“Burntown” by Jennifer McMahon (special excerpt)

 

BURNTOWN

Jennifer McMahon

 

His mother glides across the flagstone patio slowly, hips and long legs working in time with the music, a kind of undulating dance that reminds Miles of the way tall grass moves just before a thunderstorm. She clutches a drink in her hand—a mint julep in a sweating glass with daisies painted on the side. Captain and Tennille sing from the tinny portable radio that rests on the table: Love, love will keep us together.

She hums as she dances her way to the aluminum-framed lounge chair. The brass elephant charm on her beaded bracelet swings, sniffing the air with its trunk. Miles loves the elephant bracelet. She won’t say where she got it, but she’s been wearing it for almost a month now.

In her white cotton dress and gold sandals, she looks like one of the goddesses from the book of Greek mythology Miles has been reading. Aphrodite maybe. Her toenails are painted a rich velvety plum, her skin is a summery bronze, and her light brown hair is highlighted with gold and feathered back from her face. She sits down in the chair, resting her glass on the little metal table beside it. She picks up the pack of Pall Malls and shakes out a cigarette.

Miles holds his breath and shifts uneasily in his hiding spot. He’s on his belly behind the rock garden, stretched out like a snake as he watches his mother across the yard.

She’d promised to quit. But she keeps cigarettes hidden in the bookcase, behind the huge, leather-bound classics no one in their house ever reads: Moby-Dick, David Copperfield.

Miles has told his mother about the movie they watched in health class—the images of the healthy, pink lungs and the dark, mottled smokers’ lungs. He hates to imagine that his mother’s lungs might look like the sooty inside of a chimney; worse still, he hates to think of her dying, which is what his health teacher, Mrs. Molette, says will happen if you smoke. Your lungs will become blackened. Diseased. They will not work anymore. They will not bring oxygen to your body. Without oxygen, you die.

“And I might get hit by a bus, too,” his mother had said when he repeated this. “Or struck by lightning. Or the brakes could go out on my car and I could go over a cliff.”

Miles has to admit that this last scenario seems possible, too. His mother drives an old MG convertible coupe that was a wed- ding present from her parents. It’s spotted with rust, and spends more time in the shop than out. Miles’s dad wants to trade it in for something more practical—a nice station wagon maybe, like all the other moms drive. Miles tries to imagine his mom behind the wheel of a station wagon, like Mrs. Brady on The Brady Bunch, but his mom is no Mrs. Brady. And his mom loves her old MG. She’s even named it. Isabella, she calls it, the name sounding musical. And sometimes, she’ll say she’s running to the store for milk and Frosted Flakes but then be gone for hours. Miles asks her where she goes and she says, “Just driving. Just me and Isabella and the open road.”

It seems like every week some new, impossibly expensive imported part breaks: a valve, a pump, a drum . . . things that, to Miles, sound more like body parts than car parts. But when a car part breaks, you take the car in to Chance’s garage and they order a new part and replace it. You can’t do that with blackened, cancer- filled lungs.

He has to find a way to stop her.

That’s why, earlier today when she was out at the market, Miles stole his mother’s hidden pack of cigarettes. It was half-empty, with only ten cigarettes remaining. He took out two, and carefully worked half the tobacco out of the paper. Then, just as carefully, he replaced it with the two paper packets he’d made, each filled with black powder from his toy gun caps along with a pinch of sulfur from his chemistry set. Once the tobacco was placed back on top, they looked just like the other cigarettes. He wanted her to get a few good drags in before a small, stinking explosion would turn her off of smoking forever.

Ten cigarettes, two of which will explode. The chances she’s chosen one just now are one in five. Miles likes numbers, understands odds. Hunkering down, he watches as she lights up.

He’s wearing his Robin Hood costume: green corduroy pants that are a little too tight, tall cowboy boots, and one of his father’s brown work shirts with a tag that makes Miles’s neck itch, but he forces himself to be still, not to scratch. The shirt is cinched at the waist with a thick leather belt that holds his wooden sword. A quiver of arrows is on his back, and he holds his homemade bow in his hands. His father had helped him make the bow and arrows, had even made sharp metal arrowheads for them, reminding Miles that these were not toys and he needed to be careful. His mother wasn’t impressed: “Wonderful, Martin. And I suppose you’ll deal with it when he kills one of the neighborhood cats by accident?”

They argued, but in the end, Miles got to keep them.

