Summer 2018 - Fiction

  


Katie M. Flynn

The King of South Phoenix

 

Transcription of communication from The People’s Choice! Season 12 Contestant South Phoenix[*][†] 

@King_of_SP! / 7:42am:

You must have seen me by now on the television? If the situation were reversed I’d be there every week glued to the screen just to see your pitch. You would have probably found a way to sell this place. Some desert flower to fall in love with or a memory associated with the smell of aging metal that would have viewers wiping away the tears of their lost homes and forgotten childhoods and madly clicking South Phoenix, yes, bring back South Phoenix! You were always so good at getting people carried away.

Me? I really suck at this. If you’ve been watching you know I’m nearly always at the bottom of the list along with that guy in the Alaska Panhandle who no one can hear over the wailing wind and the woman from the Oklahoma Frontier with raging rosacea who’s always going on about the unique rust color of the soils.

I’ve got a call coming up and I’ve got absolutely nothing to say, nothing good anyway, and you know how this works – I’ve got to say something good – so I thought I’d ask you, the smartest person I know. Now before you go all icy and suspicious let me be clear: I mean it. You are the smartest person I know. You told me The People’s Choice! was a terrible idea and you were right. You told me you’d never talk to me again if I did it, and right again! Oh, hold up. Elvis is waking.

 

@King_of_SP! / 8:03am:

He says hello, by the way. I’ve taught him other words like fuck-off and eat and gotcha. They all come in a crow’s delivery – fu-kawf, gaw-cha – but what do you expect? He’s a crow. 

The air up here is thin and I get nosebleeds. Almost like clockwork they come on in the evenings and I sit on the toilet with my head between my knees pinching the bridge of my nose. Sometimes Elvis hops into the doorway and caws, “Gaw-cha!” and I bonk the back of my head on the lip of the sink. I swear he laughs. Can a crow laugh or is it just a mimic? If it’s a mimic can it still be a laugh? 

I called the doctor and she said not to worry. The air is dry in South Phoenix, probably just chafing, plus at your altitude? I wanted to ask her: how much blood can a man lose before you start to worry? But she was so smiling and soothing all I did was thank her and sign off.

They’ve situated me up high, a long thin elevator shaft that hurtles to my bulbous dwelling with its 360-degree view, the better to survey my territory. Tomorrow I’ll ride the elevator to ground level, lower the perimeter fence and take the armored car out for a closer look. It’s part of the contract, to explore the territory I’ve been charged with. To give people a reason to want it back. As always, there’s a chance I won’t return. If I don’t Elvis will surely die. Would you call someone to help him, I mean if you don’t hear from me?

 

@King_of_SP! / 4:27pm:

I’m back! Glad to be alive, to be home, even if it is a 200-square-foot glass and metal bulb with no one but Elvis to keep me company. Sorry, I don’t mean to be sarcastic. I rolled in last night, dug into the single-serving peppermint schnapps and now I’m hungover. I tried to teach Elvis your name but he got frustrated and stretched his wings, took a test swipe at the air as if he were about to take off. Then he settled back down on his bar and I wondered, does he feel pain now that he can’t fly, kinda like a phantom limb? Never have I seen him take off. It must hurt, being grounded like that.

Soon the show’s host will screen me, ask, “Why should we bring back South Phoenix?” I’ll have to make something up. But I’ve been at this thirteen months now – how many reasons can I come up with?

The first few times I was nervous – I’m sure you could tell – but then I started to look forward to the host’s weekly calls. I’d come up with a whole list of reasons. Then I’d narrow them to the top two or three and I’d practice my pitch in the mirror, like when I was going through my fitness phase: South Phoenix, where the heat will melt away your past self and transform you into the person you’ve always wanted to be! Or when I was contemplating the largeness of the desert and my own speck of an existence: South Phoenix, where you can get lost in the wild desert of your imagination! Sometimes I just lie, as in: South Phoenix, so beautiful it’ll make you weep. Or I give up and make a joke: South Phoenix, bring the water, we’ll provide the thirst! But there’s nothing funny about this heat, the wind like a hard shove pelting sand, the feeling something’s come up behind you hungry and desperate. These days I dread the host’s weekly calls even though he’s the only person I have to talk to.

God, I wish you could see the scorched yellow earth from up here, the weave of crumbling track homes. They’re not identical anymore. If I sent a drone to steal a closer look it’d wasp back to me with images of rooftops giving and windows busted and lawns that haven’t seen water in years, the wash of sand from the growing desert settling on it all like a great beach sculpture.

I still remember the monstrosity we built in Crystal Cove, decorating it with bottle caps and crushed cans and any other piece of trash we could find on the beach. We called it The Future and laughed and split a six-pack between us and all I was thinking was how perfect everything was when you were probably thinking: how am I going to break up with this idiot? It was two weeks before you transferred to State to become a teacher, four months before I dropped out of community college, five before you told me we weren’t going anywhere, when really you meant I wasn’t going anywhere, which to be fair was true at the time. It’s not like I planned to be a server at Ruby’s forever but you saw through every one of my schemes, like my Surf’s Up app, which fine, you were right – it already existed – or the skidoo rental service, which was a really good idea until they put in the sea walls, taking the beaches away from us. It was probably not a big deal to you, at State and too busy for beaches, but I felt like they’d ripped out my lungs, okay maybe a little melodramatic, my kidneys? Something internal and essential to my survival. Oh, shit. The call’s coming in.

 

@King_of_SP! / 5:22pm:

God, it was terrible. The host was looking at me with those lazy serene eyes, his hair in that severe part, his face blank and glowing like a baby’s. Then he asked it, “Why should we bring back South Phoenix,” and there was a moment, felt like forever, when I couldn’t think of a thing to say and I sort of hung there all slack-jaw, like some sad hungry puppy. The host prompted me once more, “What is it South Phoenix offers?”

I gave him an answer I’ve used all too often: “South Phoenix, where there’s space, so much of it, flat and open."

“That would be nice, wouldn’t it folks? To have more space?” He got that faraway look as he read the auto-generated response stats to the left of camera, swallowing back a yawn. “Anything else?”

Such an idiot, I was like, “Uh, heat? Think of all the credit you’d save on your energy bill.”

The host pursed his thin pink lips, not getting a positive response to that answer.

“And clean air,” I lied, “the sky is so blue and beautiful. I just want to throw Charming Pebbles at the sun, make a rainbow!” It was pathetic, I know, and the host gave me a sad little frown because he couldn’t cut away while I was adverting – Charming Pebbles is our sponsor! I maintained a smile as I emptied a bag of single-serving Charming Pebbles boxes out the window for the children who were not below. Then I stood there stupid smiling like a cartoon ape, imagining the production crew scrambling to cut to some generic scene filmed months before I ever came to live in this tower, with child actors who are not hungry or dirty or scouring the streets for food, giddily accepting this gift from the sky.  

The host said, “That’s all we have time for from South Phoenix. I think it’s safe to say you are not The People’s Choice!” And he was gone.

I didn’t tell him what I’ve seen on my trips past the perimeter fence, the swirling sand air, pelting and coating my armored car. Last time it was a whole pack of javelinas, snorting, tusked and hairy, a chain of squealing babies, dirt-caked kids chasing them with sticks and rocks, prodding and beaning and drawing blood.

I revved at them with my armored car until they spread across the desert cursing and curling and tossing rocks after me.

Kids like that were probably responsible for busting Elvis’s wing. Did I tell you how I found him? Moving so slowly he’d turned tan in the sand sting, dragging his wing through the dirt. I brought him home, fed him a bottle of single-serving vodka and set the bone, but he’s never flown since. Do you think he misses it? Is living up here with me any life at all?

