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The Modern American Great Novel

26 Feb

There is something bogus about the title, and those of you who have spotted this have a good ear for irony. Why? Well, because there can certainly be such a thing as a “modern novel” or “an American novel” or a “modern American novel” but to refer to a sub-set known as “the modern American great novel” seems to suggest that the latter is so numerous that it needs a list or a classification. Which is not the case, sadly.

The concept of the “great” American novel may be a throwback to the post-colonial era, when America was keen to demonstrate that it was just as capable as England when it came to producing great writers. With Henry James and other prominent early twentieth century voices, America found itself still very keen to have great writers. And in the end, at the tail end of this movement, we have the likes of Roth and Bellow constantly being asked about the “great American novel” and whether they felt they were writing in that tradition. This was always an idiotic question. The only tradition for a novelist to be writing in is the tradition of creating fiction. Whether it is great or not, and even whether it is American or not, seem to be later questions for consideration.

The rise of the independent publishing sector in America has blurred the lines even more, by pumping out a great variety of fiction by writers viewing themselves as “outside the system.” Their alienation and starvation has led to a sort of machismo, a dated Parisian, Baudelairean reincarnation of the romance of being Bohemian, misunderstood, and very likely a genius too, whose hunting grounds are defined by Goodreads and Amazon. By definition, failure or unwillingness to be a top-selling writer producing easy forage for the mass market  has created a sense of heroism among “independent writers.” Their ethos also takes some of its content from Bon Jovi lyrics: “Stuck in a hotel, drank a bottle of vodka last night, working on the thirteenth rewrite of the twenty-eighth draft of chapter six. Surviving outside the system, man! And my baby left me…”

Fiction is not about blood, it is not the ego being demonstrative about itself.  It’s about spirit, and thought.

Great fiction is usually about slow immersion, not acrobatics, or chain-smoking, or the artist as bench-press master.

And who cares where it is from? America? Liberia? Artists are always something more than members of a national fraternity. They cross borders.

A recent Twitter discussion on “do we really need another novel from Brooklyn” struck me as so very stupid. Of course we do. Brooklyn is not Brooklyn. Liberia is not Liberia. Everything is just the human mind. And now that more and more people are on the move, we may find that the next Modern American Great Novel is written by a Liberian. Living in Brooklyn.

 

 

 

 

The Bones – Part 9

13 Oct

sleeping bones

15.

After they’d followed the stream around a few more bends in the valley, the mountains opened up and there was a flat plain a couple of kilometers across with agricultural land and orchards; and forested slopes.

They walked with bone men behind them, to their sides, and in front.

Everywhere they heard running water in irrigation channels; frequently they crossed little wooden bridges over dikes; sometimes children would run alongside, speaking in an odd whistling language of clicks and harsh guttural sounds.

People sat in the fields, weeding, planting, harvesting.

No one seemed to look at them. Their captors were impassive, their faces almost inhuman, their bodies hard and covered in tattoos.

Wyre was furious, calling out to her over his shoulder: “So you got what you wanted! Now you can write your article.”

“I’m not writing any goddamn article!”

Wyre snorted. “You’re damned right, ’cuz you probably won’t live out the night.”

She swallowed, and then managed to say: “Anyway, Wyre, you also wanted to find them, too. At least that’s what you said.”

“Not like this,” he said under his breath. “I wanted to come as an equal. With my gun.”

“But you’re not an equal, are you?”

They were taken to a bamboo hut, stripped of their clothes and locked up inside.

So this was her fate, Henrietta thought. Naked with a eunuch, locked up in a shed by natives.

Would there soon be drums, would she be lowered into a boiling cauldron?

Wyre started slapping his forehead: “Oh shit!” he cried. “Shit, shit, shit…Why did I do this? I could have stayed at home with my oil well and my camels and my books!”

“You know something, Wyre, you’re starting to remind me of Arty; and that’s pretty damned apt, because in the final analysis that’s what you are: a dirty old Oiler with a foul mouth…”

There was a long silence and then Wyre answered: “Yeah, that’s right. I’m not a stuck-up cunt from the city who has raw fish for dinner.”

The hours passed; night fell.

There was almost no conversation, until Wyre, who’d cooled down, reminded her that he was the one who’d had the balls to give her a chance when she came to Oil Town; he’d spent his life resisting the other Oilers, not falling in with their ways. “I’m not like them,” he said. “I’m different.”

And she responded that he was just the same as them – in fact he was the very worst kind of person, a fifth columnist waiting for someone like her to come along so he could sell them out. “In the end, Wyre, it’s not what you say that counts, it’s not what you think either. It’s what you do…That’s what makes a difference.”

“I did plenty.”

“Sure you did, you spent your dumb meaningless life feuding with an imbecile.” She stopped and her thoughts went back to Arty. “I think the only reason Arty went for me was to get at you!”

Wyre nodded in the darkness. True enough. “You reminded him of someone, I’d say.”

Later, when they heard shots ringing out, Wyre nodded again. “That’ll be Arty now,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice. “I knew he’d come for me.”

“Sometimes I think he’s the only friend you’ve ever had,” she said, and was surprised by his answer.

“He was my first friend. Pity he turned out an asshole.”

As light was breaking, the door opened and Arty – butt naked – was thrown inside. He had an ugly wound on the back of his neck and was bleeding heavily. The sound of his bloated white body was like a pig carcass hitting the ground. He groaned, then laughed when he saw them.

“I knew I’d find you,” he said.

“I knew you’d find us, too,” said Wyre. “You stupid bastard.”

Henrietta wasn’t sure, but she suspected Wyre’s eyes were filling up with tears.

Soon after, a repetitious metallic hammering sound could be heard from outside. It continued for hours, and they didn’t know what it was.

“What happened?” Wyre said.

“Oh, you know. I came up here to find you…”

“To finish us off, I suppose?” said Henrietta.

Arty gave her a slow gaze, then said: “Yeah, I figured that was the right thing. Only I ran into these damned…people…whatever they are…I shot four or five of them, I had the semi-automatic, I could have taken out the whole fucking population with no trouble if I’d brought up my grenades…Then they fired a goddamn arrow and hit me in the neck.” He chuckled maniacally. “I didn’t know fucking home-made bows could be that accurate. Remember when we were kids, Wyre, we used to make ’em from reinforcement wire? We couldn’t fucking hit a beach ball at ten yards…”

Wyre didn’t answer.

At about midday they were all brought out. The whole population of the valley was gathered—about three hundred all told, including the children. On the ground outside the hut, a group of warriors were pulverizing Arty’s rifle. They sat in a ring around it with heavy rocks in their hands, smashing at the butt, the magazine, the barrel.

Henrietta and Wyre were frogmarched up a slope on a winding path (Arty was carried on a stretcher behind); they stopped when they reached a terrace where large trees grew, their branches spreading over their heads. In the middle of a clearing stood a house built of white-grayish human bones lashed together like reeds to form four corner-posts and a roof of dark wood, lined with bones beneath. Under the roof of the open-sided building was a smoking fire – a pall of smoke rose through the bunched-up femurs, shins and all manner of other bones.

A sort of smoke-house, one might say. Of the dead.

The bone people sat down all round them, crossing their legs. They seemed reverential, somehow, and Henrietta and Wyre knew better than to say anything.

Arty was less guarded.

“You’re all fucked up!” he laughed. “Fucked, fucked up! Like a goddamn movie!”

A woman went to a ceramic pot simmering over a fire and scooped up a white, frothy liquid into two gourds. She gave one each to Henrietta and Wyre and indicated that they should drink.

“Don’t drink it!” Arty cut in. “Probably poison.”

“Well you’d know all about it!” said Henrietta.

Four strong men picked up Arty, who started hollering and squealing like a large piglet as they carried him into the bone house, where, Henrietta now noticed, there were four ropes hanging down from a pulley system, which they attached to his feet and hands, then winched him up until he was strapped flat against the grotesque ceiling and unable to move.

He hollered for a good while the gentle smoke rose up and caressed his body, sometimes entirely covering and hiding him inside.

From Arty’s perspective there wasn’t much to be seen, but sometimes when the smoke cleared he saw the people down there looking up at him as if he were a god or something.

He knew he’d been a bit of a shit. That’s when it got tricky, ’cuz then you had to deal with the fact that no one liked you and there was a good reason for it – which meant that every mouthful of air you took was a waste of oxygen, and oxygen was sweet, Jesus he knew that now; what he wouldn’t do for a mouthful of air!

In his mind he saw Navel Grange, still standing, and the thought of it filled him with pride. His nephew would come up and Scot would teach him all about drilling and pumping. The tradition wouldn’t die out just because he was passing on. The pump jacks would bob up and down there until the end of human history, and there was nothing these damned bone people could do about it.

The smoke stood round him in clouds. With his arms and legs pinioned to the bones of his fathers and mothers, he felt he was suspended over a hostile world where nothing could live for very long. He coughed and coughed and coughed until he stopped; and didn’t make another sound.

The bone people stood up in perfect silence. Henrietta felt a hand on her shoulder and almost jumped out of her skin. But the hand gently encouraged her to stand up and turned her and Wyre around and pointed at the green fields below; the profusion of greenery was almost overwhelming after the arid desert.

Then they walked down from the mountain.

 

Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.

 

 

The Bones – Part 8

13 Oct

green in desert

13.

After her first sighting she did not see them any more. The bone men, or people, or whatever she should call them, kept out of view and did not give themselves away.

As they climbed into the mountain, more mountains came into view, and she realised this must be a whole chain, a system of peaks and troughs and valleys.

They walked up a dry river-bed; camped in it, slept; continued. As they went, they noticed more and more grass, bushes, cacti.

Wyre was clenched and tense, constantly regretting leaving his gun behind. That gun could have been an important survival tool.

And when they suddenly heard running water and went round a bend and saw bushes and even a few trees growing alongside a spring that came gushing out of the ground, he turned to Henrietta and said: “I told you there’d be game.”

She ignored him and ran forward, submerging her face in the cold water and drinking!

Without quickening his steps he joined her, sinking to his knees and cupping his hands in the clear water.

He stood up, touched one of the leaves on the trees, a certain wonder evident in his voice. “Alder!” he said. “Good wood.”

They continued, and as they went round the next bend they both stopped in amazement. The river-valley was steep and narrow, but the entire floor was covered in trees and vegetation.

After all their exertions and thirst and loneliness in the huge wasteland, they grabbed each other’s arms and stood there overwhelmed on the threshold. That’s when they saw the bone people all round them; tall, slender, motionless. Their bodies were decorated with beads and shells and wooden seeds. The men were at the front, with spears and bows. The women stood behind them, their breasts hanging free; some held children in their arms or in slings on their backs.

Henrietta looked at their faces: some were gnarled and old and haunted. Some were young and fresh and ready for childbirth. Some were hard, some were soft.

The bone people were people, just like Oilers or anyone else.

But none of them moved. None of them betrayed the slightest intention of any kind. She did not know if they wanted to embrace or feed her, kill or starve her.

And then it dawned on her that they had not decided.

 

14.

As Arty drove, and the desert took him into its bosom, his spirits rose; he realised that in fact he was seeking out Wyre not to kill him, perhaps, but clear up a few things between them, things that had built up over a lifetime. If Wyre was reasonable about it and said sorry, Arty would take it in good spirit; not bury the hatchet in his head.

Clarity was good. Oilers did not dwell on things, they said their piece and if there was anything still rankling, did what had to be done.

If you had to resort to violence, so be it. There was no room for remorse, certain things just had to be done.

The constant grinding up and sliding down the sand dunes cleared his mind, and he told himself he was enjoying this; realizing with a jolt of annoyance that Wyre had again figured out something before he’d even thought about it. This desert, which he’d avoided all his life, was a place to come when you wanted to be free of the pernicious presence of other humans.

His vehicle was a recent acquisition. He had air conditioning in there, and a cooler between the seats, which he’d packed with Cola and beer. He was also carrying close to three hundred liters of fuel and the same amount of water – he even had a small bunk in the back, with an electric heater for the nights, so he figured whatever happened he’d be fine. He’d sleep well. And if anyone came bothering him in the hours of darkness, he also had a heavy-bore shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle, a couple of stun grenades, infra-red night vision binoculars – all locked in a gun cupboard which he’d got Scot to bolt into the wall beside his little kitchenette.

Basically, he was set up for anything other than an aerial bombardment.

