Fiction by Michael Mark
The funeral was stodgy and the minister had as much to say about the real Johnny as I did about the real Woodrow Wilson. He talked about living brightly like it was a certain kind of apple—like there were many types of apples in the orchard, but you knew the good ones when you saw them, and that’s how we’d known our Johnny. But the way the minister said it made me think he’d only ever studied supermarket apples. He’d never gotten his hands dirty, never plucked an apple directly from the tree.
Afterwards we trundled out of the church to sop up the loose sunlight with our blazers. We stood with our families instead of our friends, in clusters of cause and effect. Our histories in full bloom. There was no escaping them.
Johnny’s father had on a silver sport coat with shadow stripes that sparkled. He was in his early sixties, wore sunglasses, hardly spoke. A watch hung off his wrist like a crystalline manacle. He had a serious jaw and a magnificent tan. Nearby, Johnny’s mother was crouched on her heels, whispering something to a three year old child. She was like Galadriel. Her hair flowed across her back in sandy blond rivers towards the earth.
I could see wisps of Johnny in both of them, but it was only a hint. A reflection. Johnny’s parents did not add up to Johnny.
My parents hung a step or two behind me so I could lead. My mother was in a sun dress and her nicest pair of Birkenstocks. Her only pair. The ones with the broken clasp. She kept looking at the sky. My dad was in a tweed blazer that was out of season and didn’t fit him anymore. He smiled at no one in particular and covered his eyes with one of his hands to shield them from the sun, as if he was making reconnaissance of an approaching figure. His shoes were black and secured with worn strips of Velcro. From the ground up he looked like an orderly; from the sky down, like a rube.
My job was to give my parents a tour of my world. They wanted to glimpse the place into which I’d disappeared. Because I must have gone somewhere, right? They wanted to hear the strange words I used with my friends and see our eclectic handshakes. Watch us wink at one another, conspire amongst ourselves just out of hearing. My parents assumed this happened naturally. Every child did this. They played with Legos and they watched cartoons and then one day they started giving each other high five’s in the high school hallway.
Life was a dream.
I wandered slowly through the square, dragging my parents in my wake. I shook hands with people I recognized but didn’t really know—people I’d seen around, people I’d spoken to once or twice—and then my parents shook hands with their parents as though they were meeting people they’d heard so much about. My dad could hardly raise his arms his jacket was so small, but his head bobbed at a gentle angle while he listened and his yellow teeth marked his understanding. He resonated sympathy. We were all in this together, he said.
My mother looked down from the sky once in a while and touched my father’s arm.
I looked away a lot.
During one of these scenes I made eye contact with Patti Wheatley across the square, who I knew from an article or two in the school paper. She wanted to study dance in Paris. Her eye-liner had melted at some point and slid down her cheeks, but when our eyes met she was laughing. She had her arm around one of her friends, who was trying half-heartedly to wriggle away, and I was motionless in front of my parents, staring at the two girls. Patti looked up and we saw each other. I was floundering, but she met my gaze and held it. A rope uncoiled from the sky that began somehow in her eyes. A dangling lash of white. A gift.
Then she looked past me.
I turned and saw Brutus standing at the head of a small crowd of Johnny’s friends. His real name was Abe Stenson, but nobody used it. I watched him place both hands on Lucas’ shoulders and give him a point blank talking-to. Lucas nodded his head in agreement. It was obviously something about Johnny and kicking ass and fucking A’ goddammit.
I looked back at my dad.
“Go on,” he said. He was smiling. “We’ll see you tonight.”
They’d seen my world at last, or so they thought. They must have thought Patti was my secret crush, the one I never told them about because I was too shy. Brutus and company my regular chums. It didn’t matter. They were happy with the deceit, and so was I.
The minister said Johnny died in the river. He said the river took him. He was right about that, even if he had no idea what he was talking about. There’s death, and then there’s death.
Both types involve disappearance, but Johnny’s type was total.
They dragged the river for days and walked along the banks until their toes blistered, but all they ever found were washed-up whiskey bottles and contours of regurgitated gravel. Then someone said the wolves must have eaten him. They’d been sighted in the area again these past few years, loping through the trees just at the limits of our vision, in oily, flowing streaks. Some people liked the theory, but I knew they had it backwards. Johnny did not fear wolves. They didn’t drag him off into the dark against his will, growling and sniveling and rending his flesh from his bones. If anything, he offered himself to them.
