Johnny America


Trum­ble’s Brother


Hen­ry Trum­ble car­ried around a lit­tle void. He kept it in his pock­et with his keys and spare change. He al­most nev­er took it out un­til his mother’s death day. When she died he spent all day in his shed. Hen­ry didn’t know his moth­er well. He didn’t spend time with her or feel that he should have. But when she died he told him­self, some­thing has changed. He went out to his shed and sort­ed the buck­ets of screws, bolts, wash­ers, met­al scraps he had in­her­it­ed from an old man down the street when he had died. Hen­ry hadn’t known what to do with all the rust­ing pieces but when his moth­er died he re­signed to sort them, rid them of their rust, and sell them to the hard­ware shop in town.

Then he dropped a buck­et of screws which sound­ed like heavy rain on an alu­minum roof. He teared up. He tried to keep his weep­ing to sobs. Af­ter a few min­utes he sat down and looked at the scat­tered screws, each above their own tiny shad­ow cre­at­ed by a dim bulb hang­ing from the ceil­ing. He took every­thing out of his pock­ets and set it down with all the screws. The void lay flat and a cou­ple of screws ac­ci­den­tal­ly fell in. He had nev­er seen any­thing fall in­to the void but now that some­thing had he thought he might keep his keys and spare change in a dif­fer­ent pock­et. He rolled a few more screws around and they fell in too. He rolled some more in. He dumped in the rest of the screws from the buck­et. He dumped in the buck­et. The void grew. It wouldn’t fit in his pock­et any­more but it didn’t feel any heav­ier than when it was small and emp­ty. When he lift­ed it up above his head to look at it in the light, it shrunk down. He placed it flat on the floor and dumped in more rust­ing pieces. He tried to dump in his hack­saw but it didn’t fit. A small gas can fit. Then the saw fit. Then a twen­ty-gal­lon drum of sand. Then his push-mow­er fit. Then his work­bench fit, but he al­most fell in when it caught his an­kle. There was very lit­tle room left in the shed and things be­gan falling in. A lad­der. A shelv­ing unit with tools on it. The shed start­ed to shake a lit­tle so Hen­ry opened the door and stepped out. He closed the door be­hind him and things qui­et­ed down.

The next morn­ing he looked out the win­dow and saw that the shed was still there. He told him­self he would fig­ure out what to do about it af­ter the fu­ner­al. At one-thir­ty he walked down to the ceme­tery where his moth­er was to be buried. A few peo­ple were al­ready there and he won­dered if it looked bad that he wasn’t the first one at his own mother’s fu­ner­al. He stood near the oth­er peo­ple to make room for those who might still ar­rive but no­body else came. In all there were six. Four were old and didn’t seem to no­tice any­thing or they no­ticed every­thing and ig­nored it all. An­oth­er was a younger man, tall with brown hair. Why would a young man be at my mother’s fu­ner­al? Hen­ry thought. This man must be my broth­er. My moth­er must have un­der­stood her mis­takes with us, her first fam­i­ly. She must have tried her hand at an­oth­er us­ing the knowl­edge of her mis­takes with the first as guide­lines for what not to do with the sec­ond. That’s very log­i­cal. This man is my broth­er. Many peo­ple must have broth­ers they don’t know about. The sixth per­son was the Rev­erend who looked down the en­tire time. Even when he shook Henry’s hand he nod­ded and looked to­ward the ground.

The cof­fin was closed and Hen­ry was glad it was closed. No­body wants to see a dead per­son he thought. He looked in­to the hole in the ground. It was black but Hen­ry knew it would be brown with dirt if a light were shined down there. It takes a lot of en­er­gy to dig a hole like that he thought. Peo­ple could do a lot with voids. They could put oth­er things so­ci­ety didn’t want in voids. Like bro­ken ap­pli­ances, build­ings, en­e­mies. Old things. Dead things. Peo­ple could be buried in voids.

