Fiction by Daniel Harrison
“Poems a dead boy wrote. I hurt him in the way that you would like to hurt me, but you can’t! I’m not young and vulnerable anymore.’
–Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
It was November when he got back. He went for a walk in the field, his hands trailing the air by his side, his feet padding soundlessly between the shorn rows of wheat. He could imagine this field in the heat of summer, the rows of grain standing shoulder high. He passed his left hand though the curtain, felt the rasp of each stalk on his wrist, soft fingers closing around his own. They held for a moment, tugging his fingertips into the past, before drifting away as whisps of smoke. He smelled the hollow, acrid nature of gunshots. Fire began to eat at the wheat flowers reaching for the sun. They fell and shriveled and left only bare stubble on ridges of dirt. These were the bones of the world, the field a ribcage gasping for air.
Jack watched his mother drop a sugar cube into black tea. A droplet landed and bled the color of oil into the tablecloth. She picked up a spoon and swirled it. The room filled with the empty sound of silver on china.
“Money in my cup, that means good luck,” she said, lifting her spoon. A small clump of bubbles gathered in the center.
“Your father is so busy these days. It’s twice as much work for him now that you’re gone. He’s been baling since sunup.”
She kept stirring, faster now, the sound of silver on china.
“Look at me, Ma!”
The spoon fell from her shaking hand. She looked at the early daylight behind Jack. Her lips formed a thin flat line.
“I brought you money,” he said, pulling a thick cylinder from his jacket pocket. It was bound in the middle by a rubber band. “Five hundred dollars. It’s half my advance. I live pretty cheap, and you need it more than me.”
“Your father’s working hard. Been baling since sunup.”
“Take the money, Ma.”
“I don’t want your money.”
Jack took a deep breath. He lifted his hat, pulled his long hair back, and replaced it. There was a deep sadness in his words, each one emerging reluctantly. “Why are you like this?”
“You’re a coward.”
“I came home.”
“You shot yourself.”
Jack was silent. He pushed his chair back and stood up. “I’ll see you next Sunday.”
She spoke when he reached the doorway. “Sometimes I wish you died over there. Then I could mourn the son I had, instead of knowing what you’ve done.”
He left her in the kitchen, seeking the bottom of her mug. The roll of money sat upright on the white tablecloth, covering the dark stain. As he turned to close the door, he saw her hand reach for the money, fingers trembling.
Outside, he looked towards the barn. He saw their tractor parked outside, waves of heat rolling off the engine. It pinged once and Jack flinched, dropping into a crouch. His feet tingled and his face went hot.
“You’re home,” he whispered to himself. “You’re home.”
He opened his car door with shaky hands and climbed in. The engine rolled to life. At the gate, he looked in his rearview mirror, white sun low in the sky, partially obscured by the barn. The silhouette of a father, watching his son pull away.
He parked on the street outside his apartment. Two boys walked by in uniform, their chests adorned with medals. They dressed in war as if it were the latest fashion. Traded polished shoes for heavy boots, leather jackets for canvas. They draped themselves in perfume that smelled, to everyone else, like poppies and cigarettes and wine. To Jack, it smelled of decay and mud and diesel.
His apartment was on the fourth floor. He took the stairs two at a time, his legs burning and his breath coming ragged. The door was red and unlocked.
It was careless, he knew, but his was a particular form of carelessness, tinged with apathy. He left water running, doors open, food on the counter to spoil. Life had become flat since coming home, unthreatening. What could a thief take that he hadn’t lost?
His desk faced the window. Among the clutter was a hardcover book. It was grey, with gold letters drawn across the cover.
What Grows in Belgian Fields, it read. And underneath, Poems.
Like a series of slanted eyes, each letter settled its gaze on Jack. He felt their serif edges work between each of his ribs and press against his heart. There was the pressure, an acute awareness of blood running against his chest, up his neck, down his forearms. In a frenzy, he began to search his apartment. He opened doors and peered around corners, carefully searching the cool air of each room. He crawled to his knees and peered under his bed.
Unsatisfied, Jack sat on a thin rug in the center of the floor. His fingers wandered the frayed surface, pulling at the orphan ends of loose threads.
“I’m home. This is home. I’m alone,” he said. “I’m alone.” There was no echo.
Are you really? said the voice.
“Now, yes. But not then.”
I’m always here, Jack.
He felt a hand lay itself over his, pressing his palm into the rug. It was a skeleton of comfort, as only the dead can offer the living.
“You’re gone,” said Jack
That’s your choice, not mine.
