There are two years between Pistol and Elwood, and Blue clicks into that gap. Yet she talks and walks faster than any of the boys in her hood—her friends can testify to that. Pistol looks as confused and genderless as that oyster he’s carving the life out of with his father’s old switchblade: a girl behind his shell; a boy in his glistening gold skin, with the curls of his copper hair combed back to the scalp and his baby-blue shirt untucked and two sizes too baggy from the waistband—his vision of perfection in another frame. Elwood, on the other hand, is an old soul stuck in a young man’s body who has long lost the need for words and now talks only about his dreams full of tumors and horses as dark as his skin. He leads the trio forward with nothing but a grumble in his belly and a squish under his loafers en route to Drew Park, where Blue’s mother used to pick her pastries and lovers from before she died of a combination of both.
Blue, as always, seeks Jesus, but in today’s case, one Jésus Parejo, her father, the first of many, as printed on the flip side of the letter in her bag. Just the month before, a military-cut man who looked too white to be a relative and too old to be her friend showed up at her late mother’s service and handed her the envelope with the heart-shaped logo of Social Services stamped on it. The skin on the back of her neck went cold as soon as she spotted the name on the first fold. She checked the print a few times, but the truth of the ink was absolute. The letter had a more personal vibe to it than some others she had to deliver during the day, a pearl of fate or a cut-rate omen she just couldn’t afford to avoid. At sixteen, she still knew as little about her father as her job, from which she took the morning off to work up the courage and finally meet the man.
“Ariel would’ve loved that,” said Mr. Pickering, her mother’s childhood friend who’d offered Blue the spot at the post office on Pinecrest, filling his voice with a teary-eyed tinge. “See you all gussied up and responsible for a change.”
Against Blue’s expectations, her responsibilities are now stretching out in front of her eyes in the form of godlike buildings and sickly avocado trees. Spring is already halfway above the Tampa skyline, and wherever the trio takes, it is either a left turn immediately following a right or vice versa as if the city were mirroring Blue’s confused mind. She can’t understand how it’s possible, but some roads keep returning to themselves as though her mother, with the help of some postmortem magic, concealed the traces that would lead to the man. Past a block or two, a series of condos and cubicles falls apart into an upper-class district only to regain its composure a few blocks later. Sidewalks start to smell of gasoline and old people, despite the thick film of rosemary cologne beaming off of Pistol’s sunburnt neck.
“We’re here,” Elwood says.
The trio stops at the ivy-clad gates of a trailer park that looks misplaced and dispersed against the descending airplanes in the background. A glance at the park, and Blue cannot decide whether she’s looking at cars acting like houses or houses acting like cars. Unlike the rest of town, there are no celebratory decorations within their eyeshot—definitely no flags, or anything in the spirit of the Fourth of July, or even remotely American. Only forgetfulness, abandonment, and poverty seem to thrive in this part of Florida.
“What is this place?” Blue asks and means it, too.
Pistol stops carving the oyster, but in truth there is nothing left to be carved. “Looks like a poor man’s retreat if you ask me,” he says, shaking his head, though Blue can’t tell whether he’s doing it in disapproval or otherwise.
At this time of day, Drew Park smells like alligator turd, although there are no alligators around this part of Tampa. Neither traffic lights nor street signs. There are a lot of trailer cars that orbit a majestic oak tree with its tall, priestly branches blessing the tenants under. Like all the other houses in the world, those trailers, too, were probably built with the promise of making one feel safe and secure at home but have failed to do so with their thin walls and lack of electricity or water service; the bathroom is an outhouse relocated every time the hole beneath fills up. Vintage vehicles are disbanded around. Roosters and chickens waddle in coops made of tangled copper wires and scrap wood. Doghouses named after dead movie stars. All in contradiction with how Blue has pictured her real father’s life would turn out to be like.
Worse, the address printed on the flip side of the envelope leads her to a cartoonishly narrow singlewide that seems to be in worse shape than some trailers they have passed along the way. But unlike the rest, this one has a cross attached to its rooftop instead of a weathercock, and a flagpole for a lamppost in its front yard. Its walls are the color of rust, once possibly a shinier red. The porch is a bit tipped over, threatening to collapse on the passersby any second. An old Chevette seems to be retired from use between a graffitied sidewall of the house and a rusted-out shower cabin, missing all its parts but front wheels.
“Is anyone home?” Pistol asks.
“There’s only one way to know,” Elwood says, then lunges forward to knock on the door.
It was on a day like this a couple of months back that Blue waited at the doorstep of another house, her own, and watched the medics haul her mother’s body onto a stretcher. Just a few minutes earlier, she was having her final vis-a-vis with that woman, who wasn’t necessarily lively but alive. Blue sat down at the side of her mother’s sickbed and asked about her birth father one last time, under the pained gaze of Baldwin, the last of many of her stepdads. In the past, her mother had skillfully evaded the subject but drunkenly joked on occasion how Blue’s father was this “American greaseball” from North Carolina with “an earnest East Coast accent barbed as deep as the South goes”; the next second he would be a “hillbilly” from Kansas, “with hardly any meat to his bones.” Blue didn’t know what any of it meant, or whether the truth hid somewhere in the tangle of her mother’s lies, but she eventually understood she would never get an answer, at least not the one she sought. So she left it at that, never to be resumed.
But that morning in bed, her mother just looked Blue in the eye until those eyes teared for no reason. An unintelligible answer popped out of her toothless mouth and then dribbled down her chin in the shape of saliva. The following moan and kicking about substituted the woman’s crippled speech and rescued her from the burden of having to say something. Even when facing death, Ariel Beau’s vocabulary functioned once again as her phantom limb, a manipulative extension of her mind games that Blue never knew how to deal with. In the seconds that followed, the woman Blue had known and loved as her mother turned from a fully formed person into a plant having difficulty wringing its armlike branches in front of her eyes. Blue, unsure of how to react, burst out laughing, in the same way she would when the Social Services man appeared out of nowhere like a genie and granted her long-lasting wish. Only then her future opened up before her eyes in a crystal-clear picture: Of course, with the kind of luck she had in life, her mother needed to get out of the way first so she could finally face the truth.
Blue now cups her hands around her eyes to peek through the screened windows and face what’s left of her family. Family functions are supposed to be hard, but not one family member seems to be around to function with. Instead, the peephole remains one bright sun, filling more and more with light. White block letters kerning tightly along the threshold are warning any unwanted guests on behalf of the man, the brat pack included: intruders will be shot and survivors will be shot again. Out of professional habit, Blue plays with the lid of a tin can mounted by the front door to accommodate mail, but it seems to be empty inside, like most things in Tampa.
Blue breaks away from her friends and steps out of the porch. Dry leaves crunch underfoot as she skims the length of the house. Between two neighboring trailers is an opening that leads to another backyard, where the grass is patchy with clay lump and cow manure and unearthing the true skin of the trailer park. In the canopy of an oak tree half a backyard ahead, she sees an old black terrier tied from its mangy hind legs to a mud-splattered Thermo King truck. The animal’s body is scaly through furless pink patches, with her bulging ribs pronouncing the early traces of dehydration. Although some leftover chicken bones are loafing in the mud around his paws like browned bananas, the creature’s eyes still plead for something proper to feed on.
“Can I help you, girl?”
Like a kid at the gates of a spook house, Blue cuts cold to the voice echoing from behind her. If she slips any sound at that moment, out of clumsiness or a heartbeat pacing a beat too fast, it’s muffled by the uprush of blackbirds on the oak tree or the drumming of her blood in her ears. As she turns around, her body lets out a hardly discernible clicking sound in the stony silence of morning air, the impression of bones wrenching restlessly in a tense body. When she finally looks up, the voice presents itself as a barefoot, impish old man poking his head out of the back of the truck. He is puffing on his Pall Malls in his black clerical tunic with burn holes to match the constellation of moles on his face.
“I’m looking for one Mr. Parejo, sir,” is all Blue can put together through a dry mouth.
Although nothing moves, something in the air flips off as soon as her words found a voice—an aspect of reality, the shade of sunlight, the gravity—filling everyone’s mind with a portion of unease, including the dog.
“What about?” The old man’s voice is like rocks breaking off the cliffs.
Blue tries to spot a resemblance in his accent, but all she gets is beer breath trickling from behind his graying fluff of mustache.
“I’m afraid that should stay between Mr. Parejo and I, sir.” She takes one step forward and flips the letter in his direction; he bucks as if she’s just drawn a pocketknife. The dog shows pulse for the first time and barks. The man’s bald, bearded silhouette assumes an ungodly vibe against the sidelight beaming from behind the roof cross. He steps out of the truck to take a better look at the letter in her hands, and then frames Blue with a hesitant gaze. An air of suspicion wreathes his face even more than the cloud of smoke he exhales.
“Follow me,” he says, flicking his cigarette toward the dog.
* * *
There is a time and place that stand out from where Blue’s favorite memories as a kid are stored, and in all of them, in a dreamlike fashion, she’s riding in her father’s thirty-year-old Ford Bronco along the blacktopped guts of Florida. It may very well be a false memory, but she can vaguely remember the man reaching out to the backseat to fasten her seatbelt, and the more she pushes, the more the colors on his face crystallize into geometric shapes and then zoom back into a vagueness of features. Many a night, halfway between sleep and wakefulness, she tossed and turned in bed to conjure that man into her dreams. One day he would be a lanky, glassy-eyed businessman with a three-piece suit, and the next a sad middle-aged soldier. His face was a blank canvas that flickered from one shape to another all night long depending on each new description her mother had given earlier in the day, until one day it stopped altogether.
But she’s never pictured him like this: a man of indeed no distinctive features, resuming his life spouseless, friendless, lifeless in a house the size of a prison cell, those four walls that seemed to have succumbed all sides of a person and made it an indispensable part of the concrete. Just like its owner, the singlewide looks far from its days of glory with its nameless species of off-colored plants, browned mirrors, and paint-flaked walls. Apart from some world maps and crosses hung here and there, there is nothing within sight that documents any sign of familial life—no dusty frames of an American family on the walls, no sticky notes on the fridge, and definitely no daughterly figure around. Instead, the minimum aspect of human existence is only on display through numerous yellow spots in the kitchen sink or those greasy fingertip marks on the windows as if breath has never touched this place or has abandoned it not so recently.
“I’ll always have a bit of scatter at home,” the man says after catching Blue’s inquisitive gaze. “I’m not apologizing for it anymore.”
Blue moves the junk aside on the burn-holed sofa to burrow herself a spot to sit; he takes the upturned laundry basket opposite her. She looks for traces of recognition on his face, but up close his face looks more like a piece of meat left out in the open for far too long. His orbital area looks particularly like one big breast, with a skin tag for a nipple.
“Would you like me to play something for you?” He stares up at her with level eyes. “I’m afraid I don’t have much else to offer.”
Blue nods, not knowing what else to do; she realizes she hasn’t been breathing properly. The man gets up and walks over toward what seems to be a spontaneously formed hallway lined on both sides by crates. Soon he reappears with a cardboard box full of old vinyl records and cassettes and leaves it on the open kitchen counter with a thud. He removes a small tape player from a bundle of odd items and blows the dust off the machine. He fiddles with the switchboard that lost all its ink and then finds the right button after a few tries. The player haws out a mercurial zing, filling the ambient silence of the room with the sound of taped silence before the tobacco-tinged voice of Springsteen takes over.
“God, the voice.” The man shakes his head in mock disbelief. “Slips right through your best defense every time.”
Blue’s mind is too preoccupied to compute his words; she’s thinking about her mother and how she started to confuse Springsteen with Springfield nearing the end, how this was one of the first signs of everything that went wrong with her according to Baldwin. Yet Blue keeps this to herself, watching the man pull out of the box a fully green plastic GI Joe whose missing leg seems to have been replaced by strips of Band Aid and a sticklike prosthetic gadget.
“Tell me, girl.” He grabs a towel from the countertop. “What’s your deal, really?” He swipes the layers of dust gathered on the toy’s only good leg before leaving both the toy and the towel on the plinth of the player. “What brings you to this dump?”
Blue abruptly jolts up from the sofa and starts to roam about the room. The first-ever conversation they’re supposed to be having as father and daughter hasn’t been going anywhere near how she pictured it. All the words she has carried in her mind all day—all those years—even the gaps and commas in between, have now been resonating differently in the ambience of this strange house and against the face of this strange man. She feels overwhelmed with this need to touch everything she passes along the way to remind herself that this is her moment and it’s real. From one of the windowsills she picks up this black-and-white picture of a little girl squeezed in a tiny wooden frame. The girl is a mousy brunette with a face similar to Blue’s mother’s, only much younger; she’s staring away from the camera between three older kids, each being uncooperative in different ways. On the lower right corner, the photographer seems to have left his mark as the shadow of a peanut-shaped head while probably manning the camera.
“Let’s say a friend had a dream,” Blue speaks for the first time, then sets the frame back on the sill. “And in this dream, she had to watch her house burn up in big, big flames.”
The man barely nods, his eyes on her.
“And, say, she’d like to learn what it was all about.”
For a while, nothing moves in the room other than their heaving chests and sunlight. He stares at her, and she stares back.
“I think I can help you out with that,” he says.
He pushes the stop button on the player and places it back in the box. He pats his hands against each other to mark the end of a job done and hauls the box right next to the bookcase. He reaches over and pulls an old tome from the top shelf full of leatherbound classics and textbooks. He blows the dust off the bony surface of the tome and flops his body back on the laundry basket. The spine reads, in golden serif letters, the bible.
“You see, girl,” he starts hesitantly, “there are all sorts of fire in these pages if that’s what you’re looking for.” He theatrically flips a page or two. “Bonfire, campfire, hellfire. You name it.”
Blue nods in a magnetic trance.
“Why don’t you tell me a bit more about this friend’s dream?” he asks.
Blue switches her gaze between the man and the book to make sense of the scene but fails. “What do you want to know?” she asks to carry on with their little game.
He lodges his ring-clad fist under his chin. “Was the protagonist of this dream a firefighter by any chance?”
Blue shakes her head.
The man nods as if it explains a lot. He leafs through the pages one by one, and then in bulks. He pauses halfway through and tracks one of his bejeweled fingers down the page to pretend he’s looking for something particular. “Care to tell me what kind of a fire was that?”
“Told you it was a house fire,” she says.
The man glances up over the book. “See, girl, you’re not exactly being very helpful here.” He hooks a finger down the top of the page like a bookmark. “And God knows I’m trying my very best.”
Blue’s eyes go down like a lead balloon; she has long past her half-hour mark in this house, but it already feels like an eternity.
“So tell me”—the man clears his throat while crossing one leg over the other—“did this fire start on the roof? Was it the upper floors? The attic?”
“A full house, I’d say,” Blue says in all her seriousness.
“Do you know if it was her own house or a random one?”
“Can’t say for sure,” she says. “Felt very much like hers, though.”
The man is lost in thoughts for a moment. “See,” he says, “in this case, I think there are only two sides to this story.” He settles his face into the look of a doctor who’s about to break some ill news. “None better or worse than the other, I’m afraid.”
A hot flush creeps over Blue’s face, reddens her cheeks.
“If it was a random house,” he says, “then I’d certainly say it means that your friend is at last starting to find her place in the world.”
Blue nods, gnawing on the insides of her cheeks.
“I’m talking about her connection with the rest of humankind, you see,” he goes on in the absence of a conversation. “Not necessarily in the sense of the whole world but still. It can be an existential barrier she may still need to break through. Or not. Who knows? You see where I’m getting at with this?”
Blue can’t stop nodding, though she has no clue to what.
“She witnesses all these things unraveling around her and probably feels the pain of the longing for a family.” Sigh. “You see, I don’t even think this pain has to be channeled to her own family. That’s not the point. The point is”—he looks up—“that she’s finally beginning to slip into her own skin after so many years in the dark because she remembers she is a human being too and believes she deserves happiness like everyone else.”
Blue wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand, which is damp and salty with running tears.
“But if it was her own house burning”—the man shuts the book in a puff of dust—“well, then I’m sorry to say, girl, but things start to change.” He carefully places the book on the dirty gray rug and pushes it in the direction of Blue. “Because then it would mean this girl feels that her life has started to come down around her. You know, that someone made some decisions for her in the past and now she thinks they might be coming back to bite her. It means she’s going through a period of her life where she feels like a complete ruin and that nothing is salvageable anymore. And you know what? It’s probably true. She probably needs to rebuild her life to forget about it all. Move elsewhere, anywhere, and start anew.”
He sighs like an engine dying in an old machine before locking eyes with Blue.
“Starting with a new family.”
The sound of each breath is magnified in the glassy silence of the room. The dog barks on the other side of the window. Blue gazes about the room to do something efficient with her eyes. At first she gets used to the idea of looking at the man, then turns to look at the man, and lastly collapses on the rug like a windblown scarf. Her face jerks to left and right as if she’s being slapped by a pair of invisible hands. Her feet kick about and stomp on the Bible along the way; the book swerves toward the far corner, where the crates are. The man does nothing, says nothing, and just watches the girl writhe on the ground for a few more minutes until she idles down to a state of stillness.
With a push on her knee, Blue stands up one leg at a time and wipes the saliva collected in the corners of her lips. She asks if she can use the bathroom but starts toward the hallway before waiting for an answer. After she closes the door behind her, she leans her back against the hardwood frame and feels the firmness of the handle on the small of her back. She swallows a gulp of air and kneels to throw up into the bowl. She flushes a few times to get rid of the smell, but those soupy pieces drifting in the low tide won’t go anywhere. She removes her mother’s pills from the breast pocket of her uniform and swallows them without water. She gets up to wash her hands in the sink and lets them shake for a while.
When she finally looks up in the mirror, she doesn’t see anything there, at least not right away; it’s just through the mist of her breath and the steam of hot water the image of a sixteen-year-old girl gradually comes into view with that same dumb smile she remembers very well from her mother.
* * *
“What took you so long?” Pistol says as Blue slams the door shut behind her.
Heads pop out of neighboring trailers to try and find fresh ways of looking at this uneventful way of living like ants scouring for crumbs of intelligence for wintertime. At the bottom of the porch stairs, Blue glances at everything in the park except at her friends; the sky has paled from yellowish blue to a bluish shade of yellow in her absence and brought a colorless face of civilization made of cardboard and scrap metal and lapsed parenthood into better view.
“You know, we were starting to get worried.” Elwood sneaks a glance. “Worried for him.”
Blue opens her bag to avert the attention and pretends she’s busy checking the day’s work. She hooks from the bottom of her bag the letter she was supposed to deliver to this man who was supposed to be her father. Between her fingers, the envelope feels almost airy, another sign that it’s the words that lend most letters their weight and significance. The paper stock is similar to those of her unsent letters to her father, with its disjointedly venous grains representing the magnitude of her anger, coupled with a touch of stylish embossment for the proof of their financial wellbeing with her mother. If they had any voice at all, those feelings, it would have been concealed in the rustle and texture of the paper, that loud silence synonymous with the gravest of letters. But they can also be problematic at times, those letters. They can muffle what the words they carry want to deliver. So one has to pay closer attention—to hear out those senders. Curious, snail senders. Hopeful senders. Orphaned senders.
“You all right, girl?” Pistol rests a hand on Blue’s shoulder.
“Please don’t call me that,” Blue says, taking a step back.
The sky splits open and comes to her rescue with a light fall of rain. Half a yard ahead, a rare beam of sunlight peeks through the clouds and sketches lines on the dog’s miserable face. With each raindrop, the potholes around the dog’s paws look more and more like small graves dug out for its impending death. Blue snatches the switchblade off of Pistol’s hands and walks toward the oak tree to cut the rope that holds the old creature captive. Even after its newfound freedom, the dog doesn’t move. It stares at her, and she stares back. It seems to have expected to die soon and couldn’t care less now whether it is free or not, or even alive. Blue removes the letter from her bag, crumples it into a ball in her hands, stoops to dip it in one of the pooled holes in the ground, and feeds it to the dog. The dog gives in and hunches its neck to do as indicated.
“What’s going on?” Pistol asks Elwood, who looks similarly confused.
Blue lifts the dog and places it behind the zipper of her uniform to protect it from the rain. She caresses the back of the animal’s head as she flings her bag over her shoulder and walks back toward her friends.
“Men,” she replies, pouting.
Sarp Sozdinler (he/they) is based between New York and Amsterdam. His work has been featured or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y, HAD, No Contact, Epiphany, Passages North, The Offing, among other publications. Some of his longer pieces have been selected as a finalist at literary contests, including the Waasnode Short Fiction Prize judged by Jonathan Escoffery. He is perpetually at work on his first novel.
www.sarpsozdinler.com | @sarpsozdinler