Wade Capp is a twenty-year-old college student who has sworn never to return to Carvel Ohio or to Arthur, the father he hasn’t seen since his mother’s fatal car accident. When Arthur’s attempted suicide leaves him in a coma, Wade learns that he has the sole legal authority to remove his father’s life support. Wade returns to Ohio with Jeanine, his closest friend and occasional lover, where they encounter Matilda, the only person in Carvel who cares if Arthur lives or dies. Intercut with Arthur’s own chilling memories, Blue Flame is a hopeful tale of forgiveness and redemption.
How could Arthur not have seen that the Mexican was on fire? It was Dennis who was asking, only he didn’t say “the Mexican,” he said “Roberto,” which was, apparently, the Mexican’s name. Arthur hadn’t known his name, but it didn’t surprise him. All of the line cooks were Juan or Roberto or Jesus, all of them but Arthur.
Dennis had called Arthur to the office at the start of his shift, and now he sat, amidst the clutter of spreadsheets and banker’s boxes, in a chair beside the management desk. “So, tell me what happened,” Dennis was saying.
Arthur took his hands off of his knees and raised his upturned palms to show he didn’t know.
Dennis helped him: “Roberto ran out the back doors with his shirt and gloves on fire. Staff followed, pulled him to the ground. They smothered him with wet towels.” Here Dennis paused and provided the opportunity for Arthur to tell the rest, but he remained stone-faced. “Art, you were in the back lot. You saw everything that happened, but you didn’t even get out of your car. Several witnesses have told me.”
“I’m not going to—”
“The other cooks?”
“The men who helped him,” Dennis said implicitly. “And when I came out, I saw you turn on your headlights and drive away.”
“So, what you’re saying, Dennis, is that you didn’t help him either.”
“My whereabouts aren’t at issue, Art.” It was crucial for management to maintain the company expectation of civility even when dealing with problem employees. “Just to be clear, though, I was counting the bar till, so I didn’t immediately know of the problem. As soon as I did, I ran to help. Ran, Art. While you sat in your car and watched a man burn.”
Experience had taught Arthur the theater of these reprimands. Corporate culture had robbed management of the plain language of their frustrations, the teeth of their authority. Nothing was said to an employee that couldn’t be reproduced on standardized evaluation forms, copies of which were sent to H.R. headquarters and filed away somewhere in Dennis’ collection of manila folders. There were bad actions, the culture suggested, but no bad people.
Arthur had been in this office, and in that chair, and in talks with this manager, several times in the last ten months, and a transcript of those encounters would reveal nothing but gentlemanly restraint. The real conversation, however, was being had in the faces. Even now, they only expressed what they truly thought of one another with their eyes, a thought which was, in both cases, a single word: ‘Cocksucker.’ Arthur was sixty-one and being schooled by a thirty-six year old who was, by some illogical and perverse accident of fate, his superior. He was a line-cook at a chain restaurant and he was about to be fired over a Mexican.
“Yeah, I was in the lot, but I didn’t see what was goin’ on.” Arthur said. “I heard a commotion, but I didn’t know. I figured they were just rough-housing out back. They do that.”
“You know what I mean, the other cooks. When they take out the trash or empty the grease traps or whatever—Man, I don’t know what you’re accusing me of, but I’m not responsible for the fryers here. That fire wasn’t my fault. I was on my way home. This shit’s got nothing to do with me and you know it.” He was nearly a straight diagonal line in the chair. His shoulders hugged the back; his buttocks barely touched the lip of the seat. His legs were stretched in front of him and crossed at the ankles. The posture was meant to suggest an unimpressed, too-cool-to-care disposition. It was something he’d developed long-enough ago that he’d forgotten that it had ever been part of a deliberate image, such that he now regarded it as a genuine reflection of his God-given swagger.
Dennis leaned in. “Art, I’m not accusing you of having anything to do with the fire. It appears to have been a thermostat issue and there’s a tech here to fix it. Fact is, though, I’ve been aware of a personality issue between you and the other cooks for some time. I hoped it would work itself out, but after last night…. I mean, it was one o’clock in the morning and the man was on fire. Don’t tell me you didn’t see what was happening.”
Arthur felt caged, watched from behind. He turned to look through the Plexiglas window that management used to monitor the employee break area. Two cooks stared back at him from the entryway to the kitchen, one with a tray of steaming silverware, the other holding a sealed bag of milkshake syrup. “They’re out there watchin’ me!” he said. “Look at ’em! Those goddamn…. Look at ’em!”
