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Volume 7, Issue 2: Pictura

Pass the Matches

Wes Callihan

I found the tomb of Achilleus," said Joe.

"No, you didn't," said I.
"Did too."
"Did not."
"Pass the matches," h!e said. I passed the matches. Some fell out. "Klutz," he said.
"Jerk," I said. Neither of us bothered to pick them up.
"When did you find it?" I asked.
"Find what?" he said.
"The 'Tomb of Achilleus,' you bonehead," I said.
"Oh, so now you believe me?"
"Believe you my foot."
"Yesterday," he said.
"What?"
"I found it yesterday. You said 'when did you find it' and I said 'yesterday.'"
"Yeah, right."
"You did so! You said 'when did you'"
"No, you peabrain! 'Yeah right' you found it yesterday! Not 'yeah right' I said 'when did you find'Oh good grief! You are such a moron!"
"Am not."
Joe and I sat on the deck in the afternoon sun. The Colorado River crawled below us and the desert plateau stretched away on the other side, rippling in the heat waves rising from the surface of the yellow land. Joe's dilapidated trailer house was the last oasis of shade trees and water for seventy miles. The Colorado, red and sluggish here, looked no cooler than the desert rock on either side of it. A solitary fisherman stood in the river, a tiny figure far off toward the bend, above the rapids; probably the local attorney. I lifted my Peterbilt cap to cool my head and after running my hand through my sweaty hair, resettled it higher and looser. Joe did the same. Only his said John Deere.
"Why don't you think I found the tomb of Achilleus?" he asked.
"I don't think you did because I don't think you could," I replied.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because you're a numbskull. Besides, you've never been east of Denver or west of Sacramento," I replied. "Kind of limiting, isn't it, Joe?"
"I didn't have to go far to find it," he said.
"Where then is the tomb of Achilleus, oh intelligent one?" I asked. He was silent for a moment. My chair scraped as I moved it to a more comfortable position in the shade, leaning it back against the hot metal wall of the house. I scraped the legs of my chair once more, noisily, demanding an answer, and poked him with the toe of my cowboy boot.
"It's out there," he said, pointing.
I laughed. "What, the tomb of Achilleus is in the Arizona desert?"
"Why not?" he said.
"Because Achilleus lived in ancient Greece, not ancient Arizona, you ignoramus," I said.
He dropped a burning match on the deck. We watched it scorch the wood, a tiny wisp of smoke rising, then go out with a little puff, its brief life gone. I kicked it through the crack and it joined its brothers in the world below. "Pass the matches," I said. He passed the box. It was empty. I bent over, grunting, and picked up the spilled ones and put them back into the box. "Jerk," I said, but he couldn't keep his end of the discussion up. He was concentrating.
"Look," he said. "Haven't you ever read the Iliad ? Achilleus dies and Apollo carries his body away and buries it."
I laughed scornfully. "That wasn't Achilleus. He doesn't even die in the Iliad! What a dope."
He looked disgusted. "Well, who was it then, mister classical scholar?"
"It was Sarpedon," I said, as haughtily as I could. "Zeus's son. Patroklos kills him, then Apollo carries his body away and gives it a god's gift, the gift of a god's burial. But the Iliad says that Apollo took him to be buried in Lykia, and Joe, most scholars agree that Lykia is probably not in Arizona." I leaned over to put the matchbox on the deck railing but dropped it again and the matches scattered over the deck.
"Maybe Apollo made a mistake," said Joe.
"Maybe," I said, bending over to pick the matches up. "And maybe you're a complete dweeb."
"Ad Hominem," he said.
"Ad Dweebinem. You're suggesting that the god Apollo made a mistake in carrying out Zeus' orders and accidentally got half a world away and buried Sarpedon"
"Achilleus."
"buried Sarpedon in Arizona." I straightened up with the matches recaptured in their little cardboard prison. "You are a complete and total loon! If you had an education and half an ounce of class," I said, scratching my armpit, "you'd realize what a dip you are. Got any Coke in the frig?"
"No. Not until you apologize." He looked away, miffed.
"What, you don't have any Coke until I apologize, and then you'll suddenly have Coke?"
"Right. Apologize. For your skepticism."
"My skepticism?! You mean my rationality, my sanity, my common sense, my intelligence, my restraint in the face of sheer stupidity!"
"Right. Not until you apologize for all that." He changed his miffed look to an offended one. I looked around for a stick to hit it with.
Finding none, I said, "All right, I'm sorry."
"No, you're not."
"OK, I'm not. Pass the matches."
"Get 'em your own self."
"And how about those Cokes?"
He took a deep breath. "Look, I'll show you the tomb," he said patiently. "The tomb itself," he said in a deep voice. "The very tomb of Achilleus," he said sonorously, in a positively crypt-like voice. Then he coughed, ruining the effect.
"Sarpedon, you mean."
"Whatever," he said.
