Brian Allen Carr
Tommy Bishop had died, not that I cared much. I hadn’t seen him in years, and I’d only missed him once. It was during a visit back home. I’d gone out to a dive bar that had black walls, fluorescent lighting and an off-balance pool table. I got whiskey bent with some girls from my old high school who asked about Bishop because they knew he and I had been friends. I talked about him for a little bit. I told a few stories.
I told about the time he set the principal’s car on fire, how he lit a cigarette off the hood as it burned, and how we ran down the alleys as sirens blasted through the streets. I told about the acid hits that he’d hide in chewing gum wrappers and that we’d sell for five dollars a piece during lunch to the curious sophomores. I even dropped the truth about how his cousin had really shot himself in the foot in the parking lot that time, and how Bishop ran off and buried the gun so we could claim it was a drive-by shooting and not get expelled. Then I wrote Tommy’s name on the wall with white hand chalk, and we laughed and raised a glass to him. Someone even called out “Bishop” as we sipped our liquor. But that was a few years ago, and other than that I only thought about him when I heard news, which, I admit, used to come regularly.
Bishop was bad. He always had been. The last thing I heard, before I heard he had died, was that he’d been popped running bricks of grass through Montana, and that the judge denied him bail, so he was stuck in some county cage up north while he awaited sentencing.
When he died I heard it loud. People I couldn’t remember called me on the phone. Strangers, except through some varied web of acquaintance, would see me around and grab my arm.
“Did you hear about Bishop?”
“Is it true about Bishop?”
“Do you know all the details about what they say about Bishop?”
“Let me think,” I’d say. Because I had heard some things.
The first thing I heard was that he was dead. It was simple.
My phone rang. I answered it. Someone said, “Bishop’s dead” and then hung up. I couldn’t tell who it was.
Later on, at work, a wine rep from back home told me Bishop had hanged himself in jail. The rep, a guy named Larry, had come into the kitchen looking for my chef. I didn’t like him much. He was awkward. His head hung too far in front of his body. His step was too side-to-side. He looked like he was searching for a lost dog, or late taking medication.
“Hanged himself,” he told me, and pulled an imaginary rope above him.
“Is that so?” I said, because I had no idea how else to respond. I was cleaning the silver skin off a pork loin, dragging the blade of my knife across the fat, piercing the tip through the sinuous material, and pulling the handle back toward my body so that the skin came away clean. I held it that way. Like a piece of leather.
“Where’s your chef?” Larry asked.
“In there,” I said, and motioned toward the office with the hand that held the scrap.
Larry bobbed his head, rubbed his hands together, and gaited off like an ice skater. Up and down, side-to-side.
My mother told me later that Bishop had burned to death in a fire.
I was standing in the walk-in cooler when I got the call, and my phone had a bad connection. I heard everything I said twice, through some digital echo, and there were mountains of static rolling through the receiver.
“Did you read it in the paper?” I asked. (the paper. the paper.)
“No,” she told me. “From a woman at church.”
“Is she reliable?” I asked (reliable. reliable.)
“She’s goes to church, doesn’t she?” my mother said.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” I told her. (anything. anything.)
Then it was silent. I figured I’d pissed her off.
The last thing I heard was that Bishop was murdered that way, and that it had something to do with Montana. An old friend called me. We had cooked together at a seafood restaurant and had stayed in touch. We always talked about how we should open up a place together. That’s what I’d figured he was calling about, but it wasn’t. He wanted to talk about Bishop.
“He pissed somebody off,” he told me. “The wrong somebody.”
“I thought he was in jail,” I said.
“Must have sprung,” he told me. “Or maybe fled on bail. Maybe probo. maybe good behavior.”
“Where’d it happen?”
“When did he get back to Texas?”
“Who would burn someone to death?”
“Hell if I know.”
That was it. That was all I knew. But I never told people the last bit.
When people asked me about Bishop, I’d tell them he died. I’d tell them there was a fire. I’d say I didn’t know much else.
“I bet he was goofing around and it got out of control,” people would say. “Remember the principal’s car?” they’d ask me.
“I do,” I’d say. I remembered it well. Things come back to you. It’s the same way garbage washes up on the coast.
September 1996. The newspaper called them butterflies, but I didn’t see it. They looked like locusts crossing over the bay. Their black wings seemed to beat in unison. There were thousands of them. Maybe millions. They clouded the horizon, blotting out the blue sky, so that it looked like rain was sweeping in from the north.
We knew they were coming because we’d heard it from newscasts, and through phone calls from cities out toward San Antonio, and we’d seen pictures of car grilles pasted with thick mounds of lifeless wings on the Internet at school.
My teacher told us they were thirsty. My teacher explained it was because of drought.
I suppose the whole ordeal excited Bishop, because he came and grabbed me in the hall.
“We’re taking off,” he said.
“You ask too many questions,” he said and grinned. I thought maybe he’d been drinking. He grabbed me gently by the hair and moved his face toward mine. “You think too much.”
Back then neither of us had a car. We recruited this girl Gia to cut school with us because she had a ride. She didn’t want to come at first.
“If my dad finds out he’ll take away my car,” she kept saying and shaking her head.
But Bishop laid his hand on her shoulder and told her that she had to come.
“Your daddy won’t ever know nothing,” he told her.
Bishop smiled and her eyes fell slightly. Her cheeks flushed, and I knew she was in.
One of the security guards at my high school moonlighted as a butcher at the grocery store where I worked. She was firm. She had a stoic, pinched face that held tight beneath her black leather hat. She was quick with her whistle, loud with her voice, and always drove a hand between the kids who groped in the halls.
Nobody liked her, but I’d seen her different at the other job. Sometimes we’d sneak beers together or smoke cigarettes while burning boxes, blowing our cigarette smoke up through the incinerator flue as the flames burnt bright orange beside us.
Sometimes she’d stare at me and tell me how lucky I was. Once she touched my lips with her finger and started to laugh. I just stood there silently sipping at my beer and feeling warm from the fire.
She’d usually let me leave campus without too much hassle, which was a rotten thing for me to ask her to do, since she’d probably lose her job if she got caught.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked when the sedan pulled up to the exit.
“We’re going to go watch the butterflies come in,” I told her.
I was sitting in the back seat on the driver’s side with the window down. She reached in and patted my cheek.
“You’re such a child,” she said. She shook her head and stared at Gia. Then she waved us on. “Be careful,” she told us.
“We always are,” Bishop hollered. He turned on the radio as the car pulled from the parking lot.
We drove down to the waterfront and parked near the sea wall. The bay was rough. Small crests were crashing into the cement steps that led down to the water. Spray was coming off the break and lipping up over onto the St. Augustine grass.
We were the only people in the park. The sky was heavy with clouds, which pulled from each other, and streaks of sunlight fell through the breaks onto the water in the distance.
The butterflies had worked down the coast, passing through Goliad, veering through Taft, edging the Laguna Madre and slipping through Gregory and Portland, until they came to Corpus Christi, and the mass of their migration dumped them over the Bay near the Battleship Lexington.
We watched as they ascended and descended in unison, a wave of wings batting against the late summer air, moving delicately as one black body separated into pieces.
When they neared us, Gia screamed, “I want to get back into the car.”
“No way,” Bishop said. “But close your mouth so you don’t swallow one on accident.”
I shut my eyes for a moment as the butterflies surrounded us, and I felt wings crashing gently against my arms and chest. When I opened my eyes I was engulfed in a sea of slow black bugs.
Bishop caught one in his hand. He held it for us to see. It had a long snout, and a quick stroke of brown up the front of its wing. It looked scared. I told Bishop to let it go, but he must have rubbed too much of the dust off its wings because when he finally did it couldn’t fly. It fell to the ground, and ran in circles until Bishop stepped on it.
Gia punched him in the shoulder, but he just smiled. He grabbed her by the waist, pulled her toward him and kissed her.
She pulled away and said, “What about Bo?”
“He knows the deal,” Bishop said, and kissed her again.
I wandered down to the cement steps, and sat there as salt water sprayed on my shoes. I counted the oil derricks in the bay, and watched the gulls diving at the butterflies.
After a few minutes Bishop called me.
“Bo,” he screamed. “We’re out.”
We got back into Gia’s car and drove downtown to a liquor store where Bishop knew a guy we could buy from.
He had to go in alone. I stayed in the car with Gia. I could see her face in the rearview mirror. She had large brown eyes, and skin the color of light brown sugar. We had held hands earlier that summer while sitting on a beanbag chair, but Bishop had claimed her so I was too afraid to do anything else. We just talked about Gals Panic, and whether or not Ska would last. The other couple made out on the bed two yards away from us.
She saw me looking at her and winked. I sort of smiled.
“So,” she said. “What’s up with you and the security guard?”
“Oh, her,” I said and shifted in my seat. “She works at the grocery store with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think Mr. Damen has a girlfriend.”
“Fuck you,” I said. She laughed. Then it was quiet.
Bishop bought three bottles of fruit-flavored wine and a small flask of bourbon. By now the butterflies had entered the downtown streets and there were people walking around taking pictures.
We drove to the U.S. Service Building parking lot. We were drinking underage and hiding in plain sight. The garage had steep angled inclines from one floor to the next, and on the final ascent we faced a sky sprinkled with black insects.
We passed the bourbon around, and chased the hot liquor with the sweet flavored wine.
When I tried to hand the bottle back to Bishop he squeezed my hand and motioned with his head. I nodded, pocketed the flask and opened the car door.
“I’m gonna go spit on the street,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
I got out of the car and walked to the edge of the building. I looked out across downtown. The streets were choked with butterflies, and people who had come out to see them. I took a sip of bourbon. It was warm and heavy. I swallowed several times after it had gone down. I didn’t like the taste, but I liked the warm rush that climbed up from my abdomen and across my limbs. I took a deep breath. I could taste the salty air of the bay in the back of my throat. There were seagulls diving at the butterflies and screeching. Car horns floated up from the road.
When I turned around Gia’s car was rocking. I folded my arms and leaned into the parking garage wall.
Chef called me into his office after the dinner rush. It was a small room with a computer on a card table and stacks of recipe books in the corners. He poured himself a snifter of Cognac and motioned for me to sit. He crossed his legs and leaned into his own chair and shook his head while looking at me.
“What ah fuck?”
Chef was from Montpelier, France, and his English made him sound like a deaf person who had learned to talk by holding his hand against somebody’s throat. He hated everything except cigarettes, cooking and liquor. Sometimes he’d sit on a bench behind the restaurant blowing smoke and staring out into space.
His wife had fake tits and she would always get drunk with the customers and take them out dancing. I figured that’s what he thought about as he sat by himself. He was gaining weight. He was losing hair. He was drunk every day.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“You on phone in cooler talking. Absent minded. Head up ass.”
“Sorry about that,” I told him. “I just found out an old friend died.”
“Ah,” he said, and took a sip of his Cognac. “Life is shit, no?”
I smiled, and nodded.
“Listen,” he said. “I must ask question. I need truth.”
“Of course Chef,” I said. “You can ask me anything.”
“Will you be okay without job?”
“Chef,” I said. “Is everything okay?”
“I’m closing,” he told me.
“What?” I was relieved. I thought he was going to ask me about his wife.
“Yes,” he said and touched the wall with his finger. “This place, I hate it.”
“Immediately. No more restaurant. No more Chef.”
“What will you do?” I asked him.
“Go back France, maybe. I’ve no decided.”
We shook hands, and I told him I’d get my things and leave. I heard his wife later. She was crying in the office as I cleaned and put away my knives.
My phone rang as I was leaving the restaurant. It was my mother.
“Why did you hang up on me?” she asked.
“I didn’t, we had a bad connection.”
“Oh,” she said. “Did you hear what I said about the funeral?”
“No,” I told her. “Is it coming up?”
“It already happened,” she said. “Yesterday.”
