story submitted

This morning, I submitted a little story to a contest. If I win, I get a major award. I should say if it wins. That would be nice.

Would you like to read my little story? Very well. It’s called A Shadow of Himself.

An excerpt:

The sun is going down. The lights in the station and the street come on. Now he stands and leaves his bag on the ground and his old coat on the bench. He wants a little more of all of it, this place where he has grown and been loved, lost everything, and found this hour of peace as the daylight fades.

Just A House

It’s a hard thing to make such a trip, we know. And such a long drive. After many hours, you see the first signs for the town, twenty miles now, then the first gas stations, fast food. You cross the river on the edge of town. In August, it’s nearly dry. From the bridge you get a glimpse of stumps and boulders under water half the year.

At the exit, you peel away alone, sorry to leave the companionable flow of traffic. You shared so many billboards with them all, all full of hope: clean restrooms at the Exxon, the best steak in California only 20 miles, air conditioned rooms with cable TV at the Best Western. If only we stick together, stay the course. But they can have all that, even the frigid room with blackout curtains, towels on chrome racks, little soaps and obliterating sleep. It’s not for you, and none of them, not even the truckers and the farmers, can imagine what you face.

You roll up slowly in front of the house, not sure for a moment it’s the one. But it is. There’s the house across the street, green with a green and red chimney. So this is it. But look at the grass. Wasn’t someone paid not to let it die? And the eaves of the house that were always crisp white, are cracked and faded. The mailbox leans in the weeds.

If you park over the oil stain left by their last Oldsmobile, you won’t step out and get it on your shoes. In fifty years, he parked five cars here, all stout and practical Americans. He believed in oil changes, good tires, power windows. He believed in opening doors for ladies, buckling up, keeping the radio low. When you showed up after college with that Datsun hatchback, he was disgusted. He tried not to show it, but you knew.

You hold the screen door open with one hand, and use the key. They can’t be home if they were called away. We can’t stand it either. Don’t blame you for denying the rooms are stripped of furniture, the carpets shampooed, the nail holes in the walls patched and painted. Intolerable, the empty closets – a few wire hangers – and the echoing silence. It’s sad, the refrigerator open, unplugged, bearing only baking soda through the long hot afternoon.

We know the dog on the rug wakes up and runs to you, licking your hand. You rub her ears as he wakes in his place on the sofa, where he’s nodded off watching the Dodgers and reading the paper over again, waiting for you. He’s happy to see you and relieved. You shake his hand as a grandson does, and see his cheeks are just a bit more sunken than before.

He hates to think of the wrecks there’ve been, coming down off that mountain.

Trucks lose their brakes you know, and some folks won’t slow down in that bad wind.

I know Papa, but I’m fine.

Did you make good time?

Yes. Traffic wasn’t bad.

You say traffic was bad?

Not bad.

Oh. Well. Your Grandma’s in the kitchen I think. And there’s a rumor we’re going to eat sometime.

You go in and she’s there by the stove in the light from the window. Singing. … Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home! … There’s a pot on every burner and the oven working too, and you know there’s iced tea in the fridge – brewed in a glass jug on the porch in the sun – with maybe just a little more sugar than it needs, but nothing’s too much or too good. You hug her and she holds your hand, cold water running in the sink and ears of corn rolling in the pot.

What time did you leave home?

Oh about seven.

That’s early.

Not too early.

Did you have any rain in the mountains?

No, no rain.

It’s pretty up there when it snows.

Yes it is.

We’ve been up there when it was snowing. You remember?

I sure do.

Well, you can put your bag in the front bedroom and wash up if you want. We’ll have lunch directly.

You set your suitcase on the four poster bed with the quilt that she made, and look at the walls. We see photos of aunts and uncles gone to God or far away. Your mother forty years ago, with a lace collared dress, smiling. There’s one of you and your brother, with Easter baskets, and one of your Dad leaning on a car.

Down the hall, you peek in their bedroom, with their separate beds and nightstands covered with bottles of pills. A strong odor of Ben Gay and a long acquaintance with pain. And in the bathroom, you look at the shelves with niches full of empty blueglass bottles; small ones that once held possibly perfume, and glass figurines of animals and birds. The framed print over the toilet depicts a woman washing her child in a tub, in the days before plumbing.

They never use the parlor but for company. The hard candy in the dish on the table is melted into a wad, a year or more beyond hope. It’s just for show, like the wax apples in a wooden bowl you made in shop class. And the yellow silk roses in a basket on a stand beside the window, which looks out on the street where the realtor pulls up in a silver Cadillac.

No matter how hard you listen, you can’t hear the baseball on the TV anymore, or Papa telling the dog how good she is, or Grandma singing Shall we Gather by the River, poking the pot roast with a fork. There is nothing in the room again but carpeting and hot stale air. The dog was good indeed, is buried by the barren orange tree, down at the bottom of the yard.

Of course we understand, we pity you. Perhaps we should have stopped you going in. But the offer coming up the walk must be accepted. It’s just a house.

© 2004, 2008 by J. Kyle Kimberlin
all rights reserved

Originally written Fall 2004

Updated 07.20.2007, 01.16.2008

Brief History of Clouds

In the middle of the afternoon, he raises his head and looks around, noting changes to the east northeast, then closes the notebook and lets it rest on his knee. His mind wanders, trying to recall what he did in the morning. He remembers climbing down for tea, and reaching up to save the white kitten from the kitchen shelf. She did not want to come down. He understands. He spends his days on the roof of his house, under his yellow umbrella, making notes. It is his job to keep the history of clouds which drift or form about the airspace of his town. All impressions must be recorded, from nine to half past five.

He has the gift for the interpretive recording of ethereal things, and he felt the calling as a boy. He fell in love with clouds. He would lie on his back in the shade of a tree and look out where they form suddenly over the river, and present themselves. A dog with a too-long tail, a pitcher of lemonade tilted toward the sun, a sword with a twisted, spiral hilt. He could not keep his eyes off the sky. It would catch his attention at the worst possible times. He crashed his bike into trees, mailboxes, light poles, because of watching clouds appear and form, dissolve and float away.

He writes the time of day in military hours, compass heading to the strict degree, and elevation relative to parallel. Ninety degrees is straight up to God. All scientific; that’s what they want at City Hall. Then all the meanings of the sky as it presents itself, so that at 14:22; 352 degrees NNW; 38, a soft gray dishtowel lays over the oaks and laurels on the hills that crease Mule Canyon wash, folding where the hills drain to the river in a heavy rain. He watches closer as it lays out flat and smoothes against the hills, drifts to amorphous vapor, disappears.

His grandmother had a set of towels like that. She would lay one over her lap, and a yellow bowl, and sit snapping green peas while she watched the children play. There was a green tricycle in the yard and he and his brother took turns; one pedaling, the other on the back, hands on his brother’s shoulders, around and around the dwarf lime tree, under the clothesline, past the lattice of jasmine. Sometimes their grandmother would sing. Such a cloud, he writes, means comfort, ease, and family.

It is amazing how many clouds look like dogs, with their muzzles, ears and tails so prominent. They appear, running, over the hills, and leap over the river. They bark to him – Come on, let’s play! – as he sits on the roof and records their happy passing in his book. They are his favorite clouds, always meaning joy.

Of course, most clouds don’t look like things at all. Perhaps the sky is full of clouds, and he searches them like a fortuneteller reads tea leaves. He sees feelings, thoughts, and states of estrangement and atonement with God. This is because, while we are interpreting clouds, the sky reflects the world below. The sky knows our secrets, our sins and fears, and puts them on display for all the world. If it weren’t anonymous, we’d be in trouble. We’d be in the thick and thin and light and dark of it, each of us, by name.

Today it is late September, and the sky is in growing confusion. The equinoctial wind has brought agitation to town. Yesterday, he saw a huge charcoal gray and cotton pillar of angry jealousy rise up for hours in the north-northeast. And at times like that, he wants to climb down and call someone. Maybe the radio station. Let everyone know that no one can possess another person’s soul, or even hold their heart as property. The clouds have taught him that and many things, and people need to know. He sees we have to let go of direction, speed, and any manner of control. All we can do is keep floating mostly parallel, in the way that all things must keep moving, the way the current of winds keeps us moving, birth to death to whatever follows that. And maybe we can hope to brush against each other lightly now and then. But no matter what we want or hope, the sky decides.

