A Field Guide to Ugly Places

Note: Not suitable for younger children.

A Field Guide to Ugly Places – Excerpt

The Friday after Marlene upped and went, Jamie Barton sat on an overturned barrel in the midst of the abandoned industrial park, feeling more lost than he had ever believed he could be. The bones of the dead factories—sagging asbestos and rusted iron spars—threw cold shadows onto the cracked concrete, loose bricks, and thin, black puddles that surrounded him. Scarcely twenty feet in front of him, a dozen kingfishers skimmed low over the chemical-streaked water in the culvert. He’d never seen even one kingfisher before; now there were a full dozen. If his heart hadn’t been broken, Jamie reckoned he might have been amazed.

The sky had been gray and wet until that moment, but as the kingfishers darted by, a crack of pale blue split the clouds. From each bird’s beak, something fell. Something that flashed silvery and sleek in the air before hitting the foamy, yellow water and slipping from sight.

Fish, Jamie thought, and then didn’t think much else for a while.

He’d had his first job over there, in the factory on the other side of the concrete culvert, sweeping metal turnings and oil from under the lathes, eight hours a day for $3.35 an hour. The factory had been closed these last four years, of course, left to decay like the rest of the industrial park, and the building had slumped into sad ruin. Its corrugated metal roof had collapsed, and black squares gaped where panels had fallen in. The walls were scrawled with graffiti; the doors had been boarded over, then later kicked in. Water pooled between the heaps of bricks and the rusting fossils of machinery.

Recession, the bosses had said as they’d closed it all down and driven away in their slick BMWs, leaving Jamie and two and a half thousand others with far more leisure time than any politician had ever promised. Truth was, Jamie had spent most of that time in one bar or another.

When he’d been twelve, Jenny Harris had shown him her bra. She’d done it in the shadow of the industrial park’s truck depot. Jamie had wanted to see what was under her bra, but she hadn’t let him see that until five years later. Once, he’d thought he would marry Jenny Harris. Then Marlene had come along, and he’d forgotten all about Jenny. Last Jamie had heard, Jenny had shown what was under her bra to one of the suits in a BMW and found her way right out of town.

Now Marlene was gone too. Fifteen damned years of graft and compromise, then bang! she was gone. He felt like a balloon with half its helium gone, limp and caught on thorns.

“You come here often?”

The voice had come from behind him. Jamie twisted his neck to see who had spoken. Sunlight had snuck in through that crack in the sky, so he had to squint to see.

A woman was standing there, looking down at him. She stepped around the barrel so he didn’t have to squint anymore. He guessed she was in her mid-forties, ten years older than Jamie. Maybe a bit more. She was wearing blue overalls. They were streaked with oil. The oil had gotten into her hair, too. Jamie figured her hair might be brown like old wood under that dirt, but he couldn’t quite tell. It hung loose and ragged to just below her neck.

“From time to time,” he said. “You?”

“Not for a while.” She lifted up a transparent plastic bag. He could see sandwiches neatly wrapped in waxed paper inside. “Mind if I join you?”

Jamie scooted along the barrel. “Please yourself.”

She sat close. Their hips just touched. She was soft beneath the overalls in a way that Marlene, with her four days a week down at the gym, never had been. A real woman, Jamie’s mother would have called this one. A woman who wasn’t afraid to put on a few honest pounds.

“I used to work around here,” the woman said by way of explanation. “Before your time, I’d guess.” She softened it with a smile.

“So where do you work now?” Jamie asked.

“Round about. I’m thinking about starting here again.”

Jamie frowned. “There’s work here?”

“God, yeah.” She unwrapped her sandwiches with hands that still showed oil beneath the fingernails, and offered him one. “Hungry?”

He was. He hadn’t eaten all week. He’d drunk a fair bit, but that didn’t fill a man’s stomach the same way.

Jamie took a bite. Cheese and pickle on white bread.

“The food of the gods,” he said.

“Cheap,” she said.

Continue reading this story in Bone Roads: Nine Stories of Magic and Wonder.

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