John drove with the windows open because the night air was cool and because the countryside was quiet after the loud night at Bear’s Tavern. And because, maybe, he’d had a few too many. Probably shouldn’t be driving tonight, he thought, but the county roads were empty this late on a Thursday, and anyway there’s nothing out here but cornfields and he wasn’t drunk enough, not even close, really, to miss the turns he needed to take. The roads out here were a perfect grid, with crossroads every mile, all numbered according to their distance from the center of the county. John’s car veered only a little to the left when he gave a mock salute to the 800 West sign for telling him just where he was.
He admitted to himself that he may indeed have had too much Bud Light when he saw the next sign. He could have sworn it said 783 West, which made no sense at all. He pushed the brake pedal, belatedly checking his rearview to insure no one was behind him. The road was all his. He peered up through the windshield at the numbers on the sign, barely illuminated by his headlights. The sign did indeed read 783 West. It was not a cross road. The cornfield to his left remained unbroken. But to his right a little one-lane road moved off into the darkness, surrounded on both sides with corn yet to be detasseled and almost tall enough to cover the sign. John wasn’t quite sure how he had missed this road before. He had come this way every night for years, headed from his job at the junk yard to his house just off of 450 East. Again, he thought, maybe too much Bud Light, but I’m gonna drive down this road. He turned right.
Through his open windows John could hear the gentle rustling of the corn stalks as he eased down 783 West. In places the corn leaves brushed the fenders of his car, a gentle papery caress. The corn didn’t quite meet overhead, but even so, the road felt like a tunnel. He cruised at fifteen, hunched forward, his face level with the top of the steering wheel because he needed, for some reason he couldn’t discern, to see the sky. The road narrowed until the papery caress on each side was constant.
At the exact moment the road widened slightly, or rather the corn moved back from the road edges, John detected the aroma of cooking meat. Off to the right, in a small clearing, John saw the faint glow of what looked to be a campfire. In shadowy relief a man sat near the fire, leaning forward in the posture of one fishing. He held a stick over the fire, presumably cooking. There were dusky shapes and mounds and jutting black angles around and behind the silhouetted figure. John brought his car to a gentle stop and killed the engine.
There was no good reason to leave the car and approach the man near the fire, but John did. The smell of roasting meet was appealing, as was the quiet crackle of the flames. Bear’s Tavern had been a bit too bright and a lot too loud, the boys tying one on like usual on Thursday night to get a start on the weekend. John found the cool air and small fire inviting.
“Have a seat,” the man at the fire said. His posture did not change and his head did not appear to move. He did, though, rotate the stick in his hand, turning the meat. John could not see the man’s face in the flickering light, nor could he identify what was on the stick. He sat down on what felt like a wooden box.
Both men sat quietly. John looked at the fire and breathed deeply, trying to clear his head. After a moment he glanced around at the slow-dancing shadows. The mounds and angles around him appeared to be the remains of a house. He could see a four-square window standing unsupported where he assumed there used to be a wall. He guessed that maybe the house burned down, though it was too dark to know for sure. Perhaps the fire in front of him was suggestive.
As though he read John’s thoughts, the man said, “Yes, this was my house.”
John nodded in the darkness.
The man turned the meat over again.
“Clear night,” John said, after a moment. The stars shone brightly as they only do in the country.
“Some are,” the man said.
The aroma of the meat took on the darker fragrance of burnt flesh. The man turned the stick once more.
After a quiet moment, the dark man said, “What do you do?”
The subject of work had been, as it always was, the subject of conversation and consternation at Bear’s. John was loathe to get into it again, but didn’t want to be rude.
“Work over at the junkyard,” he said.
The man nodded. “Ass end of the car food chain,” he said.
“I was saying that same thing tonight,” John said. “We get the dead ones, and we tear them apart and sell the pieces.”
“I worked there too,” the man said. He waved his hand, the one not holding the stick. It was his first expressive gesture. “Worked there forever. Long time ago.”
“It’s about all there is out here,” John said. Again, this was the subject at Bear’s. The new cars, the boys at the bar lamented, they’re sold and bought down on the north side of the city, a hundred miles from here. They’re driven to the second-rate towns fifty miles away, then sold as used junkers and driven out into the country, and finally dropped off at the junkyards. John had visions of people buying these shitkickers in these small farming towns and driving them straight to the junkyard, without even a stop at the Walmart in between. He knew it probably didn’t happen quite like that, but on a dark Thursday at Bear’s, that’s what it felt like. His job was to wait for the inevitable piece of shit to fall apart in his yard, a hunk of metal somehow worth less than the sum of its parts.
“Feels like vulture work,” John said.
“Honest vulture work, though,” the man said.
“Not what I thought I’d be doing at this point,” he said.
“Tell me about it,” the man said.
The meat now smelled entirely burned, but the man still held it over the fire.
“You retired from the junkyard?” John asked.
The man waved that away. “Been a long time, as I said.”
“What happened to your house?” John said.
The man said nothing.
The meat on the stick caught on fire. The flare of flame startled John, gave him a retinal glare. The man sat still and turned the meat again. The fire crawled around the meat, fully engulfing it.
“I think it’s done,” John said.
The man was silent and still.
“What happened to your house?” John asked again.
“Don’t,” the man said. The meat sputtered and crackled. A small tendril of flame, maybe attached to some skin, fell from the stick.
John shifted on his box. He thought about getting up and leaving. Whatever Bud Light buzz he’d had was gone.
“They told us we’d never go anywhere,” the man said quietly. The stench of burnt flesh was strong now. “And they were right. What is there to do out here in these fields? Didn’t want to farm. So we started that junkyard, all those years ago.” He shook his head. “Replacement truck parts and tractor parts and all the rest. Ass end of the food chain. But that’s what we had.” The burnt piece of meat finally fell off the stick. The man held the stick in the fire for a moment, turning it every so often, charring the naked end. Then with sudden violence he yanked the stick from the fire and jammed it into the darkness beside him. John heard a sickening crunch. The man raised the stick once more and held a new piece of meat over the fire, still wriggling. Its shape was undiscernible.
John remained seated on his box but moved a few inches away. The darkness of the field or meadow around him had deepened as he looked at the fire. He could no longer see his car, could barely see the stars, could feel but not really see the debris around him. The man near the fire remained in stationary shadow. The aroma of freshly roasting meat once more filled the air, coupled with the smell of burnt hair and accompanied by the crackle of the fire and the sizzle of fat. John couldn’t think of a single word to say. He scooted away further.
“Don’t,” the man said again. “There’s nowhere to go out there.”
Then, after another moment of silence, he spoke once more.
“I got another stick here, if you want it.”
Aaron J. Housholder teaches writing and literature at a small liberal arts university. His work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Cheap Pop, Barren Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. He serves as the Fiction Editor for Relief Journal. You can find him on Twitter @ProfAJH.