Faces in the Fire
by TL Hines
Faces in the Fire
By T. L. Hines
He expected the shoes to say something, of course; Kurt had hundreds of articles of clothing from the dearly departed, a wardrobe of wearable ghosts that fueled his existence. It wasn’t unusual, when browsing estate sales, to find a jacket whispering of adulterous affairs, a pair of slacks sobbing uncontrollably about financial ruin. While searching through the piles of belongings at these sales, Kurt heard the constant babble of past lies and past lives rising from the tables where the clothing lay neatly folded.
So he wasn’t surprised to find shoes with something to say. But while most of the clothing spoke to him in words, in plaintive voices tinged with desperation, these shoes spoke a single, simple image: a catfish.
It started as a white dot on the horizon, floating in a vast expanse of orange. But the dot moved, coming closer and closer, until at last the dot took its fish form, its continual back-and-forth sweeps of the tail coming into focus. Finally, as the catfish filled the entire slate of his mind, Kurt absently set down the light-tan sweater he’d been holding and turned his attention to the shoes.
The sweater had been quiet. Or maybe it hadn’t been. But if it said anything, its voice was drowned out by the image the shoes pushed his way.
A catfish. What did that mean?
The scene began to loop again, and Kurt moved to touch the shoes. When he did, the image in his mind became a bit more vibrant, a bit more dimensional.
“Good stuff, huh?”
Kurt swiveled his head in the direction of the voice, the catfish momentarily dissolving as his concentration broke. A short man stood next to him, riffling through the folded clothes of lot 159; a scruffy beard concealed most of his face.
“Sorry,” Kurt said, trying to force a smile into his voice. “I didn’t catch that.”
The bearded guy picked up the tan sweater Kurt had just been holding, examined it a few moments, began refolding it. He finally looked at Kurt. “Good stuff here. Guy left lots of stuff.”
“Oh,” Kurt said, feeling as if his mind were in a slower gear than usual. “Yeah. Sure.”
And even as he tried to sift through the rest of lot 159, an assortment of clothing left by a dead man to scavengers at an estate sale, one item continued to speak to him.
Sending him the flickering scenes of the catfish, swimming against the murky current of his mind.
That evening, after paying just fifty dollars for the entire lot (the bearded guy, for all his talk about the quality of lot 159, didn’t offer a single bid), Kurt unlocked the rolling doors of his workshop.
He’d already sealed all the clothing from lot 159—shoes, shirts, slacks—in a plastic storage container, and now he carried the container to another door on the back wall of his workshop. He paused to unlock this door as well, then pushed it open and flipped the light switch that illuminated a single overhead bulb.
Cold storage. That’s what he called this room. It was the size of a single garage stall—had once been a garage stall, in fact—but it held no vehicles. Instead, giant storage bins just like the one that now held lot 159 filled the entire room, stacked floor to ceiling.
The room remained unheated because there was no reason to heat it. Quite the opposite, really, because cold— especially the frosty autumn and winter nights here in western Montana—fueled the fears, the ghosts, that spoke to him. The fears and ghosts that fed his work.
After all, not every piece of clothing was haunted by the ghost of the person who wore it. Far from it. Perhaps only one out of every twenty pieces had something to say. Putting the clothing in cold storage, keeping it in isolation, tended to amplify the voices caught inside the folds of denim or cotton or silk or wool.
Kurt paused at the door, glancing up at the noticeable flicker in the bulb overhead. It swung slightly on its bare, corroded cord, rocked by a gentle breeze that wasn’t there.
From inside the plastic storage containers stacked around him, Kurt heard murmurs. Whispers. Chatters. Even a few screams. No more than a dozen distinct voices in all, out of the hundreds of articles of clothing neatly tucked away into this space. And even now, not amplified by cold storage or isolation, the shoes were projecting images of the catfish in his mind, a movie to accompany the cacophonous soundtrack of the voices.
Kurt didn’t want to confine ghosts of the dead in cold storage. He didn’t want to hear them scream or suffer. He didn’t want any of this.
