MARCH 2008 – NO. 22
Family of Man
The third story selection from our sixth Guest Fiction Editor, Natalie Danford
Children are the jewel of this life. Mullah Omar had pressed this wisdom on Brume some years ago when he was covering the abduction of a venture capitalist in Uzbekistan for Weekly News Report. The mullah, eyes demented from hashish, had fixed an intense look on nothing in particular and regaled the room, empty save the two men, with tidbits that his hushed tone suggested were veiled in divine mystery. He spoke of a fish, netted in the shrinking Aral Sea, inscribed with suras from the Koran. The scrawls told of impending apocalypse, of a great knot coming undone, its fibers transforming into fire snakes that would cinch the world. A feral child, a wolf-boy, had been spotted tearing through the garbage in Tashkent. An emissary of doom. Most portentous of all, Michael Jackson had recently converted to Islam. The holy man was hunched so far forward on his pillow that Brume could see the individual capillaries in his eyes throbbing minutely with each heartbeat.
Hurtling down I-95, the paved artery of south Florida, Brume turns the Mullah's adage over and over until the loftiness drains from it, a string of sad sounds on the mind's tongue. Consider the children. Suffer the little children. If by "jewels" the Mullah had meant to liken children to the industrial grade diamonds used to grind glass, Brume could accept the premise. Indeed, it had become clear to him that by and large kids were both the tools and first wave of casualties in the ceaseless drive towards so-called progress. All one had to do to know how seriously humanity took its pieties for children was flick on CNN: kids orphaned and starving, press-ganged into rebel combat in obscure conflicts, worked to the bone in sweatshops, dragooned into sexual slavery. The vileness of adult appetites and ambitions oozed down to them like toxins into the water table. And, by Brume's lights, a similar phenomenon regularly played itself out closer to home, a seeming world away from famine, genocide and destitution; dad holding forth to his brood over dinner, lecturing Biff and Butch and Chip, index finger jabbing at the air, how to stop at nothing to get ahead in life, how to scramble so high that when they shit everyone gets a faceful.
Brume imagines that his boss Marty grew up in such a pressure cooker of a home. He reserves a unique brand of disdain for Marty, Marty the swaggering upstart who at 38 is the youngest editor-in-chief ever to have strutted the Weekly boardroom, Marty who has presumed upon Brume's reputation for tolerating the intolerable to send him off on 12 consecutive assignments spanning the most fly-blown, blood-slaked, and godforsaken swathe of the earth. It wasn't inconceivable that Marty had it in mind to burn Brume out. There was another side to his reputation, and his exploits had already stirred up a flurry of shrill memos, some of which had traveled far enough down the food chain for him to get a hold of. That he still had two years on his contract and management was too stingy to pay out his severance were all that stood between him and the pasture.
Brume peers into the rearview mirror and notes with relief and a twinge of envy that Sarah has drifted off to sleep, her head leaned against the seat belt threaded through the child safety chair, errant whorls of hair curled over the nylon strap like golden talons. She clutches a doll tight to her chest. Alton seems to have slipped into catatonia, head swiveling gyroscopically on his shoulders, mouth agape, drool glazing his chin. Defective goods, Brume thinks. He turns his attention back to the gray asphalt against which unfurl red-black streaks of road kill stamped with a mosaic of tire tread.
Alton and Sarah are Marty's children. Three weeks ago, still on the wobble from a four-Martini lunch, Brume had been summoned to Marty's office. At first, nothing about their banter had given Brume cause for concern. Obliging his boss's seemingly innocent question, he spelled out his vacation plans. Right around the point where Brume realized his original train of thought had derailed and crashed through a series of irrelevant anecdotes, he noticed the perplexity and alarm in Marty's face. Without a word, his boss rose from his desk, stopping Brume's rambling dead. Throughout the rest of meeting, Marty had never once turned away from his floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the spires of midtown Manhattan. Hands clasped behind his back, he had launched into a rant on the sanctity of journalistic responsibility, the tough calls he sometimes had to make as helmsman of the magazine. A cold fist of dread closed around Brume's guts as the notion that he was being fired began to suggest itself. So when Marty mentioned, non-sequitur, that his kids' visit to Florida would overlap with Brume's vacation, Brume had jumped at the chance to make himself useful. He volunteered to ferry the children around, if the need arose — since he would be there anyway.
Looking back, Brume can't help but reluctantly admit his admiration for the little bastard's craftiness. Not that this shred of respect tempers the relish Brume takes in the knowledge that Marty's male heir is something less than a golden child.
"Think Alton's having a seizure?" Brume asks.
