“You got anything for me?” I asked Kyle. I was sitting in his wheelchair and he was lying in bed. He was pretty well naked, but he was generally naked when he was at home. Maybe some sweatpants, sometimes. But right then he’d just got out of the shower, and lay there under just his sheet.
“There’s some T-3’s in that bottle,” he said, pointing towards the shelf on the far side of his room. His grandpa was down in kitchen, just a short ways off his room, and was making dinner. Samantha was helping him. “You got anything for me?” he asked.
I put a five dollar bill on the bed, just out of his reach and I stood, the straightening of my knees pushing the chair backwards and away. I walked across the room and shook two pills from the bottle. I chewed them like Tums and walked back to the side of his bed. If I was to get him out of the house tonight, first I’d have to get him dressed.
“Samantha,” he hollered. He didn’t reach for the five or even watch me as I moved. His eyes were tuned to his TV, his mouth towards the door. He never turned that TV off, not even when he had his radio on. It was a constant roar in the little room. The paneling shook, and the heavy cigarette smoke, pulsed.
“I’m hurrying,” she shouted back.
I hadn’t seen her except when she opened the door to his room for me. She had been dressed plain and easy, a simple white t-shirt and jeans, but she still looked good. I don’t know how he got her to stay, she just seemed to stay. But for what one don’t know.
“Hurry up, Goddamn it. I can’t take my pills without any food,” he said, all of us knowing he didn’t need not one more. But what’s a person gonna tell a cripple?
Kyle had got hurt when the skidder he was running had tipped over. He’d rolled down a hill, the roof landing on him at the bottom. When I’d heard, I’d pictured the top of that yellow Caterpillar tipping and coming down on him like a jaw. It had nearly bit him in half. When I’d heard, I kept thinking about night crawlers and how we’d pinch them in two when we fished. He would have died if his boss hadn’t found him and called the paramedics. He was lucky.
“You need to get out of here,” I said. “Get your shit together, and let’s get.”
“You going to dress me? It’ll be fun.” It wasn’t exactly humor filled. His black hair hung loose almost to his shoulders. It had been long before the accident, but he had refused to cut it since. “Hand me my cowboy hat,” he said, pointing towards a black Stetson on the floor to my right. I didn’t move. Samantha would help him change after she brought him dinner. I would go and sit with his grandpa while she was doing it. He would ask me about my folks, about my long gone brother. But the whole time I would be thinking about her rolling him, shifting him. Eventually she would come get me and we would go.
“You’re going all-out tonight, then?” I asked Kyle, straight.
“If you’re gonna go, it might as well be all the way.” He turned his face towards the door then back to me. “Where in the fuck is my chicken?” he asked. His eyes, dark brown, looked flaked.
We got to McNeal’s about midnight. Kyle didn’t get up before late afternoon any day of the week, so midnight was the middle of his day. I was tired, and not just because the pills had started to work through me. But my nose was itching. The thing about pills like that, at least as far as I’m concerned, isn’t that they make you feel better. A lot of the time they just make things bearable. Smoother. Life gets to be like the sound of ice skates, if that makes sense.
Kyle had sat beside me during the drive over, while Samantha had been wedged in the backseat with his wheel-chair. We took my car because her car was too small for the four of us, if you count the wheel chair as one. She had to sit in the broke down pieces for everything to fit. My trunk was full of clothes, so we had jammed it into the seat.
The unloading was tougher than the loading. I didn’t know what to do to help Samantha, so I just stood back. He nearly hit the ground when the board he used to slide himself into his chair tilted back. He caught himself on the top of my door. I heard the cheap metal of my car bow, his weight bending something.
“That door ain’t gonna shut right,” he said. He arranged himself in the chair. I started to walk and Kyle didn’t roll forward, just sat there looking.
“Do it yourself,” I said. But it wasn’t mean spirited.
“I’ll do it, Jimmy,” Samantha said. She had changed from the t-shirt into a yellow tank top. She had kept the jeans. I had watched from behind as she changed in Kyle’s room. She hadn’t been shy about it. She turned around and pulled her shirt off. Her browned skin was white where her bra line was. Angry red bands stood out on her shoulders from the straps. I could see light hairs forming a v-shape above the waist of her jeans. Kyle didn’t even look.
“Push me, woman,” Kyle said, and I shook my head.
Samantha didn’t say a word, just grabbed the chair’s handles, and pushed through the wet grass. I thought she would slip in the dew, but she didn’t. He pulled a cigarette from a pouch somewhere on the chair and struggled to light it as she worked her way to the backyard. We could hear the music and talking from where we were. The McNeal’s were rich. They’d gone to Tennessee for the week, a vacation, and left their only boy to watch the house. He had his own place outside of town, but was throwing a party like he was still in high school.
“People will think that I’m shittin’em,” Kyle said. He couldn’t get the cigarette lit, the jostling of the chair making his hands bounce and the tip of itdance.
“They all know,” I said. Not very many people visited him now.
Lots of people came in the beginning, but as time wore on, and the novelty, something, wore off, fewer and fewer came. Now it was me, Samantha, and a couple more. Our other good friend, Dale, had moved away pretty recently. He went sober and moved to Columbus. It seems funny to move to a city to get sober, but sometimes it works. It’s not really the sober part that’s surprising, it’s that he was able to stay out.
It used to be that the three of us, Dale, Kyle and me. Once, when Dale, Kyle and I lived together, Dale and I talked about Kyle and Samantha. This was before the accident. I told him that Kyle didn’t deserve Samantha and he said I was right. Kyle was cheating on her with some little blonde. That girl was married to a guy in the army. He was in the Iraq, and Kyle was sleeping with his wife. She kept seeing him after the accident, even after Samantha moved in. She didn’t stop until she saw Samantha put a catheter in him. Dale had said that Samantha would look a lot better if she’d lose the ten pounds she’d put on since graduation. “I’m not saying she ain’t good looking, I’m just saying we’d all be better off with a little less extra poundage.”
But he wasn’t going to be here, and Samantha didn’t need to lose any weight.
“Well, hello there,” Kyle said, laughing as we turned the corner of the house. A fire was burning close to the deck of an above ground pool. Extra wood lay underneath the deck, up to the edge of the pool. Even though it was hot and there was a fire, the pool was empty except for the dozens of floating beer cans. Trucks were circled like wagons in the grass, their lights all pointing inwards towards the fire. The music blared from the trucks’ radios. It was pretty organized for that group, all the radios on the same local station that played new country. One truck, a red-cabbed flat-bed dually, was backed up to the very edge of the pool. The treble on its radio was threatening to shred the speakers.
“I need something to drink. You want anything?” I asked them.
“See if anyone has a bottle of wine I can buy,” Kyle said.
“I’ll get my own,” Samantha said. People who hadn’t been to see Kyle were beginning to inch towards us.
I had always thought Samantha was tough, but these last few months proved it. Her father had left when she was young, and then everything that happened with her own grandpa, but she didn’t talk about it. Really, she didn’t talk much. But when she did, she seemed happier than she had any right to be.
I walked away from them, trying to get lost in the party. My head buzzed from the drugs, I knew I would get sick eventually, but didn’t care. I went around and thought about begging beers. I didn’t really talk to anyone, but I wasn’t the most popular guy in the world. I stood next to the fire, kicked at it, made sure it kept burning. I watched Kyle and Samantha. She stood behind him, drinking slowly from a bottle, and he held court. That’s what it looked like anyway.
It’s easier to get lost in a party of thirty than people think. Somebody had turned the outside lights of the house on. People had been pouring in and out of the first floor. It was beginning to become a mess.
I’d surprised myself by not drinking. I’d got to talking with some boys I’d gone to school with, Turley and some other Jenkins. It may have been one of his brothers. All those boys seem to get rolled up. Big and tall the lot of them. But I’d rode those pills out and was beginning to feel myself.
Turley was nearly kin now. He was gonna marry a cousin of mine, or so the story went. After what my uncle had done to him after he got my cousin pregnant, I don’t see how he could. I would’ve been scared to come within a mile of the girl, but Turley still kept hanging around. I’d asked them if they had any wine, finally, feeling guilty. Turley had laughed and had walked into the house. He brought a bottle back out and held it by its neck. His hands looked big enough to wrap the neck twice and strong enough to wring the cork straight out.
“I found it,” he said. “Swear to God. Right there on the ground. Just laying. Someone must have dropped it.” His cousin or his brother slapped him on the shoulder, laughing. I grinned back at them. Their arms thick as rolled rope, seemed to grow like branches out of their t-shirts.
