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  • Untitled Document

    The Sirens

    I come up the drive, turn off onto the field towards the pit. Peering into the side mirror again, I see the derelict trailer bouncing with brush behind me. Today my job is to cut down and haul trees from along the riverbed to a pit across the property. Dad’s getting drunk alone at home. He’s a late stage alcoholic, and I’ll do this type of work my whole life, same as him, until for one reason or another, some beat-up part of me won’t allow it.

    I ease the rig over to the left and back it up to the pit. Boss man spies on me from the hill. He has a habit of sneaking up on me, seeing to it I ain’t slackin’. He made his money off a machine shop in my hometown, sold it for more, and now spends his days figuring up ways to spend his winnings. I could live off what he throws away.

    The rig is a rusty iron trailer that dumps itself with a diesel-powered hydraulic. I step out and unlatch the chain on the ass-end, activating the pump. A steady drone croaks out, and the iron bin lifts into the air.

    The bin’s supposed to go up until it’s almost vertical, but about three-quarters of the way up she lurches off the hitch. I kill the hydraulic before it rolls into the pit, and it slams back down, letting out a crack as it slams into the tail gate.

    My ears ring. I don’t look back at first; I know it’s fucked. Finally, the ringing stops and I look.

    “You idiot. You didn’t latch it.” I say to myself, assessing the big, deep dent. “Can’t do a goddamn thing without fucking it up.”

    I run my finger over the chipped paint and the ripped aluminum, shaking my head. Then I hand-crank the trailer until it’s high enough, drop the hitch onto the ball, and latch it firm. The hydraulic is fine. So, I switch the pump on, watch the bin crawl up until it’s almost vertical and all the brush flows out.

    “There. Wasn’t hard at all.”

    Anger makes me talk to myself. I try so hard not to mess up, but I always do, over and over again. Dad used to say I can’t do anything right, but I’ll work all day fixing it. Used to be proud of that. A hard worker. It’s hard to say what he thinks now. He’s probably frustrated with me, like I am with myself. Thinks I’m starting down a road with no exits on either side, if he thinks of me at all.

    I unload the last of the brush, drive back across the property to the riverbed. This is good land, expensive land, a whole square mile of it. Along the east bank of the Walnut River, there’s nothing boss man couldn’t do on it: camping, farming, hunting, grazing, whatever. All of it’s for fun though, and so he does whatever he wants to. It’s an experimental farm. Fifty heads of buffalo, thirty of elk, and every type of fruit tree that’ll survive a cold winter. And at the center of it all is his house: a massive structure with glass walls and redwood corners, connected to the world by a half-mile blacktop drive. Him and his wife come and go at leisure, don’t have to go anywhere they don’t wanna be, don’t have to get out of bed if their eyes don’t wanna open. I like his wife. She’s nice, offered me lunch my first few weeks here. But she doesn’t do that anymore.

    It’s a little past noon. The sun burns alone in the sky. I hide the truck from the heat beneath a tree, grab the saw and trot down to the willows. The saw is an old thing, boss man’s, and its chain is worn and loose and dull, and the boss refuses to buy a new one. Says it’s my problem. Takes me a good while to cut through anything. Then the chain comes off about every fifteen minutes, and I have to kill it and walk back up the hill to the truck to get it back on.

    My shirt is shiny with sweat within minutes. To cut anything I gotta dig into it as hard as I can. My arms are swollen and aching and rubbery by the sixth tree. Now I’m on number forty, couple hundred more to go. But my arms can take it, even if I they don’t know it. I keep going. I need this job.

    Two hours go by like that, cutting, swearing, glancing over now and again for boss man. It’s about quitting time when he checks in. I don’t hear him pull up, but I see him inspecting the tailgate. My chest gets tight and I cuss at myself, kill the saw, and walk up the hill.

     “That’s four-fifty. A four-hundred-fifty-dollar dent,” he says, soon as I’m in earshot.

