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Black Road (Excerpt)

Nancy Zafris

Today is a very large day. Not just the anniversary of his mother burning down their house which is a large bad thing, but band practice begins today which is a large good thing, a very cinematic event, and he’ll see classmates for the first time all summer and then, if luck holds and the primetime weather brings a scorcher, chances point to a tornado warning by sunset and if there is a tornado, he’ll stand and greet it head-on with his iPhone, turning to take in the beautiful Mrs. Keim, her panicked sprint to rope in the children. At the root cellar she will catch his eye and thrash the air come come come! And he will go. And that will be a major event. It is his seventeenth summer, after all, the summer when everything happens.


From the cinderblock steps Travis can watch Mrs. Keim’s little boys. He is still trying to wake up. He wears baggy colorless boxers, elastic gone, but the little boys next door are uniformly attired and already lugging sparkling milk canisters across the field to the barn — three boys tidily dressed in pants, suspenders, and tucked-in blue shirts. The milk canisters are as big as they are. He didn’t think little kids could sweat. Travis can detect stripes of a darker blue seeping from their suspenders.


From inside the Keim barn comes a crazy barking. Mr. Keim sounds like an animal inside that barn. To paraphrase his English teacher Miss B, this kind of shouting displays a person going backward down the evolutionary chain. Mr. Keim has been losing it for months. Stepping inside the barn is one of his worst triggers. It sets him off, the way Travis, if he let himself, might be set off when he faces the aftermath of one of his mother’s surprise visits. In Mr. Keim’s case, maybe it’s PTSD from losing his male goat when Jared Overholser spray-painted its genitals orange. That was Halloween. Mr. Keim has hated the world ever since. Travis has watched his abrupt oddities grow more abrupt, the way he turns away from any interaction even with his own kind.


 A month after Halloween another of Jared Overholser’s pranks caused the accident that has brought their town to this. It happened right in front of the Keim house. The accident was deafening, as crashes are, a metallic lethal ear-splitter, yet the Keim house stayed obstinately dark throughout the screams, the car upended in a cornfield, the running footsteps, the heavy breathing in the blackness. Ambulances. Lights strobing against the Keims’ window. Not even a peek behind the curtains by any of the Keims. The police knocked at their house. Nothing. The house remained dark and silent. Travis knows this because he watched from the wooden bridge. The accident forced the town to take sides. The anti-Jareds became a symbol of all things un-American because, after all, the high school football team would not have a chance without Jared as their quarterback.


So far Mr. Keim has not bothered to bring in another male goat and everything smells so much better without a buck. It’s been downright pleasant to sit outside and breathe deeply. Travis likes it out here, much more than the squalor of the tiny house in town he had to share with his mother, the neighbors keeping track of the human graffiti that scratched in and out. In one way his mom did him a favor burning down the little house with the sinking roof. His grandmother let them move into this trailer on her property. Some guy was already living in it, free rent for clearing out his grandmother’s two acres. The promised chore hadn’t even got started but the guy avoided eviction by teaming up with his mother. Pretty soon his grandmother kicked them both out. For a while Travis could smell them in the woods somewhere, cooking meth. Sometimes he would hear his mother, when she and that guy had a fight. And then they moved on.


This, too, shall pass. That’s what Miss B likes to say. Meanwhile, do your homework.

(Read the whole story in The Hong Kong Review, Vol. I, No. 3)

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