Hell is a Dry Heat

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Chris DeWildt


Junkyard Cat
Photo Credit: Roy Schreffler

The old man woke early. He felt the springs of his cot bed poking through the sheet and he smiled as he remembered when he was like a spring, full of stored energy and purpose. He laughed lightly through the discomfort because he’d come to expect it, and there was a certain pleasure he could take in the pain, the gentle prodding to rise that he may not have been able to generate himself. He rolled slowly to his side and barely resisted gravity as his legs fell from the bed, hit the grit-dusted, wooden floor of his cabin. He called it a cabin, shack is the way others put it, a name that did not do it justice, but was not altogether off the mark. Still, it was weather-proofed and clean as it could be with the old man as creator and caretaker. He breathed deeply the quickly warming air and lay still for a moment longer, a twisted sculpture of torso and legs, bent like some old liver-spotted sycamore finally blown crooked by years and years of a light, persistent breeze.

He parted the curtain that separated the small sleeping room from the main room of the cabin, still bare-chested in old blue corduroy pants that were nearly falling off under the awning of his great gorilla belly. The hair was long gone, but the muscle was still massive and strong and carried him through the day. The old man circled his hand over the skin, as if making a wish upon it.

The cats, sensing his awakening, came forth from the piles of discarded goods that surrounded the home like caricatures of the distant mountains. The beasts with memory of a time of warm winters by a hearth, these animals snaked through his legs and purred and the old man took notice of them as to avoid a fall that he knew would crack a hip.

Outside, more cats lay in the sun, flopping lazy tails and he stepped past them and pulled an armload of wood from the neat pile that lined the length of the cabin and then set it back so he could tie down the corner of tarp roof that had come loose in the night. The old man gathered the wood and again stepped over the cats before loading the belly of the old Franklin stove. Poofing clouds of ash escaped the stove’s mighty gut and disappeared, mixing with the clean air. He struck a blue-tip match on a chipped tooth and lit a rolled piece of newspaper. He held the paper to the dry wood and it began to burn quickly. The old man closed the door of the stove and put on a kettle of gathered rainwater to boil for coffee.

While he waited for the water he fed the cats from a bag which itself had a picture of a cat on it. The old man was not one to cater to the felines, nothing more than companionship, same as was what they offered, but the boy had brought the food and the old man thought it a sin to waste the gift. The boy had reminded him that the cats killed the rats and the old man reminded the boy that it was their nature and if the old man died in the night they would probably eat him too. At that the boy had laughed, but when he saw the seriousness in the old man’s eyes he stopped and the next day brought the bag of food. The old man watched the cats gather around the hubcap in which he’d poured the meal and stroked them as they ate greedily and tried to appease the parasites in their guts. The old man plucked ticks from behind their ears and sliced at the hard red bodies with his hard thumb and fingernail, checking and rechecking each of them until they no longer moved upon release of the pressure. He hated them and tried to see past their nature, but he could not. He believed in God and purpose, but could not for his life rationalize a purpose for the ticks. Though he’d killed them for years, he had not been struck down so he figured perhaps even God had regrets.

The old man collected the dead ticks in his palm. He lifted one of the burner covers and turned his palm over and dropped the ticks into the flame. He listened to them crackle and managed to force a feeling of sadness for them in their final purpose even though they had done the cats wrong. Wrong or not, nature or not, regret or not, they were only what they were and could be nothing else.

The old man put the ticks out of his mind and took the dried, used coffee grounds from the windowsill. The window was once part of a car windshield and the wall was built around it so that it was not a square but closer to another, undefined shape. It did not need to be square to let him look out in anticipation of the boy’s visits, to let the sunlight dry his coffee grounds and allow him one more gift from their grains.

