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J. A. Chisum

The Parable of Casper and Paul Clark

Paul Clark had enormous, heavy hands. He had long been known around town as a tough fighter, and one time, back when he was still in high school, heíd taken on four jocks in the China Chef all by himself. Rumor had it that heíd thrown Kickie Taylor over one of the Chinese-paper partitions in the restaurant, and that heíd broken the arm of some basketball player from Lovelock. The little diner got trashed, and this earned Paul a three-month stint in the county jail. He was generally a laid-back and easy-going sort of guy though, and given his size, he had a voice that was surprisingly high-pitched and soft. He also had a twin brother named Casper, but the two looked nothing alike. Casper was small, with virtually no chin, and he had huge, cruel owl-eyes. The brothers were in their early twenties, but they still lived in their motherís house. Mainly this was due to the fact that the two of them were unemployed.

"What you wanna do today?" asked Casper.

"Fuck if I know." Paul was sitting on the couch, smoking a cigarette. "Look for a job. Something."

"You wanna go to Reno?"

"Not really."

Casper had been lying on the floor, and now he got up to flip the channel on the TV.

"Why donít we just go driving or something," said Paul. "Take the gun out. You know."

"But itís cold as hell out there!" Casper had a vicious streak, however, and he loved to shoot thingsóany thingóand Paul knew heíd cave.

Paul stubbed out his cigarette and climbed to his feet. "Well, Iím rolliní out. Whether or not you come along is up to you."

"Shit. All right. Weíll fucking go." Casperís mouth was twisted into a sneer.

"Maybe you should call up Shane and see if we could borrow his motorcycle."

"Naw, man. His motorcycleís all busted up, remember?"

Paul had no idea what his brother was talking about.

"Remember? He took that chick up there and they had an accident. She got all banged up. What, didnít I tell you that story?"

"I donít know. Who cares? Wait. . . Didnít that happen a long time ago?"

"Yeah! Remember?"

"I guess so, but who gives a shit. Go get the gun."

"All right."

Paul went and got the car keys, and Casper went and got the pistol. As the two brothers headed out to the car, they didnít bother to lock the front door of the houseóthere was no need for it. Since they lived in the Sandia Manor subdivision, they had to debate whether to head northeast toward the alkali flats, or southwest toward sheep camp. In the end they opted for sheep camp, since they figured they could go check out the dump before they came home. Heíd been there dozens of times, after all. Paul turned the heater on full-blast as they turned onto Main Street.

It had been a cold winter. Fog had settled over the town during the night, and in the morning, the trees and the chain link fences were covered with pogonipówhich covered everything, and looked like long, icy thorns. There were always at least a couple of days out of the year like this, and today it was so cold that the pogonip hadnít yet melted, even though it was well past noon.

The roads were dark and wet, and grey, filthy snow lined the streets. Paul steered the car down past the 7-Eleven, and the Lahontan Community Center. They drove up to one of the townís two stoplights and waited for it to turn green. On the left was a Mexican food restaurant with a sign that read, ĎNice Family Bar.í When the light changed, Paul turned left, and looked away guiltily as they passed the China Chef.

"Wait! Wait!" said Casper. "Slow down a little. Thereís fucking Jesse. Check this out."

Paul eased up on the gas, and Casper rolled down the window.

"Freeze, motherfucker!" Casper pointed the pistol out the window and pulled back the hammer with his thumb. Jesse Jessup, who had been walking with his head down and with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his puffy coat, stopped in his tracks and looked up. For a moment it seemed like he couldnít decide whether to make a run for it or to drop to the ground. Then he recognized who was in the car and his whole body relaxed.

"Jesus Christ on a crutch, Casper. You fuckiní asshole."

Casper put his arm back inside the car and erupted with laughter.

"Jesse," he said, once heíd recovered. "You were about to piss yourself."

"Go to hell, man. What are you doing driving around with a goddamn gun anyhow?"

"We were coming to hunt your ass down," said Paul, grinning.

Jesse finally gave in and smiled a little. "So, what are you guys up to?"

"Weíre going up to sheep camp. Gonna shoot some rocks or something."

