Curtis Smith

Fiction

Curtis Smith has published over one hundred stories and essays. His most recent books are Beasts and Men (stories, Press 53) and Communion (essays, Dock Street Press). Next spring, Ig Publishing will release his next book, a series of essays on Slaughterhouse-Five.

 

The Culvert

The boy’s father woke him after midnight. The old man’s smell in the dark. Cigarettes. The foundry’s gray dust. The boy had been dreaming. A field where the grass broke like ice beneath his steps, a sun as frigid as it was bright. The boy lost between worlds. His father’s hand on his shoulder.

“Come with me.”

The boy in his underwear. The angling of hallway light. The doorway a frame for his father’s silhouette. Rain on the roof—soft, steady—and through the window screen, a coolness rare this hot summer. He shuffled behind his father. The hallway, the stairs. Sleep still in his joints. His eyes blinking but unable to focus. The dining room. The kitchen sink cluttered with the dishes the boy had promised to wash. They stood on the stoop. The porch light stretched across the parched lawn. The rain steadier than the boy had imagined. At the light’s fringe, his older brother. His soaked T-shirt clinging to his shoulders. His shaved head upon the picnic table.

The grass was wet beneath the boy’s bare feet. The rain on his neck. They sat the brother up. The boy cradled his brother’s head and wiped the drops from his brow. They swung the brother into a sitting position, the boy and his father each taking a side, and with the count of three, they lifted him to his feet. His brother’s head pitched forward, his legs useless. His brother the football star. The Marine. A torso thick with muscle. Scabs across his knuckles. The boy a head shorter and eighty pounds lighter. He blinked the rain from his eyes and fought the push of dead weight. His feet kicked through empty beer cans. They took the porch steps one at a time. Pain in the boy’s shoulders. The brother mumbled. Names the boy didn’t know. A village in the sand half a world away.

The boy faltered inside the kitchen door. His knees struck the linoleum, his brother on top of him, a tangling of bodies until his father managed to roll the brother aside. Gasping, their hair matted and dripping, they looked upon the brother, his skin sickly in the yellow light. His father peeled off the brother’s wet clothes and slipped a couch pillow beneath his head. The boy draped him with the afghan their mother had knitted. Blood tucked deep in the knots, the needle in her trembling fingers. Those final, wasting months.

“Go back to sleep” his father said.

From his bedroom window, the boy watched his father load their deer rifles and shotguns into his car’s trunk. His retreating taillights glistened red on the wet macadam. The boy went downstairs and stretched out on the couch. He wished he could rejoin his dream, but he knew he couldn’t. Instead, he listened to the rain in the gutter. His brother’s raspy breath.

~

The boy raced after the thief who’d stolen his bike. The drumbeat built in the boy’s chest. The bike plucked from his dandelioned lawn, its front wheel still spinning, the thief making his bid before the boy could open the porch door. The thief black. In three blocks, he’d be home free, the boy risking a beating if he crossed the boundary the older boys marked with fistfights and worse. The thief in a bathing suit, a towel draped around his neck. Long legs and bony kneecaps. His bare feet slipped from the pedals, and the bike’s rusted chain caught and spit. The boy a strong runner, the winner of his school’s field-day races. His sneakers barely kissing the pavement. The bike’s lock in his hand, a length of cable sheathed in plastic, a metal clasp. Another wilting afternoon, and amid the laziness and heat, their chase elevated into spectacle. The porch sitters lowered their newspapers. One of the corner thugs hurled a rock that struck the thief’s arm. Next came a bottle, the glass shattering, a spray of sun-glistening glass. The thief veered down a narrow street. A wrong turn, a dead end into the old tool mill. His towel fell into the road.

“Get the little nigger!” a corner boy yelled. Another: “Make your brother proud!”

Honeysuckle choked the lot’s sagging fence. The gate long gone. The macadam cratered, rocks and potholes, and all around, the smother of vegetation. Saplings and brown grass rose from cracked concrete. Ivy twined the glassless windows. The mill a shell of crumbling brick. The stories from inside—the dog fights and soiled mattresses. The needles and vials. The boy moving faster. Beneath him, stretches of scarred earth. His lungs filled like sails.

The thief hit a pothole. The tremor rose into the handlebars, a wobbling moment before the bike bucked sideways. Thief and bike went down, a clatter of metal, a meaty thud.

The boy thirty yards away. Twenty. Ten. A transformer high on a utility pole hissed, and in the boy, another type of electricity, the white light of clarity, of rightness. The thief stood. Blood on his elbow and knee. His side scraped raw. His eyes wide. He ran, an escape kinked by pain, strides undercut by stones and broken glass.

The boy adjusted his gait and set an arm’s length between them. Close enough to hear the thief’s gasps. Close enough to see the outline of his bony shoulders, the nubs of his spine. Close enough to smell the pool’s chlorine on his skin.

The boy swung the lock above his head, a helicopter’s orbit. The clasp whispered through the honeysuckled air. Everything clear. Everything bright. The thief’s hair cropped close; the boy’s eyes fixed on the back of his skull.

~

Crickets thrummed in the creek-bank weeds. A black sky, no moon, no stars. The heaviness of rain but not a drop. The boy peeled off his socks and tucked them into his sneakers. He slipped into his flip flops. The water cool. The creek narrow and shallow. He drifted to the middle. The sluggish current around his shins. The overgrown banks rose on either side, an erasing of the things he knew. The boy feeling as if he were lost within a scar.

His flip flops caught on hidden rocks, so he moved slowly. He turned on his flashlight and cast a halo over the water’s ugliness. An overturned shopping cart. A bald tire. A shattered sink. Oily rainbows curled around the rocks. Foam along the weedy banks. The last generation’s minnows and frogs long gone. The boy thought of his brother in their backyard, silent, home yet lost. He thought of his father fading a shift at a time in the foundry upstream. He thought of his mother.

He paused before the yawning culvert. A metal pipe he could walk through, his head unbowed, a thirty-yard passage beneath a cross street and the foundry’s rail line. He aimed his flashlight into the opening. A spider web pulsed with a moth’s struggle. Further, the dull glow of close-set eyes. The boy threw a rock. The rats clambered upon themselves, wet fur and long tails. The culvert echoed with their scrape and splash.

He knew the girl—her name, her face. At recess, she’d huddled with her friends in their winter coats, a breathy haze knitted above their heads. On Christmas Eve he’d walked behind her and her father in the communion line. Her blond hair shimmered in the candlelight; a tinsel strand on her father’s gray suit. Last spring, the police found her in the culvert. Naked, the rats upon her. In the woods beyond the culvert’s other end, her father hung from a tree.

The boy turned off the flashlight. One step, then another. The culvert’s far end waiting, an unblinking eye. A new sound, a seashell’s whisper of breeze and water. The smell of rust. Spider webs broke over him. His hands outstretched but touching nothing.

I write in stretches—I'll work on essays for a few months, then back to a novel, then to a cycle of stories. This is one of the five pieces I wrote during my last story cycle. They were all connected in a way—tone, mood. In this piece, I tried to arrange three quick portraits that would form a type of collage that embodied a larger idea.