Final Girl on Appalachia

H/t to Pank.

Why I Stay

Final Girl

Three brown tires are on the bank of the river, like shells would be on the beach of another place. This is not that place.

It is hard to deny some of the beauty of Appalachia: rolling roads, haze on the fields, morning-green hills, horses. Other beauty is tricky. You have to train your eye—or, you have to have a cer­tain eye already.

I don’t believe the broken-down bus mars the sun­set. I think it makes it, morn­ing glory twist­ing around the rims. Poke­ber­ries stain the farm­house pur­ple; we threw them against its side. There is a kind of beauty in giv­ing up. There is a sort of joy in why the hell not.

After all, there are cans in the weeds. Bones in the woods. Burned-out sheds in the shad­ows. So: low to the ground, by cig­a­rette butts, I glue on the wall hand-painted leaves.

Read on:

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Moving Mountains Tragedy 2014: Stunning Court Denial of Appalachian Health Crisis

acheThe only thing stun­ning about this is the years-long denial. From Huff­in­g­ton Post's Jeff Big­gers.

In a breath­tak­ing but largely over­looked rul­ing this week, a fed­eral judge agreed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers may dis­re­gard stud­ies on the health impacts of moun­tain­top removal min­ing in its per­mit­ting process, only two weeks after Gold­man Prize Award-winning activist Maria Gun­noe wrote an impas­sioned plea to Pres­i­dent Obama to renew with­drawn fund­ing for US Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey research on strip min­ing oper­a­tions and redou­ble fed­eral action to address the decades-old human­i­tar­ian disaster.

The prophetic call for imme­di­ate fed­eral action by Gun­noe, a com­mu­nity orga­nizer for the West Virginia-based Ohio Val­ley Envi­ron­men­tal Coali­tion and a long-time wit­ness to the tragedy of moun­tain­top removal, has never been so timely. "Appalachian cit­i­zens are the casu­al­ties of a silent "war on peo­ple" who live where coal is extracted," Gun­noe wrote the pres­i­dent. "Cit­i­zens of all ages are dying for the coal industry's bot­tom line."

More.

 

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Oldest European Fort Found in the Appalachians

Credit: University of Michigan

Credit: Uni­ver­sity of Michigan

The remains of the ear­li­est Euro­pean fort in the inte­rior of what is now the United States have been dis­cov­ered by a team of archae­ol­o­gists, pro­vid­ing new insight into the start of the U.S. colo­nial era and the all-too-human rea­sons spoil­ing Span­ish dreams of gold and glory.

Span­ish Cap­tain Juan Pardo and his men built Fort San Juan in the foothills of the Appalachian Moun­tains in 1567, nearly 20 years before Sir Wal­ter Raleigh’s “lost colony” at Roanoke and 40 years before the Jamestown set­tle­ment estab­lished England’s pres­ence in the region.

Fort San Juan and six oth­ers that together stretched from coastal South Car­olina into east­ern Ten­nessee were occu­pied for less than 18 months before theN­ative Amer­i­cans destroyed them, killing all but one of the Span­ish sol­diers who manned the gar­risons,” said Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan archae­ol­o­gist Robin Beck. More.

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An Open Letter to the Baby Deer I Nearly Hit Tonight by Dena Rash Guzman

The mist cold and thick, I had the high beams switched off
so the bril­liance wouldn’t chan­nel in and blind me—
the switch­back roads wind through the woods past
houses built by peo­ple with wag­ons drawn along
by beasts with four legs just like you still have.
It was close. I would say you came out of nowhere
but that’s a lie. You came out of the woods, your home.
These woods have been home to baby deer long before
I came and will be long after I break free these surly bonds.

I can say with cer­ti­tude that I was dri­ving care­fully tonight.
When your eyes and fur came before me I did the thing—
I slammed on my brakes. The road lit bright red in back
of my car, a Ger­man num­ber. It han­dles well in stress
like beasts with four legs just like you still have.
Inches from your shell-shocked lit­tle face,
I stopped. Your mother came after you, rear­ing
as I would have. Her life with us here must be difficult,
all her nights most likely fraught by ances­tral mem­o­ries
of wolf packs hunt­ing her herd. She might be a sin­gle mom.

guzmanDena Rash Guz­man is a Las Vegas born poet and essay­ist. She now lives in a river gorge out­side Port­land, OR and is the founder of Lusted Road Honey Co. & Hum­ble­bee Pol­li­na­tor Con­ser­va­tory.  She is the author of Life Cycle—Poems, Dog On A Chain Press 2013. www​.denarashguz​man​.com

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But Pat Boone Never Lived in Bessemer, essay by Terry Barr

On the night before I entered 7th grade, my across-the-street, 9th grade neigh­bor Joe, while we were enjoy­ing spareribs at our family’s annual Labor Day pic­nic, gave me this advice:

Be care­ful tomor­row. You never know who’s car­ry­ing a switchblade.”

I grew up in the switch­blade era. I’d hear talk at home about beer brawls in the rougher sec­tions of town where com­bat­ants would pull switch-blade knives on each other and fight it out, often to the death. In fact, Joe’s family’s handy-man–Elijah who had conked red hair and car­ried his own ladder—was mur­dered in a switch­blade fight. I knew Eli­jah. He was friendly enough, but my senses—or was it my grandmother’s voice—warned me to not hang around him too long, as I did with the var­i­ous other maids and yard men of our cir­cle of friends. I was only ten when reports of the inci­dent made their way through our neigh­bor­hood hot­lines, the usual after­noon phone ses­sions where my mother and grand­mother and all their friends might tie up the lines for lit­er­ally hours.

“What does a switch­blade look like,” I asked Joe. At that moment, I felt as threat­ened by a switch­blade as I was by the cot­ton­mouths that my par­ents told me slith­ered in and near the creek down the street from my house.

Never mind what they look like,” Joe cau­tioned. “Just keep close to the lock­ers and never get in the way of a ninth-grader, or any­one else for that mat­ter. You never know who’s been left-behind.”

I couldn’t enjoy the rest of my sup­per that night and refused the home­made vanilla ice cream altogether.

It’s OK” my Daddy said later. “Joe’s Mom for­got to put sugar in it again.”

So there I stood: My first day at Besse­mer Jr. High in these switch­blade times. The front entrance doors opened garage-door wide and I thronged in with my new class­mates. The main office lurked just to the right of this entrance, which didn’t really assure me that any “hood” wouldn’t try to sneak in a dan­ger­ous weapon. Because, I noticed in my first breath­tak­ing moment of junior high, the office had no win­dows, on the door or else­where. And nei­ther on this day or any other in my expe­ri­ence there did the principal–Mr. Camp, whose lar­ynx had been crushed, report­edly, in some for­eign war—nor the assis­tant principal—Mr. David­son, a red-haired and, I’d been warned, hot-headed man—ever stand in the front door­way to frisk the entrants. Joe told me that if you ever got caught with a switch­blade, you were auto­mat­i­cally expelled. I won­dered how, if they weren’t check­ing at the door, our school guardians could ever catch any­one with that ven­omous weapon. I con­sid­ered my chances of sur­viv­ing that year fifty-fifty at best.

I hadn’t been in school for a week when I saw my first fight, the first in what seemed an every-other-day occur­rence. Once, Rus­sell Aldrich tore a hunk of Don Griffis’s hair out of the side of his head. Hav­ing a bald spot in sev­enth grade is maybe a badge of honor. It cer­tainly didn’t hurt Don’s suc­cess with the girls. And then, a giant of a ninth grader, Biff Wyatt, allowed him­self to be pum­meled into sub­mis­sion by a wiry kid named Bobby Ray Led­bet­ter. I saw Biff on the ground, strug­gling to cast off Bobby Ray’s “bulk,” his face a red rib­bon of strain and shame. Most of these fights were set up dur­ing school hours and then enacted just after the 3:00 bell, behind the school and just beneath the gym­na­sium win­dow. On any given week there might be a fea­ture event three or four days straight; never was there a week with fewer than two.

Maybe the strangest and scari­est of these for me occurred on a cold, cloudy after­noon in early Decem­ber when, as I was walk­ing up the hill to my Mom’s car, I saw Bruce Dun­can, the first Black kid who’d ever spo­ken to me in ele­men­tary school, walk­ing among a crowd of white boys. When I reached our car, they passed me, head­ing across the street and under the rail­road viaduct. A few min­utes later, our car passed, and in a vacant lot I saw Bruce, entan­gled on the ground with one of the boys. The oth­ers were gath­ered in a semi-circle watch­ing, cheer­ing, or so it seemed to me since our win­dows were rolled up as we passed. We turned the next cor­ner, out of sight, but I kept think­ing of that scene and how as they passed me on their way to the bat­tle, they seemed like they were going over to someone’s house for a game of foot­ball in the front yard.

I didn’t see any­one with a switch­blade dur­ing that grap­pling moment. Nor did I see one over the next few months of school, though like those snakes that I never saw either, I just knew that someone’s switch­blade was out there, some­where, wait­ing for me.

Edu­ca­tion is a funny expe­ri­ence. Not every­thing you see will edu­cate you in the way that your guid­ing elders intend, and just when you’re dis­tracted enough from real or unreal fears, some­one arises to impart a valu­able les­son. Such was the case with my edu­ca­tional expe­ri­ence in the face of Pat Boone’s immor­tal art film, The Cross and the Switch­blade.

In my 7th grade year, I came home straight from school every day, and after a light snack, imme­di­ately tack­led my home­work. I was allowed to pause for a game of foot­ball with friends in my own front yard, but I could not watch TV until every last bit of my geom­e­try, com­po­si­tion, or sci­ence home­work lay exhausted in my note­books. In my leisure time I read biogra­phies of famous Amer­i­cans; Ray Brad­bury sto­ries; Bat­man comics; and the Sports Page of The Birm­ing­ham News, our after­noon paper. While I didn’t always eat my veg­eta­bles at din­ner (steamed cau­li­flower smells exactly like sewage), I gen­er­ally obeyed my par­ents’ every com­mand: I always asked per­mis­sion to go to a friend’s house; took out the garbage after sup­per; raked every leaf I could see in early fall. I was no cause for worry or alarm.

And I didn’t need help from a born-again Chris­t­ian crooner-turned-auteur.

Yet, as part of a Methodist Youth Fel­low­ship expe­ri­ence, one win­ter Fri­day night, my church friends and I packed into Birmingham’s Empire The­ater to take in Pat Boone’s per­sonal epic. Munch­ing my highly-salted pop­corn, over the next ninety-five min­utes I watched Pat take on and con­vert a switchblade-wielding gang. For all of those min­utes, as I observed his white bucks, his plas­tic bro­mides, and his strangely combed hair, I just knew that he would be sliced to rib­bons, pack­aged up, and deliv­ered to the near­est 4-H club­house by my junior high peers: Hol­lis Todd who wore no under­pants (I know, because he made no secret of it when he stood at the uri­nal next to me); Phillip Barnes, who was rivaled in uncouth­ness only by Hol­lis’ sis­ter Judy (who report­edly staged many fights her­self with girls and guys); and Wayne Whit­lock, a six foot one, eighth-grader, who could scale the ten-foot wall on the obsta­cle course using only one arm.

I remem­ber rid­ing home that night with my best friend Jimbo in the back seat of his Mother’s sta­tion wagon. WSGN-AM, “The Big 610,” was fol­low­ing up “Crim­son and Clover” with “Honky Tonk Women.”

What did ya’ll think of the movie?” Jimbo’s Mom cheer­fully and opti­misti­cally asked.

Oh, it was OK,” we responded in uni­son which, if you under­stand teenage lingo, trans­lated into: “It was beyond stu­pid, and thanks a lot for ruin­ing another week­end night on this crap when we could have been at a party, attempt­ing to kiss a girl or something.”

I thought it was really inspi­ra­tional,” she replied, hope­fully. “You can take a lot of com­fort and learn a lot of lessons from these movies!”

Sigh. No one but an adult would believe that Pat Boone could turn the hearts and minds of my hood­ish peers who wouldn’t even need the switch­blades that I was sure they owned, but never saw in those early months of school.

How­ever, I did see the Reid broth­ers, Saul and Paul, who were as dis­tinct as fra­ter­nal twins can be.

Saul was six­teen when he re-entered the sev­enth grade. He had tat­toos on both arms—faded-green 1969-era tat­toos that I thought only cab dri­vers and fill­ing sta­tion atten­dants dared. And Saul’s mus­cles, so clearly defined that in semi-flex they rip­pled to such an extent that even class princess Ren­nie Robin­son expressed won­der at them. These mus­cles seemed to dis­count Saul’s need­ing a switch­blade to keep us puny junior high pawns in our places. So full of swag­ger, with greased hair flip­ping up both in front and back, Saul held us all in con­tempt, and we held him in abject fear, com­plete and stu­pe­fy­ing ter­ror, but also with a strange and mes­mer­iz­ing respect. For Saul, among other feats of scholas­tic dar­ing, told every­one that Fri­days were his day off, and after a few weeks, most teach­ers just skipped his name dur­ing Fri­day roll call. On the other days, instead of answer­ing “Here,” or “Present,” Saul had his own cul­tural sig­ni­fier: “Accounted for.” And in some way that I didn’t yet under­stand, he cer­tainly was.

