burnt

lance olsen
© 1996

 

"Writing is like driving alone along a winding gravel road late at night," Al, our writer-in-residence, told me.

His tiny pink eyes turned wistful.

Al had worked as a rat exterminator, a mechanic in a pit crew on the southern racing circuit and a certified beautician who was paid $350 an hour to spruce up corpses in a Louisville funeral parlor before writing four short stories about weightlifters and an experimental novel called Tear Off Your Face. It was published by a small press in Okieokie, Alabama, that also specialized in child pornography and ecological tracts.

"It is?" I said.

"You're doing seventy. Seventy-five. Trees're flashing past. Gravel's snapping out from under your tires. Your car fishtails around corners. You're feeling great. You're in control. Your nerves are all in tune. It's a spiritual moment. Got it?"

"Got it."

"Then all of a sudden you take a sharp curve and slam into something solid, hit the brakes after the fact, after it doesn't matter whether you hit them any more or not."

"Gosh," I said.

"When the dust settles, you get out to see what you've killed. In the headlights you see the body of a duck. Feathers and blood everywhere. Chunks of meat stuck on the bumper. Clots of meat stuck on the tires. You of course feel shitty.

"But it's not as easy as that. It's not as simple. Cuz at the same time you feel relieved. You feel good. It could have been worse, you know. It could've been a dog or a kid or something. Shit happens. It's just a duck. Time to move on. Time to hit the road.

"So you stand there looking at what you've done, feeling bad but not that bad. Only then you hear this noise. At first you can't place it. It's like it's coming to you from another reality. This chirping and squeaking. You raise your head and have a look around.

"And then you see it: all these baby ducks, confused, skittering around what's left of their mother. Maybe six or eight of them. They don't know which way to go. They don't know what they're supposed to do. They just chirp and squeak and shit.

"'Jesus,' you think. It occurs to you they're all going to die now too and it's your fault. You're not responsible for one death. You're not responsible for two. You're responsible for seven, eight, maybe more. Who knows?

"You feel lousy. You think: 'God, I must really suck. I must really be a fucking moronic child killer.' You could kick yourself in the ass. But what're you gonna do?

"You stand there a minute. You imagine all these little ducks or ducklets or whatever the hell you call them starving, wandering around aimlessly for days in the wilderness while they die these slow horrible deaths. Little stomachs shrinking. Little tongues drooping out. Little eyeballs turning into raisins.

"Then this idea hits you.

"You go around to the trunk of your car and hunt in your tool kit until you find your ball peen hammer.

"You walk back around your car and get down on your hands and knees and start bashing the baby ducks in the heads.

"They cheep when you hit them. Sometimes you miss. Sometimes you almost miss. But they die pretty quick.

"You still feel bad, only you're also thinking this has to be done and you're the only one to do it and so you're also feeling sort of proud of yourself for taking control of this mess you've created. That sense of order you had a while ago comes back. Your nerves start buzzing again. Maybe you even get into your work a little.

"It could be worse, you think. This kind of thing could always be a hell of a lot worse.

"Only then you hear it.

"That roar that comes up on you before you even know it. Va-roooom! You raise your head. In a fan of gravel a car fishtails around the same curve you did and bolts by, catching you in its headlights. In that split second you see all the windows are rolled down. The family inside. Mom, short gray hair, thick tortoise shell glasses, mouth open in horror. Pop, big ears like LBJ, balding, black-rimmed spectacles, bearing down on the wheel to rush his clan away from you.

A-and you see the three kids leaning out, little Artie and Bobby and Sally, faces slack with disorientation, watching you work.

"A-and just for a nanosecond the camera pulls back a-and you see yourself there, crawling around on your hands and knees at night, in the dust, on a deserted road, ball peen hammer raised above your head, killing baby ducks . . . Yeah."

Al stopped.

I blinked, waiting for more.

Al popped the last bite of his burger into his mouth, licked his slick fingers, chomped away in silence.

Gradually he became aware of me again, that pale thin guy with the wide-open eyes and thin blond beard and wire-rimmed glasses and the McQuik Clown Cup filled with McQuik Clown Cola. He returned to this dimension. He grinned at me.

Then he broke into laughter.

The laugh became a cough, the cough became a hack, the hack became a sort of wet hiccup. And soon Al was examining what he'd brought up into the paper napkin in his fist.

"And that, Murph, is your creative expression business," he said, still short of breath, inspecting his find. "It's a fucking great trip, buddy. Best hobby in the world. Everyone, everyone on the whole fucking planet, should have such a frigging great job.