“Did you go?”
“No, but I dropped off some food.”
I was glad it had passed. I couldn’t have gone. I couldn’t see all those people.
“How was Ms. Bishop?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” my mother told me. “She had a hard time with Tommy but she was his mother.”
“Are you alright?” my mother asked. “You sound upset.”
“I just lost my job.”
“You got fired?” she asked.
“No,” I told her. “The restaurant’s closing.”
I was in my car, and had lit a cigarette and was blowing smoke from the window. I’d been cooking for years. My mom was used to me getting fired and changing jobs.
“I thought you said you quit smoking.”
“I’m not smoking.”
“I can hear you exhale,” she said. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, maybe take a road trip. Maybe I’ll come see you.”
“Do you need money?”
“Not at all,” I told her. I had some cash saved up, and was only couch surfing. A guy I’d met let me pay $35 dollars a month to crash in his living room. I’m not sure how he came up with the amount.
“Do you need to move in for a bit?” my mom asked.
“Of course not,” I told her. “It’ll just be a visit.”
I kissed into the receiver, said I’d see her in a few hours and hung up the phone. I drove to the house where I was crashing and grabbed my duffle bag. I wrote a note in crayon on a piece of wrinkled paper that said I’d be gone for a few days. I stuck the note and some money onto the refrigerator using a Chip-Clip that had a magnet on the back.
Then I got back into the car and drove south toward my mom’s.
I didn’t see Gia for a while after the day with the butterflies. This was for a couple of reasons. First, her father took away her car. Then it got around the school that she and Bishop had sex, and I guess she didn’t want anyone to know. She was pissed at Bishop. She was pissed at me.
Then one night she called me on the phone. She asked me to come over. I only lived a few blocks away. She knew I could walk. I told her I’d be right there.
It was fall. The streets were cold. It had been raining. The asphalt roads were laced with water, and the surface glistened beneath the street lamps.
Gia didn’t want me to come into her house. She had me knock on her window and wait outside until she could climb out. I said, “What’s up?” when she finally slipped from the window ledge. But she put her fingers on her lips, took my hand and led me out of her yard.
She walked slightly ahead of me. She was breathing heavily. I could tell because steam piped rapidly from her face.
She led me to a small park that was tucked into a row of houses. We walked toward the playground and both sat down on swings.
She stared at me.
“Did you tell everybody about me and Bishop?”
“No,” I said. “Why would you think that?”
She leaned her head back and looked up at the sky.
“Just because,” she said.
We sat there for a few minutes in silence and I watched her press her feet into the gravel beneath her, then raise them off the ground so she swung softly through the air.
The next day Bishop came to my door. He asked me out onto the lawn.
“I got something to show you,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked, and skipped out onto the grass.
“This,” he said.
He turned quickly. I saw his face. The edge of his eyes were red, his brown hair drifted through the air just behind his head. Then I saw his shoulder, which was level with his chin. I tried to lean back, but it was too late.
Bishop’s fist crashed against my jaw. It felt like a sock full of batteries. I landed on the grass, and he kicked me twice in the ribs.
“I didn’t do anything!” I screamed and hid behind my arms.
He didn’t respond. He just walked away. I remember his arms flailing out from his sides as I watched him stride down the sidewalk.
The next time I saw him was at a New Year’s Eve party. He was drunk and he kissed some guy’s girlfriend at midnight. The boyfriend and some of his buddies rushed Bishop, and drove him down to the ground. I ran up beside them. Bishop looked up at me. He asked me to help. But I didn’t. I watched.
My mother still lived in the same house, and I looked down at the place where Bishop’s blow had landed me on the lawn as I walked to the front door. I let myself in quietly and walked to my mother’s room.
“Bo,” she said. “You made it safe.”
“Yes ma’am,” I told her. “Go back to bed.” Then I kissed her on the cheek and walked to my old room and slept in my old bed.
My mother was gone when I woke the next morning. There was a note on the breakfast counter that said she’d gone to work. I mulled through the refrigerator, but there wasn’t much to eat. There were some light beers, so I had one of those. Then I took a shower and got dressed. I decided to go look around town. I hadn’t been home in a long time.
The first place I went was the mall. I guess I wanted to see somebody, but I didn’t know who. I walked up and down the halls, stepping in and out of the shops as sales people pestered me at random.
I ran into one person, but I didn’t recognize him. He touched my arm.
“Hey, bro, did you hear ’bout Bishop?”
“No,” I said and stepped back from him. He touched my arm again, and I wanted to hit him, but instead I turned and walked to my car.
I drove down to the water. I went to the same park where we had watched the butterflies. The bay was as flat as a mirror, and there was fog, so it was hard to tell where the sky and water met.
Then I went up to the Service Building parking lot, but I couldn’t see much. It didn’t seem as high. I counted the seconds it took for spit to fall from my lips to the pavement below. One, Two, Three seconds.
I decided to go home and finish the rest of the beers, but on the way back I passed Gia’s old street and I turned down it. I parked in front of her house. I didn’t get out of the car. I stayed there listening to the radio softly. I wanted her to climb back out of her window. I wanted her to lead me back to the park. But, of course, she didn’t.
I put my hand on my head. I lifted my hair. I ran my finger along the scar at the base of my widow’s peak. It was an old wound. It had healed without stitches. I slipped my car into gear and drove down the road.
Gia wasn’t the first girl Bishop had hit me over. The first time he hit me was in the sixth grade. He hit me with a broken broomstick that was used to bash a piñata at a Halloween party. He hit me because I kissed some brunette who was in our math class. She sat in the front of the class and Bishop and I sat in the back. I remember falling to my knees after the stick landed, and the heavy throb and pressure where the shaft had struck. There was blood on my face and my vision narrowed. My ears hissed, and my balance shook.
“You knew the deal,” he said as parents pulled the stick from his hand and forced him out of the back yard. Then somebody helped me up, and helped me put ice on my head.
Later that night Bishop came to my window.
“I’m sorry,” he told me once I’d slid open the glass. “But you knew,” he said. “You knew.”
Then he had me pull the bandage from my forehead so he could see the cut, and he promised it would never happen again.
But there were other times when I was supposed to know. And other scars to prove it.
I went back to my mother’s house and opened another beer.
My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. It was somebody from high school who I couldn’t remember.
“How did you get this number?”
“My wife works with your mom.”
Then he asked about the death, but I said I didn’t know much.
I decided to drive out to Port A. I had cooked at a small restaurant and bar there when I was younger. It was a tiny town, and I figured I could find the burnt house easily.
I took the rest of the beer from my mom’s refrigerator and wrote a note at the bottom of the one she wrote me. It said I’d be back in the evening.
I headed southeast toward the Island, then turned north and circled back around the bay. I got to Port Aransas and the roads were quiet. The fog was thick in the streets. The air was still. I drove around with my lights on. There aren’t many neighborhoods. Most everything is condos and hotels.
I took me half an hour before I saw it. It was surrounded by yellow police tape, which sagged between thin wooden stakes. I got out of my car, stepped over the tape, and walked to the heap of ashes and skeletal posts that had withstood the fire. There was a neighbor across the street walking a crippled dog.
“How long ago was it that this burned down?” I asked him.
“A week tomorrow,” he told me.
“How’d it happen?” I asked.
“Bad wiring,” he said. “All of these houses are wired wrong. I’ve got an electrician coming out next week to look my house over so the same don’t happen to me.”
“Makes sense,” I said.
“Did you know them or something?”
“I think,” I said. “I knew a guy named Tommy that might have been staying here.”
“Bout your age?” the man asked.
“Bout,” I said.
“Sounds right,” he told me. “I met him once or twice. No offense, but I can’t say I liked him much, though it’s a pity what happened.”
“No offense taken.”
Then the man waved his hand at me and went further down the road.
I walked over to the ashes and picked up a mound of soot. I let it crumble in my hand. It was dry and smooth, and black flecks fell through my fingers and floated down toward the ground.
