Low-lying clouds drifted through the tops of the enormous pine trees lining the street, and crows called and answered from a stand of red oaks at the end of the block. Though there was no one in sight, Caldwell’s neighbors, as usual, were burning piles of the pine straw that constantly threatened to bury the town. Untended curbside fires punctuated the morning, the resin-scented smoke so thick it made his eyes water and his lungs burn.
Robert Caldwell decided to walk the ten blocks to his office. After all, he told himself grimly, there was certainly no hurry. Locking the door behind him, he stepped through the weedy front yard to the street. The decaying shotgun bungalows he passed all seemed deserted, their dark windows reflecting clouds and trees. In front of one crooked house, an older couple sat together on a wicker porch swing, their shoulders six inches apart, not touching, hands folded primly in their laps. Caldwell raised an arm in greeting as he passed, but they didn’t respond. A pile of brown needles smoldered at the curb.
He reached East Main and started the gradual uphill climb to the town square, passing a few grander houses, their carved gables and fish scale siding badly weathered and in need of paint, shutters tipped at a wild angle, ready to fall – then the post office, two churches, and half a dozen dusty-looking beauty parlors. Everywhere he looked there was a feeling of somnolence, as if he were walking through someone else’s dream. Smoke blurred the outlines of houses, the dark hedges, the looming pines. He couldn’t imagine why they called the place Gardenia. Perhaps there had been flowers here once, long ago, before anyone still alive could now recall; but there was nothing blooming in Gardenia any longer. Pine trees blocked the sun, and the straw-colored needles littered the ground like ash.
Ahead of him, he saw the brick Italianate courthouse, built in 1892, lift its turreted façade above the ring of live oaks that surrounded it. As Caldwell had discovered, most of the rooms in the courthouse were vacant, the plaster falling from water damage and years of neglect. The pale brick structure sat on a green island in the middle of a traffic circle where two county roads converged. Entering the dusky shadow of the oaks, Caldwell watched a pair of cardinals flicker like red flame through the trees, seeming to set the dark leaves and branches on fire. A rope clanked noisily against the hollow metal flagpole in a sudden gust of warm, smoke-scented wind. On the side of the courthouse stood a nine-foot wrought-iron clock in the shape of a skeleton key, the black hands on the clock face stuck at ten thirty-five.
Caldwell entered the converted cotton warehouse that housed his office and stood for a moment in the hall, looking up at the pressed tin ceiling and listening. A set of stairs rose and turned sharply to the left. His office was on the second floor, the second door in a row of five, the frosted glass inset lettered in gold: Gardenia Arts Commission. The other four doors were not labeled, and they were always locked.
Fitting his key in the lock, he opened his office door and stepped inside. He ran his eye over the familiar contents of the room: a mahogany desk and chair, a dial phone that never rang, a Royal manual typewriter that looked as if it might’ve come from the nineteen forties, an oak bookcase where he’d lined up a few well-loved novels and art books. The space was always vacuumed and dusted, though he never saw a cleaning crew. In fact, he’d never seen another living soul in the building.
Caldwell had only been in Gardenia for two months, but something in the silence of the town, the dark days that gave so little hint of the season, made it seem much longer. He sat at his desk, hands folded, in the smoky, seemingly uninhabited town and wondered how his life had stalled in such an unlikely place.
Funding for the arts in Chicago had been cut that year, and Caldwell had been facing the bleak prospect of extended unemployment. When a friend told him about a town in Arkansas that wanted to build a grassroots arts program and needed some help, it had seemed like the perfect opportunity. There was nothing keeping him in the city; he’d taken the job. He told himself he’d make a success of it and then, when the time was right, find his way back to town.