In the passenger side seat, Maureen's gadget-lust has gotten the better of her. She tinkers with the Pentax she hectored Brume into buying her along with a 500 dollar titanium flight case that could withstand a ten-story fall, which she'd begun referring to, without any trace of irony, as her "camera crib." At 36, Brume has begun to suspect, hormonal high tide has swamped her convictions and her once single-minded sense of purpose with girlish fantasies of motherhood.
She casts an eye over her shoulder. "No, I think he's just being Alton," she says, removing a telephoto lens from the molded foam bed inside the flight case. "Marty and Carla mentioned some tests. For a while they thought it might be a form of Asperger's, but now that that's been ruled out, they're at a loss. Personally, I think he's just a little off. One of the things he likes most is staring at air-conditioners. Can you imagine? Air-conditioners?"
"Maybe he's just really, really warm."
She fits a skylight filter to the lens then screws it onto the camera. She sets her F-stop, tests the light on her palm, readjusts the F-stop, looks through the viewfinder at her hand, and then turns the lens out and fixes on some object in the distance. Satisfied, she pulls the focus slowly and smoothly, finding her depth of field. And it's perfect, thinks Brume. Even in a moving car she would keep her edges crisp, her angles exact.
Somewhere between Immokalee and Naples, lurid rankness blankets the car, a fart like blinding neon. "I have to go," says Alton.
On the walk from the parking lot to the Flying-J Travel Plaza Brume discovers that Alton, in fact, already went: a minor disaster but not so small in scale as to go unaddressed. Brume hurries the stunted ten-year-old along with an urging hand on the small of his back.
As they swing through the rest stop doors, an artic wall of air-conditioning slams into Brume, prickling at the beads of sweat on his bare forearms and calves. The chill and color of the illuminated signage crowning the entrances to the eateries and shops on either side of the lobby shake him loose from time and place and sweep him into the bright tumult of Time Square, returning him to the present a moment later no wiser for the detour — but for the observation that people here are significantly larger than in New York. He steers the boy towards the bathroom. Brume notes with curiosity that the crowd of vacationers and RVers and long-haul truck drivers, shuffling around with the somnambulant gait and oblivious affect of the undead, seem to come alive when they see the child at Brume's side. Smiling and winking at him, they cut the pair of them a wide berth.
Brume thrusts Alton into a cubicle, brings him a wad of moist paper towels and instructs him to clean up. When Alton pulls the door shut, Brume announces that he's going to buy a clean pair of shorts for him. "Don't go anywhere, alright? ... Alton? Earth to Alton?" The boy murmurs what Brume elects to interpret as assent.
He shoulders a zigzag through the throng and enters the Super-Six-Super-Value-Megastore. A square two-leveled counter stands in the middle of the store, newspapers and tabloids fanned along the top half and an insulin shock of candy bars spread along the bottom. Behind the cashier, a display case stocked with cigarette packs sends a shudder of desire, an almost pornographic wave of giddiness, through Brume. Now seems as good a time as any to violate the smoking moratorium Maureen has enforced since his return from Uzbekistan, citing his sporadic infirmity as justification.
Not until he has forked over the money does he register the cashier's stark prettiness. Set against alabaster skin, her eyes, the fire-flecked green of triplet opal, seem to hover midair. Rapt by their granular dance of color, he's delighted and no little bewildered that the girl returns his stare without bridling at the audacity of his stare or blushing shyly under the attention. The blood swirling hot through his skull, he thinks he catches an intimation of something almost beyond imagining — no more than a flicker of candor in the pupils, but thrilling in its implications. He mutters "thanks" and backs away, mildly dazed, to a corner of the store hidden from her view.
Stealing glances from behind a rack of Hawaiian-print shirts, he observes that she is neither fully girl nor woman, but suspended in an interval between the two, an evanescence that calls to his mind the plump softness of a succulent plant's petals. In the way she holds her gangly freckled arm, the lazy play of her jaw muscles as they work at a wad of gum, he senses a fragile verve, a quality poised at the cusp of irrevocable change. Her languid movements, the slight cant in the hips, the lacy red fringe of bra peaking out from her shirt's neckline — signs, Brume thinks, of a creature awakening to its powers.
He browses the racks of clothing but soon finds his attention drawn to his hand. Squiggled veins, tendons working under the splotchy skin. A few white hairs. A vague puffiness that wasn't there a year earlier. The vandalism of time. He wonders what she could have seen in him, a weathered shell. Is he losing his objectivity in his dotage? And yet, he cannot dislodge the impression that some current of possibility had crackled between them.