People shook their heads when they heard he’d gone kayaking during the flood. Like that explained it. What did he expect? They said no one had business in a river like that one. I listened from the edges of the conversation and kept to myself, but I wanted to say, “Don’t we all have business like that sometime?”
What they didn’t know was that I saw him the day he vanished. I was in the woods, trudging through a slab of musty leaves after the storm, swatting away insect clouds. The sun’s heat was driving a light haze out of the topmost layer of the forest floor. Underneath, it was soft and my shoes were soaked. I reached the top of a hill and glanced down to the river, and he was there.
He rode the water like a cork in a hurricane, his oar pinned deep in the river’s body. Space itself seemed to tumble around him. He was swallowed, then launched like a gunnel into flight. He slipped into the lee of a wave.
I watched the tips of his paddle slice the air, snapping to and fro like the arms of a tightrope walker, until he disappeared around the bend. Two days later I found out he’d died. The news turned my memories into venom, as if I’d been poisoned.
I knew Johnny from a conversation we’d shared on the back deck of Fazeen Noorani’s house. Her parents had been called away for something urgent and she’d managed to convince her nearest relative she was staying with friends. Then she’d opened up the house to the entire eleventh grade.
I pandered initially, told him I really did like sports, despite all the rumors and appearances to the contrary. I didn’t have the courage or the coordination to play any of them. I had shit luck in the genes or something. I told him when I was eight I’d auditioned to be a Junior Jockey in some kind of Kentucky Derby thing for kids, but this burro called Glenda’s Pretense had nearly trampled me to death. I told him I still had dreams about it. The stink of that donkey’s breath. The wild eyes.
Johnny tilted up his beer for the final swig and then set the bottle on the railing of Fazeen Noorani’s deck. “I’m going to call bullshit on that one.”
I smiled like a crack in concrete, but Johnny didn’t press his advantage. He just waited, as if he’d simply pointed out something obvious for the record.
“You’re right,” I said.
I told him I wasn’t a sports guy at all. I was a guy who didn’t know what kind of guy he was, in fact. I was a guy whose father fixed appliances and worshipped at the altar of the Green Bay Packers and whose mother drank a lot of box wine, a guy whose best pair of shoes was made from plastic stiff as cookie sheets, whose closet was full of consignment store treasures and Blue Light Specials, and whose world was paper thin. But that wasn’t all.
“I dyed my hair once when I was bored last summer, just to see what it felt like. I put on lipstick and went to the mall and made sure to get the shit kicked out of me. I don’t know why, really. I guess I just wanted to feel something different. I wanted to feel people, close and hot. When my dad got home that night from fixing someone’s dryer he took one look at me, leaned against the kitchen sink, and his chin quivered like there was an eel inside it. I tried to tell him I’d just been curious but that only made it worse.”
The next morning at breakfast my parents had been a little nervous. They’d sat me down to tell me they loved me no matter what, but I’d gotten defensive and told them they didn’t know the first thing about me.
“It’s okay, son,” my father had said. “We know sometimes things can get…confusing.” While they talked I’d crunched greedily on Cheerios floating in 2% milk.
They’d wanted me to put their love in whatever space I was trying to fill; their only wish was that it be enough—it was the most valuable gift they would ever be able to give—but it made me feel cheap or something. Like I was homemade.
I don’t know what I’d said next to them. Something I regretted.
I told Johnny I had a trail that started at the edge of my yard and led through the woods and up a hill—a narrow rut I’d worn by walking up and down it for years. At the top of the hill, hidden inside a big pile of rock, I had an old metal tackle box where I stored various treasures I’d collected. I had one of those fuzzy trolls you put on the end of your pencil, an unopened deck of cards, a pack of cigarettes I stole from my uncle’s coat pocket when he came to visit us once, and the innards of an early U2 tape with the lyrics all typed up. I had a tiny picture of some Indian chief in a wooden frame. But the main thing I had in there was my diary, sealed in two ply of plastic freezer bags with a couple of pens. I went up there from time to time and wrote while the wind made my fingers numb. I told Johnny that was when I felt the clearest—when I was alone in the darkness on the hilltop, looking through the tops of trees into my own bedroom window, writing with a flashlight between my teeth.
