Larry French

Three More Stories

A Christmas Story

She heard the toi­let flush then he was stand­ing by the bed look­ing down at her.

I’m sor­ry,” she said. “I real­ly am.”

The man sat down on the bed and stroked her hair.

I know you are. Maybe we should talk to some­one. A doc­tor maybe?”

I don’t need a doc­tor. It’s that out there. That’s what’s wrong. I just can’t with that out there.”

But that’s always been there,” he said. “We’ve had that silo ever since we bought this place.”

They haven’t always been explod­ing, though, have they, Will? The silos nev­er explod­ed until this sum­mer. Now we got four of them gone in this coun­ty alone. One man dead and anoth­er who will nev­er hear again.”

The man stood up and walked towards the bed­room win­dow. On the way he glanced into an adjoin­ing bed­room. The room was emp­ty except for a roll-away bed stand­ing upright against the wall and sev­er­al card­board box­es filled with toys. He looked out the win­dow at the silo stand­ing, white and gleam­ing in the moon­light, thir­ty yards away. The night was very hot and with­out wind. He could hear crick­ets and oth­er night sounds.

I main­tain that thing strict­ly by the book,” he said. “I had the inspec­tors by two weeks ago. It’s as well vent­ed as you can get.”

What about the Nordstrom place?” she asked. “You always said Paul Nordstrom was the best mod­ern farmer in the coun­ty. Have you been over to the Nordstrom place and seen what’s left of it? My God, Will, they couldn’t even open his god­damn cas­ket.”

He came back to the bed and began to dress.

It’s the dust that caus­es it. And this damn sum­mer. All this heat and no rain. We ain’t had a sum­mer like this in twen­ty years.”

He put his pants and shoes on and walked barech­est­ed out into the front yard. His son’s sil­ver air­plane was tilt­ed over on one wing in the grass. It had a cock­pit a small child could sit in and a han­dle to steer right or left like a wag­on, although it was much larg­er than a wag­on. His son had seen it in a mag­a­zine and the man had spent more than they could afford in order to buy it for him. He walked to the air­plane, right­ed it, and sat on its back with his feet in the cock­pit. He looked care­ful­ly at the silo then put one leg out­side the plane and pushed away with it. The plane moved down the yard and onto the grav­el dri­ve­way. He began to push down the dri­ve­way with one leg. It was hard going in the loose grav­el. Several times he was tempt­ed to get out and push but some­how he felt that would be cheat­ing. He was sweat­ing by the time he got the plane down the dri­ve­way and onto the paved road.

He rest­ed for a while look­ing down the long road that led through the val­ley and into the town whose lights shim­mered and glowed sev­er­al miles below. When he got his breath back, he pushed off again with one leg. It was only a mat­ter of yards before the plane began to move down­hill on its own. He swung his leg back onto the seat and steered a line down the mid­dle of the road. The plane swerved right and left sev­er­al times until he learned the right touch on the steer­ing lever. In the dis­tance, off to his left, he could see the Nordstrom place and what was left of the barn and out­build­ings. The plane was pick­ing up speed going down the grade and the man thought back to the Christmas he had bought the plane for the boy.

________

Primary Colors

You got to know how to take this sto­ry. Because of cer­tain things I can’t tell you all of it, but you can imag­ine what you want. I will tell you, all this hap­pened sev­er­al years ago out in California–the north­ern part.

They had this old fish­ing pier they work hard at to keep look­ing old for the tourists. You know the kind. A rail­road track ran right by the pier then curved through the woods and then out around the bay. You could usu­al­ly see some artist out there look­ing back at the pier and paint­ing it. I was there on the tracks a lot. Those were bad times.

It was fog­gy that morn­ing, as usu­al, and she was the only per­son around. She had this easel set up and was half way through some­thing that did kind of look like the pier. She was a lit­tle too close to the tracks and I told her so. I said, “It’s dan­ger­ous to be that close. Those trains have things stick­ing out the sides that can sweep you right off.” She thanked me for that. I just stood there. Some of the col­ors she was using real­ly stood out–even on a day as fog­gy as that one was. When I asked her she said they were pri­ma­ry col­ors. To this day I remem­ber that. She picked up this board with all her dif­fer­ent paints on it and point­ed each one out.

We talked a bit after that, then I sort of pulled her down the embank­ment to a grove of trees I knew. It had been a long time for me. I had to work a lit­tle bit to get there and then things kind of got out of hand. You got to under­stand all this time I could hear the train. I must have heard that train twen­ty miles away. That was one of the things I used when she was cry­ing. I said, “Just lis­ten to the train, just pre­tend.” It didn’t help any. Along with the train there were these bird sounds; gulls fol­low­ing the fish­ing boats, and seals bark­ing in the har­bor. I’m just try­ing to show you what it was like there that morn­ing.

It was hard get­ting back up the embank­ment. I kept hear­ing the train get­ting clos­er while I was try­ing to arrange things on the track. I want­ed it to be like one of those old-time black and white movies. The train sound­ed like it was right on top of me. I threw myself down the embank­ment and hid my face under my arms. I didn’t watch. The train went by and I felt like laugh­ing and cry­ing at the same time. The train threw lit­tle black cin­ders down on me from the tracks. When the last car went past, I scram­bled back up to the tracks. The very first thing I noticed, which is fun­ny when you think about what all was up there, was that her easel was gone! It had been swept right over the side like I told her. I could see it down the slope in the fog. I looked for those pri­ma­ry col­ors, but the paint­ing had fall­en face down against the rocks.

________

The Only Source of Light

Each motel room had a set of French doors fac­ing the ocean and out­side the doors was a wood­en board­walk paint­ed gray. The man paid for one of these rooms for three nights in advance. He said he might stay longer and the desk clerk said that would not be a prob­lem since the fall was a slow peri­od for them. The clerk then warned him that six times a day a train went by just one hun­dred feet from the man’s back door and he hoped it would not both­er him. The man just smiled and said that in fact he was very fond of trains.

The first day in his room he arranged his clothes, put his toi­let arti­cles away and began to dust. He dust­ed the lit­tle desk, the van­i­ty and the mir­ror and then he laid down on the bed and lis­tened to the sound of the ocean. He was half asleep when he heard the first train com­ing. By the time he got out the door and across the park­ing lot he had missed the engine but stood and watched the rest of the train go by.

The hotel had placed an old din­ing car in an open area near the tracks and con­vert­ed it into a cof­fee shop. The man began hav­ing his lunch there dai­ly. He liked to watch the trains go by while he sat in one him­self. Sometimes he felt like his din­ing car was mov­ing and the train going by out­side was sit­ting still.

Here he comes,” said one of the wait­ress­es work­ing in the din­ing car.

It’s over a week now,” said the oth­er. “No one ever stays here that long. There’s some­thing fun­ny going on with that one.”

And did you see that jack­et he wears? And the car he dri­ves? That one’s not hurt­ing for mon­ey.”

They were fin­ish­ing the set-ups for lunch when the man walked in. He stood for a moment inside the door and read the dai­ly spe­cials on the chalk­board.

Good morn­ing, ladies,” he said.

Just bare­ly,” said one of the wait­ress­es glanc­ing at her watch.

Say, mis­ter,” said the oth­er one hand­ing him a menu. “You hav­ing a good stay here? You about the clos­est thing we got to a reg­u­lar.”

The man ran his fin­ger down the menu stop­ping at the bread­ed veal cut­let.

There it is,” he said. “You ladies do that one real well. I’ll have that and a cof­fee. I don’t know why I’m still here. I’m think­ing about writ­ing a book.”

The wait­ress wrote down his order and went to get his water. When she came back she asked him, “A book. Hey, that’s all right. You write very many books before?”

Never,” he said. “If I do, though, I’m going to per­son­al­ly come back here and give you an auto­graphed copy.”

The wait­ress smiled and went to take care of the oth­er cus­tomers. She came back to fill his cof­fee cup.

What’s it gonna be about?”

Well,” he said, “I’m still decid­ing that, but I’m going to put the trains in it and the ocean and per­haps some cra­zies, too!”

Why cra­zies?”

Crazies are always good,” he said. “You don’t have to wor­ry about get­ting the cra­zies right. Anything they do is all right because they’re crazy.”

That makes some kind of sense, I guess. What else are you gonna put in that book?”

Weather,” he said. “I fig­ure a lit­tle weath­er about every ten pages.”

That’s a nice touch,” she said. “Hell, ain’t nobody not inter­est­ed in weath­er. It’s nice you ain’t get­ting too high­brow. Probably sell more copies that way.”

She left the man and went to the rear of the din­ing car. She made two trips with dish­es to the win­dow and slid them out onto the cart. The dish­es were washed in the main restau­rant. The lunch hour was near­ly over and most peo­ple were in the process of set­tling their checks and leav­ing. After a while the man saw the wait­ress com­ing towards him and the oth­er one right behind her. The first wait­ress looked embar­rassed.

I told her about you writ­ing a book. She wants to ask you some­thing.”

The oth­er wait­ress looked down at her feet then out past the man to the rail­road tracks out­side.

Well,” she began, “if you are still writ­ing on that book that means you ain’t got it fin­ished yet, right?”

The man nod­ded his head.

Well, I was just won­der­ing if you could put us in there? In that book?”

I could do that,” he said, “but I’d have to dis­guise you.”

Why’s that?”

You could sue me. Happens all the time.”

Why’d I do that for?”

Maybe you wouldn’t like what I said about you. You’d just pick up the phone, call a lawyer and there goes my mon­ey. No, I’ll do it, but I’ll have to dis­guise you.”

The two women slid into the booth across from the man. One of them opened some cig­a­rettes and passed them around. The one that asked to be in the book blew a smoke ring and stared into it for a minute.

Make it so we can tell though,” she said. “As long as we know, that’s enough.”

No prob­lem,” he said. “You’ll just be read­ing along, then sud­den­ly there you’ll be, clear as day.”

One of the women went to get more cof­fee and filled all the cups. The man stood up. He fished some bills out of his pock­et and laid them on the table.

I’m going to miss you ladies,” he said. “Just remem­ber I’m com­ing back here and give each of you an auto­graphed copy, and that’s a promise.”

The man walked out of the din­er and across the tracks to his room. They watched him until his door closed behind him.

The two women worked through the after­noon and into the evening until the din­er closed for the night. It was a full moon when they left the din­er and start­ed towards the park­ing lot and their cars. The lights of the din­er and the park­ing lot had been turned off and the moon was the only source of light. It shone on the sur­face of the twin bare met­al tracks of the rail­road and on the faces of the women as they walked to their cars. One of the women had tears run­ning down her cheeks and the light of the moon shone on these also and made them glis­ten in the night.

Why, hon­ey, what’s wrong with you?”

Oh, damn,” said the woman. “Oh, damn, damn, damn.”

The woman who was cry­ing stopped in the park­ing lot and the oth­er put her arm around her and held her close.

I ain’t nev­er seen you like this. What’s got­ten into you? Is Henry act­ing up again?”

She shook her head no and began moan­ing.

Oh, my Jesus,” she said. “Oh, my good sweet Jesus.”

The air was wet and mois­ture stood on the roofs of the cars and on the wide green leaves of the palm trees and every­where the mois­ture set­tled the moon reflect­ed and shone and gath­ered it’s light in those places.

~

Larry French’s pieces have appeared in Ascent, the New Orleans Review, and else­where, and have been anthol­o­gized in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Reprinted here from Mississippi Review Online Vol 2 Number 6.