As he makes for the exit, he remembers his purpose in coming to this store and plucks a pair of shorts from a bin. He falters, gripped by a strange idea, looks up at the clerk. He winks. Staring back, she carries on chewing, her pale face washed of expression. With no attempt to conceal the theft, he stuffs the shorts down his shirt. He winks again, smiles, walks out the door and into a buoyant sensation of triumph. Even at 53, he's still got it — or, at any rate, enough of that old swagger to set the pulse of fairer sex aflutter, enough of the old charm that's enabled him over 20 years to get away with roguery that would have ended lesser men's careers if not lives.
In celebration of this minor victory, he lights a cigarette, attracting the attention of an orderly who shoos him outside.
After the air-conditioning, the mugginess closes in around him with the malevolence of a bad dream. He's no stranger to hellish heat, but this humidity adds an almost taunting dimension to the unpleasantness. He takes a deep tug on his smoke, breathes out an acrid sigh. His first cigarette in months tastes like burning asphalt. The savage heat and the seep of nicotine in his veins combine to dizzying effect. He sits down lest faint. Miles above, frayed bands of airplane exhaust crisscross the sky, resembling nothing so much as the vapor trails of rocket-propelled grenades. He grins.
At the Peshawar bazaar, he once bartered a bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold for an AK-47 right under the noses of the Taliban. He watched interahamwe executioners use a human head as a soccer ball, their dripping machetes in hand. In Grozny, from a near enough distance to be spattered and rendered briefly deaf by the event, he had witnessed a babushka waddling through the wasted streets get vaporized by anti-aircraft fire falling back to earth. Brume collected horrors the way some soldiers harvested ears to string on necklaces. Though his budgets have been slashed and his name has dropped down the masthead over time, he has kept at it, proudly wearing the scars and grim trophies of a man who has choked on the cordite of history-in-the-making and filed every grisly detail with the head office on a SAT phone at the press-mess pub.
Yawning, Brume stands up and stretches. He checks his watch. A vague sense of having misplaced something niggles at him. What was he forgetting?
"Oh, fuck me," he yells, hoping the boy is still where he left him.
He charges back through the rest stop and into the bathroom, bangs loudly on the stall door until he discovers it's locked. He calls out to the boy, begging him to open up, his agitation imparting a jagged edge to his voice. Finally, an immense man emerges from the stall, glaring at Brume as he brushes past, leaving a miasmal trail among the perfumes of urinal cakes and liquid soap.
Back in the lobby, the crowd has thinned, yet Brume fails to spot the boy. The first thunderclap of panic has by now modulated into annoyance. He searches the rest stop, straining to recall exactly how long he's been absent: ten minutes, 15? Over a quick eye-opener at the Cold Comfort Bar and Grill, Brume contemplates the possibility that the boy had been whisked away by a cruising sex offender — what easy prey he would make. As Brume pictures the inevitable legal proceedings Marty will launch against him, the shackles and orange jumpsuit in which he will be led away, he senses the static of his thoughts merging with the hiss of the air-conditioning. He lapses briefly into a meditative state. A different idea dawns.
He bolts outside, behind the rest stop. Rounding a bend of the complex, he spots pale, willowy Alton transfixed before a massive exhaust vent. As Brume draws close, he hears the boy humming in tune with the drone of the fan blades.
"Alton," he says, and places a hand on the boy's shoulder. "What are you doing?" His words fail to break the spell. Brume ducks his head next to Alton's, his hair blasted back with such force that his scalp feels as though it is peeling off like Velcro. He gazes into the blur of the blades for whatever might have entranced the kid.
Alton surprises him by saying, "I see an eye."
Interposing himself between Alton and the fan, Brume somehow delivers the boy back to the moment. He cups Alton's head, rubbing the taut cords at the base of the skull. Then, after gentling him out of the wind tunnel, he grows nervous at touching him and stuffs his hands into his pockets.
"You're a strange little bugger, aren't you?" It strikes him that this might not be the ideal approach. He gropes for better, kinder words. "Don't take that to mean individuality isn't good, but maybe, you know, you ought to blend in a little more."
Alton inserts an index finger into a nostril, digs around as though he's lost something of value up there. Brume bends to him and gently pulls his hand away from his nose.
"Look kid, in some ways you remind me of me at your age." Alton wipes his finger on his shirt and perks up. "I was something of a loner too. But eventually I came to see that there's more to life than being shut off in your own little world. You have to force yourself out of your comfort zone. It did me a world of good to learn how to take some risks. Look at me now. I may be a little tattered around the edges, but people look at me and think, 'Here's a guy not to be taken lightly'.
"The last step in the process is to start hobnobbing with the girls. You may not want to now. But it wouldn't be a bad idea if you started learning now how not to creep the hell out of people, girls especially — so you'll be ready when the time comes to … " He falters. "To — "
"Stick it in a girl?" says Alton, brightening. Brume feels a blush suffusing his cheeks.
"Well, you've got to work up to that part. Start small. Get some facetime. Maybe you'll want to buy a girl you've had your eye on an apple juice at the cafeteria, hook your I-Pods together, or whatever kids do these days. In time, with practice and most likely some stinging rejections along the way, you might be able to … you know, do what you said."
"Stick it in a girl? Like Sarah?"
"Christ!" Brume snaps, "that's your sister." Alton cringes away from the severity in his tone.
From the hurt in the boy's eyes, Brume surmises he has rarely, if ever, had a harsh word spoken to him. This observation brings forth an insight into the confinement and narrowness of the boy's life. Brume's vision of an "academy" for the defective scions of the Upper East Side elite — more visibly indebted to an upscale psychiatric institution than a place of learning, bearing only the most incidental resemblance to Brume's own experience of school — churns up an uneasy blend of pity and ire in the journalist. Undoubtedly the boy has had paintbrushes and psychodrama sessions fobbed off on him throughout his young life by a platoon of special educators. Brume wonders if it ever occurred to Alton's minders that their doting attention might be depriving the boy of the vital lessons only available at the hands of a schoolyard bully.
"You know what? It did me a world of good to throw my weight around a football field. Toughened me right up." Brume puffs out his chest to illustrate the point. "They let you do sports at your … school?"
Alton greets the question with a look of utter puzzlement.
"I see. Well, I'll bet you've got thick skin you don't even know you have," says Brume. Then, in the voice he habitually adopts with eager dogs, "Tough as an alligator. They could make a handbag out of you and sell it for a grand at Saks."
Brume has gone into an exaggerated shadowboxing routine, bobbing and weaving, shooting out his hocks in short arcs inches away from Alton's now amused face. Encouraged, the pugilist advances. He sends light but firm prods into the boy's soft midsection. Alton wriggles with glee.
"You wanna wrestle tough guy, big man? Huh? Wanna go, Cassius?"
Alton lets out an impish giggle and, wringing up torque in his waist, uncorks a haymaker directly into Brume's crotch. Brume's knee jerks reflexively upward, catching Alton on the point of the jaw. The boy's teeth smack together with a hollow thwack and his head swings away, dragging his frail body through the air like a rag doll. Brume twists to the earth and gathers himself into a fetal ball.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he brays, one hand clenching a fistful of hair, the other cupping his throbbing valuables.
When the pain dulls to mere agony, he props himself up on an elbow and looks the kid over, worried that he has knocked him out. Seeing that he hasn't brings scant relief. Already, tears parenthesize his face in glistening streams. A dribble of blood oozes from a notch in his lower lip. For several minutes, he remains unresponsive to Brume's apologies and soothing gestures.
Hoping the gift might buy Alton's silence, Brume pulls out the shoplifted shorts and hands them over. He tells the boy to change in the bathroom, but in a show either of defiance or pathological unselfconsciousness, Alton rips off his Bermudas on the spot. Before he can avert his eyes, Brume marks that the kid is bare of pubescence. When he turns back, a red tag dangling from the waistline of the shorts draws his attention. It spins in the breeze. He catches it between forefinger and thumb. On it he reads the words, "Free with every purchase at the Super-Six-Seven-Mega-Value-Store! Limit one per family." It's a humiliating discovery. Brume forces a chuckle as a shrinking sensation grips his aching loins.
Brume harries Alton around the rest stop and across the parking lot, no words passing between them. On the approaches to the car, the sight of Maureen's scowling face, pallid as a drowning victim's behind the windshield, fills Brume with dread. He opens the door, crumples into the seat and latches his hands to the steering wheel. For a few moments he stares vacantly ahead. At last, he turns an imploring look to Maureen and raises a hand to head off the dressing-down he senses is coming — his due and proper for having made her wait so long, and for returning to the car disheveled, with a bloodied Alton — and says only, "Accident."
In her non-response Brume discerns a grudging sympathy. He is grateful to her for this simple act of charitable restraint, grateful to her for knowing him well enough to tell when he has come unhinged. He starts the car.
Parallel to the highway on both sides run stinking gullies hemmed in by Virginia chain fern, pond-cypress bearded with Spanish moss and squat Florida yew shrubs. On the surface of the tea-colored trench floats a scum of green algae lanced here and there by bristly swamp grass. Decay hangs thick in the air, yet life abounds. Bright pink and orange sprays stipple the green banks of mud.
