SmokeLong Quarterly

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The Brittle Man

Story by James Nokes (Read author interview) March 14, 2016

Art by Derrick Burbul

Keith’s Han-D-Fill was a speck of nothing off I-90 somewhere between Flintlock and Raxton, Montana. Half a day of white, roadside crosses, and we were ready to be whole again. Where that happened didn’t matter. Driving for days on such broken sleep—it felt like we were speeding through a kitchen, knocking over cups and saucers. Calling attention to ourselves.

Inside, I picked out a tiny plastic buffalo from a case of others just like it propped up between the cheap sunglasses and huckleberry jam. Part of me wanted them all, but you were right: Who needs a copy of a copy? Not us, not where we were headed.

We could’ve flown and been there in hours, but you were done with all of that. Sick of rides to and from. Sick of other people’s lists. Sick.

The owner was busy binning lengths of bison jerky. His name tag read Glen, but he didn’t look like one. He was humming a summer melody. A book of crosswords lay open on the counter. Most of the answers were blank, but the boxes had been traced over and over again in red pen.

By a display of quartz and potato chips, I told you the preserve wasn’t far, and couldn’t we just—


(You were always the stronger of us two.)

I got closer to the window, still warm from the late-afternoon sun. Autumn would be unforgettable. In a brochure, I read that Yellowstone buffalo stretched all the way back to prehistoric times. In them was something the world hadn’t spoiled.

My buffalo was a poor replica. I felt where the screws had bored into the body to hold the arthritic joints in place. What must it have felt like to be poured hot into a metal die and shaped into that strange gathering of head, legs, and tail? While still warm, to have a metal comb run over your body and leave the deep grooves that passed vaguely for hair.

You ran your fingers over mine. The grooves remained. You laughed when I said we should find a place to bury it. (We hadn’t even paid yet.) Besides, you told me, The earth won’t want it back.

But you were wrong.

I turned it in my fingers. On its belly there was a string of numbers so long it whispered to me: How are you a thing so simple and so tiny?

At the register, our hips touched, and I leaned into your colder half. Titanium and stainless steel: the things that would outlast you. Glen laughed as he rang up the buffalo and said Ain’t that the darnedest thing? And, really, it was.

When I asked you for a minute, you wound up the buffalo like a timer and took it out with you to the car. I pulled out a piece of tea-dark stationery from a motel and tapped it on the counter.

“Do you mind?” I said.

“Be my guest,” Glen said and held out his pen.

I scanned the crossword with every intention of writing down the longest blank—12 squares—and its clue. Two letters had already been written in. It would take an eternity to solve the rest. I was counting on that.

In the side mirror of the car, I saw you turn the buffalo upside down to watch its legs slowly stiffen. When you’ve taken that road for so long together, you’d do anything to make the mile markers stretch further. Pay to replace the things in the body that would fail and continue to fail until all that was left was failure. Race to the opposite end of the country on the promise of a treatment. Even rip the heart of a crossword book straight out from under the nose of a shocked Glen because somewhere down the road, you’ll need it. And when that time comes—no more waitlists. You’ll do it yourself. Then you’ll see just how strong you’ve become.


Notes from Guest Reader Maggie Su

This story begins with quiet intensity and builds to a shout. The surprising prose and sharp images turn the failure of the body into a powerful defiance.

About the Author

James Nokes is a writer, traveler, and language educator currently living in Portland, Oregon. He completed his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Montana and is finishing his MATESOL at Portland State University and slowly tapping away at his first novel. This is his first fiction publication.

About the Artist

Derrick Burbul is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, which he joined in the fall of 2005. He received his Master of Fine Arts in Studio Arts from the University of Idaho in May of 2000 and a Bachelors of Science in English with a Minor in Photography from the University of Wisconsin—Superior in 1996. His photographs explore humans’ relationship to their environment, exploiting everything from pinhole photography to digital manipulation to communicate ideas about our limitations of knowledge and how our perspectives can be distorted.

This story appeared in Issue Fifty-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-One

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