by Hunter Johnson
This story is complicit in destroying an ecosystem, our solar system, and the social structure of indigenous communities. Burn down your house and the grocery store. The one older man sitting outside his RV at the end of the block all day will help you. He will say, “thank you. God Bless America.” We must burn it all down to start again and watch the ashes float across the state like the sugar cane out West. This is how we make Black Gold. You know when they are ready to harvest because you can smell the burning underbrush from over 100 miles away. What our friends thought was snow when we stuck our tongues on the playground left a bitter taste. Is it any wonder why two of their fathers had died? Our home is unique in its ability to grow cane because of the shallowness of the white limestone underneath. When things die and begin to decay, they don’t sink into the earth because it is all mostly surface level. We burn the cancerous, the excess, in hopes that something of value will become seen.
The man sitting outside his RV says he did this once before. “Back in the seventies,” he says, “dope was cheaper.” His RV was filled with barrels of petroleum gasoline up to ten percent ethanol. Ethanol has a lower ignition point and burns hotter and faster than petroleum, and ethanol is made of corn. You live in a town that grows oranges—used to grow oranges. Now we grow homes that cost “as low as 450k”.
You tell the old man, “I remember eating an orange straight off a tree my first time.”
“Well, tell me.” His voice is like a landslide.
“Back in grade school, I knew this girl in marching band. We had sex on a towel in her backyard, and afterward, she said she’d get us one. She had a tree in the corner, and she reached up into the canopy above her and walked back.”
It was dark and starry, and you remember that seeing her move in the night made you think about a panther playing with its prey. She stabbed her thumb into the top of the orange and pulled the skin off. She sucked on her thumb, pulled half the fruit off, and handed it to you. You don’t tell Ray, which you find out is the older man who lives in the RV’s name, because it makes you feel weak. You felt tender there, scared, threatened. “She liked them,” you say as you throw a Molotov cocktail in the front seat of a vacant Chevy Impala in front of the T.G.I. Fridays by the freeway. Neither of you has talked since. There are pictures of her on Instagram, but you’re afraid to say hello again. You think you imparted some violence on her, or maybe that was after you paid for the morning-after pill. You’re a third-generation Floridian, and you laugh at the peeling, glowing upholstery of the eight-generation Impala.
You and Ray have left a path of destruction and blaze, and hundreds of others have joined you instead of stopping you. There are several cops, and they look like they’re enjoying themselves and have waited their whole lives for this chance. It’s not that Floridians are angry at those coming into the state, but of being replaced, the artificial becoming artifact.
You ask, “Ray, what?”
“No, Ray, What.”
“Ray of Fucking Sunshine,” he smiles toothlessly while bashing a toll meter with a hammer.
Before the violence, you signed a lease on an apartment. You heard bad things about the housing lenders, and the reviews online were terrible, but you tried it anyways. They were the cheapest thing within five miles of your job. You thought leaving a house where you lived with four other dudes would favor your life. It was supposed to be a sign of maturity, and it was the next logical step from moving out of your parental home and into that frat house.
One of your co-workers wanted to leave her dad’s place, so she signed with you. She is thirty-five and obsessed with Boston terriers. She has a Boston terrier sticker on her car, several coffee mugs with their faces, and several signs that she will hang around the apartment that say things like, “A house is not complete without a Boston” and “My Boston is my best friend.” Designers’ dogs are often flown across the country, and their parents carry genetic defects because of inbreeding—an Airbus 320 burns about 5000lbs of fuel per hour in flight. You don’t tell her about either of these facts because you know these things are integral to her personality, and she’s probably aware.
You worked with her for over a year at the shitty chain restaurant down the eight-lane boulevard from Palm Beach Island and west to Belle Glade and its pillars of black cane smoke. She has given you several pet names and takes you to the bar next door, where the bartender serves you underaged. The kitchen guys do coke in the bathroom and laugh about everything the servers fuck up all day. Ray tells you that he used to cook for the Grateful Dead, followed the band, and ate every drug you could imagine. She helped you get a job at the higher-end restaurant on the road just north of there, in a better part of town by the equestrian community you grew up near. You tell all of this to Ray.
“We never owned a horse. We had a miniature pony once.”
He hands you a cigarette while you watch the sunrise on a hidden mangrove beach. “I lived on a ranch up in Kansas a couple of lifetimes ago,” he says, “what happened to it?” After cooking, he volunteered for the Army, where he listened to conversations over the radio in the first Gulf War. He has tinnitus because they had to have the signal at full blast.
“She was sick, and we couldn’t take care of her. They say that miniature ponies have deformative problems. Because they’re bred to be so small, their teeth and bones don’t grow right. Their frames want to keep growing, and their bodies don’t.”
“Like a goldfish.” He looks past you with his greying eyes, eyebrows hanging low, and seems pointed.
“They needed a bigger bowl.”
You must have fallen asleep because it’s daytime now, and there are still sirens in the distance, people setting fires, and some trying to put them out.
Ray is butt-naked, and he is a big man. He has several mismatched tattoos on his arms and back, which you can mostly see through the wiry black body hair. He is a mountain of a sun-bleached man. He is lying on his belly. Ray shows you photos of the commune he used to live on in Alaska. He says he came to South Florida for his sister’s funeral but stayed behind to manage the little she left. Someone hit him with a truck while biking his five miles to work at the steakhouse on Okeechobee Boulevard to keep himself busy.
“Ray, where did you get all that gas?”
He rolls over and sits up. “I stole it.”
You aren’t surprised, “where from?”
“My old job.”
“What did you do?”
“I built things.”
Your father paints helicopters, and we’ve asked him how he feels about his complicity in the death of people in Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, America, Ukraine, and history. Ray says we haven’t finished our job yet, and there’s so much that we need to tear down. Everything is burning, and the smoke is in our eyes.
Hunter Johnson is a fiction MFA student and Skurnick fellow at Florida Atlantic University, who has a deep connection to his home state of Florida. With a queer identity, he brings a unique perspective to his writing which often explores themes of the environment and familial relationships. Hunter’s background and experiences inform his creative work, lending depth and nuance to his storytelling. He currently teaches and works at the writing center while waiting tables on the weekends, often writing about those roles.