The electric sign for the Krafton Bowl and Lounge was a vibrant white square atop a tall post. Set back from the road, the lounge's roof and all but one wall had collapsed. Smoldering lumber jutted from charred brick. Bowling lanes lay exposed to the night, and in the lane oil lapped tiny, spectral flames like a riot of hummingbirds. Firemen shoveled dirt over the lanes. Others held blankets at the building's corners. A tuft of sparks ascended from a joist and drifted down onto the dry prairie, where a man smothered it beneath a stretch of wool.
Walt walked in silence behind his brother, Lonnie, and little nephew, Calvin. His eyes stung. His nostrils burned. Today he was sixteen, and he fanned away smoke with the gray fedora he'd bought hoping to look a bit like Bogie or Cagney, even Ladd, any of the picture-show toughies. Smoke hazed the road. Under the sign's electric glow, a bare-chested man leaned against the post, breathing hard into a paper sack.
"Anyone harmed?" Lonnie called to him.
The fireman crumpled the sack and stared down at Calvin. Lonnie let the boy smoke to keep him quiet; a cigarette dangled from his lips. "Say-," the man said, "you gots more of that tobacco?"
Lonnie pulled a cigarette from his pocket. The fireman took it in his blackened fingers, stooped to light it off the end of Calvin's. Smoke seeped from his lips as he rose. His eyes narrowed on the sky. High overhead tumbled a wing of burning ash. The fireman backed under it, turned on his heels, raced across the road.
"Hey," Lonnie shouted. "How'd it start?"
"Small fires make big fires," the fireman called back, wading into the prairie, tripping circles beneath the drifting embers, staggering through the high grass.
In the sign's pale light, Walt studied his brother's eyes, bright and blue and tracking the ash's flight. Then they drew onto Walt.
"Small fires make big fires," Lonnie said, with lilting reverence. "I surely hope so."
They descended the hill into town. Sharpton's Hardware was dark; red-white-and-blue streamers draped its windows. Mounds of produce lay in front of the general store, and amid them a goat asleep with its beard between its hooves. Up the road stood the three-story brownstone. Over the sidewalk, over the golden stars stenciled onto the concrete, hung the Mellie's Picture Show marquee.
Lonnie cut into the alley. Walt followed, Calvin clutching his hand. They passed rancid dumpsters and crates shimmering white with sleeping pigeons. The back side of the Mellie opened onto listless prairie, the sedge undotted but for an old telegraph depot gone to ruin.
They stepped to a metal door, and Lonnie yanked it open. A frail boy in a red usher's jacket and bow tie stood guard inside—Lester Muncie, a schoolmate two grades ahead of Walt. Lester grabbed for the door, but in one fluid movement Lonnie shoved Lester and wedged a hip in the jamb.
Lester didn't fight. He turned back into the flickering darkness, his eyes on the screen, and pretended not to see them hurrying past.
The first movie was ending. Orchestra horns blared as Roy Rogers rode Trigger through a shadow-cut arroyo. Walt climbed the stairs into the balcony, and the music faded and the house lights bloomed. Up in the top row, Frances, Lonnie's girl and Calvin's mother, sat beside her sister, Georgette. Hep James, Lonnie's best friend, sat two rows down. Lonnie settled into the aisle seat beside Frances, and Calvin hopped onto his mother's lap.
"Hey, Walt," Frances said. "That's a swell hat you got."
"Ain't you the movie star," Georgette said.
Walt sat beside Hep, who'd have been handsome if not for a scar across his left eye and cheek. Just after the war, in an alley behind a bar up in the city, some soldier boy slashed him with a switchblade. Hep had lived a time in the city, but after that he came home.
"Roy surely got beat to hell and back in that one," Hep said, slumped in his seat.
"He sing them songs?" Walt asked.
"If Roy gets up, he gets up singing."
"God, I hate them songs."
Hep looked perturbed. "Where'd you get that dumb hat?"
"It's a birthday gift," Walt said, embarrassed. "Haley wants me to wear it on the berry wagon. Says folks'll buy better if I look more sophisticated."
Hep sneered. "Haley want doilies in the shit-house, too?"
Lonnie called down, "Bowling alley's got burned up."
Hep sat upright. "To its knees?"
"Nothing but cinders."
"Fire get anyone?"
"Nah." Lonnie sounded dissapointed.
Hep slumped down again and propped his boots on the seat in front of him. "Well," he said, "life ain't a goddamn movie."
In the booth behind them, the projectionist loaded a reel. Calvin rolled himself along the red velvet covering the walls. Frances looked grave whispering in Lonnie's ear. Georgette came and sat beside Walt, smiling with soda-wet lips, a dab of licorice stuck in her teeth.
"Having a fun birthday?" she asked.
"What's it to you?"
"I can help you have fun is what."
Hep elbowed Walt, loudly sniffing.
"You got licorice in your teeth," Walt told her.
Georgette's eyes smoldered on Walt. To avoid her gaze, he leaned out over his knees. The balcony was five rows, and beyond was the open expanse of the theater. Directly below the screen, town kids congregated around a marble wishing well. Marilyn Garfield, the girl Walt pretended to love, was there. She wore a green skirt and stood with one leg straight like a ballerina. That spring she'd told him he looked like Montgomery Clift, and he decided she was the one.
Walt had never dreamed of Marilyn. He had dreams like that, almost every night, but not of her. He stared to sear her shape into his secret thoughts, to throw the switch of desire.
Soon the lights dimmed, and everyone took their seats. The projector beam flowed above Walt's fedora. Up on screen, an aging soldier rode in a stagecoach beside a teenage Shirley Temple. Her eyes were those of the little girl Walt had seen in so many films. But now she was a woman named Philadelphia and she strolled a desert fort in a petticoated dress. She asked another woman if she'd help fix up her father's place.
Without a conscious moment of sliding, Walt was inside the screen, there on that dusty road behind the battlements, the sun sweltering above and everything of this world gone—the red fabric walls, the stuttering projector, Hep and â¨Georgette and the whole shitty town.
"How's she keep that frilly dress clean?" Georgette breathed into Walt's ear. "The hem'll be black as mud."
"Shut your mouth," he hissed.
He closed his eyes, opened them, breathed and breathed. Soon Philadelphia and a young soldier had fallen in love. When the soldier declared his intention to marry her, the colonel would not look him in the eye. Philadelphia's face was full of anguish, and a screw in Walt's heart tightened.
"Went riding once and now they's getting married?" Georgette whispered. "This show's just silly."
Two rows behind Walt, Lonnie and Frances were kissing, his hand far up her skirt. Walt reached past Georgette and smacked his brother's elbow. "Give me some money for peanuts," he snapped.
Frances smoothed her skirt. Lonnie dug a half dollar from his pocket, slapped it into Walt's palm. "Take Calvin with you."
John Wayne cantered his horse through a pass lined with Apaches, their fierce faces painted for war. Walt stood and the screen went dark. The crowd cat-called up. Hep punched his thigh. The projector's beam lay warm on Walt's neck.
A blue-haired woman named Eloise read a paperback behind a long counter. Calvin pressed his nose to the glass, and Eloise held up a crooked finger. She read half a minute more, then marked her place in the book with a ticket stub. Her eyes were teared over, and she raised them to Walt.
"Never marry an Arabian," she said. "They's hot for the evening, but cold come morning."
"I just want some peanuts and licorice."
"Oh, yes," she said. "Peanuts and licorice."
Eloise shook a paper sack and stirred peanuts under the roasting lamps. Walt moved along the counter to where photos of movie stars were displayed beneath the glass: Roy Rogers in a white hat tilted to match his grin; Robert Mitchum hunched over a campfire; Betty Grable dressed as a saloon singer, showing a long, slender leg and pointing six-shooters in the air.
"Anything else?" Eloise said. A sack of peanuts sat on the counter. Calvin leaned against the glass twirling a licorice whip.
"You got photos of Shirley Temple?"
"Well"—Eloise shuffled down and slid open the back side of the counter—"we ought to, I think."
She set a photo album before her, then licked her thumb and turned the stiff pages, stopped on a picture and spun the album to face Walt. The photo was of a little girl singing. She wore a ruffled dress, her hands framing her face as if they were the petals of a flower.
"How much?" Walt asked.
"Half a dollar."
Walt glanced about the lobby to be sure no one was watching. "Keep the other stuff," he said. "I'll take the picture."
Eloise's nose wrinkled. "That boy's woffed on that candy."