And thus when he made his first camp that day, he enjoyed getting out a slab of frozen beef and putting it in the microwave, stirring up some mashed potato from a sachet of powder, and adding plenty of butter and chopped parsley.

He didn’t leave the vehicle after darkness had fallen and kept the doors closed. If there was any truth in this bone people bullshit he wasn’t going to take any chances. He slept snug as a wintering larva in his bunk, rising just before dawn and continuing on his way. Satellite navigation systems did not work anymore, things like that were all broken nowadays thanks to the world banking crisis. But at least he had the old map, which he’d glued down on a piece of stiff plasticized board; he’d taken a reading from the tracks he’d seen a few days earlier, leading away from Wyre’s house. And he had a compass on the dashboard, so that at any moment he could turn round and keep going in a straight line until he hit the road, running south-west to north-east.

Most likely he’d find no one out here.

He’d drive around for a few days, then come home, satisfied at least that he’d tried his best.

After a few weeks he’d head out again, he’d never give up until he found them, dead or alive. The most likely thing, Arty knew, was that he’d chance on their vehicle somewhere, abandoned and half-buried. And then, thirty or forty or fifty kilometers further on, a couple of mummified corpses in the sand. He’d take ’em back and put ’em in the cemetery, Wyre would be all alone there, alone in death as he’d been in life. As for the journalist…whether she deserved to have her final resting place in Oil Town was a matter for debate; some might argue that her bones should be tossed away somewhere by the side of the road.

Of course, if he found ’em alive it would be a much trickier matter. By experience, Arty knew he might be sorely tempted to dispatch them both at a distance, without any words or eye contact. His assault rifle could take out a man at eighteen hundred metres, accurately if there was no wind.

Justice should be like this, swift and instant.

A few of his workers had been dealt with in this way, on a few occasions; untrustworthy types who’d helped themselves to his things, or sold oil behind his back for personal gain.

On the third day, in the evening, Arty started seeing wild camel critters more or less at the same time as he spotted the mountains on the horizon.

He took a reading and wrote down their position, so that he’d be able to come back one day with more people and explore the place with better security.

After parking up and frying himself a steak, Arty put a folding chair in the sand and amused himself by shooting a couple of camels. He concentrated on the calves, ’cuz as everyone knows young meat is always better than old. But in practice, after hacking off a haunch of one of them, he couldn’t be bothered to skin the thing or wash off the gore, so in the end he just rinsed his hands and let the dead critters lie where they’d fallen.

The next day when he awoke he had a sense of urgency about him; and he drove without even breakfasting towards the mountains, hitting seventy-five miles an hour at one point and jumping the dunes almost as if he was driving a sand-buggy and not a three-ton truck. He slowed down after the first mighty jolt, however—he didn’t want to deal with a broken wheel-axle out here.

Before he knew it, he was driving into a gorge with steep bastions rising up on either side.

He saw Wyre’s camels grazing on some light scrub – he recognized them by their hobbled legs. Something about their long, stupid legs annoyed him, bringing back all his resentment about Wyre’s strange ways. He wasted no more time on it. Took up his rifle and put a bullet through each of the dumb animals’ skulls. They went down like fucking tree trunks – apple tree trunks! – and he knew that from now on, his mission was to hunt Wyre down and obliterate him.

As he stood there feeling his painful broken toe, he made a personal resolution to go back to Wyre’s house and demolish the foundations properly, then rake over the ground with a tractor and plant something there – cactus trees, perhaps? Something to cover up the remains of the dwelling from where so much bad shit had come.

His resolution clarified his thinking. When he found Wyre’s old rusty crate hidden under an overhang, he doused it in petrol and put a match to it. As he stepped back, Arty realised with some satisfaction that even if he did not find Wyre and the bitch, they would be stranded here with nothing to eat or drink and no transportation to get ’em back to civilization.

The car was burning really well and Arty had let his gloating get the better of him. When it blew, he was standing way too close. Even worse, the fucking prick had left his ammo inside and a couple of bullets whizzed past, one of them narrowly missing Arty’s head. Fuck!

After making his preparations, rinsing his stitched-up ears with surgical spirit and tightening the bandage on his broken toe – Arty took his rifle and a few other items and headed up the slope. Cunts like Wyre shouldn’t be allowed to live. No doubt about it, when he saw his crooked back toiling away on some godforsaken slope, heading god-knew-where to do fuck-knew what, he’d take aim and pull the trigger. The only thing bothering Arty was that after Wyre had gone, he wouldn’t be able to follow him any more – even though his revenge was incomplete and always would be. In cases where a dead man crosses over to the other side and a living man wants to stay with him and keep the conversation going, there’s a problem.

No one through the entire history of the world had ever learned how to deal with the other side.

Which bothered Arty a good deal. Because when all was said and done, Wyre was at least very good entertainment.

 

Go to Part 9 here.
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.

 

 

 

The Bones – Part 7

13 Oct

cliff tree

12.

Like many fighters who come out on top, Arty Simpleton began to realize after a few days that his total victory over his old rival had left him empty. An important flavor had passed out of Arty’s existence, like running out of salt or having no milk in his coffee. He dreamed about him once or twice and saw the face of Daisy Lopez, which, after more than thirty years, came as a shock to his system. She hadn’t changed at all, the dream brought it all back like a television replay. Arty had to admit Daisy would probably laugh if she saw him now, big and bloated. She wore a yellow cotton drop-halter dress and she didn’t need no lipstick, she had such a cute smile and her words came tumbling out of her mouth quicker than Arty or Wyre could think of replies.

They had climbed the rocks just north of Oil Town, and they were standing there looking out over the desert which, from this vantage point almost thirty metres off the ground, was like standing on the bridge of a huge ship. The dunes, like enormous ocean swells, reached to the horizon and beyond.

Wyre, of course, had to impress. He said: “One day I’ll have a camel and I’ll ride out there like an Arab, to the other side.”

Daisy shook her head impatiently. “I just want to get to the other side, and when I get there I want to sit in my uncle’s back yard under his grapevines and eat a big juicy melon straight from his refrigerator. And then I’ll go to college and one day I’ll live in Mexico City and have my own car, and when I go to work I’ll wear a chalk-grey suit and a pink Hermes scarf and very pointy high-heel Guccis!” It sounded impressive until they looked at her and realised she was young and stupid like them; more likely she’d end up living in a caravan with one of the drill-operators; and that’s why the boys grew heated when they saw her, because they saw an opportunity. Arty thought he might buy her some Gushy shoes or whatever; Wyre felt he could turn her on to camel-riding and then one day they’d have four children, all named after the month when they were born: May, Julia, August and Janus.

Arty, even then, was drawn to simpler truths. He nodded at some high spruce trees growing below the precipice, the tops of their crowns reaching up to perhaps fifteen or twenty foot below where they were standing. “I bet you I can jump from here and grab a branch and hang there like a damn wild turkey!” he said.

“I bet you won’t!” said Wyre.

Arty turned to Daisy and took her hand. “First I have to tell you something. If I die, please remember, I love you Daisy Lopez and that’s all I got to say.” She blushed.

Wyre felt outsmarted. He could hardly grab her hand and tell her: “I love you, too!”

So he just stood there, burning with resentment.

“I don’t see the connection with jumping into a tree,” said Daisy sharply. “If I were you I wouldn’t jump for the sake of it, you might survive and end up in a wheelchair an’ what’s the stupid use of that?”

“I said I’ll do it, now I have to do it!” said Arty and without thinking about it anymore, took a run and threw himself off the edge.

It was much higher than it looked and the tree was not as soft as he’d anticipated; he near enough broke his arm hanging onto a branch; and then swayed there like a rotten fruit, crowing at his friends: “See?! I told you I’d do it.”

He looked up and saw Wyre and Daisy standing there staring at him, on the edge of the ravine. Wyre had grabbed Daisy’s hand and she didn’t push him away. She just looked at Arty and then called out: “Arty, jumping off a cliff is just craziness and you can’t ask a girl to love you for it!”

She was probably right, he probably was crazy, but that was the great thing about him – his craziness, his willingness to sacrifice. He stayed where he was, hanging on and wondering what the hell had possessed him.

By the time he’d shinnied down the long, rough tree trunk and stood with trembling legs on the ground, Arty knew he’d lost Daisy Lopez – although of course you can only lose something if you have it in the first place and he’d never had Daisy Lopez; in fact the thing he’d lost was the possibility of her.

“I’m too sincere about things!” he told himself. “I’m too fucking sincere and people hold it against me!”

After that, the two boys were no longer friends. Both were the sons of Oilers and they instinctively understood the notion of having a problem with a man and never speaking to him again for as long as you lived – apart from a few fistfights on assorted Saturday nights.

Wyre moved on to better things; he hassled his grandfather to give him a camel; and when he got it, he exercised on the dunes as a provocation to the other boys.

A few times Arty saw him riding about on it, one time he saw Wyre riding with Daisy – that was the moment he decided he’d get even with Wyre.

A few months later, Daisy took a bus to Mexico and they never saw her again. The boys were just sixteen years old, but the day Daisy walked down the main street in her yellow dress and a small suitcase in her hand, and climbed into a Greyhound, the boys were both there to wave her off.

Daisy was a sweet person, she said her goodbyes and waved at both of them; but Arty fancied there was some extra warmth in her eye when she looked at Wyre, because he’d turned her against him. When the bus drove off pursued by a cloud of dust, which was the wailing heart of Oil Town reluctant to let anyone go, Arty knew all his hopes and his heart were packed up in that small leather suitcase in Daisy Lopez’s hand. She’d taken all the good things with her to Mexico City, and as she progressed through life, a better, brighter happier Arty would stay at her side like a ghost – meaning that Arty Simpleton of Oil Town was a shadow of his better self. But his better self did not exist – had never existed. His better self was still Wyre’s friend, that was another truth he found unpalatable, bitter to the taste like a plate of rancid olives.

The rest of his life would be a mechanism of regret. He was sure of it.

Later, when he was a few years older and the spruce trees by the cliff had been cut down, he persuaded Wyre after a long night of drinking to come along on a wild night of joyriding “for the sake of old times…”

There had been a terrible inevitability to the whole thing, and now that the dream had brought everything back with such sharp clarity, it acted on his memory.

He started addressing long monologues to Wyre – while at his breakfast table or on his way down to the pump jacks in the mornings. The worms and hands of Navel Grange noticed the change in him. Either he was vague and distant, or they felt an abrupt edge to him that had not been there before.

Even Carmen noticed something wrong. He didn’t come over this past Sunday, for one thing, and then when she did see him he walked past without so much as a hello. But she saw his face crumple up with anger and heard him say, quite clearly, through clenched teeth: “You sly bastard, what did you expect?” before disappearing out of view. At first she thought he’d been cursing at her, then realised he was addressing the most powerful enemy of all – the enemy inside. Although, to be more specific, she had a strong suspicion he was talking about Wyre, because everyone was talking about Wyre, and some of the locals had even said they ought to send out search parties for him; ’cuz a man could not just drive off like that and be allowed to die like a wild animal in the desert. The workers were saying it – but the lily-livered Oilers weren’t saying a goddamn thing, they didn’t want to go against Arty. Three times a week they assembled in the evening outside the main house at Navel Grange and stood there mumbling with their guns, waiting for Arty to come out. And when he did come out it was like watching a globule of slime dripping through a hole; he emerged and stood on his porch, stretching and yawning and throwing his rifle on his shoulder.

A few days after burning down Wyre’s house, he came out and said to them: “What’s the fucking use of this? Who’s going to be such an ass he’d come here and rob us? We’d shoot his tail-feathers off in a second…” He turned round and slammed the door, mumbling quite loudly: “Anyway, the worst thieves are the ones that take your invisible earnings…”

And the Oilers stood there for a while, unsure of what to do, then shuffled off to the bar and put their guns back and that was the end of their patrolling days.

Arty had come to the conclusion that he did not want to save Wyre from the desert, he wanted to shoulder the onerous burden of doing the desert’s work; that is, he wanted to put a bullet in Wyre’s skull as a down payment on a lifetime’s worth of implied criticism.

’Cuz what was Wyre now? Surely just a fugitive from justice, a man who had unjustifiably packed up and left them without reasonable cause; abandoning his community and thus making himself an outcast and lawless criminal? By speaking to the journalist cunt, by revealing their secrets, he’d shown faithlessness to his own people. Even keeping those camels was an offence against normal practice. Oilers did not keep live animals, Oilers bought dead animals and ate them, Oilers did not even keep dogs or cats, ’cuz what the hell was the use of keeping useless critters on your land, that ate good food and left their shit on the ground? Guard dogs were not required in Oil Town. Anyone straying onto Arty’s property would find himself looking into the clean bore of his shotgun.

