Tuesday, July 28, 2009

If Only it Had Rained Cats and Dogs, fiction by John Sharp

When hurricane Katrina finished burying New Orleans it swept up the central United States, turning into thunderstorms that dumped rain and hail on the Midwest, and ultimately dropping an alligator into the backyard of Joe Pringle of Wingett Run, Ohio, which promptly ate his Yorkie, Puddles, who was out for a potty break. Joe saw the whole thing from the porch, where he was having a cigarette since Lucy banned smoking from the house after her lung biopsy came back negative.

Joe grabbed the baseball bat he kept by the door and headed out to have a chat with the "murdering bastard." The alligator was only four feet long but that was plenty big enough to make Joe slow down halfway there and reconsider. Standing in the pouring rain he decided a gun would be better, and he went in the house to find his deer rifle.

"You're tracking mud all over," Lucy said. "Get back in the kitchen and take off those shoes."

"Can't," Joe said, "an alligator ate Puddles." Then he disappeared into the basement.

"What?" Lucy yelled down the stairs.

Joe came up a minute later with his .280 Remington, shoving the magazine into place. "A goddamn alligator ate Puddles."

Lucy's eyes popped wide and she followed Joe to the back yard, screaming. The alligator was pretty much where Joe left it and he got close enough for a good shot.

"Are you sure?"

Joe nodded. "I saw."

Lucy fell to her knees and sobbed. Joe had gotten Puddles for her when she thought she had cancer, to give her something besides herself to look after. The first thing the puppy did when he brought her home was pee on Lucy's foot. Joe laughed and took Puddles outside for the first of a thousand such times. He'd let her loose in the yard while he sat on the porch enjoying a smoke, letting his thoughts wander into territories bright and dark. For the few days they waited for the test results they were mostly dark, and with tears in his eyes he begged God to let Lucy live. He promised God he'd give anything. Anything.

"Where'd he come from?" Lucy cried.

"He fell from the sky."

"God sent us an alligator."

"God didn't send us no alligator."

"It's like one of the plagues of Moses," she said, "like the frogs."

Joe grimaced. "He's not from God, he's from Louisiana. Storm must have scooped him up and carried him all the way here. I saw a show about cows and tornadoes once."

The rain fell harder and it was difficult for Joe to get a good bead on him. Joe moved closer and the gator swung around to face him. Joe retreated.

"What if he swallowed Puddles whole?" Lucy said. "What if Puddles is still alive in there?"

"I don't think so," Joe said.

"Did he chew him up?"

Joe couldn't remember. "It happened so fast," he said.

"You got to shoot him," Lucy said. "You got to shoot him and open him up. You got to do it right now before Puddles suffocates."

Joe tried to figure out how he'd dispose of an alligator. Maybe chop him up and put him in bags. Or bury him. Or take him to the lake and dump him. Just then the alligator decided to make a break for the neighbor's yard.

"Go get my hunting knife," Joe said. He turned, aimed and put two rounds into the alligator's head. He dragged him behind the garage and Lucy brought him the knife. Joe sliced him open from end to end and reached inside. He found a big lump that must have been the stomach and made a slit in the side of it. Puddles tumbled out. Joe picked him up and shook him—he only weighed four pounds. Puddles was lifeless and wet, and smelled like he'd been dead a month. Joe tried again and squeezed the dog's chest but nothing happened. He looked at Lucy and shook his head. Lucy cried as the rain drove harder than ever and washed the alligator's blood into the muddy lawn.

Joe looked to the sky. The rain beat on his eyes and he couldn't hold them open, but he didn't want to close them either, didn't want to get hit in the head with another alligator or whatever else the monster storm decided to drag along with it. Finally he covered the alligator and Puddles with a tarp weighed down with rocks, and took Lucy inside where they changed out of their wet clothes and climbed into bed.

Lucy could smell Joe's smoky breath and she wanted a cigarette. She wanted to take long drags and hold them in until the nicotine filled her bloodstream, until she felt like she used to before Puddles and before the cancer scare.

She turned her head toward Joe. "All I know is Puddles didn't deserve to be eaten by no alligator."

Joe held Lucy in his arms while tears filled his eyes. He had thanked God a hundred times since the good news, but that was before the bill came due. Tonight he simply hoped that was all he owed.


F. John Sharp
lives just west of the foothills of Appalachia in Ah-hi-a, as they sometimes say. His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous online and print publications, including GUD, Salt River Review, Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Flashquake and Eclectica and he hopes you'll go to at least one of those sites to check them out. He is a little behind on building a web site, but asks you to check fjohnsharp.com every single day until he gets it finished, even if it takes years. If it says no such web site exists, take a few minutes to stare at the blank screen and contemplate his alligator story. (The photo was taken in 1959 when he was 2).

Friday, July 24, 2009

Justice Boys, by Sheryl Monks

Rita takes the baby, still screaming, from the tub of water, lays him on his back on the floor between her legs, kneads his stomach, fit to burst, with her fingers. Beside them, shards of soap, homemade suppositories. His face the color of cranberries, tonsils raging, he stiffens, bucks when she tries lifting his legs. She is forced to pry him open like a frozen chicken, and even then, the soap does no good, brings neither of them relief.

“Stand away from the windows,” she tells the girls, but won’t let them leave the room. They want to watch The Wonderful World of Disney, but Rita has lit the front room only as much as she has to. “Rock your babies,” she says. “They’re sleepy.”

“Mine has a bellyache,” the younger one says, asking for a piece of soap, going to work on the doll when Rita says it’s okay, anything to keep quiet. Jesse, the eldest, does not offer to take up her doll. She pulls her sister to the floor covered in Cheerios, bribes her with toy bottles of orange juice. She turns the bottle up to the doll’s mouth, watches the fluid inside disappear. “Not orange juice,” the littler one says. “Castor oil.” Her brother’s cries do not faze her like they do her mother.

The baby, five weeks old, lays down hard on his scream, though now his throat tightens in a hushed blue choke that scares Rita more than the locked bowels, more than the Justice boys outside.

Arjay is still gone with Kenny, but the Duster’s in the yard, and that’s what draws them, firing their shots now and again at the bag of dog food leaning next to the house or at the tulip-shaped retreads Arjay cut up to hem in the peonies.

They leave the car alone, useless to her as the soap. Useless as Arjay, gone again as always, sometimes three and four days. This time, he takes Kenny and Jimbo and a stick of dynamite Kenny swiped from Litwar. Kenny is half senseless, especially when he’s drinking and that’s always. He tells Arjay they’re going to finish this thing tonight, but lot of good that does Rita now with them outside, the one Justice boy Arjay took a pool stick to at Lucy’s making turkey calls. Leon. Rita got a good look at him at Easter, up at the park, when they came driving by slow and pulled their van over by the slides where they could watch the kids.

Leon’s dull eyes had followed the kids running across the grass, jostling pink and green baskets too big for some. He’d singled out Rita’s girls tripping in the hems of their long dresses, the littler one squatting down in a frustrated heap, crying. He knew Rita saw him watching, knew Arjay was watching, too. He’d stuck a gray, leathered arm scabbed over with newly needled tattoos out the window of the van and pointed out Jesse and Sis to his kin with him there inside the van.

Arjay had glared at Leon and turned back to Kenny and Jimbo and the rest, all fisted up in a huddle, drawing hard on their cigarettes, issuing silent death threats over their shoulders.
Leon had got a good look at Rita, too, she was sure, wearing polyester pants and sitting on top a picnic table smoking a Kool. When she saw Leon, she’d scraped the fire off the end of it against the cement table and laid the butt down for later. Half in shadow, his arm draping the side of the van, Leon had smiled, rubbed his hand on the door panel like it might have been Rita’s ass and let go a lunatic laugh out the opened black window of the van to where she sat, crossing her arms, hunching forward. The wind had been chapping the kids’ cheeks and fingers all morning, but she’d left them alone. Leon leaned out the window, into the full sun, made a peace sign, then laid his fingers over his mouth and tongued the V that represented Rita.

She gave him the finger, and then Leon laid down on the horn that issued forth a tinny version of reveille and the kids stopped searching for the lucky egg and looked, panic-stricken, toward the van at the edge of the woods. Leon gunned the engine and balled tire marks over the pavement. “We’re watching!” he called out, and the panel doors swung open wide now to show their number. Rita knew it wasn’t even half of them, but still it must’ve been six, seven maybe.