 

@King_of_SP! / 6:57am:

Last night someone shot into the perimeter fence, again and again, for over an hour. I don’t know how many bullets they wasted, ricocheting off the invisible barrier. What do they think is up here besides cereal? Charming Pebbles and the real estate venture made sure I’d signed the papers – they’re not liable for retrieving me if I’m taken. And no one even knows Elvis is here except you.

I recorded what I think is him singing. Have you ever heard a crow sing? It’s a godawful sound, all bellyache and madness, but you know, just a song. I’m sending it over to you – tell me what you think? He does it more and more, and I hope it’s a happy song, but like I said, he’s a crow. Hard to say. 

I can’t shake the feeling that I’m never leaving. I know I’ve got to stay positive and all that. And it’s not so bad at night. The stars are pretty exceptional at this altitude, no buildings to compete with – everything that was more than two stories has come down. Even if the people picked South Phoenix over the Pensacola Shore or Greater Dearborn, what’s left to populate? They’d have to demolish everything in sight, all those falling houses, the collapsed office buildings and leaking factories – where would it all go?

Every time I hear of a school shooting in LA I look for your name among the dead, picture you shielding your students from automatic rifles, find myself praying even though I don’t pray. I talk, not to myself or Elvis, just talking – is that prayer? Do you have to believe in God to pray?

The host won’t call again for a few more days. In the meantime I’ve got to come up with a good reason. I wish you’d write me back, help me out. If I’m going to get out of here, come back to you, I’ve got to sell this place.

 

@King_of_SP! / 10:32pm:

Something amazing happened last night. Elvis flew! He took off from his perch and circled the tower. I got nervous as he moved in wider arcs, lobbing lower – he’d get shocked for sure if he flew into the perimeter fence and I doubted he’d survive a fall from that height. Finally I got so nervous I slammed my hand down on the disarm button, the perimeter fence falling, Elvis cresting off on some wind current, and I was ready – to let him loose in the world, for him to leave me – but he circled back and parked it on his perch. I wish you’d been here to see it! Like watching your child take his first steps, I imagine, or better even because I didn’t think he’d ever fly again. It’s a miracle really and to think I set his bone and I’m not even a veterinarian! I feel like one of those magic men of the desert, those witch doctors or whatever they’re called. Sorry, I broke out the peppermint schnapps again. Elvis and I are partying! And even though I’m happy, there’s a hole here, a place that’s filled only with missing, and I shouldn’t say it, I know you hate it when I talk like this – but that hole is for you.

It’s so clear tonight. Usually that means a monsoon’s coming. It’ll rip its way through here, tear up the earth, cover everything in another foot of sand. I’ll be fine in my tower, but the sand sting – there are animals out there, the poor creatures, and people too.

 

@King_of_SP! / 9:07am:

I have a problem. The alarm went off this morning and I thought it was the storm but when I dragged myself out of bed, I changed camera views until I saw them, a trio of boys working at the elevator’s keypad. They must’ve snuck in when the perimeter fence was down. I can see them punching buttons despite my booming speaker warnings that I will come down and shoot them if I have to. I have a gun. I am legally exempt from prosecution if I shoot someone while protecting my tower. But I don’t want to, raining cereal down on them, begging, “Please go back. I’ll drop the perimeter fence and you can leave. There’s nothing for you here.”

Perhaps if they press the buttons enough they’ll come across my access code. I’m not sure what I’ll do if that’s the case. Maybe they’ll break my elevator and I’ll be trapped up here. I have supplies for the next eleven months, cereal and peppermint schnapps and plenty of Slim Jims. I could survive. Maybe I will.

There are cameras. No doubt the production crew is seeing this. Perhaps this is all just a cheap trick to increase ratings?

 

@King_of_SP! / 2:17pm:

The boys have eaten up nearly all the cereal and they’ve taken to throwing rocks at my armored vehicle, laughing madly as the rocks bing off the bulletproof glass. I haven’t slept, waiting for them to make up their minds to go so I can disarm the perimeter fence at the perfect time. They’re getting wilder, yelling into the intercom that they’re gonna die out there. “All your fault!” they keep shouting, like they know me, like they know I can’t stand being responsible.