    His words don’t make sense to me. Any perspective or context is forgotten and I don’t understand or approve, agree or disagree. I just get mad. It’s not a good feeling, never has been, because I’m not just mad, I’m burning, blistering, incinerating, coming apart at every tiny point, as though my body only exists as a vessel for it. I inhale deeply, stretch my lungs.

    “That’s not four-fifty.” I say. “No way that’s more than two-hundred.”

    “You can’t fix that, Marshall. We have to replace the tailgate. It needs a whole new tailgate. You’re lucky if it comes out to 450.” His words dig into me. The tone he uses is the tone everyone uses when you mess up, when they finally have an excuse to show how much they really don’t like you. I’ve never hated anyone as much as I hate him.

    “It’s a dent,” I stay as calm as I can. “It was an accident. Those happen sometimes. I’ll fix it myself. On my own time. I’ll do whatever I need to do. But there’s no way I’m paying damn near five-hundred-dollars for something I could fix in two hours with some polish and a mallet.”

     “Then I’ll take it out of your check.”

    Before I reply, I force myself to review my next words. This isn’t about the tailgate, respect, or principles: he wants me to get angry, irrational, impulsive; he wants to punish me for all the piled up little things.

    “That’s half my check,” I say. “That’s my rent.”

    “Well maybe next time that’ll inspire you to get your head out your ass and you won’t fuck up my shit.”

    “Fuck you. I ain’t paying shit.” The words come out before I know what they are. Every muscle is ready to fight; my vision’s tunneled; and a high-pitched ringing kicks off everywhere at once, grating, enormous sirens that block and distort thought.

    “Yeah, talk to me like that, at the end of the pay period, two weeks’ wage on the line. Go ahead, talk to me like that.” He nods, and then explodes. His voice cracks the way dad’s used to. “Fuckin’ talk to me like that? You live off me. I put a roof over your head and food on you table. My existence enables yours, you little shit.”

    “There’s a roof over my head because I work fourteen hours a day.” My thoughts are tangled and come too fast and too hard to grasp. “Doesn’t take a stack of cash to fix a dent. Money sure as hell didn’t keep your son out of prison now did it? No wonder he’s a fuck up; his dad’s a prick. Boy, do I empathize with him.”

    Just like that, I’m over the line. His face goes from red to grey, and I realize that this was my last day on the job.

    “You’re fired,” he says. “Get out of here.” There’s pain in his voice, a brittleness. I’d wanted that, but it doesn’t calm me down. I still wanna squeeze his neck until nothing moves and he can never make me feel bad again. But all my hands do is shake. He says nothing else, and I turn and walk away.

    As I go, I can’t find a moment to blink and soon both eyes are bleary. My truck is parked in the shade and I get in and start it and the tires spin and squeal as I high tail it around the blacktop-bend and onto the gravel road.

    It’s a 30-minute drive home. I’m angry through all of it. Driving too fast. Passing through the double yellow line. Flipping people off, anyone who makes me slow down the tiniest bit. And the whole time I’m aware that what I’m doing is childish, psycho, and that I’ll regret it and hate myself for it later, but I can’t stop. Slowing down and or cooling off isn’t possible. The rage electrifies my nerves, a broken pressure cooker with no stop safe. There is a sensation, a silent thought or hope, that the next outburst, the next dry-fire-punch will somehow bring that elusive vindication I’m aching for. But the sirens don’t stop until there’s nothing to feed them, once they’ve used up all available energy. It won’ t be till later, once I’m alone with the fallout, that I’ll think clearly about any of this, and I’ll gawk and wonder and tremble at my inability to control it.

    Once I pull up to our double-wide trailer, I stay in the car a while. My hands have gone from shaking to trembling. Half a cheap cigar sits in the ashtray, dirty with soot when I light it up. It hits rough and hot, but the nicotine settles my nerves. Smoking is a habit I’ve built up a while and the first thing I try to relax me. Every day I wake up hoping I won’t have to smoke one, but I always do.

    The cigar burns down to my finger tips and I finally go inside. Dad’s asleep in the main room, sprawled out in his recliner, a near-two-liter handle of Evan Williams open on the floor beside him. Half of it’s gone, and I bought it yesterday.

    When I enter my room and shut the door, I collapse onto my bed and think. I think about how this is the third job I’ve lost in two months. I think about how they always end when I get mad. I think about how it’s gonna be at least four weeks before I get another check. I think about the seven-hundred-dollar rent due on the third, the two-hundred-twenty-dollar utility bill due on the twenty-second, the four-hundred dollars in my account, and dad’s eight-hundred-dollar disability check, two-hundred of which we already spent on a new fuel pump for my truck. Then there’s food, gas, and Dad’s habit, which runs us about seventy-five dollars a week. That’s five handles of Evan Williams. Expensive, but we have to have it. Last time dad tried to quit he seized up, and that might kill you. Not even doctors can help when someone’s that far gone.

    So that’s three-hundred we have to spend, and the rent’s seven-hundred, and that’s all the money we have. I run through the different things we can pawn. There’s a place in Wichita that pays fifty dollars for donating plasma. These are options, but they’re not enough.

    We’ll have a roof over our heads, temporary stability, but I don’t know how we’re gonna eat or put gas in the truck. Maybe dad can switch to Vodka, save us twenty-five-dollars. He’d probably do it, but I honestly could never ask him. We don’t talk about his habit. It’s not a rule; we just don’t. The less you talk about something, the easier it is to pretend it isn’t happening.

    Money scares the hell out of me. I need a new job, today. My hands start to shake again, and I’m sent into this claustrophobic, hyperventilating panic as I think about all this. My heartbeat gets louder, faster, rapid, and irregular like my breathing. Thinking becomes catastrophic. What can go wrong will go wrong. It begins to feel like my heart and lungs are failing.

    “This is a panic attack.” I say to myself. “You’re having a panic attack.” It’s happened before, but more and more often lately. I stand up, go into the bathroom, and throw up. My stomach cramps and squeezes everything out of me and finally my heart and lungs aren’t the only things I hear. Now I feel better. The nauseous and shallow pit in my chest becomes manageable.

    I turn on the shower. It runs a long time before the water gets hot. When I’m in, I position the back of my neck right into the water flow and it’s soothing. A still minute passes and then I turn the water from hot to cold over and over again. I don’t know exactly what this does to me, but it makes me feel alright for a while. Takes my mind off my existence.

    When I get out, I hear dad stumbling around in the living room. He’s gonna puke somewhere, always does when he wakes up. Maybe the toilet. Maybe the carpet. It’s never much; he doesn’t eat anymore.

    When I was little, the sound of dad drunkenly stumbling around the house put the fear of God into me. He was bad back then. His rage was the same that mine is now, and it was so damn scary. He doesn’t get like that anymore, just drinks until he passes out, and repeats. But it still feels weird, not because mom divorced him, not because he disappeared more times than I could count, but because I was sure, positive, that he hated me all that time.

    He’d just come back from Fort Worth when mom kicked me out at 15. I don’t blame mom for it. She’s had a hard life, and she still hasn’t figured out how to make it easier. Yet she understood me, when I came home with a letter for the school that said I was in trouble not allowed back for five days, she wasn’t surprised or angry but unchanged, like it’d been exactly what she’d suspected because she knew I was bad and that’s how she saw me: a bad thing she had to take care of. 

    It didn’t seem like she cared at all until the day I came home early from school, suspended indefinitely for assaulting the kid who sad behind me in history and liked to snap rubber bands on the back of my neck. That morning he did it once; I told him to stop. Then he did it again, and I fractured his jaw and an ambulance had to come. He was a teacher’s son and everyone hated me anyway. They sent me to the office, and I waited there a bit while the school and our parents talked in the office or over the phone. No one wanted to press charges, but my mom asked to speak to me. She said my stuff would be and the lawn. I wasn’t welcome there anymore.

