Below are three of the short virgin pieces (as in never submitted for publication) that will appear in The Collected Works of Mavis Hopgood.
The station burns to the ground and the rafters fall. Dorothy wakes from her nap and talks to the radiator while she starts making coffee. The stairwell has burned away from around the stairs. Three flights of stairs are clear of everything—walls and windows and ceiling—and stand up from the rubble of the station like a cantilevered chimney, a precarious rock formation, a memorial to the United Stairmakers of America. Three flights of stairs to nowhere. On the top landing, a man looks periodically at his watch, restlessly paces the ashen square of concrete, watches the bright sky. He may be waiting to board a helicopter or plane that either hasn’t yet arrived or has already departed. Below him, in ruins, lie the three floors of the station up through which the stairs once led. One office is still intact. He sees a woman with no hair, dressed in a sooty turquoise sweater and skirt, leaning over the water cooler, filling the coffee pot. “Is this Thursday?” he calls down to her. He waits, looks randomly at the sky, calls down to her again. “Hey, lady! Is this Thursday, or are you bald?” Dorothy looks around for the voice, sees nobody, and goes back to filling the coffee pot with water. She tries to ignore the smell of smoke and ash around her, the mild breeze disturbing the paperwork on her desk, her keyboard basking in the open sunlight. Stripped of its ceiling, the office reminds her of the time she rode to the falls in the back of a Chevy Impala convertible, let her hair down, gave herself to the son of the farmer her brother picked potatoes for. Ricky? Randy? Has it been that long? What was his last name? Her lips feel dry as she asks these questions softly in the direction of the naked radiator. “Hey!” the man yells down from the landing high above her. “Hey! Thursday’s for everybody, lady! Not just you! For everybody!”
Remember where you heard this: the night flies wide-eyed into its own surprising recognition of the squirrel, its cheeks ripe with seed, dead in the birdfeeder. The winged skunk describes a higher and wider circle each time it passes over the cloud-scarred face of the rising moon from where you stand, in the dark yard, a bag of Fritos half-eaten in your hand. The midnight truck defies the sound of its approach across the silver hand of the lake. In the porchlight stands a man in a used suit, the scalp riding scorched as a desert cliff above his ears, holding a briefcase of brochures for the sale of insurance, his finger trembling as it hovers like the conductor’s baton over the opening strains of the Soviet National Anthem the illuminated doorbell is waiting to play. A train with its cargo of nostrils hurries like a poisoned rat along the edge of the Hudson. Overhead, a white Integra follows an arched lane across the Tappan Zee, the floormat covered with the teeth of the driver, her hair white with pleasure, the gearshift whispering “dickhead, dickhead” to the drumming of the expansion joints. A shotgun retires its stock against the soft inner shoulder of the man whose ears are safely out of reach in his wallet. The phone rings; the question you’re asked is whether you think Republicans or Democrats are more prone to eat a nutritious breakfast. You say Africans; you hear the light glide of a woodburner along a woman’s thin forearm; you realize that singing the alphabet sounds much like whistling through the mouth of your son’s new skull at an auction for decent neighborhoods the man with the briefcase is waiting to rescue from behind their unlocked doors. A chair, a simple chair, one made of painted wood, steals into your bedroom from the kitchen; the question you’re asked is what it means to you to walk to Chicago. Do you know? Does it conjure a bloodhound too old to tell us that the hanky at its nose was used to wipe its genitals? The black shock of hair crossing the Tappan Zee behind the Integra’s lowered eyes? The woman who knows that if she makes a U-turn on the bridge her car will turn to salt? Three dollar bills at the toll booth; two quarters change; the man who takes her money asks her for a ride. He sits beside her till he’s dead, then gathers her teeth off the floor and has time to put them in her purse before he comes back to life at the border of Connecticut. You heard this from a man who plays rugby with a ball made of crushed aluminum.