“Art. I’m done,” Dennis continued soberly. “We work in close quarters back here and I’m not going to devote another ounce of my attention to babysitting your prejudice.”
Arthur turned away from the window. His arms tightened over his chest.
“I had a long talk with Corporate this morning and they agree that, given your history, we went well out of our way even to give you this job.” He spoke slowly as one might to a child who doesn’t fully understand the gravity of their misbehavior. “I hate to say it, Art, but I have no choice but to let you go. Under the circumstances, I’ve been authorized to tell you that your presence will no longer be permitted on these premises. Don’t come to the bar. Don’t come for dinner. I know you’re close with Matilda, but you’ll have to conduct your relationship with her, or any other current employee, outside of this restaurant. Do you understand?” Arthur nodded and cocked his jaw. His head faced Dennis, but his eyes were fixed on the floor opposite him. “If you’re seen in this building or even in the parking lot, the police will be called. I know you don’t want that.”
“And this week’s pay?”
“The check will be cut at Corporate today and mailed to your home address. Is the address we have on file still accurate?” Arthur nodded. “Then, I think we’re done here. I wish you the best.”
Arthur remained in the chair. He shook his head absently, as if the action settled something inside of him, something that might otherwise overwhelm him. Eventually, he stood and opened the office door. He finally turned to look Dennis in the eye. “I’ll find somewhere better than this,” he said.
“All things considered, I hope that you may.”
His anger radiated. Through the break area and the back hall, even past the line cooks, he didn’t so much walk as mechanically and habitually move. He was through a door and there was further movement, keys and another door opened and he was in his car. A bead of sweat ran down his temple and stung his eye and he reached for a cigarette. Two, three flicks of the lighter and it was lit. He inhaled deeply and blew it out, calming but long past satisfying. Arthur rolled the cigarette between his fingers and examined the burning cherry, hands shaky from his dressing-down. His thoughts turned and he bared his teeth and beat the steering wheel mercilessly with his palm. He grabbed and shook it with both hands. The cigarette snapped and wilted and smoke escaped around the tendril of paper that still held it together. He fell back against the seat, his pulse pounding in his temples. There was a moment of quiet and then his hand found the door handle. In an abrupt motion, he pushed the door open and leaned far out of it and he vomited violently onto the parking lot.
A drive through Carvel Ohio could act as convenient shorthand for the nation’s recent mismanagement and political neglect. House after abandoned house, lawns overgrown with brittle, seeding stalks of grass, doors plastered with the familiar orange legal notices, these were modern neighborhoods. In the historic district sat the oldest homes, grand in size, a reminder of a time when the city was populated with Money, though their age did them no favors in the present state of affairs. There were shuttered flower shops and jewelry stores, windows secured with poorly sized planks of plywood. For Sale, For Lease, This Space for Rent on signs secured to the fronts. The bookstores had failed, but two miles out of the city, the traveler could patronize a thriving adult novelty shop or NASCAR memorabilia store, depending on the direction of their travel. Even the mall sat two thirds dark and empty, the future setting of news stories about abduction and rape. What the city had in spades, however, were franchise restaurants, self-storage facilities, gas stations and bars; these are the cockroaches of American industry, able to survive in post-apocalyptic conditions. That the city wasn’t littered with strip clubs was a testament to an ancestral Midwestern value system to which precious few still adhered. Had Arthur had the option, he’d have been in such an establishment at that moment. As it happened, he’d settled on Roosevelt Pub.
“You know what I am, Wally?”
“What’s that, Art?”
“I’m the stone from that kid’s story.”
“I don’t get it. What’s the reference?”
“You know, that old story. It’s like, I don’t know, old-old.”
“The Sword in the Stone?”
“No! Come on! You got to know that story! The stone in the desert. It’s uncovered after, like, all time, but the desert’s real big and no one sees it? You don’t know that story?”
“No, you got me. Sounds like a Chinese fable or something.”
Arthur struck the bar with the side of his fist. “That’s it! That’s what it is, a Chinese fable. You know that one?”
“Not a clue,” Wally said, shaking his head. “How does it relate to you?”
Arthur took a drink from his beer. The cardboard coaster stuck to his mug when he raised it. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he muttered. He turned his pack of cigarettes mindlessly from end to end. After a moment, he said, “No, if you don’t know it I couldn’t make you understand. Right now I’m not in a…position to think through it. If you knew it you’d see, though.”
