Wounded Knee, fiction by Jason Stuart

"They picked me up in their space­ship about noon," Austin Grantham says to me while pulling up an apple crate to use as a stool. I’m sit­ting out­side the Smith’s Farm Sup­ply and Gen­er­al Store shelling peas because my dad thinks it’s good for me. My dad and I don‘t always agree on such points. Austin’s sip­ping some­thing out of a cof­fee cup that def­i­nite­ly ain’t cof­fee and looks off toward the hori­zon, his long white hair blow­ing a bit in the wind. Cul­lo­den County’s still dry as a bone, last I checked, but I reck­on that nev­er stopped any of these guys any­how.

Aliens, I mean,” He starts in again. He’s got the quaint­est grin on his face and I know he’s get­ting excit­ed about it. I’ve heard this sto­ry before, but it’s always dif­fer­ent and I’ve got three more bushels and not a lot else to do.

They had me drugged pret­ty bad there for a while, so some of this is still a bit hazy to me. They were lit­tle fuck­ers, ’bout four feet five or so, all of them. Green eyes. Didn’t care for ’em, tell the truth. Any­how, they had me tied down to some kin­da alien hos­pi­tal bed and was get­ting ready to stick them probes up my ass­hole and all that shit. Well, I don’t know, but I reck­on they nev­er picked up a dou­ble join­t­er before and you’d think with all that souped-up space tech­nol­o­gy they got they’d have used some­thing stronger than plain old rope.

So, I popped my arms out that hemp right quick and clocked one square in his lit­tle gray jaw. Cracked in six pieces from the sound it made. Then I kicked two of the lit­tle shits in the face a time or two and after that they was all mak­ing tracks for it.

I got the rest of the shoe-string off my hands and feet and col­lect­ed my wits about me again, also my jeans. I was def­i­nite­ly in a space­ship, all right. The ceil­ings were real low. Had to stoop quite a bit just to get around. I made a gan­der about the room I was in to see if there wasn’t noth­ing I couldn’t use as no weapon of some kind. As luck would have it, one of them dropped his laser pis­tol on the ground in his hur­ry to scam­per out the door. I snatched it right up and made my way fur­ther up the ship, a lit­tle more spring in my step now that I had a nice piece of artillery in my hand and noth­ing stick­ing up my rear-end.

I made my way up the fuse­lage of the ship. For such a small bunch of shits, they sure built an awful long bunch of hall­ways. I caught a quick glimpse of a gang of ’em head­ed my way. I took at ’em with my blaster, but the damn thing only turned out to be a fuck­ing TV remote. Next thing I know, all the walls light up with thir­ty two chan­nels of any­thing you can imag­ine. Well, it at least star­tled ’em good, as it did me, but I was quick­er to catch on and took advan­tage. I pitched the damn remote and beamed one of ’em right in the eye. He went down like he meant it and tripped up anoth­er two. That left just one to square off against me and he knew he didn’t have the sand, so he made like a baby and head­ed on out of there.

After that I made a bee-line for the cock­pit. I didn’t have no trou­ble with the feller at the helm; he lit out like a match soon as I poked my head in. Next thing I knew, there was a bunch of real loud pop­ping sounds com­ing from the back of the ship. I looked out the win­dows and seen all these lit­tle met­al con­trap­tions shoot­ing off the side of the space­ship. Escape pods, I fig­ured.

Well, that had me rat­tled for a minute, ’cause I knew that meant it was just me and a big emp­ty ship with no one at the stick. And I felt sure they hadn’t had the cour­tesy to leave it on auto-pilot for me. Shi­tass­es.”

***

I first met Austin Grantham when my fam­i­ly moved here from Atlanta last year and I was wor­ried, at first, about being able to go back for col­lege. It was after the storm and all that big jail­break stuff had qui­et­ed down. It seemed kind of cool at first to be mov­ing to some place sort of famous, but the new of that wore off fast. I remem­ber when we first turned down the road to our house and I saw some guy (who lat­er turned out to be our next-door neigh­bor, Cole) dri­ving a wag­on pulled by a team of oxen. That was about the time I start­ed miss­ing Atlanta.

Austin had walked over to say hel­lo and offer up a hand as we unpacked. He lived right across the street from us. Turned out he’d built our house. Hindsight’s 20/20, I guess. My dad shook his hand and he helped us in with all the big stuff. I noticed he seemed awful­ly strong for an old dude.

One time, a bud­dy and I were out front at my house work­ing on a physics project for school one day as Austin rode up the street on his lawn mow­er. He had an old Dodge some­thing-or-oth­er, but nev­er drove it any­more. “She’s retired,” he’d say. He parked in front of my house and eased over to see what we were doing.

We got halfway through explain­ing what a Rube Gold­berg machine was and he said he knew all about it. Said he’d helped an old friend’s son build one once some years back then warned us not to get our hopes up on tak­ing the record for size, cause that one was a “doozy,” as he put it. He offered to help and we let him drill some holes in some ply­wood for us. It was actu­al­ly pret­ty nice of him. I prob­a­bly would have made a botched job of it myself.

***

Well, I had to think quick.” He con­tin­ues. “She was steady bak­ing for the dirt and me stand­ing there hold­ing the damn bag. First thing, I had to kick the arm­rests off the rock­ing chair just so I could sit the hell down. Damn thing had two sticks instead of one and that shook me. Get­ting the thing under con­trol took a lit­tle doing, but direct­ly I got the hang of her han­dling. There ain’t much land, sea, or air that I can’t jam the gears on, son. She flies a lit­tle like an old spit­fire. Learned on those old boys before I start­ed drop­ping the hot stuff over Cambodia–but you didn‘t hear me say that.

She’d gone into a spin real bad and I kicked hard to pull her out, but I pulled her out all right. After that, it was clear sail­ing for a bit. And, son, that bird could sing. I can’t accu­rate­ly fig­ure how fast I was going, ’cause all the con­trols and gauges was writ­ten in Space-Jap. But, I know I was at least one better’n Mach 5, and that ain’t piss­ing around, son.”

***

Austin used to be, by most accounts, pret­ty hard­core. No one around has much to say against him dur­ing the old days. He had flown crop­dusters even before the war. Dur­ing Viet­nam he pilot­ed F4’s and sent more than a few com­mies to the “hot place,” as they say.

After that he came back and start­ed crop­dust­ing again. And on the week­ends he’d dri­ve up and down Cul­lo­den Coun­ty from Col­lierville to Coal­wa­ter see­ing how many cops he could get to chase him. This was some­thing he did for his own enjoy­ment. The Cul­lo­den Coun­ty Sher­iffs final­ly caught him one day and took him in on reck­less endan­ger­ment. They beat the blue hell out of that man. Tore his knee all to hell. Kicked him so hard in the head one eye turned blood-red and still looks pink today. Folks say that’s what turned him. Oth­ers say he was always off.

He keeps a scare­crow in his front yard for no rea­son. At least none that he’ll ever give us. He wears the same clothes almost every day: old fad­ed Levi’s and den­im shirts. Even in the sum­mer. He’s got a close­ly trimmed beard just as white as his hair except for the tobac­co stains from his pack-a-day habit. He always offers to get us all we want, but I don’t smoke, nor do any of my friends. He let me try real moon­shine once and that was awful.

He's got an old black dog named Bob. Same as every oth­er dog he’s ever owned, peo­ple told us. Guess he likes things sim­ple. Bob tends to fol­low him around half the time grin­ning like an idiot. I like Austin, but I real­ly hate Bob. He gets in our garbage a lot.

***

Got the radio a-going good and tuned to a coun­try show. Loret­ta Lynn was hum­ming as I broke atmo. That’s a fine feel­ing, don’t let ’em fool you. Had a tin­gling in my toes that tick­led me half to death. Cold up there, though, so I dipped back down over Shang­hai and burnt across the night.”

Austin paus­es here to spit and I have to switch bas­kets and notice Mrs. Agnes stand­ing out­side the store watch­ing us. I think she’s always afraid I’m steal­ing some­thing out here.

You ought not lis­ten to him,” she says. “He ain’t nev­er had sense enough to pour piss out of a boot”

Austin doesn’t even hear her any­more, I think. He takes a sip and moves right along. He’s at his favorite part because he always gets a lit­tle jumpy right here and chuck­les a lot.

Didn’t get halfway through Cali ’fore I had them damn Apache heli­copters after me. Fuck­ing Yan­kee gov­ern­ment bas­tards. They was slap­ping rock­ets at me left and right and I was slid­ing that heap all over the sky duck­ing and dodg­ing. And if there was a but­ton to fire a laser or shoot a bomb any­where about me, I nev­er found it. I was begin­ning to think these Mars­men didn’t know the first thing about advanced weapon­ry. Soft­head­ed sons of bitch­es.

Since shoot­ing was out, on my part at least, I took them blue­coats south­east to Mon­u­ment Val­ley and start­ed weav­ing in and out of them cracks and gorges. Sure enough, that had ’em pop­ping like fire­crack­ers upside them moun­tains. Whooeee! That was a sight. Nev­er a sequel to that in a life of Sun­days.

I touched down in a lit­tle cove in Jamaica. And parked her out of sight and foot­ed on into a lit­tle beach town I used haunt back in my ser­vice days. I hocked a cou­ple twen­ties I had with me for some rum-mon­ey and took a seat at this lit­tle out­door bar called Moek’s. Twitchy sort of place, but a good spot to sip a beer or piña cola­da and kick ‘em back for a few.

Feller at the bar asks me ‘what can I do you for?’ and I holler at him to pour me some rum with a whiskey chas­er and stick some ice in ’em see­ing it was hot enough cook hog on the asphalt. He goes in that the only drink they serve cold is Red Stripe Beer and how it’ll do me one just as good as them oth­ers. I tell him I got no time for beer. I need some­thing with some pep. Then he starts on about Red Stripe Beer being 15 per­cent alco­hol con­tent which I well know is a damn lie. Ain’t no beer one bet­ter than 6 per­cent that I’ve come across. He goes in then about how it’s all dif­fer­ent in dif­fer­ent coun­tries and I’m get­ting aggra­vat­ed and tell him to shut his ass about Amer­i­ca else I’ll have to slap the black out of his mouth and on and on like that we went ’til, direct­ly, I don’t recall how, I wound up with a tall glass of Red Stripe Beer in my hand and was suck­ing it down like it was God’s own gro­ceries. I declare that was good beer and worth the 80 cents I paid for it, too. So, nat­u­ral­ly I paid anoth­er 80 cents and then anoth­er and he kept ’em com­ing.”

***

With his knee gone bad, Austin took to work­ing in a lit­tle shop next to the gen­er­al store: Grantham's Car­pen­try, Appli­ance, Out­boards and Air­plane Repair. Build­ing cab­i­nets and tables, fix­ing out­boards or small engines, appli­ance repair, that kind of stuff. As far as I know, no one's ever dropped a plane off for him to fix, but I bet he knows how. Appar­ent­ly some­where in there he’d tak­en the time to build a house and sell it. Least­ways, he made enough mon­ey to keep him in tequi­la which he sam­pled from fre­quent­ly.

He had a five hun­dred dol­lar smile, as he put it, since he had half his teeth kicked out by the cops and the oth­er half pulled to make room for a fake set. He car­ried him­self like a twen­ty-year old man, despite the age, the booze and a poor diet. Aside from tequi­la, all I ever watched him eat were ham sand­wich­es and hon­ey-buns he bought out of the store.

Once, my mom had me out help­ing her weed the front lawn. She likes to have a clean yard at all times at the expense of my video games. Between her and my dad farm­ing me out to do odd jobs, like the one I’m doing, it’s a won­der I ever get any­thing done.

We tossed all the pulled weeds into a card­board box that we were going to burn. Then Austin came over and asked if he could have them. I shot a half weird look at him, but didn’t think too much of it. It was Austin, after all. My mom asked what on Earth for and he explained that we were pulling up sweet grass and that it was good to eat. Then, he pulled a big hunk out and stuck it in his mouth and start­ed chew­ing like a damn cow. I shook my head and sat down on the car bumper, glad, at least, for a short break. Then he takes some and hands it to my mom and urges her to try it. My mom always tries to be polite and it usu­al­ly gets her in trou­ble. So, nat­u­ral­ly, not want­i­ng to be rude she sticks some in her mouth, too, and goes to gnaw­ing on it. ‘Yeah it is sweet,’ she’d said and turned to me giv­ing a ‘what the hell?’ look. Mom, it’s Austin! I want­ed to yell at her. But, I didn’t.

***

I don’t recall now how many I had, all told, aside to say I woke up face down in a sweaty bed and short a few more twen­ties. I stood up and had a look around. I wasn’t sure where I was. I had to pri­or­i­tize. First things first, I took a piss. That took a minute. Slow­ly, I remem­bered the beer and the bar­tender and Jamaica. Then I tried to remem­ber how I got there and that part was com­ing up fuzzy. I had the vague impres­sion it had involved some kind of fly­ing, but the exacts of it escaped me. But, then, I had worse prob­lems on the way.

I pulled my jeans back on and spent half an hour cussing and look­ing for my shirt before I remem­bered I wasn’t wear­ing one in the first place. So, I stole one out the clos­et of the room I spent the night in. Kind of a check­ered blue and white deal, short sleeves. I did hap­pen to notice the pair of women’s panties beside the bed, but didn’t think enough of it at the moment.

I stepped out the door and head­ed back the way I thought I come, that being toward the bar. I found that same bar­tender, I assume, and give him the third degree on what hap­pened. He claimed I tipped him plen­ty and took off with some Cuban woman half an inch taller than me. Well, that didn’t make a heap of sense. I’m nev­er one to tip a man too much. It ain’t my style. It did at least seem to offer an answer to the panties I’d seen, not that I real­ly need­ed one bad­ly.

What I did need was a clear con­cept of where the hell I’d come from and most impor­tant­ly how the blue hell to get back. I walked into the main mar­ket area of the town, not know­ing exact­ly what I was look­ing for, and rather hop­ing it would just find me. And it did, of a sort.

This woman comes up to me, lays a nasty one on my face and rubs her leg up and down the back side of mine. She was about the height the man at the bar described and looked it, too. She spilled half out the lit­tle red dress she had on and that didn’t hurt my eyes a whole lot. She had a face to club a hip­py for and legs long as you like, I don’t care who you are. She was stacked up.”

This part is kind of new. There was a woman last time I heard it but she didn’t fac­tor in much and was cer­tain­ly not as high­ly praised in her descrip­tion. Makes me won­der what inspired the change. Maybe Austin got lucky here recent­ly.

‘Baby,’ she says to me as I’m try­ing not too hard to fig­ure out who she is and why she’s so keen on me. ‘I thought you be in the bed still. You drink too much last night.’ Well, that was a fact. I stared her up and down a time or two more and gen­uine­ly had no mem­o­ry of her what­so­ev­er. She start­ed in about how hap­py she was to be my wife and how hap­py our life was going to be togeth­er and five or six oth­er things of the kind that I only half heard as I stepped on down the block, telling her I had to see about a thing with a guy with a boat, which wasn’t but half a lie. She was fine to look at, but I had her right off as a Yan­kee gov­ern­ment spy done fol­lowed me down this way. May or may not’ve been, but either way the last thing I need was some for­eign woman nip­ping at my heels every­where I go. A wife’ll bring you to harm, son. Remem­ber that one alone if noth­ing else.”

***

Austin was mar­ried once that I know of to a woman named Bertha Ann Mosley from Chero­kee Coun­ty. Some mayor’s daugh­ter or some­thing, but she left him right after the war, I think. She took their son with her and sup­pos­ed­ly had it fixed so Austin nev­er got to see him any­more. At least that’s what I heard.

There’s a lit­tle creek that runs through about a half mile behind my house. I used to walk back there and sit by the bank and pitch rocks at the water, just me and my thoughts. Austin found me back there once and cussed me pret­ty good for being the one scar­ing off all his cat­fish. Claimed it used to be the best fish­ing hole this part of the coun­ty ’til I came along. At first, I was just irri­tat­ed at him for inter­rupt­ing me, but then I did kind of feel bad. I had this image in my head of him com­ing out here to this same place, doing just about the same thing, sit­ting and think­ing. I could see him there with his fish­ing rod, only in my head there still were no fish, just him and the world all alone.

After that we would throw bread­crumbs in two or three days a week get­ting them back used to it being a good feed­ing ground. Then Austin showed me how to bait a worm on a hook just right so it wouldn’t wig­gle off or get stole by a too-clever fish. No one had ever showed me how to fish before. Wasn’t long before we got to where we catch a few, or most­ly Austin does. I usu­al­ly just sit there and hold my pole and lis­ten to him spin yarns about all the bull­shit he half makes up. He talks about atom­ic bombs going off and earth­quakes and giant tigers and crazy cults and about the Grady broth­ers and a lot about some guy named Hank who was, I think, their uncle or some­thing. It’s tough to keep track of. I got that he knew them all, and that Hank was some­body at least as crazy as Austin is. But, he died a long time ago. I guess Austin just miss­es him.

***

Fig­ur­ing they was wise to me and I was like­ly pulling a tail, I had lit­tle inten­tion of lead­ing ‘em straight back to the ship and get­ting a set of steel bracelets for my trou­ble. So, I shot straight for the docks and thumbed on back up to the Gulf. Made land just out­side of Mobile, thanked a feller and head­ed for the bus sta­tion. Bought a cheap seat back here to Cul­lo­den Coun­ty and breathed a long one glad to be out of a pick­le like that. Had no idea how I was like­ly to get back down there and get that bird back and tell the truth, son, I still ain’t worked out the kinks.”

Austin paus­es here as he always does when he tells this sto­ry. He gives a vacant stare out into nowhere and takes anoth­er sip from his cof­fee cup. He hocks some phlegm into his throat and spits it on the ground.

I have a hard time real­ly imag­in­ing Austin with a kid of his own, some­how. I won­der how old he is, his son, if he real­ly has one. It makes me too sad to think about too long, though. I guess that’s why I’m not sure I believe it. I think, as weird as Austin is, he’d have been an awe­some dad, the kind I’d wished I had when I was more of a kid. My dad is bet­ter at mak­ing mon­ey than mak­ing up sto­ries about aliens. Win some, lose some, I guess.

Lord knows they must have found it by now,” He says after a while. “I mean how else you think they fig­ured out all this inter­net horse­shit? No way that’s reg­u­lar old human tech­nol­o­gy. That’s them space-midgets’ giz­mos sure as any­thing. Bet me on it.

Yeah, they prob­ly got it stored in some ware­house half took apart some­where. And it just fur­ther proves they could beat this gas shit any­time they damn well please to, they just don’t care. They milk­ing us six ways from Sun­day on that score, all right. They could strip that bad boy apart and build a car to run the same way or I’m a flat out liar.”

He spits again and sits a long while silent­ly. Direct­ly, I notice a huge white cloud of smoke bil­low­ing up from behind him. It’s com­ing right up from his shop and now it stinks, too.

Austin,” I say, “You know your shop’s smok­ing real bad.”

He turns to look and then turns back to me, shrugs a bit and sips his drink. The smoke keeps bil­low­ing and I don’t know what to do exact­ly, so I just sit and stare at it a while. The smoke is pour­ing out of every crack and cor­ner of the shop and drift­ing slow­ly south­east. A Fish and Game truck pulls in to the store and Clayt Ram­sey, the game war­den, spills out.

Hey, Austin, your shop’s smok­ing,” he says.

I know,” Austin replies.

Well, all right, then,’ he says head­ed in the door. “Long as you know.”

***

We sit here for a while, silent. I keep look­ing at the smoke while Austin sips and ignores it–the deep­est thought going on in his head prob­a­bly whether he should have anoth­er hon­ey bun or not–and I think about how odd it is–all this. I’ll go back to Atlanta in a month and a half to stay with my grand­dad for col­lege. More often than not my par­ents will come to me for the hol­i­days rather than me to them.

It occurs to me I may not ever see Austin again. I used to won­der if any­thing he told me was maybe part­ly true or his own weird ver­sion of some­thing that did hap­pen, but I final­ly decid­ed I don’t want to know. I think I like his ver­sions bet­ter and I know he does, like the time him and Hank Grady raced across the world to see who could come back with the best tast­ing can of beer, or when they attached a snow­plow to a rock­et-pow­ered eigh­teen-wheel­er and wrecked through a thou­sand police cars. He just does it so peo­ple will keep think­ing he's crazy and leave him alone. I don't think he likes what the world turned into. I know I’ll actu­al­ly miss that about him and all the oth­er things about this place I don’t real­ly under­stand.

The smoke from his shop is start­ing to taper off and Austin final­ly turns back to look. He sets his cup down direct­ly and stands up to crack his back.

Well,” he says. “Guess I’ll go see if them roach­es is dead.”

 

Jason Stu­art grew up eat­ing squir­rel meat and moon pies. He once jumped over a rat­tlesnake while win­ning a foot-race against a giant. He picked peas, pota­toes and corn by the bushel every morn­ing most of the sum­mers of his young life and spent the rest of the after­noon shuck­ing and shelling. He loaded chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­er for a while until his foot turned yel­low and he quit (though he still doesn’t care a jot for organ­ic agri­cul­ture). He’s dri­ven a truck (poor­ly, he might add), washed dish­es, tend­ed bar, cleaned up bars, poured con­crete, built hous­es, run a movie house, served process, worked cat­tle, and, at times, lived in his truck. He once had to arbi­trate a gun­fight regard­ing own­er­ship of a chain­saw dur­ing the after­math of a hur­ri­cane. Some­where along in there, he went to col­lege, the par­tic­u­lars of which are not ter­ri­bly inter­est­ing. Alco­hol was involved. He now resides on the beach in Mis­sis­sip­pi and works on an Air Force base, though he is not, him­self, an air­man. He has sev­er­al lawyers but still no agent. He rides a motor­cy­cle and roots for the Gators. He has not, as of this writ­ing, shot a shark with his .357 mag­num.

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