by William Michaelian
That day, dawn didn’t break. When the sun came up, daylight increased, but there was no feeling of newness, and certainly none of hope. Instead, the valley fog just got thicker and thicker and became more visible. When I went out to pick up the paper, I could smell the poison in the air — the car exhaust, the farm chemicals, and the tired stench of Fresno’s lousy cooking. The morning smelled like a neglected alley, a forsaken corner filled with overflowing garbage cans, fast food containers, and dead cats. And that’s exactly what it was. I was in a place where no human being should ever have to find himself, especially on the first Monday morning in January.
I pulled the rubber band off the Bee, tossed it in the grubby fern by my front step, and went inside for more coffee. I unfolded the paper and spread it out on the table. It was filled with the usual tripe served up in newspapers these days: cheap celebrity gossip, sappy columns about relationships, and a recycled stack of half-truths about politics, war, starvation, and money. It made me wonder about the poor kid in a snow cap who bundled the papers every morning, and then peddled his way around the neighborhood through the fog. He was delivering papers for the money, of course, but I hated the way he was being used, as if by giving a kid a few paltry coins, it suddenly becomes a noble thing for him to distribute a fresh load of corporate lies and bullshit every morning. To top it off, he still has to beg on doorsteps every month just to get his subscription loot. In the process, he overhears fights, gets lied to and put off, and has to see fat people standing at the stove in their underwear. Where is the poetry and innocence in that?
Anyway, hell. That’s Fresno for you. My advice? Stay away. The poison creeps into your lungs, and slowly takes over your body like a being from another world. It saps your energy and plays with your personality, exaggerating the negative, erasing the positive. Over the years, you slip into a state of uselessness and despair, which in turn cripples and paralyzes you. All the while — and this is ironic, and even amusing in a pitiful sort of way — you still think you’re living. But you’re not. No one lives in Fresno. You have to tell yourself all sorts of stories just to survive. But in the end you don’t even know which story to believe. Instead, you get caught in a big wheel, and the wheel spins faster and faster, until at last there’s no way out unless it spits you out, like you’re being thrown from an old rusty carnival ride that’s going to bits. So what can you do? You tell yourself stories, or you die.
Well, this is one of those stories. It’s a Fresno story, all right. Does it have any redeeming qualities? No. Should I tell it? No. But I’m going to anyway, because I’m afraid of what will happen to me if I don’t. I’ve got to talk. I can’t keep it in. But that’s good, I’m told. In fact, my psychology people tell me all the time that it’s very beneficial for me to talk about my problems. Of course it’s beneficial. They profit by it. They need me. And they need you, too. Listen. What would they do if we suddenly woke up and decided the world was really a happy place, and that we were all fine and happy? Get real jobs? I doubt it. These people can’t even function. Listen. Boop-boop — I think we’re making progress, Mr. Ned. Beep-beep — we’ve come a long way, Mr. Ted. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk — but we still need to come to terms with these memories of your father, and your mother’s uncle who raped your little sister in 1932 when she was busy stirring the chicken noodle soup. It will take us at least another year, but it will be worth it. You will be able to cope.
So, I called my brother.
“What the hell are you doing up at this hour?” I shouted at him.
“I’m working. What to you think I’m doing?”
When I didn’t say anything right away, he said, “Well, then, how’s it going? Or should I ask?”
“Go ahead and ask. I feel great. I just lit a cigar.”
“Shit. I’ll bet you did. What’d you pay for it?”
“You can’t buy a decent cigar for seventy-five cents.”
“I didn’t say it was decent, I said it cost seventy-five cents.”
My brother laughed. Ha-ha. Rat-a-tat-tat. The phone crackled.
“So,” he said, “are you short of funds?”
I could hear his fingers clicking on his computer keyboard. Maybe he was going to fax me a check.
“You think that’s why I called?” I said.
“Isn’t it?” he said, tapping.
“Well, now that you mention it, it is. But everybody runs short of dough now and then, don’t they?”
“Not really? Huh. Great. Then what’re you sitting in front of that computer for?”
“I’m sitting here because I like to work.”
“Bullshit. And I don’t?”
“Okay, I’m sitting here because I have a son and a daughter who want to go to Harvard.”
Now it was my turn to laugh.
