Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2014    poetry    all issues


Michelle Ross
Cinema Verité

Laura M. Rocha
Young & Golden

Shawn Miklaucic
Crepe Myrtle

Kim Drew Wright
The Long Road

Mark Sutz

Vincent Paul Vanneman
Aurora Borealis

Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Richard Herring

Rafal Redlinski
Are you an alcoholic? A self-test

Paul Pedroza
Motion Without Meaning

Jessica Walker
Dinner at the Twicketts

Rik Barberi
What Ever Happens Next

Matthew Shoen
Special Meats

Nicholas MacDonnell
The Long Way Home

ML Roberts
How You Won’t Go Back

Bill Harper
Eastside Story

Terry Engel
Childhood Revisited

John Mort
The Book Club

Paul Luikart
The Edge of the Known World

Mark Sutz


Technically, it isn’t a city. Thus, officially, Lukasz isn’t the mayor though it says this on his business card.

The lights are on, the TVs gurgle all day, pools are skimmed, doorbells can even chime (but haven’t been used once since they were installed)—no phones ring, no cars cruise by the artificial lawns (though a few stock vintage models dot the driveways), no papers are delivered and no conversations bounce off the walls of these hollow houses.

A-frames bump up against ranch houses; split-levels nestle in between duplexes and double-wide trailers; underground houses are thumbprints between brownstones and mini-mock mansions. The whole area looks like an unfocused model railroader’s diorama magnified to working size and sealed up forever. The only things missing are models of ladies in frozen hellos or crossing guards stuck in a perpetual wave to a group of still children in a stationary gallop across the safe, clean, idealized suburban street.

Permaville is only a city in name, like Speaker City or Mattress Metropolis or Bagel Town. But unlike those businesses, Permaville is an establishment that relies on our ability to navigate maps. It has a fluid topography. An air and sense about it. After all, it is the premier realistic cemetery in the entire United States. Its target demographic are people who aren’t comfortable with standard eternal rest six feet under Bermuda grass lawns kept neat by men on riding mowers, men listening to salsa on earbuds, men rolling casually over the bones of the dead.

Resplendent with inertia, Permaville is the perfect end to an American life.

Lukasz favored tracksuits with multicolored piping. Today, he is stuffed into a black Adidas number with a neon green line running up the legs and sleeves. He is drinking an Arnold Palmer under the July sun and mopping his brow with a blue paisley bandana. He whistles with no rhythm while dangling his tired 50-year-old feet in the pool of the facsimile motor hotel recognizable on washed-out vintage postcards as a Howard Johnson’s.

Lukasz pulled the cell phone out and dialed his mother—for the first time in months—deep in the heart of rural Poland on a phone that delivered a crackly and intermittent connection.

“Mama. Mama, what’s wrong? Can you hear Lukasz?” he said after trying the weekly Saturday call for the fifth time, only woolly static on the other end, then stuffed the phone into a zipper pocket in his track jacket when the line cut out again and cursed modern technology.

The plan had always been to return to Poland after the charges were far enough in the past to be forgotten or forgiven, but one month in Chicago turned into one year traveling the country slipped into three decades of living in Arizona after his car broke down in Sun City just outside of a smorgasbord advertising All You Can Eat for Five George Washingtons. Lukasz wandered into the restaurant that summer day in 1976 gut-hungry and filthy from fiddling with the engine of his ocean-blue, windowless, shag-rugged Ford Econoline van. He walked from the arid parking lot, swooshed through sliding twin glass doors and into the restaurant lobby. His glasses fogged over with the humidity of steamed meats.

He filled his plates with an array of textures and colors—pinks and greens, muddy lumps and gooey hills—with which he was unfamiliar, and settled into the groupeat being undertaken by a hundred gray heads around him. The chatter in the hall was punctuated with unembarrassed belches, wives’ admonitions to get the food off ties and, in one transformative moment, a spat in Polish about why the husband thought it fully within the bounds of decency to stuff his coat pockets with dinner rolls for late night snacks and why the wife thought she should have married the other man so long ago.

Lukasz walked over to the couple’s table and sat down. He pulled out a roll he’d stuffed into his own coat pocket, flashed a crazy, endearing smile and said in Polish, “Only crazy people wear coats in the summer—crazy like foxes.” They spoke for hours, until they were the last people in the restaurant and, by the end of the conversation, Lukasz had gotten himself a job with the old man, an old world framer and builder whose proper heir to these skills was a son who, when the wife mentioned him, elicited only the husband’s snort. That would be the last time Lukasz ever heard about him.

Bicentennial fever was rampant on every sandwich board that summer. Patriotism was the currency and Lukasz spent it with the dexterity of a founding father. Like dominoes, Lukasz knocked over the major prizes of red-blooded America within six months of stuffing the roll into his pocket. In rapid succession: finished the bottomless meal with the old man and wife; moved into their spare bedroom with crisp, thin sheets on the twin mattress; slid into apprenticeship with the old man (who was an unsung craftsman of tenth-scale historical dioramas); joined the local Pulaski outpost after the old man one night brought home a fist-sized pierogi that Lukasz ate with tears of umami recognition; courted the granddaughter of the woman who crafted that pierogi (during which he presented himself for a three-month period as a flawless catch); caught the granddaughter, Aga, and married her in the same Pulaski outpost that would provide Permaville with many of its clients over the ensuing thirty years.

For eighteen months, Lukasz apprenticed so intensely with the old man that the work Lukasz did became indistinguishable from his. Every inch of the dioramas they worked on was greeted by the clients (universities, museums, shut-ins with obsessions about forgotten historical events) with audible intakes of breath and impressed hmms from pursed lips. Lukasz became particularly proficient at creating facades in the same materials as the original—big red bricks were shrunken by painstaking chipping away, mini-wooden beams were whittled from actual planks; windows even were cut from original panes.

The old woman came into his room one night and told Lukasz she knew her husband was going to soon die. He felt as if in Lukasz he’d found the perfect successor and could finally let go. She told Lukasz the old man had only one condition for handing to Lukasz his business: design and build the old man a mausoleum that was a facsimile of his boyhood home in Poland. The old woman showed Lukasz a picture of a familiar squat abode and Lukasz was sure he could reproduce it.

The old woman told Lukasz they had a plot on which the mausoleum could be built. Lukasz fabricated it in the workshop and soon it became clear to him and the old man that it had grown too big for the plot of land he had purchased. And also the mausoleum would have to house not only him but his wife.

“Well, where are we supposed to put it?” Lukasz asked.

The old man swept his hand around grandly. “Much desert land out there. We’ll drive.”

With the car pointed north, they headed forward and drove a century or ten back in time into desert spiked every half-mile with signposts advertising “100 Acres-10 Thousand” (The mid-’70s were the best time to buy land in Phoenix as the next 30 years would funnel millions of people into this seasonless, culturally void block on the American quilt). The old man stopped at one of these signs below a mountain that looked like a moon feature, said “Yes” and by the time he died three months later (and his wife a week after), Lukasz was the proud owner of a knobby 100-acre section of desert whose only developers for millennia had been ants and snakes and critters who knew how unforgiving the desert could be and didn’t bother with building structures when they died. Thousands of carcasses from dozens of species were perfectly content to decompose and disappear only with the attention of the sun and earth.

With each house Lukasz built for his clients to be buried in, he took photos and sent them to his mother with notes such as—“Mama, Now living in the room up there on the right, with the white planter box.” “This is the house of a prominent local professor.” “I am happy and will send you another picture when I go to my next job.” “I am fortunate to see so much of America, paint so many of its beautiful houses. Your boy, Lukasz.”

And so it went week after month after year. But the pictures he sent his mother were just his clients’ cemetery projects. He’d convinced his mother that he made his living as an itinerant housepainter and what was not to believe? Each picture he sent did have a coat of paint that still looked wet. He kept his mother in the dark about the reality of his situation only to keep her safe and to give her plausible deniability as to his whereabouts. The last thing he heard—and which his dreams revisited every night—from the blindfolded man’s voice was, “We will find you. Like we found them before the war. Be grateful your mother doesn’t know where you hid it. Otherwise, she’d already be dead.”

Every four or six months when Lukasz called her, he would ask, “Have they forgotten yet?” and she would sigh. “No, my son. But maybe God does not want them to forget. And maybe you should be thankful. Your name falls off their tongues like a legend.”

The delivery drivers always lingered at Permaville. They quizzed Lukasz as to the contents of the incoming boxes the size of pool tables but light enough to carry on their own. They especially loved that Lukasz had gotten the idea to turn his standard office into a working diner. He filled it with all the bad coffee and gum-snapping waitresses he remembered at Stuckeys during his early years thumbing across this country in which he wanted to sink and emerge from the other side a person who’d been granted a clean slate.

Since the old man had died 30 years before, Lukasz had almost 50 more spots built out, a little architectural theme park, and many more purchased, at some stage of construction, mostly planned for couples. One of the spots was, sadly, for an entire family, most of whom died on the same day. The woman had lost her husband and four children when the home they shared in the Midwest vanished into a freak sinkhole while she was away on a business trip. On the emergency flight home, she’d read a tiny blurb about Permaville in a culture magazine someone left in the seat pocket. From the moment she landed, her energies and money went into the plot. The woman became so involved in the building process that she ended up moving to Phoenix and visiting the workshop every day to guide Lukasz and his builders on the detail of each room. Hers was the only mausoleum that was built in partial working order—one bathroom with full plumbing—as her deep pockets allowed Permaville to survive some lean times.

Lukasz had also nearly finished the diner during the building of this woman’s mausoleum and as she spent more time overseeing the construction of her family’s final resting place she would inhabit one of the booths in the diner that overlooked her house. One day she proposed to Lukasz that she stay and come to work for him in any capacity he saw fit. She told him that if he didn’t accept the offer, Lukasz would soon find her suicided on the real front lawn of her fake house and have to deal with the oddity of a death occurring at a cemetery.

So, Lukasz, after his wife gave him a hesitant, spouse’s consent, hired her on the spot and she moved—with no warning to Lukasz—into the replica of her master bedroom on the same day. He then paid a team under the table to plumb a toilet and sink and sneakily wire the whole house so it could be dimly lit. Within a few years, her wounds scarred over a bit and she moved into a small set of staff apartments Lukasz built on the premises, where he also lived. He accepted her presence as a cosmic reminder that tragedy wasn’t the domain only of the wicked. It could befall even those who wouldn’t so much as wield a flyswatter.

Lukasz’s wife soon tired of him investing his time and energy into dead people, so she took a lead from the stories he told her of how he disappeared from the reach of people he’d angered: in the middle of the night, she took her pregnant self to somewhere they had winters, because she said she wanted to kiss a man in front of a fireplace while it was cold outside.

Lukasz began receiving postcards from cities he’d never been—Butte, Montana; Pierre, South Dakota; Ketchum, Idaho. But soon they stopped.

He built more mausoleums. Stopped advertising because people came to him. Developed a waiting list so he knew he’d be busy till the day he died.

Then, almost ten years to the day Aga disappeared, she returned and, practically mid-sentence, finished the conversation they’d been having a decade before.

“I needed to feel the snow on my feet.”

As he looked at her, two little hands wrapped around Aga’s belly from behind.

“This is Petra,” she said and tugged at the little hands until she showed her head to Lukasz and presented a gap-toothed smile that Lukasz recognized from looking in the mirror every day. The mouth was his. The eyes, his mother’s. The face, in total, a hint, finally, to his real father.

In one instant, Lukasz knew why he’d been shunned as a boy by everyone but his mother.

He picked up Petra.

“You descend from great royalty, my dear,” he said. “Now you get to be ruler of your own city.”

Dotted Line