Fiction · 05/16/2012

Arithmetic

Outside, the sunlight has faded and in the valley it’s too dark to see or search the ground. Dew collects in the trailer’s corners and seams. Another day’s chores are finished. Jesse sits dead center in the floor, rattles the spray can and squirts forest green into the end of a sweat sock. Three hard hits and a thirty-second coughing fit and then he just stares. Skeeter, his old man’s dog, nuzzles Jesse’s ribs until Jesse’s arm falls on the mutt’s back. His other arm reaches under the couch and tugs the shoebox out again. Jesse’s stare shifts.

One fake gold earring, he counts, plus one-half broken pencil. One umbrella handle plus three cracked CDs, two Hank, Sr. plus one Willie. One snapped off truck antenna plus one half pair of Oakley sunglasses. Five cigarettes, four cowboy-killers plus one of mom’s lights. $2.49 in change plus one wallet holding one picture of Jesse and dad at Myrtle Beach. Thirty-seven beads of smashed safety glass.

In the morning, Jesse will start in on the chores. First he’ll latch Skeeter to the run of rope out front. The yellow bus will go by, but it doesn’t stop at his packed dirt drive anymore. Skeeter will bark and take a shit while Jesse works the laundry. Any used socks plus yesterday’s jeans and shirt smeared with grass and mud, it all goes in each day because that’s how mom did the wash. In dad’s iron skillet he’ll scrambles eggs with onions and cheese and peppers and ham, enough for two meals. Jesse will sweep coal dust from the windows and doorframe and vacuum it up from the rug. He’ll count the sock drawer money and calculate the charges already on his parents’ three cards. In ten months he’ll be fifteen — old enough to get a job. Jesse will put Skeeter on a chain and walk him down route 60 for two miles or so, until they come to the bend.

Two lanes of blacktop plus one mountain ridge. Outside the guardrail the land falls away, angling down into the gorge. Inside the tight arc of road a stand of trees climbs gradually up the slope. With Skeeter’s chain looped around a trunk, Jesse will divide the inside land into a simple grid. He will figure the number of times he’s been through each quadrant and begin with the freshest ground. Then he will search. Beer bottles, caps, and cans, he’ll collect them and throw them away. His dad never drank. On his knees, he will run his hands through the grass and dig his fingers into the soft earth. Scraps of cloth, buttons, and strings, he’ll pocket them and later, in the trailer, examine them in comparison with pictures and clothes in the closets, trying to find a match in colors and styles. Jesse will cross the road, go over the metal rail, and search the slope for the three-inch tall Disney princess mom hung from the rearview. The tire tracks going soft from rain and time and the healing scar in the trunk of the old, wide maple, he will save these for last. At the end of the day he will beg these places for glinting shards of mirror or glass or any other number or clue until the sun follows its arc over the side of the mountain and throws shadows. He will pack everything he finds in sandwich bags, untie Skeeter, and walk home in the dark.

Alone inside the trailer, Jesse tucks all of the pieces back into the box and slides it underneath the couch. The clock reads eight minutes past eleven. It’s getting late. Jesse knows he should put Skeeter out one last time and get into his bed. Tomorrow is another set of long hours and chores. He adds the hours into days and then the days together. Nine since he found the last piece. Three before that and four before then. How many more days before there are enough pieces and scraps to fit into an equation? How many more pieces are there to dig out? The can rattles, the nozzle clicks and sprays paint. The chemicals burn Jesse’s throat and work into his head. He stares. Numbers write themselves in water stains on the wood paneling walls. Jesse adds them together, subtracts and multiplies, until the solution is too long and winding for him to divide.

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Chris Lee is a writer from West Virginia. Recently, his fiction has also appeared in Pear Noir! He currently lives in Pittsburgh, where he teaches and tutors at the University of Pittsburgh. He also has a website he never updates because he’s too busy watching reruns of Seinfeld. It is christophermlee.info. christophermlee.info.