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Authors: Rosalie Knecht

Relief Map

BOOK: Relief Map
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Patricia Fairbanks

1

Livy went outside when the clanging in the valley finally became unbearable. It was a hollow, high-pitched noise, as if someone were striking a bell with a hammer. Livy was babysitting, and the baby was asleep just then by some miracle, and if he woke up because of this idiot noise she thought she might lose her mind. It was too hot, and she did not particularly like the baby: he was thirteen months, just old enough to hit people when he was unhappy.

She stood on the front porch and squinted into the bright morning. The porch was wide and neat, lined with Astroturf. The corner store sat just below the house, and across the road the Church of God in Christ raised its white bell tower against the green and gray mass of the hill. Collier Road, climbing past the front steps of the
house and disappearing in the trees beyond the playground, lay stunned in the August heat. There was no one out anywhere. The clanging noise began again, and then slackened and died away. Livy hopped down the steps and into the road, barefoot, scanning the quiet houses up and down the valley.

Collier Road was steepest where she stood, and she could see down into the backyards of the houses along the loop of the Lomath Creek. They were built anxiously close to White Horse Road, clinging to the hip of the hill while the land dropped away to the floodplain behind them. The damp backyards were full of bicycles, disassembled cars, and half-built projects of various kinds, some of them clearly aspiring to locomotion: go-karts, rafts, plywood, and stray wheels. She could see the glitter of arc welding in Brian Carroll's backyard. She rose up on her toes and shouted his name.

There was no way he could hear her. She glanced back over her shoulder at the house, at the floral-printed bedsheets tacked up in the windows to keep out the heat, the air conditioners dripping and straining, and decided she could slip away for two minutes. The baby wasn't big enough to escape from his crib. She padded down the curving slope toward Brian's house. He was eighteen, two years older than she was but only one grade ahead, and she had once overheard him telling a navy recruiter
during a Career Day presentation that his goal in life was either to become a stock car mechanic or die young. Livy reached the edge of his front yard just as the banging sound started up again.

“Brian!” she called. They were not friends. He, like many other boys she knew, projected a mild disdain for girls. She hesitated at the edge of the road, trying to remember if Brian's parents were the type that exploded with rage if anyone stepped over their property lines, and then resolutely put one foot on the grass. There was no car in the driveway. She pushed past a massive azalea bush and into the backyard, nearly tripping over a kiddie pool half filled with silt and rainwater.

Twin black ovals turned toward her as she came around the corner. She glanced from one boy to the other. They were both wearing welding masks. A gutted motorbike lay on its side in the grass. “Brian?” she said to the shorter boy.

He flipped up his mask. “Yeah?”

“What are you doing?”

He gestured at an amputated gas tank lying in a metal pan at his feet, like a swollen kidney. “Working.”

“Could you do it later? I'm babysitting Mallory's kid and he's asleep.” She folded her arms.

“It's the middle of the day,” Brian said. “People can do what they want.”


The power just went out anyway,” said the bigger boy, lifting his mask. It was Brian's cousin Dominic Spellar, who lived two doors down. He nudged the extension cord in the grass with one foot.

Brian looked deflated. “I guess you win,” he said, pulling the mask off.

“Thank you,” Livy said, although they hadn't done anything for her. She turned and disappeared around the side of the house.

The baby was wailing when she got back, and she whispered a few curses into the close, dusty air of the curtained living room. The television and the air conditioner had been murmuring when she stepped outside, but they were both silent now, and the room was stifling already. She climbed the stairs and rescued the baby from his crib. He was red and sweaty, showing his few teeth in outrage, and she tried shushing and patting him as she came back down the stairs. Babysitting was all right, but there were easier ways to make money. She had another job waiting tables at the restaurant in the Lomath Sportsmen's Club, the shooting range complex that sat at the junction of the Black Rock and Lomath Creeks. She preferred waitressing to babysitting, because it paid more and she didn't feel bad taking her money at the end of the day. Mallory, the baby's mother, always wrote her a check and then
asked her to wait to cash it, and then spent too much time apologizing.

Livy carried the baby out to the porch, and to her relief he quieted in the breeze coming down the hill. She persuaded him to nap in his car seat on the porch swing and sat beside him, pushing off gently with her feet, reading a book on dream interpretation she'd found in the bathroom.

The baby's mother came home at two and was surprised by the blackout. She worked at a hotel half an hour away and there'd been no problem there. She said it was typical, hinting at neglect. Lomath was the kind of place where problems like this appeared to fit into a grand pattern of municipal slights. Potholes multiplied in the roads; telephone poles tipped over in heavy rain and were left dangling for hours before utility trucks came.

Livy walked home, and then couldn't think what to do with the rest of her day. The quiet of her house, denuded of its electrical buzzing, made her restless. She was making a pot of coffee on the stove when her friend Nelson knocked perfunctorily on the door and edged into the kitchen.