“Take care of that baby cousin of mine,” I said. I took the bottle by its bottom
Turley counted up on the fingers of his just emptied hand. Counted up through four, and when he got to his thumb he looked at me, serious as a heart attack, “Which one?”
I stared at him. I knew he was joking, trying to rile me. I spun the bottle in my hand. The label on it looked weathered. I wondered if it was old or if it was just treated to seem that way. It rasped as I spun it, the edges catching on the hack-sawed edges of my nails.
“You love that little girl?” I pointed the sealed cork at him. The red and purple foil caught the light from the fire. It would flash and crinkle gold.
“Aww,” he said. He moved towards me, slightly down the long aching hill that ended somewhere off this ridge, down in some hollow somewhere. “That baby’s mine,” he said. He turned and seemed to look at the pool. “That ought to be enough.” The brother walked off, knowing when, I suppose, to leave something alone.
“I hope it is,” I said. I wasn’t sure what I was protecting, or even if I was.
“Let’s open that thing,” he said. He jerked it out of my hand and walked back towards the house. I followed him. He walked straight in the sliding glass doors straight into the kitchen. His big work boots, light brown and leather, thumped across the hardwood of the kitchen. There were other people inside. Hid off in bedrooms and on couches. The glow of a TV quivered around a corner. Turley dug through the drawers swearing.
“Goddamn,” he said, “folks as rich as this ought to have a corkscrew laid out in the open.”
“Yeah, I reckon they ought’a,” I said. The kitchen and the dining room were nearly on top of each other. There was a little table that looked out onto the lawn and the pool, and I sat down in one of the wooden chairs. The seats of them were faced with cushions, blue and red checks. They were tied to the backs of the seats by ribbons. It felt almost like I was sitting in the kitchen.
The hardwood stretched through both, and it all smelled like lemons and bleach. I thought back on that little trailer that we used to share, me, Kyle and Dale. Cigarettes and whiskey. It’s not such a bad smell when you get used to it. Sweet warm beer, sticky in the morning sun. The table was clean and smooth, not even crumbs from their toast or sugar from their coffee.
“Found one,” he said. He held both up to me. The corkscrew was ivory handled and shaped like a ‘t’. The screw of it seemed about two inches too long. There was a roar from outside, and I heard a truck rumble to life. I didn’t look outside, afraid the fire had done something. “This thing’s worth more than both of us put together,” he said.
Turley stabbed the cork through the foil working it in, setting his jaw like a man who was enjoying his work, a pleasure from a job hard done. He tugged twice, then a long slow shuddering pull, and the cork popped out. He smelled it, waving it in front of his nose. “Very fine year, sir. Some of the best wine I’ve ever found.” The tip of the screw had burst through the under side. Pieces of cork clung to it. I was afraid he would catch the end of his nose. He didn’t get glasses, just sat down beside me, collapsing his long body into this family’s kitchen chairs.
“So how about you, Jimmy? You got a woman?” He drank, the green rim of the bottle hidden behind his lips. His black hair was shaved short. It was summer. His kid was six months old.
‘I don’t know,” I said. I took the bottle from him. I wanted to wipe it off, but then thought how that would look, him nearly my own blood, and just drank. I could feel it in my teeth, the acid of the wine biting my tongue and my gums, burning and hurting. “No.” I said.
“Aww,” he said. “But I saw you looking at that little girl out there. Your boy’s girl,” he started snapping his fingers, looking down and away. The TV in the other room was laughing and blue, footsteps thumped upstairs, and for a second my world lurched and I wondered if this was what life was really like. “What’s her name,” he said. “Grandpa just died?”
“Samantha.” I said.
“Yeah, Samantha. I seen the way you look at her.”
“Just looking,” I said. I handed the bottle back to him. “You know how it is.”
He drank from the bottle. I watched the apple on his throat move up and down as he drank the McNeal’s wine. When he lowered it there was red around his lips. His teeth were stained purple. “I know,” he said.
There was third roar from outside, this time louder and I looked out. The flat-bed truck, raised high on its suspension, had been backed closer to the edge of the pool. People were diving in off of the flat of the back. It was somebody’s dad’s work truck. Kyle had positioned himself next to the wheel-well. I could see him shouting up at the four boys in the back of the truck. They were all stripped down to their underwear. One was in briefs, the other three in boxers. The red and brown hair of their heads was slicked back. They glowed in the light from the fire which had grown considerably. It had worked its way up to the deck, smoldering and scorching the treated lumber. Everyone seemed to know what was going to happen, but no one cared.
I stood up from the table, the chair pushing back and away from me. Turley seemed to say something to me as I walked out. I slid the door hard, angry at what was going to happen. It banged into the house, and I grimaced thinking about the sound of all that plate glass. Samantha was at the truck, her shoulders barely coming to the door handles. I could see the mud sticking to the underside of it. She was trying to talk to Kyle. The four boys jumped down barefoot and heaved him up onto the wooden bed. I jogged to the bed, licking my lips trying to get the stain off.
Kyle was in the back of the truck, the light from the growing fire licking at the treated lumber—swelling up around it—and he was smiling. He was wearing his cowboy hat but had taken off his shirt. The scars from the accident looked purple in the light. There were four round scars the size of quarters from his chest tubes. There were scars running down his belly disappearing into his sweats where they had fixed his pelvis. I could see scar running down his shoulders, disappearing onto his back. It’s hard to tell sometimes where the doctors stop and the accident starts.
The other boys scrambled back onto the bed. I looked at Samantha.
“He won’t listen,” she said.
“Goin’ all out,” Kyle shouted. The music bounced into the heady night air. He leaned forward. “You all want to see something crazy?” He started to push at the wheels as hard as he could. The bed was seven feet, and when he’d reached the end, he’d barely reached any kind of speed at all. The chair seemed to tip off the back of the truck. One wheel caught the aluminum edge of the pool, snapping him down into the utter black of the water, his voice, disappeared a sudden. The music kept up, so did the sound of the flames. No one moved.
The chair floated to the surface, the seats on it lifting it, but Kyle didn’t come back up. I felt Samantha’s hand on my arm. I wasn’t sure whether she was holding or pushing but I went. The boys on the truck didn’t move. I heard Turley shut the door to the house, the same rasping and slapping sound it had made for me. I lunged over the edge, my knees banging and shaking the whole thing.
I didn’t go under but for a moment. My shoes finding the bottom, my hands finding Kyle, his arms thrashing and beating in the water. He struck at me hand and at my wrists. My fingers slipped over his skin. I felt his scars, the soft and always tender lumps of his flesh. The pink puckers of skin where the doctors had fixed what was nearly ruined. I dug at him, going under finally, into the ink of the water, grabbing him not with my hands but my arms. I raised him up in an embrace, gripping him tight under his arms. We came out of the water together, his legs touching mine like tentacles. I remembered when we were kids, fighting and rolling with him, testing each other like animals.
He sputtered water into my face. “I’m swimming, Jimmy,” he said. His long black hair streaked back from his raising straight from the water. It made him look younger. His face was nearly translucent, and I wondered the last time he’d seen the sun.
“You was drowning, Kyle,” I said. He was taller than me. I had forgotten. I could feel his thighs bending back and away from me as I held him, my hands locked behind his back. I looked first to the deck, but the flames had covered it. The crowd had moved to watch it instead of Kyle. They were cheering it to go, hoping it on. I carried and pulled him towards the truck, the water sickeningly warm. Samantha watched us, watched him. She glanced at me and nodded, sharp and hard. She was asking for him. I stopped, the waves pushing us together, lapping at us. The warmth of the fire made me think that it would circle us, surround us, the aluminum, melting and dripping into the grass, the edges, bow and bend, before they gave way, and the two of us would be washed out and rushed towards Samantha, towards her feet, a mess of arms and legs. But the real light from the flames cast her shadow back and away, up the slight rise towards the house. It stretched to Turley, the dark bottle in his hand—Turley, who watched us all now, was covered in the ink of her.
Jeff Wallace received his MA in American Literature and his MFA in Fiction from Indiana University. He is the author of numerous short stories and has been published in magazines such as The Louisville Review, Appalachian Heritage, Keyhole Magazine, Plain Spoke, and in such online journals as New Southerner, and Still:The Journal. He lives in Mt. Orab, Ohio with his wife Emily, son Oscar, and mutt Memphis. He currently teaches at Southern State Community College and is working on his first novel The True Story of the Appalachian Revolution.