Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bent Country, by Sheldon Lee Compton

I steadied myself on the embankment. Below, down the hooknose incline of brush and gravel, ran the tracks, glinting like a school of silver fish running in the moonlight to chase the C & O. I stood carefully, leaned my head back so it was only me and mother-fish moon in a blanket of black, and pissed loudly.

Pete and Bryan waited in the car while I finished, Pete slouched behind the wheel of his Grenada and Bryan in the passenger seat. Bryan tapped the window as I zipped and tugged to readjust. I turned and flashed him the finger. The Poverty House would be there. It wasn’t going to close down while I took a piss.

“Jesus, Van,” Bryan said as soon as I was in the back seat. “We still have to pick up Deb. You’re already piss drunk. Seriously."

“Man’s gotta piss, Hoss. Man’s gotta piss,” Pete said. He didn’t wait for any response but punched the gas pedal peeling trenches into the gravel that left behind a dust burst rising off into the sky to join my mother moon.

I looked out the back windshield, tried to watch the sky for as long as possible. My piss splash would be shining gold on the brush the rest of the night while we stomped and drank at the House. I found myself wishing I could take it with me and realized I was very drunk. Aware of this, I slid sideways in the backseat and fell into an impossible sleep while Pete straightened out curves like a child finger-painting his own escape plan.

A half-mile from Deb’s house, Pete cut the engine and rolled through the last few curves with the headlights off. He pulled the Grenada to the side of the road and waited. Bryan leaned roughly against his door and got out. He crept to the back and eased the latch on the back door and sat down beside me.

“Hi, Bryan,” I said.

Bryan smiled. “Drunk ass.”

We watched the house in silence. Awake again, I fumbled in the floorboard for another beer. Bryan motioned to the bag and I pulled another out and handed it to him. We drank our beers slowly and watched Pete watch for Deb.

“There she is,” Pete whispered.

We leaned to the window and saw Deb moving across the yard, a lean figure moving like a swan through the swells of a lake. Blonde braids bounced across her shoulders and when she smiled I saw Pete lean toward her and their smiles lit the world. I finished off my beer just as she got to the car and settled in beside Pete. She spoke softly to Pete for a time and then turned to us, her braids swiping at the air, her evenly tanned arms draped across the back of the seat.

“Hey, losers. I was just telling Peter here that we’re gonna have to burn out of here like bats out of hell. No cruising in silent like you came in,” Deb said. She reached between my knees and came up with a beer. “That’s gonna be nice, huh? Dad’ll just cuss in his bed and pray for damnation and vengeance for the wild heathens, right? Right.”

“Here we go!” Pete yelled, starting the Grenada and pulling into gear.

“Long live the heathens!” Deb yelled back to Pete.

More trenches more dust bursts floating away to the moon. We were leaving behind us wild souls ascending to the unknown, marks of where we had been like my golden splash alone in the brush, a part of me for this place to remember.

The final decision was made the day before. Me and Bryan and Pete were leaving the next morning or afternoon for Peru, Indiana. There were jobs there in factories. Jobs in buildings, not underneath mountains in two-foot high coal with angry machinery and men who looked swallowed up and drained of their blood, walking, working faded carbon copies of men thrown together with burned leather and discarded bones, hollow-eyed and forever silent while they ate their sandwiches.

Our fathers all worked or did work the mines. Pete’s dad was killed picking rock from the belt line. Caught his leg and pulled him off into the coal. He was the outside man and the rest of the nightshift crew was inside. It took three hours before anybody noticed Pete’s dad was missing. By then, he was covered up under tons of coal, crushed. They dug him out after the foreman convinced the rest of the workers that he hadn’t skipped out and left shift. It was a closed casket. Pete was two years old.

Every day before our shift two words were always looping inside my head as persistent and undaunted as a bird’s song. Pete’s dad. Pete’s dad. Pete’s dad.