Johnny picked up his beer and saw it was empty. But he didn’t say a word.
Fazeen and her friend Nora stepped outside then and left the door open. All of a sudden we were coated by voices.
Johnny just nodded, one nod for two girls.
Did he want a cigarette?
I nodded, too, uncertain if they saw me or not.
No, Johnny didn’t want a cigarette.
Fazeen lit up and went to the opposite railing.
Then Nora looked at me. Her short brown hair slid over one of her eyes. I’d always liked her eyes.
What about me? Did I want a cigarette?
Nora and I had been lab partners in AP Biology two years prior. We had the sort of bond you formed when two different social classes joined forces to dissect a dead alley cat, each of us needing the grade for our own reasons. Her lighter sputtered and died so she brought her face close to mine and lit my cigarette from hers, as if we’d done it a thousand times. I glowed. Then she walked over to Fazeen and suggested they sneak through the woods and hijack a golf cart. She wondered if Fazeen had ever made out with Dennis in one of those sand traps? Underneath the moonlight?
“Yeah, right,” Fazeen said. “So when we walk back through the trees my father can snip off his balls.”
Johnny turned and looked over the railing at the Noorani’s perfectly manicured lawn and the belt of tapered shadows just beyond. When the girls finished their smoke and went back inside he said maybe the diary was my thing. He said he couldn’t imagine being able to sit down and write all your thoughts on paper like that; to him, it was sorcery or something. It was pretty impressive. He said his favorite book ever was the journal of this mountain climber who’d disappeared trying to climb Gasherbrum II. He’d left a wife and a young son behind at his home in Spain, along with a stack of notebooks three feet high. His wife had gone through all of them and put the book together. “I’ve read it four times,” Johnny said. “Iker said whatever quiet nook we find, wherever we find it, that’s where we do our living. We might only live for three minutes of an entire life. The rest of the time we’re preparing for it. Or remembering it.”
I looked at the trees and wondered what it would be like to walk with Nora through the silvered darkness. To hear our voices skitter in the night. The flight of a moth would distract me and spin me in circles until I found myself alone. My lungs would fill with cold as I dashed through the leaves in search of Nora, and she’d be waiting for me, her back against a tree. I’d wonder how long she’d been smiling like that before I kissed her on the lips.
She’d drape her arm around my neck. Let her fingers dangle in the night.
I asked Johnny if he wanted another beer, then went walkabout through the Noorani mansion until I found a clutch of Heinekens in a refrigerator down in the basement. I brought as many as I could carry. Three went scrolling across the deck when I tried to squeeze through the door. One made it over the edge and fell to the yard. Johnny laughed with me—two beers would have done it, he said—and then we cut our hands trying to pry the caps off against the porch railing.
I watched my mother and father disappear in the crowd, then drifted to the edge of the group where Brutus was preparing his oration. He eyed us down, cleared his throat and gave voice to the need each one of us felt to revolt against the Shiny Apple Eulogy. Johnny deserved more than that minister’s cute speech. “This is not the time for the private practice of grieving,” Brutus said. “All are needed. And all are welcome. Think of what Johnny gave you, and what you can give Johnny.”
The plan was simple. Masks would be made. They would be glorious and grotesque all at once. Look up the Festival of Candelaria. Johnny was there once, when he was little. He was always talking about it, how he looked down this alley and saw this little dog staring back at him. Then his mother grabbed his head and spun him around to wipe some food off his cheek, and when he looked back there was this man in jeans and a cowboy hat leaned against the wall, waving back at him.
If we did this right, Brutus said, we’d be mistaken for a branch chapter of South American shape-shifters. Lucas would wear the mask of a rainbow-colored dragon with bloodied vampire teeth and the manic eyes of a Maori dancer, and Pancho Villa—who was named Alexi by his parents—would sport a birdlike, naso peste cera mask with an extended snout of riveted steel, vacant yellow eyes, and wireframe glasses. Cameron would wear a Huck Finn job with puffy painted cheeks and wooden lips and black, empty eye sockets so fake that you looked into them and saw only a dread vacancy where a soul should have been, while Brutus would assume the mantle of La Chupacabra.
“The possibilities are unlimited,” he said, “but we’re not fucking around. I don’t want anyone showing up in half-assed Halloween costumes and their grandmother’s bed sheets.”
At the appointed hour we’d parade through the woods in full regalia while chanting and conducting whatever dances we could sustain with ten pound masks over our heads. Someone’s older sister would lead the way with a black-smoking torch that released bottled hyena scent into the forest. We’d be a sight, a procession—we’d be something—and we’d be carrying a little wooden boat bearing a piñata of Johnny himself. We’d stuff it with our last and most personal notes to him, bits of dark chocolate and a pair of Mason Avignon’s panties—leave that to Brutus—along with excessive doses of whatever exotic perfumes we could get our hands on. Some of us had mothers or sisters who possessed the inventory we needed.
“You know who you are.”
We needed something combustible in there. Something with fragrance. Dried flowers, too, and copal. There’d be pictures of us with Johnny and pictures of everyone else with Johnny and the shoelace from one of Johnny’s climbing shoes, and we’d set it afloat on the river, at a fairly still point, but where the current would take it around a bend, and then one of us would shoot a flaming arrow into it.
My heart surged into my hand, outside of my control, before I could stop it.
“I’ll do it.”
Brutus turned and locked eyes with me. His dad was a lawyer. His mother a dentist. One day he’d be leading the Senate Appropriations Committee. We weren’t close, but we knew each other a little. He made a point to shoot the shit with me at least once or twice a semester, ever since I’d bailed him out of a jam related to the summer reading program. “Fuckin’ A, Campbell,” he said. No hesitation whatsoever. “You ever shot an arrow before?”
“Well you can learn.”
I nodded. Pancho Villa slapped me on the back.
Ricky Duggard spat on the ground.
I had this venom inside of me. I was becoming a whole new animal.
The next day was Sunday and my dad was in the yard planting a dogwood in the back corner when I came home from the sporting goods store. I had this piecemeal archery kit: six wooden arrows, a 29 lb compound bow from the clearance rack, and a foam bullseye. I’d been sacking groceries all spring at Holliston’s and I had enough funds in reserve to underwrite my training.
With no idea how to proceed, or how to explain my sudden digression into sport, or how to channel the sheepish grin I’d given the guy in the check-out line into the grim certitude I needed, I decided to break it down into steps. I walked through the living room past my mother and out the door with the foam block in my arms, set it out on the lawn, then went back into the house for the bow and arrows.
I put the arrows down on the deck so I could get my bearings. While I stood there with my hands on my hips the wind blew all the arrows into the gaps between the boards, so I had to crawl underneath in the dirt, through the spiders and wasp nests to get them back, and then I walked around with the target in my arms like I was trying to figure out where to bury it.
My dad looked up at me, then glanced significantly at the house next door. Luckily the other end of our yard bordered on woods. I thought for sure we were going to have an in-depth discussion of my intentions, but he went back to loosening up the root ball and wiping the sweat off his brow. The grace period of Johnny’s death was clearly still in effect.
To shoot I closed one eye, drew the bow, and curled my tongue around my teeth. With my breath tucked deep in my abdomen, I mustered a hope like the color yellow. Then I waited. When the inner tumblers clicked, I let the arrow fly. My left arm did its best to be steady and true, but there was no escaping the fact I had a sea inside of me. It rose and fell within the basin of my ribs, chasing the moon of my concentration.
The second arrow I shot intersected the earth on a tangent and vanished. The tip will not be found for several centuries. I walked the lawn for ten minutes where it should have been, certain I was looking right at it, but found nothing. This stand-off with the unknown revealed me. I was besieged by forces and mystery; but also, I was yielding to them. My sixth arrow sailed past the target and into a stand of pine, and when I finally found it, buried in a tangle of needles and thorns, the forest jumped me. My shoe caught on a root. I stepped down hard on the arrow just as I grabbed hold of it, and it burst into splinters.
After another half an hour I could hit the block of foam pretty reliably from twenty yards.
It was a start.
The dogwood tree was upright and fluttering in the late afternoon breeze when my dad walked over and clapped the dirt off his hands. “Looks like a decent bow you’ve got there.”
I wondered what refrigerator mechanics who didn’t hunt and still kept printed copies of Sports Illustrated in arm’s reach of the crapper knew about modern day archery equipment, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“Yeah. What’s it for now, anyways?”
“There’s going to be a ceremony,” I said. “For Johnny. Bunch of us guys. I volunteered to shoot an arrow into a piñata while it floats down the river. A flaming one.”
“A ceremony, huh? None of them other guys ever shot an arrow?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Already he was wondering why I was the one shooting the arrow. If my dad had never shot an arrow before in his life, he would not have volunteered to shoot one into a floating piñata in front of an audience—he probably wouldn’t have volunteered even if he had—and the idea of ceremonies, generally speaking, was difficult for him to process.
“Son, I know sometimes it’s tough when we lose someone we care about.”
“What do you mean?”
He shifted on his feet and wiped his brow. “Well… Flaming arrows in the woods? You think that’s such a good idea?”
“You could use a fuse probably,” he said. “I could help with that.”
“We’re going to shoot an arrow, Dad.”
He nodded and wiped his thumb across his lip. Brushed past me and went into the house. That night I went up the hill and made a few notes in my diary about Patti Wheatley’s
smile in the courtyard, then found myself flipping back through the pages to see what I’d written about kissing Nora on the lips. Usually I got these ideas and I rolled them around for a while on the tip of my heart’s tongue, and then when nothing happened I moved on to something else. I had this taste test life.
I had to be brave when it came to the arrow, like a man in the wilderness alone with a bear. But I also had to understand the logistics. The distance, the wind and the river’s current. The flames. The pine needles.
I needed a better plan than angst.
At the sound of her voice the adrenaline clapped me hard in the stomach and I had to sit down.
“I was wondering if you knew anything about the construction of flaming arrows. Doesn’t your dad do the fireworks every year downtown? Didn’t you tell me that once? It’s Chad Campbell.”
“What I know is that a piece of wood launched through the air at seventy miles an hour, absent a three hundred pound coal bed, will go out. I don’t have time to build a trebuchet. I thought of you.”
“Have you tried Vaseline?”
“No. And—thank you—see, this is exactly why I called.”
I paused for a moment. She was thinking I might have called for another reason? “Also I wanted to see if you’d like to go get a pizza with me tonight.”
“You just wanna come over here? My dad’s making chili, and I think he’d have some good ideas for your arrow…”
“I’d love to. Yes. Should I bring some taquitos or something?”
“I’d rather a pack of Newports.”
“Be discreet. Come over any time,” she said.
I didn’t think Brutus’ plan was really a secret, so I had a double serving of Mr. Myers’ white Texas chili while I told Nora and her parents about the ceremony. I left out the parts about Mason’s thong and the costumes. The hyena scent, too. And the woods. Most all of it, really. I left them with the impression I’d been tasked with lighting a bonfire at an event featuring parental supervision, refreshments, and a couple of fire hoses.
“You need sparklers,” Mr. Myers said. “Burning metal. Think I’ve got a pack in the garage.”
He talked for the next thirty minutes about staging the Fourth of July every year over the harbor. When he wound down Nora’s mother asked me if I had plans for college, and I said the same thing I’d told my grandmother when we called her at Christmas: I wasn’t sure yet, but I thought maybe I wanted to study political science. Since nobody knew what that was— something about voting districts maybe?—it usually ended there. Everybody satisfied.
I ended up with a case of fireworks in my trunk and Nora riding shotgun. We were on our way for ice cream.
She put her hand out.
I looked at it.
She waved it once, emphatically, and finally I pointed under her seat. She fished around, found the Newports and a lighter. She smiled.
“What are you really doing?” she said.
I told her the whole thing. “I don’t even know if I can do it. I’m lucky to hit the target circle from thirty yards.”
“I think it’s cool.”
That’s when I started thinking I could really do it.
Word got around and when the day finally came there was a gallery of about a hundred kids on the far bank of the river. I stationed myself by the water and waited for the procession to weave its way through the trees. Tamila Atkinson carried the torch. She’d been a senior two years prior. Her long black hair spilled out of a bun and flowed over her shoulders like it was prom night. She wore a gold mask that hid her nose and eyes, but not her lips, which were colored like blood. Her white dress broke high in her midriff and spilled into rough-shorn folds of fabric that waved in the wind, just above her knees. She was barefoot. The torch in her hand left a trail of dark, pungent smoke.
