The summer storm crouched behind them while they stared at the gator in the mud. It was hard to say how big he was; only his flat, u-shaped snout appeared above the water line. The rest of his body was obscured by the tangled mass of weeds. She hadn’t noticed him right away, leaning her body over the railing of the boardwalk that extended just beyond the lake’s edge and scanning the other bank for water birds. A wall of cypress trees barred her line of sight, their limbs draped with shawls of Spanish moss.
The streetlights are shining white in the rain, one after another casting light through the windshield, the motion of the car bringing bright white then gray, the motion of the light seeming to twist the layers of smoke that hang, in circles, around us inside the car.
Carl is driving one-handed. Leaning down toward the gearshift. Taking a hit from his pipe. His face and eyes turning gray and black and white.
“Bark like a dog,” I say quietly, turning to watch him, smiling some at him, smiling wider and thinking I can cast my own little spell on Carl. “Bark.”
Carl is my good friend.
Carl turns to the road, resting the pipe in the ashtray.
Steinur Bell's story How We Arrive won second place in the Summer Literary Seminars 2012 Unified Literary Contest, judged by Mary Gaitskill and sponsored in part by Joyland.
One Monday I stood in my kitchen thawing orange juice concentrate, wondering whether to fix a sandwich. It was noon, quiet, and then I heard the kids laughing. In my bedroom, I parted the blinds and watched three teens walk past my house. They should’ve been at school but instead crossed the street and stopped at the edge of the woods. As the first one headed in, another looked around—looked right at my house. He must not have seen me, must have thought they were safe, because he followed after them and disappeared.
The double agent slid down the side of a roof and launched, arms waving, across an alley to the next building, followed closely by his pursuers. The agent and villains remained visible at all times because they existed in a movie. We watched this movie on gigantic twin leather sofas in a towering hotel’s private lounge, an unmarked floor near the top floor. Three other people sat on my couch and a disinterested man, most likely a spy, intertwined his legs with mine.
We had plenty of room, but the other couch held eight people sitting in the television’s skyscape glow as scenes from the movie flecked their rapt faces. Maybe that couch attracted the stupid spies because the movie wasn’t that great, with corny pratfall gags and a juvenile sexual undercurrent that placed scantily-clad women fighting or tricking the agents or being tricked; the spies mingling around us made fun of it, and the room grew rowdier, lookout-loud.
My sister would sneak out late, after midnight. I’d hear her door open, then watch through my bedroom window to see her run down the end of our dark, curving driveway. Then headlights through the trees. She would come home a few hours later and run a bath. The noise of the pipes in the wall next to my room would wake me again. From the hall I could see the thick line of light under the door, smell her sweet vanilla bubble bath. One night, I opened the door and saw her floating in there, drunk, her wet red hair sticking to her flushed face and shoulders. She kept her eyes closed until I said her name.
“Hey, Angie-love,” she said.
“It's late,” I said.
“What do you want for breakfast? I can make pancakes.”
“Breakfast is always good, Angie-love,” she said.
It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. My son Zack was a junior counselor, not even sixteen till August. The camp hired him at such a young age only because he had completed lifeguard training. Learn to swim, we’d told him. Learn to ride a bike! Deliver things! The wave pool is hiring. We told him so many things. Put your pennies in a piggy bank. Save for a car! All the little children, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight! Leather craft, BB guns, nature walks in the arroyo, what could be so hard about that?
Whenever my mother explains why she does things she resents having to do she says, noblesse oblige, nobility demands it. She tells me we have a certain responsibility. We must live up to it.
“You should have forgotten their names by now,” Mike said.
He sat in the driver’s seat like it was a living room chair, his left leg jackknifed under his right.
“You mean I shouldn’t mention them,” Kat said.
“I mean they should be ghosts.”
Browning stalks of corn stood motionless awaiting harvest. Every now and then, a piece of farm equipment, a rusting red thresher against the plain blue sky, merited pulling over for a photograph. But they were doing eighty, and Kat could tell that the ease of the past few months they’d spent getting to know each other in Mexico was fading.
“My step-dad’s ex-wife always came for Thanksgiving,” Kat said. “Sometimes Christmas. It’s no big deal.”
“Nineties psychology,” Mike said. “You set ex-boyfriends into this place and time like they’re my contemporaries.”
“I haven’t had a serious relationship for three years.”
“It’s like this boyfriend mural.”
The name of the lot was COOS AUTO BROKERS and the motto was Good Cars—Good People. Joyce used her weight to open the glass door. A girl who looked about thirteen stood behind the desk. She squinted at a toaster-sized television playing a British movie. The man on the screen crowded up to a woman holding a cup and saucer and said, “Are you quite sure there are no efforts I may make on behalf of your comfort?” Joyce announced that she needed a car immediately, that she was in desperate, pressing need of an automobile. The girl behind the desk said, “Me too,” and summoned someone named Garrett.
Joyce asked Garrett to show her the finest specimen on the lot, and he led her to a black Saab station wagon not two years old. The gleam of the wheels made Joyce avert her eyes.
“Is this a firm price?” she asked.
“Pretty firm,” Garrett agreed. “As firm as any.”
He looked like a Navy kid home for a holiday—crew cut, thin sweater.
When I was in the fourth grade this little girl in my class got killed.
I showed up at school one Monday morning and Randy Doogan was telling me all about it, “Hey Scott did you hear about Jenny Sugar? She got killed in a car crash yesterday. Yeah a tractor trailer hit her Mom’s car and they’re both dead.”
Of course, I didn’t believe him at first because Randy Doogan was always making stuff up like this. He was always going on about how his Dad lived in England, even though this was just something his Mother told him because his Dad left them and never came back.
But he just kept going on about it. “Yeah my Mom saw it on the news last night and she’s dead.”
Then he giggled and moved on to the next kids sitting at the cafeteria tables, “Hey guys did you hear about Jenny Sugar and her mom? They got killed yesterday?”
I stood and giggled too not really knowing what was going on and wondering if it was true or not.