And for all these reasons, Arty Simpleton decided to go down to Wyre’s burnt-out house, kick around in the ashes and see if he could find something, a keepsake, possibly something to nail up over his work bench or put on the mantelpiece.

There wasn’t much left of the place. The ashes lay pretty deep inside the foundations, and he waded through them with a sense of satisfaction, until his foot struck something hard and he felt with his hands and then lifted up a disfigured lump of wood, cracked and charred but still recognizably a sculpture, a beaver or a fox or something, at least something with a snout and four legs. Fucking critter-lover! Not a bad start. He’d bring that home and clean it up.

The chimney-stack was still standing – a testimony to Jeremiah’s skills as a stonemason. It was precarious, though, the way it twisted off to the side and then rose up to where the roof-tiles had been.

Arty had brought his tools, of course. Without his tools, what is a man?

He tried using a crowbar on it to demolish it, but that didn’t work. Instead he fetched his biggest mallet, the one he used to drive eight-inch steel pins into the drill-bit, and he let loose on the masonry with all the vituperative anger he could muster.

And fall it did! In fact much quicker than he’d figured; even though he stepped back pretty sharply, a couple of the stones fell pretty close and one big bastard landed right on his toe, breaking the bone.

Fucking Wyre! First that bitch tore his ears like a crazy she-devil, and now her friend the fucking nigger-blood camel-man had cracked his toe.

“I’m warning you!” he raged at the sky, limping about and cursing and smashing anything else he could find until his flabby body heaved with exertion. “Do not fuck with me! I’ve reached the end, you hear me?!”

The books had all burned, of course, and the ash they had left was soft like a newborn’s shit. But at the back, in a small cranny built into the stone wall, Arty found a heavy metal box, still warm. Inside, all the paper had smoldered away but there was a roll of very old kidskin parchment still more or less intact.

He took the roll home and tried to open it, which was mostly useless, for the heat had rendered it brittle and fragile; but he did manage to save one piece, an old hand-drawn map of the desert; must have been a hundred and fifty years old, ’cuz there were still woods and rivers, also the desert which had always been there, only smaller and more distant. Arty saw the daubed symbol of a mountain range about a four- or five-day drive south-east of Oil Town. One part of his mind marveled at this, because he had never wondered what lay beyond the desert, in fact he had never looked at a map at all. Maps showed what was not here.

Arty preferred to be here and not there.

But if Wyre could do it he would also do it, just to show him.

He’d take his best vehicle and set out on his own without any damned camels for back-up. He’d find him and tell him what he thought of him. Once and for all.

He left the disfigured beaver or whatever it was on his kitchen table, with a note for his foreman Scot:

I’ve gone. You know where I’ve gone, so don’t ask.

Keep it up.

Arty

 

Go to Part 8 here
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

The Bones – Part 6

8 Oct

bartender

9.

Oil Town had first been created by the very best efforts of the people who lived there. And these people woke up in the mornings, took deep breaths of dust and told themselves that everything had been for the good.

It was with a similar feeling of goodness that Arty returned to his old farm, Navel Grange, located more or less at the heart of Oil Town, if there was any heart at all, though it has to be said that even snakes have hearts.

Navel Grange had the oldest oil well in the region. Here the oil had first seeped from the ground of its own accord, ruining the crops – it was the cheapest land money could buy. The first of the Simpletons, a hare-lipped Norwegian named Lobsterhelmet, had stepped off a ship filled with starving peasants from Oslo, and as soon as he laid eyes on Navel Grange he pulled out his wallet and bought it for hard-earned cash. He spent fifty years breaking his back on that land, clearing trees and fencing, living on black bread boiled in broth, chucking in the odd onion or beet and barely managing to stave off hunger and raise eleven children – but managing nonetheless. His oldest son hit the jackpot once he realised that the bane of his father’s life would be the making of his own: Fredrik Lobsterhelmet never did much more than sitting on the veranda drinking hooch and taking shots at his wormers’ tin chamber-pots, which they used to put outside their cabins to dry in the morning sun. But Fredrik had been a good man too, a man who prided himself on his sense of humor.

Times had changed, of course. Things had modernized. Arty had eighteen bobbing pump jacks on his land, all manned by an assortment of workers dribbling up from the south. Latinos to a man. Sometimes they brought women too, and Arty was all for it, it kept the men quiet and stopped ’em drinking too much. Women had a mighty effect on men and produced kids to keep the operation running smoothly in the long term. The little ’uns were useful too, their fathers trained ’em to fish for crap that fell down the well or help out in other ways. As long as they were ten or eleven and knew how to handle themselves, Arty made no objection; he thought it a good thing that kids learned a trade, what the hell else were they supposed to do with their fucking time. Starve?

He liked the extraneous origins of his men, liked the fact that he had no language in common with ’em. “I got a use for a worm, but I sure don’t hire him for his conversation skills,” he used to say, beaming with conviction about his wit and charm. Self-adoration was a trait that had been passed down in a ram-rod straight line from Fredrik and on.

Arty’s main guy, his foreman, was a ruddy Scot with arms so densely covered in red fur that they looked more than anything like fox pelt. “Scot” was entrusted with travelling north now and then to buy a couple of beef carcasses, which they kept hanging in one of the out-houses equipped with a refrigeration unit. At feeding time Scot went in with a machete and a wheel-barrow. Few culinary skills were practiced at Navel Grange, but there was a belief in plenty, and that included root beer to wash it down with.

“Navel Grange might not be a party,” Arty told the men when they arrived, even though he knew they could not understand him. “But I’ll give you beef and no bull…” At least he knew they’d get the point when they saw their plates of beef, potatoes and beans.

Arty prided himself on growing enough food to keep his workers in carbohydrates. It was a tradition at Navel Grange; he believed in tradition when it served his requirements. He’d covered a couple of acres in poly-tunnels, which he kept watered from a stagnated aquifer directly under Oil Town. There was almost no recharge, that was the trouble. Fucking weather had let them down, and all them environmentalists blamed it on the desert. But in spite of all their griping there was still water under Navel Grange, even if a bit contaminated. Arty brought in ten tons of fresh topsoil every other year and he still managed to grow enough beets and potatoes and beans to serve his needs.

People made such a goddamn fuss. There was no problem, everything was fucking fine the way it was.

Walking round his property that afternoon, he could still see the pillar of smoke rising from Wyre’s land. It gave him a sense of quiet satisfaction to know that he had finally torched the cunt, imposed the law on him and God help him if he came back for revenge. Or if he came back at all.

“There’s a natural way,” he told himself. “And I’m part of it, I do what I have to do preserve my way of life.”

No doubt about it, if he saw Wyre again he’d finish the job. The police wouldn’t concern themselves, the police wouldn’t even ask. They knew about the natural way, they were decent guys; they could appreciate the problem of having a cunt like Wyre in your midst.

To celebrate, Arty went into a caravan where one of the wives lived. Her name was Carmen and she had a body like a well-fed sow and an appetite for whatever came her way, and a disinclination for making complications where there weren’t none. Arty didn’t like to exert himself too much, and afterwards he’d always leave a hundred bucks on the table and no one ever said a word about it.

It was the natural way.

When evening came, as Arty had predicted, there was a quiet consensus in the bar that Wyre had got his due.

The applause was silent; but he heard it as he walked in, saw it in the hunched backs of the Oilers sitting over their drinks.

He eased his buttocks onto his stool and waited for his hot chocolate.

“You got any idea where he got to?” said the barman.

“Who?” said Arty, playing indifferent.

“You know who.” The barman smiled, tickled. “He brought his camels along for the ride. I went down to have a look myself. You left the critter-house standing.”

Arty sneered. “That’s the mark of the man, I guess. He had himself some good land down there, could have been rich. But in the end he’ll lay down to die with his camels…”

“He could have had it all, could have had a Carmencita too!” someone said, with a chuckle. “Right, Arty?”

“That’s one thing he couldn’t have, and I made sure of it!” said Arty with a grin, then looked up and addressed everyone in the room. “You know, guys, we don’t get any sport any more, we should pack up a couple of crates and get out there and find ’em and lay ’em to rest.”

There was a long silence and then someone piped up from the back: “Why the fucking bother? Just let the desert do it…”

And as soon as Arty heard this, he knew it was something personal that made him want to go out there and find Wyre. The other guys were right: better to let the desert do it. Why raise an arm when there was no need for it?

As he walked home, sedated, bloated by the chocolate and whipped cream, Arty knew that he had to go out and find the only man who had ever put a thistle-head under his skin.

Even though his house was burned down and Wyre was a refugee in the most arid place on earth, Arty Simpleton wasn’t quite satisfied; ’cuz all the most important truths had to be told in blood.

 

camel

10.

By the time the sixth day came along, Henrietta and Wyre knew each other better than either had bargained for.

Wyre knew she was reassured about his being a harmless eunuch. It annoyed him that his deformation should be a solace to her.

Henrietta, with a tendency to be pedantic, had picked out a quality in him that she found objectionable, a quality she had also discerned in the denizens of Oil Town. They were like boulders slowly rolling down a muddy stream. They scrabbled, they rolled and changed direction in a higgledy-piggledy fashion; sometimes they spent a hundred years in a slimy pot-hole; but the bottom line was they couldn’t change direction.

Oilers had an intractable reluctance when it came to change. Fatalists! What will be will be. That was their endless truth.

To Henrietta, who had studied philosophy at one of the few remaining universities still offering the course in those days, there was something fascinating about the moral inversion at work here. You took good human qualities: steadfastness, determination, conviction. But when you applied these same qualities to some dirty Oiler sitting like a parasite by his oil well, something happened.

To put it bluntly, the good started working for bad.

The years had passed and the Oilers had never done anything but sit there looking at the nodding pump jacks saying “yes” to their indolence, “yes” to the drought and dirt and famine, “yes” to indifference.

If only pump jacks could learn to shake their heads and say “no;” but they couldn’t.

And Wyre was no different. The man had set himself against his neighbors and friends. At the same time he had spent his life lazily wallowing in the grimy dollars brought in by his drilling and pumping.

But all the time, he’d been longing for a reason to get out. Henrietta knew that she had been his exit sign, and she vaguely resented it. You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you. No, you shouldn’t…

The mountains had loomed up two days earlier.

As they drew closer, they were surprised to find quite large numbers of wild camel approaching their camp. One of Wyre’s camels was in heat, which attracted the rampant attentions of a large bull with a dangling, enflamed member between its hind legs. Only when Wyre flung a large rock, hitting it square in the forehead, did it turn round and gallop off with huge strides. In the olden days he would have caught it and brought it home for breeding purposes. Wyre had a love of these animals; but he had never seen them in such abundance. Most Oilers had never even seen their tracks.

So, on that sixth day as they made their fire in a rocky gully, Wyre sat worrying about how to get his camels up the slopes; or, if not, where to leave them.

The vehicle would have to be parked up and camouflaged; for he knew there was a good chance they’d be followed. This was one of the things he had not told Henrietta, one of the many things he had not told her. She was from a more disengaged world, where violence was random and meaningless. Out here in the desert, human beings had a taste for revenge that lay far beyond her scope of comprehension.

They slurped their dehydrated soup and rice as the sun went down. Oddly enough, there were also a few mosquitoes, and they swatted them with a sense of wonder.

Henrietta, aware of his disquiet, grew impatient with his silence. “Just spit it out!” she said. “Don’t stew on it.”

“I don’t waste my words,” he said.

“If you treat me like a human being, we might be able to come up with a good answer. I’m not stupid; I may not know the desert like you do but I have a brain, I’m capable of deduction, if you see what I mean. I can see the problem here. We can’t bring camels into the mountains, I’m aware of that. We haven’t brought ropes or climbing gear and neither of us are Alpinists. I’m aware of that too. You see..?”

He met her gaze, and reflected on how he preferred her now that her rosy skin, her creamed-up fragrant skin, had turned brown and filthy like his own.

Henrietta was almost beginning to look like an Oiler’s wife.

Wyre let his eyes linger on the shoulders of the mountains, painted brown and grey in the last few rays of the sun hanging onto the horizon. He even saw a few bats flitting over the slopes, and again he marveled at the wealth of the wildlife in this place.

Then he took a deep breath and addressed her; while somehow regretting that he was not alone to enjoy the magical evening. “Okay. You got it. That’s it. So what’s to discuss?”

“Well, there’s the small matter of a decision!” said Henrietta. “First you define the problem, then you draw a conclusion about the way to deal with it.”

“If you want to know,” said Wyre, “I’m not a big believer in discussion. I like things to settle. They do if you let ’em, if you don’t talk ’em to bits.”

Henrietta, just for once, decided to let it rest.

She was tired, the day had been long and filled with overbearing heat.

Wyre’s answer disappointed her; she had hoped he would be someone to talk to and respect. Never before had she met someone so determined not to share anything.

But as soon as the sun slipped below the horizon, and a cold wind swept up all the debris from the surface of the desert and channeled it up into the gullies of the old, patient mountain, she wrapped herself in her blanket and said:

“Well, if you want to know what I think…”

“I don’t,” he said.

“…We take a couple of packs, maybe thirty or forty kilos each; we hobble the camels, there’s enough grazing here to keep them going a couple of days. If we don’t find the bone people we’ll come back.”

“If we don’t find the bone people there’s nothing to come back to,” said Wyre. “They’re living on something…and we have to hope we can eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep.”

High-altitude cirrus blew in, burnished pink; like seaweed floating on a current of water.

Higher up the slope, they heard the yelp of an animal, but it was drowned out by the whistling sound of the wind; the plains lay pining before them, great swathes of flat land veined with dry riverbeds, untidily piled-up rocks and breathlessly graceful dunes, almost like shapes invented on a computer screen: sweeping, smooth lines rising up against the darkening skies.

“You know, Wyre, the purpose of all this is that someone should come along and put it into language. Otherwise humans have nothing to do on this earth. Language is all we’ve got. We have to learn to do something good with it.”

He guffawed. “Yeah right…”

“I thought you admired your ancestor, Jeremiah…the bookish man?”

“I like him pretty well, but he talked too much. People always talk too much, and that’s why I’m done with ’em.”

She sniffed that fatalism she’d noticed before. “I’m not like you, you know,” she said, her hackles rising just slightly. “It’s not the end for me. I have a life to go back to.”

She listened to her own words; they seemed to hang in the air for a while, before the wind caught them and blew them away.

Wyre shook his head, slightly impatient with her obtuseness; but he made his voice as gentle as he could and he addressed her by name. “Henry… I don’t think you have anything to go back to any more than I do…”

 

11.

And, when Henrietta reflected on Wyre’s cautious reproof, she knew there was truth in it. Obviously she could go back to her life in the city. She’d only have to navigate back to the road, ten or twenty miles away from Oil Town, and send someone to pick up her van. And then drive home – bingo, problem over.

But now more than ever she knew it would be little more than a temporary solution to a problem as yet undefined. She would sit in her two rooms with a view for a few months, would decamp in the mornings to the office; then, before you knew it, the itch would be back, the itch of wondering whether this was really the best thing she could be doing with her life. And then it would start all over again: the break-out schemes.

Her editor, luckily for her, had been patient with her; but his patience would run out. Flats could not really be sold at a good price these days; only land had value. And jobs had value. If she walked out on hers, she would turn herself loose into a world where she had nothing. Her parents were dead, and they had only left her debts and a small house on the outskirts of Baltimore, which had recently been declared unfit for human habitation, on account of constant flooding. It would not take long before she was marooned in some godforsaken settlement more or less like Oil Town.

Her sleep was intermittent until dawn, when she woke with an aching back, opened her eyes and saw a man on the other side of the gulley. The blood rushed to her head, she thought it was Arty Simpleton; until she realised this was a tall, very slender man, balancing on one leg with his other foot resting against the side of his knee, making a perfect triangle in the air like a Sri Lankan fisherman. He had a long bow slung over one shoulder, and his skin was covered in what looked like ash and soil.

She sat up abruptly, smacking her head against a boulder she’d been sleeping under. By the time she refocused on the spot, the bone man had gone.

When she turned towards Wyre, on the other side of their extinguished fire, he was not there; his things were gone, his sleeping bag and backpack.

And in that moment she heard an engine from the bottom of the slope and she saw the four-wheel drive and trailer bumping along, with the two camels in tow by long leashes.

Henrietta sat down hard and crossed her legs and thought to herself that this was it, even Wyre the Eunuch had failed her, had some obscure reason for hating her, for abandoning her to die in this place, without possible cause, without anything but the inexplicable cruelty of life as the yardstick.

She decided not to move, to sit here and wait for nothing to arrive.

Waiting for nothing…would seem to be the one thing she had never tried.

Twenty minutes later Wyre came tramping up the hill and retrieved his backpack from behind a rock. “Sorry,” he said, “I decided to hide it better, the vehicle I mean. I found a canyon and drove it in and put some camouflage netting over it.”

“What are you so afraid of?” she said, feeling herself hostile.

“I’m not afraid, I’m cautious,” said Wyre, and as he spoke the words she noticed he was carrying a rifle.

“I’m not going into these mountains with you carrying a weapon!”

There was a stand-off. He’d never heard such a thing! “We always bring our guns,” he said.

“Oh, it’s we now is it? We the Oilers. Me and my brothers…?”

He paused, slightly crestfallen. “No, I’m not an Oiler.”

“Well actually you are, Wyre. You’re a born and bred Oiler and you never did a stroke of work your whole life except turn a tap and sell what came out of the ground, sell what was not yours to sell.”

“If it wasn’t mine, whose was it?” he said with a tiny bit of heat.

“Things don’t have to belong to people,” she said. “This mountain doesn’t belong to anyone, does it?”

“Only ’cuz no one wants it.”

“Oh but I’m sure someone would want it if they could sell it. There’d be a town here and lots of stupid little fucks like you getting up with their chisels and hammers, hammering away like proper little foremen every day…and then they’d get some fucking big machines and flatten the whole thing…”

“What the hell’s the matter with you?”

“I’m just tired of people putting value on the wrong things,”said Henrietta. “And no, I’m not going into these mountains with you carrying a gun.”

“Why the hell not?”

Her lip trembled. She didn’t want to tell him, didn’t want to divulge what she had seen – the slender, graceful bone man – because some notions are crazy and cannot be shared, they can only be stuck to and believed until the bitter end, when their truth emerges.

“Because guns are for shooting people. And we’re not here to shoot people – are we, Wyre?”

“What about food? You’ll be glad of the gun if I get lucky and find some game. We might see some wild goats!”

“Wild goats, oh come on!” she said, on the point of bursting into exasperated laughter. “If there were wild goats here you and your fat pals would have shot them all years ago.  It’s a wonder there are camels here. I guess it’s only because the big-deal oil men are too lazy to travel this far. There’s nothing left, Wyre, no trees or plants or flowers or water or birds…or goats. Nothing! You took it all…Now leave your fucking gun or I’m not walking another step!”

She sat down.

Wyre was dumbfounded…until he realised that if he did see some wild game he could always come back for the gun later.

“Well okay, then,” he said. He’d always prided himself on his sparse use of language, and he wanted to accommodate her, after all she’d been through. Because she stood for a point of principle, and, although Wyre didn’t have much use for people, he did understand principles.

Go to Part 7 here
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

The Bones – Part 4

3 Oct

gushing derrick 2
6.

The next thing she heard was a sharp, scraping sound, metal against metal. And feet swaddled in skin shuffling across a packed-mud floor. Also wind-blasted sand against the plank walls, trickling through in places.

These sounds were clearer to her, because she couldn’t see anything.

She realised her eyes were closed, but she took a deep breath before opening them, because she could feel she was naked, which had to mean something had gone badly wrong.

What she saw, when she opened her eyes and wiped away the rheum, was the blackened bottom of Arty Simpleton’s button-down long-johns, sticking out as he bent over a tap fixed onto a length of crude, dented pipe that came through a rough hole in the wall.

He was wearing a pair of sheepskin slippers, and his belly in his morning get-up looked like a big piece of fat strapped to the front of his chest.

As soon as she moved in the bed he peered across, and said, with a leery grin, “Oh my darling, you were wild last night.” And then turned the tap and filled a bucket with stinking oil.

She lay back for a second, until she noticed the filth on the sheets and pillow-case, even the tiny sand-fleas bouncing all round her head. At that point she sat bolt upright.

“What’s happening?”

Arty put down the bucket. “What’s happening here is you’re a woman and I’m a man and last night we proved it.”

Henrietta was never quite able to explain what happened next. What gave her the ferocity? Inside she felt a ball of pain, a small energy-charged thing bouncing from her liver to her pancreas to her lungs, pummeling her organs and occasionally shooting up into her brain like a tiny ice-pick into the gap between her lobes, grazing the fragile skin of her emotion.

But on the outside she was a paragon of stillness. She sat up and pulled on her underwear. “I guess I’d be a fool if I was surprised.”

When she stood up and put on her blouse, Arty Simpleton turned away and fetched another empty bucket. “I figured you were a tough one and I wasn’t wrong,” he said, turning the tap again and resuming his work. “That’s why I spiked your vodka, to keep you in line.”

She pushed her feet into her sneakers and then walked up to him, gently reaching out to put her palms against either side of his temples. “Arty Simpleton,” she said with a sharp smile, “you’re a real dog…”

Arty Simpleton was genuinely surprised, and he was too dumb to read her emotions, which he would anyway have viewed as deeply flawed. To Arty and his kind, there is nothing in the world that cannot be justified in the name of one’s own requirements.

“Shit, I didn’t think you’d take it so well, but I have to say I think a lot more of you now I see you got some common sense.”

She nodded at the buckets on the floor. “What’s this?”

“Just a local guy, needs twenty buckets’ worth for his boiler. Peanuts.” When Arty Simpleton looked down, proudly turning his fat-brimming eyes on the besmirched fruits of his wealth, Henrietta dug the points of her nails into the tops of his ears and ripped hard, neatly tearing them like sheets of paper down to his ear-holes.

The effect was dramatic: a deluge of rich blood pouring over his throat and shirt. She pushed him back and he fell like a skittle and lay writhing and yelling on the floor.

“Listen,” she said. “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you. Did you ever hear the man sing that?”

And before Arty managed to recompose himself and get back on his feet, she aimed a kick at his wide-open cakehole, breaking a couple of his teeth; then casually trod on his head and bounced up and down a few times before making her way to the door.

Ten minutes later she was outside Wyre’s house, and he let her in.

“I heard…” he said.

“You heard what?

“He spiked your drink.”

She paced across the floor. “I ripped his ears off.”

Wyre’s face registered a mixture of surprise and delight. “You did what?”

She showed her hands, blood-flecked and filthy.

The shower in Wyre’s house was at least built into a fragrant juniper booth, and there were sea-shells to scrape off any globules of oil that came out, and good soap to rub oneself with.

When she came out she threw her clothes in the bin and borrowed a set of sack-like garments which, he informed her, had once belonged to his mother. “I think I’ll call the police now,” she said, “I want to put Mr. Simpleton behind bars.”

“You can call them. Why not? They’ll make a report.” Wyre looked at her, nodding apologetically at what he was saying. “Call ’em today and you might see ’em next week, or the week after that. But Arty Simpleton will take his gun to you, if it’s true you stripped him of his ears.”

“I did.”

“Well, then.” He handed her a cold bottle of cola. “Drink this.”

She slumped in the sofa, lit a cigar and sighed loudly. “This place is sick.”

“It’s sick, yeah. But it shows its sickness, which makes it honest.”

“You defend the place as well, do you? Arty was giving me the same bullshit last night. The place is a dump but he loves it, sort of thing…”

Wyre tightened his mouth. “I’m glad you gave him a beating, Henrietta. I’m just disappointed you didn’t finish the job and drop a ton of lignite on his head.” They sat quietly watching the smoke of her cigar throwing a great pall of a shadow against the cracked ceiling. “I think we should probably leave. I was kind of expecting you. Last night when I heard, I packed the jeep. We can survive out there a while, maybe a month or more if we can find water, which I doubt.”

“And do you know where we’re going?”

“I think if we don’t go now we won’t be going anywhere,” said Wyre.

 

7.

People say the desert is the final outpost and they’re not wrong. After humans have swarmed and fought and fucked and dug and built and manacled everything they believe in, the desert will emerge: the underlying truth. The desert is the full stop, the desert is the bedrock. And humans can’t live in it, humans can only die there and leave their bones.

As they drove west across the dunes, avoiding the road and leaving the shacks and bobbing wells of Oil Town behind them, Henrietta had a feeling that she was leaving her old self behind. This decision to escape justice, as if she were the criminal, would have serious repercussions, no doubt about it.

Back home, the plants in her window would be wilting.  Her editor at the newspaper would be wondering where she was by now.

But nothing would change, the litter would still blow through the street outside her front door; the beggars would still congregate on the corner by the subway, their hands reaching out to her for silver and gold, neither of which were common currency any more. People only carried plastic cards; these could be switched off at any time, particularly if there was any suggestion that a law had been broken.

Henrietta was certain that as soon as Arty Simpleton went to the police to report her assault, the authorities would turn off her cards and wait for her to come in.

Going into the desert had been her ultimate gesture, her farewell. She had stepped out of her skin and left it like a dirty pile of clothes on the floor. Everything behind her was consumed and blistered, her life in the city no more than passé imperfect.

“Where are we going..?” she said, shocked at the absurdity of her own question: “…and when we get there, what will we do?”

“You better let go of that,” said Wyre. “There is no ‘where’ any more…”

“I’m not so sure. How far does the desert stretch?”

Wyre grinned. “You’re funny. All you need to know is it goes further than we’ll ever get.”

There was a complexity in the way Wyre related to Henrietta, and he was fully aware of it. Why is it that some pills, however well we understand our need of them, cannot be accepted as a necessary cure?

For years Wyre had thought about making this journey into the desert. Gradually as their cemeteries had been ransacked and harvested for their bones, and as the Oilers implicitly accepted that the desert had a secret although they did their best to deny it to the outside world, Wyre had endured the Oilers’ jibes as he foddered his camels and exercised them on the dunes.

Oil Town was synonymous with the thorny presence of Arty Simpleton and his amateur militiamen – as good a reason as any for shutting up his house and heading out. How many times had Wyre dreamed of taking his shotgun to Arty, converting his flaccid body into a pile of stinking meat? He’d made it clear to Arty that if they strayed onto his land he’d open fire on ’em, treat ’em as trespassers. There was a state of undeclared war, ever since he’d fired over their heads one time as they drew too close to his boundary.

Only after Henrietta’s arrival had he finally packed his vehicle, loaded his camels into the trailer and actually cleared out. He could not possibly admit to her that she had been the catalyst.

Now he had less than a week to find the mountains; but at least they were big things, visible from afar and hard to miss. And for this reason Wyre spoke little on that first day, merely kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the horizon and did not tell her that they only had fuel to keep them going for days, not weeks. After that, they’d have to switch to camels, the very same camels that he’d loaded up in the trailer, which they had to stop to feed and water in the evenings.

Of course Henrietta was not stupid, she was quite capable of calculating their predicament. On that first evening when Wyre parked and let out the camels and hobbled their front legs so they wouldn’t go too far, she was pleased to see them foraging and finding the odd bit of vegetation to eat. The desert was not quite as dead as one thought at first.

They made their campfire under a flowering tree of some sort, a wonderful emanation of color in that sea of pale emptiness.

She sat by their fire, watching Wyre cooking porridge and baking chapatti bread on a hot iron. The camels were outlined against the red sky, standing on a sandy ridge littered with sharp boulders and scree; the animals were pushing their noses between the rocks, finding tiny sprouting plants in the crevices.

Henrietta stopped chewing, and looked at Wyre. “If we find the bone people, what will we do? Are they friendly? We haven’t thought about that. Maybe they’ll kill us?”

“You said it. If we find them. We’ll deal with that problem if we do…”

“I’m not convinced.”

Wyre put down his fork and wiped his mouth. “I’ll tell them I’ve come for my ancestors’ bones.”

“Have you?”

He shrugged. “Not really, but it sounds good.”

“What have you come for, then?”

“I’m a Miserable, Henrietta, nothing ever pleases me; you could put me in Paradise, I still wouldn’t be dancing the samba, you know. But one thing I can’t stand…” He spooned in some more porridge and kept his eyes fixedly on the camels, which were just disappearing over the ridge. He stood up, and she called out to him as he headed off in their direction.

“What can’t you stand, Wyre?”

He stopped and looked at the ground, his feet sinking into the sand. “I can’t stand ugliness. I can’t stand the sight of an Oiler who can’t see his shoes ’cuz his stomach’s too big, who spends his days eating imported shit ’cuz he’s ruined his own land. I can’t stand the sight of dead plants. I miss birds singing in the trees, Henrietta.”

“Well you won’t hear any birds here,” said Henrietta.

Later, she woke in her tent in the night. A traumatic memory was playing inside her, like a film that’s frozen, with the image stuttering,:the image of Arty in his shed, with his stained singlet and mozzarella stomach; Arty’s lips dribbling with saliva. She felt sick to her core, but she must not think about it. Must not!

There was a bird singing somewhere; harsh and not very melodious, but a bird nonetheless. You stupid woman, she told herself. You always think you have the smart answer, the quick answer. And you do. You have the quick answer, but it’s wrong.

Go to Part 5 here
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Click here for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The Bones – Part 5

3 Oct

desert sky

8.

In his very own reptilian way, Arty Simpleton idly hung around for a few days, though he did take a few circumspect walks past Wyre’s house. Arty had checked to see how long his bodily fluids remained valid as evidential material, and once this period had passed without any mishaps, he called the police to report a case of assault against an “honest oiler” – which some might consider an oxymoronic phrase, or at least moronic.

On one occasion, Arty was even overtaken by something he described to himself as “me gettin’ poetical,” which was highfalutin’ stuff for a Simpleton. He set off into the desert for a few miles, following the faint tracks of Wyre’s vehicle. He could see they’d brought the trailer, which must also mean that Wyre had loaded his camels. Wyre had never been a normal guy. He was born of bad stock, and this was clearer than ever to Arty as he reached the end of the tracks, where they’d been erased by the wind. There was a huge smooth bowl of sand in front of him, stretching five or six miles across, and when he raised his binoculars and scoured the other side of the valley he could see the tracks again, zigzagging up a slope.

Where the hell was the crazy bastard going? Didn’t he understand he could never come back now? To Arty’s mind, there was no possible way of understanding what Wyre wanted; where his motivations lay.

The fool had walked away from a perfectly good oil well that might have sustained him all his life until it was time to join the others in the cemetery.

Wincing, Arty touched his ears and felt the jagged stitches that, he knew, would mark him for life. All for the sake of a vicious, cheap bitch who’d come up here to cause trouble, stirring up honest men with her questions.

Wyre used to be a good guy, but he’d given it all up. That’s how he was, it had been just the same way with Daisy Lopez, Wyre had picked her over his pals. For the sake of a woman, he’d lost out on good long days drinking beer, sitting around smoking cigars and shooting the shit with good decent Oilers who were a part of this land, who had created it and were the masters of every hill, every depression.

Sure, Wyre was a bitter man, and Arty could appreciate that; a man likes to feel his bunch of noodles swinging between his legs, that’s one of the pleasures of being alive, right? And sure, Wyre was still sore about what happened that night when they drove into the metal spike in the cemetery. Arty’s idea had been to make skid-marks on the graves and create a damn mess in there; why not, those folks were all dead anyway, what difference would it make?

Wyre had agreed to the idea, he’d said they should make contact with the “democracy of spirits,” that’s the very phrase he had used, although Arty did not make much sense of it then and not now either.

But there was no point Arty blaming himself, he’d figured back then. Wyre had to have a sense of humor about it, he’d been in on it, he hadn’t made any beef about mincing up the cemetery with the truck. He couldn’t come whining about it later, just because a piece of railway track had pierced the door and gone into his crown jewels, no sir, that’s not how things worked, you had to have some principles about who was guilty of things and who wasn’t. An honest mistake, you had to forgive an honest mistake.

Oilers might not be pretty, but they were straight-shooters and they minded their own business, and they weren’t smart-asses either like the journalist. She’d got precisely what she had coming to her, Arty figured. Blaming him for it would be like blaming the wind for blowing down your house, that’s what the wind does, it blows and causes mayhem, that’s its job; and in just the same way Arty was here to hold up the flag of Oilers everywhere, who did not want a lot of fools showing up to write about the truth like it was a pound of butter; pretend there was something to say, ’cuz there was nothing really, nothing worth mentioning.

He turned back and followed his own tracks back to Oil Town.  There was a six-pack of Colas in his freezer-bag, and he drank a couple of cans to lighten the load, flinging them down in the sand as he went.

The sun was at its highest point now; sitting right over his head.

When he saw Oil Town coming into view he grew aware of Wyre’s house at the edge like a sort of eyesore with those apple-tree stumps he’d always refused to cut down, even though the other Oilers were irritated by them and felt he should show some consideration.

Arty saw his own four-wheel drive parked up where he’d left it.

An idea came to him, and ideas were rare, ideas should be respected, even if they were dangerous. The fact was, there had been a rupture here, something had been broken that could never be healed. Might as well accept it, might as well go along with it and take extreme measures to ensure the rift was permanent.

It was time for Wyre to start paying reparations for what he’d done.

Arty got into his pick-up truck and bumped across open land, parking it up in the shadow of a steep dune. He got out and took a petrol-drive angle grinder from the back. It wasn’t perfect for the job, but these days there wasn’t much sense carrying a chainsaw around, there wasn’t any wood left.

He walked up the path to Wyre’s house and calmly sawed down the apple-tree stumps. It was a tough job, the wood had grown skeletal and hard and the angle grinder would not cut all the way through. In the end he had to use his car to snap the partially sawed-through trunks, which fell without a sound, obliterating the last vestiges of Jeremiah, the slave bastard who had caused such trouble here by planting his outlandish seed among the Oilers, his cussed progeny still protesting against common sense; because the good Lord had deprived one miserable man of his reproductive organs, which were most likely pretty inconsequential anyway, besides there weren’t many women round these parts.

After dragging the trunks into the back of his truck, which was another sweaty job, Arty fanned himself in the cab with the air conditioning on full blast.

He’d use those damned trunks for another extension, and he’d tell himself every time he looked at it that Wyre had caused all his own troubles. Fucking brain-twister, nerve-sawing weevil.

Arty sat for a while looking at the house, the house Jeremiah built. There was something annoying about it, something pretentious about all those carvings and homely eaves. The man had been a goddamn slave, a brute taken out of Africa, and he thought he could come here and build himself a pretty little cottage fit for Abraham Lincoln, did he? Why didn’t he just get himself some corrugated iron like the rest of them and make himself a shack and come down to the bar like any other man, and be one of them? Did he think he was so much better than them, with his books and fake learning and airs and graces?

Arty got a can of petrol from the back seat and walked up to the house. It was easy as hell kicking the door in and books made perfect kindling. He doused them in petrol, then moved on to the floorboards and anything else he took a fancy to. Just before he walked out to put a match to it, he took a fancy to a small sculpture of a squirrel, which he put inside his jacket. A keepsake.

He made a trail of petrol onto the front steps and then lit it, watching the flames (almost invisible in the midday sun) sliding into the house and expanding with a shocked boom. Smoke rose up almost at once; the place had been drying under the sun for almost two hundred and fifty years, but it was incinerated in minutes.

The world wasn’t pretty, but what was a man supposed to do?

With a grim scowl, Arty turned back to his pick-up. The Oilers would slap him on the back tonight. Congratulate him. He’d done the right thing.