"Oh. Thatís cool."

"Yeah. You want to come with?"

"Uh, noóI gotta go run a couple of errands." The two brothers could tell he was lying, and Casper laughed again.

"Oh, okay. Well, take it easy."

"You too."

"Yeah, and watch out for white and delightsome mustangs," said Casper.

"All right." He sniveled in a scratchy way. What Casper was saying didnít make sense. "Donít get yourselves arrested, guys."

"Sheriff Graves comes looking for me," Casper said, "Iíll blow his head clean off."

"Okay," said Jesse, shaking his head, and gazing up at them from beneath his lowered brow. It was clear he couldnít see what they were thinking. "See you later."

"Later, man."

Casper rolled up the window and Paul continued driving down the road. Just past the post office, someone had built a snowman out in the middle of an empty field, and from this distance, it looked half-alive. Paul worried for a moment that his brother would try to shoot it, but then he realized he was just over-thinking things.

In the heavens, a thick blanket of pale grey clouds was covering the sky, but there was no way to tell whether or not it would snow. The car skated along the road until the speed limit postings began to increase on up to 55. The frost-covered desert floor, with its scatterings of snow-crusted sagebrush and frozen Mormon Tea, drifted past like some serene and blasted wasteland. At last, heading eastwards, they passed the high school and the foothill road leading up the steep hillside towards the dump. To the right of the highway was a dirt road that wound down into a valley, and eventually, to sheep camp. Paul stepped on the brake and then turned down the dirt road. Because it was so cold, the ground was hard, and the wheels of the car didnít send up any dust.

They continued on up into the foothills until they could see the scar in the ground where the creek normally flowed. The cottonwoods along the creekbed were naked and skeletal.

"Hey, isnít there an old mine around here somewhere?" asked Paul as he shut off the car.

"Yeah. Itís over there by those hills, I think."

"We oughtta go check it out."

The twins climbed out of the car and the sharp winds coming down over the Sierra bit into their cheeks. Casper got out the box of bullets and loaded the gun. Paul walked over to a tree and propped up some fallen branches.

"Goddamn, itís cold as hell," he said. "Is there any gloves or anything in the car?"

"I donít know. I didnít bring no gloves, you candy ass." Casper laughed. "Now move out of the way."

He already had his arm raised, and Paul had to scamper to get out of the way. The gun exploded noisily in Casperís hand. He fired again, and a chunk of bark flew off the side of the tree.

"My turn," said Paul.

"No way. I got four shots left." Casper didnít take his eyes off the tree. He nudged Paul away with his shoulder and raised his arm and fired and missed again. When he pulled the trigger again, the bullet struck a branch high up in the tree, which immediately began to creak and crack and bend, until finally it was dangling by a few strands alongside the treeís trunk. "What a fucking good shot I am," said Casper. He fired his last two shots off towards the horizon.

"All right, man," said Paul. "My turn."

Casper hung on to the gun and loaded it up. He was about to pass it over to Paul, but he heard something. It was the low and rumbling noise of a truck.

"Can you tell where thatís coming from?" he said.

"What? Oh.... No, not really." Paul cocked his head to the side and listened. He figured that whoever it was would likely get scared off by the sound of gunfire, if theyíd heard it at all. Paul looked at the hills and at his brother, and he noticed that tiny flakes of snow were beginning to fall. If it picked up, they would have to go home. Though it was some distance away, the truck sounded like it was idling somewhere just beyond the crest of the hills.

"You know what?" Casper began. "We should go over there and shoot the bastardís tires out."

Paul laughed. "Yeah, all right. Letís go."

Casper finished loading the pistol, and the two brothers started trudging up the hillside. As they went, the flurries of snow fell swept down in a curtain, and the higher they got, the louder the grumble of the truck became. Once theyíd neared the top, they got down on their bellies and crawled to the edge of the hill. Paul scooted around to the edge of a sagebrush, and pushing away a screen of thin branches, he peered down into the valley.