“Stop,” Hen­ry said qui­et­ly. “Stop every­thing,” he said. The Rev­erend looked up, fi­nal­ly. Hen­ry re­al­ized he didn’t know what to say next. “Nev­er mind,” he said.

Hen­ry tried to think of a way to get his mother’s cof­fin and his dead moth­er to the shed. He knew once he got them there the shed would fall in­to the void but he thought this was a wor­thy sac­ri­fice. He would have to trick the Rev­erend. “I need some time alone with her,” he thought to say. “How much?” the Rev­erend would ask. “Very like­ly three to five hours.” Hen­ry fac­tored in an hour or two to se­cure a truck and an­oth­er cou­ple to find one or two helpers. Coffins look heavy he thought. An­oth­er hour to get back to his house, un­load it, and dump it in­to the void. Maybe my broth­er would help. He hasn’t tak­en his eyes off the cof­fin. He must have come to the same con­clu­sion I have. 

Af­ter the Rev­erend fin­ished Hen­ry asked him for some time with his moth­er. “Of course,” the Rev­erend said. “Take a mo­ment. The men won’t start un­til you are ready.”

“The men?” Hen­ry said. The Rev­erend looked down and nod­ded in the di­rec­tion of three men with shov­els who must have walked up dur­ing the cer­e­mo­ny. “Okay,” Hen­ry said de­feat­ed. He bent down and touched the cof­fin and won­dered if there was even any­thing inside.

He turned to his broth­er and said, “we’ll have to come back tonight.” His broth­er nod­ded and wiped a tear from his eye. Hen­ry put a hand on his brother’s shoul­der. The man leaned a lit­tle away. Every­thing gets lost to emo­tion, he thought, then walked back home.

Hen­ry went to the shed and saw that some of the floor­boards had fall­en in­to the void. The shed was arum­ble and stayed that way un­til the night. He re­gret­ted not re­mem­ber­ing to tell his broth­er to bring shov­els since his had fall­en in­to the void. He went to the hard­ware store in town and pur­chased two more. He took a last look in­to the void, the shed re­al­ly rat­tling and creak­ing now, be­fore mak­ing his way back to the cemetery.

Henry’s ar­raign­ment last­ed on­ly a few mo­ments. It seemed every­one was on the same side. Even his lawyer. A unit­ed fight for jus­tice when it came to grave rob­bing. The judge asked Hen­ry to ex­plain him­self. Ex­plain why a man would do such a thing. A man with no record. With noth­ing. Hen­ry turned to his lawyer who was hard at work on a hang­nail. “I ex­pect­ed my broth­er to show up,” Hen­ry said.

“Good thing he has more sense than you, sir,” the judge said. Hen­ry was found guilty and was sen­tenced, through a mir­a­cle of a prece­dent set over a hun­dred years ago, to ten years in jail. Henry’s lawyer made a kind of hum­ming sound.

Hen­ry went to jail.

Over the course of ten years Hen­ry kept track of many things. He ate 10,943 meals, read 758 books, wrote 2,603 let­ters to his broth­er. He ad­dressed the let­ters to a “Mr. Trum­ble — tall with brown hair.” Since Hen­ry had blond hair and was rarely de­scribed as tall, he hoped the post of­fice in town would make the con­nec­tion. In the let­ters Hen­ry wrote most­ly of mun­dane things most­ly as so much of life in jail is mun­dane. There are some ghast­ly mo­ments too, but the ra­tio of mun­dane to ghast­ly leans heav­i­ly to the for­mer. He wrote of the few friends he had made. His clos­est was An­gus. An­gus had ac­ci­den­tal­ly poured poi­son in­to the drink­ing wa­ter of his en­e­my. He had been in jail for two years when Hen­ry was sen­tenced. An­gus talked a lot and Hen­ry found most things An­gus said to be calm­ing. Hen­ry had two oth­er friends, one named James and the oth­er called Wil­son. Wil­son was al­so named James though no­body called him that. James wasn’t very smart but he cared a great deal for his fam­i­ly and Hen­ry liked that. Wil­son was a large man full of mus­cle who pro­tect­ed Hen­ry, An­gus, and James from the ghast­ly times.

Hen­ry would have got­ten out ear­ly on good be­hav­ior if it wasn’t for the time when Wil­son was sick and couldn’t pro­tect them. A man stole Henry’s food and at­tempt­ed to make a habit of it. An­gus ac­ci­den­tal­ly poi­soned the man but Hen­ry was blamed. Hen­ry wouldn’t al­low An­gus to ad­mit his mis­take and though he wasn’t charged with the crime, when it came time to eval­u­ate Henry’s be­hav­ior, the poi­soned man was a blotch on his record.

On his last day, Hen­ry ate a break­fast of cold oat­meal and an over­ripe peach. He was giv­en the be­long­ings which had been tak­en away from him his first day. He took a bus back to town and walked four of the twelve blocks to his home. A strange glow float­ed above the town like a city in the dis­tance. The boule­vard in­clined just as he re­mem­bered. From the Pol­ish church Hen­ry to­ward what should have been the old­er half of town. On­ly it wasn’t. In­stead the old­er half of town had fall­en in­to the void. A crum­bling of prop­er­ty. A crum­bling of roads. Elec­tric­i­ty sparked for miles around. Bro­ken pow­er lines tugged wires back down the boule­vard. A news­pa­per flut­tered down and Hen­ry stepped on it. The head­line read “In­ter­state Re-Rout­ed.” His house, his street, his neigh­bor­hood, the ceme­tery, his moth­er, all pulled in. My broth­er is all I have left, he thought.

An army truck pulled up be­hind him and a woman got out.

“How did you get past the check­point?” She wore army boots. Hen­ry stood there qui­et. “Please come with me. We have to get you to a safe lo­ca­tion.” In­side the truck she or­dered the dri­ver to pull around. “Your home is prob­a­bly gone if it was down there.”

“What’s hap­pen­ing?” Hen­ry said.

“We’re try­ing to fig­ure that out. The Army Corps of En­gi­neers, NASA, the Pen­ta­gon, even SETI all have teams in­ves­ti­gat­ing. Don’t wor­ry. We’ll fig­ure it out.”

“Why are peo­ple in town still here?”

“It’s best not to pan­ic peo­ple. The thing is grow­ing re­li­ably but slow­ly. We move peo­ple on­ly when it be­comes necessary.”

“I need to find my broth­er,” Hen­ry said.

Hen­ry felt less sure about cer­tain things af­ter be­ing in jail so long. He spoke less. His voice was qui­eter. He act­ed less con­fi­dent though he wasn’t less con­fi­dent. He was hun­gry, which felt strange be­cause in jail he was nev­er hun­gry. Now that his void was so large and seemed to be caus­ing so much dam­age he felt re­spon­si­ble. More re­spon­si­ble than he had ever felt before. 

“I’ve got to see the may­or,” he said.

“Why? Friend of yours?” she said. Hen­ry thought about it.

“He’s my best friend. When can I see him?”

“City Hall is right there. It’s a free coun­try.” Hen­ry hopped out of the truck. He went in and asked to see the may­or. The man at the desk said the may­or was in a meet­ing and that her sched­ule was full.

“If I were you,” the man said, “I’d get out of Dodge like oth­ers are do­ing. The gov­ern­ment is com­ing through here and clear­ing out the whole town.”

“When?” Hen­ry said.

“Any­time now. To­mor­row. To­day. Now.”

“Do you know how I could find my brother?”

“Try the phone book.” The man sat back down like the con­ver­sa­tion was over.

“That’s my void out there,” Hen­ry said.

“Par­don me?”

“The thing out there. Swal­low­ing every­thing. It’s mine.”

“Of course it is. Go right along and claim it then. Thank you for stop­ping by City Hall today.”