So, on a sunny afternoon in April, when he’d already been on the road for nine hours, Caldwell turned from the interstate onto a country lane that led to town. He soon found himself in a densely wooded hollow, the road stained with leaf-shadow. Thirty minutes later, he rounded a bend and drove into downtown Gardenia, circling the courthouse square and rolling slowly down East Main past a series of dilapidated mansions and sway-backed bungalows. Fires glowed and smoldered in the untended yards to his right and left, their smoke rising to hang in a pall above the street. He had very nearly turned around and left. Instead, he found Jefferson Avenue and the two-story frame house with a sign out front that read Raley and Associates.
Inside, an older man, maybe seventy, sat behind a desk in an unlit room. Caldwell introduced himself.
For nearly a minute, the old man said nothing. Caldwell imagined him draped in cobwebs, a spider stepping slowly over one cheek. Finally, with an enormous effort of will, the realtor got unsteadily to his feet, walked around the desk, and came forward, one hand extended.
“Herbert Raley,” he said.
The hand was cold and stiff. He was bald, thin to the point of emaciation, his blue eyes nearly colorless. Trying hard to ignore his misgivings, Caldwell followed Raley outside and climbed into his Cadillac, a black, finned monstrosity from the late fifties. They drove slowly past blocks of bungalows crumbling under the pines and pulled up in front of a red brick ranch. The front yard lay buried in pine straw, a thatch of brown needles covering the roof.
“This is the only place in town for rent,” Raley informed him, “but I think you’ll find it’s perfect for you.”
Caldwell aimed a sidelong glance at the realtor, uncertain how to take this remark. The inside of the house, however, was more welcoming than the exterior: hardwood floors, a granite kitchen, a small but decent bath. He signed a one-year lease.
The next morning, he found his office on the square and spent his first day, the first of many, listening to the silence. On the afternoon of the second day, he found the mayor’s office on the second floor of the Cotton Belt Bank and Trust across the square. Caldwell had questions about his job, his budget, the time frame. What exactly was expected of him? Stepping past the unmanned reception desk, he knocked on the office door, and when no one answered, he turned the cut-glass doorknob, hit the warped door with his shoulder to open it, and slipped inside.
A gray rug, a desk with a single chair. The office and the adjoining conference room were deserted, and a clock on the mantle ticked in the silence –
Caldwell was startled out of his recollection by a knock on his office door. Surprised, he sat up and stared at the door, wondering if he’d imagined it. After a moment the knock, tentative but clear, was repeated.
“Come in,” he said.
The door opened and a young woman, a girl really, appeared. Her eyes seemed to precede her into the room. They were a dark, liquid brown framed in black eyeliner, and Caldwell thought of the eyes of dancing girls and princesses seen in profile on the walls of Egyptian tombs. The eyes were startling, in part, because the rest of her was so pale.
“May I help you with something?” he asked.
“I was looking for the arts council.”
She wore a sleeveless blouse, a blue jean skirt, red flip-flops. Her eyes flicked around the room, taking in the books, the silent phone, the antique typewriter on the polished desk.
That explains it, Caldwell thought. He recalled the artists he’d known over the years, their odd, concentrated distraction, as if they were hearing distant music inaudible to the rest of humanity. He guessed that she was a painter or a performance artist.
“This is the arts council,” he informed her.
She tipped her head and squinted at him, assessing.
“You look normal,” she observed.
Caldwell smiled. “Don’t let appearances fool you.” No reaction. “What’s your name?” he asked her.
Her eyes wandered over the walls, avoiding his.
“Are you an artist, Jessica Pittman?”
She ignored the question. “How long have you been here?” she wanted to know. The girl obviously had her own agenda, but Caldwell had no idea what it could be.
“You mean in my office?”
“No.” She shook her head, and some pale, straw-colored hair came loose from behind one ear and flew across her face. “I mean how long have you been in Gardenia?”
Caldwell began to calculate when he realized that he didn’t know the date. How long, he wondered, had he been so out of touch? He began to feel decidedly uneasy. The eternal silence of the place had turned him into a kind of sleepwalker.
“About two months,” he told her.
“Do you know how to get out of town?”
