A Letter That Was Never Sent
by Nicholas R. Perego
B.- I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while, I’ve been in a bad way and had a time finding the right words. It’s Sunday, and this evening marks a week since I walked into Tennessee. I was going to head out sooner, but it looks like I’ll be staying a spell here in Chattanooga. It’s still bitter cold in the city but I’m faring just fine. I bought some new socks from a thrift store in Corinth and still have a fair stock of whiskey in my pack. I find it harder to move on than usual, for better or worse. It’s a strange place, this town nestled in a bowl at the feet of the Appalachians, but it has magic in its guts, I’ll give it that.
I remember a couple of hours after arriving I saw a young couple holding hands and leaning against the iron banisters of an old blue walking bridge. The boy had a heavy lock in his free hand with their initials and a little heart penned across its face, and proceeded to lock it with a dull click to the railings. Those kids just stood there a while under the lamplights, watching their breath curl and vanish, and then with arms laced, walked off towards the sound of a band striking up on the far shore of the Tennessee River.
That seems to be what this town is, a scene for lovers where the music plays just for you. It’s a slow and easy place, all in all, full of nooks and crannies for ruminating and kissing pretty girls. I’ve been sitting in the park for the better part of the morning and from my bench I see the mural churning; a sky peppered with little wisps of clouds traveling lazily north. A troupe of pigeons strut through the grass in their stained grey suits, picking at peanut shells without much concern for anything at all. A riverboat drums along as a calliope pipes out some frenetic number. I’ve often wondered to myself what sort of deranged animal created such an instrument. I’m sure you’re aware, but I wonder about a lot of things, and most of them are no doubt just as pressing as the origins of steam organs. An old man approaches me for a cigarette and we get to talking about Chattanooga. He tells me he’s lived here for 51 years, the last six of those on the street. He says he remembers a time when you could set the river on fire, and how the mountains were just silhouettes of giants behind a curtain of haze. The whole business choked him up. “We still have problems just like everybody else, but it’s nothing the people can’t fix. I’ve seen this place come out of a real bad spot, and now it’s the prettiest thing in the world.” I pass him the bottle and ask the time. He takes a swig, looks at his bare wrist for a solid minute and scrunches up his nose, “About that time, young blood.” I figure he knows what he’s talking about.
People start to head home from their Sunday strolls, and the man and I part ways. I take a sip of strong drink beneath the branches of a young oak and watch the sun start to slip behind the mountains. I suppose its time I slip out for the evening as well. I hope you’re taking care of yourself, cricket. I’ll send you an address to reply to soon. Give my love to everyone and keep your lamps burning. -N.
by Wesley Smith
The stone gazes of dead heroes judge him less harshly than the milk white mountaineers to whom he sells fleeting tastes of happiness. The generals and martyrs stand sentinel in their secluded arbors; they have become commonplace idols. The only homage they now receive is his, when he seeks the isolation his livelihood necessitates. For no appreciable reason he notes a square, black sticker subletting space on the Jeep’s bumper as his customers mount their hasty withdrawal. Proudly it proclaims the occupants have “Seen Rock City.” He doesn’t doubt it; he can picture their stacked leather shoes slapping staccato on rocks older than folly, hear the misplaced laughter of hopeful hooligans who despise their parent’s wealth.
The mountaineers never laugh in his presence. They stumble through the transaction with the jittery fingers of promised prom night lust and mumble their gratitude away from his face in their rush to exit stage left. It’s not fear, no more than his own smirking bemusement is derision; two worlds meet in these shady glens, under the stern visages of dead men and their artillery, and no one quite knows what to do with the energy which sparks from such galactic collisions.
He reaches up to stroke the smooth cheek of one of his granite companions, taking a comforting poetry of promised protection from the cool, unyielding hardness. He always does this, in appreciation for their allowing him the use of their homes. The city hosts dozens of these glens, five of which he rotates as a storefront. Even now, with so many years of shadowy commerce behind him, he finds it peculiar that only he favors the abodes of the stone soldiers, only he superstitiously seeks their warding watch. He does not know if these men fought for the freedom or enslavement of a people. It doesn’t matter. Whatever these men fought for, whatever cause has cast them into stone permanence, they are his soldiery now; he is their general.
Laughing at the irony, he moves to survey the territory his soldiers fought and died for; perhaps to take, perhaps to hold. His storefront lies atop a ridge stretching languidly along the city’s side, spooning lovers of geologic proportions. City lights wink an orange promise of prosperity, installed by fat men who reek of costly colognes. In younger, leaner, more honest years he hated those men, saw the city and its lights as a fetid product of negligent greed. He has left behind hatred, left behind hopeless aspiration to inclusion in their ranks, and sees them now with the benign, vaguely affable banality of coworkers. They milk the city and its milling people from one end of the spectrum, he from the other, and it is only their sons he ever encounters, passing through his periphery on their paths towards inevitable dominance of their domains. He has learned to love the city.
“I keep account of my hits and my misses,” he says into the emptiness yawning wide and cold before him. His soldiers voice no opinion, but the cellular phone in his pocket responds with a merry tinkling. In its emerald glow he finds the voice of his child. His customers paid well, and tonight’s fish will be fresh, properly broiled, without the slippery breading of poverty. He is proud of his capability to provide, and why shouldn’t he be? There is a significant cost to love.