Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN SHORT STORY: SAND DOLLARS

SHORT STORY: SAND DOLLARS


Almost as soon as the knob clicked, the few birds twittering in the thorny excuse for a tree outside were silenced. They were drowned out or scared away by a booming voice yelling names through a screaming, bawling crowd.

The volume was high enough to make you think the game show was in the trailer. But it didn't bother Burt. He was sitting on the couch, near a little window where the sun seemed bright even with the shade down, not much more than six feet from the source of the noise, reading his paper. He held the paper up near his face. He wasn't trying to block the television. His glasses just weren't much good.

Fran, after turning on the television, walked a little groggily around the short counter to the tiny kitchen in her faded quilt robe and curlers. She filled a pan with water and put it on the nearest gas burner. She was careful to use the bottled water. They said there was just too much lime in the well water.

She turned and got two cups and a jar of instant coffee out of the cupboard over the counter. She knocked some powder into each cup. The water boiled quickly. Fran turned off the burner and filled the cups. The pan held just enough. She carried the cups back around the counter into the living room.

"Here, Hon."

Burt put the paper down just long enough to take the coffee. He put it on a tiny, rickety table next to him and started reading again. You could see his lips moving while he read.

Fran sat at the other end of the couch, sipping the hot coffee, her eyes fixed to the television over the cup, already a serious member of the audience.

Burt cleared his throat a little from behind the paper as a kind of announcement, "Ya know, Hon, it says here some guy won that big prize las' night. Says the ticket was sold in Phoenix."

Fran answered without moving her eyes from the television. "I guess that means we didn't win it ag'in. Did ya check your numbers for anything else?"

"Oh, yeah, we didn't get a damn thing. Bet we get somethin' nex' time."

Burt put his paper down and took a gulp of coffee. He looked across the room through the screen door. There was a heavy, squat couple riding on something that looked like a cross between a motorcycle and golfcart. They moved slowly. Although the little orange safety flag, stiff on a tall whip-like pole at the back of the cart, gave the momentary illusion of speed.

Their slow passage across the width of the screen door and the nearby window had all the appearance of purpose. Importance even.

It was the way they looked around with their meshy baseball caps and rainbow-mirrored sunglasses. Serious. Unsmiling. Alert. Almost like they were looking for something in the chaotic landscape of trailers, sheds and R.V.s.

The bright colors of their shorts and the way they bulged over the seats should have taken away from that impression. But they didn't. The shorts were washed and pressed. Like uniforms.

The driver's hat was fastidiously positioned over his glasses. Puffed neatly like a little mountain tent on the front two-thirds of his head. It made him look like a guy playing sheriff on television. A guy selling steering-wheel locks.

Burt knew they weren't looking for anybody. That was just the way they went around the trailer park every morning. Evenings, too, lots of times. They drove the same road, the same way, looking around the trailers, every morning. At the same speed, too. No one was supposed to go more than five miles an hour.

It wasn't a road really. Just part of the hard-packed, stony desert floor where there weren't any trailers or sheds. A stranger probably couldn't tell the dusty road from the dusty lots, even though they were marked out here and there by little rows of pebbles, the odd plastic bottle or a few cactuses. But any regular resident would soon set him straight.

"Them people do the same damn thing ev'ry damn day."

"What's that, Hon?"

"Jack an' Mabel there. Ev'ry damn day they go ridin' like that. They don't go anywhere. Jus' the same damn ride ev'ry day."

Fran looked up from the television. "Yeah, seems kinda silly, ridin' aroun' the same place over an' over like that. There's no place to go aroun' here."

"I'll bet that damn golfcart of theirs cost a pretty penny. An' that's all they ever do with it. Jus' keep ridin' roun' an' roun'. They look like two damn goofy kids."

Burt went back to his paper for a couple of minutes. Again, without moving it away from his face, "Hon, says here it's gonna hit the eighties today in Phoenix."

"Well, ya better get that damn swampcooler fixed up, or we're gonna be bakin' here pretty soon."

"Don't worry none, I already talked to Mike about it. He's comin' over."

Fran looked away from the television for a few seconds. She stared at Burt, watching his lips move over the paper.

"Mike? It'll be a hundred an' ten in the shade here by the time he shows up."

"Aw, Mike's okay, Hon. He said he'd drop over this week.

"Says here it's thirty-one back in Chicawgo."

Fran didn't answer. She was part of the audience again.

Burt put the paper down. The weather summary was always the last thing he read. It was on the back page. He picked up a little pile of mail he got at the box when he was walking Joe earlier. Bills mostly. Probably more than they could take care of right now. He left the bills unopened for Fran.

There were only two envelopes Burt cared about. He opened both of them right away. One was a big fat, important-looking thing, with both their names in a window, printed in fancy letters with a registration number like a stock certificate.

The bulky envelope with its fancy documents addressed to complete strangers might make someone else think about things like worthless old mining stocks. There were all those old, abandoned mines up in the hills. Places loaded with stories of greed and fraud. Places that were nothing now but windblown, blackened eyesores, preserved forever in the desert heat. Places for families in R.V.s to visit. Real history.