And yet he knew this was what he had to do. It was his task, to listen to these ghosts of the present, because he could never hear the ghosts of his past—the past that stretched beyond truck driving school, beyond his therapy sessions with Todd almost eight years ago.
The invisible past that haunted him more than any of the ghosts ever could.
Kurt sat, nervously tapping his foot against the floor as he waited to meet the therapist for the first time.
He’d graduate from the High Road Truck Driving School soon. Then he could apply to trucking firms all over the country, firms always searching for new drivers. He could go anywhere and start his career. Maybe eventually buy a rig of his own.
But right now, he was here because . . . well, he’d let the therapist decide that. That’s what therapists did, didn’t they? They listened to your secrets, nodded their heads appreciatively, and told you what was wrong with you. End of story.
So that’s why he was here. Not really for the end of the story but for the beginning of it. That was the Great Secret he was going to have to admit to the therapist, something he’d not mentioned to any of the other students at the driving school, something he’d not mentioned to any of the trucking firms trying to recruit him.
In fact, the only person who knew was Marcus, the one instructor who had become something of a friend. One night, after a few beers with Marcus, Kurt had blurted his secret confession. Slowly, hesitantly at first, but then in a torrent as Marcus listened.
After he’d finished his story, Marcus had taken the last swig of his draft, nodded, looked at him, and given him the names of two people. One a private detective and the other a therapist.
So he’d called the therapist. Later, he might be able to call the private detective. But not yet.
Kurt smiled, thinking of the incongruity of Marcus, a stereotypically big, beefy guy with a shaved head and a pointed Vandyke beard, telling him about a therapist. Swigging that last drink of beer? Yeah, Marcus looked natural doing that. But Marcus would look decidedly out of place sitting here, in this room, surrounded by soft flute music and burning incense, waiting to talk to a therapist about his past.
The way Kurt was waiting now.
The door at the back of the waiting room opened, and a pink-faced woman walked in. She stopped a moment, stared at Kurt intently, then moved quickly through the waiting room and to the door to the outside, her arms wrapped tightly against her.
Kurt turned his attention back to the doorway the woman had emerged from, now filled by a tall, lanky man with dirty- blond, shoulder-length hair.
Kurt stood. “Yeah.”
“Okay. Yeah, sure.” Kurt walked across the waiting room. The lanky man waited for him to approach and held out his hand. “I’m Todd Michael Greene,” he said. “Just call me Todd.”
Kurt stood awkwardly for a moment, then shook hands. “I’m Kurt.”
Todd backed into the darkened room, swept his arm as an invitation to enter. “Have a seat.”
Kurt looked at the small couch. “Just sit?” he asked.
Todd smiled. “Lie down, if you like. I get that a lot.”
Kurt moved to the sofa, sat, started tapping his foot on the floor again.
Todd moved to a small desk in the corner, opened a folder, and looked through it a few moments. While he read, Kurt scanned the office. Nothing expensive; not what he’d imagined. He’d expected heavy furnishings of burled walnut in dark tones. Instead, he saw particle-board shelving units holding several books. At least the books had the kinds of titles he’d expect, tomes about relationships and couples and depression. A couple thick books that seemed to be drug references.
Todd’s desk was clean and neat, almost bare. A framed photo, turned away from Kurt, faced the office chair where Todd sat. Still reading.
“So Marcus recommended you?” Todd finally asked, keeping the folder at his desk open and looking at Kurt.
Kurt cast his eyes toward the floor. “Yeah.”
“I’ve known Marcus for a long time. He’s a good man.”
Todd smiled, pushed his way back from the desk, rolling on the chair’s wheels. “We’re off to a strong start.”
Kurt looked up again. “Yeah.” He returned the smile.
“Okay, you mind if I call you Kurt?”
“No. I mean, sure. Call me Kurt.”
“You want a drink?” He rolled the chair over to a dorm- sized refrigerator on the floor. “Afraid I don’t have anything harder than your basic Pepsi.”
“Diet?” Kurt asked.
Todd retrieved a Diet Pepsi from the refrigerator, rolled back with it. “Ice?”
“No, no, that’s good.”
