Today is my 50th birthday. It is a juggernaut; I tried to fend it off 2 days ago by invoking Shakespeare, but there’s nothing conscionable to be done about it, is my point. So congratulations to me on being another day older than I was yesterday, still above ground and not remanded to custody. Free to move about the thoroughfare with the rest of you fine worthies of the camp.
Anyway, I believe it is time to start the ceremony. Cinnamon is out for the peaches.
So here’s a bit of commemorative fiction.
Waiting For Earl
At dawn there was a soft breeze on the lake. He warmed a cup of coffee in the microwave and went out on the porch. The coffee was bitter, so he threw the cold half of it on the ground and sat on his bench. He looked at the lake, which did not look back. It is an ugly lake, with no trees. From an airplane, it looks like the face of the moon, with a squinting blue eye.
The truck won’t start. Dead battery. He wanted to go into town, get his mail and some beer. He needed a cheeseburger, made by someone else. He needed someone to set it down on a Formica table, with an indifferent clatter. He needed someone to say, “what else?”
What else do you want?
What do you need?
What have you done?
Where are you going?
What are you willing to pay?
He needed toilet paper and #2 pencils, Campbell’s chunky soup, and to see others of his kind. But first, he needed a jump start.
He lives alone on the lake, except for Earl, who lives in another old cabin, over where the road comes in from the highway, and starts its ring around the moon’s lidless, lashless, possibly infected eye. Earl has a bait stand he opens on weekends, if anyone shows up to fish. He carries nightcrawlers, Fritos, beef jerky and Coors. Earl has a battery charger, but he is probably insane.
Meanwhile, there was a great something growing inside of him; possibly grief over something we may not learn about, which is growing at a distance beyond his understanding it or even feeling it yet. Like that breeze that was a long time over the lake, taking its time getting to know the surface like a glass table, becoming a breeze fit for water, fit for stones on a small beach, then a breeze fit to chill a man to the back closets of his soul. But even if this great growing something would come to drive him to his knees, it wasn’t as bad as the thing that drove him out of the town and across the valley to this lake. He might never know the name of that.
Now he goes down the steps, half-buried splintered railroad ties, past the sweatpeas going to seed in a border of stones he carried up from the lake, after a storm stripped away the muddy sand and laid them bare. He comes to the bottom of the drive, walking on the grass between the ruts made by his truck, and by the trucks and cars of a dozen dwellers in the cabin before him, and turned onto the gravel road around the lake to Earl’s place and the highway beyond. And we see that the something within him, larger now, might be joy at meeting another dull and gritty day on it’s own ridiculous terms.
Lizards flick away to hide in the weeds and under the rocks as he walked along the road. He speaks to them, claiming that he has never stomped on a lizard in his life, so they have no cause to run. They can relax in the warm light and twitch happily, and eat what they eat, for all he cares. He can see Earl’s cabin in the distance, the bright metal chimney against the grayblue sky, so that a small pit of dread flickers to life in his stomach. He knows he’ll get the battery charger, and carry it back along this road, but he’ll have to endure an hour of small talk. Tales of fishing the beautiful lakes of the eastern Sierra, of hiking the pilgrim trails that cross above Yosemite, of being sniffed by wolves in the pure air of Lassen. Worse yet, Earl will start in with his days in the navy, of swimming in Tokyo harbor, standing bitter cold watch all night in the South China Sea.
Earl is crazy because he loved someone more than himself, more than sunrise or stellar jays pecking through the trees, and she’s gone. It startled him because he hadn’t thought it through, so he talks. Earl lives far out and pretends to be indifferent when someone comes, but he sits and prays that someone will. So he’s doing Earl a favor stopping by, listening, watching those eyes – oblivious and blue as the lake itself – that look out from the rickety porch onto nothing but the past.
The sky is beautiful and clear. From the Santa Lucias to Tehachapi, it stands disaffected, unashamed, unchallenged by impertinent clouds. How can a man look on all that sky and not feel drawn to self examination, called to make accounting of himself? Our man is thinking about his shoes, wondering if the tear along the sole on the right one, inside above the arch, will break through before he gets the chance to use his little tube of glue.
No man passes through this world and leaves the fabric of existence just the same. There is a ripple or a wave; for better or not, things can never be the same. And he does worry about that, about how he might accidentally cause damage. He has seen the chaos that a careless word can bring, and the churning of the wind in just the smallest dose of hate. He cares too much for his sister, her children, their parents. He phones from time to time, and they stick to safe subjects. The mounting cost of war, the price of gas. But he has withdrawn himself to the hot and ugly lake, beyond the range of hurting them, barely within sight of crazy Earl.
There are sea shells on the edges of the steps to Earl’s porch. Conches, abalone, and bits of driftwood hauled back from his trips to the sea. He climbs up, using the 2×4 rail that someone painted army green in the years before Earl arrived with his opinion that paint is a futile gesture. He’s careful not to kick these treasures off in the weeds.
The knotted pine door is shut behind the screen, which screeches like an owl when he opens it to knock.
Behind the cabin – the gravel path grown up with chickweed and wild oats – he sees the pickup truck is gone. It must be that Earl has gone to town.
The sun went down beyond the end of the lake, while he sat on the porch and kept watch on Earl’s place. It’s late spring and was still light out when he ate dinner, standing at the kitchen window, watching for Earl. Now it’s dark, too dark to see the telltale plume of dust on the road when Earl comes home. He’ll have to watch for the lights in Earl’s windows. When they come on, he’ll take the heavy D-cell flashlight from the table by the door, and start on the trail around the lake again. But if the lights go out before he can get there, he’ll have to turn back, since Earl has gone to bed.
He pulls from the shelf a book about time and how it collapses on itself like a hollow house of sand, when confronted by certain events in a person’s life. Yes. Like that Christmas, a week before he left for college, mid-term, and rose up out of the long dying valley shaking, to lose the feeling that everyone behind him was falling into shadow. He stood and looked around at twenty-two, to see the buttes, the infinite cascades, were utterly indifferent to his life.
Now he’s not so sure that time exists at all, except when he’s waiting – like tonight – or seeing how the lines around his eyes are getting deep. Reminds him not so much of crows as of a confluence of rivers. And Earl, who has now been gone three hours past sundown – the night full dark and a half moon up – claims not to like rivers. Says water should settle itself in a place and learn to sleep. Water should be cold where it’s deep enough to hide from sunlight.
Midnight, and still no sign of light or life across the lake. The stores in town, the restaurants, have all been closed for hours now. What could be keeping Earl from getting home? Maybe he’s dead or hurt in a ditch beside the road. A wreck, yes. Or maybe a trip to Las Vegas, to play the slots. Earl’s threatened to do that before, and more than once. But certainly he wouldn’t go without a word.
In the morning after breakfast, he’ll have to break in to Earl’s garage, if the man’s not back. It’s not wrong, you know, not hardly criminal, and Earl won’t mind. He’s said a dozen times just help yourself to tools – that there’s a old good shovel, by the way. Then he could go and see about the neighbor, check the road for wreckage. It’s the right thing to do – his brother’s keeper – and he’s too weak from fear to walk eight miles into town.
It’s settled then, so he can sleep. The lake won’t see him pacing, watching all night long, afraid he’s been forgotten here, alone with nothing but water, stones, and lizards. Left for dead.
Waiting for Earl by J. Kyle Kimberlin is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs
3.0 United States License.