Row of Fireplugs
by Doug Williamson
I come home and find six messages on my phone machine. A couple of bill collectors, one relative relaying some sort of guilt trip, one hang-up, and one from a girl I'm trying to avoid. The last one is from her, a voice muttering so much I can't make out what she's saying. I sit down, turn on the television and find an old Steve McQueen movie thats going. "The Sand Pebbles." Mako, chased by a mob of Chinese peasants, sprints up the pier, trying to make it to the just-departed gunboat McQueen is on, but is caught. McQueen stands on the deck, not wanting to be there. Mako is strapped to a makeshift crucifix and then raised above the mud of the river. It looks like hes going to die. McQueen shoots him and then goes about tending his engines. I get up and open a bottle of wine, Ive seen this movie before. I drink my wine and wonder if shell call back. McQueen has been sent far into the turn of the century Chinese countryside to save a priest or some shit. The phone rings and I look at it. I answer on the third ring.
"Hello?" I cant hear a voice at the other end but theres plenty of noise. I wait.
McQueen is in a losing gun battle, holed up in a dilapidated church.
"Hello? Hello? Anyone?" I press the receiver hard against my head trying to make out anything on the other end. "Sharon?"
McQueen loads his rifle one last time, exclaims to no one: "What the hell went wrong?," charges out into the crossfire and is shot dead.
The phone clicks and hums then goes to a dialtone. The earpiece has left a ring around my ear. I turn the TV off and bolt the door.
I remember Sharon wailing inside the bathroom. I stood outside the door. I knew she didnt mean anything. Anyone with a paperclip couldve opened that door. I pulled her off the toilet and wiped her mouth. She looked at me and I couldnt find anything in her eyes.
Later, early in the morning when I was shaving upstairs, I heard her scream. I ran down and found her cradling her palm. Wed let the candles burn all night and my comforter, which was acrylic, had melted rather than burned. Sharon wasnt able to use her hand for three weeks.
She had once proclaimed herself a lesbian-vampire. I had begged to differ with the lesbian shit, but never had any cause to ask her about the vampire stuff. Just around the time I met her, and a little after, she used to drive a huge Suburban; eighteen feet of unavoidable direction. Shed had a big dog too, Yogi. Yogi was big. St. Bernard, Great Pyrennes, Newfoundland, or something like that. Yogi was big. Yogi got smacked by a bigger car and we buried him behind Sharons fathers garden shed in a drizzling rain. I remember wanting to punch her little brother because he kept making cracks about the gases escaping from Yogis corpse while he trimmed his nails. We hadnt found Yogi for three days. Sharon had actually gone off and hired somebody to find whod killed him. I was proud of her, but I still wanted to punch her little brother. I took some consolation in the fact that that little bastard went on to live in a fifth-wheel trailer on a patch just outside of Preston. Exactly nowhere. Sharon was a girl you could easily resolve yourself to fight for. I ended up giving up.
I always remembered Bill as a little task, something Id left undone. He used to say that all Australians had a plot to conquer the world by using their accent to hypnotize people. I had to look out for him. "Anyone who pronounced eighteen as aa-deen," he would say, "was demonseed." He only wanted to hear me respond "You little fucking Mick bastard." He would just grin, wide, having got what he was after. Bill and I were tied together. We had Sharon and the Dulcimer Stomp. The Dulcimer Stomp is not a dance, not a wrestling move, not a wrecked oil tanker. It's when you find a chord of the Earth by accident and pluck it. Bill and I found it on Mt. Asshole.
Mt. Asshole stands on the island side of Deception Pass. We (there were more than just Bill and I) would go there when we all managed to have liberty on the same night. On this night there were seven of us: Eric, who we called Gary because he looked like Gary Shandling. Strzebonski, naturally he was Ski, but for some reason we never thought to pick on his first name, Leo. Bill was known as Boneyard because he was short and skinny, he also had a perma-grin that showed nothing but teeth. The tall one was PJ, last name Pettyjohn. We would pronounce it more like eeee-Jay, the more high and annoying we could get the intonation the better. There was James, simply Jamie. Then there was Johnson, known as Gghh. It fit. And then there was me. I really didnt have a nickname here. Id had one in Alaska. It was kind of stupid actually. My chief there called me Spike, probably because of my hair, because most days I was hungover. So whenever I saw him, my hair was too fucked up and creased to lay down, especially since the man himself was bald.
The way to Mt. Asshole was a path we could not repeat in daylight. The tablets melted on our tongues as we climbed the hill we didnt even know the actual name of. Once on top we found pitch black, a cloudless sky, and a moon the size of, well, the moon. All with pupils the size of Texas. We wandered all about, staring at shit, and found a geographical survey marker, a coin-like mole on the hills chin, and tried to vandalize it but it was too well bolted down. I remember looking out from all angles from that hilltop, noticing how everything looked like a train set. One of those scale train sets, with fuzz-mat grass and trees of painted-sponge nuggets. I stood and looked out over Coronet Bay, this giant train set, with lagoon and backdrop hills.
We laughed at tree stumps and we laughed at Gghh. He had held himself in conversation most of the night, and every so often he would break off and yell at a patch of clover grass flowers. At one point he started going off at this one tree that looked like it had been split by lightning, and I mean going at it. Yelling, and slamming the trunk with his fists and forearms. We had left him pretty much alone up until then, but we went up to him and PJ put his hand on his arm. Gghh just shrank, and curled up against a rock for the rest of the evening. He wasnt having a good time. We would regret laughing at him later when he would eventually pluck imaginary caterpillars off our shoulders on the ride home.
We screamed, or thought we screamed. We thought the faces on the coins we tossed to catch the moonlight were laughing at us. We watched our breath.
Then Bill and I found the place. A small decline, with rocks like castle abutments sunken in the earth, smoothed by age but still there. A stretch of what was probably sand reached between the rocks like a surf-line amongst sea stacks. We crossed this patch of sand as a group, but Bill and I stopped as the rest passed. It was resonating. As we put each foot down we felt, we heard, the vibration, harmonically. The sand, the rocks, the earth; we had found it. The rest of the group just looked at us. Bill and I bounded up and down on a patch of sand like a pair of cats in a frying pan.
There are twenty-three fire hydrants along a quarter mile stretch of road where the two roads meet. Ive counted them. A mile to the west is town, a mile to the south is town, a mile to the east are the foothills, and a mile to the north is Lynden, which for all purposes is a foreign country. Theres a gas station, a place where you can buy a septic tank, two commercial oil dealerships, a gravel broker, a vinyl siding outlet and a card-lock fuel pump station. There's also a masonry supply warehouse, a pub, a feed store, and a large yard where yellow gear is kept. Construction/aircraft moving/middle-of-traffic kind of stuff. Earth movers, graders, bulldozers, huffers, toejacks, and shit. These all made up a little village reserved out on the outskirts. Its a place where you could throw a football its entire length.
I had walked up and down this strip asking about a friend of mine. I was thirsty from smoking, the inside of my mouth filmy, and I could feel patches of skin slough off the inside of my cheeks. I spat out a big wad of this muck and watched it ball up in the dust, rolling around until it was a solid-looking little sphere. I lit another cigarette and stepped into the bar.
"Bills, well, kind of scary in a way," he said looking closely at his nails. "In a leprechaun-with-Tourettes kind of way."
I already know I dont like this guy. We both knew Bill. Fingerboy there was looking for money; I was looking for additional information. We were both waiting for the barmaid. Hes already checked all the glasses, if any still contained anything, but they dont. Fingerboy tries to trim his fingernails with the lid of his Zippo. He cant quite manage enough pressure to snip the nails off, only pulping the tips of his nails to a milky white. It made it seem as if hed just dipped his fingers in vanilla icing.
"Do you have a knife? A pocketknife or something?" He sets the Zippo on the table and rubs his thumbs across the ends of his fingers. A barmaid comes to my elbow and sets two pints of beer on the table. I look at my new friend, hes looking at his nails. "Fuck," I say to no one. I hand her a ten. "Thanks. Keep it." I say. She smiles and leaves.
"OK... Thanks..." he says, "But when was the last time you heard from Bill?" Fingerboy asks. Im trying to savor my beer. A five dollar beer is a five dollar beer. "Can you at least say something? You havent said anything since I got here." Fingerboys eyes are poring over my head. "This Jack Frost cold shoulder shit is getting old." I look up and lick the froth from my lip.
"Youre starting to annoy the piss out of me."
"Jesus-jumped-up-on-meth...!" he shouts.
"Im surprised you dont bite your nails." I take his lighter and light a cigarette Id been saving for the drinks.
"Now. Why would I do that?"
I snort, mostly for myself, and wait. Fingerboy cocks his head slightly.
"Got me," I respond as coolly as I can manage.
Fingerboy flails his arms up, above his head, "Bullshit." He slams his arms back to the tabletop. I dont think he really expects me to answer him. He looks at his fingers again.
"Im exactly like you," I say.
Fingerboy laughs in a convulsion, like a sea lion choking on a clam.
"What?" I ask, "we didnt connect there?"
