The Petra Project
The mayor of your hometown, small and homely, by chance unearthed information on the internet about Petra, the city of rock, and declared it a grand idea. She diverted funds from the volunteer fire department and construction equipment from the new post office/antique store project and, before your next regularly scheduled visit, had overseen the partial transformation of one of the Appalachian foothills. Additionally, your father had disappeared. Of this you were not informed until you’d cleared baggage claim.
Your mother drove you northward, toward your first Thanksgiving without your father. You fidgeted with the controls to the passenger-side vents, but your mother had always believed that when you shut off the vents on one side of a car, all the air was diverted to the other side’s vents, and you knew you were asking for the impatience in her hand as she clicked the temperature control down to compensate. You could tell she’d read that MSN article about broaching uncomfortable subjects with disagreeable children in the car, where neither party is required to look directly at the other. She briefly discussed menopause and asked you if you had any questions before you were able to wrest control of the conversation and ask how long your father had been missing.
You had last seen him in the lounge of the airport while waiting to board your flight, smiling in the photo from the Petra volunteers’ page you had pulled up on your smartphone. He was wearing a straw hat and making the kind of face he always made in photographs, grinning overly broadly to indicate disapproval with the entire enterprise of photography. His untagged visage indicated his participation in this online community was limited to activity performed by others without his knowledge.
In fact, you were first alerted to the Petra project when the former-torturer Shelly Hobson Bryant posted a link to the write-up in your hometown weekly’s online edition. Her request for Facebook friendship included a note that the previous day she had rejected your father’s personal-loan application. Confirming friendship with Shelly led to several days of minor emotional turmoil as a sizable number of other former torturers received the news and flooded you with identical virtual friendship requests. Now, the confirmation of that friendship seemed a direct link to the moment your mother parked her sedan in the driveway and handed you the keys.
You drove into town proper and brought home take-out from the new all-Asian joint, and over spicy noodles and oily rice you had to pick the egg out of, for the first time your mother admitted there was something she didn’t know.
The first thing had been the socket wrench on top of the antenna rotator. There was nothing nearby your father could even pretend was a project, and she intended to tell him about it. The second thing was the socket wrench several days later. She went to rotate the antenna to watch Golden Girls on the Chattanooga station and realized she had not given your father the dressing down she had intended for lack of opportunity.
You spoke on the phone to your mother every week, a combination of mutual guilt and obligation, but she wanted to give you the news in person. It was common not to speak to your telephone-phobic father for months at a time, and your mother had always been adept at keeping secrets. She never let anything on. She tested you every year as a child, telling you your father’s birthday present and then several days later presenting him with something else entirely, until you learned to swallow all your news.
You asked your mother about the personal loan application. She stared at you blankly, mid-noodle slurp. After a while, she calmly indicated that no evidence of any such activity, activity implying forethought, implying action, had been uncovered. The loan was for a joint line of credit with other Petra fanatics to finance an expansion of the city project; the dispiriting rejection had resulted in the disbanding of the last hangers-on, and the extension had been abandoned. As for your father, the woods had been combed, the house, his car still parked outside the garage. You, however, knew the police investigation was theoretical because the county sheriff also numbered among your new friends, even though you didn’t recognize the overweight and balding little man in his profile picture, and you had read his status updates.
The next morning, you parked your mother’s car at the gas station and pretended to stroll along the sidewalk that would end in several yards, pretended to amble toward where you knew you had to go. Marble exhumed from the nearby quarry had been placed over the sheer wall of rock highway construction had made decades earlier. It looked like a plantation in the sun. The embankment on the other side of the highway remained rough, the checkered slabs of rock so loose and unkempt that pine trees sprouted along the irregular ledges.