Near a broad patch of empty sand sat the truck. It was an old, beat-up white pickup with pockmarks of rust above the tire wells. Paul could see a man in a plaid flannel coat sitting behind the wheel. The guy had on a tan mesh baseball cap, too. Paul watched as the man climbed out of the truck and went around to the back. He reached into the bed and brought up a shovel, and it was then that Paul noticed that the man was holding a small shoebox under his arm.

"What the fuck is this guy doing? Burying his pet or something?" Casper whispered.

"I donít know. He looks old, so maybe so."

The two of them saw the man set the box down and begin shoveling. It was obvious that the poor guy was having a hard time with the frozen ground. After a few minutes, he took off his cap and wiped his forehead with his sleeve, and then went on digging. All the while the snow kept lightly falling.

"What a dumbshit. Iím taking out this dudeís tires," said Casper.

"No! Man, just chill out for a second. All youíll do is freak him out."

Paul looked back down into the valley. By now the man was kneeling beside the hole heíd dug. He opened the box for a moment, and it seemed that his back rose and fell with an enormous weight. It was like he was breathing in an expansive and yet horribly constrictive breath, and as he exhaled, he closed the box and set it in the hole. Then he used the shovel to cover it up. The two brothers watched him look plaintively down at the freshly disturbed earth, and then they saw him get into his truck and drive away.

Once the truck had disappeared beyond the hills, Casper and Paul went down to the valley. They clamored down, knocking the earth loose in big, rocky clumps, until they reached the burial site. Their noses were bright red in the cold, and now the snow began to fall in thick, heavy flakes which were so light and delicate that they stuck in Paulís dark, curly hair.

"Man, I still should have fucking shot at least one of that guyís tires."

"Forget it, Cass." By now Paul had crouched down by the loose dirt, and he began to scoop it away with his hands. Casper stood and watched, the gun dangling by his side.

"Buried fucking treasure," said Casper. "All itís gonna be is a dead bird or something."

Paul uncovered the box, and he brushed away the dirt along its edges. He hauled it out and opened it, and as he did so, Casper craned his head forward to look.

At first, they couldnít figure out what it was. It was gold, and even in the diffuse winter light it gleamed. The object was the size of a peach, and absolutely round. Paul reached into the box and lifted it free from the styrofoam packing in the box. It had a strange weight in his hand. There were beveled triangles of unbelievably clear glass set at equal intervals in the shining gold metal. Deep inside the orb floated a pair of pointed spindles, and they looked very fragile, and seemed that if they were touched, they would tilt in such a way that would upset the intricate balance that someone had taken such care to produce in the first place. Paul turned it over slightly, and the spindles shifted inside the orb, pointing off towards the east. On the metal frame were a series of characters, or letters, or hieroglyphs of some kind. Paul wondered what it said.

"Holy shit!" said Casper. "What the hell is that?"

"Fuck if I know." Paul was suddenly aware of the danger in holding it, and feared that it might shatter in his hand.

"Here, lemme see it."

Paul put it back in the box and handed it over.

"Check it out," said Casper. He took the gold orb out of the box and held it down near his crotch, as if it were a testicle, holding it in a circle made by his thumb, forefinger, and palm. He grinned wildly and started laughing, but Paul thought it looked creepy and unreal. Like his brother was trying to replace something that didnít need replacing.

"Why the hell would anybody have this?" Casper went on.

"I donít know, man. Just put it back in the box."

"No way! Iím keeping it," he said, and he began to stuff it into his coat pocket.

"Thatís really messed up."

"Aw, shut the hell up. You know this is probably worth something. Weíll just take it into Reno and pawn it."


But something wasnít right. Paul knew in his stomach that the old guy had buried it for a reason. And at the same time, Paul knew that Casper would hog the orb-compass thing for himself, and would probably take all or most of the money if they did ever get around to pawning it. Moreover, who knew if Casper would run his mouth off and blab about it to somebody who knew its origins? Paul couldnít remember if there were any laws about digging up other peopleís possessions, but, being on probation, he didnít want to take the risk. Also, he felt a strange gnawing in his gut to own the orb for himself. After all, heíd never seen anything like it. The snow began to fall more heavily, and by now it was beginning to cover the desert floor.