So he wishes he could send out a warning. Just float. Trust the air. But that is not part of his job. In fact, it’s forbidden. Once a month, he turns in his book for a new one, and his finished notes are filed down at City Hall. In the basement, where the clouds can never see what people think of them.

Today the sky is a shallow platter of old and lightly curdled milk. There is little of shape or form to see. But there are streaks of a war in the distance, and clots of a father’s worry; his son is indolent and wasting time. He sees a woman whose mother is dying, mottled pale gray with sad futility. There are countless fears about money spotting the haze.

In the afternoon, a stronger breeze makes the yellow umbrella flap as he eats his first fall apple, wishing the lowering sun could be warmer on his knees. Clouds that were together drift apart, make new connections. Many break up altogether, fade away. There is nothing he can do but watch. He tosses the apple core down on the lawn, sees the dog trot out and sniff it, then return. He looks up to see that trouble is coming; hard air with thunder soon enough.

© 2007 by Kyle Kimberlin
All rights reserved

Something About Mercy

We can hear him coming, shoes crunching on the hardpack and sparse gravel. And just above the push and pull of his breathing, the thin whisper of a prayer. Something about mercy, but nothing to explain his coming through the juniper green and pale gray chaparral. Just out for a walk, killing time.

He will not stop to talk, but looks at the stones ahead of him, at the sky gone to dishwater in the late afternoon, and away at the boats where they move to their moorings for another night without rain, without wind. Everything is gentle. A great blue heron sails for home. A woman walks a massive dog.

Our man can’t worry for Rottweilers, or the train as it rises up and lunges from the darkened grove of cypress, and pounds away behind a hill. He has a fear for life itself, for all the cracking crystal bones of it. He holds it all together with his prayer.

He is alone now, except for you and me and the trees, and the last of the sun. A sliver of hot coal, fused to the sky beyond the islands and the sea. What is he doing? He has given up on all of this, time and place, despite the rose and saffron dying in the highest clouds, because the trees have gone to charcoal gray.

* * *

Arriving home, he climbs the stairs and looks out on the scene of water, trees and sky. The last of the train has faded now, and everything turns toward its end. All of which leaves him spent and drained, as though he needing emptying for night to come. He locks the door behind him, kicks off his shoes against the baseboard by the mat, and goes from room to room to light the lights.

Why does it have to be this way? He counts his footsteps up and down the hall, and puts a cup of coffee on to drip. He has a hundred books he ought to read, and concertos for the violin. If you asked the number of his clocks, he’d simply shrug and look away.

He does not believe in ghosts. But his grandpa comes leaning on crutches, half past the evening news, to check the locks and dim the lights. Grandma layers blankets on the beds. In every room a dog is keeping watch. He believes in memory. We see him, deeply breathing, draw it in.

He remembers the fog that would come before morning, and how at dawn the trees would be submerged. All the neighbors’ houses sunken, gone to God. By noon the sea would melt, give up her dead. He loved those mornings of scrambled eggs and Papa with his newspaper. Now he lies still and tries to sleep, and listens to the gently settling house.

* * *

The birds wake up at six o’clock; they’re cheeping in the myrtle hedge, but he has left the windows closed. It’s cold this time of year. He dreams of organizing shadows into words, and chasing them in panic through a book. At nine o’clock he eats two eggs, then shaves and drives to town.

He always signals turns, as if nothing changes course without a plan. Nothing veers away and winds up lost; not if he holds this tightly to the wheel. And watches how the light comes smoothly through the glass, not broken into facets like a world of quartz. God, such responsibility, to hold it when his hands are wet. When some people, even in their love for him, seem bent on destruction. They jostle, shove, and laugh at him or sometimes weep. So he whispers a prayer for more time, another chance, and a firm grip so that all of this will live.

Creative Commons License
Something About Mercy by J. Kyle Kimberlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.