"Whatever?" I snorted. "Aren't we the conscientious classical student! You think you find an ancient Greek tomb in the middle of the Arizona desert and you don't care whose it is, and it doesn't bother you that it's on the other side of the world from where the story took place. And where are the matches? And the Cokes?"
"Are you going to sit here jawing at me or are you going to shut up and come see the tomb of Achilleus?"
"Sarpedon," I said stubbornly.
"So you believe it?"
I sighed. Sometimes he was difficult to get along with. Unlike me. He was so obstinate. You couldn't argue with him. Just when you thought you had him, he would haul out a non sequitur that could swallow a double-trailer Kenworth. I had given up long ago and now simply relied on personal abuse to maintain the quality of our relationship.
"C'mon," he said, getting up.
I sat for a moment, refusing to give in, and then, bored with myself, broke down and followed him down the warped wooden steps and out to his old jeep. Climbing in the passenger side, I dug through the junk in the glove box, rummaged around on the floor, and finally found some matches.
We ricocheted down desert roads for an hour while I commented on his ancestry, with particularly effective remarks, I thought, whenever we bounced through a dry wash and the springs in the jeep and in my seat bottomed out. The sun was getting lower and redder in the desert haze, but the heat still oppressed us, and our dust trail seemed to hang forever in the still air, settling slowly and spreading into a fat fog far behind us. Turkey buzzards hung high in the air, black specks circling silently; far away the canyons in the mesas stood out in almost telescopic relief as the shadows lengthened and darkened them.
Finally Joe stopped in the middle of nowhere and hopped out. I saw nothing but red sand and scrub brush for miles. Dust swirled around the jeep and us, and the grit of it in my teeth made my skin crawl, but we walked out of it into the brush, I following, he obviously knowing where he wanted to go. We walked around some rocks, over a slight rise, and down into a sudden hollow.
"There it is," he said, pointing at a patch of brush.
"Oh, that is impressive," I said, rolling my eyes.
He ignored me and began pulling brush aside from the pile of rocks hidden within the growth. I sat down on a rock and let him do the work. Insects rose in clouds from the disturbed brush and settled on him. He swatted at them and brushed them off; he grunted and sweat poured down the sides of his face and around his ears as he worked. I began to enjoy watching him and I fanned my head with my sweat-soaked cap. The sun was getting very low and red light lit the rocks as he cleared them.
"Joe," I said from my perch, "that's no tomb. That's a pile of rocks. Nothing but a pile of rocks. You brought me all the way out here for a pile of rocks. I have a pile of rocks in my own backyard. We could have looked at my pile of rocks and saved ourselves considerable trouble."
"That's funny," he said, straightening up and wiping the sweat from his neck and face. "That's funny, it was the tomb of Achilleus yesterday."
I laughed until my sides hurt and then heaped abuse on him. He responded in kind. Scuffing our boots in the sand, we walked back to the jeep and drove home. He shook his head in disbelief all the way home. I cemented our relationship further with jokes at his expense as we returned to our seats on the deck. "Pass the matches," he said, and fell silent. My jibes grew feeble, as he refused to talk about it anymore, so I changed the subject. We watched the bats circle in the willow thickets by the river as darkness came on. The fisherman was gone.
In the dim twilight, far out in the desert, a Prince stood solemnly on the pile of rocks. Though he didn't move, his lines became more distinct, and beneath him the rocks began to change and melt into smoother lines, and they took on the glow of purest white marble, and the inscriptions, cut deep into the glowing stone and inlaid with heavy red gold, were of the rarest and most exquisite beauty. A clear spring rose from the desert sand and bubbled, laughing, around the base of the monument, and laurels and willows and tamarisks and galingale sprang up along the banks of the spring and the pool it fed, and they swayed in the night breezes. A scent of ambrosia mingled with that of the sage oil in the evening air. Birds sang.
"Why do you always hide it from men?" said a nymph, splashing in the pool.
"And let men know that a Prince made a mistake?" His face darkened briefly.
"But you let one of them see it yesterday."
He shrugged scattering light. "Another mistake."
"Why don't you simply move the thing back to Lykia on the Great Sea where it was supposed to have been?" she asked, splashing vigorously about.
"Because," said the Prince quietly, moving out of range and wiping the water from his shining face, "in this age we have no more authority to command. Pass the matches."
She thought for a moment, then sank back into the water, blowing bubbles. "Get 'em yourself," she murmured.

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