by Charles McLeod

Crumpler had a tire iron and wasn’t calming down. The two of us were in the worst part of Fort Worth, searching for a rib place that sold Oxycontin out of its kitchen.

It was midsummer, July, maybe August by then. There’d been no rain all year and now the heat washed over the city each day like floodwaters covering a wide fallow field, muting the streets and making everything shimmer. Crumpler’s car had blown a tire on the off-ramp to the freeway. He’d looked in the trunk of his long tan Seville and found the spare flat, taking the iron out of its little cubby.

“Grab the title from out of the glove,” Crumpler had said, and I’d done it. I could feel the piece of paper in my side pocket now, growing damp with my sweat as we struggled down side streets.

“Where do you think we could drink around here?” I asked him. The sidewalks were too narrow to walk side-by-side, so I trailed behind Crumpler, looking down at his boots. He’d worked at the airport, where I’d been working, too, both of us heaving other peoples’ baggage onto little conveyors. We’d been pink-slipped the very same day, and since then developed something near to a friendship, the two of us circling the same sets of bars the way that the planes circled the terminal gates, looking for fuel and some brief bit of respite.

“I know when Johnny bonds out, I’ll take his spot on the line,” Crumpler told me. He swung the iron into the post of a gate. Grave-looking women in vibrant mumus sat fanning themselves on screened-in porches.

“Okay, but who’s Johnny?” I said. I wanted to help.

“Johnny’s the future hospital patient who sold me that tire,” Crumpler told me. He stopped and turned around. Sweat flecked his beard’s hairs. The skin under his eyes looked rubbed with the same kind of ink that they used to use to stamp dates into books at the library. “You don’t know Johnny?” Crumpler asked me.

“I don’t know anyone,” I said. “I know you.”

“No, you don’t,” Crumpler said, and spun back around and kept walking.

The rib place was called Eden’s. We asked and we asked. All of the women shook their heads no and stared at us as we kept walking. Crumpler was coughing like something was stuck way deep down. The neighborhood’s stop signs were gone from their poles. Bits of thick glass glittered in the gutters. Not one single car was parked on the street. The blocks were all flat and we could see miles ahead, the road like a tarmac under wet, white air that shimmered.

We passed by a brick church gated off at its lawn. Its big doors were charred and part of the roof had dropped in. Crumpler turned right and I did, too, my cheek meeting his back when he stopped walking. In the building’s thrown gloom, in the middle of the street, was a quartet of men standing in front of a cherry red Nova. Below the car’s grille was a pair of women’s feet. For a moment I thought that we’d walked onto the set of a movie. A brown paper bag, its sides still sharply creased, lay on the asphalt, a loaf of white bread next to it. One green puckered apple rested against the woman’s leg. She had on beige shoes that looked orthopedic.

All four of the men were watching us stare. Crumpler had the sleeves of the airline’s work shirt rolled up to his elbows. I watched his forearm’s wide veins bulge under his skin as his hand tightened around the tire iron.

“Whatcha lookin’ for?” one of them said. He was shirtless and had a mark on his arm where he’d been branded. Another had on a brimmed hat, its sash the same color as the Nova. The other two wore blue jeans and tank tops and sunglasses.

“Eden’s,” Crumpler answered. “We’re looking for Eden’s.” On the back of his neck, right over his spine, was a small, round adhesive bandage. Crumpler had worked at the airport for some fifteen years and was older than me by three decades—on the bad side of mid-age, his mistakes more severe, the rest of his life a slow-motion crash landing.

“Eatins?” the man nearest asked. “You lookin’ for food? Walk over here, man. Pick up this apple.”

Crumpler moved his foot slightly over the ground, the sole of his boot scraping some bit of gravel. All four of the men stood up very straight. Part of me was sure that I’d die any second, but most of me believed that I’d never die at all, that when the time came and my number was called, I’d convince whomever was in charge that they’d made a mistake and I could keep on fucking up forever.

“No,” Crumpler said, “Eden’s like the place. Like where one doesn’t have to do anything at all and can pretend like nothing ever happened.”

The man in the bright red sash smiled then. “Okay,” he said. “Go back up that street you were on. It’s eight or nine blocks and then it’s on your left. You’ll see a sign sticking out over the street. Say mortuary.”

“Thanks,” Crumpler said, and turned back around, knocking his shoulder into my own while I stood there and stared at the dead woman’s feet. The soles of her shoes were little honeycomb shapes. There was a snag in the calf of one of her stockings. The front of the Nova held no damage at all.

“Is this real?” I asked the group of men. “Are there cameras hidden in the church?”

Crumpler had disappeared further down the street. The man in the hat lit a short, thin cigar. “Come over here,” he told me.

“Why would I do that?” I said.

“To find out if she’s real.”

“You mean to find out if she’s dead,” I told him.

The man sat down on the hood of the car. He looked at the church, then back at me. “You can’t be real and be dead?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” I told him.

“Pull her out,” the man said. His smoke hung in the still air like smog.

“Pull her out? From under the car?”

“Yeah,” the man said. “Pull her out and ask her. Don’t you want to know?”

