Burnt Prairie

by Leah Holbrook Sackett
Isaac had been tucked away from the crisp Colorado winds of early March.  He was snug in bed with Summer, the long-haired blonde from the caves. Sure, she lived in a cave with a commune of hippies, which really seemed like an exotic term for the drugged homeless to Isaac, but she was beautiful and initially interesting. When Isaac first met her he’d been in the Flat Irons on a geology assignment. She was clearly malnourished and tranquilized, but she moved like a butterfly, floating towards him and away all at once. Isaac knew he should keep his distance. She’s probably got fleas, he told himself. Then Summer invited him to a cave party; he said it was purely an act of anthropological study. Summer had since become a frequent visitor to Isaac’s bed, predominately when she was hungry.

Summer was hungry for pancakes this morning. She had curled into Isaac’s chest; playing with the scattered hairs about his right nipple a knock came as the door opened.  

“Cohen, you got a call. I think it’s your mom.”

“Shit.”

“Aww, I think it’s sweet,” Summer said.

That cinched it; he’d have to go to the phone now. He walked down the hall balling up his sweatshirt in front of him to try and cover the erection tenting in his briefs, instead of donning it to cover his skinny frame.

“Mom?”

“Oh, Isaac, Oh, Isaac,” her voice cracked.

“What’s wrong? Is Ruth, okay?”

“Yes,” she replied with a honking blow of her nose. Isaac pulled the phone away from his ear.

“Mom, what is it?”

“Your sister is fine. She’s in her room crying. It’s your father.”

“What did he do?”

“He had a heart attack. Can you believe that? I told him not to eat all that fat. It’s all that bacon he thinks he’s sneaking at Lee’s Diner. But I know. And I told him I’m telling the Rabbi, too.”

“Wait a minute. He had a heart attack?”

“Yes, he’s in hospital. I don’t know what to do. I need you to come home, Isaac.”

“I can’t just come home. I have classes.”

“Well, use your sick days. I need you here. Your father could die.”

“I can leave tomorrow after classes.”

“Tomorrow? Oh, that’s just fine. I’ll tell your father to hold on. Maybe I’ll get him to agree to hang around if I fry him up some bacon. And what about Ruth? What is she suppose to do? A selfish father in the hospital. A selfish brother away at school.”

***

Pinned on his back in the dark, Isaac began to panic. He was trapped in total darkness. Before his eyes could adjust, his instantaneous reaction was to scream for help. He kicked his feet and pounded with his fists. Then he fell silent. There was no one to hear, no one to help.  Isaac became hypersensitive to every motion and noise of the highway. Each time a tractor-trailer roared past that Chrysler would shake from side to side.  Shit. Shit. Shit.

He was just outside of Hays, Kansas on Highway 70, changing a flat on the rear passenger side. I could be eating pancakes with Summer. I could be doing any number of things with Summer. Instead, I’m freezing my balls off and changing a flat tire to appease my mother. Isaac threw the flat and the jack into the trunk and slammed the top of the trunk down on his 1965 Chrysler Newport. He pulled out a cigarette and put it to his lips. With the unlit cigarette dangling from his lips, he jumped into the front seat and grasped at the keys to get the car started and light-up. There were no keys in the ignition. He swiped at the ignition twice and looked incredulous. He started patting down his pockets with fervent smacks and digging. The cigarette, limp between his thin lips, fell to the floor of the car. I set the keys down in the trunk. Isaac could feel his stomach churn.  Shit!  He turned and looked behind him as if he could see through the black vinyl backseat and find the keys resting in the dark trunk. Isaac climbed into the backseat and pulled at the upper part of the backseat that released to open up to the trunk. He slid his underweight frame into the opening, held taut by tension. Isaac went head first into the dark. As soon as he got entirely into the trunk the backseat, free of any weight, sprang up and clamped shut.

