Literary Arts | READ LOCAL First

Reiser Perkins’ West Temple

READ LOCAL First represents Utah’s most comprehensive collection of celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction, and memoir. This week we bring you Reiser Perkins, a Utah native who currently lives in Hawaii. She joins a distinguished group of writers, including Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal, former Utah Poet Laureate Katherine Coles, fiction writers Lynn Kilpatrick and Larry Menlove and many others.

 

West Temple

1. What We Did During The Summer of 1989

We started working for Clarky when we were fourteen years old. According to his business card, Clarky was a “freelance archeologist.” We’d soon realize this was a fancy way of saying “collector,” itself an alternative to “hoarder.”

Clarky accumulated everything from ancient manuscripts to California impressionist paintings. He’d find a forgotten masterpiece at some garage sale and task us with researching the artist, whose signature was usually illegible. We’d do our best, combing microfiche for pertinent obituaries. When we weren’t doing that, we’d be “out in the field,” scouring the terrain with customized metal detectors Clarky himself had modified. It didn’t bother him that we hardly ever found anything. These things take time, he’d say. He had a weird kind of faith in us.

Nobody in the world knew we were working for Clarky. It wasn’t that he’d sworn us to secrecy (though he had) as much as it was simply that nobody in the world cared what we did or didn’t do. I lived with my grandparents, who loved me but were old. All I had to do was tell them I was pulling extra hours babysitting. Pat Helen didn’t even have to lie. Her single mom worked two and a half jobs.

Clarky paid us ten dollars an hour, each, a real fortune in cash money. We made three dollars an hour babysitting. As an added bonus, he was always taking us out for ice cream and letting us drive his burnt orange Oldsmobile Cutlas Ciera.

“Always keep five car lengths between you and everything,” he’d say as we drove in circles around an empty parking lot.

Clarky liked to give us advice. He also had all kinds of information on topics we didn’t know anything about, like the complex network of tunnels under the city. Mostly, though, Clarky liked to speak on the importance of “healthful eating,” as he termed it. He was a big believer that seven was the optimal number of sleep hours required by a human. He said it was best to break it up into two chunks of three-and-a-half-hours each and to space them exactly twelve hours apart. He’d been doing this for years, he said. It was the secret to his success and stamina.

We spent most of that summer working a sector Clarky referred to as Beirut. He was always talking in code, writing things down on clipboards, reciting coordinates into a staticky walkie-talkie he kept clipped to his belt. At noon he’d break for a three-and-a-half hour nap, either in the backseat of the Cutlas or in a lawn chair under a tree. If there wasn’t a tree, he’d pry open an umbrella he’d brought for that purpose and nap under that, snoring softly. He always woke up in a better mood.

Beirut was in the suburbs behind some nondescript ranch houses at the edge of a subdivision. Here, asphalt turned to gravel, then dirt, then two deep ruts bordered by long yellow grasses. Other than the occasional boy on a dirt bike or teenagers in dusty Jeeps, nobody went there.

Our first time in Beirut, we followed Clarky through sagebrush and scrub oak until we got to a ravine. We traveled up this ravine on what he referred to as an “archaic footpath” and were soon standing in the middle of some kind of junk yard.

“Folks used to toss their unwanted stuff down here from the ridge above,” he said. Rusty bed springs and disintegrating buckets were everywhere. “That’s a washing machine,” he said, but the corroded, cylindrical thing he pointed at didn’t look anything like a washing machine to us.

Clarky showed us how to stake the perimeter, divide it into quadrants. “I’m going to Cheyenne for a coupla days,” he said. “You’ll be on your own so it’s super important that you pay attention.”

He was always going to auctions in places like Vegas or Pocatello, bidding on some relic, a fur trapper’s diary or a conquistador’s brass stirrup. When he wasn’t around, his mom did the driving. Clarky’s mother had a gentle perma-grin, a white and perfectly orb-shaped old lady fro, and was always wearing a pastel track suit, usually made of velour. She couldn’t hear a word we said, but was an okay driver and always gave us sack lunches with bologna sandwiches, warm cans of grape soda, and fruit roll-ups.

We liked our jobs. The warm hum from the machines lulled us, the monotony a comfort. The metal detectors were light and when they picked up a signal, they moved towards it, pulling us along. All we were supposed to do was record the code on a clipboard and stick the right color flag in the ground, or chalk an X if the surface was paved.

Most days we didn’t find anything other than what Clarky called “surface debris.” Coins, cheap jewelry, keys, all of which we’d toss into the battered, red duffle bag. Clarky wanted to see everything, even the rusty tin cans.

Before leaving Beirut proper, we always sat on a certain boulder and shared a cigarette. We took our sunsets seriously, giving them our full attention. Every sunset was a movie, the more violent the better. From our perch, we could see the lake in the distance, doubling the bloody sky. In the foreground, houses leaked blue TV light. We could hear the comforting hiss of sprinklers as they cooled and moistened the dry air, enforcing the existence, in high desert country, of manicured green infinities of lawn.

We sat there until the last light of day stretched into a thin line above the horizon, like a vein in stone. Only then did we make our way through the abandoned orchards, acres of trees planted a hundred years ago that nobody tended now. Branches sagged beneath the weight of peaches and apricots, which fell to the ground and rotted. The acrid smell made my stomach lurch, but in a good way.

At the end of the cul-de-sac, Clarky or his mom would be waiting for us, parked under a flickering streetlamp. As we moved through the new dark, dogs rustled behind chain link and we felt like that, like those dogs.

2. How We Met Clarky

We were eating corndogs at the amusement park. Parents and kids standing in line for the Terror Ride tried not to stare as Pat Helen did vaguely obscene things to her food. A man in a droopy trench coat and ball cap passed by, carrying a metal detector. We watched with fascination as he circled a bench, a look of intense concentration on his face.

Pat Helen tossed her corndog stick in the trash, but with the attitude of someone who was littering, and strutted over to him with a gait that said this is how you do it. She stood a few feet away and stared right at him. When he took a step, Pat Helen took a step, keeping equidistant. When this failed to capture his attention, she started singing the theme song from Silver Spoons.

The metal detector emitted a loud croak. It did this once and then, after a small pause, it did it again. Clarky took off his cap, wiped his forehead with it, put it back on. He took a piece of chalk from his pocket and drew an X on the asphalt. That’s when he noticed Pat Helen’s foot, clad in a sparkly lavender jelly shoe. His gaze traveled up the length of her—knobby, scab-covered knees, white shorts, paint-splotch covered tee. Her skinny, defiant arms were crossed. Her small, wedge-shaped face, from which mousey wisps of hair were held back with plastic barrettes, squinted down at him.

“Did you find something?” she asked.

Clarky stood to his full height, which took an awkward moment. You could tell he’d probably never talked to a fourteen year old girl before.

“What’d you find?” she tried again, shifting her weight.

“Oh!” he said, in a tone of forced cheer. “Just the usual.”

Pat Helen held out her hand. Clarky looked at it like he had no idea what it was. “The name’s Pat Helen. What’s yours?”

Clarky chewed his mustache. It was a big fluffy one that made me think of walruses.

“It’s a double name,” she explained. “Don’t ever call me Pat and don’t ever call me Helen. I’ll see red and won’t be responsible for my actions. That girl over there?” She pointed at me. I waved limply. “That’s Loraine.” Clarky lifted his hand about halfway, then sort of let it drift there.

“Okay!” he said before turning his attention back to the metal detector. Then, without so much as another look at either of us, he walked away. In another age, Pat Helen would’ve been the ultimate street urchin. Now she pursued Clarky and I followed. She even went so far as to tug on his trench coat and call him mister.

“Can I try the metal detector, pretty please?” she begged. “I’ve always wanted to, pa-lease?” Her desperate and beseeching eyes held no quarter for one unaccustomed to dealing with difficult children. He looked around for someone, anyone, who could help him. There was nobody. We were old enough to be unsupervised but young enough to get away with murder.

