Post Road Magazine #30

To Kneel Somewhere in Iowa

Ryan Parker

Music started over the stadium speakers. "Cotton-Eyed Joe." I hated that song, but Ann loved it, and people loved Ann. She was home sleeping while they dreamed of her. I was out here, wearing a duck costume and hoping she would wake up. Ann, please wake up.

The game was slow, but a lot was happening. Last night was still happening. So was this heat that hit the ground hard. Fires flooded the horizon and people waited. I thought about it all together. Everything. It started a shaking escaped by vomit. The duck mask kept everything in. I heard the crowd cheer till spew clogged my ears. "Dance, dance, dance" they chanted, right through my arm-waving collapse.

Trevor, the batboy, saved me. He was slow, but he knew I never danced. He pulled the mask off with a foot on my shoulder. Pit juice, hash browns, and Old Grand Dad sprayed over the first baseline. Attention followed. The game kept on, batter waited for pitcher, but the crowd waited for me. They sat scattered over bleachers with no awning, the sun working on them. When I rose, they did the same.

My name passed from one man to another. They had something new on me, something they could see and feel-something besides Ann. She slept through this. Her head moved back to loose matter in a room shut and shaded by artificial air.

"You'll burn for giving up on her!" they screamed.

Each insult was clear and personal, often honest and correct-this was no place for me. Some passed it off as a compliment. Beers full-enough to fly were tossed from the stands. They piled in a dust trail behind me, some splashing up my legs.

Down in the dugout, players hid smiles with their jerseys. The manager ignored me altogether. He was an old-timer who flexed habits of restraint, like grace. I learned about them at funerals. They grabbed honors in departure, blooming through death.

"Are we through here?" I asked.

The team stared ahead while Trevor tapped me along into the basement.

It wasn't always like this. The town used to talk to me, albeit always about Ann. People felt she understood things unknown. This unknown eased them. It broke a long held agreement, and replaced it with nothing. Some replaced that nothing with her. When she stopped waking up, they asked about her quietly, knowing I would respond quieter so they could not hear.

"Does she thinks about us when she's sleeping?" they asked.

"If not then, never," I thought, nodding my head forever.

In silent prayer, we came together. Ann, please wake up.

The mascot changing room was a boiler room with a sink and red locker. I stripped down to boxers wet with all my stomach rung from me. Trevor ran the faucet into the duck's upturned head. We stood there quiet, watching chunks collect in the mask's screen eyes.

"Been melting half the season doing this. And for what? There are fires coming-fires they can't stop, close as the other side of those hills. You can damn near see 'em, and people have already forgotten," I said.

Trevor shook his head.

"Good for the dirt," he said.

"You people and fruition," I said.

Trevor searched the duck head, hoping there was more to it. Hair crossed over his head in a wet barcode, starting at one ear and ending at the other. He turned the given, like a face, into a curse. Sometimes I gave life shit about it, but there was mercy in making him slow enough not to care. Still, it reeked of failure; a drape of flesh would do better. Even I could make a pancake.

Trevor sneezed into the mask and restarted cleaning. It reminded me of this time Ann showed him a breast over a slice of pizza. He moved his eyes and kept chewing, afraid anything else would put this love away. Sometimes we drove him home after games. He would just stare at Ann and say thank you to no end. When she asked about his age, I told her it didn't matter. He was twenty-four or fifty-three, and we filled concrete halls between those places.

Outside, the crowd cheered-extra bases. Trevor looked through walls in anticipation.

"Why are you still worried about that?" I asked.

He scrubbed into the mascot's head.

"Do you quit?" Trevor asked.

"Looks like it," I said. "Only a few hours from pleasing court, too."

Trevor scrubbed.

"I can fudge it," I said.

He scrubbed.

"You would help me," I said.

"Will you bring back the popcorn machine?" he asked.

I wasn't sure how he knew, and I was confused why he never told. Everyone working for the team wondered about the missing popcorn machine. There were fist fights and accusations, and me, a sideline mess. Maybe he said something and no one listened. I doubt I would. Maybe there was a fine enough motive in keeping the truth alone.

Ann was supervising the popcorn machine back at the apartment, or she would be when she woke up. Ann, please wake up. Her left hand was bandaged from burns that came with our first cook. Turned out there was a lot of oil in the mix. Sometimes it spit flames that smacked the walls. The only comfortable time to cook was deep into dark. Last night we started around three AM. Let me tell you, we had to care.

It was a bitch to steal, so forget shame. My apartment lobby smelled like a movie theatre. Sometimes I left it on for the greeting-for an embrace and meal when Ann's sleep left me alone. It turned me into a real softy. I would listen to the machine pop and sing over thoughts of those fires ruining everything around me.

"Come on, now, Trevor, why would I have the popcorn machine?" I asked.

"Who's going to be the new duck?" Trevor asked.

"Trev..."

He put space between his shoes and stared.

"You can. You can be the new duck," I said.

"I'm a batboy," Trevor said.

"Bat man," I said.

I laughed.

"Bruce Wayne," I said. "Batman."

"I'm a batboy," Trevor said, again.

"All right, man, Jesus."

The opening chords of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," came in from the dugout. Trevor took a step towards the door.

"Go ahead," I said.

He looked at me.

"I'm fine, please," I said.

We shared a double high-five, and he took off, footsteps blending into the organ.

I changed into last night's jeans and t-shirt, leaving wet boxers on the floor. Ann was supposed to pick me up around three, but that was far from now or certainty. I walked home on the same roads she would take to get here, hoping to wave her down if she actually came. Since the fires became inevitable, sleep bled through more of her day. She had pills that knocked her out for all but a meal and bathroom break, sometimes taking them together. I spoke to her in empty rooms. Nothing helped. I set alarms for her so she would wake up. Ann, please wake up.

The walk back was a short one made long by repetition. Ignored homes on crooked lawns stayed quiet. Reproduction or destruction pumped through each one. I passed Glady's Bar, the one place this town would never kill. A sandwich shop and children's barber carried it like crutches. People went there to find new ways to hate each other. After games, the ballplayers filled up Glady's and swept up leftover pussy. Since they allowed food in there, the ballplayers were the only reason to leave. Well, them and the handful of cops who started showing up. A tipped-off pig brought on this whole mascot disaster.

I used to work at Glady's, backing bar and selling bags of powder. When the owner found out, he said I could stay, but I had to choose one gig or the other. The bags had better hours and meant more to me, so that was that. I sat in the back of Glady's, next to the unplugged pinball machine. People gave me one, two, or three fingers, and that was how many bags I put in the machine's defunct quarter receipt. The ballplayers would mix their minor-league stipends and share a gram-always just one between all of them, ripping it back and forth from each other like parking lot birds after a pizza crust. They ran this town and they ran me out of business.

The cop nailed me on a quiet night. Across the bar, some crook flashed me a peace sign. I went to drop his bags, but the quarter receipt was jammed full of drink napkins. Right then, Sergeant Kelly rose from behind the bar, his index finger penetrating a Tom Clancy paperback. He did a quick stretch to relieve a night of reading under the bartender's legs. I heard his back crack with my knees. We all did.

"Shit yes," he said.

I read Clancy out loud to him on way to the precinct. He nodded along and promised nothing more than parole with fifty hours of community service.

"Well, I hear they need a new Quackers," Sgt. Kelly said to Ann when she picked me up.

Ann, please wake up.

My head lost weight thinking about her, so I ran into a gas station for a Gatorade. When the fires come, this may be the place to be, I thought. Set up a lawn chair between the pumps and wait for it. The town my witness, some last thoughts polluted with my name.

I watched the road while I paid, and saw Ann's ex, Rex, filling up his homemade convertible. The chainsaw marks were still evident, like an open half of split stitches. The chopped roof sat in pieces in the backseat. He splashed about ten cents of diesel on his shoe before hanging up the pump. It was no mistake. The habit broke them up. That was how Ann found me. Rex fell in love when he smelled gas. Otherwise he was clean. I had seen him sit indian-style on bar stools to keep the potion's scent close. One time Ann introduced me, and he tried not to know my name. I couldn't afford that luxury. You could still catch whiffs of gas in Ann's rug.

I thought Rex had bailed on town, but no way, he was made for this. Outside, he bent to tie a shoe, and he huffed like mad. I wanted to be his everything, departing through destroying, when he came back up. The cashier gave me a free box of matches with the Gatorade's change.

I snuck out the back and was ready for Rex, but he was already pulling out, almost getting T-boned by the first of four fire trucks speeding by the gas station. It must have been major if all four were involved. That was it for the town-four firetrucks, and four firefighters, so that each man drove his own. They tried selling the trucks, but there were no buyers, so they sold the men instead. All they had to do was stop paying. Some called it backwards. Men in office demanded the problem be addressed. We waited. We waited until their talk turned to a warning that dust would settle on our ash.

I waved the last truck down and swallowed half of my Gatorade. The firefighter slowed enough for me to jump in the passenger seat. A stuffed dalmatian sat in his lap. We drove by Rex's car. He was bent over in the front seat, face between his knees, jamming to the sirens, and love.

I buckled up. Rex's car shrunk in the rearview mirror, but he stayed put. I thought about fires popping their way through the cornfields around us. I wondered about those strong enough to see it all the way through, and their knowing whether that corn popped like pimples or all amazing.

"Is this it? Are the fires already here?" I asked.

"No, we'll be well out before then. This 's-a house call here," the firefighter said.

He drove me right back to Ann's, running in before me.



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