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The Expense of a View
2016 Winner, Katherine Anne Porter Prize In Short Fiction
By Polly Buckingham
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2016 Polly Buckingham
All rights reserved.
The neighbor is in jail. The words snitch, rat, and dead man and two frowny faces are spray-painted the color of charcoal across his trailer. What idiot thinks a frowny face is threatening? Her laughter, edgily uncontrollable, feels inappropriate. Beside the trailer is a half dismembered motorcycle chained to cinderblocks, and below it, a large oil stain. Everything has the appearance of having been disrupted and abandoned without warning.
It's April, and the branches of the Siberian elm are lined with golden buds, each a tiny replica of the sun, and the sun is finally warm enough to warm her face. Everything is in transition — the meth head is gone, new neighbors moved into the house behind the trailer, and she herself is a transplant with a new job and no new friends. It hurts to swallow, as if glass is stuck in her throat. It's no surprise she would be getting sick, a danger at the core of any great transit. Last night's bottle of wine hasn't helped. But at least the sun warms even her hands and hair. She's picked up the wayward garbage blown in from other people's yards and collected branches and sticks. After a few more slugs of coffee, she'll head to the woodshed for the ax, hoping the exertion of chopping might push away the hangover and illness.
It takes two visits to the woodshed before she sees the dog. She knows it's dead immediately, though there's no bad smell. It looks like it's sleeping — an old Labrador, rust-colored and sweet. Are those shadows on its face or pockmarks where the cheek has been eaten away? Sunlight presses against her back, but the dog is in a darkness and coolness that betrays the day, and the shadows feel tricky and deceiving. She backs up, in case she's wrong, in case it is alive, in case it rises snarling. The dog is like the wasps' nests that line the angles of the ceiling — they shouldn't be active yet, but you can't help but worry. You can never underestimate an injured animal. She closes the door, squints into the bright sun. All the branches seem to wag. A new afternoon wind spins in her ears.
She's pretty sure she saw this dog last week, poised in the empty field between the new neighbor's house and hers, gazing in her direction. She'd worried about her old cat, but then she noticed its paunchy face, the white around its muzzle, its long stare, and the way it stood like old dogs stand, as if it were work. Inside the chill dark house, assaulted by the smell of dirty dishes and cat pee, she searches through small collections of papers for the landlord's card, frustrated by her mess and her inability to locate anything with any shred of efficiency. The landlord, taciturn, says, "Don't have his number." But then, minutes later, the new neighbor calls. He'll be at work until nine. He'll send his son to pick up the dog. He's sorry, he says. The dog's been missing a week. "I thought my ex-wife took her. She hasn't been answering our calls." She does not want to think about ex-wives or the fact that the dog may have been in her shed as long as a week, having crawled in through an old animal door.
She's sitting on the porch step, hopeful she can simply point to the shed, and the son will collect the dog. But the son seems too young to drive, let alone drive a pickup that size. He doesn't know what to say when she rises to greet him. She realizes, looking athis thin face on the verge of adulthood, that this is his first death. It is not her first death. Death is the one thing in which she is most well-versed.
"She's been around most of my life." He pauses as if it hurts. "She's a good dog."
"How old is she?"
"Thirteen," he says. "She's my sister's dog really," as if this will remove him from his grief.
They peer into the darkness of the shed. "What's her name?"
"Honey," he says, "for her color."
She is not honey-colored. Perhaps copper or rustcolored, but not honey.
"I have some tarps I was going to take to the dump," she says.
They fold the tarps into a makeshift gurney. She crouches beside the dog's head, scared of what she might find underneath, maggots, mice? But she cannot ask this boy to lift the head. Honey has not been dead long, which feels like a miracle; there are no maggots, no pockmarks, nothing eaten away, only a small pool of blood where the dog's nose rests. She remembers the fistsized blood stain that must have marked the moment of her first dog's death, how the next dog licked the stain away. When she lifts Honey's head, she reaffirms the dog's loveliness. She gives her shoulder three pats. Dust rises into the light that now streams through the cracks in the shed and turns Honey's fur her namesake color. Even the sap beaded around the rings of the stacked wood glows a deep amber color in the fugitive light.
That night she sits on the porch step with a quart jar of honey produced by a nearby beekeeper. She eats spoonful after spoonful, though the sugar will feed the sore throat. She thinks of the man she loved before she moved here, though they never spoke of it. For three years, he inhabited her dreams. They were so connected in these dreams that the waking world, where their union was impossible, felt secondary. "Honey," he said, the night she rested her cheek against his chest, that last night, and did not move away. And then they fell back into their shared silence. A boy on a black motorcycle with a black Mohawk on his helmet whizzes by then disappears into the twilight. Something is coming, but she does not know what.CHAPTER 2
From his upstairs glassed-in porch, Will has an osprey's view of the water surrounding his dock, now lit by an underwater light. He is watching for snook. Some night soon, he is certain, there will be a net filled with a curving silver fish, and until then he can spend his time waiting. Lord knows there's enough time. He fills his wine glass and examines the cut panels of the Waterford alive with tiny street lights. It's hard not to break the goddamn windows most nights, no, all nights. It's hard. You must fill time. Which is why he installed the underwater light last Saturday, a day's project and an evening considering whether it was done right.
