‘Mendocino Fire’: 2015 Best American Short Stories Notable, Issue No. 100

One time in the library in town, a boy has a rat inside his T-Shirt. Its head pokes out under the boy’s chin, its claw-y hands clinging and whiskers quicked forward. It is as if Finn has never wanted anything before: this, this is her destiny, to be a girl with a rat inside her shirt. Wherever she goes the rat will hang on, the alert small subject of her gigantic solicitude. How long do you think a rat will last in the woods against foxes and ravens and owls and hawks? But if she was very careful and kept it in a cage and was very careful. Do you think a rat wants to be your little prisoner, or do you think a rat wants to be free like you are?

 

Nights when the fog holds off they lean around the illicit summer fire, smoking and telling stories and feeding twigs to the fire for the love of seeing small things burn, story after story and there is Finn, almost five, riding the high end of a tilted redwood log in the dark. Mary, too, tells stories. Whenever Mary tells how Finn was born, Finn feels both beloved and ashamed, her helpless, ridiculous baby-self held up for them to dote on. That story ends with Mary crying in ever-fresh astonishment: Finn, you were so beautiful! Finn works her arms from too-long sleeves and pulls her knees to her chest under the sloppy tent of Goodwill sweater smelling of the grown man who gave it away. Who smoked. Who was not her father because she’s asked and Mary shook her head. The baggy sweater hem covers the boots so only their toes show, and she evens the boot toes so neither is ahead, neither is winning, not the left, not the right—old black boot toes in a setting of moss and fingerlength ferns and upthrust mushrooms whose caps are pale, pushy, tender, mute. A boot toe edges into the crowd of mushrooms. One is uprooted and maimed by the slow back-and-forthing of the toe of the boot. Then she is sorry. Finn closes her eyes and fills up with sorriness.

That is killing, Finn.

For a while she is absorbed in accusing herself, then blame loses its electrical charge, and if she wants that absorption again another mushroom will have to die. Boredom nudges her boot toe close to another cocky little button of rooted aliveness.

What is that like? Not to be able to move out of the way?

 

Another night, that summer or the summer after. If firelight flashes high enough there’s laughter because first it’s a freaking face up there in the dark, then it’s a little kid. Now and then Finn has come down when coaxed, and that was a mistake. They may not mean it that way, but their solicitude is an oblique condemnation of Mary. Finn holds that against them even if her mother doesn’t.

Aren’t you cold in just that sweater and your poor legs bare? And Jesus look how scratched up.

How long since you seen chocolate? I think I got some somewhere.

My little girl is your age just about and she can say her ABCs. Can you say your ABCs?

In this full-moon circle there’s a stranger, though the grown-ups don’t at first know that, each person assuming the lean bearded dude with the hostile vibe arrived with someone else. Afterward no one will own up to having told him about the circle, but that could have been from shame at showing the kind of piss-poor judgment that fucks up everyone’s night.

Finn, who can go a long while unseen, has been found out: he has noticed her. He has called, “What’s your name?” and gotten no answer. The wiry dark shrub of his beard parts again, the teeth asking, “What’s your name?” Finn’s hesitation lasts long enough to offend him down there in his bared-nerve world and he shouts, “Don’t answer then you autistic little shit, not like I give a fuck.” Finn is being, for the first time, hated: her nerves memorize the shock. And him: she memorizes him, this shirtless shaven-headed hater, brows heavy and meaningful in contrast to the round gleaming exposure of his forehead, and, inked on the left upper slab of his chest, a tattoo, a spiral as big as her handprint would be if she left a handprint on his bare, slightly sweating, hard-breathing chest.

“Hey,” someone, not Mary, commands gently. “Hey come on now. Hey.”

Another voice says, “Way disproportionate, man, going off on a kid like that. Pretty fucked up.”

Someone else says, “Look, she never answers.” Adding, “But it’s not autism.”

Someone says, “Maybe, man, you should apologize to Finn.”

He says, “Finn.”

Mary, at last: “You know her name.”

“Finn,” he calls up to her. “Finn, man, I’m sorry, I lost it.”

The others wait for an utterance equal to the scale of his offense. He, too, for reasons of his own, seems to want to say more. He calls, “You not telling me your name, it just hurt my feelings. I lost it.”

At this skewed sincerity they laugh, and he sits down and leans in to accept the joint, and everyone in the mended, redeemed circle relaxes. Finn is almost asleep when she hears his voice again: “You know what I saw on TV last night? This bear. This polar bear. It teeters on this little dwindling raft of ice and it can’t fucking stay where it is and it can’t fucking go because there’s no other ice in sight. It’s swimming and swimming, this small, like a dog, polar bear head in a world of water, forever and ever water, this bear swimming hard against the drag of its long fur with nowhere to swim to, nothing to climb out onto, ice gone, ice melted, and it’s despair, what he feels, what we feel, that is despair and we all know it. You think Mendocino is different, your safe hole to hide in? Well wake the fuck up, they’re coming for the last little scraps. Who stops them? Us? Have we stopped them from fucking over the fucking planet? Let me tell you their ideology. Want me to tell you their ideology? Take take take take take take take. Kill kill kill kill kill kill kill.” When he says “kill” they hear not only fucked up and pissed off, there’s a personal element, some provocation an ordinary person could tolerate, which he, being crazy, can’t bear. “What’s coming should fucking terrify us. Tell me this. Why aren’t we fucking terrified? Why don’t we do a fucking thing?” He gets to his feet, he wants to find her, to talk to her. “Now it all falls on children.” He tilts his face up but the fire has died down and she doubts he can make her out against the darkness. He says, “She’s gonna see—,” and means her. He’s forgotten her name.

He says, “She’s gonna live to see—”

He’s forgotten the end of the sentence.

With soft concern, the kind that doesn’t presume to insist, someone drawls, “Come on, man, sit down, why don’t you sit down”—and other voices, fastidiously soft, tug at him. “Come on, it’s all right, sit back down, good, that’s good, don’t cry, it’s a beautiful night, you’re among friends, there’s the moon.”

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One Response to ‘Mendocino Fire’: 2015 Best American Short Stories Notable, Issue No. 100

  1. Terrific story. Captures much of what’s wonderful and terrible in our magic bubble up here on the edge.

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