All that mattered to Burt was something printed there about how they might have won millions already. He got a little agitated thinking about that. His jaw was moving slightly like he was muttering to himself.

The other envelope was a letter from one of the casinos they visited a couple of times a year in Nevada. The place resembled a discount-warehouse version of the Old West. Red-flocked wallpaper by the acre. Truckloads of chipboard molded into gingerbread trim. Plastic Tiffany fixtures. Styrofoam strawhats. Cathedral-size paintings of mountains and sunsets.

But in Burt's eyes it all looked pretty glamorous. It probably would to anyone who compared it to dusty truckstops and swap-meet tents held together with duct tape. And that's exactly what made up the center of their little town.

Except for television, the casino was the only entertainment Burt and Fran had. It wasn't a big extravagance. They never spent more than a few hundred dollars. You didn't have to dress fancy. You could get a good meal out for a change. The drinks were free. And, what really mattered, you might just win big.

That's what kept all those old folks streaming into the place. Pickup trucks, campers, R.V.s, buses and motorhomes lumbered in and out of there, day and night. Dusty trails from every point on the desert. Modern wagon trains full of creased and jowly pioneers in stretchpants.

If you didn't know better, you'd think it was some kind of around-the-clock revival meeting. And in a way, that's just what it was. It gave a lot of people something to look forward to.

Burt could actually feel his mouth watering at the prospect of staying up most of the night with one of those big, chrome-plated machines, watching the numbers spin and the lights flash, waiting for the alarm to go off and tell everyone he was a winner.

"Look here, Honey..."

"Shush, they're goin' for the jackpot now!"

Burt watched the screen for the first time.

"Jeez, that's all right, they're goin' for a new car.

"Now see what I mean, Hon, why do they go an' have a Jap car for the prize?"

"Shush."

The audience screamed when the curtains revealed a car. And when the make was announced. And when a model dangled keys on her finger. And when she opened a door. And even when the kind of tires it came with were announced. You imagined small-town cheerleaders seeing civilization for the first time. Wide-eyed faces full energy and blemish-cream spots. But most of them looked like the stretchpants crowd at the casino.

The sighs, as the contestant walked off empty-handed, were just as loud.

"I knew he didn't pick that las' number right. I jus' knew it!"

Burt cleared his throat again. "Hon, the casino's got another one of them deals comin' up."

"I'm afraid we just ain't got the money for it now. I ain't even looked at them bills yet."

"This says we get a room for the weekend...."

"Yeah, but we ain't goin' there to stay in a room. An' they ain't sendin' that without expectin' ya to spend money."

"Oh, Hon, we can put off one of them bills a little bit. We ain't been there in months.

"Look here, the room's only twenty bucks a night." Burt said it like the price of the room meant they had already won something.

"Oh, I don't know."

"Hon, we could use the break. We oughtta drive on up there nex' weekend. We might jus' get lucky. Ya never know."

Fran didn't take a lot of convincing. Burt's enthusiasm was contagious. She got pretty tired of sitting around watching the trailer park bake in the sun. And she liked gambling. Not as much as Burt, but she liked it.

"Oh, I s'pose we could manage it."

Burt felt safe bringing up the other letter now.

"Hon, could ya fill this here thing out?"

"Is that them damn magazines ag'in?"

"Yeah, but ya don't have to take no magazines to win."

"Like heck ya don't. I don't know how many of them damn things I filled out. We ain't won a cent."

"It says right here somewhere...."

"Well, how come I'm the one always fillin' 'em out?"

"Hon, we could win millions. It only takes a couple a minutes."

"This is the las' time if we don't win somethin'. Say, could I see that paper now? I gotta clip my coupons."

Burt handed over the paper cheerfully. He was happy about the results for both envelopes.

Jack and Mabel and the little orange flag droned slowly by in the other direction.

"Hon, I'm goin' over to Hank's for a few minutes while ya do your coupons."

Fran didn't say anything. She knew he wouldn't be back for at least an hour. That meant she could watch her other favorite game show without any interruptions.

Hank's place was several minutes away at one end of the trailer park. Next to the cesspool. You couldn't actually see much of the cesspool because, inside the fence, it was surrounded with grapefruit trees and cactuses. But when the wind was right you could sure tell it was there.

Maybe that's why they let Hank do pretty much as he liked. No one else would rent that spot. His place looked like a small swap meet with poles and ropes supporting home-made tents in every direction from his trailer. Scattered under the tents were rough wooden tables covered with dust, rusty tools and unfinished projects. Woodworking. Stone polishing. Car parts. There were a couple of beat-up sheds that leaned over to one side, probably from the way all the junk was piled inside.

Near the fence by the cesspool was a small cactus garden and pieces of several different sets of lawn furniture. From here you could sit and watch Hank's fountain. It was his most ambitious project. All different kinds of rocks and crystals, hundreds of them, cut and polished, cemented to a big wooden box with water flowing down one end into a tiny tar-lined pool. There was a spotlight so you could see it at night.