Fuck! I'm gonna die in here. I’m gonna get plowed by one of those trucks and that will be the end of me. They won’t even think to look for me in the trunk. I’ll just be buried in this car in a junk yard. My parents will have a … Isaac heard his mother’s nasally voice ringing in his head, “You’re father had a heart attack.” Okay, okay, I’ve got to calm down. I’ve got to think about something else. What are my options? How am I going to get out of here? Isaac was already in position with his feet towards the backseat, so he rocked back his legs as much as possible, and kicked at the backseat. Nothing. Isaac repeated that action again and again screaming out a string of obscenities (that even in his frustration and fear was impressed with). The backseat would not budge. Isaac made a new approach. He managed to move by small shifts of his ass in one direction and a wriggle of his shoulders in the other direction. He tried to position himself at more of an angle so he’d have room to stretch out. Simultaneously, Isaac wondered how long he’d been in the trunk. He wondered how long he could breathe. He blamed his father. Damn it, I wouldn’t be in this stupid trunk if it weren’t for him.

***

Myron Cohen never needed anything, but attention. He was a successful accountant, he was married with a son and daughter, and he had a deep laugh. Myron reveled in the fame of his name, even if it was not his own fame. The family always had hard-to-get table reservations and box office tickets. You didn’t have to be a big celebrity or a real celebrity to get star treatment in St. Louis. The mere fact that Myron shared a famous name with the comedian that had played on Ed Sullivan was all it took, and he got a big laugh out of it. It didn’t hurt that Myron had the personality to pull it off. He was the opposite of Isaac in every way. Isaac was more like his mother: large slender pale hands, preferred one-to-one conversation, and desired more control over life.  Whenever Myron was taking the family to a social event, Isaac and his mother faded to the background. But Ruthie, the unplanned and pleasant surprise child, rose to the occasion with their father.

Isaac had been 10 when Ruthie was born. He was uninterested and unimpressed, except for the fuss that came with her. His mother no longer had time for him, except to complain about how dirty and noisy he was all the time. His father was interested in Ruthie as a new addition to his act. Ladies and Gentlemen, look at the man in the gray suit with the pink frilly thing in his arms, Isaac could hear intoned in his head.  With the addition of Ruthie, Isaac felt his father’s limelight seeking behavior transition from an annoying quality to a circus. Isaac started spending more time with his friends, and when he was at home more time, with his science books and the Torah. As his bar mitzvah approached, things took an unexpected turn. Myron developed a renewed interest in Isaac and the synagogue. The Cohen’s always attended synagogue, always welcomed the Sabbath queen, and always held Seder. Growing up, Isaac had felt these activities were more about his father socializing with the rabbi, or showing off his Hebrew in front of a gentile client invited to Seder. It seemed like a business practice more than a faith. Isaac resented the sudden interest. His father was horning in on his moment.

***

The air is getting thicker, clogging my throat, or is it my imagination. Isaac shifted his weight and kicked at the backseat again, more in rage than the hope it would open. The car rocked from side to side as another tractor-trailer passed on the highway, followed by yet another. The Newport, with Isaac in it, was rushed by the velocity of tractor-trailers trying to make good time on the flat roads of Kansas. I’ll be damned if this car is going to be my coffin. My only other option is the trunk lock. The tire was between Isaac and the trunk latch. He crawled backwards on his back till his body was tight against the flat tire. His hands were sweating as his long fingers felt for the Starlock on the trunk. Yes, there it is. If I just turn, it should... The spring loaded trunk popped right open.  Isaac climbed out; he grabbed the car keys, and shut the trunk on two hours of hell.

He clasped his hands to his clammy face and tried to take a deep breath, but a strong wind whipped across his face. According to the morning forecast, that wind was the precursor to the ice storm expected to roll in within the next couple of hours.