Truth­fully, if you were smart, you did want Saul accounted for. Dur­ing the first week of school, after hav­ing been exposed to Saul for maybe three days, I was sit­ting on the bleach­ers dur­ing gym class with my good friend Randy Manzella. Wait­ing for Coach Brewer to appear and so inform us of the remark­able feats of ath­letic prowess that we would be attempt­ing this school year, Randy and I didn’t account for Saul, who had slowly and imper­cep­ti­bly crept closer to our row. Randy was no doubt fill­ing my ears with yet another hor­ror story he had heard about gym class–about boys pop­ping your exposed rear with wet tow­els, or steal­ing your clothes as you show­ered. We vowed right then and there never to shower in gym class, and I sup­pose our false bravado set us up for Saul.

So sit­ting there, believ­ing that our great­est prob­lem con­cerned not appear­ing naked in the show­ers, we allowed Saul—that undu­lat­ing cottonmouth—to strike. Except that Randy, God Bless him, wore thick glasses with wide black frames, and even Saul had a code. So it was I and I alone who qual­i­fied as Saul’s prey. Up until this very moment, Saul and I had never spo­ken or even exchanged looks, or at least he had never caught me look­ing at him. Of course, every­one looked at Saul, just like every­one stares hyp­not­i­cally at the rep­tile pit in the zoo, won­der­ing just what prey con­tin­ues to wrig­gle in that par­tic­u­lar viper’s throat.

So con­sider me the hamster.

Hey, Candy-Ass!”

His voice con­veyed no trace of anger, vit­riol, or, class-envy. His tone sounded the same pitch and inflec­tion as all those “Accounted for’s” we heard that year. Yet, the words them­selves clearly com­mu­ni­cated his menace.

That’s my spot, and if you don’t get up by the time I count to ten, you’re gonna get it.”

And Saul showed me his flexed arm, which had extended from it at its the very end, not the switch-blade that had recently haunted my days and nights, but a mas­sive, scarred fist. Dis­play­ing this prize, he began counting.

Each of us has a par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence that gives spe­cial, per­sonal mean­ing to the phrase “Words failed me.” This, of course, was mine.

By this point–“three, four…” Randy and the entire Manzella fam­ily had set sail for their native Sicily. Actu­ally, since he was the smartest kid in our class, Randy, with the encour­ag­ing words, “You bet­ter move,” slid off his seat and found another, maybe five rows below us. Yet, hyp­no­tized by Saul’s viper­ous arm, I couldn’t.

And so I won­dered: Would a cross, at this late moment, make any dif­fer­ence at all? Would I stand a chance against the demon of my ado­les­cence had I Pat Boone’s smooth, silver-tongued deliv­ery or his plas­ticine comb-over instead of my own frozen lar­ynx and Beatle-bangs?

Good old Pat!

Would he ever be able to account for a viewer like me, the prod­uct of a mixed Protestant-Jewish family–a fam­ily who def­i­nitely did not own a cross?

I had seen crosses and actu­ally touched a few in my time. My Dad worked in a jew­elry store, and I had my first sum­mer job there, just before this school year started. The store, Stan­dard Jew­elry Com­pany, was in my Dad’s fam­ily, so we were Jew­ish jew­el­ers though no fam­ily name adorned any store sign­post. And not only did we sell crosses, but cru­ci­fixes, and other jew­eled Chris­t­ian icons too. I knew that ordi­nary crosses were off-limits to me, but once I did ask Dad to get me a surfer’s cross. My favorite male TV stars wore them, and so I assumed that girls would think they were cool. That these cool tal­is­mans also looked like the Ger­man Iron Cross escaped me then. Nev­er­the­less, Dad got me the cross, which I then promptly gave to the girl-of-my-dreams, Joe’s sis­ter Mary Jane, who just as promptly handed it off to her lit­tle sis­ter. Did this mean that I was going steady with a nine-year old named Mar­garet Lou?

But even if I hadn’t given it away, Saul wouldn’t have been impressed by it. Maybe I could have told him about the leg­end of the surfer’s cross and the story of my unre­quited love for the beau­ti­ful blonde-haired girl whom I watched in secret every day from my liv­ing room win­dow. Maybe he was a clos­eted Jan and Dean surf-rock fan, for wasn’t my story the stuff of every 60’s teenage pop song? Maybe hear­ing my tragic lament, he would take pity on me or be so bored that he’d for­get he was count­ing my fate.

These thoughts, though seem­ingly end­less, had got­ten us to the count of seven. My arm, Saul’s intended tar­get, was already begin­ning to ache.

But that’s when the Pat Boone mir­a­cle happened.

Saul had just counted “eight,” when the gym office door opened. Out from this inner sanc­tum strolled not a man in white bucks, but one in black cleats: Coach Billy “Bomber” Brewer, who was also an itin­er­ant Bap­tist preacher. As the year went on, many guys in gym class would come to accuse “Bomber” of cheat­ing, as he would call invis­i­ble fouls or inter­fer­ence when­ever he had, or lost, the ball dur­ing the innu­mer­able foot­ball and bas­ket­ball games that com­posed most of our gym peri­ods that year. On this day, how­ever, the gym grew quiet, not so much because he was stand­ing there, but because of what he had in his hand: A three-foot long, solid wood board, which, sup­pos­edly, he had named “The Lit­tle Bomber,” after himself.

To this day I’ve never fig­ured out how he knew what was tran­spir­ing ninety feet from his office with­out being able to see through those plas­ter walls. I sup­pose he knew that he had to account for Saul even­tu­ally and not let more than a cou­ple of min­utes go by with­out check­ing off his presence.

What­ever the case, Coach Brewer walked straight to us, never waver­ing, never look­ing elsewhere.

Saul, get down here right now and grab those ankles!”

Saul, fist still poised above my already-wincing arm, had no excuse, no recourse.

So he com­plied. He descended the bleach­ers, walked right up to Coach, and bent over, grab­bing those ankles in front of the entire gym class, God, and Pat Boone. Then “The Lit­tle Bomber” went to work. Three loud whacks that echoed like Bible thumps through­out the gym. To his credit, Saul held firm, and when Coach said “Get up, and go back to your seat,” Saul did. But first, he extended his hand to “Bomber” and said, “Hey! They were good ‘uns.”

Saul left me alone after that. Oh, he might occa­sion­ally speak in my direction:

You’re fat, you know that?”

Of course, I did.

The only other encounter we had occurred dur­ing our class spelling bee tri­als. Since I was one of the cham­pion class spellers, our teacher often allowed me to call out the words in prac­tice ses­sions. On one par­tic­u­lar after­noon, as I was antic­i­pat­ing which words those stand­ing in line were bound to get, I saw Saul wait­ing his turn. My eyes skipped down the page to see the word he would be forced to spell.

When his turn came, I looked him in the eye and called it out:

CONVERSION, Saul.”

Con­ver­sion.” He looked puz­zled for a moment. Our eyes met again, and then he started:

C-O-N-V-E-R-…

I waited, won­der­ing. And hoping.

S-I-O-N.”

That’s right,” I confirmed.

Saul nei­ther smiled nor nod­ded. He merely took his place in the back of the line, wait­ing for his next word, or for the bell, or for some­thing else that I would never under­stand. I won­dered whether he was proud of him­self, and if that pride might trans­late into some­thing greater if he could just spell the next word cor­rectly. I tried glanc­ing down the list as my class­mates strug­gled through “con­ver­sant” and “con­vo­luted.” But I didn’t have a chance to see what would hap­pen, for the bell for last period rang then, and we were off to the greater glo­ries of Read­ing Lab or Machine Shop which is where I lost Saul each day. On this day, and this day only, I was actu­ally a bit sad.

He never con­verted, by the way. Maybe in part because his brother Paul had recon­sti­tuted him­self by Saul’s stan­dards into a “nor­mal” student—meaning one who wanted to stick it out at least until high school.

And yes, before school offi­cially released us for the sum­mer, I saw Saul’s switch­blade. It was dur­ing sci­ence class. He had waited and waited, and finally, to impress Ren­nie Robin­son, he brought it out, switched it open, and then, after maybe ten sec­onds, care­fully closed it and returned it to his front left pocket. It was all rather anti-climatic, for by that point in the year, I had already expe­ri­enced too much. I had even given a girl a box of candy for Valentine’s Day: Deb­bie Pat­ter­son who was rail-skinny and had the longest, wavi­est blond hair I had ever seen, and who claimed to be part Cherokee.

See how crooked my nose is? Just like an Indian!”

Two days after I gave her the candy she broke up with me because “I never called her.”

It really didn’t mat­ter so much to me because at least I had one girl­friend in sev­enth grade.

Besides, when Saul showed me that men­ac­ing switch­blade, he also did some­thing else that he had never done before.

He called me by my name.

SWITCH

“That’s how you open it, Terry.”

Saul didn’t make it to the end of that school year. He turned sev­en­teen in April and so, as he pledged he would, he left us behind, jour­ney­ing out into the Dam­as­cus of his life: A cross­roads of glit­ter­ing switch­blade fame, a per­pet­ual small-town rebellion.

It might make a nice, Hol­ly­wood end­ing if I said I never heard from or saw him again. That way I could leave him painted as defi­ant, plagued, and maybe even repen­tant, in an adult and reha­bil­i­tated life.

But I did see him again. It was three or four years later, my high school years. Shop­ping for Christ­mas at our local mall with my mother and brother, I looked up and com­ing out of WT Grant’s, I saw a man and a woman push­ing a baby stroller. The woman was a bleached blonde, a lit­tle heavy, but that could have been the after-effects of her preg­nancy. I had never seen her before. But some­thing looked famil­iar about the guy. He looked… would “belea­guered” be the right word? “Haunted?” I watched them for a minute as they strolled closer. And then I knew it was Saul. He had gained some weight. He had “set­tled,” so to speak.

I imag­ined this lit­tle fam­ily tak­ing their pur­chase from Grant’s or Super-X Drugs home, and gath­er­ing that night in front of their Motorola watch­ing “The Movie of the Week.” Maybe they’re eat­ing burg­ers or Dinty Moore Stew. Maybe they have a beer or two and remem­ber to give the baby his bot­tle. And maybe they keep the knives they cut their burg­ers with safely out of the baby’s reach. I’d like to think so anyway.

I saw another movie unfold in those few moments, but I didn’t stare too long. For I had seen crosses and switch­blades in my small Alabama town. And I had sur­vived them all.

Photo Terry BarrTerry Barr lives in Greenville, South Car­olina, with his wife and two daugh­ters. A native of Besse­mer, Alabama, he grad­u­ated from the Uni­ver­sity of Mon­te­vallo in 1979 and went on to earn a Ph.D in Eng­lish at The Uni­ver­sity of Ten­nessee in 1986.

He is cur­rently Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Pres­by­ter­ian Col­lege in Clin­ton, South Car­olina, where he teaches courses in Mod­ern Novel, Film Stud­ies, and Cre­ative Writ­ing. He has had schol­arly essays pub­lished in South­ern Jew­ish His­tory, The Quiet Voices: Rab­bis in the Black Civil Rights Era, Stud­ies in Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, and has cre­ative essays pub­lished in The Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Review, The Bat­tered Suit­case, and moon­Shine review. He is work­ing on a col­lec­tion of essays about grow­ing up in Alabama and his jour­ney from being Chris­t­ian to Jew­ish and to mar­ry­ing an Iran­ian émigré.

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Texas Never Whispers, by C.L. Bledsoe

The closer it got to Joey’s dad’s birth­day, the more agi­tated he became, and with noth­ing worth­while to do when he wasn’t at work – which was less and less often since Jerry had been cut­ting his hours – he spent his time lift­ing weights. So when Chyna rolled in, mid­dle of the night, and flashed a let­ter post­marked from Texas with his and Chyna’s names on it, he wanted no part of it.

“It’s noth­ing bad, I’m sure,” she said. “Prob­a­bly say­ing he’s sorry he missed your birth­days and isn’t around.” She smelled like per­fume and Marl­boro Lights and took a long drag on a Route 44 Cherry Dr. Pep­per from Sonic.

“Shouldn’t be in prison, then,” Joey said, glar­ing at the TV.

Chyna didn’t answer that; she just started in from the top, read­ing it to Joey while he sulled but lis­tened – he wasn’t far enough gone in his anger to ignore his fealty to his sister.

The let­ter started, like she’d pre­dicted, with apolo­gies, and then moved to ques­tions. It asked about Joey’s life, how he was doing in school, whether he was doing any­thing stupid.

“How’d he get our address?”

“He used to live here, stu­pid,” she said. “And I wrote to him.”

Joey was stunned. “Why in hell would you do that?”

“He’s our father.” Her voice was soft, vulnerable.

“Is he?”

She con­tin­ued read­ing. Joey’s anger caused him to miss the imme­di­ate bits that fol­lowed, but he tuned back in as his father, appar­ently in answer to a ques­tion of Chyna’s, described his life.

“It’s bor­ing here; that’s the main thing. You can read or play cards or some­thing, but it’s the same every day. There’s some real hard fellers here, but long as you got friends, you’ll do all right. The food is no good, but you get used to it. I ain’t never been messed with, to answer your ques­tion. What I miss most is see­ing you two and your momma and not being in prison.”

“You asked him if he’d ever been messed with?” Joey said.

“I was curious.”

He went on to describe his cell and his daily rou­tine, as per Chyna’s questions.

“I got old, here,” he said. The impli­ca­tion was that he shouldn’t have.

Joey could pic­ture it as she read; the nar­row cell, the exer­cise yard. The images in his head were col­ored by movies he’d seen: Brubaker, with its death row that was lit­tle more than a series of boxes; Robert Red­ford dig­ging hole after hole. He saw his father as the vague mem­ory he had; a bone-thin frame, taut with mus­cle. The man in Joey’s head was always tan and grin­ning. He prob­a­bly wouldn’t be tan any­more, Joey fig­ured. And he sure as hell wouldn’t be smiling.

“I’m going to write him back,” Chyna said, break­ing Joey’s reverie. “Want me to say anything?”

Joey con­sid­ered it. “Tell him not to worry about not being here. I don’t miss him.”

* * *

Joey didn’t see Tommy stand­ing in the door­way watch­ing him work out, though Joey had worked him­self into such a state of exhaus­tion, he could barely reg­is­ter what was right in front of him. Joey fin­ished his rep. and sat up on the weight bench.

“You train­ing for some­thing?” Tommy barked.

“No sir,” Joey said. He wiped sweat off with a thread­bare towel.

“Come on and make a run with me.”

“Can I take a shower first?”

“I’d rather you did.”

 

They drove out by the munic­i­pal air­port, in the tan­gle of barely grav­eled roads, pulled off into a grotto Joey’d never known existed. Tommy killed the engine and pulled up to a trailer hid­den amongst some weeds.

“Don’t say a fuck­ing word,” Tommy said.

They got out and Tommy handed Joey a duf­fle bag from the trunk. They went to the door and stood there with­out knock­ing. Joey heard foot­steps mov­ing through the brush, and some­body came around the side of the trailer, but all Joey could make out was the twin bar­rels of a shot­gun amongst leaves.

Tommy grabbed the bag and set it down by the trailer door. He stepped back and Joey went with him. Another bag flopped by their feet. Tommy nudged Joey who picked it up. They went back to the car, Tommy cranked it and revved it a few times, and backed out all the way back to the road before turn­ing around.

“Know what’d hap­pen if you knocked on that door?” Tommy asked.

“Double-dog dare me,” Joey said.

Tommy laughed a lit­tle. “Hun­gry,” he said and they went into town for some­thing to eat.

* * *

After that, Tommy was bring­ing him along all the time.

“You don’t ever ask nobody their name,” Tommy said. “Don’t ask no ques­tions or they’ll think you’re a narc.”

Joey took it all in. At first, it was mostly just him rid­ing along. A cou­ple times, Tommy took Joey with on longer trips; they’d end up trad­ing joints in some tweaker’s house while he read from the bible about the end of the world, eat­ing can after can of baked beans; or, they’d stand in some guy’s kitchen while his battered-looking wife chased around kids who already talked back to her because they saw their daddy do it, trad­ing shots. It was like that, Joey real­ized; you had to spend time with them. His expe­ri­ences with pot smok­ers had been the same, but he’d thought they were just lonely losers; turned out, you had to put in time, let them get to know you, or they got suspicious.

“Any­thing hap­pens to him,” Joey’s mom, KT, said after one trip. “I’ll never for­give you.”

“I know,” Tommy said, a sim­ple state­ment of fact.

Joey had known his mom and Tommy sold weed and some­times meth for years; peo­ple were always com­ing by, or Tommy was always off on some errand for days at a time. Joey had assumed it was mostly weed they were sell­ing, and maybe it had been, but these days, Tommy seemed to want to step it up. He didn’t offer an expla­na­tion, and Joey knew bet­ter than to ask for one.

It was sur­real for Joey – one minute, he’d be out in the sticks shoot­ing cans for tar­get prac­tice with some guy who’d just as soon stick an ice pick through Joey’s eye as see him, and the next, Tommy would drop him off at school, and Joey would be sit­ting in some class try­ing not to fall asleep. He smoked plenty of pot and drank, but Tommy only let him try meth one time – Joey was pretty sure it was because of KT. But this one time, they’d been out at a dealer’s house, and he’d insisted that Joey join them in sam­pling the wares. Tommy tried to make a joke about it, but the guy got wide-eyed and weird, so Joey had to do it. Tommy kept eying him as Joey lit the pipe like he’d seen so many oth­ers do and hit it.

It was kind of the oppo­site of pot; whereas mar­i­juana made Joey feel spacy and dis­tant, meth made him feel present, very fuck­ing present, and clear-headed in a decep­tive way.

He didn’t sleep the next day, or the one after that. He stayed out with Tommy, and when he was finally made to go to school, he cut classes and jogged around the school, grind­ing his teeth and work­ing out weird the­o­ries in his head. When he finally crashed, he slept a solid day and a half.

 

From time to time, the old guys would stare at Joey for a while and then get this know­ing look on their faces. The first time it’d hap­pened, Joey thought he was about to get raped. But then the guy had pointed at him and asked his name. Then he’d started talk­ing about Joey’s dad.

As far as Joey knew, his dad ran guns. Some of KT’s old­est friends would ref­er­ence him, but they hardly ever came to the house. The weird thing about them was when they did, they’d actu­ally talk to Joey and Chyna, back when she was around, any­way. They’d ask how the kids were doing in school, the stan­dard bull­shit. Joey’d asked Chyna about it one time, and she’d explained they were friends of Joey’s dad. He didn’t know how to feel about it.

But the way these guys talked, it was like Joey’s dad was a leg­end, instead of some guy rot­ting in a Texas prison. They’d tell sto­ries about fights he’d got­ten into, peo­ple he’d screwed over or who tried to screw him over. Joey had never really thought of him as a per­son, but here he was, liv­ing on in the tat­tered mem­o­ries of a bunch of tweakers.

After they’d left that one’s house, Tommy had been antsy in the car.

“You remem­ber your dad?” he asked.

“Not really,” Joey said.

Tommy grunted. “Good man,” he said, which shocked Joey.

“You knew him?”

Tommy laughed. “We came up together. He was always smart, smarter than me.” It was the most he’d ever really heard Tommy say.

“Were you friends?”

Tommy grunted. “He told me to take care of you and your momma,” he finally said. Joey sat, stunned, the rest of the ride home. He wanted to ask Tommy ques­tions, but couldn’t think of a one. Later, as he lay abed, try­ing to sleep, he made a list in his head that he knew he’d never ask:

1. If he was smart, why was he in prison?

2. Does he know you’re fuck­ing his wife?

3. Did you run guns with him?

4. What’s the dif­fer­ence between manslaugh­ter and murder?

* * *

Joey was upstairs, work­ing out again. This time, it was his mom stand­ing in the door­way when he looked up.

“Know what today is,” she said.

“Tues­day,” Joey said, wip­ing him­self off and start­ing in on curls.

She came in and sat on the bed. “Chyna’s been writ­ing to him. Said he wrote to you.” Joey didn’t answer. “Wrote to me, too.” She let it slip out so he could’ve ignored it, but it hit him like a slap to the face.

“What’d he say?” Joey said, try­ing to sound nonchalant.

“Said to make sure you don’t end up like him.”

Joey laughed. “In prison?”

“Sell­ing.” Again, it was a sim­ple state­ment that car­ried mas­sive weight.

“Talk to Tommy. He’s the one always tak­ing me along.”

“I have. Way he fig­ures it, and I don’t dis­agree, is you want to do it.”

“I guess I’m learn­ing a thing or two.”

“I guess you are.” Joey switched arms and started curl­ing with that one as she con­tin­ued. “You don’t have to, though.”

“What else am I going to do?”

She nod­ded and rose but didn’t leave.

“Does it bother you? That you’re out and he’s not?” He didn’t make eye con­tact, just let it lie.

“It does,” she said. “But he for­gave me. I did what I had to do for you kids.”

Joey thought of a few things to add to that, but he let it go and focused on his exer­cises. A moment later he felt a cool hand on his shoul­der and looked up into his mother’s sunken eyes. Her face was wrin­kled, the skin slack. She was nearly tooth­less, though her hair still had traces of black amongst the gray. There was a squir­re­li­ness about her eyes, but in the cen­ters, they were calm. She smiled and he did his best to soften his face.

* * *

Joey rode to school with Chyna when Tommy didn’t drop him off. And almost every day, he rode home with her.

“Come and go for a ride with me,” she said when he met her at her car.

“Yeah, I was going to.”

“No, I mean…just get in, dumbass.”

She took him up Rab­bit Road and turned off east on the some­what paved road that took them, even­tu­ally, out to the munic­i­pal air­port and the tan­gle of gravel roads that cir­cled it.

“Clint asked me to marry me,” she said, apro­pos of nothing.

Joey laughed before he could stop him­self and she reached over and smacked him, hard.

“Sorry,” Joey said. “So what did you say?”

“I told him I’d think about it.”

Joey looked at her. “Yeah? And what did you think?”

She shrugged, which was a lit­tle trou­bling, because she had this way of lying on the wheel and steer­ing with her shoul­ders, so when she shrugged, the car veered to the side.

“Really?”

“Yeah, I mean, I really like Clint.”

Joey looked straight ahead. “Why?” He finally asked.

She punched him again. “Nevermind.”

“No, I’m seri­ous. Why do you like him so much?”

She glared at him until she real­ized he was being seri­ous and then slack­ened up. “I don’t know. He’s nice. He respects me.”

“Does he?”

“More than Tommy and KT.”

“Okay. So what do you get out of mar­ry­ing him? I mean, what does that do for you?”

“Not every­thing is about what you can get out of some­body.” Joey didn’t answer. He set­tled back into the seat and watched the trail­ers and trees move by. “You can come visit,” she added.

He laughed again. “I’m doing okay.”

She looked at him. “You’ve been going out with Tommy. KT told me.”

He shrugged. “Got to learn a trade.”

It was her turn to laugh. “So you can end up like dad?”

“Least I won’t be leav­ing a fam­ily behind. But at least I can count on you to write me letters.”

* * *

Joey was on a run with Tommy, hang­ing out at the house of a guy they’d dealt with a cou­ple times, just drink­ing beers and bull­shit­ting, when the phone rang. The guy’s wife answered and then turned to the tweaker.

“Billy, they’re ask­ing for some­body named Tommy.”

Tommy and Joey both looked up like that cat that had caught the canary.

“You give some­body this num­ber?” The guy asked.

“Hell, I don’t even know this num­ber,” Tommy said.

The guy took the phone and demanded to know who it was, but clearly wasn’t get­ting anywhere.

“Hell, it’s for you,” he said and handed it to Tommy. “Won’t tell me shit.”

“Yeah?” Tommy said. He had a con­fused look on his face and didn’t speak again except to say. “Yeah, I get it.” Then he hung up and went back over by Joey.

“Well? Who was it?”

“Wrong num­ber,” Tommy said, pulling on his beer.

The tweaker looked at him, mean as a snake, and then laughed loud. They talked some more, and about five min­utes later, there was a knock on the door. The wife went and answered it and cried out as some­one shoved her aside. Joey didn’t real­ize Tommy wasn’t beside him any­more until he saw him wrestling with the tweaker, who was try­ing to pull out a hand­gun from a drawer by the sink. There were two guys at the door, and they bee­lined for Tommy. One of them hit the tweaker’s hand hard, which was half in the drawer, and he yelped. Tommy stepped out of the way, hands raised, while the two took the tweaker to the door. His wife was on the floor, and one of them knelt and helped her up.

“We’re sorry, Darla,” he said.

“Yeah, just call me and tell me where to get what’s left of him.”

They closed the door behind them.

“Want us to wait with you?” Tommy asked.

She sat at the kitchen table. “Yeah, hell, y’all hun­gry? I got some squir­rel and dumplings.”

“Shit yeah,” Tommy said.

While she was heat­ing it up in a big pot on the stove, Joey nudged Tommy.

“What did they say on the phone?”

“Said somebody’s going to come knock on the door and ask for Jack. Said to let them take him, oth­er­wise, they take everybody.”

“Did you know who it was?”

“If I did, I don’t want to.”

 

They each fin­ished two help­ings of squir­rel and dumplings with some cats-head bis­cuits on the side before the phone rang. Tommy looked over at Darla, and she gave a ‘go ahead’ motion. He answered and said, “All right.” And hung up.

“Said we can pick him up at Big Eddy Bridge. Want us to go get him?”

“I got the kids com­ing in from school any minute,” Darla said.

When they drove out, they found him in the mid­dle of the con­crete, bruised and bloody. They were halfway back to town before they real­ized he was miss­ing a finger.

“What did you do?” Tommy asked.

But he kept scream­ing until they dropped him off at the emer­gency room.

“Must’ve owed some­body money,” Tommy said.

* * *

After they went home, Joey went up to his room and thought about every­thing and then went and knocked on KT and Tommy’s bed­room door. Tommy hollered from inside, and Joey told him that he wanted to talk. There was a lot of grum­bling before Tommy opened the door.

“What in hell do you want?”

“I want to do more, sir.”

“Well clean the damn house, then.”

“No, with the…you know…what we’ve been doing.”

“Shit.” Tommy shook his head and turned and slammed the door behind him.

* * *

Chyna grad­u­ated, and Joey was sur­prised when KT and Tommy actu­ally showed up for it and sat beside KT’s mother awkwardly.

“I’m sur­prised you grad­u­ated,” the kids’ grand­mother said to Chyna. She turned to Joey. “Think you can hold out two more years?”

“Yes ma’am,” Joey said because it was what she wanted to hear.

Clint came with them when they went out for din­ner at The Cat­fish Hole restau­rant, on Grandmother’s dime, of course. She nib­bled on one piece of fish while the rest of them gulped down hush­pup­pies, French fries, and piece after piece of fried cat­fish. Tommy burped loudly and pushed his plate away, knock­ing over his sweet tea, which deep­ened Grandmother’s scowl.

Chyna cleared her throat. “Clint asked me to marry him,” she said, glanc­ing at him. He smiled and took her hand.

“You knocked up?” Tommy asked.

Grand­mother gasped.

“No,” Chyna said. “Don’t be a pig.”

Tommy eyed Clint. “You whipped or something?”

Clint shook his head slowly. “No sir. I love Chyna.”

Tommy grinned, and KT elbowed him hard.

“And what do you do for a liv­ing, young man?” Grand­mother asked.

He explained his work for a propane com­pany. It wasn’t that inter­est­ing, so Joey and Tommy both zoned out. They both tuned in when Grand­mother laughed at some­thing Clint had said.

“He’s quit a catch, Chyna,” she added. Chyna squeezed Clint’s hand. Tommy and Joey exchanged looks, frankly too shocked to respond.

The plan was that the cou­ple would move to a house Clint’s grand­par­ents had lived in

a lit­tle town called Shirley up in the moun­tains to the cen­ter of the state.

“Shirley?” KT said. “Who’s she?”

 

Joey rode up with Chyna and Clint to help her get moved in that week­end, try­ing not to flinch when Clint raced up the hills and around the tight curves. When they got to the town, he wasn’t impressed.

“Hell, ain’t noth­ing here but bears and a Sonic,” Joey said.

Clint laughed. “You’re not far wrong.”

The thing that annoyed Joey about Clint was that he was all right. After they unloaded Clint’s truck, he took Chyna and Joey to Sonic for lunch. They drove back that after­noon with an air of easy camaraderie.

When they dropped Joey off at the house, there was a let­ter from Joey’s dad lying on his pillow.

* * *

Joey stared at it for a few sec­onds and then sat on his bed and ignored it for a few more. He started for the door to go down­stairs, but he was tired from the heady day and caught him­self. He grabbed the let­ter and ripped it open and scanned it.

“They set a date,” it began. “I’m out of appeals.” The tone was sober with a cou­ple of attempted jokes, even. “I’d like you to be here, since you’re my son,” he said. “But I under­stand if you can’t.”

He read the let­ter over three or four times and dropped it. He could hear a hum of music down­stairs from KT and Tommy’s room. He went back over to the door­jamb and punched the wood, hard. Then again. Then again until his hand, not the wood, splin­tered. He went back down­stairs and knocked on his mom’s bed­room door with his left hand. When she opened it, he held up the already swelling hand.

* * *

“I’m not going,” Joey said. He was on the phone with Chyna, pac­ing across the scuffed linoleum in the kitchen.

“He asked,” Chyna said. “It’s his last request.”

“So?” Joey said. “Hell, he doesn’t even know who I am. I could send some­body else, and he wouldn’t know.”

Chyna didn’t answer that. “I would go,” she finally said.

“So go.”

“He asked you.”

“Oh well.”

“You know,” Chyna said. “If you hate him that much, you should go just to see him fry.”

Joey didn’t have an answer for that. They ended the call soon after, each agi­tated, though with­out a spe­cific focus for it. He went up to his room, closed the door, and went over to the book­case against the wall beside the door, squat­ted down, and pulled the bot­tom out. He paused and lis­tened, and when he was sat­is­fied, he reached in and dug out a cigar box and sat with his back against the door. Inside, there was a let­ter and a pho­to­graph and some other trin­kets. The let­ter was dated about five years ago. The paper of the enve­lope had gone yel­low, and the let­ter inside as well. He opened it care­fully, being espe­cially gen­tle with the folds, which were tear­ing on the edges. He read over it and then folded it and put it back in the enve­lope. The pic­ture was of a man hold­ing a baby. For the first time, he could see him­self in the man’s face. He stared at it a long time and then put it back with the let­ter. There were other things – a base­ball card he’d thought would be valu­able some­day, some lit­tle toys he’d held onto for some reason.

He put it all back in the box, added this new let­ter to it, and put the box back under the book­case and pushed it back against the wall. The let­ter had said it would hap­pen over the sum­mer. Joey didn’t know why it was such short notice; maybe his dad couldn’t decide to send the letter.

* * *

Tommy drove out to the house of the tweaker they’d taken to the hos­pi­tal just a cou­ple weeks before.

“You going to Texas?” Tommy asked.

“I don’t think so,” Joey said.

Tommy made a noise. “Why not?” He finally said.

Joey shrugged. “Why would I?”

“He’s going to be dead for­ever. He’s only going to be alive a lit­tle while longer. You can hate him as long as you want, but this is your only time to see him,” Tommy said.

Joey was stunned silent as they pulled up to the house and got out. Tommy went and banged on the door and grunted some­thing, and Darla, the wife, opened it and let them in. Joey noticed she wouldn’t look them in the eye, but he was so focused on other things, he wasn’t really pay­ing attention.

Billy, the tweaker, was out back in his shed, appar­ently. Darla led them through the house and pointed them to a squat, square build­ing still show­ing its insu­la­tion. Tommy glanced back at the house, which caused Joey to. The glass door was closed behind him.

“Run and try that, quiet-like,” Tommy said.

Joey tried the door and showed Tommy that it was locked. Darla had pulled the blinds closed as well.

“All right,” Tommy said. “Something’s up. He’s watch­ing us, I figure.”

He knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Billy said.

Tommy nod­ded to the side and Joey stepped clear of the door. Tommy pushed it open and stepped to his left a moment later, lin­ger­ing in the door­way just a sec­ond. A gun­shot rang out. Tommy pulled his hand­gun out and ran to the side just as a shot blasted through the wall where he’d been. Joey high-tailed it the other way. Tommy found a win­dow and peeked in. He glanced at Joey, who was lying on the ground about fif­teen feet away, strode up to the win­dow, and fired sev­eral times, then ducked back away from the wall. There was no answer­ing shots, but a sound from the house made them both turn. Darla came bust­ing out, scream­ing, shot­gun in hand, run­ning for Tommy. She didn’t make it, because Joey tack­led her before she’d cov­ered half the lawn. Tommy dis­ap­peared into the shed, and one shot rang out. Joey rose and trained the shot­gun on Darla, who got to her feet and crossed her arms. Tommy emerged a moment later.

“Where is it?” he asked. Darla just sneered. He slapped her, good, across the face, and she fell to the grass.

“It’s gone!” she said. “He smoked it all! Why do you think he did this?”

Tommy put his gun to her fore­head. She looked scared but didn’t cry until he took it away.

“When you tell the pigs about who did this, you want to think about that boy in there. Think real good, you hear?”

“I hear you,” she said, on her knees.

Tommy went back into the house. Joey fol­lowed, still hold­ing the shotgun.

* * *

After that, the busi­ness dried up for a while. The famil­iar smell of weed began ema­nat­ing from Tommy and KT’s bed­room. The week of the exe­cu­tion came, and Joey was spend­ing much of his time in his room when Chyna came to visit. She tapped on the door. When Joey didn’t answer, she pushed it open. He was on the floor, sketching.

“You haven’t drawn in a long time,” she said.

He looked up at her. “What are you doing here?”

She shrugged. “Vis­it­ing. Can I see?”

He passed one up to her. She stud­ied it. “You doing super­heroes again?”

“It’s from a dream I had,” he said.

She car­ried it over to the bed. “Tell me about it.”

He sat up on his elbows and related the dream, all about an alien planet or maybe it was in the future after soci­ety col­lapsed. There were these war­riors who jousted but with cars. That’s what he was drawing.

“Cool. Did you do any more?”

He showed her a cou­ple oth­ers he’d done of the jousters and a pro­tag­o­nist he hadn’t worked out a story for.

She set them on the bed, and he kept draw­ing. “So it’s tomor­row,” she said, after a while. He didn’t answer. “I was think­ing of dri­ving down.” Still, the only answer he gave was the scratch of pen­cil on paper. “So you wanna ride down with me?” He paused, but still didn’t speak.

“I don’t want to see it,” he said and kept sketching.

“You don’t have to. Just ride with me.”

He fin­ished and set the pen­cil down. “First time I would have seen him in ten years would be when he dies.”

“Just ride along so I have some­body to talk to,” she said.

He sighed and shook his head.

* * *

They left that after­noon after Joey packed some clothes, pen­cils, and paper. The plan was to drive it in one day, crash in a cheap motel, and Joey would hang out while Chyna went to the thing. They joked and lis­tened to music and made fun of signs the way they used to, before things got tough; Joey started to feel like him­self again.

That night, in the motel, they ate pizza and didn’t even turn on the TV. Joey woke in the mid­dle of the night when Chyna threw a shoe at him to make him stop snor­ing, but even that felt right to Joey. The next morn­ing, she asked if he would go with her. He’d known she would but hoped he was wrong.

“I don’t want to see it,” he said.

“Because you hate him or because you’re afraid you don’t hate him?” she asked. When he didn’t answer, she added, “It’s a chance to see some­one die.”

“I’ve already seen that,” he said. He told her about the tweaker.

“Oh Joey,” Chyna said and grabbed him in a hug. Some­how, he ended up in the car try­ing to think of excuses not to get out all the way to the prison.

There were a hand­ful of pro­tes­tors out­side, which really shocked him. When Chyna parked, he hopped out and went over to them, with her fol­low­ing and try­ing to stop him.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

An elderly nun with sad eyes explained that they were protest­ing the death penalty.

“That’s my father in there,” he said.

“I’m so sorry, my son,” she said.

“He killed 37 peo­ple.” She just stared for a moment. “But it was manslaugh­ter not mur­der because he was just involved in the killing. Like he helped other peo­ple kill. They couldn’t pin them all on him.”

“Come on, Joey,” Chyna said.

“It must be hard hav­ing a man like that for a father,” the woman said. The other pro­tes­tors were gath­er­ing around him and her, now.

Joey shrugged. “He’s been in prison most of my life, I guess.”

The woman pat­ted him on the arm and called out, “This boy is the son of Lucas New­carter!” Peo­ple started notic­ing, then. “How can you mur­der this man while his son watches?”

“No,” Joey said. “He should die. He’s a bad man!”

“They’re mak­ing an orphan! Will that bring back the dead?”

Chyna dragged Joey away to the build­ing. “Bitch,” she said.

A man guided them to metal fold­ing seats in a lit­tle room fac­ing a big win­dow. There were a cou­ple other peo­ple there, but not many.

“You know, I think you were right,” Chyna said. “He made his bed, and he has to lie in it.”

They brought him out and led him to the chair. It was kind of far away, but he saw them and smiled a lit­tle. Joey smiled back, purely by instinct. They put him in the chair and strapped him in, said some words, and pulled a big elab­o­rate switch, and he was dead.

“Well,” Chyna said, “I guess that’s it.”

But Joey was cry­ing, hard. He didn’t know why and he didn’t know how to stop.

 

clbledsoe200x288CL Bled­soe is the author of five nov­els includ­ing the young adult novel Sun­light, the nov­els Last Stand in Zom­bi­etown and $7.50/hr + Curses; four poetry col­lec­tions: Rice­land, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story col­lec­tion called Nam­ing the Ani­mals. A poetry chap­book, Good­bye to Noise, is avail­able online at www​.righthand​point​ing​.com/​b​l​e​d​soe. Another, The Man Who Killed Him­self in My Bath­room, is avail­able at http://​ten​page​spress​.word​press​.com/​2​0​1​1​/​0​8​/​0​1​/​t​h​e​-​m​a​n​-​w​h​o​-​k​i​l​l​e​d​-​h​i​m​s​e​l​f​-​i​n​-​m​y​-​b​a​t​h​r​o​o​m​-​b​y​-​c​l​-​b​l​e​d​s​oe/. He’s been nom­i­nated for the Push­cart Prize 10 times, had 2 sto­ries selected as Notable Sto­ries by Story South's Mil­lion Writ­ers Award and 2 oth­ers nom­i­nated, and has been nom­i­nated for Best of the Net twice. He’s also had a flash story selected for the long list of Wigleaf’s 50 Best Flash Sto­ries award. He blogs at Mur­der Your Dar­lings, http://​clbled​soe​.blogspot​.com.  Bled­soe reviews reg­u­larly for Rain Taxi, Coal Hill Review, Prick of the Spin­dle, Mon­key Bicy­cle, Book Slut, The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, Amer­i­can Book Review, The Pedestal Mag­a­zine, and else­where. Bled­soe lives with his wife and daugh­ter in Maryland.

 

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Toluene, by Max Sheridan

This guy I knew, he thought he could make his shit high stick­ing toluene up his ass. Some peo­ple know more than one guy like that. I fig­ure you talk to enough of them you’ll hear just about any­thing twice.

You stick toluene up your ass and you will not get high. I know you will not get high because of the warn­ings on the mark­ers. They tell you every­thing. They tell you not to eat it or inhale it or sniff it or any­thing. But there is not one warn­ing on any of those mark­ers about insert­ing toluene into your rec­tal ori­fice. Means no one but that guy I knew ever thought of doing that. He invented that and if he sent a let­ter, said he’d just stuck a watermelon-flavored marker up his ass and got high as a kite, you can bet they would write some­thing to that effect on the pack­age and ruin it for all of us. WARNING: DO NOT INSERT THIS MARKER INTO YOUR RECTAL ORIFICE. IT MAY CAUSE BRAIN DAMAGE.