“Well, you’ll have to tell me sometime.” Wally smacked the edge of the bar as a sort of punctuation, an end to the conversation, and moved on to its various remote corners to chat with other customers.
This wasn’t a bad place, all things considered. There was a time, Arthur recalled, when the city’s bars were truly bars in the traditional sense: country bars that were dark and smoky, catering to steel workers, amphetamine dealers and particularly bold off-duty policemen. Jukeboxes held physical 45 records that were unchanged since 45 records were in style, which is to say, when country music was worth a good goddamn. In those days, your choice of establishment had often come down to whether you’d come with someone or whether you were trying to leave with someone. It wasn’t worth the hassle of taking a lady to a dive, not when she’d likely cause some tight redneck to say something ignorant, something foolish that would lead you to a fight in the parking lot. On the other hand, if you were walking in alone, the roughest joints had the loosest women and you’d better your odds by taking your chances.
The Roosevelt wasn’t like the old places. It was part of the new trend of safe and sterile taverns, though it had enough carefully placed dirt under its nails to almost feel authentic. The floor plan was irregular, with narrow offshoots of the main room that projected on either side of the two single-occupant bathrooms. The floor leading to these areas dropped by about two inches from the barroom, a persistent hindrance to those en route from the back patio for another round. The bar itself seemed half again too big for the room and those who sat on the southern end braved the ever present risk of a pool cue to the ribs. You could recognize a seasoned player by the way they examined their position at the table in relation to southern-sitting bar customers before taking a stroke. On the tavern walls were the kitschy memorabilia and reproduction photographs that had become so fashionable in the last twenty years. Tonight, more than ever, they reminded Arthur of the restaurant.
Sober, he was a man of few words, but the night found him a shade past sober and in a state of misery that longed desperately for company. There was a young couple to his right with whom Arthur had shared a few words but from whom he’d gotten a polite brush-off. To his left was a man of roughly his own age who sat alone. There was a single, empty bar stool between them. Arthur eyed him over the lip of his drink. When the man called to Wally for an empty beer bottle, Arthur leaned toward him. “Can you believe they passed that fucking law?”
Wally grabbed a beer bottle from recycling and spritzed a few inches of water in the bottom. He set it on the bar in front of the man as he pulled a cigarette from his pack.
“The smoking ban?” the man asked.
“I thought it was stupid when they did it at restaurants, but who at a bar would complain about smoking? Ain’t no kids at a bar.”
“Wave of the future,” the man said. “Although, most places I’ve been don’t pay much attention to it. It’s only a hundred dollar fine for the establishment. Most realize that they’d lose more money following the law, since people wouldn’t stay and drink. And that would be true even if the place got busted every night.”
Arthur shook his head. “Dumb-asses.”
“City’s broke,” the man said. “They bust five out of, what, thirty bars every couple of nights? Goldmine. Crazy like foxes.”
“I reckon. I just…I don’t know, it just seems to me, I look at all these kids in here, and you know they don’t understand what this means. They got no history with it, so they don’t care, and it’s on account of people not caring that they passed it in the first place, that law.” He paused. “I mean, these kids will remember when you could smoke at a bar, but they don’t know…they don’t feel it the same way as someone that’s older, you know what I mean? It’s all just different now, worse. It’s just one more thing, one more thing.” Arthur shook his head. “I don’t know how to say it.”
“No, I get you, brother.”
“Think about this,” Arthur pulled a cigarette and lit up as he spoke, “think about your granddad and think about your father. A lot changed from the time one was, I don’t know, twenty-five, to the time the other was twenty-five. But it ain’t the same as what I’ve seen in my lifetime, you know? My daddy would lose his shit at some of the things I’ve had to get used to.”
The man grinned. “I don’t mean any offense, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve gotten used to it all that well.”
“You don’t even know. Some of what I see, I just want to…. But I been down a bad path in the past so I try to be real careful. I don’t do nothin’. Complain about it at the bar, maybe….” Arthur became momentarily lost in the thought. After a moment, he continued, “For instance, I know this lady, and we’ve kind of had a thing goin’ the last few months. Between you and me, she ain’t so smart and she ain’t that pretty, but she’s forty and don’t think much of herself ‘cause she knows she ain’t smart or pretty and I get away with treatin’ her kinda rough due to that. But anyway, I’ve been seein’ her and she’s got this kid, twelve or thirteen. And the kid’s black. Or half-black, or whatever. Point is, my daddy would have kicked my ass for messin’ around where a black man had been. So there’s a difference, you know what I mean?”