Back on the road, Isaac lit-up two cigarettes at once and then popped in his Elton John Eight Track to lighten his mood. The used green Newport had been a high school graduation gift. The installed Eight Track was Myron’s big Hanukkah surprise to Isaac his freshman year at Colorado U.  Isaac loved both the Eight Track and the Newport but felt these gifts were ties, strings that bound him to his father. The lighter popped on the dash and Isaac lit-up his third filtered Silk Cut as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road drifted from the speakers. “When are you gonna come down, When are you going to land,” Isaac sang along and his mood began to thaw.

***

The Eight Track player had been installed by a friend of Myron’s. It took the guy five hours and a lot of sweat. Isaac watched, squeamish about the sweat dripping off the fat man’s hands, face, and hairy back as the guy squirmed under the dash, lodged between the vinyl seats and the floor.

“Say, Vince can I help you out there,” Myron said sitting on a bar stool in the man’s garage.

“Yeah, have your son there get some beers out of the fridge.”

Myron pointed to the olive refrigerator in the corner of the garage and gave Isaac a wink, “Go ahead and get three, son.”

Isaac opened the refrigerator to find it tightly packed with 12 oz. bottles of Busch Bavarian beer. He pulled out three beers and crossed quickly back to his car to watch the progress Mr. Michi was making on the Eight Track player.

“Here’s your beer, Mr. Michi.”

Vince slid his hairy, sweaty back out from under the dash and pulled himself up into the driver’s seat.  Isaac winced, “Ah, don’t you think it would be cooler outside the car. Maybe?”

“Isaac, when you get to be my age with my belly you like to stay put.”

Keeping his cigar in his mouth, Vince twisted open the beer bare handed. It frothed a little onto his hairy, sweaty chest and he took a long swig.

“So, ah how much longer do you think this is going to be?” Isaac asked still holding his unopened beer.

“Let the man rest, son. Take a drink of that beer. It’ll settle you down.”

Isaac looked down at the beer. He was used to drinking beer. He drank every weekend with the guys, not his dad. Myron handed him a bottle opener from the tool bench. Isaac took a long slug, and looked askance at Myron.

“I won’t tell your mother.”

Vince guffawed and the ash on the cigar shook off onto the seat. Isaac wanted to dive in and brush it off, but he didn’t want to get that close to Mr. Michi. And he didn’t want to make the man angry. This guy was some kind of friend of his dad’s, and the Eight Track player wasn’t installed yet.

“So, when is Hanukah?” Vince asked.

“It’s around Christmas time. It moves, but it’s around Christmas,” Myron said perched on that stool leaning his lower back against Vince’s grimy tool bench, looking cool and clean as always. Even the heat of July couldn’t ruffle Myron Cohen.

“I thought you said this was the boy’s Hanukkah gift?” Vince said reaching his already empty beer out to Isaac. Isaac took it.

“It is,” Myron said.

“Kinda early, huh? I guess it’s Hanukkah in July.” Vince said and ruptured into laughter.

When Vince finished the installation Isaac handed the keys to Myron. As they slid into the front seat Myron said, “Is one beer too much for you, son?”

“No, I want to check the upholstery for cigar burns. Man, it stinks in here now.”

“Just roll the windows down. It will fly right out. And not a word to your mother.”

“I know, Dad.”

“I mean about the beer and Vince. He’s not a friend I’d have over to the house.”

Isaac looked up from his meticulous fingering of the black vinyl. “Yeah, Dad, sure,” he said and doubled over to inspect the floor mats.

***

The headlights beamed out over a flat, snowy Kansas highway. The intense heat pumping from the dash was like a blanket, and it wrapped Isaac in a drowsy stupor. His hands loosened about the steering wheel, and the car drifted to the shoulder. Isaac jerked. I need to get some coffee.

Peering along the shoulder of the road for a sign promising coffee, warmth, and people, Isaac saw a dark lumbering shape. He slowed the car as he pulled over. The bulky frame of a man turned to face the headlights. Isaac leaned across the seat and rolled down the window.

“You okay, man?”

“I could really use a ride, you know?”