Coquina Bay is a dark plate surrounded by a sickle-shaped seawall. In the distance is the loom of downtown St. Petersburg. But here, the lights of houses across the bay are as infrequent as stars. He's been sitting in the window every night for the past three weeks watching for snook. For three weeks he has not even attempted sleep, though mornings he finds himself waking angry in his chair from dreams he can't remember. Mornings white sunlight crashes into his half-opened eyes, and mornings, he kicks the wall, or the other chair, or the narrow, wrought iron coffee table.
The first night after his son's death, he threw a rock at a streetlight. One rock. It clunked against the glass and fell to the ground; no glass broke. But now the light flickers occasionally like it's trying to burn out, and he's proud. His office is dark except for sudden flickers of light shining into the porch and casting momentary shadows across the orderly desk, the bookshelves, and the file cabinets. The lyrics to "Hard Times" rattle around in his head. He can't keep these things from moving through his brain: the sound of his dead son's fingers on strings, his cracking adolescent voice, and the lyrics to old folk songs. "What's so hard?" Will used to say. "You've got a great life." Will's father played "Hard Times" too. The seawall and dock are about ten yards from Will's house across a narrow dirt road which dead ends after one more house hidden behind palmetto bushes and fruit trees. Visibility from this height, especially with the new light, is exceptional. Will takes a long drink of wine and watches the wavering green water.
* * *
"Willy," his father said. "Don't be scared. It's all light in there, see?"
The cold water from the center of the spring curled around the warm water and wiped against Willy's legs. "It's cold," he said. The warm water was brown, but the spring was green like a swimming pool. Other people stood knee deep in the muddy water. A woman splashed water on her shoulders and arms. Willy and his father were closer to the spring than anyone.
"It's mineral water from a subterranean spring," his father said. "See what a pretty color it is?"
It was a pretty color — bright green, unlike the brown river roped off by red buoys and crossed with the reflections of cypress knees. His father called the knees gnomes, but Willy could never quite see the pointed hats and crooked smiles his father saw.
"What's at the bottom?" Willy asked, looking into the green circle.
"There is no bottom. It's like an underwater cave. Magic down there. A whole 'nother time and place. You could just disappear."
"Uh uh," Willy said, holding his father's hand a little tighter.
"An explorer named Ponce De Leon searched for a spring called the Fountain of Youth because one sip made you young." Old ladies in bathing suits with skirts waded through the murky water.
"That's impossible," Willy said.
"Ponce De Leon believed it."
"Are there fish down there?"
"What do you think?"
"Are there sharks?"
"There are Ichituckni Spring Fish."
"Do they have teeth?"
"Not big ones. But if you take an Ichituckni Spring Fish out of the spring, colors would float up into the air, colors thick as paint, colors so bright they might even stain your arms or your face."
His father touched Willy's nose. "Like this," he said.
Willy looked at his father's finger, but there was nothing on it.
"I don't see anything."
* * *
Night after night Will watches for the snook. Tonight's no different. The first night he had one glass of wine, the second two, and so on. The red numbers of a digital clock on his desk read 3:03. Three. Three weeks exactly from the day of his son's death. The father son and the holy ghost. BIN 333, was that the number? Anyway, that bottle was at least a week ago. An Australian wine. A night to forget. He made the stupid mistake of going into Jimmy's room. Not tonight though. Nope. Never again. Not going to leave this window spot. Uh uh. The snook will come. A fucking falling streetlamp. Who does that happen to? Who? Goddamn Jimmy's creativity. Goddamn all his paintings and his musings and his dreams. Goddamn his creepy songs, and goddamn all the music. Goddamn all the music.
* * *
The finger picking hadn't stopped. Hours Will had listened to his son playing the same lick over and over. He'd play the lick, stop, play a tape, then play the lick again. From what Will could hear, the tape was some Florida bluegrass guy picking a tune then telling a story. Likely it was someone Will had met as a child, some alcoholic musician who'd drifted into his father's kitchen and drifted out again, some no-name fuck-up who'd left his wife and kid for a night, or a week, or a month to hit the road. Be free. These guys — there was always some other woman, or many of them. There was always a sidekick who'd wave a bottle or a handful of pills and off they'd go.
Jimmy moved on from picking to storytelling. Will heard his muffled voice striking close as it could to that slow Florida mumble. Did he have any idea what he was imitating? If this was any indication of how the first summer after college was to proceed, Will intended on putting a stop to it. College life hadn't made Jimmy more responsible, more capable of waking up each morning prepared for each day, or more presentable; instead, dorm life had made him even sloppier, and indignant —"It's my choice how I want to live," Jimmy would say, leaving a beer without a coaster on a wood coffee table. At least he'd been polite not long ago, inept sometimes, but polite.