He rewrapped the cheesecloth tight around the grounds and placed them inside his porcelain cup, poured the hot water over them and watched the clear water change color, the swirling leak from the cheesecloth spinning and spreading and changing the water to an even brown. He had dry beans to grind, raw beans to roast, and living beans to pick in his small garden behind the shack, but he believed in getting everything he could from the things he had. The boy laughed at his weak coffee and told him about a shop across town where people spent upwards of five dollars for a single cup and the old man thought he was trying to tease him, but the boy insisted and the man had no choice but to believe because he wasn’t interested or curious enough to confirm such a trivial piece of information, no matter how ridiculous it seemed to him. He had only a few plants and enough coffee to last the rest of his life and each cup cost less than the one before it. He displaced judgment and remembered he had what he needed and had his way and was comfortable enough for an old man and was thankful he did not need five dollars for a cup of coffee, and remembering that truth made the weak brown water taste very pleasant.

*

The man knew something was different that morning when it was not only the boy behind his locked gates, the chain links waiting for him to open them so the world could come and add to his mountains of debris. The boy was accompanied by three others and they stood straddling their bikes, looking at the old man as he approached, and then to the boy who would speak for them all.

“What’s this?”

“These are friends of mine, from the neighborhood. Can I borrow the twenty-two?”

“For? You squirrel hunting?”

“No. Coyote killed Mike’s dog and we’re going to find it and kill it.”

The old man looked over the boys, for Mike, but no boy came forward as the offended party.

“You know it was a coyote?”

“Had to be. There’s been lots of dogs bloodied and some missing. And people have seen it. Come up the wash, I figure. Dry, you know?”

The old man did know and his mind’s eye went to his rain barrel and he knew that if it didn’t rain soon he’d need to buy water or maybe even break down and contract the tools for a well. The river that ran through the back of the property had shrunk to a urine-stream trickle.

“So can we borrow it?”

“You think you can kill it if you find it?”

“You’ve seen me pick off rats and squirrels. I can put one through their heads at twenty yards. I can get a good shot on a coyote.”

The old man didn’t doubt it. The boy did not know how to shoot when he first began coming to the junkyard cabin, but the old man had worked with him and the boy took to killing very comfortably.

“You can borrow it.” The old man turned away and listened to the sound of bicycle tires in the dirt behind him. The boys did not speak because he was there and that made him smile. Shy boys were funny to him. What was he to be feared? He was the old man at the dump, part legend, part joke.

He took the gun from inside the cabin, it was secured in a tied off blue-jean-leg holster with braided shoestrings tied to both ends as a shoulder strap. He handed the gun to the boy and the boy slung it over his shoulder and around his back in a smooth, familiar motion. He nodded thanks and turned away on his bike. The other boys parted the way for him and then turned their own bikes and followed, peddling slowly at first and then faster, as if the old man was some kind of magnetic force that only allowed them to move freely the greater the distance between them.

*

The old man finished his coffee and pushed aside his disappointment that he would not have the boy’s company that day. He had a special project he was tending to and would have liked to hear the boy’s thoughts, if only for amusement. He was such a modern boy and always commented on the curious ways he found in the old man’s actions and words and habits and beliefs, but the old man liked him and his way. The boy was proof of how far the old man had drifted from everything else, but also proof that maybe it wasn’t completely hopeless. Despite his wisecracking and suggestions, the boy was quick to learn and eager to try. And if nothing else, a few of the old man’s lessons might make it another generation before there was nothing left of him but the rusted, rotting remains of the junk and his own dusty bones.

