JAMES P. MULLANEY JR.

The Hoarding Till


The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.

– Gospel of Luke 8:14

 

They constructed games to ensure the children didn’t remain idle long enough to become scared.  Paper stars were created from old newspapers and weekly periodicals advertising the most useless of items.  The yellowed pages were folded over into crude angles, then within themselves, with the hope of illuminating some of the darkness that had come over the campsite.  They were too tired for anything else.  When the rains started they cursed themselves for not being better prepared.  They cursed their gods for not sparing them the added burden.  And they cursed each other because it showed they were not alone.

The women began packing first before the men took notice.  The coffee grounds ran cold in their tin mugs and some took to chewing the flavor, the caffeinated effect absorbed directly through the gums.  When the site lay barren, save the last few empty tents around them, the men finally joined in and the cavalcade collapsed into a smaller version of itself and moved out to find another spot.  At dawn they slogged off the side of the road past the break-down and drainage ditches.  A hundred yards beyond the ramble of passing trucks and the violent echoes vibrating out the steel overpass.  Within the hour the gullies were filled and two paper stars meandering to lower ground passed them before dropping out of sight around the first bend.

Each person had lost material possessions that over time confused their own sense of worth, and then each lost something of far greater importance.  Although no one would admit it, each settlement brought the promise of sanctuary.  Not merely from the elements, or from the law or memory, but from the looks of strangers not yet so desperate. It wasn’t vanity but rather a form of confirmation.  For every person gains some salt of confidence despite intentions when encountering those less fortunate and the times weren’t much for giving anything.  But as the rain continued to fall heavily, its weight slackened their shoulders and quickly began to form pools around them.  Two foot ravines dug by tires abutted the roads and Foster, running rear lookout, watched Maddie Ellison’s delicate ankles with a hint of pride swell the size of a small rodent.  The first day out of Glendale he remembered glimpsing her legs through the wooden floor slats while she showered inside one of the outdoor stalls.

The development lay sodden behind them and would completely flood within a few hours.  Steel foundation sprouted from the ground ahead of them, the promise a contradiction to the malleable earth.  All seventeen people–six separate families, the six different tents which had housed most of their belongings now soaked inside canvas mission packs–working their tired and thin limbs while tasting the drops as they fell, sharp as sulfur, upon their tongues.

“Who remembers the words that first night?” someone asked, but no one responded and they continued lugging their remaining belongings and the question was left behind too.  A few had travelled from El Paso.  Others from as far as Birmingham and Jacksonville.  The group had bandied together on a campsite just outside Sun City.  Factories had closed decades earlier.  Then the strip malls, soon the surrounding commerce hubs.  It spread out so far eventually the ripples flowed into those emanating from other towns, from other cities.  When the banks got scared, they reacted as the unadaptable do.  They brought a fight against those whose hands they helped bound.

And around them the margins crushed the heath blossoms and blew gusts strong enough to take a man’s hat.  The margin’s that had been creeping closer bore down and some of the men could hear it within the ground, could hear it in the way the bird’s had sung before fleeing the rain.  The omen of the land pushed them onward and if they were able to acknowledge such belief nobody mentioned it.  Neither husband to wife, nor parent to child.  Nothing was passed between them for fear the cracks inside would become something else.  They moved onward like a broken fist tethered against the pounding of the rain.

By mid-afternoon the greyness in the sky fractured out a pale bruise.  Morris reached behind into his pack and staked the support poles and tamped the first tent out.  As he leveled the stakes against the buried rock, those immediately behind him stopped trundling through the slick heavy earth and staked their claim as well.  The next family followed in a ripple effect as the group did not function in unison but rather a form of mirrored succession.  The youngest, a boy of eight, began to cry.  His father, a man whose weathered face bore an aged resemblance, picked up his walking stick, which also served as a tool of discipline, and tapped the boy gently upon his shoulder.  The boy slumped too easily to his knees.  His crying bore no sound because it had already begun developing roots.

“You should take care with him.  He don’t understand,” Dalton told the man and was careful to drain the words of any threat.  As the accredited head of the group he sought to keep an emotionless balance.  Names still didn’t come easily unless he pulled the list out from his notebooks pressing up against his neck from inside a slung knapsack.

Harry’s eyes were callous and pitted and the warmth in them had been long stamped out.  Dust rose instead and now those eyes held irritation more than anything else, despite the man standing before him.

