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Spring/Summer 2004, Volume 21.3

Fiction

 

James Reed

The Otherwise DarkPhoto of James Reed.

 

James Reed teaches creative writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His short stories have appeared in such magazines as FLASH!POINT, River Styx, and West Branch. Among other awards he holds an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council.

 

 

In the little town of Esenburg, Calliope Scrimshaw was unhappy. It wasn't just that her father was mayor, although that fact carried its own social penalties, or even that reaching the age of twenty-five had brought her no sure sense of ambition or trajectory. Calliope was used to feeling herself adrift. Asked as a child, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" she was perfectly comfortable saying, "I don't know." She didn't fidget or giggle or hide her face. She accepted the question as one of the facts of grown-ups, saw it, even, as one of their duties. After all, most of them were busy being things, which meant doing things, and she didn't have all that much to do, not on her own, anyway. School she attended because children did, but it obviously was temporary, not a bit like standing at the doughnut counter, like Mrs. Plaske, whose husband sat behind her on a creaking metal chair and stared at the world through small glasses that blurred his eyes into little washes of color. He talked, but only to adults, and mostly, really, to men, in conversations that seemed not to start fresh but continue perpetually, resuming where they'd left off, a kind of stream, like the Peabea, which surfaced and submerged at various points in town, creating lots of places a girl could get her feet wet, especially in summer, when the heat sprawled across the prairie like something dead, and the only relief came from storms, from thunderheads like iron mountains and the quick splash of rain that came in torrents. And tornadoes, which thrilled and frightened her because she'd seen them dancing harmlessly on the earth's edges, on the high and low horizons of the rolling plains, dark snakes of wind and noise made silent by distance, descending from the sky and spinning on their tails. The town's one siren, atop City Hall, moaned like a voice from the earth itself whenever tornadoes were sighted, and usually it was Calliope's father sitting up there with headphones like doughballs clamped to his ears, listening to the staticky voices of the police chief and farmers scattered across the countryside, spotters who kept him informed enough to decide when to blow the siren and when to stop it so people could climb again from their cellars and basements and blink at the clear, new day they'd been given, a day like, so far, all the others. Calliope sometimes thought this might be the job for her, but even as a child she recognized that pushing the siren button was not full-time employment. She couldn't claim it was what she did. Her father couldn't, even. Sounding the alarm? What kind of job was that? People stood behind counters or, in Esenburg, they made violins. There wasn't an orchestra in miles, maybe two or three counties, but building fiddles, it seemed, occupied half the town.

Far enough back, the percentage was higher. Faded slogans on brick walls and hanging sign silhouettes with sunlight shining through the ƒ holes reminded those who cared to remember that Esenburg once seethed with bow-makers and nurserymen and concocters of varnish. Ebony had to be imported, but spruce and maple orchards for bellies and backs were tended just north of town. The weather and soil didn't seem perfect, but the trees were. People credited the Peabea, claiming its above and below ground course let it carry the best nutrients of the continent to the spot they'd do the most good. The stream stitched a patchwork of fertile ground which yielded lumber lovely to the eye and superb for the strokes of bows on strings. Even the advocates of varnish and the partisans of glue acceded to the woods. By the turn of the century, most of the symphonies in America held the town's violins. Some had whole sections ("O sonority sublime!" read one review. "O resonant blend!"), and patrons were found in Europe. Czechs and Germans bought the instruments in droves, although one Esenburg master, Jake Stayner, was despised for his arrogance. He wouldn't sell unless the prospective buyer supplied testimonials and concert programs.

"Proof of your worth," he'd say aloud to each new request received in the mail. "I want proof of your worth."

But Stayner was only one. If he turned down a commission or simply refused to sell a violin already in stock, a lesser genius could be found. Esenburg blossomed without benefit of railroad or stockyard because violin makers opened shops on every street. The least among them had a knack for placing a soundpost. Mere repairmen commanded high fees, and wagons of damaged instruments arrived as loads of new ones departed. Even when the wagons became trucks, the town, Calliope imagined, was like a colony of elves. She should have known better. She numbered violin makers among her acquaintances now, in the present, and they were quite mundanely human, but Esenburg in its heyday, appearing out of nowhere, for no more reason but the luck of water, seemed to Calliope if not magical at least not real, or maybe extra real, like a favor, bestowed on its inhabitants or someone else, she could not say.

"It's like Brigadoon," she said once.

"No," said her father. "It's more like Atlantis."

And when he turned back to his desk, mulling over some financial puzzle, considering, no doubt, the declining tax base, Calliope wandered outside and gazed across the prairie rising in all directions away from Esenburg, the town itself sunken, it seemed, in the middle of a parched sea.

 

The buffalo were gone, and had been for decades, but people were still nostalgic about the beasts. Mostly people from far away, it was true, professors and such from back East, where they complained of overcrowding and urban angst but took a look at the population statistics for the plains and decided the decline might just as well be hastened. Evacuate the few remaining folk and hand the land back to the bison, seemed to be the plan. Calliope first heard about it from Mr. Plaske, who since the death of his wife had changed his name to Justus.

"It's not the government's policy, but I wouldn't be surprised," he said. "I bet they're in cahoots."

This was in lieu of, "Hello," or, "May I help you?" Calliope had dropped in for a couple of glazed doughnuts, and those were the first words out of his mouth.

"Next thing you know a buffalo'll be licking the salt off your doorstep in winter but the feds won't let you own a gun big enough to do it any harm. You can't convince a buffalo with a .22 caliber handgun. That's nothing more than a cork on a string."

Calliope stood before the glass case of pastries and wondered when Justus Plaske had last been asleep. She knew he baked all night, and in the mornings now he ran the shop, but surely he took some afternoon naps. She hoped. She couldn't swear to it, though, and this speech, uttered the moment she stepped in the door, seemed the product of sleep deprivation if ever she'd heard one, a dislodged dream or nightmare fragment spilled into open air.

His eyes wavered behind his glasses, which fit close, like goggles.

Calliope asked, "How much are the crullers?"

"Fresh," Mr. Plaske said, patting his stomach, filled, obviously, with sprinkles and Danish and elephant ears. But his tent-sized T-shirt, the only kind he wore, was brilliantly white.

"I'll take two," she said.

"What are they going to do, build a fence around six states? Let them try it. We'll secede first. It's what we should have done a long time ago." Justus Plaske folded over the waxed paper bag and set it on the counter. "Anything else?"

"No, thank you," said Calliope, handing him a dollar.

He squinted over the cash register and punched at the keys. A total of $9.57 popped up with a ching! He pecked the correct change from the
drawer and said, "Our new coin of the realm, that's what you'll pay in next time."

"Tomorrow?" Calliope asked.

"Hope so." He planted his forearms, both thick as fireplace logs, on the countertop and let the sac of flesh at his neck sway as he spoke. "I'd give it a day or two more, though," he said, and Calliope believed,without being sure, that she saw one goggled eye execute a slow wink.

For all she knew it was a twitch or a trick of the light on the lens, but even if willful it was not intended to signal a punch line. Calliope stepped into the summer light certain of that fact. Justus Plaske's sense of humor ran toward belching and flatulence, and in the latter activity he was considered to be adept. People said he could produce a smell that matched the food he ate, only rotting, and even in his subtle moments, when he stood straight-faced, giving away nothing, his poor wife used to blush, turning the shade of rhubarb, and squeeze her eyes shut, shaking her head.

"Announced it to the world, Mrs. Plaske did," Talmadge Ovlov always said. "It was her public trial." Talmadge had long been in love with her and suffered dismay even more than disappointment when Velda Stayner married into the doughnut business and out of violins. "The last of her line, she was. Probably I shouldn't have been surprised."

Calliope paused outside Talmadge's shop and watched a flatbed truck bump and rumble down the street. The driver had to be lost. People didn't pass through Esenburg on their way elsewhere anymore. It wasn't a logical stop. Every so often a car might be looking for Spire, but she couldn't remember when. Trucks only came if they were used to it as part of their route, and this one nosed along like a blind, stiff worm. Tarps on the back flapped under straps cinched tight around a load as big around as a railway culvert. One loose corner snapped in the breeze. The sky above was overcast. A grey glare made her shield her eyes.

"A truck that size," said Talmadge, "he should slow down. He's shaking things off the shelves."

Calliope looked at him in his blue sweater. Outside his shop like this, he seemed misplaced, from another climate. Not from a colder one, but one even warmer, where today's weight on the skin hardly counted as heat. But the sweater made sense. He worked in a pond of cooled air.

The truck turned a distant corner. He'd found his way out.

Calliope handed Talmadge the sack of crullers and entered his darkened shop for her daily viewing of the Butterama.

 

Talmadge Ovlov remained unmarried in the hope that Velda would recognize her error and divorce Norm Plaske. That the two had no children suggested her unhappiness should be complete and weary and irrevocable. Her slump of fatigue tantalized him. He searched for signs of her exhaustion, welcoming any hint of her surrender. Surely soon, surely next week, surely within a month, he thought for years, surely she would file the papers.

"Well, she didn't," he confessed to Calliope one day. "Steady as a rock, she was. Straight up to the end. Didn't move a jot even when they told her they couldn't dig it out. It wasn't just a lump anymore. It was shot through her like a fungus. Like those underground mushrooms that spread across three states."

Calliope shuddered. She checked her own breasts every time she took a shower but found only abundant health. This was no comfort. Mrs. Plaske hadn't a clue until it was too late. Calliope remembered her saying, "I just feel tired all the time," but she'd said that for years, as did most grown-ups. Only Talmadge seemed energetic always, or at least not to complain. She herself, forty years his junior, already felt an inertia setting in. It was a heaviness that seemed liked exhaustion, or maybe boredom, she couldn't be sure, or maybe just disaster taking its own sweet time, growing, yes, like a mushroom, something spongy and thick, enlarging in the dark, under the threshold of detection.