Calvin hugged Walt's leg, licorice swinging from his mouth.
"It's my birthday," Walt said, placing the half dollar on the counter. "I'm sixteen today."
"Well," Eloise said, pondering. She turned to the ticket booth by the entrance and hollered, "Earl!"
The booth opened and out leaned Earl. "What you need?"
"This gentleman wants to purchase a star photograph," she said. "He's short a nickel. He tells me it's his birthday and I'm wondering if that means anything to you."
Earl looked Walt up and down. "How'd you get in here?"
Walt glanced back at the theater doors, heard Indians whooping, rifles popping. "Don't know what you're talking about, mister."
"Didn't buy a ticket from me." Earl approached Walt. "Lester let you in the back?" he said, grabbing Walt by the strap of his overalls. "I'll pluck that sneaky goose." He dragged Walt to the front, crashing him through the glass doors and out to the sidewalk.
Earl stalked back into the lobby and Calvin was there. The boy flattened his nose and lips against the glass, giggled, then ran off. Earl trailed Calvin into the dark theater, wagging a fist at Eloise.
Eloise hurried around the counter and across the lobby. She inched open the door, slid out the photo of Shirley Temple. "Take it," she said, "and don't say nothing about it."
Walt took it.
"You all right, boy?"
Walt thought a moment. "I don't know."
Her eyes were full of doubt. "Well," Eloise said, "have you a fine birthday, child." She turned away, and the door clicked closed.
Walt sat on the curb in the marquee's light. Smoke draped a fog over the valley. Lester emerged from the alley and crossed the road toward a maroon Studebaker. Walt tucked the photo of Shirley Temple into his bib and trotted over.
"Hey, Lester," Walt called. "I get a lift?"
Lester spun, startled. His eyes were wet, the breast pocket of his shirt torn dog-eared. He no longer wore his usher's jacket. "Fuck you."
"What's wrong with you?"
"Hey now," Walt said. "I tried covering for you and got kicked out myself—"
"Fuck you." Lester's chin trembled.
"You best watch how you're talking."
Lester turned to his car. "Fuck you, queer."
Walt watched him open the door.
"Take it back," Walt said.
Lester climbed into the car, and Walt quickly blocked the door.
"Take it back." He grabbed Lester's shirtfront.
Lester was crying. "Fuck you," he mumbled. "Just fuck you."
Walt punched Lester's mouth. He felt a tooth give, and Lester flopped across the seat. Then he slowly sat upright, pulled his feet in over the pedals, started the motor. He gripped the door handle and looked up at Walt. His eyes were glazed. Blood trickled down his chin.
"I just wanted a ride," Walt said. He offered Lester his handkerchief, but Lester wouldn't have it.
Walt stepped back, and Lester closed the door. The car pulled away with its headlights off.
Walt sucked a cut on his knuckle, wondering what people could see in him. He crossed back over to the theater. Earl sat in the ticket booth eating peanuts. Walt leaned against the Fort Apache movie poster. He tugged his fedora low, glared at Earl through a circle cut in the glass. "Suppose you're gonna hire another pansy like Lester to stand at that door?"
Earl cracked a shell. "Ain't so big yourself."
"They's bigger boys, but I'm tough as a cob."
Earl tossed the nuts into his mouth, his mustache shifting as he chewed. "I threw you out pretty easy."
"Let me in and see if you get it done twice."
Earl raised his brows. "All right," he nodded. "Job's yours if in five minutes' time you get out whoever else snuck in with you."
"Start the clock, mister."
Earl grinned, showing silver-capped teeth. He stepped from the booth and held the door for Walt, who hastened past him and then Eloise, lost again in her paperback.
On the screen, soldiers and ladies paraded in a formal dance, the fort's hall bright and clean and full of music. All Walt had wanted to do was see this movie and forget himself for a while. Instead he climbed the stairs and crouched in the aisle beside Lonnie.
"This movie ain't for shit."
Lonnie yawned. "I ain't been following it."
"Hep got his truck?"
"Think Hep walked somewhere?"
"Them firemen ought to be gone from that lounge," Walt said. "Think we might find something in them cinders?"
"Like I don't know. Some liquor? A radio or something?"
Philadelphia and the soldier kissed on a dark boardwalk, the din of the party behind them. Light from the screen flecked Lonnie's eyes. He tipped the brim of Walt's hat.
