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Image by Ashling Keever

The Secret of Old Man Gloom

Cindy tried hard to hide it. He knew though. He even understood. Hiding a feeling was like covering a fire pit with a newspaper. It took no time at all before tongues and flames danced around the edges and gobbled the entire thing up. Feelings were one thing though. Chicken Noodle knew Cindy was hiding more than feelings. It was the way she wore a hoody in summer or tugged on the cuffs of her sleeves to make sure they were still doing their jobs, covering up something underneath, something she didn’t want anybody, even him, to see.

“What are you looking at,” Cindy asked when he spotted the wedged lighter.


“Keep it that way,” Cindy said.

Chicken Noodle fished the round side of the blue lighter stuck between the seats with a finger. The back of his hand grazed Cindy’s, and she pulled her hand back.

“What are you doing?”

“Saw this lighter,” he said. He flicked it, but it only sparked.

“Good for you,” said Cindy.

Chicken Noodle pressed his forehead to the passenger window of the pickup truck. He turned when he felt her fingers brush against his leg. Her finger nail picked a seam on the seat.

When did she start painting her nails pink? The seam ran half under his thigh, and her knuckles rubbed against his jeans as Cindy kept pulling the end of a thread.

A skinny bug struggled along the rubber weather strip of the inner truck window. Its fan blade wings flickered then settled along its body. The bug shimmered its wings again. It buzzed them so the remaining daylight pulled along their edges in an iridescent line. Its feet tickled Chicken Noodle’s skin as it crawled across his wrist into the cup of his hand.

Driving to Santa Fe for the burning of Zozobra was his Grandfather’s idea, but it was okay when Cindy said she wanted to come along.

“A waste of time,” is all Grandmother said. Cindy rolled her eyes at Chicken Noodle and even smiled. “You stay with me.” Grandmother pulled Cindy’s sister close.

After the trailer fire, the girls moved into Chicken Noodle’s room. He slept on a pile of blankets in Grandfather’s room. Every night Grandfather shifted under the sleepless watch of darkness. Was Cindy asleep?

“George,” Raul said. “It’ll just be a few days, until I can figure out a living situation.” The girls stood so close together they looked two-headed. Last summer a lamb was born with two heads. It didn’t live long. Grandmother tsked when she saw it.

Raul put his hand on Cindy’s shoulder. She leaned away and her hair fell to her back off her shoulder when she shifted her weight.

“We don’t have much room,” said Grandfather.

“But, Grandfather,” said Chicken Noodle.

“Of course they will stay here,” interrupted his Grandmother. She stood in the doorway behind them. She stepped off the stoop and pushed the girls out of the bright sun back into the shadow of the doorway. She stared at her husband for a moment and then turned to Raul. “They will stay here as long as they need,” she said.

Those few days turned into weeks, and now the first month of school was over and Cindy’s father still worked on rebuilding the blown up trailer.

On the weekends Chicken Noodle and Grandfather helped lay the new block foundation. The first few times they raked soot-covered block and melted plastic out of the clearing. Was it true what other kids said? Was Cindy’s mother a monster—crawled back into the canyons? After the trailer fire Cindy didn’t talk about her mother. She never wanted to come to help clean up.

“Zozobra is bigger than a tree,” Grandfather said in the truck. The stunted pines on the side of the road were just taller than the cab of their passing pickup. “He is filled with gloom, and when he burns our problems burn away.”

“Sounds lame,” said Cindy, “way too easy.”

“Sometimes things are easy.”

“Things are never easy,” said Cindy.

When they arrived the marionette hulked across from them, across the field of people, a giant ogre surveying the ranks before battle. Burning him destroyed the worries and troubles of the previous year. It all burned up in the flames, Chicken Noodle’s grandfather insisted. Anyone who wanted to get rid of worries from the past year drove by the offices of the Santa Fe Reporter in the weeks leading up to the burn to drop off slips of paper with personal gloom written on them. The papers then dumped into a gloom box were placed at Zozobra’s feet to be burned.

“I wish we could have dropped off our own papers,” said Cindy.

“Maybe if we lived closer,” said Grandfather.

“We don’t live close to anything,” said Cindy.

“You two wait here,” said Grandfather.

“We always have to wait,” Chicken Noodle said to Cindy. With his fist by his ear he listened to the trapped bug blur its wings. “Want to see what I caught?”

Cindy covered a paper on her knee, shielding it with her hand, like a math test. “Where’s he going?” she said.

“I don’t know,” Chicken Noodle said. He held his trapped bug at Cindy’s ear. “What are you writing?”

“Nothing. Leave me alone.” Cindy turned on the seat and Chicken Noodle stuck his tongue out at her back.

“Look at everybody,” Cindy said when they parked. The crowd spread out from the parking lot everywhere. The sunset purpled the sky. She opened the glove box and asked Grandfather if she could have a faded mechanic receipt.

“That’s fine, but don’t go wandering off,” he said, after telling them to wait by the truck.

Now he squeezed Chicken Noodle’s shoulder and kept repeating the same words. “Damn it.”

The fry bread Grandfather brought back sat on the hood of the car. It smelled sweeter than Grandmother’s. The white sugar disappeared into the warmth of the bread.

No sooner did Grandfather say not to wander off, and Cindy wandered off.

“Damn it.” Grandfather put both hands on Chicken Noodle’s shoulders, grounding him from leaving like the metal frame holding up Zozobra. “Why did you let her go?”

It wasn’t like it was Chicken Noodle’s fault. He almost lost his bug. It crawled through a gap by his thumb and hopped to the warm metal of the truck. Chicken Noodle snatched at it.

“Did you see that?” Chicken Noodle said, but when he turned Cindy was gone.

Chicken Noodle and Grandfather pushed through the crowd looking for Cindy.

“Have you seen a little girl? This tall?” Grandfather asked everyone and held the flat of his hand over Chicken Noodle’s head.

Before the head of the marionette caught fire the crowd moved in crazy rhythm. The groaning voice from the speaker chanted. Everybody pumped fists in the air and screamed and the groaning voice of Zozobra grew bigger and bigger while the swaying, moving crowd cheered louder and louder.

“Damn it,” Grandfather said again.

“What if we don’t find her?” Chicken Noodle closed his fingers into a hollow fist. He could feel the bug tickle around the gaps by his thumb.

“Give me your hand,” Grandfather said. He grabbed Chicken Noodle’s balled up hand and moved back toward the truck. “Maybe we’ll see her from up on the hill.”

Chicken Noodle walked fast and tried to keep his fist hollow. He tried to feel if the bug was still moving around, but Grandfather jerked him up the hill.

“Maybe she’s back at the truck.”

They didn’t see her. Grandfather grabbed men by their shoulders and pushed them back looking in and out, between every clump of people.

“What the fuck, dude,” said a slow-talking kid. He wore a woolly toboggan.

Grandfather stepped back and forth between groups of people, an elaborate dance.

“You’re hurting my hand.” Chicken Noodle ran to keep up, dragged along by Grandfather’s strong grip. He couldn’t feel the bug flicking around in the cave of his fist. He couldn’t feel it at all. It was crushed.

More and more people left their parked cars and trucks as the fire grew and the moaning reverberated out of the loud speakers. The late comers were like the flies stuck to the sticky tape on Grandmother’s windows. The lines of people slowed as they bunched up, as if their feet were sticking to the ground.

Across the park far above the crowd’s many heads burned the large puppet. Zozobra. It was ten times taller than Grandfather described. It disappeared into the sky. Its arms stretched out wide and the unburned face grinned. The grin reminded him how Cindy smiled when she stole money from her dad’s wallet. Her eyes almost glowed with glee, and she put a finger to her lips, binding him to keep her secret.

Grandfather let go of his hand. Chicken Noodle opened a couple fingers and there it was—the long legged bug fidgeted and buzzed its wings on its back. He tried to cover his open hand with his other hand, but the bug jumped and flew away before he could catch it.

“Go find Cindy,” Chicken Noodle called after the little flyer.

They walked back down into the crowd of people, and the fire began to burn high on the robes. The light from the burning man pushed out around everybody.

They were deep in the crowd. Everyone packed together.

“Look, Grandfather,” Chicken Noodle said. He pointed to a gap of the crowd and there Cindy walked, this way and that, looking up at the faces of the adults around her. Her own face streaked with tears. Her bangs stuck to her head. She ran toward them when she saw them.

“Cindy,” Grandfather said. He pushed a man out of his way. “We have been looking for you.” Grandfather kneeled on the ground. Everywhere people cheered and the speakers groaned and the orange light of the fire flickered shadows across all the faces.

“I’m sorry.” Cindy stopped and stood with her head down.

“Where have you been?”

“I wanted to burn this,” she said. She held out a folded square of paper receipt from the truck. “I wanted to burn something too.”

“I told you to stay close.”

“I know.”

“Come here.” Grandfather hugged her. Cindy held her shoulders up, with her hands by her side.

“I needed to burn it,” Cindy cried. “I needed to burn it.” She leaned into Grandfather’s arms and cried.

“I know,” he said again.

Grandfather let go of Cindy, and Chicken Noodle stepped up and hugged her. He squeezed her tight. He could feel her shiver. She didn’t hug him back. “I’m glad you’re okay, Cindy,” he whispered in her ear.

The flames from the burning marionette circled the head and the frantic moaning repeated over and over as the head and arms swung back and forth pulling rolling fire through the air like a fire dancer. The skeleton of Zozobra stuck through burned off sections of robe and the iron frame of the skull outlined by bright fire blackened. An eye socket burned empty. With a final shudder the loud moan ended and the marionette hung limp and the left over fire consumed the remains. Fireworks launched into the dark and cracked over the frenzy and cheering of the crowd.

A set of fireworks exploded from the mouth of the burned puppet and then on their side of the field, and it made Chicken Noodle’s grandfather jump. The crowd continued to yell. People stuck their fists in the air and howled. When the fireworks stopped the fire’s light dimmed. The smoldering skeleton hung limp and defeated. The faces of people all around them drifted back into darkness.

“Let’s go,” said Grandfather. “We might as well leave now—beat everybody out of the parking lot.”

In the cab of the truck a quiet surrounded them. It was interrupted once in a while with a left over shudder from Cindy’s crying. The road darkened when the lights of Santa Fe disappeared behind them. Cindy put her hand on the top of Chicken Noodle’s hand. Her skin, smooth, not tickly like bugs feet. She curled her fingers between his fingers and they sat so close their legs pushed against each other through the curve of the road. After a while her head leaned on his shoulder, and she stopped crying.

The drive home lasted forever. Grandfather almost carried Cindy to the house. She shuffled her feet like a zombie. “Come on, you two,” said Grandfather.

“What’s wrong with the girl?” he heard his grandmother whisper.

“She’s worn out,” said Grandfather. Chicken Noodle didn’t hear what else Grandfather said.

“Noodle, let’s go,” said Grandmother. Then she too disappeared into the house.

Chicken Noodle stayed sitting. Lights turned on and turned off from one room to another. Every time the darkness around the house pushed away. It was like the darkness was learning to swim and pushing away from the bank of a swimming hole when the lights came on only to fight quickly back to shore as the lights for each room turned back off. Cindy’s crumpled square of paper had fallen to the floorboards. He twisted it in his fingers, but he didn’t open it.

Past the garden, behind the shed, Chicken Noodle kneeled down. The cold of the earth crept through his jeans around his knees. Darkness. The moon already dipped down below the mountains and the sun still slept. Everything slept.

Chicken Noodle rubbed the folded paper with his thumbs. The fibers rolled up like boogers. The paper thinned. He lifted an edge of the fold for a moment, but closed it before opening up her secret. The lighter from the truck! He pulled it from his pocket and rolled the flint. It sparked. It created a mini firework, a burst of energy pushing back the dark. He flicked it again. It sparked again.

“Come on, stupid thing.”

This time a tiny blue flame hovered above the metal mouth of the lighter. Chicken Noodle held the corner of the paper closer and closer to the flame. He held his breath. He held as still as possible, but the paper shivered between his fingers. The flame trembled and grew smaller, a tiny blue dot. Then the corner of the paper wicked yellow and one finger of flame lifted from the paper. Chicken Noodle turned the paper so the flame ran up the side. For a moment the light pushed around Chicken Noodle and the rocks and grasses. The little bushes at the end of the clearing pushed their necks out of the darkness.

“Grandmother says it’s time to come in,” said Cindy.

Her voice surprised him. He let the lighter slip from his fingers. There she stood at the edge of the yard. Tears ran down her cheeks and dripped from her chin.

“I didn’t know you were there,” said Chicken Noodle.

Cindy shrugged. Even though she was crying she smiled. She said thank you so quietly he couldn’t hear it, he could just see it, and the paper burned out, and the darkness pushed back around them. Cindy grabbed his hand. She curled her fingers with his. They walked toward the bright glow of lights peeking out from windows and from around the frame of the door that Cindy must have left cracked open when she came out to find him.

It will all burn up in flames. That’s what his Grandfather said. The lighter lay forgotten on the ground but Chicken Noodle didn’t care. He squeezed Cindy’s hand before letting go and closing the door behind them.

Markus Egeler Jones graduated with Eastern Kentucky University’s MFA. He is the fiction professor at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. His first novel, How the Butcher Bird Finds Her Voice, will be published by Five Oaks Press in 2017. His second novel, Postworld, is going through a slate of revisions before traveling back to a publisher’s desk. His short fiction appears in Crab Fat Magazine, The Story Shack, and The Windward Review among others. On occasion his poetry makes it to the pages of a journal or magazine here and there. Through some dark years of submission lethargy he was a stone mason, a house husband, and a chicken rancher, but all those things just push him back to his keyboard, and he finds teaching writing just as fulfilling as writing writing.