by Erin Sheehy
photography Erin Sheehy
9 December 2013
I could hear the clinking of wet glass as the men in the veterans’ housing complex washed up after dinner. The backpacker and I sat on the curb in the parking lot next door, sharing a cigarette. A hot wind rustled through the leaves of the river birches behind our motel, and a portable radio on somebody’s windowsill was playing Roy Orbison’s “Devil Doll.”
“America scares me,” I said, staring at the fires that burned in the oil refinery across the highway.
“Me too,” said the backpacker. “That’s why I bought the pistol.” An ankle holster bulged visibly beneath his linen travel pants.
“Oh,” I said. “I just meant that it’s kinda ghostly.” I’d always thought the thin winter air of the North was the creepiest, but down here in the South the nights buzzed more, and even inanimate objects seemed to heave and sweat in the humidity.
I was mashing cigarette butts with the bottom of my soda can when I saw the little green ferrule of a Dixon-Ticonderoga pencil, its eraser still intact, sitting in the gutter among the leaves and pine needles. The pencil itself was lying nearby, decapitated. I picked up the ferrule. I’d never realized what a stylish piece of design it was: thin metal the color of a green bottle fly, with two yellow athletic stripes and crimping around the middle. When I held it eraser-side down, it looked like a little trash barrel. I wanted to find a piece of garbage small enough to put inside it: the foil from a Hershey’s Kiss, or maybe half a gum wrapper. I was sifting through the leaves with my index finger, searching for trash, when the backpacker asked what I was doing.
“It looks like a little garbage can,” I said, balancing the ferrule upright on my palm to show him. He grinned and flicked it out of my hand. As it arced through the sky it grew larger and larger, until, when it fell to the ground with a clang, it was the size of an oil drum. “Magic!” I cried. “I’m taking that thing with me.” I ran over and grabbed it by the lip. The eraser was the size of a seat cushion now; as I dragged the ferrule behind me, it made a pink skid mark on the pavement.
We set out in the direction of the shopping mall. It was hard to get around on foot in this sprawl of big box stores and industrial parks, but we’d lost track of our car somehow, and I didn’t want to sit around trying to remember what had happened to it.
The parking lot looked bigger than it had a few moments ago—it seemed to stretch for miles. Up ahead I could see a concrete fortress illuminated with a large neon sign that looked like a rising sun or a fan of cards. It lit up from left to right, until the whole thing was glowing, and then it went dark and started over again. Maybe it wasn’t a mall after all. Maybe it was a casino. Or a car dealership.
The streetlights in the parking lot were humming. Really humming, I thought, singing happy little tuneless songs to each other. Some of them bobbed and nodded like wasted humans. Others seemed to giggle.
“They’re cute.” I said.
“What are?” asked the backpacker.
“The streetlights,” I said, “They’re cute and sleepy.” I pointed at two posts that were drooping in toward each other, like sweethearts touching foreheads.
“Looks dangerous,” he said, “and besides, they’re too bright.” I didn’t think so at all. I’d been scanning the ground for things to put in my new trashcan, but I was scared to step outside of the circles of light provided by the lampposts. The shadows were too thick now. Every time I reached into the darkness, I swore that I could hear the wheezing of some sleeping creature.
“Doesn’t that shadow kind of look like a giant Doberman to you?” I asked the backpacker.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said, snorting. “You always think there are packs of wild dogs or something lying in wait for us in the shadows.” Just then the streetlight above us hiccupped like a cartoon drunk. The backpacker grabbed the pistol from his holster quickly, like he’d been practicing the move. “Not everything has to be something else all the time,” he hissed at me, and then he shot the street lamp right in the face. When it shattered, all the other lights in the vast lot went dark too. There was no moon that night. I knelt down and felt around for the pieces of glass, and put them, one by one, in my barrel.