The Piney Vista

FIRST RUNNER-UP IN THE 2021 GREAT AMERICAN FICTION CONTEST: During the big hurricane, who else but Barnett would turn an act of God into a hootenanny.

Sign at a drive in theatre

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The week of the big hurricane, remember? Barnett out there (go figure) in the chill, on the megaphone, voice crackling out through the dawn with a promise of glory (Barbecue pork! Barbecue ribs! Barbecue beef!) as he trolls the neighborhood at the wheel of a Good Humor truck, thumps a curb, dodges a broken hydrant, crashes through a (Free hot dogs! Free burgers!) spray of fallen branches on his merry way to, well, to nowhere in particular. One night only! Piney Vista Drive-In! Barbecue! Free barbecue!

Who else would be ballsy enough to turn an act of God into a goddamn hootenanny? What we saw as a loss — the power gone, the lights out, the freezer dead — GB he saw as a boon. The transformer blew and within the hour he was there, through the dark and the rain, Johnny-on-the-spot back of Winn-Dixie when they roared open the door of the loading dock to dump the meat before it spoiled — palettes of cutlets and fryers, ribs and chops and franks all iglooed up into tidy white packets of grillable flesh. Barnett got the meat. The stock boys got the Klondikes and the Fudgesicles and the King Cones and the Malts. And Grimely? The Good Humor guy? A handshake, a packet of twenties, a lifetime pass to the Piney Vista.

Barbecue! Free barbecue! But that’s not all!

No. That was not all. The meat was not enough, no, not for Barnett. Riding shotgun beside him, up there in the frame of the window half in, half out? Little gristle of a fella dressed in a set of Navy whites, the cap aquiver in the breeze as he clung to the bolster with the one hand and waved to the wind with the other. The Captain.

One night only! The Human Torpedo! Captain Jimmie Jameson!

The truck tinkled as it wheeled left and then right to clear the surge of the gutters and the muddy bubble of the manholes, a carillon of ice cream, ice cream, ice cream cast up and then erased with every random gust.

From a ten-story tower he jumps — no parachute, no hooks, no wires — he jumps!

The trumpet shook as the truck rammed a broken deck chair and splintered up over the shingles and the rafters and the crackly wire that clogged the square. Talk about balls. You could even hear, up under the garglish warble of the busking — Ten stories! Ten stories! Into a puddle of water no bigger than a bathtub! — the tremor in his voice, the thrill of — what would be the word for it? — death. Even the oldsters — and by now we were the oldsters — felt, in the wake of the storm, the frisson, the sting of doom in the air, the roof jarred and the tree toppled and the midnight pitch of the shutter upward, up over the clouds, ascended into heaven.

It’s not like we hadn’t all read about it in the paper already, a ways off there, over yonder, Clermont. The highway paved by the river. The graveyard erased. The car, the one in a million, that turned left in the rain when the million turned right, and the carpet tarred with the mud from the stream, and the car suckled under, and the baby drowned. Not a picture you want to. Jesus. Jesus. Can’t even bear to. And sad’s not the world for it, no. No. Gotta be a bigger word for it. Cosmic word. Bitter word. Some secret breathable ether beyond the reach of the regular everyday air we ventilate our souls with and musical up into words and whisper in the dark to our kin.

But to hell with that. To hell. What you want is a diversion. Something big enough to stir you to life, but — think about it now — not so big as to kill you. That’s what your blackout is for. The flashlights and the candles and the tiki torches in the moonlight. The peanut butter off the blade of the knife and the Jiffy Pop off the blade of the blowtorch. Tap water Tang and ingots of moldy cheese, dusty raisins, and powder potatoes and gelatinous woblets of Spam and —

Barbecue! Free barbecue! One night only! The leap of death!

The Captain cocked his hand up over his head as they crept along — a half-wave, a salute to the sky.

Ten stories! A ten-story tower!

Up and down the streets they rolled, then out even farther, out beyond the groves to muster the blue jays and the squirrels and then, when the wind shifted, to pitch the voice out over the trees to the clearing beyond, to the land waffled up and at the ready, to where we hadn’t even arrived yet, as if he were preaching to the children yet to be born, to the quarter acres that bake in the sun as they wait for the builders to appear, for the rooftops to bloom, the mailboxes thicken, the sod confetti in to carpet the ground with a semblance of green.

One night only! Piney Vista Drive-In!

 

It was Barnett told us not to believe the rumors, rumors we’d none of us, to a man, had ever heard before.

“It’s a libel on the Captain’s good name is what I’m saying.” The mud sucked at the shovel as he levered it free and worked his way downward, step by step, to clear the stoop in front of Maxies. In the truck sat the Captain, just tall enough to peer out the window if he’d had the inclination, which he hadn’t, not with his eyes shut and the smooth of his cheek jellied up onto the glass, asleep. The gold-braided cap, kicked down over his eyes to block the sun, suddenly broke the seal that held it, offered up a little shiver. As he melted downward the cap listed upwards, millimeter by millimeter, like the lid to a box.

“Don’t make any sense,” said Bidwell. The push broom he whacked upside the stump that doubled as a landmark (meet me at the stump) and, on occasion, when the Bible-beaters rolled through town — a pulpit. Dollops of mud fluttered off into the mist. Lynch called down from his perch on the hood of the jeep. “Who the hell’s gonna play the hero, the daredevil, the dude spits in the face of death, just so’s he can what? Up and kill himself?”

“In front of everybody?” said Maxie.

“Don’t make any sense,” said Bidwell.

“That’s what I’m saying,” said Barnett. “It’s an insult. To me and to him both. That’s why I’m trusting you boys not to repeat it.”

Coming from Barnett, we took it as confirmation. The Captain was a goner. The little guy looked peaceable enough, solicitous even, of his own safety, what with the algae-colored swill he shakered out the flask at his hip, the earplugs and the girdle, the way he’d repel a handshake with a shrug and a flash of them greasy knuckles of his, rubbing and rubbing (sorry!) as if McVitty’s Emollient for Conditions of the Skin were a species of Pennsylvania crude.

“Bacterium,” he said when we pressed him on why he’d never shake. “You can never be too careful.”

So there was that. But what could it mean? A fellow that nervous about the specter of death might finally snap one day, you know, from the strain. The more we thought about it, the greater the thought grew. We pictured him, having launched out into the blue, suddenly drift, ever so slightly leftward, westward, the tick-tock of the tongue to the dome of the palette just enough to nudge him off the mark as he falls, thirty-two feet per second, past the puddle and into the lap of the earth. A dream of death is what it was. Beautiful. Delicate. And more than just a notion, no — a vision, an aspiration consonant with our own. Say what you will, but — truth be told — even in our dreams we obeyed the law of gravity, had to fight the downward pull even when we flew, when we swam out into the wind like a kid dog-paddles off a pier to — arms flapping, feet kicking, head bobbing — drown. That would be us. Obedient, even in our dreams, to the God of Gravity, every last mother’s son of us, obedient as a brick.

“One night only, fellas,” said Barnett. “So bring your nickels.”

“What happened to free?”

“It’s like marriage, boys. Pay the price of admission, you get the goodies for free.”

The goodies. Jesus. The goodies. But … you gotta admire the bastard. The fire trucks had already arrived, sirens blaring, to anchor the tower assembled that morning in segments off the back of the flatbed and hoisted upright with a crane. As the tower rose a canvas banner rose with it, swirled round the base of the lift — Ten Stories High! — a poetical truth, and in the eyes of a little clinker like the Captain true enough, but more like five, maybe six to those of us schooled in the arts of debunkery. Not that anybody was counting. Who the hell cares, by the time it hits the ground, how scrambled the scramble of the egg?

The leap of death! The leap of death! From off the height of a Redstone rocket!

 

As it embered away, the sun steeped all of us in a shade of ginger, stirred the shadows into one, rendered up a tree line the color of charcoal.

Oh. And in the middle of it all? Maggie. In all those years, the first time she’d ever made it to the drive-in. Pitched her wares on the table GB’d built for her, up tall, like a judge’s stand at the foot of the tower where the crowd was thickest.

She’d baked the pies the night before, in the middle of the blackout. Not but an hour after the transformer blew the invite arrived, the challenge. A pounding on the door, a shadow on the porch, and on the doorstep? An errand boy with a rasher of bacon, bound in linen, and — on the back of a letter-press calling card (Piney Vista Enterprises) — a handwritten note. The boy read it to her: Your presence cordially requested at a singular event. Sundown. One night only. Be there. P.S. Bring pie.

So it was. A single word and the world coheres.

In the old wood burner at the back of the kitchen she did the baking. As across the tin roof the sky broke, she gutted the fridge of all the perishables — the milk and the eggs and the butter. By candlelight she rolled and cut the dough, and as the wind sandpapered away at the clapboard siding, fifteen perfect circles she pressed, with the heel and the palm of the hand, into each of the pie-tins, fifteen perfect circles, tin after tin down the length of the counter. The scent of the split pine stirred her. This was the moment she savored the most. The kindling. The slow burn of the oak, that was the secret to the baking, sure, the reason a stack of quarter-cut always climbed the brick beside the iron maw, but the kindling. That was the treat. The orangey whorl of the sap, the splinters of pitch that stick to the whorls at the tip of the fingers and honey their way into the crack of the palm, as if the hands were the kindling, as if her own fingers were to suddenly ignite.

All through the night the cold wind scoured the porch, sledge-hammered the rafters, shook the floor to where the candles quivered and the wax in a zig-zag ran. She browned the shells — a blind bake — and as they cooled, she spatula-ed in the last of the peach and the apple preserves. She laid the ribbons of dough in a crosshatch to cover the fillings. She sprinkled the quilted surface with a dusting of cinnamon and then, ever so gently (masterful is what it was, in the storm to so pilot the ark), she pressed, one two three four, into the damp crust at the center of every pie, the diamond that rode her fist. A fleur-de-lis. A signature.

And all the while, the skyline bristled. On the far side of the pasture, the crown of an oak wavered and snapped. Down the flank of the Econ a Frigidaire tumbled, clipped the fin of a junker, gurgled its way into the muddy. Off the coast of Jamaica a freighter capsized, a cloud of birds abandoned the peninsula, up yonder overhead the burst of a solar flare bumpered off the moon to — bullseye — smack the planet, the clouds, the squall, the sky, but all through the night she fed the oven, and the oven baked the pies, and the pies baked the kitchen, and the kitchen held the storm at bay. Majestic. Yes. Majestic. Come the dawn she filled the cavernous hold of her junkyard De Soto with a (years ago the backseat crow-barred away) stack of empty blueberry crates into which she slid, two to a crate and swaddled in wax paper and muslin, the pies. All through the day, she slept, and she dreamed, and then, just before dusk, the neighbor boy who did the driving arrived, and they set out for the Piney Vista, all or nothing, a dollar a pie, highway robbery were the highway not already bulbous with broken oak and scuttles of canvas ripped from the shop awnings.

 

The Captain climbed rapidly at first, about halfway up, then stopped. Just enough wind to make it interesting. The tower creaked. The crowd murmured.

Captain Jimmie Jamison! The Human Torpedo! The Unidentified Flying Object!

The beam slid downward to strike the pool. The target. The bullseye. Six-foot-deep maybe, ten-foot-round, rising up out the dirt like a kiddie bath you fill with a garden hose. Even with the frame of two-by-fours round the perimeter and buttressed every two feet with oaken struts to withstand the impact, not much better than a fingerbowl, no, but better than nothing, right? Damn sight better than the welcome there waiting round the opposite side of the tower, outside the oval of light: the sheet of sand, the bed of nettles, the cinder-cone of the ants.

The Captain hugged the ladder. Here and there the boos began, shushed, began again. Barnett grabbed a broomstick from Corley and clanged the base of the tower, clanged with a kind of purposeful randomness, like you smack a piñata. The Captain unlimbered himself. The Captain reached upward — one rung, two rungs.