Todd rolled back a few feet without retreating behind the desk, and watched while Kurt took his first drink.
“Thanks,” Kurt mumbled. He noticed his foot was tapping the hardwood floor a little too loudly and made himself stop.
“Nice gloves,” Todd began.
Kurt looked at the driving gloves on his hands. “Yeah.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“Driving gloves. Good for . . . um . . . driving.”
Todd smiled. “But you’re not driving right now.”
“I guess not.”
“You wear them all the time?”
Kurt shrugged again. “They make me feel better.”
Todd nodded again. “Nothing wrong with that at all.” He paused. “Tell me why you’re here, Kurt.”
“Well, like you said, because Marcus gave me your name.”
“Okay. But more than that. You’re here to talk, obviously. Maybe find some answers?”
“So before we find the answers, we have to look at the questions.”
“Okay.” Kurt took a deep breath, raised the can of soda to his lips and drank again, then exhaled. “I . . . uh . . . don’t know who I am.”
Todd said nothing, so Kurt rushed to fill the silence. “I mean, beyond the last six months. I’m . . . I guess you could say I have amnesia.”
Todd nodded thoughtfully, pushed himself up, and wrapped one leg under him. A casual pose in his OfficeMax chair. “Well, we’ll just start by exploring that. Six months, you say?”
“Roughly. About the time I came to California, really.”
“And where were you before?”
Kurt smiled grimly. “You tell me.”
“So you have no memories before . . .”
“Before truck driving school.”
“What about your childhood? Where you grew up, went to school, that kind of thing?”
“But you’re able to form new memories.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, during your trucking school, for instance. You remember what you learned there without any problems, who you met.”
Todd seemed to be considering a deep question.
“I know it’s crazy,” Kurt said. “But that’s why I’m here, huh?” He nervously took another sip of his Diet Pepsi. “Because I’m crazy.”
“I’d like to send you to a friend—an MD—for some scans and other tests to start with, Kurt. But the answer to your question is: it’s not crazy at all.” He cleared his throat. “Most people have no idea who they are.”
Bright and early in the morning, Kurt opened his workshop. He’d been plagued by dreams during the night, dreams of his old sessions with Todd. Not nightmares, really, because the sessions with Todd had never been nightmarish.
But uncomfortable. Thoughts of those sessions still made something inside him twist in fear, even after seven or eight years.
He shook off the dust of his dreams, concentrated instead on the locked door at the back of his workshop. Instantly the shoes began transmitting the catfish bathed in orange, but Kurt ignored the image. The shoes hadn’t been properly amplified yet, hadn’t been kept in storage to distill their message.
Instead he focused on a woman’s thin wail emanating from a storage container on the bottom level. He slid away the four containers stacked on top of it, then removed the lid. The smell of mothballs assaulted his nostrils. Not uncommon with clothing picked up at estate sales; often the clothes were packed away in steamer trunks, sprinkled with ancient mothballs.
The wail sounded louder, unfiltered now. Kurt paused, as if gathering his energy, then began to dig through the carefully folded clothing, eventually coming to the silk dress he knew was the source of the wail.
He pulled the dress from the container, placed it carefully on a wall hook, took his time replacing the clothing in the receptacle, resealing it, and restacking the other containers on top.
All the while, the dress continued its lament, even as he gingerly picked it up, brought it into his main workshop, and set it down on a small folding table.
“Find my sister,” the dress whispered inside his mind between sobs. “Just find her and let her know . . . I’m . . .” The voice haunting the silk dissolved into a series of sobs again and finally went quiet for a few moments.
This whispered pleading was what he typically heard from ghost clothing: voices in search of lost loves, families longing to be reunited.
Kurt didn’t respond. Instead he closed his eyes, letting this heartache, this sorrow, fuel his new project. He was picturing an arm rising from the ground, bony fingers outstretched as it reached for a face.
Yes, that seemed to capture something of the sorrow inside this dress.
He’d been working on this image in his mind since first touching the dress, getting a sense of the loss inhabiting it, examining it from every angle.
