Fiction ยท 03/11/2009

Beauty

Eddie and Kate climb over a guardrail. A narrow trail descends through huge dripping ferns. Strange smells – smoke, sewage, steak sauce – float between the trees. The trail opens onto a stony cove. Beyond it there’s a green glacial lake, then luminous blue slopes, distant, cut by trenches of snow. The far shoreline is piled high with shattered tree trunks and boulders.

Eddie sets up the tent, then builds a fire. Kate pulls her damp poncho out of her pack, and spreads it over her legs. She brushes mud and dead leaves from its surface. . “What a beautiful spot,” Eddie says. Kate looks up at the mountains, then back down at her poncho, and shrugs.

“You’ve become quite an expert on beauty,” she says. “This is beautiful. That’s beautiful. It’s all you’ve said for three weeks.”

“Don’t you think this is beautiful?” Eddie asks.

Kate focuses on her dead leaves.

Eddie throws a branch on the fire. He’s startled by a small man standing on the shoreline, twenty yards away. The man is wearing a blue turban. “Greetings to you!” he yells, and approaches.

“Beautiful spot,” Eddie says.

The man squints up at the ledges. “It is, how do you say it? Treacherous.”

Eddie scans the shoreline for another tent. “Are you camping near here?” he asks.

“Here? No. Actually I just bought a trailer. Actually it is just over there.” He points down the shoreline at the woods. “Actually it is a park full of trailers.”

“Wow,” Eddie says. “What a beautiful place for a trailer park.”

“Yes, I suppose. If one likes such things.”

Kate puts her poncho down. She pulls out her crumpled sleeping bag, sweater and clothing, and spreads them out on the rocks to dry.

“Yes,” the man continues. “I came here two months ago, you see. Two months. I am a McDonald’s Store manager. I have just started managing a McDonald’s Store. In downtown Anchorage. Yes. Not very far from here, you see. It is my twelfth McDonald’s Store in the last 11 years. I move to them, I manage them, I move again. This is what I do, you see. This way, I see things. Now I see all of this.”

The man gestures gently toward the landscape, then turns, his hands out for balance, stepping gingerly on flat leather sandals. “Yes, well,” he says. “It is good to meet you. You stop by the McDonalds and give your greetings.”

He works his way back along the shoreline. As he scrambles up into the woods and disappears, Kate says, “Now that’s a man who knows where he wants to go in life.”

+

Darkness seeps into everything. Eddie tries to make the fire bigger. A cold wind presses down the slopes, crosses the lake and circles them. Kate takes a long breath, then unloads what she’d been alluding to for days as they approached Anchorage: her friends told her about their friends, who moved up here five years before, who were wonderful, who would definitely put Kate up, who could help her find work. Her friends were sure she could drop in on their friends, but they didn’t know about Eddie, and it wouldn’t be cool, not yet, until Kate was set up, or something – you know, maybe they can just work from there. See how it goes. Kate says she can drop Eddie downtown in the morning; he can re-supply and hang out at his beautiful lake, and figure out what he’s doing. Maybe they can reconnect in a few days.

+

In the morning, Kate and Eddie drive out of the wilderness. Within minutes they are surrounded by auto part stores, trailer parks, and warehouses. Kate drops Eddie off on a strip, then drives away. He sits reading a paper on a bench for 45 minutes; then walks into the first bar he sees. That’s that, Eddie says to himself, draining his first beer in three weeks. No reason not to have another. After a few hours he walks a few miles, then finds a second bar, then a third. The bars swirl with menacing characters: soldiers, bikers, fishermen; but nothing happens. When he walks out of the last bar, darkness is falling. Eddie can barely make out the blue ridge of mountains where his tent and belongings are perched by a lake. He starts walking, comes across a McDonalds. He stumbles in. A small man with a green turban and a shadow of a moustache, with a McDonald’s manager shirt and tie, blinks at him. “Can I help you sir?” Eddie leans over the counter. “Greetings to you,” Eddie shouts. “Isn’t this beautiful?” Then Eddie remembers, the man last night had a blue turban. And this one is holding a baseball bat.

+

Eddie wakes in a hospital waiting room, cradled in a plastic chair with a handful of gauze pressed against his nose. The gauze is brown, and dry, and sticks to his skin. He glances around as two fiberglass doors swing open and a voice says briskly: “Come with me.”

Eddie follows a nurse in green scrubs into an examining room. She points to a table. Eddie lies down on the white paper.

“Take your shoes off, please,” she says.

“Why?” Eddie asks.

“Fine,” she says. “Keep them on.” She leans over his face. Her hair is pulled back tightly, and she wears huge glasses. “Now, then. What seems to be the problem?”

“It’s my nose, I think? I think it may be broken.”

“Really? May I?” She pulls the gauze away. Something dislodges itself from the cavity between Eddie’s eyes. His face fills with a rush of cold air.

“The trooper says he found you walking along the airport road. Do you mind telling me what happened?”

“I got hit with a baseball bat, I think? In a McDonald’s?”

She wipes Eddie’s face. It sears his skin and leaves little ticklish flecks on his cheeks. He’s sure his nose is split open.

“Is it broken?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.”

“Are you going to take an x-ray?”

“Why. Do you think you need an x- ray?”

“If it’s broken, don’t I need an x-ray?”

“If it’s broken it’s broken. You need to know if it’s broken? You need an x-ray to tell you its broken?”

The nurse removes her big glasses and squints, pinching the space between her eyes. She rubs the glasses against the sleeve of her scrub shirt. She squints up at a clock, beating on the other side of the room. Without the glasses her eyes are so small, Eddie thinks. So small and disappointing.

“Okay,” she says. “We need to do some paperwork.”

“Am I going to be admitted?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Okay.”

“Do you want to be admitted?”

Eddie pictures a bed with clean white sheets and a little water pitcher on the table.

“You can get admitted for a broken nose?” he asks.

“I didn’t say that either.”

“For what then?”

“For observation.”

“Really? For how long?”

“Until we’ve made all our observations.”

She examines the paperwork very closely. Then she puts it down. “But my impression is that there’s nothing really wrong with you.”

Eddie touches his nose. “There isn’t?”

“I think the best thing you can do is get right back out there.”

“Out there?”

“Everybody comes up here for some kind of reason. Everybody thinks they’re going to find something. And, well, guess what.” She holds up a hand mirror. Eddie can see a clear bandage over the bridge of his nose. The blood is gone. “You’re free to go.”

+

The rain sweeps in again. Eddie follows the guardrail back up the road to the campsite. The glowing lights of Anchorage fade behind him. When he barely makes out Kate’s car, parked where they left it the night before, he thinks he’s dreaming. He stumbles down the dark, wet trail. Kate is sitting on the same log, by the tent, under a tarp, reading a book with a flashlight.

“What happened to your nose?” she asks.

“I walked into something,” Eddie says. He sits on a log across from her. “What happened with your friends?”

“They weren’t there,” Kate says.

“Well, you can try back tomorrow, right?”

“I talked to their neighbors,” she says. “They moved a year ago. To Santa Cruz.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Eddie says.

“I drove back to where I dropped you off. I checked everywhere. I must have checked twenty bars. Then I came back here. And you still weren’t here.”

“Yeah,” Eddie says. “Sorry.”

Kate waves the meek yellow beam of her flashlight out toward the huge lake and mountains that, in the blackness, now seem to loom over them.

Then she whispers, “You better not leave me here.”

+++

Frank Haberle’s stories have appeared in the Adirondack Review, Birmingham Arts Journal, Cantaraville, Broken Bridge Review, Taj Mahal Review, 34th Parallel, Hot Metal Press, Melic Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Johnny America, the Starry Night Review, the East Hampton Star and the City Writers Review. He is a Board member of the New York Writers Coalition, a nonprofit group committed to providing creative writing opportunities for disenfranchised New Yorkers.