Billboards announcing "Indian Joe's" — featuring a grinning caricature of a Seminole straddling an alligator's back — rise up from the shoulder of the road. Nursing his swollen lip, Alton has fallen into a sulk. Maureen broods, each breath a sigh fraught with reproach.
Brume flicks the radio on. The news is of worldwide calamity, but delivered so breezily and with such emphasis on the few bright points that a distractible listener might easily miss the bleakness. Every channel the same. Even in the husky voices of rappers muttering about bitches and diamonds, the stray catches and quavers of uncertainty and suppressed fear. To Brume, the undercurrent of hysteria hidden in the torrent of noise call to mind the scrabbling of rats trapped behind a wall. Maybe the mullah's auguries hadn't been wildly off the mark.
"Whatever happened to the Golden Age?" says Brume. "Seems like we inch a little further away with each generation. We're now well into the depleted uranium age."
"No way" Maureen says over a voice confessing to erectile dysfunction, its earnest tone like warm arms reaching for an awkward hug. "The Viagra age. The age of never-ending immaturity."
Brume leans forward to shut off the radio, taking the opportunity to steal a glance at Maureen. When they had met in Mexico two years ago in a Zapatista camp where she had been dispatched to photograph young recruits, she spoke incisively about many of the events Brume had reported on. He saw himself blown-up in her eyes as in a funhouse mirror, larger than life, a man of depth in no way diminished by age.
Indian Joe's: 15 miles.
"Can we stop there, Uncle Brume?" says Sarah unexpectedly. Brume senses Maureen brighten like an electrical filament.
"Good morning, Sarah-poozle. You slept through half of Florida," she says.
"It smells like when my gerbil died. I don't like Florida."
Maureen laughs. "Look at the flowers and the swamp, sweetie. Isn't it pretty?"
"I want to go to Indian Joe's. They've got allimagators there."
"Alligators, sweetie, A-lli-gators," says Maureen.
"I don't think we can swing it, Sarah. Your real aunt and uncle are anxious to see you in Naples"
"If Sarah wants to go, I say we go," says Maureen. "We've got the time."
Brume signals his displeasure with a basilisk stare, but Maureen is making faces at the girl and misses it. In the rearview, Brume catches sight of Alton, looking like a child who has lost his mother in a supermarket, but doesn't know enough to be afraid.
"Well kiss my ass and call me Shorty," he says softly. "Let's go see us some gators."
Brume veers off the pavement and onto the hard pack that leads to Indian Joe's, a yellow plume of dust swirling behind the car. The dirt road winds into reclaimed swamp and the uneven terrain forces Brume to slow down. Shacks in states of disrepair sprout up, some moldering in dereliction, cocooned in creeper vine. Others are still intact but very few are open for business, selling lacquered alligator heads and snakeskin belts set on tables.
The profile of a teepee crests above the vegetation. As they emerge into a clearing, Brume notes a number of cinderblock outbuildings with a hallucinatory array of lizards, snakes and panthers painted on the walls. Palmetto thatch tops each building like a bad toupee. In front, a crowd has gathered around a hexagonal chicken-wire pen. Two turbine-powered airboats float in a broad cleft of water. On the near shore stand a people-mover and a wizened Indian woman beaded in full tribal regalia. All of this surrounds a tent emblazoned with the profile of an Indian warrior — presumably Joe — lifting a long feathered pipe to his feathered head. "Welcome to Indian Joe's," reads the inscription beneath the figure, and slightly lower than this, "Blackjack Casino 50ft on the right."
Brume parks after palming over 15 dollars to an attendant and hefts himself out into the savage heat. Sunrays strike him with the force of a bludgeon. He helps Sarah out of her child safety chair, swaying slightly under the weight of something akin to nausea.
They set out for the teepee, Brume keeping a resigned pace to the rear of the pack. As he passes his eyes from the children to the cinderblock huts, a mood of desolation steals over him, followed by a thought: what if this slum zoo and casino were what thousands of years of proud heritage boiled down to?
"I guess this is one way to parlay your past into hard currency," he says.
"Well, it's something," says Maureen, "which is better than any deal they ever got before."
Brume shrugs. "For my part, I never shot, disenfranchised or gave small pox to a single one of them."
A totem pole, whose crudeness lends it the appearance of a giant's spinal column, sports an arrow inscribed with the words "Restaurant/Native American History Exhibit." Following it, they pass through into the teepee.
