This is the seventh of nine installments of "The Bones," the serialized novella which acclaimed novelist and short-story writer Henning Koch has made available exclusively to The Quivering Pen. "The Bones" is a story about America's decline into a wasteland where crude oil serves as currency and violence rules the landscape--sort of like Mad Max: The Exxon Years. Koch calls the novella "an oil-based scenario of future social decay" and it's easy to see the frightening trend he predicts for our society. Click these links to read the earlier installments of "The Bones": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.
Like many fighters who come out on top, Arty Simpleton began to realize after a few days that his total victory over his old rival had left him empty. An important flavor had passed out of Arty’s existence, like running out of salt or having no milk in his coffee. He dreamed about him once or twice and saw the face of Daisy Lopez, which, after more than thirty years, came as a shock to his system. She hadn’t changed at all, the dream brought it all back like a television replay. Arty had to admit Daisy would probably laugh if she saw him now, big and bloated. She wore a yellow cotton drop-halter dress and she didn’t need no lipstick, she had such a cute smile and her words came tumbling out of her mouth quicker than Arty or Wyre could think of replies.
They had climbed the rocks just north of Oil Town, and they were standing there looking out over the desert which, from this vantage point almost thirty metres off the ground, was like standing on the bridge of a huge ship. The dunes, like enormous ocean swells, reached to the horizon and beyond.
Wyre, of course, had to impress. He said: “One day I’ll have a camel and I’ll ride out there like an Arab, to the other side.”
Daisy shook her head impatiently. “I just want to get to the other side, and when I get there I want to sit in my uncle’s back yard under his grapevines and eat a big juicy melon straight from his refrigerator. And then I’ll go to college and one day I’ll live in Mexico City and have my own car, and when I go to work I’ll wear a chalk-grey suit and a pink Hermes scarf and very pointy high-heel Guccis!” It sounded impressive until they looked at her and realised she was young and stupid like them; more likely she’d end up living in a caravan with one of the drill-operators; and that’s why the boys grew heated when they saw her, because they saw an opportunity. Arty thought he might buy her some Gushy shoes or whatever; Wyre felt he could turn her on to camel-riding and then one day they’d have four children, all named after the month when they were born: May, Julia, August and Janus.
Arty, even then, was drawn to simpler truths. He nodded at some high spruce trees growing below the precipice, the tops of their crowns reaching up to perhaps fifteen or twenty foot below where they were standing. “I bet you I can jump from here and grab a branch and hang there like a damn wild turkey!” he said.
“I bet you won’t!” said Wyre.
Arty turned to Daisy and took her hand. “First I have to tell you something. If I die, please remember, I love you Daisy Lopez and that’s all I got to say.” She blushed.
Wyre felt outsmarted. He could hardly grab her hand and tell her: “I love you, too!”
So he just stood there, burning with resentment.
“I don’t see the connection with jumping into a tree,” said Daisy sharply. “If I were you I wouldn’t jump for the sake of it, you might survive and end up in a wheelchair an’ what’s the stupid use of that?”
“I said I’ll do it, now I have to do it!” said Arty and without thinking about it anymore, took a run and threw himself off the edge.
It was much higher than it looked and the tree was not as soft as he’d anticipated; he near enough broke his arm hanging onto a branch; and then swayed there like a rotten fruit, crowing at his friends: “See?! I told you I’d do it.”
He looked up and saw Wyre and Daisy standing there staring at him, on the edge of the ravine. Wyre had grabbed Daisy’s hand and she didn’t push him away. She just looked at Arty and then called out: “Arty, jumping off a cliff is just craziness and you can’t ask a girl to love you for it!”
She was probably right, he probably was crazy, but that was the great thing about him – his craziness, his willingness to sacrifice. He stayed where he was, hanging on and wondering what the hell had possessed him.
By the time he’d shinnied down the long, rough tree trunk and stood with trembling legs on the ground, Arty knew he’d lost Daisy Lopez – although of course you can only lose something if you have it in the first place and he’d never had Daisy Lopez; in fact the thing he’d lost was the possibility of her.
“I’m too sincere about things!” he told himself. “I’m too fucking sincere and people hold it against me!”
After that, the two boys were no longer friends. Both were the sons of Oilers and they instinctively understood the notion of having a problem with a man and never speaking to him again for as long as you lived – apart from a few fistfights on assorted Saturday nights.
Wyre moved on to better things; he hassled his grandfather to give him a camel; and when he got it, he exercised on the dunes as a provocation to the other boys.
A few times Arty saw him riding about on it, one time he saw Wyre riding with Daisy – that was the moment he decided he’d get even with Wyre.
A few months later, Daisy took a bus to Mexico and they never saw her again. The boys were just sixteen years old, but the day Daisy walked down the main street in her yellow dress and a small suitcase in her hand, and climbed into a Greyhound, the boys were both there to wave her off.
Daisy was a sweet person, she said her goodbyes and waved at both of them; but Arty fancied there was some extra warmth in her eye when she looked at Wyre, because he’d turned her against him. When the bus drove off pursued by a cloud of dust, which was the wailing heart of Oil Town reluctant to let anyone go, Arty knew all his hopes and his heart were packed up in that small leather suitcase in Daisy Lopez’s hand. She’d taken all the good things with her to Mexico City, and as she progressed through life, a better, brighter happier Arty would stay at her side like a ghost – meaning that Arty Simpleton of Oil Town was a shadow of his better self. But his better self did not exist – had never existed. His better self was still Wyre’s friend, that was another truth he found unpalatable, bitter to the taste like a plate of rancid olives.
The rest of his life would be a mechanism of regret. He was sure of it.
Later, when he was a few years older and the spruce trees by the cliff had been cut down, he persuaded Wyre after a long night of drinking to come along on a wild night of joyriding “for the sake of old times…”
There had been a terrible inevitability to the whole thing, and now that the dream had brought everything back with such sharp clarity, it acted on his memory.
He started addressing long monologues to Wyre – while at his breakfast table or on his way down to the pump jacks in the mornings. The worms and hands of Navel Grange noticed the change in him. Either he was vague and distant, or they felt an abrupt edge to him that had not been there before.
Even Carmen noticed something wrong. He didn’t come over this past Sunday, for one thing, and then when she did see him he walked past without so much as a hello. But she saw his face crumple up with anger and heard him say, quite clearly, through clenched teeth: “You sly bastard, what did you expect?” before disappearing out of view. At first she thought he’d been cursing at her, then realised he was addressing the most powerful enemy of all – the enemy inside. Although, to be more specific, she had a strong suspicion he was talking about Wyre, because everyone was talking about Wyre, and some of the locals had even said they ought to send out search parties for him; ’cuz a man could not just drive off like that and be allowed to die like a wild animal in the desert. The workers were saying it – but the lily-livered Oilers weren’t saying a goddamn thing, they didn’t want to go against Arty. Three times a week they assembled in the evening outside the main house at Navel Grange and stood there mumbling with their guns, waiting for Arty to come out. And when he did come out it was like watching a globule of slime dripping through a hole; he emerged and stood on his porch, stretching and yawning and throwing his rifle on his shoulder.
A few days after burning down Wyre’s house, he came out and said to them: “What’s the fucking use of this? Who’s going to be such an ass he’d come here and rob us? We’d shoot his tail-feathers off in a second…” He turned round and slammed the door, mumbling quite loudly: “Anyway, the worst thieves are the ones that take your invisible earnings…”
And the Oilers stood there for a while, unsure of what to do, then shuffled off to the bar and put their guns back and that was the end of their patrolling days.
Arty had come to the conclusion that he did not want to save Wyre from the desert, he wanted to shoulder the onerous burden of doing the desert’s work; that is, he wanted to put a bullet in Wyre’s skull as a down payment on a lifetime’s worth of implied criticism.