Then I felt nauseous. I staggered behind the garage. It was all that was left of the house. I wanted to be sick, but nothing came up. I just stood there, hunched over, with saliva slipping from my mouth and the muscles in my head constricting.
Once the urge passed I got into my car and drove over to the ferry to take it over to Aransas Pass. I got out of my car during the ride and looked down into the water. A giant school of Redfish rolled in the water. Their movements were lazy. Their eyes looked tired.
“It’s a shame isn’t it,” a man next to me said. He had on an orange sweater and a khaki hat with hooks in it.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That we can’t just drop a net and pull ’em up.”
“They’re protected,” he said. “Didn’t you know that?”
“I’m not from here,” I told him.
“Oh, boy. This school’s been here for years, and them granola heads got together to outlaw fishin’ ’em.”
I shrugged, smiled and got back into my car. I stayed there until the ferry docked.
I was hungry. I kept my eyes open for a restaurant as I drove.
There was a small white building with a sign that said “Family Diner.”
I pulled over. There were only a few cars in the parking lot.
A bell rang as I opened the plate glass door, and a brown haired girl with Down syndrome looked up from a counter.
“Hello,” she said. “Just you?”
“Yes ma’am,” I told her, and she picked up a red menu and told me to follow her.
She led me to a booth next to a wall that was covered in framed photographs. I looked at a few of them. There was one of a woman holding a baby on the beach, and she was surrounded by black butterflies.
“Hey,” I said. “I remember that.”
“That’s me,” the Down girl said and pointed at the baby.
I smiled and took a seat at the booth. I ordered a Coca Cola and a meatloaf sandwich. I stared at the pictures as I ate. Then I looked around at the pale yellow interior. There was a couple sharing a booth in the corner. They were pressed against each other and looking at a menu.
There was a woman at the register when I went to pay.
“You’re the woman in the pictures,” I said.
“Sure am,” she said. “That’ll be $4.50.”
The register chimed and the cash drawer slid open. I reached for my wallet, and as I was handing her my money I noticed a Help Wanted sign that was taped to the front of the counter.
“Still looking for help?” I said and nodded to the sign.
“Sure am. Do you know any cooks?”
“You’re looking at one,” I told her.
“When can you start?” she asked and laughed. I think she thought I was kidding.
Her smile faded. She nodded her head. Her eyes traced me over. She looked at my hands.
“Okay,” she said. “Come with me.”
She took me into the kitchen and introduced me to her husband. His name was Jim.
He was standing at the range sautéing some vegetables. He shot something from a squeeze bottle into the pan, and the liquid caught fire. I watched the flames as they danced across the pan, the blue fading into orange as the fire’s fingers flickered like snake tongues.
Jim was talking, but I didn’t really hear him.
“Well what do you think?” Jim said and rubbed his hand down his shirt. “We could give it a trial run tonight just to see.”
“Sure,” I told him, but it was hard to look away from the fire. “Let me just run out to my car and grab my knives.”
I turned and walked out of the kitchen. I passed by the Down girl in the dining room. I tried to smile at her, but I’m sure it looked wrong.
The bell rang as I stepped from the front door, and when I heard it I knew that I’d drive off as soon as I got to my car. I couldn’t help it. Something kept repeating. And I didn’t want to think about what it felt like to burn.
Brian Allen Carr lives in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Texas Review, Pindeldyboz, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae and other publications. Links to many of his stories can be found at www.brianallencarr.com.
“I lived in Galveston, Texas, as a young boy in a white Victorian near the Strand. We had a green porch swing we’d spend much of our time on. Once I was sitting on the swing, rocking back and forth, and a one-armed man called to me from the street. I was probably three at the time, but I wasn’t afraid of strangers or amputees. I bounded down to him and he handed me a combination lock. He had me hold it toward him as he worked the dial with his lone hand. Clockwise, counter, clockwise. Then he pressed the latch, and the lock popped open and he took it from me. ‘Thank you kindly,’ he said before going on his way. His nubbed limb still haunts me clearly, but the house is gone. Decimated in the last hurricane season.”