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In a Dead Land

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Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)

It all begins ten years before Mikey leaves.

There’s a fake pond out back of Major Major and the widow’s boarding house where the wilting willow drops tear shaped leaves into grimy still water. There’s an old fat carp who sunbathes at the bottom of the pond and who loves Zimmerman’s Sweet Rye Bread, lightly toasted with cinnamon butter. And there’s a blond little boy who sits there and wonders how exactly a carp got into an old bathtub.

Milo wants to be a reporter, because they get to be on TV and talk into little pencil sized microphones and get photographed next to famous people like Ronald Regan and the dad from Little House on the Prairie. But he doesn’t have the camera crew or the off gray suit yet. What Milo does have is a Lil’ Rascals notebook and a glittery blue pen Susie McClain threw at him after he dumped pencil shavings in her desk.

Joke’s on her, he likes it.

But being as properly prepared as any child reporter could be doesn’t solve the issue of there being nothing to report on in the backyard of the second most famous boarding house in Iowa. Kansas had Dorothy, Oklahoma had Will Rogers, Missouri had Harry Truman- but who cares for Iowa? It’s the four letter word of states.

And unless Jimmy Hoffa is buried under this old bathtub that’s supposed to be real then Milo is shit out of stories.

It’s not for a lack of trying, however. Milo examines every blade of grass up close, pokes holes around the tub’s lip with his pen, and tries to start a signal fire with his glasses. A signal for what, he doesn’t know— “Hey, get me out of here, there’s lethal levels of boredom building up!” he’s saying to a CNN chopper, and Ted is personally asking him about Hoffa’s involvement in the oil crisis...

“Hey.” someone says from a behind a tree. “Whatcha doing out here, kid?”

It’s Steve, Steve the nasty boarder who smells like an inebriated ashtray and dresses more like the clothes hanger than the clothes wearer. Milo sticks his tongue out at him before remembering that the widow says the customer is to be tolerated even if he has the sense God gave a chicken.

“Reporting.” Milo says instead. “The Fish is on trial for corruption charges.”

Steve laughs the way adults do when they’re trying to humor a stupid kid. But Milo’s not stupid- he knows his divisions table up to ten and how long an egg takes to be hard boiled and all the members of Jimmy Carter’s cabinet. He knows Steve doesn’t get girlfriends because he calls them names and is a butt. He knows what corruption charges and racketeering and black bagging are.

“Your little friend Binkley is asking for you. The old lady sent me.” Steve lights up, like he’s ever spent more than thirty minutes without a ciggie.

Oral fixation. Milo thinks. He learned that from a book about psychological disorders Binkley had lent him. Binkley is now probably sitting in the parlor nervously accepting a glass of sweet tea that sweats worse than the back of your thighs on the plastic wrapped couch cushion. Worse than playing Soviet spy in the attic. Worse than running laps in the gym cause Mr. Harrison doesn’t believe in fans or fresh air.

A real man can’t let Binkley sweat alone!

Milo scrambles back up the path through waist high grass and the little stickers and the pokeberries that taste like boiled nothing. The back of the house is hung with Boston ferns. Binkley is sitting on the porch swing holding a book. A glass of untouched sweet tea sits by him.

“I found this one, and I thought you’d like to give it your consideration.” Binkley says by way of greeting. It’s a copy of Mourning Becomes Electra.

“I think Eugene O’Neil is a hack.” Milo says.

“The man at the library said it was good. He also said it was advanced but I told him you had a 220 IQ and worked at NASA.”

Milo takes the book. He’s never actually read anything by O’Neil, only heard on the Bloom Theater Hour he was a hack. But how can he be a reporter and not know the facts himself?

“I’ll read it.” Milo says. He sits next to Binkley on the swing and starts pumping his legs like train wheel pistons.

“You’ll hit the wall.” Binkley says.

“No I won’t.” Milo swings harder.

The whole shebang hits the wall with a horrific clatter that makes the widow tap on the glass and frown sternly at Milo. He points at Binkley, who is a real champ and will take one for the team.

“It was him that did it, not me!” Binkley cries. Milo wonders why he only knows Judases.

Binkley isn’t bad, though. He likes to follow Milo around and ask questions like reporters do when they interview people and even though the other kids call him a queer Milo just thinks Binkley is incredibly earnest, if a little anxious.

(This will come back to bite, later, when Milo asks why they can’t just go running to New York or San Francisco and Binkley can only think 50000 dead of AIDS and death by morphine and Karposki’s sarcoma and dementia and they kill people like you Michael, the only good queer is a dead one.)

But it’s 1980 and not even the words GIRD haven’t sprung into existence yet from the steel mouth of the medical monolith so it still feels safe on a warm porch with an old basset hound snoozing on the steps. And Milo is young, young, young. So young that a mountain is still not insurmountable, so young that the seasons are still exciting, so young that innocence is a reality and not a concept.

“Can you stay for dinner?” Milo asks. “The widow’s making tuna fish casserole.”

“I’d be stupefied to.” Binkley replies.