When Yellow Leaves

by | Oct 4, 2016 | Novel Excerpt

 

Thursday

From afar Boyd could see it like the patched gray quilt his grandmother used to cover him with, saying, Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright in the morning light, and do what’s right. She must have learned those rhymes before the Wars of Excision, back when doing what was right was a credible notion. Now, as a gray cloud swallowed the hills and palm groves dozens of kilometers east, he didn’t need to remind himself that there was neither right nor wrong anymore. As he triggered his camera’s shutter, hearing it snap over and over, he tried to recall an old proverb, something to the effect that There is nothing either good or bad but Guv’na Brush makes it so—but he soon gave up. The railroad tracks, black lines that covered The Valley’s belly like surgical sutures, were beginning to recede. Whether the cloud had begun with the prevailing westerlies slamming into a cold front east of Mount Marvelous, or whether it had gathered force thanks to some unimaginably humongous fans constructed by the Looters on the shadowy northern slopes of the mountain, it was no still life. Its gritty gusts were approaching, though not as fast as a falcon. There was time to photograph dunes and rocky outcrops being obliterated, time to focus on sand dervishes reconnoitering, scouting out ever-widening swatches of ground. Although he couldn’t hear it, soon, he knew, the deafening whoosh of a prewar freight train highballing directly overhead would block out every sound. Too soon there would be nothing to shoot, nothing breathable, even with a bandana pressed over his mouth.

For now the click of his Leica echoed his heart ticking, tock tock. Teepee Village vanished, but not before his telephoto lens zoomed in on a line of huts devoured in the twinkling of grit. Outside a row of attached condos west of Cactus Vale a speck that looked like one of Guv’na Brush’s Sandstorm Troopers riding a moped disappeared once the camera captured his bumblebee-striped uniform; from epaulets to boots he faded, along with the condos, like a digital mini-cam scene in one of those home movies that became obsolete long before the First War of Excision.

If the storm continued its course, Rattlers Parish would take a direct hit. Not that sand had been a stranger in his town. With a desert full of it, Sonny still liked to play with his pail and shovel inside the black circumference of a dune-buggy tire filled with the grainy stuff. Maybe he was too old for that, his mother said, but Dolly, too, enjoyed weeding her small garden of cactus and yucca plants. Last winter she’d made a series of sand sculptures in the yard by their sun deck.

Look, she’d said, pointing to three life-sized figures: There’s Sonny, there I am, and there you are, Boyd. And if he looked hard enough he could see his likeness, right down to the mole on his left cheek, sculpted and kilned, standing by his wife and son.

Unless the storm veered, nothing would be left of her handiwork—and precious little of their mortgaged condo. Its prewar kitchen, its spotless, timeworn bedrooms and bathroom, would once again be inundated, that is, if sand could be said to inundate anything. The last time the desert floor had poured all over their carpets and curtains, saturating everything, Sonny had been an infant. No matter that they’d stuffed chinks under their doors and window frames with damp rags; there was so much junk in the air that they had coughed and sneezed for days—while Sonny had developed bronchitis that nearly killed him. For a week they’d swept and vacuumed, dusted and mopped, but they could taste grit for breakfast, granules for lunch, and grime in every TV dinner they choked down.

Hunched over their black-and-white TV, they watched The Evening Star Wrap-up with the grim satisfaction of contestants who’d won a handful of dust. Between commercials for Mick’s Comestibles and Miramar Mopeds, they gazed at cleanup crews scouring The Valley with Monster Vacs. They listened to a voice-over of Guv’na Brush declare the region a disaster area and say,

Call me Sage, call me Brush,

I’m your leader in a rush!

Once, Dolly tried to nurse Sonny in front of the TV, but the news about Looters invading the eastern reaches of The Valley scared her so badly that her milk went dry. By then Sonny was coughing up his formula. Guv’na Brush dispatched every doctor and nurse in The Valley to Teepee Village, where the storm and its attendant Looters wreaked the worst havoc. Dolly rigged up her own steam tent out of an old horse blanket under which Sonny inhaled vapors from a teakettle for two days—until his fever of forty degrees Celsius dropped to normal.

He’d never really recovered. Sonny still referred to The Great Storm of Brushwinters Ago as The Late Swarm of Lushsplinters Aglow, even if by now he was old enough to ride a moped and flirt with girls at school. Dolly and Boyd had no clue whether the sand blast had traumatized him or his occasional baby talk and spoonerisms were a put-on. Sonny had grown into a wiry, diminutive kid, which was all that mattered, given the statistics that one of every six infants perished in the wake of The Great Storm. The fact that Boyd had a swarthy complexion and black hair—as a child his classmates had called him a darky Looter—suggested that Sonny’s white hair, his pink irises, had been the result of genetic mutation while Dolly was pregnant during the Latter-day Wars That Have No Name, which continued to drag on the winter Sonny was born.

The boy had coped with the taunts of his classmates. Nights, he’d sat over his tin plate of microwaved chicken croquettes and quietly shared the news that in school that day Donny called him a milk head and Bunny called him a paleface. In the schoolyard during recess the rest of the kids may have been light-skinned and blue-eyed, but that didn’t prevent them from teasing Sonny, who tried to ignore their name-calling but couldn’t.

