ZD-002: Book of Constants
A short story by C.E. Alexander
Literary, General Detective, Short Story
We settle in a new town by misstep. I bring only my camera and her bits of captured sky. My son Kobe has a book he will not read out loud, and a stuffed frog his mother found while buying antiques. He seems to understand it, that she could rarely leave the house and that this toy was out of the ordinary. We had to name it for him, so I call it Cucumbers.
It has been raining, and there are signs of mud past our ankles.
We find the place on state highway 455, a new route cut through the grasslands—a straight drive between 59 and 16. I wanted a road that stayed mostly empty, with few grades or turns, no intersections. The idea was to haul it back and forth until Kobe was asleep. I set out in time for an early afternoon nap; better for him to doze in the car while I put his mother in the ground. Courtney, sick for so long, undiagnosed for as long. We had no money for real treatment, if indeed there is a treatment. She knew the day was soon. She feared hospitals, a hospital death. She feared coffins, cremation, routine exams.
The boy shortens the day by staying awake for a full hour as I drive from 59, turn around, head back to 16, turn around, and make for 59 again. He is at the age when questions are interesting but answers are not, and he points repeatedly at the same billboards, kicks the back of my seat for the same piles of trash and burnt-out car and formations in the sky. My answer never changes, the course never changes. This way his father is an old man with a skip. A scratchy phonograph loop no child should have to bear. Even the docile rhythm in the tarmac seems to agitate him.
I spot new walls on the south end of the road: a bare concrete enclosure, stained from the top by rain and its own minerals. Cars parked outside on irregular ground, leaning to one side or the other. A small high-ground city, probably a chartered settlement.
Considering the road is flat and straight, you see the place coming for miles, and watch it pass for miles.
We park in a long shadow. Courtney is as light as my fingertips, lovely in her shroud. Tucking her away could have been simple. But I have the idea of arranging the rocks in such a way, so I arrange them exactly that way. Once the pattern asserted itself, anything other than this one would have been unendurable. I would not have made it ten minutes without turning around to fix them, this time with Kobe awake and looking around for questions again.
When I am finished he stirs and tries to smile all of it away. If I were any weaker than this I would suffocate in a moment. But this is something Courtney would have said, and he does not need to endure that again. Instead I meet his glance in the rearview mirror and say, “Hi, handsome.”
It is clear why men like me keep having children. But we do not correct our mistakes with each new arrival. Indeed, they get worse and worse. Yet this time it is not clear which ones are mine.
I put my hands over my face for a time, wasting time. Now of all things I find a photograph I must take. Kobe brings my gray card and I fuss over the perfect aperture setting. A camera shop owner told me once: “Shallow field, true depth.”
We are out of daylight now, and low on gasoline.
I can only guess that those service stations along 16 are closed for the day, if indeed they are in business at all. I do not want to risk an empty gasoline tank at this hour. The concrete walls are close, only a mile or two off. I have to try that settlement, as uninviting as it may seem.
Two security guards bounce uncomfortably near a fire. Both are wearing neckties. I check their belts for guns and decide not to joke about Trojan horses.
One of them steps toward the car: “Good evening, sir.” His voice is far bigger than he is. A gray beard makes him look overweight, vaguely unhealthy.
“Is there a hotel? This is a chartered city?”
“No, we’re not chartered.”
“It’s new, though. I don’t think I’ve seen it before.”
“Five years maybe.”
“But no hotel?”
“There’s a youth hostel if you circle around toward the right.” He gestures with his left hand.
“Will I be able to stay with him?”
“The place is completely empty.”
Then he says, “It’s so empty in fact I should call ahead of you.”
“But will I be able to stay with him?”
“Certainly. Of course.”
“I’m fairly certain. You’ll need to leave the car out here with me.”
“Do I hand over my keys?” But he is looking to get back to his fire.
I sign the guest book Victor Ossis and settle the bill with cash. This is my usual alias, and I can avoid any questions of faith and tithing that way. If the owners of this town set out to visit, the Ossis family can hear their witness in Switzerland.
A fat, friendly woman shakes my hand well and says, “Good to have you, Victor.” She excuses herself to prepare the beds, and I do not see her again.
I set out to scald myself with water. Had the front entry guard turned us away I still would have asked for a sink and a towel. Next time I will bring one of Courtney’s shirts along, keeping it in a separate suitcase from mine and Kobe’s, in case the smell would somehow fade or change. I do not accept that the stink on my hands is hers, even if it came from her body, the blanket around her.
The proprietor of the hostel is a middle-aged woman. Cordial, uncomfortable. The most flattering mention I can make of her face is its specificity. She is an unambiguous thing down to her tendons, to her hairstyle and manner of dress. Elsewhere the face could belong to a law librarian at a small, private university. Elsewhere still, to an expert in Turkish wines. She brings me a small sandwich. It is not nearly enough, but I am faintly aware of deserving these portions and going to bed hungry. The bread is dense but somehow does not taste of much. The shredded meat is tender, familiar. Not beef, not chicken.
She offers Kobe the same, but he negotiates some leftover fried chicken by wrinkling his face and forehead. She runs her fingers through his hair, but respectfully.
“Is he your first?”
“No. I have three from a previous marriage. They’ve all graduated from high school. Moved out.”
I shake my head. I was prepared to say that Courtney died during childbirth. With some unmoored definitions and a bit of causality, this would not have been an absolute lie. But not while Kobe is still awake. In time I should stop saying from a previous marriage.
“Thank you. It’s been uphill.”
“Here, we’re only up a small hill.”
It is a good opening for the question: “What is this place called?”
“Rebecca’s Youth Hostel.”
“I’m sorry. I mean the city.”
“Yes, of course. He’s calling it New Potomac.”
“His name is Evelyn Turner.”
She grins and flips her hands over. “I wouldn’t have named him that.”
“Maybe I can meet him before I leave in the morning.”
“You’ve already met. Up at the gate.” The place smells heavily of unwashed clothes and I can barely finish the meal, however small.
Kobe insists on sleeping in the same bed, and indeed, it is easier to get him to sleep that way. Within a few minutes of lying down his breathing is louder, rhythmic. The meter is inescapable and I quickly fall into the same riff. He wakes me with elbows to the head, kicks to the groin, and uncertain clamor. I climb into the higher bunk and remember photographs of Courtney.
I am famished by the time he wakes, checking the closets to make sure a previous guest has not left his moldy denim behind. The odor is unbearable. I rush Kobe to get dressed, to find what he has done with his shoes. The proprietor offers us breakfast and I am reluctant to accept. But Kobe pleads with me, and I do not want to appear ungrateful.
As she brews coffee I say, “Your name is Rebecca, then?”
“The name of your hostel?”
“I’m not Rebecca, no. There isn’t a Rebecca as far as I know.”
She says, “And I can’t say I’d operate a hostel if—”
I turn away from Kobe’s drawing; she has stopped in the middle of her answer. When I look up, I fear she would be covering her face. But she is only considering. She is silent for one more breath, then says, “I can’t say I’d be doing this if it wasn’t for Evelyn.”
She says, “He is hoping to talk to you, if you had time.”
“About the bill?”
“That and a few other things.”
“I wrapped things up with the other woman last night.” I consider my tone carefully. The same words could mean a quite different thing.
“I realize that, sir. Is he three?” She turns to Kobe, “How old are you, sweetheart?”
We rarely ask him, so he struggles to hold up three fingers.
“You remind me of Niall a little. Would you like to play with Niall while you’re here?” I am proud, perhaps irrationally proud that he nods, that he does not hide from her questions. That he does not confuse three with eight, for instance.
More, I believe if Kobe was 16 months, or say 18 months, she would have guessed his age exactly. I ask her name. The question weighs too much and simply falls from me, onto the deli counter.
She says, “I’m so sorry. My name is Marta.” She tells me freely of her youth, how her parents were frightened by the demonstrations and unemployment, the short walks from valet to storefront. They moved to the country, opting for the troys and the chartered villages first, meeting Evelyn in Mordell, which emptied three years later. Most of the citizens transferred to Lamia, including Marta’s family and Evelyn.
I figure she is keeping quiet about an early romance, since discarded. She long would have mentioned by now if she had married Evelyn, or if they were spoken for. She seems to tuck certain details away, or change them slightly. This way her words are instructive, but let her keep everything. I admire it. I would be terrible if I tried it. Like this: her parents were frightened by homeless men standing around burning trashcans, yet the founder of the city watches the front entry in quite the same way. Warming his threadbare gloves by dousing rubbish with gasoline and lighting a match.
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C.E. Alexander lives outside of Plano, Texas with his wife and two children. He works as a sales manager for a metal fabricator in Dallas, and tweets about everything other than his books @CAlexanderRun. His fiction debut was The Music and the Spires.