“Not enough to do something about it,” I told him.

Crumpler was a shadow three blocks ahead. The Earth, I was sure, had never been this hot, and would somehow keep getting hotter. Through cracks in the sidewalks weeds grabbed at the air. My little motel room came with a TV, and there’d been a show that I’d watched—The World Without People. I couldn’t remember how everyone died, but I was overjoyed to see the planet returned to itself, the buildings and asphalt and cars covered with vines and vibrant green grass and bright flowers. It assured all we’d done—the wars and disease, the theft and the lies and the secrets—summed to no more than thumb print at the edge of a frame, a clumsy mistake that marred only one shot on a long strip of negatives.

Crumpler waited at a four-way for me to catch up. We passed by a house with a porch but no steps. A black bird with a teal sheen to its wings sat shrieking from the ledge of a second-floor window.

“Do the pills that we’re getting go well with rum? I want a rum, when all this is over.”

“The pills aren’t for you, they’re for me,” Crumpler said.

“That seems unfair.”

“Unfair,” Crumpler said. He’d started walking again.

“I came all this way. You can’t cut me in?”

“It isn’t like that. You’ve got things wrong.”

“Then you’re selling them,” I said. “It’s like a job.”

“Believe me, I need them more than you.”

“So we’re not going to sell them?” I asked.

“Only if I die,” Crumpler told me.

“But if you die, how will you sell them?” I said.

“By cutting you in,” Crumpler told me.

At the airport, bags came open sometimes, and seeing their bellies and what they contained was not unlike seeing the insides of a person. Here were the organs of their trip laid bare, shown without context or order—a camera perched on the toe of a shoe, a snow globe, its glass cracked, next to a pair of black leather gloves and a stapler. Looking inside them was like looking into a corpse, each vital thing rendered useless. And above me, near breathless with boredom or dread, in their little round panes, were the passengers. Past the gate, their names called, they sat stiff and mute, thinking ahead to that time when they might walk again, their descent from the heavens finally over.

The men with the Nova had told us the truth—after blocks of dead trees and wrecked homes and hot street, we saw to our left a thick metal sign that leaned out over the sidewalk. The advertisement was the size of the hood of a truck. Little sockets for bulbs dotted its edges. In precise script of the kind one sees on pharmacy signs was the word we’d been looking for—MORTUARY. Its letters were made out of little glass tubes. Below it were twin windowless doors of blonde wood. Crumpler and I walked toward them.

“When we get in there,” he said, “pretend like you don’t even exist.”

“You mean pretend like I’m not alive?”

“That’s good,” Crumpler said, looking up at the sign. “Pretend like you aren’t alive.”

“Okay,” I told him.

He pulled the door open and cool air spilled out. A bell tied to the other side’s handle banged shrilly. I’d imagined the place made of dark shades and low light, but the inside of Eden’s was hospital-bright, with cream-colored tiles and walls painted ivory. The chrome tables were covered in white tablecloths, the chair backs in silver-grey vinyl that shimmered. The furniture stood grouped in the middle of the room, as though dozens of people had only just left from a supper. Wadded up napkins sat on top of sauced plates. A short soda fountain with three silver stools curved out from the wall behind the white hostess station. On the restaurant wall opposite us were two silver doors, a little round window on each of them. A man with silver hair and white shirt and white pants backed his way through them, spinning around and holding his gloved hands up, his arms for a moment like short, useless wings that sprang from his shoulders.

The man stopped upon seeing us standing there. He looked at Crumpler and then at me and then back at Crumpler, growing his eyes big and walking toward the cluster of tables in the center of the room.

“Eden’s is closed,” the man said, making a big pile out of the thin paper plates and walking over to the soda fountain. He leaned over the counter and pulled out a black plastic tub and then walked back to the table, sweeping the plates and the glasses and the forks, knives and spoons into the tub’s belly.

“Not for us, though, it isn’t,” Crumpler told him.

“You’re wrong,” the man said, lifting the tub with both hands. He turned to leave and Crumpler picked up a chair and swung it, the piece of furniture turning in the air before hitting the floor and sliding into the back of the man’s ankle. Crumpler was rasping, his breath hissing around in his mouth. Sweat ticked down the back of my neck, past the spot where Crumpler wore his small round bandage. His fingers were still curled around the tire iron’s end, and on the back of his hand was a brown-yellow iodine spot.

“Did you just get out of the hospital?” I asked, but Crumpler looked at me in a way where it was like I’d never said it.

The man turned around to face us again, his long arms pulled down by the weight of the tub. He looked upwards, eyes lost to his thoughts, as though he were considering things that he’d put on a list he’d forgotten.

“The guy who makes these decisions, he’s gone,” the man said.

“That isn’t our fault,” Crumpler said. “That isn’t our problem.”

The man scrunched his face up and bent at the knees. For a moment, I thought he might try to take flight. The glasses from the last patrons’ meal made chinking sounds in the tub’s plastic belly. “Please,” the man begged us. “It’s not up to me. I let you back there and things just ain’t right. It isn’t my job. I just see who’s waiting.”

“There must be a way,” I asked, doing this thing with my hand that said, it’s okay, the earth’s wrecked, hope’s fled, there’s just blood.

“There is,” Crumpler said, and then strode at the man with full steps, moving only fast enough to show that he wouldn’t stop walking. Crumpler was taller than the busser by six inches or more, so much so that when he swung the tire iron at the man’s head, it came very close to missing him, and in the second that the long metal rod thudded in, I gurgled, a sound meant to be something more than it was, so puny and worthless in what it offered up it was drowned out completely by the glasses in the black plastic tub breaking as the item fell to the floor, the man following them down in the very next second.

The twin doors at the back of the room slammed into their walls as Crumpler pushed through them. The man’s eyes were racing, their lids not quite shut, the pupils pushed up close to his brain so that only two crescents of wet jumpy white looked up at me, and if there are moments where we’re compelled to feel, I stepped over the man’s half-shaking hand, and walked back toward the kitchen.

I located Crumpler in a closet-sized room, where a time clock hung from a nail on a wall and a short wooden desk took up most of the floor space. Crumpler was crouched down, rifling drawers.

“You’re bleeding,” I told him.

“What?” Crumpler said.

“Your Band-Aid,” I said. “It came off you.”

Crumpler turned his body so he could look up at me, then reached back behind him, smearing the blood from the wound on his neck down close to his collarbone.

“Won’t be much more of that soon,” Crumpler said.

“You’re getting better,” I said.

“I’m getting over,” Crumpler told me.

I looked out at the kitchen. The chrome stoves were clean. The brown rubber mats on the red tile floor were all spotless. No pots or pans sat unwashed in the sinks.

“What do you mean, getting over?” I asked Crumpler.

“Do you know what your pancreas does? Where it even is?” Crumpler asked me. He pulled a double-drawer out of the desk and reached up behind it, grunting as he bent his arm in.

“It’s near your stomach,” I said. “Or your heart. One of the two,” I told Crumpler. “But I don’t have any idea what it does. Do you know?” I said.

“I do,” Crumpler said. He smiled, then slid his hand out of the space where the drawer was. “It fucks up on you,” Crumpler told me.

Crumpler stood up. He was holding a clear bag full of pills.

“That bag is huge,” I said. “I could fit that bag over my head.”

Crumpler grunted again and then walked out of the room, pushing past me and moving over to the long row of stainless steel tables. He took a single white pill out and crushed it on the clean chrome, damping a finger with his tongue and then touching the digit to the coarse powder. Crumpler tasted the Oxy then zipped the plastic bag up.

“Let’s go,” Crumpler said. “Let’s start walking.”

“Wait,” I said. “So you’re dying?”

“Man, I am dead,” Crumpler said. “There’s no evac to run. This part’s just screaming and fire.”

I stopped walking in front of the silver double doors, and now looked out one of its little round portholes. The short man was still there on the floor, a warped ring of dark blood wrapping itself around his head, over the clean white linoleum. His legs bent in a manner like he was trying to dance. There were things missing from me that I knew I should possess, and in that moment I understood I’d never possess them.

A door with a crash bar was on the far side of the kitchen, and Crumpler pressed it in, turning to shadow. It seemed impossible that there was still sunlight at all. I followed him out into an alley. Crumpler strode toward the street we’d crossed fifteen minutes prior just as a pickup, its frame raised a foot, turned in to meet us. The driver’s door opened and a thin man jumped down, his cowboy boots brown, white and turquoise. Tucked into his blue jeans was a cream-colored silk shirt, its top button free, the man’s brown tie hanging loosely.

“Earl,” the man said, “now what you’d do?” Crumpler was still holding the pill bag in the same hand as the tire iron.

“That tire was fucked,” Crumpler said back. “That whole car’s a sham, Johnny.”

“Oh ye of no faith,” Johnny told Crumpler.

I looked at the man for the first time, again, and realized that I had seen him before, not in person, not once, but instead on the television. The man standing in front of us was the very same man who owned a lot where they sold all types of vehicles. His commercials came on during The World Without People. In them, he wore the same cowboy boots, but he looked smaller now, without his flags and his signs behind him.

The red Nova from before drove past us, out on the street. The man saw us looking and turned his head quickly and then turned it back toward us again.

“This is no place to discuss,” Johnny said.

“Yeah it is,” Crumpler said, dropping the pills on the ground and, for the first time all day, actually running. Johnny took a step backward and caught his boot on the wheel of his truck, turning in mid-step and falling into his door in the moment that Crumpler reached him. There was a small chance the man inside was going to live, but in the salesman Crumpler had found his last work, the tire iron coming down as though pulled by some supermagnet. The car title was still in my pants pocket then and I touched at its corner, before running away, wondering when I might be like Crumpler was, too—a loud, sick dog on a long, broken leash, through with commands from its masters.

Charles McLeod is the author of a novel, American Weather, two collections of stories: National Treasures, and Settlers of Unassigned Lands. His fiction has received a Pushcart Prize, won The Iowa Review's Fiction Award, and appeared, most recently, in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, and Washington Square.