Kurt kneeled to the concrete floor, took stock of the plates of iron stacked there, running his fingers along the rough-cut edges. He selected one large, flat piece and carried it to his workbench, then placed it in the vise and tightened the arm to hold it steady.
Satisfied, he retrieved his welding hood from a shelf above the workbench and fitted the band around his forehead, keeping the black mask tipped away from his face for now.
He turned to his left, opened the valve on the acetylene tank, heard the gas hiss as it raced through the tubing to the
cutting tip. He picked up the igniter, held it to the torch, and sparked it. Immediately, blue flame leaped to life with a dull roar.
The dress, as if disturbed by the blue flame and black smoke erupting from his cutting torch, began its sobbing once again from behind him.
Kurt closed his eyes for a few seconds, gave his head a quick jerk to let the welder’s hood drop over his face, and opened his eyes.
Somewhere inside his stack, a large piece of iron would become that outstretched arm. This particular piece, he felt, contained the face. He would cut the iron, reveal the true face inside, just as the screams behind him were cutting him.
Revealing his own true face inside.
“You said it to me the first time you came here, Kurt. You’re an amnesiac.”
Kurt looked at the floor, wishing for a Diet Pepsi from Todd’s fridge. Probably not the best time to ask for it. “Yeah,” he said, sensing that Todd was waiting for an answer of some kind.
At his desk, Todd picked up his file folder, now thick with papers and reports from their several sessions together.
“At first I would have said hysterical amnesia, but now I don’t think so. You ever hear that term?”
“It’s what we call people who have been through an overwhelming emotional trauma of some kind—something that’s made them block out their past because they’re afraid to confront it. There’s no physical explanation for their amnesia, but there’s a very real emotional explanation.”
Kurt tapped his foot on the hard surface of the floor a few times. “But you said I’m not that.”
Todd looked at him. “No. In fact, you have . . . well, you have a ton of physical trauma. You’re an organic case. Your MRI scans show a considerable amount of brain damage, to be blunt. So I have to say you have traumatic retrograde amnesia—you’ve forgotten your past because of very real, physical damage to the brain.”
Kurt swallowed, unsure how to respond.
“Not just brain trauma, though. Your whole body. It looks like you’ve had several broken bones—a couple ribs, an arm, both of your femurs.” Todd cleared his throat, leaned back. “You know how painful, how serious, a broken femur is, Kurt?”
Kurt fidgeted, felt his foot tapping on the floor. “No.”
Todd smiled. “That’s just it. You do know. You obviously do. You just don’t remember it. I’ve discussed your case with more than one physician, and they’re frankly amazed you’re alive. Amazed anyone was even able to put you back together, because it looks as if all your injuries happened at the same time. Except—”
“Well, when someone has major injuries—a cracked skull, a fractured femur—you would find an indication of repair. Surgical scars, titanium screws in the leg, that kind of thing.”
Kurt nodded slowly. “I don’t have any of those things.” And he didn’t. So far as he knew, he didn’t have a single scar anywhere on his body.
“You don’t,” Todd confirmed. “Further complicated by the fact that we don’t have access to your medical records. One doctor said he’d seen injuries similar to yours before, a rather miraculous case herself—except, of course, she recovered with the help of many surgeries, lots of physical therapy.”
“What kind of accident?” Kurt heard himself ask quietly.
“A skydiving accident. Her chute failed.” Todd leaned across his desk, smiling. “So what do you think, Kurt? Maybe you just dropped out of the sky.”
A dull ringing brought Kurt out of his trancelike state. He blinked his eyes behind the welding hood, obviously for the first time in a while; they were dry, cakey.
The ring again. His cell phone in his pocket, he realized. Kurt was old school when it came to phones; he still preferred a plain old ring to any song or tune or ringtone. Phones in his childhood rang; phones should always ring.
He spun the valve on the cutting torch closed, pulled off his gloves, tipped up his mask, and dug into his pocket. He managed to pull the phone out and answer it midring.
“Hello?” he said, his voice thick and scratchy. He swallowed, trying to moisten his throat; like his eyes, it was dry and parched. “Kurt, Kurt,” a woman’s voice said. “How are you?”
Macy. His agent. His business manager. His whatever. The person who worked with the outside world so he didn’t have to. He swallowed again, cleared his throat.
“Macy. I’m good.” He didn’t return the pleasantries.
“Listen, I bet you’re working right now, so I’m sorry to interrupt you.”
“Yeah,” he said, sniffing, taking in the acrid, sharp tang of the acetylene inside his shop. He hadn’t turned on his fans, but at least he’d left open the front overhead doors to ventilate the area.
(A catfish in a pool of orange)
He closed his eyes, pushed the thought from his mind with some effort. Odd, to have that image working its way into his mind while he was in the midst of this project with the silk dress. The hands and face.
“Listen,” Macy said. “How many complete pieces do you have on hand right now?”
He looked around his workshop, taking stock of the various welded sculptures. Some looked like trees, some like multi legged creatures, some like giant stalks of plants. Most—okay, maybe all—had a melting face of some kind hidden inside the iron leaves or branches or legs. It was what Macy liked to call his “overriding theme.”
He cleared his throat, tasting the bitter smoke of the welding torch. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe eight or so right now. Working on another.”
“Eight? Hmmm. We’ll need more.”
He paused, waiting for her to continue, but she obviously required an acknowledgment. She was excited, he could tell; she always liked to play this kind of cat-and- mouse game when she had some kind of big news to share.
“We’ll need more for what?” he asked, playing along. It was the easiest, quickest way to get back to his work.
“For a show. A gallery show.”
“A gallery show?” he asked, hoping his tone sounded interested, knowing it didn’t.
“Yeah. No more sending lackeys around on the arts- and-crafts circuit, selling your work for a thousand bucks. We’re gonna get you in with people who will spend ten times that much. Just need—oh, I don’t know—a dozen pieces anyway. And something big. Something grand, to serve as a centerpiece. A big wow, you know? Do you have something that might work for that?”
Kurt took stock of the sculptures again. None of those. Not really. Maybe the new piece with the arm. He turned to look at the giant plate of iron he’d been cutting, felt his breath stop for a few moments.
“You there, Kurt?” Macy asked. She laughed, mistaking his silence for surprise. Not a bad thing, really. “I know, this is big. I mean really big. But don’t get caught up on the main piece right now. You’ll come up with something, and we have a couple months.”
Kurt continued to stare at the image he’d been cutting from the piece of iron. “Yeah,” he said, his throat clicking, drier than ever. “I think maybe I can come up with something.”
“I just wanted to call, let you know, so you can start thinking about it.”
“Sure, sure. Thanks, Macy,” he said, continuing to stare.
“Oh, thank you, Kurt,” she said before hanging up.
Kurt let his arm drop, still clutching the phone. In front of him, he knew, instinctively, what he’d been wrestling from the thick plate of iron with his cutting torch. And it wasn’t one of his “overriding theme” melting faces.
It was a triangular pattern with an irregular back side on it. A dorsal fin.
A dorsal fin for a catfish.
Behind him, the ghost in the silk dress sniffled, then went quiet again. Maybe sensing it wasn’t connecting with him. Not right now, anyway.
The phone rang again. Evidently Macy had forgotten to tell him something.
He hit the talk button and placed the receiver to his ear again.
“Kurt?” a man’s voice asked. Not Macy at all. It was John Cross from Cross Trucking.
“John. How are you doing?” Kurt continued to stare at the dorsal fin he’d been cutting out of the iron.
“Well, not so good,” John answered. “I’m running short right now. Hoping you could maybe deadhead it out to Seattle for me, pull back a load to Chicago.”
John Cross called once a month or so, asking him to do some OTR trucking. Kurt had driven for Cross Trucking for a few years until he’d stumbled into his iron art. Truth was, the art was doing well—upcoming gallery show or not—and he didn’t need to do anything else for money.
But he still liked to get out on the road every now and then. Think about upcoming projects. Bring along a few items from his wardrobe of wearable ghosts, listen to the stories they told.
Kurt thought of the dead man’s shoes from lot 159 and smiled. “Sure, John,” he said. “I think I can make a quick trip for you.”