The Fire This Time, Part One

The Right-Wing Riot is proud to be serializing “The Fire This Time,” Roy M. Griffis’ prequel to his novel “The Big Bang.”  Part One is below.

 

The Fire This Time

It was just a little school.  Like a lot of places there in the Sonoran desert, it was a one story building from the 50’s, naturally build of cinder block, with a flat roof, all of it painted a remarkably less-than-festive flat white.  During the three years Whistler had lived in the vicinity of the school (calling the dwellings scattered over nearly ten miles of sand, scrub, saguaro cactus and every variety of pointy, pokey plantlife known to man a “neighborhood” seemed impossibly optimistic to him);  during that time he’d observed the little kids outside every spring painting murals on the longest wall, which faced the playground.

The bright, simplistic figures standing awkwardly and anatomically incorrectly on the big cement canvas were usually good for a chuckle as he drove by, unless the sun was jabbing those knitting needles of light in his sleep-deprived eyes.  On those mornings, nothing made him happy except the thought of fleeing the unrelenting glare of the desert daylight and retreating to the stuffy dark cocoon of the couch at the back of the trailer.

Still, even on his worst day, Whistler wouldn’t have wanted to see the little school burn, nor could he have imagined such a small structure would burn for so long.

 

“You’re lucky to live out here,” the realtor had said to him, taking his money order and handing him a single brass key.

Whistler only grunted at that.  He was leasing a thirty-year-old trailer in the far corner of a tiny ranch, which apparently only grew weeds and goats.  As he glanced around, he noticed one of the goats

choking one something green and spiky that sprung from the baked ceramic surface that passed for dirt around here.  Clearly, both the plants and livestock around here were committed to killing each other.

In exchange for a reduced rent and “keeping an eye on the place,” he’d have his very own single-wide, which might have been the height of swinging bachelor life back when Jerry Ford was president and Disco was King.  In 2006, however, the strips of aluminum curled away from the paint-peeling siding which had once been white but which was now polka-dotted with rust where it wasn’t just sheet-metal grey; nothing about the place screamed This is what success looks like.

The realtor couldn’t let it go, though.  The woman, about fifty, wore just a touch too much face power, possibly to cover the slight layer of downy hair that covered her skin.  Whistler had noticed the realtor’s five o’clock shadow when he’d reached for the key.  He could tell she wasn’t native to Southern Arizona.  Her boots were too shiny, the business-denim jeans a bit too snug over that middle-aged backside, the slacks held tight against her midriff by a tea-saucer-sized silver buckle with an aggressively blue-green turquoise stone in the middle.  The rock protruded just a bit from the buckle, almost like a push-button, and he wondered (in a way that was alarmingly free of any actual lust) if pressing the stone would cause her large bosoms to spring free of the bra and pressed cowboy shirt that struggled to contain them.  “You’re lucky,” she insisted again with a brighter smile than the property deserved.  “Look at that view,” she commanded, removing the crisp and unstained straw hat as if to give herself a better look.

The mountains.  The same ones that had been there every day of the last sixteen months he’d been in Arizona and for thirty million years before that.  Yeah, thrilling.

“And all that sky,” she went on with a demonstrative swing of the arm that threatened to unleash her personal Alpine Peaks.

“Yeah,” he finally agreed, to keep himself from being speared by her enthusiasm.

The realtor must’ve been in sales a long time, because she remained adamantly upbeat in the face of his decidedly neutral affect.  “And no smog!” she told him, returning the cowboy hat to the pre-made dents in her hairdo, slipping the check into her purse, which jingle-jangled like a surrey with the fringe on top.  “You enjoy your new home, Mr. Whistler,” she ordered him, weaving between the goats to get to her truck, a Ford F-150 that was, at minimum, four times the vehicle a woman of her size required.  She held onto the open door and leaned out the cab to intone once more, “You’re lucky.”

That time, it didn’t sound quite so Dale Carnegie chipper.  Maybe she had done more than look at his credit before letting him have the trailer.  By now, he was working on keeping his mouth shut, which had turned out to be pretty easy do as long as one hadn’t spent the prior ten hours filling it beer.  “Yeah,” he said.

Since he was also trying not to be a complete asshole, he forced himself to stand there outside the piece of shit tinbox that was going to be his home and waved to the realtor as she drove away.

The dust her truck raised from the trail annoyed the goats, who bleated threats in her direction before moving off to stand moodily in a less-trafficed part of the field.  Whistler didn’t open the door to the trailer, although he knew he should.  Without ventilation and a cross-breeze, the single-wide would turn into a sweatbox right out of those old war movies with the POWs and the in-humane Japanese guards screaming at them.

Instead, he sat on the metal steps leading up to his house.  He didn’t want to think about wishing he had a drink.  So he thought about luck.

Luck all depended on where you were standing at the moment, and who was looking.  Could be bad luck for some black lady in Phoenix or Flowing Wells to have sickle cell anemia.  Then you’re talking doctors visits, treatments, cost, time, pain.  But if that same lady was in sub-saharan Africa, hell, sickle cell was nearly a blessing, as it kept her from coming down with the malaria that made so much of the place unlivable for Europeans for so long.

He took one more look around at the goats and the weeds before climbing to his feet.  “Lucky, my ass,” he muttered.

But, son-of-a-bitch if that realtor lady wasn’t right.

 

He hadn’t always had to think about not being an asshole.  Nor had he always been an asshole, someone who would have to think about not being that kind of person.

He’d moved to Tucson from Evanston, IL, when his employer, Fidelity Health, had re-located their call and claims center to the cheaper land, lower taxes, and lesser crime rate of the other Sunshine State.

Yeah, maybe the weather was better and your car undercarriage didn’t rust out from all the salt used on Northern roads.  Some of his co-workers loved the sun, the relatively better traffic, the quaint neighborhoods. Others bitched about the sun, about how damn far they had to drive to get a decent bagel or a good cup of coffee or a recent copy of the Times.

“Doncha miss it, Andy?” one of them had said.  Hell, they hadn’t been in the new building for more than a month, they were still stumbling over power cords strung across hallways and at least once a day someone’s foot caught in a network cable that lay between the desks, sometimes resulting in an outburst of profanity that could be caught by the customers on a call with the reps.

“Who’s got time to miss anything?” he’d asked, almost accurately.  There was a hell of a lot work to be done just getting the office organized, the phones working, hell, even paper in the damn copiers.

“That’s cause you’re always here, man.”

It was true.  He worked longer hours than anyone in the adjuster’s department, in before the rest of the team and staying until the noise of the night cleaning crew’s vacuum made it impossible to hear, let alone think.

The remarks from his co-workers had continued, jocular not-so-friendly comments about his desire to climb the corporate ladder, the snide observations that he had something on his nose;  he had ignored all of those, but one Friday evening, as the staff streamed out into the overly warm desert dusk of a March day, one of the new managers pulled him aside.

Mrs. Dominguez was her name.  She was one of the a local hires, a pleasant middle-aged hispanic woman who was quite attractive and had probably been a real heart-breaker when she was younger.  “Mr. Whistler, can I see you?” she asked politely.

“Oh, yes, of course.”  He closed the form he was working on and saved it.  He was working on an updated set of processes for the new location.  He followed her into the small offices that managers had been assigned.

Mrs. Dominguez had a few pictures on her tiny desk.  One of them was of two boys and a girl in matching high-school letter jackets. She caught his gaze and nodded her head toward it.  “Those are mine.  That picture is about ten years old, though.”

There was an uninviting plastic chair opposite her desk.  She urged him to have a seat, and so he sat down to be polite.

“Mr. Whistler,” she began.

“Just call me Andy,” he told her.

“Andy, you and I haven’t had a chance to get to know each other.”  She gestured at the files and paperwork on her desk, and he nodded with empathy.

“Lot to do, Miss Dominguez.”

“And there’s always more, isn’t there?”

That was self-evident.  “Yeah,” he agreed.

“Andy, I needed to speak to you about your hours.”   When all he did was look at her, she leaned forward and went on.  “You’ve been working a lot of overtime since you joined us at the office.”

“I’ve been off the clock.”

“We know.  But, we can’t have you working unpaid hours.”

“I don’t mind.  It has to get done, right?”  The sheepish grin he offered her was unreturned.

“Andy, it’s against company policy.  Because it’s not right that you work and not get paid.  Our budget doesn’t allow for—”

“I don’t mind.”

“You can’t, Andy.  It’s against state law, too.  I need you to work your scheduled hours, Mr. Whistler.  Can you do that for me?”

He looked directly at her.  She had an open, kind face.  Three grown kids, no wedding band.  She was a nice-enough lady, trying to make enough for her mortgage and car payments and maybe even some college tuition.  She wasn’t busting his chops, she was asking him to make her life a little less difficult and his work a little more legal.  “Sure,” he said.  “I can do that.  For you.”

He left her office, turned off his desk lamp and the PC, and then walked out of the building.  Strangely, he shivered emerging from the air-conditioned bubble into the warm evening with the odd, flat scent of dirt on the dry breeze that scraped along his cheek.  He’d tell Kathy about it, he thought as he unlocked the ‘89 Pontiac he’d driven down from Evanston.  How silly it was to be shivering in the heat.  If they’d been back home, of course they’d be shivering, but it was actually cold in March there.