I wondered if Pete and Bryan had the same song in their head. Every shift, looking into their eyes, it seemed they might. We made our decision after three months at the Jericho Number 5 Mine, and The Poverty House was our last night before Peru. He hadn’t said anything, but we all knew Pete was going to ask Deb to come along. She just finished her junior year of high school and there was the chance she would stay, a really good chance. Pete didn’t see it that way. Pete always saw things his way, then made it happen.

Now, speeding to Haysi, Virginia to our bar under my moon there was another song in my drink-rattled head, a bird song beautiful in the morning light, a canary to replace the death call of the crow.

What is the answer? Peru is the answer. What is the answer? Peru is the answer.

Dress was casual at The Poverty House. If some poor shit showed up in blue jeans, the bouncer or from time to time the owner, a guy called Blue Eyes, turned the guy out. Slacks and dress shirts. Church clothes. It was helpful to know this driving from Calvary to Haysi. I pushed the wrinkles from my slacks at the front door and nodded to the bouncer, a thin man named Herman.

“Hello, folks,” Herman said, crossing his arms and taking a step toward us.

Pete pulled out his wallet and paid the cover charge for everyone. A miner from Burned Rock had once tried to push through Herman a few years back and dodge the cover, but Herman popped his eye with a boney elbow. They said the eye oozed black and sluggish out of the socket after Herman hit him. Herman also had nails driven up through the soles of his boots so out of the back of the heels there was this sharp tip of the nail that stuck out about half an inch, just enough to sweep kick somebody’s gut open. To look at him, Herman wasn’t much, which is why I guess he was tested like that from time to time. But military experience, and horrible experiences those, were Herman’s weapons. We all avoided eye contact as we passed through the door.

The House was dim with only a few patrons seated at the bar, regulars. We paid the second charge at the front desk for a running tab at the bar and then passed the two or three older men on stools, craning their necks to watch us pass. All of them had hair slicked back with oil and wore checkered button-up work shirts with the sleeves rolled past the elbows. One of them, a high-cheeked amber-colored man who had to have come from a strong Cherokee line, offered a slimy grin to Deb and Pete laughed at him as we went single file to a table with two white candles burning in the center.

The orders, except for Deb’s, were simple. Beer, beer, beer. Deb asked the waitress for a boilermaker with a second beer chaser and a full bottle of Tvarscki.

“Bring us a shot glass, cutie,” Deb called after the waitress, a dish rag of a girl, beaten down by night after night of half-breed Cherokees telling bad jokes and asking for rides home. A space of utter darkness poured from her eyes, vacant and fundamental, focused on squeezing out the hours. She nodded and left for the bar.

While we waited for the drinks, the band started plucking strings and running scales, adjusting amp levels and positioning a microphone as big as the head of a twenty-pound sledgehammer and bright silver in the dimness.

“Check one, check two. . . check one, check two.”

The front man for the band, which, according to the decal on the bass drum, was called The Shine, jerked across the stage, pulling the mic chord across his shoulders and around his waist, fly-fishing across the stage. He belted out a single note, deep and grating, the whiskey-soaked voice of an old man, thick and raspy. It sounded fine.

“Guy’s got some pipes,” I said into my beer bottle.

“That’s for sure,” Deb added and propped her hands under her chin watching the singer flop across the stage. “He’s high. He’s like Jim Morrison. Look at that.”

The singer turned on stage, tuning his instrument, the hard voice and lean body, the presence, his front man tools. He stopped and across at us. We were the only visitors at a table. The rest of the bar was empty except the Indian and the other regulars.

“I’m going to the bar,” Pete said and quickly stood up.

Deb watched after him and then gave me and Bryan a couple seconds worth of strange looks and went back to watching the singer.

I could hear Pete at the bar ordering Jack Daniels, a bottle. Then I heard the bartender, a lady in her forties with jet black hair and heavy purple lipstick, tell him the seat was reserved. I went to the bar and sat down beside Pete. In front of him was a napkin Scotch-taped to the bar. The napkin said the stool was reserved for someone named Rose.

“Deb wants to fuck Jim Morrison over there,” Pete said. He waved his hand to the stage where the singer had stopped his rehearsal ritual and was now sitting at the edge of the stage, his feet dangling off the edge. The band seemed to be waiting for the crowd or some cue for when to start their set.

“Check one, check one,” the singer baritoned into the mic. He sounded bored, and Deb was right. He was definitely high.

I couldn’t argue. It seemed Deb was into the guy. So for a time we sat at the bar, having scooted a couple stools down for Rose who still hadn’t shown up. Gradually the bar picked up. Groups of five and six were filing in, paying their bar cover and moving to the other tables. The tables sat off from a hardwood dance floor, and men outnumbered women, just like our group. Most groups had just one girl in tow, and that girl was probably with one of the others. Finding some hard love my last night in Kentucky was going to be a challenge. I’d have to find the sister, the girl who made her brother take her to Haysi for a night out. More likely there would be some fighting.

I looked back to our table and Bryan gave a quick hand motion for us to come back. Deb was out of her chair and moving to the dance floor, the curves of her body shifting like the smooth surface of a cut diamond under her dress. The singer, who by this time I thought of as simply Jim, had hopped down from the stage and was walking slowly across the hardwood. I poured myself a shot of Jack and turned to fill Pete’s glass when I saw a flicker of hard white light at his belt line.

“I’m gonna gut Jim Morrison,” Pete said holding the knife under the bar. “I’m gonna gut him like a fish.”

Bright dance floor light. Arms and legs swooping in blurred arcs. The knife clattering across the floor. Deb yelling then whooping and laughing insanely. Bryan holding Jim Morrison’s arms and rocking back from the transferred energy of Pete’s body blows administered to the singer’s ribs and gut. Me wiggling a tooth now loose from a lick I took from some guy I never saw before, maybe the half-breed, but I couldn’t be sure. And then Herman and the odd, complete silence.

One by one, cradling us like fresh caught fish by the back of our new trousers, Herman sent us skidding across the dirt parking lot. The skinny bouncer with the deadly boot heels held Pete’s knife up in the moonlight and then tossed it into a nearby thicket of trees. Deb waited in the Grenada. Her braids were slung out the open window, sleeping snakes against the Bondo of the driver’s door, her head lopped sideways, blacked out from cheap St. Louis vodka.

“You’ll be good enough to get to work tomorrow, Pete?” Herman asked. His voice was even and calm

Pete righted himself in the parking lot, stumbled back into the packed dirt and then got to his feet. “What?”

“You get into work and then bring me your payday next week to hire a new house band or pay for Calvin’s doctor bills. That comes from Blue Eyes, you stupid civvy.”

Pete grinned at Bryan and then winked at me.

“I’ll do better than that, Herman. You tell that to Blue Eyes. I’ll make good on all repairs and pay the band or hire another fag or whatever. I’ll do that and then some. Money is no object.”

“Money is no object,” Herman said. “Money is always an object. But you wanna go deeper to make good on this, then that’s fine by me. Should be fine with Blue Eyes. See you next week.”

Herman resumed his spot in front of the door and through the darkness I could see the swelled places of his knuckles, droplets of blood hanging there, skin peeled up and white, ready to start bleeding as soon the circulation made its way back to his knotted hands. I wiggled my tooth with the side of my tongue. The half-breed hadn’t got a good lick in, but Herman had popped me in the mouth. It was the fingerprints of my teeth hanging off Herman’s knuckles. No wonder my head was spinning like a top. I turned my attention to Pete as we made it back to the car. He pushed Deb across to the open passenger window to make room behind the steering wheel and I kicked the back of his seat with my knee. Pete turned around and, seeing my busted lip, laughed and started out of the parking lot.

“Money is no object?” I finally asked.

“Van, don’t you understand nothing. We’re not even gonna be here tomorrow. I coulda told Herman I was giving him my house to make good and it’s all just talk.”

I sat quiet for a time, Bryan leaned against my shoulder. He held tight to his stomach and was laughing under his breath. It came out of him like a weak breeze twisting through a torn down valley. Probably a cracked rib. Cracked rib, busted tooth, crazy Deb and Pete the Knife and not a good buzz between us. The Poverty House was a bust. Soon I allowed myself to lean gently against Bryan and the two of us held the other up for more impossible sleep.

When I heard the hissing again, much louder now, my first thought was that one of Bryan’s cracked ribs must have busted through a lung and the life was escaping him like a balloon. I shook him awake. Deb was gazing back at me, eyes of fire and her mouth a small pink circle in the middle of her face. Her eyes looked like tiny saucers streaked with tomato sauce. Pete was hunched behind the steering wheel, furious in his silence. The hissing grew louder and then the front of the Grenada started flopping like the fin of a hooked bluegill.

“Flat tire,” Deb said sleepily.

“Flat lung,” I said, shaking Bryan.

“Flat tire,” Pete said. “Flat tire, Hoss.”

No spare. Those two words were repeated, yelled, screamed, and kicked around until they almost lost meaning. No spare. We were hours from home, breaking the speed limit.

“Let’s hitch,” Deb said.

She was sitting on the guardrail smoking. She and Pete hadn’t spoken. The comment may have been directed to me. I started to answer when Pete whirled around the grill, jumped the guardrail and stood five inches from Deb’s face, arms stiff at his sides, fists clenched, soft curls of smoke from her cigarette appearing to come from Pete’s ears, the top of his head.

“We can’t all flash a leg and get a ride,” Pete spat.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Deb said and took a long last drag from her cigarette.

With Bryan leaning against the back bumper, I eased over and hopped the guardrail and joined Pete who had stalked five good steps from Deb. I sat down, clearing my head and saw the firefly of Deb’s cigarette streak down the bank, its ember the single red arch of a midnight rainbow. The glowing ember bounced onto the tracks below. It thought of my splash earlier and rubbed my eyes, trying again to clear my head. Pete didn’t seem nearly as drunk, which was comforting, even now with all the Deb problems and flat tire, considering he was driving. The ember nearly landed in perfect balance across a flatted out rail and then lightly fell to the middle, a red light fading into the dark.

The ridge line was visible even in the darkest dark, its outline rolling past on every side of us, thick and more dense than the sky itself with millions of years of vegetation. The Rockies were young kids compared to our soft curved mountains, naked and cold, ugly rocks jutting up like half-wit bullies, no majesty, no history, just flat gray fault line hemorrhoids. But our majestic ridge line circled now like a sea snake watching us drowning in the depths, hanging on to a shredded Goodyear.

Pete wasn’t talking and Deb wasn’t talking and maybe because I was drunk and not my usual mediating self, I also continued to sit quietly. A scooting about of roadside gravel trailed up behind us and Bryan put a hand each on our shoulders. His breathing was less labored now and I only now noticed that he had taken what may have been a knee to his forehead. A knot the size of a bird egg cast a small shadow across his brow. Bryan: the human unicorn lunger of Calvary. I laughed and Deb shot me a look, her eyes sparkling beautiful fire.

“Fear not,” Bryan said. “I have the answer.”

“Peru is the answer,” I said. My lips were still numb.

“Shut up,” Bryan said.


“The C & O runs through here to Burned Rock about this time,” Bryan continued, then glanced at a nonexistent watch, screwed up the corner of his mouth. “Anyway, it ain’t come yet. It’s coming. It always slows here, I’ve seen it. We blind jump it and when she cranks back up we ride to Burned Rock, walk to Calvary and get a car and a spare. From Burned Rock, it’s just a half mile walk.” He held out his arms, favoring his side as he did so, and made a wobbling bowing gesture.

Pete had been listening without looking at Bryan. He had left his gaze somewhere out there with the sea snake. “Yeah, sure thing. That can be our backup plan,” he finally said. “Backup plan. Got it?”

All of us, even Deb, looked at Pete. Going hobo on a train back to Burned Rock was not the most desirable suggestion made since the flat sent us to the side of the road, but it was something. It was a little better than clinging to a shredded Goodyear and crossing our fingers. But now Deb was off the guardrail and easing over to us. The sleek, slow movements of her legs cut through the moonlight. Her breath might have smelled of electric rain waiting in the clouds. She ignored me and Bryan and now it was Deb who was in front of Pete. It was some kind of musical guardrail game.

“So what’s the real plan, Peter?”

“Don’t call me that, okay?”

She sulked the way Deb sulked, a gorgeous set of tics and twitches. The flash lightning and storm clouds were gone. If I’d known her the way Pete knew her, I’d say she was worried. Pete must have noticed it, informed as he was. His voice was different when he spoke again.

“We just ride the flat hard as hell back home,” Pete said, and went to her, taking her small shoulders in his hands. “I’ll drive it straight, sixty, sixty-five, and that’ll keep down the grind on the rim, at least enough to get us there. I’ll have to get another rim on top of another tire, but we should get there.”

Deb’s features softened. She gave Pete the gift of her smile and then kissed him hard on the mouth. Breaking the speed limit so that three good tires lifted on the current and eased the grind on the rim seemed to excite her endlessly.

My golden splash machine shriveled inside my khakis and then, suddenly, I needed to relieve myself again. I paced off a good distance and pulled out, bending, adjusting, and going through my routine. There was a firm smack against my side. My knees buckled and piss streaked my pant leg. Bryan sidled up next to me.

“You going on the roller coaster ride?” he asked after I finished.

“You made me piss on my pants.”

“You pissed you pants?”

“No. You made me . . . Look, Never mind. I’m not riding that thing back home. I’m with you. Let’s play it hobo style and catch the C & O.”

Bryan seemed pleased with this and we walked back to the Grenada where Pete was inspecting the damage to the tire. Deb was already at shotgun picking her fingernails and holding them up in front of her face, nibbling the edges. She waved to us and we squatted beside Pete.

“Pete, we’re catching the C & O,” I said. I thought of the silver fish streaks of moonlight on the rails from earlier chasing their way across the broken map line of tracks leading through the valley.

Pete seemed generally unconcerned, but content. “Okay, Hoss. See you in a few hours and then we’re out of here. Out of here for good!” He whirled around the grill again, the strange dance an exact replica of what he had performed in hot white anger just moments before. White hot anger, white hot lust. I figured there wasn’t much difference. Didn’t look to be, anyway.

As soon as Pete was behind the wheel it was bursts of dust and trenches again and Deb waving backwards out the window, her nibbled fingers wiggling a goodbye. I wondered if she noticed the stain down my new pants. Seeing the sparks fly like welded metal from the rim, I wondered if we looked like wicked souls ascending, lifted away with the dust.

Sheldon Lee Compton
lives at the easternmost tip of Kentucky. He has earned paychecks as a teacher, journalist, coal miner, plumber, public relations specialist and carpenter. His work has appeared in New Southerner, Inscape, The Cut-Thru Review, Kudzu and elsewhere.

1 comment:

GO said...

Sheldon’s story brings back memories. Particularly of a back-country farmer’s bar, The Rainbow Inn, otherwise known by the locals as The Bucket of Blood, where every Saturday night the gravel parking lot was a fight. The place had two doors on the front and the angry crowd would go out one door, some sit inside and watch out the large windows at the parked vehicles and the fighters, and then the crowd would filter back in the other door swearing and hollering for more beer. There was live music, sort of music, and dancing, but the main attraction was the brawl. And then there is always that promise of the town with real jobs that you somehow never quite arrive at.