Go to Part 6 here
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

In Memoriam, Ingmar Bergman

2 Oct
(The opening story from my collection of shorts, “Love Doesn’t Work”.)

Ingmar Bergman called me back after I left him a message about the flooded bathroom. I asked him to come at about three o’clock.
“How much do you charge per hour?” I said.
“175 crowns. Not too bad for a genius.”
“I don’t need a genius. I need a plumber.”
“Don’t you worry. I understand the realities of the situation better than most.”
I didn’t like employing Ingmar Bergmans for this kind of thing, but what the hell were you supposed to do? Normal plumbers cost a lot more, and since my retirement I had to think about such things. Also you got a bit of conversation out of it. Ingmar Bergmans liked to talk. I didn’t speak Polish or Czech and I liked to hear a bit of Swedish now and then. Was that a crime?
He didn’t arrive until twenty to four, and when he walked in he didn’t even have the decency to apologize. Instead I got a moronic smile and an embarrassed shrug. “You know how it is,” he said.
“I’m sorry to say I don’t.”
“Well you wouldn’t, would you? You’re not an artist.”
He got started. It was a dirty job, a blocked exit pipe from the water closet, but he worked without complaint. I waited until he’d broken the hog’s back, then asked him into the parlor for a cup of coffee.
“I don’t really have time,” he said, “but you want a chat, I suppose…?”
“Wash your hands please, Ingmar,” I said.
Afterward, we sat on my late grandmother’s best sofa with one of her lace tablecloths on the table, eating home-baked cinnamon buns baked to her recipe. Ingmar folded his hands in his lap.
“I guess you want to talk about film?” he said with disguised relish.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“Just because I’m an Ingmar Bergman doesn’t mean we have to talk about film.”
“But you’re a genius film director. Everyone knows that.”
“Listen to me,” he said sharply. And then he went through everything I already knew.
In 2010 the Swedish Film Institute held a meeting to discuss the international crisis in Swedish film. There was no lack of directors in Sweden, but the quality was simply not there, just an endless parade of trendy young video dwarfs, beer-gutted monstrosities with plasticized wives, stuttering illiterates and self-glorifying mediocrity all over the place. Swedish films had begun to lose that ubiquitous Scandinavian feeling. Winter light. Snow glistening under the fir trees. A shoreline in Gotland where big waves roll in while a bearded man stands reflecting on his life. In flashback. Norwegian fjord ponies with bells, burning torches on the sleighs, packs of wolves with lolling tongues, a peasant deflowering a goat in a byre, a girl with a basket picking blueberries in a dark forest, an old pastor in the sacristy snatching a quick glass of rye before Christmas Mass.
All this was on the verge of being lost forever.
Meanwhile, the people in the streets were ingesting hamburgers and flocking to see second-rate American films full of guns, drugs and decadent sex. Men no longer said, “Miss Nyström looks very pretty today.” They said, “Lena, you’re looking horny. Fancy a tumble?”
And because of this the world had certainly become a worse place.

There was a stark realization at the Swedish Film Institute that radical measures were needed. Ingmar Bergman was called in, or rather, they grovelled and begged until given an audience at his home on Fårö.
Mr. Bergman was by then very advanced in years, tottering about with a stick. His mysterious eyes twinkled at the Film Institute Committee as he waited for them to speak. The Committee made a suggestion; Ingmar Bergman’s face flushed with pride when he realized the implications. This was the masterstroke. His vision would dominate the Scandinavian millennium.
Slowly the words came stumbling over his dried lips: “I am Sweden.”
And with this he allowed the doctors to take samples of his stem cells.
The Committee later brought these cells to Stockholm, where two hundred and fifty Ingmar Bergman clones were produced, then released like hungry lions among a herd of cud-chewing cattle.
Problems were evident almost from the very beginning.
The main problem, as the plumber suggested, was the diminutive size of the Swedish film industry. There wasn’t room for two hundred and fifty geniuses on the playing field. A couple of Ingmar Bergmans ended up in California. One of them became a porn film director, but later shot himself. Another one set up a bakery and made large sums of money selling Swedish sweet buns stuffed with whipped cream and marzipan to the discerning customers of Beverly Hills. Later he was arrested for poisoning a number of celebrated network stars.
In Sweden, there was a bloodbath. Twenty-six Ingmar Bergmans disappeared. Several were found floating in the Baltic. One was later located in an ashram in Madhya Pradesh. A few ended up working in the Russian oil industry as drill platform operators, one was found cut into small pieces in a bin-liner in Malmö. Around fifty of the Ingmar Bergmans were detained in psychiatric hospitals, for which the government at once demanded compensation from the Swedish Film Institute. One Ingmar Bergman became the Chief Executive of the West Coast Fishermen’s Federation, and disavowed any further interest in filmmaking.
Between those Ingmar Bergman clones that did venture into the film industry, there was internecine competition.
One Ingmar Bergman raised the necessary finance to make a film about a man involved in an extramarital affair with his own cousin. The set-up of the story was that the cousin had saved him from drowning when he was twelve years old. Ever after, the man lived with a terrible, phobic horror of water which made it difficult for him to take a shower. His wife—an evil, wart-speckled hag—hated him and refused even to sleep in the same room. Only his cousin could bring him out of these deep wells of panic and into the light. This lovely, suffering woman spent hours soothing him before he would enter the bathroom. Only with his cousin could he maintain his bodily hygiene while at the same time enjoying the fruits of a sexual relationship, albeit one that was considered taboo in society. His wife felt ill-used, maybe even justifiably so, yet this did not excuse her argumentative, angst-ridden behavior.
Two days before commencement of principal photography, Ingmar Bergman was run over by a tram.
Another Ingmar Bergman wanted to make a film about a woman who heard voices. Her psychologist was initially convinced that she was suffering from paranoid delusions, but in the course of their therapeutic sessions it gradually dawned on him that she was communing with his forefathers. Specifically, she was in contact with his ascetic great-great-grandfather, who repeatedly ordered him to stop working as a therapist and take up his true vocation as a wandering lay preacher.
This Ingmar Bergman was also killed, when a light plane flew into his house. The pilot was not an Ingmar Bergman, just an ordinary film director whose career lay in ruins.
One Ingmar Bergman stood out as a man of leadership, a quality the others lacked. He gathered a group of twenty Ingmar Bergmans around him, controlled their creative drives with a Proustian ferocity and forced them under oath and contract to work up his plot-lines into finished manuscripts. From time to time one of them disappeared, usually after creative differences or some brazen attempt to go ahead with a solo project.
The national media blustered and heckled about murder and corruption at the heart of Sweden’s film industry, but its journalists were silenced with bribes or bullets. The Swedish film miracle was once again up-and-running, introducing the world to a new filmic genre, the so-called “death rattle,” characterized by the presence of a dying person, usually a retired/semi-retired priest or schoolteacher reflecting on his/her life and reaching an insight that sparks a crisis. In many cases the resolution of this crisis hinges on the necessity of a reconciliation with a long-lost son/daughter. This long-lost person is travelling as fast as he/she can, in order to speak to the dying protagonist before he/she expires. Frequently this journey takes the form of a frantic chase on horseback—occasionally a sleigh with burning torches, occasionally a pack of wolves/bears/lynxes in pursuit, occasionally a blunderbuss used to dispatch a number of these wolves/bears/lynxes—through deep, almost impassable snow. On a couple of occasions, several Ingmar Bergmans used the device of an epic long-distance terrain-skating journey across a vast frozen lake inhabited by large, aggressive elk. In some cases this person, whether a friend/ex-lover/son/daughter, arrives too late to be enlightened by the last words muttered from the dying person’s lips. In other cases, when the loved one does finally arrive, there is a further misunderstanding prompting the loved one to storm out of the house, leaving the dying person to bitterly contemplate an eternity of antagonism and unfulfilled love.
Audiences were thus obliged to endure the bittersweet reality of misinformed love, a truth destined never to be known outside the reality of the film. Ultimately the audience always turned round and looked at the cinema fire exits glowing in the dark, knowing they were now irretrievably lost, destined never again to enter the codex.
In fact, everywhere there were critics writing about Swedish cinema—“An almost Oriental purity of style and vision…” Or “Melodrama married through sparse visionary unity with the Japanese haiku form…”
Cinema audiences grew knowledgeable about every departure from the rules of the genre. There were sighs and irritated coughs every time a lesser Bergman attempted to innovate or depart from the established formats laid down by the greater Ingmar Bergmans.
For instance, one Ingmar Bergman, a member of the powerful “Script IB Group,” tried to introduce a new dramaturgy in which a dying priest suddenly revives and establishes a loving relationship with his long-lost child.
Having thus displayed his poor judgment, this individual suddenly broke his sternum and was forced to retire from the film business.
After delivering his long-winded explanation, most of which I already knew and have more or less paraphrased here, Ingmar Bergman, my plumber, helped himself to a second cinnamon roll. Shaking with emotion, he chewed it intensely until it was a mere lump of dough in his throat, suitable only for swallowing and disposing of in the nether heartlands of his stomach, then his greater intestine.
I leaned forward and whispered: “If the chance presented itself, would you want to make a film of your own?”
Ingmar Bergman smiled coolly and focused his sad eyes on me. “My dear fellow, you must be utterly deranged! Do you really believe I would volunteer such information to you, a mere pensioner?”
Then it happened, that weird thing I am still sitting here wondering about. Should I have reported him to the Film Institute for recidivist behavior? After all, he had no license to indulge in creative activities.
Had I done so, I might have saved his life!
Ingmar Bergman got out a little camera and before I knew it, he had taken a photo of me. Then he stood up and said, “I always photograph my clients. I’m assembling an enormous photo-collage composed of all these portraits.”
“Whatever for?”
“If you stand at a good distance, you can see it’s a self-portrait of me. I am using your identity to fashion a likeness of myself, because that is what we all do, my friend.”
I was puzzled. Bergmans can be so puzzling. “So what’s the meaning of it? This self-portrait?”
He smiled patiently. “If one has an ego, if one is a genius as I decidedly am, one has to do what one has to do. It has fallen to me to spend my life, indeed to waste my life, as a plumber. On the other hand I have no doubt that I would similarly feel I had squandered my years had I worked as a film director. All things are vain and meaningless except Art, and all attempts at making Art are doomed to fail.”
“It makes me glad I’m not an artist myself.”
“Indeed. Before I die I must have a finished portrait of myself, or my life will have been something worse than wasted. It will have been a lie!” He gestured dramatically in the air. “Ingmar Bergman, plumber! A simulacrum of my existence, made up of its constituents, the clients whose lives I have played a part in, whose pipes I have cut and soldered. Do you understand?”
“I have to confess, I don’t.”
“Ah well, how could you? You’re not an Ingmar Bergman, as I am…”
With this, he stood up to leave. I paid him thirty-five pounds in cash.

Soon after, I read in the newspaper that he had been gored to death by an elk whilst picking blueberries in Gotland, where he had gone to visit a dying relative and do a bit of skating. Remarkably, the police found no evidence of foul play in his death, although they did concede that the elk had misbehaved. The Swedish Film Institute issued a mendacious statement in which reference was made to his “honorable life spent faithfully serving as a member of the plumbing fraternity,” while also calling attention to “the remarkable, visceral similarities in the manner of his passing to those depicted in countless numbers of Swedish films made by his beloved relatives.”
I threw away the newspaper.
I am now waiting to die myself. I must confess, I am sickened by the corruption of the world. How many hours, how many days have I sat here contemplating the meaning of Ingmar Bergman’s life? Slowly, the dim, mysterious words he imparted to me have lost their veil. I have stepped into the clear light of his purpose. If only I could have seen his photo-collage. I might then have understood his need to express himself in sculpted light.
Yet any half-sane person would surely ask himself why a photo-collage should be so important? Why does it really matter?

Two months after the news of his death, the toilet was blocked once again.
This time I paid for a proper plumber, who arrived on time. Unlike my Bergman, he didn’t have time for coffee. As soon as he’d sorted out the problem, he muttered some sort of goodbye in a heavy accent, and left without another word.
I stood in the window and watched him pack his tools into the back of his van. It occurred to me that, in one sense, he was an even greater mystery than Ingmar Bergman. There are people in this world who do not say very much, who have no avowed purpose other than putting bread on the table as efficiently as possible.

Had I been born an Ingmar Bergman I would have made a film about them.

 

“Love Doesn’t Work” is available as a paperback or eBook direct from Dzanc Books or from online book retailers.

The Bones – Part 3

30 Sep

bar

4.

Some people always have to give you the run-around. They reveal a few things, then back off, gloat at you, tell you it’s meaningless anyway.

It’s a way of making themselves feel important.

People want to be cornerstones – not stepping-stones. But when you think about it, what’s a house without a staircase? You’d be better off not building it in the first place.

The life of a journalist is a misery from start to finish. You go out there to get the story, but the story grows and in the end it’s bigger than you; it would take your whole life to tell it properly, the way it deserves.

And that’s why she always ended up telling her editor she needed time off. She had to cool her heated mind, she had to immerse herself in silence, sit in the moonlight for a few weeks, let her thoughts settle back into some kind of fermenting harmony. And smoke good cigars.

Wyre was right, it was like a barrel of maturing whisky. The men she’d had were all bad, one of them had been toxic, and her instinctual drives were all enemies that came whispering in the night; enemies such as the myth of the child, the myth of the milk in her breast, the tinkling waters of the river, the oasis, the soft bed guarded by a fierce man who loved her.

Lies. All lies.

Henrietta had never got the distillation process right.

