"Thank you for the rain last night," David Quarry silently prayed in the immigrant voice of his old grandfather. "Thank you for the cool, cool rain, rollin' over farms and into dirty mirrored sheets of urban glass. Down into the yellow muddy rivers, cuttin' through and along the iron road like a scythe of meticulous wonder. Rollin' alongside a cool harsh wind, rustlin' wondrously the thrivin' leaves of my puzzlin' wish fulfillments. Through those gray and dusty screens of wasp shadows and ghost towns, over a razor ledge strewn with dirt and sunshine. Rollin' and scatterin' sharp cuts of fine Turkish silk from where the air breathes as oil-drenched nails and a tea drinkin' man named Murat runs a cobblestone shop. And the water still rolls and rolls, off of chipped gutters and into thirsty beds through ant-hills like a boilin' sea to tickle the toes of little girls and big girls, lethargically droppin' from the tips of flower petals and the coal- hued braids of telephone wires. Yep, it rolls and rolls, over and over and all throughout. Rumblin' brave fat mama birds and makin' impressions of lastin' significance on their famous eggs."
"Amen," he said out loud, coming clean through a throat that felt like a coarse marble rattling in his neck. He adjusted his swollen eyes and focused up at the mostly stainless ceiling, rendered squarely out of a cratered and face-mired substance.
"What do you get out of looking at this ceiling?" June once asked Quarry, while she lay on his tiled floor, a magazine open on her midriff and smooth legs splayed out from her behind under a velvet skirt.
"I get faces sometimes."
"What kinds of faces?" she asked. "Fire and brimstone faces? Or do you just lie in your bed going..." imitating the husky nasality of Quarry's voice: "Oh yeah look it's Hank Williams Sr., oh hey wow, there's Rosie the Riveter. Look! Oh I can't believe it, it's the face of Mustapha Ataturk, face to face with Ivan the Terrible! What a showdown!" she giggled to herself, not caring if Quarry found humor, dark or light, in her veiled satirical assumptions regarding what was and often still is the current state of his reluctant mental flow. "What would you call that color?" she prodded some more as if she had asked the same question at least once before.
"That color," now emphatically, re-directing Quarry to the ceiling by boring her gaze into its pasty landscape.
"I don't know June. White?"
"I'd call that color industrial white man," continued June.
"Are you still on a roll?" Quarry asked, feeling the low hum of the box fan as it blew a sticky late-winter breeze on his bare neck, inducing him to scratch the moist skin over the top of his spine. He then moved the same hand onto her mid-riff, over the magazine and under her hand, allowing the side of his palm to feel the weight of her arm while sticking to the glossy magazine paper. He folded her fingers so that only the index pointed. He gently raised her arm, directing it behind her and over his bed. Next, he placed his right hand behind her neck and pushed up gently, resting his left hand on her smooth forehead and pushing down until her eyes stared in the direction of her raised limb.
"What?" she asked.
"Don't you see them?"
"See what?" -- a pause while Quarry adjusted his crouch to view his own observation -- "Faces?"
He spoke innocuously. "Yes, faces. Look hard." The clock was pressing on as he steered his hand in the practiced manner of an amateur magician, unveiling a pristine white egg.
June gazed in to the ceiling and drew in a deep breath; expanding her chest, constricting her abdomen, flexing her calves and thighs and pointing her toes. A look of smiling satisfaction crossed her face and Quarry asked: "You see it?"
"Uhh," she started in reply, her smile disintegrating. She then twisted her lips of ruby and dropped the index finger between her front teeth and said, "See what?"
The alarm stridently beeped two feet from Quarry's right ear. Because it was bigger than the off switch he raised himself up and hit the snooze button. He then fell onto his back to begin the nine minute ritual of clearing his mind, smoking a cigarette, exhaling upward, and staring through blue smoke at the quiet ceiling above. The calm of the ceiling made him think of the Rocky Mountains and his days living on the Front Range. First he made his way as a teacher, then a silently fired teacher, and finally a newspaper delivery man. "Not bad times," he thought. "Getting up at three- thirty every morning and driving through the streets listening to music, enjoying the final hours of commerce in its dead sleep, leaving only the foothills to be there, providing company, standing silently with their arms folded and their faces in a dark, everlasting stare, looking down on it all." Quarry then recalled his solitary hikes and climbs up the sides of those peaks. They normally took place after he returned home from his job at about 8:00 a.m., when he'd find June sitting in her robe, cross-legged in the one kitchen chair, petting the cat, drinking coffee, and reading a magazine. A few times when he went home and stumbled upon the redolence of this mood, she reminded him of a snake, gravely judging his every move, inflamed and coiled to strike.