Of course, Hen­ry was made a hero. Even na­tion­al­ly peo­ple knew his name for a week or two. A pop­u­lar mu­si­cian wrote a song in­spired by Henry’s hero­ism, though for the sake of the song “Hen­ry” was changed to “Har­ry” to rhyme with “car­ry,” “tal­ly,” and to com­plete the slant rhyme with “sor­ry.” Since by the time Hen­ry saved the town most jour­nal­ists had evac­u­at­ed, the re­portage of what ex­act­ly hap­pened was in­con­sis­tent. The ker­nel was that Hen­ry, com­ing off his years of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, hav­ing re­turned home to a town un­der threat, a town he loved, felt it his civic du­ty to in­ter­vene while so many oth­ers fled. This wasn’t quite right, though it was right enough. He did feel a re­spon­si­bil­i­ty to stop the void, but not out of a sense of du­ty to his fel­low man. He did it be­cause one of his few pet peeves was when some­one didn’t clean up af­ter them­selves. This on­ly grew in jail, a place where every­one is re­spon­si­ble for his own lit­tle plot. His mod­est space and be­long­ings. Aside from the ghast­ly times, Hen­ry did not al­to­geth­er dis­like jail. It was a most­ly neat and tidy place. Every­thing or­der­ly and satisfying. 

So when he was able to get to “the front,” as he heard the army call­ing it, he did his bid­ding out of prin­ci­ple and pride. No­body had thought to make phys­i­cal con­tact with the void. The stag­ger­ing dam­age it caused was rea­son enough to stay away. The army had even fired a mis­sile in­to it, which of course on­ly made it big­ger. Hen­ry dug both hands be­neath the void. He made sure to stand on a stur­dy slab of con­crete, some­thing to with­stand the pres­sure un­til he could get a han­dle on it. He pulled up and the void lift­ed high. “A Phys­i­cal Mir­a­cle” one head­line would read. He lift­ed the stur­dy one-piece thing and it shrunk down, its sides rush­ing to­wards his hands like mar­bles down a slope. In a mo­ment the void was sole­ly his again. The army had him quar­an­tined just in case the but tests showed noth­ing and for a lit­tle while Hen­ry felt the com­fort of con­fine­ment again. He was re­leased with­out the army dis­cov­er­ing the quar­ter-sized void on his person.

The or­deal left much of the town a fine grav­el, flat, bar­ren. Hen­ry was home­less and wan­dered the re­main­ing streets. He ate and bathed at a soup kitchen and shel­ter. He slept out­side as it nev­er dipped be­low freez­ing at this lat­i­tude. He wel­comed the hours of soli­tude though he of­ten missed An­gus, James, and Wil­son. When no­body was around he took the void out of his pock­et and fed it some scraps, dust, bolts, bat­ter­ies, any­thing ly­ing around. When it grew palm-sized he tilt­ed it up and it shrunk back down. Af­ter a few years on the street Hen­ry took to plac­ing the void above his head, on a shelf or a ledge, and as in prayer spoke to it to grant him things. What he asked for was mod­est, that the shel­ter re­main open, the weath­er keep warm, the streets clean and po­liced. He had few run-ins with the po­lice. All these things the void grant­ed him. When he took it back down and stuffed it in his pock­et he did so with a slight de­cep­tion. There was one wish he had yet to ask for: that his broth­er be well and to see him again and that they might be­come friends. He was keep­ing this wish to him­self. In this way he was ly­ing to the void through omis­sion, some­thing a god is of­ten dis­pleased with. But Hen­ry had a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion that the void was no god, though it did de­serve a cer­tain lev­el of re­spect and hon­or. Just the same he kept this one im­por­tant wish for a time when there was noth­ing to do. When every­thing had aligned. Maybe a sun­ny day. Maybe the last day ever.

Il­lus­tra­tion by John LEE.

Filed under Fiction on January 25th, 2019

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