Casper started up the hill, and Paul followed. When they reached the top, Paul said:

"Hey, Casper. Let me see that thing again."

"What for?"

"Just let me see it, man."

"No way. I told you, weíre pawning it." He stuffed his hand into his pocket.

"Come on, fuckerójust let me see it!"

"Back off!" Casper raised the gun.

"What, youíre gonna shoot me? Well, go ahead and fucking do it then."

Casper stood glaring, his eyes as large and blank as pools of oil. Finally, he said, "Fine. Here you go, asshole. He took the glass and metal ball out of his pocket and flung it away. It made a tingling, bell-like sound as it hit the ground and rolled away.

"Whatíd you do that for?" Paul roared. Casper kept staring as Paul charged towards him. He put both his hands on Casperís chest and shoved him as hard as he could, and as he did this, he saw a flicker of sadness on his brotherís small, triangular face, and he instantly regretted what heíd done. Casper flew back and landed with a dull thud against the rocks.

"Jesus, Cass. . . Iím sorry, man." Paul moved forward, but his brother lay still. "Casper?"

He neared his brotherís silent form, and he saw the blood inching out in a dark halo around Casperís head. He knelt down and touched his brother on the shoulder, but he knew that he had killed him.

"Casperócan you hear me? Casper . . . ?" he said, but there was no reply. He felt for a moment as if he were going to cry, but he knew that was useless. There was nothing else he could say. His mind wound around and around itself, and Paul felt the sort of calm he always experienced during a fight. His breath curled up smoke-like from his open mouth as he squatted, looking at Casper, barely feeling the numbness in his cheeks and nose. Paul sat there, the bleak clots of snow falling across his brotherís prone body. None of it was real. It couldnít be. The wind was just some breath blowing out of a dream. He hadnít done anything. There was no orb. There was no gun. Casper was on the verge of waking up. Paul was putting all of the pieces of the puzzle back together in his head. It was nobodyís fault. It just happened. It would be best to just accept it. That was it.

He stood up to stretch his legs and craned his neck back to look up into the sky. There wasnít anything there save the snow, which came plunging out of the grey, ever-darkening pallor of clouds mere feet before it struck his face. He sniffled in the cold and put his hands in his pockets. There was a spattering of blood on the white toe-shell of his Chuck Taylors. A bottlecap in the dirt. It would be night before much longer. It was getting to be time to head home.

His breathing was regular and calm and his heart was beating steadily, and so Paul reached his long arms underneath his brotherís body and lifted it up. Casper made a dead, incomparably heavy weight in his arms. Paul carried his brother over to the car and put him in the back seat. He had to fold up his legs so that the door would shut. Then he went back and retrieved the gun and put it in the glovebox. He thought about looking for the orb, but decided against it. The big, fluffy flakes of snow fell in slow and languid drifts, and as he started the car, Paul had to turn on the windshield wipers. He tried not to remember that his brother was in the back seat.

There was really only one place to go, and so Paul drove to the Sheriffís Department. He knew Sheriff Graves, after all. He didnít know any of the EMTs, or the people who worked at the Fire Department. It was too late for that anyhow. The parking lot at the Community Center was dark and wet as he pulled into the space. He got out of his car and went around to the back seat and pulled out Casperís body. There was a terrible mess on the upholstery, and on the floorboard. Paul leaned down, and heaved his brother up over his shoulder, and then he turned and staggered over to the front door. The receptionist behind the desk noticed him before heíd opened the door.

"Stay right there!" she shouted, holding out her palm. "Donít you move a muscle."

"Okay," said Paul. "I ainít gonna do anything."

She had a phone cradled to her ear and cupped her hand over her mouth as she spoke. A few moments later Sheriff Graves came sauntering down the hall. He slowed as he saw Paul standing near the door.

"Good Christ, son. What have you done now?"

"I donít know what I did," he said.

