Fried Chicken will resume regular updates on November 1st.
Just think, pretty soon this election will be over and we can think of some other fucking thing.
Fried Chicken will resume regular updates on November 1st.
Just think, pretty soon this election will be over and we can think of some other fucking thing.
The year Maxine turned fourteen she found her true calling, at the cost of two lives.
Maxine spent her childhood mornings at the front window of the crumbling farmhouse where she lived with her brother Brad and mother Joan and her mother’s big bastard of a synthetic-heroin monkey, watching for cars on the road. Whenever one passed, she imagined herself behind its wheel, zooming out of her life with glorious speed, and her heart ached with need.
Maxine knew that, without her, life in the house would fall apart. She needed to feed and clean Brad, kill as many cockroaches and rats as possible, keep the phones powered, stop her mother from choking on her own vomit during the bad highs, and throw rocks at the junkies who lurked in the weedy driveway. That was a typical list of tasks before she left for school. Every two weeks or so, her uncle Preacher came down from the hills and, living his nickname to the fullest, spent hours yelling at her mother to clean up her act. Her mother would groan and shake her head and agree to go straight, only to break that promise once he disappeared back into hiding.
Maxine liked to play the No Crying Game, which goes like this: you run into a wall so hard it knocks you backward, leaving your nerves humming like guitar strings and your mouth salty with blood, but you never cry. If you slam yourself hard enough to chip a tooth or bruise your face, and not a single tear rolls down your cheek, you can stop doing it for a week.
On the fifth of every month their benefits came, and Maxine’s mother would pile them into the family’s rattling wreck of a van for the fifteen-minute trip to Red Junction, where the big grocery store gladly accepted EBT. Maxine loved the store’s bright lights, the aisles lined with shiny packaging, the sleekness and color that reminded her of the cars zipping down the road: signs that someone out there cared enough to do a good job, to make something perfect. Maxine chose not to see how some of the shoppers looked at them with horrified pity, as if they were roadkill.
Maxine’s mother always acted happy in the store. She whistled and told knock-knock jokes as she filled their cart with cereal and the cheapest kelp-meat, which Maxine could stretch far if she mixed it with herbs and roots pulled from the small yard behind the house. When she was sober, her mother was very good at calculating everything down to the cent, in order to prevent the embarrassment of having to leave food on the cashier’s conveyor belt. That happened once, and Maxine’s mother had yelled, and someone called security, and it was only because Maxine acted so cute with the manager that they were ever allowed to come back.
Maxine’s father was in prison forever, thanks to a drug deal gone wrong, and all their relatives were dead except for Preacher, who needed to stay in the hills because the police wanted him in a cell or a coffin, preferably the latter.
Maxine hated the police, especially the two who came around to stand in the weedy yard and call her a waste of life, dangling candy bars as they asked where her uncle was hiding, as if she were stupid enough to give up a blood relative for a sugar rush. Maxine would hiss at them and bare her teeth, but knew to go no further. A friend of hers, Monica Miller from down the road, once bit a cop on the ankle during a scuffle and they hit her in the head hard enough to put her in a coma. Sometimes stuff just happens. It’s a mean world.
The cops called her family rednecks and trash and hillbillies. “You gonna be just like your mama,” one of them liked to tell Maxine, “and your kids gonna be just like you. How you feel about that?”
Maxine always stuck out her tongue at that cop, whose name was Dwight, and who rocked a blonde caterpillar of a mustache. Dwight liked to take out his club and run at Maxine as if he intended bash her brains all over the porch, but she knew to hold her ground.
“You never getting out of here,” Dwight usually said. “You’re just another waste of breath, you ask me.”
Maxine thought of Dwight as an angry possum in a tent, anxious to bite anything trapped in there with it. But deep in her heart, she feared the cop was right. She had no idea of a life other than this one. On the cracked screen of her cheap-ass phone she watched shows where beautiful people in sleek dresses and suits marched through gleaming spires of steel and glass, scenes from New York City that might as well have taken place on a planet far from this one. Her own eyes had never seen anyone in clothes so shiny, or buildings so magical.
When the cops came by, Maxine imagined Preacher watching them from the black trees along the top of the ridge. When the roof collapsed, or some man in a suit threatened to kick them out of the farmhouse, or mother’s EBT card no longer worked at the store, Maxine sent up a silent cry for Preacher to save them, knowing that he would never appear, not until the danger had passed. So she learned to do everything herself.
Maxine was very good around cops until she turned fourteen, and then everything went to hell.
To celebrate her birthday, Maxine took a little joyride.
She had skipped school that morning, choosing instead to hang out on the porch of The Tony Eight with her best friend, Michelle. The Tony Eight was a hard bar but its owner, Tony the Third, kept a counter by the front door stocked with goodies such as candy and burner phones. He let kids use his porch as a chill-out zone (“Better they stay here than go in the woods. They don’t all come back from the woods,” is how he defended that choice) from eight in the morning until five in the evening, when the number of drunks inside reached critical mass, and he only had two rules: no cursing within his earshot, and none of that boy-band crap on the throwback jukebox he kept in one corner.
That Tuesday, Maxine and Michelle had already spent two hours on the wooden steps, smoking cheap Beijing Blue cigarettes and talking boys, when a red Mustang screeched into the bar’s gravel lot. They both tensed, knowing it was Ricky, a local weed dealer who liked his girls a little too young.
Ricky lurched from the car, creepy smile in place, and paused to check his phone before sauntering toward them. Maxine reached into the left pocket of her jeans jacket, palming the small knife she kept there. Even without looking up, she could feel Ricky’s gaze slithering over her legs, and shuddered. Please God, she thought, just make him go away.
God declined to answer, but someone else did. Ricky made it ten yards across the lot when a big black car slithered into view behind him, its lithium-ion motor silent but its tires squealing on the slick road, its passenger window zipping down to reveal a hand with a pistol—pop, pop, pop—and Ricky collapsed, his purple jumpsuit puffing as the bullets punched through his flesh. The black car zipped past the bar before disappearing around the far curve.
Through the open door behind her, Maxine heard Tony the Third curse. Michelle clutched her knees and rocked back and forth, tears rolling down her cheeks. Maxine felt curiously numb, her breathing nice and regular as she stood and walked over to Ricky just as he managed, with a loud grunt, to roll onto his back, his front stained black from moist gravel and probably a quart of spilled blood.
Maxine pulled out her phone and dialed 911. Those calls were free, which was good, because she was running low on minutes this month and didn’t like the idea of burning a few on a piece of crap like Ricky. As she held the phone to her ear, she knelt and began rifling through the pockets of the jumpsuit, removing a wad of pleasingly retro twenty-dollar bills in a gaudy money-clip (bloody), a key-fob attached to a silver dog’s head (ugly), and a brand-new phone (bonus!) with one of those cool bendable screens.
“Some of your dealer friends tracked you down, huh?” she asked Ricky.
“Help…” The sides of Ricky’s mouth bubbled with pink froth. “Help…”
“Nine-one-one’s on hold,” she said, popping open the money clip and flicking through the stained money. “Like, what else is new, right?”
The sight of Maxine rifling the cash shocked a bit of life back into Ricky. His cold hand gripped her wrist and squeezed, as he rasped: “Don’t… take… bitch…”
She smacked him on the forehead with the money clip. “Hold on, the phone’s ringing.” A moment later, the operator clicked to life, asking about her distress, and Maxine cheerfully told her all the gory details about a drive-by shooting at The Tony Eight. That task complete, she called over her shoulder: “Michelle, go inside. Tony got a med-kit.”
Michelle obeyed without backtalk. She was one of those types: prickly as a porcupine on a mega-dose of Heisenberg Blue most days, but a total lamb in a crisis. Maxine knew that Tony kept a fully loaded med-kit behind the bar, next to the shotgun. While she waited for Michelle to return, she helped herself to Ricky’s car keys.
Ricky hissed: “Don’t… take…”
“Look,” she said. “You got shot, but you’re gonna make it.” That was probably a lie, given the amount of blood pumping out Ricky’s holes. “Tony got a good kit. Ambulance be here in a minute. We going through all this trouble for you, means you owe us a favor. So I’m taking a spin in your sweet car over there. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back.”
Ricky tried to spit blood at her and missed.
She slid behind the Mustang’s wheel, unsurprised at Ricky’s choices in tricking out the interior: a blue glow from LEDs beneath the front seats, over-sized speakers that probably cost three times more than the engine, and a steering wheel wrapped in the finest imitation leather. Maxine wrinkled her nose at the near-overpowering stench of cheap cologne and spilled beer as she popped the key-fob into the slot on the dashboard, the gas engine awakening with a roar, the stereo booming vintage rap-rock (classy, Ricky, classy) loud enough to rattle the substandard fillings in her teeth.
Maxine smacked dashboard buttons until the music went quiet, spun the wheel, and gunned the Mustang out of the lot. In the rear-view mirror, she saw the Tony rip Ricky’s jumpsuit open and squirt something from a can into the wounds, but not before giving Maxine a big thumbs-up. What more pseudo-parental approval did she need?
Her first joyride almost went wrong ten seconds in, as she tried to muscle the Mustang’s fat ass into the first sharp turn and almost skidded out, nearly ramming head-on into a truck in the oncoming lane, spinning the wheel to correct and overcompensating, clipping a rusty Stop sign, shrieking in fear and joy as she finally pointed the car’s nose in the right direction and slammed the gas pedal to the floor. The Mustang growled in response and began to eat the miles. It was her first time driving and she was a natural, powering into each curve, feathering the brake at every intersection.
The black car appeared just ahead, and her jubilation curdled into unease. From Preacher she’d learned the first rule of doing crime: you hide after the crime’s been done. So why were they still on the road? She needed to get out of here before they noticed Ricky’s car in their rear view mirror, but they were on a straightaway: no turnoffs, no side-roads.
The black car tapped its brakes. She slowed to keep distance, her dread igniting into outright fear as the car’s front-passenger window buzzed down and the hand with the pistol emerged. She veered the Mustang left just as the gun spat fire, a bullet snapping off her roof.
If she stayed back, the next bullet might smash through the windshield and her forehead. If she stopped, they would turn around and hunt her down. That left her with one choice.
Punching the gas, she rammed her fender into the other car’s trunk, bumping it forward and to the right. The shooter’s head and shoulders appeared above the car roof, silhouetted by the sun, the gun waving as he tried to aim, and she accelerated again until her front tires came parallel with the other car’s rear door and she swung the wheel hard right. With a crunch of metal the other car left the road—a faint scream from the shooter above the boom of two tons of metal rolling into a deep ditch. The wheel slithered hot in Maxine’s hands as she fought for control, finally skewing to a stop in her own lane.
You need to drive away, she thought. Get out of here. No, can’t do that. I need to see if anybody survived. They might come after me.
She eased the Mustang onto the shoulder and climbed out, after wiping her shirttail on the steering wheel and anything else she might have touched. Her hands shook, her knees weak as she tip-toed into the weeds.
The black car had entered the ditch on its side, landing in three feet of oily water. A broken tree-stump jutted through the crumpled steel of the hood. The windshield had cracked but not shattered, and through the webbed glass (Maxine snuck close now, breathing hard, ready for the bullet) she could see the body hunched in the driver’s seat, limp hand on the steering wheel.
She leapt onto the far side of the ditch, and saw the top of the shooter’s head in the water, blonde hair streaming like kelp. No bubbles meant no breathing meant it was safe to come closer, which she did, recognizing the face just beneath the surface:
Her good friend Officer Dwight, his torso pinned beneath the car’s frame.
Maxine’s fear deepened into nausea. She sank to her knees on the wet grass and vomited a neon spray of half-digested junk food.
Get out of here.
Yes, that was the best idea. Wiping her mouth, she stood and walked across the field beyond the ditch, toward the distant band of forest that would give her cover from anyone driving past on the road. Her boots sank into the muck, slowing her progress. Maxine pulled out her phone and made another call.
The inside of the diner was a time capsule, from the fading Trump for President poster on the wall above the old-fashioned cash register, to the deep-fat fryer sizzling away in complete defiance of all state health laws. Behind the register leaned Johnny Oates, whose burning hatred of everything politically correct had led him to create this temple to a fantasy America where everybody enjoyed a God-given right to clogged arteries and blackened lungs.
Maxine entered, checking out the three regulars sitting at the counter, all working doggedly on their eggs and butter-soaked carbohydrates: reddened men, their middle-aged muscles dissolving into fat, their knuckles beaten into scar tissue.
“Hunting’s for wimps,” Oates was telling them, engaging in his favorite pastime of goading customers into an argument. “You’re just killing something can’t shoot back. If I’m going to head out into the woods after something, it’s gonna be a human being.”
At the far end of the counter, Oates’ biggest customer at two hundred ninety pounds, the one and only Perry Parks, trembled and purpled and seemed primed to explode in a fury of grease-fried rage. “You got no idea how difficult it is. The skill it takes. Even for deer.”
“Why don’t you wire a machine gun to a deer’s horns? I mean, that’s a fair fight. Give it the chance to take a few of you with it,” Oates smacked a few buttons on the register. “Jane, you agree with that?”
The waitress in the far booth, eighteen going on forty, e-cigarette clenched between pillow-puff lips the shade of a ripe plum, lowered her phone and said, in the flattest possible tone: “Whatever.”
Maxine took a seat in the booth furthest away from the action, wondering if Oates and the rest of them could see her sweat. It was an hour after the crash and her hands still shook, so she placed them underneath the table where nobody could see. Oates wandered over, a smile unzipping his face. For all his attempts to sink barbs into his customers’ psychic meat, he was a decent human being. “How’s it going?” he asked her.
“Okay,” she said.
“I’m sorry, darling, but I gotta ask before you order: you got cash?” Oates dropped his voice a few decibels, even though everybody in the diner could still hear him. As Maxine reached into her pocket and tugged out a few bills from Ricky’s wad, she felt her face flush with familiar shame.
From the way his eyebrows arched, she knew Oates wanted to ask where she’d earned that money, before deciding any answer would only lead to grief on someone’s part. “Okay,” he said. “Good. Sorry about that. What can I get you?”
“Coffee,” she said. “Toast is awesome, too.” More than anything else, she wanted to step into a shower and crouch under its hot drool and stare at the drain-cover as if she could somehow shrink and slide down that rabbit-hole into a better life. Barring that, she needed some food in her belly, for the energy to deal with whatever was coming next. After vomiting her stomach into a ditch, all she could handle was something plain.
Oates nodded and headed for the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with coffee. She dumped roughly half the sugar dispenser into the steaming liquid, not caring whether the sweetener was the real deal (unlikely in a place as cheap as this) or one of those synthetics that provided half the taste and all the diabetes and cancer. She drank it boiling-hot, barely noticing how it scorched her tongue, eyes focused on the screen above the counter, where a talk-show host cracked bleak jokes about the latest round of suicide bombings in Seattle.
The food arrived, and Maxine found herself surprisingly hungry. She was chewing the last bit of crust when the bells above the front door tinkled. Preacher walked in like John Wayne in those old movies that Oates loved—only Preacher was more John Wayne than John Wayne, who had been a mirage, a Hollywood actor named Marion Morrison who discovered that, if he held his hips right and aimed a rifle, people would start calling him “sir.” Preacher came through the door looking solid as stone, bringing his own weather with him. Everybody in the place fell silent.
First Preacher flicked the thumb-lock behind him and flipped the old-fashioned sign on the door so it read ‘Closed.’ Next he pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket and walked along the counter and back into the kitchen, collecting phones from everybody. After he tossed the phone bag to Maxine in the booth, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of bills and distributed them to all customers and Oates and Jane and the short-order chef.
With those tasks completed, he helped himself to a cup from the ancient coffeemaker behind the register and sat across from Maxine, taking his first sip with a handful of pills from his jacket pocket. His love of medication stemmed from his three years in the military: red painkillers to ease the burning pain in his shoulders, from the shrapnel embedded in the muscle, always followed by two or three blue gelcaps that kept his mind crackling. The Army fed you a steady diet of chemicals that helped you deal with cognitive load, think your way lightning-quick through firefights. The downside came after they discharged you, when you missed that sharpness to your thoughts, even if it came with side effects like sweaty nervousness, paranoia, and the occasional burst of epic flatulence. Preacher kept his prescription filled through a back-channel to the local VA.
Maxine finished chewing, admiring Preacher’s gunslinger gait, smiling at how everybody in the diner resumed their conversations a little too loudly, anxious to show their new guest how they could play it as cool as him.
“You making some trouble on your birthday, kiddo?” Preacher asked.
“I didn’t start nothing,” she said.
“It’s okay. I’m not mad. Just tell me everything.”
“So I’m down at The Tony Eight…”
“Wait, why weren’t you in school?” His cheeks reddening.
Maxine rolled her eyes. “Thought you said you weren’t mad.”
“You need to be in school.”
Maxine sighed. “You know how that place sucks. I learn more reading on my own.”
“You’re not thinking like a gangster, darling.” Preacher cooled down, his lips breaking into a slab-toothed grin. “You don’t show up to school, the so-called authorities notice, they start getting up in your business. You go to school—even if you just sit there and read—it gives you leeway to do whatever else you want in your life. Make sense?”
Maxine didn’t like people correcting her. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.” Preacher leaned forward and gently pinched her chin, knowing how much she hated lectures like this. “So tell me what happened.”
“I took a joyride, ran into a couple of cops. They’re dead.”
“So my guy said, when you called him. How’d you get his phone number?”
“You gave it to me, remember? Told me use it in an emergency. If you actually owned a phone, I would have called you direct.”
“Yeah, well, he’s got one of those special phones, it’s harder to trace. I can’t figure out how those work.” In Preacher’s world, nobody carried hardware connected to the Internet, or went online without hiding behind lots of electronic voodoo. “My guy, he said it was Ricky’s Mustang ran those dirty boys off the road?”
“Yeah, it was Ricky’s car.”
Preacher looked concerned. “You shoot Ricky?”
“No, the cops did that. I was just hanging out. You ask me, he had a deal with them that went bad, or something.”
“Who knows? Ricky bled out before they made the hospital.” Preacher washed down another pill with his coffee, his eyes humming electric. “I’m going to clear this up. You don’t need to do anything. Hang tight, don’t say anything to anyone, okay?”