The whisky came out smelling like an old shoe.

Later, she went to a small boarding hotel and asked if she could pay for a shower. The gummy man behind the counter grinned as if it was funny and took her money, but when she turned on the shower and stood there trying to clean herself, the water came out all grimy and full of small globules of black tar, which melted against her skin and left her sooty as a chimney-sweep. She dried herself, went back and roared at the old man, then went back to the camper van and wiped herself down with wet tissues.

Afterwards, while smoking a cigar outside, she decided that when investigating a town of shits, one had to go to the stomach sack and greater intestine, where the shit was made.

5.

She saw Arty Simpleton as soon as she stepped into the bar that evening. He was unmistakable. What was it Wyre had called him? A tub of blubber with pork-fat eyes?

It wasn’t a bad description.

He was sitting on a tall stool at the bar, apparently engrossed in conversation with the barman, but not so engrossed that he stopped himself from turning round and giving her an invasive stare.

She ignored him and ordered a cranberry vodka. The barman was vaguely hostile, everyone in there was hostile and they were all men.

She couldn’t help turning her head slightly, and shooting out, in her best New York voice: “If you have something on your mind, buddy, keep it to yourself.” It was a good ploy, she had found. If you really wanted someone to talk, the first thing you had to do was tell them to shut up.

Arty did not wait long to open his ugly mouth: “Oh, not much, thanks. I’m not big on unpacking myself, and I don’t go to other folks’ homes and make them unpack themselves, either. I have some scrupulosity about that…”

“Fine with me, I only came for the truth.”

“Yeah,” said Arty Simpleton. “The truth about nothing.”

“An empty cemetery? You call that nothing?”

She let the cold vodka dribble down her throat, and momentarily enjoyed the feeling of watching him squirm on the end of her skewer. But she had not figured on the way his rampant stupidity rose up like a one-armed zombie. “A few old bones, who gives a damn about ’em? If all I can say in two hundred years is ‘Hey, these are my bones and you better go to my grave every week and holler out your prayers’ – then fuck me what a sad man I’ll be. ’Cuz when you gone you gone. See?”

Arty nodded at the barman, who brought him another large hot chocolate smothered in clumps of whipped cream. “I don’t drink, lady. And I ain’t no Muslim. That’s a double negative.” He burst into strenuous laughter. No one else in the bar made a sound, though she heard a chair scraping in a corner and a drawling voice: “Shut the fuck up, Arty…” After that, the bar went back to its usual state, which was rather like the recovery room of a psychiatric ward, where the patients were brought to recuperate after their hysterical outbursts had passed.

She decided to change tack, for the moment. “What about the robberies?” she said. “You issued a statement in the local press.”

“You bet,” said Arty.

“I was confused by it,” she said, deviously. “On the one hand you’re saying to any robbers out there that if they come back you’re all willing to fall on your swords rather than hand your money over. That’s passivity, in my book, Mr. Simpleton. But on the other hand, you’re telling them you’ve bought enough weapons to start a small war…”

Arty stood up and his stool scraped agonizingly against the floor. “Come on guys, let’s show her the real story!”

A couple of semi-intoxicated amalgamations of dirt held up by their trousers stood up and flustered along beside Arty and Henrietta, as they went to a door at the back. Arty flung it open with some pride and flicked on the lights.

Inside was a long gun rack studded with carbines, pump-action shotguns and semi-automatics; even a long sniper’s rifle.

There was a long exhalation from the Oilers, as if they were looking at their pride and joy, which in a real sense they were. Guns were like jewels to them or chronograph watches, intricately made; precious status symbols.

The colour had risen into the congealed fat of Arty’s cheeks. “We got night patrols set up.”

“And day patrols too, right Arty?” someone added in a squeaky voice.

“Night, day, noon, you name it,” said Arty. “Any robbers come out here again we’ll blow ‘em away.”

“So you all got together and paid for this? To protect yourselves…”

“You bet we did,” said Arty, flicking the lights off again and closing the door.

Henrietta sat down and waited for him to recompose himself before she threw another pebble into the pool.

“Let me get this right…you buy guns and even go out on patrol to protect your property. But someone comes in the dead of night and digs up your cemetery and steals the bones…the bones of your fathers and mothers…and all you have to say about it is ‘fuck that’ and ‘nothing happened.’ Am I right?”

“That’s right,” said Arty Simpleton, slurping his whipped cream. “You know what I do, lady? I drill oil and I tap it and I salt my money away, that’s what I’m about…”

“Okay, that’s understandable,” said Henrietta. “You don’t care about your ancestors, but what about your kids? What are they going to do in this place after you’ve gone, what are you leaving them?”

“Well I’m leaving them a shitload of dough to start off!” said Arty, slamming down his cup. “We Simpletons have been in this place for five hundred years, lady, so don’t you come here telling me I don’t care about my ancestors, though I tell you I do not care a barrel-pin for a sack of old bones…”

He stared into the gnarled wood of the bar, then added laconically: “Anyways, what fucking kids you talking about? Ain’t no fucking kids round here last time I looked, all I got is a nephew and he’s lucky enough not to be born here.”

“So Oil Town’s not such a great place, then?”

His red-rimmed eyes grew heated. “Oil Town is the best fucking spot on earth! I wouldn’t change it for nothing!”

“The heat, the desert, the flying sand…the lovely filthy water…you love it all, do you?”

“That’s right. It’s my home; I love it.”

Henrietta smiled, filling up with pity. “Oh you’re a sorry collection of instincts, aren’t you, Mr. Simpleton?”

“Now hear me good, lady journalist. You think you have something to say about a place you know nothing about? You think by writing it down it’ll change anything?”

She thought about it. “Yes. In the long run.”

“Oh, Jesus, in the long run we’re all dead. And then some asshole comes and takes your bones. Just so you’re clear about it, if I saw the folks what did this I’d take my gun off the wall and have a pot-shot at them ’cuz they deserve nothing but lead. But I won’t see ’em because they take care I don’t. And I’m not going to let them take my composure from me, ’cuz bones ain’t my core area. I’m a driller and an oiler and that’s all that counts for me. Anything else is decoration.”

Henrietta felt, for the first time, a sort of despondency creeping into her system; an area of glum darkness with a whispering voice inside it, telling her it was all futile. These men are right, said the voice. Everything is gone, everything is broken, nothing can ever be whole again, nothing works and nothing ever will work.

She sat on her stool, breathing the glutinous air with difficulty.

“Hey Arty,” someone piped up from a table at the back. “You gonna tell her about the spruce-jumpin’?”

“No,” said Arty. “No I ain’t gonna tell her.”

“Tell her, Arty, or I’ll tell her,” said the barman.

Arty seemed to waver, or maybe it was just the hot chocolate and cream making him oozy and pliant. “Go ahead, I’m not stopping you, if you want to talk about stuff that don’t make no difference no more.”

The barman’s face split into a big grin and then, while wiping glasses and bustling about, he started talking. “You know, lady, this guy here, Arty, he got the mind of a true original. He don’t care about a thing, not even his own skin, and he won’t stop at nothing to prove a point.”

Henrietta tried to show interest, but her mind was swaying.

“Why is that?” she said.

“Oh ’cuz he used to stand on a tall rock and jump off into some trees and catch hold of a branch and then hang there like a damned tree-rat twenty metres off the ground. Know what I’m saying? And he did it for dares, he did it to prove stuff.”

“Once he jumped to prove to Daisy Lopez that he loved her.”

“Shut the fuck up about that!” said Arty, his face turning livid.

“I already know about it, Wyre told me,” said Henrietta, who knew the only way to get one’s story was to stir up the hornet’s nest.

“I’m not saying nothing about Daisy Lopez. She’s history…”

The bar was jumping now. Everyone was laughing, tears running down their cheeks. Some were banging their tankards against the tables. This was a highly specific kind of steam-letting going on, she knew. Depressed people used laughter to let out their anger and disappointment, and nothing could be sadder than the sound of a roomful of broken souls.

Henrietta’s head was spinning terribly now. She wondered what kind of screwy vodka this was.

The barman’s poison-ivy face loomed close again. “We can’t do the spruce-jumpin’ no more, ‘cos they cut down the trees forty years ago or more. They’re gone…like Daisy Lopez.”

The laughter intensified.

The barman continued.

“The timbers ain’t all bad. I used them for roof-beams on my extension, and every time I look at them I think of Arty here, he was still a slim stripling in those days, fit as a bug he was, you should have seen him throw himself off. Hey Arty, you should have joined the army and killed yourself some Chinese, you would have made a General for sure and then you’d have yourself a nice little wife who appreciated your killing ways and your pot of gold and garden full of grass and Oil Town wouldn’t have been in your compass, you know…you’d be free of it…free, know what I’m saying, man? There’d be grass under your feet and cold water to drink without no fucking ice machine…”

Henrietta had a final lucid moment.

She saw the barman standing before her, his shoulders hunched up to his ears, wiping his glass so energetically that it broke in his hands and sliced his thumb open.

The bar went silent again, as he wiped a rag round the gash, cursing as he did so.

“I don’t fucking care about no goddamn grass under my feet. I’m wearing my fucking boots anyways,” said Arty. “What fucking difference does it make?”

And then Henrietta passed out.

 

Go to Part 4 here
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Click here for Part 1, Part 2,

 

The Bones – Part 2

17 Sep

2.
The Oilers were shocked when they heard that Wyre had gone to the foreign journalist to spill himself. It was like him, of course, he was a turncoat and loser whose family had never played by the book, which admittedly was hard in Oil Town because there was no book. The most effective laws, the Oilers knew tacitly, were those that had never been written down, and therefore lodged in the system like an evil solvent, building up in people’s fleshy gizzards. Those things weren’t really laws, they were principles. Most of the Oilers believed that Wyre’s origins were cussed from the very start – Oil Town was obsessed by bad genes, a more popular topic than the weather or football scores.
His great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Jeremiah, a freed slave, had been given a small freehold by a grateful employer, whose daughter he’d saved from drowning. On this patch of land he built with his own two strong arms a solid wooden cabin with two rooms on the bottom and one on top under the slanted roof-beams; and good windows with carved splash-boards and a pretty efficient-looking roof with copper drainpipes that still worked fine. He also extended an already fairly decent apple-orchard, and was known for his fizzy cider which he sold in earthenware pots.

But he kept himself to himself, sat around smoking his pipe and reading books. Books! He worked less and less, of course, they all did. Once the oil boom started up and he drilled in his hay meadow and found rock like tarred sponge, he had enough to keep him in food, clothes, candles, books and anything else he wanted.

The apple trees grew tall and bushy, then dry and diseased. Finally, a hundred years later, they were felled by his great-grandson Richard, who was a keen wood-carver. The house was still filled with his sculptures of eagles, foxes and wash-bears.

Wyre was just the same as his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather – the same obstinacy, the same dogged reluctance to belong. His beard fluttered in the breeze like trailing lichens. He always had a cigar in his mouth, and where the smoke rose there was a brown streak of nicotine that had dyed his facial hair from the corner of his mouth across his cheek.

Wyre did not shower very much, none of the Oilers did. The water had largely dried up and most of it was contaminated with oil. You came out of the bathroom filthier than when you went in.

To be honest, Henrietta hadn’t been too taken with Wyre either, when he first showed up.

The dirt on him was mythical in proportion, even the smell had scared itself away. His skin lay folded like yellow leather over his misshapen skeleton.

When he came back the following morning she liked him better, reminding herself that most truly unpleasant people make a very good first impression – unless they’re thugs. Wyre was not unpleasant and not a thug either. He was just bloody ugly. But his eyes were alive and darting, with a whiff of humor.

He waited outside without knocking; it must have been about nine thirty in the morning, which is a civil hour. She was making a cup of tea when she felt the rich smell of a really good Havana coming in through the window.

It made her happy. Henrietta was a lover of the brown weed, and she was glad someone else was too.

“Morning.” She stuck her head out of the door, and the moment hit her; the moment when her undertaking crystallized. “So you came back, I wasn’t sure you would.”

“You smoke.” It wasn’t a question. He offered her a hand-rolled magic wand, encapsulated forest, sun and rain.

“Thanks.” She sat down and lit it. “So..?”

“You asked about the bone people.”

“And you know where I can find them?” she said, continuing last night’s conversation where it left off.

Wyre looked flustered, and his way of showing it was a flurry of puffing on the cigar. Finally he sank back in his deckchair. “That’s what I came to tell you. No one knows where to find them. But I know they are there, that’s what I came to tell you. I know they are there.”