     When all that went down, I hadn’t seen dad for nearly 30 months, and no one I knew aged quicker than he did those few years. He drank every day and was so gray, like there wasn’t a speck of color in him.

    At the time he was homeless but took me in anyway. I remember those uncomfortable months, sleeping in his car, showering at the lake, eating whatever food we found, learning how to be cool and smile and chat with a store’s security guard as you walked out with a cart full of things you had neither intention nor the means to pay for. That’s when I learned, in a sleepless hunger, that you could make your body believe you’d eaten by drinking enough water. It was a cheap trick, but it’d get you to sleep.

    But, around the same time for the same reasons, I also learned what it meant to consume something. When you haven’t eaten for a day, sometimes longer, and suddenly you find yourself sitting in a McDonald’s around nine at night with three McChickens before you. As you eat, your stomach, flat and sick and two days empty, finally expands, finally is warm and satisfied, and all those words that describe food, fats, sodium, calories, carbohydrates , are things you begin to understand in a natural, intuitive way. You feel that ball of bread and meat in your stomach break down as warm waves of energy ripple all through you, and your brain drowns in endorphins because it, along with your body, knows that you’ll be fine for at least a little while.

    That was our life for months. Maybe the memory of it is why I’m so nervous.

    Before I come out of my bedroom, I change. Even from across the house, I can hear dad in the bathroom, his vomit smacking the water. There’s nothing to do, I tell myself. Might as well. Walking into the front room, I get a cup from the sink and take dad’s whiskey and pour myself a glass full. Then I go back into my room and sip it alone.

    Now I’m at the point where I can drink it straight, and I’m stupidly proud of that. I feel like such a man when I pretend it doesn’t taste like shit and burn like hell. All I’m really doing is hiding. And I know this but can’t stop myself. All I want is a break. A break from work and the anger and the fucking rent.

    A buzz creeps over me and I play some music and lean back and continue sipping, heavy and heavier swigs. Two beers used to get me drunk. Now it takes six.

    It comes on stronger. Warm static fills my limbs. I’m stiff, but it’s a good stiffness, and all I want to do is lay back and let my head swim. But it gets too quiet. The music can’t drown out my thoughts. So I call Sammy and ask her to come over. Say I’m having a bad day. She says okay, and I hang up and wait.

    No matter what happens or what I do, Sammy’s always there for me. We’ve been together little over a year now. Her dad’s an engineer, and they all live in big house on a hill east of town. But I’ve never been there. She always comes here. Her parents look at me the way mom used to, like they’re watching a mistake in-action, embarrassed for me.

    People always look down on me. Usually I can push through it. But there was this one teacher used to make me so damn mad. Didn’t matter how much I tried and studied, I always did something wrong in her class, and it was always something really simple, and she’d always talk to me like I didn’t know up from down. Only time I cried in school was in her class, right there in front of everyone. Sometimes I’d wish that she’s have an accident, one so bad she’d get brain damage, just so I could talk down to her the way she talked down to me. For a long time, I wanted that. I actually wanted that.

    I couldn’t take it, and dropped out. Now that’s what I am: a dropout. At every interview for any job I’ve ever tried to get, that’s all they see me as: a drop out.

    Sammy’s with me for reasons I can’t figure out. She was a nerd in high school, still is. Takes math and science courses at Butler. Her numbers got her into Michigan, but she stayed right here at home. Her parents think I’m the reason why, and they resent me for that. But really, I think she stayed because she was afraid of being a stranger in some faraway place. She’s a small-town girl. Lived here her whole life. She’s never been a stranger.

    As I look around, I get an urge to clean up a before Sammy arrives. But I don’t. Wouldn’t do any good. Dad doesn’t clean, and I always use work as an excuse not to. So the place just stays dirty. Piles of trash and junk crawl up the walls. We’ve weaved little paths around them to get by. Sammy says she doesn’t mind, but secretly I think it disgusts her. It sure does me. Really, my room is the only livable space in the house, the only place I even try to keep clean.

    An Altoid gets the booze off my breath. Then I go outside, sit in a shaded lawn chair, and wait for Sammy. My muscles are limp and heavy. Sammy pulls up after a while, gets out. I meet her halfway, and she throws her arms around me and puts an ear to my chest and holds still

    “What happened at work?”

    “How’d you know?”

    That’s where you’ve been all day, and you said you had a bad day.”

    I dented the tailgate on boss’ truck. He wanted 450 to fix it.” I pause a moment, afraid to tell her the rest. “Then I got mad and I quit.”

    “You got mad?” She smiles the way you would at a quirk, silly and familiar, laughable, but I can’t even act light-hearted. We might lose the house.

    “Yeah. It wasn’t good, real ugly.”

    “Well, you hated that job. Now you won’t have to hate it anymore.”

    I needed that job.”

    There’s other jobs. Can you get on at Spirit? Ricky got a job there.”

    I’d need a high school diploma.” She’s making me explain this, even though she knows it damn well already.

    “Or a GED.” She says lightly. “I can help you get a GED. I’ll help you study.”

    “Can we talk about something else?” My breathing is getting shallow, but I ask for pity. Please, I think, don’t make me think about all this.


    Come on.” I start towards the shed. “The sun’s going down.”

    Our trailer is nestled on the edge of a valley, where the Walnut River snakes through the hills and carves a river-plain, and on its roof you can see for miles. Sometimes we sit up there together and take in the rolling hills dotted with trees like cotton balls. It’s hay season. They baled the pastures a few weeks ago, shaved the hills nice and clean and left these tight, uniform bales to dry, spread evenly across the plain.

    We climb up the shed, pull ourselves onto the roof, and mosey over near the TV antenna and sit facing the sun, half hidden behind the clouds, casting golden threads out east, where the great shadow of the earth moves slowly west.

    Neither of us speak for a long time. My hand runs circles on her back. There’s a corn field south of us, all ripe and tall and full of stalks. Some weeks ago, me and Sammy walked through it to the other side, getting lost from one another on the way. She was hidden behind the rows, but I heard her laughing. We chased each other, and we played so easily, the way children do: nothing on our minds, entirely lost in the moment. It was one of those days you find yourself thinking about and smiling at without realizing, a day you’ll try to repeat. But nothing will ever come close; days like that can’t be planned.

    As I’m thinking of all this, as I’m smiling at the memory, she takes my hand and holds it in both of hers.

    “I’ll help you study for your GED. It’s really not that hard. They want you to pass.”

    “And what if I don’t?” I’m done talking about it already. Seems like we always talk about it. “What if I study for all that damn time and do my best and I still never pass it?”

    “You will. You’re smarter than you think you are.”

    “Don’t talk me up. Don’t stroke my ego. I hate that shit.” I’m mad, but it doesn’t control me. The whiskey’s come on all the way. My whole body is glossed over and slow.

    “I’m just trying to help you.” She says flatly. “Just cause you did bad in school doesn’t mean you can’t learn. You had other things to worry about. You dropped out to get a job, not cause you couldn’t do the work. Remember? You guys needed money.”

    “That’s what I said.” I can feel my inhibitions lowering, and I’m about to say what I’ve never told anyone. “But really I was scared as hell to go every morning. I didn’t how or why, but I knew I was gonna fuck something up and look stupid. I always did. I’d get a question wrong, and everyone would laugh and make fun of me and constantly remind me of it. Made me feel small, like a little kid. That’s when I couldn’t do it anymore, after too much of that. That’s when I gave up.”

    “That doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”

    “It’s a goddamn piece of paper, Sammy. It doesn’t mean shit.” The words come from the edge of my throat, sharp and quick.

    “Don’t get mad.”

    “I’m not mad.” I want to believe myself, but I hear that horrible whine building around me, sirens that block all cautious thought. So I turn away, try to get myself under control.

    When I turn back, her face has changed. Her lips are tight, and she leans in close to me.

    “Are you drunk?”

    “I was upset earlier.”

    “I thought we weren’t gonna drink during the day anymore?”

    “You don’t know how hard it is.” I wanna say more, tell her how her daddy still foots the bills, how she can’t tell me anything about what I should do. But I know better.

    Her eyes are worried and puffy. They weigh on me. “I want you to see someone. Your dad’s a veteran. You can use the VA until you’re twenty-five. I looked into it. It won’t cost you hardly anything.”

    “I’m not depressed.”

    “I’m not talking about for depression. You get angry a lot, and sometimes it’s really scary.”

    “I can handle it. Don’t worry.”

    “I’ve seen you when you’re like that. God forbid someone should get mad like that back at you. You wouldn’t be able to stop yourself.”

    She’s right, but I’m too mad to accept it. “I have so far.”

    “Marshall, you’re self-aware enough to know how bad it gets. Nobody likes to focus on their problems, but they’ll never go away if you don’t. I mean, you get so stressed you drink and then you try to hide it. You do that a lot. You’re drunk almost every time I see you, and I see you everyday. There comes a point, Marshall. You can’t even hold down a job.”

    “You think I don’t know that?” There was no decision to yell at her. It got the better of me. “What are you doing? You think you’re saving me? Fixing me? You’re not. I know I’m horrible. I know I’m a fuck up. I don’t need anyone pointing out problems I’m already well-aware of. I don’t need that shit. I don’t need to hear that shit.”

    Her lips stay closed, and her dimpled chin quivers. “I’m gonna go.” She says, eyes glimmering.

    “I’m sorry.” The words are tense, no calmer than before. My chest thumps horribly.

    She waits in silence a while before getting up. When she finally does, I’m too mad to follow. She climbs onto the shed and down to the ground. Her car starts, backs up, and rolls off down the gravel road, but I don’t even glance over. I’ve seen it a hundred times.

    It takes me a while to calm down. But eventually I do. I always do, and I come around feeling real stupid for what I did today: quitting my job and drinking too much and treating Sammy like that. She’ll leave me if this keeps up. No one’s that patient.

    For a long time, I stay on the roof, watching the sunset over the plains. The town sits a few miles north of here. There’s a water tower, a couple grain elevators, and a whole community of low-lying houses and schools hiding under the trees. I imagine the different cities of the world scaled up to the horizon, how they’d cover this country as far as I could see. And all at once this place seems far too small for me, too constrictive, too barren. Maybe that’s what it was. Maybe there just isn’t enough space. Maybe I needed to be a stranger in an ocean of strangers, my name one question away, known by no one.

    Someday soon I’ll find myself at the VA, talking to someone who might see all this differently than I do. The VA. Up near Emporia off the interstate. Emporia. Maybe I’ll go that far. Then maybe a little further: California or New York, Germany, or China. I think of dad in his recliner. Good old Red. Been fightin’ off the dogs his whole life. He’s at the end of the rope, and then I don’t know what. His ghost can haunt my whole life, but I ain’t running. That’s what no one ever told me: you never run; you let life happen to you.

    But now, as the sun is smothered under the great curve of the earth, as that long shadow delivers another night, I’ll stay up here a while, until the twilight’s gone. And even then, I won’t leave. No. I’ll listen. Listen to sounds the morning will never hear, to the wind cooling the sun-burnt grass, to the locusts, to the bullfrogs, and to the sirens: lurking, waiting for the next late-summer rain, just close enough for me to hear.



    About The Author

    Benjamin Smart

    Benjamin Smart’s stories have appeared in the Arkansas Review (“Beneath the Water”) the Blue Lake Review, and Skryptor Magazine. He is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas; holds a B.A. in English, and currently resides in Lawrence, Kansas.