"Velda just died," Talmadge said, "after living with that mad fat man for years. That wince wasn't always her permanent expression. She used to have a beautiful smile."

He had carved the smile in butter, and Calliope could see even in the pale yellow figurine of Velda Stayner how a body might fall in love. The woman's good cheer was catching and in no way lessened by carvings from later in her life, which showed her weight and sadness as clearly as the earlier one captured her radiance. Talmadge's eye was unerring, and he saw Esenburg's history whole, all time in one place. His Butterama depicted as much as he knew, and some he might even have made up, of the town's jumbled existence. There was Jonas Hancombe selling insurance against Indian raids to the early settlers, and, on a hillside, Jake Stayner played his very first violin to a small family of buffalo. In the town, people who'd never met, whose lives were separated by decades, went about their business or their pleasure, stood in the same lines at the post office, or made mayoral decisions in City Hall. Calliope saw her father examining plats while the town's second mayor, Davis Horne, looked over his shoulder and scribbled notes. There was a version of Calliope herself at the age of ten. She remembered the T-shirt Talmadge showed her wearing, a walrus on the front, worn for too long in real life because it was the last present given by her mother before she disappeared. Left, actually. Her mother left and swore never to return, a promise on which she'd made good. Calliope at ten, in butter, splashed her feet in a remote surface bubbling of the Peabea, a fact she hadn't thought anyone knew. Talmadge shrugged.

"I know things because I know them," he said. "Doesn't everyone?"

Calliope couldn't quite comprehend, much less profess faith, in, knowledge as natural as breathing. It seemed like a bulb of truth glowing right in the brain. Her own understanding of the world was muddled. It was more like a feeling, usually of things gone wrong, or going or hinting or impending, but not adding up, yet, to real disaster. It was signs but no wonders, no crises, no revelations.

Yet there were facts, plain as day. Watching Talmadge Ovlov's violin business become irrelevant was one of them, and she supposed he really had no choice. Esenburg's violins had lost their cachet. A few of the oldtimers, older than Talmadge himself, blamed changing tastes in music, cursing "that damned Louis Armstrong" and muttering about Glenn Miller and then "that Elvis fellow," but Talmadge himself pointed out that more orchestras existed now than ever. The Esenburg violin itself was in trouble.

"The wood's no good anymore," he said. "It's okay for cabinets, but it sounds stiff. It's constricted. I think the Peabea's poisoned, myself. It won't kill you, but it's ruined the wood."

Could he prove it? Calliope didn't think so, but Talmadge behaved according to his beliefs. The violins he made now were special commissions, the wood from stores in his basement. "I ration wood," he said. "No more fiddles at random. The customer has to deserve the older stock before I apply my time."

Hence the Butterama. Talmadge Ovlov had more time on his hands, but the front of his shop still smelled of varnish, which he baked in a small brick kiln and brushed, layer by careful layer, on violins he hung by their scrolls from lines strung below the shop's pressed tin ceiling. They were like constellations of fruit grown in the shape of women. During all his years of hoping Velda's unhappiness would swell past human tolerance and she would turn to him, Talmadge Ovlov, her patient rescuer, her soulmate, if only she knew it, Talmadge blocked and glued and varnished violins but sold fewer and fewer. And he could hear why. It wasn't the market dropping off, but the product, and all the craftsmanship in the world wouldn't improve it.

"Positioning the soundpost inside the body is tricky enough," he said. "Each one's got a sweet spot, or it should. It was getting harder and harder to find. I was eating breakfast one day. I was spreading my toast and thought I might as well carve what I know out of butter. And suddenly that seemed like a good idea."

Just yesterday, on a hill outside of town, he'd built a small vault. Calliope had been by the genuine location, and the building wasn't there. Still, something would be. A new fence already was in place. It enclosed acres and acres of land, the sort of land one didn't think of in acres because it wasn't cultivated. It simply rolled for miles. A storm could build there for half a day.

How, then, could a fence be put up overnight? And this was no ordinary fence. It was an announcement. Bars of wrought iron connected brick towers capped by concrete. It was a fence Calliope imagined a rich man would build around his mansion. There was a gate with an arch but no signpost, and nothing new lay beyond the gate except thin ribbons of asphalt, roads no wider than two cars, which fanned across an endless roll of country suddenly boxed in by iron and brick. Not made smaller or sold into plots, but claimed, staked out, the entire prairie set aside.

 

Talmadge Ovlov hadn't bothered with the fence. He hadn't laid any road, but there was that vault. Like all the buildings in the Butterama, it was constructed from wood he now found worthless for violins but useful anyway, given enough paint. The vault had the flat glow of stone, and the doors, which opened on tiny hinges, shimmered like real bronze. Even though the vault had no corollary in the real world, Calliope knew better than to ask. Talmadge explained things only if the whim overtook him. Direct questions he ignored.