The rest of what happened was hard for Paul to remember. He would try to recall what heíd said at a later time, but it was unrecoverable. The Sheriff had immediately called for assistance, and they had gotten Casper onto a gurney. They took him away, and then Sheriff Graves took Paul back into an office and gave him some coffee and a cigarette to smoke while they talked. Some deputy, who had white hair and a lined face and who looked older than the Sheriff, sat in and listened. They asked him what had happened, and he told them. Although he hadnít wanted to, he cried part way through his story. They sat patiently and let him finish, and when it was over he dried his face with the Sheriffís handkerchief and felt a little bit better. Then he went on with his tale. At one point, the power flickered off on account of the snowstorm, and so they lit candles. After Paul finished, they went out into the hallway to confer, leaving him alone with the flickering light.

When they came back, the old deputy said, "You claiming this was an accident is consistent with your brotherís injuries."

"But what we still donít understand," the Sheriff added, "is why you were fighting in the first place."

Paul thought about it, and remembered the orb. It seemed so strange, and so horrible, that it had come to that. He wanted to lie about it, but he went on. "We found this thing," he said. "It was like a compass, except it was round. Like a baseball."

The Sheriff took out a cigarette of his own and lit it, his hand cupped against the flame, and his face softly illuminated in the makeshift candlelight. "Huh. A compass. How about that?" He seemed to know, however. To understand.

"What was it made out of?" asked the deputy.

"Like, glass. And gold. It had some kind of weird foreign writing on it."

The two policemen looked at each other, and the old one made a nodding motion. "Maybe it is a compass," he said. "Or maybe itís just someoneís idea of what an old compass ought to look like." The older deputy sat there staring, with a bitter smirk on his lips.

"Well, I donít think we need to know anything else, Paul," said the Sheriff. "If we do, weíll be in touch."

It didnít make any sense. Paul couldnít figure out why theyíd be interested in the object. It had seemed so insignificant, and yet it was obviously the center of gravity, pulling him backwards in time, carrying the Sheriff and the deputy along with it. It was like trying to put words to some forbidden thing.

"So, thatís it," said the white-haired deputy. "You can go home."

"No, no," said Graves. "Iíll give him a ride. I donít think heís in any condition to be driving." As he stood up, the power kicked back on. The Sheriff went around the desk and put his arm on Paulís shoulder, and led him out of the building. That was one thing Paul never forgot: the feeling of that hand on his shoulder, leading him gently away from everything that had happened.

Once he returned to his house, everything went as expected. Heíd been in trouble with the law before, but the Sheriff and others were willing to overlook that, and of course there was no evidence to convict him of anything. Besides, people simply knew that heíd always been good to his brother. His mother cried off and on for days, and after the funeral, a fog of gloominess clouded his conscience for a long time. He didnít have any interest in going to parties or speaking with friends. Eventually though, he came around and got a job at the Blue Beacon Truck Wash, out behind the Pilot Truck Stop. The work consisted of spraying big rigs with high-pressure water wands. It was hard labor, and his clothes were always wet from the mist which always hung in the air. It was also repetitive though, and it gave him plenty of time to think.

One day a truck with a huge sleeper cab came into the washing bay, and as he went towards the front to scrub down the stack, he saw a naked woman standing by the truckís window. He looked over at Miguel, who was grinning from ear to ear. It was obvious that the woman wanted to be seen, but Paul didnít much feel like looking. Eventually, having paid his bill, the trucker came out of the office, and Paul recognized him immediately. It was the man whoíd buried the orb. Or at least Paul thought it was. He went out of the wash bay and bent over and put his large hands on his knees. He waited for the truck to drive away, and then he went back to work.

After that, Paul would sometimes spend his days off at sheep camp, looking for the orb. He never found it though, and finally he moved away to Arizona. It was a speedy departure; heíd packed and gone in a matter of hours. Strangely enough, he didnít tell any of his friends or anybody at the Blue Beacon that he was leaving. But this wasnít a huge shock. Paul had been acting unusual ever since his brother died. Still, it gave the people around town a reason to talk. One rumor is that the ATF came in the night and hauled him off for something drug-related. But the other rumor, the one that hung around the longest, was that heíd simply gone off into the hills and vanished, like so many other things.

J. A. Chisum grew up in a small town in western Nevada.  He is a graduate of USC's Literature and Creative Writing Ph.D. program.  He lives with his wife in Los Angeles.

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