FICTION May 6, 2011

Calamity’s Child

June 1903
Electric, Montana

I usually relied on my dog, Bain, for advice but since he’d taken himself for a walk the day before and hadn’t come home yesterday, or yet today, I ended up at Kuzma’s Mercantile. Greta Kuzma ran Kuzma’s Electrical Emporium & Mercantile in partnership with her husband, Marcus. The place was always dusty, decrepit, and overstocked, so you entered it holding your life egg-like in your hands because of all the large sacks of things that might fall on a child’s body and crush the life from you as you lay under a mountain of dry goods and mercantile. Like what happened to that Swede boy who slammed the door too sudden once and the big parrot there in the rafters screamed and the fresh load of pintos carefully stacked bean by bean (in one of Marcus’s famous full-scale displays of the architecture of his beloved Bohemia) came avalanching down on that boy like it was God’s avenging anger for that noisy character’s plundering Viking heritage.

Even if the threat of a wall of beans doesn’t frighten you, it’s better for you if you step quietly when entering because Greta and her friend Mrs. Gorvitch would usually be back there somewhere in the hazy shadows amidst the wagon wheels and canned goods from Illinois, sipping their laudanum-laced tea and loud noises might startle them too quick from conversation. It was that or some­body would be getting the electroflux treatment in Mrs. Kuzma’s chair and she liked it quiet. I always found it went easier if I showed up at Greta’s elbow as if I’d always been there. Usually the con­ver­sa­tion then came around to what I wanted when they noticed me standing there quiet as a door.

I arrived as quietly as possible, my hand still burning with the application of a strangers’ lips, and I must have been agitating the spot because Greta and Mrs. Gorvitch looked up from their talk as I came in and Greta asked me what in God’s good name was wrong with my hand and I said, ‘nothing.’ And so they went back to their talk. They were sitting across from each other, Greta still had her blouse loosened from her electroflux session. I wanted to tell them what had happened but they shushed me and I held my tongue and listened as Mrs. Gorvitch finished the story she was telling. Mrs. Gorvitch had very pale skin. The blue veins of her forehead could be traced along her skull, disappearing under her high starched collar and then rediscovered crawling out from under the long, lace sleeves of her blouse. Up to that day she was the oldest-looking person I knew. She offered me a piece of the tea cake they had been eating and I accepted before I realized Greta was glaring ‘no’ at me. Then I didn’t know if I should eat it or not as Mrs. Gorvitch stuck a piece on a plate and put it in front of me.

There was a long silence while I looked at my cake, watched Greta out of the corner of my eye and acknowledged Mrs. Gorvitch’s smiles at me with smiles of my own. Greta’s old parrot tottered back and forth on the beam above our heads squawking something that sounded like ‘strudel.’

Mrs. Gorvitch went back to the telling of her story about the distant cousin she’d hoped to marry back in Hungary, but he fell from a horse and down a deep well where he died calling out for his mother and breaking Mrs. Gorvitch’s heart. We hung our heads as we always did at that point in the story because it was so sad. After we sighed, Greta roused herself to ask what it was that called me away from my dental work on the floor of Chez Carl. I didn’t answer directly, because I knew they weren’t really interested in the work I still had to do, but they were asking out of not politeness really, but out of their sense of what one did. So I told them about my progress on the barroom floor in such a way that it might seem as if I believed in their interest and that I felt a sense of gratification that they should take an interest. Finally, because I felt the need to pee, I asked them directly if they knew a lady named Jane Canary.

Greta’s face colored bright red when the name dropped from my mouth. Mrs. Gorvitch leaned across the tea table toward her friend.

“What’s wrong, Greta?”

Greta picked up an illustrated magazine and began fanning herself, but she stopped and looked at me. “First,” she said, “that woman is not a lady.”

“No, ma’am. ’Course not.”

“Second, and I’ve told you this before, and you ought to know by now, that people don’t show up without a reason. There’s a plan to everything. Nothing’s ever ‘accidental’ in this electrical world. People come and they pass on for a reason. Everything –”

“Yes, ma’am. Everything flows and seeks valence.”

“That’s right,” she said and then thought for a moment, biting her lower lip. She said to Mrs. Gorvitch: “Marcus probably brought her in. He’s always up to something.” Then back to me she said: “And third, I would appreciate a glass of water, why don’t you quit squirming around in your chair like that and go get me some?”

*     *     *

I ran out to the outhouse and forgot about the water for Greta. Instead, I went out to the fields. I ran so far I forgot who I was for a minute and I stood in the field with all the grasses waving their arms and fuzzy heads in the wind. The breeze patterned the fields as if it was God’s hand, smoothing down the velvet cloth of the earth so it was showing all one color, and then shoving it back the other way, making patterns of the wide fields for the hell of it. Out on the edge of my sight, I saw the heat dancing on the horizon. The edge of the world waved with all the heat that was busy sucking the sweat out of my forehead. I’d forgotten my hat. I squinted my eyes up and thought I could see arms waving out there: Somebody waving at me in every direction I looked.

When my mother was still walking about the earth, she would have had me in the electric chair at least once a week to make sure my valence didn’t get unbalanced. Some days I felt anymore like those grasses in the field – pushed this way and that, repelled by one body’s electrical charge, only to be attracted by another’s. If you’ve never done it, I recommend an afternoon in the chair as it is a wonderfully spiritual exercise to have all your electrical energies spinning in harmony with the world. Sometimes as I sat in the chair, feeling the thrum of the machine rising through my body, I could feel a rise in the pulse of energy as though it were the swelling of tomatoes in our power plant heaving a gentle sigh of exhaustion and green desire. I wondered what a tomato might desire and when I asked my mother that she didn’t say anything for a while, and then I remembered her laugh, clear as the heat out there on the horizon. I wondered if it was because I was in the chair getting electrocuted that she laughed like that. Maybe she was thinking the tomatoes were doing the talking – just as she used to say the liquor did most of the talking in our bar. She then told me that those fluctuations I felt were the “sweeping wings of the solar wind.” Maybe that’s a desire that the tomatoes are aware of. It sounded like something a tomato would like.

Editor’s Note: Richard Russo selected Calamity’s Child as the winning entry in our Chapter One Contest. Here  are the first 20 pages of Ducey’s novel.