16 June 2015

Archival Footage: Jimmy

Back around the turn of the century, my then-favorite print magazine, Mountain Gazette, held a "1000 Words" writing contest to see who among their readership could produce the most compelling story with this word-limit as a constraint. I submitted the following work of fiction just before the deadline.  

I got an email reply from the editor, M. John Fayhee, a short time later wherein he stated something to the effect of, "Our editorial board was, in truth, fundamentally split between your story and one other. Yours is a good piece of writing. But in the end they went with the other. Apologies."

I am pleased to report, however that after this rejection, over the course of the next few years, they nevertheless later picked up a few of my photos and also an essay I wrote for publication.

And, some years later, after Mountain Gazette was done as a print mag, Fahyee also used a quote of mine in his book, Colorado Mountain Dogs, too. A fact I discovered only after stumbling quite fortuitously into a author-reading/book-signing he was holding at a small bookstore in Salida, Colorado, a summer ago. He kindly inscribed the book I purchased "to a mountain gazette alumni."

Anyway, for the record, here's my runner-up "1000 Words" short story, adapted from the first few chapters of a heretofore yet unpublished work that I've been slowly pecking away at for years now which still bears the simple title: Jimmy...


Once there was a little boy who dreamt of fire. All sorts of fire: fires that danced in trash barrels and sent flaming-kites and fire-bats high into the nighttime sky… fires that smoldered and ate up the edges of newspaper like the bright orange-red cousins of ants… fires that burnt in treetops and dropped like sun-ripened fruit to the ground… fires that raced wildly across grasslands, erasing the landscape with black charcoal…

His name was Jimmy.

Jimmy first caught fire when he was six, losing two fingers on his left hand in the blaze. It didn't hurt.
It had happened at night.  When he awoke, the smoke alarm in the hallway screaming, a marching-matchstickman dream interrupted, his thick yarn bedspread was smoldering in an aimless, quiet, warm sort of way. 
At the hospital the doctors and nurses were very concerned about Jimmy and they did tests on him and wrapped his injuries carefully with new bandages everyday.  When they took them off, Jimmy saw that where his fingers had been there were now two short, small patches covered with scabby, black and red, wet-looking sores.
One day, while poking at one of the scabby stubby spots and nibbling at some ice cream, a doctor came in and asked Jimmy many questions: “How are you feeling? Do you remember what happened?  Can you feel this?  And this?  Do you have any questions, Jimmy?”
Jimmy had one.  He asked the doctor when his fingers would grow back.  The doctor put his lips close together, closed his eyes some, and shook his head slowly.  He explained to Jimmy that his fingers would never grow back.  
"Fingers just don't do that, I'm afraid," he said.  
Jimmy had expected that was the way things were. He nodded, put his lips close together, and said, "Oh, okay."  
Then he asked for more ice cream.  

The second time Jimmy caught fire, a few months later, the doctors and nurses seemed even more concerned about Jimmy than before.  As soon as he was a little bit better, they wheeled Jimmy’s bed, with Jimmy in it, all over the hospital to meet with new doctors and nurses.  Once they even wheeled him down the sidewalk to a building down the street from the hospital to meet with a doctor there.  All of these doctors and nurses had a lot of questions to ask Jimmy and many of them put needles into his arms and legs.  They tapped on computer screens, gawked at x-rays, and plied Jimmy’s joints back and forth.  
They put him inside big, growling machines.  They put creams and lotions and other greasy things on his skin.  They stuck sticky things to his head.  And, once they stopped asking him questions, they talked about him like he wasn’t in the room or they whispered to one another with their backs turned.
During this hospital stay, Jimmy met most often with a doctor named Crosby. Jimmy liked him; he often brought ice cream, usually enough for both of them.
Jimmy could tell that Dr. Crosby liked him and wanted to find out why he burned.
“I can’t tell you why, Jimmy,” explained the doctor during one of their talks, taking a big bite from the top of his bright orange 50-50 bar before raising the sheet at the foot of the bed to look at Jimmy's leg.  “It’s chemistry, something very unique about you.  We know that, but that’s about all we’ve been able to figure out.”
“So, it’s going to happen again? Probably?”
“Well, if it does, we’ll make sure you’re as protected as we can make you.”
“How?” asked Jimmy, hesitantly; he’d learned to be suspicious of doctor’s ideas.
Dr. Crosby smiled, “Relax.  It’s not going to hurt.  I’ve just got a couple ideas, things that might keep you safer if it does happen again; I heard you did a little damage at home this time.”
“I don’t remember.”
“No, of course you don’t,” said the doctor.
“But you do think I will get on fire again?”
“Jimmy, the honest answer is, I just don’t know.”

Most mornings Jimmy rode a small bus to a special school for special kids, an inviting place filled with children who, like him, dealt with their own unique circumstances each day.
At school, Jimmy was best at make-believe.  He enjoyed melting crayons into wax in one hand by squeezing them tightly for a few moments.  Afterward he would dip the remaining fingers of his other hand into the warm colors and run them across his cheeks, turning himself into an Indian brave, a football player, a raccoon, or just a very odd looking little boy.
His teacher marveled as he watched Jimmy become these characters and he often encouraged Jimmy to tell the class stories based on them.  The other children loved Jimmy’s stories, too. They gave them names and insisted Jimmy tell them over and over again: 
"Tell Applesauce!" they shouted.
"Tell Leyland's Bones!"
"Let's hear Big Bear’s Morning Song!"
"Come on, Jimmy! Tell us a story!"  

But occasionally, during the mid-morning snack, or at lunch, or even right in the middle of story time or make-believe, Jimmy would need to crawl to his special corner of the classroom to wait for the warmth to pass.
If it passed, his teacher would come over and sit next to him on the large yellow fireproof blanket and he would touch a cool wet washcloth to Jimmy's forehead. 
"It's okay, Jimbo.  You're okay this time," his teacher would whisper for no one else but Jimmy to hear. And after a short rest, and a big glass of cold water, Jimmy would return to whatever he had been doing like normal.
But sometimes the warmth wouldn’t pass; it would become hotter.  When this happened Jimmy’s teacher would tell the other children and the grown-ups that helped them that it was time to leave Jimmy alone. 
And then quietly, without any tears, slowly, unrushed by time, in deep blues and dark oranges, tissue-paper-thin mare’s tales of black smoke peering and poking, sneaking beneath the red layers and out the white-piped-edges of his flame-resistant footed-jumpsuit, lying atop his yellow fireproof blanket in the corner of his classroom, with his eyeballs tipped back and showing only white, 

Jimmy burned.


© John Coe – Flagstaff, AZ


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May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey