Deb Olin Unferth, guest judge for the 2017 Texas Observer Short Story Contest, says that her favorite short stories “ask big questions, sometimes in the smallest spaces,” but try to avoid providing easy answers. “Like life,” she says, “in a good story there are no simple solutions.”
All five of this year’s finalists asked the big questions in a small space — after all, our word count maximum is 2,500. But following Deb’s dictum, the solutions are far from simple… if they exist at all.
Throughout September we’ll publish three of the four runners-up, leading up to the winning story, which will appear in our October print edition and then online.
Last week we published Kim Henderson’s “Malena,” set in a dying New Mexico town.
Today we offer Randall G. Arnold’s “A Thunder Note in an Angry Sky,” where, in the wide-open spaces of West Texas, a series of utility poles are disappearing and a lineman must track them down. What he discovers is… well, it’s definitely not simple.
Or is it?
Dedicated to a very talented and gracious poet, Dejan Stojanović — R.A.
The light wind through the wires makes sweet music.
New cable means fresh notes, each tone unique from segment to segment. Maybe I do that, subconsciously shifting slack and tension as I go. Never thought about it before, but it’s like I’m stringing a great instrument.
Violin of the world. Or West Texas, anyway.
Hard to hear much over such a large crew, though. This is an emergency: an entire neighborhood without power.
I take a second and scan: new, upscale houses. Richly contoured elevations with high vanity roofs. Occupied by residents who make a big stink when their seventy-inch HD screens go blank.
At least this one’s not our fault. Not even the weather’s. Blame extremely clever vandals. And as I wrap up, I’m wondering if the cops have any leads yet.
I tie off the last line for this stretch and holler down. Just as I put my pliers away, a big mourning dove alights a few feet from me, ruffling off sunrise showers. And I remember a talk with Connie a few weeks ago about the increase in wildlife sightings and sounds lately.
It’s a very different spring from those past.
A lot of that’s due to Courtney being gone, again. I miss her cellphone chatter, her random squeals of delight and even her newfound strength in verbal rebuttal. I should have known from my own experience that a single semester could change her, set my only child on that final transformative path. Who would she grow to become in these uncharted spaces?
You create kids to replace yourself — out with the old, in with the new — but it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. And there will always be change in the process, often drastic.
There’s at least one aspect that already makes my brilliant daughter her own person: that fierce embrace of poetry, especially obscure and foreign works. An obsessive respect for Dejan Stojanović led her to learn Serbian at the age of seventeen, on her own, and for months our small house resounded with its indecipherable syllables. Then she had to spend that long summer in Kosovo, and we got her back just in time to ship her off to college.
But Courtney and I are obviously still connected, because when I reach ground and remove my buzzing phone, there’s today’s check-in text:
Hanging in there dad?
I grin at the terrible pun, remove my heavy leather gloves and reply:
Big one today. Replaced entire run after rain. How r u?
When I complain about weather, and it is my natural enemy, Courtney responds with witty poem snippets. I’m not surprised to see the opening of Stojanović’s little “Dancing of Sounds” come up again:
There is a moonlight note
In the Moonlight Sonata;
There is a thunder note
In an angry sky.
She even takes time to separate the lines. Curse of a lineman’s daughter, I imagine. Blood-borne need to comb every fiber into its own space. Let them all breathe.
I tell her:
One of my faves 2. Gotta go. Luv u
And I have to chuckle at her parting shot:
Oh dad. You text like a teenager
I drop the phone into my jeans pocket and catch the crew smirking at me, as they do every time. Takes more than my daughter’s messaging to embarrass me, though.
“Alright, alright, we’re done here. Let’s replace those missing poles on Jefferson.”
My truck must have picked up a hitchhiker. One tire thumps like soft percussion. Can’t identify the victim. Hopefully just a speck of gravel, and not a nail.
The drive is short. Whoever’s pranking us is fairly lazy. Or efficient.
Only three poles taken in this one, so work will be quick. We had cut power immediately; last thing this family-friendly development needs is an electrical hazard near a public park. In fact, this theft took place dangerously close to a duck pond. Pisses me off when I see the sprawling wires. Culprits are damn lucky they didn’t fry themselves.
One of the senior guys reads my mind. “Fortunate idiots, eh, chief?”
I nod. If I say anything at this point, I’ll just grow angrier.
I shade my eyes against breaking dawn and survey the park. Last time I was here, early evening jogging, I encountered a coyote. Bigger than most; thought it was a German shepherd at first. It stood stiffly under a streetlight, staring at me, as I stupidly called to it. I only recognized its nature when I got close and it nonchalantly turned away. I remember marveling at its bulk.
Now that I think about it, my wife recently remarked how much larger the wild critters seemed to be lately. Someone said it’s all about highly available protein, and how we’ve altered wildlife with our garbage habits. But their sizes exploded in the Pleistocene too, long before we trashed the planet. Courtney had dutifully educated us: megafauna.
Connie swears there was a huge raccoon on the roof one night, big as a bear. I was working wind damage, as usual, so I didn’t see. There were some severely damaged shingles, I discovered later. Could have been the storm, but…
She implores me to take the next desk offer, and be home nights.
The noisy pole installer interrupts my daydreaming with its bone-jarring whine, the mechanism maybe overdue for lubricant. I make a mental note.
The next stanza of Courtney’s treasured poem pops up as a new pole drops in:
Sound unbound by nature
Becomes bounded by art.
There is no competition of sounds
Between a nightingale and a violin.
We’re already in a good groove, limbered up from the previous job, so this one moves at a quicker rate. Staccato articulation.
The crisp winds and navy-gray cloud bottoms say we’re due for another round of severe thunderstorms. Lovely.
On the way back to the shop, the punctuated tire hums louder. Halfway there, my phone rings. Caller ID says Private but I take it anyway.
“Jamie Ponder? Ross Feigl, landsman with KRO Energy. Stan Hayward gave me your number.”
Thanks, boss. As if I don’t have enough going on.
“Sure, OK. What can I do for you, Ross?”
“Well, last week one of my guys stumbled on something strange near one of our new fracking sites, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be interested. Aren’t you folks missing some utility poles?”
Understatement of the month! “You found them?”
“Oh, yeah. I’ll say we did. Listen, can I text you a photo? You’ll want to see for yourself, of course, but thought I’d prepare you first.”
Prepare me? “Absolutely, sure.”
“Never seen anything like this, Jamie. One for the books. Anyway, I’ll let you go and text a pic and location over. Call before you come out; I’ll make sure you get onto the property.”
Ross Feigl isn’t at the fracking site when I arrive. In fact, there’s only the young project manager, Mariella Benes, waiting outside a beige trailer. She apologizes, and explains her boss has an urgent meeting. Then smiles grimly and says she’ll escort me out to the poles. Her mood strikes me as oddly nervous and whimsical.
We’re around the southern fringe of Palo Duro Canyon, some miles north of my modest home, and the land is spare and rugged. If they’re allowed to drill these preserved grounds for natural gas, I wonder how far behind the vanity-roofed houses could be.
I camped here as a kid, when the area was more remote. Encountered my first golden eagle in the wild, not very far from this site. Through my brother’s binoculars, shoving off his protests, I watched it solemnly survey its territory. I was completely captured by the great bird’s aloof majesty.
“What’d you think of the picture?” Mariella inquires as we approach a rise.
“Didn’t make it across with the directions,” I reply sheepishly. Like I should have asked them to resend.
“Oh, then you’re in for a rare treat, Mr. Ponder.”
Is that sarcasm?
After a short trek we clear a scrubby clump of mesquite and emerge onto a bluff’s edge.
The missing poles lie below. I gasp.
Several large clusters cover the lower ground, each arranged in a sort of haphazard spiral. They put me in mind of something common, but I can’t make out what.
“How…” I whisper.
“Yes, we were surprised, too. This property’s very secure. Very. No locks broken lately, no odd tracks.” She looks momentarily provocative. “But I can promise you we didn’t do it.”
And yet, here are my missing utility poles. Each at least forty feet long. Not the easiest thing for just anyone to move.
“This will sound crazy,” she goes on apprehensively, “but there’ve been reports of black UFOs in the area. I’m usually as skeptical as anyone, but this…”
The manager spreads her shaking hands across the horizon, like a vexed conductor, and turns to scowl at me.
Courtney would get a kick out of this craziness. She’d text the third stanza right about now:
Nature rewards and punishes
By offering unpredictable ways;
Art is apotheosis;
Often, the complaint of beauty.
“I need to go down and examine them up close,” I inform Mariella. She hesitantly nods, and follows my clumsy descent.
The sharp stench of warming tar fills the steamy spring air. Seems every missing pole is here, which means dozens. I take some photos, then run my critical gaze up and down one of them.
“Look at this,” I remark, pointing. “See those gouges, and punctures? What the hell could have done that? Our equipment doesn’t.” Not like this.
“You’re asking the wrong person,” she replies, but she comes across as borderline defensive, and her eyes dart away. If KRO isn’t responsible, why’s she so evasive?
I make mental calculations. The slashes are too high to be from something like beavers, and angled oddly anyway. They’re not from axes, either. And the punctures on either side? They appear patterned.
Mariella’s obviously disturbed. Is it my own expression? I don’t even know what I look like right now, I’m so stunned.
“There’s… something else,” she murmurs, as if afraid to reveal the something. “In the trailer.”
We return in silence. I’m trying not to grill her right now, but I’m not falling for any mystical shit, much less UFOs. Someone with exceptional but very human resources had to have done this. Someone with heavy equipment, like a drilling outfit.
Mariella opens the creaking trailer door and ushers me in. Classic country music is playing on a battered radio. The interior is dingy and smells like worker sweat and tobacco. She seems immune.
“We haven’t shown this to police yet, but the poles are your property, so…”
She removes something from an old metal file cabinet. The kind you store blueprints in. The object is as long as my entire arm and completely enveloped in newsprint.
Mariella unwraps the thing like it’s fragile, or sacred. I move closer, so close we almost bump heads.
She pulls the final pages apart to reveal an impossibly big blue-black feather.
I’m briefly speechless, then: “This is a joke, right? What does a fake feather have to do with our poles?” I hastily add, “Stolen poles.”
“This… feather isn’t fake,” she responds, trembling, a little testy. “We had a bird expert look at it. From Parks and Wildlife. He almost threw up.”
I glance again, and sputter at her, “The quills are bigger around than my thumb!”
Mariella looks almost apologetic. “I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Ponder. But we found it near the poles. And the last rain washed them away, but there were some big white piles there, too.”
I frown. Now she’s on the edge of panic.
“I put in my notice,” she blurts, as if I’m a priest meant to receive her pent-up confession. “The crew refuses to work here. Mr. Feigl’s trying to assure investors…”
I’m struggling to keep it together, but I’ve found my limit. Suddenly the gravity of storms and stolen poles and Connie’s anxieties and Courtney’s maturing starts tearing at the knotted fibers of my being. Unraveling me. I’m ready to explode like a lightning-struck transformer.
Mariella must sense this. She puts the impossible feather away, then lays a calming hand on my arm.
“You know, Mr. Ponder, I’m Lakota. My ancestors took what’s now called legend as seriously as we take our local news.”
I turn and regard her blankly, nonplussed. Exhaling off the stress like a sagging power line. I feel guilty; she’s had her own share. Everyone has.
“Thunderbirds, Mr. Ponder. Wakinyan. They heralded spring, a celebration of life. But that renewal always involved disastrous storms. New life arrives at a cost to the old.”
I nod dumbly. Then thank her and head home.
The sky is darkening early, the wind picking up again. Large water drops strike my windshield.
That truck tire noise sets my gritted teeth on edge.
During supper I mindlessly pick at my spaghetti, not knowing why I’m so reluctant to tear into the swirled, sauce-covered noodles. My worried wife tries to draw me out: “Cat got your tongue?”
I force a shy smile. Something is certainly clawing at me. But what do I tell her? That I’m suddenly afraid of fieldwork? Because something I can’t handle has finally come up, a development my civilized brain can’t process?
That would just upset her more.
Forget forged dinnerware and processed foods. If I were Pleistocene Man, I’d craft a simple lance, patiently chipping out a flint arrowhead to pierce my opponent. I’d stab the savage beast until it succumbed, blood running from every introduced orifice as my tribe and I celebrated. Connie would dress its glistening organs into great feasts. Courtney would deliver an abstract poem for the victory.
But my true enemy is intangible Change.
It howls defiantly outside, scraping hard against the brick. Testing the manmade barrier for resolution. Peeling away my protective shingles.
“You’re so detached,” Connie accuses playfully. “You haven’t been the same since Courtney flew the nest.”
The fork falls from my fingers. Red sauce splashes my shirt.
Oh holy shit.
I leap from the table, toppling my water. Connie gasps as I stumble to the den window and throw open its curtains.
Feathery storm clouds plow the northern horizon like dark harvesters. Neon veins of lightning ignite the sky, incoming thunder bellows late warning notes.
“Jamie, what is it?” Connie cries. “You’re scaring me!”
I can’t answer. Can’t interrupt Nature’s new movement.
But joining the orchestration is our adult child, safe so many miles away, shouting the final four lines from “Dancing of Sounds”:
Nature is an outcry,
The art — a euphemism —
The house goes black. Connie screams.
Next comes the rush of great, thrusting wings.
Randall G. Arnold on “A Thunder Note in an Angry Sky”
“Thunder Note” was motivated by increasing accounts of degrading U.S. infrastructure, specifically, reports indicting our power grid as inefficient and vulnerable to attack and failure. I juxtaposed that against general human resistance to change, and liked the imagery of the mythical Thunderbird as an agent of upheaval.
In this year's Texas Observer Short Story Contest winner, Daniel Zima, publisher/editor of a Czech-language newspaper, delivers papers to his elderly neighbors in a nursing home while awaiting a buyer he suspects will never appear.