Chris Blanc: Writing: Divide by Hero & Glitter Gold
Divide by Hero (1994)
"Alpaca bitch," Raymond said in the calm cut of the moist fresh air. It was a night on the edge of spring, a cold shearing through the seasonal metamorphosis. It occurred to him that there is no point planning a beginning unless you knew the end; and if you knew the end, why bother beginning? Some strive for incremental experience; Raymond was tired of excremental experience and about fed up with the rotated dunghill he corresponded with through expletive and epitaph: his gravestone read, like most others:
"Kind in life,
Was Raymond Reese,
Now we hope,
He rests in peace."
-- but the important message was beneath it in the flowing distorted smear of a large hexagonal black crayon from a box of brokens in a kindergarten: "fuck you."
He walked pointedly toward the lee side of a shadowed building, the cold air under the trees lifting his long hair. Emulsification of disconnection reflected in refraction of promulgation of abstraction, resultant dissonant expectation. Did we ever know ourselves? No, are selves -- all is related through the individual. For this reason all altruism begins in the self, as related to the self -- as isolated consciousness, this is all we can know. Yet if a collected self, there would be no ascendancy of the individual thought, only motions, without definition: a destruction of the abstract. He walked past the building on impulse, into the fervent downtown.
(test pen scribble) trees puffy, like hair. clouds flat, atonal cheap marble. womn walking dog with studcollar. three cars: two police, one yellow toyota. rusted battered grating edges, a mutt of a vehicle. petting zoo on the right, with two sickly chickens and a female llama out front. christ. actually, ...st martin's. martin was from sacramento, and dark jaegermeister. (small sketch of a child, hands bent as if crushed like flowers). i think he died in childbirth, or during that general area. buried at st. mike's. lalala life's a tralalal troll-ee song. like the bingers in san francisco. overturned trash can. step over. would be fun to draw. make art out of trash soldered together. no, done already. gotta have some ethical objections somewhere. cop car: big white blubberwhale. and the blue light and glowsound of a television coming from a window open (pane cracked: pythagorean tangent). god damn it's not. no airconditioning in any of these fucking places. pen working okay? (scratch) bored, bored, big wide open empty spaces. newspaper blows past, dog piss on tree. owner standing legs spread to the side, looking away. bring a cigarette then you won't look so foolish. stupid averted face, too. think we don't know your dog's pissing on a tree? naked shoulder of a girl. womn. she ain't gonna change for that. shoulder's still nice, bare, fleshcrawling out at me. a painting: blue, and then blue people with blue flesh under a grey sky. cars rush by.
Raymond pushed himself through the glass folds of the flatbox building, and ducked into the recessed seating area. Wouldn't be bad to flood, he thought, a spitting flatness into darkness. Ashtray next to him, wiped clean. An ass. And the chairs, plush but worn, someday to be similarly wiped clean and replaced with new decor. As it was, the mauve decking supported grene pillars on wallpaper reaching to the ceiling, amid a serpentine collusion of silver-printed tendrils. Raymond broke out a smoke; a bent and battered Pall Mall, dragged from a roughedged pack compacted into a pocket. Not a puff, not a drag, an inhale, a warmth of blood curling in the low pockets of his lungs.
Abstracted solipsism of the dissolute. Elevators come, they go (rich gold and green thick on their unstable walls). Too many dates Raymond had had. Had been had, had had, would have had, had would have hads, had been hasbeens before they'd even come into being. Come and go. Bodily functionality. Life's permanence is a stretch of time; can you make a permanent marking to a body? No, as a body is not permanent. In context, then: can you mark something for the duration of its permanence, that is, fixed existence? Existence isn't fixed: things change: she comes from the elevators.
Raymond brushed the cigarette butt over the lip of the ashtray. A trailing fall of ash flakes graced the green skin of teh ashtray stand, and drifted like the odd graceful corpses of fishes to the tawny carpet, interspersed with decorations of fruit trees. God what a beautifult hing is an orange. TOo bad Raymond didn't have one, but he couldn't have done anything with one -- she was coming, he would have to hold it forever, and one can be bored of a beautiful object such as an organe, supposing it stays in the right pocket too long and wears the skin of the leg. And he didn't even know what an orange it would be: it could be a plump navel, or a flat, smallish, testicle-scroungish juice orange iwth no future other than an imparted taste of rind. What a connoisseur, when better things went on around. With six seconds to go, Raymond shot a diagonal eye at the crossing and counterbalancing buttocks and breasts of a young woman packed into purple, dark straight hair a flag of dare. She was coming; there was no ability.
With alacrity, remember, Raymond noted. Notes as he thinks of her. She came across the red carpet, legs flickering in the outline of their shine in the spill of the socketed lights above her. Packed into red, also. She knew she'd look good to the world if the world weren't oblivious. Socket a fist into palm: universal gesture of frustration in a glass box, ceiling descending not in reality but in the perception: that is, the man grows in the box and sees it growing toward him; his growing is the exponential exploding of his fear of confinement. And once that explodes: the box is too big. Where would we be if it were not for cigarettes. To fill the time, and to leave a pleasant smoke hanging in the curves of one's hair.
"Hello Raymond my darling" she noted "How are you - I am - yes, well, I like the red, don't you - of course - and where shall we go - ? to the garden, grief, not a bad place for a sandwich, and I could do with one of their grievous cups of coffee."
Telephoto lens of a tourist camera recedes into the boxy shitugly frame, and so receded Raymond's eyes, drawing back into a matte liquidity, a defiance of their urge to seek. Her breasts stretched under a plasticine garment rose and fell in the corner of his eyes, a vague itching like a cough beginning. Fuck: distracted already. It would be nice to be able to see her without the shadow of his penis blocking his view.
They dined; when he tipped his water off of the table, she grimaced only once, and into a smile. Packed tight like the rought wrap of a fetus in its carnivorous tenacity toward life; expunge, expulse, expour: out it comes, and wag-eyed yowls until they pacify it with enough conflicting comfort to obliterate its autonomy. Welcome to the world: a slap on the ass, and if you're lucky, we're coming for your foreskin.
In the darkness that night: wouldn't it be nice to travel?
I've always wanted to travel...lush nightfalls in other places, not the town worn bare by my eyes like the matted carpet on the stairs...wouldn't that be nice...? just...nice.
In the morning of the next day, Raymond went to get himself some cereal, poured it and thought of a waterfall and its crushing deep-chested roar, and suddenly heard it much too realistically, an oily melting of the time and space over his shoulder, not so much visual as a knowing, and through it came the throat of Niagara and the wisping moisture whipped into smoky docility by the epic thrust and fall of its context. Raymond yanked himself back like a bouncer pulling deadbeat: eyes consuming his stability, and a fair shimmer of firelike arch fear in his concave chest. Suddenly concave.
Damn, is this some fucked-up science fiction novel? Some of the crap with all bright colors laid thick in the artwork, dragons computers and lively lays...no, this would be a short story. Probably very short unless I get this damn teleportation under control. Control: Raymond's mother telling him he never had a sense of control of his life, his answer that he just needed organization. She was right, but who had control? Resting the glass of Gallo on the chipped and heatbleached formica.
Foundational aspects of reality...found...um, difficulty on the recollection thing hear. Luckily I didn't keep the receipts for the guns; they were in Spanish anyway. Raymond looked up from the table, and his consciousness swelled back to the cereal bowl. Don't think about the breadbasket: this may be a one-way trip, and the midwest ain't the happening. It's the hate, sometimes, from what Martin said: tractors rusting against the faded boxlike structure of a town with a mottled steeple rising against it, paint flecking down on the gatherees, to celebrate another mathematical wedding permutating only one of the so-many combinations available in three counties. Locked into a series of potentials, like those puzzles made of squares with numbered squares in them, one space empty: gotta put the numbers in order. Shit, they're already there: find something for that space before something moves in and starts paying taxes.
He leaned over the gritty formica and thought another: and was in the liquor store, walking in the door remarkably casually, as if he were another drunk hiding alcohol behind amiable in a stop nab to get some alcohol. Raymond chose a twelve-pack of Schafer: works. That's what the register guy says, works, under his bleary eyes and nose. Alcohol makes your nose run? Supposed to kill germs.
Thinking another thrust: back into the hotel lobby, his feet making a soft scuff as they sank into the carpet. Back in the chair. The ashes of the day before gone; a shout from in back, and a thick black bag pitched into a dumpster with a cloud of dust and the grace of an apocalypse funeral. Pretty arc to it though. Now where can this lead me?