Timing was — according to GB — everything. The only difference between the quick and the dead, he’d always say, is that the quick are quicker. He climbed up the hood and over the cab to plant himself on the solid roof of the freezer box, just behind the brass trumpet of the speaker.

“Behold! Behold! Here and now and one time only, the four great powers of the universe gathered together in a final showdown, the four great powers that to the Captain spell D-O-O-M. Doom. Certain doom.”

The crowd fell silent. Barnett gave the signal. Cochrane swung the spotlight up onto a bank of clouds. “Air!”

Children pointed. Mothers murmured. Here and there a camera unholstered. The circle of light quivered and then —

“Earth!”

— dropped in a plummet that struck the dirt at the base of the tower. The people torqued up over their neighbors now to catch a glimpse of the hallowed ground. The spotlight skittered leftward, hop-skip-jump, to —

“Water!”

— the glimmer of the pool.

“Followed by … ” Barnett paused. Ticked up the reverb. Began again. “Followed by the most fearsome adversary of all … ”

A ripple went through the crowd at the scree of the steel shutters, the hiss of the carbon arc where the louvers snap off the light at the source, and the lever smolders and the grease bubbles and the gutta-percha handle bakes in the grip of the asbestos mitten. We waited. We drank in the dark. We took in the whispers, GB up there and then, then of a sudden the kid he’d stationed on the foot-ladder beside the pool reached out — full extension, with the torch at the end of his arm — to touch the surface of the water. The flame flickered and then boom! The blossom!

“Fire!”

The kid dropped the torch and kicked over the ladder as he leapt away. Son of a bitch. Sweet Jesus. The water blazed up in a fumarole of naphtha and methanol and Texaco Sky Chief super-charged with Petrox and top-octanated with Volatane for all the knock-free power your engine can deliver!

“A flaming pool of death!”

A roar from the crowd. Standing ovation.

“Impressive,” said Cochrane.

“GB’s idea,” said Flynn.

“What?” said Lynch. “To kill him even deader?”

“Like the Cap’s gonna care,” said Bidwell. “Like the Cap’s gonna give a damn.”

He had a point. You take a ten-gauge up, smack up, point-blank between the eyes, it’s not like you’re gonna fret the powder burn.

Meantime the Captain, having (as they say in the papers) achieved the summit, crawled out to the edge of the platform to take in the scene — the smoke of the bonfire, banked but still burning, the smell of the barbecue, the blaze of the pool as it flickered off the faces, struck the pillar of cloud at the heart of the assembly, cast up onto the giant screen a shadow in the shape of a silent tornado.

Some idiot broke out with the cry jump … jump … jump and soon the whole crowd — brambled out over the landscape in every direction, up over the hoods and the bumpers and the roofs of the cars, up top of the Coke machine and the pumper truck and the projection booth, up onto the washtubs and the orange crates and the balls of the feet, buoyant even above the soles of the feet in honor of the Human Ka-boom, Captain Jimmie Jamison — joined in the chant. Jump! Jump! Jump!

This seemed to embolden the little fella. One hand on the railing, he rose to his feet, turned his back to the diving board, and took one step back, outward, toward the edge. Cheers all around. We’d all seen the posters that covered the ticket booth, the blur of the body there in the photo, streaking downward like a comet, and the cartoon around the border with the arrows in a loop-de-loop, pictogram of that Butt-up Into the Wind Backward One-and-a-Half Somersault in the Pike Position leap. Signature move. The real deal. The little skipper with the balls of brass.

It was what he did next that confounded us all. Ripped off his leather helmet. Flung it overboard, off the dark end of the platform, away from the pool, where it tumbled — in slow motion it seemed, as the buckle flailed end over end — to land with a thud in the dirt. The damnedest thing.

Next he — swear to God — unbuckled his flight suit. Shucked himself open from the waist up, not even a T-shirt to temper the chalky raw of the ribs and the shoulders. Then the boots, a one-legged hop, first one, then the other, bombs away.

Back over the speaker bell and across the hood and onto the ladder scrambled Barnett. Somehow Maggie beat him to it, or saw it coming, or — as in the olden days — synchronized her mood to match his own, or — no matter. There she was. When we asked her later why she did it — grabbed him by the cuff of the pants to where he had to shake her off as he climbed, to where the whole base of the ladder seemed to shake —

“Business,” she said.

“Business?”

“You don’t sell pies at a funeral.”

Ah Maggie. Tender Maggie. Barnett shook her loose and badgered his way, one rung at a time, up the ladder. By the time he reached the top — elbows on the platform, feet still on the rungs — the Captain had stripped down to his skivvies.

We all debated what, exactly, happened next. Some said the Cap made a break for the dark end of the platform, away from the pool. That would have been a sight. Smack into the bedrock, ka-boom. Some said no, he didn’t make a break at all. He stumbled is what he did, kicked at the head of GB but missed. Some — Cooper, Bidwell, even old Joe — swore up and down it was a trick of the light, a collision of shadows, that nobody tried to run anywhere. Whatever. However. Howsoever it happened, GB in the end he got hold of the Cap’s ankle and pinned him there, the Cap on his feet and GB half on the ladder, half on the platform, sandbagged around that stick of a leg as the Cap tried to yank himself loose.

That was the moment. Up to that moment it was otherworldly — the Captain up there in the follow-spot, naked as a parsnip in the blast of the light, crisp as any moon — but the second he began to weaken, to succumb to the pull of the earth in the person of G. Gordon, it became … you got a frame around it now. You got a hero. You got a victim. You got a crowd crying out — from where it began, who was to say? — Don’t jump! Don’t jump!

Even we felt the pull of it, we who should have known better. Grab him, we cried, grab him, as if the word were an act in its own right, and could reach out to shake the Captain by the scruff of the neck. Even Bidwell mumbled a prayer (by the power of the blood, by the power of the blood) as he watched. Too lazy by nature to shiver a fly off the face of a doughnut, he rocked back and forth now, broke the ribs of the Baby Ruth he wielded, grappled, with the free hand, the mirror to the door of the jeep. Lynch rammed his hands down the pockets of his jeans, locked his elbows, jabbed as he shadow-boxed, with his shoulders alone, the silhouette overhead.

From his perch on the roof of the concession stand, Maxie grabbed a cable and leaned out into the beam of the spot. His arm quivered in synch with the tower as he reached up with the other hand to what? To shove aside the beam of light? To push it all back into balance? To snatch at the flame of the figure there, snatch at the little sucker there dancing at the end of the tether, snatch and snatch again, as if the Cap were a moth he could pluck from out the naked air?

Out of the darkness now, of a sudden, way up high at the top of the ladder, Maggie appeared. She grabbed GB by the shirttail. Climbed up onto to the platform beside him. Together they sat. In a crumple lay the Cap at the edge of the light, winded as a rodeo calf, GB with a grip on his ankle.

We could see it, GB and Maggie — got a history them two — at it again. Whatever it is you yammer in the dark at the edge of the empty, that’s what they yammered.

“We go fifty-fifty,” said Barnett.

“Go to hell,” said Maggie.

“I never took your name off the deed, you know.”

“Be still my beating heart.”

“Maybe I’m tired of being alone.”

“Then get you a dog,” said Maggie. The floor of the platform rattled. Into the weave of the steel she locked her fingers.

“Dog don’t know how to bake.”

“Get you a woman then.”

“Nothing but trouble.”

“The hell you say.”

The Captain made a play for the ladder.

“We got a contract, Cap,” said GB as he grabbed him by the britches. Wrestled him back. “We got a deal.”

With his back to the pole, GB slid downward, settled in beside Maggie, struggled to catch his breath.

“Sixty-sixty,” he said to her. “See? Then we both win.”

“Cracker math,” she said.

“Maggie math.”

“Maggie don’t merger.”

“Okay then.” He looked out across the dark valley to the tiki torch at the foot of the Piney Vista marquee, and then onward, up the slope of the pine to the fringe of the earth, to the stars in a shatter. “One hundred percent, one hundred percent. Even-steven across the board.”

“Or you what? You jump?”

“Supposing I do.”

Maggie loosened her fingers. Made as if to shift her weight away from him, but there was nowhere to go. Shoulder to shoulder they sat. With every breath he — the whole of him, as if a bellows — tipped her off-center, then receded, then tipped her again.

By now the ladder truck had moved into position at the base of the tower. Cherry-red, the beacon of the firefighters, and not but a whisper there whirligigging over the murmur of the crowd (you’d have to be a fool to run a siren at the foot of a jumper): it basted the heads and the hands and the faces, the hood of the car and the strut of the tower, the snack shack and the blockhouse and the screen, the trees and the hills and the roof of the silo.

“Show time, Cap,” said GB.

Like the intrepid larva that wriggle ever upward by the light of the moon, the Cap gathered up his courage, bobbed his head up onto the railing, and peered out over the edge. A voice from the crowd: Jump! Boos. Other voices: Don’t jump!

As the Cap backed away GB rose up, as if to replace him.

The crowd, ever eager for blood of any make or model, seconded the motion.

Jump!

Don’t Jump! Don’t Jump!

Jump!

“You land on my pies I kill you myself,” said Maggie to GB. “Kill you dead.”

“You could poison me, that’d work. Poison pie.”

“And ruin the recipe? No. Bake you in the oven, that’s what I’d do. Bake you down to a set of bones. Bone china.”

“You’d need a bakery for that. Think of it. I’d build you a whole new bakery.”

“Outta what? Outta turpentine?”

“Brick enough to build a cathedral.”

“Out in the middle of nowhere.”

“Got a boy’ll drive you to and fro. The Slapjack’ll stay like it always is.”

“Sleep in a bunkhouse … ”

“Wait till you see. I been building. Got you a place of your own. Got a whole wing with your name on it.”

“Bought and paid for.”

“No. I ain’t running no charity. Call it a merger. You get a piece of this … ” Out over the encampment of cars and the harvest of heads he swept his arm. “And I get a piece of the Slapjack.”

“You left something out.”

“What?”

“The flip. The judo maneuver. The Flim of the Flam.”

“I been straight with you. You know that. I always been straight with you.”

“Then who. Who gets the shaft?”

“The boys.”

“The boys? They don’t even—”

“The look on their faces when they see us together. That’s what I want.”

She straightened, centered, as if to rise. “But you’re a liar.”

“The best kind of liar.” Out of his vest pocket, he pulled a polygon no bigger than a pack of Luckies. A playbill. The real deal.

Even as he unfolded it she saw, with a practiced eye, the scam. Like you know the sleight-of-hand but savor it all the same. Like you feel the swell as you ride the breaker home, the bigger something at the base of all the gaudy flourish.

In the light of the spot the flyer glowed. Here he was: the real Captain Jimmie Jamison (European Tour): Nordic Adonis with a fatty nap of ginger hair and a handlebar mustache and a scar like a bolt of lightning up the beam of the arm. And there, not but six feet away, the counterfeit.

Rich. It was rich. But was it rich enough? Maggie cupped her hand to GB’s ear and whispered. He laughed. Back into his vest pocket he crackled — all backwards the fold — the playbill. On the slope of his shoulder, she (for no longer than a second, mind you) rested her head, read the rise and the fall of his breathing, found herself — for so long as the moment lasted — a lodgment. How sweet was it to find, deep in the heart of the bramble, in the bloody thicket where the hand burrows, and the wind blows, and the hornet stings, the hidden berry.

Back into the spotlight the Captain crawled.

Barnett gave the signal. The Captain reassembled his sea legs, abandoned the rail, shuffled backward, away from the pool. Turned his back on the spot. Into the well he peered, the gravity well, stoppered at the bottom with the face of God in the form of a cinderblock paver. Out over the balls of his feet he — like a freezing man hovers a fire — leaned.

The crowd ripened into a silence. He made ready to leap.

An act of God is what it was, that such a slip of a thing could tip the balance, could rise to her feet, could reach out over the wreck of the men to gather in (we were there, we could all of us see it) the wayward soul. Like an angel she was, Maggie. A lift of the heart where the world is heavy. A scrapper. A grifter. A promise of glory.

Featured image: J.D.S / Shutterstock

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