She sighed. “I’m sorry. It’s trouble you don’t need.”
Preacher reached forward, his giant paw settling on her small one. “When I was your age, I got in scrapes like this a lot. It’s part of growing up.”
“So this’ll sound kinda psycho.” She smiled a little. “But I liked the driving part.”
“See? Silver lining,” he said. “And here’s the other good thing: no more cop to sniff his little pig-snout around your house. Five-oh knows one of their own was crooked, they’ll be glad to see him disappear. In exchange for all this, though, you owe me a favor.”
She nodded. “Name it.”
“Finish high school, try to go to college, the whole run. You can read your books there. You keep a low profile, you graduate, and if you still want, you can come work for me. We’ll have some fun together. Deal?”
“I go to college, who’ll watch Brad? Or my mom?”
“I will.” Preacher held up a hand, anticipating her argument. “I know I haven’t been great about sticking around. But I’ve started paying the right people, and I got some good folks on my side. I’ll be around more, I swear. So, do we have a deal? Low profile?”
Maxine laughed. “Okay,” she said. “You got a deal.”
Preacher departed, after handing the bag of phones to Oates behind the counter. Maxine finished her coffee and left. Nobody ever found the wreckage of the black car, or Dwight and his partner in crime. No cop ever swung by her family’s little house again.
Sometimes husbands take it well. This one cornered Mason at the roadhouse, drove a pencil up his ear canal. Registered disappointment when it hit bone, stopped. Mason dropped like an abbatoir steer, his newest girlfriend shouting, “Murderer!” Quieter husbands drink the lemonade when handed lemons. Historically an abundance of wrecked homes accrue, then Mason moves for safety reasons. Normally in time. Straight men fetishize women’s legs, their behinds, Mason grooves on wedding bands. Forever diamonds—an irresistible challenge. An enraged cuckold penetrates the rogue’s ear drum, sends a deep, direct message. Received. First stop, E.R., then find a moving van.
TODD MERCER won the Dyer-Ives Kent County Prize for Poetry in 2016, the National Writers Series Poetry Prize for 2016, and the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts Flash Fiction Award for 2015. His digital chapbook, Life-wish Maintenance,appeared at Right Hand Pointing. Mercer’s recent poetry and fiction appear in: 100 Word Story, Bartleby Snopes, Blast Furnace, Eunoia Review, The Fib Review, The Ekphrastic Review, EXPOUND, Flash Frontier Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fried Chicken and Coffee, The Lake, The Magnolia Review, Plum Tree Tavern, Postcard Shorts, Softblow Journal, Star 82 Review and Two Cities Review.
At home, the chicken coop was more sturdy
than this house where the women gathered
like hens around the grandmother in the box,
my mother’s gram, laid out there in the front room,
surrounded by the flowers that grew in the hills.
I turned eight that day and no one remembered.
They were thinking about death, but I was worried
About the Cuyahoga-sized crick, about squatting
over the hole in the outhouse out back.
There might be snakes like the ones in the service,
relatives I didn’t know swaying like the snakes
they held, while I blinked and blinked, certain
it was a bad dream, waiting for the birthday cake
that had to come, trying to keep my balance
on the rope bridge between the crick’s banks
knowing it was the only way back.
We were gathering wood at an undisclosed location deep in the mountains when I heard a rattling in the pile. I dropped the wood in my arms, and drew my gun.
“Don’t shoot,” Murray said.
“I’m not getting bit way the fuck out in the middle of nowhere,” I said.
“Tell the doctor.”
I holstered my gun, and walked to the little cabin. It was a real dumpy piece of shit: one tiny bedroom, and one tiny kitchen/living room. There was electricity but no indoor plumbing. Dr. Cross sat at a small table reading a medical journal.
“No wood?” He asked.
“Rattler in the stack.”
His eyes lit up, and he grabbed a long metal rod with a hook at the end. At the woodpile, the doctor poked the pole into various crevices until the viper hissed and struck at the rod. The serpent wrapped around the end of the pole, and Dr. Cross removed it from the stack. Pinching the snake below the head, he held it before me.
“Good size,” he said.
“Keep it away,” I said, backing up.
“Don’t be a little girl,” Murray said with a laugh.
Under the guise of providing protection, I was hired to relieve Murray of his sentinel duties, and put an end to the good doctor’s relationship with my employer. The organization I worked for had retained Dr. Cross for his uncanny ability to dissolve flesh and bone. For a time this symbiotic relationship proved productive for both sides in that my employer murdered for money, and Dr. Cross received an unlimited supply of cadavers for his bizarre experiments. As of late, the doctor’s notoriety had sky rocketed, mostly in the form of making the FBI’s top ten most wanted list, and thus my employer no longer wished to maintain ties with the underground M.D.
Holding the snake, Dr. Cross led us to a shed out back. He opened a large meat freezer, released the snake into the icebox, and quickly shut the lid. After the snake removal, Murray and I finished gathering wood for the night. We lit a fire in the stove, and sat at a small table playing Texas Hold ‘Em for cigarettes. I was raking in the Marlboros, and could tell it was frustrating Murray. I too was frustrated. Murray should have taken the truck back to civilization days ago, leaving me alone with Dr. Cross, but bozo wouldn’t depart.
“You boys hungry?” Dr. Cross asked.
“I’m so hungry I could eat the Lamb of God,” Murray said.
“Grab three frozen pizzas from the shed,” Dr. Cross said.
Inside the shed, I flipped on the light, and was about to open the lid to the icebox when I remember the snake. I drew my gun. The rattler wasn’t the only animal with a bite. I lifted the lid, and was instantly struck on the arm. I jumped back, firing my weapon into the freezer.
“I’ve never seen somebody so scarred,” Murray said, bending over and holding his sides with laughter.
“What the hell?” I asked, holstering my gun, as I realized my companions stood behind me.
“You thought this guy bit you,” Dr. Cross said, reaching into the freezer, pulling out the snake, and holding it before me. “It’s harmless. Snakes are cold blooded, and move extremely slow when chilled.”
“What got me?” I asked.
“These,” Dr. Cross said, holding up his thumb and pointer finger.
“You got pinched, and shit your pants,” Murray said. “Worst than a little girl.”
“I’m a collector of frozen rattlesnakes,” Dr. Cross said, dropping the serpent back into the freezer. “Have a look.”
“Unless you’re scared,” Murray said.
I lit a cigarette, and glared at Murray for a moment. His insults were getting on my nerves, and I wanted him to know that it wasn’t okay. After scowling at Murray, I peered inside the cooler. Amid an assortment of frozen dinners was a myriad of motionless rattlesnakes tied into various knots. I recognized the Bowline, the Clove Hitch and the Figure Eight, but there were also advanced knots I had never seen.
“Frozen snakes are pliable,” Dr. Cross said, grabbing a knotted serpent, and untying it.
“Are they alive?”
“No, but they stay supple in the freezer,” Dr. Cross said, retying the chilled reptile. “That is unless some goddamn idiot breaks the ice box shooting a hole in it.”
He did a quick inspection of the case, and determined that I hadn’t damaged the motor, coils or Freon. The Doctor said it was a good thing; otherwise, I would have joined the icy sanctuary. Murray laughed at that suggestion, and I gave him another sharp look, but this time he returned the favor, and we locked into a ‘who was blinking first’ pissing contest.
“Gentlemen,” Dr. Cross said, breaking up the stare down, and handing me a wounded pizza box. “It’s getting late.”
Except for the bullet hole, that was the worst microwaved pizza I ever ate. It was lukewarm and soggy with a side of freezer burn. After dinner we smoked cigarettes, and stoked the fire. Dr. Cross slept in the bedroom on the only bed in the cabin, so Murray and I sacked out in the living room on the floor near the stove. I tried to stay awake longer than my companion, but a profound lethargy swept over me, and I slipped into unsettling unconsciousness.
I dreamt that I was gathering wood from the pile when it collapsed on me, and dozens of rattlesnakes appeared, and wrapped themselves around my limbs in strange and complicated knots.
I woke shivering in the night, half numb from sleeping on the floor. The fire was dying. I stumbled to my feet, tripping over Murray. How was he able to snore through such artic conditions? As I stoked the fire, I felt bad for those snakes in the cooler. Freezing was a particularly inhumane way to die. When I’m assigned a job, I try to reduce the suffering as much as possible. Two to the head usually does the job, quick and painless.
The next morning I felt like shit. Every muscle in my body ached, my head throbbed like a strobe light of pain, and I sweat with fever.
“Wakeup,” Murray said, toeing my ribs.
I stumbled dizzy to my feet, collapsing into a wooden chair at the table. I thought I was having a heart attack the way my chest hurt.
“You look sicker than Typhoid Mary,” Dr. Cross said, entering from the bedroom, and handing me a white capsule. “Take this.”
“What is it?”
“You’ll feel better.”
“But what is it?”
“Just take the damn pill,” Murray barked.
As bad as I felt, I wasn’t taking shit from Murray, so I flicked the pill at him. It bounced off his chest onto the floor. He picked it up, and forced the capsule between my lips. In my weakened state, I could do little to resist. I swallowed the medicine, and for a chaser, Murray slopped warm coffee on my face. Wooziness overtook me, and I fell to the floor.