“Hell if I understand.  He ain’t hurt. He’s just looking for some comfort.  They’re all gonna have to understand sooner than later.  The line runs too deep and hell if they ain’t standing at the end.”

“Still the same, this is all any of us has left.  Best to keep things moderate, no unnecessary ups or downs.  You strike that match and there’s no telling where the fire might start.”

And Harry understood even though he wished he didn’t and felt the rawness of anger rise inside his breast and knew despite his understanding something would break soon.  You stuff these mission packs with too much sundry and soon the canvas straps tear out and the stitching busts open, Harry thought.  It had too.  And that anger took the inverse shape of the things given rise to such conflict.  If someone had asked him Harry would have said it looked like a horse with legs rooted out the top of its body instead of below and with a head facing backwards, towards its ass.

They’d been on the road somewhere around eleven days.  Their primary rations, foods they were used to eating, had run out day eight.  Dalton understood they were less than two, at most three, days from starvation.  He also understood they were more than the allotment from the nearest town.  And there was no telling how deep times cut elsewhere.  They had traded all their phones in exchange for water a quarter mile outside Bakersfield.  In order to resolve the race against time, the following night Dalton had collected all the watches from the group and threw them into the fire.  The elders watched without questioning as the embers first cracked the glass-front pieces, the seconds and minutes billowing up into finite gray smoke.  When the watches lost their shape, time no longer existed, to be marked instead only through sickness and in death.  And because there was no longer time there were no longer any memories.  For when a man gives up on time he accepts the fate his hands may no longer grasp hold of anything, even emptiness.

Now the elders hoped the rains didn’t signal the beginning of the season.  They were several days out the Santa Maria Valley and the only threat the washes posed were coyotes, slackened shapes bearing fangs as desperate as a breached newborn.  These threats of the West, like setting course to the Far East where the shape of eyes and the roll of language, marked differences as great and unique as the land they tread.

Huddled underneath the large unfolded tarps, they made their way back to the road, walking first through the deepest juncture in the ravines, some of them soaking their pants up to the waist, valuables and small children held aloft as though carrying some kind of burdened offering.  Then, when they reached the other side, they held the children close as they walked up the incline to the broken concrete, growing ever suspicious of their worst fears and thoughts.

At a hiker’s outpost they found shelter beneath a sandstone overhang.  They unhitched themselves of their damp haversacks.  The bearings of the last few pull wagons were rusted through the wheel bed, locking the wheels in place.  The wagons skated over the slick ground.  When the skeletal shape of the site took form the children grew restless.  It was not exhaustion but a raw hunger emerging for the first time, and it made them act and cry out in ways unfamiliar.  Brent Oscola found a field mouse and cut off its tail with a box cutter.  The teenage Krone twins forced some of the younger children to stuff their mouths full with pebbles.  Donegal Harten pushed Connor Lange too close to a saguaro, and afterwards, the boy cried meekly from the heat softening the quivers sticking out his legs and lower back.   The last of the newspapers were used for kindling.  A few of the adults looked at the sky, searching for help, for signs.  A few of the others watched those adults for fear the strains of faith might redeem in other ways.

Foster pulled a small bag of confection from a leather wrapping housing his buckskin knives.  Before leaving Sarasota he packed the bag with a keen idea towards celebration for the children, for Foster believed the flow of happiness moved upward, from young to old.  But the idea of a final destination faded further into ambiguity with each passing day.  Foster forgot about the bag until, worried Stephens would look to exact his own penance, he went to open his knives and was surprised his hunger and the drawn faces of the group hadn’t given him pause earlier.  He understood there was no excuse for greed.  But his hunger had leavened out and the coarse ember of anger heated and crackled and shrunk his insides and everything he still possessed.  The others were too tired to question or fight him.  Too tired to understand what consequences such actions meant to achieve.  The children gathered like sickened javelinas around Foster as he held out the opened bag and let each of them grab one, slapping away any hands reaching for more.  Most of the adults kept busy.  Darcey and Paul Weeks rinsed and strung out some of the laundry across taut lines pulled from the tarp cords.  Dalton sat inside his tent by lamplight and took account of the number of people, their rations and the miles they had just covered.  Foster believed Dalton was a man pushed by time and the whole of the watch incident was actually a selfish one.  He glanced for a moment as Dalton’s silhouette drew a small slash line through a list of figures and then watched the silhouette sit back to study the variants.  Morris ran off with Maddie Allison, Stephens’ wife.  Off somewhere to listen to cheap country music and shoot some stick, they consoled Stephens.  Because there was nothing else to say, because the only feeling they could muster was a kind of diminutive relief they didn’t have to endure such further troubles.  Because each of them knew there was no place to run to and they didn’t dare speak so.  The elders took to bed early for hope resided in their dreams of yesterday.  Foster tucked the candy beneath his sweatshirt and walked away from the site to quarter some of the trash.  When he finished, he walked on even further to see what lay ahead and stopped by a small overgrown lot to take a leak.  Low guttural moans came from one of the broken-down autos eviscerated like some animal carcass rotting in the coarse, colorless grass.  Foster took his time finishing up and then turned back towards camp.  Stephens stood cantered to the group’s water station chording fire wood.  The man’s effort seemed to outweigh his size.

