All Throughout the Storm

by Denis J. Underwood

Jack's hairless ankles are white and delicate as chicken bones. The photograph at his feet slipped from the book that's splayed open in his hands. He bends over and his spine looks like a jagged line of stones beneath his flannel shirt. For a second I think I hear vertebrae crackling, but it's only the noise of rain on the roof of Jack's trailer.

"Here it is," he says. "Just dumb luck I flipped through the pages before giving it to Frankie."

"Frankie? I told you I wanted that book," I say.

"Sure," Jack says, straightening himself up. "Here, take it." He hoists the book in the air between us.

"Don't let Frankie in here anymore," I say. Frankie always leaves with something. It was fine when he listened and hauled out the junk. But now, most of Jack's first editions have vanished from the shelves, including my favorites; all except for this one.

"Frankie likes to read—he has great appreciation for art," Jack says.

"Like hell he does—he sells it all on eBay." I've been through this with Jack before. "Frankie's nothing but a junkie."

"The books aren't worth much anyway," Jack says, shaking his head. He seems to have aged five years since I saw him two months ago.

 "Bull-shit, Jack." The book clenched in my hand, a 1930 Moby Dick first edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent is worth at least fifteen hundred dollars. "You know better than that."

"Since when are you so interested in books?" At every chance, Jack reminds me that I flunked out of college. He lifts the black and white photograph inches from his face and then hands it to me. Four young men holding fly fishing rods stand on a dusty trail. Jack is there, recognizable through a mask of youth. I flip the photograph over. Faded blue ink reads: McCloud River, June, 1962.

"They're all gone," Jack says.

I hand over the photograph. He sighs, slaps it against his leg and then heads to the kitchen, following a dark path worn into the rug.

Jack's dog is curled up on the floor near the easy chair. The dog might be dead.

From time to time, I drive across the Ohio River and into Kentucky to check on Jack. He's no blood relation of mine, but years ago he took an interest in mom after dad left. He was around for a few years, at least. Now though, I often question whether I mean anything to him.

Jack ambles out of the kitchen, a plate of spaghetti in his right hand and the photograph in his left. He's mouth breathing and not wearing his dentures. After placing the dish on the table, he shimmies his bare feet until he's in front of the big chair. Hands out, as if reaching for a ladder, he sits. The dog startles awake and slinks away.

"I never liked that thing," Jack says. "Does nothing but sleep and eat."

Despite what Jack says, he and the animal are inseparable. He often scratches the dog's belly with one of those midget hand back scratchers. I've seen the dog's wiry hairs caught up in the fingers and Jack will slip the thing under his shirt without even rinsing it off.

"I'm the only one left," Jack mutters. "Ass cancer took Stevens four years back. Joey K.I.A. drunk driving in the 70s. And Zack passed in his sleep last month." He plunges the fork into the mound of pasta and reaches for a can of Keystone beer on the table.

"Too bad," I say.

"Never thought it would turn out like this—me, the last man standing."

"Well, this is how it is, and this is how it will always be, Jack." I step across the cramped living room. On the other side of the bay window, rain slants down beneath a streetlight.

"Hope this passes soon," I say.                                                      

"It will—always does."

I turn to face him. His eyelids are drawn tightly over sunken eyes and his jaw moves as if it's out of control. Through all the chewing and sucking and slurping, I wonder if he tastes what he's eating.

Jack places the half-eaten plate of pasta on the floor. The dog, flat as a tick, creeps over.

Jack studies the picture again. "We caught big fish back then—monsters. I would lose count."

"Yeah, you told me."

"Haven't fished since. Never will again, either."

"You took me when I was a kid," I say.

"You tried your best, but didn't have the patience. No one fished like me and these boys did. Like a team. Rivers and lakes were our playing fields." He flings the photograph. It skips along the table top and stops in a ring of beer. "The world sorts things out in its own way. None of it makes any sense."

I want to rush over and save the picture: the ink might smear, the paper could stain. Jack doesn't make a move for it.

"I've got to get going," I say.

The dog is lying on the ground, its legs flailing in the air. The hairs around its mouth are stained orange from the pasta sauce.

Jack considers the empty plate.

"Make sure and wash it before using it again, Jack." He looks at me as if I'm about to reveal the answer to a mystery that's puzzled him his whole life. I wait for his expression to change. It doesn't.

Lightning flashes and a gust of wind rocks the trailer as I gather my things.

Before opening the front door, I tuck the book beneath my coat and glance back. The chair is empty, the photograph gone. Light seeps from the crack beneath the bathroom door. Some country song I don't know blares from the AM radio mounted next to the toilet paper holder.

I slam the door shut and sprint down the stairs. It's still raining quite hard.

BIODenis J. Underwood was born in Houston, Texas and raised in the United States and France. His stories have appeared in Intellectual Refuge, The First Line, The Angler, The Paumanok Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Carolina, was published by Wind River Press in 2004. Denis lives in Oak Park, Illinois with his wife, Trish, and his daughter, Helena. He is working on what he likes to believe is the final draft of his first novel. He is also the web editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink.