietly worried. That night I poured bleach on a dish sponge and scrubbed until my fingers were raw and, consequently, even more red and angry than before.

Some may be surprised to hear that despite my angst, I did not alter my morning routine. I bought a box of latex gloves with the intention of using them while enjoying my stale, hot Cheetos. And one morning I did try. But the smell of the latex so near my nose offset the delicious rapture of the spicy, cheesy goodness of the snack. I had only eaten two pieces before I took off the glove and never tried using one it again.

On the mornings after the manicure I continued my regular ritual, at this point involuntary, all the while abrading myself with a slow,  grating reproach.

But it wasn’t for another four months, when I was snubbed by the editor, that I felt the full shame of my condition.

I left the mixer and drove directly to my house where I made a dash to the Cheeto cupboard and pulled the contents onto the counter below with broad sweeps of my arm. I then got a garbage bag and threw the packs into it by the handful. I moved fast and with intention. I watched each pouch fall into the dark mouth of the garbage bag and hit the thin plastic with a delicious crunch that only chip bags can make. The sound ignited something in my tongue and I fought the urge to eat a final, ceremonial bag—or ten. I took the crunching garbage bag outside and walked it down the street to my neighbor’s trashcan four houses down. It was dark out and no one saw.

When I got back the house I almost walked to the cupboard for a bag. I almost filled the sink with hot water. But instead I busied myself with a new task—packing. I would drive away to Bluestone State Park and spend a night camping in the Appalachians before visiting a cousin in Washington DC. I spent all night packing and re-packing various belongings. I left well before sunrise fearing the Cheeto-less morning that approached.

By the time the sun came up I was well outside of the city with blue mountains unfurling around me on all sides. At first I felt a surge of energy, bright and buoyant. The world seemed washed clean and I along with it. The sun shone bright by 8am and I could see miles into the distance. It wasn’t until 11 that I started thinking about food. By then I had entered the park and was ascending the peak to my campsite. It seemed that it had rained the night before and the dirt road was slick. The tires of my SUV reacted to the wet clay mud like flash frozen ice. While my vehicle may have been ready to take on the situation, I was not. And so this happened:

The road wound around the mountain in sharp, narrow maneuvers. The car fishtailed despite my creeping speed. I steered carefully, both hands gripping the wheel, my whole body tense. Then, the car hit a hole in the road and heaved forward with a thud. I became stiff as a board. To my right was a green wall of ferns, on the other side, sky. The sudden movement sent loose objects in the front to the car sliding back. Then, I heard it: the musical crunch of a Cheetos bag.

To an untrained ear, the sound may have gone unnoticed, especially given the treacherous circumstances, but it hooked my attention from the road. I looked over in the direction of the sound and there it was: on the floor of the passengers side near the mat was a crushed and wrinkled Cheetos bag. The deflated way it folded into itself signaled the likelihood of its emptiness. I glanced back up at the road and saw a sharp turn coming up where the road disappeared completely around the mountainside. A short metal rail was all that stood between me and the gaping chasm between the mountains.

I slowed until I was merely rolling forward with the weight of the car, coasting to buy time before the turn. Then, I leaned as far right as I could while keeping the windshield view in sight. I stretched my right arm down and felt for the bag. When I didn’t feel it I glanced quickly down to see the exact spot and saw that my hand was just inches out of reach of its current position. I divided my attention between the road and the bag in frantic up and down glances. I saw the road, rocking in the windshield from the sway of the car, then the still, orange-red constellation that was the Cheetos bag. On my last glance at the road I saw another hole just ahead and braced myself for the backlash as I took another look down at the bag, this time leaning all the way down to pinch the bag between my fingers. The car hit the hole with a dull thud that threw my body back towards the seat. I nearly bit my tongue with the jolt. Again, gravity rearranged loose items in the car. I opened my eyes and saw one single Cheeto had escaped from the wrinkled bag. Then, I lost all control. I abandoned the steering wheel and so chose to abandon my life for one single and stale hot Cheeto.

Before I felt any indication of the fall, I used my right hand to place the single Cheeto, which was not much better than a kernel of corn, onto my tongue and then into my mouth and then between my teeth where I bit down and tasted the oily salt and cheese power seasoninHot cheeto fingersg. The Cheeto was so stale that instead of breaking, it wedged itself into the contours of my teeth like a dental mold.

I shut my eyes and experienced the falling sensation, then the violent way gravity smashed my body against the seat belt. There was a ringing in my ears after the first impact. I felt warm and opened and shut my mouth while breathing in, taking in every last flavor of that one stale, hot Cheeto.

