The knob grinded in the cold like clenched teeth. Eriem opened the door.
“Hello,” the woman greeted her from inside a deep hood trimmed in fur. She removed the hood. Her skin was tan. She wore black gloves with red leather palms. “Are you Eriem?”
“Yeah, hi.” She shook the woman’s hand. The gloves’ material was soft.
“I’m Pilar. I’m Aleph—he, Aleph was my big brother. Your step-dad, I guess. Do you mind?”
“No. Come in. It’s just my mom and me here.”
Pilar crossed the threshold. She tugged at her glove’s fingers to remove them. “Hello, Fio. How are you feeling, darling?”
“Terrible,” Fio said. She drank from her glass of red wine and Coke Zero and didn’t stand. Pilar had her gloves off and kept her boots planted on the welcome mat beside the coat hooks and basket of car keys and sunglasses. Eriem shut the door.
“So what’re you going to do about that?” Pilar asked.
“The grieving process can take a lot of shapes,” Eriem said.
“I know one justifiable shape it can take,” Pilar said. “It’s less to do with sitting in an empty house. More to do with finding who ripped the life from the man you love. Fio. My patience is just about tapped. I can’t hold back much longer, darling. But I need you to tell me you agree. Hmm? Fio?” Fio’s head was tilted away. She appeared to shrink inside her sweater, blending into the sofa, a fashionable skeleton with unseeing eyes. The grip on her glass held tight. The indecision overcame her and one side betrayed the other. Fio crushed the wine goblet. It was a dull, almost soundless period on a sentence. She didn’t leap to her feet or cry at the pain or stains. Her mouth stayed closed and she bled.
“Mom,” Eriem whispered, coming to her side. She reached a little to see the cut hand. Fio didn’t react. So Eriem stayed still. “Mom. Your hand.”
“This is what happens,” Fio said finally. “This is always what happens. We’re promised a decent world. We fight, and struggle, and take pains. We bargain and we build. This town was Aleph’s entire world. And it killed him.” She clenched her fist. At last, the sound of breaking glass was truly audible. Beautiful and cutting. Fio leaned forward and shook the bits and blood out onto a napkin Eriem had used as a coaster for her own drink. Fio folded the napkin’s corners up around the broken glass like she was fixing a sandwich for a picnic, complete with a knot at the top. “Thank you for coming to speak with me, Pilar. We need to retake control of the narrative. Too many people have questioned the expanse of my grief. So we’ll make a grand gesture. And the conversation will correct itself. Take this.”
Pilar wiped each of her boots twice on the welcome mat and at last crossed into the living room. She lifted the napkin by the knot. Its insides clinked.
“They’re declaring the arbitrator at the town meeting tonight,” Pilar said. She checked her watch. “In 40 minutes.”
Fio rubbed Eriem’s shoulder gently. “Will you go with her to the town meeting, Eriem?” she asked. “I’d like the meeting to be as productive as possible.”
“Don’t you need me here, mom?”
“No. No, I’m going to clean up, drink a half gallon of CBD, and go to bed. No, I see you. You’re too wired up to sleep, or to help me, or to do much of anything. You’ll go crazy if you just stay at the house. Go into town with Pilar.”
“You might need me later. I’ll call you.”
Fio agreed wordlessly. Eriem slipped her jacket back on and joined Pilar in the driveway. Her truck looked like an antique humvee, if such a thing existed. There was an exposed truckbed in the rear and four doors. It was squared up at most angles like a little kid’s drawing. Eriem struggled with the passenger door handle.
“Is it locked?” she asked.
“It’s sticky, give it some muscle,” Pilar advised, taking the wheel. Eriem jerked the handle like she was throwing a mechanical lever and the door yielded.
“How old is this thing?”
“I built it. About five years ago now. I know every bolt in this truck.” Pilar pulled the choke and the still-warm engine responded just fine. She shifted into neutral to double-clutch and found reverse. The accelerator was responsive, and the suspension was stiff, and Eriem would have hit her head on the ceiling if she hadn’t quickly put up her hand to brace herself. Pilar reached the road and made the turn toward town without stopping or signaling. She cranked down the window and let in the speeding night air.
Eriem did the same for the sake of symmetry. “I’m sorry,” she said, voice raised to overcome the wind’s noise. “About your brother.”
“Thank you!” Pilar answered over the roar of air. She kept her foot on the gas.
“I didn’t know Aleph too well. Met him a few times. He was good to my mom.”
Pilar shook her head. “I know. He was. He was kind to me. My older sister, Aurora, died in the 80s. Aleph was the oldest. Somehow did everything right and remained humble. Contained all the wisdom in the world.”
“That’s a good person to have in your life. I bet he taught you a lot.”
“And then some. You live in San Fran?”
“Got it. What’s in LA?”
“You an actor?”
“I’m a stuntwoman. A stunt performer.”
Pilar took a corner. Eriem muscled herself into position to carry a high speed turn its body wasn’t built for. “Shit, really? Like you take punches and light yourself on fire?”
“Yup. Pretty much.”
“How dangerous is that stuff, really?”
“Only as dangerous as you allow it to be.” The truck slowed a little bit as the roads widened and town drew near. “What’s gonna happen at this town meeting?” Eriem asked.
“This is a small town during the offseason,” Pilar answered. “A little more than a thousand people live in Candlestick itself. Spring and summer it goes up a little when it’s birthing time. In the fall, we get a little temporary help with harvesting honey. And if there’s a lot of slaughtering. Winter is actually the highest population because the ski area’s open. Right now though, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s dead. Nobody’s here. So when there’s a crisis like this, we get as many people together as we can and talk it over. Dunno how many people will show up at the meeting though.”
“You mentioned the arbitrator when you talked to my mom. What’s the arbitrator?”
“When the need arises, an arbitrator is selected from a pool of candidates to look more closely into the crisis.” Pilar gripped the steering wheel. The leather squeaked against the rubber.
“Does the arbitrator help the cops?”
Pilar revealed a half-smile. “No cops in Candlestick.”
“Zero cops. Utopian. What happens if there’s a murder?”
“Hasn’t been a murder in fifty years. Enough budget was redirected from the PD shutdown to provide social aid and keep everyone warm and comfortable.” The woman looked at Eriem. They were about the same age. They each recognized something in one another and nodded briefly in understanding. “Your hippie mom didn’t end up here by accident.”
They rolled toward town. Its central village wasn’t much more than an intersection and a few optimistic stoplights. Pilar pointed out a few notable sites. The deer farm up one road. The fondue restaurant. The new base lodge and its gondola lines strung up toward the mountain. The bagel shop. The river and the new mill wheel, as well as the older stone mill further up, well out of sight now that night was settled. There was a bump as they passed over the inactive train tracks, running at an odd angle among the buildings like forgotten leylines.
“Lots of stuff looks new,” Eriem said. “Recently built.”
“You’ve never been here?”
“Never. Never visited once. I never spent time here as a kid, so it’s not really any kind of home to me.”
They passed the Flint River Spa at the end of the street as Pilar pulled a u-turn across both lanes to park on the opposite side in front of the town hall.
The building was three storeys of twentieth century brick. The type of cowboy town construction that might make masked bandits concerned about a federal Marshal’s potential presence. This wasn’t a ramshackle gap town. Civilized folk lived here. Its landscaping was clean and maintained. The dusting of snow was hardly noticeable there, just a hundred vertical feet lower than Fio’s house up in the hill outside of town proper. The town hall’s windows were bright and its lintel was decorated with pine garlands and holly for Christmas in a few weeks. Not many had arrived yet, or maybe this was all that would, but they raised a noise greater than one might expect. Handshakes were solemn. No laughter. The room’s brightness exposed every line on every concerned face.
Pilar nudged Eriem. She looked up to see her father on the room’s far side. He was still wearing bright yellow nordic boots with the metal toe clips. Eriem waved with a twist of her wrist at waist level.
The people found seats. Feet dragged over hardwood and squeaked against the water tracked in from outside. The room accommodated about 200 souls. It seemed bigger once Eriem sat, all eyes forward to the front of the room like a church service.
A man found his way to the center of the room where the sides were divided by a narrow aisle. He was trim and his jacket fit well against his body. His hair had almost all gone gray. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepend as he breathed and considered how to begin.
“So,” he started. Then stopped, to thumb at an itch on his forehead. “Nobody hoped to find us all in this type of situation. But I think the turnout and the, sorta, tenor in the room—it says more than any purpley speech from me might be able to put into words.” He cleared a dry throat. Eriem saw Pilar’s jaw tighten. “We’ve lost an important figure of our community. Losing Aleph makes you question what sort of world we live in, when his absence affects so many of us. It puts us to the test. It puts us to the test, so the initial piece of advice I’ll offer is don’t go and test yourself. The world—the whole dang world is asking a whole lot of you right now, so don’t start beating yourself up and take on wars at multiple fronts.
“We’re gonna handle this. We’re gonna get to the bottom of it as a community. Solve it. Rescue ourselves. Same way we’ve rescued ourselves from any other type of crisis.”
“Dandridge,” a man’s voice said from near the front. “The crowd’s as warm as it’s gonna get. Let’s get to the headliner.”
Dandridge nodded in agreement. He waved a few volunteers at the room’s rear. They stopped at each row, passing ticket stubs down the line. Some took one, some declined. The volunteers worked their way forward. Pilar took a ticket. Eriem prepared to rip one of her own. Pilar stopped her.
“You can’t,” she said.
“You aren’t a town resident. You aren’t eligible to be an arbitrator.”
Eriem glanced to the man on her other side. He looked like a shrunken apple doll. He ripped himself a ticket and continued passing them down the row.
“What am I doing here then?” Eriem asked.
When the shrunken apple doll man sent the ticket roll back on its return trip, Eriem seized the opportunity. She pulled off a ticket. Then she set the roll in Pilar’s lap.
“I promised my mom,” she said. “What’re they gonna do? Kill me?”
Pilar passed the tickets back to the volunteer at the end of the row. “Guess we’ll see.”
-- Alex Crumb
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