"Hep," he called down the aisle. "We gots to go."
The lounge's sign was lightless. The girls and Calvin stayed in the truck as lookouts. Walt wore his new usher's jacket, strolling the burnt and dripping shadows. Everything reeked of smoke, everything wet and black. In the middle of the rubble were a table and chairs, bright orange like poppies in a cave. Walt sat at the table expecting to feel a change, a secret breeze. But it was just a chair, damp in its seat, and he couldn't figure why some things burned while others were spared.
In one corner, Hep and Lonnie were inspecting a heap that was once a juke box. Hep raised a disc, trying to read its label by the moonlight. Smoke grimed the night, the moon low and muzzy.
Walt clambered over bricks, joists, the remnants of an old mahogony bar. An icebox had fallen sideways. He tugged open its door to an acrid spill of alcohol and glass. Picking through the refuse, he found an intact bottle of vodka and a bomb-shaped jug of berry liquor.
Lonnie called from down by the lanes, where he and Hep were struggling to lift a shelf fallen facedown. Walt hurried over, set aside the booze, and grabbed and pulled until the shelf was upright. Hidden beneath were the wet, shining spheres of bowling balls.
Hep lifted a ball. "What we gonna do with 'em?"
Lonnie held a ball swirled blue and white and melted flat on one side. He squinted, peering into its finger holes. "You hear about that girl from Selma?"
"The one that boy Elmer keeps talking up?" Hep asked. "The one what's gonna be in the movies?"
"She singing up in the city?"
"At that pageant?"
"That's tonight, ain't it?"
"We ain't goin' to no goddamn pageant."
"Hell no," said Lonnie, sliding his fingers into the ball. "We goin' to Selma."
Lonnie and Walt rode in the truck bed with the bowling balls. The back roads were pocked, and the balls caromed against the sidewalls. Walt and Lonnie laughed, warding them off with their boot heels. Then Hep turned onto Old Saints Highway, and the balls settled into a languid buzz.
"Lonnie?" Walt said.
Lonnie sat beside him, the vodka in his lap, eyes shut to the night. "Yeah?"
"When we goin' out West?"
Lonnie's eyes didn't open, but he uncapped the bottle. "Hell if I know."
"You said we would when I got old enough. Said one of these times we'd hop a freight and get on out of here."
Lonnie drank, saying nothing.
Walt glanced through the cab's back window. Calvin lay sucking his fingers, asleep in his mama's lap. "I ain't a kid no more."
Lonnie's eyes opened. He wiped the bottle on his sleeve, handed it to Walt. "Won't be no different out there, kid. Out West you ain't got no people to look after you. I'll fight tooth and nail for you. But not out there. Ain't nobody to fight for you out there."
Vodka burned down Walt's throat. His eyes watered. "All I ever think about is hopping that freight."
Lonnie took back the bottle. "Ever hear of an animal what chews off its leg to get free from a trap?" He set the bottle against his lips. "That's what it's like to try and leave this place. Just ask Hep, if my word don't rate."
The road did not buckle or sway, the highway lines unfurling like ropes tethered to the town. "I ain't gonna live in no trap," Walt said. "I'm gonna be gone."
"Hard to run with but one leg, kid."
Lonnie hooked his arm around Walt's neck and pulled him to lie against his chest. Walt's head rested over his brother's heart, and he watched the dark fields pass, the bowling balls buzzing, tires humming over the pavement.
They trolled between rows of lightless homes, then the road opened onto the square. Three sides were shops with common walls and blond brick facades. Storefront windows gathered moonlight. In the center was a circle of flowers surrounding a copper statue of a soldier, weathered green and glowing like a spirit. They drove past it all and turned up a hill, parking at the crest, with the Macy Funeral Home and its white stone belfry shining to the east.
Walt's mind was clear but his legs were drunk. Lonnie unlatched the tailgate. He wiped a ball clean and walked to the middle of the road. They left Calvin sleeping in the cab, the girls and Hep stinking of berry liquor.
The asphalt gleamed into the square. Lonnie rushed forward and heaved. The ball hopped, bounding higher, accruing velocity, and at the base of the hill slammed square into the passenger door of a long, black Chevy.
The others laughed and howled. Walt felt uneasy, waiting for a light to turn on in the pitch-black town.