Raymond left the following week full of free time by eliminating all transit and insisting upon construing the reality of others so that his work appeared to be underway, but his appearances appeared when needed. A ballet game. Second-guess and take off to watch the ripples in a public pond, murky green placid: this may not be productive, but this is a great pull-over on the schmucks back in accounting thickening books with more tired paper. A face rose to the surface, contorted in its sodden whiteness, living in its contusive death. The arm rose after it, and Raymond dusted himself on the forearms and was in a large mall.
From the ceiling hung fake plants. From the floor rose the feet of cause-people asking petitions, samples. Elevators ran like brief silver pulselines into the canopic aperture. Goddamn what a good place to hide; so many people they'll never, ever see me. Three kids smoking pot on the third floor with the same idea. They leaned over the rail with the vaguely sluttish expression the Beatles had on the cover of their first American compilation. Graffiti in the bathroom, for a good time call and all, the nothing urge of nothingness.
In high school Raymond would've written "Time is an Illusion" under the last comment, but he didn't feel it profound anymore. Aging like shoes worn down to leather drawn tight over joints and corns, the stretching of the skin in the sun to a crackled tight skein of weal. Positivism essential to development, he noted in his notebook.
Teleport back home: spaghetti with the family. Are you going to get a job? Oh does that seem likely? How soon do you think? Are you going to keep living here? Which side of town? How are you going to make the drive? Are you sure it's safe? A lot of people there, not all of them white. Are you sure it's safe? Work will probably be good for you, It always helped me. Time to move on, eh? I couldn't agree more, although we'll miss you.
Miss the bowl of spaghetti: Raymond had been hungry. To solve the problems of the species. To melt like butter into the veinous noodles. Nude, stark. Contentment welling with full stomach. Teleport to the lobby: a cigarette won't taste half-bad.
Glitter Gold (1995)
He walked from the street to the tire lockdown, looking over his shoulder before extending his hand. "My name is Joseph," he said. "Chris hired me to help out." Doug turned his chin upward underneath fixed eyes. "New guy always cleans the grease vat."
Joseph remembered that time as he was walking across to the office, where Chris had seated himself on the rim of formica behind the desk. "Sit down," he said, with a warmer voice than a command.
He spoke in slow, amiable, chalky speech. "Joseph I know you been here for two days now, and I know you have been working hard. I think that's good. How's the job?"
Joseph sensed that his eyes must be very white in the dim light of the room. "I think I do better, now, sir. Only part I don't like is the grease vat, sir." Chris took a key from his belt, opened the vending machine, and got out a pack of cigarettes.
"Are you working too much?" His eyes remained on Joseph as he pulled open the pack with arched fingers of a lazy hand.
"That's good. Wouldn't want to wear you out. Do you think anyone is working too much?" -- Chris offered him a cigarette, but Joseph shook his head, no.
"I don't think so. I don't know. I haven't been here long enough, I guess."
Chris quickly had a still smile. The dull red hair and abstract eyes made a frame of memory. "Tomorrow you and Carlos are going to the tire dump. I'm selling some for scrap. I want you to keep an eye on him, and make sure he's not just jackin' off out there."
He awoke with that face dark and cold in his mind. In the lightlessness he pulled his jeans up his legs to fasten around his thin waist. There was nothing in the cabinets, and only two old slices of pizza in the refrigerator, and ketchup. He left one for his brother. He went out the back door. In his sleep, he tripped on the porchstep and fell, pushing his knee into the concrete walk he felt abrade his skin to raw openness. Sharp feelings, and bright blood against the grey of morning. Then he remembered, and went back and got the second slice, and put ketchup on it, too.
Doug spat. Peering underneath a truck, he had spotted the oil spreading from a crack in the case. He rolled out from the shadow and walked beneath an expansive grey sky to the office. Everything was dulled, but bright, in the twilight of incoming rain.
Chris gave him the phone and punched in the number for him. On the dusty tan hill behind he could see Carlos and Joseph climbing mountains of tires. A voice broke into the phone. "Hello?" When he told them about the replacement oilpan, he read out the number on the paper Chris held out, and then Chris turned away from the words that followed, his back muscles tight under a thin shirt.
"Disgraceful tires," Carlos said. He dropped a tire down the side of the stack of them, it falling over other tires with airy sighs of stress. Joseph looked at it, caught in the hub of a tractor tire. "The truck comes tomorrow. They will put them on and sell them in Santa Fe for scrap." Carlos kicked a tire sidewise onto the dirt below. "Did he tell you anything about me?"
"No," Joseph said. "He told me I was working okay."
"He tells everyone that. Except Larry, and me." He took his shirt off and began to roll tires of different kinds into vague piles.
"Who is Larry?" said Joseph.
"Old new guy. Left. Too much grease vat, he's working at Auto Parts across town."
Joseph shouldered a thought as if into a pile behind him. "I would, too, if I had a car."
"He worked long enough for that," Carlos called over from the other side of the tire pile. "Don't work too fast. Chris thinks I am garbage. I am not going to work to show off for him." He saw Joseph's retractive eyes and smiled quickly, a falling apart of his mouth's corners.
Joseph threw tires for several hours with Carlos. They were quiet, as words took the pace of their work. Joseph's chest was small, but his arms were strong.
Then they were gone for lunch. For an hour they sat behind the Burger King down the street a stretch, and then walked back on the gravel, slowly. "The bastard will be back after lunch by a long time, he is at the restaurant having some drinks. I think he is a drunk," he said, looking directly at Joseph.
"I don't just think it," said Joseph.
As they walked into the lot Carlos cautiously dropped a hissing syllable into the wind near Joseph's ear. He looked up. Across the concrete they saw the molten colors of Chris's jacket, bent over the oil pump, talking to a driver in a Cadillac. Neither said anything, but quickly walked through the office into the bays. From there they took the key, and headed to the tire heap.
"That's the fastest I've seen you move all day." Chris stood, legs wide, around the corner of the building. "You gonna work for me a half-hour today?"
"I think I'm working pretty good already," Carlos said.
"Well, think harder," Chris said as he turned, his shoes creaking in the walk to the office.
The first real dry of the afternoon was cracking across tongues and lips when the police car rolled into the station. "Fill'er up," said the Sheriff, and nodded to Joseph. Smith was sweeping, his eyes blank as they always were, making little piles that the wind would disturb and he would go back to fix. "Windshield," said the Sheriff, and Smith dropped the broom flat with a crack and shuffled over to the squeegee. He looked at it blankly.
Doug walked past. "Careful of pump three, the shutoff is broke," he said.
Joseph put the pump nozzle into the car after carefully unscrewing the cap. Get this right. He started the pump and watched the Sheriff walk over to Smith. "Some problem?" he said.
"No water," said Smith. He looked from Sheriff to Joseph while the Sheriff laughed.
Joseph went back into the office and got a bucket, put it under the sink and turned it on. "Joseph, I need you to call this woman back about her transmission," said Chris.
"Can't. Need water." But when he looked up, it was gasoline that was spilling out of the Sheriff's car. He ran with the bucket sloshing all over him, and stopped the pump, while Smith looked on blankly. Chris walked swiftly past him. "Sweep," he said, and Smith began to move the broom in rectangular patterns.
Joseph dumped the water into the squeegee holder, put in some of the powdered soap from the tin, and cleaned the Sheriff's windshield the way Chris had taught him. Doug walked by again. "Told ya about that pump," he said.
"He's learning," said Chris, and when Joseph straightened, he added, "Slowly." The Sheriff laughed, and Chris laughed, and soon Smith even joined in, at which point Chris said, "Sweep."
Joseph cleaned the side of the police car, and put on the cap. "Sorry," he said.
"No wonder this station's in trouble," said the Sheriff. He gave Joseph a small Bible, told him to stay out of trouble, and left.
When Joseph got back into the office, Doug was on the phone. "I'm calling," he said. "Grease vat needs attention." Chris nodded and Joseph left.
Back at the station Doug had been fixing a car and the jack slipped. Chris was mad, smoking fast, but moving his hands slowly, in the office. Joseph watched him set his coffee down, and then turned away, in case the shadowed eyes would look his way.
Since Doug was hurt Joseph was left pumping while Carlos cleared tires. He was real nice to customers (as his mother had told him the last night, as his head hung with a buzz of exhaustion and he tried to leave the room) and got a few tips. "Don't let me see those tips," Chris said, with a stiff smile but a light tone. Joseph smiled back and left, and did his best to stay out of sight. Carlos was clearing tires, and came back every fifteen minutes for a drink of water. "Drunkbastard," he would mutter as he left the office.
"Where do you live?" he asked Joseph, moving past him to sit on the trash can next to the pump. Joseph was cleaning the pump face with Windex and a bag of grey paper towels. "Down Bentwine street, near Keaton."
"With your family?" Carlos asked.
"With my mom. My dad has been gone, and my brother died." After a moment he continued: "It was an accident. We live in a big old house with another woman and her kid. She has two, actually, but one's gonna die soon, my mom says. It's real young, and sick a lot. I wouldn't be surprised."
Carlos looked at him, and slid off the trash can, looking busy at the gutter. "You are not far from me. Except I am not living there any more." Joseph looked at him.
"I have to get an apartment. My father has just left, he is gone to Alaska, to work for the oil. I don't want to live with my brother."
Joseph wiped a pump face downward and said, "I'd let you in but it's kind of small as it is."
"I don't ask. I am just complaining. I am complaining about my house, and my bastard, in there." He twitched the corner of an eye to gesture. Joseph nodded.
"Come out to the field when you are done."
Joseph climbed a few feet up the tire mound. "Not looking." There was only the cycling of the wind through tires. Joseph turned around. He could see Carlos's back around a stack of tires. Carlos looked up, and around his head Joseph could see Smith, his normally wet blue eyes wide almost like he was scared. Carlos first cupped a hand toward himself, and then gestured a brushing palm, to ask for caution.
Joseph climbed around the tires and came down. Smith and Carlos were holding a mask from the sander, all covered with duct-tape on the front. In it was a rag stained with paint. There was paint on Smith's nose, and something was wrong with Carlos' eyes and voice. Try it, Carlos said, and Joseph felt his stomach tighten and his gut rise into quivering anxiety in suspension as he took the first deep breath.
A big smear of the color of Carlos's skin against the bubble of the car. Smith was laughing, his face all loose and fallen to pieces. Joseph sucked again. Carlos was laughing too and wiping his nose with a rag: kerosene.
Smith giggled more and then Carlos's arm came down fast, hard. A roaring of the clouds and the air above, and the discontented fall of notes of a voice over it, and then a loud sound. Smith sneezed, and looked at Carlos with his grin. Joseph looked down and took a step back. Stay here, Carlos said, and was over the top of the tires, back to the station.
Life is a smudge outside this new world. Joseph felt the metal behind him, and the dirt scuffing curled around his head, and he could hear more wind. It was all distant-sounding, batted about the clouds like the sound the wind made in his ears when he leaned out of the truck going on the freeway. Damn it was loud.
More screaming birds over the hill. The sun greyed out, and giggling. Something fell, a whump to the shoulder. He leaned against the cliff and tried to ignore the giggling, and the wailing of the birds under the pink-red smear of the sky.
Joseph was holding bolts for Doug as he balanced tires. "So do y' like play bars around here and stuff?"
"No," Doug strained out a word, "no-t yet. We just practice a lot, play our friends' parties. We did have a gig once," (putting a tire on the jacked vehicle) "but we ended up playing for only twenty minutes. It was at the Tallywhacker, so it was good enough. We ended up getting schwacked on beers anyway, cut out whatever share of the money we would've gotten."
Doug went to the bathroom and came back. Joseph handed him a bolt and looked up at him. "But it don't matter to me, cuz we were having some fun, and I got drunk with my pals and played good blues." They turned as the lot echoed with loud voices.
Smith had his face on a slant looking at some guy in front of a dark low blue car. The guy was yelling at him, and Smith flinched, but his hand was behind the pump the whole time.
Chris hopped out of his office, his first step over the concrete rim of the office. He held up an arm as he approached Smith, with Carlos behind him.
Doug dropped off the ladder with a step and pulled Joseph after him into the lot. They caught the "and it's not here now" clearly, the emphasis having had its effect. Chris started to say something, and then turned to look at Smith, with a glare at Carlos. Carlos looked back with a face clear of expression.
"Are you lying to me?" he asked Smith, with a tight voice and a strict face.
"Nope." Smith had one arm out straight, and the other grasping it, kneading the skin.
Chris turned to the driver. "He doesn't think he took it," he said, leaving his face blank. Joseph had seem him do this to the woman talking about her credit card. Anyone you didn't know was an out of towner, could be lying, and wouldn't matter besides.
The driver pulled his head back, letting his eyes relax. He exhaled softly. Joseph could see the hairs in his nose move. They were turned grey already. He wrote down something on a pad, handed it to Chris, then got into his car. Chris came over and his voice was low, gritted: "Mayor's brother-in-law, from Chicago, for chrissake. That wallet better show up by Friday, or I'm going to talk to the Sheriff." He looked at them each pointedly in the eye.
When Joseph looked back Chris was talking to Carlos. His eyes were dark, sharp. Doug put his comb in his pocket and walked over to Chris. Chris looked at Doug as he spoke, and then shrugged. Doug said something more, and he and Chris looked again at Carlos, who was going back tot he tire pile. Smith sat alone next to the pump, his hands loose and fluttering. He didn't smile at Joseph but looked right past him. Then Joseph noticed the gold smear on his nose.
"Only way to get through days here." He faded backwards in a swimming flood of warm, curving air. Smith was there with his watery eyes, nose twitching. Joseph held out the mask and it separated from him like a bone plucked from flesh. He leaned backward, and a crow flew over, a school of shattered black feathers like fish in ice. Smith's eyes dissolved in themselves, and Joseph felt fire whip his cheeks, felt his body lifted. He smelled hospital. He opened his eyes. Smith's stare was dull, but steady. His lip covered some froth on the edge of his teeth.
Mumblem mumblem. Something pinched his arm. Joseph turned, his eyes opening, and Smith's face grew large in his. He was talking. No, crying. Smith tackling him and walked past, strutting unsteadily around the cars. The metal was turning into gold itself, the late sun making it glow in pools. Smith was laughing, and there was gold on Joseph's arm. He tasted it. Acid salt.
The truck pulled past the gate with the tires, and Joseph locked it. Carlos was back in the bays. He was going to find his brother to buy him Tequila, and would tell some girl living in the trailer park that he wanted her. He was laughing at that idea. She would say yes.
Chris was talking to Doug. Joseph had seen the wallet in the garbage can near the bathrooms, and had gone to piss behind the grease vat instead. Carlos found the wallet, and brought it to Doug. Joseph came back and saw the wallet in Doug's hand. He turned away. Carlos rested against a post and stared at the dust settling in the evening light. "No money anymore," Doug muttered, and went to the office.
Joseph heard Chris before he felt him. "Is this your doing?" he said, looking at Joseph.
"No sir." Joseph said, and shook a bit but kept looking at Chris. "I didn't take it."
"Right," Chris said, almost smiling like it were a joke, "Carlos didn't take it. Smith doesn't have the brains. I know Doug didn't. No one took it. The money just flew away."
"If you put in three bucks, we can get another can," said Carlos.
Chris was talking to Smith. "He's not going to last long in there."
"Why not?" Joseph asked.
Carlos looked at him. He's so strung on paint he can't talk. He's going to get blamed for it.
Joseph turned to coiling the hose. He heard Chris's voice, and became aware suddenly of the breeze of Carlos' departure.
Ten minutes later found him still trying to coil the hose, thinking of the past. He remembered the fire, and he remembered his parents screaming. He didn't see Stan again after that. He did remember the truck owner shouting at the court, and the moment when they all looked at him. He remembered going home. He remembered his father leaving. He remembered his mother crying to him, and telling him it was okay. Then there was the house without heat or air conditioning, and the little jobs he took for grocery money. Then her drinking, calling his father in Mexico and when he hung up, sitting with eyes open not seeing, barely breathing. After that it all went away.
Carlos walked past him, his eyes dulled but soft. He saw Joseph and turned. "He says I do the grease vat and tires full time now," said Carlos. "Since he cannot trust me with a customer, of course." Chris came past at a fast walk, his eyes straight ahead, fixed. The wiry smell of rancid, confined sweat crept past Joseph's nose. And behind was the familiar dry sourness of alcohol.
Smith held himself on a stool near Doug's bench. His eyes hit the floor.
They were emptying trash in the dumpster, Joseph dumping and Doug who was still injured holding the lid. "Man, this bums me out," Doug said.
Joseph inhaled carefully to the side of the dumpster, where the odor of food residue and oil did not reach. "Me too."
"Do you have anything to tell me?" Doug asked quietly, as if it didn't matter much. In the tone of: do you have a TV guide handy?
"No," said Joseph. "I know what you know."
"You must've seen the wallet there in the trash, where we found it," said Doug.
"I wouldn't have thought to look for it," said Joseph.
Joseph looked at him when Chris turned, hummed, and asked: "Has Carlos been working?"