Will put his drink down on the coffee table and put Invention and Technology face down on the chair. He'd been reading the same paragraph of the same article — about the engineering strategy behind the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge — for over half an hour. He'd grown accustomed to the quiet house of the past year, and if it hadn't been the beginning of the summer, if he hadn't felt, on principle, a need to put an end to this early, if Carol hadn't been napping in the bedroom down the hall from Jimmy's room (though admittedly, Carol praised Jimmy's playing, and she never would have complained — in fact, she'd probably claim the music made her dreams sweeter), and if he hadn't had such an awful, awful headache, perhaps the music wouldn't have gotten to him quite so much. Perhaps he would have done things differently.
He walked briskly up the steps and opened Jimmy's door without knocking, without even thinking to knock. Jimmy, sitting cross-legged on the floor in boxers, the guitar in his arms, looked up, his eyes, squinty and red, his face ashen. He was wasted. In Will's house, with his mother in the next room. With Will downstairs.
"Enough," Will said. "I've had enough of this."
Jimmy stared at him, bewildered, blank. Stoned.
"You do your drugs and play your music somewhere else." It sounded ludicrous the moment it entered the air between them, but too late. He, too, could be indignant.
They stared at each other, and in that stare, Will saw at once his error and his incapacity to admit it. Jimmy was perfectly alert. Emotion moved across his face as it had when he was a child, some dark wave no one could stop, and those tears Will had endured for so long began to flood Jimmy's eyes. Then the bewilderment on his face turned to anger. "Fuck you," he said.
"You keep your voice down. Your mother's sleeping in the next room."
"Get out," Jimmy said. "This is my room. This is my noise."
"Well keep your noise down." Will backed out of the room and shut the door, knowing too well how many lines he'd just crossed.
Downstairs he drank the last half of his drink and poured another, scotch and ice in a tumbler with an anchor on it. He was walking back into the living room when Jimmy came down the steps in a tie dye and ripped jeans. He was carrying his denim laundry bag, his guitar, and a folded page of newspaper. He was barefoot.
"Here," he said shoving the newspaper into his father's surprised hand. Then he left.
The article, from the morning paper Will had left scattered on the kitchen counter, showed a wallet-sized picture of Gamble Rogers, one of Florida's leading folk singers and storytellers, and Jimmy's idol. It was a short article describing his death off the coast of Jackson Beach. He had drowned in an attempt to save a tourist caught in a current.
God, Jimmy had left barefoot.
* * *
Imagine, the last time you see your son and he's barefoot. You don't know it, but he's about to get in a car and drive out onto Interstate 75 and a highway lamp is creaking on its hinges, just as you're saying some biting thing to this kid who you wish didn't scare you so much every time you looked at him, who didn't unnerve the very core of you every time he pulled out the guitar, whose music didn't piss you off and make the deepest part of you regret all you have become. You don't know it, but after you've said this thing you could have said any other day, and after your boy hits the highway barefoot, the light, having already come loose somewhere, like something in you is always in danger of coming loose, this light comes crashing in through your son's windshield. He's going 65, but what does that matter? Except if he'd been going 70, it might have hit someone else's kid.
Pour yourself a glass. Cheers to the window. If he hits hard enough it'll shatter and those pieces of glass will spin through the air like a hundred little streetlights. 3:09. Carol is snoring in the bedroom. She gave up trying to console him two weeks ago. For a few nights she pulled the other chair beside his, in her ever hopeful way, occasionally resting her hand on his hand, on his knee, sometimes touching his neck, rubbing his shoulder or the base of his skull. Her hand felt heavy on his body, and his coldness made her caresses tepid, self conscious, and less and less frequent. Within an hour, he'd forget she was in the room entirely except for the muted gasps of her weeping. He'd stare out the window, alert only to the movement of the green water under the dock. Finally she stopped joining him. Instead, she takes valerian and melatonin and sleeps, a lot.
There are hundreds of versions of Jimmy between Will and the dock, there are moments and there are expressions and there are postures, Jimmy leaning against his VW Bug at a gas station at 3 a.m., his keys locked inside, Jimmy hitting himself in the face, "goddamn I'm lost," walking across the living room, lost, out there, elsewhere, vacant, small Jimmy throwing little, green coconuts off the porch, poking sticks into oranges, standing in the muck beyond the seawall holding seaweed up to his face.
The dark of a palm tree blocks a handful of stars. Jimmy was a weird kid. A real space cadet. You just wanted to shake him sometimes the way he stared. And, god, those dreams. "Daddy, I dreamed I was a fish with a lantern inside me." Will nearly choked when he announced that one lovely morning. All day at work he heard it, "Daddy, I dreamed I was a fish with a lantern inside me," this weird glowing kid, "Daddy," cheers, "I dreamed" where are the snook anyway? "I was a fish" goddamn the laws he'd catch 'em with the lights off "with a lantern" let that quiet the waters "inside me."
Excerpted from The Expense of a View by Polly Buckingham. Copyright © 2016 Polly Buckingham. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
Void of Course,
The Expense of a View,
Three of Swords,
Thinking About Carson,
My Old Man,
My Doppelganger's Arms,
How to Make an Island,
Blue Plastic Shades,
The Grandmother's Vision,
The Island of Cats,