Jasper is schooling us on the finer points of fisting. It's only a touch past midnight and he's already managed to lose his camper from going all in on a drastic Texas Hold 'Em flop, praying for a flush that never proved. But now he's on to talking about the love he found for this seventeen year old barmaid after his wife started taking the dick from a Tennessean named Kilowatt, a guy who got his silly ass nickname because he's an electrician, and maybe too, I'm beginning to wonder, because he can deliver a worthy prod. Though this isn't what's bugging Jasper, because Jasper's a plain fool for forgiving his own cuckolding when it comes square up against the magic he says he's found with this girl Janelle and her slender greased digits. Fingers of salvation, is what he calls them, smiling and sweating a little.
This is not a conversation possible without dope and shame. Jasper knows this, and he's helped himself to Jackson's brick of hash. By damn God, if I could catch up with him, but Jackson's only a drinking buddy and not much else, so I'm not about to press my luck with what I've still got wagered on the table. But Jasper's lost in the music of his own speech, and soon enough, all of us are growing bored and mean.
“You mean you make that little olé girl ram her Christian hand up your butt?” This coming from Skintone, his yellow neck bulging from his shirt collar like case meat. “That's Goddamned Godless. I ought to put the law on you, Jasper.”
But Jasper will not let the romance be sullied. His eyes leak manly tears. He pleads. Jackson, unimpressed, heads over to the porch fridge and yanks out a pint of chilled vodka and pours out four glasses, setting them down at our open hands.
Now, to appreciate this, you've got to lay eyes on Jasper. He's not a small man, but a soft mountain of toneless matter, skin moist as a worm. And this girl, this Janelle Hicks, is herself no teenage apocalypse. Skinny through the hips with a bad limp. When she comes at you quick, it's spot on for a loosed asylum patient. But if we are to hear his version of the story right, this is our Lancelot and Guinevere. Our triumph and destiny.
“No, no,” Jasper hollers through his crying. “These are the truest plights of a good man's heart. No law…no law of nature is broken here.”
It is hot, humid for nighttime in the mountains, and the mosquitoes are thumping us something wicked. Jasper was supposed to buy citronella sticks, but he says the store was out. It's possible, I guess. At least he didn't pass up the bag of lemons Skintone demanded, the sucked rinds now sloughed into the ashtray alongside the bashed teeth of unfiltered Camels. That's where Skintone gets his color from, sucking on those grocery store lemons night and day, drawn to them like sin.
Skintone flings his cards on the table, curses us all blind and kisses his vodka. I've never once seen this religious fool so sober and each lick of drink seems only pushes him closer to clarity. We all spend a while sitting and listening for each other's human sounds.
“You know what I have a mind to do,” Jackson says, not really talking to any of us so as the face of his own whim. “But to go out and run us a fox.”
Skintone snaps his eyes up from his mood. “Shit, how long's it been since you worked them dogs? Four, five months?”
Jackson tips back in his chair, his hands joined over the back strap of his baseball cap, a pose that might just be enough to hold his brains in.“That doesn't have nothing to do with it.”
I know we have no choice but to follow once Jackson begins to talk this way. He is our head, our heart, and we amble after his signals like numbed legs. I gather my car keys and billfold in my pocket while Jackson steps around to the backyard where the dogs are already alive and yammering, sensing something in the night air.
“I need to ride with you,” Jasper says to me.
“What do you mean, you need to?” Skintone spits. He's raging with a deep, sinister calm.
“That's not your concern,” Jasper whispers back at him, taking me by the elbow as we walk out toward the edge of the brick hard yard. I can smell dog shit out here somewhere.
I know where Jackson will want to hunt. Spellman Holler: about fifteen minutes outside of town, not far from where the old derelict Sanction County railyard has become a simple steel ache in a history only slightly brighter than this one. It is the place we all go when we go down to forget ourselves and what we lost some place just beyond faithful memory. We go to get drunk and hate one another for being caught alive together in this world and convince ourselves it is all because we love each other like brothers.
There is a steady watershed out there in the holler. Runoff courses the plumbed vertical shale, and after a good rain you can hear the sluice coming down like breathing from the mountains' darkness. It is a kind of joyful death.
The car engine shudders and the valves rattle before the idle eventually roars and steadies. We lurch forward as I spin a wide circle, the CV joints popping like an old man's knees. The night is washed with the vodka and my eyes search the road and the melted sweep of the treeline gusting past. I have my own bottle beneath the seat, and I bubble it twice or more as I drive on. I hear Jasper talking, but the words are queered. Something has fallen from them, defused by the fact of his steady whimpering. I have never heard a grown man cry for so long at a stretch. Of all that I hear, the only sounds that I register are her name and that word that is supposed to mean everything.
“Love is…is love,” he moans.
