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Authors: Thad Ziolkowsky

Wichita (9781609458904)

BOOK: Wichita (9781609458904)
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Europa Editions
214 West 19th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10011
[email protected]
www.europaeditions.com
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2012 by Thad Ziolkowski
First publication 2012 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Illustration by Marina Sagona
ISBN 9781609458904 (US)

Thad Ziolkowski

WICHITA

For Adam Ziolkowski

1

 

N
ot far from the airport they come to the farm where a tornado struck the day before. Fields stretch away on both sides of the highway. It has a way of fleeing into its own interior, all this wide-open Kansan space, retaining a vast, dwarfing privacy, in the face of which Lewis is feeling a familiar weightlessness and drift. He tries to concentrate on what his mother is saying, in her newly acquired language, about “Fujita scale,” “meso-cyclone,” “shear.”

She's started, or is about to start, a storm-chasing business—Angry Goddess? Grateful Gaia? Something like that. It was hard to gauge from afar how seriously to take the scheme. Abby has announced more than one life-transfiguring venture that never got off the ground or failed to hold her interest if it did. But there's a new SLR digital camera on the armrest by his elbow and a laptop loaded with meteorological software (ThreatNet) in the backseat. Which is all it takes apparently, that and a website.

A red pickup, jacked high on oversized tires, slows to rubberneck too, and without a glance in the rearview Abby follows it across the slow lane like a wingman, then comes more or less to a halt beside the guardrail. Cursing under his breath, Lewis twists around in his seat to be sure they're not about to get rear-ended.

The coast is clear but back along the horizon behind them a low, ominous wall of cloud has sprung up, its bruised underbelly lit up by a wash of lightning as he watches. Facing forward again, he decides to keep this development to himself, lest she get a look at this squall line and decide to chase it too.

He finds the hazards button on the unfamiliar dash and pushes it in and Abby leans over the steering wheel to see past him. He spots a slight sag in her jawline and feels petty for noticing it. She's essentially as beautiful as ever, if anything more glamorously so than he remembers, with expensive-looking highlights and an outfit of some chic, diaphanous material, spotlessly white Grecian sandals. Anyway, she was the one to first call attention to it, the incipient sag, back when she was seeing a plastic surgeon, Rennie. They broke up before she got the free “work” done.

On the tailgate of the red pickup, which fills the view ahead like a small movie screen, is a bumper sticker of an attack helicopter with the caption, “Who's Your Baghdaddy?”

“Wow, look at that, Lewis,” Abby says, lifting her chin in the direction of the farm. Turning, he encounters a dim reflection of himself in the passenger window: the full beard, grown out slightly ahead of the New York fashion curve, seems to have lost its quotation marks in transit: he looks like a laid-off lumberjack. He rolls the window down and hot dry air, with an acrid chemical trace, pours into the SUV.

Other than a downed stand of trees, the trunks held intact by skin-like strips of bark, there's not much to see. Then Abby eases the car forward and a mangled metal shed comes into view.

She has the new SLR out of its case. “That's where the meth lab was,” she whispers excitedly, as if they're near skittish safari wildlife. Lewis notices dull silver gas tanks lying scattered on the ground, curled rubber tubing. A length of yellow police tape has been looped around the area, one end of which snaps in the wind like a striking snake.

“Don't you find it totally allegorical,” she whispers as she fires off frames on the SLR, meanwhile inching the SUV forward, “how it uncovered a
meth lab
, this symbol of our addictions?”

“Wow, yeah,” Lewis says, unsure of what she's really driving at but hoping to get her to move on.

A man on an ATV, unbuttoned plaid shirt flapping from his thin pale torso, rides up to the split-rail fence and gawks at the wreckage. “Wonder what he's up to,” Abby says, taking his picture.

“Hoping there's some meth to snort some off the ground,” Lewis says, glancing nervously behind them again. The red pickup has driven off. He rolls up his window conclusively.

Abby checks the images on the SLR, gives a satisfied nod and pulls away. He can sense her setting this local destruction alongside 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the melting polar ice-caps—the rapidly mounting evidence that the end of the rule of the “dominators” is nigh. The date Lewis heard referred to most often growing up was 2012, the “end time” on the Mayan Calendar. What will happen in 2012? Time as we know it will come to an end, human consciousness will be upgraded and renewed. It's a new-age version of the Rapture, it struck him at some point. Not that he would say so to Abby. The prospect of a big, redemptive change is too important to her, if not in 2012 then at some point, somehow. As for Lewis, the idea tires him, as if rising to the occasion would take more faith and energy than he could summon.

Abby makes a sweep with her arm to include the fields running to the horizon, a half-built ex-urban housing development that has appeared in the distance. “This whole region may be uninhabitable before long.”

“I guess I better get healed up before it's too late then,” Lewis says in a play for some overdue attention. That was how Abby half-facetiously pitched his coming to Kansas, “the healing powers of the Great Plains,” when Lewis was dumped last month by Victoria, his graduate-student girlfriend of three years. Abby was the first person he called, and he told her between sobs, which he regrets now—calling Mommy first, blubbering like a baby.

She darts a look to gauge his state and, apparently deciding he's fine, gives his arm a light, encouraging pat. She's having trouble seeing what all there is to mourn about. Abby was bored and a little mystified by his relationship with Victoria, try as she might to conceal it. It struck her, he sensed, as prematurely middle-aged and turned in on itself, the yearly rituals of Victoria's family that Lewis so quickly became absorbed by, like the opening up of their summer house on the Connecticut shore. And how, of all the amazing women in New York, the rockers and artists and fashion designers, did Lewis settle on this rather prim, rather dour Emily Dickinson scholar? Abby would have preferred he date around, lead a more varied and interesting love life—one more like her own. Lewis had thoughts like this too sometimes. His reward for nobly ignoring them? Being dropped for a Rhodes Scholar named Andrew Feeling.

Abby gets off at an exit to turn around. “We should also probably fill up here,” she murmurs and pulls into a service station as a warning bell begins pinging frantically. The engine seems to actually shut down but the car coasts up to a pump, where she parks at a wacky angle and casually passes Lewis a credit card.

Watching in the sideview mirror as he stands filling the tank—he had to draw out the gas line to its limit then crank the pump hard right—she pats the flank of the SUV and says, “You haven't said anything about my new ride.”

Having assumed it was borrowed, Lewis looks the huge SUV over with new eyes: a midnight-blue Cadillac Escalade, a notch or so below a Hummer. “Not exactly fuel-efficient, is it?”

Four high-school kids in a canary-yellow jeep with a black roll bar—two guys, two girls—have pulled up to the next pump and sit eavesdropping as if they can sense something odd or noteworthy is about to be said.

Abby lets her head drop forward in mock despair. “
Please
don't say my ‘carbon footprint' is too big, Lewis.”

“Your carbon footprint's too big,” Lewis says and the high-schoolers grin as Abby covers her ears with her hands.

“Though it probably is, right?” Lewis says, watching the numbers for the cost of the gas scrolling madly.

“Oh, Lewis, please. There's no solution at the level of the problem. You just can't
get
there from here. Do you really believe, does
anyone
truly believe, that if we tiptoe around and reduce our collective carbon footprint it's going to
solve this mess
?” She lets out an incredulous laugh and shakes her head, a wing of her fine blond hair flickering beyond the window. The high-schoolers turn to see what Lewis's response is but Lewis has no response. Lewis has always found carbon counting hopeless too.

“You can reduce your carbon footprint to
zero
and it won't address the root of the issue, since it's
not material
. Which is actually a lot more hopeful a position than the materialism of the eco-movement, since what I'm saying is that it can all turn
on a dime
.” She pauses. “The way the Berlin Wall came down. Remember the Berlin Wall?”

“No, I don't,” Lewis says.

“Exactly!” Abby says.

He hangs up the pump and climbs back into his seat with his fingers smelling of gasoline. As with 2012, he understands perfectly well but can't quite see or intuit the true spirit of the sort of change she means. The high-schoolers, who still haven't made a move to pump gas, watch them pull out.

“What did you do, sell a bunch of Hydro Sticks?” Lewis asks. Dr. Hayashi's Original Hydrogen-Rich Water Stick is the latest multi-level marketing product she's invested in. Aside from a brief stint as a realtor, Abby's never held down a job and he's never fully understood (or wanted to look closely at) how she pays the bills, though it's really no mystery: boyfriends, the ones who move in at any rate, carry her financially. And in the rare, brief stretches when there's not a man in the picture, she's been known to hit up her sweet rock of a father, who owns an auto parts store in Austin.

Before Hayashi's Water Stick, there was “Ageless,” a dietary supplement, a Tahitian panacea called “noni.” And before that, the portable L'il Vixen stripper poles (“spice up the marriage”), which Abby memorably unveiled when Victoria came to Wichita for a visit during Christmas break two years ago, mildly scandalizing Victoria, who did her best not to show it, though she had plenty to say to Lewis in private about how “problematic” she found it. Abby is right about Victoria: she's a sort of feminist prude. But that was a facet of a larger, more (to Lewis, anyway) appealing conservatism: the tight-knitness of her family and their traditions; even her glowingly white skin kept out of the sun by large hats, her level, assured gaze out of a Sargent portrait—Lady Agnew. He remembers the moment, early on, when he saw an email in which her brother addressed her as V. and she explained that family and old friends called her V. She then shyly, almost ceremonially invited Lewis to called her V. That was the side of her Abby never saw, wasn't in effect invited to see.

Something else he keeps circling back to, an afternoon in December, also early on. Darkness fallen in Victoria's apartment on Claremont Avenue, city lights blinking faintly through the muslin curtains. They were meeting her parents and brother at a restaurant later. They made love on her narrow bed, fell asleep and woke at the same moment, looked into each other's eyes. That was all: they were wed.

Abby is getting back on the highway going the right way to get home, which will put the squall line out ahead of them. Lewis is relieved to see that it's meanwhile shape-shifted upward into a mild mountain of purplish cloud, reaching out from which are broad flat blades of sunlight. He gets an unexpected glimpse of his rival high school's stadium. It was out in open prairie back when Lewis played football but is now being surrounded by a development of cheap-looking houses—slurbs.

“Birthday Party?” he asks now and she frowns with her eyes closed and lets out a brief, aggrieved sigh, as she used to at his father's absent-mindedness. “Look in my purse.”

He slides the soft leather bag from the plump armrest into his lap. Inside, giving off a maternal fragrance of mint chewing gum and perfume, is a morass of sunglasses, cosmetic cases, prescription bottles, business cards, reading glasses, a zip drive, a small conical pendulum of the sort he's seen her hold by a thread over melons in Whole Foods, testing for ripeness. “Purse open,” he reports, “utter chaos surveyed.”

“You don't see an envelope in there?” she asks with a touch of panic, glancing over. “Check the inside pocket.”

“This?” It's in metallic rainbow colors, “Lewis” written across it with a Sharpie in her hard-slanting, extroverted hand.

“Is that your name?” she asks sweetly: it's Christmas morning, he's eight years old. He lifts the flap and peers inside—a thick stack of one-hundred dollar bills from what he can make out, so new they cling together in a block and he has trouble riffling them with his thumb.

“Happy graduation, Lewis!” she says. Adding in a low, matter-of-fact voice, “That's five thousand.”

He sits frowning down at it. He's never held so much cash before. Or a check for that much either. His father's graduation gift was a battered Latin dictionary that had belonged to his own father with a Latin inscription that took Lewis an hour and the use of the dictionary itself to translate. “Gosh,” he says finally.

“Don't sound so burdened!” she snaps. “You don't
owe
me anything. It's a
gift
! You won't have to get a crumby
job
now!” she points out.

“Right, right,” Lewis says hastily. “No, it's great.” He's been looking forward to throwing himself into something like waiting tables to keep his mind off Victoria. Well, he'll still need to work; he hasn't won the lottery. Turning to her with a smile, he says, “I'm just sort of stunned.”

That answer pleases her. “And the thing is,” she says, jiggling her eyebrows, “there's more where that came from.”

“Yeah, not to look this horse in the mouth or anything, but where
did
it come from, Abby?”
She's in a counterfeiting ring
flickers through his mind. It's Abby's sort of crime: nonviolent and isn't it all a big lie to begin with, money?

“The Birthday Party,” she says in a patient, pleased tone, “is just women getting together and sharing wealth outside the dominator economy.”

“‘Sharing wealth,'” he echoes. “What's that mean?” It doesn't sound like a euphemism for counterfeiting at least.

BOOK: Wichita (9781609458904)
6.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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