Thursday, July 19, 2018

Wendy (unpublished story)

About 3600 words
Sam Moss

        Nearing thirty, he found himself living a mundane and pointless life out in the forgotten expanse of the country. It was good, and he wasted his days reading and writing and not doing much at all. When he tried to remember how he had come out there, what decisions he had made that led him to that place, he had a vague recollection of escaping some strife, of trying to make a move for the better but these decisions seemed far off now and made by someone else entirely.
He hated to work but this was fine, since he had come into enough money to live frugally on the farm for at least a short time. The farm itself was a sort of compound with a few other men and women, back to the earth types with names like Art, Gaia and Blackberry. There were a few animals: some goats, chickens and turkeys which were slaughtered wholesome and happy but sold at a loss. A few acres of squash and kale that were sold at a farmer’s market in town. The farmers did their own thing and he did his and as long as he did some dishes and swept and took care of a bit of weeding they let him pay more rent and sleep in a converted schoolbus behind what was called the ‘Big House’. 
        The big house was a crumbling Victorian that had been built back when wheat prices had been high and the farm itself had measured a full quarter section. Some seven bedrooms the place was now a mess of peeling paint and hanging pipes. The hippies lived in it well enough, had communal dinners most nights and square dances out in the back yard for entertainment. The cell signal was poor and broadband was expensive which they had come to see as a bit of a blessing. Everyone was poorer than dirt except for him but this didn’t matter a whole lot.
        He would wake up most mornings with the sun. He would lay in bed for some time, running his hand under the sheet to get the lumbering tabby that hung around the house called Fern to attack. When he got up he would wander into the house’s kitchen and linger over a bowl of cereal and a lukewarm mug of the leftover barrel scraped coffee. Mostly the others in the house were early risers and were gone by the time he arrived. He liked it this way. It allowed him to think more. And this was what he liked most about this place: it allowed him to think. There was a great deal of time and space for thinking, far more than he had ever come across in his life. He felt indulgent, guilty almost, at how he could spend hours just letting his mind wander. He could pick up a book for a bit then set it aside when a train of thought came along or walk around and stare out the window or walk down the road a ways on no errand at all. 
        Over the years an impressive collection of old vinyl records had accrued in the house, alongside a second hand Japanese stereo system with arrays of dubious knobs and light and horribly temperamental from loose solder. With a steady hand and some tin foil shims he had learned to get the thing working in a spectacular way. In the afternoons he would stretch out on the couch and listen to Pet Sounds and Highway 61 Revisited and Aja. 
         When he grew tired of thinking he would help out around the farm. This happened just frequently enough to abate most serious concerns and claims of his laziness. But mostly they let him hang around because when bills came due and the farm had run out of money he could quietly provide five hundred or a thousand dollars on the first request.
        The others on the farm, or at least those concerned with these sorts of things, had always assumed that this money was bottomless. In fact it was not, and he alone knew that it was reaching its dregs. He knew that soon enough his hatred of work and his budding poverty would meet in a spectacular and apocalyptic way, a way he wished to avoid. So he decided to leave the farm and start living a real life, full of toil and pain and severity.
        It was the twenty-third of May, near noon.


        When he decided he needed to leave the farm, he first had to go into town. There were a few things to buy, a few letters to be sent, some bank actions to be made. He hated going into town alone and as a rule avoid it, but no one was around and the day was already aching into the afternoon so he signed out the keys for the old Toyota truck and went on his way.
        Where he hated the town he loved the drive to and from. In early-summer the top-heavy light caught on the rising stalks of corn and spindly wheat. A few fields of some low leafy crop that he had never come to identify were coming into their own, the furrows growing over with the first pale green leaves. Nothing looked bare any more, nothing looked dead. It filled him with a sort of happiness.
        The town itself was little more than half a dozen streets north-south and the same number east-west. When the place had been properly inhabited in the fifties a few department stores had built up brick edifices which remained, still and molding, to the present time. Emptied out years ago they were now office space for farm insurance salesmen and antiques stores. Soon enough even these would go out of business and the buildings would have to harbor computer servers or people working on servers and if not that then just empty space. The only real, external, change to the town had been the grocery cooperative which had been constructed in the nineties and remodeled every seven years or so. Its stark glass façade and brilliant green sign stood out from the bath of burnt brick, an austere oracle of alien make.
        He parked near the open grassy spot that was called the playground. It had a newer play structure and an old rusting play structure. A handful of children swung on the rusting iron of the old play structure. The new one, resin and shining burgundy, stood empty.
         As he got out of the car he saw them and smiled to himself.
        “Hey!” one of them called.
        He turned. They had all stopped and were staring at him. He placed a hand over his eyes to block the sun but said nothing.
        “Hey. Come here.”
        It was a boy, ten or eleven, perched near the top of the structure.
        He smiled to himself and took a few steps toward them, loose wood chips from the playground crunching under his feet.
        “How may I help you?”
        “You one of those faggots from the hippie farm?
        He laughed once to himself, looked around for some parents, then to see if anyone else had witnessed this.
        “Ah, yeah I’m from the farm. But it’s probably best if you don’t use that word.”
        He tried to size them up: the children were dressed well, quite well in fact. Were clean and well groomed. The one boy was wearing a light blue polo and pressed jeans. They were not neglected or strays or feral.
        The boy dropped from the structure in a cool, effortless way. The others came down after him. Their faces were blank and full of majesty.
        “You all do fucked up satanic shit. I know that. And you think you can just come into town and show your faces? You think you can just waltz around here like you own the place? This isn’t your town.”
        The boy’s gaze was unrelenting. 
        One of the other boys, a skinny kid with gleaming buck teeth leaned to and spoke softly to the cruel boy. The cruel boy whispered back.
        “Sorry, I’m just here to send some mail. And I’ve been coming here for years. I don’t see what the problem is?”
        “Shut up. Look: if you come here, into our town, and think you can use our post office and our grocery store then you better be ready to pay up.”
        He had become anxious, shaking a bit, sweating. Out of fear of the boy or an indignant rage, either one, or both, it was all the same.
        “Look I do pay. I buy stamps and I pay for my groceries.”
        “Bullshit,” the boy with the buck teeth said.
        A look of surprise passed over his face and the faces of the other children, as if this were the first outburst he had ever made. Filled with excitement, he grew louder.
        “You’re a bunch of fucking socialists. You don’t pay for shit.”
        “Sorry,” he had to laugh at this, “We do pay. We pay for everything.”
        “My mom works at the grocery store.” One girl said. She spoke toward the air between the children and the man, “She says they don’t pay for anything.”
        She seemed embarrassed for a moment. The children all assented passed through with a frisson of recognition. She blushed.
        “Look, we pay. Some of our collective members have benefits. That’s all granted by the government. It’s all legal.”
        “So is that why you came here? To steal more food from us?”
        He looked at the cruel boy. He truly looked at him for the first time. The child was lean, charismatic, the sort of charisma that lived in every part of his flesh. He would one day be an executive or a lawyer. Something powerful. He would live every day in his power and disdain and wear these like a pair of comfortable pants.
        He stopped and took stock of his ground. It occurred to him that he was trying to argue with the children as if they were adults, that he could just as well ignore them or walk off or tell them to fuck off. There was something inside him that forced his reason and this urge over took everything else. Here, a man nearing thirty, just trying to get his mail, trying to stop by the Co-op for a few groceries, just enough to fill one bag, being berated and challenged by a handful of pre-teens. Tweens. The word passed through his mind. He had always hated that word and now here it was, personified, hating him. He could step away without a moment’s notice, turn his back on this and leave. The rules of polite engagement did not apply here, he was free to go at any time and with any degree of abruptness. But a curiosity had welled up within him. What did they want? Really? He felt there was some hidden truth waiting within these children, that they had clear and articulable motives that he might dig down and discover, that there was some fundamental sociological or psychological rule that was being expressed here, one that might be exposed with only the right word.
