Please enjoy “Windswept,” an early short story of mine that I’ve made available here in its entirety. This piece was originally published in Nib Magazine (now defunct).
A sharp jolt of pain shot from his pinned arm and froze him at the top of a lingering breath, where a flash of his son’s smile, his wife’s face, and the color of the girl’s touch were waiting like a mirage; but they were loath to stay and quickly turned to black as the pain eased its grip on Ernie’s nerves, allowing a final bounty of oxygen to leave his lungs and dissipate into the night air like a quick puff from a cigarette.
By Anthony Martin
Inside an overturned strawberry truck lay a middle-aged man, dying. His anguished breaths spread loose dust about the cab, labored but steady like an eight-note metronome.
A few minutes earlier he had been driving along with his arm dangling out the window and a cigarette resting between his chapped lips. When the tire blew, the man’s compensatory pull of the steering wheel caused the truck to tilt over onto its left side at speed. Now his arm was crushed between the door and the road, and the cigarette was resting in the crevice between the windshield and the dash, still burning.
All there was now was a strange quiet accompanied by a dull pain stirring somewhere deep, pushing and pulling the man across the inner precipice separating awareness and blurry somnolence.
Outside, not ten feet away, two boys gorged themselves on the strawberries that had spilled out of the truck bed onto the country road. The gleaming red fruit was all the boys saw when they rode up on their bicycles. And now they were far too smitten by the flavor of their roadside treasure to notice the labored breathing coming from inside the truck.
Their smiles unwittingly celebrated the last yield of a doomed man.
An hour or so earlier, the driver’s wife and son helped load the wood-and-nail crates onto the truck. It was a mid-century pickup with olive green paint, its bulbous headlamps and rounded accents giving it a cartoonish face that smiled at the world with a shiny chrome bumper. The man stood in the weathered truck bed and organized piecemeal the stuffs his family handed him. His energetic boy, eager to anticipate his father’s every next thought, moved most of the weight.
As the last two crates exchanged hands, a breeze moved in signaling the day’s slow move toward evening. It cooled their sweat. The man exhaled deeply, jumped down from the cab and mussed the boy’s hair. He kissed his woman before turning to go.
“Careful out there, Ern,” she said. And Ernie nodded he would.
Once he was out on his familiar route, Ernie lit a cigarette; the late afternoon was his favorite time to smoke. He spent these early autumn afternoons with both windows open to the quiet landscapes rushing in the opposite direction. He envied their ability to so quickly return—to be infinitely returning—to the places that he’d just come from. He yearned to go back home, back overseas, back to all the good people who passed in and out of the frame. And though he could recount some of them with ease, others were forever receding like the shrinking cornfields in his rearview mirror.
He took a drag. It seemed that each trip he made, whether delivery route or whiskey bar, shed new light on some clandestine path leading to the high ground between his past and his future–between the sun fading fast behind him and the new moon soon to rise ahead. From that elusive vantage point, he imagined an internal consensus could finally be reached that would permanently quell his creeping nostalgia. Yet he knew he was only just setting out on his ascent toward this position of clarity.
And now this.
He was so tired . . .
It was the hollow metallic report of an object bouncing off the truck’s roof that brought Ernie out of his stupor. His eyes opened wide and began darting about the cabin. His breathing mimicked his rising panic, building in a crescendo of sharp in-and-outs. When it peaked he froze, then his body went limp, his consciousness slipping back below the surface, down into the turbid depths of oblivion.
Anthony leaned right to dodge his brother’s projectile. His quick rebuke disguised the sound of the rock bouncing off the truck behind him.
“It’s my turn,” asserted Troy. He turned his attention away from his younger brother to the fruit scattered around them. The crimson berries were like droplets of blood against the dusty road. Troy reached to pick one up.
The sun, as if taking rest before the final leg of its westward descent, hung deep in the waning light of the afternoon sky. The boys looked out with silent stares on the fields before them, their sea-glass eyes reflecting nearby crops. The wheat harvest seemed to be respiring the way it swayed with the breeze.
Anthony soon forgot his brother’s transgression; he was hypnotized. His budding grasp on the real distance between him and the rest of the world was evident in his eyes.
Troy was equally captivated, but his age made it easier to fashion imagery for the far off places in his mind. He pictured the ever-bustling metropolises depicted in his schoolbooks, the way they were magically illuminated by perpetual light. He imagined the different languages sounding in the streets: one drifted in from a highbrow political discussion; another originated between two critics discussing centuries-old artwork in lacquered wooden frames. He wondered if, in the urban mosaics now materializing in his mind, one tile might depict two boys on the outskirts of humanity, out in the fields sitting cross-legged, fingers sticky with sucrose, looking back at him and his brother with commensurate awe.
A slow darkening of the sky brought the boys back from their wander lusting. The late sun painted burnt oranges and deep purples on the burgeoning cloud cover now asserting itself on the horizon. Anthony wiped a stray drop of rain from his cheek and looked up. His brother calmly beckoned homeward.
“We have time,” he said assuredly as he picked up another strawberry. He held it between his front teeth and leaned back onto a straightened arm. He bit down and reached with his free hand to take away the green leaves. He wiped some red dribble with the back of his hand. “We’ll beat it home,” he reiterated, and then paused.
Thunder rolled in a series of terse crescendos followed by a rush of cold wind. The air deadened precipitously. A deep chill stirred deep within the boys and blossomed outward, leaving behind sensuous bumps as it permeated the skin and disappeared before the approaching gust.
It was time to go.
As the boys moved toward their bicycles, Anthony stopped to run his fingers along the finished wood that lined the bed of the truck. He lifted his eyes to his brother, who had stood his bike upright, ready to pedal off.
“Hey Troy . . . ”
Troy turned back and glanced down at where his brother’s hand rested on the automobile.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
It wasn’t until the sky was completely overcast, long after the boys had departed, that a more aggressive chill crept into the truck. By then the rain was falling slowly in thick gobs that swelled on the road as they congealed with the dust. Some found their way through the open window and smacked gently against Ernie’s cheek. He stirred with a stunted gasp of air and opened his eyes. He could manage little more than a hazy squint through the cracked windshield at the gray, sideways world.
The wind was pleasant . . .
“Is that you honeybee? Hand me the smokes will you? Huh? Spare change? Sorry, I haven’t a dime . . . No, I’ll not be staying much longer. I don’t know when I’ll return . . . No. Unfortunately no.”
Delusions mingled with the hints of coherent thought resurfacing in Ernie’s mind; they collaborated with the crisp air and its peculiar semblance to places past. He began to slip in and out of the droopy-eyed daydreams that skirted his fleeting consciousness.
He was sure that he was back in a foreign land where, years earlier, the same fresh breeze had stopped off along one of its perpetual journeys to touch him. Yes, it had just moved into the city, accompanied by a light drizzle, when a young girl came abreast of him and took his arm. She looked into his eyes and spoke his name. She was a native of this place.
The city, not quite one of those that young boys see off in the distance during contemplative gazes, was breathing again in the man’s mind. It was all right in front him. He reached out to touch it. He was there and in tune with the tempo of his surroundings as he had been when each alleyway was still virgin.
Was it a trip to the grocery store that he was on now? Or had he ventured out to the pub for a pint and a smoke? He looked to the book in his hand and concluded the latter.
The girl had run out of the café to meet him when, moments before, she looked up from her countertop and caught him walking past the window, a two-toned tram passing just beyond his silhouette. With her arm now looped through his, she pulled him into a passage that led to a small causeway lined with makeshift stalls on either side. Immigrants with weathered faces hustled sunglasses and handbags to the occasional passerby. They raised their voices to advertise their wares above the din coming from just beyond Ernie’s newfound interlocutor.
She asked after the book he was carrying as she reached to take it from his hand. Their fingers touched.
“It’s fiction,” he said. “It’s an old one, and written in English.”
His accent made the girl smile, her pink lips curling up toward youthful dimples. Her rounded cheeks flushed golden red as unknown energy traversed the short distance between them with invisible speed. Whatever planet they were standing on, in whichever galaxy of synapses it was embedded, had now rendered words and their order unimportant. It only mattered that he could feel a sliver of the vibrant energy that this fair-skinned girl exuded. He felt like he was floating, like it wasn’t happening. It was only the cool wind blowing over the raindrops on his skin that kept him rooted in that world and capable of reciprocation.
