The Sunday Rumpus Fiction: Vapor Trail


It was round about maybe twenty years ago, first time came I couldn’t rightly recollect how I lost my leg. Not the sort of thing you forget, I suppose. My age, your thoughts tend to not so much wander as lose interest in where they’re going. Nothing to do but watch whatever notion you had stop to lick itself then drop down in the shade and ignore you, so best not to get your shorts in a twist over it. Tell you what else, plenty of things once mattered to you start to matter a lot less, you live long enough. Way I see it, the more days you got behind you, the smaller each one seems. They get so small you can’t hardly see them, so they go faster and faster. Why you see Christmas lights hanging on places around Fourth of July. Comes a point when hauling out the ladder and climbing all over the place, the swearing and hammering and hauling the ladder back to the garage isn’t worth the bother. By the time you climb down off the roof, your old lady’s got a turkey in the oven and when dinner’s over it’s time to hang them lights again.

So you leave the Christmas lights up and remember the days when you were your own child’s age, when summer was like space travel. Like they say if you could go to the sun and back at the speed of light, everyone around you will have grown old, maybe died, but you’d be the same age as when you left. Summer was like flying to the sun at the speed of light, this stretch of days that lasted forever and at the end of it you were still just a kid and the first day of school you were counting the days until summer again. Each summer ends a little sooner than the one before it, so little you don’t notice until one day it’s you standing still and growing old while it’s your little girl flying through space at the speed of light.

You take for example some youngster’s been alive all but five years and don’t recall much of the first three, he scrapes his knee or breaks his favorite toy, maybe doesn’t get his turn on the swing, well that right there is the end of his world. He’s got so little’s happened to him, it’s all pretty damn significant. There’s always some relative or other says they’ll get over it, which they will, and not to worry about it, which is true. Thing is, it’s never their son got sick and missed the camping trip, never their daughter didn’t get asked to the dance. Knowing they’ll get over it someday just because you did, that doesn’t help. When your child’s heart breaks, so does your own.

There’s days I think I’ll burn a year in Hell for every night Maria woke her momma and me, wanting to sleep with us, and I told her no, took her back to her room. What with the foundation settling, floors shifting and pulling at the nails, all that creaking and knocking sounds like footsteps. There’s any kind of draft, then you got voices to go with those footsteps. Little girl hears all that, wakes up to the dark then damn straight she wants her mommy and daddy. Maria was three. I worked a grill during the day, then dispatched taxis on the graveyard shift. A good night, I’d get to close my eyes four, maybe five hours if Maria let me. But working two jobs on no sleep because your baby’s hearing ghosts, a man could get mean. I didn’t want to get mean, I just wanted sleep.

Forgot what I was saying again.

My leg. Doctor said it might hurt every now and again, probably itch for a while. Seems to me about the only good thing could come of losing a limb is that it can’t get any worse. But what with using a stick to walk, learning to work a clutch with nothing but a piece of a bedpost below my knee, looking to find work on one leg, a wife and daughter to feed, all that and I still got to feel hurt in a leg I don’t got on account of my brain needs to catch up with the truth of the matter.

Anyway, it was Korea. We heard shelling and hit the dirt, and that’s all I know. Sometimes you hear about how when someone gets lassoed by aliens, a UFO, they’re missing time. Maybe they blink and they’re still driving but five hours have gone by and they got a nose bleed. Korea’s like that, for me, except it was more than a nose bleed. Thing I do remember was I killed a man. I was barely old enough to use a razor. Was out on patrol when me and this North Korean soldier surprised each other out in the boondocks. We each saw the other man and froze, exactly the same time. I remember standing there, looking at this kid and him looking back at me. Then there’s that stolen time again, only just a half a second or so, gone, like a skip in the film. This enemy soldier’s about to holler or pull his trigger, make some noise’ll get my whole squad killed. And then I’m holding the muzzle of my M-1 to his chest, point-blank, my bayonet stuck in the tree behind him. I don’t remember even moving. I can see his face, and he’s got this expression, I don’t know, I saw it for a long time, though. Something else, too, was his heart beat. Thumping all the way up my gun barrel. I’m holding on for dear life and I can feel his pulse in the butt of my rifle, clear as holding his heart in my fist.

Guess I was saying the first time I went blank trying to explain the whereabouts of my leg, I didn’t go chasing after a memory that wanted to be left in peace. You forget where you put your keys, maybe you slap your forehead and retrace your steps until you get them back. But if they could have sewn my leg back on, shit, they could have found it, well then they would have. No percentage in chasing after that bit of missing time. The aliens can have it.

So, it itched like a bastard for a while and sometimes hurt worse. Pills wouldn’t do any good, doctor said. Rose frowned on drinking and since I was determined to marry her, I bit that bullet for a long time. Not any more. Now I keep whiskey at the ready for when the pain comes back. And I’ll tell you what, hoss, it’s waiting. Like the coyotes out here, always watching you in the dark. One morning you see tracks in the yard weren’t there the day before. So you keep drinking or it comes right up onto your porch and through the front door.

The days get smaller and go by faster, speed of light. I got home from Korea, married Rosie, then Maria was born. Next thing, there’s another president, another war. I’ve packed up my family and we’re moving to California. I’d got work out in Long Beach, good money. But my truck breaks down, right up the road there on Route 62, on the trip west. Was 1961, same year as when I last bothered hanging Christmas lights. Rosie was sore as hell at me for that. The truck, not the Christmas lights. I said to her, things break down, the best mechanic will tell you that. But Rose needed someone to blame, even though my truck didn’t cause anything but spending money for a tow, still, mine’s the only face she saw. If blaming me brought her some measure of peace, then so be it. Anyway, Rose left me. Nixon pulls us out of Vietnam and the whole time there’s all these riots in the news and important people getting shot. Another president and another war, then another. Then I get word that Rose passed away. So maybe you can see why my leg going AWOL doesn’t rattle my cage. Too much to remember and most of it doesn’t matter for squat, after a time.

Rose had moved to Pasadena, so that’s where I went to bury her. Maria couldn’t make it, but I understand. Hard enough as it is explaining to a five year-old about the noises coming from her closet, or the lights following us on our drive out west, without helping her understand why she’s never going to see her mother again. But with Rose gone, no sense in me putting up with hurting from what ain’t there any more. So, there’s whiskey.

But I tell you one thing, I keep that truck looking like it just rolled off the line. Pop the hood, you don’t believe me. Ain’t been a speck of rust come within a mile of it since I got it running again. Soon as Maria gets back, I’m taking her on another road trip, just the two of us.

Last time was in ‘61, like I said. We were still in Texas, heading up Route 67, looking to catch Interstate 10. The sky’s grey so there’s no sunset, just this slow dimming like the day’s running out of juice. Rosie’s asleep, her head on the window. Maria’s wide awake, just looking out at the distance.

Every now and again we pass somebody coming the other way, but there’s nobody been behind us for a while. Driving through Texas can be like that. So, gets dark, and we got the road all to ourselves. I see lights coming from the opposite direction, about a half mile to my right. They pass on by and we’re alone again. Little later, somebody’s coming up to the highway from another road, got their brights on but they don’t bother me any. I can see Maria’s face there in the dark and I’m thinking I could just drive forever with my daughter beside me, my wife asleep, just keep going but I know I can’t so I just think about how happy I am right then and try to hold onto it, remember it with something.

That other set of lights goes dark, just shuts down like the fella’s engine gave out. I slow down, keep an eye out for where the other highway meets the 67, but I never see it. Those lights seemed too steady for someone driving off road, not to mention too damned fast. I slow down a little more, spread the map across the wheel and switch on the light, hoping I don’t wake Rose.

There is no other road connecting to us where we are, not one. Fact is, no other highway’s anywhere near us, not within eyeshot, for damn sure. Closest highway at this hour, all I would have seen are star points from another set of headlights, if anything.

I put the map away and drive. Maria finally falls asleep. I’m on the lookout for a motel sign when I see another set of lights following me off to my right. I’m doing fifty-five and they’re keeping up just fine, smooth and steady like there’s another highway a half mile over, which I know there ain’t. Starts getting brighter same time it’s keeping pace with me, so I lean on the gas but it stays right alongside. Goes on like that maybe about some three miles, light just going over rocks and shrubs and pits and dunes like rolling across a freshly paved road, like it’s nothing. Then it just up and takes off, like the driver hit some sort of daredevil ramp in the middle of nowhere. This thing whipping along at sixty-five, seventy, just shoots into the air then goes off like a switch, and it’s gone. Tell you, I was wide awake, right then. Rose and Maria never saw a thing. Found us a motel and I didn’t shut my eyes once, rest of the night.

Come checkout time, kid at the front desk asks we seen the lights. I ask him, what lights? Tells us about the lights people see from time to time. Nobody’s ever gone missing or had their cattle cut to pieces, just a bunch of lights. Local mystery nobody can explain. Sure wish that kid had been there night before, maybe I’d been able to sleep.