“Where?”

His smile was like someone who has lost everything, and was now reconciled to his wistful soul. “Yes, where?”

Henrietta was not impressed. “That’s all you know?”

Wyre pointed indistinctly at the rolling sands. “I can tell you they’re out there…somewhere. And that’s all I know.”

“You don’t know a lot, then.”

“No. I don’t know a lot. Do you?”

Henrietta thought about it. “I don’t know a damned thing…”

A few weeks earlier she had woken as always in her metal bed by the window, and parted the curtains to look out at the city waking up, the flatulent buses, the intensifying streets, an ant-hill stirred with a stick; ruminating clouds hanging motionless above.

She had felt tired of the view; of the perspective, in fact.

This was also the slant she put on it when she spoke to Andy, her editor at the newspaper. “I need to see something new,” she told him. “I can’t just hang about here all the time.”

“It’s what everyone else does, Henry,” Andy told her, standing wide-legged before her, fiddling with his colorful braces.

“Yeah but I’m not like them,” Henrietta said. “I can’t make a life out of trying a new Chinese restaurant, or…you know…going for a blind date with a well-hung Ukrainian.”

Andy grinned. “So what’s your big idea this time?” He sat down in his revolving chair and put his feet on his desk, because that was what newspaper editors did, apparently to demonstrate their complete disregard for hygienic recommendations.

“I want to go out to the Oil Basin.”

Now Andy was looking perplexed. “There’s nothing going on out there. I thought you had something interesting in mind.”

She walked up to the big plate glass window and looked down twenty-three storeys to street level, as always with a flashing image in her mind of an aircraft flying right into them, forcing her to jump, flailing her arms and falling, falling…

She recomposed herself. “I’ve heard rumors of natives out there, in the desert. Bone people, they call them.”

“Oh give me a break! Give me an honest story, Henry, go to Scotland, drink lots of Scotch and write me a piece on the Loch Ness Monster.”

“They come into the towns at night and dig up the graves.” She turned round and glared at him. “They take the bones.”

“Even if it’s true…so what?”

“I don’t know if it’s true,” said Henrietta.

Andy shrugged, and then, knowing there was no changing her mind and anyway Henry was the best reporter he’d ever had, added: “When are you leaving?”

She checked her watch, spun round and on the way out called over her shoulder: “I’m already gone.”

The only sort of job Henrietta could hold down was one you could walk out of – anytime you liked.

After they had finished their cigars and drunk two more cups of coffee and eaten a couple of blueberry muffins which she’d brought in a tin from the city, Wyre showed her the cemetery.

There wasn’t much to see, just a ragged line of razor wire partially buried under a bank of sand, which had built up along the fence-posts.

Inside, on account of the sand, they did not use headstones any more, and anyway – at least the way Henrietta saw it – the idea of putting those people’s names there seemed vainglorious. Once they died you were better off forgetting them; all they’d ever done was ooze argumentatively in their chairs, chomping on their burgers and filling the air with intestinal gas whilst issuing their stinking words, usually something to the effect of how such and such a person should be shot and another strung up; occasionally if a politician threatened to raise the taxes they’d howl in protest. Such people were best thrown into the ground and covered up, like landfill.

To mark the graves, the sexton or whoever did the job, drove long pieces of metal into the ground – old pieces of railway track, for the trains had long since gone, just like the trees. And metal was cheaper than wood.

Wyre stopped and lit another cigar. “The only advantage of the desert,” he said with a wink, “is you can’t set fire to it.”

Henrietta was already bored by the cemetery, which was non-descript to the point of derision. “There’s nothing here.”

“Yeah. That’s the whole point,” said Wyre. “Someone dug up the bodies and took them away.” He pointed to a recently erected mound, planted with a few wilting bushes. “They left the heads, the feet and the hands in a pile. We put a guard on the place. But whoever came here only came once and made sure they took what they needed. If you’re going to break the law, do it once. Don’t be a recidivist.”

Henrietta reacted to his use of that word, recidivist, and looked at him with curiosity. “Where did you go to school, Wyre?”

“We don’t have schools here, we have a building with a teacher and some students sitting there, but they make sure no one learns anything. I stayed at home and read books.”

They stood in silence, gazing at the bleak scene, buffeted by a blast-furnace wind.

“They must have come up here in the night when it was stormy, so no one heard them. We figure they left with no less than two hundred skeletons and corpses,” said Wyre, with a mischievous grin.

“Why would they do that? Who are they?” Her eyes narrowed analytically, but they collided with his fuzzed, yellow pupils, which seemed almost naïve in their simplicity.

“Now you’re asking me things. Lots of people ask things but there ain’t no point if you don’t have answers.” He puffed, keeping his eyes on her. “That’s what people do. They ask. But they never bother finding out.”

3.

There’s only so much you can do in a cemetery. You kick through the leaves on the ground, except here there were no leaves, not even any twigs.

From time to time Henrietta stopped and perused some dusty bunch of plastic flowers. The custom here seemed to be to tie a couple of pastel-coloured roses to the iron posts, where they dangled in the wind and wore themselves ragged.

For the most part, there were only pieces of frayed plastic left.

Oblivion dwelled out there in the desert, it blew in and filled people’s minds, drove them not to madness but insignificance.

Wyre followed her at a discreet distance and eventually, when he felt she had finished snooping about, spoke out: “That’s my house you see down there.” He pointed.

She saw a roof scarcely visible across the dunes. Like all the other Oilers, Wyre kept a bulldozer parked outside, to clear the sand after a blow.

Lazy people had steep dunes round their houses; they didn’t bother to flatten out the sand, just pushed it away until it started building up. Once every few months they paid a heavy-duty guy to bring a big machine and do the job. That was why, in the local dialect, a “sand-topper” was someone who did no work.

Wyre’s garden was reasonably clear, owing, he explained, to a rise in the ground onto the prevailing wind, which diverted the sand. As they walked up to the house, Henrietta noticed a few skeletal tree trunks, flanking the path in straight rows. They made an eerie impression on her. “Apple trees,” he told her, “at least that’s what they used to be…planted by my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather…I should cut them down, but I like to remember things, even things I never saw.”

When they stood before the sunken, wooden house with its grey, sun-bleached timbered walls and carved gables, she looked at him and said: “Are you the kind of guy who invites women back to his house and rapes them?” As soon as the words came out of her mouth she wondered at herself, wondered why she always had to be such a crazy bitch? Wyre didn’t take offence, in fact he hardly blinked. “I’m not, but some of the others might. You can’t rely on people here.”

“So why the hell should I trust you, then?”

He shrugged. “If you don’t want to, don’t.” Then went inside.

She followed him, of course, because once you pick up a piece of string you have to figure out how long it is and where it ends. And as soon as she stepped over the threshold she was reassured by his house, which was far neater and more homely, somehow, than the man himself.

There were plants everywhere, plants carefully tended and scarcely alive in spite of it, half-wilted and shriveled.

“These could do with some water.”

“Yeah.” He rolled his eyes. “Thanks, I know. I do what I can for them but it’s never enough. People like to drink oil, but plants don’t.”

They sat down in the main room, which was lined with deformed paperbacks, all at least a hundred and many two hundred years old.

Wyre tossed her a can of beer and collapsed into a leather armchair that formed itself comfortably round his body.

“Okay, time to come clean,” he said, snapping his beer open and sipping it with a grimace, and adding under his breath “Shit! I hate beer!”

“Clean about what?”

“I guess you came here to unpack yourself?”

She laughed. “Unpack? In what sense?”

“In the only sense. You must have had something you was carrying.”

“Don’t we all?”

“No one carries anything round here. I don’t either. You’re in a majority of one.”

“Majority?”

“You exist. We don’t.” He drank again, grimacing and repeating to himself: “Shit I really do hate beer.”

“What do you care who I am?” she said. “All you need to know is I’m after information, and my newspaper will pay you if you help me get it.”

“Pay me!” said Wyre with a twisted face. “How you going to pay me? I have money and I don’t want nothing.”

“You must want something?”

“No. All I want is to know who you are,” said Wyre, getting off the difficult subject of himself and moving onto far more fertile ground: the analysis of someone else. He’d have liked to tell Henrietta that he hadn’t spoken to anyone the way he was speaking to her – not in twenty years. But he knew it might be counterproductive to tell her. She might clam up, that’s what people usually did when you told them you liked them.

“I’ll tell you what I see,” he said. “I see a tall, handsome man. A big-shot. Good car, good clothes, always ready to flash his Visa card. But never sharing his time, never giving you what you want. And I see you having hopes of things working out…He’s the kind of man who wants a woman on his arm to make him look good, but he’d like to hang her up in his wardrobe with his coat when he has no use for her. Someone who makes promises, and they’re so damned sweet, the woman ends up thinking there’s something good in him, and it’s going to mature like a barrel of whisky. But when you tap it off in the end, it’s gone sour.”

“You seem to know all about it,” said Henrietta, unnerved about the accuracy of Wyre’s description. “You should have been a woman.”

“I practically am a woman,” said Wyre. “That’s why I almost laughed when you said that thing about raping you. I couldn’t rape you if I tried…”

He stopped and she waited, then finally said, “Why not?”

“’Cuz I don’t have my privates no more. I had an accident when I was a kid. I had a friend who drove a car into a wall and a piece of metal went through me. It sort of finished me off down there. I never touched a woman.”

She waited.

“But you know…what is a man?” he said. “In the village they call me the dickless wonder…”

“That’s not nice.”

“The one who drove the car used to be my friend at school, he’s called Arty Simpleton. Outsiders laugh about his name, but the Simpletons are a big family round here. Arty finds it funny now, what happened to me; he felt bad about it in the beginning, I guess. I mean, he was tanked up on booze when he drove into that metal spike. But now he’s turned it around. He tells people I had it coming to me.” Wyre looked at her, with a slight air of warning. “If you go into the bar you’ll see him. He’s a six-foot tub of white fat topped off with a shaved head and a pair of pig’s eyes so close-set you’ll think you’re cross-eyed when you look at him – people tell me it’s a sign of stupidity and I believe them. Arty reckons he’s a bit of a gentleman, which means he wants to give women the benefit of his attention. Until he gets bored of it, he gets bored pretty fast, and then he goes back to the bar.”

“You’re very charming,” said Henrietta.

“I am, yeah, but he’s not, so just avoid him if you run into him.”

There was a long silence. Grains of sand rattled against the window panes and the wind whined round the gables like an itinerant child.

Henrietta steeled herself and then said: “Look, I need a four-wheel vehicle and I need a guide. I’m going into the desert. Are you willing to do it?”

“Oh, you know…everyone wants the desert.”

“Meaning what?”

“It’s the ultimate, everyone wants the ultimate. In theory they do; they like the idea of it. But in practice they prefer to do nothing.”

“Listen Wyre, you seem like a man with a thing or two on your mind, and that’s fine with me. But I didn’t come here to talk, I am not here for your story. I’m here to go into the desert and find the bone people.”

Wyre’s eyes filled with anger. He eased back in his chair. “No, you listen,” he said. “I don’t give a shit about your Enlightenment ideals. There’s not going to be any progress here, you are not going back to your home on earth…or reaching your destination…or improving yourself…or achieving the revolution. The Revolution Will Not be Televised, okay? This is not a project, I’m not the means for you to do what you wanted…I’m…”

She cut him off. “Like I said, I’m looking for a guide and all I need is a yes or no.”

“I’m not prepared to say more than maybe,” said Wyre. “I never do anything with people who are a pain in the ass.”

“Neither do I,” said Henrietta.

“You know, I was waiting for someone like you to get me going,” said Wyre. “Now that you’re here, I realize I don’t need you.”

“I’m starting to feel the same way.”

Wyre seemed pleased with her; something about her alacrity. “I hope you don’t try and make me like you, it won’t work…” he said.

“Don’t worry yourself about that…”

“Because I really don’t like you much.”

Henrietta decided to play his game. “Don’t worry, I don’t like you much either. I find you sanctimonious…” Putting on her coat and focusing on the practicalities, she dropped her voice and said forcefully: “How long do you need to make up your mind? And when would you be able to leave?”

“I don’t know,” said Wyre. “It depends on you.”

She walked out without saying goodbye but she left the door open, and heard the wind slam it behind her.

 

Go to Part 3 here.
Read more about the nine-part series “The Bones” here.
Go to Part 1 here.
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