The special project had started as a dream, not a wish but a nighttime tale spun from somewhere deep within his soul. The dream had come often and he had initially pushed it aside, but it returned and the man had decided to ponder it. The dream was nothing elaborate or fantastic. It was a riverbed, dry and dead. There was a single large rock, two feet by two feet near the opposite bank. He knew the rock. The old man stood beside that river just watching the dirt be dirt, the rock be a rock. And that was all, no other clues as to what it could have meant, just a feeling, its significance brought on by repetition of the dream, hinting that perhaps there was something of value to be found in that dry old dream of a river come and gone. So the old man had taken to meditating on the dream and looked for metaphors and thought about his own life and why he may want to pay such attention to this dream, but he was unable to come up with a single thing. A dry riverbed? Not so unusual in the desert. His standing beside it? He’d stood beside many dry beds, crossed them on horseback when people still rode horses, cursed them when they offered no respite for either he nor Gwen Clover, his mare. Finally, he resolved to do nothing until he had the dream again and then he would still do nothing but let the old spirits guide him through the meaning of the dream, the meaning he could not parse on his own. And the previous night, the dream came again. The old man had pushed it out of his mind, refused to think through it again and waited for the guidance he’d asked for, and that very morning it had come to him with the sound of the popping ticks in the fire.

He’d felt an old feeling of joy well up, but he tamped it down quickly, not wanting that joy to become some sort of unwarranted pride. He knew that it was not his reward to accept. He’d asked for help and received it, like a man trapped under a rockslide who calls for aid in the dust, equally grateful for a hand or death. Pride was the old man watching others lift the rocks, pulling him free, and then turning around and taking the credit himself because it was he that cried out. That he would not do. He was to be only a vessel. And even if the vision was something created solely within him, no one could ever make him believe it.

The old man put on his boots and walked the winding paths of his junk mountains. Though it looked a hodgepodge of trash, there was a method to it, like with like. There were pieces of automobiles on the south side of the property, almost a full car if a man cared to play mad scientist. Wooden, dry-rotted things in another pile, old tires in another. The boy liked to climb that tire pile and he often scrambled to the top before he left in the evenings, watching the sun set behind the true mountains on the horizon. He said it was beautiful and the old man nodded, acknowledging the opinion. The lights of the town had brightened the land and the old man did not like the blue-black sky as much as the pure black he remembered as a boy, as a young man. But he knew the boy was sincere in his praise of nature and because of that the old man would not dispute it or try to better the boy’s image with one of his own.

The old man found the pile, or was led to it, and began pulling scraps of metal from its shape. He loaded his wheelbarrow full of the scrap and returned again and again, loading up more material for the creation that would flow from him. The old man did not notice the heat as his hands sweat inside leather gloves and the new pile of metal grew in the middle of the junk yard. He moved old rusted water heaters, pipe, raw copper wire and the like. Most of the metal was unrecognizable as anything man-made except for the fact that it did indeed exist. The old man let his thoughts drift to the objects’ initial states of creation, whatever they were, and he wondered if anyone or even the objects themselves had an idea what they would someday be part of.

He continued all day, pulling objects and scraps from piles, making his new mound of the chosen. The cats came to watch him. They lay in the sun, tails flapping and slapping puffs of dust from the earth, just observing the man and his work in between their naps. The old man sweat that day like a young man and looked fondly toward the ache of used muscles, a pleasant pain he hadn’t experienced for a time. The old man did not break for lunch or water, he felt nourished by his work, cooled by his own sweat like a horse, and at the end of the day, when he did drink the tepid, slightly acidic water from the rain barrel, it was the best he’d tasted.

That night he lay naked atop his blanket, ushering in sleep, hungry for the daylight that would allow him the sight to continue. He remembered the boy just before drifting away and wondered if the coyote had been found, but could not long consider any imagined scenario. Fatigue was upon him and he accepted it.

The dream came again and the old man woke remembering his project, recharged and ready to begin. He forced himself to eat a bowl of chicken stock, boiling the broth alongside his water for coffee. He ground his roasted coffee beans and the caffeine invigorated and excited him. He allowed himself the tiniest thoughts and plans as he waited for the sun and the light.

When it came he went to the hand-built shed behind his cabin, near his garden, and pulled from its guts the old mig welder and goggles, hoisted the tools with little strain into the wheelbarrow and brought it to the pile of scrap. The day lost all time as the old man again worked through the heat and the minutes, the hot scorching flame from the torch blazed hotter than the sun upon his skin. He first worked with the rusted hot water heater, affixing pipe, six pieces, with only a phantom of thought pressing him on.

