Summer Stories: ‘Mayday’ by Bruce Holbert
May 30, 2020 Updated Sun., May 31, 2020 at 11:45 a.m.
College hadn’t worked out for Yeller: He had not even learned to drink well. By spring, his second sophomore year at Eastern Washington University – Eastern Washington State College three years before, their mascot, the Savages; little Indians with tomahawks remained in the athletic facility’s brick walkway – Yeller was an Eagle and a fairly lost bird.
He opted for college to avoid construction work. It’s not that he didn’t respect working with your hands: He was no good at it. Upon graduation, most of his high school classmates migrated to the Tri-Cities and employment at the nuclear plant. Ironworkers, boilermakers, machinists, welders, operators: All the union books opened, but Yeller could ruin an anvil with a feather duster. He didn’t trust himself on a project that could melt half the state.
Recently, he took work selling knives, strong enough to cut metal, out of a briefcase. A customer once inquired why she would want such a knife.
“Don’t you think it’s better to have a knife that cuts metal and not need it than to need a knife to cut metal and not have it,” Yeller responded. He was a sincere person and eager for his clients’ comfort. He believed every kitchen ought to have proper equipment.
In the tavern, he chatted up all those he knew: locals and out-of-towners and students – the knives made excellent gifts for parents. Those he didn’t, he introduced himself and hunted for the portion of them that bought things. He never felt off duty. It wore him out. One tavern breakfast, he found himself with no one on either stool beside him. Others picked through omelets or stabbed their overeasy eggs with toast, but Yeller no longer noticed the bustle.
The muscles in his shoulders relaxed, and his head lolled a little. It was as calm as he had ever been. He let his breakfast sit. He didn’t drink his orange juice. For an entire song, he didn’t move. Not the frozen hide-and-seek sort of stillness, but tranquil without effort – like a tree or mountain.
A jukebox song finished, then another. The gears in his head gently engaged. They pressed him someplace poorly lit. He squinted. Light clung to the ground, low and ethereal; it seemed to emit from underneath. Shadows appeared like wraiths, not zombies nor frightening nor silent nor depressed.
Eventually, Yeller recognized he must return to the barstool and his breakfast and ordinary chaos in the room. He determined he would retain this moment, though. There would be signs. The bartender refilled his coffee. Yeller glanced up. The man wore a simple bill cap, but stitched to its brim was a yellow hoop and inside a silhouetted rodeo rider aboard a rearing horse.
“What time is it?” Yeller asked.
The bartender glanced at his watch. “Half past one.”
The haberdasheries were all closed. Tomorrow, Yeller thought. Tomorrow he would become a cowboy.
Ten minutes later, a drunk woman approached him. Her husband required dialysis, and she wanted to winter him in Arizona. She offered him a lottery ticket for $10.
“I can get my own for half that,” Yeller told her.
“But who would it help?” she asked.
He didn’t have $10. Breakfast was the end of his cash. He offered her a knife. “It cuts metal,” he said.
Yeller exchanged the knife for the ticket. “It’s sad for me to lose this,” she said. “But it may be good luck to you.”
Outside, the sun hurt Yeller’s eyes. He’d determined today to visit the library. Tomorrow was his midterm in Intro to Biology, a class he hadn’t attended in two weeks. He’d encountered a woman in the back row; she’d asked if he knew where to get extra pencils. He offered her his. When the professor began his lecture, she scratched words furiously into her notebook, her pretty face bunched with attention.
She did not notice Yeller wrote nothing, nor did she return the pencil after. The weeks following, Yeller occasionally encountered her on campus. Once his eyes met hers, but Yeller saw nothing like recognition. In fact, her nose wrinkled as if she’d smelled something disagreeable, then she gazed down at her books and hurried past. Thinking of it hurt Yeller’s teeth.
On the sidewalk outside, people pointed west at a black line that appeared to be just horizon. Someone with a Walkman radio said a mountain blew up. That mountain, the person said. The one in the news. Yeller continued to the library. There he chose a study carrel on the top floor. The black he thought horizon had crept forward. Inside it, beautiful purple lightning fluttered too distant to provide the accompanying thunder. Yeller smelled something like dust. The black cloud climbed the sky, pressing the blue it had not yet erased bluer.
Soon the whole of the sky had surrendered. Outside, streetlights flickered orange light despite it being midday, their luminescence dimmed to dots in the falling ash. Yeller watched a football player he recognized appear, then disappear, then appear again as he made his way to a dorm. Yeller wondered if the man knew he was magic. Not just a witness to a trick but the trick itself.
The library’s overhead lights flickered, its indicator for closing. An emergency, an assistant said. She checked out books, though, like business as usual. She didn’t know this new sky cut your lungs when you breathed it. She didn’t know the Safeway would soon have no food or beer.
No one knew removing the portion over them would require all summer. No one knew it would turn concrete sludge when wet. No one knew Harry Truman was dead or the Toutle River was choked with debris. No one predicted the event would deliver the president. A disaster, the news would call it. It seemed something else to Yeller, and he was now a person with authority, a prophet.
A minor one, yes, not worthy of a chapter in anyone’s bible or a cable television show nor a 1-800 number. He patted his chest. The ticket in his pocket remained. He hadn’t studied the numbers. They wouldn’t be those listed in the paper tomorrow, though, and his name would not appear the next day as a winner. He foresaw this.
Yeller did not forecast surviving two automobile accidents in his own life or suffering an arrest and two nights of jail on a cop’s mistake. He didn’t see seven months later an encounter with the woman he’d marry. He didn’t divine she would remain the following years. He didn’t anticipate fathering three children who would overlook his inadequacies and phone each Sunday after they left home. Apprehending these things would have been a relief, yes, but a distraction.
A seer’s gift isn’t the extent of his vision, Yeller determined it’s how thoroughly one includes himself in the minute you’re in. Anyone could forecast the next sunrise or that in 7 billion years it would explode. A volcano’s eruption, though, anticipating that requires your whole presence. Yeller was uncertain how he’d managed such a feat. He was unsure he could repeat it, but even wondering that seemed staring too far up the road.
Later in the ashy pall, Yeller encountered the woman from his biology class. Her body bent forward, head down as if she were a drill bit boring through all this. He watched her pass. She persisted past, oblivious to those around her attempting to press ash into something they could throw or others making themselves angels as they had as children in snow.
He imagined her possessing the pencil still, perhaps for notes in other classes or to-do lists or parents’ correspondence. But how did all her scratching and erasing serve her? She balanced equations and simplified functions, yet she had not discerned what Yeller had: There would be no midterm.
She marched away from Yeller and the revelers, whose shadows, flattened by the opaque light and the heaviest sky imaginable, were liberated from such ordinary concerns. She could not hear their laughter – not drunken or cynical – this laughter was the laughter of children, babies even, as if the seers were remembering just now grace was everywhere.
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