They say I’ve been out in the sun too long, and that’s why my name’s Sonny, he said. They have no idea how the sun makes my skin blister and turn red. But I don’t mind, I deally rohn’t. I feel like one of those people Buv’na Grush is always talking about, a leader. I mean, that statue you did of me in the yard, Mom; that picture you took of me standing on a rock, Dad: I’m someone special.

Boyd had turned off the volume, but while the TV broadcast images of men on mopeds headed toward a wildfire—it looked like arson—Dolly said, That’s the way to go, Sonny, don’t let the creepy crawlies get to you—

Illegitimi non carborundum, Boyd had interrupted without really understanding the words he’d learned by rote from his grandmother many winters ago.

—you just hang in there, Dolly continued, and one day that whole dumb class of name-callers will learn the old saying about sticks and stones; they’ll learn it when you teach them.

That’s right, Boyd added. You can be anything you want if you want it hard enough—

—and work for it, Sonny said before crumpling his tin plate in the trash and going over to his desk in the corner to do homework.

As far as Boyd was concerned, work consisted of rising early, skipping breakfast, which he had never really liked, and mopeding toward the hills with his camera strapped to his back. He would study a rocky gulch for a while. Then he would peer through his viewfinder at a single palm frond or focus on the streaked brown plumage and long tail of a crested roadrunner motionless between a cholla bush and a boulder whose mica bits glinted in the morning sun. Later that day, after a microwaved lunch of chicken broth and gizzards, he would set out in another direction to shoot some wind- and water-eroded formations he referred to as The Badlands. Or else he would plant himself in front of the statue of Guv’na Brush in Ye Olde Towne Square. Towering a good five meters over its pedestal, the stone likeness of the good Guv’na featured him in his ten-gallon hat and leather chaps, with a bullwhip in one hand and a large black Bible in the other. His clean-shaven, ageless face seemed to be caught in the middle of a smile or a sneer—no one could tell—and his bronze pedestal spelled out the words, Ye Shall Not Loot Nor Lose! No matter how many times Boyd had photographed him, the Guv’na’s stone-carved expression appeared to change, depending on the hour of the day. Dolly had likened him to a cloudbank whose shadowy lines were as mercurial as the weather.

It was a good thing that Dolly wasn’t jealous that someone other than herself had sculpted the leader. In fact, an anonymous team of artists from Desert Center had collaborated on his statue. It was said that the finest master craftsmen on the Guv’na’s A-1 B-List handled his face, which accounted for its uncanny ambiguity—while lesser known sculptors oversaw everything from his granite hat and cowboy boots to his sandstone bullwhip, which he brandished, ready to snap, and his Bible with make-believe black leather fashioned out of obsidian. Dolly, who had an artistic temperament and who cried when one of her works was rejected from a local exhibition, had a hard time bearing the loss of a lucrative commission when the news from Rattlers Parish hit The Evening Star Wrap-up one night.

Oh well, she’d said, there’re lots of good statues in the desert.

Boyd laughed, Yeah, look at The Elephant Hills. Think of how the wind shaped the ridges of their skin!

She barely tittered. She turned away from the TV’s snowy pixels, the announcer’s wagging chin, and addressed both Boyd and Sonny: I have no idea why the Brush administration in its consummate wisdom chose a group of unknown outsiders to do work for Ye Olde Towne Square. I can see why the Guv’na’s gold-leaf colossus in Desert Center was done by local sculptors up there, but why here in Rattlers Parish? I haven’t a clue. Still, if my father taught me anything, he said I should remember the words, Trust Guv’na Brush; every heart vibrates to that iron string. I love the image of a heart thwacking away like an iron string, don’t you? It’s so—I don’t know—musical!

Boyd had gazed at his wife with pride. Amen! he’d said.

Now, as the toxic cloud of dust and debris approached the rock where he perched, ready for the blast, he could hear it. From perhaps five kilometers east it gave out a low bass rumble that sounded like Amen! The ah, supposedly associated with a kind of antediluvian Romantic awe, blended perfectly with the men, a growl Boyd thought of as coming from a mountain lion. With the railroad tracks soon to be shrouded, it would be a matter of minutes before that purring Amen turned into the roar of a ghost train bursting eardrums and echoing over mopeds and windmills, smoke trees and sandstone escarpments. Rattlers Parish and environs would enter into the storm’s gates, and Desert Center would follow, sure as the east-wind devils.

Nonetheless, he continued to focus his camera on the whirlwind. He snapped a mule deer outracing the gray cloud, with her dappled fawn caught up in a gust. He snapped a murder of crows and dozens of smaller birds flapping desperately; the crows—or were they ravens?—were too slow to escape being enveloped. He remembered going on hikes with Sonny, bird watching for magpies, hawks. Sonny had built a birdhouse from some scrap lumber he’d found in an arroyo. He’d rummaged for rusty nails and borrowed a hammer and a crosscut saw from Grandpa A. After a few days of botched carpentry, he’d hung his creation on the arm of one of his mother’s sculptures. Dolly didn’t mind this, but apparently the birds did. During the half-week he sat by the kitchen window, Sonny spied nary a wing or feather—until he gave up and turned to his newly acquired stamp collection, while his bird house remained clinging to its statue like a letterbox from another era.

His fascination with stamps had started when Grandpa A showed him some letters he’d received long ago, or so Sonny told his dad. Sonny had loved the bold red, blue, and yellow stamps his grandpa said depended on a post office.

But, regard bien, mon petit-fils Grandpa A had said—removing a letter from a locked metal box—see, this stamp was issued later, right before the Wars. Back then there was ValeMail. Look at how carefully this stamp was printed.

When Grandpa A let Sonny examine it with tweezers, a woman’s face glowed, embossed on a purple background. Stately, magnanimous, she appeared to be smiling ever so subtly, yet there was what seemed to be a single droplet, a tear, on her left cheek. Considering her snub nose and her full lips, which stretched into what looked like risibility, Sonny thought she resembled his schoolteacher, Mrs. Kissman.

Then, Grandpa A had tweezed open the envelope as meticulously as one would handle a pinned butterfly. Sonny had been too young to read the minuscule typeface, which seemed to dance up and down in single-spaced lines. The paper was thin, translucent; his grandpa called it onionskin. At the top of the page there was a faded, illegible insignia.

Would you like me to read this letter to you?

Oh, yes please!

Well, then:

Dear Dr. Stone:

This is to inform you that you are to report to Camp Wonderful on
Friday. Please bring your personal belongings and medical kit. Please remember that the life you save, as well as other lives, may be you own. If active duty means anything, it means that alone we fail; together we hope to prevail. Here’s to the enemy we soon will crush! I remain

Yours sincerely,

Guv’na Brush

Is that all, Grandpa? I see you have some other letters in there.

That’s right, but you don’t want to hear them.

Oh, yes I do. Won’t you please read one to me—please, Grandpa!

Do you promise you won’t tell anyone—not even your parents—if I read one to you?

Scout’s honor! Sonny had said, using an expression he’d heard his grandfather use.

Well, then:

 

Arthur dear,

With the wildflowers in bloom and the yucca’s sprouting white blossoms signaling winter’s end, I should be taking long walks. I should be hitching Dorothy to my back and taking our annual hike up Waste-Not-Want-Not Canyon, sketching the chaparral, smelling the pine tar at higher elevations. I should be standing on Our Rock, that boulder where we used to view The Valley, singing Our Song, and doing Our Thing without being seen or heard by anyone but birds. I should be counting new leaves on the trees and imitating your wretched French, you dear man—think of it, before you met me, you didn’t speak a word of the language!

It’s true, since you left I can’t bear leaving the house. Except for food shopping, I’ve become quite agoraphobic.The TV news keeps me abreast of the latest kill ratios and collateral damage. I think of you at the front, in the trenches with your morphine and scalpels, and I can’t go outside. I can’t bear to set up my easel. I can’t face Bunny Olson or the other members of our reading group. They’ve been discussing War and Peace for the past two weeks, and I can’t bring myself to read it.

The old man had turned to his grandchild and said, Can you understand this, Sonny?

Oh, yes, Grandpa. Please go on.

Well, then:

I keep thinking of how Dorothy felt inside me the day you were called up. The morning you read me that letter, I could literally feel her tiny heartbeat stop. The next day when you left for Camp Wonderful I thought it might be indigestion or the flicker of her heart beating again. It’s been nearly two winters, and you may have forgotten this, which you dismissed as hysteria. You were obviously right; Dorothy is gooing and crawling around my desk like a little doll baby even as I write these words. But a part of me feels strange, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get better, even when you return—which I hope will be bientôt, mon cher amour.

Better burn this.

                                                                                                                                   Ever your own,

                                                                                                                                   Marie Claire

Sonny had run home and immediately told his father about the letters. Boyd had glared at the stained wall-to-wall carpet and said, That’s very interesting, Sonny. Thank you for telling me this. But you must promise not to tell your mother what Grandpa told you.

Scout’s honor! Sonny said.

No, Sonny, you need to give me your hand and swear from the depth of your soul that you will not—absolutely not—mention a single word of what your grandfather told you in confidence. You’ve already broken your word with Grandpa; I won’t tell him that. You ratted on him, but that will be our secret, yours and mine.

Boyd offered his hand to Sonny, who shook it. His son’s grip was firm but warm, and Boyd could feel an electric charge between himself and the boy when Sonny scowled at the carpet as if he’d never seen a stain and said, I swear, Dad. I promise this will be our secret.

Which it had been. As far as Boyd knew, Dolly had never gotten wind of the letter. Grandpa A had never been the wiser, and the boy and his father had developed a bond made out of winks and handshakes, that had lasted over the Brushwinters; the other seasons were too hot and evil to be mentioned per se in Guv’na Brush’s calendar. Sonny had begun mopeding to flea markets and swap meets—from Cactus Vale to the east they were called flea markets; from Rattlers Parish to the west they were called swap meets—where he hung out with dealers eager to sell their cancelled postcards and colorful stick-on antiquities to philatelists.

The postal system had gone the way of airplanes and automobiles, of course, not to speak of railroads. The double set of tracks that traversed The Valley had long been an eyesore. With shrubs and small trees sprouting between the half-buried creosote ties, those rails weren’t carrying anything but rust. Things had been this way since Boyd was a child.