City of Uncles
In Seattle, early on Sunday morning on a stopover before leaving the States on another overseas assignment, you look out the dirty window of the downtown room you took last night. Across the airshaft you see yourself reflected on the surface of another window. A diagonal crack in the glass runs like a fault line through the likeness of your face and the arm you’re using to hold the shade aside. You look away and suddenly want to see a neighborhood. You go through your dufflebag, find your Levis and sneakers, shake the wrinkles out of a tropical shirt you’ve been carrying around, then pack your uniform and dress shoes in the bag and put your shaving kit in on top of them. Leaving the bed unmade, you turn in the key at the desk, walk the couple of blocks to the Trailways depot, and stash the bag in a locker. Outside the depot you catch the first city bus that comes along. You ride for what may be an hour. Passengers come and go. And then you’re alone. And then the driver tells you it’s the end of the route. When the bus pulls off, you find yourself on a sidewalk, on a hillside street in one of Seattle’s blue-collar neighborhoods. It’s just after eight. In the wake of the empty bus the quiet surprises you. You start walking. Two-story houses, maybe forty years old, small and sturdy and sided with asphalt shingles made to look like brick, line the quiet street. Hibachis sit on the dirt off the porches. Second-floor bedroom windows are open to the morning air but their sills are vacant. Tired old boats of cars are parked on some of the yards. A Buick Electra has its sun-bleached hood in the air, an Olds 88 has its big rear end on jackstands, and half the naugahyde has been scraped from the Landau roof of a Grand Marquis. In a vacant lot you can tell from the paths worn through the weeds where kids play ball and ride their bikes in circles. There are no trees. Telephone poles carry their black wires through unobstructed air. From the sidewalk you can see the Space Needle rise above the morning haze of the downtown buildings. Somewhere down there is the cheap hotel where you slept and the depot where your stuff is lockered. What someone said on the plane last night was true. Seattle is full of uncles. You can smell them. Inhaling the mild air, you can smell the uncles who watch the kids, play with them, teach them how to let a bad pitch go. They’ve drawn you here, to this neighborhood, to become an uncle yourself. Half a block ahead you see a redhaired woman in a black dress and green heels come hurrying out of a house, open a little chainlink gate, start walking briskly down the street. You see a darkhaired guy in slacks and an undershirt come out behind her and hesitate at the gate. You hear the darkhaired guy yell something at the woman. The woman keeps going. You feel a breeze play through your tropical shirt. You watch the darkhaired guy throw his arms in the air, close the gate, go back inside the house. You hear the quivering slam of the storm door. You wonder if they both live there or if she’s only spent the night. You listen to her quick heels on the sidewalk. Maybe she’s angry. Or late for something. Or maybe the night she spent with the darkhaired guy has left her pregnant. You watch her red hair loosely ride the air as she goes on down the hill. And maybe this is it. Where your luck turns. With luck, you think, maybe nine months from now, she’ll have a little girl, a baby girl with the same red hair. A year or two down the road, when you come through the States again, maybe her little girl will ride on your knee and like the toys and clothes you bring her from the places you’ve been stationed. Maybe a few years later she’ll want to know about boys. You’ll sit there with your tie loose, your duty cap tossed on the kitchen table, her little shoulder cradled in your arm, and you’ll think back briefly to the darkhaired guy in the undershirt. And then you’ll tell her that boys have scrambled eggs for brains, and waffles for hearts, and Aunt Jemima’s pancake syrup for blood. You’ll wink at her redhaired mother, still not married, heavier and still beautiful, when she smiles at you from her chair across the table. Outside, on a day like this, every other uncle up and down the street will be coming home from church to pull on a fresh-washed teeshirt, crack a can of Olympia or Pabst, open the hood of the car, use lighter fluid to get the hibachi off the front porch going, roar for all he’s worth as a kid steps up to the plate to face the uncle hefting the softball in his thick bare hand. You can smell the teeshirt. You can taste the beer. Through the open window of the kitchen, you can hear the soft curse from the yard next door, and the dull chiming of the dropped wrench falling through an engine compartment to the grass.