On the Mountainside
By Patrick M. Tracy
Wendell sells the fancy popcorn, like you see in the colored cellophane twists at the store sometimes. He has a little trailer, complete with a propane powered kettle, a boombox for when things get slow, a folding chair to rest his feet while eating his lunch. He also hawks the chainsaw sculptures his friend Jose creates. They sit in the bed of Wendell’s pickup, grinning their wooden, frozen smiles at the passers by. He barely makes anything with his small markup, but they’re great conversation starters. The popcorn, after someone jaws about the chainsaw-sculpted bears, is sort of a consolation purchase. People don’t want to be dicks, after all.
It’s getting late in a slow and sultry afternoon in August, and Wendell is considering his options in terms of the evening. He’ll have to shower up to get the rank sweat, kettle oil, and carmelized sugar off of his skin, but the sun will be a long time in setting, and no one ever buys flavored popcorn after the dinner hour hits, at least in his experience. Maybe he’ll go see a movie…but no, the smell of the corn in the theater makes it seem too much like work. Maybe he’ll just have a beer and sit out on the balcony of his little apartment, watching the evening go to black. Most likely, though, he’ll just lay on the couch in the dark, listening to Bad Company and trying to think of nothing.
He turns down the kettle, having more than enough stock on hand for the rest of the afternoon and probably the first hour of the next day. God, but it’s hot. And humid this year, which makes everything sticky and the air seem to resist when you take a breath. It’s weather that makes you want to lay in the water somehow. That, or strangle whoever asks you to work. That’s an issue when you’re self employed. Intractable. This thought triggers a chain reaction of inevitable knee-jerk thoughts about how he should have taken that job in the precious metal refinery when he had the chance, or maybe stayed with it in the trade school and become a motorcycle mechanic. They are old thoughts, old regrets, like walking on a memorial field filled with white crosses over dead soldiers.
Wendell shuts down the propane flow at the valve and turns off the generator. The boombox can run on its batteries for the last hour, if he just listens to the radio. He shrugs, though, and powers it off, too. It’s suddenly so silent, the road beyond the Sportsman’s Paradise seemingly vacant, the nearby voices and laughter muted. Memory, like a phantom that always hides behind the far side of every doorway, leaps at him, teeth bared.
Wendell’s legs grow weak, and he sits down on the folding chair. His heart beats hard, and he remembers that day, so many years ago, the 30-30 in his hand, wisps of steam rising from the barrel, and that unknown hunter laying down on the white snow of the mountainside, struggling to breath through the blood, his sternum shattered, his chest sucking air through a wound that looked so small. The snow quickly turning crimson around him, the last echoes of the shot still whispering in the nearby canyon. It lives inside him, just as vivid as it ever was. All the tastes and smells, the sharp tang of copper in the air, the feel of the checkering on the rifle’s forestock, the crunch of snow beneath his boots. It’s the movie always playing in a theater he cannot escape.
“Hey, Mister,” a little kid says, appearing at the window with a five dollar bill. “You okay?”
Wendell looks at the kid and asks him what he wants, taking the five and giving him two twists of the cinnamon caramel and a dollar back. In the reflection of the eight year old’s glasses, he sees himself, digging a shallow grave on the mountainside, hiding the shame he’ll always keep secret.