He hadn’t anticipated that. “Why, do I need to?” When she didn’t respond, he added, “I’d just get in my car and drive out, the same way I drove in. The interstate’s only about half an hour away.”
“You’ve got a car?”
“Have you tried to start it lately?”
She crossed her arms and glared at him, impatient, as if she were dealing with a child. “Have you put the key in the ignition, turned it, and tried to make the motor go?”
“Not lately,” he admitted.
“It won’t work,” she informed him. Her dark eyes flashed. “Nothing works in this goddamned town for long.”
She turned abruptly and exited the room, leaving the door open behind her. Caldwell listened to her steps going down the stairs, the flip-flops rhythmically slapping the bottoms of her feet. She slammed the front door as she left the building, and the sound echoed up the hollow stairwell. When she was gone, the silence closed down on him again, heavier for having been momentarily lifted.
That evening, Robert Caldwell walked down East Main toward his turn at Van Buren. The gray, paintless bungalows looked like the empty carapaces of enormous insects slowly decomposing in the smoky, acrid-smelling twilight. On the other side of the street, a woman with gray hair reaching to her waist – country hair, he thought – lurched uphill toward the crenellated silhouette of the courthouse. Herbert Raley passed in his black, finned Cadillac, grasping the wheel and staring straight ahead, the only car on the road.
Caldwell looked around uneasily. Even the churches were deserted, their steeples missing shingles and in need of paint.
He turned down Van Buren, stepping from the sidewalk on East Main to the grassy shoulder of the road. The canopy of pines closed out all but a narrow ribbon of dusky sky, and he watched the three crows that moved from branch to branch, croaking softly to each other and keeping pace with him as he walked steadily down the block. They sharpened their bills like black daggers against the pine bark, hopping once or twice as they landed before their black claw feet managed to clutch the branch and they folded up their ragged, inky wings.
The old couple on the porch swing still sat where he’d seen them that morning, unmoving as a pair of life-sized dolls.
Caldwell was relieved to reach the safety of his front door. He pushed his key into the lock, turned it, slipped gratefully inside, and threw the bolt behind him. Moving quickly through the dining room and kitchen, he opened the door that led to the one-car garage, then rolled up the garage door, slid behind the wheel of his Accord, and fit the key into the ignition. He closed his eyes for a moment, hoping, and turned the key.
Nothing. The car was completely dead.
Defeated, Caldwell rolled down the garage door and went back inside. Picking up the phone in the kitchen, he called the number of the service station on West Main. The phone rang and rang. Caldwell imagined the sound drilling in the empty station, echoing, stirring the cobwebs in the rafters. Finally, he hung up.
After that night, Robert Caldwell’s suspicion of his silent neighbors grew, and he couldn’t dismiss the feeling that he was being watched. Finally, tired of his own speculations, he left the safety of his locked rooms at dusk one evening to walk to the grocery store. Drifting pine smoke and the gathering twilight mingled, competing to see which could cast the deepest pall. Reaching Main, Caldwell turned his back on the courthouse and walked two blocks downhill to the market.
An enormous, black-barreled smoker had been constructed in the empty parking lot, a crooked chimney and a series of dials protruding from the six-foot length of the contraption. Smoke poured in a column from the chimney, and heat rose in thick waves from the tempered steel. As Caldwell approached, he caught the smell of slowly cooking flesh. The man tending the smoker turned to regard him, and Caldwell froze in mid-step. A face with two tusks, a blunt snout, and two narrow red eyes confronted him.
The impression vanished the moment it registered, and Caldwell found himself staring at a stout, broad-shouldered man in bib overalls. He told himself it was a trick of the light, the weeks of strain and isolation. The man turned his bristled head to watch as Caldwell passed.
The tinted glass doors parted as he approached, and Robert Caldwell entered the cool, fluorescent-lighted interior. Half a dozen shoppers pushed their carts up and down the aisles, shoulders back, their movements stiff and mechanical. He grabbed a basket and started down an aisle for the back of the store, passing first one blankly staring shopper, then a second. Both of their carts were empty.
