by Christopher Overfelt

Tangent Parallel

Francis sits in a coffee shop. It might be a coffee shop. It might be someone’s home. It is spacious. It sits in the corner of a building with big windows that make up two of the walls. Out the windows, Francis can see downtown. The building is on a rise and the skyline spreads out below.

How did Francis get here? How did he end up at a little table in the corner? He has no money. He can’t buy coffee. He has none of the accoutrements that accompany coffee shop customers; no laptop, no book, no companion. In fact, there are no other customers in the room.

There is only one other person in the room. But he’s not really in the room. He is in a space that is sectioned off from the room. Within, he can be heard yelling. There is music playing in the room so his words are muffled, but he is definitely yelling something. When he comes out, he is sitting in a chair that rolls across the tiled floor. The tiles are the color of adobe, long since faded and scuffed.

David has a book in his lap. He rolls over to Francis’ table. He talks about Mayan slingshots. He wears a bandana on his head. He flips through the pages of the book for reference as he talks. Francis isn’t interested, but David talks anyway. He talks about how the slingshot was sacred in Mayan culture. How it had a very exact, purposeful form. It was useful as a weapon, but also as an aesthetic piece of art, pleasing to the gods. The craftsmen who moulded the slingshots out of the sacred yew tree were held in high esteem. They were regarded not only as woodworkers but also as healers and in some cases prophets.

David pauses and looks up from his book at Francis. What do you think about that?

I think you’re full of bullshit says Francis.

Would you like to work here?

Francis looks around the room. There is an espresso machine on a counter, behind which sits a refrigerator and a gas oven with a stove top. The walls are covered in art. There is no blank space. There is a long, tall bookshelf. Some of the books have fallen and lie like suicides on the floor. Doing what? asks Francis.

When he leaves, Francis tells David he might show up in the morning. He probably won’t. Francis walks down Broadway. It is a hot night. When he gets to thirty seventh, he is sweating. He takes a right down to Valentine where a big house sits on the corner. He follows the sidewalk up to the big porch and climbs the steps up to the door.

It is a double door that is tricky to open. The thumb press on the handle sticks and it’s not clear whether the door opens in or out. Francis struggles for a minute, the glass in the door rattling as the group inside turns and watches him. They are gathered in a circle in a large room and someone is reading something to which they are trying to listen. The door rattles louder and louder.

When the door finally opens, Francis huffs in and takes a chair just outside of the reading circle. Some of the members of the group scoot their chairs back so Francis can be included. There is a woman standing and singing. She slaps her hip to keep the beat. It’s an old blues rhythm. She sings about a green eyed monster that roves the dell and kills women, Jealousy.

When it is Francis’ turn to read, he says I don’t have anything to read, but I have a performance piece. Is that ok?

Sharon looks at him in surprise. She is the woman who was singing. You can do anything you want here she says. As long as you’re real.

Francis stands and walks to a clear area in the room. The group’s eyes follow him. He lies down on his back and puts his hands up in the air. Then he kicks his feet and begins to scream. He looks like a child having a fit. The group is not pleased. He stands up and returns to his seat. Sharon looks at him and says That was a deep well. You fell for two minutes.

How did you know? says Francis.

We’re all falling down a well says Sharon. And when we hit the bottom, we’re dead.

When Francis leaves, it is still hot. He walks back down Broadway, towards downtown. He turns up Southwest Boulevard towards Main. Beneath the Charlotte street bridge, there is a group gathered around a fire. The fire burns in a barrel that has been cut down to a short height. There are only disembodied faces around the fire, as if limbs and torsos are not to be trusted. Francis joins them.

The faces pass a loaf of bread around the fire. And then a bag of lunch meat. And then a bottle. There is an old face. It hangs lower than the other faces. The old man’s expressions are sincere. His eyes glow wildly. He talks about how he is hard of hearing. How his ears were deafened by gun blasts in the war. Which war, he doesn’t say. Now, there is only ringing. So he watches faces. And he believes in the sincerity of the faces around this fire. He can read expressions.

He says the worst fascists won world war two. He says that all the sides were fascist, but that the worst side won. He talks about floating a peace flotilla to Cuba. Some of the other faces around the fire begin to grow impatient. They abuse him. They tell him he’s a crazy old man. Finally, he tells them of his purpose to go to the border. To fight the injustices taking place there.