"Coffee?" he asked, setting the crullers one to a plate and tossing the sack in a corner.

Calliope inhaled the harsh, sweet smell of varnish and said, "With cream, please," and, as he poured, admired the rich amber sheen of the violins above her in darkened space, their rounded bellies, their curving backs.

"Not much new today," he said. "The currency is intricate, and I'm not sure what to make of the paperwork. Liens and injunctions, bank order forms. It's law without lawyers, it is. Counterfeit law. All of it shadows."

Calliope reached for her coffee and realized, suddenly, that Talmadge Ovlov was old. It was an elderly man, stooped in a frayed shirt and a motheaten blue sweater buttoned once at the waist, who offered her the tan coffee still swirling in its cup. His eyes were clear, but his hair hadn't seen the teeth of a comb in a maybe three days. It stood off of his head, bleached white, like buffalo grass.

"May I see?" she said, as she always did, but today she heard the habit of it.

She felt like an echo of herself.

This morning, at dawn she'd been discovered. Her father had come down the steps , not such an old man, really, but looking worn, without comfort or ease, she'd decided later. He was in a bathrobe her mother—his wife—had made, had sewn from old neckties plucked from cardboard boxes at secondhand stores, 25¢ apiece sometimes, five for a dollar at others. Their silky iridescence shone in the early light, glimmering in an odd, mismatched beauty Calliope had watched take shape under the pounding needle of the sewing machine, her mother squinting over perfect seams. When the robe was completed, it was hung on a padded hanger with a note pinned to the right lapel. This is the last thing I'll do to help you stay tied to the office. Calliope's father came home, loosened his necktie and read the note, and, with Calliope, discovered half the closet space and dresser drawers had been emptied.

Her father never laughed again. He kept a sense of humor, and he acknowledged the jokes of others with a trim smile, but his enjoyment of life stayed inside, as if he'd forfeited any right to show it. Being mayor, once a delight, became a duty only, and one he would not give up. As long as the town elected him, he would occupy the small office in City Hall, even when businesses folded and families lost their mortgages or went belly up on property paid for a generation ago. He weathered the resentments as Esenburg grew dusty and bitter and small. People blamed him when their money vanished. They blamed lawyers and bankers and the government, and they blamed him because he was the government, the only government they ever saw except a few sheriffs called in to oversee an eviction. Proof, according to some, that the government was the enemy, a foreign power, or it wouldn't send armed men to force people out of their homes. Taxes and debts had lost their meaning, it seemed. They'd been declared invalid in some invisible court, and Calliope's father nightly poured one beer and sat in his silk robe sewn from neckties and wondered, just barely audibly to Calliope in the next room, if his wife had seen this coming or if she'd left out of simple impatience. Which, he muttered, was probably his fault, too.

Calliope did not blame herself for her mother's departure, but she took to herself. She became solitary, spending hours dangling her toes in the Peabea, listening to its wet clatter over stone, the din filling her mind and letting her think and, sometimes, letting her think nothing. Setting her mind adrift on the shush of the water, she sometimes pulled her wet feet from the stream and stretched her legs in the sunlight. Her arms carved arcs in the air, and the day's heat closed around her skin. It was slow and delicious and warm. She felt her body's tugs and pulls and enjoyed the resilient tease of sinew over bone, the slow dance of her flesh hearing itself. Eventually she heard the music without the stream, and she rose in the mornings, even as a child and an adolescent and then as an adult, long before her father's alarm, going to the back yard and dancing to herself in the dark light that opened into morning on the prairie.

But this morning, for the first time ever, she heard a voice. Her father's.

"So what is this, your solstice celebration?"

"Morning dance," she said, easing her foot back to earth. "I do it every day."

"You must get cold in January," her father said.

"Why are you up so early?" Calliope asked.

"I've got a long day ahead," he answered. "Longest of the year, actually." He shivered in his robe. "But that's just the calendar part, isn't it?"

Calliope watched his gaunt, unshaven face in the half light and understood that this was his every day. She had seen it for years—she'd already be up, eating toast, drinking coffee—but had never quite witnessed it, had never unexpectedly seen him starting his day. Even though he had interrupted her, she felt like the trespasser. He seemed the one viewed under glass, revealed, even spied on. It was such work for him, so joyless, so completely ordinary and without complaint.

Her own routine, watched this morning for how long she did not know, seemed self-indulgent. She didn't believe this was her father's opinion, but if she could see through his eyes, it might be hers. Frivolous, perhaps, instead of self-indulgent, or silly, or even baffling. Diminished, at any rate. Part of a chain of mornings which added up to not a whole lot. The same noise every day, essentially, stuttering into past and future without real purpose, just a way to pass the time, like stopping by the Butterama and handing Talmadge Ovlov a sack of crullers and asking for her daily peek at what he'd carved, hearing her voice repeat itself: "May I see?"

And being escorted inside the refrigerated room.

 

Two men pushed wheelbarrows full of fertilizer. They wore field jackets and wool hats pulled to their eyebrows. Crosshatching indicated camouflage pants, and neither seemed to own a decent pair of shoes. Talmadge Ovlov carried the men from his worktable in back and placed them on a distant field, beyond the vault. Calliope recognized neither of them, but much of the Butterama was unfamiliar these days. He was taking it beyond the known world, or the world she knew, which was seeming a smaller and smaller place. She had a feeling that wasn't the world's fault.

Did her father see a foolish girl dancing to no music in the grey dawn? He wasn't letting on. He'd stood in his robe and registered a new fact. Not coldly—she knew that much, but she didn't know what he expected of her and couldn't be sure, then, what he saw, what picture she presented to him. Should she cast herself as a disappointment or a joy? She had no basis for either, but he was a man who carefully watched the world around him and
might simply be waiting for his daughter to expect something of herself.

She breathed deeply, letting the chilled air fill her lungs. Ten years before, she'd wrapped lettuce and sorted milk by code dates in this cooler. Then it was part of the grocery store where she'd worked after school. She used to peer between the cartons and bottles of juice, out into the aisles. Her job was to stock the shelves and sponge up after leakers, but also to keep an eye out for shoplifters. There were more than she'd have guessed, and none expected live surveillance from inside the dairy case. She saw quick checks of the fisheye mirrors, but not much more caution than that. People relied on speed rather than planning, except the elderly, who kept themselves ordinary and slow. They calmly slipped a can of cat food into a pocket or denture cream into a purse. Then they put some other items into their carts and moved on. Calliope never reported them. It wasn't mischief before her eyes. It was the truth.

"Ready to push some buttons?" Talmadge asked. "Came to me early, it did. Crack of dawn."

He showed her a one-pound block of butter from which a head emerged. Her own head, she saw, and a bit of shoulder. It was more shape than features, but unmistakably hers. One leg was outlined, too. It lifted, then bent at the knees, and she knew by the angle of the toe that she was climbing stairs.

Also, she was an adult. This wasn't an old version, some child version, of herself, but herself at the moment, today or tomorrow, circa now.

It was too early in the carving to see the clothes, but the legs were bare. The visible foot was wearing a sneaker.

She glanced down at her red canvas shoes.

"There's still a lot to do," Talmadge said.

The door to the Butterama swung open, and there stood Justus Plaske, his white shirt gleaming.

He was immense. He clutched the door's chrome handle in one round, meaty clump of flesh and breathed like a steam engine. His face was damp. Sweat rose like pearls of fat on his skin and dissolved. He glistened. His heart shook in his chest. Calliope saw it hammering his shirt.

"Smells like USDA Double A in here," he said. "You must be spending some money."

"How I run my business isn't your concern," said Talmadge.

"Is this your business now? You're quitting the fiddle trade?"

Talmadge set his new statue of Calliope beside City Hall. He wiped his hands on a towel and arranged a few dental tools he used for carving in a perfect row.

"I did notice," Justus Plaske said, "on those violins hanging out to dry the purfling isn't what it used to be. It's just an observation. I'm no expert,
of course."

"You certainly are not," said Talmadge.

"We're not letting the buffalo back, you know. That's pure nonsense."

Jake Stayner's fancy edgework had been buffalo horn sliced translucently thin. Every school girl knew that. It gave his violins their glow, he said, by which he meant their sound. He saw the herds vanishing, straggling where once they'd thundered, and he announced a final number of instruments to be made by his own hands. "After that they won't be worth playing," he told the Forward, although his studio offered "only the finest" for years to come. Even into Calliope's life, but barely. The dynasty drew to a close with Velda. The shop was empty, a palace for mice.

Her father was duly elected by fewer voters every year. Turnout was good. There just weren't many people. She wasn't even sure when she last saw a child. Esenburg was a town of middle-aged men and their wives, most of whom died, or vanished. They walked away. The men went bankrupt, or clung just above it. Before her stood one who'd actually done better, Mr. Plaske, an old man now waving his new name like a flag into his future.

He stepped into the room, letting the door thud shut. He lumbered weightlessly, like a balloon dragging a basket, and drifted toward the plywood base of the town. He squinted at the painted blue of storms on the horizon.

"Looks like that right now," he said. "Big old titty clouds hanging down. Might be some weather coming." His tongue trundled across his lips, then popped back in its hole. "Might not."

"What do you want?" asked Talmadge.

"A lot of people walking around that shouldn't be. It's time we take things back." He scratched his stomach as if he stood at a buffet, browsing. "High time," he said.

Could it be that Calliope had never once seen him outside his shop? It seemed impossible. His whole life, and he'd never budged?

She couldn't summon a picture of him anywhere else. He sat eternally on a metal chair, or stood behind the counter, mouthing scraps of sleep, waste and daydreams. He took your money and babbled. He handed you doughnuts. He'd changed his name, and her father said he was out of his mind. "Bedbugs for brains," he said. "The man's crawling with them."