I woke in my darkened apartment, lying on my bed, feeling fine except for the nightmare about the little cabin in the woods. The light turned on, and I wasn’t home in my bed, and it wasn’t a bad dream. I was still in the cabin, and Dr. Cross and Murray stood over me.
“You look better,” Dr. Cross said, placing a hand on my forehead.
I climbed out of bed, naked.
“Your clothes are folded neatly on the table in the other room.”
“And my piece?”
“On the table.”
I pushed passed Dr. Cross and Murray. I grabbed my weapon. It was still loaded. After I dressed, Dr. Cross and Murray joined me in the cabin’s main room.
“How are you feeling?” The doctor asked.
“Fine,” I said.
“Maybe something you ate?” Dr. Cross asked.
“Yeah,” Murray said. “Maybe you have a weak stomach.”
“Since you’ve recovered, would you fetch some wood for the stove?” Dr. Cross asked.
Outside the air was crisp and cold. I breathed deep and felt invigorated. As I cautiously gathered firewood, listening for rattlers, I decided to give Murray a chance to leave, and if he didn’t take the offer, he’d also receive two to the head. I carried the wood inside, and set it down by the stove. Dr. Cross and Murray ate microwaved scrambled eggs and sausage.
“I can handle things from here on out,” I said to Murray. “Be on your way now.”
“You can?” Murray asked after smirking and shoveling the rubbery eggs into his yap. “You’ve been in-and-out of consciousness for two days, talking in tongues. Think I’ll stick around.”
“Eat something,” Dr. Cross said.
“Ain’t hungry,” I said, and went outside for a cigarette.
“Get more wood,” Dr. Cross said as I closed the door.
I gave that chump Murray a chance to beat it, I thought, struck a wooden match, and held it to my cigarette just as the world’s longest rattlesnake slid across the yard. I drew my gun, and pointed it at the serpent in pure terror, but then I remembered Dr. Cross’ grotesque menagerie of frozen rattlesnakes. I didn’t want this fellow ending up like those other poor bastards, so I let the limbless monster escape into the brush.
When the cigarette ended, I fingered the trigger of my pistol and resolved to put two to each head inside the cabin, fast and painless. Exactly how I liked it. One moment they would be alive, the next moment they’d be dead. I swung open the front door, and bang, bang, bang, bang.
“No Wood?” Dr. Cross said, chewing a breakfast sausage as Murray knocked the weapon out of my hand, and dealt me a crushing blow to the head with the stove’s iron poker.
I woke with a splitting headache. My wrists and knees tied with rope. The room was dark, and I had no idea where I was until Dr. Cross and Murray opened the door, and I realized I was in the shed on the ground next to the freezer.
“How do you feel?” Dr. Cross asked.
“Answer the doctor,” Murray said, toeing my ribs.
“Exciting news,” Dr. Cross said after I didn’t answer, and removed a massive rattlesnake from the freezer. “While dragging you to the shed, we spied the longest specimen I have ever seen. Truly a marvel of nature.”
Dr. Cross tied the snake into a hangman’s noose, and placed it around my neck.
“Looks good on you,” Murray said.
“I’ve been micro-dosing your food with a powder I derived from neurotoxins found in rattlesnake venom. I miscalculated the level of exposure with your pizza the other night, and the hemotoxins almost destroyed your blood cells. Without the antivenin, you would have died from internal hemorrhaging. Eventually, I meant to give you a lethal dose, but not so soon. After you tried to kill us, I sped up the process, and prepared a lethal dose for your consumption,” Dr. Cross said, holding out a bottle of white powder before my eyes. “This was to be your fate until this eight-footer came along. I’ve never seen somebody lynched by snake rope before. Have you Murray?”
“Lucky us,” Dr. Cross said. “And lucky you. Hanging is less painful than succumbing to the powdered venom.”
“If you let me go,” I said. I’ll tell you who sent me.”
“Never thought of you as a squealer,” Murray said, lighting a cigarette. “Have a side of dignity with your death huh.”
“You were sent by our mutual employer, yes?” Dr. Cross said with a smile.
I didn’t say anything as the anger welled inside me.
“Answer the doctor,” Murray said, toeing my ribs.
“I asked the organization to send me a test subject for my powdered venom, and you drew the assignment.”
“Dumbass,” Murray said.
“Let’s string him from the tree in the front yard,” Dr. Cross said.
Murray grabbed the head of the frozen snake, and dragged me across the shed’s floor. I gasped for air as the blood in my head pounded in my ears, and the snake noose tightened around my neck. Just before I lost consciousness, Murray yelped, and let go of the snake.
“Fucker bit me,” he said, holding his wrist as the reptile around my neck loosened and untied itself.
I breathed deep, letting the oxygen fill my lungs as the snake coiled and struck Dr. Cross on the leg. The doctor cried out in pain. Murray unloaded his pistol into the serpent. The wounded viper twisted and writhed as Dr. Cross crushed its head with the sole of his boot.
“Shoot him too,” Dr. Cross said, pointing at me. “I’ll get the antivenin.”
Murray smiled, and drew his pistol. With considerable effort I sat up against the side of the freezer. As Murray pointed the pistol at my head, I closed my eyes. The gun fired, and I fell into darkness.
Something in the distance roused me. It sounded close yet far away. A familiar popping noise that I couldn’t quite place. My eyes opened, and I saw the mutilated snake, twisted and torn on the floor. My head throbbed with pain, and thirst dried my throat. Other than the head wound from the iron poker, I had no injuries. After considerable effort, I sat up against the freezer, and felt a sharp metal edge at the corner of the icebox. It took time, but I sawed off the ropes binding my wrists. My palms and fingers burned as the blood returned. After the tingling was mostly gone, I untied my knees, and gathered my equilibrium.
I opened the freezer, and scraped out a piece of frost amid the knotted snakes. When the frost became liquid, I slaked my thirst. A ray of light seeped through a bullet hole in the wall. I went outside, and in the yard, I saw Dr. Cross lying on his back, covered in blood. The familiar popping sounds that roused me in the shed had been gunshots. Murray sat against the trunk of the tree. His eyes fluttered, and foam dripped from his mouth. He mumbled something that I couldn’t hear, so I drew nearer, keeping my eye on the gun in his lap.
“FBI … please … antivenin.”
I disarmed Murray, and searched the cabin for the antivenin. As I tore apart Dr. Cross’ room, I pieced together a scenario of the recent events that led me to this favorable outcome. The massive snake in the freezer was cold, but still alive when it was tied into a noose. It warmed against my neck and reanimated enough to bite Murray as he dragged me across the floor. The rattler then struck Dr. Cross before meeting its demise.
Murray was supposed to off me while Dr. Cross grabbed the antivenin, but Murray was an FBI agent, so he didn’t shoot me. The bullet hole in the side of the shed suggested that he intentionally fired wide, and I passed out from fear of execution. While I was unconscious, Dr. Cross and Murray must have quarreled, but about what I can’t say. Maybe Dr. Cross figured Murray for FBI all along, and withheld the antivenin from him. When Murray was denied the cure, and began succumbing to the snake’s venom, he shot Dr. Cross, but was unable to locate the antivenin before losing control of his limbs. I couldn’t be sure that this was what transpired while I lay bound and insensible on the shed’s floor, but I didn’t care. I was just happy to be alive.
I tore the cabin apart, but found no antivenin. I sat down at the table, looking at Murray’s gun. Two to the head was more humane than suffering. I was about to kill my first FBI agent when I realized where the antivenin was. Outside, I leaned over Dr. Cross’ corpse, and searched his blood soaked pockets, removing two small plastic bottles. The first bottle contained powder, and the second bottle contained several white capsules.
Murray breathed shallow as I placed the pill in his mouth and tilted back his head. I hoped it wasn’t too late. Even though he was FBI, Murray had saved me, and I wanted to return the favor. I lit a cigarette, and placed it between his lips, but he never inhaled.
I covered Murray’s body with a blanket I found in the cabin before starting down the mountain in the truck. The windy dirt road would eventually lead me to my employer’s place of business. Two to that bastard’s head was too quick and painless of a way for that double-crosser to die. A snake slithered across the road in front of the truck. I braked and felt the bottle of powder in my pocket as the serpent slid into the brush.
Morgan Boyd lives in Santa Cruz California with his wife, two cats and their carnivorous plant collection. He has been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, and Yellow Mama.
originally appeared in Kestrel
The dog barked again.
Ray lifted himself out of bed for a glass of water too warm from the tap in the bathroom, like drinking blood or drinking the night air that heat and humidity had thickened to the consistency of oil. He grimaced at himself in the mirror over the sink, looking just as sweat-grimed and tired as he felt, unshaven, rings like bruises around his eyes, then groped back to lie beside his wife on the sticky mattress. Sandy was breathing evenly, but he knew she was only pretending to be asleep. How could anybody sleep? The fan hummed and insisted air across their legs, but the artificial breeze seemed only to emphasize the night’s dankness, pushing heat around the small room where it was trapped, not much larger or better ventilated than a jail cell. Ray closed his eyes and willed himself to sink into the static drone that usually pulled him down into dreams of childhood.
