1/30/19

Fig. 30- Wild Hare

He came out of the blackout to a miracle of trees with the truck yet moving through them. The music still blaring, wild and relentless, headlights raked across crowds of pines, red clouds of dust rose and fell away behind the taillights. He cornered badly, hit some more washboard, the back end buckled and broke loose again. He laughed at the insanity of it all. The half empty box of beers fell off the bench and into the passenger well, bottles shattering one against the other. The two good tires on the right side jackhammered the ragged edge where it went from road to straight down. He somehow coaxed it out of the skid, avoided the holler, and then barreling up and over, crested the final ridge.


The idea had been to take the fire-roads home from Carolina, a good twenty miles through national park forest, but the most direct route. He was racing against time as his body shut down from pure exhaustion. The clock on the dash read 2:48. The road started falling again, snaking a track into the valley as the truck punched out of the treeline.  He got on the brake like meeting a long lost brother and crept through the moonlit back-acres of somebody’s farm. The moon was fairly blazing, but he knew that valley well enough. Forest surrendered to rolling fields, knobbed and rough-shouldered in the corners where limestone rubbed through. The road went from hardened mud track to ten year old crush-and-run. Cedars lined that stretch with hundred year old barbed wire buried in their necks. He rumbled over a cattle-grate bridge, crossing the wild creek that ran the length of the valley and then paused where the numberless track t-boned the county road. He’d made it home to Tennessee.


He turned the lights off and waited for sign of other travellers, Lawman or otherwise but none came, figured it was safe to leave the truck idling to go piss in the reeds by the creek, the only sound being that of water over stone.


He had no jacket, so he lit a cigarette for warmth. No longer the hammer-cold of deep winter, it was more the raw wet that tricks you into thinking it’s not that bad, but suddenly has crept into your very marrow. That cruel, spring variety of cold, he zipped up his exposed core behind jean fabric but it had already set to gnawing.


As usual, the old house was there across the road with tall, broken out window like ghost eyes overseeing all who passed that way. The roof shone purblind under moonlight. He figured he was maybe thirty miles out and desperately needing something to keep awake. Staggering around to the passenger side door, he rifled through the broken glass of the beer soaked box until he found one whole. Prizing the cap off with the butt end of his lighter levered across his thumb, he flung it into eternity. Climbing back into the driver’s seat, he cranked the heat full blast.


Back home Irises had pushed their pretty lavender heads up through cracks in the limestone that formed the stepped edge of the backyard garden as it climbed the hill. Much too early, their arrival just added to his frenzied sense of urgency. The plan was to finish the kitchen and then they would leave Tennessee right then and there.  He installed checkerboard peel-n-stick over the asbestos flooring, shoehorned the most inoffensive countertop his wife could find into place and left the old steel cabinets alone. Removed the hand-crank flour mill. Ripped down a backsplash out of cheap beadboard plywood and glued it in place. She painted the whole thing “bone.” He had coffee for the day and pills and booze to keep him going after she went to bed with the kids. He had music, treacherous music.  Late snow had come, wet and heavy and cleaved the stately boxwoods along the front of the house, split down the middle, and then melted away without ceremony.


He could not abide it. He packed whatever booze he had left, rolled the truck down the impossibly steep driveway before starting it, and took off into the mountains toward Asheville. He would run all night. The music wore a groove in his mind. The music was poison and he was well aware of it. After the third time through, at an empty highland crossroads, he decided to come home. Maybe it was the memory of a warm child sleeping in his embrace. More likely it was based on fear, fear that no amount of booze could kill. He always ran, but he always came back. There was no accounting for it.


The old house waited to see what he’d do. Clumps of pale yellow flowers, for which he’d forgotten the name, blossoming under the false light of a three-quarter moon, fooled into opening their idiot faces. Crocuses, maybe. He hated them as much as he hated the crumbling edge of the sagging porch. He’d passed it hundreds of times. Old folks gone leaving whoever was left unable to deal with the memories or each other or else couldn’t get the money right, so it waited to burn or fall over.  He smoked and regarded it, watching for anything to move in those windows. He cracked the window to let the smoke fly out into the cold.


He got the idea this could be his place. He’d creep up the twin track drive, park around back and stay as long as he needed. He’d speak gently to whatever ghosts may come. He’d get his water from the creek. There was probably an old cot down in the basement. He’d find some blankets or wool curtains that smelled like an animal and sleep as long as he wanted. Sleep forever if need be. He wasn’t amounting to much of a father anyway.  As he sat in the cab, and considered all of this, the world faded away once again.


He came out of it as the road dog legged around the stone foundation of a mill long gone. His body was no longer his own and the truck ran wide. Tires fell away into space as the whole thing dove into the ditch opposite side. Something down there big and hard sent everything in the cab airborne. He managed it back onto the roadway and made another curve before the whole rig suddenly pulled hard right, accompanied by the sudden acid fear in his gut that comes with big trouble. He fought with the wheel and slowed everything down.