“Are you working today?” Livy said. “I was thinking of going to St. Stanis.”

Nelson poured himself a cup of coffee. He was tall and thin, half Irish and half Filipino, and had a faintly
evasive manner with most people, although not with Livy. “Maybe. I thought you were going to be at the restaurant today.”

“No, I switched with the Saturday girl.”

“It always smells like shit at St. Stanis,” Nelson remarked.

“It's just the sulfur,” Livy said. “It'll be nice. I'm sick of being hot.”

It was easy to persuade him. They borrowed his sister's car for the short drive to St. Stanis, which was a quarry and a broad, noisy creek out in more open country. A few concession stands and T-shirt shops painted in ice-cream colors clustered along the road above the creek. They parked in a gravel lot and walked down the trail, waving away gnats and conjecturing about poison oak.

“Is this it?”

“No, too many leaves, I think.”

“Is this it, then?”

The creek was full of swimmers and sunbathers, and Livy felt a kind of benevolence in the air: old people and babies in swimsuits, a lack of vanity that suggested they were all off the hook for the afternoon. Livy was sixteen and still trying to get used to herself. She had dark hair that failed to distinguish itself, and skin that did not seem to conceal her blood and bones as thoroughly as other people's did. She was growing uncomfortably fast,
so fast that stretch marks had appeared on her knees and lower back, like invisible ink revealed by a fire. She feared this growth would continue indefinitely. As the weather got warmer she'd outgrown her clothes and taken to wearing boys' T-shirts, the kind that came in packs of three.

Nelson set his glasses on a rock and pulled his shirt off quickly, one hand at the back of his collar, without any show of self-consciousness. He could be casual and fluid, sure that no one was paying any attention to him. Livy envied him for it. He dropped into the water. “
Cold
,” he said, as if reprimanding it. Livy floated, looking up at the tall, flat-bottomed clouds. There was a low chatter all around them of water running and people talking in their encampments on the rocks. A couple of girls nearby began to giggle and Livy looked up at them sharply. They might have been looking in Nelson's direction; the sun was in her eyes and she couldn't tell. She felt proprietary about Nelson. She didn't like to have other people peer into the comfortable space they shared. The sexual interest of other girls was like a dye in the water, blooming and spreading, coloring everything.

She glanced at him to see if he'd noticed. He was brown-skinned now after two months of summer, long-armed. He had just cut his hair as short as he could; the limit was defined by his mother, who controlled his
clipper settings. Mrs. Tela loved his hair, mourned its loss, waited anxiously for its return. It was thick and dark and stiff, and it curled if he let it get long enough.

“I was supposed to get a call about that job today,” he said, frowning. He had applied for a job at a sporting goods store in Beckford, which paid two dollars more per hour than his current job, serving gelato from bins covered with gold foil at the Hareford Plaza Court. He disliked the job because the customers were constantly disappointed by the small portions: four dollars for a dollop of raspberry in a paper cup, with a tiny short-handled spoon jutting pretentiously from the top. All day long he handed the little cups to people and watched their faces fall. “I put my house phone number on the application,” he said. “I should have put my cell.”

“Your house phone's not working?” Livy said.

“No. Is yours?”

“I don't know, I haven't tried to call anybody.” Water burbled in her ears. She pushed her toes into the sand. “Don't the phones usually still work when the power's out?” She was trying to remember a cartoon about tornadoes that she'd seen on public TV as a kid. Weren't there separate circuits, one for the phones and one for the power, coiling and backtracking through a cartoon town?

“I guess so,” he said.


Do you ever wish you still lived in the city?” she said. Nelson had moved from Philadelphia with his parents and sister when he was thirteen, into a blue house high up on Collier Road, past the playground, in a little niche that had been carved into the hill by earthmovers.

“Why? Because they have working utilities?” he said.

“For one thing.”

He laughed. “Sometimes, I guess.” He looked up into the overhanging trees. “If you're a kid it's not that much fun.” On his arrival in Lomath, he had flattered her with his ignorance of plants. She was the one who had shown him how to salve a nettle sting with jewelweed.

“Horsefly,” he said.

She was watching a couple of boys mock-wrestling, showing off in the water for the two girls on the boulder. They were yelling and splashing, darkening the rocks.

“Horsefly,” Nelson said again, but she was slow turning and he was there already, brushing it off her shoulder. When the horseflies came you had to dive. She dove.

Revaz twisted his ankle on a stone in the train station. He was shocked by how much it hurt. It was a bit of gravel from between the railroad ties, kicked up onto the platform where he was the only passenger to disembark, and
in the dark he stepped on it in his soft-bottomed tennis shoes—they were nearly worn through at the ball of the foot and offered very little support—and his ankle rolled. The twinge followed him as he limped down the steps and made a cautious turn onto a side street where a row of asphalt-shingled houses faced a rising bank of weeds.

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