Short Wave

The year, 1996. The time, universal.
 Somewhere, far back-a-bush, “Mmm Bopp” squeaked out of a short wave radio into the humid night. The radio sat in a corner of a thatch hut, on a knock-an’-stan’-up table, its antenna broken crudely and splinted back together with a thick coating of flimsy scotch tape and an emery board. In the other corner, a  pile of coals smoldered in the rusted lid of an old cookie tin releasing thick white whips of pungent smoke. The coals were bits of coconut husks mixed with chunks of white oleander bark, creating a lightly poisonous air that drove off the mosquitoes.

It is now 24 hours universal time and you are listening to the billboard top-forty on The Voice of America. Coming up, ‘The World Hour.’”
 Using the tuning knob, he SCANNED the airways very intently….there must be something on the short wave worth listening to at 2400 hours.
“Next on BBC radio news: will Butros Butros Ghali serve a second term?”

“Will Butros Butros Gahli get a second name?” Jan grumbled at the radio as he got up to re-light his pipe. The matches were damp from the humid air. As soon as he struck them against the side of the box, the red sulfer tip crumbled off. It took ten matches before one sparked up.

Everything was damp. It was the beginning of the rain season, and frogs clucked away in the half-empty rain drum outside, their croaks echoed, competing with the radio for his attention. “Butros Butros Butros—,” Jan grumbled, tuning out the frogs until they became a constant hum in the background. The short wave was an auditory window to the world he had escaped from years ago.

Jan grew up in a middle class suburb of Detroit Michigan. His parents were strict Catholics, and when he was a teenager he worked at the neighborhood country club and hung coats. It was the early 60’s and he was in a band. The summer he turned eighteen he spent most of his time in his friend Peter’s loft, watching him build sculptures out of wax and barbed wire as they both split a joint. Then his parents threatened to take away his allowance so he applied to college. After college they threatened to take away his allowance so he cut his hair, which was, at the time, down to his shoulders. He spent three days working on a resume and on the fourth day he did acid. Again. He rubbed the wall of Peters loft and said, “They can’t keep me in here!” Peter agreed as he stared at the Tiffany lamp.

On the sixth day he packed a bag full of necessities (those which he thought were necessities at the time) and bought a bus ticket to Mexico. Days got warmer, his hair got longer. Again. His allowance got shorter, until one day, he found himself in a Guatemalan Prison, and it no longer came at all. Peter was the one who bailed him out.

“You’ve got to snap out of this you bloody wanker.” Peter scolded over the phone to a newly released Jan.

I did.” Jan said. “I’m out!” He wasn’t speaking about the Guatemalan prison.

“I’m worried about you,” Peter said.

“I’m worried about you,” Jan replied. He was eyeing the taco stand outside the phone booth.

Peter still got an allowance, but no one called it that anymore. His parents were just showing their support. There was no need to bring it up.

Jan never saw Peter again.

Years had passed since his traveling days. Now Jan spoke to his short wave on the quiet nights and the loud ones humming with calls from creatures of the night. His favorite was BBC. He liked their approach to world news. His second favorite was Radio Sweden; thier science shows. The Voice of America (VOA) seemed to sound a lot like the V.O. the Hanson brothers, but if nothing else, it made him smile.

It got fuzzy sometimes when the splinted antenna was temperamental. Jan ignored the static. It seemed that every evening on Radio Sweden, reports of groundbreaking studies linked something new to cancer. Last week was fluoride; tonight it was those new cellular phones.

Funny, he thought, how he had spent half his life away from all of these cancerous things yet still managed to develop the disease. “Wherever you go in the world you can’t escape the sun,” He laughed when the town doctor told him. Not that it was the sun that Jan had been running from.

When I first met Jan I was working at a corner store on the outskirts of St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. Once a month he came into town, making a spectacle of himself: a forty-something white man in a faded Hawaiian shirt and patched flared jeans, his sun streaked hair snarled into a bun at his neck. Jan never hesitated to shake a hand or crack joke. Everyone in the town knew him; no one disliked him. He had become a part of the landscape: “Crazy Jan.”

He came into my store one day, looking to buy some tape and two emery boards. I asked him why, so he told me. I suggested a long piece of wire, explaining how it might help the radio signal.

The next time he came into my corner store, about a week later, he didn’t buy anything. He tinkered around the small shop, touching things, looking at them up close, mumbling.

I asked him if he wanted some tea. He said yes. We sat on the cement slab out back under the canopy of yellow bell vines and drank lemongrass tea. We talked until the sun was low and Jan started fidgeting, saying he had to catch the last bus into the bush before dark.

I never saw his place, only heard about it. We talked about why we were there, that island in the tropics so far from our original homes, our families. The tourists called us ex-pats—but how you be an ex if you never were? We talked about how we would go to Panama one day; Buy a boat and chart our way around the Atlantic. Neither of us did one thing to make that a reality.

Sometimes weeks went by and I didn’t see Jan. When he did emerge from the bush, he looked wild eyed and ragged. He was talking about how he broke out of the wall; something about Peter who never did.

I saw him walking around in circles in the marketplace looking for a Muscovy duck. A rebel duck, he said. That’s what he wanted.

Eventually, he stumbled into the store and slumped onto a stool, looking spent.

 

“They’ll put me away,” he said. “That’s all they wanted to do with me.”

 

“Who are they?” I asked. The sunlight prismed through my crystals in the window.

 

He cast me look of disgust, like I should know. “They said lithium would help. But it kills you. It gives you cancer. Cancer!” He shouted. He lurched forward. I stepped back and he retracted into a small crumpled man on the stool, his head in his hands.

 

“I tried it,” I said.

 

“What?” He looked up.

 

“Lithium. I tried it. It didn’t work, I mean, I didn’t feel any better, just a different type of bad.”

 

“How do you—on the bad days what do you do?”

 

“The crystals help.” I said. “It’s light therapy. You have to sun your crystals. You should try it.”

 

Jan stood up rubbing his face and shakig his head, “The crystals can’t save you Sharla. It’s all in your head.”

 

He walked through the door and into the town shouting it. “The crystals can’t save you!”

 

About six weeks later, a man from the bush village came into my store trying to sell me a short wave radio with a broken antenna held together with wire. I bought it. Waiting tensely for him to leave, locked the door, then I wrecked the store. I threw my crystals in a bag and dropped them in the latrine out back.

 

I tossed myself in the heap of overturned trinkets and junk and cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I my face was marked pink from being pressed into a pile of objects. I immediately remembered where I put the crystals and ran outside with a long stick to fish them out, scum, feces and all. I spent all day washing them and rocking back and forth, talking to myself. I chose this over the drugs. No one had to see.

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The Storm

A pony-drawn hearse rolled up for my father. He was still alive but very sick and surely would not survive the storm.
There were murmurs of a great storm roaring our way over the hills and gaining power. The murmurs grew and spilled out into great worries and the worries turned to terror. We didn’t even board up the windows of our house because it was futile: this was the storm that would end my life and the lives of my parents.

At first there was a small rain shower and it blew over. But we could see clouds jelling up,  inky on the horizon.

We sat down in unusual places about the shack—on jutting rocks and firewood stumps—and our stomachs grew tight and sour with worry. We wondered what death was going to feel like and how, exactly, each of us would die.

We decided that my father would die first. Probably as soon as the first winds hit. We commented on how well crafted his coffin was and how he would have loved the little horse that drew the hearse carriage. He was alive, but we spoke about him as if he were dead. We all would be soon, anyway. The frilly grey hearse-pulling pony fluffed at our compliments. I quietly wondered if she knew she was going to die in the storm.

As the day drew onward, we became more certain of our enclosing doom. The deep, primal fear of death was crippling. All we could do was sit facing the grayest horizon intensely watching for signs of the approaching storm. We didn’t eat, but we drank lots of water and felt the weight of eternal sadness. We talked about the things we’d never done but had always wanted to do. We talked about how silly all of our philosophies were because, after all, no one really knew what would happen after the storm came; after we died–who knew?

Then we fell silent and I tried with all of my might not to think about how it would happen to me. Would it be the beam supporting the gutter? Would it be that heavy stone bookend on the shelf or maybe a tree branch outside or the board on the swing rope? Maybe it would be one of the thin, sharp sheets of zinc that made up the roof? Would it be my head that was smashed first? Would I feel pain? If so, how much and for how long?

Suddenly there was a loud, piercing clap of thunder and we all heaved from our cores and looked again at the sky for signs of the storm. Clouds were moving in fast. At first they were just puffy gray rainclouds sprinting across the sky.
But I was the first to see it. The real beginning of the end. Clouds the color of coal that no one had ever seen before. The first ones were moving so fast they looked like foreboding inky tumbleweeds. I cried out when I saw them and we all huddled together in dread and awe. So this was the end of days. The storm about which no one would ever live to tell.

The black clouds kept flying in, some round; some thin and wispy like celestial spiders warning of the nearness of doom.

Then the rain began to fall. It rained very hard and all of us were so worried that we were getting sicker and weaker and we sat and watched the rain as we suffered fear of death. The suffering grew to a point where we agreed that the faster the storm came, the better.

Still, the frightening ink clouds kept coming, some bigger than others. The feeling I got from the sight of these clouds pricked at my skin. It dried up my mouth no matter how much water I drank and it shook every single joint in my body. Just looking at the sky and seeing the cloud-spiders jabbed at my bladder and slackened my sphincters so that I was terrorized, a horrifying type of pain beforehand unknown to me.

My head felt light and hollow. Thoughts started to echo. Death was breathing down my neck and would enter my body at any moment. Soon our house would be splintered into toothpicks. Our bodies, shredded waste on a floodplain.

I could endure the pain, I told myself. I had not choice, really. None of us did. None of us wanted to suffer, but it was too late. I secretly hoped it would be the beam supporting the gutter: one crack and it all would be over. How could I welcome the very thing we all dread the most? Death, the event we reject with an instinctual fierceness? This fierce will to live once radiated from an ancient place between our ears: survival at all costs. Survive and procreate so that the race will survive. That was the survivor’s creed.

But this storm. This storm to end all storms. It was different than a catastrophic hurricane. Rumor of its ultimate destruction came from the inside out and not the other way around. The storm itself was communicating with our bones. It was waking some primeval senses stored away for long ages of creation; a primal code lodged in our existence: long before we flopped out of the ocean we knew about this storm.

The black clouds started rolling out faster, a grim light blurred the lines of night and day. It washed over everything with a thick, sickening gloss. But the hearse looked peaceful. I lay on the kitchen’s earth floor. I could no longer stand. It had been so long since we first heard of the storm: One day running the expanse of my entire life and pinching me from all I that seemed to matter before.

It got to the point where my spine could barely support my body. More clouds. This was the end. None of us has any doubts. We stopped talking. We didn’t even say goodbye. We just knew it was time.

The sadness I felt was too profound to express, it ripped at my guts and my throat and far beyond my physical body it endured into my soul, into the far reaches of my psyche, it stuck like tar into unidentified places and planes of existence. We could not even moan or shout in agony because by now we were completely paralyzed in fear. Even the hearse-drawing pony drooped her head and fell to her forelegs and all of a sudden, a great wind whipped the jungle.

Outside, branches thrashed violently. Birds cried and rain rang and the sounds swirled together and comforting, and comforting, almost like a blanket, that which I had feared was draped over me. So I relaxed and let go and found relief even in the pain because it would end: just an infinitesimal flash like the rest of my life.

I was a limp heap, soaking in the energy of the storm and welcoming everything it brought.
Then after some time, I noticed that the wind was dying down. Now, just the sound of the rain pittter-patter on the zinc lulled me to a calmer place. The black clouds were not getting any bigger. In fact, most of the sky was gray again. Twitching and delirious, I turned my head slightly to the side, feeling my cheek grind into the sandy floor.

Suddenly, I remembered something. It was such a vivid recollection that I started at its appearance in my head. I could almost hear my father’s voice as he told me, detail by detail, how he had once survived a vicious storm as a child. How could I have forgotten this story!

“I was a child,” he had said as I sat on his knee listening, “So I didn’t notice anything unusual except the rain. There was so much rain! It rained for days and weeks. It never stopped once. That is the worst part about these storms: The never-ending rain. We had to cook eggs on a metal plate held with a dishcloth over the candle. But it was not so bad. It was so long ago that I cannot remember each detail, but I remember the rain, and that it was not so bad.”

Immediately, I regained strength to raise to my feet and walked over and looked outside and the black clouds and the terror had vanished. I looked at the rain and it was steadily falling. But the wind was not much harder than a seasonal storm. It was then that it occurred to me to look around and I realized I was not alone. We all were still there. We got off of the floor and looked outside and felt a bit ashamed. We felt tricked and informed all at once.

It was a wonderfully frightening moment of shock, and, while I cringe at this confession, disappointment. So there was no storm to end all storms?  The worst thing would be the rain? And we were so embarrassed.

The first thing to do was change out of our soiled clothes. The fear had driven soft waste from out bodies.

And now it was me who had to gather firewood in the rain even though we knew it was never going to burn and we’d be splashing endless kerosene into a smoky fire into the deep recesses of the evening.

My father would complain of hunger and we all were so hungry and our clothing reeked and I shouted at the sky in a heated blast of anger. I hotly hoped the black clouds would reappear, big ones this time. I wanted the storm my primitive coding had promised.

Then, after wrestling with firewood and as the rain kept pouring forth the hours, I went to see if my father was awake. I wanted to tell him that I remembered. I remembered everything he told me, about the rain and the not-so-bad.

But when I looked for him he was gone and so were the enchanting pony and the beautiful, well-crafted coffin. They left just at the beginning of the rainstorm. When we were too struck with horror, the pony galloped away.

Still weak, I smiled.

~MF