He came upon the faint access to an outbuilding with a narrow stretch of fields running behind that was bordered itself by treeline and mountain. He was going slow enough it didn’t take much to pause and back it off the road. Opening the door, he fell out onto a spare covering of gravel. Let us see what this is all about. Across the way a small rancher was set up on the hill and immediately upon opening the door hounds erupted there with great gales of noise and alarm. Discovered the tire sure enough flat alright, got back into the cab and shut the door. The dogs stopped right away. Lit a cigarette to figure out what next. Well I’m just gonna have to change the sombitch. Got out again and started the dogs right back at it. Fuck me running. They dogs said that was a fine idea. Kneeled down, more of a controlled fall really by the tailgate, found the spare underneath with no identifiable way to get it loose. No flashlight, he held the lighter till his thumb was well burnt. Some hateful mystery fastener that held the sucker in place, he cursed the Japanese. He didn’t even know where the jack was located, the truck only nine months old and him having yet to crash it. Back to the cab, with the door open and the dome light on, he located the jack and some sort of pole contraption stowed behind the seat. The virgin, grease-free manual was sure enough in the glovebox, but might as well have been in Greek. With the light on continually, the hounds went plumb out of their tiny little minds. There was a howling in his own head that formed a chorus of This is Bad This is Bad This is Bad. His gut, which could usually be relied on to not give a goddam, was in full agreement. Panic sat there, and no amount of booze and cigarettes could settle it. He was a wild animal, trapped. His eyes couldn’t fit the words of the manual together to where they made any sense. Decided the best option was to pass out in the truck and see what could be done with it in the morning. He closed the door finally, lay down on the bench, with the stink of beer and cigarettes and waste all around him and was gone in half a minute.


Thinking back on it later, he wondered if Lynn Lloyd saw him parked out there on his field while having a cup of coffee in his kitchen or if it was after he and his son let the dogs out and started off to hunt that morning. All he knew was he woke up to two men in insulated camouflage, with camouflage face masks and rifles, knocking on the window of his truck. He very nearly screamed.


“Oh Jesus Christ don’t shoot me please!” He couldn’t decide if it sounded more like a laugh or a wail. He left the window up.
The hunter said, “Hold on, nobody’s gonna shoot anybody. Are you okay in there?”
He rolled the window down, letting in the cold and blue morning light. He was certain a distillery smell billowed back at the man. “Yeah, I’m sorry, mister, I’m just drunk as all hell. Got a flat tire back up the road a piece. I know I ain’t supposed to be here, I’ll get off your property just as soon as I can.”
“It’s alright, son, just take it easy.” None of his fear was allayed by the fact that he couldn’t see the man’s face from the mask. All he could focus on was the large caliber rifle slung over his shoulder. “Me and my boy here are going hunting up along the ridge yonder, should be back in a couple of hours. We’ll help get you straight okay?” It was just then he noticed all the riot of hounds teaming all around the legs of the two men.
“Okay, thank you so much. I’m gonna go back to sleep for a while then.” He said. Any more conversation than that and he would be bawling.  
“Yeah, that sounds best. You sleep for a bit.”


When they came back, the dogs were gone and the early morning blue had turned to grey with a fast moving cover of low clouds.  He sprung right up, unafraid this time, got out of the truck and introduced himself. Lynn Lloyd was stocky and short with a black mustache well flecked with grey. Nobody mentioned the boy’s name.  He had brought a bagel smothered in cream cheese and a humongous cup of coffee. There was no hangover yet, but he wasn’t so drunk anymore he couldn’t behave himself. Turned down the bagel but downed most of the coffee in two gulps, set the heavy cup on the hood of the truck.  “Thanks but I can’t eat right now,” He said. The boy shrugged. After a minute, he began eating the bagel himself.
“You said you’re from Greeneville?” Lynn Lloyd said.
“Yessir.”
“What you doing way out here?”
“Got a wild hair last night, drove to Hot Springs, came back on the fire roads.” he said.
“You came over the mountain from Hot Springs last night? Through Paint Creek?” he asked. The boy just stared with his huge eyes, chewing slowly.  
“Yessir.”
He paused then said, “There’s still snow up there, son. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Yeah, I know it.” he said. It wasn’t the first time he’d been so informed. “Hey, do you mind if I go wash my face in the creek?”
Lynn Lloyd responded, “Not at all.”


He lurched down the access road to where it crossed into the fields. There was no bridge, just  shallows, the water too high to be crossed. Pregnant with snowmelt, he knelt where the grass plunged into the creek and splashed water over his face. It was colder than anything he ever knew. The world snapped into focus.


There was grass under the fast water, waving in the current. The grey boarded outbuilding rose above him, metal roof a bruised purple-red, holes stove in the side, still standing mostly out of habit. It was punctuated around the base by the same blue irises he had back home. Behind it the land rose, sprouted trees and eventually gathered itself into a mountain. With two hands together he cupped some of the creek water to his mouth and drank, sending an electric current of cold through his chest.


Lynn, hands in pockets, was examining the flat when he returned, “Yep, you’ve surely killed that one,” he said. “Might even have bent the rim.” The boy standing behind him examined everything with huge mantis eyes.  Not quite full grown, he must have been a tall fourteen. His too-long neck gave it away, all spindly, muscle and no meat. He already stood half a foot over his dad.


“I couldn’t figure how to get the spare off last night, and the dogs kept going hog wild every time I opened the door. I figured I’d better hunker down until daylight and lessen my chances of getting shot.”


“Shit, the dogs go crazy over anything. I’m amazed his momma ain’t took off on me by now. This is a Toyota, right?” He pointed at a small hole just above the license plate. “Stick your jack-wrench in that hole and twist, that’s what lowers the spare.“
“Dammit if I don’t think I’d never have figured that one out.”
“Yeah I used to have one the same way. Flummoxed me to the point where I nearly traded it with a flat tire.”


Hunkered in the grass, he inserted the rod deep inside the frame it bedded into something that turned easily when he tried it. He twisted and peeked under, which set the world to reeling. The tire lowered slowly with a greased mechanical precision that would have been nowhere to be found on his old Ford.  “I don’t know about this grass, it’s awful wet. Might have a hard time getting her in the air with this little jack. “
“Yeah, the foot on that thing ain’t but about eight inches across. You want me to call you a tow truck?”
“Naw, I got something in the back that might work. “  The tire bottomed out finally. Lynn pointed and told the boy git under there, and the boy hurried onto his stomach and scooched up under the truck. Near as they could tell, the tire was held in place by a cup-shaped contraption dangling from a length of cable. The boy tried twisting the cup sideways and slid it easily through a notch in the hub. From there the two of them manhandled the tire out into morning.