“You don’t think he’d adapt the same as you have?”
“My daddy? Shit! That man was hard-core scary. I used to hate that man’s guts, truth be told. Now I’m just like him. Last couple of years, I’ve even started to look like him.”
“…You’re like him except that you don’t care where your lady-friend’s been.”
Arthur laughed. “You got me, brother. I guess I’m the new model of the same ol’ creature.” He continued, reflective, “it’s not even that I don’t care, though. It’s just…it’s just, what are you gonna do, you know?”
“Let me ask you this,” the man said as he dropped his spent cigarette down the neck of the ashtray. A curl of smoke escaped from the mouth of the bottle. “And I just want to know your thoughts here; I don’t mean it to offend you. But, I was just wondering…all these changes, do you ever think maybe things have changed for the better? Things are better now than they used to be only we’re so used to the way it was that we can’t really feel that it’s better? Like we sort of got left out?”
Arthur stared at the man for a moment before extinguishing his own cigarette down the neck of the bottle. “Yeah,” he said slowly, “there are nights when I wonder about that…. I mean, from time to time I sit at this bar and I watch these kids and they just seem, I don’t know, freer than I remember ever bein’. All different color kids comin’ and goin’ in and out of here with each other and I feel like…‘God! Guess I missed the boat!’ Don’t get me wrong, it don’t last; I’m half drunk at the time so it means fuck-all.”
“I don’t know. Lately, I think there’s something to it.”
“Wouldn’t matter anyhow,” Arthur said. “Even if you know you missed the boat, you still missed it, am I right?” He smiled and extended his mug. The man obliged him. “Cheers, brother.”
For a while they sat in silence. Arthur watched a bearded boy and a broad-backed girl competitively playing darts. At turns they seemed to hate then love each other. Another boy, tall with short hair, stood at the jukebox, a newer online machine with a computer display screen. He took a long time to make a selection. Arthur wondered what style of music he’d choose, but he knew that by the time it played there would be no way to figure out which was his. That reminded him that it was approaching midnight, when Wally would turn-up the speakers to a volume that made it difficult to think, let alone be heard, and another wave of customers would come to swell the crowd and add to the din. This thought caused him to consider the man again and, just as he was about to properly introduce himself, the man leaned over and said, “I’m Rob, by the way.”
“Good to meet you, brother.” Arthur extended his hand, “Art Capp.”
“I’ve been better, Christ knows.”
“I hear that. We’ve all been better.”
“Well, I got shit-canned this afternoon so I, for sure, have been better.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Art. Laid-off?”
Arthur sized it up. “Nah, there was an accident last night and—you know, that’s not even why, really. The real reason was on account of they thought I was a racist.” He shrugged and considered this. “I don’t know…. A man that sees the world the way they do, I guess that’s what you call him. Never been fired for it before.” He opened his palms, “Things have changed, like we were sayin’.”
Rob shook his head. “That’s tough, man.” There was a pause and then he began again, animated, “If you don’t want to talk about this, I understand, but this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been thinking about lately, like what I was saying before…. I mean, I look at my kid—I’ve got a boy in college—he’s away from home now, but I’ve been thinking about all the kids he used to bring home or go out riding skateboards with or whatever, and I’ve been thinking about how it was rich kids and poor kids, all different colors, like you were saying, and it’s like he didn’t even notice. I mean, kids still judge other kids, but it’s not the same thing as it used to be. Growing up, I had a few close buddies and they all looked like me, talked like me, all of their fathers worked with my dad at the steel mill. And, don’t get me wrong, I never cared who my son played with, but I’d look out the window at him and think, ‘he’s playing with that black kid again,’ you know? But I swear to God he doesn’t seem to see it that way. And when he got older—I mean, there wasn’t a day went by when I was growing up that I didn’t call some kid a faggot. But my son…. We started having kids in our house, boys I mean, with their fingernails painted black and hair dyed, but my son didn’t even seem to notice. That’s been on my mind a lot lately and I think ‘God, that must be nice to see people that way,’ you know what I mean?”
Arthur took a slow drink of his beer. “I don’t know,” he said suspiciously. “Is this like a religious thing, ‘cause I got to tell you, brother, tonight’s not the night….”