At the same time the light inside Dalton’s tent blinked out and Dalton stepped from his tent to clear his eyes and unwind his thoughts.  He finished applying math to the group’s prospects, and in the crescent darkness it took him a few seconds to reacquaint his balance.  He recognized Stephens by the man’s bowed legs.

“No need to bother.  That there wood is soaked through.  We’d be lucky to smoke ourselves out let alone any bugs,” Dalton told Stephens without giving it much thought.

But Stephens didn’t stop hacking at the broken mesquite.  Instead, his pace quickened a bit.  A few dramatic chops and the wood multiplied in smaller renditions.  For emphasis, he stopped once the top of the cleave diveted off a trunk thick as a man’s leg.  He removed his faded cap and wiped down his brow.  His eyes burned with sweat.  And then he slapped the cap back atop his blistery cracked skull and continued butchering the fractured wood, sending splinters in shards instead of burnable logs, creating an unusable mess.

“I thought we brought enough for the night, but maybe I’m mistaken.  The site can’t have too much wood.” Dalton smiled at the man reassuringly, though Stephens couldn’t hear him above the deep punctures penetrating the dead wood.

The children had gathered around the pathetic fire and grew ever more boisterous from the sugar coating their empty stomachs, scratching like a scar prodded with a heated knife.  The ones who had eaten the candy whole sat with gloomy faces watching the others gnawing slowly at the white sponge, while the rest had poked small sticks and twigs through the middles and extended them high above the dusty flame and watched the lifting smoke swirl in dance around their prize with envy.

“Bring them down just a little, close enough, so the flame can’t touch or else they’ll burn.”

“I remember liking the burnt ones best.”

“What if I drop mine?”

And a pair of boys joisted the sticks against the other until one boy’s stick fell empty and then all the children hushed down and grew a bit somber.  Foster cleared his throat of disgust and stepped forward into the silence.  The children cleared a space for him to sit.

“Listen up now.  You lose one and you lose it.  You move on.  But you don’t forget about it so you remember and don’t ever lose another one again.”

The children looked across at each other and then the boy who lost the stick fight.  None held their sticks any longer over the fire.

“You see here, now here’s a lesson for you.” Foster continued and turned the bag he was holding within his lap upside down and dropped the white squares onto the thicket patch beside him.  He grabbed two handfuls.  “Let’s say we start with ten of these marshmallows,” he told them and was a bit too eager in his motions and the children became confused despite holding their curiosity.

“You belong to a village or town, maybe like this one here, and you get up each day and go to work to earn one of these so you can pay for food, for clothing, for a home and stuff.  Somebody needs a marshmallow or earns a marshmallow. It gets pulled out of the pile.  The police, teachers, development workers,” and he looked past the fire at Stephens’ tent.  Webspinners poked at the dim bulb.  The mosquito patch above the door reminded Foster of a one-way confessional.

“Each of these workers earns one a week and then uses that marshmallow to buy food, shelter, whatever is necessary and can be afforded with just one marshmallow. So that marshmallow they use to buy stuff goes back into the pile and the person who sells the things takes the marshmallow.  And then that person buys the things they need with their marshmallow, could be from the person they just got it from, or someone else.  But the important thing is the marshmallows move around.  They stay inside the pile, inside that circle.”

“So you always have the ten marshmallows, how can you tell them apart?”  One of the Krone twins asked.  The other twin nodded towards his sister in agreement as though he were a few seconds shy of asking the same question.

“As long as someone different buys and someone different sells.”

“Yes, the ten marshmallows have to keep moving from hand to hand. So there are always ten in the pile.  But it keeps things moving, keeps people buying and selling.  Keeps them fed, inside their homes.  The main thing is everyone has to participate.”

The children rustled up the dry red clay with their feet because they didn’t fully understand.  One of them sprayed bug repellant across his sunburned legs and when the medicine began to burn, skulked away to his find mother.

“But you see, a problem arises when one person somehow accumulates a nest of these here marshmallows.  When one person has taken and removed them from the rest of the community.  What happens when one person takes a marshmallow out of the group and…”

Foster tossed one of the marshmallows straight into the grey fire.  The outer shell of sugar crystallized quickly to brown, then black as the candy dehydrated and wrinkled into a decayed pulpy mass.  Foster could smell the burnt syrup, and he remembered how as a child he himself once ate an entire bag without sharing any with his family.

“How did that person get those marshmallows?”

“Sheldon,” Kendra Brown called out, soft enough not to unsettle the other children, from the water station.

Foster leaned in closer to the struggling fire gasping at smoke rather than giving smoke off.

“Someone takes one out and the groups got to make do with nine instead of ten.  Then two more disappear, another one goes.  Soon the group struggles to survive on only three.”

Stephens appeared from the shadowed bellow, his arms crossed supporting a pile of wood.

“I think the kids might be too young for these kinds of stories,” Kendra Brown bent down and pulled her son up towards her.

“Shush, Jasper, the kids know nothing about that.”

The adults began to all set upon the fire.  Maddie Allison shuttled over half a dozen parkas for the children.

“The kids know nothing about nothing.”

Dalton suddenly let out a high-pitched call meant to attract mating birds.  The group hushed down awaiting some form of response.  For a brief moment the land drew silent and attentive.  Then a coyote giggled maniacally out beyond the southwest border.

“They don’t need to listen, they’ll be living it all soon enough.”

“Now, now.  Let’s settle it down.  You children may want to step away from the fire. The smoke may change your voices before you’re good and ready.”

The children obeyed Dalton because they respected him, because they feared him without knowing why.  Some of the parents stepped to order behind them.  The rustle of the tents’ doors soon interrupted the night insects.  Those still remaining drew in closer, as though their language could control the masses, but only in secret.

“People living according to emotion rather than reason. And they don’t know how to reconcile those emotions,” Morris said, speaking to the things he saw billowing off the smoke wisps.

Stephens whistled deep and low and stared up at the sky.  “People aren’t honest no more.  Sad thing is they know it and they don’t care.”

“What’s this got to do with marshmallows?” Foster asked.

“Nothing,” Jaspar said and raised the cuffs collaring his parka against the mosquitoes.

“Don’t lie to them Darwin,” Stephens rasped, “It’s got everything to do with it.”

And Foster gathered the remaining marshmallows and threw each of them into the fire, one by one, until the entire bag plopped and glowed red and melted into fiery red crystals.

 

The following morning sun broke an early dawn and the heat of the arroyo burned off like a reptile sloughing dead skin, lifting a mist of heavy dust off the newly dry land.  Maddie Allison and Siobhan Thomas were the only ones up and about.  Worry robbed them of sleep as they sensed boundaries swept asunder clouds of red clay.  They snuck out their tents at first light and began wrapping rain soaked towels around the small embers of the extinguished fire and raised the smoldering wood away from their legs and bodies.  Then they began scraping the dried coal sugars as though they were skinning a chicken into large tin bowls filled with water or milk.

“I can’t believe he carried that bag so long.”  Siobhan Thomas spoke, her voice raspy with sleep.  “And never thought twice this entire time.”

“I don’t understand it either, even if it was his bag.”  Maddie Allison stopped to roll her wet sleeves up past her elbows. “Morris says it don’t matter much either way.  That all we’re doing is treading water.”

“He’s nothing but a fool.  And same for any woman listening to him instead of her husband.”

