When Richie Thorpe and his ragtag religious band of ex-thieves arrive in the High Plains town of Suborney, Colorado, Tommy Sandor is captivated by the group. It’s the summer of 1980 in the dusty, junkyard town, and the seventeen-year-old is wrestling with the forces shaping America and himself: the Iran hostage crisis, the incoming tide of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and the political rise of the Christian Right. As Tommy is increasingly drawn to the group, his mother, Connie, grows frantic. She has been hiding the truth from her son, telling him that his father was a saxophonist from New York who never knew he had a child, and is lying low in Suborney to hide from Tommy’s actual father—Richie Thorpe. Connie knows Richie has come for his son, and though she has witnessed Thorpe’s mysterious powers, the desperation to protect her lie, her son, and their life begets a venom with an elemental power that threatens the whole town.
About the Author
Steven Wingate is the author of the award-winning short story collection Wifeshopping and the prose poem collection Thirty-One Octets: Incantations and Meditations. His interactive digital memoir daddylabyrinth premiered at the Art/Science Museum of Singapore. He is an associate professor of English at South Dakota State University.
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Saturday, July 5, 1980
Tommy Sandor was the kind of teenage man-child who liked to flex his neck in mirrors. A bull neck, a badass neck that made sure people thought twice about punching his face. Defiant, cable-like muscles between his shoulder blades held his spine straight up and his shoulders back. Nobody dared take a swing at Tommy Sandor unless they were ready to kill him, he believed, because that's what they'd have to do to keep him from fighting back. He pictured himself a few years older, with missing teeth and a Fu Manchu mustache like Jack Lambert, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker he used to want to be, back when he called himself a linebacker.
But that was months ago. Tommy smiled at his broad, bare chest in his bedroom mirror, ran his hand through his buzz-cut towhead hair to get the sweat out, and grabbed his saxophone case. Inside it sat a 1962 Selmer Mark VI tenor, made the same year he was conceived, which the music teacher at Widefield High School called the best sax ever made. He'd found it in the trunk of a totaled Buick at the junkyard, and most of its keys still worked. Tommy glanced at the subway map of New York City taped to his wall — J train, 7 train, 3 train — so he could quiz himself about the stations on his way to the abandoned church on Tumbleback Road, where every night he played his tenor like a man burning alive.
His father would be riding one of those trains right now, Tommy thought. Sax case in hand, knowing he'd never get famous but still playing because the music grabbed him by the throat and pulled him. He'd be on his way to the Village Vanguard or Arthur's Tavern or one of those loft clubs Tommy read about in the New York Times at the library. Did he ever wonder if he'd left a piece of himself behind on the dry, cracked plains? A child he never even knew existed?
"Hey, motherfucker," Tommy told his father as he flipped off the map. Drake, that's what his mom said the man's name was. "Bet you never played a sax this good in your whole life, huh?"
Tommy knew how stupid he sounded, talking like a New York street rat when he was just some hick from a nowhere town that people twenty miles away didn't even know existed. Drake was the real deal, though. A Lower East Side scumbag, living the junkie life like so many sax men before him. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane until they died. Sonny Rollins for a while. Tommy pictured his dad getting off the subway train, climbing past the piss-smelling drunks, and hauling himself up the stairs of the Second Avenue F train station. Then loping down the street, dodging people who thought he owed them favors, to his apartment building in Alphabet City. Or maybe to the bed of some other woman he'd tricked into loving him. A woman he'd ditch before she even knew she was knocked up, like he did to Connie Sandor at the Red Willow County Fair in McCook, Nebraska, in July of 1962.
Fuck him. Fuck that loser who couldn't even stick around to give his son a name. Tommy got sick of looking at his mirror and strode through the kitchen, where his mom's state patrolman boyfriend, Dan Stannard, had left his dirty dishes on the table yet again. Connie sat on the couch watching TV with the sound down while she paid the bills, waiting for the nine o'clock news to start. She still wore her white work blouse, which showed more skin than Tommy needed to see. Than any man needed to see, if you asked him.
"Hey, Tom-Tom," Connie said, stretching an auburn curl down to her freckled cheek and flicking it up past her eyebrow. "I need to get this cut soon, don't I?"
"Don't get it cut too nice." Tommy leaned against the archway between the kitchen and living room. "You don't want a better man than Sheriff Bullshit noticing you."
"Stop saying that. It'll make life easier when you have to call him 'Dad.'"
"I'll call him 'Dad' once. When you give me my thousand bucks and I —"
"Go to New York, I know." Connie tucked her lanky calves beneath her rump and shot Tommy the You'll learn someday smile he hated most. "All you know about New York is what you picked up from watching Barney Miller. That and the library books you stole."
The news came on, and Tommy walked over to turn up the sound. Theme music swelled as the anchorwoman smiled at the anchorman, then she narrowed her eyes and set her jaw as a big American flag and the number 243 popped onto the screen beside her. The hostages in Iran were still in Iran, she said. The sick one was still sick, and Americans were fed up with being weak. Americans wanted someone with the courage to do what needed to be done before we lost our place in the world forever, and Jimmy Carter did absolutely nothing. Next came Ronald Reagan at a rally, with people climbing over each other to touch his fingertips like he was the saint of America.
"You fill out your draft card?" Connie asked. "Or are you back to wanting to join the marines?"
"It's not the draft, Mom, it's Selective Service."
"My dad joined when he was seventeen. He didn't wait for anybody to select him." She noticed her son's chest when he flexed his shoulders, just like he wanted her to. "Put a shirt on, Tommy. You'll catch cold walking home."
"Might not be walking home if your boyfriend's coming back over tonight."
"Can't I try to love somebody?" Connie shifted on the couch, pulling her skirt down to cover her knees.
"Maybe you should try loving somebody who isn't married to somebody else."
"They're hardly married. Haven't been for years."
"Married's married, Mom. There's no almost about it. Isn't that what his brother's always preaching on the radio?"
"Put a shirt on." She picked up a bill from the table and tried to hold onto her smile. Tommy was slipping away, but that's what boys did. "Don't want to drive all those girls out there too crazy."
"What girls?" he said. At least she got a smile out of him. As Tommy stepped outside, Connie tried to remember him before he got muscles and zits, before he started talking back and screwing girls. Before the sax obsession and the jazz books under his mattress like porn, before running toward Jesus and running away from Jesus and not talking about Jesus at all. The little boy who used to follow behind her singing for no good reason at all was now lost forever to hormonal rage and that stupid noise he called bebop. Tommy opened the door to retrieve his hat — green and Australian and ratty, a three-dollar Goodwill special with the brim buttoned up on one side — from its peg by the door.
"Can't leave without that," Connie said as he slapped it on his head.
"Nope." He blew her a kiss so she'd know he still loved her, and then he was out on the streets. Though you couldn't really call them streets because there wasn't an inch of asphalt in Suborney, Colorado, except for the parking lots at Pete Sowell's gas station and Jeff Heagren's junkyard. Suborney was a junkyard town, where all the crap nobody needed in Colorado Springs went to die, and if you took away Sowell's and Heagren's, you had nothing but twenty-eight houses — counting the empties — and forty-three people. Waiting-to-die ex-farmers mostly. Not the ones who sold their farms to buy giant houses in Colorado Springs, like some of them did, but the ones who got foreclosed on and barely had enough money to buy a shack in a junkyard town that could blow away without anybody noticing.
Tommy walked up Mangum Street past the Mukasics' house. Jim and Marcine, sitting on their blue plaid couch watching a rerun of Alice, had been waiting to die the longest. He had to remember to take their trash to the dump — that's the other thing Suborney was famous for, being on the way to the dump. Half the people who set foot in town came for Heagren's junk and the other half for Sowell's gas after they dumped their trash.