Harley, the youngest, had stood behind Leon’s seat, his bare, muscled arms fixed overhead, braced against the van’s ceiling to keep from being thrown. His jaw was set and showed the same worry Rita felt. After a minute or two of being taunted by the other men inside the van, he was coaxed into throwing glass bottles against the road as they’d been doing, but Rita sensed that Harley had values prevailing over the bonds of kinship. He shared the hollowed face of his relatives, the same sharp nose, same deep-set eyes. But the flesh on his back was clean, like his dark, shaggy hair and the whites of his eyes.

Arjay and Kenny and Jimbo and the others had gone back to their vehicles and stood like sentinels around the perimeter of the park. Leon stopped the van suddenly in front of Rita and swung an arm out the window, his filthy fingers grazing her blouse. She jerked away, but still they were close enough now to pull her into the opened door of the van if they’d wanted. Rita’s eyes searched for Harley, but he’d been slung deeper into the group toward the rear of the vehicle. The others stood in his place, each of them with their eyes locked on Rita’s body, some gesturing blowjobs or fondling themselves to put the fear in her. They knew better than to do anything though. There were more guns in that park than at Appomattox.

Inside the house now, Rita almost wishes they’d come in and see for themselves that Arjay’s not there. But not really.

The baby has squalled himself into a stupor. He has Arjay’s light hair, broad forehead. Rita imagines it full grown, under a carbide light like the one her daddy wore. She can still smell it, still see the buckets of water he carried with him.

Arjay’s own wet-cell battery and hardhat hang permanently on a peg by the door with his miner’s belt. She’d nearly cried when she washed up his dinner bucket and put it away.
Wildcat strikes have shut down the mines, and this time, Arjay told Rita, he hopes they stick it to the coal bosses good. Carter can order them back in under Taft-Hartley all he wants, he says, but he’ll not scab work. Not even if their food stamps are taken. Not even if he’s left hunting scrap iron for the rest of his born days.

That’s what started things with the Justice boys. Arjay and Jimbo had been driving up and down hollers looking for pieces of scrap iron to sell to Luther Linny over in Mile Branch. Arjay said they drove deep into Mingo County, found themselves in nameless backwoods. Drove clear up the top of a mountain. Was about dark by the time they found anything worth salvaging, an old engine block they threw into the trunk and counted as the day’s last.

Arjay says he backed the Duster up onto the bank and turned around. They hadn’t seen house lights before then, but all of a sudden, a truck drew up front of them and about twenty big hosses jumped down off its fenders and started cussing Arjay and Jimbo. One took a crowbar and ripped the chrome off the Duster and then smacked Arjay down across the head with his fist. Then the one that hit him walked around and pried the trunk open, said, “This don’t belong to you” and rolled the scrap iron down into the branch where it could keep on rusting.

When Kenny heard what happened, he said, “Let’s go kill them son-of-a-bitches,” and handed Arjay a stick of dynamite he took off the job. They’d been standing around outside Lucy’s, a tavern Kenny laid up at most of the time. Arjay stood listening to Jimbo retell how the nameless elder Justice had cold-cocked him.

“Yeah,” Arjay said, “but you get one of them pussies alone.”
Leon had pulled into the gravel lot then and walked brazenly into the bar, figuring, they guessed, no one had balls enough to fuck around with any of their clan, lest they wanted hell itself unleashed. Arjay had followed Leon inside and shoved him into a bank of empty stools lining the bar.

“Who the hell!” Leon yelled, grabbing a pool stick. Kenny and Jimbo dragged Leon back toward the pool tables, away from the other drunks, then walked back and sat at the bar and watched the beating Arjay gave Leon with the pool stick he’d taken from him.

When Arjay was satisfied Leon wasn’t getting up again, they lit out of the bar, swaggering. Outside, Kenny reached through the window of the Roadrunner and pulled the dynamite out of the glove box, handed it to Arjay. “Let’s go kill them son-of-a-bitches,” he said.

Arjay turned the explosive over in his hand and nodded.

“Awright,” Kenny said, and the three of them hopped in the car and took off.

But for all Rita knows, Arjay and Kenny and Jimbo could be dead, floating somewhere along Tug River. In a few days, they might wash up like those do who meet up with the Justices.
Right now all she really cares about is working the knots out of her infant son’s belly. He writhes and screams a white-hot holler and Rita sees the face of her younger brother, dying in a jungle in some place called Lang Vei and realizes there is no getting out of this struggle but by death. The baby sweats and bays low now like something wild from that jungle or from this one, like maybe a mountain screamer. But he quits moving, just like Arminta’s baby had, and Rita knows her son has little fight left in him. She grabs him up quick.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?” her eldest daughter asks with an aged little face.

Rita surveys the room, finds the keys to the Duster hanging on the nail by the door. “Nothing, Baby,” she says. “Everything’s awright.” But as she cradles the burning hot infant in her arms, Rita tries to remember when she heard the last shot fired at the porch and can’t. “We’re taking Brother to the clinic.” She hopes a doctor will still see her, now that the medical card is gone, but she has to try. “Stay close to me,” she tells the girls. “When I open the door, y’all climb in the backseat from this side. Okay? This side closest the house.”

“You know how to drive, Mommy?” the littler one asks. “I never seen you drive before. Where’s Daddy?”

“Don’t be scared,” the eldest says, taking her sister by the hand. “Mommy’s a good driver. We go driving all the time. Don’t we, Mommy?”

“That’s right, angel. Now you girls stay behind Mommy and keep quiet as mouses.”

“I can keep quieter than a baby mouse this little,” says the youngest, measuring a size almost imperceptible with her tiny fingers.

Rita considers turning off all the lights, but decides against it, thinking it better not to do anything that might signal the Justice boys. The baby is quiet now, but she is not grateful and half hopes that when the wind hits him, he’ll come screaming back to life. Only the girls wince, though, when the wind lifts the tails of their nightgowns.

“Okay, hurry, hurry, hurry,” whispers Rita, holding open the car door. Then she scooches across the front seat and lays the baby beside her. Holding a hand to his hard belly, she fumbles with the keys, but the car won’t crank. It hops forward, though, and now she is sure the Justice boys are watching.

They’d probably seen her all along. Rita imagines one poking another in the ribs when she came creeping outside with the kids. “Lookey, lookey,” he probably said, digging an old clump of chew from his jowls and packing in new. She hears another birdcall, turkey or duck or some such, and thinks it sounds like Leon maybe.

The clinic is in Welch, thirty miles away, but if she can get through the gears, Rita knows she can steer that car all night if she has to. It is the pedals that bother her. Arjay said to use only one foot for the brake and the gas, but she can’t work the clutch to keep the car idling.

“Jesse, climb up here and keep a hand on Brother for Mommy.”

“I want to,” the younger one whines.

“Awright,” Rita says. “He can ride between you, but don’t be poking him, Sis. He don’t feel good.”

“I know, Mommy. That’s why we’re going to the doctor.”

“That’s right. Now don’t hold his belly too tight. Just keep him from falling in the floor.” Rita looks at her eldest and then out the back windshield into the dark. She tries again to crank the car, talks herself through it once and then somehow they lurch forward.

Behind her a set of headlights come on and she realizes hers are not. “Shit,” she says, twisting knobs until she finds them. She grips the steering wheel with both hands and glances too often in the rearview mirror.

But let them follow her if they want. They only mean to scare her. She spoke to Harley once, at the produce stand, when his mother had died. “Real sorry about your mommy,” she had offered.

“Thank you, lady,” he’d said, and Rita had wondered if anyone had ever called her lady before.

No, she thinks.

Harley won’t let the others do anything to her, if he can help it.

But he is the youngest, and Leon has a score to settle.

“Sing ‘The Stars at Night,’ Mommy,” the youngest girl says from the backseat.

Rita steps on the clutch and grinds the last gear. The curves scare her, so she touches the brake and the car chugs. Downshift she hears Arjay telling her. The car begins to stall, but she pushes the clutch and brings it back to life at a speed she can handle, though the sudden jerking makes the younger girl shriek. “E-e-e-e! Are we wrecking, Mommy?”

“No, Sis,” the eldest says. “Mommy’s only playing. Right, Mommy?”

Rita’s voice is thin as she begins to sing. “The stars at night.”

The littler girl belts out, “Are big and bright!”

Then Jesse. “Deep in the heart of Texas.”

“Coyotes wail.”

“Around the trail!”

“Deep in the heart of Texas.”

In the dark, Rita can’t spot a single star for the heavy swag of tree branches that flank the road as it winds itself around the mountain. The night air is nippy, but she leaves a window down for the baby when what the baby really needs, she knows, is more than a breath of fresh air. Maybe she leaves it down for herself, to cool her face, flushed with heat and worry. The baby hasn’t stirred at all, and she doesn’t ask if he is all right, just begs God again that he will be.

Behind her, the Justice boys keep a watchful distance, and in Rita’s mind they are biding time until she turns the car over the hillside of her own doing. The roads are bad to break off at the edges where coal trucks have softened the asphalt, so she keeps an eye out for potholes that will stall the car and scare the kids and then do in her nerves altogether. The window is fogged from the inside with old cigarette smoke, and the more she wipes at it with her sleeve, the more blurry things outside become. If an animal leaps out, she has already decided she will run it over. Anything to keep from stalling.

“Blow the horn loud, Mommy, when we get to the underpass,” Sis says.

“You don’t have to honk at night,” Jesse says. “You can see the headlights coming.”

“I don’t care. Will you honk anyway, Mommy? Ple-e-ease?”

“Okay,” Rita says. “Now, sit back.”

When the road finally straightens out a spell, it comes down along the Tug. Even tinged with mud, and even in the shadows of night, water sparkles now and again like flecks of fool’s gold across the wide gulch that is the river’s bed. How many fools are down there Rita does not know, but she guesses that Arjay and Kenny and Jimbo with their dynamite might be. Even if they had already called the other Justice boys out and held the dynamite overhead and said, “Let this be the end of it here and now,” that doesn’t do Rita an ounce of good. Four or maybe five men are in the vehicle behind her, she is sure, and even with Harley among them, she has the clearest notion that she and her babies are soon to become a message to Arjay and Kenny that nobody fucks with the Justice boys.

On the straightaway, Leon guns his engine as if he intends to ram Rita in the ass-end. Then he swerves into the passing lane and edges up alongside the Duster. He leans across the seat and two other men and waves fiercely for her to pull over.

Rita trains her eyes on the road, only half-glancing at him, and when she does, she sees Harley lean up from the backseat to tell him something. She seizes the chance to outrun Leon while he’s distracted. If he reaches the underpass before she does, there is no getting by.

She will get by, though, she tells herself. She will.

Still, she begins making plans of how like a feral bitch she will fight. She supposes it might only make them laugh, that they might hurt one of her kids. So help me God, she swears in her head, and then briefly ponders whether it might not instead be better to play up to them. She will do anything to save her babies. Whatever it takes.

She checks the rearview and suddenly cannot find them. She looks beside her. Nothing. They’re in her blind spot, but gaining on her. She imagines what Leon will do if he has the chance. She sees his tattooed arms reaching for her, tearing at her clothes; and turning onto the bridge that spans the river, she plunges the Duster into the ditch running alongside the mountain.

Jesse bolts up, looks through the back window. “Hurry, Mommy. They’re coming!”

“Who’s coming?” Sis wants to know, and she begins to cry so loud Rita thinks surely it will startle the baby and bring him screaming back to them now. But it doesn’t. He lays as quiet as before, though now even Jesse begins to whimper, “Hurry, Mommy, hurry!”

Rita stomps hard on the clutch and cranks, and when the engine fires, she lets off the pedal quick. But the car is stuck hard and the engine stalls again. “Lock the doors!” she tells Jesse, hurrying, herself, to roll up the window. “Hold onto Brother, girls.”

Behind them, six men step out of the van and walk in front of the headlights, then march forward issuing catcalls and whistles.

Rita holds down the clutch and cranks, but the engine turns over again and again without firing. She can hear Arjay giving her instructions, but she can’t tell what he is saying. She closes her eyes and concentrates.

There is a tap on the window and Jesse screams and jerks Rita’s shoulders. Her eyes fly open and she is face to gray face with Leon, pressing against the glass beside her. His eye is busted up, the eyelid turned back, everything bloody and blackened. “You need a jump start, little woman,” he says. “Harley, bring over the cables and van.” Men circle the Duster and Harley hesitates, moves instead to a window where Rita can see him. Leon moves between him and the Duster.

“Get the jumper cables.”

Rita’s heart hammers inside her brain when Harley leaves. “Please,” she says. “My baby is so sick, Leon. Please, just let us go to the clinic.”

“Nobody stopping you,” Leon says, grinning sideways at the other Justice boys. “Looks like you’re stalled. Want me to give you a lift? I’ll give you a good lift. Now roll down the window.”

Harley cranks the van and it backfires. The men startle, then laugh loudly. Rita is disappointed it’s not the sound of a bullet barreling toward Leon, some unlikely rescue attempt come lately by Arjay and Kenny.

“Get out of the car,” Leon says.

“No.”

He pounds on the window and the rest of the men circle the car, knocking on the glass, scaring the kids. The Duster is set to rocking, and Jesse holds onto her brother and sister to keep them from being hurt. Rita tries to think, but there’s nothing she can do.

Harley pulls the van around in front of the Duster and pops the hood. Leon tells Rita to pop hers, too. She’s afraid. What if he does something else to the car? If she waits a while, the flooded engine might correct itself. “It’s okay,” Harley says. “I swear.”

Leon watches. She releases the hood. She has no choice.

“I hate you,” Jesse tells Leon through the window. He smacks the glass and she jumps back. The baby is still quiet, but Sis screams unremittingly. She climbs over the front seat and Rita holds her, stroking her head. “It’s awright, baby,” Rita says, kissing her, trying to steady her own heart, to keep her voice even for the girls. She begins to sing. “The stars at night, are big and bright. Deep in the heart of Texas.”

Standing frozen on the hump in the backseat floorboard, Jesse sings, too, through tears she doesn’t remember allowing. “Coyotes wail around the trail. Deep in the heart of Texas.”

Then there is another sound, a horn. “Someone’s honking, Mommy,” Sis says, pulling up from Rita’s lap to look for the car coming through the underpass.

She’s right. Across the river, a car is coming through the underpass. The men step away from the Duster and Rita tries the ignition again, but the battery is too weak. If she lays down on the horn now, it might finish it off completely. She waits for the headlights of the approaching vehicle to near. When they do, Leon steps into the highway and flags the car around. It is an old man. He slows the car, looking around at the group surrounding the Duster, lowers his window and asks if there’s anything he can do. It is dark inside both cars, Rita realizes, reaching overhead to turn on the interior light inside the Duster, hoping he will see them and realize the danger they’re in. She can’t see if the old man is alone or hear what he is saying, but she is certain Leon will scare him away somehow. There may not be another car come through the underpass for hours. Then what’ll she do? There’s no way she can get the Duster started again. This is it, her only chance. She has to try to save the baby if she can.

She scrambles to gather up her son from the backseat. She wraps him tightly in his blanket.

“Lock the door behind me and don’t open it for nothing,” she tells Jesse. Jesse’s face flushes red, her pale eyes are wild with fear. “You’re Mommy’s brave girl. Love you.” She kisses both girls, then opens the door and makes a break for the old man’s car. Leon is explaining that his wife has slid off into the ditch and that he and his brothers are there to pull her out.

“Much obliged, though,” he is saying when Rita comes running up behind him with the baby.

“Help!” she screams. “Help me!” She reaches the window and by now, Leon has threatened the old man to move out. The car rolls forward and Rita runs with all her strength, begging the old man to stop. “My baby!” she says. “Take my baby!”

The old man glances in his side mirror and sees her coming at him with the bundle in her arms and slows to a crawl. Leon runs alongside and strikes a fist on the car’s trunk. “Move along!” he shouts.

But Rita reaches the open window in time and pushes the baby through to the old man. “He’s sick. Get help. I have two little gir—” Leon reaches inside to grab the old man or maybe the baby, but the old man lays down on the accelerator and the car is gone.

Now Rita is left standing alone in the road with Leon and the others. Jesse is watching from the Duster as one of the men, the scariest one, grabs her mother and forces her to the blacktop. She wants to cry out for Rita, but before Sis sees what’s happening, Jesse pulls her to the floor of the car and begins singing again. “The stars at night/ Are big and bright/ Deep in the heart of Texas.”

Outside, Harley approaches Leon. “She ain’t to blame,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.” But there is no reasoning with Leon. Rita has scratched his injured eye, and now he is good and pissed. Someone has pulled the van around and shined its headlights on her. She is already naked from the waist down but does not bother covering herself. She holds her arms out in defense.

“You think I give a flying fuck about blame?” Leon says. He unbuckles his belt, draws it slowly through the loops of his dark cotton pants, and wraps it twice around his right hand. “She ain’t to blame for being so pretty either. I don’t blame her for that.”

Harley steps toward his brother. “Her youngin’s are watching, Leon. For God’s sake at least turn off the lights.” Leon spins around and strikes Harley with the belt.

“Mother-fuck!” Harley yells.