His father loves the old Robin Hood movies, and he and Miles sometimes watch them together on the little TV in his dad’s work- shop. But lately, his father’s been too busy. He’s an appliance repair- man, and drives a white van with his name on the side: martin sandeski, appliance repair and service. His father also uses the van for hauling equipment for the jazz quartet he plays in, Three Bags Full. His dad likes to tell the story of how he once played the trumpet onstage down in New Orleans with Count Basie. Miles’s father is full of great stories. Stories of jazz legends he’s rubbed elbows with, or a producer he met at a little club in Albany, New York, who’s working on pulling some strings to get Three Bags Full a recording deal. And the best story of all: that his grandfather had worked for Thomas Edison, the guy who invented the lightbulb and movies and records. “He gave me some of Edison’s original plans,” Miles’s dad claimed. “Plans for a secret invention he was working on just before he died. They’re worth a fortune. A million dollars, easy.”

“What are the plans for?” Miles had asked once, when his dad had polished off a six-pack of Narragansett.

“A special sort of telephone. A telephone that does things no one would believe, impossible things.”

Miles’s mother had laughed. “Stop teasing the boy with your stories, Marty.” They were sitting in the living room with the TV on, but no one was paying attention.

His father had drained the rest of his can of Narragansett. “I’m not teasing, one day you’ll see.”

Miles’s mother had told him she didn’t believe the Edison plans existed (she’d certainly never set eyes on them), and even if they did, no way were they actually from the real Thomas Edison. “Honest to God, you can’t believe half of what your father tells you,” she’d said, blowing out a stream of smoke, crushing a cigarette butt into the heavy glass ashtray on the coffee table with a little too much force.

Now, Miles peers anxiously through a clump of tiger lilies, waiting for the bang from his mother’s cigarette.

He feels an odd combination of anticipation and guilt; though he knows he’s doing this for her own good, it seems like a cruel trick to play. His mother is so easily frightened; Miles and his father tease her with rubber snakes in the bathtub, plastic spiders in the butter dish—practical jokes that always make her scream. Then, when she realizes it’s a joke, she laughs so hard she becomes breathless. His mother is beautiful when she laughs, and there is something truly stunning about catching her in the moment her fear turns to blissful, almost hysterical, relief. It almost embarrasses him to catch her in these moments, like he’s seeing something he shouldn’t; it’s almost like walking into the bathroom without knocking and seeing her just getting out of the tub.

Suddenly, a shadow moves over the grass, crossing the yard and moving stealthily toward the patio.

Could his father be home early?

supposed to be repairing a washing machine for Old Lady Mercier all the way across town. Then he was going to stop by the shop and work on an air conditioner a guy had dropped off.

No. This is not his father, nor is it a child from the neighborhood, or anyone else he recognizes.

It’s a man.

A shorter, slighter man than his father. And this man wears yellow socks and black dress shoes that are too large for his feet, making an awkward flip-flop sound as he walks. His trousers are also too long, but have been rolled up. With each step, there is an absurdly bright flash of yellow from each ankle. But the oddest thing about this man is not his too-large shoes and yellow socks, or his quick determined walk toward Miles’s mother reclining on the patio.

Covering his face, his whole head in fact, is a rubber chicken mask. The mask is white, the beak yellow, the comb and wattles red.

Miles feels as if he’s somehow slipped into one of his Saturday morning cartoons. He watches as the Chicken Man approaches his mother from behind. She’s lying on the lawn chair, eyes closed, sunning herself; oblivious.

Up until now, Miles hadn’t noticed the man’s hands. He’s been keeping them tight to his sides, but now, in the right, Miles sees the bright glint of a blade.

Miles rises slightly and tucks one of his sharp arrows in the bow—his lucky arrow, the shaft painted black, the feathers red. He pulls back the string. The Chicken Man is directly behind her chair now, and he leans down to whisper something in her ear. Keeping her eyes closed, she laughs.

Then, in one swift motion, the Chicken Man draws the blade across her throat.

His mother’s eyes dart open, frantic and disbelieving. The blood pumps from her throat, soaking the chest of her white dress and dripping through the yellow nylon webbing of the chair and onto the flagstone patio. Instead of a scream, all Miles hears is one final resigned sigh.

The arrow flies from Miles’s bow, hitting the Chicken Man on the left side of his lower back, making him bellow. As Miles stands up on wobbly legs, the Chicken Man swivels his head and pulls the arrow out with a roaring cry. Then he looks right at Miles. Holding the knife in one hand, and the arrow in the other, he takes a step in Miles’s direction.

Miles is trying to get his legs to run when there’s a bright, explosive, sulfur-scented POP-POP! from the ashtray. The Chicken Man freezes, then takes off running back across the yard, rubber mask quivering, shoes flapping, socks glowing brighter than the sun.

 

 

From the Book:

BURNTOWN by Jennifer McMahon

Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer McMahon

To be published by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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