He dreamt of mud. Not the yellow raincoat mud of childhood puddles, but the oppressive and bitter mud of Europe, blackened with soot and slick with blood and rain and piss. The air was silent, and he immediately noticed the absence of all the sounds of war. This was the first indication that he was dreaming, but still the mud was real. His aching muscles and stinging eyes, those too were real. Sam’s hand was real.
The most honest reconstructions are dreams, and these are the most painful. Memories can be misplaced, but dreams come from a deeper truth. We know how they end. Listen to me, Sam was saying. You need to listen to me. We’ll make it home and we’ll have a house. I’ll make you coffee on Sundays. Jack gripped his hand tighter. There was not a sound in the world that mattered more than Sam’s voice. Keep talking, said Jack. Tell me about the curtains. To block out the light. I never want to be naked in this world.
Sam squeezed his hand and tried to reply, but his words came wrapped in a shroud of silence. Jack never heard the gunshot. Just a thin whistle, a soft thud, and Sam’s fingers slipping away.
It was dark when Jack woke up, curled tight on the rug. He checked the clock. Three in the morning. Moonlight came in through the window, spilling blue light onto his desk. The gold letters shone. He walked to the kitchen and made a strong pot of coffee, then dug around in a drawer until his fingers closed on a pack of cigarettes. He lit one and watched the smoke crawl to the ceiling, where it circled a bare bulb. When a suggestion of dawn poked its head through the curtains, he was still cross-legged on the floor, wreathed in smoke and sipping burnt coffee gone cold.
The publishing office was a loud, masculine room on the ground floor. It smelled faintly sour, of ink and stress. There was a seating area adjacent to the entrance where hopeful writers sat, clutching greasy, marked-up manuscripts.
This is where Jack sat, wearing loose jeans and wrinkled shirt, partially unbuttoned.
“Smoke?” asked a young woman, perched in the chair next to him. In her long fingers she held two thin cigarettes. Jack took one and hung it from his lips.
“What’re you here for?” she continued.
“Picking something up,” he said.
“Something you wrote?”
He looked down, rolling the cigarette between his fingers. “Yeah.”
“What’s it about?”
“Yeah.” Smoke drifted from the corner of his mouth. For a moment, they lived in the rhythm of the room around them. Fragments of conversation clashed with the sound of typewriters and telephones.
She turned towards him now. “No uniform today?”
“Don’t wear mine anymore.”
“Seems like a funny thing to do.”
“It’s shot to bits and smells like death,” he snapped. Then, in a quiet tone, “What’s your name?”
“Is that short for anything?”
“Short for Lucy.” She turned towards him and crossed her legs. “You got anyone at home, mister?”
He stubbed his cigarette on the sole of his boot and went to speak, but a hand on his shoulder stopped his words. A tall, thin man stood in front of him, wearing a dark grey suit. “Jack, son, let’s go to my office.”
Jack stood to follow. “It’s complicated,” he said, as they began to walk away.
Her voice cut through the ink and smoke. “You’re a queer fellow, mister Jack.”
The man sat behind a nearly empty desk. A pen lay neatly on a pad of paper, next to two books; one was a grey hardcover adorned with gold lettering, the other was a tattered notebook. Its edges were curled, the leather cover stained with something dark.
A ragged, dime-sized hole ran through the center, revealing the desk beneath it
With long, knobby fingers, the man picked up the finished book. “This will sell,” he declared. The small office left no room for disagreement. “I’ve been in this business twenty years, and this will sell. It’s fucking phenomenal.” He dropped it back down on the wood.
“Thank you, sir.” Jack’s smile was weak.
“How’s the leg?”
“Been better, been worse.”
“Good to see you off those damn crutches.”
“I just hope I lose the limp.”
“Someday, I’m sure.” The man lifted the notebook from the table. “You know,” he continued. “This whole thing is a damn good story. We’ll use it in the ads: ‘poems blessed by a bullet.’” He poked his pinkie finger through the hole. “You reckon the book helped stop it at all?”
Jack frowned. Words came to his throat, formed, and left. Words born in a hell of fire and mud, honed by lead. He pushed them away, left them hanging in the air above a barren cornfield.
“Maybe, who knows.” He paused. “Words are never as strong as we need them to be.”
“Damn right. I should write that down, tell it to those young fellas out there. They think they can save the world with some shitty novel. I’m not in the world-saving business, I tell ‘em. I’m in the entertainment business.”
“You looked through the proof I sent you?”
