The following story was accepted two years ago by Gargoyle, a literary magazine based in Washington, D.C. It has just been published this summer, due to pandemic delays. (Check it out: you’re looking for issue #75, the one with the traffic cone on the cover. Because of the editorial delays this issue is much thicker than usual and chock full of good stuff.)
“Sparks” is written from the point of view of an economically disadvantaged young person in upstate New York on the eve of the 2020 presidential election. I believe it remains relevant today.
by Thomas Pletcher
It’s early November, Monday I think, and I’m driving my beat-up bike around Winwood feeling chilly in my thin denim jacket and trying to figure out what to do next. I’m going to need to find work at some point but that becomes harder to do when the weather turns cold. There are some construction jobs going on—there are plenty of new houses being built—but the crews are usually locked in by this time of year. And I don’t feel like doing scut work on someone’s fancy-ass house project anyway, especially once it starts snowing. Plus there’s the masks and the distancing and all.
This is an election year, not that that means anything.
I’m thinking I could really use some oxy, or at the very least a six-pack, but I’m strapped as usual. I’ve only got one pill left and I don’t want to use it until I know I can get more. I don’t have a lot of money left, either. Then it occurs to me that Carl Stolz, my hard-hearted dealer, might take something other than cash if I can come up with the right something—some nice jewelry, maybe, or a big chunky watch. At this point I’m rounding the steep wide curve going up Circus Road when I see a white Tesla SUV with some smug-looking fuck behind the wheel turn out of his long driveway and head down the hill.
Well, well, I ask myself, who’s this? Probably the guy who owns that big new house. I throw a quick glance at the driver as the Tesla slides by but the stuck-up bastard just keeps his eyes on the curving road. I slow slightly and my piece-of-shit Kawasaki starts belching even louder but as far as Mr. Tesla is concerned I simply don’t exist. Once he rounds the curve and disappears down the hill I cut my engine and pull the bike into the short driveway of a smaller house across the way.
There’s no one home at this little weekend house, as usual. I’ve seen some city doofus up here with his family a couple of times over the past year or so, but the place is usually deserted. You’d think with the virus and everything he’d bring his family up here full-time. Whatever. Maybe they all moved somewhere else, or maybe they got sick down there.
I look across Circus toward the long driveway leading to the new house and think for a minute. There’s not going to be a lot of traffic on a cold and overcast weekday, but sometimes people show up unexpectedly—hikers going to and from the trailhead or just some jerk who’s made a wrong turn onto Circus, something which happens quite a bit. So to be on the safe side I take my bike and wheel it over behind a back corner of the empty weekend home. No one should be able to spot it from the road. I take off my battered helmet and toss it down next to the bike. OK, I think, let’s go see what we got.
As I walk down the smoothly paved driveway toward the recently built house I wish there was more cover from the trees—most of the leaves are down now and anyone driving up or down Circus could spot me if they happened to look in my direction. But as I get closer to the house—an expensive modern log construction, with big angular windows and multiple skylights—I start to relax a little. This far back from the road I’m probably pretty safe.
I stand in front of the place and look up toward the sharply slanted roof. The house is three stories high and the floor at ground level is partially built into the hillside. There’s a shitload of space in there for sure. I walk over to the front door and pull my denim jacket down over my fingertips to turn the handle. Of course it’s locked. But the door is mostly glass and I could just grab a rock and break through the fucker if I wanted.
I pause there in front of the door and try to think about the best way to proceed, and that’s when my head starts to buzz again. This always happens to me when I get worked up about something and I realize it’s a problem. It prevents me from thinking clearly and then I’m likely to make mistakes. I try to remember: did I see a sign about a security system on these premises? Most of the nice homes in and around Winwood have signs like that, especially the ones that aren’t lived in full-time. I feel pretty sure I didn’t see one, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a security system.
It would be just like some New York prick to have state-of-the-art protection where every door and window is wired and videoed but no sign announces it and you can’t see the cameras. As soon as you break some glass, though, a gigantic siren goes off and the local cops get called. Not that I give a shit about the dumbass local cops, but still. I don’t need anything else on my record. I need to be careful.
So I walk over to a ground-floor window which I can see under the big deck extending from the floor above. It takes my eyes a second or two to adjust to the shadow under the deck but then I can make out a treadmill in the middle of a carpeted and paneled room. I notice some other exercise equipment, hand weights and barbells, next to one of the walls. OK, so the dude works out. Big deal. He’s not here, is he?
Then my head starts buzzing louder. It begins to seem like the very air around me is fizzing with insects. It feels like somebody or something is trying to send me a message, an important message. I can’t make it out completely, but I can get the gist of it clearly enough. The message says: go for it. Do it.
I spot a medium-size rock under the deck not far from the window and I bend over to pick it up. Then I hesitate for a minute. If an alarm goes off, will I have time to run back down the driveway, cross Circus Road, pull my bike out from behind the other house and get away? Or will I have to take off in some other direction, maybe circling around through the woods? If that happens, someone might find my bike behind the other house before I can get to it.
I just keep standing there, indecisive, head buzzing like a fucking fly.
I’ve never told anyone about this condition. It started back in junior high, when I was learning to drive. I’d taken my dad’s pickup out without permission and I drank a lot of liquor that my friends had stolen from their parents. I wasn’t used to drinking back then and it hit me harder than I thought it would. Anyway, I smashed up the front end of my dad’s truck pretty good. He slammed me on the side of my head when he saw the damage.
I didn’t think much about it at the time because I knew my dad was right to be angry. Besides, he’d hit me the same way many times before, ever since I was little. The buzzing didn’t start until that time with the truck, though.
It isn’t a constant thing. It only seems to happen when I get too excited about something. Making out with a girl. Getting into a fight or scoring some oxy. Most of the time I can manage my way through it. I can manage to fondle the girl’s tits, I can manage to punch the other guy’s nose.
But there are times when I get really confused, and then it seems like things are totally upside-down or inside-out or just really strange somehow. And to tell the truth, it’s not always such a bad feeling.
Once, when I was still working for my dad on the road crew—which he is the boss of, Big Jim Ockert—I remember taking out a snowplow in advance of a big storm. As I was driving the plow up House Road my buzzing started. I had a message then too, and the message was that I had to clear the road right then and there. So I lowered the plow and began to do that. Part of me could tell something was different—I could hear metallic scraping sounds and I could see big billows of sparks streaming off the edge of the plow over and over again like waves—but there was something about speeding up the road like that, plow pressed hard to the pavement, beautiful bright colors flowing past, that made the buzzing seem like flying. I felt like I was soaring way up high above that road, like I was doing something really great and important and I was somebody who could accomplish things and everything was bound to be OK. Looking back, it was the best high I’ve ever had, and I hadn’t even taken anything.
It was even better than the time I went out with Beverly, a girl I liked in high school. Not that I screwed Bev or even really made out with her—we just went out that once, and I was kind of shy back then—but she told me she thought I was a decent person and I should be easier on myself. That made me feel good, but not as good as flying the plow did.
There was a price to pay, though. It seems like there always is. My dad shitcanned me for messing up the plow and forced me to move out of the house. He gave me a disgusted look I can still see and said, “Billy, I don’t know what the fuck’s wrong with you—maybe you got some bad genes from your mother’s side—but I don’t want to deal with your shit anymore. You got to get out.”
This is why I’m usually cold, why I have to do odd jobs for contractors and why I’m always short of cash.
I had to beg my friend Todd to let me use his dad’s crappy little abandoned trailer, which is rusting away on the edge of a field with no hookups of any kind. I got a gas lantern and a portable propane heater from Walmart—winter lasts about eight months in the Catskills—and there’s a thin little bed or couch thingy bolted to an inside wall that I sleep on. I don’t cook anything in there and I do my personal business outdoors, like people did in the old days. So yeah, I paid alright. I’m still paying.
Suddenly I snap back from these fond memories and look down at the rock in my hand. It seems to solidify and grow larger as I stare. Fuck it, I think, and I throw the rock hard toward the window, which splinters. I brace myself for a shrieking alarm but there is no alarm sound at all and now the buzzing stops, too. I have to take a second to reorient myself to the quiet. Then I walk over to the splintered window, lift my right leg, and test the glass with my boot. The glass bulges inward as I push, so I kick out enough of it to reach in and unlatch the window. Then I climb down into the room.
I stare at the treadmill. It’s a big steel machine that looks like it weighs a ton. It also looks like it cost a lot, with a large touchscreen and speakers built right into it. I check around for a switch to turn it on but don’t see one. Then I notice the weights against the wall so I go over there and pick one up. It’s a 20-pound hand weight. This isn’t so heavy, I think. Maybe the guy who owns this place isn’t that serious about working out. Not that I am myself.
Leaving the exercise room, I walk into what looks like a regular basement—furnace, hot water heater, workbench. Concrete floor. There’s a carpeted staircase, same carpet as the exercise room, and I follow that upstairs into a kitchen that looks like it belongs on one of those house shows on TV or else in a glossy magazine or something. The cabinets are beautiful, even I can see that. The appliances gleam richly, like really nice cars do. There’s a huge island right in the middle of the room with four tall kitchen chairs lined up along one side of it. I walk over to a wide sink where I can turn the faucet on and off just by using my pinky. Then I go over to the big steel refrigerator and look inside. I’m surprised to find it almost empty. Huh. All this money and nothing to eat.
Next, I walk into what I think you’d call a “great room.” And the room does look pretty fucking great. It has big floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the mountains. I actually gasp when I see this. “Jeez,” I say softly. The room is full of plush-looking furniture too but I ignore that and walk over to the big windows. Seeing the mountains framed in these windows makes me feel funny, like something is off somehow in a way I can’t quite identify.
I know these mountains. I grew up here. I’ve hiked their trails, I’ve looked out at the views from their peaks, but I’ve never seen the mountains this way before. And I’m twenty years old now, around the same age as this goddamned century. Framed in these high windows, viewed this way, the mountains look like an expensive accessory for the owner of this house. They look like some kind of luxury item the guy paid extra for. I don’t really recognize them.
Several more minutes go by while I stare through the windows. Until this very moment, I never realized the Catskills could turn into someone’s private view. It’s like people with money can see things you can’t see, I think. Like they can own things you don’t even know exist. By now the view is making me feel almost queasy. As I said before, there’s something about it that just doesn’t seem right. I try to puzzle it out some more but I start to feel confused and I don’t want the buzzing to start up again.
So far I haven’t seen any items small enough to take with me, but I no longer feel like sticking around or taking the time to explore the entire house. I walk back through the kitchen and down the stairs to the basement and the exercise room, then leave through the window I’ve broken. I trot down the long driveway and come back out onto Circus Road, then walk a short distance uphill to the house where I left my bike. I’m lucky; no cars come by. I put on my helmet, start up the bike and take off.
I drive to a bar-restaurant on Highway 23 that I used to frequent before the state said everyone was supposed to stay home. It’s been a while; the place only opened up again last month and you have to wear a mask when you go in and then sit six feet apart from anyone. That means only two people can be at the bar at one time but right now it’s just me, in my dirty white mask.
I have enough money for a couple of beers and I order one. I need to think. On the TV over the bar some clown in a suit is saying Trump is going to come from behind and win the election tomorrow. Then a clip of Trump himself comes on.
“Everything is rigged against you,” Trumps says. “The media and the elites don’t want you to know what’s going on. But we are soon going to fix that, believe me.”
I start to tune out. I don’t like the guy or the way he talks. He reminds me of my dad somehow, the way he’s always putting himself in the center of everything.
But the word “rigged” sticks in my mind. It makes a kind of sense to me, because it suggests a whole secret world out there that I don’t even know about. Maybe someone has rigged things. I consider the view of the mountains I saw from the large house on Circus Road. Then I compare it to the view of nothing I have from my tiny borrowed trailer.
I swivel on the barstool and look around; the only other people here are an old couple in the restaurant section and they’re not paying any attention to me. The lady who brought my beer is in the kitchen. I slip my last oxy out from the watch pocket of my jeans and swallow it down. Soon I’ll start to feel mellow and I can try to think all this through. There are hidden places I never knew were there, like some kind of alternate dimension or something. I need to understand what it means and how it works. Maybe I’ll meet someone in that other world who can help me.