I tried sniff­ing toluene. I’ve licked it. I’ve steamed it. I’ve glued it into peb­bles and smoked it. I stole a gross of toluene mark­ers from the high school art closet in Fort Dodge once and ate a whole damn box.

They blame the IQ gap on that, which means I walk into a store and the fat guy behind the counter is twenty years older than me and he’s smarter than me because I huffed toluene and he didn’t. I don’t nec­es­sar­ily believe that claim. Why can’t he stop me steal­ing Chee­tos then? Why is he so damn fat?

Hon­estly, I’ve had it with Armand Assante. You ever had that ten­sion in your jaw where it feels like you’re walk­ing around with a bank safe strapped to your head with a red-assed baboon sit­ting on top, jump­ing on your head? That’s what it’s like to be sick of Armand Assante and not be able to do any­thing about it.

You might say, Well, hell, at least you don’t have to see Assante when you turn on the TV. He’s so bad he’ll never fea­ture in a movie marathon.

That’s worse actu­ally, when you don’t see him, because you can only imag­ine him.

Years back I sent let­ters, some pretty bad ones. I shat into an enve­lope once and removed the turd and out­lined the stain with toluene. I sent let­ters like that to Armand Assante out of a PO box in Waukomis and never heard back.

That was a lie. The first time I got some­thing from Assante that said: Dear Mr. Gre­gor Mendel, although Mr. Assante doesn’t have the time to answer all his fan mail per­son­ally, he reads every let­ter. He wishes to thank you for your kind words.

And I’d just sent him my shit.

After that I didn’t hear back.

There ain’t no use cry­ing. Ain’t no use laugh­ing either. I laughed at a cop one time and got cited for pol­lut­ing God’s cre­ation. That was in Ponca City, Ponca Lake Park, and I’d pissed into the water after clos­ing time and he’d seen me. He said there’s peo­ple fish­ing and swim­ming. Hell, he said, there’s peo­ple wash­ing, splash­ing, cavort­ing in that water and I’d just relieved myself like a pack ani­mal. Me, I don’t know how I’d got all the way out there to Ponca City if I hadn’t been huff­ing. When I asked that offi­cer for a ride back to Enid he should have had an idea of my posi­tion vis-à-vis self-inflicted brain impair­ment, how many years I’d been prac­tic­ing. He agreed to drive me back up the road to where his part­ner was wait­ing in a police truck and they ripped up the ticket and got their boots dirty on me. I’ve never been back to Ponca City. I’ve never crossed Route 35 since.

Besides that guy who tries to get his shit high, I got a cousin who sniffs mark­ers. Ron­dell isn’t a Negro but he gets called a Negro all the time because of his name, even when he’s there with you and you can see he’s white as shit.

Rondell’s worked ten years at Bear­ing Rub­ber and Hydraulic coil­ing hose with­out fuck­ing him­self up yet. That’s because Rondell’s per­ma­nently ele­vated. You want to know what Rondell’s on every day he shows up for a shift? Just open up your util­ity drawer and pick out any­thing in a bot­tle that smells like bad news. White­out, rub­ber cement, sil­ver pol­ish, the fumes from crazy glue. Paint thin­ner. I’ve seen Ron­dell snort the blue soap off of Brillo pads. Heavy-duty one-way ticket. You ever want to see a man with­out a con­science, and I mean lit­er­ally with­out because it’s been replaced by pure chem­i­cal fumes, just call Ron­dell. He’s got what you’d call devo­tion, long-haul endurance. He can fill his whole damn med­i­cine cab­i­net at The Home Depot.

Me and Ron­dell, we got into trou­ble one night before I changed my name. This was hardly a month after they’d let me out of high school and we’d just gone through half a box of San­ford glit­ter high­lighters Rondell’d stole from the Save-A-Lot and Ron­dell got this yen to steal kung fu robes.

That’s the thing about toluene. You do it steady enough, you sus­tain that feel­ing, and your saner oxy­gen starves. All you’ve got left are the shit-ass crazy molecules.

It was one of those vel­vety early sum­mer Okla­homa evenings and I knew it wasn’t going to get any bet­ter than this. We were sit­ting there lis­ten­ing to Slayer, get­ting our asses kicked at Don­key Kong on Rondell’s Cole­co­V­i­sion, and we decided to run out to the Conoco for a breather.

They knew us there at the Conoco but they watched us any­way. Prob­a­bly if they didn’t and the cam­eras caught them breath­ing out their mouths while we was fill­ing up on Slim Jims and Chef Boyardee and half-price Con­way Twitty tapes they’d get their own asses fired. Any­way, we had money tonight. Ron­dell did. He had a job.

Ron­dell poured him­self a Frozen Dr. Pep­per big­ger than his hands and let it ice the fumes in his head a while. He called this “beez­ing.” While Ron­dell beezed, I won­dered what the fuck I’d do with myself if I waited five years and let myself become Ron­dell. Ron­dell had quite the ego and I was sure he hadn’t even been laid yet. I’d at least got­ten my fin­gers dirty.

Ron­dell had one of his moments of clar­ity, what had got him the nick­name the Glue Bud­dha at Bearing’s. He said we ought to steal those kung fu robes and show up at the M&M Bar wear­ing them. We’d order a round or two in our robes and then put them right back. As if break­ing into a kung fu dojo wasn’t bad enough, Ron­dell thought we’d just mosey on in again and return what we’d stolen. Get it all on cam­era case they missed us the first time around. Take a shower maybe, eat a can of tuna. That’s how fucked up Ron­dell was.

I said, “That makes not one bit of sense, Ron­dell. Even if you plain stole them, what would be the point?”

Rondell’s beez­ing some­times gave him this look you might con­fuse for clear, pointed think­ing. If you ask me, he just looks like he’s about to be hit by a car but don’t know it.

He said, “You ever stolen from a black belt before, Clyde?”

“I sure as hell haven’t.”

“You think it’ll make them black belts mad?”

“You bet.”

“You think they’ll beat the shit out of us then? If they catch us?”

“I sure as hell hope not.”

We huffed the rest of those high­lighters in Rondell’s Bar­racuda. If I had to give Ron­dell any points, it would be there. That car kills. The mag wheels and tooled leather are enough to make you for­get who’s doing the dri­ving. We cased the dojo for prob­a­bly just a lit­tle too long. It was obvi­ous no one was inside, and who hits a dojo any­way? Nobody. Rondell.

Ron­dell said, “You know this dude?”

I knew Bridge Jack­son well enough to stay far clear of him. I swear Jack­son could beat you up with his stare alone. He was one tough Negro and I respected him and wouldn’t ever have thought about steal­ing his robes if I hadn’t been junk­ing my mind on high­lighters since dinnertime.

We parked way down the road and around the cor­ner so you couldn’t even see Jackson’s dojo from there. Ron­dell had a roll of plas­tic garbage bags in the trunk. He always did. If he wasn’t mak­ing a mess, he was pre­pared to clean one up. This time they came in handy.

There was a street­lamp mak­ing a pretty big splash out front. We passed under it and cut left to the unlit side of the build­ing. We went over to where Ron­dell imag­ined the bath­rooms were.

I put a foot up on Rondell’s chicken shoul­der and held him like a bowl­ing ball under the ears and he got me up as far as the tran­som and that was all I needed. I slid right through, and most of my fear steamed off right there. The alarm was the big if and Jack­son didn’t have one. I dropped down head­first onto my wrists and rolled onto a soft can­vas bag. Even in the dark­ness I could see Rondell’s bath­room was the equip­ment closet.

I got up and tried the door. It was locked from the out­side. I called out to Ron­dell and the big dummy said to try the lights. I knew bet­ter and waited for my eyes to adjust. I kept my voice down.

“You dropped me into the equip­ment room,” I said.

“That’s bet­ter than the bath­rooms,” Ron­dell said. “You found those robes yet?”

I’d hadn’t found any­thing yet but spar­ring gloves and a spar­ring mitt. I’d found cakes of toi­let soap and plenty of roach killer and some mats on a util­ity shelf. I zipped open the bag I’d rolled onto and laid my hands on a lady’s wig. Under the wig were lady’s under­things and two short pil­lows and under the pil­lows was more money than they had at Lib­erty Fed­eral for sure, stacked in crisp Hol­ly­wood bricks and rubber-banded. It smelled bet­ter than but­ter­milk waf­fles cooking.

“Throw ‘em up and get on out,” Ron­dell said.

I hadn’t made any noise for a while, I guess, and Ron­dell must not have liked that. No one could see him where he was but so what.

I threw a brick of Bridge Jackson’s money out the win­dow and Ron­dell shut up. I threw out another five bricks, stuffed a few more into my pants pock­ets, front and back, and packed the bag back up. I’d just had my first clear thought of the evening. If we stole only this much, it would look like an inside job. They’d think it was one of Bridge Jackson’s stu­dents or helpers that had got greedy, or his brother Barry, a mean son-of-a-bitch and a nat­ural midget. I tested the metal shelves.

“All clear?”

But Ron­dell wasn’t answer­ing. I called out again. Then I shut right up.

I’ve learned since that betrayal will always catch you dumb. In another world where I wasn’t trapped in Bridge Jackson’s equip­ment closet, I’d have said that Ron­dell didn’t know any bet­ter, that he’d beezed away all the sense he’d ever own. But I could see that crack of light under the door now, which meant Rondell’d seen a hell of a lot more than me and he’d left me flat on my ass.

Quiet as I could, I made a go at climb­ing Jackson’s shelves. I felt like a one-armed mon­key. When my head came back out the tran­som, there he was, pasted to the wall like a win­dow jumper with sec­ond thoughts. We had a moment of mutual under­stand­ing then, Ron­dell and me, but I still won’t tell you that Ron­dell gave a good god­damn and wasn’t mostly frozen into place like a pos­sum in a dump­ster. He told me to get the hell down and he held out his chicken arms. As my shoes slith­ered up and over the win­dow sill the light in the closet popped on and a mean midget voice barked out at the soles of my feet. That voice was crazy as they come with rage.

 

 

 

 

* * *

 

A good beeze can last you the whole night if your brain cells are used to it. I told Ron­dell to stash the money in the trunk, in his tool box. Ron­dell said ok but when we got to the M&M Bar he wanted to take one brick inside.

“I’m break­ing one of them bills,” he said.

“That’s not a good idea,” I said.

“I’m break­ing the first hundred.”

“You do that and Jackson’ll sure find out.”

“They break them every week at the One Stop.”

Ron­dell was right. Most pay­checks are spent that way in Enid when Fri­day rolls around and you’re the king of the whole damn planet. It’s only when you’re lying in bed on Sun­day with a bro­ken fin­ger and no med­ical insur­ance, no food in the fridge and noth­ing in the bank, that you remem­ber you work for that money. I let Ron­dell carry in that brick but I had him promise me he’d peel it in the bath­room, in a stall.

Right away Ron­dell ordered us a plate of bour­bon and beer chasers. He called us over two older ladies to help us out. Now, I was sexed up as usual but I could see that these two women I might think twice about stop­ping to look at out of sheer curios­ity. Sad to say, they were eying us up the same way.

One of them had stringy mop hair and dark mas­cara that had run but she didn’t know it. She had thin thin lips. The other one was chubby. Names went around. I excused myself politely and left them there to get to know Ron­dell and see what a fool he was so they’d leave us alone and we could get home.

I ordered a bot­tle of beer at the bar and I didn’t even get ID’d. I nursed that long­neck like a pro, mak­ing occa­sional relaxed eye con­tact with a bet­ter look­ing catch sit­ting in the shad­ows at the crook of the L being bored by her date. I said I was sexed up. Now I felt skit­tish. I ordered a shot of Wild Turkey, want­ing some­thing to hap­pen but not know­ing how to make it happen.

She was look­ing at me reg­u­lar now and her date wasn’t blind to this. He was a big one and I could tell he’d never huffed a thing in his life. I won­dered if he’d already given up on lay­ing her that night and would beat it out of me like those cops in Ponca City had. The creeper next to me knew. He’d already started scoot­ing his stool over towards the cash reg­is­ter. I was this close to send­ing her over a drink.

A Negro midget with a shot­gun might be the fun­ni­est thing you see in your whole damn life but hell if you’re going to laugh if you actu­ally hap­pen to see one in a crowded bar tak­ing aim at you. Barry must have been coked up silly bust­ing into the M&M try­ing to set­tle up scores with buck­shot. God­damn. I looked every­where for Ron­dell, but it seemed Rondell’d made him­self scarce.

The bar­tender had his counter rag out now and he was clean­ing his hands. I hadn’t fig­ured he was yel­low on account of his size but the boy’d already cleaned them about nine times. Out the cor­ner of my eye I saw that creeper on the barstool again. His creep­ing had almost got­ten him to the cash reg­is­ter. I wished I could have told him to stop that, that if there’s one thing in this world would make Barry more shit-ass crazy than he already was it was an obvi­ous get-away creep.