“Yeah,” Jack replied. He thought of the book lying on his desk, how the gold letters cut into his flesh.
“Yeah, yeah. Looks great.”
“Good. We’ll ship them out next week. I’ll call you about the readings.” The man pushed the notebook across the table. “You can have this back. We have everything we need.”
Jack nodded and picked up the notebook. He tucked it in his back pocket and opened the door to leave, stepping back into the chaos of smoke and ink.
He walked through the lobby, glancing around as he passed by the chairs at the entrance. Lucy sat with her legs crossed, a neat stack of papers piled in her lap. She didn’t look up, intent on examining some page in her manuscript.
The sky was a weight pressing down on the earth. There was no wind, but people still pulled their jackets tight against the oppressive day. Two children ran past Jack’s legs, playing a game of war. They brandished sticks as rifles; one lobbed a pinecone into an alley.
He walked the ten blocks to his apartment without urgency. Every sound, every passing car and open window, felt harsh. It was as if a patina had been stripped away from it all. He felt the world was a body that had been torn open, and now he stood among all its machinery, naked cogs and metal treads, marching through an empty landscape. There was no purpose, just the slow exorcism of meaning through a rift that would never quite heal. There was Jack, drifting through it all, his empty hands clutching at smoke. These thoughts carried him through the city, and he arrived at his front door carrying a calm sense of resignation.
The door was slightly ajar, just as he’d left it. He pressed his hand against the cool wood and pushed, only to feel awash with dizziness. The edges of his vision grew blurry. He pulled his hand off the door and it came away wet. Looking at his palm, he saw the dark tinge of blood. The hall smelled of smoke. A distant door slammed. He heard it clearly, like the peal of a bell in early morning. A thin whistle, a thud, and it all fell away.
Jack, he was saying. Jack. Sam’s lips, cracked and bleeding, whispered his name. His chin, was hidden beneath something he called a beard. They were kids. Just kids, growing up in a wasteland.
Jack, take this, Sam said. He took Jack’s hand and brought it to his chest. His fingers pressed against the blood-soaked fabric. Sam fumbled to unbutton a pocket on his shirt before Jack tore it open and reached inside. He withdrew a notebook, the leather cover slick and messy. There was a hole through the center. He looked at Sam, followed the line of his throat to his jacket. A hole through the fabric. A hole through the skin, his ribcage exposed to the world.
Make it home, Sam was saying. Tell our story.
Jack felt a cool pressure on his leg. He looked down to see Sam pushing the nose of his gun to Jack’s thigh. His lips met Jack’s. They were cold, thin. I love you, Sam said. Then a shot, white pain, the world crumbling apart.
The hallway returned in pieces. He felt the carpet at his fingers, the wall at his back. An airconditioned breeze. He stood up, leaning on the wall for support. There was the notebook in his pocket. There was a moment, fossilized, bound in leather and blood. Sam’s words, pleading, and his eyes, the sunset that passed over them. Jack dropped his head between his kneed and began to sob.
“I’m sorry, Sam,” he cried. “I’m so sorry.”
The empty hall absorbed his confessions and gave nothing in return. The world is a lonely place for tears.
Lucy sat in the same chair, staring at the pages in her lap when Jack sat down beside her.
“I need you to do something,” he said.
“You really are something.”
Jack took the notebook from his pocket and gave it to Lucy. He clutched a small paper in his hand.
“This is an address,” he said. “I need you to give them this notebook.”
Lucy turned the book over in her hands. She carefully peeled the cover back and looked at the pages. “This?” she asked
“Yes. Listen carefully.” Jack’s voice trembled; his words were soft. “Tell them it’s Sam’s. These are his parents. Tell them he sent this to you from France. You wrote letters to each other. You want them to have this.”
She looked at him, examined his eyes. They were grey, glistening with tears. The line of his mouth was hard.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Poems a dead boy wrote.”
He looked down, shook his head.
Her fingers explored the weight in her hands. “OK,” she whispered. Jack rose to leave, but she grabbed at his arm. “Why me?”
“Why any of us?” he said. “Why does the world insist on tearing itself open?”
After he was gone, Lucy considered the notebook. She examined the hole as it cut through the pages. There are things in this world that can’t be explained. That don’t need to be. There are wounds that open with a whistle and thud, and they stretch across landscapes, cutting a swath through farms and buildings and publishing offices. The world is a body we live within, it’s a landscape of flesh and blood and love.
We are the bones of the world, and bones break. Bodies are torn open. So we stitch the wounds and set the breaks, though healing is always messy, and this body is littered with scars.