Limits

by Stevan Alburty

Winner,
Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition,
1998 Hemingway Days Festival


1998 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.

 

 

 

     I do not see Jason often, now that we are men, although the smallness of our town would seem to inspire chance.
      His wife comes into my pharmacy whenever Jason or one of their children is about to celebrate a birthday. She selects a card from the rack near the window. The wire carousel squeals as it spins and I vow once again to remember to move the rack away from the window, the sun having faded the color of some of the older cards and warped the gummed flaps of the envelopes.
      Jason’s wife always teases me about when I’m going to finally marry and have somebody to buy cards for. I tell her "any day" and joke about broken molds. I ask her to send my regards to Jason and the girls.
      After she’s gone, I go and sit quietly in the back room where the bottles and tubes of medicine lie on shelves. I sit on a low chair below the counter where no one can see me if they pass in front of the store along the street.
      When I was ten, Jason was my best friend and he taught me how to hide.

_____


      Every night for a week, Jason had breathlessly assured me that he had read about, heard about, and even been patted on the head in a barbershop by a man who had damn near stepped on one of the two or three remaining blue bullfrogs in the entire world and our corner of Clark County, Kentucky.
      And now on Saturday, a late summer Saturday, when sensible people in hot, soggy towns are content to sit softly and bake, Jason and I had plunged into the forest with the perspiring enthusiasm of galley slaves who have recently caught sight of port.

     "See how the moss all hangs on this side of the river?" Jason’s adolescent voice cracked, betraying his best trail-guide’s attempt to sound grizzled and authoritative. "Moss is like a roadsign to a frog. It means it's nice and cool along here in the afternoons when they like to slide up to take their naps."
      I was sure he was weaving lies, each invention quickly tailored to plug occasional leaks in my porous faith. Yet with the pragmatic exuberance of a rube who has put down good money to hear a carnival Gypsy spin a fortune, I anticipated results, but would settle for diversion.
      The forest smelled like a spice cupboard, as if everything alive in the world that was even remotely green had decided to hold a Chautauqua right there in that hollow. Having discovered at a more tender age that summer and shoes were incompatible, Jason had the feet of a fakir. Challenged, I stripped off my shoes and socks and placed modestly brave soles on the carpet the moss made. It was slightly less prickly than the coarse, wool robe of my Aunt Irma, a vigorous woman who felt that freshly-bathed nephews needed to be clutched, sniffed and tasted for sweetness.
      "What did you wash with last goddamn night?" Jason was eleven and had just learned how to curse, so he often not only overused, but misplaced his profanities as well.
      "Soap. Just soap." I lied. I had foregone the usual soap brick my mother also used to rub stains out of the tablecloth and had sudsed instead with one of the heavily-scented soap seashells Aunt Irma had sent my mother one Christmas.
      "A whore. You goddamn smell like a whore," Jason sneered. I was skeptical of his familiarity with the odor of whores, but decided not to challenge his comparison, despite his having now neatly placed the success of our mission squarely on my embarrassingly perfumed shoulders. "He's gonna get one whiff of you and hop t' hell all the way to Canada."
       Jason was unquestionably my superior in the one measurement children accept as scripture: his birthday preceded mine by three months shy a day. This endowed him with certain inalienable rights, such as the selection of Saturday adventures on behalf of the group, the group consisting week after week of just Jason and me.
      There had been a brief realignment in the balance of power one day during a Back-To-School Sale down at the dry goods. Clara, the owner, had dangled a tape from my crotch and announced like a referee in front of Jason and our mothers that my inseam was a full inch higher than his. I had no clear idea what an inseam was, but it sounded wonderfully useful and male.
      Jason let me strut in a puff for a week, then publicly dethroned me in front of fat Larry Hoffman and his giggly brother with a well-timed, "Yeah, but I'll always be learnin' the latest things to do with it three months before you." None of us, perhaps even Jason, were quite sure what it was, but Larry's brother giggled even harder just in case he was supposed to.
      Having no sister, I perceived girls not as enemies to be kicked under supper tables and shoved into drinking fountains as was custom, but simply as aliens, an obvious deviation in the siring process which, on a farm, might have produced a blind calf or an occasional beakless chicken.
      Having no brother, I had silently promoted Jason beyond the rank of friend and he now unknowingly pinch-hit for what had been thoughtlessly denied to me by unaccommodating parents.
      My father had died the year before. The night of his funeral, my mother made supper no differently than if my father had been merely inconveniently delayed coming home. We sat in the kitchen and she absently drew trenches in the padded, plastic tablecloth with her overturned fork while I tried my best to chew without making noise.
      Later that night, after my mother had done the dishes and gone to her room to cry, I snuck out of bed and sat quietly in the backyard in my pajamas, wondering exactly how my father was going to get out of the ground and up to the stars. Jason saw me from the window of his bedroom next-door and slipped downstairs. Without saying a word, he sat down on the grass behind me, drew his legs around my waist and held me tightly. He bent his face forward and pressed a cheek against mine just in time to catch the first tears with his flesh. The stars trembled, then blurred into a salty river of light.
      And so I followed Jason through the forest, as inexorably as my birthday followed his.
      The hot Saturday sun was above us now, and sparks from it lit Jason's hair as he passed under the trees. The corner of a white handkerchief stuffed in his back pocket flashed before me in the filtered light like the tail of a deer. Silken cobwebs slung from branches dissolved in my face as my feet followed his.
      I lost sight of him for an instant and then the entire forest disappeared with a thud. Shards of starlight and pain crackled like static in my head and then vanished as quickly as they'd appeared, sucked down together into the warm darkness.

