Fiction: Universal Juveniles

By Steve Passey

The song is ended, but the melody lingers on
– Irving Berlin

On any crew in any of the electrical, drywall, roofing, painting and – especially (in more remote parts) the seismic exploration trade, there will be those on the crew who have spent time in prison. These are the places you can get a job right out of incarceration. They’ll take anyone.
We don’t care if you smoke dope on the line, the line boss on the seismic crew would say, it makes the day go by.
On the long drive to/from the line on a seismic job, a man, who had no front teeth and who spoke with an inflection not unlike a cartoon character, by turns eitherbelligerent or cloy, told me he had done time - but not to worry, it was so long ago that he’d received his sentence for simple possession. Nothing serious, he said. Simple possession. Another of the crew held up his left hand. Thesame was missing the pinkie finger from the first knuckle,and noted that he’d accidently blown his own finger off while cleaning his .38. He was very, very drunk. Knee-walking, snot-hanging drunk, he said, but still, it hurt. The possession of a firearm was a violation of his previous conditions of release, and back into the penitentiary he went. He did not elaborate as to his priors. Talk turned, of course, to men who were not there, but whose prison stories were better. LaFlamme, they said, LaFlamme’s was the best. LaFlamme, born on a reservation in northern Alberta,was no longer with the crew. No one knew where he was. But he’d had the best story of them all about incarceration and the road a man takes to the penitentiary.
LaFlamme at one point lived in a small town. He had a landlady whom he hated more than he hated anything, and she in turn hated him right back, like she hated everything.She disturbed him to the point where he could not concentrate on anything else but she found these trials easy to handle and functioned normally, as if on autopilot. There had been a dispute over the amount of rent owed, the amount of rent late, the penalties associated and applied, and things escalated. LaFlamme insisted that she’d changed the locks and locked him out without due notice, and he’d spent the weekend sleeping in his truck and contriving the threats he’d make and plotting banal retributions. On the Monday he’d confronted her and demanded to be allowed access, if only to retain his chattelsChattels is word from another era, how he knew it and used it one wonders but when the story was told all of the others, who likewise did not seem of the tweed-coat with elbow patches variety thatspeak of possessions as chattels, used the word when iterating LaFlamme’s tale.
At this point one of the oldest members of the crew, a man named Ray, spoke in confidential tones to me and said that the only clothes he owned were on his back right now, right here, in the smoke-filled passenger van we shuttled to and from the line in.
The van had a cassette player but only one tape. The tape was stuck and could not be removed, but it could be played. I sang along to Max Webster’s Universal Juvenilesevery day for two months. Eventually the rear-end differential would go, leaving us stranded and very, very high, on a rural highway with no shoulders, in April when it was still cold enough to see your breath after the sun went down. 
He had a suit, Ray said, for weddings and funerals, kept at his girlfriend’s apartment in a city far enough away that I wondered how he maintained some sort of place and solace with this woman unknown to me and mostly unseen by him. Some people can do that. Seismic exploration still has something of the rhythm of the sea to it, men gone for long periods of time to argue over maps and landmarks and looking for things not easily found, and their women must be content enough to be left alone for those periods. Every reunion must be an event, some happy, some less so, but all of a heightened tempo vs. the mundane reconnections of people who work from desks and go home every day. 
LaFlamme said that the landlady did not demure, and gave him the new key. She told him only to remit the rent – and penalties - requested in twenty-four hours. She did not even say or else or anything similar in effect. No, I’m calling the Sherriff or I’ll be forced to take action. Nothing like that. LaFlamme said he should have known. She didn’t even have pets, he’d say. A normal woman alone like that would have cats, for sure, and a dog if she wasn’t evil incarnate. Her face was a mask, he said. Her little mouth like a feline asshole, formed from smoking cigarettes one after the other and using the word fuck – and other even worse pejoratives - too often. Once inside LaFlamme then barricaded himself in, thinking to impose himself in that matter. He lasted only a few hours, he said, because he had taken a shit and when he flushed, the toilet backed up immediately and angrily and oozed an excrementalinvitation to leave, now. The old bitch had plugged the toilet with something. Dirty dishrags, he thought. Maybe cardboard. Can’t live with that, he said. Can’t live without a shitter. Everyone understands. Defeated, he left via a window. He spent a month in his truck, he said, affordable places are hard to find and there would be no reference from that woman, with that mouth.
At any rate, time went by – three years some remembered, or maybe five - and then LaFlamme heard that the landlady had passed. I knew what I had to do, he said. I had a case of beer, so I went and bought another case and I drank all twenty-four. Fuck yes, I did, he said. One after another. Then he went to the funeral home – the only one in that small town - and broke in. There were three bodies in there, he said, one of a dwarf – a man he didn’t know - and LaFlamme thought he knew everyone there. The man had normal-sized genitals he said, and wore a pained expression even as he lay dead on an embalmer’s metal table. There was a child too, he said, a toddler crushed by a truck on a farm. The mortician’s art had been worked as well as it might be worked, LaFlamme noted, and the boy mostly looked fine. He had no time to feel bad for the tot though – for lastly, there was the Landlady. She had been embalmed, washed and dressed, her hair and makeup done, and alone of the three was in a coffin for the funeral on the morrow. Her mouth, LaFlamme specified, had not changed. It still looked like a clot, and petty, and profane. In some versions of the story LaFlamme would at this time say he’d been told later, (in prison, by a man who claimed to know the Landlady), that she had been a prostitute at a Truckstop for a few years and that was where she’d put together the money for the house and became a landlady. Both professions iron their practitioners, iron them into stiff shapes with hard creases. There are no old whores or old Landladies who care about anyone else’s troubles, or who will give an ear to another’s argument. In other versions he’d omit this part of her obituary and note that she had no pets, which he thought an indictment. A cat will let you love it, he said, and a dog will love you. That woman had no love, either for anything or from anything. In all versions he’d say how he’d wrestled her out of the casket – surprisingly she was not as stiff as a mannequin -and he put her in a chair where he duct-taped her into place so she would not fall out. He dragged her, in the chair, to the parking lot behind the funeral home and endeavored, via a plastic lighter, to set her remains on fire. He hopedthat the embalming fluid would turn his old, dead nemesis into a candle. It did not, and he had to go back into the building, then out the side door had he forced minutes before, back out to his truck. He meant to bring back a jerry-can and use what gas he had in it to soak her down, then light her up. Back with her at the rear of the building, in the respectful silence of the night, he realized that he had no gas in the jerry-can. He drove to the 24-Hour truck stop on the highway fifteen miles away and put ten-dollars of gas in and drove back to the funeral home, leisurely so as not to attract attention, reentered via the damaged door, and poured the gas on her. The lighter wouldn’t light, so he went back out to the truck, used the lighter in it (this was when all vehicles had lighters) and, cradling it against extinction by cold like the gift of Prometheus, he brought it to her and with its red ember managed to bring her to immolation like a wickerman. She charred to black but held her form, a few dollars’ worth of fuel and the lighter from an ’83 GMC three-quarter ton not providing the sameobliterative incineration as what the crematorium would guarantee. Eventually, it began to rain. 
All this was found out of course, and in time he was charged with a number of things all of which were different phrases attempting to define the degrees of committing an offense or indignity to a dead body. There began the story of his penitentiary days. He did not regret it. 
Ray told me that he did wash the clothes he had on – his seismic clothes – every Sunday. He’d wash them in the motel laundry – he’d wear a robe if they had them or just wrap himself in a hotel towel and do his laundry while he read the paper. My per diem, he said – referring to our daily living allowance – my per diem, I try to live off of. That’s why I don’t drink like these other guys. That’s why I have these clothes and nothing else. My girlfriend deposits my checks. I won’t have to do this too much longer. I have an end-date in mind. I didn’t know LaFlamme. I don’t know where he is. I don’t think anyone does.

Steve Passey is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short-story collections Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock (Tortoise Books, 2017), the novella Starseed (Seventh Terrace), and many other individual things. He is a Pushcart and Best of the Net Nominee and is part of the Editorial Collective at The Black Dog Review.