He slipped in behind the steering wheel, the interior of the car hotter than it was outside.  He’d been meaning to buy one of those silvery reflectors that went across your dashboard and covered the front window:  the locals swore they kept your car from turning into a damn terrarium during the day.

It was only when his hands touched the hot plastic of the steering wheel and he snatched them back that he remembered.  Or he forgot to forget that there wasn’t any reason to go back to his small apartment in the brand-new complex.

Just like Kathy hadn’t had any reason to go to Tucson.  Her family, all the people she’d grown up with, they were back there in the Midwest, generations of them.  “I’m not reason enough?” he’d asked in disbelief.  He knew things weren’t great, but…

“No,” she said.  “Nothing personal.”

That was probably what hurt most of all.  Nothing mean.   Nothing personal.

So, his wife wasn’t waiting for him back in that little one-bedroom.  There were a couple of boxes on the floor, along with a mattress (also on the floor).  His work clothes were unpacked, but he knew as soon as he opened the door to that new, mostly bare set of rooms, it would smell just as warm and flat and dead as the air inside his car, with just a hint of the new wall paint under it all.

No reason to rush back to that.  He looked around the parking lot, feeling the muscles that intersected between his shoulder blades and at the base of neck start to get very, very tight, curling up into the fetal position that he almost wanted to assume himself.

Well, he couldn’t fill the hours with work anymore.  He’d have to see what else he could do with his time.

Turned out, he could drink pretty well.

 

Like many hobbies, it filled up his time and used his money, both of which he had more than he wanted or needed.  Unlike less-consuming hobbies, he didn’t have much to show for it:  no great photo montages, no kitchsy souveniors that would lead into amusing ancedotes.

And like a lot of hobbies, the more he got into really practicing it, the more it cost him.  Any enthusiast could have told him that.

First it cost him his car.  He ignored the flashing “Check Engine” light and one evening the Pontiac, sulky and lonely from the lack of attention, threw a tantrum and then a rod.  After that, Whistler drove a simpler vehicle, a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle with a sunroof that leaked during the summer monsoon rains.  But it was fairly forgiving as long as he fed it a lot of 10W/50 oil.

His hobby began getting really expensive.  He downsized to a student studio apartment near the University; no sense wasting money on a bedroom and full kitchen he rarely used.  Then he had to park the VW Bug, as he was stopped for a DUI.  He managed to sidestep jail time only because a highly-paid lawyer spotted a paperwork and evidentiary oversight.  So Whistler began riding a bike to work.  He had to keep working, he had a hobby to maintain.

Then it cost him a promotion.

Then his job.

As he was being walked out by security, a 9 x 12 envelope under his arm that contained the sum of the personal items that had been in and on his desk, Mrs. Dominguez met him in the parking lot.  The guard tensed, as if afraid that Whistler might go postal on one of his former managers.

The older woman held up a hand.  “I’m sorry it worked out this way, Andy.”

Whistler shrugged even as he tried ineffectually to make his eyebrows shield his eyes from the morning sun.

She took his hand.  Her face, even to his blood-shot eyes, was still kind.  She pressed a piece of paper into his palm.  She leaned forward and spoke quietly.  “You might need this.  It helped me one time.  There’s help if you want it.”

Without looking, he shoved the document into his pocket.

 

One morning, he woke up inside his VW, unable to see out of his right eye.  The skin around it was so swollen he couldn’t pry the lids apart with his thumb and forefinger.  He checked in the rear-view mirror, expecting to see the increasingly routine blue and black and yellow of a bruise, but the skin was merely inflamed.  Some damn desert insect had bitten him at some point in the night.  Well, shit.  He’d have to wait a couple of hours for the free clinic downtown to open, so he cracked the sunroof to let in a little air, and scrunched himself more comfortably in the seat.  He didn’t mind the litter of paper from various fastfood joints.  They cushioned him a little as he put his back against the driver’s door and hauled his feet up on the passenger seat.

He was wearing one red shoe on his left foot.

He didn’t own any red shoes.

It was some kind of slim, leather fancy shoe.

The red shoe was bright and assertive against the sun-scoured light grey of the old car’s interior.  In fact, just looking at it made his already queasy stomach want to go into a gastro-intestinal version of ventricular fibrillation, so he turned his good eye away from the sight.

But that meant all he had to look at was either the closed-down tire shop he was parked in back of, or the interior of his car.  Both visions were dirty and essentially clothed in garbage.

This sucks, he thought.

He turned his head.  The red shoe again.  Whose shoe was it?  Was it even a man’s shoe?

This really sucks.

 (to be continued…)

(Can’t wait for the next installment?  Read the whole thing here🙂

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