It was a façade. There were no signs this had attracted tourists of any number—no parking lot, no turning lane or county-funded highway lane expansion. Not even the blight of a historical marker or a rain-proof box of pamphlets. To the right was the unauthorized and failed extension of the original area. It was like an aborted sandcastle. Dirt and the clay that takes the place of dirt had been hauled in. A pile of it sat a few yards away, the edge bleeding into the highway, where the adjacent lane mucked.
You went to the café by yourself, unable to eat a second meal alone with your mother. If she had disappeared, it would be explainable. You had known for years the two of you could not exist in the same place at the same time—she was in the present, and you were in your childhood. But she had not disappeared. In fact, her face appeared at the window before the first chicken finger made it to your mouth, confirming your lifelong suspicion that whatever you were trying to do, you were incapable on your own. She waved goodbye to the neighbor who must’ve driven her in—the nosiest of all the neighbors and also the best baker of all nature of highly caloric desserts—and came in to sit beside you in the booth and crowd you with her distended fanny pack.
You went together to your father’s haunts and followed the ludicrous trails that were suggested, but not even the hardware store’s owner’s leads on new sources of scrap wood led to constructive information. Your mother had known this would happen, and she had not kept that a secret. You went by yourself to the dessert baker’s house and stood on her recently pressure-washed porch as she fake-whispered she’d heard the possibility raised that your father might have taken up with another woman, though no one had seen him with one and your father was not, even by the loosest standards of the uppermost boundary of middle age, anything nearing a catch.
As she stirred a giant pot of mixed canned vegetables you did not intend on ingesting, you questioned your mother about your father’s involvement in the Petra project. She looked puzzled and then, with a quick snap of the giant plastic slotted spoon down to the stovetop, asked if you meant See Rock City. That was what non-civically involved locals called it, the locals who had taken part in neither the largely volunteer labors involved in the erection of the facade nor the resultant communal despair when out-of-towners did not, in fact, make seeing See Rock City part of their quaint autumnal mountain tours. Your mother had let your father go with the same disinterest she let him go to the thrift and hardware stores. What he did while she took advantage of the expanded local calling area to telephone female relatives throughout the upper part of the state and planned the night’s menu and television viewing schedule was of little import or consequence.
Watching the pot come off the hot eye, you clutched your stomach and declared that the chicken fingers from the café had done a number on your intestines. Your mother reiterated that she had warned you upon her arrival at your booth that she no longer ate at that establishment after a two-day bout of trots. You retreated into your former bedroom and threw your messenger bag on the air mattress and fired up the computer your mother was only in the earliest stages of figuring out the popular uses for. You reminded yourself to delete your history, logging in and trolling the pics from the Petra project’s fan site. The baker extraordinaire was right—no woman, no matter her current desperation, would look at your father’s obscenely wide maw and bald mottled forehead and plot to steal him from your mother and you. There had to be something else you were all missing. As you returned to the album view for a last look at the trajectory of the construction, you noticed for the first time a small blur, like a kicked-up heel, behind one of the finished columns.
You snuck out after your mother tipped over snoring on the couch in hour three of the night’s television viewing schedule. You took your father’s keys from the bowl by the door and his car. Did it smell like him? Already you couldn’t tell.
There was no rock city, but you would have to find a way inside. You ran your fingers in the indentations that suggested door, along the furrows and edges of would-be entrances and exits, but it was a façade. Nothing worked. Your feet slipped from the smooth marble, and you headed toward the unorganized pile of the unbuilt extension. Past the loamy heap, rough boards had begun to be nailed together. The abandoned skeletal bits leaned against the embankment and lay where they had tumbled as the hill sloped down to the flat earth.
When the blip of the aborted siren alerted you to the deputy’s presence, you had already peered behind every scrap of wood and dug through the pile of dirt twice with your bare hands. You only remembered the lights of one car hitting you as it passed, but it was enough. You began to explain your friendship with the sheriff, your support for the project in terms of your online fandom, but the deputy didn’t want to hear it. He just wanted you out of Petra and back home to your mother. He had to haul drunken kids out of the detritus every night of the week; the city was going to have to haul the scrap off before they were faced with the liability of someone’s life being permanently altered. He handed you a stained work rag from his trunk, and you wiped your hands and clothes without smearing away the evidence of your infraction. Your mother would know in a second what you’d been up to without her permission. Your hand had been insentient as bone on the column, on the knocker to the oversized door.
Thanksgiving arrived the next morning according to its prearranged schedule, and despite your adolescent desire to taste nothing except escape, at dinnertime you sat across the table from your mother and ate the strange versions of comfort foods your father had been complaining about for years—potato salad made with hunks of raw cauliflower, meatloaf made with unseasoned dry ground turkey, egg substitute beaten in a hot oilless pan. There was no turkey in the freezer. They didn’t make them small enough for two, your mother said, and who would carve? You had seen the holiday documented online all day—the fathers and mothers you remembered from high school awards ceremonies and embarrassing grocery store encounters withered down to their essences, arid skin and hardened bellies. You hadn’t seen your father in almost a year before the Petra pictures.
His clothes were in the closet, his This Old Houses stacked by the bed. Otherwise, the things your father had left behind were in a pile in the garage. Your mother had always forced everyone around her to be a minimalist in the face of her constant cleaning and reorganization. It was easier to not have anything. Everything was covered in rough bits of wood dust—a small saw, an outdated map of the tri-county area, two shockingly green rabbits’ feet you had bought for him at school fairs in the years before you realized a rabbit’s foot was a rabbit’s foot. The map had been opened and refolded to the section where Petra now marred the landscape. Larger wood chips fell to the floor as you pulled the map from the pile. No highlighted directions or shorthand markings. Highway 5 wound down the page just as it had in your childhood, before the café or sidewalk. You refolded the map and stuffed it into your back pocket, even though you already knew where you were going.
First, to the internet—you put out a call on the fan page and asked the volunteers to repost. You met the people your father spent his last days with—the last days anyone knew he had. They were motley: retirees with the shakes, a couple of kids with skateboards and homemade punk dye jobs, buxom and bored housewives who stuck oddly complacent and impassive toddlers into a communal pen. They mostly talked to each other and avoided you, but you called out to them to come, to join you, and to finish the work of your father.
Traffic slowed and crawled around the shoulder work. The sheriff drove by, and you looked at him. You had seen the photos of his nights out with the boys you both grew up with, even as your father’s case grew cold, and you had seen the photos of his own small children in their pajamas. He drove past and left you to your work. The mayor followed shortly after in her own car, but you did not turn to face her. Her abandonment of this project was already her legacy.
You had no idea what to do and stood to the side wringing your hands as your father’s cohorts worked with renewed punch and purpose. By dusk, there was a wood skeleton next to the marble. Your pre-booked ticket was for the next day, and you did not want to stay anyway to see through what was a memorial extension.
When you got back to your mother’s house, you removed the Petra page from your list. You took the socket wrench from the antenna rotator and put it back in the toolbox under the sink. The next morning, you put the map in your carry-on and rode with your mother in her car to the city. You could not find what she had lost, and you could not get back what had been taken from you. The old man sitting next to you on the plane seemed confused and needed help with his jacket, his tray table, his lap belt. Once he was buckled in, you turned your head and slept the whole way back.
On the way to your apartment, you bought large pots of clay from the art store. You didn’t look the stock boy in the eye as he helped you lug the pots to your subcompact car. You fixed yourself a plate of pita and hummus and sat on the floor in front of the wall you’d cleared. You would have to find a way inside. You looked to the image of Petra opened on your laptop, and you began.
Jennifer Gravley makes her way in Columbia, Missouri. She is a writer of sentences and a watcher of bad television. Her work has recently appeared in North American Review, Rat’s Ass Review, and Sweet, among others. Selected by Dawnie Walton.
Image copyright Satpreet Kahlon.