_____


      As I opened my eyes, the murderous arm of a killer evergreen still swaggered above me, a drop of red on its bark marking the spot where we'd met. I felt certain that trees that decapitated small boys were not permitted to accompany their victims to heaven, so I judged that I must still be alive.
      But Jason was obviously unconvinced, for his ear was pressed against my chest in search of signs. A strand of his hair had fallen against my lips.
      I'd once bet Jason my collection of Indian-head nickels against his Daniel Boone lunchbox I could hold my breath for two minutes. But heartbeats are not as easily willed and that traitor of a muscle now caused Jason to rise sharply in relief, and then in anger. He stared at me full in the face, then slapped me hard across the thigh.
      "It's a good thing you're not dead or I damn woulda killed ya'." A drop of sweat fell down his forehead, crossed the inside corner of his eye and slowed at the side of his nose. "Didn'tcha hear me callin' back about that branch? Next time, remind me to take somebody older along when I'm huntin' serious."
      There was only one lie that would redeem me. "I thought I saw the frog, Jason."
      He flustered for a moment, annoyed at the appropriation of his personal myth. "Where?" he scoffed. "Sittin' upside the path big as you please like a State Trooper?"
       "I saw somethin' blue in the bush."
      "There's not enough wet here to keep a frog in slime for a week. Maybe it was your mother's underpants." He could see I as about to break the cardinal rule of eleven-year-old adventures: I was about to cry. "Now shut up, I'm not really mad. I just didn't want to have to cart your dead carcass all the way back to town."
      He circled his fingers around my wrist and cocked an ear toward the sun as if it ticked. When enough time had passed as he judged Doctor Saxon might have taken, he pronounced his patient fit. "You're all right now. Aren'tcha?"
      "Sure." I dug a thumbnail into the bridge of my nose, hoping Jason would think I was scratching instead of sidetracking a baby's tears.
      "Don't be pullin' at your face now. Your forehead's gashed up good. Here." He folded his arms in front of himself and lifted his t-shirt up and over his head. "We'll wrap this around it and that frog'll think you're a pirate and throw himself at your mercy." I lifted my head toward him, and as he leaned forward to bandage my wound, his stomach contracted, faint ridges of new muscles appearing as clearly as if I’d flipped a turtle onto its back. His skin had caramelized over the summer; beads of perspiration ran down his neck, darkening his tan even further as the drops snaked down the center of his chest.
      After tying the shirt behind my head with a tight knot, he leaned back onto his heels and I diverted my eyes quickly to some hastily selected point of interest in the forest. "Maybe you wanna go back," he asked, clearly telegraphing his opinion of me should I wish to surrender to my injuries and declare a retreat.
      "No! I'm fine now, I promise."
      "Okay, but if your Mom comes after me with a tire-iron, it happened on the damn way back. Swear?" I looked up into his eyes and nodded. Taking my hand, Jason lifted me to his side and we more cautiously resumed our adventure.

_____


      "Larry eats rats for breakfast."
      We had stopped to share the sandwich Jason had extracted from his knapsack. There had been no mention of Larry, nor his brother, nor any conversation at all save a discussion of who would get the half of the sandwich that had been crushed during transportation. Diverted by the length of the left-field from which Jason's remark had come, I abandoned my research into the identity of the unknown substance that served as an adhesive between the slices of compressed bread.
      "Who says?" I asked, as if the idea of ingesting rodents was reasonable enough to demand the name of the accuser.
      "I do," Jason replied. "I don't mean he really fries 'em up like bacon, for hell sake. I mean he say things that aren't so."
      "Like what?"
      Jason fidgeted on the tree stump that was serving as his seat. "Like about you."
      Two lumps formed in my throat, one the result of the bite of sandwich I was attempting to swallow. "What does he say?" In the heat of the afternoon, the whistle of a Lexington-bound freight cut through the humidity of the forest like a fork through sweet cake.
      "That we're joined at the hip or somethin'. That I can't take a piss without you watchin'. He blushed now. "Or somethin' like that." Here in the clearing, another branch was heading for my forehead. Jason waited for my response, throwing the last of his crust to a Jay that had been tap-dancing impatiently nearby.
      "Larry eats rats for goddamn breakfast," I finally said.
      He beamed, then threw the cellophane from our communal sandwich out for the bird's frustration. "Yeah," he said, "He carves their tails onto his puffed wheat like they was goddamn bananas."
      We could be friends again.

_____


      Jason saw it first.
      As compensation to all the generals who have been forced to watch a war over shoulders, it was only fair. It was late summer and another school year was about to start. For the Jasons of this world, such seasons demand a victory.
       With a finger raised above his shoulder, Jason stopped our miniature convoy. We had come to a small stream that, once liberated from the forest, conspired with fellow brooks and creeks to form the river in our town. The clay in the silt it carried downstream had turned the water chocolate and boulders sat in the running liquid like granite marshmallows. On the flattest of these rocks, at peace save an eye kept open and on patrol, sunned a perfectly normal, modestly fat, green bullfrog.
      "It's him," Jason whispered.
      "That one's plain green, Jason. If I had a penny for every one of them my mother's shoveled to death in her garden, I could buy Kentucky."
      "That's because it's bright daylight. They wait for night to start glowin'. See the lump on his head?" Indeed, there was one. I presumed it was a pocket where he kept the warts he handed out as a reward if you had the courage to touch him. "That's his switch. Soon as the sun sets, he does a handstand and bumps that old switch against the rock. He's storin' up light right now. Come 8 o'clock, he'll shine like that big neon jewel on top the Beryl Inn. Come on."
      Jason led us upstream and dropped his trousers, depositing them on the shore. Facing me and bowing forward to remove his undershorts, he paused for a moment, blushed and pretended to check the direction of the wind as he turned toward the stream and removed the last of his clothing. Grabbing a small cloth sack he had been carrying in his other back pocket, he covered himself with it until he was in the water and headed downstream. "Keep your drawers on," he whispered back to me, "Let me get 'im. I don't want your mother beatin' me up for your pneumonia, too."
      He waddled between the rocks, judging that the sound of the rushing water would cover his attack. A small cloud shaded the frog for a moment and it lurched ahead on the rock to seek more sun.
      Jason's buttocks tensed as he grabbed the frog and stuffed it into the sack. He whipped around to face his audience; one empty hand and one filled with a squirming sack shot up into the air. Naked to the world, intoxicated by sunlight and success, Jason waved as the stream roared with applause.
      I returned his salute with an open palm.

_____


      "What are ya' gonna do with him?" I asked, once Jason had entrusted me with his cache and had dressed.
      "Go on TV maybe," he ventured as he cinched up his belt. "Marlin Perkins'll hear about it and give me a whole half-hour. Maybe Walt Disney, too."
      "But it's not the least bit blue, Jason. How do you know it's the one?"
      He turned on me, snarling. "'Cause I'm tellin' ya', that's how. It's a goddamn freak." He finished buttoning his fly and grabbed the sack from my hand. "Don't you recognize one when ya' see one?"
      The force of his venom ricocheted off the forest and stones that lined the creek. The sound of his accusation returned repeatedly to my reddening ears as if it were now a giggle from behind a tree, stifled by the chubby elbow of an older brother; now a mother's moan from behind a boulder as she clutched her heart in recognition of her son's terrible sin. "I was only askin', Jason."
      His eyes were wet as the stream. "And maybe I won't go on TV. Maybe this here's the last one of its kind and there shouldn't be any more." There was no chance that Jason was an incognito, eleven-year-old activist-anthropologist just in the neighborhood to tidy up a species. I was terrified.
      "Whadda ya' mean?"
      Tenderly, as if abandoning a swaddled baby on an orphanage's door, he set the sack on a rock, then raised a stone as big as a saltlick. Quickly, with no pause for judgment or apology, he let it drop on the bag.

_____


      We didn't speak again until we had returned to the spot where we had taken our lunch. Jason had made me lead the way and I had stopped there again as if reversing the day. He took up his seat on the stump. I sat further away this time, self-exiled by embarrassment and shame.
      In the world we had come from that morning, the sun had an hour or two to go before it set, but here in the forest, the day was over and the warmth had gone. Chilled, Jason asked for his shirt again, then changed his mind as I began to remove it from my wound. "You keep it. Your mother'll want it as proof I did somethin' to help."
      "I don't need it anymore," I said quietly. "Thanks."
      Jason picked at a piece of thread that was erupting from the knee of his pants and would not raise his head as I approached him. I untied Jason's shirt from around my forehead and held it out to him.
      "I'll tell everybody you found the blue frog, Jason. If you want me to." In that hushed clearing domed by leaves and pines, my whisper boomed like a secret told under the covers when the rest of the house is asleep. "And I'll tell them you let it go."
      He raised his arms at last and permitted me to cover him with the bloodied cloth. Warmed now, Jason smiled, and we walked out of the forest together.

_____


      There had been a fence between our houses throughout our childhood. In its versatile career, it had served as the imaginary recipient of Tom Sawyer's whitewash, the cell door of Al Capone and impregnable castle walls belonging to, in alternating fantasies, the Sheriff of Nottingham and King Arthur.
      Now it was just a fence.
      From time to time, I would catch sight of Jason through the slats, tossing a softball into the air, playing catch with his own mitt. Sometimes I would chin my head above the fence and propose an adventure, but his mother often had a list of chores a mile long for him to do, or he was just getting over or coming down with a cold, or sometimes he simply, clearly, "didn't wanna." Eventually, I stopped asking.
      After eight more summers, I went off to college to study English literature, but at the insistence of my anxious mother, I selected pharmacology as a career to "fall back on," an occupation I was forced to impale myself upon shortly after graduation.
      I returned to our small town and took up my life as a druggist.
      Then, just last autumn, I was asked to run for town treasurer.
      The minority party had once again been seized by the cyclical courage which perpetually suckered them into challenging the almost dynastic, ruling elite. However meager the flow of currency through my business, my ownership and operation of a cash register was anticipated to serve as a talisman for Fiscal Responsibility. The quiescence of my personal life suggested I might be trusted to not run off to a casino or a Caribbean island with the village’s funds. It was felt, and there was no evidence I could summon in memory to the contrary, that I would lend a granite stability to the ticket.
      I attended the nomination dinner and sat red-faced on the dais as speaker after speaker referred to me by name. I was aware that all eyes occasionally fell on me and I steeled myself against those moments by imbibing more and more of the cheap, gallon-jug Chablis which was flowing copiously throughout the hall. I begged off making a speech. The candidate for town supervisor joked nervously about how he thought shyness was the very quality one would want in a treasurer.
      At some point in the evening, I finally took my eyes off my dinner plate and quickly scanned the room. At a center table, his arm slung around his wife, Jason sat and occasionally laughed aloud at one of the speaker’s jokes. Once, his head jerked to the side as a physical reaction to a laugh and his eyes caught mine. His smile froze, his face reddened and he nodded an acknowledgment of my presence. He squeezed his wife’s shoulder, sat up straighter and redirected his attention to the speaker.
      Driving home that night, I saw that political placards were already rising from lawns abutting the road. Sides were being taken, declarations were being made; the autumnal rituals of the faith of the free will had begun.
      Rounding a bend, my own name rose up and froze in the headlights like a deer. A sign suggesting my suitability FOR TREASURER, advice which had been encircled in vivid, rectangular bars of red, white and blue, had been planted in the lawn of a complete stranger.
      I braked and stopped, not bothering to pull off to the shoulder, then got out of the car, leaving the engine idling and the door ajar. I grabbed the sign and started to pull it out by the stake. I had to yank hard and the force of the struggle to remove my sign from the earth caused me to lose my balance. Surrendering to weakness, I fell backwards onto the lawn.
      I lay there crying, my adult chest gulping air in childlike panic. The river in the sky slowly disassembled into a thousand stars, each the center of an orbit, each smiling with fire at the planets in its pull. Everything in the universe attracts everything. It is the curse and comfort of gravity.
      In that taunting sky, Andromeda the princess, chained to a rock, sat in perpetual expectation for her hero and his starry steed to rescue her.
      I looked up at the moon and waited for it to fall, crushing me like a stone.

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