A scratchy looped recording of Indian chants wails throughout the vaulted interior. Except for what feeble sunshine filters through the heavy material of the tent and a puddle of mellow light oozing out over the dirt floor from an electrical fire, the space is swallowed in dimness. The damp earthy chill, the mournful, disembodied song — atmospherically, the place recalls a sepulcher. As his eyes adjust to the dimness, he makes out panels of text, ritual artifacts in glass reliquaries, blown up sepia photos of bejeweled Seminoles: a frieze depicting the stages of conquest and extinction.
And yet, judging from the tables set up willy-nilly, some of which, to Brume's surprise, are actually occupied, people are eating here. The prospect of tucking into a hunk of charred flesh in this setting, face-to-face with the dismal aftermath of his forebear's rapine, turns his stomach. Would you like some fries with your complicity?
Above, all the smell of dust and frying meat, strongly evocative of squalor to Brume, induces a ferocious thirst for a stiff drink.
"Alright. Nothing of interest to us here," he announces.
"I'm hungry, Aunt Maureen," says Sarah.
"Of course you are, sweetheart. You had almost nothing at lunch. Let's see if there's something you like."
"We'll pick something up on the way," says Brume. "This place gives me the jimjams."
"Aren't you the guy who's spent half his life knee-deep in gore?"
Brume can't discern from her tone whether she meant this remark in a spirit of teasing or scorn. "There's nothing wrong this place. Poor Sarah has got to eat." Maureen leads Sarah over to the nearest table and the girl plops down on a seat. Alton follows, riding mental sidecar to the flow of events. After wavering for a moment, Brume takes a seat next to the boy. Soon enough, a waiter, shiny-faced and diminutive, surfaces from the gloom.
"Welcome to Indian Joe's," he says.
"How, hombre," says Brume, raising a flat-palmed salute. The greeting appears to stymie the waiter. He redirects his attention to Maureen.
"Can I hab you order?" he asks her.
"Is there a menu?"
"Today is two special. Bisong burger and bisong burger wheat cheese."
"So, what's with the light in here?" asks Brume. "I can barely see the fork in front of me."
"In Seminole time, is no electricy."
"You're telling me they had bison burgers back in Seminole times?"
The waiter shrugs wearily. "Let me ask a question out of curiosity. Are you an authentic Native American Injun?" Brume can feel Maureen's glower burning against his cheek.
"I from Guatemala." The waiter, up until this point servile, suddenly turns vicious. "You make problem, friend?" Under the table, Maureen digs her fingernails into Brume's knee.
"No, no problems. I'm already up to my ears in alligators. No need for more."
"Burger or wheat cheese?"
"Neither, thanks," says Brume. Then, after a pause, "They have beer in Seminole times?"
"But you're driving," Maureen protests.
"Duly noted. In that case, make it a beer and whatever scotch you've got in the well. A double, please. And neat."
Orders are placed around the table. Maureen produces a pen and pad of paper and plays a game of hangman with Sarah, studiously avoiding eye-contact with Brume. He doesn't remember ever having seen her so aglow, so eager to please another human being — nor does he remember ever having felt so marginal in her presence. Predictably, after a few minutes, Alton grows restless and pleads to be included.
"Hangman is a two-player game," Maureen says. She rips off a sheet and skims it over the tabletop to Brume. "You play with him."
Minutes later, the waiter returns with the food and Maureen sets about slicing Sarah's burger into bite-size pieces. Brume takes pensive sips as the others eat. By the time they've finished, the effervescent beginnings of a drunk have roused an agreeable mood in Brume. When Maureen proposes that they stroll around the grounds, he can't come up with any reason not to.
Alton and Sarah jet over to join the onlookers at the chicken wire hexagon, Maureen following close on their heels. Brume straggles, toting his buzz along with him.
Inside the pen, a man with arms like suspension bridge cables lies prone on the dusty grass, face to snout with a six-foot alligator; an interspecies staring match. The reptile, whose hide is the matte olive drab of a tank, appears indifferent to the fleshy morsel in front of its teeth. Its tail telescopes out from its haunches in armored sections, spilled out over the ground in a lazy J. The scalloped notches along its back rise and fall with drowsy breathing. Then, with surprising agility, the beast springs into a hissing strike at the man's face. The crowd gasps as the beast's jaws snap together with a strange, wooden pop. For a moment, the outcome of the contest hangs in a state of dust-shrouded irresolution. Bit by bit, the powdery swirls settle to reveal the shredded remains of the wrangler's safari hat clamped between the alligator's jaws, and that the man himself has eluded decapitation. He jumps to his feet for a theatrical bow, cuing the crowd's applause. "That's the third hat this week," he says.
Brume pivots away from the spectacle in disgust. Surely, in due course, the fate avoided by the wrangler will be the alligator's, its head destined to become a chintzy curio gathering dust in somebody's attic. He only makes it a few steps before Maureen shouts, "Where are you going?"
"To the teepee. I'm beginning to find animals that kill gratuitously unsettling. The whole hubristic race."
"Brume, I'm not driving!"
"Then teach Sarah how to drive in the parking lot. That seems to be where things are headed anyway. My whistle needs a wetting."
The recording has been switched off inside the teepee. A few visitors drift around the tent in a gauze of whispers. Brume doesn't quite grasp what about the place insists on hushed voices, but accepts it as a quality worthy of respect. At the bar, he strikes a match that cuts a bright arc through the darkness and lights his cigarette. He calls over the bartender and orders a tequila in honor of the Indians, who he is certain drank the stuff. He pours a tear's worth onto the dirt floor — whether as tribute or penance he is unsure — before gulping down the drink. After he's put away a few of these, Maureen stalks in, roiling the calm.
"Well on my way, thanks."
"At least I can rely on your consistency in one respect. Gimme your keys."
He takes them from his pocket, drops them onto the bar, then puts them back in his pocket. "What happened to the rugrats?"
"I left them out back with the animals. Don't worry, it's supervised."
"Do I look worried?" he says cavalierly. She studies him.
"You look … tired."
"Not an altogether inaccurate reflection of how I feel. All this chasing after kids takes it out of a fella."
"You always look tired, Brume. Tired, pissed off and drunk." He lifts the tumbler to his lips, bites the rim. "That Sarah, though," she says, shaking her head as if no words were equal to conveying the magnitude of her feelings. "Being around her … it's almost like … its one of the most awesome emotions I've ever felt."
"Maybe Marty and Carla would let you visit with her from time to time. You could be her fairy godmother."
"There's another way of having a kid around, you know."
"Let's not go down this path, Maureen. You know my feelings. I've got 22 months and counting on my contract, and it's looking less and less likely that they'll renew. To keep revisiting this is just an exercise in masochism."
"Oh, cut the crap, Brume. That's just an excuse to put off the decision until it's too late."
"Maureen, this biological clock bullshit is getting on my nerves. Are you really so addled with hormones that you can't comprehend logic? I'm in a dangerous line of work. What if I got killed? Even alive, I'm off on assignment six months out of the year. Would that be fair to a kid?"
"Yeah, and is it fair to stiff him with a drunk for a father?" Maureen plucks a cocktail napkin off of a stack on the bar. Within seconds, her restless fingers have reduced it to confetti. "See Brume, here's the thing. I just don't have that long. What if it turns out there's some problem? It might be too late for me then to start all over."
Brume takes a moment to consider this statement, parsing its implications. "That sounds uncomfortably close to an ultimatum. This isn't the kind of thing I want to consider under duress."
"Like it or not, that's how it is."
"You're not leaving me much room to work with, are you? I might be tight, but I'm not stupid. You're a free agent, a liberated woman, and I'm too tired, pissed off and drunk to stand in your way. Go forth and multiply if that's what you want."
"Everything about you leads me to believe that's what you want."
He looks at her through the tequila in his tumbler, her face warping behind the golden prism. "What I wanted was a little accommodation, a little sympathy, but I guess that was naïve of me. I have my regrets too, Maureen. I wish I'd been born less indignant and more disinterested. But I came out as I am for a reason, and now there's no way to go but forward. If you'd seen half the things I've seen, you'd understand that." He raises the glass. "Here's to the fury and mire," he says.
"We're not talking about the state of the world, Brume," she snaps. "These are people's lives — yours and mine. That's the scope of this conversation. But you can have your scorched earth and nightmares and morning shakes all to yourself. I don't want any part of it anymore. I'm done abetting tragedy."
Brume pours the drink down his throat and lurches to his feet. The ground seesaws under him, leveling out after a moment. "Do be sure to send me your pictures of weddings and kittens," he says. "The world can never have enough kittens." He throws two twenties on the bar.
By the time he has staggered out of the teepee's exit, the particulars of what has just passed have dissolved into a slurry, but an impression of momentousness remains. He advances towards the car without awareness of contact with the ground. Crossing to the driver's side, he pulls the handle before it occurs to him to try the key. He rips open the door, sending it squealing against its hinges. Contorting himself, he reaches under the passenger seat, stretching until his fingertips brush the cool surface of the flight case. He cannot quite grab hold of it. Lifting a leg into the car for leverage, he crushes an unseen object that yields underfoot with a sigh of captive air.
Once he's dragged it out, he fumbles with the box for a few moments before registering that it is locked, an insight that awakens the full measure of his fury. He slides his fingernails into the rubber lining around the lid, strains to pry the case open. When this doesn't to work, he begins frantically clawing at the lock. It isn't until he notices the daubs of blood on the cube that he realizes his fingernails have cracked and begun flaking off like shale. At last, breathing hoarsely, he admits defeat.
Much as he would have delighted in smashing all 3,000 dollars' worth of camera equipment, the spirit of vengeance has deserted him, and in its absence the folly of his position confronts him head-on. How burning is his desire to gain access to something he has been locked out of. He has spent his life lurking at the edges of the family of man, his eye pressed to its windows, hoping to catch it out in moments of sinister self-revelation. Yet, for all his pains to pry his way in, he has always balked at the prospect of staying on.
He takes note of the item he'd stepped on earlier. Sarah's doll lies broken at his feet. The head, caved in one side, looks up from its resting place as if in an ecstasy of pain, one beady eye open, the other half shut.
He gathers up the pieces. He opens the droopy eyelid with his thumbs and molds the indented face back into shape. Gently, he tries to screw the head back onto the neck, but cannot secure a joint. Despairing of a more gingerly solution, he strains to jam the sections together, nearly crushing the tiny head in the process.
Resigned, he holds the two pieces up to the waning light. His manhandling has succeeded only in smearing the doll's face with blood from his split nails. The loose eyelid has drooped again, the other eye has bulged out of the socket. The doll's sundress is twisted around the body, a shoulder strap torn, rust-red fingerprints on the jaunty floral material.
"Christ almighty," he mutters, envisioning Sarah's horror. He doesn't bother locking the door behind him as he makes his way to the nearest dumpster. The doll makes a muffled thump when it lands.
He turns and begins making his way back towards the people milling around the alligator pen. He feels numb, uncertain of and largely unconcerned about what comes next, but anxious for it to happen already. For now, he wants nothing more than to round up the kids, drive them to Naples, pretending nothing has happened, the silence between him and Maureen the only indication that catastrophe has struck, and figure it out from there. Maybe he'll buy Maureen a plane ticket home as a parting gesture of magnanimity. Whatever is supposed to happen, he was ready for it to be over with before he'd even left the teepee.
But as his eyes fail to pick Alton or Sarah out of the crowds, his impatience gives way to dizzying surge of fear. The possibility that Maureen, level-headed as she is, has succumbed to a flight of emotion and left him and the kids behind begins to assume a vexatious credibility. Cold droplets of sweat roll down his flanks. He finds his gaze gravitating towards those adults who seem to be unaccompanied by children, each creepier than the last. No longer able to stem his anxiety, he breaks into a run and plunges into the throng. He twirls around every child within reach and examines each frightened face before moving on to the next.
"Just what in the hell do you think you're doing?" someone says.
"I lost my kids," says Brume, his voice sounding thin and choked.
"Sarah! Alton!" he yells, craning his neck above the crowd.
"Try the petting zoo," a man says.
Instinct harries Brume towards the tent. He circles its perimeter, an animal acuity having scrubbed any trace of inebriety from his senses, his field of vision sparkling with crystalline detail as if a thin coat of ice has fallen over the world. His sinews twitch with an implacable energy, his pores weeping sweat.
Mounting a small hill, at last he catches sight of the children sitting on a blanket some 20 feet away. The enormity of his relief is like a drug-induced euphoria. Alton is crouched next to a newborn lamb, feeding it from a bottle and scratching its chin a bit frantically. Sarah is trying to balance a box turtle on her head. When she takes her hands away, the turtle slides off and lands on its shell. For a moment, she watches it squirming, its upturned legs paddling the air, then, spotting Brume, she smiles sweetly in his direction. "Hi, Uncle Brume," she calls out, waving.
Brume feels himself wave back at her remotely, as if his hand belongs to somebody else. He crouches down, his heart still thrumming. He kneads his temples, taking steady, measured breaths until his tremors have subsided and the color has returned to the backs of his hands. He rises and walks to the children.
They look up at him expectantly, their faces draped in his shadow.
He bends to them, making sure that they can hear what he is about to say. "If you kids ever disappear on me again …." A succession of bland threats parades through his mind: I won't know how to live with myself, Maureen will break up with me, I'll lose my job. But he lets his silence speak for him. None of what he might say has the fearsome power of a truth as yet untold — the one thing he has left to offer, and the last thing anybody seemed to want these days.
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