The Best Response to Fear
Editor’s note: This collection, published in June and featured as Tattered Cover’s fiction book of the month for July, is Boyles’ first book.
Every day before she left for work, Amy boiled coffee on the wood- burning stove Bobby Jackson had rigged from a fifty-gallon oil drum and read the newspaper that still appeared, like some kind of magic, in the driveway. It had been months since they’d had the money to pay for the subscription. He couldn’t explain it.
“We’re in luck, baby,” she’d say, folding the pages neatly, saving the paper to shred and crumple under the stove kindling later. “The recession is over!” Amy said this every day, a joke between them. Bobby would laugh briefly, rattle his fingertips against the plastic taped over the broken windows, lean the military surplus cots they slept on now against the wall like Murphy beds.
“I do feel lucky,” he’d say, and Amy would laugh, set a cup of coffee in front of him as he sat in a foldable chair at their foldable card table. She’d stand next to him, pull his head into her belly, tangle her fingers in the curls of his hair, hair he was letting grow now. One good thing about his new life is that he could get scruffy, go full hairy werewolf if he wanted, and he wouldn’t have to take shit from the other guys at work. Gone hippie, they used to say if he went too long between haircuts. You trying to look like a Q-tip or what?
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They’d been living in the old office building on the east side of the sugar mill property since the foreclosure, the decorative tin ceiling tiles tinged with green, the cracked plaster and lath walls lined with shelves of old Mason jars, some blue, some clear, all full of odd powders and residues, cobwebs, dead spiders. Bobby’s parents, Elmer and Marcia, had offered them his boyhood room, but they’d asked instead to move into the decaying sugar mill property Elmer bought at auction years ago. It felt somehow more dignified to live alone, let them pretend that they were still independent thirty-somethings, that the life they’d built for themselves hadn’t caught fire, burned to ash. Sunlight leaked through the yellowed curtains every morning, but by afternoon the place was all shadow, the light blocked by the six towering silos, still the tallest structures in town. Any day now, he was sure, he’d wake to find Amy folding her clothes, packing them neatly into an old milk crate.
You’re lucky I lasted as long as I did, she’d say, gesturing from one side of the room to the other. This shit.
But Amy still kissed his forehead on her way out the door, flashed a brilliant smile, said something to make him laugh, “Chin up, jackass,” or some version of their wedding vows, “For richer and poorer.” Ten years into their marriage, Bobby knew every one of her smile lines, the way emotion morphed and shifted them. They betrayed her, revealed the true feelings she hid behind her brave face. Bobby knew she pictured, as he did sometimes, the granite countertops in their old kitchen, the Jacuzzi tub he’d installed for her on their fifth anniversary, the way the foreclosure notice had flapped and chattered with the breeze. There was no way to see so much loss as some grand adventure. It wasn’t a human response.
There were two large outbuildings at the mill, one a skeleton, exposed, surrounded by piles of bricks where the walls had already crumbled away. The other still had its walls, doors he could lock, treasures to mine: rusted backhoes, trailers, old vehicles, dented metal lockers, beet crates. He’d seen this as an opportunity and filed an LLC on a garage of his own. Because it was all he could afford, Bobby put a spray- painted sign out by the road. Engines. Alignments. Oil Changes. Fair Prices.
Weeks passed and nobody came, and Bobby knew why. When times were tough, people learned to change their own damn oil. He spent his days reading the names of beet harvesters and plant workers listed in old handwritten payroll books, 1901– 1938, paging through records of layoffs from Great Western’s bankruptcy in the 1980s, name after name of hard- luck blue- collar guys from recessions past. He could conjure them if he wanted to. Ghosts with boots that needed resoling. Ghosts with coveralls worn to threads.
Amy was still working, home health aide, part time. She’d gotten a referral recently and her hours were up. Bobby knew he should be grateful but he wasn’t quite. Just because he knew jealousy was ugly didn’t mean he could stop feeling it. Being with Amy had always been like that, like all the available luck was pulled into orbit around her, like her gravity was stronger than everyone else’s. Amy’s scratch tickets always paid at least five dollars. Amy always caught the most fish from the quarry ponds. When Amy found coins on the sidewalk, they were always heads up. He hadn’t ever, in their old life, been jealous of Amy’s luck, and now it somehow helped to remind himself that even Amy’s luck had been no match against the forces of the global economy. Amy had lost the house too, same as he had.
Bobby sometimes climbed into Amy’s cot, pulled her blankets up over his head, breathed in the smell of her— spring snow crabapple trees, river water on sun- baked granite. The room felt less haunted when he imagined her in it. His heart rate would slow, the chaos in his head calm a bit, and he could pretend they hadn’t lost so much, stop worrying that his marriage might be a fair- weather deal. When he’d emerge, un- cocoon himself, the glass Mason jars would catch the sunlight, reflect it back at him like hundreds of eyes, each one a bright shining accusation:
You are in bed while your wife is at work.
Some days, Bobby could force himself up off the cot, make a few phone calls, try to drum up some business. Most days, though, he pulled the blanket back over his head.
“I’d be at work if there was any,” he’d say, and then, “Get out of my head, ghosts.”
Maybe the papers said the worst of the recession was over, but Bobby couldn’t see it in real life, in the darkened downtown storefronts and liquidation sales, the hopeless expressions of the people sleeping in used cars in the Walmart parking lot, in the still- crowded foreclosure auctions. It had not been made clear to Bobby whether he’d been fired from his job as lead mechanic at the Saturn dealership because the economy tanked, or because GM wanted to kill the brand, or because he’d called in hungover one too many times. The occasional sick day had not been a problem before the recession. He’d eventually decided that the reason wasn’t as important as the results. Days passed. He tried to look forward. Every morning he’d call Bruce, who had a construction company, a whole fleet of trucks, and every morning Bruce said some variation of the same thing. No, thanks, we’re still barely working anyway, everything’s still stalled.
“Really man,” Bruce had said, the last time he’d checked in. “I’ll call you.”
Amy, back from work, sat down next to him in the shade of the giant silos. Bobby had spent most of the afternoon cleaning the bricks from the collapsed walls. He could disintegrate the old mortar with his bare fingers, watch it fall away, dissipate into the soil. It gave him some sort of hope, the tidy stacks of clean bricks next to the chaotic pile of collapsed wall.
“What you doing, baby?” Amy asked. She picked up a brick, held it close, inspected it closely.
“Thought I’d clean things up a bit,” Bobby said. “Give myself something to do.”
Amy looked up from the brick, inspecting him just as closely. “Still nothing, eh?”
No matter how she meant it, Bobby heard it both ways— still nothing, as in no work, and still nothing as in not working, not contributing, worthless. Amy put a hand on his knee, rubbed with her thumb, and Bobby felt his skin warm under her touch. “Maybe we need a bigger sign out front? Maybe we can get a banner made, something more professional?” Bobby loved the hope in Amy’s mouth, would take whatever small proof that she still believed in him, which was the only way he could see believing in himself.
They heard the chug of a diesel engine, saw Elmer fiddling with the chain of the mill gate, Marcia waving from the passenger seat.
“My parents tell you they were stopping by?” When Bobby stood up, the pea gravel crunched under his feet, shifting, unstable. He grabbed both Amy’s hands, steadied himself against her weight, helped her to standing.
“I’m always happy to see them.” Amy brushed the dirt off her pants first, then his.
Marcia, her hair still honey- brown, untied and a bit wild in the wind, offered Amy a foil- wrapped package, handed Bobby four quart jars. “Krautburgers and applesauce,” she said, and Bobby pictured his mother’s kitchen counters as they’d always been in fall— covered in cabbage cores, scattered with stray flour, an apple pie still steaming from the oven, the kitchen air heavy with cinnamon sugar and brassica funk. “I’ll do another round, next week.”
“City sent a notice about the weeds,” Elmer said. “Makes me think they’re going to follow through on what they’ve been threatening, declare the place blight.” Elmer wore jeans stained with motor oil and ditch mud, suspenders over a T- shirt, a fancy welder’s cap. Marcia made Elmer a fancy stitch cap every year at Christmas, and Elmer wore it every day, welding or not. Elmer’s sun- worn skin was contracting, squeezing, tightening him into himself, making him take up less space in the world with every passing year. Bobby felt the same was happening to him, even though he was only thirty-six, even though there were not yet any visible markers. The recession had him pinned like a vise, his skin stretched too tight over his bones.
“Blight nothing,” Amy said. “I’ve always loved this place. Even before.” Bobby surveyed the grounds— piles of brick from crumbled walls, peeling paint and cracked wooden siding, puncture vine and purple loosestrife sprouting from the cracks in the concrete ramps. It had seen better days. It would have been easier to love in its prime.
“That’s the spirit,” Elmer said. He pulled Marcia into an uptempo waltz right there on the pea gravel. “This place is our retirement fund, honey. It’s all we got worth anything.” Elmer was an odd duck, legendary for impromptu jigs, occasional outbursts of singing.
“You can’t spend property, old man,” Marcia said, but she laughed, let him spin her across the gravel.
Bobby envied Elmer his lightness of heart, envied the way everyone, Marcia, Amy, accepted his dad’s odd quirks and habits. Elmer could decide he was going to eat fire instead of dinner, Bobby thought, and both Amy and Marcia would be delighted by his innovative thinking. Bobby felt he’d lost the trick of joy, could no longer conjure happiness.
“If I heat these up,” Amy said, “can you two stay for dinner?”
Marcia and Elmer were having their own hard times, the recession having come for them like it had come for everyone. Still, Marcia would fill her own freezer and theirs with doughy rolls stuffed with ground beef, black pepper, cabbage. They’d have shelves full of jars— apple pie filling, pickled beets, green beans and corn. Amy, who believed in good company, that time spent together was a powerful expression of love, would insist on regular family meals.
“Let me help you.” Marcia took the applesauce back from Bobby, and Bobby watched as the women walked close to one another, smiling. He envied them this easy affection, wished he understood the magic of these women, of Elmer, for that matter, the light they all shone into dark places. He worried again about the deepening lines in Amy’s face. He wondered where Amy’s seemingly boundless good humor ended, where Marcia’s did. He wanted to know where the limit was, how to see the line of too much to ask, how in God’s creation Elmer had managed to stay on the right side of it all these years. He felt near desperate to learn this lesson before it was too late.
“You poked around much in these buildings?” Elmer drew him back into the moment.
“Yeah, some. There’s a lot to look through.”
Elmer nodded. “Even I don’t know all this place holds, but I got something to show you.”
There was a small cinder- block outbuilding at the back of the property, two manual garage doors, padlocked shut, multiple windows cracked or broken. Bobby hadn’t made it back here, had spent most of his scavenging time in the larger mill building. Elmer unlocked the doors and handed Bobby the keys. Dust swirled in the fading sunlight, and underneath some crates of rusted engine parts and old oil cans was the unmistakable shape of a Ford Falcon in baby blue, a white stripe on each side, front to back.
“That car was really something, in its day,” Elmer said. He was shifting again, one leg to another, almost on tiptoes, a joyful shuffle. “Thought your mom and I could be your first customers.”
Bobby felt his eyes well up. It was too much, this parental charity. It felt like something dangerous, though Bobby couldn’t even tell himself why. He ran his hand along the Falcon.
Elmer stopped shuffling, furrowed his brow. “Unless you got something else lined up, of course.”
Bobby knew Elmer knew he didn’t. What Bobby wanted were jobs that didn’t come from Elmer, or through him, but he couldn’t turn any job down, so he worked to master the lump in his throat. “Of course, Dad. It’s a great car.”
“You get me an estimate, okay? We’re paying.”
Bobby pushed both hands into his forehead, tried to pull the skin tight. “No, Dad, that’s too much. Just let me do it.”
A V- formation of geese flew overhead, heading east, not south, their insistent honking a tremendous racket.
“You think those geese are just temporarily confused?” Bobby asked.
“Do you think they’re just flying east, like, today? Like they’re going to stop off in Johnstown for whatever reason and then head south? Or has something messed with their instinct and they’ve forgotten, completely, that they’re supposed to go south?” Bobby wondered about instinct. Was it magic or science, the way a goose knew when it was time to move on, the way a goose knew which direction to go?
“Geese don’t forget shit,” Elmer said. “They just go south or they don’t.”
Bobby nodded. “Dad, I appreciate this, I do. I just worry that I’ll never get back to wiping my own ass, you know?”
Elmer put a hand on his shoulder. “Ridiculous. It’s just a rough patch, son. They come and they go.” Bobby didn’t say anything, so Elmer clapped his shoulder a few times. “We better get in for dinner.” They walked toward the office Amy had turned into their home. The mountains, so close to sunset, had turned a deeper shade of blue than the sky.
Claire Boyles is a writer, teacher, and former sustainable farmer. She received her MFA in creative writing from Colorado State University. Her fiction has appeared in Boulevard and the Kenyon Review. She lives in Loveland, Colorado.