À La Carte: A People’s History

[fiction]

An overcast day in early November: wolf-gray sky, scraps of cloud pasted above the ragged skyline of the city. Here, half-reclined on a worn green corduroy couch, furred belly bare beneath a struggling hem and a thick braid of drool making a moat of his shirt collar, is Sam, freshly awakened in the living room of his small house by a strange and menacing sound. Outside, at the edge of a threadbare lawn, the Flint River sweeps past, its mottled surface bearing leaves that twirl in the current and catch on the grasping fingers of drowned trees. Farther downriver shuttered buildings line the banks, their windows smashed, rust-colored doors scrawled with graffiti.

Sam has been having a pleasant if peculiar dream, one in which he finds himself exploring a series of unfamiliar homes: seaside saltboxes; a rambling neoclassical manse; dim, low-slung ranches not unlike his own. Doors flung open, each house seems to beckon, to promise him something mysterious and profound, but as he wanders through the unlit rooms, he cannot for the life of him figure out what it could be. The last house he visits is the mansion: white, with rows of sparkling windows and a broad columned porch. Inside, its chambers seem to go on forever. Hallways lead to more hallways, rooms to other rooms. Sam drifts along as if in a maze, rheumy eyes aimed at the distance, his fingers brushing the curved white walls. He passes golden candelabras and mahogany desks with the hoofed feet of fauns. Oriental rugs cover the floors, and the mantels are hung with stately portraits in gilt frames. He has just entered what appears to be a grand bedroom when he is awakened by the sound.

He hoists himself upright and waits, silent, still. A minute passes. Another. He hears it again: a scratching noise, followed this time by a distinct bang, like the backfiring of his old Dodge truck. Wordlessly he rises, the couch springs wheezing beneath him, and lumbers to the window, where he can see the full expanse of his backyard, clear down to the river. He unclasps the lock and throws open the sash; the crisp air stirs his thinning hair. His eyes pass over his property—the rotting porch, a beached canoe, his collapsing ramshackle shed—but nothing seems amiss. He hears only the wind and the chirp of a fat robin poking hungrily at a patch of yellow-headed weeds.

As he closes the window, Sam catches a glimpse of his face in the glass: furrowed eyes, waggling chin. A bulbous nose crosshatched with red veins. He sighs and sinks back to the couch. It seems impossible that he has become the pale old man he sees in the window, and yet here he is: sixty-seven, with a bad back and a face like splintered stone, unmarried and childless and living off a small income from Social Security checks. He glances back at the window and feels a hot jet of fear rise into his chest. Ever since losing his auto job five years ago, replaced by a robotic cart that delivers parts to assembly lines, Sam has lived in terror of strange sounds. Many nights he’s lain awake listening for the jangle of a doorjamb, shattering glass, the thump of booted feet. He’s heard stories, unconfirmed but frightening nonetheless, of neighbors torn from their beds and beaten with bats, friends slashed by knives over a handful of crumpled bills. Cars stolen, homes ransacked, old ladies lying bloodied on the floor. Outside his thin doors, it seems the city itself—hell, the country—is being ravaged by a dark, unknowable force. Queers getting married, Muslims carrying bombs, illegal immigrants hightailing it across the border in search of American jobs. He’s started seeing danger everywhere he goes: in the kitchen at Mel’s Diner, where brown faces, glimpsed through an opening behind the register, bend darkly over his food; at the supermarket, where the black bag boys seem to leer at him from beneath drawn, malevolent grins; even outside his favorite convenience store, its stoop scattered with the fragrant homeless, their cups thrust angrily at his knees. He has visions sometimes of a river of dark skin spilling the banks of the Flint and rushing toward his house, flipping cars, engulfing streetlamps, blasting through shop windows in town. Finally, it reaches his street, his yard, his door, and as he trembles behind the couch, a pile of chairs stacked in the entryway, the mad river seethes through his mail slot, splinters his door, topples his walls, and, with a last hysterical roar, swallows his soft body whole.

It is this he imagines now, this river of dark skin at his doorstep, as he lies back on the couch and commences to listen again for the sound. Outside, the day is growing dark, the yard webbed with twilit shadow. Across the room the television is muted, and on the screen two men engage in a frenzied debate, their silent mouths twisted and strained. Sam settles himself against a cushion and crosses his legs at the ankle. The downy tongues of his slippers are torn, and as he props his feet on the couch arm a patch of matted fur comes loose and floats to the floor.

He has just closed his eyes when again he hears it: scratch, scratch, bang. The sound is louder this time, insistent. He rises to an elbow, eyes trained on the window. There: a flicker, a shadow flashing past the glass. For a minute he holds his breath. In the stillness his heartbeat seems deafening, unaccountably loud. The sound comes again, and with it another vague fluttering at the window. He drops heavily to his knees and crawls toward the sill. His legs ache; the carpeted floor is coarse on the skin of his forearms. The fear is in his throat now, a thickening that halts his breath. A wave of self-pity washes over him, supplanted quickly by rage. “Show yourself!” he shouts into the half-light. “I ain’t afraid of no spook!” He pounds his palm on the rug. He can hardly see; his eyes are wild with fright, his mind dancing with menacing visions: a hulking black man with an automatic pistol; Mexicans brandishing knives, bandanas covering their faces; a turbaned Muslim igniting homemade bombs.

With a grunt he wriggles back to the couch and begins Army-crawling down the narrow hallway to his bedroom. There, in a closet, propped against the wall, is a rifle, a Remington 721 thirty-ought-six that had belonged to his grandfather. The gun has a slim black barrel and a scope shaped like a flashlight, and it can shatter the skull of a deer at 500 yards. Still prostrate on the floor, Sam jiggles open the closet door and yanks the gun down to his side. Taking it into his hands, he is struck by a memory so vivid it seems almost to have manifested physically before him, like the flickering reel of an old family film. In the vision he is standing beside his grandfather in a field. The day is clear and damply warm. In the distance, soup cans line an old split-rail fence. Beyond it, at the tree line, enormous oaks burst with fat green leaves. Sitting cross-legged on the grass, Sam watches his grandfather lift the rifle to his shoulder and peer through the scope. Expertly, the old man swings the barrel into place and then pauses, his right eye closed, left still pressed to the lens. “Never trust anyone who don’t look like you,” he says then, his lean frame motionless below the gun. The words themselves, which carry a hint of the southern accent inherited from his own sharecropper father, are like small salvoes in the otherwise silent field. Eyes wide, Sam stares up at his grandfather, too scared to reply. “You listening to me, boy?” the old man barks, then slowly he draws the barrel from where it’s aimed at the fence and swings it toward the child, bringing it to rest on the top of his small head. The gun’s black steel is warm on the soft fuzz of his crew cut. Back by the tree line, a hawk luffs its wings and lifts effortlessly into the sky. “Those people,” he continues, the gun still balanced on Sam’s head, “every last one of ‘em will rob you, and then they’ll shoot you where you stand. Don’t forget that, boy.” Without another word, the old man swings the gun back toward the fence and pulls the trigger, sending the middlemost can pinwheeling from its perch, then he kneels down and hands the gun to the boy.

It feels so much lighter, Sam thinks now, sighting the rifle in the darkened bedroom—far less unwieldy than it seemed that day in the field. He shakes a handful of bullets from a box and loads them one-by-one into the magazine; each enters the steel chamber with a satisfying click. With each bullet he tries to visualize the face of the intruder: black, red, brown, teeth bared, eyes blazing with menace. He imagines raising the rifle, sees a shadowy figure framed by the scope. Silently then, the gun at his side, he tiptoes back down the hallway and makes for the front door, then slips out into the night.

It is full dark now. From where he crouches by the side of the house he can barely make out the river. The tall oaks lining the bank rustle darkly in the breeze; their rounded forms seem to merge with the black water itself. The grass is cold and damp, and Sam can feel wetness seeping through the thin cloth of his jeans. His fear, so frenzied earlier, has narrowed into a kind of crystalline focus, and he is vaguely aware of having surrendered to its control. He lets it guide him now, rising into a squat and hurrying across the backyard toward the river, where he settles onto one knee in the hollow of a thick trunk. From here he can see the length of the tree line, and as he stills himself to look for movement, he feels his breathing growing shallow and quick.

A moment passes, then he sees it: a figure darting along the riverbank, a long, thin object hanging at its side. It is a ghostly sight, spectral and strange. Sam hoists the gun and takes off toward the bank, the barrel wobbling as he hurdles roots and weaves between darkened trees. Up ahead he can hear leaves being crushed by scampering feet. Suddenly the sound stops, and Sam sees the figure dip behind a tree and vanish. He raises the scope to his eye and focuses it on the tree: at the base of the trunk, he can just make out the black sole of a shoe. Whoever—whatever—it is, he’s got him now.

Rifle fixed to his shoulder, he advances across the leaf-covered grass toward the tree. In his belly he feels a kind of fizzy elation, the manic ecstasy of a conqueror. Suddenly he sees himself on a movie screen, framed by towering cliffs. He’s wearing a loose buckskin vest with a sheriff’s star fastened to one side, and on his head is a massive ten-gallon hat. Nearby, his bounty cowers beside a creek, limbs quaking with fear. Its face, Sam notices on the screen of his mind, is not a single visage but rather a kaleidoscope of the faces of all the world’s undesirables—Muslims and Mexicans, queers and tattooed blacks—scrolling by like jukebox sleeves atop a thin brown neck. He sees the goateed man who used to tease him in rapid-fire Spanish in the break room at the plant. He sees the grinning Ivy League techie who invented the robot that stole his job. He sees the slim, dark face of the president, his lips pursed, eyebrows arched with disdain.

As if a match has been struck and held to a wick, these visions set off a kind of detonation in Sam’s brain, and with a whooping war cry, he bolts for the tree, punctuating each stride with a different shouted slur: “Gook! Guinea! Spic! Spook!” Birds flee from branches; sticks snap beneath his boots. “I’ll send you back to your own country!” he roars. “There’s no place for you in mine!” Saliva spurts from his lips, ticking like rain on the leaf-covered ground below. A puddle of black sweat has spread across the back of his shirt. With a shaking hand he raises his grandfather’s gun and presses the bolt into the chamber, then cranks it locked. The trigger feels expectant under the soft pad of his index finger. “Old Sam’s got you now!” he screams to the cloud-streaked night sky, then, hands tingling, eyes shining with rapture, he takes a deep, exultant breath and springs to the far side of the towering trunk.

There, at the tapered end of his long black barrel, Sam is stunned to find not some hoodlum or knife-waving thief, but rather the small, bright eyes of a child—a little girl of indeterminate race, peering up at him from beneath a curtain of trembling bangs. She shrinks in the shadow of the huge tree, her cheeks wet, one tiny hand clamped around a stick. Sam staggers back, his boots catching on the tree’s gnarled roots. All at once his fantasy, his enchanting, energizing fear, goes out of him like the hiss of stale air from a punctured balloon. The child’s face—so innocent, so full of startling beauty—seems to have blinded him, and he whirls and flees from the sight, his feet skidding, the gun clattering heavily at his side as he scrambles for the lighted windows of his house, wet leaves like ice beneath his boots and in his ears a kind of noiseless roar, the roar of his breath and the blood shooting through his veins, his heart sending small blasts into the cage of his chest, and then he is stumbling, falling, the sky in his eyes now and the gun slipping from his grip and his free hand clawing for purchase in the stars, the air, the onrushing grass, and just as he topples to the earth, he hears the shot—a pure, clean sound that hangs in the crisp air like the unexpected call of his own name.

Sam lies back then, feeling a warm wetness spread over his belly, and as his breathing slows and his vision begins to go black, the last thing he sees, like an apparition outlined against the vaulted night sky, is the approach of two small feet bounding toward him across the grass.

 

Tom Lakin is a graduate of Emerson College’s MFA program, where he was a full-tuition fellow. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Noble / Gas QuarterlyPleiadesPembroke Magazine, and The Adroit Journal. He is the recipient of the 2018 G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction, and was a finalist in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2014 Story Contest. He lives with his wife, daughter, and Boston terrier in Boston’s South End.