William Black


William Black’s fiction and critical essays have appeared in Crazyhorse, Threepenny Review, Southern Review, The Sun, World Literature Today, Boulevard, and elsewhere.

The Pleasure Dome

Our father came home grumbling and smelling of motor oil, axle grease, and beer. He pushed past my brother and me as we tried to fit our fingers through his belt loops and wrap ourselves around his legs. We followed him to the bedroom, where he fell back onto the bed like a timber, and we each took a boot, unlaced it, and struggled to pull it off, our father saying, “Come on now, boys. Come on and pull like a couple of mules.” When we finally yanked them off, stumbling backward from the sudden release, there were his toes, dirty and unclipped, peeking through the holes in his socks, and we jumped on him, crashing down on his arms and chest, pinning him with everything we had, only to find ourselves somehow aloft, balanced in his huge hands, and then brought down on our backs, forefingers pressed fast to our sternums, both of us immobilized at once, held helpless and ticklish beyond belief. We half-laughed and half-screamed for our lives.

“So,” he said, his beery breath warm and close. “Have I earned a moment’s peace and quiet?”

“Yes yes yes!” Though we would have said anything to win our release.

He let us go and we stood. Our clothes, the bedspread, all smeared with his sweat and black grease, and our mother appeared in the doorway to usher us out, redirecting our attention to our chores.

I took the meat scraps our mother had set aside and fed the hound dogs in their chain-linked pen. My brother laid out clean clothes for our father when he was finished with his shower. Together we set the table and then took our seats to wait quietly, as we had been taught, for supper to be served.

When our father reappeared, he was clean-shaven and changed into the t-shirt and shorts my brother had laid out for him. His hair was wet and combed back off his face. He looked relaxed and restless at once, inspecting the table. When he saw no beer by his plate, he got one from the fridge. Our mother said she could not stop him from drinking, but she would not serve him either.

After supper, when our plates had been scraped clean and set in the dishwasher, our father poured bourbon over ice, and we were sent to our room. There, we could do anything we wanted until lights out. Mostly, we turned on the TV and waited for dark, and as it came, we leaned on our windowsill, looking out on the backyard, where our father sat in his folding chair, parked in the middle of the lawn, with a long view across the wooded valley and distant hills. Our father surveying the land. What would have been his land. Once his grandfather’s land, bought because someone someday would want the anthracite still buried under the valley floor. Then his father’s land, parceled out and sold before he left our father’s mother, cash being easier to hide from her lawyers.

Darkfall obliterated the view, and the lights of the Pleasure Dome came up. From the deepest spot in the valley, a pastel glow that lit the hazy air, coral pink, aquamarine, otherworldly colors hanging like aurora borealis above the black trees. Spotlights cut through the colors, sending white beams into the sky, illuminating the undersides of clouds, swiveling, crossing each other, separating again.

“The fall of man,” our father had told us about the Pleasure Dome, because he knew how we loved the lights. “The beginning of the end of things,” he said. Or in a different kind of mood, “The end of the end of things,” and the hound dogs started up, like warning sirens. Sending their mournful sounds across the nighttime valley to come back as echoes. Soon it would be lights out.

Once, our father took us there. “Want to see what those lights are all about?” he asked. We were all three crammed across the bench seat of his truck, and my brother and I bounced up and down with joy. Our father nodded and turned off the road home. He drove down the steep hills, along narrow two-lane roads we’d never seen before, all of it crowded by tall trees. The air smelled of the paper mill nearby. The river came into view, and along it, a stretch of three or four abandoned houses. Then woods again.

When we got there, the building was cinderblock, painted midnight blue and speckled with glittery stars. Across the front wall, THE PLEASURE DOME was written at an upward angle; behind the words, a comet-like tail stretching away into the cosmos. The door was huge and metal and red. And then we were inside. Five or six men sitting alone at their tables, wet-looking bottles of beer before them. Cigarette smoke hanging in the air. We knew what kind of men these were. Men who used to work in the mines, now men without jobs. We saw them everywhere in those days. Their hands were hard and heavy as stones and useless. They watched the woman doing her slow, sad dance. Above and below her, colored lights pulsed. Red, yellow, blue. Until someone told my father we weren’t allowed.

We waited outside, stretching ourselves to make human rocket ships that launched along the trajectory of THE PLEASURE DOME, traveling among the painted stars, making the sonic noises of spaceflight. Then growing bored and throwing pebbles from the driveway at the parking lot lights. Then throwing them at each other. Until our father appeared, ruddy-faced and a little unsteady.

We climbed into his truck. He asked, “Are you happy you saw it?”

“Yes!” we said, with enthusiasm, as though we hadn’t seen what we’d seen.

Back up the switchbacking roads, watching for glimpses of The Pleasure Dome through the trees, until we couldn’t see it anymore, and then it was dark and the lights came on. From here, they were even more awe-inspiring than from our bedroom window, the fuzzy pastel glow reaching through trees, until we were above it looking down, a spaceship landed in our valley. The spotlights like laser beams piercing the sky. We leaned our heads all the way back to see how high they went.

We pulled in the driveway at home, and the dogs went crazy with barking, their sounds urgent rather than mournful. Watch out, watch out! they cried. Danger is near!

Our mother was furious. She had fixed supper but had no one to feed the dogs or set the table or eat what she had made, and now it was ruined.

“Where have you been?” she wanted to know. “Where the hell have you been?”

We told her what our father had instructed us to tell her. “We have been to the end of the universe,” we said. “We have seen the end of everything.”