Lightning, God, rocks, an eternally smouldering corpse, and a giant mother are the furniture of this spectacularly macabre and hilarious short story from R. W. Gray’s first collection Crisp, which I discovered just a couple of months ago while reading books for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award (Crisp was a finalist). First, the coincidence: I actually met Rob Gray two years ago in Mark Jarman’s house in Fredericton, New Brunswick, but it did not register with me at the time that he was a writer of such gifts and charm. (Goes to show, I guess, but what?) Second, the literary refs: I love the giant woman, the smouldering car. Obviously, we are not in the world of the real, possibly the world of the Real (in the Lacanian sense). The giant mother is, of course, a descendant of Rabelais’ giants, also a relative of the mysteriously enlarging giantess in Robert Coover’s novel John’s Wife (gorgeous novel: the giant woman saves the sheriff from a forest fire by peeing on him) and even the giant pig that takes over the house in Flann O’Brien’s amazing little book The Poor Mouth. This story has, as Mark Jarman writes, “verve and swing.” It’s a pleasure to present it on Numéro Cinq. (And you can buy the book here.)
R. W. Gray was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. He is the author of two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Frederiction. Crisp is his first book.
By R. W. Gray
It’s Tuesday and our father has packed the trunk of his rusty blue car. I am seven, my brother Randy is five, and we’re both standing on the porch and what neither of us says out loud is that we’re relieved. We watch him load the last of his stuff in the car. The lamp with the tassels from the living room, and his dining room chair, the one with the arms. Now there will be only three chairs left. I think to myself that the lamp and chair are signs he isn’t coming back. He’s taking everything he could need. Then I see a storm in the South bunching up where the highway and the horizon meet and I worry this is a sign he’s going to stay. I tetherball back and forth this way.
Randy stands and stares. He grips a rock in his right hand and I wonder if he’s going to throw it. I say nothing to him. I’m not a very good older brother. Mom pushes the screen door open and stands between us. Her left hand is over her mouth, her right hand props her elbow to keep her mouth in place. I can hear the thunder now. I want to call to Father as he opens the door, say maybe he should wait out the storm. But he nods before I can and gets in. The car shudders, a plume of blue smoke erupting towards us on the steps. He doesn’t wait for it to warm up, just backs up then the car moves forward and away. His left arm reaches out the window and waves a slow wave. Thunder again, and I look up to the rain suddenly falling on my bare face, the storm here already, like it just remembered it should rain and is making up for lost time. She starts to cry then, our mom. Maybe she thinks the rain will hide her tears, the telltale red of her run-ragged eyes. Or maybe she doesn’t care.
We watch him drive the half-mile down to the end of the driveway, driving into the storm, the clouds mud grey and the lightning cracking in the big sky. His car stops at the highway. He doesn’t signal. The car idles, long enough for me to think maybe he’ll turn around and come back. Maybe he’s thinking about Randy and me. How we need a father. One one thousand. Two one thousand. What’s he waiting for?
A bolt of lightning rips through the air above the highway, smites Father’s rust-pocked blue car and it explodes as the gas tank turns electric. Mother’s hand flies off her mouth and she lets out a strange animal shriek; she starts to laugh, everything tumbling out of her mouth at once. She had been nagging him for weeks to get the gas tank fixed. It was leaking gas everywhere. The back seats, the carpet, were wet with it. So it could have been the car cigarette lighter that pops clear of the dash when ember hot. But I prefer to think it was the lightning, that God has something to do with it. Because only God can smite things.
Mom’s face clinches red and raw in the rain, the laughter spilling out of her a little angry then a little sad then a little angry, and on and on. I see Randy look down. Yellow liquid running down her legs from her short denim shorts. She’s peeing herself, a yellow puddle forming around her bare feet on the deck. The rain’s falling harder now, splashing the urine. Randy looks like he’s going to say something but I give him a full force look. I give him the look that he and I both understand means just look at the horizon, look at the smoldering metal of our father. We are rocks, Randy, just look at the horizon.
What if he’s still alive? I take a step forward, a lurch.
“He’s dead,” says Randy. “He’s burnt to a crisp now.”
But my feet are staggering forward, I start to run, my bare feet numbly hitting sharp gravel on the muddy driveway, and I am running the long distance to the highway, to the burning wreckage. I run to see for myself. And I run partly to get away from the word “crisp.”
Randy is smaller than me but he can outrun anyone. Halfway to the highway, halfway to the burning metal skeleton, he tackles me to the ground. My palms burn from the gravel but the mud soothes them. He doesn’t say anything. I know he’s right. There’s nothing to see in the car. Miles away in the town we can hear the fire engine’s siren. They must have seen the explosion.
The firefighters arrive in a flurry of trucks and hoses and yellow hats. They stand around and talk about what to do, whether the rain’s got it covered or not. They tell us to go back to the house. They call a tow truck, but the car won’t stop burning. They stride to the porch where Mom stands. The rain has washed away the urine. They must just think she’s wet from the rain and the tears.
“It doesn’t look good,” says the one firefighter. The others nod. They think it’s the rubber in the tires that keeps the car burning. They don’t really know.
Randy glares at them. I see he’s still holding the rock.
Our mom has a strange love for rocks. She talks about it sometimes, where she thinks she got that love. That summer when she was seventeen and her little sister was fifteen, the same distance apart as Randy and me. That summer they drove all over the place in my mom’s Volkswagen bug. It was an old one, the kind with the running boards and the last owner had managed to break the mechanisms for both the windows so everywhere they went that summer they baked in that car and had to drink tons of water but they never had to pee as they just sweated it all out. Mom always said that part like she was offering a handy tip.
The one time, they were driving up some dirt road thinking they might find some swimming hole where they could go skinny dipping. The road they drove on was strange though, and the sides of the road started to rise and the road itself began to narrow. Her sister thought they should turn back, but she decided they should keep going. Rocks scraped against the undercarriage, and the trees crowded in closer, branches dragging along the windows.
With a grinding the car lurched to a stop. My mother’s sister turned and looked out the back window and then could see where they’d gone, could see that this wasn’t a road after all. The stones were too rough, the shapes not flat enough. This was a riverbed. A dry riverbed. The stones on the side had narrowed until the car was wedged and could go no further.
They had to back up for miles. The first side road they backed down and found themselves beside a burnt bridge and a real river.
My aunt pulled the latch but her door wouldn’t open. My mother tried too. Hers wouldn’t budge either.
“I told her to throw her shoulder into it,” my mother said. “But from that all’s we got were two bruised shoulders, one apiece.”
In a flash she wondered if they would die in that car. They honked the horn and yelled and screamed through the stuck windows. They had a little water left, a few mouthfuls.
Then there he was. A river god of a man, all curly hair and cut off shorts. He smiled at them.
He pointed to the bottom of my mother’s car door, laughed and hollered through the glass, “Your running boards are all bent up.”
My mother shrugged, a playful shrug, a what-can-you-do shrug, giving him plenty of room to be their saviour.
He found a rock big enough and he broke her driver’s side window, using his shirt to pull out the few shards of glass still caught in the door so the two sisters could climb out. They swam together that whole day in the sun and he taught her to skip rocks across the slow lanky river. At the end of the day, the sisters climbed back in that driver’s side window and drove away, waving to the river god.
When she tells this story sometimes I ask about him, see if I can get her to describe him more. I think he’s the most beautiful man in the world. But I also have this feeling in my stomach like slipping in the tub as I see the look in her eyes, like she wants to be somewhere else. Like she wants to go back there. It’s my favourite Mom story because she squints funny when she tells it, like she’s closer to it for squinting. And in her eyes, you can see she is closer. She collects flat rocks wherever we go. But there’s no place to skip them here. The lakes are far off. And the gullies too small.
A few days later, one of the firefighters comes back. He says he’s come to check on our father’s burning car. And then later another. And then other men. In the days after Dad exploded, many men come around. The ones who nod before they close her bedroom door and the ones who don’t look at me once after they ask me “Is your mother home?”
Randy and I sit in the kitchen and eat cereal. I ask him if he thinks it’s weird that there are so many firemen in our town.
He shrugs his shoulders. “Maybe we have a lot of accidents.” He’s acting sullen.
There’s a knock on the screen door. It’s another firefighter. “Is your mother home?”
Randy slumps over further in his chair. The man walks down the hall to our Mother’s room. Her moans begin again. My little brother Randy watches a lot of nature shows. He says animals communicate through noise, that a baby’s cry can make a mother’s breasts leak milk. I ask him what about a mother’s cry, but he says he hasn’t seen anything about that. “I gotta go some place,” says Randy and he’s out the door.
I’m not a very good older brother to Randy. I mostly read super hero comics and lay in my bed. I don’t play ball with him, never learned to spit without spraying everywhere, and he’s always been the one who protects me. I watch out the windows as Randy orbits, throwing rocks so they clack to a stop shy of hitting the trailer or nick the boards that hide the trailer wheels. He does this every time a man comes over now.
I learn to cook. I cook all the time. Because we can’t just eat cereal and because I have to be some kind of older brother to Randy. I learn to cook with raucous, banging pans and slamming cupboards all the while singing songs that don’t exist and Randy comes back for the food but also because he can’t hear Mom’s moans anymore over all my noise. This is how I will be an older brother.
I mean I learn to cook, not just heat up things from cans. Mom doesn’t come out of her room except to pee, and then she sometimes walks the length of the trailer and stands in the door to the kitchen in her thin nightie, her breasts and other stuff filling the trailer up. She smells of Old Spice and the ocean. It’s a small trailer. We live pressed in on one another this way. My brother and I both nod. And then she says, “Cook yourselves something to eat. I have to sleep.” She shuffles down the hall and back to her bedroom.
Then the men stop coming around as much, though a few still come back again and again. There’s this one, a pot belly like it’s full of worms, his cartoon red nose, and Randy throws rocks at him like he’s a stray dog, but he just laughs and he still runs for the house.
A month after Dad exploded, the car stops smoldering and Mom starts to swell. Quickly. On Monday we think she’s retaining water. On Tuesday we think she’s pregnant. She starts to cry. All the time. But she doesn’t get any smaller with the water loss. The men stop coming around. Randy takes to orbiting the trailer again, further out in the fields and along the sewage ditches so he can’t hear her crying. I take up cooking more loudly.
She’s swelling. In the morning she calls me in and asks me to massage her legs. I ask her if there’s money anywhere for food. She says she doesn’t think so. She’s run out of nylons so I rub warm tealeaves over her legs to steep her legs a darker colour. The men like this she says. They’ll come back now she murmurs. In the bathroom I rub a small handful of tea leaves on my leg. The stain is peculiar. I wonder if it stains the flesh too or just the skin. It’s hard to tell how deep things go.
Days later she can’t get out of bed at all, and the mattress sags, giving up a little more each day. She stops going to the bathroom, pees into a pot I bring from the kitchen, stops eating, and still she swells bigger. Randy walks to town and gets a doctor from one of the clinics. The doctor comes and opens a window in the room even though Mom will make me close it as soon as he leaves. She says mosquitoes keep getting in and they give her nightmares. The doctor tells us she needs rest. He tells us we should get out of the trailer and give her some quiet. He knows what boys can be like. But tells us we got to take good care of our mother.
I ask the doctor if she will keep growing. His head shakes slowly from side to side. He says women are a mystery. I ask how big will she get. He says he doesn’t know. I keep thinking of Alice in her wonderland, drinking from the wrong bottle. This one makes you big.
A week later Randy and I can’t get into Mom’s room any longer. Her left leg sticks out of the bedroom door so we can’t close it. We have to climb over it like a fallen tree to get to the bathroom. We don’t know where her right leg has gone. When she talks now we have to listen to the wall, place a glass against it and then holler back so she can hear us. It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t want anything.