Anita Maelin’s dog barked next door, a thin, sharp sound like the edge of a chisel tapped into Ray’s forehead. He had heard lots of barking dogs in the trailer park since he and Sandy had moved in over a year ago, but Buzzer, their neighbor’s Pekingese, had the most hateful, grating tone, a piercing sound which began shortly after sunset and continued in a slow, punctuated rhythm of yaps until the early hours of morning. The barking seemed to have gotten worse in the past week, since the heat had moved in and settled on the rows of trailers like a vast hand cupped over them, soaking all day into the ground and the metal boxes that radiated it back at night, so that there wasn’t even dew on the yellowing grass in the mornings. Ray imagined that he could understand the dumb beast’s need to protest, since it was probably suffering like everybody else, and just wanted to make sure no one missed hearing about its misery. Or maybe his resistance to the interruption of sleep had simply weakened.
The dog barked. It seemed to wait until Ray was just starting to slip into a doze, then yap, that pained and painful, pointed jolt of sound cutting through the darkness. Mrs. Maelin lived in the next trailer over – the next mobile home, as Sandy’s mother always corrected him, a nicety that Ray resisted, preferring to meet the unvarnished fact of their circumstances — but the damned dog might as well have been just outside the bedroom door, with the window open in the hope there might be a breath of air moving through the screen.
Ray had disliked the animal since the day he and Sandy had moved in. He had been lugging an armful of dishes from his brother’s borrowed truck when the dog ran up sniffing at his ankles, so he had eased the boxes down and knelt on the gravel drive to scratch behind its ears. But the dog had snarled, showing him its yellowed teeth, and backed away from his hand, low to the ground, as if he had come at it with a stick. Then Mrs. Maelin – Ray had never heard anyone call her Anita, couldn’t imagine her as an Anita – turned from eying their furniture and picked her little dog up and cradled it against her well padded breasts with a few stiff, unmeant words of apology, all the while eying Ray suspiciously as she carried her pet back inside.
The dog barked.
Sandy stiffened when Ray put his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t move or interrupt her breathing, but Ray sensed her joints locking, as if she were tensing to flee some threat, the muscles in her back tightening against him like panels of wood, waiting. Her shoulder was damp and hot beneath his palm, and sexual energy moved there, too, desire, though he didn’t need to be told, now that he was touching her, that the desire moved in one direction only, from him, nothing returning. He drew his hand away and lay on his back. He felt a moment of something like anger or a little dust-devil twist of deep-down, tired and direction-less despair. But he told himself Sandy was probably right, anyway, it was too hot for sex, even if it would be the first time in weeks. Ray wasn’t exactly sure just how many weeks it had been. He wasn’t going to start keeping a tally.
After another half-hour, he went back to sleep, but it was a shallow, unsatisfying rest, cracked at intervals by the light blows of sound that ruined his dreams long into the dawn.
The morning light was like cigarette ash tipped into their pouched eyelids, light as grainy and unaspiring as that of worn black and white newspaper photographs. Ray and Sandy ate breakfast almost without speaking to each other, no words beyond the mechanical operation of laying out two bowls and pouring milk, crunching corn flakes and drinking coffee that could not do enough to cut through the grogginess of the night’s poor sleep.
It was still early, as familiar pieces of the world settled into place. Through the window, Ray watched trees across the road becoming clearer against the sky, the dark silhouettes drawing color from somewhere as they went from black to green, and electric lights in the windows of the surrounding trailers grew faint. The streetlight at the corner where the driveway met the road into town sputtered and went dark, paradoxically making the faint natural sky seem brighter. Bird song skirled in. Most days, Ray would have enjoyed listening to the birds, would maybe even have carried a cup of coffee outside to stand under the trees where they had built nests in the spring, but this morning he was tired and trying to corral his irritability.
Ray and Sandy could hear Anita Maelin talking to Buzzer next door, a spoon rattling inside a can as she fixed breakfast for the dog and then poured water into its dish. They heard her voice soft and soothing as she spoke to the dog. Later in the morning, they both knew, she would bring him outside and walk through the trailer park, letting him lift his leg against the wheels of cars, identical expressions of challenge on the Pekinese and on the woman, both daring anyone to object, both allowed to do as they pleased through some unspoken compact of indulgence among the neighbors. Then in the afternoon she would let the dog out for another walk by himself, while she sat in front of the afternoon soap operas. Even after spending most of the day, no matter the weather, shut up in Mrs. Maelin’s trailer, the dog would take care of whatever business he had outside and scratch to be let back in as soon as possible. Anita Maelin and Buzzer were, as happens with old people and dogs, perfect matches, passing an attitude toward the world back and forth like facing mirrors. Ray had never been sure if their apparent belligerence was real or a mask for something softer that needed guarding, though his attempts at friendliness had never been any more welcome than on the first day. Offers to shop for Mrs. Maelin and Buzzer had been rebuffed on the grounds that there was nothing they needed. Whenever Ray out got out the lawnmower, he included, unasked, the strips of weedy grass around Mrs. Maelin’s door, careful not to run over flowers, though she had never acknowledged his efforts. In fact, she seldom spoke to anyone at all, except Buzzer, unless you wanted to talk about her flowers, in which case she would not let go until you were exhausted. On her small plot, she had roses and tulips and tiger lilies and many bright and colorful things that Ray couldn’t have named. She had covered a small slope in back with red and purple phlox, and though the slope was not technically a part of her property, no one seemed to mind. Neither Ray nor Sandy was interested in flower gardening.
Ray guessed the old woman could be in her eighties. They had heard, just after moving into the park, that she had lost her husband to cancer only a couple of years earlier.
“Lucky dog,” Ray said, as they listened to the morning ritual going on just a few feet from their window but out of sight somewhere inside Mrs. Maelin’s kitchen, where neither Ray nor Sandy had ever been. “Wish I could get that kind of attention.”
Ray had meant it as a joke — a joke about the absurd degree of affection their neighbor devoted to the unattractive Buzzer, not a comment on their own marriage — but it didn’t sound like a joke to him when he heard the words coming from his mouth. He looked quickly at his wife. He didn’t want to be bitter toward Sandy, and he didn’t desire an argument. The fatigue and grittiness of the morning were not her fault, and it wasn’t really even her fault that he was feeling lonely and restless only a year and a half into their marriage. But he was weary of being forever careful with the things he said, as if all the responsibility fell to him to avoid anything that would draw attention to the emptiness growing between them. Sandy didn’t seem to take his words badly, anyway.
“Somebody ought to give that damned stupid dog some real attention,” she said, a surprising blaze of anger in her voice. “Somebody ought to shut it the hell up for good.”
Ray nodded, more to himself than to Sandy, and went back to his cereal without speaking. It seemed to him that the tone that came into her voice when she was talking that way was a new thing, something he could not remember hearing during their first months together, never before the miscarriage. He wasn’t at all sure where that tone might go if he responded to it, welcomed it, encouraged it. He thought it might lead to a confrontation with Mrs. Maelin, and Ray didn’t want that. Even though Sandy was certainly right about the unfairness of having to live next to the dog’s barking, and even though Mrs. Maelin had never given them any reason to like her, Buzzer was still quite possibly the only bright spot in her life.
He had to be clocked in at the factory by 7:00, so he brushed a kiss onto Sandy’s cheek and left her sitting at the table, waiting the few extra minutes until she would have to leave, too. Driving into town, Ray began to feel better. Just outside the trailer park, he surprised a pair of deer grazing in a field beside the road, and they bounded across the highway, just missing his car. The sun was higher now and burning off a light fog that had collected around the bottoms of the hills. It was the first fog Ray had seen in a while. Maybe the heat was going to break.
It had been a trifling boundary dispute a few weeks earlier, or at least a dispute that Ray would have called trifling.
“Come here. I want to show you something,” Sandy said, gesturing from the open door. Ray was sitting in front of the TV, soaking in a Saturday morning’s peace as if submerged to his chest in a warm bath. Her lips were twisted up on one side, sardonic.
“What is it?”
“Just come. You’ll see,” she said. She led him around to the side of their trailer that faced Mrs. Maelin’s.
“Just look at this shit,” Sandy kicked at the ground. “This is what happens when you give people an inch, Ray.”
Someone had dug up a brown row of earth all along the base of the cinderblock underpinning and had set out a dozen or so plants, five-inch green stems branching into lacy leaves, seeming to tremble in their delicacy as the spring air held them. The line of palm-sized, round indentations in the soft dirt paralleling the row of plants must have been left by the knees of whoever planted them, Ray realized, like small cups set into the ground for receiving offerings.
“Did you —” he began.
“Well,” he laughed, “there’s no harm.”
But Sandy moved down the row, yanking the plants from the dirt — Ray didn’t know what they were — and flinging them away at random. Ray heard a soft gasp and turned to find Mrs. Maelin watching, her mouth a tight, dismayed circle.
“I thought, I thought they would make the wall look nice,” she said.
Sandy stepped very close to Mrs. Maelin, leaning forward, as if concentrating all of her weight into the words, slowly: “Not your fucking property.”
Mrs. Maelin’s gray face collapsed, like a wrinkled paper bag snatched and clutched into a fist from inside.
Ray did not want to see that again.
Ray spent the morning sorting lengths of planed oak as they came down the belt from the saws and stacking the different lengths on carts to be wheeled over to the molders, where they would be shaped into chair rounds or table legs or pieces of bed frames. It was repetitive, tiring work, but soothing in its way, requiring little concentration and exacting just enough physical effort to work the kinks out of his limb and his mood. He was glad, on this day, that the drone and rattle of machines made casual conversation impossible while the factory was working.
He decided, again, that he wasn’t angry with Sandy. They both had been stiffly circling each other for a while now, and it only seemed to be getting worse, as small arguments flared into big arguments with no warning or apparent reason. He felt as if he were trying to repair some small and precious machine, an intricate clock, that kept falling apart in his hands. Maybe, if he had the money, Ray could take her away for a long weekend, and that would help, even if they were only gaining some distance from the routine sights and people of everyday life, the kind of thing they had talked of doing before they got married, as if it had been a certainty that they could overcome any obstacle. He would have liked to take her up into the mountains somewhere, imagining one of the gated resorts he had driven past a few times in the fall on the way to hunt along the West Virginia border, some place in the sharper, fresher air of great altitude, and rent a cabin beside a lake. Maybe they could swim naked in the cold water and lie in front of a fireplace all night, like lovers in a movie. He would like to give Sandy that. But he didn’t have the money, and the possibility that she might laugh at his foolishness or dismiss the idea with blank indifference was worse than not having the money.
Things had been hard for Sandy since the miscarriage, and Ray was sick with guilt whenever he sensed that he had been short with her. It was easy at any time for him to conjure back the agony he had felt when he had gone to the hospital that day, breathless and scared, called away from work in the middle of his shift, to find her pale and drained on the hospital bed, the color flattened out of her face as if by a hard slap. They had lost their baby in the fourth month of her pregnancy, and it sometimes seemed to Ray that she was angry with him because she thought he had gotten over the loss more quickly than she had, though the baby’s death had stunned him, too, leaving him as hurt and hollow-feeling as if he had taken a hammer blow between the eyes.
She had gone into weeks of moping grief, lying late in bed, even though she could not sleep, drinking in the afternoon, then returning to work only when money got too tight for her to take any more time off. One thing she would never get over, she had told him, was that it had all seemed so routine, an everyday happening. It seemed to her that everyone at the hospital, the doctor and nurses and family coming to visit, her mother included, were acting as if she had lost a tooth, not a baby. She felt that the baby’s death should be marked with something people would remember, at least a funeral, but there wasn’t anything to bury. The doctor hadn’t even shown them what he had taken from her. Ray secretly believed they should be grateful for that, and he didn’t want to have a funeral with an empty box.
Sandy was quiet when she came home, which she had never been before. She seemed to be concentrating on something far inside her, where Ray could not look, where, maybe, he was shy about trying to look, would rather not see.
“It ought to be a big thing,” she said once. “Somebody died, but they all want to act like I just had my appendix cut out, or something. It’s awful, seeing the way people are at a time like that. I was so alone, lying there and not one damned person with any idea how it felt.” Ray didn’t ask if she was including him among the people. He wanted to remind her how he had come to her, his wife lying small and broken on the hospital bed, as if he had found her abandoned at the center of a vast, white plain, and she had pulled free and tuned away to curl around the coal-black stone of her own grief when he took her hand– but he said nothing of that.
Now, despite his guilt, hating himself for thoughts he couldn’t say out loud, Ray felt that she was taking too long to get over the miscarriage. That even if there was no such thing as getting over it completely, she was taking too long to be really functional again. That –- and he couldn’t help shaming himself for the betrayal the thought represented –- she might now be prolonging her mourning because she got something out of the sympathy people showed her, the margin of compassionate space they allowed around her behavior, even while she complained that no one understood or cared.
At noon, Ray ate lunch, sitting on the edge of the loading dock that opened into the lumber yard. It was cooler there than inside the building, whenever a breeze shifted in the right direction, soothing the sweat from his forehead and inside his collar. Outside, sunlight pounded straight down to bake the same dust that had been baking there since the last rain. It seemed very dim under the shed that covered the dock, and staring out into the sunlight left dazzling spots dancing before his eyes whenever he looked back into the shade. As he ate, Ray’s head was still ringing with the noise of the saws, quiet now while the operators had their half-hour break. When the breeze was not coming though the big doors of the loading dock, Ray could feel heat from the machinery inside the factory pushing out against his back.
Elmer Horton ate his sandwiches and drank from a thermos at the other corner of the dock, scrawny and gray with beard and age, who had been working at the same factory since before Ray was born, but whom Ray had known single-handedly to pick up a twelve-foot length of eight-quarter oak and flip it unto the planer he operated, as if handling cardboard. Apparently he had not been in the mood for the noise and bravura talk of the break room, either, quietly chewing as he watched clouds pass. Now Elmer stood and knocked crumbs from the front of his shirt and arched in a long stretch, fingers laced together behind his back, so that Ray could hear his joints pop, even across the yards that separated them.
“Well, it’s about that time, I guess,” Elmer said, meaning time for the whistle that would call them back to their work stations. He nodded at the sky. “Rain soon.”
“Hope so,” Ray said. He glanced at the clouds, fluffy and bright, no obvious promise of any weather in them except more of the same.
“How’s that wife of yours?” Elmer asked.
“Fine,” Ray said. He had a sudden impulse to tell the older man everything. “Better.”
Elmer spat off the end of the loading dock, his spittle rolling a little ball of black mud in the dust.
“Shit. Life’s just life, ain’t it?” he said and went inside.
The garment mill where Sandy worked across town took lunch break at the same time. Maybe she was sitting at a table in the lunchroom, eating whatever she had brought from home and talking with other women about the things women discuss. He didn’t want to think that she might be eating alone, or letting her lunch sit there uneaten in front of her, staring out into space while she waited for the signal to get back to work. He had found her like that sometimes, alone in a room.
Ray thought about taking the rest of the afternoon off. He didn’t want to go home, though. He would have liked to drive out to the edge of town and rent a motel room, but he didn’t imagine taking anyone with him, not even Loretta Lewis, whom Ray often watched smoothly feeding wood into the molder near his own station, her graceful long hands and the motion of her hips, and who would probably have gone with him, if he wanted. But he would rather have been alone. He would turn the air conditioning on high and maybe have a six-pack to himself, lie on the bed watching television and thinking of a way to make things better. It seemed he could do that –- discover a way of making things better, a way to fit the delicate, slipping parts of the mechanism back in place –- if he could only get some good time to be quiet, time out of the constant heat. He might be able to find some direction for his thoughts that lately seemed to take him around and around without getting anywhere. Ray had saved some money without telling Sandy, not much, not nearly enough for a weekend in the cabin he fantasized about, only a few bills tucked in the back of his wallet, but he knew he could get the room, if he really wanted to.
But Ray also knew he would go back to work as soon as the whistle blew. And he did.
Ray hit Sandy once, and when he did, he suddenly knew thy were near the end. He had never expected to hit her at all.
When he came home from work, the first thing he heard was Anita Maelin sobbing.
After the quitting-time whistle, Ray had gone by a junk shop downtown and bought a used air conditioner, the portable kind that sits in a window and keeps at least one room cool. The proprietor, who wore overalls with the knees ground to threads and pulled a dirty rag from his back pocket to wipe grease off his right hand before shaking Ray’s, had assured him the air conditioner had been completely overhauled and would work. No guarantee, of course. Ray didn’t bother asking. The purchase had taken all the money Ray had cached away, money which might have been better spent on a new paint job for his rusting car, but he guessed it would be worth the expense for even one night of deep, nourishing sleep.
Ray had parked the car and gone around to get the air conditioner from the trunk when he heard Mrs. Maelin through an open window of her trailer. At first, he thought she was laughing, then he recognized the sound for what it was — the crying of a lost child, low, throaty, clogged weeping which had gone on too long, now hitching with fatigue. He thought maybe he should knock on her door, find out what the problem was and whether he could help, but he wouldn’t have known what to say to her. She would be embarrassed that anyone had heard, he supposed.
He lugged the air conditioner inside, its weight pulling at his tired shoulders.
Ray hadn’t expected Sandy to be home yet, had been expecting to surprise her with his purchase, but she must have left work early. She was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at an open can of beer in front of her. Ray could still hear Mrs. Maelin through the window in the kitchen. Her voice, though not very loud, seemed to fill the room.
Setting the air conditioner down, he nodded at the window.
“What’s going on over there?”
“Maybe somebody should go check on her,” he said. Though Anita Maelin had repulsed any attempts at neighborliness they had ever made, Ray still hated the idea that she was sitting alone and crying with no one but Buzzer to listen to the reasons for her sadness.
Sandy shook her head and said, “No. I don’t think so.”
He paused, an emptiness behind his breastbone. “Okay. Look what I’ve got,” he said.
Ray gestured toward the air conditioner, but Sandy’s reaction was not what he had hoped for. He had been expecting the prospect of a good night’s sleep to cheer her up, but she merely shrugged again. He had a sinking feeling, a moment’s flaring, desperate wish that he could guess what she needed. But then she seemed to reconsider, visibly stopping to think and pulling her thoughts into the room with him, back from wherever they had been wandering alone. She pushed herself up from the table the table and walked over to put her arms around him. She kissed him, and it was the first kiss that had seemed more than a pantomime for weeks. She smiled and he thought it was a real smile.
“It’s good, honey,” she said. “You go put it in the bedroom, and I’ll start dinner.”
Ray carried the air conditioner into the bedroom and installed it in the window, tightening the screws around the bottom and sides so it would stay put and not rattle in the window frame, trying not to listen to Mrs. Maelin. He turned the air conditioner on and was rewarded with an electric hum and a wave of air turning cool across his face.
Maybe, Ray thought, this would be the night for renewing their love-making. He went to find Sandy, to bring her into the bedroom and show her his handiwork, maybe even lead her to the bed. She was sitting at the table once more, not fixing dinner, doing nothing.
“Hamburger and rat poison,” she said, looking up at him, defiantly. “It worked. Wasn’t sure if it would.” She took a deep pull on her beer then looked back at the table. There was no thought in what happened next. Ray found himself across the kitchen in two long steps and his hand swinging open-palmed toward Sandy’s face. He tried to pull back at the last moment, but the slap was still loud in the room, and the red marks of his fingers raised as if they were cupping her cheek in mock affection in the motionless seconds that followed.
“You bastard,” Sandy whispered, raising her hand to the side of her face, but she said it without conviction or even real blame, as if she had been waiting to be punished for what she had done. She had not cringed away from him. Ray thought she had raised herself into the blow, met it as her due. He trembled inside his chest, hating himself for striking her, and — for the moment at least–hating her.
That night Ray couldn’t sleep again, even though the air conditioner was working, and it was as cool as autumn in the bedroom. He lay awake with the same thoughts as always going through his head, the same worries, worse than before. Sandy didn’t seem even to need the air conditioner. She was sleeping soundly and dreamlessly beside him, as far as he could tell, sunken deep into rest, released, as if she had given herself release from the coil that had tightened around her, her hand folded under her cheek like a child’s. Ray didn’t try to wake her. He was glad the hum from the window was loud enough to drown out any sounds from next door.
James Owens’s most recent collection of poems is Mortalia (FutureCycle Press, 2015). His poems and stories have appeared in Blue Fifth Review, Poetry Ireland, Kestrel, Appalachian Heritage, and Kentucky Review, among others. Originally from Southwest Virginia, he worked on regional newspapers before earning an MFA at the University of Alabama. He now lives in central Indiana and northern Ontario. His story, “Calf,” appeared here in April.
I got a fishing license this morning. It’s good
for small game besides fish–coyote, beaver,
skunks, and groundhogs allowed year around.
A varmint is a problem beast, a nuisance, they
say, whose extermination is encouraged, an invasive
vermin offering potential guiltless pleasure hunting.
The last time I went hunting I killed a groundhog
with a .410 shotgun, perhaps the most inefficient
way to take a one, but I wanted a challenge.
I stalked the cow pasture, spying the quick starts
and stops of attentive movement, the rising heads,
trying to estimate the animals’ stations of dens
across the field, watching them enter before
creeping a few feet closer, a statue when one would
pop up from another backdoor hole, freezing,
moving again, closer. We danced like this for half
an hour until I was only fifteen feet from an entry,
sitting cross-legged in green and brown, waiting
for the groundhog’s boredom to tempt it. I made
a noise. Why would anything be out here to hurt it?
A slow head popped up, then the torso half way
higher to see better, hindquarters stance of curiosity,
nose tilted up, I imagine smelling breakfast, cigarette
smoke on my breath as I exhaled partly and held,
offering the soft squeeze and explosion of shot
peppering up the instant flecks of dirt and blood,
no movement then but the puff of dust vanishing.
I heard the whining belly full of babies before
pulling her out of her hole. I verged on a panic
threatening to rush me from the field with a cry
of absolute shame. But I forced myself to stand
over her body until all was finally quiet, the stretched
womb grown still. Then I snapped the stock off
my shotgun with one strike on a stone and tossed
the weapon in the hole, toed the body in over my
surrendered gun, nudged the berm of dirt over it all.
You asked for it
God should be so kind,
and God should be so cruel,
as to grant you the exact god
you think you know, the god
you believe you and others deserve,
the perverted version of justice
you daydream about all day
while Fox News and talk radio
screams weirdness in the background.
You would realize that what
you thought you desired
was actually an unexpected hell,
strangely rendered by your own hand,
a terrible disappointment on top
of the hill, after that steep climb
of anxiety with your son’s hand
in yours, the altar you work on
all night rendered suddenly
useless at the moment of truth,
or a sort of purgatory where
you are made into a rope pulled
by two versions of yourself,
one the victim of your wants,
the other, the guilty judge.
Larry D. Thacker’s poetry can be found in or is forthcoming in journals and magazines such as The Still Journal, The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee, Harpoon Review, Rappahannock Review, Silver Birch Press, Delaware Poetry Review, AvantAppal(Achia), Sick Lit Magazine, Black Napkin Press, and Appalachian Heritage. His stories can be found in past issues of The Still Journal, Dime Show Review and The Emancipator.
He is the author of Mountain Mysteries: The Mystic Traditions of Appalachia, the poetry chapbooks Voice Hunting and Memory Train, and the forthcoming full collection, Drifting in Awe. He is now engaged full-time in his poetry/fiction MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan College. www.larrydthacker.com
“You are a beautiful tragedy. My grievous angel. Here, hold my eye.”
My brother popped his prosthetic eye out of its socket and handed it to me. I heard a girl in the crowd say, “Eww.”
I curled my hand into a fist around Darling John’s eye, extended my middle finger, and waved it at her.
My brother squinted at Billy Goddard, a senior at my high school, and said, “I shall beat your ass from one end of this parking lot to the other.”
Billy held up both hands, palms outward. “Whoa, Darling John. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
“You laid your hands on my sister. Rhoda is only fifteen!”
Rhoda. I hate my name, especially the way my brother pronounces it “Rhody.”
Why my mother hung me with “Rhoda” but named my brother “Darling” is a mystery. Maybe she foresaw that the world wouldn’t love him and decided to bestow on him a little extra affection. Whatever the reason, I am forever having to answer the question, “Why’s your brother called Darling John?”
The other question I get asked a lot is, “How’d your brother lose his eye?”
What a stupid question. It makes it sound as if he mislaid it somewhere. Usually I say he got hurt in a hunting accident or that a firecracker blew up in his face, but if I’m feeling mean, I’ll tell the truth.
When Darling John was five and I was just born, my father got laid off from the sawmill. He spent the afternoon drinking, so when he finally come home, he was in a nasty mood. My brother was on the porch, playing with his Matchbox cars.
The way Mom told it, when my father walked up on the porch, Darling John held up a car and said, “Play with me.” Daddy kicked him in the face.
Soft little eyeball. Steel-toed boot. You get the picture.
After Daddy got out of jail, Mom ran him off for good. I don’t remember a thing about the man, so all I have are these secondhand stories.
Mom had to work two jobs after Daddy was gone, so my brother pretty much raised me. He’s a little overprotective. Take that fight with Billy, for instance.
I had a crush on Billy. Even though he was a senior and I was only in tenth grade, I had high hopes that he might ask me to the homecoming dance. I used all my feminine wiles to persuade him. When I wore my tightest jeans to school, I made sure to prance back and forth in front of him and his buddies. When he rode the bus, I slid into the seat next to him, then scooched up as close to him as I could get. But the day I pulled a Tootsie Roll Pop from my back pocket, unwrapped it, and popped it in my mouth? That sealed the deal. Billy asked me to the dance.
When Darling John told me I couldn’t go, I sneaked out my bedroom window and met Billy at the football game. Afterward, we went to the dance in the gym. Frankly, I was disappointed.
The real Billy wasn’t half as interesting as my dream Billy. All he talked about was football and NASCAR. I hate both. He didn’t have any smooth moves, either. Couldn’t dance his way out of a paper bag. At that point, I figured the only thing that could save the evening was a little hot-and-heavy.
I dragged Billy outside and we walked around to the back of the gymnasium. Other couples were already there, fumbling in the back seats of cars or perched on the steps of the building. I pulled Billy into the shadows at the corner of the building. Leaning against the bricks, I brought his hands up to my waist and gazed at him from beneath my eyelashes, which were clotted with black-black mascara. He kissed me.
That was a little disappointing, too. He was a mouth-breather, even when he kissed. No matter how cute you are, mouth breathing is not attractive. Just about the time I started to get bored, Darling John showed up.
All he saw was poor Billy pawing his little sister. He didn’t know all the trouble I had gone to in order to get that date. Next thing you know, his eye’s out and he’s ready to kick some ass.
What could I do? He’s my brother. Blood’s thicker than water, right? I held his eye and watched him beat the shit out of my high school crush.
It was a long time before I could get another boy to even look my way. And it wasn’t a boy, but a man.
I was almost seventeen by then. Mom had died in June. I was working at our hometown restaurant, Big Dan’s. The manager was a guy named Kermit. He was sort of cute in a married-with-two-kids kinda way. I could tell that overseeing a bunch of pimply teenagers at a burger joint wasn’t exactly his dream job. When I told him as much, he didn’t get offended. Actually, he seemed flattered that I had even noticed him.
It was like shootin’ fish in a barrel. Let’s just say Kermit was a smallmouth bass and I was a Remington shotgun. I know a little about guns. Darling John has a collection he’s been working on for years.
Anyway, Kermit was real nice to me. Let me eat anything I wanted. Hell, one night he even cooked me my very own meal. A cheeseburger, medium-rare, with grilled onions and a fried egg on top. The Rhoda, he called it. And he pretended not to notice if I slid a few dollars out of the cash register and into my pocket. I didn’t do it often. Darling John wouldn’t have approved.
It’s funny. My brother won’t hesitate to stomp the holy hell out of you or cheat at a card game, but he can’t abide a thief or a drunk. I don’t drink, of course, but I have been known to take the five-fingered discount. Just for fun.
Never really need the things I take, not even the money. Darling John has always put plenty of food on our table and nice clothes on my back. He made good money when he worked in the mines. After he got laid off there, he worked at a garage. He’s good with cars. Loves them. Always has.
Sometimes I think about him playing with his toy cars on the porch that day. What if he’d been inside? Or at Granny’s house? He might still have his eye. Maybe he wouldn’t have ended up so hard.
Notice I said hard and not bad. There’s a difference. Some people are born to be bad. Like me. But Darling John? He’s not a bad person. He’s a good brother. He’s done right by me.
That the whole thing with Kermit…Darling John was just trying to protect me.
I had a pretty regular schedule most of the summer, then I started working real late hours. After a week of that, I got home late Saturday night to find my brother waiting up for me.
“I love nothing in the world as well as you, Rhoda…is that strange?”
People think Darling John talks funny. It’s true. When we were kids, we found a moldering box of books in an old house in the neighborhood. It was a weird collection: William Shakespeare, Damon Runyon, Ray Bradbury, James Still, and Ron Rash. My brother read them over and over again. I think it warped the way he talks.
To this day he loves to read. Even though he quit school when he was fourteen, he never stopped reading. I think he wore out two library cards. He’s not dumb, my brother. I should have remembered that.
“It’s not strange, Darling John. I love you, too.”
“Has that chap Kermit been making eyes at you? Or worse?”
“No.” When I shifted my eyes to a spot above his head, he knew I was lying to him.
“It is my misery. I am doomed to spend my life defending you.”
“Don’t be mad at Kermit. It’s my fault.” That, at least, was the truth.
Even though I looked him square in the face that time, looked him in his one good eye, he ignored the truth.
Darling John made me text Kermit and ask him to meet me Sunday morning. Kermit replied that he had to go to church with his wife and kids, but I told him to fake being sick. He took so long to answer that I thought he wouldn’t do it, but eventually he agreed.
I went to bed but couldn’t sleep for wondering what the day would bring. By the time my brother hollered at me to get up, I was already dressed. He ushered me into his old truck and we headed up the mountain behind our house.
The whole backside of it had been strip-mined in the seventies. It had never been reclaimed, so it was a dangerous place to be. Kudzu, honeysuckle, and sumac covered the abandoned mine site, hiding rusty equipment, high walls, and deep pits.
Darling John parked the truck behind a large green mass which turned out to be an old poplar tree nearly consumed by kudzu. I climbed out of the cab and waited at the entrance of the old mining road which was now filled with golden rod and blackberry vines. My brother rested on the tailgate of the truck, out of sight.
Growing restless, I picked a bouquet of Queen Anne’s lace, then scratched at the chigger bites on my ankles. Jarflies buzzed so loud around me that it felt like my teeth might vibrate right out of my head. I was just about to ask my brother to take me to town for a sausage biscuit when I heard a car approach. Kermit.
He parked his car, a used Subaru, at the side of the road and climbed from behind the steering wheel. “Listen, Rhoda. You can’t be texting me when I’m home. If my wife saw that…well, I don’t want to think about what would happen.”
Before I could respond, Darling John appeared from behind the weeds and said, “I reckon it would be somewhat terrible.”
Kermit’s face turned as white as the soft-serve custard we sold at Big Dan’s. It struck me that he was overreacting until I saw the gun in my brother’s hand. His Sig Sauer, a compact little weapon he favored, was pointed right at Kermit.
“Listen, Darling John. I don’t know what’s going on in your head, but let’s think this thing through.” He stuttered a little bit, his eyes never leaving my brother’s gun.
“There’s naught to talk about, you toad. Now get up that road there.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Do not concern yourself with that. Move!”
Kermit stumbled through the weeds and brush with my brother right behind him. I followed, still holding my bouquet. It seemed an eternity, that walk. When Darling John was satisfied with the location, he said, “Stop.”
We stood at a precipice, high above a deep pit: the remains of a long-dead surface mine. Kermit turned to face us. “Whatever you’re thinking of doing, please don’t.”
“Did you lay your hands on Rhoda?”
Kermit hesitated, apparently trying to assess what amount of truth would be the least dangerous. He didn’t realize that the truth didn’t matter to Darling John. As far as he was concerned, anything Kermit said about me would be an untruth.
My brother pulled back the slide on the gun and the sound of it was louder than the jarflies. Kermit started to cry, the blubbering sound of a little girl. I felt embarrassed for him. I dropped my bouquet. Darling John took a step forward. Kermit took a step back.
When someone falls from a high place, it’s not like you see in cartoons. They don’t hang in the air for a few seconds. They can’t walk across the current back onto solid ground. It don’t happen in slow motion. Gravity’s a bitch.
When I ran to the edge, my brother grabbed the back of my shirt to keep me from falling over it, too. He pushed me to the ground and crouched next to me. We peered at poor Kermit, dead at the bottom of the high wall.
“Come on,” Darling John said.
It took us about twenty minutes to make our way to Kermit’s body. He lay on his back, one leg tucked under the other, his head cocked at an angle it could never reach in life. His blue eyes were open wide. He looked surprised.
I kneeled next to him and patted his shoulder. I wished his eyes were shut, but I wouldn’t touch his face to close them. I stared at him for a long time. I hadn’t never seen anybody dead outside a funeral home. In a coffin, they’re always powdered and rouged.
A butterfly flitted from a stalk of Joe-Pye weed and landed on his head. I flicked it away with one finger, then rubbed the powdery residue of its wings from my skin.
“I always wanted to go to the Badlands,” my brother said.
“Badlands.” I stood up and ran my hands through my hair. “I like the sound of that.”
I followed Darling John through the wild landscape, crying out when a briar caught my bare leg and ripped the flesh. When we got back to the truck, he opened a bottle of water and poured it over the wound.
It washed away the red thread. Slowly.
After all, blood is thicker than water.
Neva Bryan lives in Wise County, Virginia with her husband Daniel and their three dogs. She is a cat person. Neva is the author of St. Peter’s Monsters and Sawmill Boys. Her work also appears in the anthology We All Live Downstream: writings about mountaintop removal and numerous literary journals, including Appalachian Heritage and Appalachian Journal. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia. Her favorite leisure activity is watching old horror movies.
From the photograph in The Mountain Eagle
titled GUNSMOKE, you know Wayne Whitaker
wears overalls and has a brother named Waylon.
The article says Wayne is a native of Hallie, Kentucky.
And in other news, a scandal sheet at Wayne’s feet
says the human soul weighs 1/3000th of an ounce.
What we don’t see, beyond the gray-white billow,
is the other headline: ELVIS PICTURE WEEPS
and God’s hand in this—how else could Wayne W.
have shot an impressively tight X and lost?
God, Thief of Harvests, Builder of the Stars,
has fixed the Mountain Heritage Black Powder Shoot.
That’s what Wayne says in the article, adding
that God has whispered to his brother the teller
at the Mayking Christian Bookstore—
PO Box 400, Mayking, KY 41837—that Fleming-Neon
is where the trumpets will sound and Judgment Day
commence. Still, the way Wayne eyes the target,
showing us, in other photographs, what to do,
when and how to breathe hold move—
God could do worse than pull up a lawn chair
and bet on this 1/3000th of an ounce
who may make shooters of us all
before the pig roast.
Roy Bentley is the recipient of six Ohio Arts Council fellowship awards, as well as a fellowship from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and Waccamaw among other journals. He is the author of four collections of poetry: Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama), Any One Man (Bottom Dog Books), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press) which won the 2012 Blue Lynx Poetry Prize.
On rainy days
I give myself permission
To touch the glass
And see your remains:
All that is left
Dancing with ghosts
Over dark hills.
Skylarks, old dear.
When I stand in your old room
I feel so sad that I masturbate myself.
Bees feast in tartan plumes,
Birds hanging on threads.
An old donkey hobbled
Into the mists.
A pocket full of posies.
Your tiny hands tremble away
From my throat. Jack-daw.
Natalie Crick has found delight in writing all of her life and first began writing when she was a very young girl. Her poetry is influenced by melancholic confessional women’s poetry. Her poetry has been published in a range of journals and magazines including Cannons Mouth, Cyphers, Ariadne’s Thread, Carillon and National Poetry Anthology 2013.
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