Fortress

Artificium, Issue 5, is now out with my “Fortress.” See below for the introduction and a link to purchase the volume.

The black phone in the cramped back office of Novak’s filling station rang as it always did. The office was windowless and lined with shelves on which there were stacked blue and yellow oil cans, containers of brake fluid and anti-freeze, and other toxic fluids automobiles needed to keep life and limb together. Squat and menacing, the phone sat on a small desk illuminated by a single lamp. The phone smelled of oil and gasoline and the handgrip had a greasy feel no matter how often Karl Novak wiped it with a clean shop rag. It was the summer of 1966, Laurentide, Michigan, and he was learning the gas station business. He was a junior in high school and his father, who owned the station, thought it was time he spent his summer vacations working rather than water skiing, hanging out with friends, and reading mysteries and science fiction. So he serviced cars and changed tires. He waited on customers on the hot asphalt drive and pumped six grades of gasoline (from economy to premium), checked tire pressures, cleaned windshields. It wasn’t bad work, and at times it was enjoyable, but most often Karl Novak looked forward to having his workday over.

On a still cool August morning Karl was helping Al the mechanic change the oil of a black ‘62 Mercury with turquoise trim. Al was stocky, round-faced, rosy-cheeked, and the most foul-mouthed person Karl had ever met. Karl’s father said he was “the best damned mechanic there is,” but also said he was a “dirty Pollock” and “a crook if you let him get away with stuff.” Karl couldn’t decide if he disliked Al intensely or if he thought he was an exotic figure, like a spy or bank robber, and a welcome break from the nice boring people he’d come to know at the Lutheran church his mother insisted he attend. When Al spoke, a well-chewed cigar dangled from the right side of his mouth. Once he put his still lit cigar on the end of the workbench and Karl examined it closely. Its brown color had changed to an ugly black slime at the tip where Al gnawed on it. Many times Karl had thought of asking Al to let him smoke one of his cigars. The most propitious moment would have been when Al showed up at work with alcohol on his breath, which was often, and he was pliable and more willing to take reckless chances. But Karl didn’t want Al to get into hot water for leading the boss’s son astray—that’s how Karl’s father would see it—so he never asked.

When the phone rang, Karl hurried into the office, which was just off the garage bay where they worked on the Mercury, but he hesitated to pick up. He didn’t know why. When he first started working at the station, he liked answering the phone. It had made him feel like a grownup. He wrote down messages and gave people what information he could. This time he hesitated. He sensed he had a good reason, but it was more like a shadow in his mind than a well-formed idea. He looked around the shelves and noticed that an oilcan had been turned around. He straightened it so that its label faced out. He heard Al yell, “Hey, Karl, you gonna wait all day to answer the fuckin’ thing?” Still he didn’t reach for the phone. He wasn’t sure how many times it had rung. He hoped it would stop, but he knew it would not. Something in the ring gnawed and was unyielding.

His cheeks puffed out in an exaggerated motion. He raised his shoulders and inhaled deeply. His nostrils filled with smells from the garage. He exhaled, and, as if it were detached from the rest of his body, his hand reached for the phone and brought the handset to his head. The phone felt cold and hard against his ear. He said, “Novak’s Service,” with a slight interrogative curve that made it sound like an arguable point.

“May I speak to Zachary?” said the voice.

It was a woman with a slow humid southern drawl. Her voice had a searing effect, like a long forgotten pain suddenly returned. He’d never heard the voice before, and yet he had. It was known, yet unknown. His stomach ground stones and his blood-drenched ears burned. He looked down at his black work shoes, which he’d shined that morning. They felt as is they were welded to the concrete. What the hell was wrong with him?

“Hon, are you there?” said the voice, a mix of honey and vinegar.

“Yes, oh, sorry, I’ll get him,” said Karl.

He left the office to look for his father. The queasiness in his stomach rose up through his chest and back behind his eyes. He surveyed the drive, checked the customer waiting area at the front of the station, walked around to the back alley where they kept dumpsters. Zach Novak was nowhere to be found. “He’s out test driving the silver Impala. We gotta brake job on it this afternoon, I think,” said Al after Karl had come back into the garage. “Coulda told you that first thing, boy, if you’d asked.”

Karl returned to the back office hoping the voice had hung up. He’d been out looking for his father several minutes. “Sorry, ma’am, but he’s not here at the moment. Can I take a message?”

“Tell him Luella called,” said the drawl. “I’m an old friend. He knows where to reach me. You make sure you tell him, child, and thank you.”

Karl put down the phone and steadied himself with both hands on the desk. After a few minutes, his hands and wrists ached and his arms felt leaden.

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