Soon the aluminum sides of the trailer are bulging in the heat. At night Randy and I sleep in the yard in tents we made with blankets and the three chairs we salvaged from the kitchen. There are two small windows in her bedroom, each the size of a television. In one I can see her hair, her black shiny hair. In the other we can only see one of her eyes. I think it might be the left one but she’s so bloated and her eye is so large and the window so small we can’t tell. During the day I lean a sheet of plywood against the side of the trailer to block the sun so she won’t be blinded. Randy and I sit in the dirt and shade below the window, our backs to the aluminum trailer feeling it shudder and creak under the weight of her breath. She’s stopped talking. But still we listen.
The firefighters come around again. “It doesn’t look good,” they say.
“They’re no fucking doctors,” says Randy. He heard one of the firefighters use the word and now he uses it in every sentence.
The doctor comes around again. “It doesn’t look good,” he says. He leaves.
“He ain’t no fucking firefighter,” says Randy.
The firefighters park a truck by the house and take turns hosing down the trailer. They say she must be cooking in there. The word “crisp” burns on the roof of my mouth. We’re going to end up with two parents cooked. But there’s nothing the firefighters can do about Mom’s expanding. I think they just want to hang around and see what happens next.
At night I take the board away from the window so mom can see the lights of the town stretching to the horizon. I like to think she can see the stars but it’s a little too bright so close to town like this. And I don’t know what she can see.
It’s a Tuesday night when Randy and I are wandering out in the knife grass, and he looks at me, the air crackling static between us. We run back through the grass to the trailer, stand and watch the bulging sides of the trailer. The walls seem still, quiet, not vibrating with her breath the way they were. Down by the burning car, the firefighters have built a fire.
“That’s fucking weird,” says Randy.
We go around to Mom’s bedroom window.
Her one eye slowly blinks. Something’s happening.
“Maybe she’s just tired,” I say.
Randy brings around two dining room chairs and we sit facing her. I think it makes her happy that we’re there. I look at Randy and I hardly recognize him. Used to be when there was nothing to do but sit around he would go apeshit from the boredom.
“You know, Mom,” he says to her one big eye. “You know that animals know when there’s going to be an earthquake and they run for higher ground while the people stay around and get drowned. Fucked up, eh?”
Mom’s eye opens wider.
“Sorry,” Randy says and looks down at the dirt. “Didn’t mean to curse.”
I can’t stop looking at her eye. I don’t say anything. I have a hard time talking to her now. I think it’s because her eye doesn’t focus anymore. It reminds me of when we were smaller kids and Mom took us on a road trip to the coast, to Sealand, and I was standing next to this one tank just trying to find the Orca. But the water was just black slate, clouds reflecting. And then there he was, floating right in front of me, quiet and calm, and his one big eye watching me. I was caught in that black glass, seeing him seeing me. Scared, but not because I thought the thing was going to eat me. Scared because this one great eye was looking at me and I didn’t know what he saw.
There in the back behind the trailer, sitting in front of Mom’s window, the crickets out in the dark field and the smell of something barbequing on the firefighter’s fire, I try and think of something to say to Mom. I can’t.
We’re mostly water Randy once told me.
Somewhere around midnight the aluminum sides of the trailer give way and Mom’s skin does too, like a water balloon on the pavement. With a creak and a crash the walls split and crumple, a great wave of Mom’s insides and torn parts flooding out into the yard. Randy and I are knocked back off our chairs. The wave sloshes and puts out the firefighters’ fire as they knock over their lawn chairs and jog away laughing, kids playing in the waves. There in the gore and rubble Randy looks at me. Close to pleading I don’t recognize the look at first. It’s a little brother look.
The firefighters call people on their cell phones. One of them throws up in a pool of Mom at his feet. That seems disrespectful to me. That’s when Randy grabs a handful of rocks and starts to run after the firefighters. He hucks rocks at them, hits one in the head so he lets out a scream. Another stands his ground, holds out his broad hand and says “Now look here, son,” just before the next rock hits him in his front teeth, cracking one clear off. Then they are all running down the road to the highway. None of them thinks to grab the fire engine so Randy just starts to throw rocks at it, smashing all the windows, the headlights and taillights. One of them tries to come back for it, but Randy sees him and a rock glances off the guy’s temple before he starts scrambling back down the road.
They come back for the fire engine when we are at school the next Monday. But it doesn’t matter, the damage already done.
—R. W. Gray