Castoffs, by Lindsey Walker

How would this look to a cop, hang­ing halfway inside the unlatched win­dow with C.J. boost­ing me through? It is dark inside, but I grip what I think is the short side edge of a farm­house table, pull my knees in and jump down into the smell of old base­ment, into air like a greasy thigh. My climb­ing hands dirty now, I open the side door out to a stair­less met­al porch and let a chair down for C.J. to climb on. He is fat and has more than thir­ty years on me and is not a good climber. He winds up with a stripe of black grime run­ning down one jeans leg. And it is here, dur­ing my first and only break­ing-and-enter­ing, while wait­ing for my pupils to catch up the low light, that I real­ize I prob­a­bly won’t see him again. Between our minds a ravine spreads nar­row but deep, one that shared his­to­ry can’t bridge. But in real time, we stand ankle deep in dis­card­ed junk in a store­house nei­ther one of us owns. The roof is a tin can split long­ways half in two, and the rust­ed parts let in only cracks of fog-light and song­less birds that roost in high shad­ows. 

Before today, I hadn’t seen C.J. in years, not since I’d moved from the north Geor­gia woods to “Go west, young man,” to Eugene and then Seat­tle. I was mar­ried at the time to a So Cal punk rock­er, and we had left for no good rea­son, except all our friends were small-town tweek­ers. We had no jobs wait­ing for us, just a sin­gle-wide trail­er with a wood stove for heat, tucked in ferns up the Willamette. On the night I left, C.J. gave me a pen­dant with­out a neck­lace: a com­i­cal­ly large cross made of sil­ver, mar­c­a­site, and gar­net, one that would serve bet­ter for hunt­ing vam­pires than for wear­ing to church. And he said, “If I was twen­ty years younger…” and I said, “If I was twen­ty years old­er…” even though I lied. Our dif­fer­ences were greater than age even then.

The first time I met C.J. he was work­ing as a boun­ty hunter, though I heard he used to restore antique fur­ni­ture, used to have a wife (a florist!) and kid, used to be in bed by ten o’clock on a Sat­ur­day night. What I’m say­ing is he got tired of rou­tine, so he quit it. I had trou­ble imag­in­ing him in this oth­er life, because, like I said, he was a boun­ty hunter, only wore black tee shirts and jeans, a cow­boy hat, Bic’d head, and one rat­tlesnake tail for an ear­ring. He wore a six-gun on his hip and kicked around in The Cypress Lounge, a strip club down in Mari­et­ta. He nev­er took drugs him­self, but didn’t mind if a dancer need­ed a lit­tle bump to light­en her mood. Right before I met him, he’d hooked up with a gal named Jade, who he’d met out­side the jail­house in Hol­ly Springs, her bleached hair gone brassy from sham­poo­ing in water from rust­ed pipes. She’d been locked up for assault­ing a cop. Bit him just below the eye. They made her wear a straight­jack­et in the cell until she sobered up. What I’m say­ing is: C.J. got tired of doing things the right way.

And that was fine with me. I had a fear then that I still hold now, a fear of becom­ing a bor­ing per­son, of wak­ing up one day in a pressed shirt and a house smelling of Glade plug-ins. This was our shared fear, I soon learned. Nei­ther C.J. nor I under­stood why so many peo­ple chose qui­et lives of mod­er­ate mis­ery. We val­ued “inter­est­ing” above all. C.J.’s solu­tion entailed a Harley, a risky job, and a wild woman. As for me, I chose to fix it by shav­ing a mohawk, get­ting a Germs burn, and hang­ing in dirty punk clubs in down­town Atlanta. Jade hired me to do body pierc­ing at a bou­tique she ran. The main store­front was low-ceilinged, dusty, dim­ly lit, with shelves over­flow­ing with dis­played curiosi­ties: fake shrunk­en heads made of goat skin, antique taxi­dermy of strange ani­mals (sea tur­tle, raven, beaver) with dust motes gath­er­ing over their glass eyes, and an extract­ed gyp­sy from a quar­ter-slot for­tune teller booth. That’s where I met C.J., first over the phone. He called the shop at ten a.m., and I could tell he’d been up all night; his voice sound­ed like it’d been dragged for a mile behind a trac­tor. He called and said, “Jade’s drunk again. Hide the mon­ey and the guns.” So, I padded my bra with yesterday’s cash, sank the pis­tol in the toi­let tank, wrapped the shot­gun in a blan­ket behind the python’s ter­rar­i­um, and was being cool, man, cool while Jade rum­maged through the cash box and stole her own jew­el­ry from the dis­play case.