How are you gonna get to the border old man?
I have a truck.
Where the fuck did you get a truck?
I stole it.
You’re gonna drive a stolen truck to the border?

Francis tells the old man he will go with him. They leave in the morning. The old man turns out to actually have a truck. It is a nineteen eighty one Chevy; the small body kind that were made in Mexico when they first started moving their manufacturing plants across the border; the models that were made to compete with the little Japanese trucks that were appearing in America.

Francis and the old man can hardly fit into the cab together. It can’t go over forty nine miles an hour with two people in it. It sounds like a hornet. We’re not going to make it to Texas says Francis, shouting over the noise of the exhaust.

The old man doesn’t hear. Or maybe he pretends not to hear. Noxious fumes enter the cab through the vents and they have to keep the windows down to clear out the smoke. But they make it to Texas. They make it to Dallas. In a hotel parking lot, they stop to sleep. Francis sleeps in the bed of the truck. The old man sleeps in the cab. 

At eleven forty nine p.m., Francis is awakened by the flashlight of a policeman shining in his eyes. There is another policeman shining his flashlight into the cab of the truck. Get out of the truck say the policeman.

They tear the truck apart. It turns out to be a simple job as the truck is falling apart, anyway. Francis and the old man sit on the curb and watch. The old man tries to run. He doesn’t get far. The other policeman tackles Francis as if he were running, too. I’m not resisting! shouts Francis.

In jail, Francis is stripped of his shoelaces so as not to harm himself or anyone else. He is kept in a holding cell alone until he is processed into the general population. He doesn’t see the old man. Francis has never been in jail before. It isn’t at all how he imagined it. It is like a summer camp for fucked up people. They all sleep together in a long hallway. They have little cubicles that separate the beds. Francis isn’t sure where the guards are. He just follows the routine with everyone else; to the chow hall, to the showers, to the rec hall.

He meets someone named Andrew. Andrew sneaks into his bed one night and jerks Francis off. They sit in the smoking area and smoke together. Andrew is small with glasses. He is the antithesis of a jailbird. He tells Francis about his foster family. His foster dad was named Jackson. Jackson was an army vet. He parachuted into Panama and broke his legs. He walked kind of funny.

When Francis gets a court date, they dismiss his charges. He doesn’t know why. The judge seems distracted and doesn’t make eye contact with anyone. If Francis could make a wager, he would wager that the judge was on drugs. He is in the courtroom for a grand total of five minutes and fifty three seconds and then he is outside, just like that. He is given back his shoelaces.

He hitchhikes down to the border. Down to El Paso. In the desert wilderness, there is a tent city that houses children. There is also an encampment of protesters opposed to the imprisonment of children. They eye Francis warily. They eye each other warily. The cops drive slowly around the protesters’ encampment. They shine their lights into the tents at night. They blast heavy metal music towards them. They are police, FBI, border patrol, ICE, army and private contractors.

The protesters begin to fracture. They accuse one another of failure. Failure to act. Failure to have the courage to stop what is happening. Failure to stand up to a police state. When conditions are at their worst, something happens. There is a child in the desert. How it got there, no one knows. The police surround the child. So do the protesters. There is a standoff. The police demand that the protesters hand over the child.

The child is Mayan. She carries a slingshot. It is of an elegant design, and it fits her hand perfectly. She pulls back the gummy strands as if to fire. Whether or not there is projectile in the web of the sling, no one can tell. The police, too, raise their weapons. The protesters begin to shout and scream. The bullet fire is dense. The bullets, in the air, are dense. Everyone falls. Except for the child. She lets the rock fly and it lands in the forehead of a policeman, laying him flat on his back.

The policeman feels as if he is falling down a well. A deep, deep well. He falls for longer than he can keep track of. It is dark. As he falls, he thinks of his wife. He thinks of the argument they had before he left for work that morning. The night before, he had wanted to see a movie. His wife didn’t want to go. At first, she had said she didn’t want to see the movie that he wanted to see. When he offered to see a different movie, she declined again. A resentment grew in his chest. She never had the energy for him. She was so dedicated to her job that she had nothing left to give him.

But he couldn’t tell her that, because it felt childish to get upset over a movie. And so he had read his book, and she had read hers. They went to sleep without talking to one another. In the morning, he told her about his feelings. And now here he is, falling down a well.

He feels stupid. Stupid for getting angry over a movie. Stupid for standing in the place where there just happened to be a rock in front of his forehead. He knows this is probably the end. He had waited to have children and now he was probably going to regret it. There would be no pleasures of fatherhood. No losing sleep over a crying baby. No recognizing his own features in the soul of another person.

Was that the purpose? To leave behind a part of yourself in someone else? It must be, and he had failed to do it. The indelible mark he would leave on the earth would be the body print in the sand where he fell dead from the rock of a Mayan slingshot. 

Tangent Perpendicular

Flora is a dark headed child. She stands aloof from her brothers and sisters. At school, she doesn’t follow the patterns on her handwriting assignments. Her lines follow their own course. She has trouble speaking. She is considered slow, although the doctors can’t diagnose any specific condition. At night, her parents discuss what should be done with her. They consider sending her to an institution, but there are no such facilities close to their home. They can’t afford any kind of special tutoring.

Her father takes her to the fields, but she is of no use there, either. She is unable to perform the simplest of tasks; feeding the goats, shooing the birds away from the peaches. Her mind seems to be in a catatonic state. I’m going to make her a slingshot says her father one night. His wife scoffs at him.

He sits Flora down on the ground and sits down next to her with a piece of wood and a knife. She watches as the handle takes shape, then the notched forks and finally the rubber bands. The whole process takes several hours. When it is finished, there is a pile of wood shavings in her father’s lap. The slingshot is rudimentary, rough and splintery. Her father sets it down beside her and then gets up and leaves.

For a few days, the slingshot lies on the ground untouched. But Flora stays beside it, signalling to her mother and father that she wants to take her meals outside. She goes to the bathroom in a bush not far from the slingshot. She sleeps next to it, too. The jackals will get her says her mother.
What do you think the slingshot is for? says her father.

At night, armed men from the mining company come to their home. They fire indiscriminately into the little dwelling. There is nowhere to hide. When Flora goes inside, there is no life there. She leaves. She takes her slingshot with her.

Where does she go? She follows a path through the mountains. Up into the foothills at first, then higher. At the top, the stars are within reach. So is the milky way. It is so thick it spills onto the earth.

She sleeps in the grass on a wide plateau. While it is still dark, she is awoken by a noise. It sounds like a snake, something slithering in the grass. She follows it. There is a pile of rocks not far from where she was sleeping; a pyramid of perfectly smooth pebbles. She takes one and puts it in her mouth and swallows it. The rest, she puts into her pockets.

Over the months, the handle of the slingshot grows smooth in her hand. It takes the shape of her curved palm. She doesn’t let it go. In the towns along the highway, people poke fun at her for it. What are you hunting? they ask her. They hold their hands up sarcastically when she raises it and points it at them.

She barters with her pebbles. She lays one on a counter before an old woman. The counter has a glass pane in it and the stone shivers on its surface. The old woman looks at it. She picks it up in her hand. It is smooth and weighty, perfectly aerodynamic for slipping through the air. What am I supposed to do with this? says the woman.

Flora holds up her slingshot to show it to her. I don’t have a slingshot says the woman. I can’t use this.

An old man comes up behind the woman. What is it? he says. Before him, in the glass display case, are shelves with little cakes on them, muffins, scones, croissants.

This girl wants a cake says the woman. The man takes the pebble from the woman and puts it in his pocket. Then he takes a cake off a shelf from the display case and hands it to the girl. It is lemon yellow with strawberry pink frosting and a red ribbon of icing. He pours her a glass of milk, too.

The woman eyes him cynically. He takes the pebble from his pocket and pets it in his palm. What are you going to do with that? she says.

It’s for my slingshot he says.

Mexico City is different. She is treated neither with contempt nor pity. She is simply ignored. She is too small to force anyone to pay attention. She learns to fight. Her slingshot is no longer an ornament, but a weapon. So, too, are her pebbles. She sharpens them to points on the concrete sidewalks. In the tunnels underground, the rats fall from the pipework, skulls crushed by pinpoint accuracy.

It is now her hands that are rough and splintery; the slingshot smooth and delicate. At night, she sands it with her palms. It takes on a pale sheen. She is no longer recognizable as the pitiable Flora that was in Guatemala.

In the tourist markets, the gringos jump in fright at the sight of her. Sometimes she laughs at them. Sometimes she screams. She is, in all senses, a horrid creature. She has no manners, is filthy, and takes every opportunity to be downright mean. But who can judge the wretched? It is a sad irony that those who are treated cruelly are often themselves the most cruel.

Still, even in that cruel city, and in her miserable condition, there are those who would help her. It is a childless couple. They are on vacation and they see Flora defecating in public. They are frightened, disgusted, ashamed, and ultimately confused. They go to alert the authorities but quickly realize that to do so would be akin to setting the dogs onto the rabbit.

So they follow her. They are amazed by her self sufficiency. When they approach her, they are greeted with pebbles whizzing by their ears. They quickly take the money from their pockets, put it in a plastic bag, set it on the ground, and leave.

Flora moves out of the city and attacks the long, lonely desert. Even in her hardened condition, the isolated desert taxes her mentally and emotionally. The blowing sand softens her, refines her.

She takes up with a group of desert people, nomads. On that bleak terrain, they take on the shape and characteristics of the other beings who survive there; the hunched vultures, the furtive rodents, the invisible lizards. They move slowly in the day time, erecting camps of shade and resting. They follow the little animal trails to the dried up creeks; dig beneath them to find the water. They accept Flora the way a group of jellyfish accepts another into their fold. They release her in the same manner. She washes into El Paso with a single stone left in her pocket.

Tangent Angular

The story of David and Goliath is narrated in the first book of Samuel, in the seventeenth chapter. It has been related countless times in countless churches across the United States. One such church is in Marble City, Oklahoma. It is called the First Pentecostal Church of the Cherokee Nation and the structure itself is a double wide trailer that sits up on a series of cement blocks. The steepled roof is crowned with a cross.

Inside, Carl stands at the pulpit and reads from the bible. The irony of a white man reading the story of David and Goliath to a group of Cherokee natives is not lost to many of those present. But the entertainment in and around the reservation is thin; even thinner on Sunday mornings. And Carl’s wife’s piano playing isn’t bad. Her singing, though, is wretched. The group works together to drown her out when they are singing hymns.    
If you’ve never been to Oklahoma, imagine any decent place after a nuclear bomb has gone off. The soil is red. Everywhere is stunted growth. Life moves in a slow slough towards death. When Carl finishes reading the passage out loud, he takes off his glasses. Carl is short. He has hunched shoulders. In his retirement, he felt the call of God to minister to the people of the Cherokee nation. He looks out at his flock. They sit in metal chairs, sweating. There is a ceiling fan above that turns too slowly, as if the motor is burnt out. The blades droop downward as if they have melted in the heat. 

Carl talks in a shaky voice. He talks about God being greater than any giant. How a simple faith in God can conquer any obstacle. What did Saul do? He hid. David had faith in God. He had the courage to face down the giant. Whatever obstacle you face in your life he says, addiction, anger, fear, sexual perversion, idolatry. God’s love is greater.

He looks around the room for his granddaughter, Liza. She isn’t there. She is out on A road, sitting on the old railroad bridge that crosses the river. They call it a river, but it’s little more than a dried up creek bed. When the water is up, the Cherokee kids will swim in the river and some of the older boys will jump off the railroad bridge.

From the bridge, Liza can see the highway that passes by the town. She lets her bare legs  dangle off the bridge. She has just started shaving her legs. She hasn’t told her grandparents. She likes to sit on the bridge and watch the cars go by on the highway. She imagines where they are going, where they came from. She imagines leaving with one of them, any of them, and escaping her hell hole.

She watches as an old blue truck takes the exit and drives down to the little gas station in town. The gas station, in fact, is the town. There are no other buildings in the town proper, aside from a few trailer homes. The old truck is unusually loud and seems to drive in fits of stops and starts.

Suddenly Liza leaps up and runs off the bridge. She runs down A road into town and when she gets to the gas station she is completely out of breath. But she stops and walks casually into the parking lot, trying not to breathe too hard. She gathers her hair behind her ears. The blue truck is parked in front of a gas pump and there is an old man standing behind it. He doesn’t seem to notice her. She doesn’t see anyone else in the truck.

As she enters the gas station, she glances at the counter and sees Francis standing there. He is counting change onto the counter top. The woman at the register sees Liza and says Liza, if you don’t leave my store right now I will drive out to your granddaddy’s church and bring him back here and watch him whoop your ass. Do you understand me?

Francis turns around and looks at her. Liza is holding the door open and she looks at Francis and then she looks at the woman and leaves. Francis drops the rest of his change onto the countertop along with a few crumpled dollar bills. The woman takes them and counts them out and says You want five dollars and thirty six cents worth of gas?

Ya says Francis.
Where are you going?
To the border.
What are you going there for?

I don’t really know says Francis.

Outside, Liza is enjoying the breeze passing between her bare thighs. The old man has noticed her now and he watches her as he works the gas nozzle into the tank of the truck. Francis comes outside and walks past Liza. He doesn’t seem to notice her. She walks closer, playing with the windshield squeegee that sits in the blue water. It drips in her hand obscenely. The woman sticks her head out the gas station door and says Liza, go on!

But Liza hides behind the gas pump for a minute and then reappears. She begins to squeegee the windshield of the old truck. It won’t do any good says the old man. I can’t hardly see anyways.

Where you from? Liza asks Francis. He sits in the passenger seat with the door open.
We came from Kansas City.
Kansas City?
My aunt lives in Kansas City. My aunt Brenda. Do you know her?
Aunt Brenda?
Ya. She’s got brown hair.
Ya. I’ve seen her.
You’re a liar. My aunt Brenda lives in Chanute. It’s my uncle Byron that lives in Kansas City.

Ya but she came up to Kansas City for treatment. She was in the room next to mine at the methadone clinic.

Liza stops cleaning the windshield for a moment to look at Francis. For a second she looks concerned and then she laughs. So you’re one of those dope heads. I bet you’re on your way to Mexico right now to get a load of dope and take it back to the city. We see it all the time here.

The old man takes the nozzle out of the truck and puts it back on the pump. He sits in the driver’s seat and says That won’t get us there.

Liza sticks her head in the truck and says I can get you some money if you need it.
Francis now looks her in the eyes. How?
My granddaddy runs a church not far from here. I can sneak in and grab the collection plate.

The church is just a little ways down A road and Liza rides in the back of the truck. Her heart is pounding and she feels like she is flying through the air. When they get to the church, she jumps out and runs ahead of them. You all stay out here while I sneak in she says.

We’re not stealing from a church says Francis.

Francis and the old man walk into the side door of the trailer and find themselves at the back of the little congregation. There are probably ten or fifteen people in the room. Carl pauses his sermon and looks at them. The rest of the congregation turns around and does the same. The old man lifts his hands and says the real fascists won world war two. I lost my hearing in the war, but I can read faces. And the faces I see here are faces of peace. I’m on a journey. A journey of peace. I floated a peace flotilla to Cuba. To break the embargo. Now I’m on my way to the border. To fight the injustice there. You’re a peace loving people. We just need a few dollars to get us there.

Carl points to the door from the pulpit and says Get out.

Outside, a member of the congregation catches up to them. You fellas going to the border? he says. It’s a shame what they’re doing down there. It’s always the same with the white man. They take and take and take. Don’t ever want to give back.

He takes a ten dollar bill from his pocket and gives it to Francis. Take that for the road.

Liza is lying down flat in the back of the truck and they take her back to the gas station. As the old man fills the truck up, Francis tells her to get out. You said you knew my aunt Brenda! says Liza. Well my daddy was her brother and he died in a car crash and my mama doesn’t want me!

We’re not going to a place that’s any better says Francis.

Filled with gas, the truck seems to run better and Liza watches it slowly gain speed up the on ramp like an airplane trying to take flight. She kicks a few rocks in the parking lot and then sticks her arm in the gas station door and flips off the woman inside.

She goes back out to the bridge. Sitting down, she thinks about how church will be getting out. How her grandma will make tuna salad. How a few members of the congregation will join them. It’s all unbearable. Looking down the highway, where the hot tarmac disappears into the distance, she thinks she can see the border. It is like a magnet pulling her down the mouth of a funnel, into a deep, dark depression.

About the Author:

Christopher Aslan Overfelt lives and works on the empty plains of Kansas. In the summertime he grows cucumbers and in the winters he takes attendance at the local high school.