You could tell that Clarky was considering his options. They weren’t many. Even so, it took him a long time to think through all of them. Finally, he decided his best course of action was to act like nobody existed, including himself. He simply turned and walked away again. This time he held his arm up like a plank and let it fall, as if chopping the head off of something. But what Clarky didn’t understand was that once Pat Helen was determined to make somebody do something, she did not stop until the person had done that thing.

The plan was to let him think we’d given up and gone away, but really we were watching him the whole time. We watched as he snuck through a hole in the fence around the Colossus. We figured he was looking for jewelry and coins that had fallen from people as they went upside down.

Eventually, he sat down at a picnic table next to a duck pond on the outskirts of Pioneer Village. We sat down at the next table. He took a brown paper sack from his duffle bag, removed from it a squashed sandwich on white crustless bread, and a can of grape soda. He bit into the sandwich, chewing slowly, doing a decent job of only occasionally glancing over at Pat Helen as she sang “Nights In White Satin” in an operatic style.

“Come on,” she nudged me. I stood, ready. This was all part of the plan. Like Children of the Corn, we approached Clarky side by side, slowly, vacantly. “Is metal detecting, like, your hobby?” Pat Helen asked in a soft, creepy voice. Clarky’s eyes widened. He tossed the last chunk of his sandwich to the ducks and we watched as they fought over it. Pat Helen picked up the metal detector.

“Be careful. That’s a highly sensitive instrument,” he said.

She found the button on the handle and turned it on. The thing thrummed to life. “Can I take it over by that tree?” she asked.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Just make sure you hold onto it with both hands.”

We watched as she circled the tree once, twice. On the third round, the metal detector started beeping. It was a different sort of noise than the one from earlier. This was quicker, louder, more insistent. Clarky went over and grabbed the machine, squinting at the code on the digital read-out. Shakily, he removed a red plastic flag from his pocket and stuck it in the ground.

That’s when he offered us the job. The next day, we met him in a vacant lot downtown. He’d brought a second metal detector. After a short orientation on how to properly “wield the instrument,” he unfolded a tiny tripod chair that had been in the duffle bag, placed it on the ground, and sat.

“I only have the two detectors up and running right now,” he said. “So I’ll be focusing on what’s under the terrain. If I point my right finger, go right. If I point my left finger, go left.”

“Okay,” we said.

Clarky made us sign a non-disclosure agreement. We didn’t understand most of what it was saying, but Clarky explained that all it meant was whatever we saw while working for him could never be spoken of, not even between ourselves. There weren’t many rules in our little lives, and whatever ones existed were easily manipulated. Until we met Clarky, there was never the sense that somebody was really keeping an eye on things.

3. What Clarky Wasn’t Telling Us

Most of what we did that summer was boring, like scouting new locations. Clarky trusted these weird, old maps more than he did modern, more accurate ones. He’d hold some hand-drawn thing up in front of him, as if trying to superimpose it onto the landscape. One day we might be in an alley downtown, the next somewhere in the west desert where no human had ever gone before, at least not on purpose. The whole time he’d be telling us stories about the tunnels or how, back in the day, anyone who tried to leave the territory was hunted down by a secret army, their blood spilled in ritual atonement.

“Whoa,” we’d say.

“You got that right,” he’d say. “This place is riddled with specimens.” But when we pressed him, asked exactly what kind of specimens, he’d clam up, look out at the horizon. “This used to all be underwater,” he’d say, moving his arm around in a vague, circular motion.

At night, when Pat Helen and I were home in our separate houses watching TV and talking to each other on the phone, the diggers would go in and uncover the items we’d flagged during the day. Whatever they dug up was covered in blankets and stored in the unfinished part of the half-finished basement where Clarky lived and worked. If we asked him about it, he’d remind us of the NDAs.

We spent a few hours a week in the basement, doing light administrative work. This mostly consisted of documenting Clarky’s various collections. He didn’t believe in filing cabinets. He stored and organized everything in huge, three ring binders.