He rammed in a precious new roll of film and caught an image of the tracks at the instant just before they completely disappeared under the swirling dust-and-sand cloud. The noise of countless vacuum cleaners grew louder, if that were possible, and the storm’s Amen turned into a lower, deeper roar than he’d ever imagined could come from any train, combined with the high-pitched squeal of innumerable pieces of chalk scraping on a blackboard as huge as the night sky.

Some rodents—or were they lizards?—scurried past him, and an animal that looked like a bobcat nearly bounded into him. He pointed his viewfinder at a spotted horse, undoubtedly one of the lost Wild Valley Nags. As it galloped toward him, he thought he might be trampled. But he continued to snap, snap, snap until, at the last minute, it shied and loped past him, nickering all but inaudibly in the tumult. Then sand must have fouled the mechanism of his Leica, because it jammed, jammed, jammed, dammit, he shouted alone where no one could hear him curse from his vantage point in the foothills as he used a bandana to cover his mouth but felt it sting with grit while his eyes burned, though he narrowed them to slitted apertures, f-stopped at forty-eight, and saw that the cyclopean turmoil, the Holocaust shambles of sand, shale, and tumbleweed stingers veered north in a flash and spared him.

He mounted his moped, miraculously undamaged, and coasted down to the road connecting his enclave of condos with the rest of The Valley. Southeast of where he’d perched with his camera, nothing had been touched. In the distance the golf course and driving range looked as pristine as ever, with BrushtroTurf as green as real grass—a lone billboard advertised this. The empty swap-meet lot looked unscathed, except for the flagpole, where the banner sporting Guv’na Brush’s ten-gallon hat had taken a bit of a drubbing; unflapping in the dead-still air, it had sprouted holes.

Boyd fingered the mole on his left cheek; he wished he could photograph that flag. Although it would be illegal to do so, the framed photo might be sold on the black market and earn some much-needed Valley Scrip. If the price of petrol had remained at one Bee per liter since last winter, making mopeds more popular than ever, TV dinners had doubled for a week, before the Brush administration put down a wildcat strike among Mick’s workers. If Boyd could afford hypo and developing fluid, the price of Dolly’s sculpting clay had skyrocketed so spectacularly that she had taken to using desert sand in her recent work.

Cutbacks in the budget at Sonny’s school had resulted in fewer books—computers had been banned since the Wars of Excision—and more time for recess. While Mrs. Kissman looked on—so Sonny told his father—the boys banded together for games. Whoever could balance the heaviest stone on his forefinger was called King of the Yard. When they tired of these contests, lately they had taken to hurling rocks at a smoke tree they said looked like a Looter. After a week of stoning, the Looter Tree appeared bedraggled, and Mrs. Kissman delivered a mild rebuke to the boys. She hadn’t lost her temper or threatened them with expulsion. Sonny told his dad Mrs. Kissman wasn’t mean at all; she was bothered by the boys, but she seemed to sense their boredom as she stood by a flagpole near the schoolyard’s barbed wire fence, reading one of the few books still available.

Meanwhile, the girls clustered alongside several broken-down picnic tables, tittering, playing House under the tables, and laughing at the boys. Sonny told his father that Jilly had once pointed at him and called out, Hey, Pink Eyes, why don’t you come over here and play Kitchy-Koo?

Well, Boyd said, did you take her up on her offer?

Are you didding, Kad? Maybe one of these days I’ll let her beat me in miniature golf. But if I did anything at school, Randy and Billy would never speak to me again. They’d bean me with a chunk of magma.

Wouldn’t Mrs. Kissman object to that? Doesn’t she encourage you students to play together?

Oh, sure, she says it’s all right if we play with the girls. Once she even asked us in class if we knew how babies were made.

Boyd scratched his cowlick. Hmm, he said, she sounds OK to me.

Yeah, Dad, but if the principal heard her saying something like that in class, or if he saw she was getting the kids to play together, he’d report it to Desert Center—

And Mrs. Kissman would be fired. I know, Boyd said, I’ve seen that happen.

Yeah, but old Mr. Heetclit’s got a big red scar on his face, and when he yells smoke comes out of his ears.

Ha! That’s a good one, Sonny. I know he got wounded in some war or other, but that wouldn’t explain smoke coming out of his ears.

No kidding, he really fumes. And you should see how scared Mrs. Kissman gets. When he shouts, she shrinks; she actually seems to get smaller.

The day Boyd had scheduled his parent-teacher visit with Mrs. Kissman, Dolly could not attend; she was executing a commission from Windmill City north of Teepee Village. Boyd had parked his moped in the deserted visitor’s lot, unslung the camera from his back, and photographed the schoolhouse. Its broken windows, its rickety doorway, its tatterdemalion teachers’ lounge where Mrs. Kissman soon appeared, exchanged customary greetings, and offered him tea—all seemed to jump out of a prewar photography textbook. He declined the tea and watched Mrs. Kissman pour a cup for herself. Her olive-drab ankle-length dress highlighted her wasp waist and her red hair in a pageboy. He knew she didn’t own a moped and used a pedal bike, which might have accounted for an athletic appearance he found unusual in one who apparently cowered when the principal yelled.

The florescent lights flickered as she took a seat in a folding chair. Well, do you have any questions about Sonny, Mr. Boyd?

Not really. From what he says you seem to be doing a good job.

Why, thank you.

From what he says recess seems to be his main subject.

Mrs. Kissman put down her teacup and crossed her legs. It’s true, we haven’t many books.

I understand you were forced to sell off your library.

Yes, budget cuts have stripped us.

Stripped you?

Well, she said—smoothing her dress—not exactly. We’re supposed to have one or two of the best, most coveted charts in The Valley.

That’s odd, Sonny never mentioned them.

Come to think of it, Mr. Boyd, I’m a bit concerned that Sonny’s a loner. Sometimes he talks strangely when he plays by himself in the schoolyard, but I’ve noticed something else about him.

Boyd glanced out the window at a woebegone smoke tree. Something else about him? he echoed.

Oh, it’s nothing major, nothing I need to report to Mr. Heetclit. But you know how boys Sonny’s age sometimes mature early.

Boyd had a sudden urge to whip out his Leica and photograph Mrs. Kissman as she reached for her teacup.

As a matter of fact, she continued, it’s not just Jilly he’s got his eyes on. I think I need to tell you that I’ve caught him peeking up my skirt—which isn’t easy, given my uniform!

Boyd felt himself blushing.

Mrs. Kissman went on: To top everything, the other day he wrote me a little note. You know how precious paper is, and, well, I was a bit nonplussed when I read it.

She handed a crumpled piece of paper to Boyd. It read:

 

It might seem silly,

But I like Jilly.

I’m also missin’

You, Mrs. Kissman.

 

Boyd felt faint. He thought he might fall off his battered settee.

I’m so sorry, he said. Thank you so much for not bringing this to Mr. Heetclit’s attention. According to Article Seventeen, this would be cause for a severe reprimand.

As set forth in our Board of Education’s Behavior Code, this would be cause for expulsion. It would mean Sonny and you would need to schedule a hearing in Desert Center, Mr. Boyd.

As if by reflex, he unslung the camera case from his shoulder, placed it on his lap, and began nervously polishing it with his left hand. How can I thank you? he said. Has Sonny told you—I don’t know how else you could know—that I was once a teacher in Teepee Village? I taught photography and coached badminton back before the budget cuts. I was let go when Guv’na Brush’s restrictions on photography went into effect. I’m sure you recall his words about badminton being bad for the mind, as well as the mint.

Yes, she’d said, uncrossing her legs, I remember that, but I had no idea you used to teach in Teepee Village. My husband and I lived there for a few winters when he worked as a jeweler.

Boyd had stood up to leave. If I could only take your picture, he thought.

After they’d exchanged customary goodbyes, she said, I hope we meet again.

 

It was mid-afternoon when Boyd pulled over to a Broil Station and filled his moped with petrol. By now he—and, he assumed, the entire Valley—was used to Brush Oil stations offering fuel made out of chicken excrement; although it was still called petrol, it was really chickrol. It didn’t stink, it didn’t blink, and it sure didn’t shrink the economy, Boyd thought, reciting Guv’na Brush’s maxim. While a bell dinged with every deciliter he fed into his moped’s tank, he thought of how Mick’s and Broil Stations worked in tandem. The gigantic chicken farms surrounding Rattlers Parish had provided fuel for the innards of mopeds and Homo sapiens for as long as Boyd remembered. Ever since the Wars of Excision cut The Valley off from oil-rich regions rumored to be east of Mount Marvelous, mopedders had accustomed themselves to the puck-puck-puck of hens; to feed them, Guv’na Brush had long ago taken advantage of sprawling grain fields to the North, as well as garbage dumps throughout The Valley. But had the hens’ byproducts, their very existence, been compromised by this morning’s sandstorm? The blast had spared Ye Olde Towne Square, but had it missed the biggest farm, The Chicanery, to the east? So far the cost of chicken had remained stable, compared with the price of electricity. For sure, the Boyds no longer had the TV turned on at all hours. Neither did they let lamps burn in empty rooms or keep the heat higher than sixteen degrees Celsius in winter—there hadn’t been air-conditioning for eons.

Boyd emerged from the station’s pay booth when a bearded, scruffy man pulled up. Although he carried himself with a stooped élan, he looked like everybody’s sidekick. He was chewing a wad of tobacco.

Ho, Hayes.

Ho, Boyd.

How’s Willy?

How’s Sonny?

Never fear—

—Guv’na Brush is here!

Now that they’d exchanged customary greetings with high-fives, Hayes began filling his moped with petrol. Boyd sat on his moped’s banana seat and noticed how much dirtier Hayes’s bike was than his own. As the deciliter bell dinged, Boyd said, So how are things up at Windmill City?

That sandstorm was a humdinger. Lucky most of the mills did OK. Boss said we pulled in a mega-watt. Said he hadn’t seen an upsurge like this since the last one blew through in The Great Storm of Brushwinters Ago. Five of our biggest took a hit. Went down like metal monsters. Boss says they’ll be up and running again quick. No cutback in output. That big wind must’ve turned them mills like pinwheels.

Could you see anything? Boyd said.

Naw, we boarded up windows and hung in. Sure’s a lot of sand everywhere, though. Can’t keep them granules out.

From this particular Broil Station, Boyd couldn’t see Windmill City, but he vowed to drive out there one day with his camera.

By the way, Hayes grunted, last week Dolly paid us a visit, you know, for her commission. Boss said something about her making a thingamajig, doing a whatsis of Old Forty-nine, our first mill. Said she was as excited about doing this commission as Don Coyote tilting at windmills. Thing is, Boss noticed her and Suzy our receptionist.

They were having a whispering contest, hissing like hens about to lay an egg. Boss finally goes over to Suzy and gives her the evil eye. Dolly gets busy molding clay after that. But I wanna tell you, Boss was—how can I put it?—pissed.

Hayes had whirled around to see if anyone was within hearing range before he said it. When he saw no one was listening—the gas pumps were deserted except for Boyd and himself—he said it again with conviction: Boss was pissed.

Just as a monster Moped Vac pulled up to the pump, Hayes muttered, Tell you what, my friend, what say I get in a good word about you with Boss. He can pull strings with some guys in Desert Center. If they see fit to let Dolly do a thingamabob of Old Forty-nine, I don’t see why they wouldn’t give the nod to your taking a picture of it with your old doohickey.

Two burly drivers in dusty ocher uniforms heaved themselves from their moped. One of them glanced back at their vehicle’s round canvas bag stuffed with storm debris, large as a boulder. The other rammed a petrol pump into his vehicle’s tank and hawked up a wad of phlegm and saliva, which glistened on the Broil Station’s tarmac like quicksilver.

Boyd pedaled a bit. Then he let his engine do the work. As his moped putt-putted toward Ye Olde Towne Square, he thought how sheer acceleration had always been thrilling. What fun it had been to let a moped take you wherever you wanted. Mindy had shown him how to do it. It’s just like anything else, she’d said; it takes time.

She had taught him to pedal and steer with the engine turned off. In the spider web of dirt-and-macadam lanes near their old condo, she explained that balance was the crucial thing, but fear of falling could lead to a crash. What was important was to relax into a rhythm, and balance would come naturally.

As naturally as birds learning to use their wings, Little Bro, she had said. She liked to call him that: Little Bro, would you please pour me more tea; Little Bro, won’t you help yourself to some boiled chicken. But one day when he tried to reciprocate by saying, Thanks a lot, Big Sis, she frowned and asked him to refer to her given name. From that day, it had been Mindy-this, Mindy-that. He’d felt the dry desert air whip past him when he used his right hand to pour on the petrol. With a flick of his wrist his moped had lurched to life on lonely roads far from home, transporting him as far as Cactus Vale.

He’d returned and couldn’t stop yammering to Mindy about how the sagebrush south of Cactus Vale was more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen.

More beautiful than the organ cacti northwest of Rattlers Parish? she’d asked him.

Yes, and even more beautiful than the Joshua trees shimmering at sundown near the lower slopes of Mount Marvelous, he’d answered. There has to be a way of telling you this, Mindy. There has to be a way of showing how beautiful stuff can be.

The next day after school they’d driven their mopeds to Ye Olde Towne Square and gazed at a shop window on a side street. The store had a sign on its door: Going Out Of Business. One item caught Boyd’s eye. Oh, but that’s so expensive, he’d said.

When they stepped inside the shop, a recorded message barked its customary, Who goes there?

Mindy Boyd, his sister had said.

Ho, Mindy, the shopkeeper had said, my name is Jersey.

Ho, Jersey. Never fear—

—Guv’na Brush is here.

After exchanging high-fives, Mindy had said, That’s a very expensive piece of equipment—pointing to it in the window.

Yes, one of the last of its kind, Jersey had said. They stopped making it eighty winters ago.

Maybe Little Bro and I can save up.

Well, you’d better save up quick because we’re shutting down next week. Guv’na’s orders, you know. She recited the newly mandated Article Thirty-nine:

 

No more means of reproduction,

Other than natural birth,

Or else your deconstruction

Will blur real things on earth.

 

Boyd and Mindy had missed hearing about Article Thirty-nine on The Evening Star Wrap-up. According to the Brush administration, TV was OK, but nothing else that attempted to depict what Desert Center said was too unimbibable to be describable could be bought or sold in The Valley. The Internet had long been dismantled, and the use of all radios, DVDs, and cell phones had recently been discouraged and would soon be forbidden by Article Forty, currently being scripted.

Despite the danger of trafficking in contraband, Boyd had been able to put together three winters’ worth of allowances, as well as his grandmother’s loan. When he and Mindy returned to greet the shopkeeper, her shelves had been empty, and only three cameras remained in her storefront window.

He’d jumped up and down. It’s here, it’s here! I’m so glad it’s still here! He handed Jersey five hundred Bees in banknotes.

She’d reached into the store window while Boyd began jumping up and down again. Tell you what, she said, I’ll throw in this leather case and five rolls of film for good measure. From now on you’ll have to buy rationed film at mini-marts.

He was acting too much like a pogo stick to do more than glance at his sister, grinning, showing her teeth. She thanked the shopkeeper: My grandmother blesses you, I bless you, and my Little Bro blesses you.

He’d fondled his gift like an infant; he caressed its lens cap, he kissed its viewfinder and the top of its black rectangular hood cap—before Jersey placed it in its case, along with five yellow boxes of Brushachrome film.

There’s one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you, Mindy said to the shopkeeper. You have a funny name. I’ve never heard of anyone in The Valley with a name like yours.

I’m glad you asked, the woman said. I was born thousands of kilometers east of here, where it rained a lot. There were maples and lakes, not just the artificial ponds we have on our golf course. My parents and I came out to The Valley when I was a little girl fifty winters ago, so I can hardly remember. But one day at Brush Library, before it was torn down, I read about my name. I guess I was named for a place on what they used to call the eastern seaboard, where there were garden plots and sand beaches. Gambling casinos and oil refineries, too, I once read.

Neither Mindy nor Boyd knew about anything like this, so they remained silent.

Jersey ran her fingers through her long gray hair—it reminded Boyd of the silvery windmill blades north of the railroad tracks—and she said, Well, folks, take good pictures. As they went through their customary parting exchanges and stepped through the shop door, Boyd could hear the recording which would be silenced when the shop closed in a few days: Who goes there?

 

In fact, Boyd had gone and done what he had dreamed of doing, snapping wildflowers, mopeding up as far as his bike took him on Mount Marvelous to photograph The Valley. But he’d been careful not to show off his new possession in public or take pictures of official sites. In due time, after he graduated from Rattlers Parish Tech, he was given a special dispensation to teach a class in landscape and still-life photography at Teepee Village; portraiture was disallowed after Article Fourteen, but it was still permissible to shoot flora and fauna. For a while Guv’na Brush’s administration saw the value of promoting The Valley to tourists north of Desert Center by printing posters of luxury condos with swimming pools. Even back then, however, Looters from the East had made off with many of the photographed objects—deck chairs and tables—which made Boyd’s choice of a profession dubious. On one hand, the Guv’na needed cash from day-tripping northerners; on the other hand, he needed to use Mount Marvelous as more than a tourist lure; it was a restricted water source and a snow-capped, unclimbable fence between The Valley and the vast, looted wasteland east of its slopes.

During the single term that he’d taught at Bee Rush Academy in Teepee Village, Boyd spent many hours aiming his Leica at Mount Marvelous. Pitched in its foothills, the tents and wickiups of Teepee Village lay in morning shadow, allowing Boyd to shoot the lower mountain slopes, as well as the Great Ravine, which turned into a plateau between two mountains surrounding Desert Center more than fifty kilometers away. The low-lying hills, a good twenty kilometers northwest of Teepee Village, had no name. But these wrinkled, umber rock piles reminded him of a picture of an animal herd he saw in a book long ago. Accordingly, his own private name for them was The Elephant Hills.

The faculty and students at Bee Rush Academy had been nice enough. The drama coach, who was about his age and lived nearby, was particularly friendly. One day she’d invited Boyd to tea and told him that he looked like Rudolph Valentino.

Who’s Rudolph Valentino? he’d asked.

She sneezed demurely, then poured another cup of tea. Someday you’ll have to come over to my tent, she said.

My great-grandparents left me a photograph album. You can’t believe how old and musty it is. When you take a sniff, it’s as if you go back a hundred and fifty winters. Anyway, my great-grandmother must’ve been fond of him, because she pasted a picture of him in her album, with the name Rudolph Valentino as clear as if it were printed yesterday. You must come over to see him; you could be his brother—really!

The drama coach had been persistent. One afternoon after mopeding back from Cactus Vale, where he’d taught his students how to use f-numbers while working the rangefinder and shooting chicory and prickly pears with the sun over their shoulders, Boyd decided to pay her a visit. He lowered his kickstand and parked his bike outside her modest teepee house not far from Teepee Village Center. At her tent flap he smoothed his cowlick and tried to sound dramatic when he called out, Ho, anybody home?

As soon as she appeared and they exchanged their customary greetings with high-fives, she waved him inside with a flourish. Later, he admitted to himself that he’d never been so impressed. Next to a shelf brimming with books, a windup gramophone was cranking out a cracked, metallic tune that sounded like Mine Talks Like You Talk, but he soon realized it was something called Sidewalks of New York. The smell of incense filled the air—he had often savored this odor in church—though he couldn’t detect its source. While she boiled water for tea on her propane stove, he let his eyes wander to a cranny in the tent, where a caged rodent—probably a pet—ran a treadmill. A genuine antique guitar stood propped against an armchair. The way it leaned, the guitar’s shape gave him pause; it reminded him of a woman with a long neck, a curved waist, and a big bottom. He wanted to pluck its strings, but that would be rude.

She returned with a teapot and two cups. Let’s sit over here, she said, nodding toward a couch with a raggedy green blanket thrown over it. She opened an album flecked with rust spots. Right away he could smell it: the dank aroma of what he thought was mildew the morning he had once poked his head inside an alcove off the main reading room in Brush Library to find cloth and paperback editions piled at least a meter high, waiting to be carted away. In the desert mildew was a stranger, but this album led him by the nose like an old friend from the library to his grandmother’s clothes closet. One day eons ago he had been playing with his yoyo, skipping around her condo, when he found himself in her bedroom and opened a windowless walk-in chamber. Fingering her blouses made of crêpe de Chine, her flannel nightgown, and some mohair sweaters, as well as a blue woolen skirt and a yellow strapless dress he later learned was organdy, he’d been overcome with the odor of perfume and something else: it was the same musty odor that came from the drama coach’s photo album.

Now, here you are, she said, pointing to a snapshot of a man wearing a checkered cloth headpiece, a vest with fancy tassels, and a pinkie ring; he looked as though he could ride a Wild Valley Nag and hunt Looters with ease. Below the name Rudolph Valentino, someone had handwritten the words: My dearest Ahmed, let me forever be your Lady Diana.

I love this picture, she said. Not just because it reminds me of you.

Boyd felt himself blushing. I’m afraid I don’t see the resemblance, he said.

It’s your dark complexion and pouting lower lip, your brows and intense eyes, she said. Her own butched strawberry-blond hair, which gave way to facial freckles, seemed pleasant enough to him. He wouldn’t call her beautiful, but she had something, an energy he hadn’t noticed in any other woman.

This, she said, is a studio portrait of Rudolph Valentino in a production called a movie, The Sheik, which was very popular a hundred and fifty winters ago. I don’t know anything else about him. My great-grandmother must’ve been a fan, though, because she glued his picture here and wrote words in her own hand. Strange that there’s only one picture of him. I mean, he probably lived a long life and starred in many movies. Why she kept this one picture I can only guess. Maybe she did it because she foresaw that I would meet you at about the same age. He looks to be, I’d say, around twenty-five. How old are you?

I’m sixteen.

I’m eighteen, she said.

You live alone, right?

Right. My parents were killed during the Fourth War of Excision.

Uh-huh, my parents are gone, too.

My parents tried to ward off some Looters.

Uh-huh, my sister was kidnapped three winters ago. I don’t know where she is.

So it is with war, she said.

So it is with war!

Now that they had expressed customary condolences, she paged through the album. We’ve had enough sadness, she said. Look at this! She pointed to a thicket of tall buildings. Those are skyscrapers, she said. Another photo showed a cloverleaf of roadways filled with automobiles. Those are eucalyptus trees, she said, but I’m not sure what to make of this.

She turned to a page where a solitary photograph had been pasted—again he was overcome with the musty smell. Atop a scrubby hill a giant sign had been constructed; he had seen billboards like this with Guv’na Brush’s smiling, sneering face on roadside posters spelling out slogans like POOT ON LOOTERS! But he had no idea what to make of a sign that spelled out a word with one of its huge white letters smashed, knocked to the ground:

HLLYWOOD.

Hey, she said, what’s your first name? I only know you as Boyd.

It’s Bill, he said.

Bill Boyd, that has a nice sound, she said.

Oh, I don’t know, he said. Most of my friends just call me Boyd. What’s your name? He realized he knew her only as Loy.

She puckered her lips. Myrna, she said.

 

As he mopeded past the Broil stations and mini-marts on the outskirts of Rattlers Parish, Boyd realized that it had been exactly fourteen winters since he’d been dismissed from Bee Rush Academy. He could hardly remember Myrna’s face. For all that she tried to get him to photograph her, with and without her clothes, he’d been too shy or scared to do so. They’d sipped tea, they’d heated chicken potpies on her microwave, and dined by candlelight—she owned boxes of candles that gave off incense. They’d made love on her couch every day after teaching. For weeks he’d felt himself enter her and tried in his mind to describe the sensation. Was it like taking a dip in a hot spring? Was it like plunging your hand under warm sand and letting its granules tickle your fingers until you could feel an aura resonate up your spine? Was it like wanting to sneeze but not being able to, holding your breath when you inhaled with a shudder, only to exhale in futility until the irritation or whatever it was triggered a reflex you knew you couldn’t resist, a reaction wholly beyond your ability to do anything about it—like a person on a moped who’s headed for a cottonwood tree, and all he can do is wait micro-seconds for the crash, the explosion, the bursting outward into blackness?

Those afternoons, he realized now, had been foredoomed. No one who played vinyl records on a gramophone, no one who owned a guitar or who kept a rodent as a pet could be exempt in The Valley. The day he found her place ransacked, he cursed himself and stumbled through the empty tent. Nothing remained: not the microwave, not the beat-up remnant of a rug passed down from her great-grandmother—only the faintest scent of incense hung in the air like a question mark.

When he made inquiries at Bee Rush Academy, nobody seemed to know where she was. Her students deflected his questions with smirks and questions of their own, like, Why do you want to know? What’s she to you? and—worst of all—Were you two flouting Article Three about concupiscence and Article Six about fornication outside of wedlock?

Needless to say, the next day the headmaster of Bee Rush Academy had dismissed him. Loose lips lead to pink slips, he had said, and shaken Boyd’s hand. It’s unavoidable, I’m afraid. But I predict you’ll have better luck as a freelancer. We’ve been told to phase out photography at the Academy—and drama, too. I suspect we’ll be sticking to Bible recitation and chicken farming from now on.

 

 

In September 2016 Spuyten Duyvil published James Reiss’s debut novel, When Yellow Leaves, and will publish his second novel, Façade for a Penny Arcade, in 2017. He is the author of several full-length poetry books, including The Breathers, Ten Thousand Good Mornings, and Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems. His work has appeared in such places as The Atlantic, Esquire, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Poetry, Slate, and Virginia Quarterly Review. As Professor Emeritus of English at Miami University, he is Founding Editor of Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio.

 

 

 

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