Burt sat in one of the chairs and waited for Hank to show up. He had a little trouble getting in and out of lawn chairs anymore. It gave him a little twinge of guilt about what the doctors said last time in the hospital. But he wasn't about to give up baloney-and-butter sandwiches or fried eggs cooked in bacon grease. And he sure wasn't going to start eating rabbit food after all these years.

It was a pretty nice spot if you didn't count the cesspool. Kind of like the edge of an oasis. There was a little shade from the trees, and the sun made all the leaves shimmer. And Burt liked the fountain.

You couldn't be sure where Hank was at this time. And Burt didn't have the energy to go looking for him. He knew he'd show up suddenly, quietly, the way indians do in cowboy movies.

Hank usually got up around three in the morning and gulped down a pot of coffee to get started. He puttered around for hours under spotlights he had on some of the tent poles. He said it was because it was cool, but Burt figured he was restless and didn't sleep too well. And he was just a little crazy. Like all the people living out on the desert. Himself included.

This was just about time for Hank to sit down by the cactuses and have a couple of beers. He always drank beer in the morning. Burt knew it was a good time to visit.

Hank came in from the wash at the back. He must have been over helping with something. Hank was like that. All you had to do was ask.

He didn't say a word. Just went to the trailer and came out holding several open bottles, all cool and sweaty. He put them down on the table, handed one to Burt and started drinking another as soon as he sat down.

They'd sit like that, without saying anything, sometimes for quite a while. Burt liked talking, but he'd learned to pace himself a little over the years with Hank. Hank was from Canada, though he'd spent years working in the States. He just didn't talk the same way people did back around Chicago.

"Hank, ya read how somebody won that hundred million?"

"No, haven't looked at the paper yet. They know who won?"

"All they know is the ticket was sold in Phoenix. The guy ain't showed up yet. Boy, I wish a little of that'd come my way. I can sure think of a few things I'd do with it."

"Tell you the truth, Burt, I don't know what I'd do with it anymore. Mind you, I wouldn't turn it down. I'd like to pay off the damn doctors, but after that, I don't know."

"Hank, ya ain't nothin' anymore but a damned ol' desert rat. You're gonna jus' bake away out here.

"Me, I'd like to get out of this desert. Oh, I liked it okay when we first came out. Ya can't get no cheaper place to live, but I'm gettin' tired of rocks an' dust.

"I'd jus' like enough to get a little place back there in Indiana. I'd like to see some snow fallin' in the winter. An' see the corn growin' ag'in 'fore I kick the bucket.

"An' I'd sure like to see the backside of all the damn snowbirds for good. I'm sick of them people an' their motorhomes haulin' aroun' Jeeps an' motorcycles, kickin' up dust, crowdin' ya in, makin' lineups for gas, makin' lineups for the laundromat. Why half them ol' farts can't even drive."

It was two hours before Burt got back. Fran had clipped her coupons and gone through the bills. The ones they could pay were on the counter ready to mail. She was sitting on the couch, holding a piece of paper, with a perplexed look on her face.

"I jus' don't know what to make of this."

"What is it, Hon?"

"One of them envelopes was from the damn state tax."

"Ya mean we owe some money?" Burt was afraid it meant they weren't going to the casino.

"No, it's a check for fifteen hundred dollars."

"Fifteen hundred dollars. For us? What'd we get that for?"

"That's just it. They sent this stupid check without a word of explanation. An', far as I know, we're not entitled to it."

"So what, Hon? It's their fault if they made a mistake. We should jus' go ahead an' enjoy that money."

"That ain't the way it works with income tax. We spend this, an' sure as God made little apples they'll be askin' for it in a couple of months."

"So let's put it in the bank. We won't spend a cent till ya see what happens. That way, even if they want it back, we'll get some interest."

"Burt, if we put this in the bank, it'll get spent. Somehow it'll get spent.

"I wish they hadn't sent the damn thing. I don't like keepin' money that's not mine. I'd try callin', but they ain't even listed in our book. An' I'll bet ya couldn't get anybody that knows what they're talkin' about anyway."

"Well, Hon, I think we oughta put it in the bank an' jus' not spend any."

"If we put that in the bank, it'll get spent."

Burt got her drift. "Well, how 'bout ya put it in a new account? Jus' your name on it. How 'bout that?"

"Oh, I don't know. I s'pose we could do that. I'll write a letter to see if we can find out what in the Sam hill's goin' on."

Burt sat and played with his little electronic poker game while Fran wrote the letter. When she was finished, he volunteered to take out the garbage and drop the mail off. Fran figured the check put him in a really good mood. She almost always had to ask him about the garbage.

"Okay, Hon, anything else ya need while I'm out?"

"No, nothin'."

Burt stopped by the side of the trailer where the car was parked. A big, dull white, ten-year old Chevy. He was going to drive to the post office. He opened the creaky door and threw all the envelopes on the seat. Except one. Then he walked down toward the recreation hall. When he got to the dumpster, he threw the garbage bag in. He meant to throw Fran's letter to the tax office in, too. But he stood there, muttering. He carried it back to the car.

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