One of them is so small, maybe seven? He reminds me of your sister that time you took me babysitting. She sat on my knee and practiced her signature over and over and it was amazing really, how many different ways she could swirl or bubble or block the five letters of her name.

She kissed me when you were in the bathroom. Right on the lips. I didn’t know what to do so I said thank you like an idiot and nudged her out of my lap. But I’ve been thinking about that kiss and I don’t mean this in a weird way but that was the most genuine kiss I’ve ever gotten and I feel sorry now that I didn’t know how to take it.           

The other two boys are teenage and mean looking, missing teeth and sored from the sun and bone skinny and I’m afraid of them.

 

@King_of_SP! / 8:15pm:

I dropped them some Slim Jims, the rest of the cereal. That should hold them for a day or two. Through the intercom, I begged them to leave. “Just start walking. I’ll lower the perimeter fence.”        

“How do we know you’re not lying?”

It’s a terrible jolt, the shock of the perimeter fence so I can understand their hesitation. Once I watched a whole herd of pronghorn coming fast and I thought for sure they’d break through but when they hit the invisible barrier they went down, every last one of them, lying in a heap for some minutes.

I told the boys, “I’m giving you my word.”

“Your word?” They snorted. “We’ll give you our word!” Then they shook their genitals at me through their shorts. None of them have shoes. How can they stand the heat without them? It’s so hot, even up here, though most of the time I keep my dwelling air-sealed. I’ve got to get Elvis out of here.

 

Tomorrow the host will call me. I’m thinking of showing him my guests, telling him about our time together, their resilience and ingenuity, how they won’t give up! I mean seriously, this place is a wasteland, always was really. Sure, it once brimmed with fountains and water features and lush green golf courses and monster wave parks but that’s all gone now, covered in dust, never meant to be in the first place. What’s left? Hard times, water tight, a living that’s too close to the earth, to dying, but maybe that’s what makes it so great. Yeah, that’s what I’ll say when he calls: you’ll never feel more alive than in South Phoenix! Yes, that’s it. You’re the best!

 

@King_of_SP! / 7:23pm:

I’m drunk and definitely not The People’s Choice! The boys are dismantling my armored vehicle, removing its plates one by one, stabbing the tires with sharp rocks, bashing the windows. It takes some force to break through bullet resistance.

I can tell Elvis is agitated. I’ve kept him inside since the boys arrived. He squawks and flops around our dwelling, shitting on everything. I’m such a fool. The King of South Phoenix! I thought I could be the one to bring it back. I even pictured us getting married, raining cereal from my tower, sponsored by Charming Pebbles, a color swirl of luck bites! 

Even these messages belong to them, Charming Pebbles. It’s true. They actually own the rights, could reproduce them if they wanted to. I probably shouldn’t have told you that. Just one more reason to ignore me.

 

@King_of_SP! / 11:32am:

Sorry about last night, the whole marriage thing, everything really. One of the boys is sick or playing at sick but I have to help him. I can’t drop a pouch of antibiotics to those kids – they don’t know the first thing about medicine.

Before I go I’m going to let Elvis loose. I’m going to open the windows, watch him fly, drop the perimeter fence and hope he stays gone. I can’t keep him and I can’t keep writing you. It’s nothing personal. I’m never going to be The People’s Choice! And I can’t stay in this tower.

I’m not going to put the perimeter fence back up and when the host screens me I’ll shout, “South Phoenix! Where the people stand together!” That could work. Or “South Phoenix! Where they eat your face!” I’m not sure what’ll happen. Either way, it was nice knowing you. I hope it was nice knowing me too.

 

______________

[*] Slightly altered for readability

[†] For internal use only

 


Katie M. Flynn’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Indiana Review, Juked, Masters Review, Tin House Online, Witness Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, a fellowship from the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and the Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing. Katie lives in San Francisco and serves as fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Find her at burythebird.com.

 


 

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.