“Jimmy, your kids are twelve years old, for Christ’s sake. What do they know about Harvard?”
“They’re smarter than you think,” my brother said seriously.
“I didn’t say they weren’t smart. I know how smart they are. That’s not the point.”
“Well, what is the point?”
“Look, if you’re not in the mood to talk, just say so.”
“Hey, I’m in the mood. At least I was. But you’re the one who’s sour. You’re always sour. You make me sick. Why do you call me every morning? I’ve already given you all the money I can. So what’s your problem? Is the fog getting you down?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It must be the fog. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Don’t go sour on me,” Jimmy repeated.
“I’m not. I just can’t take this crap anymore.”
“Everything. I hate this town. The whole world’s closing in on me.”
“It’s you, man. There’s nothing wrong with Fresno.”
“There isn’t, huh? Well, I say there is. Only I need to get the hell out of here to prove it.”
“And that’s why you need the money.”
“Five hundred,” I said.
“Five hundred? Wait a minute.” There was a clicking sound. “Are you there?”
“Hold on, I’m getting another call.”
The phone clicked. Silence. A few seconds later, it clicked again.
“You still there?”
“Yeah, what happened?”
“Just a second.”
The phone clicked again, two or three times. Then an electronic voice announced, “If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and dial again.”
As loud as I could, I hollered at the voice to shove it, and then I slammed down the phone.
I waited a few minutes, and then a few minutes more. But Jimmy didn’t call back. The bastard. He didn’t know how it felt. Here it was, a brand new year, and my hands were already sweating. In the meantime, why did he always have to ask me if I was short of funds? Why couldn’t he say something human, like, Are you broke? or, Can you use a few bucks? What was that superior tone for? Funds, for Christ’s sake. Hell, if I was the one with the money, I wouldn’t make him ask me for it. I’d give it to him before he had the chance. That very morning, I’d have given him ten grand if I could. So what was the funds bullshit? So he could tell me about his pea-brained kids going to Harvard?
I crumpled up the newspaper and swept it off the table and onto the floor. I kicked it into the corner.
Nine o’clock, and the fog was thicker than ever. You haven’t seen real fog until you’ve been to Fresno. I couldn’t see across the street. I couldn’t see the neighbor’s car in his driveway until I walked halfway over there in my socks.
I took a quick shower. No soap. I had a few bucks left, enough to buy gas and maybe a loaf of bread, so I decided I’d go pay my mother and father a visit. Maybe they could help me out with a few hundred until I got things back in order. Right. But they lived in the country about thirty miles east of town, and then a little south. In the fog, going fifteen, twenty miles an hour, it would take all morning to get there. If a truck didn’t hit me first.
It took me thirty minutes just to get across town. I gassed up at Kings Canyon and Clovis, then followed Kings Canyon east. When I stopped at Fowler Avenue, I rolled down my window to listen for traffic. I didn’t hear anything, so I punched it to get across as fast as I could. Then, hanging my head out the window, I tried to find the next white line. It was there, all right, dripping wet like a dead white slab of something on the road, and then I started looking for the next one. I found it. And then the next one. And again. Pretty soon, I had a little rhythm going. I rolled up the window. At this rate, I wouldn’t get there until Easter.
Every once in awhile, I hit a spot where the fog wasn’t quite so bad, and I could see two or three white lines at a time. I caught glimpses of vineyards and houses close to the road. I met a car here and there. Coming out of the soup at the last second, their lights looked like sick yellow eyes. But I never caught up with anyone heading east, and no one caught up with me.
I passed Centerville, a dinky little burg by the Kings River. I followed the road past the fishing hole at Minkler. When the road curved south, I curved with it, and then I ran into another pocket of fog, the thickest so far. I slowed down to a crawl, feeling my way by instinct. I kept looking for the stop sign at Reed Avenue, wondering if I had already missed it. Twice, I ran off the edge of the road. I’m telling you, the fog was that thick. Unless it was an emergency, only a fool would be out in fog like that, or a suicidal nut, but there I was, going to visit my parents. I could have waited until two in the afternoon. The fog would have lifted by then. So what was I doing? What was I trying to prove?
I finally found Reed Avenue. I took it. Five minutes later, half on the road and half off, I almost hit a tractor pulling a spray rig as it came out of an orchard. I heard the racket and saw the driver’s yellow suit at the same time, slammed on my brakes, and barely missed him. He made his turn and disappeared into the orchard again.