        Then the boy had punched him. Pretty hard. In the gut. His fist was so small it not only hurt, it stung, like being hit with a tennis bell. The pain radiated through his skin and muscle and well into his organs and a flush of that visceral, internal pain like a whole body’s nausea flew through him.
        “Don’t fucking ignore me.” The boy said, softly.
        He doubled over and sat, mostly crumpling, onto the concrete lip of the playground.
        “Sorry, I was thinking. Why did you punch me?”
        He had not even noticed the boy’s approach.
        “You were ignoring me. I was talking and you were ignoring me.”
        The rest of the children had gathered around him in a circle. They wore the look of the curiosity of hungry dogs. The head of one boy blocked out the light of the sun. His blowing outer blond hairs were lit from behind and glowed like a halo 
        A black tide of nausea rose and fell within him. He could only grip his gut and rock back and forth.
        “What was it you wanted?” His own voice was harsh and horse and seemed to be sucked from him.
        “Your money. How much money do you have?”
        He pulled around his bag and reached for his wallet. Before he had it open one of the boys had snatched it from him. His hands worked weakly and it was all his will power to keep them gripping his sides. The grabbing boy pulled out all the cash and handed it to the cruel boy who counted it, intent but disinterested, like a mafia don.
        The cruel boy folded the bills once, twice and put them in his pocket.
        “Shit these socialists are poor.”
        The cruel boy then pulled the cards out of the wallet, scanned each in a bored way then dropped them one after another onto the ground. 
        The man gathered them up into a pile and shuffled them together. Grit and wood shavings had been gathered into the deck. The pain was subsiding and he stood slowly.
        “Look,” the cruel boy’s demeanor had changed now to something between a fed up parent and an indulgent cop, “Were gonna let you go. Were gonna let you go about your business. I don’t like you being in this town, hell, I don’t like the fact that you live near this town, but we all gotta learn to accept those around us, even if we don’t like them. That’s what America is about.”
        He was not looking at the man as much as the other children around him. They were nodding at his sermon in a solemn way.
        “We have to accept and forgive for past transgressions. We have to allow those around us to walk in peace. Every day.”
        The children stood silently. Many of them had bowed their heads.


        Work had let out and the coop was busy. His gut no longer hurt but the roiling sensation remained. Perhaps it was his soul that had been injured. He grabbed a few things, bananas, potatoes, a leek.
        Near the check-out line he saw a woman he had met at a potluck a few months back. She had her own small organic farm. Every time he saw her she was wearing overalls, work boots and mustard yellow work gloves. She was wearing them now. In her hand basket were only paper towels and a birthday card. She was in her early sixties, greying hair. He had heard that she had left some high paying job in corporate management to start her farm. Had left behind the cubicles and politics and slideshows to pick up on the farm. She was doing better too than the ragged folk who had been there ten years or more. He had forgotten her name. 
        “Hiya.” She had a great smile on her face.
        “How’s it going?”
        “Ah good. Not great.”
        “Your chard get eaten too?”
        “Oh I was just talking with Andy from Singing Elk. All his chard got eaten up last week and so was mine. Kale is fine. Butter lettuce is fine, but the chard it all gone. Must have been something small and hideous. I don’t want to put out any traps or anything but that’s gonna be a dig at the end of the season for sure.”
        “Yeah. Oh, no.”
        She stared at him for a moment as if struggling to comprehend how a person’s cares or worries could exist outside of farming.
        “No there were these kids out here.” He gestured with his thumb, felt a wave of embarrassment. He was holding the farm’s joint debit card in his hand. It was still covered in a thin layer of dust.
        “Sorry what happened?” He smiled slightly, perhaps thinking he was joking.
        He told her then what had happened near the playground.
        When he had finished she stood for a moment, then said,
        “Shit no.”
        He could not tell what this meant. 
        She either did not believe his story or was totally indignant. 
        She grabbed his arm and pointed at the register and said,
        “Go buy your stuff.” With an upwards nod.
        She was waiting for him at the line’s outlet her face drawn and bare. She had become terrifying.
        She walked behind him, exerting some pressure with her body language and pace in such a way as to herd him out the door. This happened only at the very edge of his perception.
        “Show me.”
        It only occurred to him now that she saw him as something that needed to be protected, or avenged.
They stepped outside. The town was quiet. The sun was hanging low. It had already been a long day, the sort of summer day that runs so long that the morning and the evening seem like members of two different days, of two different world even.
The playground was down the street, just visible. Some children were there, though he could not tell if they were the same ones.
He pointed to it and she started walking, pushing him along before her.
As they drew nearer he could see the cruel boy standing near the top of the old pipes. The others were around him. Just standing there. The boy with the teeth briefly glanced down at him and the woman, then said something to the cruel boy.
“Which one was it?” She asked
He pointed to the boy. 
“That one, the one in the blue polo.”
She broke into a trot, hopped up onto the bed of wood chips.
The children turned.
“You,” she was pointing at the boy. “Down here. Now.”
“Fuck off Wendy.”
“Don’t play with me scum bag. I want that money back.”
The boy rubbed under his chin with the back of his hand his elbow cocked high, his head to the side. That easy gesture of confrontation and contempt he might have seen on the pitcher’s mound or an old western or, most terrifying of all, was simply atavistic, born in him by centuries of frontier living prelude to fistfights over bulls or woman or nothing at all. He walked across a chain bridge and stood under an arch atop a short ladder. The hand grips rubbed bare by countless twisting hands.
“We spent it already. It’s gone.”
His stomach dropped. He put a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s alright, really.”
She raised a hand, batting his own away.
“Bullshit. Turn out your pockets.”
“I’m not,” He did not break his gaze for a moment, “Look I’m not gonna get pushed around by you Wendy. You want to deal with me you talk to my dad. He already told you that.”
Only after she had scaled the ladder did he notice the yellow work gloves laying on the ground. It all happened so fast and without a sound.
She was blocking his view of the boy.
He took two steps toward the play structure.
“Wendy. Really.” He said.
She had the cruel boy pinned up against the wall. Not touching him but using that force, that magic of posture and adherence, practiced in those years of narrow carpeted hallways and copy machines. They were speaking in low voices, so slowly and quietly.
Her hand was moving toward the cruel boy, so slowly and gently, two fingers extended.
“This isn’t about the flower beds Jeff.” She said, “It was never about the flower beds. It’s about the social contract, of which you too are a part. It is about participating in the pagent of humanity, of putting on your mask in the great festival of our race. You don’t put on that mask just for them Jeff, you put on that mask to protect yourself, you put on that mask so that you can make it through the day.”
The boy seemed spellbound, out of fear or curiosity or something else altogether it was not clear.
Her fingers dipped into the cruel boy’s right pocket. He did nothing to prevent this,  he either did not notice or did not care. She was still speaking, so quietly now that only the boy would be able to hear her. Even as she inserted her fingers to the second knuckle the fabric there did not shift in the slightest, like the action of a pickpocket. The other children too watched, motionless, barely breathing.
When her fingers returned a dull green was visible.
She backed away from the cruel boy, descended the ladder with short quick steps and continued backing away until she was in line with him. She never broke her gaze with the boy. Standing beside him she extended her hand, the bills there folded thrice.
“Count it.”
“Count it.” she hissed.
He took the bills, unfolded them and counted.
“It’s all,” his voice broke, “Yeah, it’s all there.”
On the other side of town the whistle in the defunct mill blew like it did every day at 6:05. Birds resting on the sills of the old bank and the silo and everywhere else in town took to flight. The tone was long, shrill, alien. It was impossible to be within earshot when it went off and not stop what you were doing, for no other reason than the harsh note blocked all other thoughts. The town council had kept the whistle running, every day but Sunday, even though the mill itself had gone bankrupt in 1983 and the complex had lain dormant since. Ostensibly the did this because the mill was a town icon which represented the area’s deep and unbreakable agricultural roots. In reality it was hooked directly into the town’s power supply in such a critical and byzantine way that no one could figure out how to turn the thing off without forever cutting power to the whole town.