Wonder what I’d see, I ever got back to Texas? On a clear afternoon, I could tell you a thing or two about them lights. Be all kinds of cuts and slashes in the air, like God took a razor to the sky. Might be hard to recognize any sky at all. But this place here, been more than nine-hundred bombs set off in these parts since 1945, and I been here in this very spot since 1961. Know you can’t see them, but me, I look around and there’s these bell-shaped flash marks going up for about a mile. So many bombs been set off, they about burned the blue out of the air.

Fifty years I been sitting here staring into the sky morning until dark, maybe a couple hundred yards from where my truck died. Like one of those islanders paddling out to sea and calling down to the sharks, calling with a song handed on from my old man and his old man before him. Singing this song, I’ve got a spear at the ready for when one of them comes calling back. Year after year staring into the blank blue ocean bouncing back all that sunlight’s been flying through space since before you were born, that ocean’s just a big blue mirror and it’ll cook the color right out of your eyes after long. Mine used to be green, now they’re nothing.

But I can see them contrails after the jets are gone, long after, where most folks just see blue. You might see a couple three streaks lingering from something shot by a half hour before. But I tell you what, hoss, I look up and there’s claw marks from every jet’s flown overhead for the last month. Sky looks like the underside of a coffin lid got closed too soon. Everything leaves its mark on the sky. Like the Feds got them silent helicopters painted the same color as the dark. Thing is, their rotors chew up the contrails. Some mornings I step out with my coffee and look up, all them vapor marks cut to pieces, I know one of them big black government bugs been hanging overhead my property all night listening to the rattlesnakes fuck.

Back behind them mountains there, they got a military base. All kinds of marks from that place, streaks and slashes overhead from top secret planes they’re testing. With all them ghost planes and atom bombs, makes you wonder if maybe they’re expecting a fight out here, miles from anything, instead of some place like Langley or Quantico. So read between the numbers on that one, ask if they got reason to keep one of them bugs hovering above my land, keeping logs of when I take a leak or make a sandwich.

They want to kick down my doors, come looking for a notebook, like some lunatic writing in code means nothing to nobody, maybe a computer or some fancy receiver? Got none of that. Just need to open my eyes. Soon as my daughter gets home, they won’t have me to contend with, anyhow.

Last time I saw her, we’d just made it to California. Somehow I’d got us onto Route 62 at about one in the morning, but only had a couple three hours to Los Angeles and didn’t want to stop. Funny, it was like those lights in Texas, the truck just went dark in an instant. I pull over, there in the middle of nowhere with my wife and little girl. Nowadays, you get maybe one car every hour or so. Fifty years ago, well, you better pray. And the desert’s cold at night, that time of year. I’m standing on the road a long time, and my wife and daughter in the truck can’t be much warmer. I’d backtracked about fifty yards, hoping I can wave someone down.

Little after 2:30 in the morning, I finally see someone. Regular lights at first, then I thought maybe it was a police cruiser, since I saw colors, too. Like Christmas lights. Funny thing, I had the strangest picture pop into my head right then. I imagined that kid, that North Korean soldier stepping out of the cruiser in a police uniform.

Don’t remember much else, after that. More lost time. Nothing happened, nobody hit me on the head, didn’t wake up face down on the highway. Just a blank. I turn my head and there’s Rose crying and carrying on, some trooper trying to calm her down. She was sitting in the back seat of a patrol car, door open and her feet on the ground, wrapped in a blanket. Saw a tow driver was hitching my truck to his, red and blue lights everywhere. Another trooper’s asking me all kinds of questions. Did I remember a car or maybe get a plate number, did I get a look at anyone? I asked him, who?

Where’s Maria? I said. Where’s my daughter?

Hard to explain what happens between a man and a woman after something like that. You don’t love each other any less. But you try and think some other way the situation could have turned out, all you come up with are the things one of you could have done different, which is other than the same way you done them your whole life.

I been right here, watching the sky ever since. Fifty years I been memorizing every vapor trail and thunderhead, every shade of blue, every passing plane, every star and blinking light. I could draw that cloudless afternoon sky from memory, tell you that much. Strange how the days turn to lead while the years have flown by. No matter, clocks here don’t mean much to a little girl shooting through space at the speed of light. Means Maria will still be five years old when they bring her home to me. Got the truck all set, and I’ll keep waiting right here until she gets back.

Craig Clevenger is the author of two novels, The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria, and his work has been published in over twelve languages. He recently completed his third novel, Mother Howl. More from this author →