Detail of a drawing by Ben Sack

Austin R. Pick
The Young Prospectors

Short fiction first published in the online literary journal Metazen, February 2013


Jules teased open a plastic bag while Transen gathered up the remaining bread, a jumbled assortment of odd-shaped miniature loaves resembling flying saucers, bulbous mushrooms and puckered shrunken heads, Transen providing these descriptions as he sank each roll free-throw style into the now-moving target in Jules' hands, the two dodging around a waiter as he glided between them into the kitchen, shielding himself with a tray. Having thus bagged and thereby liberated the leftovers, the boys tipped imaginary hats to the cherubic faces of the dishwashers, hovering in their round cloud of steam, and shouted general goodbyes before tumbling out into the sudden quiet and enfolding humidity of the city's expired night.

Like all busboys, Transen and Jules subsisted largely on restaurant surplus, and were in fact now half-drunk on a florid mixture of leftover wine, but had that summer developed an unspoken ritual of saving their salvaged dinner rolls for the homeless. Skirting dawn's encroaching rim as they journeyed homeward, the two friends inevitably encountered numerous shrouded forms along the uneven sidewalks and sagging park benches of their shifting nocturnal routes. They'd begun handing out the gourmet buns in a spirit of subversive enterprise and an earnest generosity that was, perhaps, talismanic as well.

It wasn't always easy. Once they met a lion-maned vagrant, head apostrophed with unplugged headphones, who was loudly sermonizing the pigeons in a trash-strewn square and wouldn't take so much as a muffin, gesturing the boys toward the little bedraggled flock instead. Others would reach for the bag and peer seriously at the shapes inside, as if looking for something else entirely. The two persisted anyway, and somehow usually managed to distribute their curious collection, improvising each time as they pursued their otherwise aimless explorations and wandering reveries.

This night, as always, they also enacted a second ritual. Alighting in the tree-canopied amphitheater of a statuary park, Transen asked casually, waggling a lighter, "Got that bowl?" Jules then dropped the bread bag and produced the Doctor, an old tobacco pipe they'd repurposed and now packed with small buds of furred greenery. Hovering close and cupping the bowl to preserve escaping smoke, the boys passed the Doctor between them, inhaling deeply, their grins just beginning to slip when a voice edged in from the darkness.

"Yo, lemme get a li'l taste," said the figure, indistinctly shadowed in a bulky coat, pants frayed in matted tentacles around the ankles. He asked again, looming closer, eyeing their hands. Reflexively, Jules handed him the bowl. The two watched, wide-eyed, as the precious contents were set aglow, but the man only took a few quick tokes before returning it. Furtively wiping the mouthpiece, Transen had another and passed it again, the three of them in silent conference around the tiny fire. Then satisfied, the stranger met their eyes, kindly, and left without another word, drifting off into the spaces between streetlights. Nodding bemusedly, the boys resumed. The bowl they soon smoked to cinder. The bread they left for the birds.


Transen kicked an errant pebble with an oddly metered shuffle while Jules bopped a hand against his own thigh in sloppy counterpoint, keeping time as the two friends sauntered along. Beatboxing in accompaniment to these oscillating rhythms, and nonchalantly waving lit cigarettes like wayward conducting batons, the boys wordlessly transformed their journey though the city's industrial quarter into a sort of soundtrack to disrepair. Relishing the freedom of a hallowed night off, the two had turned instinctively toward the rail yards, their acoustic graffiti echoing brightly down wide brick canyons, a six-pack in each backpack and otherwise traveling light.

Sedated by lingering evening heat, the vacant district's stacked buildings and bulging concrete lots seemed stitched together with crooked weeds and chain link, broken glass crunching everywhere underfoot. Out on the far edge, though, beyond arthritic trees clutching dark tatters of plastic, the piled hive fell away in a ribcage of terraced tracks that descended stepwise to the river. Transen and Jules followed a skittish and familiar path over snickering gravel berms, talking continually now and stepping quickly along adjacent rails with arms waving in the failing light, their conversation circling shared abstractions with similar dexterity.

Words gave way to a chorus of rallying cries as they reached the upturned boxcar, assembled friends welcoming them as they threw down around the fire, deftly opening backpacks and beers, high-fiving all the while. Mysteriously displaced from the tracks, mouth thrown open skyward, the fallen boxcar was a favored encampment of both drifters and daring students, though no one they knew had ever actually entered the rank, rusted carapace. Instead they lounged on the leeward side, stirring litter and splinters in a cheery burn, relieved to be free from the city's blockish embrace. Above them the starless sky yawned and deepened, the river a darker black below.

Reclining in anarchic splendor, the friends reveled into the night, passing amber bottles and flicking finished butts into the fire. Eventually, though, the couples among them began to vanish back up the tracks, whispers swishing in the distance, and the bleary-eyed withdrew to drift homeward, leaving only boozers, surly and slurred. In the general blur, Jules and Transen soon slipped off too, heading down toward the river and hunkering in misfit foliage to spark a smoke of something special.

From their heady vantage they marveled for a while at the city's incidental music—distant sirens warbling weirdly, water lapping at unseen shores, a toothless old sunflower rattling in the weeds—until something stirred them to resume beatboxing, this time with a patter of escalating breath that seemed to emerge from elsewhere, a newly remitted shaman's song, ancient and plaintive, reverberating along their spines and calling wildly into the night. The moment they ceased every unseen dog along the river began howling, as if in fervent accord, and then down came the train, keening high with an urgent reply and roaring through their dilated minds in a thunder of revelation and dark advice, a soliloquy of ceaseless movement.


Jules flipped through rows of used discs, cases clacking in time to the music pulsing around them, while Transen spun a nearby rack of sunglasses, trying on the more outlandish options before stealthily disappearing a bug-eyed pair into the voluminous pockets of his cargo shorts. Heads bopping as they wafted around the store, the two friends talked little but often lofted their findings for one another to see, signaling in a shared language of cultural associations. Otherwise they rarely glanced up except to greet the off chance that the door chime had announced the arrival of some alluring girl or girls, however unlikely at this bleak summer hour.

The city's elusive beauties, they imagined, must all be sunning themselves atop inaccessible rooftops, cool drinks in hand, while they, merely breakfasted and only mildly blazed, were on their eventual way to work. As Jules searched the jazz bins for something subversive to add to the restaurant's rotation, Transen next inspected the contents of several upheld magazines, overtly interested and deliberately inconspicuous.

Late afternoon being their early morning, the boys' stifling apartment prompted them to drift tangentially in a daily effort to endure the hazy interval between waking and work. Avoiding the flash-pan of the city's streets whenever possible, they hopscotched instead through a network of mercifully air-conditioned shops, libraries and cafes that delivered them eventually to the cool grotto of the restaurant, where they feigned evenings of aloof servitude while juggling a running dialogue between tubs of dirty dishes.

En route again, they left the record store to find the sky laden with advancing thunderclouds, the air quickening with anticipation. Thrilled by the threat of rain, they opted to walk the long way, making a pretense of buying cigarettes somewhere in the spirit of adventure. As they outran the clouds, Transen turned to Jules, suddenly sunglassed, and waited for his theft to impress. Jules first laughed at the oversized goggles, then slouched into a frown and began another spirited diatribe about capitalism and karmic causality, Transen all the while glancing askance behind the dark lenses of his purloined eyewear.

The two fell into an uncustomary silence as they strode on, but the rift between them was forgotten when they inadvertently found themselves before the old dreamer, their favorite monument in a city of statues. Head attentively tilted as he leaned forward on a great bronze chair, the old dreamer sat with his finger forever raised, as if imploring the city's discordant populace to perceive a subtle underscored melody.

As always, the boys bent theatrically to listen in, and only then noticed a single strand of spider's web trailing from the statue's upheld finger. Nearly knocking heads as they angled closer, the two friends marveled as the mercurial embellishment wavered serenely in the fractured light, articulating an unerring rhythm that attuned them again to the present. Dodging the first fat syncopated rain drops, they reverently bedecked the old dreamer, before tipping imaginary hats in farewell, with a cool new pair of shades.

This flash fiction triptych was first published in the online literary journal Metazen (2009 - 2014), February 2013.

A note: Excluding individual titles, each of the three interconnected stories that comprise "The Young Prospectors" is exactly 500 words long.