“Step away!” Leon orders and two other men sidle up next to Harley and take him by the arms, muscle him back into the van. Leon turns around and strikes Rita with the belt now. She hops and twists to avoid the lashes, but there is nowhere to go. The belt snaps hard on her bare flesh. Each blow is met with a yowl and a welt, but she spits at him anyway. She will fight him to the death, she has already decided. He cuffs her square in the face with his fist.

Jesse cups her hands around her face in the car window so she can see outside. She catches her breathe and turns her head with the first strike, sings hysterically to the top of her lungs. Rita’s shrieks come every now and then between rests in the song, and Sis lifts her head to find her mother. But the light inside the car is still on, and the child can see only her own reflection in the windows. Still, she waits for the sound again, the sound of Rita’s voice, even as Jesse sings louder and hands her a baby doll. “The stars at night! Are BIG and BRIGHT! DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS!” Louder and louder Jesse sings. Scary loud. Bossy loud. “Play with your doll! Play with your doll!” Jesse screams at her. “Play with your doll!” She pulls her sister’s arm, shoves the doll at her, then climbs down in the floorboard to search for the magic bottle of orange juice. It must have rolled up under the seat, but Jesse cannot find it. It has disappeared, the magic bottle of orange juice. Disappeared itself. Altogether vanished. Maybe it never was there. But it must be. It was. Jesse knows it was. It was right there. A minute ago, it was there in the backseat. She flops over the rubber floor mat, caked with mud and wrinkled up around the hump in the floorboard from their hiding down there from Leon like Rita had told them to do. She slides her hand up under the seat, pushes her whole arm under, and feels something. Something hard, something cold. She has her hand on it, pulls it out. It is Arjay’s Colt. Jesse has never seen it before, but she knows her daddy has guns. It looks real, like the ones on T.V. It is heavy in her small hands, and so cold, cold like ice almost. Her sister recoils at the sight of the gun. Her shiny, blinking eyes widen. They are in trouble. Big trouble. She wants her mommy and daddy. She wants her brother.

Leon hits Rita again with his fist. He beats her until she falls to the road, balls up to protect her face. He yanks her by the hair, pulls her to her feet, rips her blouse. “Yes,” she says. “Let’s go somewhere, Leon. Away from here. Me and you.”

Leon presses his mouth to hers. She gags on his tongue and he jerks free of her. She reaches for him frantically, kisses him again. Her eyes look toward the Duster. She sees Harley. He is moving toward the car. Thank God, she thinks. He will rap softly on the window until the girls open the door. He will sneak them back to the van and take them out of there. She can see the girls clearly inside the car.

Leon forces her back to the pavement, pries apart her legs with his knee, unzips. She doesn’t fight him; she weeps but clings hard to his wiry body, hopes Harley will be faster than his brother. She can no longer see him. She closes her eyes, waits to hear the welcome sound of an engine firing up.

When Harley reaches the Duster, he holds a finger to his lips, says “Shhh.” But the girls cannot see him, so he tries the door handle, and when she hears it rattle, Jessie turns with the Colt in her hands. She sees a man. He is a bad man. She raises the gun and there is a noise. A loud noise. A bang. The car window shatters. Sis screams. The man is gone.

Leon jerks at the sound of gunfire, pulls away from Rita. She clutches for him to stay, but he is up and running with the others toward the Duster. “No!” she screams, begging him not to go, scrambling after him. Leon lags behind his kin, righting his pants and belt. He yells Harley’s name. Rita watches Leon fall to his knees beside the Duster. She hears him cry out in anguish. Hears them all curse and cry. “Oh, Jesus,” they wail. “That fucking kid!”

The dome light inside the car flickers. It looks like a star. It is big and bright.


Until she was about ten years old, Sheryl Monks lived with her family in McDowell County, WV, the poorest county in the nation, at least at one point in time. All her writing comes from there. Anything that matters anyway.

Sheryl's stories have earned recognition and awards, including a Northwest NC Regional Artist's Project Grant, the Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, and finalist recognition in literary contests sponsored by Backwards City Review and VERB: An Audioquarterly. Work has appeared or is forthcoming in RE:AL — Regarding Arts and Letters, Backwards City Review, Southern Gothic, Surreal South, and other publications. She is currently writing a novel set in Beartown, WV.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Survivalism: Not Just For the Right-Winged Anymore



Original fiction, essays,and poetry coming tomorrow or the next day; it's been a bit of a wreck around here last week and this. Had to make a quick trip back to my parents to visit my 95-year-old grandma, who is sadly living her last days in this world. Fifteen hours in the car in 48 hours. Not fun, but had to be done. This woman made me sugar cookies special every Christmas for years and years, until her hands couldn't do it. Anyway. Don't get me started. I'll blubber.

It was nice to see my family, if only for a day, really. Breakfast with my sister's family, bonfire at my niece's, lightning bugs and coyote howls and s'mores, and best of all, a long trip down dirt roads late at night, deer in the headlights and possums in the road. It wasn't all bad.





Now for the topic at hand. I have been a survivalist of sorts in mind since about 1980. I never leave home without a knife and a means of making fire even now. My first aborted novel was a post-apocalyptic kind of thing. If I could build a bunker here in Revere to save my family from the end of civilization, I would. I'm as prepped as I can be. I have the skills to survive it. If it comes. So I laugh a little bit at the surburban folks panicking now. Like, have you paid attention for the last forty years?

Thank god the rednecks will all probably survive. :-)

SAN DIEGO — Six months ago, Jim Wiseman didn't even have a spare nutrition bar in his kitchen cabinet.

Now, the 54-year-old businessman and father of five has a backup generator, a water filter, a grain mill and a 4-foot-tall pile of emergency food tucked in his home in the expensive San Diego suburb of La Jolla.

Wiseman isn't alone. Emergency supply retailers and military surplus stores nationwide have seen business boom in the past few months as an increasing number of Americans spooked by the economy rush to stock up on gear that was once the domain of hardcore survivalists.

These people snapping up everything from water purification tablets to thermal blankets shatter the survivalist stereotype: they are mostly urban professionals with mortgages, SUVs, solid jobs and a twinge of embarrassment about their newfound hobby.

More here.

Or you can see lots of horrifyingly unnecessary survival crap all over the internets. Here's a sample:


Batten your hatches and watch Red Dawn and the Postman again, people. Or read one of my favorite books, Wolf & Iron, by Gordon Dickson. It may come to this, folks. The good thing is, if it does, I'm likely to stop obsessing over editing this fucking novel. :-)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Boner Jones, fiction by Antonios Maltezos

Boner Jones would see about getting a pair of moulded insoles made for his feet like the cripples wear, so the bottoms of his shoes would hit the ground properly. He would have his pants tailor made, stitched special so the creases could run good and straight down the front. He’d stop farting, at least in her presence. He would learn to pee like she told him he should. . . sitting down unless he was in a back alley. He would call her Sweetness and give her pecks on the cheek, his face freshly shaven and splashed with the Old Spice, teeth scrubbed so he could finally go by his real name and not feel the shame, Robert Jones, his grandfather’s name, a good name from the time when most men had the bowed legs from too much of the hard life. Boner was the name he’d acquired on account of the big empty space between his knees, from since the age of about six, that first after school thrashing. Bow Jones! Bow Jones! His best friends called him Bones or Boner for short. He’d do all that, he thought, a neat stack of baseball hats in the cradle of his arm, if it was still a couple years ago, and if she’d never left before he could get to changing, a squeeze bottle of burning fuel in his pants pocket.

***


He had bad feet, not bad to his mind, just peculiar to him, but she always said they were bad, so they were bad feet and that’s why his shoes wore out so quick, his feet and knees and hips hurting less once the soles of his Hush Puppies thinned along the outside edge, his bowed legs pronouncing more and more as the rubber took on a shape very natural and comfortable for him. Besides, as long as he had on a pair of baggy pants, the outward arcs of his legs, the gap between them, was pretty much concealed, but she’d hated his baggy pants, too, tried to force a fancy pair of slacks on him once, the creases so crisp they looked penciled in, fake, and bowed just like his legs, the gap like a giant wood biscuit or a giant football.

Yesterday, he took all his clothes outside, dumped them in the shed, and then went back inside for the baseball hats, John Deere and the like, Pepsi-Cola, littering the vestibule, her words--littering the vestibule--one for each hook on the wall. He would have trouble deciding which hat he’d feel like wearing, so he’d spend five minutes there every morning, just a couple steps from the outside, his eyes hopping from one hat to the other. She’d tried getting him to wear a hat like the kids wear --at least a hat like the kids wear, were her words, but he told her he couldn’t do it, just couldn’t bring himself to wear a nigger hat down to the tavern, even if it had a golden Bo embroidered across the front, even the one she forced on his head, sure snug and soft, he hardly could tell he was wearing it out the door. He had it next to him all the way to town, riding shotgun just like she would. He even opened the door for it, just like he would for her, and then flung it in the trashcan between his pickup and the tavern.

He never had the muscles for it was all it was, but she persisted in calling him a coward. “You lush,” she’d say like she was accusing him of some criminality. Quit your drinking, quit this, quit that, as if a man could change who he was as easy as changing an undershirt. More she complained, more time he spent down to the tavern. “Fuck her!” he’d say upon entering The Coq de la Place, as if he was the big Coq himself, used to pissing standing up. “Fuck her!”

***


He remembers bending to pick them up, getting halfway through the job before realizing he only needed the one, and then waking up a couple hours later, his face buried in his pile of clothes that smelled of week after week of heartache, stronger, even, than the smell of burning fuel, wishing he hadn’t drunk that last beer, wondering as clearly as the pain shooting through his skull how he was going to get through this, too beer-sick and cowardly to answer the question for himself, his peed pants, creases broken like heavy stitch on a catcher’s glove, gone cold so he wanted to cry, or start all over again.

Bo Jones. . . no, Robert Jones. . .he would see about getting a pair of moulded insoles made for his feet like the cripples wear, so the bottoms of his shoes would hit the ground running. He would have his pants tailor made, stitched special so the crease would run good and straight down the front. He’d stop farting, at least in her presence. He would learn to pee like she told him he should… sitting down unless he was in a back alley (or passed out like he was, a spike driven deep through the side of his skull, his face still buried in a neglect as lonely and hollow as a hunger and an empty fridge). He would call her Sweetness and give her pecks on the cheek, his face freshly shaven and splashed with the Old Spice, teeth scrubbed so he could finally go by his real name and not feel the shame of having let go of his life for nothing. Robert Jones, his grandfather’s name, a good name from the time when most men had the bowed legs from too much of the hard life. But first he had to cry like a baby.



Antonios Maltezos says: "I've always dreamed of building a BBQ pit that resembled a mausoleum from afar, or at least a brick shithouse with wings, for roasting my lamb come every Greek Easter." He's thought of motorizing the spit, but then he wouldn't have those three hours alone with his cooler full of beer, his cassette player connected to the house by a couple extension cords, his dad's music out of doors as if his backyard were a valley and the men had gathered to build a fire and drink and lament and dance and rejoice while the women were busy elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Armed America. . .

This is a placeholder post, kind of, while we trek kids all over MA and while I try to recover from whatever made me sleep for 19 hours yesterday. Feeling like crap, in other words.



My family owned a lot of guns, but not as many as some other people I knew, maybe ten or so, which over a lifetime isn't many. We hunted, every season, my father and brother and I--at least until I was sixteen or so--with most of our attention paid to deer season. Venison is good, you know? If you can it, most flatlanders can't tell it from beef.

Anyway, to my point: maybe this book will scare you, maybe it will make you feel better, but it seems pretty realistic to me, as compared to what the two opposing poles of American politics might tell you.



Visit Armed America for more pix and stories/explanations.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Visit to the Titty Bar

The first girl that came out was a lava lamp. As if her arms moved through water. Her warm motion practiced and secure. Shadows gathered under her breasts. Copper light ovaled across her belly, licked down her thigh. Her eyes never focused. Not once. I thought she'd look at someone, perhaps the lawyer with the courtroom voice and glinting watch. Maybe the bouncer with the rough knuckles and thatchwork stubble. But no. She was aloof. Unattainable. Full of the distance tendered by power. The pale head of a scar wriggled out the top of her red g-string and plunged back under with her motions. A quick, scabrous exposure. I sat there and watched the scar, hoping it'd reappear. Those glimpses of the real are precious.

This was years ago. Back when I worked at a technology shop in Dallas, when I commuted three hours a day and read books about UNIX and drove back home wearily, delighted in the dust of the road that weaved to our house. Lunch at the strip joint was T's idea. He'd appeared in my office door around 10am, shirtsleeves rolled up, his hairy forearms thick and purpled with veins.

—Titty bar for lunch?

I hesitated. I always did.

—Don't be a pussy. It's only 8 bucks. All you can eat buffet. Tons of titty to look at. You'll want to go home and bang your wife after. T held up his fingers in a V and slithered his tongue through the gesture. —No better way to spend lunch. Let's go. We're all going.

All was a group of geeks that I worked with. The UNIX team. Terminal users. Command-line kung-fu. Thick, stubby fingers on most of them, made for pounding keyboards and fondling plastic pens with chewed tips. Bellies that had never known flat. Mouths ripe with technical acronym. Our faces glowed in the operose jihad of computer monitor radiation. We were all better than our cubicles, smarter and bigger than our jobs. Right? None of us resembled our walls. None of us were average grey men. This was always the fear in the hive, the mumbled rumor of the farm. We'd look around at the whiteboards, at our drooping plants, at the office dust glinting in the hair on our arms and think that surely there must be a mistake. Surely we have just been overlooked.

The bar was shadowed and loud. Some men were stiff in their seats. Sweating glasses squeaked under their fingers. Others so relaxed they might have been on a couch in their house, their hands moving conversationally in the air, their faces open in a very human, masculine way. Some had a dark, desperate look and huffed their hot breath into the clinking ice of their empty glass. A few women as well, with thin arms draped over broad shoulders in suits. Naked knees at eye level. Clenching tendons, an etching of muscle along a calf. Gooseflesh around a nipple. Bellies wet with light. Music that thumped in the gut. A scar of some sort in everyone.

The UNIX team was quiet. Studious in their eating for the most part. Chicken ripped from bone with bared teeth. Gelatinous sauce quivering on the tines of forks. The reflection of a breast swelled in the cold hollow of my spoon. T wantonly gazed at the women, punched those of us in the shoulder sitting next to him. —Imagine pinning those legs back behind her ears, he said. —God, I'm going to fuck my wife so hard tonight. With his eyes, he gestured down at a bulge in his pants as a dancer moved past. She never focused. —I think it scared her, he said to everyone on the way back.

The boss was waiting for us when we returned to the office, tapping his pen on the desk. —The Kansas City upgrade needs to be reapplied. It was messed up last night. His eyes focused on T. —They're running on half-capacity with no backup. You've got to watch this shit. No more screw-ups!

We retired to our chairs and grey walls, the thrum of the machines around us. A cool hiss of recycled air. The light in the office was unrelenting, harsh in its exposure. T worked his fingers into his dry scalp, scratching. He shrugged his shoulders at the rest of us. —Wasn't that last bitch hot? We should go again. Sometime real soon.

I thought he was going to put up the V sign again, but his hands slid into his pockets and he slid into his cube out of our sight. Monitors flickered on. Gray walls rose around everyone. Our thoughts rendered into strangling wires. We approached our lives and work with the same lack of focus that the stripper offered us. Our fingers thickened and blunted to our tasks the way her body curved into hers. We manipulated that which doesn't exist. At least the stripper worked in the realm of the physical, in the currents of deep need and that which is inescapable. Our toil was contained in a screen. A plastic, humming square, only able to endure as long as the black cord wasn't yanked from the wall.



Brad Green's fiction has appeared or soon will in The Blue Earth Review, Storyglossia, elimae, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon and several other journals. He's currently at work on a novel. Read his blog at http://elevatetheordinary.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009





My friend Ray reminded me of this song on Facebook. I don't really have much to say about it--love John Prine--except that the movie he references, Daddy and Them, might have been really good, but it's sadly not. It's worth watching, though. Laura Dern is pretty good in it, and Billy Bob does his usual thing, which, if you like it like I do, is all good.

If you know the film, is there anything out there that compares in subject matter that's, um, good?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Sunday Afternoon at Earl's, fiction by Randy Lowens

The driver's window is down. Pavement hums beneath his tires, air beats against the rear windshield, and the engine howls as he climbs. A heifer moans from a shadowed pasture on the roadside.

Logan gears down as he rounds a curve and, without benefit of blinker or brakes, spins into the driveway. He races uphill, fishtailing, dodging the larger rocks and potholes. At the crest he slides to a stop and waits while a cloud of dust drifts past. His breath comes hard as though he had climbed the hill on foot. The rear view mirror shows stubble on his chin, eyes shot with streaks of red, and snarls of dark yellow hair that stick out like the roots of upturned trees in a bulldozed field. "You good-looking devil," he whispers. "Don't you ever die."

He gets out but doesn't go straight to the trailer. He crosses the front yard and stops at the edge of a garden plot. Ripe tomatoes stand bold against their foliage like Christmas ornaments on an outdoor tree. Cucumber vines snake through the garden before escaping into the lawn. Brown, brittle leaves cling to them. Two more weeks, he figures, and that'll be all she wrote.

Something about the trailer catches his eye. He isn't sure what, but something is different. Someone was on the property while he was working. He feels it, knows it, more than sees it or thinks it. A burglar? Not likely. Too many rich folks live on top the ridge for some meth head to kick out his window for a shotgun.

He doesn't keep a handgun in the van anymore. Homeland Security's made it so an old boy can't even tote. But he's not scared. Why should he be? Somebody going to kill him? He should be so lucky. He walks directly to the front of the rusting mobile home where a Plexiglas storm door hangs askew on a single hinge. He circles the trailer, examining windows. No evidence of forced entry. Hinges creak as he eases open the hollow wooden door.

Inside, cockroaches scatter into crevices. Some coffee grounds wallow in the bottom of a cup beside a wrinkled newspaper. Atop a plastic tablecloth, two German Purple tomatoes, deep red and irregularly shaped, frame a sheet of notebook paper.

He goes to the living room, no longer stepping lightly, and snatches a pair of reading glasses from the frayed arm of a sofa. He mounts them on the bridge of his nose and returns to the kitchen. Dale Earnhardt, in dark glasses and a Goodwrench cap, watches from the wall as he reads the note.

Darling, it says, I hope you're not too mad. I missed you so much, I had to come home. I'm glad I did because it don't look like you're eating so good. I'm gone to the grocery store. Take a shower and I'll kiss you all over when I get back. All my love, Sonja.

"Bout time you drug your ass home, woman," he says aloud. His voice booms. It sounds unnatural in the empty trailer.

He lays a blue oblong tablet on the tablecloth, covers it with the cellophane from his cigarette pack and starts crushing it with the heel of his Bic. As he sticks a truncated straw up his nose and bends over the line of powder, he notices an apron hanging on the doorknob of the broom closet. That makes him smile.

###

Logan pushes a platter scattered with morsels of fried potato, biscuit, and omelet away from his belly. He leans back in his chair and stretches. "I be damned if I ain't gained ten pounds since you been back," he says. "Your cooking gets better all the time. Like everything else."

Sonja looks down and smiles. "I gotta watch out. I might be taking on a few pounds myself."

His tone changes abruptly. "You come dragging home knocked up, and I'll show you the door sure enough."

"I ain't pregnant; I'm sure of that.” After a pause, she adds, “I'd like to be, though. With yore baby."

"For crying out loud." His voice turns gentle again, like spring water bubbling out a rock face. "Renée's going on a teenager, and you're talking about another kid. That ain't practical and you know it. Besides, three is more'n I can afford, already.”

"I know. I know all that. But still, I'd give my right arm for another kid. One of yores." She starts to cry.

He reaches across the table and strokes her arm. Wrinkles like back streets on a road map radiate from the corners of his eyes as he looks into hers. "Aw, Sugar, you know I love you. And Renée is like my own. They ain't no difference in my mind."

"I know," she says, sobbing. "I know. But still."

Minutes later he walks out and climbs into a service van that says BADCOCK'S REFRIGERATION SALES AND SERVICE in block letters on the side. Sonja leans against the doorjamb, wiping her nose with a tissue and brushing away tears with the back of her hand. She hugs herself and blows him kisses as he turns the vehicle around.

He tosses her a single kiss in return as he eases out of sight down the rocky, red dirt drive. When he reaches the road, he stomps the accelerator and cuts the wheel. Balding tires spin on rocks, then catch on pavement. They smoke, leaving twin streaks that curve across the street. "I got the best ole lady on all of Parsons Ridge," he yells out the window at some cattle grazing the hillside. "Good cook,” he continues in a conversational tone. “Hell-on-wheels in bed. And she loves me, in spite of all common sense and decency."

He pumps the brake pedal, striking a balance between checking the van's speed of descent and saving its brakes. Despite his efforts, when he hits bottom the acrid smell of scorched pads fill the cab.

The road levels onto the valley floor and his grip on the wheel relaxes. He reaches for the radio, but the knob comes off in his hand. He fiddles with it briefly, trying to fit the tuner back onto the metal core, then drops it into an open ashtray. "Glue it back on after while," he grumbles. A tall, slim girl in tight jeans is unlocking her car door by the roadside. He looks up and turns the steering wheel to avoid her. She presses her waist close against the sedan as he passes. "Dang," he murmurs, "Don't run over that."

Idling down the state highway towards town, Penny Sue's Café passes on the right hand side. The restaurant is newly boarded up, and Logan sighs. Penny Sue was the last holdout among the small business owners when chain stores began to appear like bait worms after a summer rain, dotting the slopes beside the interstate exit. Abner Croft of Croft's Auto Parts, Buster Riley of Riley's Hometown Pharmacy, and now Penny Sue commute forty or fifty miles every day to jobs in Chattanooga or Knoxville. “Bad enough when the mill closed, and now this shit,” he says to himself.

A Godfather's Pizza, Walgreens, Auto-Zone and Favorite Market stand glossy and metallic against the farmhouse Penny Sue had turned into a restaurant. Next to the abandoned A&W drive-in, one side of a billboard advertises cure for drug addiction while the other admonishes the reader to REPENT because JESUS IS COMING. An old man sells tomatoes and cucumbers from the back of his truck; a woman, used clothes from her front yard. As he continues down the highway, the businesses and signs, old and new, hopeful and threatening, shrink to a cluster of dots in his rear view mirror and finally merge.

Logan turns off the highway and promenades the former business district. Downtown is more of the same, smiling mannequins desperately posing naked in deserted department stores, boarded shoe-store display windows framed in brick, row upon row of vacant buildings interrupted only by the occasional pool hall or storefront church. Logan sticks his arm out and pretends to be a 1950's teenager cruising the main drag in a muscle car, looking for action. Giggling, he pulls it back in and rolls up the window. "Folks done think you crazy, Logan. Don't make it no worse."

He looks at his watch. Five minutes after eight. “Well,” he says, making a wide U turn across an intersection, “I guess I ought to quit riding around and go to work. See what the sonuvabitch wants out of me today.”

###

Earl Bartlett wears a long-sleeve plaid shirt over a white ribbed undershirt every day of the year. In summertime he rolls up the sleeves and unbuttons the front. During the winter he pulls a jacket over it. Several of his plaid shirts are red and a couple are blue, so a body might think he rotates the same two shirts for days on end. But that's not true. The fact is simply that, years ago, he chose a certain look, and he's never had call to change it. He would no more wear a polo shirt and khakis than he would decline to stand and cheer when the band played Dixie at a high school football game.

Today the front of his shirt is buttoned, but the sleeves are rolled up. The dog days are behind, and the air is comfortable.

Earl stands beside a metal-frame dinner table. A Lucky Strike smolders in the ashtray beside a stovepipe can of PBR. Smoke hovers around his hairline. Behind him cases of Bud and Bud Light are stacked clear to the ceiling.

An older fellow sits at the table. The two men have the same tailor, all plaid shirts and denim pants, but the slicked-back hair of the sitting man is red. He's a big guy with inch-long tufts the color of dishwater growing beneath giant knuckles.

The sound of a mower passes the kitchen window. The man tilts his head in that direction and asks, “How's ole Billy Wayne working out, Earl? Don't cut him no slack, just cause he's my nephew.”

“He's all right. Works hard, don't complain.” Not the sharpest pencil in the package, Earl silently adds, but he don't have to be.

“I'm glad to hear it. Family's family, but a job's a job. If he don't work out, show him the door, same as anybody.” He wets his lips from a tall glass; it's straight bourbon, but he doesn't wince. “You know Logan Padgett, got his leg shot up in Iraq?”

“Twelve pack ever Sunday. Yeah, I know him.”

The redhead grunts. “Yeah, that's him. No relation to me, but he's blood kin to Billy Wayne. On his mother's side.” He figures you don't really know a man till you can name his family.

The racket of the mower stops. Billy Wayne sticks his head in the door. He's shirtless, and beads of sweat glisten on his muscled, hairless chest. “Hey Earl,” he calls, “I got the back yard done. You want me to do the front?”

Earl stares as he answers. “Yeeess, I generally do mow them in sets.”

Billy Wayne looks puzzled. His uncle covers the bottom of his face with a large, hairy hand. Earl grins and helps the boy out. “Go mow the front,” he confirms, pointing.

The kid bounds happily down the steps while the men watch and laugh.

###

Sunrise finds Logan sipping coffee at the kitchen table. He's reading the funny papers in a stained tee shirt and a pair of jeans with a hole in the knee.

A teenage girl with cornrows in her hair comes out of a bedroom. She plops on the couch, rubbing her eyes, feeling between the cushions for the TV controls. She's still in nightclothes, a green tank top and a pair of canary yellow panties. Ebony legs gleam in the morning light. Logan watches her for a moment. He turns the page of his newspaper and continues reading.

Sonja steps out of the other bedroom. "Damn it, Renée,” she says, walking past, “how many times I tole you not to sit around half naked in front of Logan? Go get some clothes on."

The girl rolls her eyes and continues punching buttons on the remote. The mother takes another step, turns and bellows, "Go!" The face Logan usually finds so attractive is a scowling mask.

The child stands and stretches. When her arms come down, the tee shirt rests on the small of her back a good two inches above florescent underwear. "Morning, Daddy," she purrs, flashing a smile over her shoulder that's all white teeth and thick lips.

"Morning, sweetie," Logan replies to her departing back.

Sonja takes a seat across from Logan. She glowers, drumming her fingers on the table and shaking her head. "That child," she says. "That child.”

Logan chuckles. He puts down the funnies and picks up the sports. "I think I'll go start on the yard work here in a bit," he says.

###

From his seat at the little metal-frame dinner table, Earl can watch the entire front yard out his picture window. When a blue Honda Accord pulls into the drive, he busts a big smile.

He opens the door before she can knock. “Come in, young lady. Come right in. What can I do for you today?”

Sonja is wearing tight jeans and a sleeveless sweater. She clutches a purse at her waist. Timidly, she steps inside and looks around.

Bartlett's place never changes. Everything is in its place, down to the Lucky Strike releasing curls of smoke from the ashtray. Sonja can't recall ever seeing him pick the cigarette up and take a puff. Does he really smoke, or does he just light cigarettes and burn them for incense?

“Logan sent me after a twelve pack, Earl,” she says. “We was supposed to have Sunday beer, but he done run through it all.”

“Honey, a beer can chugging is like the jingle of pocket change to my ears.” He treats her to a large smile. “So Logan's drunk today. Good for him. How you doing yourself, little girl? Don't seem well. You worried about something?”

“Aw, it's nothing. I'm all right.”

“Come on, you can talk to ole Earl. I used to work with your Uncle Herman. We like family.”

"Really, it ain't nothing much. Renée--that's my little girl--she's having a birthday, is all. Turning fourteen, and her boyfriend is over. I just wish Logan wouldn't drink so much. Or at least wait till after.”

“He ain't taking drunk and hitting you, is he?”

“Oh no, it ain't nothing like that. He just stays so high all the time, I feel. . . I dunno. Kinda lonesome. Like I'm by myself.”

“Zat right. Huh.” Bartlett scratches his ear and looks out the window. “Wasn't he in Iraq awhile? Took a bullet in the leg, I think it was?”

“Yeah. He don't talk about it much. I tell him he should be proud, but he don't think so. Says he'd rather a been somewhere else.”

Bartlett laughs. “I admire an honest man.”

“Anyway, yeah, shrapnel in his knee's what it was. The VA gives him pain pills. Between those pills and all the beer he drinks, and the pot he smokes, and. . . I'm sorry, maybe I shouldn't have said that.” Sonja's looks at the purse in her hand and blushes.

Earl laughs again. “Honey, this ole bootlegger been around. I might even have tasted one of them joints, years ago. I tell you what: pull up a seat, and I'll fix a couple of drinks. We could both use one.”

“Oh no, I gotta get back home. Logan wouldn't like it if I stayed gone. And there's Renée's party.”

“You done said Logan's drunk. And Renée's a teenager, so I'm sure that little boyfriend can entertain her. Besides, Ray's coming over later, and we gonna play some cards. We may need you to cook up a little something.”

“Here, sit down,” he says, pulling a chair out from the table, “and ole Earl gonna get you a drink.”

“Well, maybe just a quick one,” she agrees, taking the proffered seat. Earl half fills a highball glass from an open fifth of Canadian Club, adds ice and Coke, and places it beside her. His cigarette in the ashtray is down to a nub, so he puts it out. He takes a fresh one from his shirt pocket, thumps it once, twice, three times and lights it.

###

Logan parks his van behind Sonja's car. From the back of the trailer, he hears a mower running before the machine itself appears. A young man is riding it. He's muscled up and tan, dressed in nothing but a pair of long denim pants. The boy turns the mower in a sharp circle without noticing Logan, intent upon his simple task, and disappears behind the trailer once more.

Logan gets out. Ignoring the concrete sidewalk, he strides directly across the lawn to the front door. He raises his hand to knock but thinks better of it. He reaches for the doorknob but decides against that, too. He rares back and kicks the door open. The lock breaks out of the facing. Splinters fly across the room. The door makes a second crashing sound when the handle punches a hole in the wall behind. It's a satisfying noise to Logan's ears.

He stands in the doorway with his finger pointed at Sonja's face, enjoying her dazed look, disgusted by the lipstick on her whiskey glass and the surprise on the bootlegger's face, before he realizes that Ollie Ray Crider is sighting down the barrel of a Smith and Wesson thirty-eight special, aiming up at his head. Where did that sonuvabitch come from? He's some kinda kin by marriage on Logan's Daddy's side, and fuck all that anyway.

Ollie Ray speaks first. “I'm only gonna say this once, son. Turn around right now, and walk back out that door. Close it behind you. Knock, like your mama taught you, and this time wait for an answer.”

Logan stares back at Ray. His upper lip quivers.

“Walk!” the big man barks. Logan leans his head back and laughs. He makes a hacking noise in the back of his throat, and when his head comes down he spits on the table in front of Ray. Ray flinches but holds his fire. Silent tears trickle like branch water down Sonja's cheeks, and her shoulders quake. Bartlett sits motionless, palms flat on the table.

"You come for something that belongs to you. That's all well and good,” Ray continues. “We just having a drink here. Ain't nobody trying to steal your woman. But you going about it all wrong, see. Now,” he continues, cocking the pistol and standing up from the table to assume a firing position, “Walk. Back out. That fucking door.”

Earl Bartlett hears the grandfather clock that's been in his family for generations go click, click, click, for three of the longest seconds of his life before Logan turns on his heel and strolls outside. The limp from his war wound is only faintly evident as he descends the wooden steps and crosses the lawn to his van.

Sonja's forehead drops to the table. Ray exhales. He eases the hammer down on the weapon and places it gingerly on the table. The bootlegger takes a deep breath. He turns to Ray and says, “I thought you tole that boy to close the door on his way out.”

"Shut up, Bartlett,” is his only reply.

Logan guns the engine of his van as he leaves, throwing a low wave of gravel across the quarter panel of Sonja's car like the wake of a motorboat lapping against the shore.

Billy Wayne appears at the door of the trailer. “Hey Earl,” he yells, though the man is only yards away. Billy stands with his hand resting on the door frame, oblivious to the damage done to it by his second cousin on his mother's side. “I got the backyard done. Tell me where the gas can is, and I'll start the front.” He notices the hair stuck to Sonja's face. He spies the pistol on the table. He opens his mouth to ask, but Bartlett cuts him off.

“Hell, son, the gas can's in the shed. Where you think it is? Now get on back to work, while you still got a job.”

###

The roof of the Piggly Wiggly is a sea of small stones stretching from corner to corner across the top of the store. The debris of years floats atop its placid surface: two discolored plastic jugs overlooked during a cleanup; a magazine stolen from the store below, thumbed through and discarded; and the occasional rusty screwdriver or pair of pliers that someone flung away in frustration. The motor room is windowless, a sheet-metal anchor buoy floating lonely beneath a clouded sky.

All is stillness and quiet save the flapping cover of the faded girlie book. A plastic baggy nestles in Logan's shirt pocket. The crystals are gone. Only a chalky residue remains, devoid of financial value but worth a decade in the state pen. The sour chemical taste of methamphetamine lingers, reminiscent of the paint thinner and gasoline he huffed as a child. He stands awestruck, stunned, holding a charred square of aluminum foil in his left hand and a Zippo in his right.

Across a two foot chasm of silence, Johnny McCullough's eyes appear hollow and wide. The skin on his face is like cracked leather from the sun, wind and rain of a thousand rooftops like this one.

Logan's reverie is shattered by the phone at his side flashing and playing a tinny version of Reveille. The sound is carnivalesque, in a way obscene given the gray sky and grim circumstance. The caller can only be the boss man.

“I, ah, don't think I wish to talk to him, right now at the moment,” Logan says. He tries to force a smile, but just succeeds at looking vaguely ill.

Blue veins pulse in Johnny's forehead. He drags a parched tongue across blistered lips. “S'all right,” he says in a voice that sounds like a croak. “I'm sure he'll be glad to call us back later.”

###

Sunday afternoon is Earl's busiest time of the week. Monday morning is the slowest, so that's when the liquor van runs. He's sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for it to arrive. Today is Billy Wayne's first run by himself.

Earl looks up at the sound of scratching gravel. Yeah, it's the van. It doesn't appear wrecked, that's good. But it seems like Billy Wayne is taking a long time to climb out. When the boy does exit, he wobbles and steadies himself against the side of the vehicle.

“I be goddamn,” Earl mutters. “Out driving my van and it loaded, and he done gone and got drunk. I'm gonna string him up and put him in a shallow grave.” The old bootlegger continues mumbling to himself as he starts down the front steps. He walks real careful like, holding onto the railing and easing himself down. He's not as young as he used to be, and he's had a drink or two his own self.

###

Logan is paranoid as all hell. He's sitting on the toilet with his pants around his ankles. He's not even thinking about shitting. He's just hiding out. He's hiding from the store manager. He's hiding from the boss man who, more and more, is prone to show up uninvited. Hell, he's hiding from Ollie Ray.

Of course, there's no reason for Ollie Ray to stalk the stalls of the bathroom at the Piggly Wiggly, looking for the man who kicked in the door of his favorite bootlegger. No reason at all. Logan knows he's paranoid, oh yeah. His mind understands. His intellect tells him to be rational, to calm down, but his nervous system won't listen. Every time the door to the restroom swings open, his gut clenches, his nuts shrivel, and sweat breaks out across his brow.

Goddamn that Johnny McCullough. He knows Logan's a downer man. Why'd he go and offer that shit?

Only one hydrocodone remains in the bottle. Logan was going to save it for tomorrow, but now he can't. No way, man. Soon as his hands stop shaking he'll pull his pants up, go the van and crush the pill. He'll chase it with a tall Miller; maybe that'll soothe his nerves. Maybe the boss man won't stop by. Maybe the store manager won't smell the booze.

Maybe Sonja won't be too pissed off about the scene at the bootleggers. She's not answering the phone, but when he sees her face to face, he can smooth things over. He needs her comfort. He needs her bad, more than ever before. More than he ever needed anything in his life, he needs that girl. She's just going to have to understand that after all they been through, a man is going to be kind of sensitive sometimes. A little bit jealous.

Goddamn that Johnny McCullough.

###

Sonja stands on her tiptoes to force another shirt into the suitcase. She pulls the zipper closed, drags it off the bed and totes it into the next room where she places it beside two similar bags. That's everything but the toiletries. Three suitcases, a bag of brushes and hairspray, and a Honda Accord: not much to show for thirty years. Oh well, she's surviving. Some folks can't say that much.

She's trying not to think about Logan. That's why she's not leaving a note: when she attempts to explain herself, inevitably she finds her way back to the good things, and they decide to try it one more time. But the one-more-times are all used up.

When she returns from the bathroom with the toiletries bag, her chest clenches like a fist at the sight of Logan standing in the doorway. How did he get off work so early? And when did he learn to step so quiet, anyway?

After several seconds her breath returns. She wanted to make things easy for both of them, but okay, here we go. She squares her shoulders and forces herself to look at his face.

“So, what you doing, Sonja?” he asks her, his voice all causal as he steps out of the doorway and takes a seat at the dinner table. Something's wrong. Something's bad wrong. She's used to seeing him messed up, with slanted, bloodshot eyes, but not like this. Today his eyes have barely any whites left, the pupils are so large. And he hasn't called her Sonja in years; the name sounds strange coming from him. Sugar Lips, Honey Pie. Bitch, whore. But never just Sonja.

“I'm, ah, I'm getting a few things together. So you can have your house back.” The muscles in her throat quiver as she speaks, but she manages a note of defiance as she adds, “Like you want, apparently.”

“You ain't got to leave on my account.” He's looking past her knees as he speaks, studying the way a piece of torn linoleum curls up on the edges like it's just the oddest thing. Last time she saw him, he was kicking in doors and spitting on tables, and now he looks looks like he's seen a ghost. What's he strung out on this time?

“I got to leave on my own account, Logan. On Renée's account. We've been through it and through it, and it don't get no better. Now please don't start nothing.”

He raises an eyebrow like she said something surprising. “I ain't starting nothing.” He stands up, and she takes a quick step backward. He sits back down. “I got the cotton mouth, is all. Would you fetch me a beer?”

She hands a sweating can across the table.

“I ought to quit this shit,” he says as he opens the tab. “I know I should. I been thinking about that a lot, lately.

“You're as likely to quit drinking as I am to drive at Talladega,” she spits out the side of her mouth. She snatches a bag from the floor and stalks out the door.

“I guess you're right about that,” he says to a kitchen left empty by her departure. He looks down at the can in his hand, shrugs, and takes a long drink. “Yeah, I guess you're right. But seems like there should be something we could do,” he continues as she walks back in and stands over the remaining luggage. “It just don't seem right, two people in love, but who can't live together.”

“Well, it may not be right, but that's how it is.” She grabs up the last two suitcases, then puts them back down. Her face turns red. If she can stay mad, she knows she can get through this and leave. “You come around showing your ass over me having a drink with Earl Bartlett. Earl Bartlett, for god's sake! Old enough to be my Daddy, and used to work with my Uncle Herman. And you go showing your butt. . .” She grabs the bags up and goes out the door, shaking her head and muttering.

She tosses them in the trunk and gets in the driver's seat. She takes a deep breath and releases it, slowly, as she checks her makeup in the rear view mirror. “I just hope you don't think this is what I want,” she whispers to the steering wheel. She tries to say something else, but the sound just comes out a sob. Stay mad, girl. Don't try to explain, just stay mad. She puts the key in the ignition and cranks the car.

A minute passes before Logan understands that all her gear is loaded. She's not coming back inside. When he hears her car start, he walks to the door and leans against the frame. If he was the crying type, this would be the perfect occasion. But he ain't, so he watches, dry eyed, as she puts the car in gear. He manages a weak smile and blows her a kiss, the way she used to when she saw him off to work. But she disappears behind a stand of mimosa that lines the drive without looking back.

He listens to her leave. He can tell the difference between the scratch of gravel and the sound her car makes accelerating onto the pavement. Then comes the silence. The damn silence always comes next.

A squirrel scampers down a branch and jumps onto a pile of fire wood left from the previous winter. He takes a nut in his mouth and turns to stare at Logan.

“What are you looking at?”

The animal doesn't respond. It remains still, watching.

Damn. He sits on the concrete blocks that form the steps to the trailer. Some things are sure hard to figure. A man spends his whole life facing down danger, proving himself, and after it all, the only thing it takes to knock the wind clean out of him is some skinny girl with a ponytail. Logan jumps to his feet and kicks gravel in the direction of the wood pile, and the squirrel darts out of sight.


Randy Lowens lives in a cabin on a wooded hillside in eastern Kentucky. His writing has appeared in Dogmatika, Blue Collar Review, and elsewhere. "The Flotsam and Jetsam of War" received the Tacenda award for Best Short Story of 2007, illuminating social injustice. "Sunday Afternoon at Earl's" is excerpted from a novel in progress.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Review of Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

I gakked this from Halvard Johnson on Facebook. Not the meth, the review, dummy.

Let's hope it's theft he doesn't mind. It is the NY Times after all.

Published: July 1, 2009

Think globally, suffer locally. This could be the moral of “Methland,” Nick Reding’s unnerving investigative account of two gruesome years in the life of Oelwein, Iowa, a railroad and meatpacking town of several thousand whipped by a methamphetamine-laced panic whose origins lie outside the place itself, in forces almost too great to comprehend and too pitiless to bear. The ravages of meth, or “crank,” on Oelwein and countless forsaken locales much like it are shown to be merely superficial symptoms of a vaster social dementia caused by, among other things, the iron dominion of corporate agriculture and the slow melting of villages and families into the worldwide financial stew.

More from the Times

This is happening as well in the Twin Tiers, the area where I grew up, particularly in Bradford County PA, whose county seat, Newsweek claimed a few years ago, is yet another Meth Valley.

They're EVERYWHERE, folks! Gitcher own.