There were ten of them behind her in full regalia, marching in unison, heavy-footed, stamping the earth twice with each step. The bow weighed about seventy pounds in my arms. I wasn’t sure I could lift it. My heart was at ramming speed. Its beat was in my ears.
They came slowly through the trees: four of Johnny’s friends dressed up in horse heads carrying the piñata. They brought it over and gathered around. The scent of perfume and gasoline caught in my throat and my eyes burned. I coughed, nearly poked my eye out with the bow. My arms started to shake. Soon it would be obvious my dad fixed appliances and my mother answered phones for the Jiffy-Lube. It would be clear that I was a poseur.
Nora was standing beside me with a couple of unlit sparklers in her hand, head down. I held two of our makeshift arrows, just in case, each with an aluminum shaft, the tips covered in muslin cloth embalmed in Vaseline, and six sparklers protruding from the gauze.
Brutus saw me wobbling, but he trusted the process. It was bigger than any one of us. He put his arm around me. “You got this, Campbell. Think of Johnny.”
They put the piñata in the water and pushed it away from shore.
It spun slowly as the river bore it gently out into the current.
I handed the spare arrow to Brutus and Tamila lit one of Nora’s sparklers from the torch.
Then I lined up the arrow and drew the bow. Nora set the tip on fire.
The blaze of heat nearly knocked me over and I staggered backwards, coughing again.
My lungs were splintering apart.
I imagined the whole world was watching, already passing judgment.
My first shot was hasty. It whistled high and left of the piñata, then sagged—a ribbon of flame that wobbled and sank into the river. I watched in dismay as the river consumed it.
There was no way in hell I was going to hit that little raft. I looked over at Brutus for help and he nodded. Complete confidence. The cluster of masks behind me looked like an execution squad.
I pictured Johnny riding high in the water, like a bull rider, his eyes narrowed into the kind of vision that could see dogs in one moment, and men the next.
I forced myself to breath. I felt around inside of myself like I was looking for the car keys in my mother’s purse. I found the point inside me that held my name. Every particle of me was a blur, a buzzing half-light, but this point was perfectly steady.
The sun hit the piñata then and I saw vapor rising from it, hungry and hot. I didn’t have to hit the raft; I just needed to get close. I needed to pass a spark through that roiling cloud of fuel.
I could do it.
Without looking I reached back for the other arrow. Our fingers touched when she handed it to me, and the silence inside me deepened. Nora lit the arrow and I took a deep breath, then aimed for a spot just above the waiting pyre. I led it by two yards to account for the current. Johnny would do the rest. Flames lunged around the tip of the arrow and metal embers snapped and sizzled. The heat singed my eyebrows and forearms. The light stung my eyes. I let it come. Didn’t we all have business like this one day? When everything settled, when my flesh was ready and every face on the river occupied the one unerring point inside me, I let the arrow fly.
It whistled off the bow and dragged flames low across the water.
Fire shot over the top of Johnny’s paper sarcophagus.
Sparks and heat reached up from the piñata in cascading tongues. They feinted and withered, then gathered together and folded into a mushroom of light and heavy smoke. The piñata caught fire. The paper blackened along its edges and began to dance, curling and buckling inside the deluge of heat.
I looked at the far bank, expecting a cheer, but nobody moved. The garden of faces shone in the pyre’s golden light.
Brutus took off his mask and put his hand on my back.
I thought of my journal, there in the fire with Johnny, riding around the bend. My words were his now.
I turned to find Nora. She brushed the hair from her face and stepped towards me. I reached for her waist, and when she didn’t resist, drew her close. Her body settled against my own. An ache spread through me like a line, from the crown of my head, through my heart to my pelvis, then opened. Hunger bled through the seam, and joy, the presence of Johnny and the heat of Nora’s touch. My throat swelled.
I’d never had this before—the certainty of a wound, the pain of being remade.
Michael Mark’s fiction has previously appeared in the Route 7 Review and Solstice Literary Magazine. He studied fiction writing as an undergraduate at Auburn University, and presently resides in Maine with his wife.