Here his breath huffed over the rooftops of the miniature town. His goggled eyes peeked into windows. Calliope imagined herself in a tiny room, the curtains nudged by a flutter of breath.

"It's quite a picture of the world you got here, Talmadge." Justus Plaske rested a hand across the head of a butter workman loading violins onto a wagon. "Got all this old time stuff happening right beside today. Even put in a couple buffalo, I see." He licked his palm. "Very tasty. A real waste of
butter," he said and waved toward Jake Stayner. "Lots of empty prairie there. Don't get your hopes up. People got plans for that."

"Plans," said Talmadge. "Monkey dreams is what you got."

"Government's driving up the price of land unless you happen to own it," Justus Plaske said. "Then it's worthless. All this on money they're printing themselves. Think about that."

"You've got a monkey skull," said Talmadge. "You're dreaming up kingdoms of rot."

"Kingdom come, my will be done. It's what people want, Talmadge. Can't step outside your own door without you're in somebody's crosshairs. People are tired of that. Tired of paying for the privilege, too. You'll see some checks withheld." He let his lenses slide toward Calliope. "Or actually you will, I suppose." Hands in his pockets, he rocked on his heels. "Well, no," he said. "But your daddy."

"You leave that girl alone," Talmadge said.

"Got to pull the plug on them black helicopters. Skim down like dragonflies. Put you dead in a second."

Calliope could swear the air had begun to hum. She could feel an itching on her bones.

"You're a crazy man, Norm Plaske. Now leave her alone."

"Like she's not already up to her ankles. Maybe even higher, Talmadge. You think?"

"You're dumb as a monkey, Norm. You just turn around and go back to that bakery and live out your life like you deserve. You talk to those walls to your heart's content."

"I've been married, Talmadge. I don't need it no more." His sausage fingers drummed the air. He said, "I'd watch myself, little lady. 'Course, the world's gonna be real different soon. You might not need to worry."

Calliope's breath felt small and tight. She felt its slow slide in and out and into her lungs, but she couldn't fill herself with air. She felt solid as wood, like something set where it was wanted.

"I think you should be leaving," Talmadge said. "I think you should consider leaving. There's nothing here for you."

Something groaned out of Justus Plaske's open lips. He was laughing. "Jake Stayner came down from the mountain and all the rest of us are dirt. That's how you see it, don't you, Talmadge? Well, you are one deluded fairy tale type individual. Yes, you are. People buy what I make, Talmadge. I'm not living in some fairy land. You got a couple on plates right here, even if you didn't purchase them yourself. Did he, Miss Scrimshaw?"

Across his glasses a shadow flashed, like the flick of a tail. Calliope heard it whisper. She knew she did.

"You bet your father's tax rolls he didn't. Those taxes are illegal, you know. It's an ill eagle system, Miss Scrimshaw. We're in a sick country. It's not the U.S. anymore." His moist face shone. The flesh around his mouth worked and crumpled with every word. "That FDR, he suspended the Constitution. No one reinstated it. They're just pretending. Everything they done since, it's a lie. They got no legal authority. Not a soul." His head glided close. Flat panes of light slipped across his glasses. "Not one. Do you understand that?"

She understood the whisper. It spoke only to him, but it was louder now, a background breathing like wind.

Talmadge said, "I think it's time for you to leave. It's well past time. You should be leaving now."

"It's not like I'm crowding out the customers, Talmadge. When's the last time somebody bought a violin? They look nice in your window. They're real artistic and all, but when's somebody gonna buy one? When do they put down some cash?"

"You bake doughnuts for a living," Talmadge said. "You squirt frosting out of tubes. What would you know about violins?"

"I know that spruce and maple don't grow here. They got no business in this part of the country. You fiddle makers are fools to the man. Always have been. The only thing dumber is these butter figurines."

Justus Plaske's hand shot out like a fat snake and grabbed the young Velda Stayner.

"I saved this woman," he said. "You can cry all you want, but she married me, Talmadge. She didn't marry somebody dead as dirt stringing wood with catgut and carving little voodoo dolls out of butter."

Talmadge started forward, his face waxy with fear, but Justus Plaske pulled a small pistol from his billowing denim pants, or maybe it wasn't small. She couldn't tell. It was swallowed by his hand. It was tiny and black, and he waved it in the air like a bottle of medicine he had to shake.

"No more Velda for you, little boy. You find yourself something else to play with." His breathing hissed like a furnace as he squeezed the likeness of his wife in one hand and waved the other toward the new vault on the hilltop. "We'll be filling up a lot of empty earth. You can bet your bottom dollar on it. 'Course, that dollar's no good anymore. You just don't know it yet." He stared at Calliope cold, once, with glittering eyes deep in their tunnels of glass. "Do you, Miss?" he said and turned, slowly, gathering his mass, aiming it, and accelerating, afloat, out the door, the gun tight in his hand because he knew someone somewhere wanted to steal it.

 

The driver of the flatbed truck was roughly her father's age, not yet fifty, she guessed, a man in blue coveralls despite the heat. His T-shirt was a white wedge beneath his chin. He stood beside his unloaded truck, tarps strapped down, the engine running. A metal cap clacked above the smokestack. Calliope had just seen the truck's cargo, and now here, outside the doughnut shop, was the driver, a man as thin as her father and probably no more apt to smile. His skin was burned a steady red for summer, and his hair was as dry as dead grass. He held a small white sack in one hand and stood with his back straight and his neck stiff, his mouth pried into a grimace. He looked impatient, eager to climb into the cab and drive out of Esenburg, but he was stuck, she saw, in the fierce orbit of Justus Plaske, whose mouth churned as if he'd found at last a true believer. The driver eyed his truck and heard all the reasons a patriot didn't stand a chance, especially with the banking system out of whack. Then Justus Plaske surprised her. He reached behind himself and wrestled from the waistband of his pants a large checkbook, the kind issued for businesses, with a pen clipped to the cover. The driver brightened and even leaned down, his hands on his knees, with the broad, flat checkbook propped on his back while Justus Plaske filled in the amount and explained what was wrong with the world.

Calliope was on her way to visit with her father, to enter his day. She'd not done so since childhood, or adolescence, anyway, times when she was welcomed with pleasure or dismissed as an interruption, but, in either case, apart, a distraction. Now she had in mind an entrance, walking in not for herself, or not only, but for her father, because of him. Because he was her father, because he was mayor, because she'd just seen a graveyard built only to be filled. It was new and empty and waiting. Calliope saw it sprawling across the prairie and knew, somehow, she must talk to her father, but here was Justus Plaske buttonholing the driver, and it wasn't simply a rant. He was writing a check for gravestones Calliope had just seen, unmarked tablets of marble on pallets stacked as high as a house.

Talmadge Ovlov she had left alone at his worktable, and she had walked, pushing one foot in front of the the other in a slow trudge until Esenburg had slipped behind her like shed skin. The road ran forward like a line on a map, straight black macadam blurred by heat into pools of silver. The hills rolled endlessly green, and the clouds hung low and pendulous and blue. She felt like a ghost passing not through a dream but a kind of absence. It wasn't tornado weather, but a day or two and it might be. People would wake in the morning and know by the weight of the air that funnels would be touching down by evening. Maybe not here, precisely, but close, down the road in Spire or Unthank, bearing in. Today's weather wasn't the crash and wind and noise of it, but the dark, unstoppable mood of its coming.

And then she saw the brick and concrete fenceposts, the rise and fall of wrought iron cutting across the hillsides, a black barrier running thread thin into the distance. Talmadge imagined a vault here, but Calliope, standing in the deep, fresh ruts of a heavy truck, saw before her, not thirty feet away, a low building jutting from the side of a hill. Its windows were black slots slanted into brick. The roof was a lid jammed across a maw of smooth concrete fanning into darkness and black earth. Just outside, piled on rough wood pallets, were cloud-grey stones as clean as tiles.

There was a plaque on the building with a newly chiseled address: 41995 Township Road. Beyond it the hills were marked with little grey scratches of road leading like diagrams to graves yet to be dug.

Thousands of them. Whole cities could be lowered into this earth.

Calliope looked at land someone foresaw occupying with headstones. She read the address on the wall and stepped out of the gouged dirt, back onto the pavement.

This was the county road. No one called it anything else, and Esenburg was a town, an incorporated town, with all the tax-levying and debt-issuing authority vested in a municipality of its class, although Calliope knew her father worried the next census would force it down a grade, maybe two. Annexation couldn't even help. People didn't live here anymore. Perhaps back East they were right. This was buffalo country. Thundering black seas of them might make better use of it.

But Talmadge Ovlov saw this open, closed space of men pushing wheelbarrows and vaults still unbuilt because it was here. It belonged here because it already existed here. He wasn't summoning up an airy past or calling some dark future home to the present. He was standing in all of it at once, carving a lost colony of craftsmen because it was lost but once was here. He didn't pine for it any more than he craved the Esenburg adjacent to this graveyard, a town drying to dust beside a stream he swore was poisoned.

Calliope had left him alone when Justus Plaske departed. The two of them in the room made it unbearably crowded. They had stared at each other and had made polite noises, but he was just as ready to be abandoned as she was to flee. His old fingers slowly buttoned his blue sweater all the way to the neck. He shivered and sat down, cautiously, bracing himself. He looked like a woolen parcel left on a chair. Before she even left, he was alone in the room, his hands dangling and empty between his trousered legs, remembering Velda, perhaps, or dreaming the future Calliope had begun to believe she'd already entered.

 

Justus Plaske's slab of belly swung in its white sheath as he signed the check on the back of the driver. He was taking possession of land she'd just seen, or if not the land, its latest ornament, which meant the land itself he already owned.

He was planning a place to lay corpses. That was the raw fact of it. That and his happiness, his joy at the thought. She'd seen it. He'd leaned into her face and breathed it like ether. The man thought no more of blood than that he deserved to spill it. This was the future he dreamed. Broken pieces of it spit out of his mouth every time he talked, and Calliope could see her place in it, and her father's, and they were already forgotten, each of them just another one of the dead.

The driver's face wrenched tighter. It turned sour, his grimace pulling toward his ears.

Justus Plaske shouted, "Broccoli! Can you tell?" and screwed the cap back on his pen. He blew across the check, then tore it out of the book, but didn't hand it over, not yet. Even when the driver rose and rubbed the small of his back, Justus Plaske pinched the check in two swollen fingers and talked and talked. The driver checked the sky and shifted his weight. He coughed. He squinted in the heat.

Calliope scooted away so he couldn't catch her eye. She smoothed her pace but hurried to City Hall, where she would walk deliberately into her father's office and tell him she had seen Justus Plaske's new hell.

Except the building was empty. Completely vacant. Not a clerk, not a secretary in sight. Not one sound rose but her own. Her feet tapped on the spruce and maple floors varnished to a high gloss. Her reflection shimmered across the rich gleam of wood, of bannisters and desks and stairwells. Nothing else moved but the breeze lifting through windows and the flap of paper, like a breath.

On her father's desk lay a yellowed map, unrolled, with books, some opened, holding down the corners. His burnished leather chair was pushed back. Calliope stood in its place to see what project now was taking her father's time. She scanned the flat grid of streets and roadways and looked at the legend at the lower right.

Streams. Bridges. County roads. Miles to the inch.

And in her father's hand, underlined strongly in pencil: "County Road 18."

She knew without looking that Township Road was County 18. There wasn't a vice versa. The name was made up and so was the address. And her father knew it.

He'd done some other research, too. A book open at one corner of the map showed recent transfers of title, or what should have been recent, but real estate wasn't moving in Esenburg. One insolvent farm had been taken over by a bank, which didn't want the property, either. This was dated three months ago. Calliope remembered the auction, the stubble-chinned man in dungarees and a faded plaid shirt who hadn't bothered to harvest in the fall, much less think about spring planting. His equipment had sat outside all winter, and looked it, so that not even his friends would bid up the prices, trying to raise some extra cash. People said he'd spent the winter drinking. He'd given up, which more than a few of them watched with envy. They were tired, and so were people in the town proper. In December the theater went bust as well as another farm, but nowhere in the flipping of pages did Calliope find record of anyone, anyone at all, buying a tract of land spanning half the county. There were no rezoning applications. No building permits.

No single purchase, on paper, for which one might be liable for taxes.

Out the window, on the street, Justus Plaske released his check into the hand of the driver, who bent it in two and stuffed it in a pocket. Justus Plaske talked on as the man leapt into the cab and put the truck in gear. Black smoke bounced out of the stack. The truck lurched forward, grinding down the street.

The driver's doughnuts were still on the sidewalk. Justus Plaske laughed but waited until the truck was gone, then retrieved the sack with a quick sweep of his arm. It bobbed like a tail as he carefully tucked his checkbook back into his pants and patted his T-shirt in place. Then he stood, catching his breath, and stared at City Hall, which made him laugh again.

Calliope eased away from the window and pressed her back against the cool, plaster wall. A slow fan wheeled overhead. A green lamp draped pale light across the papers on the desk. The map was a smooth span of ivory. She could easily look up and see her father walk in, keeping an appointment. Or Davis Horne smoking a cigar as he dictated notes to a woman clutching a stub of pencil, her hair piled on her head, a brooch at the throat of her high-necked blouse. Or some man whose portrait joining the rows of paintings and photos downstairs might be a holograph. She saw his fingers grazing keys, his face lit by a screen in the otherwise dark dead of night.

All these people working in this silent, empty building. Calliope was just as much a ghost. Just as real. She was the one in the building now, the soul inside this white clapboard tower in the middle of town.

She felt a soft tap. She even heard it: the thwock! of a single hailstone. And only the one. She listened. The building's silence rose around her. A piece of plaster chipped off the wall. It smacked the floor and fell quiet as dust.

Calliope peered out the window. On the street, Justus Plaske blew invisible smoke from the barrel of his gun. Then he spun the tiny black weapon on his finger and slipped it in his pocket before he shambled away. Every few steps he hopped, and once he turned back toward the building and waved.

Turning away from the window, Calliope stepped over the small spot of dust and approached her father's desk. The papers on it showed Plaske's shadow world in the making. Her father could see it building. Its silent exchanges of money. Its whispered law. He was tracking this phantom weather. On this longest day of the year, he was outside, breathing its murderous heat.

Calliope Scrimshaw started upstairs, her hand on the railing, climbing toward the siren she had come to activate. She would sit at the small table and not need the radio or the headphones or spotters. Her future already had closed behind her. She was here to sound the alarm herself and to tell her father she, too, knew about those walking the earth who would fill it with the dead.


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