I know this. Every fool does. But true enough, I can see the genius of Jasper in the moment, the reason he is locked in fat flesh and womanish bones. He has conjured something dear from himself and I find him so suddenly beautiful it is hard not to kiss him full on the mouth. The urge is so strong I swerve wide in the bend, kicking gravel high off the shoulder, dinging the bullet riddled octagon of a stop sign. The back end of the car switches for a moment and then runs straight and true once the tires gain traction. We ride. The vodka drains.
Some impulse guides me to the place where I know we will find Jasper's love, stooped over beneath Christmas lights strung from dented wainscoting, hustling neat booze to the late night drunks on a round plastic tray. Her uncle's bar, where she works for nickels and catcalls. To this gloomy keep, we ride. Oh, Janelle, the lover rushes to you, my sweet!
I may be drunk. I may be. I nose into the gravel lot and meet Jasper's amazed eyes.
“Take her, love her,” I say. “But hurry up.”
Jasper falls out of the car door and cuts his temple on the steel edge, ribboning his skull like a present, but he does not falter. He does not tarry. He careers ahead. Though I stay in the car, my love is with him, carried on his sallow sweating shoulders. In my mind I can see the sedated faces turned towards him, the gaping holes of their voiceless outrage. I can see his wan, female prize, wearing a cocktail apron and blushing coyly beneath her acne, eager to be whisked away to sylvan boughs and a gentle, loving rape.
I am driving again, forgetting them, rolling slowly out when Jasper beats upon the trunk of the car. I remember to stop, letting him and sweet ugly Janelle fling themselves into the back seat, their feet caught and dangling for a moment before I lurch forward and the door swats shut. They make sounds with each other's poor bodies as I drive on toward the holler, the proof of their love delivered in a sharp chemical truth that begins to tell in my nostrils.
When we meet the holler, Jasper and Janelle have righted themselves. I watch them in the rear view mirror as they match buttons and calm their displaced hairs. The car is humid inside.
Skintone and Jackson are already here, getting the dogs out of their kennels. When he sees us, Skintone comes forward with a lemon peel smile, but his words are not friendly.
“What in the hell, Jasper. You bringing jailbait out here, now?”
“Stop your bitching,” Jackson says. “Let's get out in the woods.”
So we do, moving down towards the treeline with the dogs thumping forward, eager for scent. We will not follow. That is not the nature of the hunt. Instead, we will build up a fire and put out sweating bodies next to it, heating ourselves to the point of pain because that is what we have always done. Because that is what the fox hunt is. That and listening to the long bays of the dogs as they crash through the distant dark. We will do that and carry our minds through the night after them as they chase the victim to ground. There will be no death, because death would end the trial too soon. Death would interfere with the love of torment, in both the dogs and the men, and that is something no one wants to happen.
Skintone snaps sticks and erects a small temple of kindling for burning. Jackson touches a spurt of flame from his cigarette lighter and we watch as the flame crawls up and begins to live. Soon, bigger deadfall is added, the ugly broken gifts of stormwreck. In time, the dogs cut a scent and start bellowing. Soon, I am lost to the tango of the building fire. The voices cross in the pale pulse where we all sit, but I do not say a word.
The dogs will run the length of the holler. They will run it and be deceived when the fox cuts a clever retreat, but they will run it again, venturing everything to bring the prey to bay. I have always known this because I have been alive forever.
I will not do anything now. I will not stand up to defend the weak when they are assailed. I will remain here, cut to the bone by the nearness of the fire when Skintone reels back and slams the vodka bottle against a stone. He will charge at Jasper, screaming the wrath of Christ to come, the wages of all sins of the flesh descending. He will spit his lemon peel from his jaundiced face, the pure sour triumph as the blood rises. Jackson will look away and listen for the dogs and Janelle will remain small and present, a mere figurine in rags. But I will not do anything now, though I am a defender of love, of the cock and the cunt. I am a defender of all the machinery of happiness. But that will do little to calm Skintone's raging certainty. He is an admirable monster to me. None of us can do anything to stop him as he comes at Jasper, striking savagely at him with the complete true pleasure of an emptied and righteous heart.
Charles Dodd White was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1976. He currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina where he teaches writing and Literature at South College. He has been a Marine, a flyfishing guide and a newspaper journalist. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Night Train, North Carolina Literary Review, PANK, Word Riot and several others. His novel Lambs of Men, a story of a Marine Corps veteran of World War I in Western North Carolina, will be published by Casperian Books in Fall 2010. He is currently at work on another novel and a collection of short stories.
Reminds me in no small way of Harry Crews.…
Helluva first line, brother.
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brutal, tender. ugly, beautiful. Art.
Flat out loved this story. Charles catches country lightning as good as anybody around. Thanks to you both for this, Rusty.