’Cuz what was Wyre now? Surely just a fugitive from justice, a man who had unjustifiably packed up and left them without reasonable cause; abandoning his community and thus making himself an outcast and lawless criminal? By speaking to the journalist cunt, by revealing their secrets, he’d shown faithlessness to his own people. Even keeping those camels was an offence against normal practice. Oilers did not keep live animals, Oilers bought dead animals and ate them, Oilers did not even keep dogs or cats, ’cuz what the hell was the use of keeping useless critters on your land, that ate good food and left their shit on the ground? Guard dogs were not required in Oil Town. Anyone straying onto Arty’s property would find himself looking into the clean bore of his shotgun.
And for all these reasons, Arty Simpleton decided to go down to Wyre’s burnt-out house, kick around in the ashes and see if he could find something, a keepsake, possibly something to nail up over his work bench or put on the mantelpiece.
There wasn’t much left of the place. The ashes lay pretty deep inside the foundations, and he waded through them with a sense of satisfaction, until his foot struck something hard and he felt with his hands and then lifted up a disfigured lump of wood, cracked and charred but still recognizably a sculpture, a beaver or a fox or something, at least something with a snout and four legs. Fucking critter-lover! Not a bad start. He’d bring that home and clean it up.
The chimney-stack was still standing – a testimony to Jeremiah’s skills as a stonemason. It was precarious, though, the way it twisted off to the side and then rose up to where the roof-tiles had been.
Arty had brought his tools, of course. Without his tools, what is a man?
He tried using a crowbar on it to demolish it, but that didn’t work. Instead he fetched his biggest mallet, the one he used to drive eight-inch steel pins into the drill-bit, and he let loose on the masonry with all the vituperative anger he could muster.
And fall it did! In fact much quicker than he’d figured; even though he stepped back pretty sharply, a couple of the stones fell pretty close and one big bastard landed right on his toe, breaking the bone.
Fucking Wyre! First that bitch tore his ears like a crazy she-devil, and now her friend the fucking nigger-blood camel-man had cracked his toe.
“I’m warning you!” he raged at the sky, limping about and cursing and smashing anything else he could find until his flabby body heaved with exertion. “Do not fuck with me! I’ve reached the end, you hear me?!”
The books had all burned, of course, and the ash they had left was soft like a newborn’s shit. But at the back, in a small cranny built into the stone wall, Arty found a heavy metal box, still warm. Inside, all the paper had smoldered away but there was a roll of very old kidskin parchment still more or less intact.
He took the roll home and tried to open it, which was mostly useless, for the heat had rendered it brittle and fragile; but he did manage to save one piece, an old hand-drawn map of the desert; must have been a hundred and fifty years old, ’cuz there were still woods and rivers, also the desert which had always been there, only smaller and more distant. Arty saw the daubed symbol of a mountain range about a four- or five-day drive south-east of Oil Town. One part of his mind marveled at this, because he had never wondered what lay beyond the desert, in fact he had never looked at a map at all. Maps showed what was not here.
Arty preferred to be here and not there.
But if Wyre could do it he would also do it, just to show him.
He’d take his best vehicle and set out on his own without any damned camels for back-up. He’d find him and tell him what he thought of him. Once and for all.
He left the disfigured beaver or whatever it was on his kitchen table, with a note for his foreman Scot:
I’ve gone. You know where I’ve gone, so don’t ask.
Keep it up.
Henning Koch's writing started with screenplays. Between 2002 and 2007, he worked as a translator and dramaturge for Yellow Bird Films, makers of Henning Mankell's Wallander series for television/cinema in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK. In 2005, Koch moved to Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, where he spent three years writing the short story collection Love Doesn't Work and the novel The Maggot People (forthcoming in September from Dzanc Books). Follow him on Twitter: @henningkoch