by Joe Kapitan
About twenty miles southwest of Mercer, New Mexico, the asphalt sputters and turns to gravel, at a place more absent than present. You feel as if there should be more there: more stuff, more life, but there’s not, like a hole in matter itself. A hollowed-out spot, a pockmark on the wide, pale ass of America. Go any further south, and you risk disappearing into the dark and dirty crack. Beyond that, Mexico.
At the intersection of the main gravel strip and the smaller gravel strip stands a gas station and auto repair shop. The sun has torched its red paint to purple. The corpses of two dead gas pumps guard empty shelves from non-existent threats. There, on the porch, the old man waits for someone. Anyone.
There was a time when he wasn’t alone. There were others, but they all had families in Mercer or beyond and then something big had happened, something that made them all jump into their trucks and drive north to the cities to find whomever, save whatever, when they should have been thinking about themselves. Not one of those trucks ever came back. The old man didn’t have anyone, anywhere, so he stayed put and watched the town leave, watched the northern sky glow weirdly at night and the networks disappear one by one from his television screen.
He grabs the last of the warm tallboys from the cooler in the station. If there is some strange kind of end coming, or even The End itself, it will take a while to find him.
And then he sees the note.
It is hand-written on yellow paper and taped to the face of the armless diesel pump. It reads: I’ll turn the fan on for you.
The old man pushes open the door. A bell rings, echoing through the structure. There, in front of a window, behind the cashier counter, an oscillating fan turns arthritically, ruffling the bleached pages of last year’s newspaper. The old man has seen the solar panels on the roof, from a distance, and it is conceivable that they could still be functioning, but surely this fan hasn’t turned itself on.
The old man searches the entire place. Upstairs, where the former owner lived, rats breed in the stained mattress. The room stinks of feces. Down the hall, there is a hole in the bathroom ceiling and the old man sees daylight through it, hears the rustles and coos of pigeons nesting. Beyond that, nothing.
He writes his own note: Who are you? Where are you?
He tapes it to the pump and trudges the quarter-mile home, to his decrepit shack, a mere freckle on the edge of a pockmark on the wide ass of America.
The old man awakens with a jolt. The TV spews static. The fragments seem like they want to congeal into something, but can’t—can’t remember what they’re supposed to be, and thus they panic. The last emptied tallboy rests next to him, on the arm of the rotting velour armchair. He pulls on his coat and heads into the gray of dawn.
In half-light, the station’s black windows and door are squared orifices in a blocky skull. Two gravestones stand in front. One has an arm and nozzle. The other, marked Diesel, has a note stuck to it.
The old man strikes a match to read it: Why didn’t you come for me?
The old man sits on the warped planks of the porch. This is a trick, he thinks. This is Death himself, taunting me. Only three people know about this. One is me. Another is dead.
The dead one, ah, she was beautiful, in a worn fashion, the way an old pair of boots always shames a new pair. This was years ago, when the old man lived in Mercer proper, fixing cars, and one day this worn beauty walked into his shop and negated whatever else the man had going in his life. They were never supposed to be together, she was never supposed to get pregnant, he was never supposed to let her drive off after that last fight.
He heard from her just one more time, a decade later. The letter was postmarked Texas. It was the first draft of a suicide note. She was addicted. They had a son. The son liked to tinker with machines.
The old man thought once that he’d go search her out, but she was anything but a procrastinator. By the time the letter reached him, she’d certainly be gone.
But not the boy.
So the old man left Mercer, found a place nearby that was off the highway, off the grid, powered by solar panels and generators. He went to hide, not because of the kind of boy he might find, but because of the kind of man the boy might find.
The old man started a business, where he could pump some gas and fix just enough vehicles to survive while he marked out his time. And then something big happened up north. Everyone left. Then the note.
As the sun comes up, he writes back: You’re here, aren’t you? You’re dead, aren’t you, son?
He leans against a porch post and falls asleep. When he awakens, the sun is sinking in the sky. A new note reads: Yes, it’s me. Are you ready to die? Give me a sign.
The old man goes inside for a tallboy, but they’re gone. He walks home, thirsty, watches the particles of static torture themselves.
He wakes to the static at daybreak. At the garage, he hopes the solar panels are still functional. He finds an outlet and plugs in the oscillating fan. It whirs to life, ruffling the dried pages of an old newspaper.
Outside, at the diesel pump, he writes another note:
I’ll turn the fan on for you.
He sits on the porch and waits.
Joe Kapitan lives and writes splits firewood in northern Ohio. His collection of short-short fiction, A POCKET GUIDE TO NORTH AMERICAN GHOSTS, is being published in September 2013 by Eastern Point Press.