"G'night, Tom-Tom," called Julie Parness from the next house. She was a little young for Suborney, only fifty, but made up for it by being the kind of drunk who slept until afternoon. She swung silently on her front porch swing, its chains sprayed with WD40 every Sunday so they wouldn't creak against the eye bolts. Tommy only waved back at Julie, wanting to save his breath for the scale that rolled through his body.
The low D was hard to hit, since that key wouldn't close all the way, and for some reason the high C gave him trouble too. But he didn't mind because the bad keys gave him notes that bent and songs that sounded like nobody else's — that didn't even sound like bebop, to be honest. He'd felt those notes bending themselves into a scale in his bedroom after supper while he clenched his teeth and listened to Sheriff Bullshit lecture his mom about the Ayatollah. Jimmy Carter wasn't doing shit to stop him because he was the biggest pussy America ever put in the White House, but Reagan — who for sure was no pussy — could make this country stand up for itself again. If we have to march into Iran and kill the bad people so the good ones can be free, he said, then so be it. Because freedom's the most important thing, and if Americans don't stand up for it all over the world, what good are we?
Uh huh, his mom said back, nodding along to the idea of a war that her own son might die in. Tommy had almost bitten his tongue in half listening to Stannard's bullshit, and now he was desperate to get his lips around that mouthpiece and say a few things back. He passed the big oak tree at the end of Mangum Street that must have had a hundred yellow ribbons on it for the hostages, then took a right onto Road X. How stupid it was, how much like torture, that his dad came from a part of New York that had Avenue A and B and C, and here he was stuck at the ass end of nowhere with Road X and Y and Z.
Shithole town. Shithole life. Tommy knelt to open his sax case, pulling out a reed and sticking it in his mouth to wet it, then walked double-time toward the church switching hands on the case every fifty paces. He'd walk all the way to New York like that someday, getting his arms strong and stopping to play wherever he felt like it. Gas stations, highway exits, the middles of fields, abandoned storefronts. Making himself a genius, the way Sonny Rollins did by playing on the Williamsburg Bridge every day, until he was ready to show up at one of Daddy Drake's gigs. He'd blow on that busted Selmer like nobody else on the fucking planet, with more attack than anybody because he focused all the hate and lostness inside himself down to a single note that blasted out of his bell like shrapnel.
Drake would hear it and know This is my son. He'd take Tommy out to meet every big-time sax player he knew, saying, "You gotta hear my kid, man. Plays like a wild animal that just got a soul."
Someday, Tommy believed. But first he had to get out of Suborney. He skirted along Road X by the widest bend of Suborney Creek, which barely reached his shins this time of year. He waved at the storage shack across the water on Carl Mangetti's land, where he used to go when he felt like running away from home, then watched his feet to keep from stepping in the dog shit that Sam Kurtep never bothered picking up. Next came Tim Fiddler's house, with its big white cross in the front yard. It had the number 243 painted on a sign where Jesus's head would be and another saying NUKE IRAN where his feet would be.
Wouldn't Jesus hate that? Tommy couldn't tell anymore what Jesus would hate and not hate. Some people said he didn't hate anything at all, and other people had a huge list of things he hated that looked exactly like their own list. The Ayatollah, any kind of Arab, plus the Commies and the faggots and anybody who didn't love the American flag. And if you weren't white? Then tough shit. There were plenty of people like that in Colorado Springs, getting on the TV and radio and telling the whole country that taking American hostages was the first shot in a new holy war. One of them was on the radio that blared away on Fiddler's empty porch, saying he'd fly over and kill the Ayatollah with his bare hands if Carter let him.
"You think God wants the Ayatollah shaming our country?" the voice asked its listeners. "Or do you think God wants somebody to show the Ayatollah who's boss?"
For Fiddler, that somebody was Ronald Reagan. A REAGAN COUNTRY banner filled his whole front window, and a big American flag hung by the door, touching the ground the way Tommy's ex-Air Force history teacher in eighth grade said that no American flag should ever do. People like Fiddler loved their country and their God, all right — at least enough to send teenage kids halfway around the world to kill and be killed. Every second Tommy spent in Suborney ripped him up because everybody in town was for Reagan, Reagan, Reagan, like America was dying and nobody else had the balls to bring it back to life. Even Ed Dolman, his asshole boss at the junkyard who never gave a shit about politics until Reagan came along, had a sign in his window saying THE TIME IS NOW.
"Hey, dumbass," Tommy told the house. "You vote for him, you go fight for him."
But Dolman was probably up in Colorado Springs, out chasing tail and violating parole. He'd spent three years at the state pen in Canon City for stealing a truckload of Puma sneakers and inherited his parents' house while he was locked up. Didn't even lift a finger for it. Tommy flipped the bird at Dolman's front door and turned left onto Tumbleback Road, getting ready to lean into the wind because he was on the stretch that gave the road its name. Where the wind blew back and forth across the plains, funneled almost into a whirlpool by the big lump of Lester Hill no matter what direction it came from. A quarter-mile of road where everything that wasn't nailed down tumbled into Suborney, then tumbled back out again, sooner or later.
Tumbleweed sometimes, but mostly junk that didn't quite make it to the dump or didn't want to stay there. A gallon bottle of Clorox bleach, cut in half to make a scoop. Sunday comics and restaurant placemats and Polaroid photos, stuck in the weedy ditches on either side of the road. A Styrofoam box from a Big Mac. Soda cans, beer cans, milk cartons, a worn-out folding sun visor for somebody's front windshield. As sad as the junk made Tommy, he found a beauty in it that made the songs he carried in his chest rise closer to his lips. It was his junk because Suborney was his town — the place he had to fight his way out of to call himself a man. He had to love that junk because he came from it. Its molecules were in his lungs and blood, and when he escaped his prison and looked back, he'd have to thank the junk for giving him the desperation to break out.
Tommy almost fell over from leaning into the wind because it was barely blowing that night. A few paper scraps lifted and floated and fell again, but the heavier stuff stayed still. It was the hushed, not-quite-baking part of July, before the ground got hard as cement and grew cracks and people started praying for rain. When he got to the abandoned church, the wind stilled completely. Not even the tall grass in the roadside ditches moved — like the sky itself had stopped, waiting to hear Tommy play his sax.
It was a white church with a stone foundation, older than anybody in town. Paint worn off by the weather, revealing bare wood beneath. A bell tower too rickety to climb. He stopped halfway up the rotting steps and stared at the big double doors as if someone were waiting for him inside. That couldn't be because it was abandoned before he was born, and only he and Dolman used it. Tommy knocked anyway.
"Anybody here?" he asked, pulling the left door open. Inside, things looked the same as ever. Boards up where the windows should be. Same junk as always, waiting until Dolman had the guts to quit Heagren's junkyard and open the store in Pueblo that he kept jabbering about. Same sewing machines, ten-speeds, crates of red roof tile. A tuxedo wrapped in plastic, a red bathrobe with yellow birds on it, six TVs, an encyclopedia set with N and H missing.
Tommy stepped to the little round stage he'd made in the center of the church floor, cleared of junk and lit by a single bulb he'd rigged up the day Dolman taught him to jack electricity from power lines. Then he stepped into the nook he'd made next to his stage so he could spy on the crowd while he put his tenor together. He could peek out from behind the imaginary curtains of some imaginary jazz club, gauging the vibe as he twisted the curved metal neck onto the Selmer's body and tightened it down, then twisted the mouthpiece onto the corked end of the neck.
Always put it together standing up, Drake reminded him. Your breath has to come out of your lungs straight, so get your mouthpiece right for how you're standing that night.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Of Fathers and Fire"
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Acknowledgements