In a Photograph Flash

by | Aug 8, 2023 | Fiction, Issue Thirty-Four

Tumbleweeds choke the three-strand barbwire fence, a dusty line in the black night along the road. They run through the gas station parking lot like rats. Numbers whirl by on the orange LED display, gallon after gallon. Hot dogs spin on rollers, filling the air with a greasy meat-incense. The old counterman with nine fingers sits on his stool amidst lotto scratch tickets, cigarettes, and full bottles of booze.

He doesn’t move when the bell rings as a burly man enters and goes to the back of the store to look at the cold soda through the clear cooler doors. Outside, wind roars around the edges of the building and howls through the weatherstripping. The counterman watches a pair of yellow headlights come up the road. They drift, then jerk back into the lane several times. They drift off the road entirely and disappear into a ditch before coming halfway back out, pointing at an angle into the night sky.

The headlights rock back and forth in the ditch. An engine guns and then pops. The headlights disappear. He squints through the glass and a tumbleweed bounces off the door. Chatter from an AM radio drifts from somewhere in the blackness of a back room. Another tumbleweed bangs against the door and the burly guy jumps a little.

Tumbleweeds pile against the front door. More come across the parking lot. They cover the car at the pumps. As they bang into it, a taillight cracks and sparks shoot out of it. “My god”, the burly guy says. “There’s something wrong with these tumbleweeds.”

Counterman says, “tumbleweeds are aliens.”

Bouncing branch balls slowly crush the car, dent by dent. One slaps the big store window, cracking it. A fluorescent bulb flickers overhead. All four tires on the car deflate with a boom and a hiss. The two men stare together at the dusty ghost bushes filling the parking lot four feet deep. Every gust brings more, pressing the mob against the glass, which cracks with sick, sharp slaps.

The car burns. It quickly spreads to dry, roaming weeds. The counterman hits the emergency stop on the pumps. He thinks about his apartment – a cozy in-law unit at a stranger’s house. Cozy could mean cramped, but how much room did an old man who runs a cash register need? If there was a town left tomorrow, would anyone find the baby picture of himself he kept in the drawer next to the sink?

The grain of an old photograph, images thick as gravy, stillness that vibrated with fuzzy life. A crocheted blanket covered his little head, gave him the look of an old woman wearing a shawl. Rocking back and forward in time. A baby, who looked not into camera, but at himself, an old man working in a gas station – crushed by flaming tumbleweeds on a high desert prairie. The photograph comes to life. He delighted in baby toys designed for his developing mind. Felt the satisfaction of slipping a star-shaped block into a stellular hole. He heard his mother’s voice, a young, beautiful voice, call his name. The warmth of the blanket sticking to the frost on the single-pane glass as he looked out into the nighttime of his childhood. It was all possibilities.

He looked up into the flash of a camera. There was a fire. The camera clicked and the little motor inside wound the film forward on its spool. The faces around him were reassuring and warm. The intervening years spill through in the flash. He stares into the face of a stranger, a burly man with a crooked nose. Outside it looks like a weird sort of daylight, windblown flames trace the edges of the sky. The burly stranger’s face speaks a language of terror. The counterman reaches the hand with no pinky finger across the counter and says, “all you have to do is remember when you were a baby, go there, and everything will start over. You deserve another chance, to be happy.” Tears stream down his face, dripping from his fuzzy grizzled chin. The other man closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

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