I kept going, but I felt like I was losing my mind. I had come too far to turn around. The solitude was killing me. I wanted to scream, and I did. Desperate for air, I rolled down the window again. I hung my head out and took a deep breath of the fresh orchard poison hanging everywhere. I wanted as much of it in my system as I could get — pure and unadulterated. That would take the edge off, I figured. That would calm me down.
It worked. Pretty soon, soothed by the chemicals, I was breathing a little easier.
But the fog, man, the fog. You can’t stay calm in that god-damned fog. Try it yourself sometime. See what happens.
Then, a mile further, maybe two miles, so help me, I started seeing things. Have you ever seen things that weren’t there? I saw hands, first of all — great big hands. I could feel them passing over the car. They weren’t trying to stop me, only trying to feel me through the metal, feel my brain. And faces, dead faces. I could see people standing by the side of the road, dressed in burial sheets, watching me go by. There were hundreds of them, thousands of them, all the world’s dead lined up along both sides of the road. It was crazy. All of a sudden, one of them walked right out in front of me. I hit my brakes, but it was too late. I scooped him up, and he rolled right onto my hood. His face hit the windshield and broke the glass. It came to rest on the dashboard, just above the steering wheel. But there was no blood. The face was still intact. It was white, and empty, and its eyes were staring up at me. I screamed. This face was a face I knew. This face, this face, this face, this face — belonged to my father. I had hit him in the fog, because in my selfishness I couldn’t wait until later to go and visit him. I made him worry, and he had to come out and find me to guide me home, but I hit him and killed him and now I had to take him home instead. I had to carry him on my car through the fog, while throngs of dead people watched, knowing exactly what I had done.
I was a murderer.
I don’t know how long I drove, but as I did, my father’s face slowly changed. First it became younger, until I thought he might turn into a boy. But the boy he was turning into wasn’t himself. He was familiar, very familiar, just not the boy he was in his old pictures. For a minute or two he seemed to be smiling, almost as if he wanted to speak. Was he remembering something? Did he want to tell me something? I don’t know. I wanted to ask him, but before I could he started getting older again. He got old so fast that his body made a howling sound, as if the air being pulled over him on the car had found a way into his body and was now trying to get out.
The howling died away. Little by little, my father’s face turned into the mask it was before. I looked at him, and started to cry.
Then, almost as if the world had ended, we were left completely alone.
Everything was silent. All of the other dead people were gone. Where were they? We were still moving, but there was no vibration in the car, and no feeling of the road beneath us. We just slid through the grayness and quiet, as if we were on an endless sheet of glass.
As the silence poured over me, I started to sing. I sang to my father, and told him that I was taking him home. I told him I loved him, and that my mother loved him, and that once we got home everything would be all right. Listen. It was a beautiful song, and my voice was beautiful. It was the first time I had ever really sung in my life, and here I was, singing to my dead father.
I cried some more. Wouldn’t you? To this day, I can still hear that song. To this day, I wonder how my voice could have been so beautiful. How could it have happened? I am not a beautiful person. I am ugly inside, cheap and ugly.
But what does it matter? Because then, like a miracle, the fog started to lift. I saw the sun. It was a tiny white circle, dipping in and away through the mist.
I followed it, hungry for its light, hungry for its warmth. I followed it until its strength was restored and the entire world was delivered, all shining and new, back to itself.
It was like being reborn.
Without hesitating, I invited my father to sit beside me in the car. And he accepted! The windshield? It was no longer broken. Then the sun got brighter and brighter, until at last the sky was completely blue. My father pointed at the orchards and vineyards, smiling. He wasn’t dead anymore. I can’t explain it. I’m trying to, but I can’t. It was a miracle. I had killed him, and how he was alive again, and the sun was shining, and he was pointing. He had forgiven me for what I had done, and now he was happy to be with me — his son.
And then, he was gone. Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.
But I knew why. Oh, yes.
And that’s what I’ve got to tell you.
My father had to hurry and get home before I did, so he could fall asleep in his chair in time for me to walk inside and wake him, saying bitterly, “That’s the last time I’ll ever drive in fog like that again — I swear it.”
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.