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Issue number eleven




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Fred by James Lewelling

Why did we stop, Fred? said the thing in the passenger seat.  Don't call me Fred, said Fred. We stopped because I don't know where we are, and I don't want to get any farther away from where we're going.  Where are we going, Fred? said the thing. Don't call me that, said Fred. You're a package and you talk too much.  I've run packages for Charlie, and I've run them for Zero, and I've had them run for me, and none of those packages talked as much as you do, said Fred. And none of them called me Fred.

I was in a box, Fred, said the thing.

Fred got out of the car.  It was hot as hell.  The sun was a big yellow eye staring down at the top of Fred's head.  A black blanket of asphalt gridded with blocks of empty yellow parking stalls with tall, thin light poles at their corners stretched out in all directions as far as Fred could see.

The thing got out of the car and sat on the hood.  This is really something, Fred, the thing said.  It gestured around the lot with what was left of its arm.  The blackness had crept up to its elbow.  This is nothing, Fred said.  I've been around, and I've seen something. And this sure ain't it.

I can tell you about being in a box, Fred, said the thing. Don't call me Fred, said Fred.

It's dark in a box, said the thing.  It's dark, and when you try to move your head, it hits the top of the box.  And when you try to move your feet, they hit the bottom of the box. And when you try to move one elbow, it hits the side of the box, and if you try to move the other elbow, it hits the other side of the box. And you know exactly where you are, in a box, but you don't have the foggiest notion where the box is. It's dark in a box, and you can't move, and you don't know where it is.  That's what it's like, Fred, said the thing.

Shut up! said Fred.  Then he went back to the car, slid behind the wheel, and stuck his head out the window.  You gonna ride out there? Fred asked the thing.  I sure am! said the thing. O.K., said Fred, and he turned the key and shifted the car into reverse.

We're going to back right out of this.  That's what we're going to do, Fred said. O.K. by me! said the thing.  Fred stretched his arm across the back of the seat, turned his head so he could see out the rear window, and hit the gas.

They backed and backed, and then they backed some more.  They skimmed over yellow car stall after yellow car stall.  They passed a light pole, and then they passed a second one, and then a third one, and then a whole slew of light poles.  Fred took off his sunglasses, and squinted so he would be able to see the edge of the lot as soon as they came to it.  The thing on the hood watched the asphalt and the car stalls and light pole after light pole fall away behind them.  The sun got cooler and started to go down.  The light poles threw long, narrow shadows, and the shadows got longer and longer.

Finally, Fred stopped the car, got out, and leaned against a light pole to think.  His head bobbled on his neck.  Why did we stop, Fred? said the thing.  We might run out of gas, said Fred.  What would we do then? said the thing. Shut up, said Fred.  That's a pigeon! said the thing, and it pointed its arm, which was now just a stub coming out of its shoulder, at the top of the light pole.

Fred moved away from the pole, fished his sunglasses out of his front pocket, put them on, and looked up at the pigeon.  The pigeon looked down at Fred.  The thing on the hood got off the hood and walked over to Fred.  That's a pigeon, said the thing.  Fred didn't say anything.  His Adam's apple quivered, and his head bobbled on his neck.

I've been looking for you, said Fred. I've been looking for you high and low. I've looked for you here and looked for you there.  In fact, that's why I drove Charlie's car to this lot, and that's why I'm backing out of it.  Because I was looking for a pigeon just like you, said Fred.

The pigeon didn't say anything.  Then it said, You see all these light poles and empty car stalls? It pointed around the lot with its beak.

Yeah? said Fred.

Pretty soon it's going to get dark, said the pigeon.

Yeah? said Fred.

You should keep doing what you were doing, only faster.  Then you're sure to get where you're going, the pigeon said.  Then it hopped off the pole, circled around Fred and the thing twice, and began a long wide spiral up into the sky.  Fred took his sunglasses off to watch it.  The pigeon got smaller and smaller and finally disappeared into the gray air.

That was a pigeon, the thing said. Get back on the hood, said Fred.

The thing jumped back on the hood, and Fred jumped back in the car.  Fred stuck his head out the window.  Hold on tight, he said. We're getting you back to Charlie in one piece. I only have one hand, said the thing, and it showed its stub to Fred.  Here we go! said Fred.

Fred started the car, shifted it into reverse, looked back over his shoulder, and pressed the gas pedal to the floor.  The car rocketed backwards.  The light poles on the horizon shot toward it and passed and smeared into twin white blurs on either side.  Wow, said Fred.

The car rocketed and rocketed.  The sun teetered on its arc, turned as red as a tomato, and smashed into the horizon, squirting red light all over one side of the lot.  The thing on the hood was knocking on the windshield with its knuckle.  When Fred glanced back, the thing was fogging up a spot with its breath.  Then it started writing something in the foggy spot with its finger.  I lost my arm, Fred, it wrote.  Fred could see that that was true.  The blackness had crept all the way up to the thing's shoulder.  Its empty, dirty, sodden shirtsleeve blew straight back and snapped in the wind.