Then I got mad myself. Here I was barely a month out of high school and I had to shoul­der men like Ron­dell and this creeper, teach them how to behave like men. I’d lost my ROTC inter­view because I was high on Conoco reg­u­lar and I wasn’t going to become a marine in this life­time. It was a straight dot­ted line from Don­key Kong and Slayer to a case-a-day habit and a crap pen­sion after a forty-year run at Bearing’s that would seem like one very bad month. I could see it all, that this was the best it was ever going to get, and I was so mad at the world I would have fin­gered Ron­dell right then and there if he wasn’t in the toi­lets padding his crotch with bar napkins.

I said, “Barry, I don’t know what you want but we two are going to take this thing outside.”

Her eyes were still on me. I knew they were and it felt like this was too easy, being a man. I was clear-headed and mean as gaso­line and ready for the Lord Jesus Christ to knock my ass all the way to China.

I eased off my stool. I winked at her and watched her just about melt under the fear and ten­sion. Even her date wasn’t much of a man any­more that I could see. I winked at him too. I took my time get­ting over to where Barry was.

Barry and Ron­dell. Which of them two had a deeper brain fry on that night is idle spec­u­la­tion, but I’d prob­a­bly have to give Ron­dell the edge for the kung fu attack he’d been plan­ning in the toi­let that whole time. He was still hum­ming from that plat­ter of bour­bon and the resid­u­als of his king-sized beeze and I guess he just mixed up his skills. He flew out of the bath­rooms on kill mode with a toi­let paper head­band and blew right up to Barry, but instead of knock­ing the shot­gun out of Barry’s hands, he pick­abacked that lit­tle man using his shot­gun for reins. I swear it was a moment in the his­tory of mankind. I’d never seen any­thing half as dumb as Ron­dell and his beezed-out brain cells, so it was another sec­ond maybe longer before I even real­ized that that midget and his single-barrel Snake Charmer .410 were headed straight at me.

What do you feel when you’re star­ing down the bar­rel of an oiled shot­gun? You feel like your body, your heart and lungs and pretty much every­thing you are that you can’t see, is inside you and that it is out­side you, on the walls and on the floor and ceil­ing, at the very same time. That you are bleed­ing to death as you breathe. That in your joints instead of mar­row you’ve got trapped cordite and you can already smell it start­ing to uncurl and sit on the air. What you feel is that you are two places at once and none too good. I put every­thing I had into keep­ing my eyes open so I could watch that sono­fabitch cham­ber catch fire and blow my sad ass away.

Kaboom!

Barry missed me by two fat asses. He hit the creeper’s stool instead and blew out the top two rungs and a lit­tle chunk of his coward’s ass.

Soon as that hap­pened the M&M jumped back to life. I mean they were all scram­bling for a place to stay alive in. Even she was. It was just instinct. She’d dropped into a back­woods squat and now she let out a scream that wouldn’t come. It was like she’d just fallen twenty sto­ries in a dead ele­va­tor and her stom­ach was on back­wards and still five floors up. I don’t think I’d felt a damn thing but my heart jump a beat.

That gun went off two more times and when the smoke cleared I could see Rondell’d been burned bad. He’d had his eye­brows singed right off and his nose was peeled raw so that he looked dif­fer­ent, almost like a sun­burned baby. He’d dropped a steam­ing load that was just now rolling out his pant cuffs. Barry him­self was down, blood trick­ling from his shiny black fore­head. The shot­gun had skit­tered across the wood floor and for a moment no one could find it.

Ron­dell was still lost in his kung fu daze and I thought they were going to have to slap him to shut him up. He was that fucked up, and I guess he never really recov­ered. You’d hear later on at Bearing’s about how Rondell’d burst out into the same rou­tine at ran­dom, in the super­mar­ket even. For now he just kept whip­ping up the air with his chops and side­ways kicks, maybe until the police came.

Me, I knew those stacks of hun­dreds in Rondell’s trunk were at least a hun­dred deep and I grabbed her by the wrist and we made for the Bar­racuda and took that money and hopped on the first Grey­hound bus that wasn’t Kansas-bound.

I changed my name. I stopped send­ing Armand Assante shit in the mail and I stopped huff­ing and after the red marks on her wrist healed over we had a lit­tle baby girl that I kept when she left me with three months paid up on a vinyl-sided house that was no condo but no god­damn trailer either.

 

Author Photo_Max SheridanMax Sheri­dan lives and writes in Nicosia, Cyprus. He wrote fea­tures for the Cyprus Mail for a few years—until he was forced to chal­lenge the film critic, a noto­ri­ous wind­bag, to a duel. Some of his recent short sto­ries have appeared in DIAGRAM Mag­a­zine, the Atti­cus Review, the Writ­ing Dis­or­der, and most recently, Thuglit. His lat­est novel, Dillo, is look­ing for a home. He keeps his work here: www​.maxsh​eri​dan​lit​.com.

 

 

 

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The Last Summer, by Kelly Ford

My friends would head to the pool that day. They’d show off their new boobs in their new biki­nis. Point out which boys they wanted to date. Make plans with­out me for our upcom­ing sopho­more year.

Angela paused and spun her car keys around and around a fin­ger. She didn’t much like hang­ing out­side the porch in all that heat, but on account of the sit­u­a­tion, she was kind enough to pre­tend oth­er­wise. “You’ll be fine.”

Do you have to go?” I asked. Dad had never both­ered to babysit me, so I didn’t under­stand why every­body was so intent on me return­ing a favor I’d never received. When was the last time we’d even been alone together? Never. That’s when. “What if he chokes on some­thing?” We were in the mid­dle of nowhere, Arkansas. Accord­ing to my eighth grade gym teacher, CPR Annie would die on my watch.

“Honey.” She knelt in front of me like I was a child in need of con­so­la­tion. “Your dad can’t get much food down any­way. It’s only for a few hours. I’ll be home after the lunch rush.” A crease appeared between her eyes. “I need this job,” she said. “I’m lucky they keep me on at all.” She pulled a pen and crum­pled diner nap­kin from her purse. “My work number’s on the fridge. But if any­thing hap­pens, you call the Creekkillers, you hear? They live next door.”

Next door? There were no doors. Just trees and dirt and noth­ing much for miles and miles. I looked down at the name on the nap­kin she gave me. I’d rather take my chances with emer­gency resuscitation.

Angela held me by the shoul­ders with out­stretched arms. Last time I’d seen her, she’d worn makeup and had blonde high­lights. She could’ve been mis­taken for my older sis­ter. Now, she looked like what she was, a step-mom.

I’m glad you changed your mind,” she whis­pered and pulled me in for a hug.

When Mom dropped me off the night before, I’d asked her if I had to stay the whole sum­mer. Your father’s a sono­fabitch, she’d said, but he’s dying.

So yeah, the whole summer.

When Angela drove away, dust kicked up from her tires and set­tled on the fuzzy cedars that lined the dirt road.

Through the screen door, I could see into the liv­ing room. The plas­tic win­dow blinds were closed and the lamps were off. Dad wore thin cot­ton paja­mas. A pile of blan­kets twisted at his feet. Light from the TV flick­ered on his face.

I returned to my spot in the liv­ing room where I was charged with watch­ing my Dad. Watch him do what, I didn’t know. Nobody said. Just that I should be there. I should be there. The phrase had been repeated so often, it felt like a din­ner prayer. Dad slept on the couch, his breath a steady stream of phlegm-caked air that set off my gag reflex. Once Good Morn­ing Amer­ica ended, he asked me to pop a war movie into the VCR. Which one? Didn’t mat­ter. I flipped through the video boxes and found one with a man on his knees. Heavy green veg­e­ta­tion sur­rounded him. Pla­toon. I’d seen pho­tos of Dad in fatigues, before he’d shipped off. Mom told me how he’d held on to her while she washed the dishes and whis­tled Motown tunes in her ear. How he’d bring home choco­late coins and pasture-picked dandelions.

“Weren’t you in Viet­nam?” I asked. He mum­bled some­thing and rolled over on to his side, away from me.

I watched him there on the couch, drift­ing off from painkillers, think­ing Mom must’ve got­ten him con­fused with some old boyfriend.

Angela came home from the diner and made us a lunch of tuna sand­wiches and potato chips. Dad got a can of Ensure. After lunch, Angela cleaned up and encour­aged me to go out­side in that after-school-special way: Get out! Get some sun! You’re fif­teen! (Like fif­teen was some mag­i­cal age that I would look back on some day when my knees failed and my elbows turned ashy like Grandma’s.) The Creekkillers had a daugh­ter. Nice girl, Angela said. Just beyond them trees out past the drive. A bit younger than me. But maybe we would find some­thing in com­mon. (Doubt­ful.) And there was an older brother, a senior next year, always shoot­ing off guns and scar­ing the birds, but nice. I inter­preted her descrip­tion to mean: He ain’t much to look at.

Sure, I’d head over for a visit. Instead, while Angela tended to Dad’s daily pill rou­tine, I slipped back to my room to read the Sweet Val­ley High books my friends had loaned me – not that I wanted to read them.

Around din­ner­time, Angela set the table for two and pre­tended like we were nor­mal. How was your day? Fine. Yours? Good. After the two of us ate, she pulled out a TV tray and sat next to him. She cut his meat­loaf small, whipped the pota­toes thin and poured salty brown gravy over them to con­vince him to eat. She leaned down to kiss him, and the food went cold.

 

***

 

After a cou­ple of weeks, I’d fin­ished all the books I’d brought from home. With no let­ters to read from the friends who swore they’d write every day, I decided to go in search of more mate­r­ial. From my expe­ri­ence, all grownups had books they kept out of sight. They tried to fool you with the Ency­clo­pe­dia Britannica’s and the Wood­land Flow­ers of the South­ern United States doorstops they kept on cof­fee tables. With Dad knocked out on the couch, high on meds and war movies, I made my way through the house to their bed­room. Most of the books on the shelf in their room were these worn Har­le­quin paper­backs with “GET SOME AT THE BOOK NOOK!” stamped on the side. I flipped and skimmed the pages until I got to words like “heav­ing” and “rod,” giddy-scared with the idea of get­ting caught even though I’d have heard Dad com­ing a mile away with that clomp­ing thud of his when he headed to the bath­room. I pulled out a cou­ple of Har­le­quins, a captive-woman-falls-in-love-with-her-captor Wild West story and a Stephen King book Mom for­bade me to read, think­ing it might seduce me into dark arts. Arms loaded, happy with my haul, I stepped around the bed and made my way toward the door.

On my way out, I noticed a faded pic­ture of Dad lodged in the cor­ner of the dresser mir­ror. He sat in his red pickup truck with the door open, a straw cow­boy hat on his head, his bat­tal­ion pin front and cen­ter. Dark hair. Thick mus­tache to match. Tat­tooed mus­cles jut­ting out of an Army green t-shirt. Sun­glasses mir­rored back the pho­tog­ra­pher and a cig­a­rette hung from his mouth. The date stamp on the back read: July 1978. I had just turned five. The year he left Mom. The year she stopped ask­ing his friends to carry him into the house because he was too drunk to make it on his own. When she stopped spack­ling all the holes in the wall. The year she quit nurs­ing school and went back to work at the fur­ni­ture plant because he’d emp­tied the sav­ings account on a week­end ben­der with some Army bud­dies up in Tahle­quah. Good rid­dance, she’d said. Good riddance.

At least for her.

Five Fourth of Julys after that, Dad had arrived our house for his annual visit. He tossed my worn bag of shorts and t-shirts into the back of that red pickup truck, and we drove two hours to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, mostly in silence. Once we arrived, I shot out the pas­sen­ger side to catch up with all my cousins before they started hav­ing fun with­out me. I only saw Dad again when it was time to eat. Over cat­fish, fried pota­toes and hush pup­pies scented with jalapenos, we’d catch each other’s eyes and flinch, like nei­ther of us expected to see the other one sit­ting there across the room.

Grandma died and the dri­ves and vis­its stopped. He didn’t call. He’d send a birth­day card. They were always too young for me, with col­ored bal­loons and puppy dogs with big, sad eyes. I’d grab the $20 from the spine of the card, shove the bill in my pocket and toss the card in the trash like the oth­ers that came before.

Just like those dri­ves to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I dreaded our time alone, with him on the couch and me so quiet. I couldn’t make a sound with­out him rustling and grum­bling. I felt like I’d been dumped in a new school in the mid­dle of the semes­ter. Not sure where to go, what to say, what to do. He never needed me and never did ask ques­tions or even talk. Not when I was sit­ting right next to him in the truck. Not when I was sit­ting right next to him on the love seat watch­ing him die.

After lunch, lack­ing any­where else to go and an aching feel­ing to get out of that house, I headed out­side and through the vacant acre of land that stood between the girl-I-might-like’s house and my Dad’s. A thicket of tow­er­ing pines shaded the lot from the sun. The smaller trees reached out at odd angles to grab what­ever light they could find stream­ing through. The air was sticky and the mos­qui­toes thick. The sweet, lemony scent of cedar trick­led in and out of my nose. I could almost smell the heat of the soil, fil­tered through blan­kets of dead leaves that had fallen for years and escaped the rake. Noth­ing but dirt under­neath them when I crunched across the lot in my flip-flops. Out here under the trees, every­thing was quiet save for the sound of squir­rels or some other crit­ter drop­ping twigs and acorns on the ground. Inside the trailer, the sound of Dad’s wheez­ing lungs echoed off the walls. The noise grew louder each day. Out here in Noth­ing Much To Do, Arkansas, I finally felt like I could catch my breath, sus­pend my thoughts.

Up ahead, light trick­led through the over­growth. I pushed the branches away and crawled between two strings of barbed wire, care­ful not to snag my shirt. When I looked up, a boy had a shot­gun trained on my head.

Who are you?” he asked.

My brain couldn’t think of any­thing to say, so I held my hands up like I’d seen on TV. The boy was dark-skinned, like the men on the Wild West paper­back I’d taken. Only, he wore a shirt and didn’t have a big-boob com­pan­ion hang­ing limp and lusty off his arm. Small patches of acne sprin­kled each cheek, but I didn’t mind. Some Asian and Mex­i­can boys were in my class, but no hon­est to God Indi­ans. Star­ing at him, I couldn’t help but look down at myself and won­der what he might see: All skinny legs and big hair made even big­ger by the humid­ity. At least I had clear skin. But, this boy wasn’t any­one I would have talked to at school. Those boys were out with my friends. The ones who promised to pick up the phone when I called.

I live across the woods,” I said and pointed behind me.

He low­ered his gun. “Sorry about your dad.”

Seemed strange to me that any­one would know about my Dad – not that my Dad would know about them.

The boy’s name was Cody. He had come over every now and then before Dad got sick. His mom sent over casseroles and con­do­lences. His sis­ter wasn’t at home, she wouldn’t be for a while and I asked too many ques­tions. That last part he punc­tu­ated with the sound of him load­ing another round.

You used to come over?” I asked.

Haven’t had time.” He low­ered his head, ashamed of the lie.

Dad was in Viet­nam,” I said, blurt­ing out the first thing that came to mind about the last thing I’d been thinking.

I know,” he said. He dropped the gun at his side. “He told me.”

What’d you talk about?”

He looked at me like I was an idiot. “Vee-et-nam.”

No, I mean, what exactly did you talk about?”

He aimed at a line of generic brand soda cans he had lined up along a bunch of tree stumps down the pas­ture. “Guns. Fight­ing. Girls.”

Cans like that used to line the fence posts in Grandma’s back yard. Dad ran tar­get prac­tice with my boy cousins while us girls helped with sup­per. The other girls took to mak­ing home­made rolls and col­lard greens like some genetic mem­ory had been trig­gered at the appear­ance of metal mix­ing bowls and but­ter. Me, I stared at them boys, but mostly Dad. Spite­ful, I scaled the cat­fish with my spoon and spit at the ground.

I’m just sur­prised he told you about the war.”

Cody blew a hard line of air out of his nose and arched an eye­brow. The rapid fir­ing of his gun scared a flock of birds fly­ing by. I dis­ap­peared back into the shadow of the woods.

After din­ner, I watched the blan­kets rise and fall as Dad drifted in and out of sleep. I’d never thought about it before that sum­mer. Where Dad had gone, what it’d been like for him. What it meant to him. From the com­fort of the liv­ing room, every­thing on TV seemed like fic­tion. In that photo tucked into the mir­ror frame, Dad’s face mir­rored the men in the movies we watched. Not the hand­some lead actor, but the guy gone wrong. The one with the scar across his cheek and an itchy right hook wait­ing for a fleshy face to sink it into. But on the couch, with the light from the TV height­en­ing the shad­ows under his sharp cheeks and sunken eyes, his hands were up, ready to die.

 

***

 

Every day after lunch, I’d tip­toe through the woods towards Cody’s house to watch him shoot. Usu­ally, I was able to pre­vent detec­tion. Usu­ally. One day, I’d got­ten a mighty case of chig­ger bites on my ankles from wear­ing flip-flops. Dur­ing one par­tic­u­larly exhaust­ing itch­ing fit, I lost my bal­ance and nearly fell into the barbed wire.

You’re the worst spy ever,” Cody called out.

I con­sid­ered whether or not I should sneak back through the woods to my house, but then I’d be alone with Dad. “I wasn’t spying.”

You’re there every day.”

There was no point in dis­put­ing the mat­ter, so I came out of hid­ing. “Where’d you learn to shoot guns?” The blue rings of his t-shirt pulled at the mus­cles on his arms. I’d never seen a boy’s arms this close, or paid much atten­tion to the ridges that sep­a­rated one smooth curve from the other. He kept load­ing and made no indi­ca­tion that he was inter­ested in con­ver­sa­tion. I was used to that in school. The boys there wouldn’t talk to me either. (Not that I tried.) But I didn’t want to go home, so it was either talk or leave.

Are you Indian?”

Indi­ans are from India. Don’t you know any­thing?” He turned his back to me.

Well, what am I sup­posed to call you? That’s what they’re called in the books.” I knew bet­ter, but that didn’t stop me.

Only in stu­pid romance nov­els.” He kept on with his guns, barely stop­ping to look up or reveal any emo­tion on his face.

Is your sis­ter home?”

No.”

Maybe we could hang out.”

Same expres­sion, no change. “No, go home.”

You don’t have to be mean about it.” Noth­ing. He con­tin­ued mess­ing with his gun. Some­thing about him made me want to poke and prod and see how far I could go. “Come on. Aren’t you sup­posed to kid­nap me? Scalp me? That’s what Indi­ans do, right?”

He rushed towards me, fast. Up close, I could see the hair in his nos­trils push out with each breath. He clenched his jaw. The faint trace of his body odor leaked through his deodor­ant and clutched my gut. Warmth rever­ber­ated down my body.

Are you in Spe­cial Ed?” His eyes burned. He didn’t smile. But he no longer looked like he wanted to scalp me. “Alright,” he said. “What’s in it for me if I kid­nap you?” He looked me up and down. I felt an elec­tric charge race through my limbs. My mind fixed on all those dirty words in the Har­le­quins. “You don’t look like you could pull in a ransom.”

I can cook. I’ll clean.” Some odd feel­ing rushed through me that lacked any descrip­tion other than a com­plete and utter loss of wits. “Any­thing you want.”

He snorted. “You don’t look old enough to be a wife. You don’t even look old enough to have your period.”

That hurt. I pre­tended I didn’t notice and kicked the dirt with my toes.

I tell you what, I’ll give you an authen­tic Native Amer­i­can name. You are hereby known as…” He took his shot­gun and placed it on one of my shoul­ders and then the other. (I was pretty sure that Indi­ans didn’t knight their war­riors, but I decided not to edu­cate him just then.) “Flirts With Boys.”

With­out any warn­ing, he turned me around and popped me on the butt with his gun. “Now, get on home, Flirts.”

I didn’t want to leave. But I’d recov­ered enough to know that I’d worn out my wel­come for one day.

I’ll see you tomor­row,” I said. It wasn’t a question.


***

 

Every day, it seemed like Angela took a slower route home, no more want­ing to babysit my dad than I did. When she did arrive, her smile seemed more strained. She wasn’t mean or any­thing. I don’t know. Sad? One time, Dad yelled out for some water. He couldn’t see her stand­ing in the kitchen from the liv­ing room. She stared out the win­dow while he called and called. Finally, she pulled a glass out of the cup­board and dragged a smile on her face before hand­ing it to him.

Dad slept less and less. His cough came on and kept him awake more than any com­mo­tion from me. Instead of avert­ing his eyes when I caught him star­ing at me, he kept look­ing. I couldn’t tell if he was mad at me or wanted me to get some­thing for him. I just sat there wait­ing for words that never came out of his mouth.

After about a week, I finally met Cody’s sis­ter. His mom was always gone because she worked. His dad, nowhere to be found but on the walls. His sis­ter wanted to braid my hair and put on makeup. That was some­thing I always did with my friends, but I was older now. I could either braid my hair or wrap my legs around Cody’s and go for a ride on his four-wheeler down the dirt roads and through the woods.

Out on the bluff one day, like always, Cody turned off the engine. My innards hummed from the buzzing motor. We rubbed the dirt and bugs out of our eyes. Some­times, we’d talk about our friends or what our schools were like and what we hated the most about our classes. Mostly, we sat there with­out talk­ing. I didn’t mind. Every now and then, we acci­den­tally touched each other’s fin­gers when we read­justed from sit­ting on the hard ground for so long. I thought about what it might be like if it weren’t an accident.

We watched the horses beat their hooves across a field below us until the sky turned to rust. Sun­set always came too soon, much like the end of sum­mer. In two short weeks, I would pack up and return home to Fort Smith. I didn’t want to head back yet, not before I got to hold Cody’s hand or kiss his lips or ensure that he wouldn’t go back to his school and fall in love with some­one who wasn’t me.

He took his knife out of the leather case on his belt and plunged it into the ground. “How’s your dad?” he asked.

I shrugged. “He has can­cer.” Every time I brought up my friends or my life, he asked about Dad. If he cared so much, he should have gone over to visit.

The gouges in the ground grew deeper as he talked. “If that were my dad…” He shook his head.

“You said your dad was a drunk.” And had a mean tem­per. Based on some of the scars I’d seen on Cody that resem­bled cig­a­rette marks, I couldn’t fig­ure why he’d want to talk to him.

Cody stabbed the ground one more time. “He’s still my dad. We’re blood.”

Yeah, but you barely know him.”

Cody sighed. “It’s dif­fer­ent for men,” he said.

Like you know any­thing about being a man,” I said. “Have you even been with a girl?” As soon as I said it, I knew I shouldn’t have because he jumped up. He was liable to leave me out there in the dark. I stood up in case I needed to run and jump on the four-wheeler before he took off with­out me.

Instead of leav­ing, he hooked his thumbs in the front belt loops of my jean shorts and pulled me in. “You want to know?”

I did. And I didn’t.

I have,” he said. He looked me over, and I held my breath.

What on earth did I know about kiss­ing or mak­ing out or any­thing else? Noth­ing. I knew noth­ing at all, and I didn’t want him to find out. I braced myself for what I thought might come next and prayed that I wouldn’t screw it up by mov­ing my tongue the wrong way or bust­ing my teeth up against his or being alto­gether lousy at the thing.

You’re too young to have sex,” he said and nudged him­self away.

My heart dropped into my shoes. I hated to cry. I hated how I cried when any­thing bad or sad hap­pened. Or if I got angry.

Cody looked at me a bit softer then, which only made me more mad.

I don’t want to have sex with you!” I shoved him in the arm. I hoped what­ever girl­friend he found next year gave him V.D.

He low­ered his head and kicked the dirt with his already muddy sneak­ers. I tried not to snif­fle and give myself away. But the snot near dripped out of my nose, so I swiped at it with my hand like my nose itched, hop­ing he wouldn’t notice.

He spit at the ground, and then hopped onto the four-wheeler. “You act like you’re from New York,” he said. “I’ve been to Fort Smith. A pub­lic pool and a drive-through liquor store don’t make it a city.”

We rode home, quiet but for the engine beneath us.

***

 

Gun­shots rang out over lunch, like they had in the week since I’d last seen Cody out on the bluff. Instead of rac­ing over to meet him, I went back to eat­ing lunch with Angela and read­ing and try­ing to ignore the clock and Cody’s ran­dom, rapid suc­ces­sion of shots. All sum­mer long, Dad hadn’t com­plained. But with his cough keep­ing him awake, Cody quickly became a men­ace to my dad.

Dad threw the remote on the side table next to him. The sound of hard plas­tic hit­ting the wood only added to the noise. “What in the hell is that boy doing out there?”

If Dad hadn’t had can­cer, he would have been right out there with Cody. He wouldn’t care if he dis­turbed any­one. I bet his lit­tle skinny arms couldn’t even lift a gun at this point. Besides that, here I was, one week away from going back home and I had not kissed a boy, lost my vir­gin­ity or got­ten to know my dad at all. Wasn’t that the whole point? He’s dying, every­one said. Bet­ter get to know him! Bet­ter take advan­tage of the oppor­tu­nity while you have it! Fat good that did. With Cody and with Dad, all I ever did was make the effort. Dad espe­cially should have taken the time to talk to me. He was the one dying.

I glared at him. “Cody’s gonna teach me how to shoot.”

Dad raised a fin­ger, pointed it at me. “I don’t want you shoot­ing guns.” He retch-coughed into the sleeve of his pajama top.

Of course. Of course, he had to pull out a death-cough to make his point. “Why?”

Our eyes locked. A cloud went across his brow. If I’d been sit­ting closer, he might have reached out to smack me. “Jackie.”

“You used to shoot guns with the boys – all my cousins. Stephen and Ricky and Tom. I remember.”

That’s dif­fer­ent.”

Because they’re boys?”

Because they’re older.”

Two years. Two years older, was all. “Old enough to hear sto­ries about the war? I heard you tell them. And Cody? He told me you told him sto­ries, too. Guess if I want to know any­thing about you, I bet­ter go ask one of them.”

Phlegm caught in Dad’s throat and rat­tled. The clock in the hall­way stopped, the TV stopped, the gun­shots stopped – every­thing seemed to get real quiet, except for that awful sound of him retch­ing. He clutched his chest and tried to sit up but the effort only forced more coughs to rack his body. I jumped on the sofa bed, tip­ping him on his side. He thrust a hand out to catch him­self but his face crashed into the pil­low. I righted him best I could and held his body while he heaved and gasped. He felt small in my arms, so small. When his body shook, it shook me, too. I remem­bered a time he held me like that. I couldn’t recall when or where we were. But I remembered.

When he relaxed, I grabbed the water from the side table and put it to his mouth, care­ful not to bang the glass against his teeth.

You’re spilling it,” he rasped.

His fin­gers clutched the glass out of my hands, but shook under the weight. Water streamed down his pajama top. I ran to his bed­room and grabbed a towel. I opened drawer after drawer of Angela’s things, until I found his lone drawer at the bot­tom. I grabbed an Army green t-shirt much like the one in the photo nudged into the dresser mir­ror and ran back to the liv­ing room. Finally, I’d done more than just warm a spot on the couch.

He swat­ted my hands when I tried to take the wet shirt off of him and replace it with the dry one.

I can do it!” His eyes burned like they always had. All those feel­ings inside me froze. All this time, I had wanted some­thing from him. Some indi­ca­tion that he even cared that I was there. But he didn’t. He didn’t care about any­one but him­self. Never did and dying wouldn’t change that, so he could go on and do it him­self for all I cared.

Fine!” I yelled and ran out of the house.

Those damn gun­shots pierced the air. I put my hands up over my ears and screamed.

Over and over and over the gun fired. What I wanted was to run all the way across to where Cody shot, only maybe be the tar­get, run right through his aim. Maybe if I did, Dad would notice. Instead, I decided to take that gun and shoot, and keep shoot­ing, keep Dad awake. Let him know it’s me mak­ing all that noise.

I was out of breath by the time I ran across the vacant lot to where Cody stood.

Hey,” he said, surprised.

I reached for the gun.

What are you doing?”

I want to shoot,” I told him, my eyes still on the gun. “I want you to teach me to shoot.”

He nudged the gun and him­self away from my hands. “I thought you were mad at me.”

I changed my mind.” I clasped my hands around the bar­rel. “Come on.”

He con­sid­ered and then eased the han­dle against my shoul­der. His arm shad­owed mine, curve for curve. His mouth was near my ear, telling me to use the scope, to aim. I held the gun for a long time, long enough that my arms shook from the weight of it. Soda cans loomed in the dis­tance, all lined up in a row. Straw­berry, Grape, Orange Crush. I aimed, pulled the trig­ger and felt the gun kick back so hard I thought my col­lar­bone might crack. Clouds of dirt fun­neled into the air. Cody told me it was fine, I did good, try again. His breath pushed into my ear, hot and pleas­ant. I aimed, cocked, pulled, shot, fell back. Over and over. Just like he did every day. I aimed again, but this time, all I saw through the scope was sky. Just the big, blue, stu­pid sky with clouds that held the promise of rain to shoo away the heat and the hard­ness of all those hot sum­mer days. But the clouds would only hold the rain and never let it fall. Not that day. I shot the sky. I shot the clouds.

Before I real­ized what hap­pened, the gun was out of my hands. I looked around me. Cody ran with the gun toward the far end of the pas­ture, past the cans still lined up in a row. When I got closer to where he kneeled, I saw what he saw: A bird flapped its shat­tered wing in the dust. Blood cov­ered the feath­ers and the bird’s head twitched frantically.

What’s wrong with you?” Cody yelled up at me.

An acci­dent, I wanted to say. I wanted to apol­o­gize. I wanted to reach down and hold that lit­tle bird in my arms but a hot cord of rage lit its way up my body and through my mouth. “Maybe it had can­cer. Maybe I put it out of its misery.”

Cody looked from the bird and back to me. “Yeah?” His eyes grew red. “Maybe you’re just an asshole.”

The pres­sure of my blood beat­ing furi­ous in my veins swelled my head and my whole body shook. This was prob­a­bly some Native Amer­i­can thing. Like the bird was a spirit ani­mal. A sym­bol of life on Earth. But life on earth sucked, and every­one died. Birds died. What did it mat­ter? “Stop being such a girl.” I pushed him hard. His knees buck­led and he dropped to the ground. “You’re the one who owns guns.”

Tears crested and rolled down Cody’s brown cheeks. His shoul­ders drooped. “I shoot cans. Not birds!”

I guess part of me wanted to see him cry. But when I did, I wanted to take it back, make those tears go in reverse, right back into his sock­ets. I wanted both of us to return to the top of the field so that I never held the gun, never shot the sky, never shot the cans. But that’s not what happened.

 

***

 

Dad col­lapsed into a heap on the ground. He called out, but no one could hear him with the chop­per hov­er­ing over­head. Dad pleaded with his stick arms. Move it! he hollered at them. Instead, the tat­tooed skin melted around his wasted mus­cles. The chop­per sounds grew faint. He looked up. The chop­per was leav­ing with­out him! There was no time! He dragged him­self by his fin­ger­nails to a piece of paper that had fallen from the chop­per and drifted to the ground. He used the blood that spilled from a gash on his busted head to scrawl: I’m sorry. I love you… Then, he died writ­ing my name.

The crunch of Angela’s shoes on the dry grass ended my daydream.

Her shadow fell at my feet, where I sat under a tree. My chest thumped when her breath sucked in like she was about to yell. My shoul­ders hunched up around my ears, and I braced myself.

“You wanna talk?” she asked.

“No.” Yes. I had wanted some­one to tell every­thing to, but no one wanted to talk. Not Dad, not Cody, not my stu­pid friends who never wrote me back or picked up the phone. I hated them all, so no. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.

“Alright, then,” she said. “Come in when you’re ready.”

Hours passed before I was, and that was only because hunger clutched my stom­ach. By dusk, I was soaked in sweat.

I walked around the lip of the trailer. Dad sat on the porch steps in his pajama pants and the green t-shirt I’d given him to wear after he’d spilled water all over him­self. He turned and watched me walk up the yard. He gripped the bot­tom part of the rail­ing with his arm. The step creaked when I sat down beside him.

Only the whip­poor­wills in some dis­tant tree decided to talk. Fire­flies flick­ered in the dis­tance. He pointed to them.

“You used to chase ‘em. Pull off the tails.” He reached over and tapped my fin­ger with his. “Make glow rings.”

I couldn’t remem­ber. Why couldn’t I remem­ber? It wasn’t fair that I had to be there to watch him die and there was noth­ing, noth­ing I could do. A stuffed-up feel­ing filled my chest.

“All I’m doing is sit­ting here.” I swal­lowed and swal­lowed, try­ing to keep all the feel­ings down. “I’m not help­ing at all.”

He reached out and pat­ted me on the leg. “I…” He coughed and turned so I couldn’t see his face. “I like look­ing over,” he said, “and see­ing you sit­ting there.”

My throat felt full of rags and my eyes went blurry.

 

***

 

In late Sep­tem­ber that same year, Dad died at home. Angela said he fell asleep and never woke up. After the funeral, Angela gave me the flag from Dad’s cof­fin, all folded up nice from the Honor Guard.

At lunch, I lis­tened to the same old sto­ries my friends told every day. I won­dered if they were just try­ing hard not to for­get, afraid that if they skipped one day’s telling, those sum­mer mem­o­ries would slip away. None of them had kissed a boy or done any­thing else. Every time we dropped our lunch trays on the con­veyor belt that led to the dish­washer and walked past the senior boys, they chanted “Cherry, Cherry” over and over until we walked out and couldn’t hear them any­more. I sat through another his­tory class that started with the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and ended with the Civil War, like every other his­tory class every other year. If any­one expected us to know any­thing that hap­pened after that, we were – as Cody had said once out on the bluff – screwed.

After the inci­dent with the shot­gun, I didn’t go to his house at all in the last week I spent with my dad. He never both­ered to come to mine. No shots rang out dur­ing the day, either. If I ever saw him again, I would never admit that I missed the sound. Or him. As for Angela, she had promised to call when she headed over to the Book Nook. But I fig­ured that maybe read­ing wasn’t on her mind.

The bell rang and my class­mates rushed out the door. Instead of fol­low­ing them, I stayed. My teacher stared down at his shoes, lost in thought.

Mr. Mer­rill,” I asked. A dazed look crossed his face before he set­tled on mine in antic­i­pa­tion of some request that he prob­a­bly expected would give him a headache. “In what grade do they talk about the Viet­nam War?”

He sat down on the edge of his desk and stroked an invis­i­ble beard. His eyes lifted and his brow wrin­kled in thought. Maybe no stu­dent between the start and end of the school day had ever asked him any­thing other than if they could have the hall pass or if they could get an extra day for their home­work. He shook his head and frowned. “Is there some­thing in par­tic­u­lar you want to know about?”

I didn’t know where Dad had been in Viet­nam. I didn’t know the dates. I only knew that he’d been there. And once, he’d been the type of man to dance and sing Motown and give choco­late coins to my mom.

“Just start from the begin­ning,” I said. 

Kelly Ford

Kelly Ford hails from an Old West out­post in Arkansas, spends the major­ity of her free time with peo­ple who only exist in her novel and plans to eat her way across the world. She also com­pleted Grub Street writ­ing center’s Novel Incu­ba­tor pro­gram in Boston and received a Lit­er­a­ture Fel­low­ship Grant from the Somerville Arts Coun­cil. She's a con­trib­u­tor at Dead Dar­lings, and her fic­tion is forth­com­ing in Knee-Jerk Magazine. 

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Flight, by Mitchell Grabois

 

Once you have tasted flight, said Leonardo

you will for­ever walk with your eyes

turned sky­ward

 

and when you are four­teen and ini­ti­ated into sex

by a thirty-two year old woman

who lives in your par­ents’ hip­pie commune

you will for­ever look to the aged for

love

 

You will sur­vey the wrin­kles and age spots of women

with a par­tic­u­lar greed

You will know that their old men are dying off

like flies

They can see the lust in your eyes

 

They long to be touched

to be taken

They want to tell you about their maladies

their bod­ies, their trau­mas, their children

but you will have none of it

 

Be Here Now, you tell them

with a cer­tain cynicism

a dose of sarcasm

 

You will try to assess

from a distance

how much tightness

remains in their vaginas

before you’ve even said hello

 

graboisM. Krochmal­nik Grabois’ poems have appeared in hun­dreds of lit­er­ary mag­a­zines in the U.S. and abroad. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Prague Revue, and has been nom­i­nated for the Push­cart Prize, most recently for his story “Pur­ple Heart” pub­lished in The Exam­ined Life in 2012, and for his poem. “Birds,” pub­lished in The Blue Hour, 2013. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in a state hos­pi­tal, is avail­able for 99 cents from Kin­dle and Nook, or as a print edi­tion.

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Poems by Marian Veverka

After the Vic­tims were Buried

Every­one went back to the farm­house where
Friends and wives of neigh­bors had set out food.
At first there was just the sounds of chew­ing and
Swal­low­ing and maybe a child pip­ing up a few times -
Every­one still con­scious of the empty spaces, but then
The talk got around to plant­ing and ethanol and what
New prob­lems lay ahead. Some of the older women
Got up and began to scrape small left­overs into big­ger
Dishes and clear away the empty plates and the men,
a few at a time began to wan­der out the door.

Long ago some­one had set up stakes and now George
Went into the barn and brought out horse­shoes. Which
Was fine with the women, they had all the clear­ing up to
Do and stuff to dis­cuss while they washed and put things
Away. The win­dows were open, a warm after­noon for
Early May and soon the rhyth­mic clang of metal against
Metal added to the scrap­ing of plates and rat­tle of silverware.

The pall­bear­ers and almost all of the men had dressed in
dark suits and now they took off their jack­ets and rolled
Up the sleeves of their white shirts and they resem­bled
Mem­bers of a sect, per­haps reli­gious, like the Amish only
No one wore a beard. The grass and all the bushes and
Young trees were a clear, bright green, and as the men
Moved from one stake to the other, they formed a pat­tern
Of black and white on a green chessboard.

And so the men fol­lowed their pat­terns out­side and in
The kitchen the women fol­lowed the rou­tines that had
Been handed down since who knew when but it was a
Com­fort, the break­ing of bread together, and the clear­ing
up after­ward, the soft voices and the qui­et­ing of the
chil­dren and the men find­ing some­thing active to do
with their bod­ies when every­one was faced with a sit­u­a­tion
That no one, down through all the ages, had ever been able
To make any sense of.

Explo­sion in the Afternoon

Our old man can explode with anger
Over the small­est dumb thing
Like a gal­lon of milk left sit­ting on
The table
The fridge door not closed all the way
Someone’s shoes sit­ting empty in
The mid­dle of the liv­ing room
And the TV still on

He’d use real cuss words
So loud the neigh­bors could hear
And scream back for him to shut
The —– up
And our baby sis­ter woke up cry­ing
And mom yelling because we woke
The baby

I’d take off run­ning through the back yard
Down by the old bridge where the train
Tracks crossed the swamp
And imag­ine myself a hobo swing­ing aboard
A slow train to China
Or any place far enough away
Where all you’d hear was the chat­ter
Of crick­ets in the tall grass

The ghost of a whis­tle from the days
The trains still ran.
There weren’t so many babies
And Mom and Dad would shut
The doors and be as quiet as the night.

mom1Born and raised in Cleve­land OH. Attended Univ. of Ken­tucky, Fenn College

Received BFA from Bowl­ing Green State Univ.

Worked in libraries for many years.

Spend a lot of time read­ing, gar­den­ing in sea­son. Inter­ested in nat­ural world,conservation of untouched places–forests, wet­lands, prairies.

Writ­ten 2 nov­els (unpub­lished). Pub­lished sev­eral short sto­ries & many poems in lit­er­ary, small press, and local publications.

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