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                                            November Heat


          Gary’s Introduction

          It's unnatural, Gary says to himself, to have such heat this time of year. Right in the middle of November— little gnats swarming, flies hatching and buzzing in the windowsills, rhododendrons pushing up half-blooms. Gary watches the purple buds break through brown-green casing, and he wonders how long before the confused flowers will melt in a frost and turn black. His stomach feels all wrong, too. It must know something's up.

          "Hey, I need something from down the store."
    
          Jenny stopped using Gary's name some time ago. He isn't sure exactly when. It just slowly happened, the way those blooms were in their hard casings one day and then out the next. You never saw or could remember the exact moment.
    
          Jenny stands in the front door of the house holding Johnny on the shelf of her bent hip, Johnny's big head buried in her collar bone. Sweat looks like varnish on her forehead.
    
          "Mom needs her Half-n-Half."
    
          Gary gets up and limps to the truck. His right leg fell asleep sitting in the metal lawn chair.
    
          The November trees are barren, scratching the sky. He drives with the window down to catch a hot breeze because he ran out of Freon last year. Stomach churning, he curses the confused squirrels that freeze, then dart left, right, left. They're acting crazy with spring fever, he thinks, just like the turtle doves.
    
          It is easy to feed the birds that descend all day on their small wooded property. He gives them leftover bread, biscuits, crackers, eggshells, hot dog rolls. Jenny saves up the fat from hamburger and bacon (when they can afford bacon), and Gary stirs it into cakes of suet, freezes them, then pops them into onion bags. Some don't like the smell of hot fat (Roger complains when he's over), but Gary likes it. To him, it's the smell of winter and comfort and the knowledge that something is being cared for.
    
          But today the suet melted into the grass. A flock of turtle doves descended into the backyard that morning, and Gary had never seen so many—14 or 16—all at once. He knows one dove couple that nests in his yard and a bachelor that swings by for a sunbath. But that's it. And this flock was confused, like the rhododendrons, thinking it was spring and time to mate. Is it really just temperature that makes life work, changes routines? Gary wonders.
    
          "Damn!" Another squirrel speeds in front of his truck, and he swerves and just misses a bushy tail.


          Gary’s Wife

          Jenny's mother came over from Finland. Blond, of course, and slender, Jenny is pretty in that unmade-up way the Europeans have, not afraid to let their features speak for themselves. Gary met her when he filled up for gas at the Irving station in Kingston. She was the pump hand, this girl in a flannel shirt and jeans. When she stood by his open window and asked, "What'll it be?" a tiny bubble of spittle formed from somewhere in her mouth and escaped, somersaulting into the air. Gary watched, mesmerized, as the iridescent thing floated up, down, turned round and round till it landed and disappeared into the sun-bleached hood of his truck. A little thing like that, and they were married eight months later.


          Gary’s Friend

          Joe is basically homeless. He makes a house out of a one-room maple sugar shack deep in the heart of Shaunnessy Park, where humans no longer drain sugar maples and no one cares that he's there. Joe has a degree in biochemistry. He craps in butter boxes in the winter when it's too cold to go outside. No plumbing or electricity, he just has a wood stove (found by the side of the main town road) to cook on and keep warm by. All day he chops wood, hunts for meat, works on his vegetable garden that somehow found a patch of sunlight, and reads the paper. Gary brings him the Sunday paper, a bag of coffee, and milk. He makes his own butter by shaking it in a covered jar, sometimes while they talk. "I was reading—" shake, shake. "The squirrels dug up my bulbs—" shake, shake. Then it's a ball of sweet butter.
    
          In return for the supplies, Gary gets to rehash his high school days with someone who was "there," and let out some steam about Jenny to a guy who hates women. And he gets wood in the cold weather and vegetables in the warm. In turn, Jenny hates Joe’s small crops. She feels they're dirty—"I bet he fertilizes them with his own shit," she says. But since Gary lost his job—money being tight—she's suffered through eating the mealy beans, rutabagas, and summer squash with a pained expression on her face. Gary chuckles to see it.


          Gary’s Job                    

          It was a year ago that Gary lost his job as a welder, due to carpal tunnel syndrome. A big name for a small feeling. But that little feeling undid his career forever. He hired a lawyer because no one's yet been able to prove that welding causes carpal tunnel, so no workman's comp is coming in.
    
          So he does what he can in the small town. Jenny helps by cleaning houses and bringing home things her clients want to throw out—sometimes they give it to her, sometimes she gets it out of the garbage. Furniture, Christmas decorations, plates, clothes, tools. Gary takes it all down to the local flea market on Sundays, off the main highway that brings tourists up through Maine. Fifteen dollars buys a table, and he generally pulls in $100 for the junk. He can sell anything for the right price. The trick is in making people believe they have brought you down in price and scored a bargain.
    
          When the flea market closed down in October, he began working at the bottle depository, taking in bags and bags of cans and bottles, more discarded stuff. By the end of the day, he is sticking to the floor. He gets $20 and sticky boots. He knows to take his own aluminum to the junk yard to triple his money on the nondeposits. And on garbage night he cruises the neighborhoods for metal trash, cap brim down low over his eyes even though he knows the neighbors, peering out from behind curtains and between vinyl slats when he stops in front of their piles, know who he is.


          Gary’s Baby

          Before the baby came, they had a discussion about names.
    
          "I like ‘Jonathan’ after my granddad, and ‘Rita’ after my mom."
    
          "What about my family?" Gary asked, as they lay sideways, so his legs had room in the small bed he'd been born in. He was very aware of his parents' aura. He sniffed the air, expecting to catch their scent from the old horsehair mattress, and shifted away, his back a barrier to Jenny. It was about as violent a protest as he knew how to make. He heard his mother's voice in his ear, "You're just like your father." Her tone was close to taunting.
    
          "Your parents are dead," Jenny answered.
    
          "So?"
    
          "So, my granddad and mom are still alive. They get first rights."
    
          "You mean, Mom gets first rights."
    
          He felt Jenny shift and turn, so her back now faced his. He waited for an answer.
    
          When a boy was born, he became Jonathan. The doctors handed him to Jenny before they even cut the cord, to hold against her heart. Still covered with the birth, the boy lay with his little head on her heaving chest. "Isn't he beautiful?" she asked in a whisper.
    
          "Yeah." He stroked the pudgy wet arm with his finger. He was already in love, but already far away.


          Gary’s Girl

          The corner store is really on a corner. The front steps face Hancock and Essex. It's a place for neighbors to hang out and have a coffee or a soda, or a smoke, or a bag of booze after dark. There are no bars in this town. The drink comes from the package store, and the locals have to make their own watering holes.
    
          Manny sits on the stairs in baggy shorts and a T-shirt, drinking a Red Bull and talking to Veronica, the girl who works the store.
    
          "Hey there, Gary, how's little Johnny?" He holds up his can in salute.
    
          "Fine. Jeez, you think it's summer?"
    
          Manny lifts one leg of his shorts. "I'm sweatin'. That's as good an excuse as any. Weird weather, huh? You think we got a big hole in the ozone over Maine?"
    
          Veronica giggles. She's pretty, seventeen, and giggles at anything Manny says. The town knows she has a major crush on him. She's too young for Manny (he likes the 40 and over divorcees, thin and sun-lined with smoke-damaged voices and frosted hair), but he eats it up anyway.
    
          Veronica follows Gary inside. Her press-on nails drum the counter.
    
          "Half-n-Half for the mother-in-law." He puts the carton down and reaches for his wallet.
    
          "How's your wife doin'? She still looks pregnant, carrying that baby around in that sling thing all the time."
    
          "That's a great way to put it. She's OK." He pockets the change. "Yeah, a great way to put it."
    
          "She's lucky to have you."
    