“What I actually am is a philosopher,” Clarky liked to say. We’d be punching holes in laminated photocopied pictures of his collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. “What people really should be thinking about is how the earth’s magnetic field is going to shift within our lifetime and when that happens? It’s back to square one.”

“Are we talking cave man?” Pat Helen asked.

We were.

The phone rang. Clarky answered it. “Yellow?” Pause. “Well, sure. Anyone can say whatever they want.” Pause. “Oh yeah? Well, they must be looking for some of Jamil’s guys.” Pause. “Was it a black LeBaron?” He looked up us. “Gotta go,” he said and hung up.

He filled his cheeks up with air and let it out very slowly. “I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said. “The bad news is that MacIntire’s back. The good news is I’ve got a lead on something he wants, and if we can find it before he does…”

We waited for him to finish but he didn’t. MacIntire was Clarky’s nemesis. We knew all about the many auctions they’d swiped out from under each other, had heard all about MacIntire’s mysterious, seemingly unlimited funds and the way his smile didn’t make it into his eyes. “A forgery of a smile,” Clarky called it.

Clarky went into a closet and came back out carrying a metal detector we’d never seen before. It looked brand new.

“This is the Tesoro Diablo 7510,” he said. “Came out last year. I replaced the sensor with one of my own made of iridium. Grab your canteens and let’s get in the car.”

We ended up out at Antelope Island. Clarky didn’t always tell us what we were looking for, but sometimes he did. That day he told us we were looking for the remains of a man named Jean Baptiste. He’d been an undertaker at the turn of the century until it was discovered he’d been stealing dead people’s clothes and jewelry before burying them.

“Over three hundred bodies,” said Clarky. “How they found out about it was there was a big rain storm, see? The cemetery flooded and all these naked corpses came floating down the street.” They cut Jean Baptiste’s ears off in a public ceremony and branded the word graverobber onto his forehead. It seemed like a long word to brand onto a forehead, we pointed out.

Since to spill his blood would have been to save him, Jean Baptiste was banished to Antelope Island. Apparently, MacIntire had been looking for Jean Baptiste’s skeleton for years. The new lead came from one of Clarky’s associates. He’d found a bloody handprint on a rock above a small crevasse. Clarky had the coordinates of the handprint, a hand-drawn map, and a heart full of hope.

We’d never seen him this giddy before. We asked him if he’d forgotten to take his medication and he said no, he’d not taken it on purpose. “It fogs the mind and I need to be crystal clear,” he explained.

It was the dead center of summer. There weren’t many trees on the island and our ball caps and bandanas provided flimsy protection. It was easy to see how seagulls could get hypnotized by the glare. Clarky told us they flew backwards sometimes.

We worked for hours without a hit. All I could think about was eating an entire popsicle while standing in front of the swamp cooler with wet hair when I got home. The heat was getting to all of us. Clarky took a much longer nap than usual, and when he woke up it was like he didn’t know who any of us were anymore.

Pat Helen launched into one of her go-to characters, a jaded Vietnam vet having a flashback. She bit the pin out of an imaginary grenade and crouched, running low, carrying her metal detector as though it were a machine gun. There was no place to take cover and the enemy was vast, attacking from all directions. We watched as she went down, convulsing as each bullet hit.

“Time to call it a day,” Clarky said.

It was quiet in the car on the way back to the city.

Reiser Perkins is a Utah native who currently resides in Hawaii. She works for the Merwin Conservancy. A former art critic for Egypt Today magazine in Cairo and reporter for Metro Santa Cruz newspaper, her more recent work has appeared in Tin HouseHobartSugar House Review, and elsewhere. Her musical compositions have been produced by Poetry Scores, an international arts collective based in St. Louis that translates poetry into other mediums. She is also the managing editor of Otis Nebula and author of the chapbook, How to Dance While Dying (Dancing Girl Press, 2016). More information at www.reiserperkins.com.

 

Join us on the first Sunday of every month for works-in-progress or recently published work by some of Utah’s most celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction and memoir. Click “Subscribe” at the top of our page to join our e-mail list.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *