Tag Archives: family

Folding Chairs

old folding chair

 

The pickup lurches a little when I put it in gear, and there’s a rattle I’m starting to fear is coming from the water pump. If it’ll hold for the next two paychecks I’ll be able to have it replaced.

It’s October and warm for the afternoon. I steer to avoid smashed road kill and a deputy notices that I cross the center line. I see him in my rearview mirror, debating whether or not to hassle me. He never pulls out, though. I’m at my pop’s house in twenty minutes.

He gives the dogs free reign inside, which gives the house the suffocating odor of musk and hidden dog shit. I make a mental note to set aside a weekend to help him clean.

He’s sitting at the kitchen table, a fat boxer sitting over both his feet. Two disassembled pistols are on the table, and he’s cleaning them with oil and cotton balls. The guns give off a sharp odor that I hate worse than the smell of the dogs.

“Hey, Pop.”

He’s let his hair grow since retirement. He keeps it tied back but he doesn’t brush it enough, and it looks stringy. I can see patches of his scalp between the vines of gray hair. He turns, slowly. “Hey, kid,” he tells me, looking almost stunned. He runs a hand over his unshaven face. “How’s work?”

“It’s work.” I grab a nylon folding chair from against the wall and bring it to the table to sit. The whole tabletop is overrun with mail and small tools. Mom always hated this. “I wash dishes. I fry eggs.”

He nods gravely, like I’ve said something worth pondering. “This is that .357 I got you that one Christmas. The one you left behind when you moved out.”

“Oh, yeah.” The gun is somewhat obscene in size, and I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where I would practically need it. I do carry a gun, though, sometimes. A little .38 I’ve always been fond of. Pop bought it for Mom but she never much cared for it. He’s something of a lone enthusiast under this roof. I doubt the dogs care about guns at all.

Roscoe, a rickety old brown pitbull, comes hobbling over. He’s got bad knees, and watching him sit down or stand up makes me wince. But he’s a sweet old thing and I scratch him behind the ears.

“I oughtta take that gun back with me one of these days.”

“Well, I can hold onto it for ya,” Pop tells me. “Keep it safe till ya need to come home.”

I moved out five years ago. I’ve been taking night classes the past two years. The nest is old and covered in cobwebs.

“You ready to head out?” I ask him.

He turns and checks the time on the microwave. “Yeah, I guess we should go.” He stands up, takes a moment to steady himself against any joints that might yell out. He grabs his cane, an oak branch with a handle shaped naturally like a duck’s head, and I stick close in case he loses his balance. He doesn’t. He shuffles his feet loose from the boxer and we head for the door.

 

***

 

“Sean’s here, too.” Pop waves at me, standing by the door.

“Oh,” Mom says, sounding unsure. “That’s nice.”

“Hey, Mom.”

“Come on in, kid,” Pop says, obliviously.

“I’m okay, Pop.” The only thing she remembers about me these days is the rage I used to inspire in her. Last summer she swung at me with a plastic fork. Pop sits alone across from Mom.

“Me and Sean are heading out today, the way we used to when we all had Sunday off.” When she shows no interest he asks her as casually as he can: “Would you wanna come with us sometime?”

“Oh. No.” She turns to watch hummingbirds out her window. Her roommate mutters in her sleep.

Pop reaches out and squeezes her hand. “I miss you, baby.”

Her arm doesn’t move. She doesn’t pull her hand away or hold his tighter. The knuckles sit there, unflinching.

When we start to leave Mom is still looking through the window. The nurse at the desk tells her she’s been more lucid than usual lately. This nurse always says that.

 

***

 

Pop and I dig a fire pit. Really I dig it, but Pop sets out the can and lays the charcoal inside. A grill is balanced, and sausages begin to sweat alongside hissing potatoes in foil.

We drink bottles of water pulled from a cooler. “I almost miss beer,” Pop says after a quiet moment.

“You ever miss it much?”

“I said I almost miss it,” he reminds me, then lights a cigarette. Putting the lighter down makes him wince.

“You alright, Pop?”

“Back,” he mutters. “My fuckin’ back.”

The aluminum armrests of the folding chairs scrape together when we move. Pop chews his food loudly, smacking and sucking at his teeth. I’ve learned to not let this bother me. Conditioning makes it hard to ignore, though. Nothing used to irritate my parents more than when my sister and I smacked our lips at meals.

“You’re doctor’s kids,” Pop would say, in that tone he used during lectures. “Behave like it.”

The old man in plaid and faded denim wipes his face with a dirty napkin.

It’s getting cold. We sit under blankets and sometimes talk about Mom. At some point I notice the wheezing breaths he takes when he’s fallen asleep. I put my arm around his shoulder. There are stars out tonight. Moonlight shines against the armrests of our folding chairs. I hold my father while he sleeps.

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Dybbuk

Dybbuk

My mother is quietly crying at the breakfast bar. She’s not making any sound, but every few minutes she brings a quick hand up and brushes it across her eyes.

There’s a bright red mark on Dad’s cheekbone, and I suspect it’ll swell and darken as the day drags on.

“Clint,” my dad says. “Hey, we gotta talk.”

My father stands at five foot eight, and speaks so evenly no one outside the house would ever suspect that the words he throws at my mother reach the abusive cannon bursts that they do. He’s a good man, generally speaking. He’s a good dad. He’s good at his job, managing logistics for a delivery company. He’s a good Methodist. He only diminishes when it comes to his marriage.

He runs a thumb along the red spot my mother must have given him. She doesn’t speak with nearly the cruelty he exhibits when they fight, but you can measure the zenith of his abuse by the size of the welt her hand leaves on his face. Sometimes her palm is open, sometimes her knuckles are clenched.

I don’t really listen because this should have ended well before now. They tell me vague plans regarding the immediate future. With my move-out date only a week away, none of this really affects me. My mother’s retaliation tells me she’ll be the one moving out. She can afford it. She makes a little more than Dad anyway. Besides, my dad has fumigated this house with too many insults. Mom wouldn’t be able to breathe with the vapor of his words hanging in the air.

***

The plan is to keep the decision between the three of us until after Granddad’s estate is managed. My parents sit shiva holding hands and leaning against each other. They are the image of love in grief.

I sit with them. An enlarged photo of my grandparents on their wedding day sits above the couch, over my parents. If the photo had been in color it would still look grim. Neither my grandfather nor grandmother smile. In another picture, beside the portrait, are the bride and groom lifted high during the horah. They smile here but out of minimal obligation. My great-grandfather hoists his new daughter-in-law high and proud. When she was alive, my grandma would speak fondly of Great-Grandpa Anton. Grandpa would scowl at the praise. I never met my great-grandfather, but from what Grandma Beth told me he was very devout. “A very good Jew.”

When I was ten I found a small handful of yellowed photos in the back of my Grandpa’s wallet. In them he smiled in a way I never saw whenever I was around him. In one he sits alone, a common state for the old man I knew. But the dark youth in the picture smiled so widely his mouth was open. He was probably laughing.

In another there was a woman. She was laughing too, sitting alone in a 1920’s bathing suit. She had a plump face, and hair so blond her eyebrows were nearly invisible. Despite the differences, when I think about her now she makes me think of Greta Garbo. She’s alluring despite the heavy black suit’s attempts to subdue her figure. A silver cross shines on her bust, the chain coiled lazily against her neck.

There were three more photos. In one of them my smiling grandfather wipes at his chest with a towel. In another the blond woman stands ankle deep in the water, her back to the camera. She’s bending down, not to entice, but to examine something in the water the camera can’t pick up. The last photo showed nothing but a sepia-toned shot of the beach.

There’s a name on the back of the photo where the woman stands in the water. “Ethel.”

***

Nick comes to help me move. Dad scowls in the kitchen, drinking small glasses of Glenlivet and forcing himself to be personable whenever Nick or I are around. “Need any help?” he keeps asking, staring at the microwave over the stove.

“Is he okay?” Nick asks me, and I just tell him he needs time alone. “They’re separating,” is all I tell him.

“Oh, my God! Baby, why didn’t you tell me?”

I reach out and squeeze his hand. His skin is soft and the color of stained pinewood. He teaches first grade and then lifeguards in the summer. His blond hair has become bleached with streaks of white from all the sun. Touching it is what I imagine clouds feel like. He wears khaki shorts and a polo shirt, modest but not so loose they don’t show off his body. He doesn’t mean to be, but he’s kind of a total gay man. I love him just as totally. He teaches me Hebrew during quiet moments when we’re alone. I wear the pewter Star of David he got me for my birthday under my shirt.

“It’s no big deal,” I tell him, which is true for everyone but my dad. He met my mom when they were in middle school. Their first dates involved him going to church with her family. He never cared much for shul, so converting in high school seemed normal enough. It was an easy way to integrate himself into her world. Grandpa never attended temple without telling Dad he’d missed a great service. Always unsaid, you missed this, missed that, over some girl. Left the synagogue. Got new friends. Over some girl. Married some girl.

After a while, Dad started saying those things too. To Mom.

“Hey,” Nick says later, while we empty out my chest of drawers. “Is this your great-grandpa?”

He’s holding a little gray photo. In it the image of my grandpa stands in a long wool coat, wearing a flat cap. He’s in the doorway of a shop, Cyrillic lettering plastered on a nearby window.

“Nah. That’s his brother. From the old country.”

“Is this before they moved here?”

“He didn’t come. It was just my great-grandpa.”

“Rest of ’em still in Russia?”

“Not anymore.”

“Where’d they move to?”

“They didn’t. They were killed in a pogrom.”

Nick screws up his eyebrows and looks at me. “Jesus!”

“People forget that shit happened outside the Nazis too.”

Nick stares at the photo a little bit longer. “You wanna keep it?”

“Maybe. Just put it back in the box it was in.”

Eventually Nick’s truck and my car are both full. There’s a small load left, so I’ll have to come back in the morning to finish up. I go into the kitchen and hug Pop.

“Love ya, kid.” He holds onto me a little longer than I expected. The sharp odor of whiskey steams from his empty glass.

“Love you too, Pop.”

“You sure about this?” he asks when he pulls away. “You sure you and Nick are gonna be okay?”

“I guess we’ll see.”

“If…if for whatever reason, things don’t work out…you know you can come back here, right?”

“I know, Dad.”

He hugs me again. “I guess I’ll see you on Labor Day.”

“I’ll be back in the morning. I got one more carload to go.”

“Sounds good. I’m gonna miss ya, you know.”

“You left us all behind!” my grandpa sometimes yelled on the phone, whenever my dad would decline to take us to temple with the old folks. “You left us the way your grandfather left his own!”

Guilt is a knife built of small needles.

“I know, Pop. I’ll miss you too.”

I hug him and kiss his stubbly cheek. When I walk outside I roll my shoulders. The sun warms them through my shirt. Beneath the blue sky, there is no foothold on my being for anything to hold to.

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Old House

old house pic 3

 

The tall grass rustles like the wings of a cricket as the wind whips through it. In the far corner of the north field a huge blackberry bush shakes in the breeze. I briefly imagine I can hear the ticks hiding along the stalks whisper to one another, then grab my bag and head inside.

Everything creaks inside the house. The screen door groans, the floorboards squeak, the mattresses whine. In every room I’m watched by old lithographs of relatives who died decades before I was born.

Without my uncle here there is a pervading sense of isolation that is not altogether uncomfortable. My parents are too old to hoof it all the way out here, so with my new power of attorney it’s up to me to sign everything that needs to be signed. I have a handful of checks to cover the taxes and upkeep costs. I feel like a toddler in his dad’s clothes.

I go back to my car and hear growling. I look to the north field and see a coydog. Just one. Unafraid. It’s looking dead at me, it’s teeth huge even from this far away. It stands still as I grab the case of beer from the back seat and head inside. I bolt the door behind me, and before settling in I find the old hunting shotgun my uncle kept, tucked in a back closet. There’s a box of shells beside a pair of boots.

***

I’m six years old. Cicadas are singing in the trees, and the summer heat is made somewhat bearable by a billowing wind. The laughter from the grownups fades as I turn the corner behind the house. I have to pee but someone’s using the one toilet inside.

I do my business, watching little grasshoppers abandon the weeds as I water them. I look up at the clouds hanging against the deep blue sky. The hue makes me think of the ocean, even though at this time in my life, I’ve never actually seen it. Back here the world has ended. There is only me, and the weeds, the scrambling grasshoppers, and the singing cicadas.

I shake off. The humming air conditioner sagging in the frame of the bedroom window drips steadily. Sheets waft behind me, strung up on old steel wire hanging taut between two gray, rotting posts. When the floral print cloth wafts overhead I see the dog, standing in the tall grass. Its bark is an angry scream. It’s teeth are wet and white.

I run screaming back to my parents, crying so hard I’m hyperventilating. It’s ten in the morning. I don’t stop crying until afternoon.

***

I keep an eye out for the coydog as I clean. There isn’t really that much to sort through. Uncle Roy didn’t leave much behind, and he kept this place spotless as a shrine to his mother. I brush away cobwebs in the living room. Above the couch hang portraits of my great-grandparents. My great-grandfather died before Roy was born, when Grandma was small. His portrait is so degraded it looks almost melted. Great-Grandma stands stern, a woman her time would’ve referred to as “handsome.” The blue dress she wears is as bright as I ever remember it looking.

Beside the television is a small photograph of her as an old woman in the seventies. She’s hunched, deeply wrinkled, smiling broadly. She’s the essence of matronly affection. The picture was taken the day the house and land had finally been paid off. In the photo she is a woman triumphant. A octogenarian conquistador.

Grandma used to sit here and sing when she visited in the summer. On the night before her returning drive to Georgia, she would sit in this room until midnight, singing to this photo.

***

I am sixteen years old. Uncle Alvie is pulling his old Ford up the gravel driveway, expertly shifting gears as the ancient suspension throws him about. He makes me think of a stern bobble head, lips pressed tight, eyes focused behind his thick-framed glasses.

Uncle Mike and Uncle Roy wait with me by the smoke shack. When I was little it felt like a privilege to watch the old men butcher the meat for the reunion. Now at sixteen I think of it as little more than work. A hundred yards away my cousin Haley sits and leans against a post on the front porch. She kicks her legs out into a spot of sun that peeks through the clouds. I do my best to ignore the unsavory fact that she’s grown up, and that I’ve noticed.

Alvie spins the truck around and backs it up to where we stand. I drop the tailgate and the three of us grab handfuls of thick, cheap canvas. When Alvie joins us I stretch my arms so that I’m carrying most of the weight in the pig’s ass.

“Watch yourself, boy,” Alvie warns, more out of habit than worry. When I was little I’d pretend to help the men haul the animal inside. One loose grip and the four hundred pound beast could have seriously ruined my day. Now at sixteen, it’s obvious I’m doing most of the heavy lifting. We pallbearers heft the creature inside. I kick the door closed behind me, leaving Haley’s blond hair to shine in the brightening sun.

The pig was killed and bled on-site at the ranch Alvie bought it from, but even in the dim light of the smoke shack I can see a smear of red on the inside of the wrap when we roll the hog loose. Alvie bundles the canvas and stuffs it in the fire with a pry bar. The smoke takes on the smell of hot copper.

The work is long and tedious. We take off the head, and Alvie cleans it inside and out, placing the brain and flesh into a bowl that he’ll stuff inside the ice box. They still say ice box out here, even though the room was long ago converted into an electric fridge. We sets the skull in the wheelbarrow, to be buried beneath the animal’s offal and hooves. The ham is hung and the ribs are racked. When we’re done we are bloody, sooty, and smell of smoke. The old men go into the house for ice water and air conditioning. I take the wheelbarrow and head through the tall grass.

A blackberry bush has started growing out here. I dig beside until I reach last year’s skull. Roots have worked their way through it sockets. I dump the remains into the pit and cover them. We used to sell the skull to a Pentecostal preacher, and as weird as Pentecostals are I can’t imagine he was using the skulls for any kind of Christian service. I wonder what he did with them. We’re too far north for Hoodoo or Santeria.

Later, while I’m cleaning the wheelbarrow, I look and see Haley watching me. The hot wind makes her tank top ripple. I am sixteen, so I indulge the look before I remember I shouldn’t. I dry the wheelbarrow with a towel, and go inside to shower.

***

The next day I call the county about the coydog, and a little while later a guy from Fish & Wildlife comes by. He asks me a few questions, and I show him where I saw it. He drives around a while on an ATV, a rifle slung across his back. While he’s doing his thing Haley comes by with her boyfriend and their kids.

Her kids keep running into the tall grass, even though I warn them about ticks. Her boyfriend’s a handsome guy, though on the cusp of premature aging. He’s generally thin except for an impressive gut, which he nurtures by helping himself to my beer. Haley chain smokes. She’s a year younger than I am but she looks a decade older. I’m twenty-six.

We sit on the porch and Haley tells me all about the remaining old folks in the county. Alvie’s wife Ruth is in hospice in Jackson. Mike died last year near Mobile. She tells me she’s still working at the Piggly Wiggly in town. Her skin looks rough. I feel like if I touched it it’d feel dry. This part of the country chews you up pretty hard.

Haley has to work that night, and after they leave the Fish & Wildlife guy comes up to the porch. By this point I’m drinking whiskey, and he nods to the glass in my hand.

“I could sure go for a shot a’that!”

The property’s in a dry county, so unless you’re willing to hoof it twenty miles out of your way, you take your booze where you can find it. I pour him a couple fingers in an old jam jar and drop some ice inside. He takes a sip and makes a face. “Oof! You’re drinking the cheap stuff.”

“Well yeah,” I tell him. “I’m drinking with company. You want the good stuff you shoulda gone to high school with me.”

Or found that fucking coydog, I add to myself.

“I found some coy tracks, but I couldn’t locate the animal you described.” He takes of his hat and wipes at his face with his arm. “I can go to a few of these houses and let ’em know what you’ve seen, but we can’t do much far as a search goes. Practically all this around here is private land.” He gulps his whiskey and makes a face.

“So what do I do?”

“Well, call us if you see it again, that’s for sure. I’d stay inside after dark if I were you. You have a firearm in the house?”

“A couple.”

“You know how to use ’em?”

“Sure do.”

“Alright then. I’d still advise against killing it yourself, but from what you tell me there’s a chance this one’s rogue. They’re bolder than most coys, and we found one earlier in the summer that was rabid. You’re gonna want to be careful.”

“Noted.” I nod to his glass. “Pour ya another?”

“Oh, nah. I take another I’m gonna feel it. Shouldn’t a’had this one as it was.” He sets the jelly jar down atop the AC unit by the door. “You see him again, you let us know fast as you can, alright?”

“Will do, trust me.”

“Alright then. You have a good night, sir.”

He rolls the ATV back into his truck and drives away. After a minute I get too nervous to sit outside by myself. I take the whiskey inside and drink in Roy’s old easy chair. I watch a televangelist preach against the evil of not hating yourself. The photo of my great-grandmother looks like it’s frowning at me in the waning light. She never did approve of liquor, from what I hear.

***

I’m sixteen, and when the Thanksgiving dishes are cleaned and the old folks have gone to the porch, Haley and I sneak off to smoke cigarettes and drink the scotch she sneaked away from her folks. It’s cool, but cool by southern standards. Haley wears denim shorts and cowgirl boots. I’ve thrown off my sweater and sit in my undershirt, my knees red through the worn holes in my jeans. As we get drunker we lean against each other for support. She’s playing with a little penknife.

“You sure your dad won’t see you took this?” I ask her.

“Oh, fuck that old man.” The venom in her words almost startles me. She lights another cigarette and takes a drink from the bottle. “Coydogs!” she yells, pointing at the treeline.

A pack of coyotes runs by, putting on an extra burst of speed once they hear her voice. It always strikes me as funny, how skittish they are, even when they outnumber us twenty to one. Occasionally one will pass with markings like a German shepherd. Coydogs are smaller than full-blooded coyotes, but they’re every bit as untamed.

I feel her put the tip of the penknife against my bare knee, not enough to cut but enough to feel. Haley hunkers down against the wall, wraps one leg around mine, and takes another swig. I grab the bottle and take a couple drinks, and when I hand it back to her it dawns on me how close her face is to mine. My vision’s getting blurry but I think she’s looking at me.

She reaches over, and pricks my other knee with the knife. I feel the the tip drag across my goose bumped skin. She’s leaning so close now her nose is touching my cheek. I can feel her heavy breathing against my face.

I sit like that, too nervous to move, before taking the bottle back and drinking three long slugs. I drop my cigarette when the embers reach my fingers. I feel her move her nose against my ear. My stomach lurches, rejecting the alcohol, and I run off to throw up in the grass. I sit there by my sick, spitting and smoking another cigarette, and when I finally turn around she’s gone. She left the bottle behind.

***

When I wake up the clothes I’ve boxed up are scattered, the boxes ripped into curling ribbons. I feel cold panic as it occurs to me the coydog could still be inside, and quietly I make my way to the back bedroom to grab the shotgun. I keep an eye on the door as I load it, pulling the bolt to cycle a shell into the breach. I load a sixth shell in the stock in its place.

The shotgun’s an automatic, so if the coy’s inside I can pump six rounds into it as fast as I can pull the trigger. I click off the safety and step into the hall.

The side door is still bolted shut, and I make my way to each window. None of them are open. I don’t find any broken glass of shredded screens. The front door is still latched. After checking every room and closet I walk around, yelling and banging on the walls. Nothing stirs. The coydog didn’t get in.

So who or what did?

I’m not the only one with keys to the place, but the chains are still set on both doors. It isn’t until I’ve laid the clothes out on the bed and swept away the remains of the boxes that it occurs to me to check the attic.

There are footsteps above me.

***

I am seventeen years old. The summertime reunion brings heavy southern accents and swarms of insects. I sit by myself as much as possible, hating the heat and wishing I could smoke. The smoke house chokes us with the scent of slow-cooked pork. The flies swarmed me two days ago as I buried the offal. The blackberry bush is huge now, and bends under the weight of its fruit.

Haley sits on the outskirts with her boyfriend. The two of them stay close, holding hands. They’re thinking about marrying, from what I hear. She’s in a tank top. Her mother told my folks and I that her stomach won’t show for another few months. Whenever we make eye contact she immediately looks away, embarrassed.

Later, I take a six-pack I lifted from a gas station the next county over, and brave the tall grass to sit behind the blackberry bush. While the voices of relatives die on the wind, I pick ticks from my ankles and get drunk. Coyotes run by at some point, putting haste in their step when they catch wind of me. Among them I count more coydogs than the year before.

***

I put the safety on and carry the shotgun with me to the attic. There’s nowhere really to hide up here, and it quickly becomes obvious that I’m alone. There’re only a few sheets of plywood and a couple rotting cardboard boxes. Despite the oppressive heat I make my way over and go through the contents. Old photos inside stick together, glued by decades of slow-simmer humidity. In one photo I see my grandma with her mother, in the last few months Great-Grandma was alive. Grandma smiles beside her mother, the older woman too weak to do anything but grin. Oxygen tubes run from her nose.

Great-Grandma could have had any of her children still living in the county look after her, but still she pouted and insisted Grandma come from a state away and be with her. Grandma was gone from Dad and Grandpa for eight months. When her mother died, she left her the house and the land it sits on. Made her work for her bounty. Roy continued living here, though, a guest in his family’s home.

I hear footsteps again, and turn to see a white lace lady’s hat disappear down the ladder. The attic door creaks, and the stairs fold on their own as it slams shut.

I’m not trapped. I can easily open the hatch and lower the ladder back down. But I sit like a man at gunpoint, holding a portrait of Great-Grandma in her youth. In the old back and white, she stands in a splendid white dress, shaded from the sun by a white lace hat.

***

The drive to town is boring and somehow exhausting. I pay the taxes and sign forms for transference of ownership, and when I get back I now co-own the property with my parents. I can make the drives to maintain the property easier than they can.

Haley comes by to visit, knowing I’m heading out tomorrow. Her boyfriend has taken their kids to see his folks in Birmingham, so she’s brought the same cheap scotch we got shitfaced to as kids. She wears a white tank top. Seeing it makes me think of how time passes, even when everything stands still.

We chain smoke and laugh over raunchy stories. We drink too much. She drinks a lot more than me. By ten she’s asleep on the couch. I open the windows to clear the air and step outside. The bottle she brought is empty, and now I drink the same cheap brand I always enjoy.

I’ve taken two swigs on the dark porch before the coydog’s growling registers with me. I look over and it’s teeth seem to glow. Moonlight catches in its eyes and something small and instinctive tells me that monsters are real.

It’s tense, ready to spring. I haven’t yet closed the door. The shotgun still rests by the frame, and slowly I close my hand around the barrel. The coy lets me know it doesn’t like me moving with sharp barks, but it doesn’t attack. Smoothly I bring the gun up, clicking off the safety.

I wonder what I’ll do if these six shells don’t drop it. I wonder if it’ll get me before the injuries get it. What might happen to Haley, passed out on the couch.

The coydog snarls and barks, thick ropes of drool spattering the floorboards of the porch. Then its eyes widen in terror and it yelps. Before I know what’s happening, I see it turn to run.

I trace it before I pull the trigger. The slug hits it in the neck, its head turning in such a way that it’s clear I’ve severed the spine. The coy falls so suddenly it flips before lying still.

I stand there a moment, icy from adrenaline. A woman’s hand grabs my shoulder, and I see a patent leather boot work its way between my ankles. Whoever has me gives me a shove. I fall, the gun landing in the grass and going off, taking out an anthill. I turn over in time to see the figure of a woman in a white dress disappear around the side of the house.

If I’d held onto the shotgun, I would’ve blown my head off. There are no guests here, only predators fighting for territory.

***

Haley takes a handful of Advil and drinks some coffee before heading home. I bag up my trash and set it beside the road before loading up my car to leave. In a month I’ll have someone come by to change the locks. Till then, I will leave the old woman to enjoy her house.

I spent all night burning the coydog’s carcass in the smokehouse. By morning all that’s left are charred, brittle bones, glowing red like coals. When they cool I take them and bury them by the blackberry bush. When I shower I pick four ticks from my legs.

Before I climb into my car to leave, I take a moment to take in the quiet. I see a figure shuffle past the curtains inside. The wind whips through the tall grass. I feel small grasshoppers thump against my jeans. In the distance, the blackberry bush sags heavy with fruit.

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Crowd

crowd

 

“Dad, I’m not going to discuss this with you while you’re wearing your chain mail codpiece.”

Bobby Dagger crossed his tattooed arms and leaned against his changing room’s door frame. He tossed his black feathered hair over his shoulder and did his best to appear paternal. “Kid, near as I can figure it, this isn’t up for discussion. When I get done with this show those applications better be filled out.”

“I don’t see why I have to do them right n-…”

“Hey Brett.” Bobby waved his manager over, and pointed squarely at Colin. “He doesn’t go home till those are filled out, alright?”

“Got it. You sure you good for the encore? You need some water or somethin’?”

“Nah, brother, I’m good. Alright,” he turned to Colin. “I love ya, kid. I’ll see you for breakfast. Tell your mom hey for me.”

Bobby Dagger’s chain mail codpiece jingled to a degree those in close proximity considered disconcerting. In less than a minute Bobby would shake it with both hands in the faces of thousands of screaming teenagers. They would consider it a nearly sacred experience. Sweat dripping from his abs would spatter them in a shock rock baptism.

Brett dropped his favorite pen on the counter next to Colin. “You heard yer Pops. Get to writin’, kid.”

Colin groaned and leaned forward, the front legs of his chair thumping against the vinyl floor. “I don’t even see the point in this,” he whined. “I’m already good enough to get certified. I could get a job in a garage the week after I graduate.”

“So go to school to make sure of it then.” Brett shrugged. “C’mon. Your dad’s footin’ the bill. What’s the hurt? You goof off for a year, you get some extra paper sayin’ you know what you’re doin’. Win-win, right?”

Colin shrugged. “I guess.”

“Don’t be so glum. You know your mom would just have you fill ’em out soon as you get home tonight. Oh, hey, that reminds me. You gettin’ a ride from me tonight? Or is that girl a’yours pickin’ ya up?”

“Nah, uh…she thinks we need to cool it. You know, now that school’s over an’ all.”

“Damn, kid. Sorry to hear that.”

“No girl, no job, locked in my dad’s changing room. 1989 is a banner fuckin’ year.”

“Language. C’mon, kid, you know I’d catch hell from your Ma if she found out I let you talk like that.”

Brett fingered his wedding band whenever he talked about Colin’s mom.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“He’s just doing this cuz he loves ya.”

Colin signed the first application and started working on the second. His dad had written up a list of technical schools with the best mechanic certification programs he could find. Ever since he got clean college was all he talked about. Colin wondered if he’d just replaced one addiction with the other.

“So you drivin’ home with me tonight, then?”

“Unless you and Ma finally got me a car.”

“Ha! Dream big, kid. Once you get certified you can just build your own car, right?”

“You’re so magnanimous.”

“I am at that, whatever the fuck that means.” Brett ran his hands through the pockets of his jeans. “Don’t tell yer Ma I said that. She’d make me sleep in the garage. You want somethin’ to drink?”

Colin was seated in the bowels of what the Moral Majority had taken to calling a Den of Depravity. His dad was clean, but there was an unmistakable odor of weed if you walked past the crowd. More than a few tabs of X would be swept up by the janitors come morning.

“Maybe some apple juice.”

“One apple juice, comin’ up.” Brett tossed his leather jacket on the couch and walked down the hall to the vending machines. On the back of his black tank were white words: DONT FUCKIN TALK TO ME

The walls shook as Eric Ripper tore into his drums. The bass guitar made the drywall seem like it was chanting. Colin couldn’t make out the words, but he could hear his dad’s rusted, knife-edge voice gnashing at the crowd. And beyond, the fans. No voice, no words, just sound. A wailing, orgiastic evangelical congregation. Pumping fists, thrown panties, lost tops. The stage was a pulpit, the mosh pit the pews. It was a church of the living.

Colin, the dutiful acolyte, signed the third application.

***

By 5:00 am the crew was cursing as they tore down the stage rigging. A horde of grumbling assholes with push brooms swept away the crushed cigarettes and used condoms littering the floor. Brett had long since taken Colin home.

Bobby Dagger, known by those who loved him as Arthur Harris, lied on the sofa and stared at Colin’s applications. His boots and codpiece were kicked into a corner. He wore soft flannel pajama pants and a thin bathrobe, the fraying edges of the lapels thrown loosely across his tattooed chest. He wanted a cigarette but drank organic carrot juice instead.

Half an hour after his shower, he was still shaking from adrenaline and exhaustion. The forms in his hand wavered as he read. These thin slips of paper were a buttress, for the days when the crowds at the shows would thin, when he would get too old to party, when whatever damage the pills had done finally came a’knockin’. The money was good for now but it could always run out. Isn’t that what money always did? Always dumped your ass when you needed it most.

His kid could fix things. That was good. Meant he’d keep life running smooth, if he paid attention.

He’d called Colin’s mom once the encores had finally ended. “Hey,” he’d told the machine, “he filled out those forms. Credit for getting it done goes fully to his stepdad. Thanks for letting him come out tonight. I’ll pick him up for breakfast around nine. You and Brett are welcome to join in. ‘Night.”

He set the forms on an end table and guzzled his carrot juice. The show, the way it always did, had drained him. The screaming crowd had clawed out of him anything that could feel. Now, gutted, he could finally rest, in these quiet hours before the urge to snarl into a mike would hit again.

Bobby Dagger lied still, in the eye of the storm, and where the exhaustion had left him empty, there was now the creeping flood of a father’s love.

 

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Filed under Fiction, Miscellaneous

Little Family

My friend isn’t very fond of cats, for understandable reasons. He doesn’t dislike them, but give him a dog over a cat any day. I’m the exact opposite. I love dogs, but I’m not much of a fan of dependency. I’ve always preferred cats.

So it was surprising when one day he texted me saying he had a cat now. She’s adorable, an almost freakishly tiny stray he saved from the front yard of his apartment building. She’s very affectionate, and it makes us laugh to no end when she breaks into a run, and slides three feet on the hardwood floor when she tries to stop.

It turned out she was pregnant, but she’s really young so she only had one kitten. Eventually he decided to keep this one too, as two cats wouldn’t break him. They’ll both be sterilized once the kitten is old enough.

He still prefers dogs. Cats freak him out when they stare at him, and he hates their habit of tackling people’s ankles. But the new cat is having known of his sassafras.

“Stop melting my heart!!!” he mock demands of the four-pound kitty, wrapping his hands gently around its neck and pretending to choke it. She just purrs and nips at his thumb.

***

Childhood neighbors of mine had a golden retriever they never played with. The dog was starved for attention, so my sister and I would play with it through the fence all the time. One time it broke loose while the family was away, and we spent a great afternoon petting it and playing fetch. It actually made me cry when she was taken back into the yard, and locked back up behind the fence. She was eventually adopted out, hopefully to someone who knew what kind of treasure she was.

The police loved few things more than stealing the pets of black citizens and taking them to the pound. My general distrust of the police began when I found out another neighbor’s dogs, three dalmatians I liked playing with, were mistakenly seized. The animals that were supposed to be taken lived on another street with a similar name, but in their haste to destroy precious things that were loved by a non-white family, the police in my town had them put down almost immediately. This was against pretty clear policy, and the police were actually pretty hostile when the family complained. A few town hall meetings later, and the officers involved in the incident were fired and fined. It’s almost worthless compensation, compared to losing those three babies so cruelly, but it was at least an acknowledgement.