          Gary takes a second look. Is it his imagination, or is she puffing up her breasts so they poke out even more above her low-cut shirt? He looks around, but Manny's still outside.
    
          "Uh, yeah." His back is now up against the door, and he forgets it opens in. Story of his life.


          Gary’s Problem

          Gary knows Rita, his mother-in-law, needs a life. She doesn't have one, so she borrows Jenny's.
    
          "I feel like I'm in a tug of war with my own kid," Gary once told Joe. “They won’t even let me hold him. Like I might break him. The kid turns away from me.”
    
          Joe looked at the stove. He opened the door and poked at the orange fire with a golf club. It was an excuse to look away, Gary knew, the way guys look away from another guy when he trips or falls or does something that might make him lose his pride.
    
          The warmth of the fire, the smell of maple syrup, the kerosene light that only illuminated their figures, the beer, it all mixed together to make him feel more open than usual. He looked down into the tunnel neck of his Budweiser, down into the froth that sizzled and popped, and thought of shrinking so small he could dive in. "I must be the only guy alive who's dying to change his kid's smelly diaper."
    
          Joe was still carefully studying his stove fire. Gary looked up, forehead tense, looked up like Joe was going to be his guru, wild beard, wild eyes and everything. But he couldn't see Joe's eyes. He only knew they were wild from living alone for so long.
    
          "You're talkin' to the wrong guy, buddy. I don't know what it's like to have a kid. Or to even want one. All I know is that a son needs his dad. That much I know. My dad was a son of a bitch who hated kids. So look at me now. I hate everyone."
    
          "Not me."
    
          "No." He finally looked at Gary. The fire lit half his face and shadowed the rest. "But I was jealous of you, up until now. Thanks for making me happy to be alone again.”
    
          "Fuck you."
    
          "I'm serious. If you're a ghost in your own home and to your own kid, you might as well just not be there. Think about it."
    
          Gary did think about it. He drove home in the dark, through swirls of night moths, trying to dodge the shimmering eyes of the frogs caught in the headlights. His ears rang from the solitude of that drive. And by the time he saw the small house by the roadside, he convinced himself that he'd just been talking to the wrong guy.
    
          He stumbled over familiar objects made foreign by the darkness, senses screwed up by booze and temporary blindness. The shack in the woods was far away when he reached over in the dark to feel his wife's warm, silky hair. Maybe it wasn't much, but it was something. It had to be better than living with a goddamn newspaper.


          Gary’s Mentor

          His hands shake a little when he drives away from the store. It's so damn hot. A bale of hay lies abandoned across the road near Sun Ray Feeds. He concentrates on avoiding it and the oncoming van.
    
          The red van approaches and he suddenly recognizes it as Roger's. They both slow down to a halt, speak through open windows.
    
          "Hey, Roger."
    
          "Hey. I just came from your house. Wanted to see if you want to go digging later." After being laid off from the local defense plant, Roger began digging up Maine's woods, fields, railroad tracks, riverbanks looking for old bottles (milk, medicine, soda, whiskey, even poison) to sell and trade.  
    
          When Gary lost his job, Roger was the one who showed him how to make money from nothing. "If something already exists," he said, "and you can get it free and honestly—hundred percent profit."
    
          "Sure, what time?"
    
          "I'll pick you up around three."
    
          "See you then." Gary salutes as he pulls away.


          Gary’s Mother-in-Law

          Jenny and her mother are sitting at the kitchen table. Rita holds Johnny, bouncing him on her heavy shoulder.
    
          "Here's your milk, Rita." Gary puts the bag in front of her. She pulls the carton out, opens it, and pours it into the coffee mug waiting in front of her. A haze covers the kitchen, a mixture of dust motes and smoke. A cigarette hangs from Rita's mouth.
    
          "You know I don't like smoke around the kid." Gary looks to Jenny for corroboration. She looks away and frowns. Rita stirs her coffee so the white swirls and clouds the brown.
    
          "Don't you have somewhere to go?" Jenny asks. "Roger stopped by looking for you."
    
          "Yeah, I saw him in town. We're going digging today." He reaches for Johnny, who starts screaming and clinging to his mother. Gary turns and walks out the door.


          Gary’s Conclusion

          A bottle digger guards his site like he guards his daughter's virtue. Gary knows he is lucky to have Roger take him along to his river site, which yields bromoseltzers mainly, the cobalt blue bottles that are cheap and popular to put on window ledges. Roger has other sites that even his wife doesn't know about, in case she lets it slip one day.
    
          For Gary, the river is not just a source of plunder but an escape. Being on the riverbanks reminds him of being in fifth grade, listening to his teacher read Huck Finn to the class. He remembers thinking that that must be the perfect life—floating on a raft, eyes facing heaven, not worrying about what's ahead, the sound of the water, the feel of the sun infiltrating his skin. But as he grew older he began to realize he needed more company in life, more to look at than clouds and the atmosphere.
    
          The dark dirt, deposits from years back, the smell of centipedes and earthworms and dried grass give Gary a feeling of hope and freedom. Then, when he strikes some broken pottery shards and a cobalt bottle, he feels successful
    
          "What'd you find?" Roger comes over and looks into the weedy pit.
    
          "Not much, just a bromo."
    
          "You ready for a beer?"
    
          "Sure. Like summer, huh?"
    
          He sits on the bank. Roger pulls two beers from the cold river and wipes the beads of water on his shirt. Gary takes a bottle.
    
          "Any luck job hunting?" Roger asks him.
    
          "Nah. I tried getting a job subbing for phys ed, but since I never finished the degree, they're not interested. I should've finished, damn it."
    
          "Yeah, well, you get into real trouble looking back. You know that, don't you? Just keep looking ahead and enjoying now. Like this weather."
    
          "It makes me feel nauseous."
    
          "Your body's confused. Just ignore it. Let your mind enjoy the sun."
    
          Gary lies back flat on the ground, holding his beer in his two hands on his chest. It appears to rise into the clouds. This is as close as I get, he tells himself, to Huck and Jim sharing a beer, talking about life.
    
          As the sun beats down and the river flows, Gary's mind flows with it. Back to his father, a lobsterman, who would laugh if he knew the bottles he used for floats were now worth something. His father came from Ireland. Out of touch with his native land, on foreign soil, he had found some happiness in being in touch with the same body of water he used to fish in and the nature that surrounded him. His wife was foreign to him, too, a hardened Englishwoman whose sister was institutionalized and whose father was unknown. The sister used to threaten suicide all the time. Gary's father used to say that that was his mother's problem—she needed to fight everybody all the time to prove she was no quitter.
    
          The water rushes by and eddies into small pools lined with brown leaves and a carpet of algae. What are you trying to prove? Gary hears the river ask. He wipes sweat from his forehead. He can feel his mother in him when he reaches for Johnny and the boy pulls back. He wants to hit something hard, feel the satisfaction of the pain localized away from his heart. And, opening his eyes to a white blindness, he suddenly realizes Jenny is his mom all over again, using Johnny as her fist to get back at him for…for what? Not having a job? Not keeping his promise to take care of her? He is trying in every way he knows how.
    
          He looks at the old cobalt bottle in his hand. Someone’s trash from a century ago. Someone else who had an upset stomach and needed some seltzer to calm it. He looks up. Maybe there is a big hole in the sky over Maine, he thinks. But he has to accept he can’t fill it in, he can’t fix everything, all he can do is get by, and keep showing up.
    
          He is no quitter, either.







 

Tara L. Masih is editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction (a ForeWord Book of the Year) and author of Where the Dog Star Never Glows. She has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines , including Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Natural Bridge, Night Train, and The Caribbean Writer, and several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press. Awards for her work include first place in The Ledge Magazine’s fiction contest, as well as Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web nominations. For additional information, visit: www.taramasih.com.

 


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