“No, it’s not like that. It’s just…. Let me put it this way: The way I’ve been thinking about it is that a man our age has seen it all, good and bad. Some of it changes you and some of it you don’t think about and some of it sort of sits in the back of your mind. You don’t really deal with it but it’s always there. And what you let change you and what you blow off, that’s all sort of influenced by how you’re raised. And as you get older you collect more and more experiences and you put them into those same three groups: what’s important, what’s not important, what you don’t understand, and after a while you end up sort of like a statue, under the weight of all of it and sort of set in stone because you’ve been approaching it the same way for so long. And, like you were saying, you start looking in the mirror and seeing that you’re just like your father who you never wanted to be like, you know? But what if, that whole time, you’ve been filing everything away in the wrong boxes? Approaching everything backwards all these years? And you don’t even know if you really believe what you say you do or if it’s just habit. The habit of being who you think you are.”
“I just think it would be a shame for a person to carry that kind of baggage to the grave, you know?”
“Does that make sense at all?”
Arthur rubbed his eyes. “Wow, man, I don’t know…. I’d have to sit with that a while…. I’m probably a little past where I could work that out this evening.”
“Well,” Rob said, suddenly self-conscious for extending the thought, “It’s just something that’s been on my mind lately. I hope I didn’t offend you at all.” He drummed his fingers on the edge of the bar. “Speaking of being tired though, I probably ought to get going.” He swung away from the bar and stood and removed a two dollar tip from his wallet. “Boy that music got loud!”
“After midnight,” Arthur said. “Time for the party people.”
Matilda had been calling. Arthur had intentionally left his phone on the back of his bathroom sink to avoid getting drunk and answering. She would be concerned for him and for Roberto-the-Mexican and Arthur couldn’t anticipate how he’d deal with that concern and with her updates about the restaurant, delivered in that dull way she had of presenting herself. He sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the phone and he knew he should call her. Under the circumstances, she would want him to call or come over, even at this hour, but there was simply nothing he had to say to her. Instead, he rose off of the bed and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.
Tucked behind twenty-three dollars in cash was a small collection of bank receipts and hand-written memos. At the back of these was a yellow Post-It note, folded in half vertically, the sticky edge adhered to itself. He unfolded it and stared at the phone number for several minutes. Finally, he opened his phone and dialed. It rang a half dozen times before an impersonal, recorded message from the service provider informed him that the customer he was trying to reach wasn’t presently available. A tone sounded and carried with it the full weight of Arthur’s history with this man. After a pause, Arthur said simply: “Um, yeah. This is your father. It’s late but I was hoping to reach you. I hope you’re…good.” He hung up the phone and stared at it for what seemed like hours. He didn’t immediately realize that he was hoping it would ring. He’d answer, in truth, even if it was Matilda.
Eventually, Arthur laid the phone on the nightstand and beside it he placed the Post-It. He massaged the sticky edge into the tabletop, but despite his force the adhesive had only enough life to cling weakly. He found himself staring again and the image of the silent phone and forgotten number suddenly seemed to him the very definition on isolation. He noticed that he could hear the sound of birds singing outside of his window in competition with the night sounds of crickets and locusts. It was pleasant, hearing the birds. His last thought was, “strange at this hour,” before he raised the gun and shot himself in the temple. And as he lay bleeding, his mind saw everything.
There is a stone, let’s say, in the middle of a desert, unremarkable, as stones go, but notable for one reason: This is the oldest piece of rock on the exposed surface of the Earth. Its upward journey from the deep underground is a long and unlikely history of earthquakes and sandstorms, climate changes and burrowing creatures. Nevertheless, there it sits, in the middle of our desert, fully exposed but unseen and untouched as it has been since its formation. The stone is flat and rigid, dark and obvious against the deep beige sand, yet small enough to fit in a child’s pocket. The pity of the stone is that it’s surfaced in a sweep of desert several brutal miles from the nearest populated village, farther still from the closest trade route or otherwise traveled path. It contains within it confirmation of a wealth of scientific hypotheses yet sits alone in the barren vastness of this punishing terrain. It will be many years, yet, before a soul should happen across this spot, by which time the stone will have long been covered by the very forces that revealed it. They will pass over it, the stone inches beneath their heels, unseen as it will always be.
M.C. Schmidt is the published author of several children’s poems and short stories. In 2005, he placed second in the Half Priced Book Say Goodnight to Illiteracy children’s writing competition. He is a married father of three. Blue Flame is his first novel.