The same wind was with Ernie now as his breath began to shorten. The memory of the city and the girl began to fade. In that place, there in the passageway, she might have taken offense had their conversation ended where Ernie’s mind now failed to render the details. But she nonetheless faded, perhaps aware that her place was not within the crumbling walls of a doomed temporal kingdom.
How long was I adrift in that world? he wondered.
Can I reach my cigarettes and light one with my good hand?
He tried to wiggle a finger but there was no response.
Where is lighter anyway? he wondered.
He thought of his wife and boy. He strained to picture their faces, their eyes, their curls. A sharp jolt of pain shot from his pinned arm and froze him at the top of a lingering breath, where a flash of his son’s smile, his wife’s face, and the color of the girl’s touch were waiting like a mirage; but they were loath to stay and quickly turned to black as the pain eased its grip on Ernie’s nerves, allowing a final bounty of oxygen to leave his lungs and dissipate into the night air like a quick puff from a cigarette.
And the rain, the familiar wind that preceded it now billowing some many miles away, began to fall steadily.
It was dark outside the home of the departed. The sun was long gone, replaced now by a harvest moon hidden somewhere behind the overcast. Ernie’s wife stood in the kitchen window, waiting.
Behind her, through the doorway, a dim yellow light illuminated the dinner table. One chair, a plate and silverware set neatly before it, remained empty and pushed in. Next to it sat the boy waiting silently. He looked to his mother. She wore the same faded summer dress she wore earlier when she and her boy helped Ernie load the truck.
The bottom hem lifted gently as she turned from the window and walked back to the modest dining room. Her barely perceptible nod was all that the boy needed to begin eating. As he dug in, she took a final glance at the window before turning to her own plate, then to her son, smiling softly at the healthy vigor with which he ate the day’s meal.
A dozen or so miles away, through the sleeping wheat fields and past that fateful intersection now damp and dark, Anthony and Troy sat across from each other, a home-cooked meal cooling on the dinner table between them. Their father was finishing grace.
“Amen,” he concluded, opening his eyes as he unclasped his hands and took his elbows from the table. He listened to his wife attentively as he picked up his fork and began to eat.
“It’s a shame about Penny, you know, for them to just let her go like that.”
“I don’t agree with it,” he said. “But it’s just the way business is done these days sweetheart.”
With his parents occupied, Anthony stole a glance at his older brother before shifting his eyes down to his dinner. He wasn’t hungry. Troy too was slow to begin eating. He used his knife to shuffle his fingerling potatoes toward the rim of the plate. He stared at their variegated colors and waited in vain for his appetite to return, lest his mother take notice.
She would ask questions, he knew, and for the first time that day he began to consider the fact that an honest response to her queries wouldn’t be simple at all.
“Troy,” she would probe, “why aren’t you eating?” Her sharp eyes would bore destructive holes into the synaptic bridges connecting his brain matter. Troy, acutely aware that Anthony would be next in line to answer for his own untimely satiation, would search hopelessly for a workable lie.
“Aw Ma,” he’d feign, “it’s just that I’m not feeling so hot.” It was better than expressing distaste for his mother’s cuisine.
Yet in reality he wasn’t focused on excuses. He was involuntarily pursuing his mother’s theoretical inquisition back to its root, back to the questions that the boys failed to mind earlier that day. The answers were troubling.
Anthony began to take notice of his brother’s concern and, meaning to gesture surreptitiously, he instead jerked his hand awkwardly and made a clank with his fork. Troy froze.
“Anthony!” she snapped with a sideways glance, forced to interrupt the ongoing dialog with her husband, “elbows off the table.”
“Sorry,” he replied sheepishly. His voiced cracked. His mother shifted her attention back to her husband.
“Sor-ry,” Troy mimicked, holding his brother’s widening eyes as he said it.
“Troy, what did I tell you about teasing your brother?”
But he didn’t hear her finish. He didn’t hear anything. He just stared into his brother’s astonished eyes and slowly turned his lips up into a big, self-satisfied grin.