Chris spoke quickly. "Are you sure? Have you been working?" He looked sharply at Joseph, who stepped back. "Of course I've!"
"Are you sure? Because (a long pause) he's said you haven't been working, and with all of these problems, I'm aiming to get rid of someone. Paying back the Mayor's sainted brother-in-law is going to cost us big."
"I've been doing what you told me to do," said Joseph.
"Well, I'll believe you for now, but someone here is lying. You, Carlos or Smith. Pick one, I guess," he said, turning on a bootheel and walking toward the office.
Joseph went back to the bay and called home. The line rang three times and then a message came on saying the line had been disconnected. Chris was at the pumps, talking to a customer in a Cadillac. They shook hands. Joseph turned, and slipped into the paint locker. The dense smell of lacquer surrounded him.
Carlos looked at him when he got back. "You look all white, man."
They went out to the tire stack. The tires were in pillars, building a palace under the roof of low grey-lidded sky. The first scent of burning sunset flowed in weak light through the gaps in the structure. Joseph heard the moving of cloth. Something cold touched his hand: the spray can, and then the mask. Now he was not afraid of the rushing of oily cold gluey air.
Carlos looked at him, his nose bleeding. The can rolled at his feet, the clanking of the ball going forth and back, and then back again, and again, like a tide. He could almost hear seagulls.
Where did you go? I was here for ten minutes. Mom and Dad had to go to the city to sell something. It's only us now. Up the rungs, up to - on the roof, the sun bright and orange yellow and some pink at the edges. Stan's breath, heavy with chocolate and root beer. You are my brother of course I will share. Where did you go? Went over there. There's a hatch. God it's dark.
Now it stinks. Smells like grease or something. It's real strong. Hey -- you wanna smoke? I got Dad's pack. Here. The crinkling in his hands, the tight bodies of the cigarettes. I didn't mean to drop it! We were on the roof. He did as much as I. I didn't mean. Turning for his mother, she's not there. Her crying. Wet on his arm.
He felt the filter in his mouth. Stan's breath rushed over his eyelids. He touched the lighter to the cigarette, felt the warmth on his face.
After he closed the office, Chris came out to see them. Smith was pumping gas, and an irate woman was telling him to clean up the mess of gasoline he had made on the side of the car. "Do it," said Chris, in passing. Then he turned to Carlos.
"He's said it. You did it."
Carlos looked firm up at him. "I did not take it," he said.
"He said you did. That's enough."
"You got the dummy to say I did it."
"He's not too bright, but he's a good witness. I want that money by Monday."
Carlos rubbed the edge of his hand. "No," and then, "I wish I had not been born into this dead-end town," to work in the airless center of a valley where each bastard was worse than the last.
He looked down the hill and saw Joseph outside the bay, smoking.
"I don't believe you. I work my whole life for this station, and people like you come in here for a free ride, and then on top of it you rip off the Sheriff's brother-in-law. I am going to make this place work, I am getting out of here. You will stay, for good, because you do things like this." Chris' face was red, but his expression was half-gleeful and half-furious, frantic, and dark.
Smith walked to face level on Joseph. He looked down at the cigarette and reached out two fingers. Joseph gave it to him, and turned. He began to walk toward the vat; I think I will just tell him I did it to end this. Whoever did it will need a new job. Maybe a lawyer. He looked down the brief slope. After that it all goes away. I will never be out of this place.
Smith was at the pump, and Joseph could see his watery eyes pulse with the reflected red of the sunset. Joseph went up the slope toward the louder and louder yelling. "I did not take it!" said Carlos.
"Then who did? You're the only one who could!"
"I don't know!"
A roar like the start of a storm took their breath. Carlos said, "Holy spirit!"
Smith was coated in flame, one arm outstretched, staggering backward. Joseph expected him to howl, or to at least say something, but Smith was silent as he danced in the constricting inferno. "Get a blanket, one of you idiots!" Chris was saying. Joseph did not see one, and for a moment he was faint, as if sleep had overtaken him.
Doug grabbed some work towels from the bench and threw them at Smith, who in trying to catch them, staggered into the pool of gasoline. Fire climbed the hose and pump, now. Carlos did not watch, but looked up at Joseph, past a paint-smeared nose. They were looking away from the station, away from the shockwave of warmth, past Chris's sudden fast, yelping scream.