A dark shape without a hat appeared way off on the horizon.  Then it was right in front of the car.  Then it was Charlie.  Fred jerked the wheel as hard as he could.  The car skidded and rolled.  Fred watched the black pavement and the smashed sun roll around the car four times.  Then he fell out and bounced on the asphalt.  When he looked up, he saw the thing that had been on the hood, arcing upside down through the red air.  Then it hit the pavement, and kind of splashed and exploded at the same time.

Oh well, said Fred.

A shadow without a hat fell across Fred's face.  That's a real mess, Fred baby, know what I mean? Charlie said, and he grinned really wide, showing all his long teeth.

Hi Charlie, said Fred.

That's a big mess.  It's like our own little crapyard out here in the lot.  You made your own crapyard out here in the big lot, Fred baby, know what I mean? Charlie said.

Fred got up and dusted himself off.  He pushed his sunglasses down and looked over them to where the thing had splashed and exploded.  It had been a little thing when it was sitting on the hood, but the splash covered a huge part of the lot with black chunks and red lumps and dark liquid.

It would take thirteen chumps working thirteen hours a day thirteen weeks to sort all that crap--if they had a sorter to put it in. But there ain't no sorter around here, is there, Fred? Charlie said.

No sirree, said Fred.

But I got a bag, said Charlie, and he took a big red sack out of his coat and shook it open, so Fred could see it.

That's a bag, said Fred. I know a bag when I see one.

It sure is, and it's yours now, said Charlie, and he handed Fred the bag.  Yes sirree, said Fred. Start sorting, said Charlie.

Fred walked over to the nearest edge of the black smear, got on his knees, and started scooping the chunks out of it and putting them in the bag.

Fred, Charlie said. People say I don't have no truck with Zero, and I know that because I know what people say.  People say I ain't square, and people say I'm a snake, and some people even say I'm a lemon.  Well, let the slobs chat, and the chumps sort, and the lemons cat, and the trunks sit box.  That's what I say.  It's all so much noise to me, know what I mean?

Yes sirree, said Fred over his shoulder.  I was a chump once.  I could hump as much crap as any chump in the yard. But that thing on the hood looked a lot smaller than all this.

Slobs is slobs. Chumps is chumps. Lemons is lemons, and I ain't never seen a peach, said Charlie.

That thing on the hood wasn't even as big as me, Fred said.  He tried scooping faster.  That thing on the hood wasn't any bigger than a little boy.  Now, if you took a little boy and threw him off the hood, and he splashed onto the asphalt, you should have a little boy sized puddle, or one not much bigger, right?  I've seen big boys, and I've seen little boys, and I've seen puddles and splashes and smears and piles.  And I've seen them in this town, and I've seen them in other towns, but I don't think I ever saw one quite like this, said Fred.

Fred heard Charlie's car start up.  Charlie had gotten into the driver's seat.  He stuck his head out the window and looked back at Fred.  When you get done filling that bag, Charlie said, you keep it.  It's all yours now, know what I mean?  Then Charlie pulled his head back in, and the car bucked into motion.  Fred stood up and took off his sunglasses.  He watched the red taillights get smaller and smaller until they looked like two irritated zits and disappeared over the horizon.

Then the moon came up all gray and clammy like a hard boiled egg, and sloughed off a big piece of gray skin that turned into gray ooze in the air and settled onto the lot.  Fred waited a while for the lights in the lot to come on, but they didn't.  He waited a little longer, but the lights stayed dark and dead in the gooey moonlight.

Fred got back on his knees and crawled over to the bag and started scraping chunks into it.  This is going to take a long time no matter how fast I work, Fred thought.  Then he wondered what Charlie would do if he stopped scraping.

Fred scraped and scraped.  He scraped for two days, and then he scraped for ten more.  On the thirteenth day, his hair turned white, and his watch stopped working.  Fred took the watch off its chain and tossed it over his shoulder.  He looked up at the sun, and the sun looked back at him with its white face burning.

Fred scraped for ten more days.  He hoped a pigeon would show up and tell him what to do.  Then he hoped that the lights of the lot would come on after all.  Then he hoped that Lou would come with his truck and help him out. But nothing happened.

Fred scraped and scraped and scraped and scraped, but the puddle didn't get any smaller, and his bag didn't get any fuller.  Then he was nearly finished.  Then he was finished.  The bag was heavy and lumpy and wet.  Fred picked it up and held it cradled against his chest. You were in a box, and now you're in a bag, Fred said to the thing in the bag.  Then he slung it over his shoulder and started walking.

James Lewelling's work is forthcoming in Fence Magazine and has appeared in The Danforth Reveiw, Proliferations, Black Ice, The Cream City Review, Doppelganger, The Stranger, Sniper Logic, Friendly, and elsewhere. He has been writing fiction since 1988 and studied with Lorrie Moore, Ron Sukenick, and Steve Katz. He is currently making a living teaching technical writing to young, basketball-playing Emirati women in the United Arab Emirates. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife, the poet Lisa Isaacson, and two daughters.

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