The Bottle

On one of those late-autumn nights when the cold had cleared the air but the storms hadn’t yet begun spilling over the serrated rim of the Sierra Nevada, a star flared up in the evening sky, gathering such intensity that my neighbors in the Sierra Shadows trailer park stepped from their wheeled domiciles to gaze into the sky and speculate about whether or not the brightened star was some act of God.

As it turned out, a red supergiant at the center of Orion’s belt, the ninth brightest star in the sky, had exploded, becoming a supernova bright enough that the astronomical explosion was visible even during the day. It wasn’t an act of God. It was Betelgeuse.

My nearest neighbor, Ted, and I stare up at the bright point in the sky. Occasionally one of us will lift his beer to his mouth and take a swig, and the other—as if the action had reminded him that he was still holding his own beer—will follow suit. Whoever finishes his beer first usually fetches two. Ted was in the Air Force in the late seventies, after Vietnam, before the Cold War. Ted rarely talks about his service time. He says there’s no point in talking about his time because it’s in the past. Ted’s history has no power over him.

“Do you think it means anything?” I ask, gesturing to the exploding star with my beer, checking to find out which side of the speculation about acts of God Ted stands on.

“Not anymore,” he says. He digs a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket.

“Not anymore?”

Ted lights a cigarette and holds the pack out to me over the galvanized wire fence that separates our lots. I take the pack from him and lift a cigarette out before handing it back across the fence.

“Yeah. That star is hundreds—maybe thousands—of light-years away. It blew up before any of us were alive. Maybe it meant something back when that actually happened, but now it’s just light. We’re watching an old movie.” Ted takes a drag and blows out the smoke in a long relaxed exhale.

I light my own cigarette. “But it still happened.” I find the permanence of the past disquieting. Nothing can be altered, taken back, or resurrected once it has been inevitably relegated to the past. When I trace my lifeline back through my memory, I find it’s only the mistakes I can feel. The exhilaration of scoring a touchdown in a high school football game or the satisfaction of sex aren’t replicable in memory. But the embarrassment of being laughed at by my teacher for a comical spelling error or the shame of wrecking my father’s truck or the guilt of my poor judgment during my time in the Iraqi campaign bubble up like boiling tar in my stomach as I retrace those steps.

History is like the dark inverted crater of the sky, and in it mistakes shine the brightest. I take a long pull off my beer. I prefer to review my life through brown tinted bottles sliding with foam.

Ted nods and takes the cue to drink his own beer, squinting thoughtfully at the bursting star. Foam clings to his gray handlebar mustache, the sort of facial hair that belongs beneath a ten-gallon cowboy hat. Ted wears a baseball cap.

“The scientists say that it’ll burn out in a week or two. Then it’ll be like it never happened at all,” he says.

There’s a crash, like some tall piece of furniture has been knocked over, and a yelp from inside the trailer adjacent to Ted’s. I start, and the task my mind instinctively turns to accomplishing is locating my gun. Ted turns and calmly regards the windows. The residence belongs to a young woman with some struggles named Darla. Ted and I study the faded Jayco in silence, tendrils of smoke slithering from our cigarettes, waiting to see if the commotion will continue. Once we’re satisfied that’s the end of it, we return to our original postures. Before I can pick up another thought, my gun, resting in easy access next to my bed, flashes in my mind.

 

I turn the corner into the waste management lot, trash bags stuffed with bottles and cans shift in the bed of my truck, rattling against a rear wheel well. Ted doesn’t own a truck, and there are no recycling pickup cans at the trailer park, so on Thursdays I collect his empty cans and my bottles and head down to dump them in the recycling collection bins.

The attendant nods and waves me over to the recycling station without checking the contents of my truck. I get out and toss the bags into the recycling receptacle, step back into my idling truck, and pull out of the yard.

Recycling in Nevada doesn’t pay anything. Ted reasons that it’s no additional inconvenience, since the communal dumpster in the park fills up every week, necessitating a dump run of one sort or another. “Might as well make a good deed of it,” Ted says. His logic is difficult to dispute, so I make the trip every week.

Moving along the straightaway between the dump and the trailer park, I lean forward, with my cheek nearly against the steering wheel, and peer up at the Betelgeuse supernova, just bright enough to see in the clear sky during daylight, a point of history that shines brighter than the rest.

Science says that Betelgeuse is 640 light years away from earth, that the star actually exploded 640 years ago, and the light is just now arriving, providing footage of Betelgeuse coming undone.

It seems that not all mistakes are committed equally. Some cast brighter light, some lights are brighter when they’re blurry, burning more intensely in an alcohol haze. I’ve learned where my sweet spot between sober and sloppy drunk is, and most nights I can ride that wave until I fall into bed.

The entrance into the trailer park is poorly angled, and I take it with a bit too much speed. There’s a knock, maybe from my front suspension, as I bounce into the parking lot. “Fuck,” I mutter, cajoling my truck into the parking space in front of my trailer just as a bald man sporting a bowling shirt is pounding on Darla’s door with an open hand and looking at his feet.

“Darla,” he says. He turns and looks me over as I step out of my truck. I nod, but he just goes back to looking at his feet and pounds on the door a few more times. Darla is kind, and sometimes brings burnt cookies to Ted and I during our synchronized drinking sessions, but she sometimes seems a bit wired in a way that I’ve seen before. I theorize that Darla might have a habit of indulging in something stronger than alcohol. Ted scowls about the men she has over. “As long as they don’t cause any trouble for her,” he says, though I’m not entirely sure what the best course of action would be if there was trouble.

Darla opens the door, wearing a pair of shorts and a white tank top. I glimpse a bit of tattooed flesh snaking about the margin of the guy’s collar as he edges past Darla and disappears inside. She waves. “Hi!” she calls cheerfully.

I return her wave with a smile. “Hey, Darla!” She smiles for a beat more, then shuts the door.

I key the lock of my own door, then stop. Curious, I step over to my truck and place a hand on my truck toolbox to lean over and peer into the bed, but there doesn’t seem to be any loose object there.

 

I lie in the shade under my truck with a flashlight, shifting this way and that in the dust to look at all the pieces of the undercarriage, wiggling and pulling on things to ensure they’re tight. I’d hoped exposing the offending damage would be easy, that there’d be an obviously busted strut mount or missing bolt, but everything seems fine.

The knocking persisted, reminding me that there was some loose piece rattling about each time I took a corner or rocked into the parking lot of the grocery store where I buy my beer.

When I told Ted about my problem, he’d said, “I guess you’ll have to get under there and check it out.” I’d considered just taking it to the shop, but had decided that I would do so only after I’d exhausted all my ideas and patience to fix it myself. Ted’s solution seemed so simple that I felt I should be able to figure it out.

I also hated to admit that I wasn’t handy enough for the task. Because I was in the Marines, people seemed to expect that I should never need help with anything. If I let slip that I’d had to pay for a service, guys would often say something like, “I’d think a Marine would be able to take care of that himself.” Then they’d have to chuckle and clarify that they were joking because the disappointment in their tone sounded too sincere.

Ted had offered to let me borrow a mat so I didn’t have to lay in the dirt while I checked the undercarriage, which I’d accepted so he’d know I’d made a sincere effort to fix my own vehicle before taking it to a mechanic, if it came to that.

I kill the flashlight and let my head fall back on the mat and take a deep breath. A thump from inside Darla’s trailer snags my attention, a sound like something falling, then agitated voices. I shimmy from under my truck and pause on my patio with my head cocked so I have an ear toward Darla’s Jayco. The knocking inside Darla’s trailer continues, and Darla yells words too muffled by the fiberglass and sheet metal to make out.

A familiar lump of indecision drops into my stomach. I flex and unfurl my fingers. The sensation that I should know what to do, but don’t, causes me to break out in sweat along my hairline and collar.

I dig around in my memory for some bit of knowledge or experience that might steer me in the right direction, but instead I run up against the brightest star in my history, a point in the gray light just before dawn, standing on a roadside staring down a vehicle zipping toward the blocking position my squad had set up, sweat beading on the back of my hands and soaking the cuffs of my cammies, my stomach heavy with the same leaden uncertainty.

In the past weeks, cars like this had piled into fortified positions and humvees, laden with explosives, and dusted fire teams and whole squads. Men I knew had disappeared in these explosions, and, in truth, these concussions had rattled me, so maybe I didn’t wait long enough to see if the vehicle would slow down. I might have raised my rifle too quickly after another Marine had popped a red flare to get the driver’s attention. I’d started shooting.

Once I fired, the rest started firing, all six guns on my side of the blocking position going at once. Rounds punched holes in the hood, and blasted star-like breaks in the windshield. Steam spurted from the radiator. The vehicle swerved onto the shoulder and lurched to a halt, discarding a mirror and the plastic molding from the front wheel well. I called cease fire, but I don’t think I could be heard over the discharging weapons because the others didn’t stop shooting.

The passenger door popped open, and a man flopped out onto his stomach, holding his hands up in surrender. A round split his hand and severed his middle and ring finger. I called cease fire again. This time the gunfire slowed, so I screamed the command. The last shots popped, and silence crashed in to fill the void left by the departed flurry of gunfire. The man flopped onto his back.

The door of the truck was adorned with large black Iraqi text. The indecisive stone in my gut melted into a simmering stew of dread. We approached the smoking vehicle, the hiss of the punctured radiator growing loud enough to be heard over the ringing in my ears as we padded closer.

The driver’s head was thrown back against the seat, his hands resting palms-up in his lap. There were a handful of holes in his forehead and around one eye socket. In the backseat was another man, slumped forward, but also with holes in his face. His hands clutched an already bandaged wound in his stomach. The man lying on the ground sucked labored breaths, each respiration lasting for what seemed like minutes. With each exhale, he issued a plea. “Mista, please.” His voice stuck to the blood in this throat. All three men were wearing tactical chest rigs.

The realization of what had happened hit my system like a shot of novocaine. The text on the door, the bandaged man in the back, the aggressive driving. These were Iraqi soldiers, members of the Iraqi Defense Forces, bringing one of their wounded to our checkpoint for medical care. One of the Marines behind me called for Doc. Maybe it was the ringing in my ears, deafened by the gunfire, but the voices seemed distant. Doc brushed my shoulder as he pushed passed me, but I couldn’t move, my nervous system numbed by the shock of my mistake.

Then, the sunrise prayers started, mournful songs that blared from the mosque towers, and I thought maybe they were pleas rather than praise, voices begging for God in a place that so desperately needed divine intervention.

Now I stand rooted on my patio, fingers twitching at my sides, listening for more commotion from Darla’s trailer.

I consider calling the police, but the look I envision the police officer would give me when he found out I was a Marine and hadn’t stormed into Darla’s place and kicked whoever’s ass stalls me.

Whatever disturbance was taking place inside Darla’s home seems to have subsided, and I let out a breath, relieved with my good fortune that I won’t be pressed into action. It was probably nothing to stress over anyway. Darla could have been having sex in there for all I know, and that would have been an awkward thing to interrupt.

The sunset is bruising the sky purple along the teeth of the western mountains, and Betelgeuse, the brightest deceased star in the sky, is visible long before the other stars begin to show.

 

Ted lays his arms over the fence and holds out a cigarette. I take the smoke and set my beer down to dig my lighter from my pocket. Ted looks up at the Betelgeuse supernova.

“They say that after the supernova has exploded, all that will be left is a massive cloud of gas and dust, a nebula,” Ted says. His mustache wiggles as he speaks. He takes a pull off his beer, holding his cigarette with two fingers lifted off the can. “Supposedly, the gas and dust are pretty much invisible when viewed through a standard telescope. The only way to get those colorful pictures of nebulas is with an infrared sensor.”

I pick up my beer and take a drag off my cigarette. “Yeah. What does that mean for your theory that it’ll be just like it never happened?”

He scratches his lower lip with a thumbnail. “Just like most things in the past, you can only see them if you’re looking with the right eyes.” Ted shrugs. “So, I stand by my statement.”

I take a long pull off my beer, and mentally rerun my predicament with the noises coming from Darla’s trailer earlier. Ted’s theory irritates me. Ted takes a swig of beer to match mine.

I consider recounting my experiences in the Iraqi campaign to him, and explaining my reaction when I heard the thrashing in Darla’s trailer today. I’d cap the whole thing off by asking him if all that had never happened, because it was in the past. I can only see it if I look for it with the right eyes, right?

Instead, I take another heavy chug of my beer, relishing the light burn of carbonated foam in my throat. If I told Ted all that, I doubt I’d be able to resist the urge to embellish certain details and leave others out, to skew the story so I didn’t seem so bad, to give myself too much credit.

Not only that, but I imagine that Ted would have a rather simple, straightforward response to the problem of whatever was going on with Darla, and I don’t need to feel any more stupid or inadequate.

I drag on my cigarette, and let the smoke trail between my lips as I speak. “Yeah. Well, those nebulas aren’t quite invisible then.” I flick my cigarette onto my patio. “I gotta go take care of something.” I leave Ted standing at the fence and climb into my truck and turn the engine over.

 

It’s about midnight and moonless, and I drive to hear the knocking. The bottle in my cup holder sloshes quarter-full with beer, and the knock sounds as I take a right at a stop sign. There it is again when I stop at the next intersection. I lean down to get my ear near the floorboard as I drive, hoping that maybe if I hear the sound more clearly, I’ll be able to determine what it is. I make a left at a stoplight. The knock knocks.

Alcohol lightens my head as I take the straightaway out of town, toward the landfill. I swerve. There it is, like the sound of some loose part banging. I swerve again. The sound points to something ajar. I make sharp turns, barely able to see over the dashboard with my ear near my knee as I wiggle down the street in a Z pattern. The knock sounds as I peel away from each shoulder fast enough to press the edge of the tires’ bite.

I slam on the brakes and accelerate, feeling closer to solving the mystery with my determination that it’s the sound of a loose part. I make more S turns. The solution is probably as simple as looking with the right eyes.

A trashcan careens into the splay of my headlights. It’s one of those giant green waste management trashcans that are big enough for the in-laws to stay in when they come for Christmas. The headlights glint off the smooth plastic for less than a heartbeat and the trashcan pops off my bumper. Trash—a lot of paper and plastic food containers and cans—explodes across my windshield.

“Whoa, fuck!” I stand on the brake pedal. The tires squeal as I snap to a stop. I grip the steering wheel and listen to the engine idle smoothly in the dark and take big breaths. Maybe I’ve exhausted my skill and patience to determine the problem myself, and should just take it to the shop.

Once my pulse has stabilized I step out to survey the damage. The trash is scattered from one sidewalk to the other. My headlight is broken. The top of the trashcan is cracked. I stand it up to check the functionality. The lid is blue. It’s a recycling bin, one of the ones from the waste management agency that we don’t have at the trailer park.

I could just leave mess. Nobody would know. The house is set back from the road and no lights have come on. I’d be long gone by the time the residents discovered their busted bin in the morning.

I slide back into the driver’s seat, but stop with one foot still on the pavement. This is a fairly dark part of town, and there’s minimal light pollution and the black pan of sky is salted with stars, the dead one shining especially bright.

My broken headlight will prompt questions from Ted or maybe Darla. Of course Ted will point out some easy way this all could have been avoided. Maybe it’s best not to add another star to the already heavily salted sky of my history, even if it’s not nearly the brightest. I get out and get to work picking up the trash by the light of my one good headlight, then dig a pen out of my glove box and write my name and phone number on the back of a receipt and leave it with the cracked recycling bin.

 

In the morning I emerge into the cold light with my coffee to find Ted staring at my broken headlight. He raises his coffee cup and covers half his face with it as he drinks. “Looks like you hit something.”

“I did.” I try to sound unconcerned.

Ted nods as if he knows what broke my headlight. “Should be an easy fix.”

“Should be.” I slurp my coffee.

Ted moseys around my truck. He squats down and peers underneath on the passenger side. “You figure out what was making that noise?”

I jam my hand in my pocket. “Not yet.” More coffee. I figure if I keep it brief, I won’t have to tell him how my most recent efforts to discover the problem turned out, that I can’t seem to fix it myself.

Ted nods, his eyes settling for a moment on some part of the undercarriage and then another. “Did you get underneath and have a look at it?”

“I did.”

“No dice?” Ted keeps eyeing things. He squints at the rear axle.

“Nope. Everything seems fine.” My insides unwind a little. He seems to have forgotten the broken headlight.

“Welp, I bet you’ll figure out what’s wrong as soon as it won’t drive no more.”

Ted stands up and wanders around the fence, back to his morning puddle of beer cans that he’ll pile up soon enough. We settle in our chairs and watch the sunbeams tilt downward as the sun ascends above the mountains.

Then there’s that entirely different type of knocking again. Darla’s trailer rocks with it. There’s Darla’s muffled voice. Listening to her, it’s obvious that my earlier rationalizations of what might have been going on in there were wrong.

Ted purses his lips and stares at Darla’s door. Ridges grow in the furrow between his eyebrows. The thumping continues, beating around in the trailer like a rock bouncing around the innards of a vacuum.

Ted nods to himself for a moment, internally drawing an answer out. He sets his coffee on his front step, which he constructed with cinderblocks, and gets up. He heads around the fence toward Darla’s trailer.

This time I don’t hesitate, I pop my trailer door and retrieve my pistol from its stowage, then head back out and position myself next to my truck where I can keep an eye on things with my truck between me and Darla’s trailer. I drape my arms over the bedrail so that my hands hang low in the bed where the gun is out of sight.

Ted bangs on Darla’s door with a fist. Things get quiet inside. Ted bangs again. I tighten my grip on my gun. The ringing in my ears competes with my heartbeat. The door opens outward and the bald guy from earlier fills the doorframe wearing a wife beater. Tattoos wind from his shoulders around his neck. He keeps his hand on the door.

“Just the guy I wanted to see.” Ted motions for him to come out. “Would you mind stepping out here for a second?” His phrasing implies there’s an option, but his tone says there’s only one right choice.

The guy glances over his shoulder. He seems confused. My guess is this has never happened to him before. “Uh, okay.” He steps out, still keeping the door from swinging free with one hand. “Yeah?”

Ted says. “You’ve gotta leave. Now.” He points over the guy’s shoulder, toward the exit of the trailer park.

The guy’s chest puffs up, and he lifts his chin. He looks like he might hit Ted. “Oh, yeah?” He lets the door swing free and knots his fingers into fists, releases them, then reties them. I take my eyes off his hands just long enough to do a press check on my gun, easing the slide back until the round in the chamber glints in the morning sun then releasing the slide.

Ted says, “Yeah. Get your stuff and go.”

Darla appears in the doorway, sporting a blue t-shirt. “Ted, wait. This is my fault. I invited him over.”

At this the guy raises his eyebrows at Ted like, See? Told ya, buddy.

Ted nods slowly, formulating an answer with his lips pressed together so they hide behind his mustache. The man’s hands are still rounded into knots of knuckles. I plot my moves if I need to use my gun, calculating an alternate answer in case Ted’s simple solution doesn’t work out.

Ted stops nodding and speaks slowly, less forcefully than when he told the man to come outside. “Well, it’s Darla’s place and I can’t tell her who she can and can’t have over.” The guy loosens his fingers like loosening threads in a ball of yarn, a little smile playing over his lips in anticipation of Ted’s surrender.

Ted goes on. “But we do have a policy regarding guests here, and as far as I can tell, you’ve been here longer than you’re allowed without signing in with the park manager. So, get your stuff and go, or we can go talk to the boss.” He looks at Darla, who’s chewing her lip, looking as if she expects this guy to explode any second. The guy’s fingers curl back into lumpy end caps on his arms. The muscles of his forearms slide beneath his sunbaked skin.

Ted goes on. “If Darla wants you over, you can come back tomorrow. But if you’re gonna make such a ruckus, you should have her over to your place, if you have one.” He lays the last bit on with a thick layer of disdain that can only come from a man who firmly believes that ladies shouldn’t tolerate a man who doesn’t have his own place.

Darla rubs her shorts as if she’s trying to rub the tiny ridges off the denim and looks from Ted to the guy and back to Ted like she’s watching a bomb tech about to cut the wire. I keep my eyes on the fists.

Then it’s the guy who’s nodding. He sucks a breath through his nose and hauls back into the trailer. Ted stands his ground as the man scuffles around inside and emerges with a backpack. He throws Darla’s gate open and heads out to the street. Darla looks at Ted like maybe she’s unsure if she wants to slap him or hug him. Then she bounds back inside and shuts the door.

Ted closes Darla’s gate as he walks back to his step and picks up his coffee. He plops in his chair and takes a sip. I give him one thumb up.

He just shakes his head. “I never did nothin’.” The line of his mouth just barely bends into a smile.

I look at my hands. In the war story the gun always goes off, but it’s a complicated solution. I feel silly holding it, having witnessed the effect of Ted’s simplicity. I pull the magazine and rack the round out. The bullet slips between my fingers and clacks into the bed of my truck. I lean in to retrieve it, and notice a glint from beneath my toolbox.

My toolbox is mounted on the bed rails, so there’s a gap between the bottom of the box and the bed. I pocket the round and fish under my toolbox. It’s an empty beer bottle. I shake my head. Of course the problem and the solution would be so simple.

“Look at that,” Ted says, pointing to the sky where we’ve grown accustomed to Betelgeuse burning. But the sky is just an empty blue. Betelgeuse has burned out, leaving only a cluster of gas and dust. It occurs to me that all stars are burning out, destined to eventually explode, leaving just a nebula, finally invisible to the naked eye, at last relegated to the past.

Ted nods, eying me slyly. I walk to the dumpster, painted brown to indicate that it’s for non-recyclable material. Trash from our trailer park leaves and never returns. I drop the bottle inside and walk back to my trailer, almost like it never happened.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Miller is a writer from Reno, Nevada. He writes loosely autobiographical fiction based on his experiences as a United States Marine in the Iraqi Campaign and beyond. This is his first published story.

 
[ The photograph of the bottle at the top of this page is in the public domain. ]

OTHERS ARE READING…

Drained

By Troy Varvel / 10/15/2018

Abecedarian for Convalescence

By Hannah Seo / 10/24/2018

Neon Love

By Faye Brinsmead / 10/27/2018

Battle Rhythm

By Aramis Calderon / 10/15/2018

I Know I Won’t Be Here Tomorrow

By Anita Lekic / 11/02/2018