What the Cherub Saw | Derek Harmening
We spent five days in July repaving the Arrowhead Baptist Church parking lot. That summer found us approaching saintliness, all bronze and sinew, terracotta forms baked into the husks of our lime-green safety shirts.
The pavement on which our town’s lavender-scented Buick Lucernes and Lincoln Town Cars settled each week was older than my parents. Decades of fickle weather, of ruthless freeze-thaw cycles, had left the once-sturdy ground riddled with alligator cracks. Potholes emerged like lanced boils. We were sent to tear it up, stabilize it, resurrect it. Each morning, the air cool on our necks, the clipped lawns still glinting with dew, we arrived, young and able-bodied, to desecrate that holy ground.
Bored mothers eyed us wantonly from the safety of the sidewalk. Filing into the church vestibule, they sighed as we pulverized asphalt, murmured as we spread tack oil. They brushed dry palms over poplin skirts, racking up a few blissful seconds of covetousness for which they’d soon be absolved.
There were three of us: Hilliard, McTeague, and me. Fischer, the project manager, didn’t count. He was twenty years our senior, partially deaf, and spun dark theories about ancient symbols he claimed were hidden in the creases of sweat-damp dollar bills.
“Population control,” he’d shout from the throne of his asphalt roller, jabbing a calloused index finger at webs of contrails floating in the sky. “A toxic cocktail meant to snuff us out. Better believe it.”
Hilliard was bookish. The ungodly hours he spent poring over Dostoevsky and Woolf, his wiry frame slouched against a heap of featherdown pillows, vision deteriorating in the oily half-light of a bedroom lamp, manifested by day in the bags beneath his eyes.
“Poetry’s for women,” McTeague spat, whenever Hilliard began to ruminate on some passage he’d been chewing over.
“You what?” yelled Fischer, cupping hand to ear.
“Speaking of which,” McTeague said. “Ought to get yourself a girl, Hill. Then you can read to her every night. Stop yapping at us for a change.”
McTeague’s rap sheet, a scarlet letter of assault and petty theft, clung to him like an unsightly mole. His own employment resulted from a lost bet. His father played euchre with Fischer and, at one such gathering, called in a favor.
“Forget it,” Fischer said, fanning his cards. “I work with heavy machinery.”
“Let’s play for it,” said McTeague’s father.
A case of Schlitz and three tricks later, the old men shook hands, and McTeague had a job.
We never spoke of McTeague’s troubles. The gist was clear: he’d drift for a few months, burning through odd jobs, before invariably landing himself, bleary-eyed and shivering, in the Lynn County jail. Other stories we pieced together ourselves, a wet pulp of rumor and hearsay. Supposedly, McTeague’s cleft lip was a souvenir from a knife fight with a man whose wife he’d bedded. Once, when he thought he’d been hustled in a game of one-pocket, he broke a pool stick over his rival’s head.
We thrived on these details, consumed them like air.
“Hilliard, for Christ’s sake,” said Fischer, kneeling to survey the fresh parking stripes. “Did you sleep last night? Looks like someone with delirium tremens painted these.”
The sun glared down on Arrowhead Baptist Church. Hymns emanated from within. A small fiberglass cherub ornamented the front lawn. Around its polished neck hung a plasterboard sign reading: HOPE WILL ARISE.
Hilliard leaned over the Rust-Oleum line striper, shaking his head. “Tom Sawyer,” he said, “would have tricked you into doing this yourself.”
Lunch was our sacred time. We devoured bacon-topped pizzas, hard-boiled eggs, Italian beef sandwiches, loaded submarines. We broke cookies that tasted of vanilla cardboard, read each other’s fortunes over the greasy remains of our General Tso’s chicken.
“The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.”
“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
Hilliard was snoring beneath an elm tree. When we prodded him awake, he said he’d been up ’til 3 a.m. with Jane Eyre.
McTeague ran a tongue over chapped lips. “She cute?”
The air boiled with the rank odor of bitumen. We’d begun resurfacing the final quadrant, a narrow, rutted plain shaded by leaves.
“A kid I knew died here,” said McTeague. “This exact spot.” His arms, covered wrist to shoulder in inked tapestries of rose blossoms and half-clad women, rippled as he worked a steel tamper over the hot-asphalt mix.
“Sure he did,” I said.
“Right hand to God. Freak accident. Same year that beauty pageant girl was strangled.”
“Speak up,” barked Fischer.
It happened, said McTeague, to a first grader named Andrew. A blizzard dumped twenty inches on Lynn County. Buried sedans, collapsed roofs, nowhere left to pile it all. Snowplows filled whole parking lots, including Arrowhead’s, with icy mounds ten feet high. Andrew, bedecked in navy pants, red mittens, and a striped Peruvian hat, had arrived at the church and begun digging tunnels. He was burrowing away, hidden from view, when a snowplow rolled into the lot, delivered a fresh heap of snow, and trapped Andrew inside. He suffocated.
“How’d they find him?” Hilliard asked, wiping the rheum from his eyes.
“Warm spell,” McTeague said. “The choir ladies saw him first. His arm was poking out like a branch. His mittens were still on.”
The cherub watched from its spot on the lawn. A sprinkler coughed to life, draping it in mist. I imagined a child’s mitten reflected in its resin eye.
We finished the next day. Loaded up, cleared out. From within the jungle-tropic sanctuaries of our home bathrooms, we convalesced. Applied frothy handfuls of Dove soap to burned, tar-blackened flesh. We winced with relief, pressed our faces into the hot spray as whorls of filth swirled down and away.
The three of us stayed on through fall, until the elms shed their robes and the gutters choked.
In October, McTeague was arrested for stealing hood ornaments.
That parking lot will outlive us all.
About the Author:
Derek Harmening’s work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, Newfound Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words, and Vita Brevis among others. His flash fiction story “Stitches” was the recipient of the 101 Words Editors’ Choice Award in February 2017. A Nebraska native, Derek now lives and writes in Chicago.