The School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Hurst struggled to keep up with the van transporting Emily’s casket. He rarely drove at night anymore, and the way the oncoming headlights painted his hands the color of bone made him feel frail and hesitant, too old to attend the simple ceremonies of a death. At the American border, her body passed through easilyan unfolding of papers and a wave of the guard’s long metal flashlightand Hurst could only watch as the van sped off into the darkness while an officer searched his Buick. The border guard rifled through the trunk, clicking his tongue. "I’m awful sorry about your girlfriend, mister."
"We were more like longtime bridge partners," Hurst said, leaning over the young man’s shoulder to see what he was finding in the trunk. "But we lived together, too."
The border officer’s smile extinguished as he clicked off his flashlight. "All right, mister, you can go through now."
The sun lifted, turning white hot as it rose over the high plains. Hours of scorched Montana hissed by. South of Billings, Hurst’s car skidded off the highway and plunged into the shore of burnt grass along the roadside. He turned off the engine, slapped his cheeks, took one of Emily’s half-smoked cigarettes out of the ashtray, and put it to his lips. It was sour, and he could not taste the lipstick she’d kissed onto the filter.
In nine years living together Hurst had barely heard Emily speak of Wyoming, but as he pulled into her childhood homea place east of Yellowstone called Carsonthe loneliness of the little dirt-patch town made his heart slow. She’d admitted once it had been a decent place to grow up, before the new highway brought in the drug addicts and prostitutes, but she’d been clear about not wanting to go back until it was time to return for good.
The motel was a seedy row of closed doors. Each had a concrete stoop with a tin bucket of sand and spent cigarettes. The front office was empty. A shoe box with a hole cut in the top and CHECKS markered onto the side sat on the counter. Beside it, an envelope labeled Mr. Hurst held his room key. The windows to number seven were open and the rotten bleach odor of the motel hot tub had attached itself to everything inside. The trash cans told of protected sex and chocolate bingeing, a bedside table was strewn with a dozen brochures for Yellowstone Park. COME SEE THE ERUPTING GEYSERS!
He walked around the corner to a diner called Runny’s Grill. There were no other customers except for a plump little girl, no older than ten, sitting alone in a large semicircle booth, rolling an empty milk-shake glass between her palms. Hurst winked at her in the friendly manner that he figured old men were supposed to use when winking at children. The girl’s eyes narrowed and she raised her middle finger at him. He ordered a BLT, to go.
When he got back to his room, rock music ached through the wall. He spread his dinner on the table and did his best to enjoy it, until he realized that what he’d thought to be the music’s bass beat was actually number eight’s headboard thumping against the other side of his wall. The radio went to commercial and the yaklike sounds of a man’s determined grunting could be heard more clearly. Occasionally, a female voice offered guidance ("Slower, Victor! Slower!"). Though the couple’s cadence spread itself thinly, it continued so long that the constraints of endurance seemed no longer to apply. Finally it wound downan uncoiling rhythm, a decelerating engine.
Later, the headboard struck its final thump, the radio quit, and a door slammed the place quiet. Hurst had brought some of Emily’s things. He took them out: her favorite silver earrings, her old yellow robe. He set these things on a chair and watched them turn gray as the fading hour licked away the last rims of daylight.
Sleep led him into dreams of hellish sulfur pools, of falling in and sucking boiling liquid into his chest. He gasped awake and rolled over to see the clock radio surge 2:41 before blinking out. The streetlamp outside fluttered, then died. A rattling din like the hooves of an approaching herd rose up and set the whole room trembling. Coffee mugs clattered against the tile counter in the bathroom. Something fell off the wall and shattered behind the television. Hurst’s suitcase slumped over in the dead light of the corner. As the shaking subsided, the concrete parking lot cracked and moaned like a frozen lake shouldering against its banks.
In the morning, Hurst parked a half-block short of the cemetery entrance on account of a two-foot-high buckle in the asphalt. A front-yard water main sprayed a rooster tail onto the sidewalk as a whole family looked on from their porch while eating breakfast.
At the front gate of the cemetery hung a cardboard sign reading, CEMETERY CLOSEDEARTHQUAKE, but the gate itself was not locked. Beyond the circular drive, a green backhoe lay on its side, leaking oil into a bed of morning glories. From the base of a tree, a crevice had opened in the earth and snaked up over a hill toward the burial grounds. It was as wide as a sidewalk and deep enough for a grown man to disappear into. Hurst walked along the crevice until he reached the crest of the hill and the cemetery grounds spread out below him. The fissure carried on for another few hundred yards, yawning open in places as wide as a car lane. Scores of gravestones lay on their faces. A ways off, a short-haired woman in dark slacks and suspenders gave orders to a man in overalls. Nearer, two workmen stood looking into the crack in the earth.
Hurst passed a row of gravestones that bowed forward reverently. Then he saw themdozens of coffins peeking up from inside the fissure, rusted metal domes and rotting wood boxes. A few had been thrust upward, almost breaching the surface. One had splintered open and was perhaps showing its contents to a different vantage point. The earth, he thought, was giving them back.
"Sir!" shouted a man’s voice. The woman with suspenders was a man, a petite fellow with sloped shoulders and a thin cap of black hair gelled against his skull. He hustled closer on little legs. "Please, sir. The cemetery is closed."
"My friend is supposed to be buried this morning."
"I’m sorry." Beads of sweat shimmered on the man’s temples. "As you can see, sir, we have a bit of an emergency."
"But I drove all the way down from Calgary."
"Please." The man took Hurst by the elbow. "You’ll have to wait until tomorrow."
Hurst let himself be walked to the entrance, where the petite man locked the gate behind him. "Does this happen often?" asked Hurst, but the man was already scrambling away.
Again, the shoe box manned the counter of the motel office. Thinking he’d wait for the manager to return, Hurst took his time writing a check to pay for a second night’s stay. He thought how Emily’s name should be removed from the checks. They’d combined bank accounts to simplify their lives, moved in together for the same reason, but now it seemed insulting to have her name on things. It wasn’t right for her to be paying bills, for her name to be jammed into a shoe box at some awful motel. It was important to get her into the ground and off their checks sooner rather than later. He folded the check into his pocket and went back to the room to read the Yellowstone brochures. The pictures of the park were supposed to be beautiful, but he found them hectic, ominous even. So much volcanic disorder. The whole place seemed a cancerous pock on the earth’s surface.
Through the window, a little girl approached with a wooden crate in her arms. She was a rotund creature with straight yellow hair and a green uniform full of unflattering angles and colorful badges. The uniform looked to have been made from a single piece of fabric fastened recklessly around her like a knee-length toga.
He swung open his door. "Yes?"
The girl stopped along his walkway. She leaned the crate forward to show him its contents, bright boxes of something edible.
"You’re the little brat from the diner, aren’t you?"
"I’m a Girl Scout," she replied.
"No, you’re not. I’ve seen Girl Scouts. You’re the girl who gave me the finger."
She idled patiently, chewing the cud of her cheek. "I’m really poor," she finally said. "We hardly have enough to eat. I couldn’t afford a real uniform, so my mother made this one."
He looked her over. Her pudginess belied the claims of hunger. "Well, I’m sorry for that," he said. "Your mother’s not much of a seamstress. In the army they taught me how to sew better than that."
She stepped closer. "Would you like to buy some cookies?"
He did not. But the girl’s resolve intrigued him, unmoved as she was by his meanness. She advanced to the bottom of his stoop, placing a foot on the first step, the crate of cookies coming to rest on her thigh. As her knee rose, the coarse green fabric of the uniform lifted off her shoulders.
"This is a motel," he said. "Not a house."
She rattled the crate. "If you buy some, I’ll get out of your face."
The offer was tempting. There was a loose bill in the pocket of his slacks, a tissue-soft ten he’d found in the dryer some days before. He’d been learning to do his own laundry for the first time in his life, and the appearance of coins and wadded Kleenexes came as a regular reminder of his ineptitude. But the ten-dollar billfatigued and clinging to a blouse of hershad foretold something worse than simple incompetence, something cheerless and permanent, a new life on his own beset with these kinds of small disheartening moments.
The girl huffed, suddenly impatient, and wiped her nose on the sash hanging diagonally across her torso. What were supposed to be merit badges on the sash were actually political buttons and a dull antique brooch probably stolen off her mother’s dresser. And up close he saw her uniform was not sewn at all, but clipped together with dozens of safety pins along one side of her body. Between the sutures, little lobes of pink skin peeked out.
Compilation copyright 2008 by John Kulka and Natalie Danford
Introduction copyright © 2008 by Mary Gaitskill
"Yellowstone" copyright © 2008 by Baird Harper
"Weather Enough" copyright © 2008 by Will Boast
"Wintering" copyright © 2008 by Anastasia Kolendo
"The Monkey King" copyright © 2005 by Sharon May
"Little Stones, Little Pistols, Little Clash" copyright © 2008 by Jacob Rubin
"Salvation Army" copyright © 2008 by Mehdi Tavana Okasi
"Love for Miss Dottie" copyright © 2008 by Larry N. Mayer
"Mules" copyright © 2008 by Erin Brown
"Look Ma, I’m Breathing" copyright © 2008 by Suzanne Rivecca
"Statehood" copyright © 2005 by Kevin A. González, originally appeared in Playboy
"Welcome Home" copyright © 2008 by Theodore Wheeler
"Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" copyright © 2006 by Nam Le
"The Fantôme of Fatma" copyright © 2008 by Otis Haschemeyer
"The Still Point" copyright © 2007 by Lydia Peelle
"Yellowstone" originally appeared in CutBank Literary Magazine.
"The Monkey King" appeared in different form in the Chicago Tribune.
"Statehood" appeared in different form in Playboy.
"Weather Enough" appeared in different form in Mississippi Review.
"Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" appeared in different form in Zoetrope: All-Story and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007.
"The Still Point" appeared in different form in Epoch, Vol. 56, No. 1.
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