“Yeah, man, come on. I could use someone to keep me awake,” Isaac said opening the passenger door. A duffle bag landed with a thud in the back seat, and the door slammed shut. Isaac pulled back onto the highway.

“What’s your name?”

“Steve.” he said rubbing his grime-stained hands together under the vent on the dash.

“It’s kind of a cold night to be wandering a Kansas highway.”

“Yeah, colder than a witch’s tit out there.”

“So, where are you headed?” Isaac asked.

“Kansas City.”

Steve kept Isaac awake by telling stories about how tough he was. Isaac listened to tales of martial arts and bar fights. Steve always came out the winner.

“Let me give you the skinny. Guys like me are real mean sons-of-bitches.”

“Yeah.”

“What about you, man?”

“I was a Golden Gloves Champion, you know.” What the hell have I picked up? In reality, Isaac had never thrown a punch. But he’d watched a lot of fights on Saturday night with Myron.  The best he could do now was to try to believe his own lie. There was a light ahead. It was a truck stop. Perfect, I can get some coffee and get rid of this guy. He pulled into the truck stop.

“I need some coffee,”

“Yeah, me, too. You got any bread.”

“Ah, here’s two dollars. That’s all I got. You go ahead. I gotta make a phone call.”

“You wouldn’t be calling Smokey?” Steve laughed.

“Nah, my girl. I gotta call my girl," he called over his shoulder as he dialed home.

***

Two years ago, Isaac was forced into taking Rebecca Rubenstein, a family friend, to her prom. He had just walked into the kitchen looking for a nosh.

“What is that?” Isaac said, point to the cleaners bag draped across the kitchen table.

“That’s your tuxedo for the prom,” his mother sang in giddy glee. “Just back from the cleaners.”

“It’s red. And I'm not going to Prom.”

“No, it’s burgundy.”

“If I were going, I would want powder blue with a ruffled shirt like Dan’s.”

“No you don’t. Do you know what one of those things costs? Believe me that look will go out of style and years from now you will know that your mother was right and be glad for this lovely burgundy tuxedo.”

Isaac sighed.

“Where did you get it?” he said as he reached his hand cautiously under the plastic wrap of the cleaners to touch the velvet trim.

“Aunt Ruth. Your cousin Simon wore it to his prom.”

“That’s not going to fit,” he said pulling back his hand, his voice cracking in complaint.

“He’s two years older than you. Of course it will fit.”

This had been an ongoing problem for Isaac. In the mind of his mother, size had to do with age and not personal growth rates. He was always getting stuck with clothes too small from Simon.

“Here try it on.”

“No.”

“Try it on, Isaac” she said through her tall, coffee stained teeth. Giving him a look that said she couldn’t understand why he was ruining this joyful moment for her.

Isaac stomped to his room and stomped back with his large slender palms splayed out in an emphatic gesture to demonstrate his point. The pants were three inches too short. She smiled as if he had just proven her right. Isaac was aghast.

“Come on, we got time. Can’t we get something else? Anything else?”

“We do not have time. You are wearing that this Friday when you take Rebecca Rubenstein to the prom."

Rebecca was a stick of a girl with no chest and hairy arms. In the photo her yellow-ruffled prom dress and her rhinestone glasses swallowed her small frame and bird like face. Isaac took some solace in the fact that she came off second best in the photo. Rebecca had a dour expression. Isaac looked only slightly better, because he was smiling. He was afraid if he didn’t smile that his mother would call for a do-over.

***

I’m stuck with this putz in my car, now I have to get to Indiana, tonight! Back on the road with the coffee and a Zagnut bar, Isaac was still trying to think of a way to lose this guy with the scraggly misshapen beard and bushy hair.

“Hey, do you want me to drive?” Steve said as he cracked open a Watney’s Red.

“That’s o.k.”

“You sure, man?”

“Yeah.”

“Wanna Red Hot?” Steve said as he shook the box towards Isaac’s face.

“No. So, what’s with the army jacket were you over in Vietnam?”

“I don’t talk about it.”

“So, there’s a story behind the jacket.”

“There’s nothing. I don’t talk about it. It’s just a jacket.”

Isaac was concentrating on the road covered with wide patches of ice. His mind kept drifting back to the jacket. He wanted to get a good look at the name on it, but it was too dark. Just then Steve stretched out his arms and grabbed the back of Isaac’s neck. Isaac threw his cup of hot coffee in Steve’s face. Steve clutched his face. Isaac clutched the wheel.

"What the fuck?"

"What the fuck, me? Why are you grabbing my neck you bastard."

"I was just trying to give you a rub. You looked tired."

"Well, I'm awake now, shit. And keep your damn hands to yourself,” Isaac said. Steve reached down to his boot.

“Get your hands back up here. You pull anything out of that boot and I’ll kill us both,” Isaac said his hands tightening on the steering wheel.

Steve looked out at the icy highway, sat back in the seat and remained quiet. Kansas City came and went. Steve decided to stay on till St. Louis. Upon entering St. Louis, Isaac drove to the downtown bus station and insisted Steve get out. This time there was no argument. Isaac pulled out of the parking lot with the doors locked.  He sat at a flashing red light. It was the middle of the night. Next stop was home.

Isaac drove on to a gas station in Illinois and filled the tank at 40 cents a gallon. Then he headed out of St. Louis into Illinois. He drove with the windows down to keep him awake. He drove all the way into Indiana. With the diminutive show of morning light, Isaac pulled  off the shoulder into a field filled with oil drills. He had to get a few necessary winks. He was falling asleep at the wheel. The pumps were bobbing in a peaceful rhythm that didn’t exist in Isaac’s life. He envied the mechanical, slow, purpose of the pumps. Oil was 40cents a gallon, graduation was two years off, his plans of becoming anyone seemed like a kid’s dream. He was tired. He wanted to feel grounded, well-grounded. He tried to remember the last time he really felt sure of himself and where he was going.

He nodded off and dreamt of his Bar Mitzvah, when he’d wanted to feel Kavannah. He wanted to be imbued with holiness as he took his place in tradition. Perhaps, I’ll be a Rabbi, he had thought in the days leading up to his Bar Mitzvah. But on his day, at his Bar Mitzvah reception, he felt second to his father, again. Myron had led Isaac around by the wrist to every man in the room.

“Look at this, a real man’s watch. A Bulova Accutron Spaceview Model H watch! Isn’t that something! The tuning fork divides every second into 360 equal parts!" Myron said over and over again.

Isaac could still hear him as he was starting to wake, and he still didn’t know what it meant. He looked down at the silver Bulova keeping time, effortlessly, perfectly pumping out every second. He could hear his father in that crowded room at the Ritz.  

“That’s my son. He’s a smart one, not like his old man. He’s got real genius,” Myron had said to the Rabbi. Isaac heard it. He sought his father out to tell him, what? Isaac didn’t know, but he knew he wanted to be near his dad. He heard his father’s low chuckle from the back of the coat room. Isaac pushed through the overcoats and fur coats. There he was. “Helping the coat check girl” Myron had said later. There he was with his hand up her skirt and his face nestled in her blond hair.  

Isaac  rubbed his face then looked down at his watch. It was nearly 5a.m. His mom was waiting. His dad was waiting. If only he could stay here in the long, burnt grass under the faint odor of sulfur, under a fading sky of destinies; then perhaps he could pluck a direction from that veil above or plumb the earth for substance, for more than this life of illusions. He wanted to stay, but he had to go.
Leah Holbrook Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.  This is also where she earned her M.F.A. Additionally, she has published three short stories:  A Point of Departure was published with Connotation Press, Somebody Else in Kentucky was published in Blacktop Passages, and The Birdcage Nests Within was published with The Weekly Knob through Medium.  Finally, Leah lives with her husband Jonathan and daughter Bella in Webster Groves, and she is a member of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

© 2017, Leah Holbrook Sackett