The problem with June in Colorado was that unlike Quarry she had not moved west from their hometown in Ohio to listlessly vanish for a convalescent spell, held loosely in the trusting optimism of slack fortune. She went there to put down roots and cultivate her elder's experience into a home, and her untimely wisdom told her that one place festered as much as the other with the hidden, fulfilling providence of runaways. One of her favorite past-times involved strolling through the barren Ft. Collins night with Quarry, looking into the windows of little houses and saying things like; "I'd like to live there, that's a cute house. I like how it's made out of stone and I like that tree. If we lived there I could have a garden and you could get some dogs." She'd also hold his hand on the walks and sometimes squeeze it four times, asking him in syllables; "Do you love me?" And he would always answer back in three squeezes; "Yes I do."
With less than one minute to go and without looking, Quarry reached over and flipped off the snooze. Pulling himself out of bed, he heard the clanging of pots and pans coming from the kitchen. His mother was getting breakfast started and trying to rouse him out of sleep. She regularly achieved this by forsaking her graceful motions for an acted clumsiness intended to excite the consciousness of her son. Quarry laughed at this and remembered that his mother became more childish with every passing day. At the sound of his footsteps entering the bathroom she abruptly ceased the rattling of kitchenware, the first order of the day struck from her list, and Quarry climbed into the shower.
In the shower Quarry thought of his climbs up the mountains. He always felt that as he made it further and further he would gather a collection, a flock, of stalking pit vipers, surrounding him and bickering away with their horny rattles in escort up the side of the mountain, over and around the cool streams of run off, shadowed by dark towers of pine. A few times he almost summoned the wrath of one by stepping on it as their paths intersected, but he never did. He didn't know what would happen if he did. Would he foam at the mouth? Would his insides turn to a melting inferno at the touch of the venom, nervous system losing its nerve? Or would he run out of breath, lying on his back while sinking back into the ground, becoming a monument in a place that had never changed, except in the visceral desire to graciously hive more of itself.
The shower went quick. Too quick. As he allowed the water to fall over his body, rinsing the soap away, he examined himself once more through the clear curtain, still seeing only his outline and the glare of the silver crucifix that hung from his neck. He fondled the cross and thought: "Everyone gets one of these things bestowed upon them where I come from. Hell, I haven't even been to church in I don't know how many years. I almost forgot I had it on. Yep, it brands me as local."
Stepping out of the shower he quickly moved to his drawers and threw some clothes on; old jeans, an old t-shirt, white socks, and steel-toed boots. He then looked at the clock and realized that he was okay as sweat began to bead over his forehead. A feeling of weariness entered his limbs while one glance at the bed made the horizontal state seem irresistible. He was still tired.
"That damn Ernie," he thought to himself in reference to Ernie Williams. Ever since Quarry had returned to the neighborhood Ernie had decided, every morning, to make it his business to head out to the dark hollow beneath the hill and have it out with his demons. "How did I hear it this morning?" Ernie accomplished this by situating himself in the thick darkness at around 4:30 a.m. every day, whooping and screaming. The first time Ernie awakened Quarry, on his first night back, he felt positive that someone was performing straight, non-anesthetic surgery on a wild animal.
He recalled that he climbed out of bed and trudged through the darkness, getting closer and closer with flashlight in hand. When he noticed that mercy didn't exist and the painful howls emanated from the heart of a man, a real man, he switched the flashlight off and moved cautiously ahead. When he got to Ernie he could see him standing on a big, rotten, fallen log, sort of crouched over with his hands on his knees and his big belly falling between his thighs. Quarry just stood there and watched, thoroughly entertained and figuring that whoever it was, was so engrossed in his actions that he would never notice his presence. But Ernie, sensing a foreigner, opened his flashlight and let the beam burst under his chin: "Who goes there?" he asked through wide and innocent eyes.
"It's me," answered Quarry."
"David? That you? What the hell are you doing here?"
"I heard you screaming and thought that someone was slaughtering pigs down here."
"Very funny, I still see the smart-ass hasn't left you in all your time away," answered Ernie as he rubbed his ample belly.
"No, I'm serious. Never mind."
"What I meant in the first place David, is what are you doing back in town again? I thought you were gone for good," both men were shouting in whispers.
"Being a victim of strife-filled magnetism I guess. Shouldn't I be the one asking you what the hell you're doing here, I mean at this very minute in the hollow screaming and waking my ass up as if I or anyone else in this neighborhood didn't exist?"
"That woke you up? Gee I'm sorry, I've been doing this every day now for about seven months. Didn't think anybody could hear it. I just assumed that the noise died somewhere down here."
"Man were you wrong. I've got insomnia enough as it is without your carrying on like that," Quarry said before he paused to let the fact of his return home sink in amongst the dewy air. He then asked with a hint of suspicion: "You been drinking a lot?"
"Um no, well nothing like that, not really you see. What I've been getting into is screaming first thing in the morning so that I can release all of my anger prior to facing the day. That way when I go to teach or face my wife and kids I won't be hollering so much."
Quarry laughed at the word hollering coming from Ernie in his public educator tones, just like a junior high teacher. He had Ernie for math in the seventh grade and didn't remember any yelling at all. As a matter of fact, Ernie hadn't done anything but rest quietly behind his desk while Quarry shot spit-balls on the blue walls covered by photos of scientific men. "Why have you been yelling, Ernie?" he asked as if he didn't quite catch it the first time.
"Oh, I don't know son," he answered, staring down at his feet. "Just frustration I guess. People seem to be there to absorb it. So I yell, or used to yell..." he corrected, standing tall and raising his right index finger... "at them."
"Does this, this therapy help you?" asked Quarry in a genuine state of interest.
"Yes it does," answered Ernie matter-of-fact-like. "It cleared the problem straight up."
"Geez Ernie, I'd think you were talking about a rash the way you go on about it," Quarry laughed to himself.
"Oh no son, I'm talking about something else, I'm talking about being a man who's been stiffed and who's reacting in a less than positive manner, I'm talking about being an animal who has no regard whatsoever for others, only himself, I'm talking about being an abuser to the highest and most deplorable degree."
"Okay Ernie, I don't mind if you scream as long as it helps you out," said Quarry as he began to walk away.
"Whoever said that you could call me Ernie?"
Quarry smiled a big grin while noticing Ernie's white briefs, white t-shirt, and flip-flops in the rising sun. He then answered full- voiced: "The same friendly son of a bitch who said you could call me son." Quarry turned for home, feeling the dew seep through his slippers, listening to Ernie rip it out.
Quarry stretched one last time and looked up, ready to go. The faces on the ceiling were indeed there, and in many cases June had gotten it right, he did entertain himself with various faces, but she had also gotten it wrong. Quarry had been there so long and knew the ceiling so well that he could combine the fateful intricacies of its patterns and smoothly summon any visage from its rough boundaries. Not just dull famous faces, fat political faces, and lovely to jerk-off to faces, but also familiar faces.
A centipede scratched its way across the ceiling, its legs
looked formed by lines of dust blowing in a back and forth wind.
Quarry, in a compelled show of energy, swung from the bed and
hurled himself down the stairs. Two days prior, Ernie had killed
himself while screaming in the hollow. There was a funeral to attend.
© 2001 Eric Uys, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
Both this story and "Westward" [also published in the Spring 2001 update] revolve around my existence in and out of Youngstown, Ohio, and the south side of Chicago -- two of America's hardest-bitten, rust-belt sections. My entire life amongst and away from these beautiful and horrifying places has left me confounded every morning as to whether I should puke or do cart-wheels. A dilemma from which I have always failed to escape.