As he approached the meat counter, Caldwell saw a blonde woman in a crisp white blouse and black capris pick up a package of meat. Blood from the package dripped down her arm and spattered on the floor. Before he had a chance to react, before his revulsion could even register, a set of swinging doors banged open and a man in a blood-smeared white apron and a paper hat emerged. The man clutched a meat cleaver, and as Caldwell watched, he raised it above his head, apparently intending to strike. As Caldwell turned away, looking for help or at least a witness to confirm what he’d seen, the lights in the store blinked once and went out.
He groped his way down the aisle, frantic to find the exit, certain that at any moment the bloody apron and absurd paper hat would come toward him out of the shadows, the dull glow of the stained cleaver raised to strike. When he reached the front of the store, he found the glass doors locked and his own pale face mirrored back at him. He swung around, watching the dark aisles for whatever might approach.
The overhead lights flickered and snapped on, momentarily blinding him. The nightmare butcher was nowhere in sight, and after a moment, the same half-dozen shoppers began pushing their carts mechanically up and down the aisles.
Caldwell rushed to the back of the store, careening past shelves of canned corn and tomatoes, blue boxes of macaroni and cheese. At the meat counter, a stock boy with a rag mop and a bucket was cleaning up a pool of blood. The young man noticed him and stopped, the handle of the mop gripped in one hand. Neither spoke. After a moment, a broad grin broke out across the young man’s face.
Caldwell dozed with his back against the dining room wall a few feet from his locked front door. At one point, he woke with a start. He thought at first that someone had been trying to get in, but then realized he’d been dreaming. Through the window, he saw stars gleaming above the pines with their black clusters of cones and needles. The Big Dipper tipped out its cup of icy space, and Mars glowed like an ember in the west. Caldwell felt the gears catch, the great wheel of the universe turning. When the light began to paint the window gray, he slipped out the door, a backpack slung over one shoulder, and moved quickly down the street in the twilight.
Stepping past the empty schoolyard, he climbed the rusted chain-link fence, crossed the open field, and headed for the line of sycamores and oaks where the forest began. Once under the cover of those woods, he told himself, he’d be out of sight of anyone in town, and if he went straight south he would have to reach the interstate eventually.
White rags of mist curled around the roots of the trees. He slipped into the forest and immediately felt a weight lift from his shoulders – he was getting out.
After thirty yards, the ground fell away. He stepped carefully down the incline, moving sideways and avoiding the exposed roots that threatened to twist an ankle and send him sprawling headlong down the embankment. Coming up the far side of the ravine, Caldwell felt an unaccustomed warmth on his face and looked up to discover sunlight falling in broad slants through the branches, more light than he’d seen in weeks. He laughed, dizzy with happiness and relief, raising his arms over his head and spinning around at the unaccustomed sight of blue sky showing above the branches. A grazing doe lifted her head to observe him with her liquid brown eyes before turning and bounding into the underbrush.
He made steady progress and after a few hours came to a stretch of level ground where the old sycamore trees, their gray bark peeling like parchment, blocked the sun. Several years’-worth of broad, papery leaves had choked out the underbrush, and he moved through the green, submerged space as if he were strolling through a park at twilight. Stepping over the surface of fallen leaves, he felt a sudden, sharp pain like a hot needle at the back of his head. He turned, caught a flash of white on outspread wings, and instinctively swung an arm up to protect his face. Mockingbird! he thought, and as his surprise registered, a second bird flew at him from the left. Caldwell swung blindly at his new attacker. As he did so, the first bird came at him from behind, and two more appeared on a branch above him. He’d seen mockingbirds harass a cat like this to drive it from their territory, but he’d never heard of them attacking a human. His first instinct was to outrun them, but they moved easily between the trees, swooping and maneuvering with alarming speed, and they kept up their relentless assault. The hair stood up on the back of his neck in an icy wave. He longed to snatch one of the marauders from the air and break its neck, but they were too quick for him. He had no choice but to continue his beleaguered retreat, trying to wave them off, keeping an arm raised to protect his face and eyes.
At last, he stumbled out of the sycamores. The ground fell away from him, and he was halfway down the slope before he understood that he had lost his balance. A wild, panicked instant ensued: he was sure he’d crash full speed into a tree and impale himself on a jagged branch. Instead, Caldwell came awkwardly to rest knee-deep in a stream that ran along the bottom of the culvert. He waded to the far bank and sat on a slab of damp shale, breathing hard, waiting for his heart to slow.
The mockingbirds perched in the branches of a sycamore overhanging the decline, angrily displaying the white chevrons on the undersides of their wings and sounding their harsh, territorial alarms.
After a few minutes, Caldwell tried to rouse himself; he had to keep going. He’d been turned around in the attack and had completely lost his sense of direction, but his mind moved back to the dark, smoky town, and his desire to move on brought him instantly to his feet. He climbed the steep embankment in front of him and vanished again into the trees. He reminded himself that he’d taken about half an hour to get from the interstate to town on the day of his arrival. Assuming that he’d driven at forty-five miles an hour (a good guess on that winding, wooded road), that would mean that he was twenty-three miles or so from the highway. Surely, he told himself, he’d gone at least half that distance already. It was June, and he still had hours of daylight left. If he pushed hard, he would be hearing traffic through the trees before the sun went down.
Hours later, though, when the last light reddened the pine trunks and the dark began to thicken, the only sound that Caldwell heard was a single crow calling ominously in the distance. Exhausted and mosquito-bitten, he sunk to the ground and leaned his back against a tree. He understood for the first time that he would have to spend the night in the forest. Pushing away his uneasiness, Caldwell rummaged around in his backpack and drew out the water bottle and two granola bars. He took a long pull from the bottle and gave himself over greedily to the food.
As the woods grew darker, a firefly sparked between the black columns of pine trunks, its light drifting up and left before blinking out. Two other fireflies lit their companionable night-lights, and then a third, a fourth, and Caldwell’s mind drifted back to watching them as a boy. Fireflies in June, he thought. That meant weeks of summer freedom, backyard baseball and the community pool, cookouts, and fireworks on the Fourth of July and Labor Day still to come. When one of the fireflies snuffed its light, he tried to predict where the spark would show again in the darkness. He was never right.
Caldwell watched them for nearly an hour, trying unsuccessfully to break the code, before his eyelids dropped and he slept.
He woke to green-tinted light streaming through the trunks and lower branches of the pines. Stiff from his night in the forest and the unaccustomed exertion of his flight, Robert Caldwell rose awkwardly to his feet, groaning, and tried to stretch out his back. A fox watched him from the clearing, stock still, before stepping off into the trees on his quick black legs. Caldwell shouldered his pack and faced directly into the light, then carefully turned ninety degrees to his right. That should be south, he told himself. He inhaled deeply. The morning smelled fresh and green, and he recognized a cardinal, unseen, calling wheat-wheat-wheat in the branches overhead. His confidence renewed, he started forward into the pines.
The ground was level and relatively free of underbrush, but gradually, as Caldwell made his way through the alternating stands of pines and deciduous trees, the morning freshness gave way to the growing heat of a June afternoon. He brushed the mosquitos from his face and swung the backpack in front of him. Drawing out the bottle, he took a long drink, and a momentary panic stabbed when he saw how little water he had left.
An hour passed, and he came to a rise topped by three dark cedars. The trees were draped in Spanish moss that hung in rags like the remnants of tattered sails, and a pool of deep black shadow gathered around their roots; for a moment, Caldwell believed he was looking at the masts of a lost ship, the hull submerged in dark water. He felt he had reached a border, a frontier that shouldn’t be crossed – though he had no choice except to go forward. Behind him was a day-and-a-half of forest, and he had to reach the interstate eventually; if not, then at least he would cross a road, and a road had to lead somewhere. Adjusting his backpack, he took a deep breath and started up the rise.
The cedars loomed over him. He was breathing heavily from the climb, and when he stepped into the shadows, he became suddenly light-headed. Sparks and flashes swam before his eyes, and he thought for a moment that he was going to faint. But he managed to stay on his feet and push through the veil of moss-hung branches. Coming into the open, he quickly regained his equilibrium. What he saw there sent a surge of relief coursing through him.
A road curved from the left and passed in front of him, turning and snaking uphill toward the next rise. At the base of the road, a church lifted its crumbling white steeple into the pines, the street on both sides lined with weathered gray bungalows.
Caldwell hurried forward, jogging quickly downhill and struggling up the embankment to the road. He experienced an unreasoning joy at the feel of pavement under his feet. But as he started up the winding road, the day darkened. Low-lying cloud drifted through the tops of the towering pines, and he caught the acrid scent of burning pine needles.
An old man stood in a narrow front yard, a rake grasped in his hands, the warped steps of a bungalow rising behind him. He wore a gray cardigan with patches at the elbow, a pair of shapeless khakis. Something in the stoop of the man’s shoulders was instantly familiar, and Caldwell called up the image of his father raking maple leaves in their back yard in Ohio. The old man before him raked doggedly at the pile of needles, and the flames burned higher, casting a red glow on his downturned features.
Feeling himself observed, the man looked up, leaning on his rake, and Robert Caldwell found himself staring into the face of his dead father.
Caldwell stood frozen, stunned. He watched the old man fish a rumpled pack of Camels from his shirt pocket, shake loose a cigarette, and bend to draw it from the pack with his lips. Then he snapped a match into flame against his thumbnail and lit it. Caldwell saw the dull brown eyes through a cloud of blue smoke, the shortstop’s bent nose broken in three places. The old man turned away, moved up the steps of the weathered bungalow, and pulled the door closed behind him. Clearly, the dead man had no words for his estranged son. Caldwell hurried away, struggling to put as much distance as he could between himself and his father.
At the crest of the hill, he stopped to catch his breath. The road dropped to a set of decaying train tracks, the rails overgrown with chokecherry bushes and waist-high thistles, then climbed again to the town square where the pale crenellations of a courthouse lifted from the stand of live oaks surrounding it. From where he stood, Caldwell saw the streets of the town spread out in concentric circles around the courthouse, the rings marked by a pattern of smoking bonfires, each fire glowing like an amber bead on an enormous, intricate necklace.
He started downhill toward the square. As he came nearer, he could make out, to the right of the courthouse, the wrought-iron clock with its hands stuck at ten thirty-five.
A figure stood on the courthouse roof: a man positioned in the gap between two turrets. He was leaning forward, grasping the masonry in a proprietary manner as he watched Caldwell’s distracted approach. Caldwell glimpsed a flash of teeth, a smile – and something else as the figure turned and disappeared. The sight stopped him where he stood, as if his legs had turned to stone. It had looked, in the uncertain, smoky light, as if a set of horns like a ram’s had curled from the sides of the man’s skull.
A young woman came toward him on the sidewalk. He recognized the pale, otherworldly demeanor, the dark tomb-eyes. Jessica Pittman. As she approached, he opened his mouth to speak to her, but a closer look at her face stopped him cold. She stumbled, disoriented, as if she were walking in a trance. He was about to step past her when she clutched his arm, and Caldwell found himself staring into those eyes.
“Have you seen him?” Her fingers dug into his arm. “Have you seen?”
She wandered downhill over the sidewalk, faint as a ghost, going nowhere. Pine smoke drifted over the road.
James Ulmer’s most recent collection of stories, The Fire Doll, was awarded the George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press. His poetry and fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The North American Review, The Missouri Review, Crazyhorse, New Letters and elsewhere. Ulmer is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at Southern Arkansas University.