The grass was of the ancient mossy variety, slow growing and sparse. After the jack made contact with the frame, it was pushed straight into the earth, clear water bubbling around it’s foot. It was as if the whole world was filled with water. He got onto his feet, waited for the dizziness to ease then dropped the tailgate and hopped up into the bed, boots crunching through half-melted slush. Fished a ring of small utility keys from his pocket and opened up the dented cross-box he’d salvaged from the Ford. Rummaging around elbow deep in tools he dug out a bottle jack, fireplug red and heavy as a stone.
“Lucky me. Just so happens I've been tearing out rotted sill plates in Jonesborough lately.”
“What’s your trade?” Lynn asked.
“Carpenter.”
“You work for yourself?”
“Mostly. I’ll hire on with a contractor ever now and then.”
“You got any kids?”
“Yessir I got a four-year-old boy. Just had a little girl about three months ago.”
“Hm.” Lynn Lloyd said. “You got a lot on you.” His mouth had a grim turn to it.
Hopping down from the back, the jack pulling hard on one arm, he set it on the tailgate. “I get nerves real bad, drink too much and do stupid shit like rabbit off Hot Springs in the middle of the night.” Making eye contact with the man, it occurred to him that Lynn Lloyd might have spent a night or two sleeping in a truck himself.
“You were on your way home when you broke down?”
“Guess I was. Don’t guess the dogs would let me stay with them?”
Lynn Lloyd chuckled and smiled “Nope. The old lady would put us all out for sure.”


Lynn and the boy headed off to the house to search for scrap lumber to put under the jacks and left him there to smoke on the tailgate and watch the swollen creek. The skies were low and overcast but the water caught the glint of what little sunlight there was and shone. The sound of it eased the smoking ruin of his mind. He decided, in all his weariness and calamity of spirit, that the little creek nearly jumping its banks, and its cousin the tobacco barn were an image of heaven, if there happened to be such a place. Bright water rushing with turquoise undulations of grass caught inside, fast and cold and pure.


After a minute an older man appeared in the field across the road in tan and black coveralls.  Well, one might say black but rather a patina made up of streaks of grease, oil and dirt that resulted in black. He did not respond to being waved at, nor did he spoke until he got to the truck. He had a lean angular face beneath a long grey beard and a look in his eye of undiluted Tennessee sonofabitch.
“I’m Lynn’s uncle Bobby.” He said, “He asked me to come watch after you.”
“Oh. You been hunting with them this morning?”
“No. I was by myself over on that far ridge. Trailing this bear that’s been chewing our fuckin’ hounds up.”
“Really?” What were you gonna shoot him with?”
The man reached into his grease-stained coveralls and pulled out a pistol with a barrel the length of his forearm.  “This here.”
“Oh. That’d likely do the job.”
Bobby tucked the gun back into his coveralls, pulled out a bag of chewing tobacco and commenced to load up. He smelled like a wood stove.
“Good thing you broke down here“, he said fitting the plug into his mouth “About a quarter mile back and you would have wound up on Copperhead’s place.” He had the same grim smile Lynn had, a few small random stalks poking out from his beard. His eyes didn’t have the same kindness as his nephew. “Things might not have worked out so well for you there.”
“You mean that old place up by the bend in the road?” An old bungalow next to a country store long boarded up complete with multiple vehicles sitting on blocks and disemboweled, innards strewn about in the dirt. Not one but two confederate battle flags waved over the muddy porch.
“Yeah, used to be Miller’s store.”
“Well thank God I didn’t roll up on that man there in the dead of night. Does he own the store too?”
“Yes he does. Place goes back five generations of his people. His momma and her sister kept it going till they died off, and then he promptly let everything fall to shit.”
“Across the road from there is an old foundation by the creek. Was that an old mill?”
“Yes it was. It burned before my time. They used to grind for the whole valley.”
“Wow,” he said and left it at that. He figured on shutting-up for the time being and lit another cigarette. Watching the smoke rise and he tried to imagine what the valley might have looked like once upon a time. Whatever loopy, still-drunk feeling he had left was ebbing quickly to be replaced by a dull throbbing behind his eyes. He rubbed them and tried not to think about home. His head full of snakes, the greyness of the morning solidified into three crows perched on the ridgeline of the barn. They chided him bitterly. The creek sang it’s forever song. Bobby leaned, elbows on the sidewalls of the bed of the truck and punctuated what the creek said by spitting occasionally into the grass.
Lynn and the boy eventually showed back up, “You two getting along alright?” he asked.
“Famously.“ Bobby growled.


They had brought an armful each of various scraps of two-by-eight, cut on an angle, each about two foot long, wrapped in cobwebs. He figured them to be drop-offs from old rafter tails and he hated dropping them into the mud, the sides rough-hewn and brown as tobacco.


He set to it, crawling under the truck and positioning the two jacks. Lynne’s boy stayed out and minded the crank on the little one until he located a flat on the axle where the cherry-bomb could get a good bite. It took a minute, even with the wide boards. The weight and the mud kept sliding everything out of plumb. The boy got his end straight first, started cranking a few times with the twist rod, and then waited. Eventually they got both jacks to come around and the back end of the truck began to rise when Bobby commanded “Hey, come out from under there.” Fearing that he’d done something terribly wrong, something worse even than everything he’d already done, he obliged the old man.
“Try breaking those lug nuts loose while you still got some weight on the wheel. It’ll be a heck of a lot easier than once she’s ass-up in the air.”
He was stunned. “How I managed to walk this earth thirty-four years without somebody telling me that before today.”
The kid laughed. Lynn Lloyd said “Stick around this world a little longer, you’ll be amazed at what you might learn.”


They all stood there and let him get into the wet and wrestle the tire around, the cold grass on his knees felt like a blessing. The sky above behaved itself and did not turn to rain. He could tell the old man was scrutinizing him, judging how he worked, the way his hands moved. Just to make conversation, he got them to describe how far back their land went under the darkened tree line before it crept up the mountain. They told how many generations had been on it, what all they had farmed. There were only a few cows anymore. The rest they just mowed or let the goats eat. “Reefer turns a good crop,” said Bobby. Everybody laughed but nobody thought he was joking.
“You ever thought about selling it off?” he asked, twisting each nut finger-tight.
“Nope.” Said Lynn Lloyd.
“You know, sometimes I work for a contractor who’d pay good money for that old barn over yonder. He takes ‘em down and re-assembles them for log cabins up in Cashiers. Rich folks love them.”
“Yeah,” Lynn chuckled, “he’s stopped by here a couple times.”
“What are y’all gonna do with it?”
“We’re gonna let it stand there as long as it wants to.” He said.
“I’d rather the coons, possums and rabbits have it than some rich fucker up there in Nantahala.” Bobby added.
“Yeah, I guess you gotta keep the reefer somewhere huh?” He said, but nobody laughed at this.


He stood on the wrench for the last turn, putting all his weight on each lug-nut. He got up from a crouch and faced them. It was time to go. Three generations fixed the same look on him with eyes the color of the creek. It was neither a look of meanness nor particularly of welcome either.  
“Good luck getting home.” Lynn Lloyd said. “Or rather, good luck when you get there.”
“Yeah. She might have finally packed the kids up and headed off to her mom’s house.”
“She’ll be there.” Bobby said. “Just keep it between the lines from here on.”
“Yessir.”


He thanked them as graciously as he was able, apologized for having rooting everything into mud and eased it back on the road. Pointed it toward home and whatever he would find there. Fierceness, he decided, finally. It was the look of fierceness. The boy waved and called out.
“Y’all be good.”





7/22/18

Nebraska

At some point it occured to the both of them that they might never get out of Nebraska. After nearly three days of steadily screwing each other across the great plains, they hit a wall of unseasonably late spring snow, wet and clumpy and almost impossible to drive in.  They opted to spend the night parked behind a hardware store, that in the near white-out conditions of the night before, was impossible to determine whether it was shut down or not. There was nothing to do but ensconce themselves in the back seat and fuck each other raw in Billie Joe’s sleeping bag and wake up in each others arms.

Sadie woke first and extracting herself from the tangle of the backseat, slid into her jeans and a three day old tshirt. She bent the driver’s seat forward and let herself out the massive door to pee in the snow. She immediately regretted not putting on shoes, the snow was wet and clumpy but no less cold than any other snow. She went around the front of the car, tucked away enough, she figured and squatted against the outside curve of the fender. She picked up a handful of snow as she started to shiver, and rubbed her face with it. Light, powdery and damp, it was clean and the last shower either of them had taken was in a hotel two days previous. Hunkered down, she cleaned her face neck and privates with it, and upon standing, rubbed her armpits and breasts under her shirt until the chill became unbearable. She gingerly raced back around to the drivers side and climbing inside the car, stripped down again, and trembling all over, nestled her back against Billie Joe who woke up immediately.

“Damn, girl, you are freezing. What did you do?”

“Bird bath in the snow.” She said. “Now warm me up.”

He enveloped her as best he could and she rolled and turned into him , pulling the sleeping bag over her head, nuzzled his chest hair. He blinked himself awake. The expressionless world outside the windows was pure and bright, but diffused enough to make it seem as if the car were floating adrift in a sea of white or a cloud perhaps and it was just the two of them and nothing else at all in the world. He considered this as he clutched the woman’s shivering form, her warm breath on his chest.

“What do you want to do today?” he asked

“Drive. Just drive. No more sex.” she said “My body needs a break.”

“Yeah, I’m sore all over.” he said “No more sex.”

They both chuckled at this, knowing they were both liars.

“We gotta get the fuck out of Nebraska. All this corn.”

“Horrible fucking corn.” he said

“Never eating corn again.” she said

“Corn wants us dead.” he said, “It’s why it sent the snow, trying to slow us down.”

“Yeah, I’ll drive today, you’re too slow.”

“The hell I am.” he said “You’re reckless.”

“You better, watch what you say, whiteboy, I got access to stuff under here. I can hurt you bad.”

“Lady I don’t see how you could put a bigger hurtin on me than you have already, but I’ll shut my mouth anyhow.”


He sat up and dug around in his duffle bag for anything that didn’t smell too horrible. Sadie, now warmed and head poking out of the sleeping bag, surveyed his body as he pulled on a shirt and pants. She’d never been with a white man before, much less a man as scrawny as Billie Joe. He was all muscle, bone and gristle. You could still see his ribs but he’d developed a glow about him. All she figured was that he didn’t look like a dying man anymore.

He clambered over the front seat and started the car, barefooted pumping the gas twice before turning the ignition.

“I keep telling you, you don’t have to do that.”

“I know, I know.” The motor roared to life, sounding eager to chew up more roadway. If anyone was gonna come out the back door of the hardware store, now would be the time. No one did.

“Dang, we need gas.” he said.

“And coffee.” Sadie replied. She got up and started getting dressed as well. “Lots of coffee.”

Billie Joe eased it into gear and the Toronado rolled slow, growling like a panther, out from behind the hardware store onto the empty main street of the still sleeping town they’d found themselves in. The blue light of morning it was hard to determine if any of the storefronts were operational or empty or maybe it was just a Sunday. Besides one or two perfectly laid tracks in the road of slow moving vehicles, the blanket of snow was completely undisturbed.

Just before the town gave up the fight and petered out entirely into corn fields again, the was a small filling station with a light on in the office. Billie Joe pulled in and shut her down alongside the pumps. Dry for a moment under a tall but leaky roof. The garage bays were closed and dark but there was a large man behind a desk in the office.

Billie Joe dug some cash out of his jeans and smelled his shirt once more. “I’ll go pay the man and see about coffee before I fuel up.” Then he noticed over his shoulder that Sadie was pulling her boots on.  “Unless you don’t mind pumping your own gas, ma’am?”

“You really must have me confused for some other woman.” she laughed.

Billie Joe stepped out into the cold and squinted against the few small flakes hitting his cheekbones as he ambled, hands in pockets toward the man in the office. A bell attached to the door rang when he stepped in. “Good morning, sir. Kinda late in the year for all this snow, don’t you think? Might cut into corn production.”

The man peered over his reading glasses at Billie Joe. “Mornin.” he said, and nothing else. Billie Joe noticed the booked spread open before the man’s massive gnarled old mechanic’s hands was none other than the King James bible. Passages were underlined on the delicate pages and there was a significant amount of notes made scribbled in the margins. Billie Joe felt his stomach sink and tried not to notice what chapter he was on, he could already tell it was well toward the back, in the firm and brimstone section.

“Uh, yeah, if you could lemme have ten dollars unleaded there, please sir.” For some reason, despite being seated, he noticed the man was wearing suspenders over his perfect blue shirt that clipped onto a belt and immediately remembered his father telling his never to trust a man who wore both suspenders and a belt. He cursed his powers of observation and tried not to giggle. “Also, if you could maybe sell me a couple cups worth of your coffee there, I’d much appreciate it.”

“Ain’t got no coffee.” the man said. “No cups.”

“Mister, are you saying you don’t have any coffee or don’t have any cups, because I can see both of the em right there.” Billie Joe responded. “I mean, I’ll give you five dollars for it.”

“Nope. No coffee.” the man said.

“How about nabs. You got any nabs? How about some Nip Chees?”

“There’s a store in the next town might have some of those things for you people, but not here.”

“So no Captain’s Wafers then.” Billie Joe said. He felt his eye go twitchy. He was seriously on the verge of doing something stupid.

“Nope. Just about twenty miles on down the road, which is where I suggest you be going now.”

“Okay then.” Billie Joe said, tossing the ten dollar bill on the desk. “You have yourself a nice day, sir.”
“You do the same.” the man said. Billie Joe made sure the door slammed behind him ringing the little bell on it loud and clear.

Sadie knew something was up but prefered to finish the gas and wait until she got into the driver’s side to inquire about it.

“You got a tire iron in the back there don’t you?” Billie Joe asked.

“Yeah” she said “What do you need it for?”

“I’m thinking I might go crack that motherfucker’s skull open and empty his cash register.”

“What the hell did he say? You weren’t even in there five minutes.” she started the car

“He didn’t say it, well he did with his eyes.”

“What, about me?” she said

“About us.”

They drove for a while after that without either of them saying anything.


Later, while sitting on the couch in the office with the crushing weight of Pearl across his lap, he would tell his Uncle Joe that the fight afterward was all his fault.

“I decided I couldn’t handle it, so I blew it up. I mean, it started out with something stupid, like the way she had the carb tuned or something, but I picked a fight I knew neither of us could win.”

“What did you say?” Joe asked.

Billie Joe closed his eyes and he was back at the place he seemed to always be whenever he closed his eyes anymore, sitting next to the black woman in her huge green car, hurtling across the landscape at impossible speeds.

“Listen here, whiteboy, there ain’t a thing about this car you need to tell me about, because I’ve been all over it, three times or more.” Sadie said

“Okay fine, I can’t seem to tell you anything anyhow.”

“Like what. What exactly is it you’re trying to tell me?” She asked.

“Well, how far do you think we’re gonna get with all this?” he said

“I don’t know about your sweet ass but I’m getting it all the way to Watts.” She was talking tough as usual, but her eyes told a different story.

“You know what I’m getting at. With you. And me.” he said “I mean, really. Look at us.”

But she wouldn’t look at him after that. She kept staring straight ahead at the end of the road that would never ever come.

“Anyway, she put me out by a farm supply place in the next hayseed town but I found a bar no problem. I guess that’s probably what I was looking for after all.” Billie Joe said. He rubbed the eyebrows of the dog’s massive skull as she looked up at him. “Stayed in there for about half a day till they asked me politely to leave. Which wasn’t problem really because I’d acquired a bottle of rail vodka when the bartender was taking a leak. After that I found a small yard for what I guess was Union Pacific and somehow managed to pick up something headed West and I pretty much stayed blacked out til I got to California and decided to find you.”

“My lucky day.” Joe laughed. “You don’t happen to remember the name of the town?”

“No way in Hell. Just another pissant Nebraska hole in the corn.”


~~~

If you could have asked the residents, they could have told you the name but likely would have agreed it had no special significance other than when they spoke to one other about where it was they lived. It resided on each tongue only as a formality and had long been forgotten for it’s sound and the shape it made when you spoke it out loud. A ghost word, maybe repeated quietly by their children, turning it over and over, but one well known by the black woman in the giant green car who’d driven for a hundred miles from it before she turned around, coming back to prowl it’s few narrow streets until well after dark. If they saw her, her slow circling might have made nervous a few of the neighbors cleaning up after dinner, but more likely, the same as if they’d seen the scruffy young man with the duffle bag ambling their streets earlier, they’d only given her a passing thought, something curious but not too far out of the ordinary to disturb their day, and if you could have gathered all the neighbors together and asked them to imagine the story that entwined these two souls together, they likely would have told you it was nothing they could have dreamed up in a million years.  






9/16/17

First Chapter.




BEGIN


The air blowing into the open window was warm enough to warn of the heat to come but not yet unpleasant. The wipers smeared their way back and forth across the greasy windshield, trying to erase the light drizzle that had begun to fall. The homeless were already busy making their way through the late summer fog, eyes wild and blazing. A group of three staggered like the undead toward the  Belvedere 7-Eleven that was behind my old house on Pine. It was almost six o’clock  — when they started selling booze again. We rolled our small convoy urgently past them and got it on further downtown, supercans rattling around in the steel cage that formed the bed of the stake body truck, the bags inside the cans whipping recklessly in the wind.


This was supposed to be my weekend with the kids but, since my supervisor had asked us to come in and I’d only just started this job, I talked the ex into keeping them for me. Since we’d been together all week, I rode with Karl, one of the tenured City of Richmond guys. I managed to get out of him that we were delivering the supercans to Kanawha Plaza for that night’s Center Stage event. The plaza was an open wound of concrete nestled in the heart of our city’s spare cluster of high-rises, spread out over blocks like the rough floor of a canyon. There was no other traffic to worry us so we stopped sideways in the middle of Canal Street and mounted the curb. As we rolled under the pin oaks ringing the plaza, the sky opened above us —  clouds gathered and quick and low — the sun a pale orb that had yet to burn away the morning fog. This is a hard, windswept place I thought to myself.


The stage had been set up with a swoop of canvas stretched over it like skin. I noticed sleeping bodies everywhere — under trees and in the concrete nooks of the pea-gravel wall that edged the perimeter. The arc of canopy over the stage sheltered perhaps fifty or more. Karl nodded at a secondary line of oaks and said, “Back me up over to them trees.” I hopped out into the rain, pulling my damp gloves on, and waved him on back. I hated the blaring beep, beep, beep of the back-up signal. Although every bit summer, there was a chill damp hung in the fog. Most of the men under blankets along the wall were already sitting upright, awake and watching us. Eyes peered out, unfocused and staring from every nook. They held with no malice, but it was unsettling nonetheless; if they even saw us at all. Unintentionally, I met the gaze of one or two and thought to myself, ‘These people are lost.’ I tried not to stare back and guided the truck into place. I could feel the rain collecting in my eyebrows. This park had become an encampment.


I’d never seen so many gathered in one place before, maybe in New York, but never here. Maybe it was because I had been getting up so early, or that the job sent us all over it, but lately the City felt like it was occupied by a ghost army. I strode up to the back of the truck and opened the catch; the rusted slab of diamond plate steel that served as the tail gate fell open violently, yanking the chains taut that held it. Finding the toggle switch just under the bed, I lowered it with a hiss of hydraulic release, hating the harsh noise as it broke the silence. The two other trucks pulled up about twenty yards away; the crew unloaded putting on hats and gloves, looking a little unsettled by the populace surrounding us. Karl stood on the gate and I flipped the toggle on, raising him up with an engine whine. He looked around like a hawk on a perch, and chewed the plastic of an extinguished Dutch Master protruding past his salt-and-pepper beard. About halfway up he told me to hold, then stepped into the back and slid the first three cans down. I rolled them off and slung them behind me. The other guys dragged them away. In this way I was able to keep up with him perfectly; matching him can for can, as he slid them down. Each boomed with a heavy plastic sound, empty and clean. We established a perfect rhythm. While the guys at the other truck were in no hurry, standing around and bulshitting, Karl and I got ours unloaded in half the time. Finished, I went over to help out with the other load while Karl got on the walkie-talkie. I hoped that would be it for the day and that we could go home after this. As he strode off into the pissing rain I kept an eye on his proximity to the camp. I told myself I had no reason to be nervous for the man, but it didn’t help.


The other temps and I struggled a while, the five of us getting in each other’s way before eventually settling into our own rhythm, moving fluidly together, whether it was intentional or not. You’d think there would be some kind of connection between us but there was none. One guy started complaining about the lack of communication. He bitched all the time and I couldn’t remember his name anyway so I ignored him. His bad attitude would get him gone in a week anyway.


After a minute Karl came back and said, “Clay, you’re with me. We’re going back to the yard and pick up #57; got an ASAP ticket we gotta get up.” I groaned but came on. Work was work. We sat in the idling cab for a minute while he put on a pair of reading glasses to fill out the paperwork for the job. The skin of my boots, still damp from a week of periodic rain, had picked up whatever residual moisture was left in the gravel of the yard that morning but my socks were still clean and dry so it wasn’t too bad. I’d consigned myself to having wet gloves for the day, but tossed them on the dash to let the defrost work on them. This immediately created a greenhouse smear on the glass but Karl, if he noticed, said nothing. More of the sleepers were up and watching us, looking dazed or stoned or insane — or all three. I fixated on one who was huddled under a ratty blue tarp, worn pale blue enough so that it laid flat and frayed along the edges. Even in the wind there was no discernable movement from the shape beneath it and I wondered if the man had passed away in the night. My eyes strained to pick up some movement of breathing. I wondered if the man turned out to indeed be dead, would I care or not? This became a pleasant game to meditate on for however much time it took Karl to finish his paperwork. I decided that when the people who kept calling came and took what was left to me, and my time came to go living out of doors, I’d head for the river. This place was far too crowded.


The lady who called to offer me this job said all I needed were steel-toe boots, a hernia exam and a clean piss test. A week later I brought these items to a windowless cinderblock room at the end of a long City building off the Boulevard that I’d been driving past for no less than twenty years. It took a minute, but I managed to adjust to the fact that I was the only white guy in a room of a hundred men. Some of the youngbloods looked to be coming straight from the street hustle; others appeared to be old drug addicts shuffling over the slab floor with ruined boots, teeth missing, filthy safety vests hanging loosely from their frames. I noticed no one in the room was overweight. My hands were shaking and sweaty. I steadied my breathing as best I could. Prayer was something I’d latched onto in the last year, out of desperation more than anything else. I tried to form something simple in my mind, a quiet place to settle my thoughts, but all I could come up with were questions. How did I wind up here? What exactly was I supposed to learn?


One of the ladies who had interviewed me strode through the heavy door with an air of complete composure and fired up an overhead projector in the middle of the room. She was short, with an efficient early fifties brand of no-nonsense school teacher attractiveness. I couldn’t remember her name but she seemed adept at ignoring the barely inaudible murmurs behind her back regarding firm calves descending from a skirt that was just this shy of being inappropriately short. The projector warmed to reveal various departments within ours. She started calling names with the bruskness of a drill sergeant as she listed them in their assigned departments on the transparency. Mine fell under “Bulk and Brush” a subcategory of “Solid Waste” as near as I could figure. The selection process seemed totally random. It didn’t dawn on me until later that I was to be working on some sort of trash truck. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I hadn’t had construction related work in a couple months and steady carpentry work had evaporated more than a year ago. It was a job and I would take it. With the news reporting 20% unemployment in housing, it seemed as though my trade had died.


We headed back to the yard and got #57, the battered boom truck I’d been riding in all week. It was nearly the length of a tractor-trailer but the bed was a massive steel shoebox, opened at the top and fixed to the frame. There was a twice segmented crane, the boom, which ran over the length of the box like a great yellow spine. The business end was literally a set of steel jaws that, when travelling, clamped the back doors shut. There was a chair with a pair of black-knobbed levers that ran the whole assembly mounted over the cab. The operator got to it by climbing a set of bright orange steps going up one of the two angled stabilizer feet that were mounted between the cab and bed. Turns out “Bulk and Brush” was responsible for picking up large piles of trash or plant matter that citizens had put out. Stuff that would have overwhelmed the trash trucks, our cousins of the same department. There were five trucks in our fleet, plus the stake body for smaller stuff. Like most of the vehicles I’d seen so far, the majority were battered, with substantial body damage and rust creeping over nearly every surface.


I realized that working with Karl reminded me of working with my father growing up. Maybe it was his tendency not to talk very much, to go as hard as he possibly could when he worked. Maybe it was the diesel fumes and the roar of the truck, hydraulic fluid smelling like the bar oil of a chainsaw, but I found myself vividly remembering barreling over the hills of northwest Georgia in a beat down Chevy at eleven years old and bringing home three cords worth of firewood in a weekend, the front tires of the truck barely touching the ground. As we rode across the ravine of Shockoe valley into the ruined Queen Anne landscape of Barton Heights, I realized I loved the man like any one of the other dozen surrogate fathers who ever taught me a craft or skill. We worked well together, something we’d figured out in the first two days, so at this point there wasn’t much need for talk. I’d started feeling comfortable, like maybe I belonged here; so of course, this would be the last time I ever rode with the man on a regular basis.


We crossed Six Points, the heart of Highland Park, a spider web of streets intersecting at the biggest Baptist church in the neighborhood. We hung a left and dove down into the cut as the Richmond-Henrico turnpike curved and twisted into Shockoe valley — all trees and hills, with a creek at the bottom that any other time of the year would have been dry rock bed. I told Karl back in Tennessee this would have been known as a “holler”. Years ago this part of the City had terrified me, especially the raw loneliness of a stretch of empty woods that efficiently dissected the area like a wound. I would get drunk for courage and drive through it late at night, marveling at the whole forgotten community I had no knowledge of. Naturally the prostitutes and corner dealers would harangue me, but that was all part of the thrill. We hung left at an empty tree-lined crossroads and started climbing again, past acres of open fields and mist covered meadows, a curiosity here in the middle of the hood. I asked Karl about it; he remarked they had been ratty old apartments that had fallen into disrepair and eventually demolished by the City, which now owned the land. We crested the hill, paused at another intersection, as if the truck were holding its breath, and then entered an alley behind two decrepit bungalows, one with pink trim and the other with blue. The pink one had plywood over the windows, like hands covering its eyes.


I don’t know how we had missed the pile as we were coming up from the street. A mountain of trash, taller than I was by at least a half a man, stretched the long length of the alley. Beds, mattresses, couches, chairs, lay tumbled here and there with garbage bags filling the gaps in between. We pulled into the mouth of the alley and paused staring at the swarming clouds of flies. I was silent but Karl let out with a “God DAMN.”


“You got a low wire there looks like,” I said. We were already tight against one side of the near Bungalow.
“Hop out and eyeball me, will you?” he asked.


I hopped down into soft mud, years worth of truck tires having cut a foot-tall ridge into what little yard the bungalow spared between itself and the gravel track. The fog had almost lifted from the morning but that meant of course the coolness would be gone too. I pulled my gloves on, the fabric still damp against my hands and waved him under a communication wire as I backed down ahead of the truck, thumbing him right. The whole area was thick with the reek of filth. After almost two weeks on this job, I thought I’d gotten used to being around raw trash all day, but this was the largest pile I’d seen yet. The smell was a hammer fist in the air. I mounted the step on the driver side and hung on the frame of the side mirror. Karl rolled down the window and leaned way out, frowning all down the way. He shoved a Dutch Master in his teeth and chewed the beige filter for a minute before lighting up.


“Well it’s a good damn thing I came out here with an empty truck. This is every bit of five tons right here, he said.


All of a sudden I really wanted to go home and see my kids. “You think we’ll be able to get it all in one load?” I asked.
He pushed his hat back on his head and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know, buddy. We’ll just start at this end and work our way down. We’ll do what we can with it.”


The pile started next door, shouldered against the neighbor’s carriage house. The big doors were stove-in, lilting heavy and loose from shattered iron wheels that had run off their tracks overhead. Fresh trash spilled into the dim opening onto older trash. Karl mounted the truck, took a seat in the chair, set the stabilizers and raised the great boom. Starting just below the seat, it was jointed like an elbow with hoses and pipes running along the back end. The massive yellow claw hung from a great wrist of a differential wrapped in hoses. The knuckle and everything else had been built from three-quarter steel plate. Up close the thing was terrifying, even when stationary, every surface scarred and pitted from a lifetime of conflict, a patina of scarred yellow and black paint, rent metal that had been pushed several different ways out of true, everything covered in mud and rust and black hydraulic grime. The thick texture covering the assemblage made it hard to figure out  how the individual parts went together. It was the definition of monstrous; it was like being infantry accompanying a lumbering old machine of war.


Karl began with a moldering couch, angled against the pile, that had one pair of broken feet jabbing straight into the air and white garbage bags spilling out of the seat. I came in behind him, grabbed loose cushions and flung them up over the side, then kicked the half-open bags back together. They were the cheapest generic bags you could get and burst open just by getting their feelings hurt. After a minute, it seemed the more he loaded, the more the mess was spread around and the bigger it got. In between grabs I staggered along the narrow track between the pile and the truck, boots slipping nearly out from under me in the mud, and looking periodically underneath the bed, I finally found a pitchfork shoved deep into the frame. Yanking it free by the prongs, I proceeded to push shit around, attempting to consolidate the spillage behind him. Karl was a fast mover with the boom so most of my job was to stay the fuck out of the way. In the week before, he had told me a couple times how easily the thing could kill me. I knew it and didn’t care.


“You can’t point me at work at expect me to stand there and not do nothing,” I said to him. He laughed and shook his head but he got it.  

I found that if I went smooth and easy with the toss, I could launch a bag over the sidewalls without it erupting. Of the loose stuff, I speared what I could and raked it into a pile he could grab. A suitcase broke open spewing shoes into the mud. Ladies heels and men’s Sunday church-going shoes. The boom dipped again and again, very close to me. We got our groove going; I stopped having to look over my shoulder. Great clusters of flies exploded whenever anything large was moved.


We edged on down the pile, pulling up the stabilizers and rolling every few feet until we came up next to a break in the tangled wall of privet which formed an opening into the backyard of what I figured was the house all of this had  belonged to. An old foursquare, covered in beige and brown vinyl siding with a half-ass little deck tacked onto it like a wart. A dangerous set of stairs wound up the side to a door on the second floor. The pile spilled back on itself into the yard. A three-legged table barely stood, wobbling like a drunk, oak stain streaked white with mildew, clothes draped over it. Even though I tried not to pay attention, I started noticing children’s things. Books and clothes punctuated with dirty diapers. Church clothes, a girl’s burgundy velvet dress trimmed with white lace around the neck and wrists. It occurred to me that this was an eviction — my first. This wasn’t merely the material of my new trade, these had been someone’s belongings. I went wading into it, thigh deep.


Family pictures going back at least two generations lay faded and sepia in the mud among burst packages of fetid meat and spoiled condiments. I tried my best not to examine the proud expressions of black families standing out front of houses, smiling next to new cars, everybody in suits and dresses. A heavy oak desk shattered into a multiverse of useless items; a drawer’s worth of pens and colored pencils and crayons. I tried to ignore a huge green stuffed frog that beamed his muddy smile at me from across the way. Bills upon bills exploded from the thin bags like sores opening, stacks of pink envelopes; termination of service warnings, shut off notices, attempts to collect debts. We struck a vein that was rife with old booze; bottles both empty or otherwise. Whiskey and tampons, beer and spaghetti noodles. Forty ounces, six-pack boxes. A television. A collapsed box of fashion magazines catering to young black women. More and more clothes, almost all children’s. I was participating in the death of a family. It very well could have been my own. Leather-bound school books named Ratcliffe Elementary, Henderson and Martin Luther King Jr. tumbled headlong into the mud. Karl grabbed at it all and whatever spilled out I shoved back together with the pitchfork again and again. It was hard work, remnants of a small life that kept slipping through the claw fingers of the boom and I was having a hard time not crying.


I kept at it, even as I could feel my heart breaking; I had no idea what else to do. It felt like raking up at the end of the world. The claw fingers dug into the gravel with each grab churning the mud and trash. I rolled a plywood dog house into play and slimy, black and wet it collapsed in the metal fist. Karl held it there for a minute as I stuffed items with my filthy gloves into whatever vacancies were left between the ribs of the frame. As we got through it, I noticed he occasionally nudged me with the knuckle, the deadly steel weight almost comforting as I waded on through. At one point I lost him, the boom I mean, and looking back over my shoulder, saw it descending over me, open and yellow and rusted like the talon of a humongous bird of prey. The hand of God come for me. I felt at once both terrified and amazed. I realized this was exactly what I had been brought out here to see.