At the bestowed judgment both women stopped what they were doing.  Siohban Thomas and Maddie Allison stared without reservation at the other for a long time.  The heat off the embers bore through the towels and warmed their palms.  The women seemed to bear the struggles worse than the men.  Their silent worry nestled in the dark sacs beneath their eyes and in lines newly written by austerity.  Their bellies distended in hunger.  Their skin became road maps.  Siobhan almost broke first out of maturity, but a tired restlessness rooted through five births saw the world’s bloom in different shades.

“A woman’s business is hers alone unless it trespasses onto others.  Filling your time with corrupt distractions is not an answer.  It’s avoidance.  What you need is faith, faith that things will turn for the better. Faith that you’ll recognize your own sins and repent for those you’ve hurt.”

“Look here now, I’m not trying to start something,” but Maddie Allison thought to herself harder than she ever thought before and the result was something she sought her entire life to curtail.  “Don’t mention anything to me about faith.  Every day we go about the same routine.  Dalton checks the food levels and marks things inside his notebooks.  Thelma, Jade and Darcey wash the clothes worn through with yesterday’s stink.  And you and I try our best to make each of these sites feel like some kind of home.  We set up stations for eating, for cleaning, for relieving ourselves.  But faith can’t put food in my kids’ stomachs, can’t get me back my house, can’t give my husband back his pride, can’t build any bridges back to the past.  All faith can do is restore the lies in order to keep hold for another day.”

And with her words she paused the scrapings and slapped the knife against the edge of the table.  The skin of the dead eucalyptus dropped off in pieces large as a horse’s tongue.

“And I’m bone tired of it that’s all.”

Siohban Thomas looked quizzically back at the younger women and for a second her vanity held an image of herself at the same age, and with the comparison her bosom swelled.  There was nothing left to say and Siohban Thomas searched for the wisdom contained within every moment.  As usual, she found it only in silence.  Minutes passed and soon the silence required abutment.

“When you feel the need for distraction, remember, the difference between the just and the unjust is solidified by the very existence of the other.”

But her words were just that and the hardened shells thickened further into callous, curling around their egos sheltered beneath exhaustion and a singular focus.  For there were many things they could not articulate.

Dalton had stepped out his tent carrying his notebook with him because there was nothing left to calculate and sat across from the two women.  He peered over into their two tin bowls and the women waited for his reaction.

“It’s a shame it’s all come to this,” was all he said.

The two women continued on with the embers and the towels and the dulled knives.  Soon more wood fell than sugar and only when the wood changed color did both women finally stop.

Beyond the arroyo, the margins waited with yellowed eyes peering through the strong-eyed saguaros and through the hardened leave stalks of the ocotillo.  They arrested close enough any further encroachment would overtake the site.  There the margins paused with tense, emaciated muscles and panting tongues heavy with thirst, waiting for the moment of complete silence when the world stretched tight enough it became possible to rip a hole through it.  But the people couldn’t see them. They couldn’t see them because they weren’t looking and because they lacked the visual acuity to notice such things.  The margins drew closer and still the people didn’t notice.  And then the margins were upon them, ready for the moment of justification, and they encircled them for the margins had become like blinders against the vastness of the open world beyond their lamentable, solitary existence, connecting them and separating them at the same time, all and everything, together and yet, divisively alone.

“It’s all a shame,” Dalton spoke again but he sat by himself as the families huddled inside and around their separate tents making preparations for the day.  The women swept the canvas floors.  The men stared forlorn waiting for the cleansing effects of the dull coffee.  Children brushed their teeth using their forefingers dipped inside plastic cups.  Dalton was resolute, ashamed to acknowledge not one person ever asking about or voicing concern over the dwindling food supply.  And so the final day arrived without them noticing and he thought over their naiveté, assuming things could go on forever.

As Dalton watched them working inside their personal spaces, he didn’t recognize any of their faces, he didn’t see any determinate features carried by these people who, during such intimate and raw times, should have been more than strangers.  Instead, he saw beaten footprints where their faces should have been.  Instead of recessed eyes, wide-set foreheads, irregular curvatures outlining different shaped noses, instead of brows creased by determination, by consternation, fear or levity, Dalton saw distracted footprints splayed across a dying landscape, the weathered ground spreading around their feet, around their shoes, taking them in slowly as though the earth were unsure of the carnage, as though by doing it slowly no one would take notice.

 

[BIO]: James holds an MFA from The New School. He is the author of The Ministry of Culture and is currently at work on his second novel.

 

 

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