"Just when I thought you didnt have a sense of humor at all..." Fingerboy says, wiping spittle from the corner of his mouth. I just stare at him. Im not going to find Bill here. I try to smile. I bust Fingerboy square across the mouth, and he falls forward across the table like a sack of hammers.
I go through his wallet and pockets. I take the cash and slip it in my pocket next to his lighter. I drop the wallet. Rising, I shrug on my coat. I give the waitress a twenty and ask that my friend get a cab home.
"Where do I send him?" she calls after me.
I keep my thoughts to myself and reply, "Just keep the twenty, and put him in the dumpster," Ive walked too far for her to hear me, so I stop and turn, "Just give his license to the cabbie, he should be able to read an address."
Outside it's still dry. I lean against a hydrant and light a cigarette. I spit. I can do nothing but spit. I watch the local volunteer fire truck troll past and turn the corner beyond the yellow gear yard. Again, I remember Sharon. Not for some reason, but because Im looking for Bill to ask him what he knows. A girl is why Ive come. A girl that has made a distance, a gravity unto herself, without ever remembering me. She has made herself a memory because she was that itself; nothing but memories. My stomach is upset and I have no place to go. I spit. A big glob between my boots. The dust found it and blanketed it. Ive almost finished my cigarette when two of the firemen come across the gravel and through the dust. A mild breeze pulls their cloud away. The sun is coming down hard behind them.
"Hey Sparky," I call, "either of you know a guy named Bill?" They scratch to a stop without looking at each other.
"Nope," one says. The other shakes his head. They go past me into the pub.
"How was the fire?" I ask over my shoulder.
"Hot," one says. The other nods his head. I drop my smoke and crush it out. The sunset is beginning to lose its light.
"Hey," I turn and shout, hoping theyre still behind me. "Whyre there so many goddamn fire hydrants around here?"
"Dont really know," one says. The other looks at me and says, "I guess were counting on one big fire at least. Maybe like Mrs. Murphys cow or something." He looks at his partner. "It could happen."
They go inside. I stay outside, thinking, leaning, remembering.
Sharon never liked being around people. In the plural sense. Maybe a friend here and there. She had a talent for disappearing, and then appearing at my window hours later. Something you couldnt refuse, out there, outside a window, cold and shivering, pleading.
Im still staring at the gone sun when a long car turns in. Its tires scraping on the gravel, it tilts to a stop against the hurricane fence between the pub and the septic tank store. A short form jumps out of it and jogs toward me.
"I heard you were looking for me," Bills perma-grin glared at me, all teeth.
"Did you ever lose something and not remember what it was because as you go along, youre reminded youve lost other things, each one more important than the last, but you still cant remember what that first one was because it had to have been much more important than the ones youd been reminded youd forgotten because you hadnt even known youd forgotten those, but this one, well, you actually remembered youd forgotten it without having been reminded that youd forgotten it?"
I tried to swallow my beer in time enough to reply, but he answered himself before I could.
"That sheds a whole hell of a lot of light on the subject." I wiped beer from my lips and tried to catch up. He was talking to me as if I actually had a clue as to what he was talking about.
"But do you ever remember that first thing?" he asked.
"Bill, just shut the fuck up."
Bill sat back. I hoped Id offended him by telling him to shut up, but I dont think I did. He was already on to something else.
"Can you dream a flashback? Can you dream a memory? Is a flashback, a memory? Is it a memory of a memory? Memories are just dreams anyway, arent they? They appear as dreams, right? Things we pull from our minds. Theyre not here and now in that sense. So if you dream youre having a flashback, are you remembering a memory that you actually remember, or are you dreaming a memory? Or are you imagining this memory, and somehow fooling yourself into thinking that this is an actual memory of yours? Because if youre dreaming the flashback, thats a subconscious memory, maybe a desire, inciting a conscious memory. Which one would be the more real flashback? Would the one that comes to you as a dream be more insidious?"
"What?" I am blank.
"Why do I care?" I ask.
"Because of where it comes from," Bill says.
"Conscious or subconscious."
Conscious or subconscious?, "What about if you see it differently?" I say, trying to divert him.
"'Perceive' you mean?"
"Well, yeah." I answered. "Whether its a dream or not," I ask, my voice dropping to a growl.
"And what if its not?" Bill asks, "Is it more valid?" his teeth almost biting, "The memory?"
"What the fuck are you driving at?"
"Whether youre awake or not, it shouldnt matter. A memory is a memory. But where that memory came from is what Im trying to get at. Does a memory have the ability to create another memory. Not recreate itself, but give rise to another notion, not really a memory, perhaps a little fiction we want, but something that will become a memory if we dont watch."
"But what was that shit you were talking about, the subconscious and the conscious and whatever?" I picked up my pace and held my hand aloft for the waitress to see.
"You mean a subconscious thought bringing a conscious thought to light?"
"You used the word 'incite'?"
I took a long drink from my glass. I drummed my fingers against the side of my glass. I struggled with what to say, "Well, what do you mean?"
"About coming to you in a dream? Is that what you mean? Well, think about it. Someplace where you believe youre safe, they pop up. Memories. They seek to reassure you that you are who you are. But with the tangents that a flashback offers, something that you thought who you were, up until the time of the flashback , is threatened. So the subconscious, insidiously, by the way of invoking, and so incite, what is meant to be interpreted and seen as false memories, a dream, invokes memories. To quell any opposition to being, that, as to now, has been formed."
"Where the fuck do you get this shit."
Bill drinks deeply, almost draining his glass. Hes not entirely with me, not entirely joining me for the experience of the drink, like a video feed when a film insert would have worked much better. I look away and drink my beer.
"Memory requires something to which to affix tangents. Redundancy. But what if no such places exist, even for a short period of time? Are they still in there," he taps his forehead, "are they bouncing around somewhere?"
"Youre a little fucker, you know that?!" I hollered at him. "I come all this way just to find out how the fuck you are, and youre some god damn freak! Do you even remember me at all? We found the stomp. I was there when you got out of the brig. We cut our palms and shook!"
"Thats not why you came." His calm face infuriated me. He continued: "To remember a memory there is an intrinsic marker. Something that keys one thing to the next, something that says 'this is mine and this is what it means'."
I stared at him. I told him he was mad. I wanted him to shut up, to just stop talking.
"Where is she?" I blurted.
"Sharon, you little fuck ball."
He looked at me.
"Bill, please," I wasnt certain.
"Yes," he was looking at something above and behind me. "I remember her." He seemed to sink further into his chair, burn his fingers more into the wood of the armrests, and settle a little more into now.
"Do you know where she is?" I asked.
His eyes, one pupil bigger than the other, not quite fixing on me. "Seattle."
"Bill," I ventured "where is Sharon?"
"Hospice." he replied. "Dont worry." His eyes gained more focus. "She discovered the habit of the needle after the two of us."
"Did you ever speak to her after," I had to stop briefly as a waitress had arrived, delivered what I had waved for, and left.
"If you mean had she commented about us, I dont know."
Bill had deflated some. I didnt know where to begin the conversation again.
"Is she going to be alright?" I asked.
"No." he said. "I dont think so."
"Bill?" I asked, "Is any of what we say tonight really going to make a difference," I held my head in my hands.
"If youre asking if I was angry that I went to the brig when none of you all did, well, then yes, I was. I was. Ski, Poke, and Johnson might be doing hard time but I still went to the brig. Three months is three months."
"Bill," I stopped. "Well, I dont know."
"You want to say something for me? Is that what youre getting at? Then fuck you!"
"No!" I yelled. "No, its not. Im sorry you had to eat it and go to the brig. I stood up to what I did and what they said I did, and took what they gave me. You got an Honorable you little fuck! How that happened, I dont know! But it did! And I have a General. And all the jack-all that goes with it! Go figure that! But I came looking for Sharon. I havent seen you in years and probably wont see you again so I dont care if youre still mad that she came to me after you! You had no idea what she was about. And you have no clue of why I have to reach her!"
It quieted. Bill and I were both spent. Id been anticipating this meeting, but somehow Id only made everything much worse. Bill looked vacant. I felt vacant.
"Fair winds and following seas," I offered.
Bill raises his glass to mine, "Fair winds and following seas," he answers.
I dont want to say anything. I want to stub out my cigarette but dont. Bill hasnt moved.
"Shell probably be dead soon," he says.
I nod and stay quiet.
"I always wondered why she left me so quick. I thought we were perfect. She had other thoughts I guess."
"I guess," I reply.
Id known Bill most of my adult life, and I didnt know how to leave. I looked at him. He didnt look at me, he was quiet.
"I should probably go first," I announce as I come up off my chair. Bill doesnt look at me. "See ya." and I turn and leave.
Its quite dark when I step outside. The gravel crunches beneath my foot. But the moon is still there, bright. It provides enough light to do almost anything, except avoid striding full into a fire hydrant.
"Fuck!" I yell, my cigarette flying from my lips, propelled by a stream of impaled air and saliva. I mutter and stumble about trying to shrug my embarrassment.
"Jesus fucking Christ!" I yell aloud. I turn a slow circle. I dont see anyone.
"Why are there so many goddamn fire hydrants around here?"