Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Bones" by Henning Koch (Pt. 5)

This is the fifth 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.  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.  Just read the daily headlines.  Click these links to read the earlier installments of "The Bones": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

The Bones


In his very own reptilian way, Arty Simpleton idly hung around for a few days, though he did take a few circumspect walks past Wyre’s house. Arty had checked to see how long his bodily fluids remained valid as evidential material, and once this period had passed without any mishaps, he called the police to report a case of assault against an “honest oiler” – which some might consider an oxymoronic phrase, or at least moronic.

On one occasion, Arty was even overtaken by something he described to himself as “me gettin’ poetical,” which was highfalutin’ stuff for a Simpleton. He set off into the desert for a few miles, following the faint tracks of Wyre’s vehicle. He could see they’d brought the trailer, which must also mean that Wyre had loaded his camels. Wyre had never been a normal guy. He was born of bad stock, and this was clearer than ever to Arty as he reached the end of the tracks, where they’d been erased by the wind. There was a huge smooth bowl of sand in front of him, stretching five or six miles across, and when he raised his binoculars and scoured the other side of the valley he could see the tracks again, zigzagging up a slope.

Where the hell was the crazy bastard going? Didn’t he understand he could never come back now? To Arty’s mind, there was no possible way of understanding what Wyre wanted; where his motivations lay.  

The fool had walked away from a perfectly good oil well that might have sustained him all his life until it was time to join the others in the cemetery.    

Wincing, Arty touched his ears and felt the jagged stitches that, he knew, would mark him for life. All for the sake of a vicious, cheap bitch who’d come up here to cause trouble, stirring up honest men with her questions.  

Wyre used to be a good guy, but he’d given it all up. That’s how he was, it had been just the same way with Daisy Lopez, Wyre had picked her over his pals. For the sake of a woman, he’d lost out on good long days drinking beer, sitting around smoking cigars and shooting the shit with good decent Oilers who were a part of this land, who had created it and were the masters of every hill, every depression.

Sure, Wyre was a bitter man, and Arty could appreciate that; a man likes to feel his bunch of noodles swinging between his legs, that’s one of the pleasures of being alive, right? And sure, Wyre was still sore about what happened that night when they drove into the metal spike in the cemetery. Arty’s idea had been to make skid-marks on the graves and create a damn mess in there; why not, those folks were all dead anyway, what difference would it make?

Wyre had agreed to the idea, he’d said they should make contact with the “democracy of spirits,” that’s the very phrase he had used, although Arty did not make much sense of it then and not now either.

But there was no point Arty blaming himself, he’d figured back then. Wyre had to have a sense of humor about it, he’d been in on it, he hadn’t made any beef about mincing up the cemetery with the truck. He couldn’t come whining about it later, just because a piece of railway track had pierced the door and gone into his crown jewels, no sir, that’s not how things worked, you had to have some principles about who was guilty of things and who wasn’t. An honest mistake, you had to forgive an honest mistake.    

Oilers might not be pretty, but they were straight-shooters and they minded their own business, and they weren’t smart-asses either like the journalist. She’d got precisely what she had coming to her, Arty figured. Blaming him for it would be like blaming the wind for blowing down your house, that’s what the wind does, it blows and causes mayhem, that’s its job; and in just the same way Arty was here to hold up the flag of Oilers everywhere, who did not want a lot of fools showing up to write about the truth like it was a pound of butter; pretend there was something to say, ’cuz there was nothing really, nothing worth mentioning.

He turned back and followed his own tracks back to Oil Town.  There was a six-pack of Colas in his freezer-bag, and he drank a couple of cans to lighten the load, flinging them down in the sand as he went.

The sun was at its highest point now; sitting right over his head. 

When he saw Oil Town coming into view he grew aware of Wyre’s house at the edge like a sort of eyesore with those apple-tree stumps he’d always refused to cut down, even though the other Oilers were irritated by them and felt he should show some consideration.

Arty saw his own four-wheel drive parked up where he’d left it.

An idea came to him, and ideas were rare, ideas should be respected, even if they were dangerous. The fact was, there had been a rupture here, something had been broken that could never be healed. Might as well accept it, might as well go along with it and take extreme measures to ensure the rift was permanent.

It was time for Wyre to start paying reparations for what he’d done.  

Arty got into his pick-up truck and bumped across open land, parking it up in the shadow of a steep dune. He got out and took a petrol-drive angle grinder from the back. It wasn’t perfect for the job, but these days there wasn’t much sense carrying a chainsaw around, there wasn’t any wood left.

He walked up the path to Wyre’s house and calmly sawed down the apple-tree stumps. It was a tough job, the wood had grown skeletal and hard and the angle grinder would not cut all the way through. In the end he had to use his car to snap the partially sawed-through trunks, which fell without a sound, obliterating the last vestiges of Jeremiah, the slave bastard who had caused such trouble here by planting his outlandish seed among the Oilers, his cussed progeny still protesting against common sense; because the good Lord had deprived one miserable man of his reproductive organs, which were most likely pretty inconsequential anyway, besides there weren’t many women round these parts.

After dragging the trunks into the back of his truck, which was another sweaty job, Arty fanned himself in the cab with the air conditioning on full blast.

He’d use those damned trunks for another extension, and he’d tell himself every time he looked at it that Wyre had caused all his own troubles. Fucking brain-twister, nerve-sawing weevil.

Arty sat for a while looking at the house, the house Jeremiah built. There was something annoying about it, something pretentious about all those carvings and homely eaves. The man had been a goddamn slave, a brute taken out of Africa, and he thought he could come here and build himself a pretty little cottage fit for Abraham Lincoln, did he? Why didn’t he just get himself some corrugated iron like the rest of them and make himself a shack and come down to the bar like any other man, and be one of them? Did he think he was so much better than them, with his books and fake learning and airs and graces?

Arty got a can of petrol from the back seat and walked up to the house. It was easy as hell kicking the door in and books made perfect kindling. He doused them in petrol, then moved on to the floorboards and anything else he took a fancy to. Just before he walked out to put a match to it, he took a fancy to a small sculpture of a squirrel, which he put inside his jacket. A keepsake.

He made a trail of petrol onto the front steps and then lit it, watching the flames (almost invisible in the midday sun) sliding into the house and expanding with a shocked boom. Smoke rose up almost at once; the place had been drying under the sun for almost two hundred and fifty years, but it was incinerated in minutes.

The world wasn’t pretty, but what was a man supposed to do?

With a grim scowl, Arty turned back to his pick-up. The Oilers would slap him on the back tonight. Congratulate him. He’d done the right thing.

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

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