Spring 2009, Volume 6

Fiction by Dennis Must

Great Salt Lake

I couldn't picture myself walking on water like Jesus.
Like any other adventure I'd ever embark on, some pieces of truthful information would get embellished by lots of make-believe, so by the time I arrived—I'd be in for a big letdown. On Uncle Toot's behalf, Potter and I were heading off to Utah to install lightning rods on concrete bunkers stacked to the ceiling with ammunition boxes, bombs and mustard gas.

It had begun to downpour. Early on we'd decided to drive straight through, only stopping in Lansing, Michigan, for supplies. He'd drive a full tankful of gas, then I would. I was so worked up over the tinsel and paste, it was hard to relax. It must have been close to midnight when I saw flashing lights up ahead. Potter was sound asleep.

My eyeglasses was missing one lens. I'd carelessly left them on the front porch a couple days before our departure, then in a rush to leave stepped on them. My driver's license stated that I had to wear corrective lenses while operating a vehicle. It was one big Fruehauf rig we were motoring, and with a severe case of myopia, I could see with only one eye.

"Good evening, officer. What's the trouble?"

He stepped up on the truck's running board and shined his flashlight into the cab and Potter's face. If he'd shined it on mine, they'd only been one reflection instead of two. "Where you two headed?"

"Salt Lake City. We're lighting-rod installers working for the U.S. Government. Would you like to see our cargo?"

"Keep an eye out for the Blue Phantom," he warned. "Blew open the head of a lady from Georgia just up ahead of you half hour ago."

"Jesus Christ!" Potter wheezed, sitting up real stiff-like. "What's the Blue Phantom?"

"He talked like we were supposed to know," I said. "He's blowing out windshields?"

Just then we passed a blue Willy's sedan that had veered off the road into a field of corn. Several police cars surrounded it, all their lights blinking. You could see its windshield had been shattered.

"Why didn't he tell us who the Blue Phantom is?" Potter yelled.

We were both scrunched in our seats. If you'd been standing outside the truck, you couldn't have seen Potter's head or mine. I could barely see over the hood of the Fruehauf, We imagined the Blue Phantom might be perched in one of the towering country elms we rolled under.

"What is he?" Potter said, "Some nut who's escaped a cackle factory up in these hills. And why's he blue?"

"Maybe he's got a blue Chevy," I said. "Cruising these back roads at night with a shotgun pointing out the driver's side window. As the lights of vehicle heading towards him get brighter, instead of pressing on the low beams, he . . . fires."

"Must have blown the Georgian's eyes out," Potter said.

"We might not even meet up with your Uncle Toot," I said.

"Jesus," Potter sighed. "Even before we get a chance to walk on water."

"Or have six wives," I replied.

But it wasn't at all funny, between what I was seeing on the rural lane in the truck's jerking headlights with my one eye plus imagining what I was seeing with the other. Potter by now was hunched up on the cab's floor between the seat and the dashboard. "How much more before the next fill?"

"It'll be daylight," I answered.

"I'll keep an eye on the trees overhead," he said, salving his conscience.

When we pulled safely into a "76" Truck Stop at dawn, we asked a waitress if she knew who the Blue Phantom was.

"You one of his friends?"

"Seems he blew a hole through a lady's head on the highway back there," I said. "We ain't ever heard of him."

"Ain't nobody knows who he is," she said. "But he's a killer, that's for damn sure. I probably served him pancakes 'n' sausage this very morning. He comes out like the death beetle. Blows some stranger's head off through a windshield, then the police get all buzzed up. Blue goes undercover again. Might be my boss, for all I know."

"Why do they call him the Blue Phantom?" Potter asked.

She licked the lead on her pencil and added up our bill on her pad, slipping the check under Potter's cup of coffee. "Where you boys from?"

"Harmony, Pennsylvania," I offered.

"What are you doing way over here?"

"Lightning-rod men," Potter said.

"Oh, yeah? Well, you can figure out for yourselves the ëphantom' part."

"I was keeping my eyes peeled for a blue Chevy or something," I said.

"Ain't got nothing to do with the color."


"No. This poor sonofabitch is blue, honey. The bluest psycho in all the Midwest. Ain't enough country and western songs on the juke machines in every damn truck stop from here to Reno to match how blue this poor sonofabitch is feeling. Bluer than all those moon-howlers locked in the county sanatorium you drove by coming through here.

"Lightning-rod men, huh?"

Potter wiped his mouth self-consciously with a napkin. I took off my one-eyed glasses. "You say you were spotting for a blue Chevrolet?" she guffawed, touching my hand. "That's rich."

We landed in a little town called Tooele, Utah, a short distance from the ordinance depot. Potter's Uncle Toot had phoned ahead, arranging our living accommodations. On the edge of town sat a flat-roofed building that looked to me like a converted chicken houseóthe big one's you'd see back East that hold a thousand or more fryers. There must have been fifty Native American Indians living inside. Two to a room. Potter and I shared one, barely big enough for two cots.

"It's the size of a prison cell," he said. "Damn owner must've spent time inside one."

The rooming house had only one toilet and a single shower stall, and all tenants were urged to do their "lavatory functions" at the job site. The other occupants worked at the ordinance, too, except their jobs were permanent.

For breakfast, men would congregate in a narrow hallway where collapsible tables were set with china bowls alongside one-portion box containers of corn flakes. Jugs of diluted milk we passed around. Bag lunches of one orange and a bologna sandwich with mustard on white bread the landlord's slack-jawed wife dispersed on our way out. We had to fetch our own supper elsewhere.

I figured Potter and I could use the toughening up.

One night after work I stood number fifteen in line for the toilet. When somebody took longer than he was expected to, it was customary for the person closest to the door to begin beating on it and crying, "Time's up!" The lavatory had no lock. The first week I'd watched an impatient roomer yank its door open to find an Indian brother fully clothed on the hopper, bent over with his head in his hands, sobbing. The intruder eased the door shut, swiveled, and gave us all the whammy.

We went up in the woods that night.

Later that evening when I finally got inside the small water closet so disgustingly redolent, I began gagging. There folded at my feet, a letter.

Dear Mom and Pap,

I'm doing OK in Tooele. I've an important job with the US Government inspecting bombs in the event of a World War III. I'm saving up money to marry a wonderful woman, too . . . Mary Ellen Duffin. She's a virgin Mormon.

My friends and I share this hacienda. We each got a bedroom with an inside toilet and bathtub. A cook prepares us a whopping breakfastóeggs, bacon, ham, cactus jelly for our homemade bread, orange juice, milkóbefore we leave for the ordinance each morning. We get a box lunch too.

I'm the most popular dude in the place. Friends hang around me like flies. (I get that from you, Pap). This weekend several of us going fishing in the Great Salt Lake. Mary Ellen's father owns a lumber store. I spend Sundays in Mormon church.

A buddy's knockin' on my door now, so I got to close.

Your loving son, Jared.

The body heat generated in the hopper had caused the ink on the tablet paper to bleed blue. I'd no idea who Jared was and placed the letter in a fresh envelope, tacking it with his name to the outside of the toilet door. By morning it'd disappeared.

It began to dawn on me, after reading this sad epistle and recalling the Blue Phantom experience, that the real world was indeed a mixture of truth and lies. That some men, like the Phantom and Jared, were trying to jump off. I visualized Jared writing his missive while on the toilet, the steam of the bodies before him melting his words on the paper as fast as he scribbled. Maybe some of it was his crying. Weren't any women around to soften our hard reality, either.

After a couple weeks, I confessed to Potter I was afraid I'd, too, begin to dream in the lavatory, and start writing lies back home. "I need to break the monotony."

"You taking a walk?"

"I want to use the truck."

"Can't. Uncle Toot's orders. We're only to use it for traveling to work and back."

Uncle Toot drove his nephew by instructing him: "Potter, if you do this job good, one day you, too, will be driving across the states in the Cadillac limousine, hiring itinerants to install lighting rods." I had no Uncle Toot. The only reward I was getting out of our venture was life experienceóand a paycheck that I was blowing half on accommodations.

"He'll never know," I protested.

"Where are you going?"

"The Great Salt Lake."

"You going to walk on water?"

"Cut the shit. No. There's a big amusement park called Saltair on its shore."

"If Uncle Toot finds out I crossed him, he'll have our balls, Hart."

It wasn't too many miles before I could see the sun dip like a yolk over the rim of a mighty calm plate of azure blue water. Until I saw the Atlantic, I thought Lake Erie was the oceanóits steel-blue roily waters, waves sometimes as high as town hall. On the opposite side of the Utah highway, a refinery spewed a foul sulfuric fog over the terrain.

I pulled the truck off the road in towards the lakeóno boats or sails on its horizonóand stripped to my underwear. How far did I have to walk until I popped up? The lake tasted exactly like Adam's ale with a salt chaser. Soon I was unable to touch bottom . . . but splashing to keep from bobbing onto my face. Eventually I sat in the drink as if I'd an inner tube about my stomach. A white-boy-from-the-east lily pad.

Could I walk on water? I couldn't, but I'd never have to worry about drowning again either. It was miraculous. As twilight turned into evening, I drifted about in the Great Salt Lake, the shoreline now a continent away, and nobody waiting in line to take my place. Potter and Uncle Toot eons away, I was as alone as poor Jared, but light of heart . . . wafting in a watery half light towards Nevada.

I saw spotlights washing the night sky and castle turrets illuminated with hundreds of flickering bulbs. Saltair, I thought, and paddled to shore. In the truck's headlights I looked porcelain. It was very difficult for me to see the road, even worse than when Potter and I had driven from Harmony, particularly now that I had only one lens. I'd left them back at the boarding house. (Glasses made me look like an acne-faced jerk.)

As I wheeled the Fruehauf down a gravel trailóthe amusement park looked like it was floating on a colossal barge at the Great Salt Lake's peripheryóa glaring spotlight materialized. I presumed I was merely moving closer to it than it to me. It must be the entrance to Saltair, I decided, and didn't slow down.

I hadn't seen a young woman in a month. Just to get a whiff of one's perfume or smell her hair . . . anything other than the rank odor of hard-bodied men tramping on linoleum floors in the chicken house. Crying alone on toilets. Quaffing diluted milk (blue water) in dank hallways.

When suddenly this miniature star looms comet-bright a car's length away. I slammed on the brakes. A grinding noise of metal screeching against metal, tons and tons of it. BOOM! Uncle Toot's truck and I are catapulted back off the roadway a good twenty feet into the salt flats. The light that had been gradually blinding me now sat ocular at my windshield.

"Oh, my God!" voices screamed.

A giraffe pointed at the Fruehauf's radiator.

"Are you OK, Mister? Your water's burst." It gestured a leg to liquid rivulating out from under the chassis. I climbed out of the truck. Behind the giraffe, and hanging over the locomotive's cowcatcher were a bulb-nosed clown dressed in blue, one mouse and two Bo Peepsóall chorusing "OH, JESUS!"

The giraffe signaled to the engineer, "He's OK, Tom!" Hissing steam shot out of the iron horse's belly. Uncle Toot's headlights looked puny in the carnival train's glow. I apologized to the assemblage and stood in shock while the clown commiserated with his passengers. The truck's front bumper was now shaped in a V-for-Victory emblem. Worst of all, unsalted water hemorrhaged rust out of a gash in the radiator.

I turned the engine over. Thank God it began idling. The mouse and giraffe waved from the caboose until swallowed by night.

I prayed the water would hold to Tooele before the temperature gauge began to panic. The Fruehauf's chromium bumper heralding triumph down along the salt flats. But I felt as outcast and confused as surely the Blue Phantom had. Like Jared in the chicken house. Or the fully-clothed Native American we'd abandoned in the flusher one dark evening. I thought about the taller-than-men animals, the illuminated clown and Bo-Peeps circling the Great Salt Lake where, like Jesus, nobody would ever drown unless they willed—imagining the words I'd speak so the truth wouldn't strike Potter and Uncle Toot as hard.

BIO:  Dennis Must is the author of two short story collections: Oh, Don't Ask Why, Red Hen Press (2007), and Banjo Grease, Creative Arts Book Company (2000). His plays have been performed Off, Off Broadway, and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. He resides with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts.