Fiction by Jeff Ewing
After his girlfriend runs off with her chiropractor and his brother dies of a disease no one’s seen for fifty years, invisible threats rise like weeds at the edge of Calvin’s field of vision. He tastes poison in the tap water, death in the air thick with smoke half the year. He packs an orange crate with his belongings and bolts during the night, turning at each fork onto progressively narrower, poorer roads, following his nose out to where trees obstruct the longer view and the little creek he can hear but can’t see until he’s right on top of it runs year round. The water is clear, clearer than anything he can think to compare it to.
Thirty-seven years later he drinks from the creek lying on his stomach with his face nearly submerged, gulping mouthful after mouthful. In the water he sees the latest version of himself—gray hair in clumps like tufts of burned prairie grass, a nose of no distinction, a chin subsiding beneath matted whiskers. The eyes are of no precise color, containing too many variants for any one to stand out. The left wanders when he tries to fix a thing in place, as it has since he was a boy with a fat rubber eye patch blocking out half the world.
He imagines for a time that this place will be his Walden, but his lazy eye burns after staring at the wide, blank pages of his notebook without a single revelation. He tears the pages out one by one and in crabbed caps writes down the names of people and places he can remember, tacks them to trees, shellacs them to rocks with pitch.
In the mornings the eye is crusted nearly shut. He has to work it open with water from the creek, and sometimes a little fat from the frying pan he never cleans thoroughly, only wipes occasionally with an old rag when it starts to smoke. The rag hangs from the handle of the stove and is the remnant of a t-shirt he picked up at a harvest festival years earlier. The design—what’s left of it—shows a childish rendering of the constellation Leo above a truncated list of the innumerable bands that in his memory merge into a single amorphous one.
He recalls the crowds of people shuffling across the dusty fairground, the claustrophobic jarring and jostling that drove him to push a tentative couple out of his way, knocking the girl onto a garbage can piled high with paper plates and crumpled cups. She extracted herself and walked away with what she could of her dignity, swatting the boy’s hand away when he caught up and touched it cautiously to her waist. Calvin found her later in a knot of college kids, separated her easily from the feebly protesting boy, and apologized. They smoked a joint and fell together into a version of love, as his brother would later that day fall in a slow, intentional arc from the bleachers to drift like a shipwrecked sailor out across the heaving crowd. Three years later, shore-bound for good, his brother would schedule the first of many CTs and she, blaming Calvin’s fairground shove for her persistent cervical twinges, would go in for her first adjustment.
Sometimes the abalone shells are right out in the open, other times he has to wade into the waves, feeling for the sharp edges with his feet. Nearly a hundred shells are eventually arrayed along the south wall of his bark cabin. Rain water drips from the rims; larvae scoot across their rink-like surfaces. He’d hoped to make something of them one day, something more than ashtrays or trinket holders, but he’s never got around to it. Their best use—protecting a living thing from harm—is long behind them.
One night the Leonid meteor shower wakes him up. He goes outside to watch, the spectacle both impossibly distant and immediate. He holds the soiled and burned shirt scrap up to the night sky, lays one constellation over the other. His lazy eye twitches with the effort.
The streaks linger long after the stars have vanished. He sees them passing across his mottled ceiling for days and half expects to hear their sizzle as they crash, unwished-on, into the ocean on the far side of the trees.
By the summer in which the creek goes dry, he’s lost all depth perception. He stumbles into the desiccated creek bed he thought was still several yards off, plunges forward to crack his head on the point of a half-buried wedge of serpentine. His blood against the deep green rises nearly to the level of art. He can smell the rust in it, along with the scent of evergreens.
He raises himself to an elbow and turns his head curiously, as if coming across this place for the first time. A hundred yards off the ancient Ford Fairlane he drove till it bottomed out slumps, in crispest detail, beside his swaybacked cabin. The rills and mossed joints of the cabin walls are breathtaking in their sudden clarity. His restored sight is almost a miracle—a qualified miracle, the kind intended in Sunday school allegories to teach a lesson. He struggles to understand what this one might be.
The blood flows with surprising strength. He knows he’ll never make it up the steep, distinctly striated creek bank, and lays back again. His laugh startles him, along with a Stellar’s jay that flushes from the upper branches of a tall pine. Farther up, the vapor trail of a passing jet dissolves into the iridescent, otherworldly hues of wave-polished abalone. On the far side of the trees, as if she were a song starting over again and again, a woman about his age—first with her daughter, then her granddaughter—collects and arranges the empty shells in a looping shape that, from far above, looks something like a lion lying down in the shallows.