There are a lot of pit bulls in my hometown. Occasionally a couple of assholes will try to start up some kind of dog fighting ring, but it’s never more than a handful of people out of the nearly 80,000 that live here. If you see a pit bull around here, you can usually assume it’s as beloved a family pet as a miniature poodle. There are plenty of idiots around here who buy into the vicious myths about the breed. They do so out of a misguided notion of pity, not realizing that they’re perpetuating the cycle of animal cruelty they believe they’re opposing. I once saw a pit bull lick and nuzzle an injured kitten a family on my street had rescued. Nowadays dog and cat spend plenty of afternoons napping, wrapped around one another, on front porch and back. It’s important to realize this is neither the exception nor the rule. Animals, like people, come in all shades.

aww

***

When I was twelve, we took in a cat that was over twenty years old, because its owner, the mother of a friend of my father’s, couldn’t care for her anymore. The cat lived another year and a half, and she slept in my bed every night. She got sick eventually, and one day I heard her begging desperately behind the hallway door we used to keep her and the other cat from fighting. I tried to let her out, since the other cat was outside, but Missy would only walk in quick circles, begging. I went in and sat down, and she hustled to curl up in my lap. She fell asleep, purring, and about ten minutes later she died.

***

We had one cat, Gray Baby, who would follow me everywhere, even to the shower, as soon as I came home. Spotty wanted me to carry her 24/7, and had a habit of hugging me with her front legs. Princess could somehow sense, no matter where in the house she was, that I had just sat down, and she would run at full speed until she dived onto me, full force, before curling up and going to sleep.

***

I had three gerbils: Karma, Dharma, and Samsara.

I had Samsara first. He was kind of old by gerbil standards, and the pet store I got him from wasn’t very diligent about keeping him safe from the other gerbils. It was shut down and forced to make upgrades a few months later. He only had half a tail, but he was friendly enough. He liked to ride around in the crook of my elbow while I fed him sunflower seeds.

He died of natural causes, and a friend of mine gave me a little black gerbil I called Karma. Karma was a vicious little bitch, and would leap to bite me whenever I fed her. I was resigned to just having a shitty gerbil until someone reminded me that gerbils live in colonies. I adopted another gerbil, Dharma, and put her beside Karma’s cage. Karma immediately become fascinated, and followed her down the length of the cages as she moved around. I moved them in with each other, and afterward I could pick them both up with no problems. Karma developed a habit of licking the end of my nose if I held her close enough. When they slept, they made a little yin yang with their bodies.

***

Magpie was a rescue. He was born feral, but he and his brother seemed way more at ease around me than their mother did. We fed them a little but generally left them alone. One day he was dragging his hind legs behind him. The vet said he’d broken his hip, probably from being hit by a car. We took him in and fed him. I would sit with him some mornings and pet him. Even with his hurt hip he would climb out of the cat bed and follow me. When he healed up and could walk normally, he decided he didn’t want to go back outside.

Boots literally demanded adoption. When he was little he’d race inside at every opportunity, amusing my late grandmother to no end with his persistence. He was an adorable, almost freakishly sociable ball of fluff, and he was already allowed in by the time we took in Magpie. He isn’t as inside-oriented as Magpie. He spends all day, every day lounging in the boat outside, or sunning in the grass, only coming inside to eat and drink. We keep him in at night, and though he loves us he’s never okay with this. He’s like a puppy, mewling for attention and prancing when he gets it.

Their mother had another litter of kittens, but all but one died. The little black kitten would come inside, curl up, and purr for hours when he stroked it. We stopped seeing it for awhile, and were afraid a nearby owl had gotten it. Eventually I saw one of the neighbors had a new black cat, with little white spots exactly like the kitten’s. The mother, feral to her bones, is probably long gone.

We also have Charlie. We love him and he loves us. He’s the only cat I’ve ever had declawed. He’d be a nightmare to deal with otherwise. Nowadays instead of wincing at random pinpricks in our ankles, we feel as though we’re being batted by tiny clusters of pillows. Charlie’s a bit murderous. We love him and he loves us, but he would probably try to eat us if we slept just a little too long.

***

One drunken night I had to sleep at an unfamiliar house. I didn’t feel unsafe at all – the people who lived there were close friends of mine – but I very much crave the security of a familiar place when I sleep. I lied in the dark, wide awake on the pleather sofa. Eventually their little rat terrier hopped onto the cushion I was lying on and snuggled up under my arm. I was out in five minutes, the rat terrier’s cold little nose pressed against my chin, his body a furry little furnace warming me against the air conditioner’s chill.

***

When I sit around my friend’s apartment, his cat likes to hop up and head butt me. She’s the kind of cat who just keeps her head pressed against your face, and it’s hard to resist to urge to just indulge and kiss her forehead. It’s a painfully effeminate mannerism my friend only mildly shames me for.

We’ll sit and drink beer and make bawdy jokes we will never repeat when female friends of ours are around. His cat will sit on my leg and I’ll start to pet her, and in a stern tone, my friend will command me to stop stroking his pussy.

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Filed under Non-Fiction