Upon completion of this task he found he’d created a form in which the barrel rested horizontally upon the six legs of pipe. He affixed a rusted-out metal pail to one end of the water heater and then added two rounded, dead, headlight eyes. He heated the metal to a pliable form with the torch and hammered the mass into shape, rounding out the contours of the figure. He bent copper wire into wings, filled them out with mesh from an old screen door and lashing it together with long leather cord. He continued to work, to shape the mass and his mind drifted.

The old man was a young man on horseback, on Gwen Clover, standing beside the riverbed. It was not yet dry and he watched a young brown Yaqui Indian girl scrub the beautifully handmade cotton clothing on the rock jutting from the cold clean water. He spurred the mare and she stepped into the river, the soles of his boots skimming the surface. The girl looked at him fearfully at first, as if she’d been alone in the universe, and then her eyes smiled at him when realization of another soul came to be.

“Hello,” he said.

The girl nodded and tried to continue the washing, but the distraction in her heart numbed her fingers and she made clumsy passes over the scrub rock with the fabric. She laughed at herself and put the work aside. She looked up at him, sweat glazing her and she passed a forearm across her brow.

“Would you like to ride with me?”

She considered the washing and then left it all on the side of the river. She took his hand and allowed herself to be hoisted behind him on the saddle. He spurred the horse on again, led her east with the bridle. The girl held around his waist tightly as Gwen Clover gained speed through the scrubby desert brush. She looked back but could see nothing of the task she’d abandoned. She held tighter.

He took her to a pecan grove and they had one another in the shade. They ate raw pecans and watched a train puff black smoke on the horizon. He took her into town and they were married the next day with no rings. She wore white flowers in her hair. He purchased the small ranch the following morning. They knew nothing about goats but they learned together and made enough money to support two comfortably. She used her knowledge of the land to coax forth an acre of cotton and another of corn. She bore him no children. They were happy.

The old man sat puffing before the creature that had come from his hands through the spirits’ asking. It was a wasp like the one that had stung her and swelled her throat. They’d arrived at the hospital in time to learn she had a cancer strangling her uterus. They learned of it just in time to prepare for her death. The old man stroked the wasp, its rolled tin can stinger was smooth and sharp. The old man laid a hand on the thorax. It was hot from the sun and the old man took in the burning heat. His palms were thick with work and dulled to the extremes by age. The burning was pleasant. He stepped back and watched the heat radiate in watery waves from the entire body of the wasp. He looked through the heat and beyond the gate of his dump. He looked for the boy, the group of boys on bicycles, but they did not come. He gathered his tools and retired for the day.

The old man’s work took on that of ritual. He was up before the sun and feeding the cats and remembering dreams, using the visions to guide him. Somewhere was tucked the plan for his creation but he did not dare look for it. To look was to mistrust the spirits and then the work would be his and would not give credence to those that had come before, those who had gone. The man worked and did not know what he was making until, as if coming out of a trance, he could see the shaped twisted metal before him, taking the form of some living beast from his past. The exception was a tree. It was a pecan tree and upon that he allowed himself to look and linger and remember. After it came to be, the tree was the last thing he touched in the evening and the first to feel his rough, cracked palm in the dawn.

*

In less than a week the old man had created a menagerie of rusted life, set large and still in the midst of the piles of metal and plastic and other things worn and forgotten. There was the wasp and the tree and there was the deer, a revered life symbol of the Yaqui people. A turtle to carry away the worries of all those in the world, a horse, and then again, for her, a grove of rusted flowers atop television antennas, planted and glowing up in the midst of these animals. He’d used all of the materials he’d gathered that first day, not a scrap remained, and the old man felt he was finished. He admired the work, the spirits’ work, and tried not to be proud. It was very hard as the things from his vessel hands were things of beauty, but he reminded himself that he was lost until giving himself to the spirits. It was not his to hold or to have beheld by anyone for his own sake.

The old man dreamed again that night. It was not of the river or the rock or of her or of pecans. He dreamt he was the coyote, laughing in the night, nipping the heels of a deer, killing stray dogs, and he could taste the blood on his tongue as he yelped in the moonlight across the cool valley plain. The blood was warm and filled his belly with a greater hunger, as if the nourishing liquid fed not him, but the hunger itself, growing it stronger. With each stride the hunger pressed him on, making him more powerful, making the instinct to kill the deer that much greater. And then he was a young man, in a jail cell and still drunk. The blood he now tasted was his own after a fight, after she was dead. The need to hurt had grown with each swallow from the bottle, with each thought. The bourbon whiskey came up sweet with his burps as he sobbed alone behind the bars. After his release he watched the crops die, and the goats were killed by coyotes. He saw the ranch house fall apart around him, patched and cobbled back together with this and that from the piles he’d begun to collect.

The old man woke and heard his tarp roof flapping somewhere in the wind. He heard hard rain all around the shack, the storm extending for miles beyond him, he heard every drop. The monsoon had come and he tried to recapture the pain of the dream but it ran like water through his fingers. The darkness told him it was still very early and he thought about things other than himself. The boy, where was the boy? He hoped the coyote had not created trouble. A fighting coyote could be a rabid coyote. These worries put the old man back into a fitful sleep in which he was not anywhere but where he was, on a cot, in a cabin, in a junkyard, on the edge of town where the desert became its own again. He was alone but for the cats that meowed and howled and fought one another, wet and angry. This was rest.

*

The old man sat with his coffee at his small table, his good work resting deep in his mind and soul. He read the paper from the week before, tracing each line of each story, lines that were already faded and no longer left ink on his hard finger tips. There was the honk of a car horn and the old man remembered it was Saturday and that he’d have many new loads of scrap dropped off for disposal. The horn got him to his feet and he finished the last swallow of his weak coffee. There would be no rest.

The cats followed the old man into the sunshine, but the ground was not yet dry. The old man’s boots sunk slightly with each step and the land held him, as if trying to keep him, slow him for some unknown purpose of its own. Each drying grain had its purpose.

He looked at the creation as he passed, at the sloping ground within the scrap piles and the pond. It was the pond he’d seen after every monsoon rain, but this day it took on a new life, shone and sparkled with sunshine, the clouds reflected among the creations, the wonderful beasts that looked up and down and in all directions at once. It seemed a wonder to him and the spirits surely had a hand in this, surely; his own old form was reflected as well, and there was no doubt.

The old man stood at the locked gate, fingers hanging, anchored on the chain link, his dangling elbow moving slightly with his breath.

“Sheriff.”

“Hey, Marty. You give the Williams kid your twenty-two?”

“I did. He get that coyote? Did it get him?”

“Is that what they fed ya? Boy I wish. Those kids been on a regular crime spree. Home invasions, raping, killing, stealin’ anything they could carry off. Plenty of sin to go around. Sons of bitches’ll be going away, that’s a truth. We just had to see they was tellin’ the truth ’bout that gun. Make sure you weren’t dead in here.” The sheriff snorted hard and spit on the damp earth outside the gates. “Said they were goin’ after a coyote?”

“That’s what he told me. I believed him.”

The sheriff put his hand on the fence like the old man’s. “God damn shame,” the sheriff said and the men looked past each other for a long time.

“What you got goin’ on back there, Marty?”

The old man turned and saw the creation, rusted, flooded, silly-looking and nothing more than the junk it came from. He looked back to, and then past the sheriff. There was a growing line of pickups full of scrap to drop off, the drivers hidden safely behind sun-blasted glass.

pencil

Chris DeWildt’s website. Email: csdewildt[at]yahoo.com

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