I worked for them both off and on for five years. I got to know them bet­ter than I want­ed to. C.J. believed in ghosts and lived in half-col­lapsed house with a squir­rel-infest­ed top floor. He let a home­less man called Chief stay in his van undis­turbed in an emp­ty lot he owned, even gave the guy ten bucks a day for food. He missed his ex-wife and messed around with floozies every time Jade split town or got arrest­ed. These broads stopped by the shop look­ing for him, and he ducked behind the cloth­ing racks while I made up non­sense to shake them off. “He’s not here,” I said. “He’s in jail. He got in a bar fight and got arrest­ed. I don’t know when he’ll be back” or “He went to Mex­i­co, for sug­ar skulls and icons and these bones that tell the future.” The women left, he laughed, and I told him he owed me.

Then Jade would come back, and she could always tell. C.J. found out that her brain worked dif­fer­ent­ly than most people’s. One of the sev­er­al times she left him for good, she wrapped a whole raw chick­en in a heat­ing blan­ket and plugged it in under his bed, not hot enough to cook, just warm enough to rot faster. Anoth­er time, she squeezed all his blonde beard dye from the tube and replaced it with bright red. But the more she drank, the less cre­ative she became in act­ing out her lit­tle hates. She had about five inch­es on him, a real Valkyrie, broad-shoul­dered, and she fought like a man. He had a black eye when I saw him next, and she had a chunk of hair miss­ing that she tried to dis­guise by part­ing it on the oth­er side. I watched Jade devolve, until she was straight drink­ing Lis­ter­ine and shoot­ing bul­lets through the dry­wall in his house.

C.J. drove all his friends away. Even the strip­pers didn’t want any part, scared of what Jade would do if she found out. C.J., who lost every­thing but his reli­gion, start­ed beg­ging God in his night­time prayers, beg­ging God to die quick­ly in his sleep. And I said, I love you both, but I can’t do this any­more. That’s when I split for Ore­gon. A month or two after I moved, the shop closed. And that’s where we left off.

Now C.J. hears I’m in town and tracks my num­ber down. It’s Decem­ber, and though it had snowed sev­er­al inch­es three days ear­li­er, it’s almost sev­en­ty degrees when we meet up. Sog­gy earth sucks at my boot heels, and the sky looks like rain. Naked oak branch­es bend low, and all the hous­es have twin­kle lights in the win­dows. Out past the nut­house where Jade is locked up with wet brain, we catch up over bar­be­cue. I decide this is the worst way to meet up with any­one, gnaw­ing bones like dogs do, sauce on cheeks and chin.

It’s weird see­ing old friends. We dis­ap­point each oth­er. My hair has grown out to a respectable length; C.J. wears a shirt with but­tons and a col­lar. He’s learned how to roll a sil­ver dol­lar across his knuck­les after read­ing in a book that P.T. Bar­num used to do it. He is no longer a boun­ty hunter; he’s an auc­tion­eer now, split­ting time between Wales­ka and Gib­son­ton, Flori­da, sell­ing off Depres­sion-era cir­cus junk, like carousel hors­es and Fer­ris wheel seats. He tells me Jade shim­mied out a win­dow three weeks ago, but the police found her under a bridge and hauled her back, rais­ing hell. He knows, because he’s still list­ed as her emer­gency con­tact. C.J. says the old shop is haunt­ed and that if I stand out­side late at night, I’ll see a light mov­ing back and forth on the top floor, pass­ing clear through a brick wall. The new own­ers, he says, told him they lock up every night, but when they come in the morn­ing, the door’s always open.

I say I always want­ed to live in a haunt­ed house, but I’ve nev­er seen a ghost.

He says he tried to buy a store­house just because it looked haunt­ed, but the deal fell through, and do I want to go look at it?

We take his truck down Hick­o­ry Flat High­way and wind around east where the tracks cross. No oth­er build­ings crowd the street, and few cars pass by. We pull off the main road and park in a clear­ing where the grav­el has washed out. Three rust­ed tanks stand three men high each, and I won­der what they used to hold. I say the build­ing looks beat but not spooked. He says he’s nev­er actu­al­ly been inside. But the chain link is bent at one cor­ner, and some­body has used bolt cut­ters on part of it, and after a qui­et after­noon remem­ber­ing loud­er days, we egg each oth­er on. We crawl through the fence and scale the indus­tri­al tanks. We walk around the build­ing test­ing the doors, but they are all locked. He says the guy that owns it wants to sell it, just not to him. He says it isn’t the mon­ey at all. He says that if that slid­ing win­dow is unlocked, I can climb in first, and then let him in from the inside. An adven­ture, like old times. I remem­ber then that I am thir­ty years old. C.J. is almost six­ty. So we break into this build­ing.

Once we get in, we don’t speak for a while, and I am glad for the dark, because it hides the spi­ders. No divid­ing walls break the wide space that spills open like a cathe­dral, and the light sock­ets have no bulbs in them. All across the plank floor lie big stacks of castoffs: women’s shoes, can­dle­sticks burned down to the nubs, scrap met­al, thin blan­kets, and children’s records. We split up. I don’t touch every pile, just a few, and when I do, it feels like rub­bing my thumb over a grave­stone with a miss­ing name. I can see C.J. doing the same thing on the oth­er side of the store­house. I think we both expect some­thing else. No big trea­sure, but maybe a gramo­phone or a twine-bound stack of let­ters from a Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier.

Or maybe we expect more from each oth­er. I know I didn’t plan to see him so fright­en­ing­ly alone. The expense of liv­ing accord­ing to whim, of being the kind of guy who runs away with the cir­cus (he did, in fact, spend a sum­mer with the cir­cus), was the loss of most of his per­son­al rela­tion­ships. Now he lives alone in his dead mother’s house with a toy poo­dle mix that's not house­bro­ken, a lit­tle yap­per to punch back the silence. He’s got a woman in anoth­er coun­ty he doesn’t care one whit about. She’s a few years his senior, not a look­er, but she works a bank job and bails him out when he’s behind on his bills.

And what did he expect from me? Not the hes­i­ta­tion I showed before slip­ping through the chain link fence. Not me test­ing the stur­di­ness of the chair before I pass it to him. And now that I’m divorced, he doesn’t expect me to pull my hand away from his so fast. But I do, all the same, because we’re not the same. I look at all these things piled up on store­room floor, things that used to be use­ful but were nev­er cov­et­ed. And I think we are both castoffs and emp­ty as these old shoes. Or maybe I’m the shoe, and he’s the scrap met­al.

And when we leave, he says I should vis­it next sum­mer. The sky is clear­ing up, and by the rail­road tracks it feels like the ground is start­ing to dry. And I say yes, because for a sec­ond, it seems like I should. I even tell him I’d bring a tape recorder. I’ll get the whole sto­ry next time. And he says I can’t pub­lish it until he dies. But this town isn’t my home any­more, and nei­ther one of us is who we used to be.  

walkerLind­sey Walk­er was born in Chat­tanooga, and grew up in North Geor­gia.  She is an estheti­cian and salon/spa own­er, and she stud­ies cre­ative writ­ing at Seat­tle Uni­ver­si­ty.  Her work has been pub­lished a lit­tle in print and a lot online, most recent­ly in The Far Field and The Rain­town Review.  When she's not writ­ing, work­ing, or study­ing, she is prob­a­bly drink­ing bour­bon neat and watch­ing bad movies with her gamer fiancé and her badass pit­bull.  Vis­it her at lind​sey​walk​er​.word​press​.com.

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