"It's yours, kid," Lonnie said to Walt. "For your birthday. What you gonna call it?"
"Your town. Ain't no one here but us."
"Where they at?"
"Up in the city."
"The whole town?"
"Don't take much for these yokels."
Walt surveyed in all directions. "That girl must sing like an angel."
"I heard she sang so pretty it made a man mess his pants," Frances said. "Didn't want to miss a note of her singing, and just let loose right there in the hall."
"Hep sings better than that girl," Lonnie said. "Hep's singing'll make you weep."
"Bet that man who shit his pants did some weeping," Frances laughed.
Lonnie scowled at her. "What the hell you know about anything?"
"I know that girl's goin' off to California to be in the movies, and you and Hep ain't never gonna leave that freight yard and ain't never gonna be nothing."
"Ain't no girl," Lonnie said. "Ain't no freight yard. No Selma. No California. It's all gone. No pageant, no city, no nothing. Ain't nobody but us. We's the only ones left in the whole goddamn world." He glanced over at Walt. "It's your world, brother," he said. "Now what you gonna call it?"
"I don't know."
"Call it how you feel."
Walt peered out over the hot, empty land. "Fort Apache," he finally said. "Let's call it Fort Apache."
Walt's ball knocked a puff of brick powder from the First National Bank. Frances shoved her ball from between her legs, and it veered off into the ditch weeds. Hep threw with a hop and a high arm finish and broke the glass of a barber pole, and Georgette's ball launched from a gutter to clang against the statue of the soldier.
In a lull between crashes, Walt sat in the truck beside Calvin, the boy asleep with a ball clutched to his chest, his eyes flitting beneath their lids. Walt couldn't remember what he'd dreamed as a child, couldn't remember when he'd first come awake to his present and unspeakable longings.
He covered the boy with his usher's jacket, then pulled from his overalls the photo of Shirley Temple. Her smiling face was perfect. Perfectly asleep. Walt wished he'd never seen her kissing soldiers. He lay the photo beside Calvin's cheek.
Sleep, child, he thought, and don't never wake up.
Walt threw ball after ball, knocked the slats off a wooden bench, cracked veins in the market's window, detonated a hubcap off the Chevy's wheel. Glass shrapnel glinted on the sidewalks. Balls lay randomly in the square, like the town had been bombarded by cannon.
Soon the truck bed was empty. Without waking Calvin, Lonnie eased the last ball from the boy's arms. It shined like black glass, a gold star etched around the finger holes.
"Hollywood special," Lonnie said, offering it to Walt.
Walt sank his fingers through the star. He bolted forward and hurled, and shortly came the clatter of glass from the dress shop window in the rear of the square. Hep yawped like a cowboy. Lonnie tore down the hill, and Walt followed, howling, his arms swimming. Lonnie was far ahead and plucked a ball from a gutter and heaved it through the barbershop's door. Then the road flattened, and Walt lost his footing and flopped into the flowers at the base of the copper soldier.
Georgette ran by, hair loose in her face. She chucked a ball off her thigh through the bakery's window. Hep climbed onto the hood of a Buick and slammed a ball over and over against its roof. The post office windows were laced with wire; Frances tossed the same ball twice and the glass folded like a frozen blanket.
Walt took to his feet. A copper face, bearded and stern, glowered above him. The soldier did not carry a rifle, but instead an enormous book lay open in its hands. Lonnie called for Walt from inside the dress shop. Walt stared up into the soldier's face. Beneath a short-billed cap its eyes blazed, transfixed on the book. Walt grabbed an unbending arm and lifted himself. The pages were unreadable, weathered smooth and corroded. He ran his fingers over the cool metal, musing how someday this statue would be gone, and all these buildings, and all these roads.
The square was momentarily still. Then Lonnie hollered his name again, and Walt dropped to the ground and raced across the road and the sidewalk of shattered glass.
Inside the dress shop, Lonnie was nude but for a white bonnet, strutting with a hand on his hip and Frances on his arm in a pink fringed dress. Hep skipped ahead of them, tossing panties as a flower girl would petals. Georgette swayed naked before a trifold mirror, slow dancing. Then Frances was beside Walt, laughing, saying she needed a bridesmaid, pulling a dress over his head. Her laughter was warm and Walt laughed, too, and off came his fedora.
She tossed it to Lonnie and stretched a wig over Walt's skull. Lonnie ran with the fedora, chasing Georgette. She shrieked, pale breasts bobbing, then Frances's face was in front of Walt's saying, "You're so beautiful, Walt," and Walt did not want Georgette to wear his hat, and he ran after Lonnie through the racks of dresses.
Clothes smacked Walt's shoulders and face. Lonnie would not stop, on through the back and toward the front, washed in milky moonlight. Glass crunched beneath Walt's boots, and he suddenly felt as if he might be sick. He bent at the waist, gasping.
When he stood again he faced the mirror. Walt saw himself in triplicate, in the wig, blond and curled in a popular style. He pulled the frock tight to his waist and regarded his dirty face in the faintly reflected light. He looked like a film star.
Then, as if conjured from his dreams, Hep stood behind him. Their eyes held each other. Hep's palm came across Walt's chest. He lifted off the wig, returned the fedora to Walt's head. Blood ticked in Walt's ears.
Light flashed in the back and Hep looked away. Walt looked, too, to see Lonnie running, yelping, twirling a burning dress above his head. Its hem threw sparks, the flames brighter with each turn.
Walt felt Hep take his hand. "Want to ring the bell?"
They ran whooping across the square, past the soldier and the bank and the ruined Chevy. Climbing the hill, Walt shed the frock and hurled it into the weeds. He followed Hep through a ditch and the funeral home's yard to stand beneath a dark window. Palms on the pane, Hep pushed and the window lifted.
"Give me a boost," he said.
Walt clasped his fingers, and Hep stepped into them and climbed through the window.
Walt grabbed the sill, pulled himself up. He tumbled inside and into Hep, knocking him down. Hep groaned and then was on Walt, and they rose laughing, knocking aside folding chairs, groping, tackling each other.
They found stairs leading up and took them. Hep grabbed Walt in a headlock, and Walt laughed, trying to keep his feet. Then came another flight of stairs, narrow and lightless. They climbed blindly, Walt clutching the back of Hep's belt. Then Hep was saying hold it, hold it. After some fumbling, a door swung aside, and sterling light flooded the stairwell.
They scampered into the belfry, an octagonal room open to the night. In the middle hung an enormous, glowing bell, its metal reflecting the moonlight. Hep was sweating. His smile had vanished. His eyes searched Walt's for approval as he unbuttoned his shirt.
Hep's chest was smooth, and drawn above the palpitations of his actual heart was a blue ink tattoo of a heart—not a cartoon heart but an organ twisted and muscular, arteries jutting like snakes strangling a stone. He took Walt's hand and stepped to a sill. Walt thought they might jump, but Hep stopped and said softly, "Ain't it like a movie?"
They were eye-level with the moon, brightly haloed. A lacquer lay over the town.
"Ever feel like your mind's set funny?" Hep said. "Like ain't a person in the world could understand you? I think I'm crazy. I really think I must be." Walt watched Hep's face, flushed in mercurial light. "Sometimes I wish I was in the movies," he said. "Not to be famous or nothing. I just wish I was made of light. Then nobody'd know me except what they seen up on that screen. I'd only be light up on the silver screen, and not at all a man."
Walt's lips grew hot. "I'm gonna leave someday," he said. "Goin' out West. You could come with if you want." His voice was eager, unsure. "We can look out for each other."
Walt heard voices down in the road, Lonnie and the girls wildly calling for them to come on. Moonlight poured over Hep.
"It don't matter," Hep said, tears collecting in his broken eye. "Stay or go, it's all the same. Don't care what Lonnie says. Can burn a thousand bowling alleys, burn down the whole goddamn world, and nothing won't change."
Walt followed Hep's gaze out beyond the square to a long row of headlights approaching from the highway. Lonnie and the girls stood half-dressed in the funeral home yard, hollering for them to come on, that they had to get the hell out of there. Walt stared into Hep's tearing eye. He wiped Hep's cheek with his palm. Hep shrank away, turned to slump against the gleaming bell.
"We gonna ring the bell, Hep?"
Hep struck the soft of his fist against the bell.
"Maybe we should ring it?"
Hep lay his face in his hands.
"Should we, Hep?"
Hep's head lolled from side to side.
"Won't never get another chance."
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