6 years ago
Monday, December 24, 2012
He was almost asleep. Just enough for the darkness and the dreams to creep in and that flimsy line between here and there wavered in the opalescent haze. His body had relaxed for what felt like the first time in years. He felt himself sink into his worn mattress. As the position and status of his own body began to fade from his consciousness and the peculiar lights of dreaming began to flicker in the corner of his mind's eye, it came:
Where are you?
At first he thought it was the dream. He thought he was lost and someone was trying to find him, but then he realized that it was his own voice. But not. It had the thin meekness of his mother's. There was also the self-assured gravel of his father's voice and then some element all together unfamiliar. It was a sea of voices mashed down into one chimeric tone that seemed lost itself in limbo.
Where are you?
Henry let his eyes open to prove that it was the dream. He opened them wide to let the faint moonlight fill his eyes and prove he was awake and put things back into perspective. He didn't dare move. The drowsy dreaminess had settled into his bones and he didn't want to ruin such a wonderful feeling. But then he heard the voice again.
He began to hum inexplicably. Nothing in particular. Just a noise of his own to chase the other away. The thought came to him that there was someone else in the room. A ghost. Some kind of monster. He hadn't thought that way in a long time. He was too old for that. He knew that. He knew monsters didn't exist hiding in the dark and whispering and waiting. He hummed a little louder. A nervous stream of half notes in a made-up scale, because to only breathe and listen and wait for that non-existant thing to come lurching out of the dark would have been too much.
Henry sat up in his bed, inching backward into the corner of the wall, holding himself and trying hard to see just what it was there in the darkness. A parade of shapes seemed to blend in the moonlight and shadow of his room. They danced and undulated in their impractical forms.
"Please," Henry mimicked.
They'll think your crazy, Willard had said. The words kept repeating in his head and behind them a whole avalanche of unspoken things, fears and images, and somehow his whole life to come was wrapped up in it all. Did it matter? Didn't they all think he was crazy already? Willard was the only person he felt like wasn't trying to manage him, to steer him or deal with him, and even he hinted that maybe Henry was crazy. Maybe he was. He had thought stopping his medication would make things easier, make him feel better, but so far they had just gotten worse. His mind jumped all around. He was confused with things that he seemed to remember being easy to understand, but still he couldn't be sure because his whole system of thought seemed to have been dissected by chemicals and emotions. He felt like his brain was repeatedly resetting, each day becoming questionable, possibly unreal.
They'll think you crazy.
Maybe he was. After all, he could have sworn the voice was coming from the jar.
Briar laid in bed until Dolly fell asleep. He tried to busy his mind with the sounds of the house, with memories and diversions, but it was no use. He heard Henry come back and decided to let him sleep. Instead he tried to imagine what he would say to the boy in the morning. How he would apologize and set the record straight and put his foot down. Eventually his thoughts turned back to Jim Young and his wife. He knew Dolly wasn't exactly telling him the truth about Jim. It got so bad that he couldn't stand to be lying in the bed with her.
Outside, the air was cool. There was a slight breeze that made the trees clatter softly. The full moon to the west made everything eerily bright in the deceiving darkness, long streaks of silver painting everything it touched. It made the neighborhood seem larger than it actually was, like some sort of desert valley. A shielded, observed place. Briar opened the truck door and the dome light cut through the dark. He squinted against the light and fumbled around half-blind for the little naugahyde loop that allowed him to pull down the arm rest. He reached into the squared alcove there and pulled out the whiskey bottle and took a drink and decided he would finish it off.
The neighborhood hadn't changed much. Except for the two other rentals Jim Young owned that always had people moving in and out, most people had lived on this street for years. Jim Harbrough and his wife, before she died. Enid McClusky. Grover Masters next door and Dub and Scorchy next to him. They were all good people. He trusted each and every one of them. It was a good neighborhood for a family. People visited on Sundays and if you ever needed anything, there was always someone you could call. Old Enid McClusky used to call nearly every day for Briar to come over and do something. Go to the store or change a lightbulb. It angered him to think of all the things he missed from living there. He took a shot of whiskey and that helped a little.
He pulled a shovel out of the truck bed and wandered down the driveway around the side of the house breathing in the cool night air. He kicked around the gravel and lit a cigarette and tried to keep his mind on good things. He tapped the spade head against the ground trying to loosen clumps of dirt that clung to the rusted surface. His steps were slow as a plan formulated in his mind. Maybe it was the whiskey, he thought, or maybe he was just sick of it all, but he was going to do something. He was going to make this his house again. This was his family. This was his neighborhood. The situation had proven that it was up to him to set things straight.
He leaned against the gate and smoked and took another draw from the bottle. He looked out into the darkness of the backyard and tried to see the dog. He clucked his tongue and whistled and after a second heard scuffling under the shed. He clucked again and the dog came trotting toward him, tongue hanging and eyes gleaming. It came right up to the fence and looked at Briar with that perfectly doggish, questioning look. Briar stared and blew smoke. He saw the dog and thought of Jim Young and he thought of Dolly. Their lies. Their betrayal. He took a sip of whiskey and then dipped the bottle over the fence just slightly so that a thin trickle began to pour. The dog felt the trickle hit it's nose and began to lap at it until it got a taste of it and backed away. Briar stopped pouring and laughed.
"Hey girl," he said to bring it back.
The dog stepped cautiously back to the fence and Briar kissed at it like old ladies kiss babies. It jumped up and held itself against the fence by it's front paws. It lapped at the air, trying to get at Briar's mouth. The moonlight glinted in the wet sores that decorated it's matted fur and Briar drew back in disgust.
"Nasty bitch," Briar hissed and slapped at the dog's muzzle with the back of his hand so that the night was filled with a wet, vicious thump.
Henry's eyes drifted open slowly. The voice was just a sound, anonymous, echoing in the dark between his dream and the light of day, dingy and suffering the barrier of the blinds. But the knocking was like an electric charge in his spine. It ran out on the craggy beam of thoughts right up his arm and he reached out for the jar, murky and still, and he was going to tell it to be quiet, then he realized it was Briar and he was at the door, so he pulled it under his pillow.
He spoke, but there wasn't a sound more than an airy, garbled moan.
"Henry? I'm comin in."
Henry sat up and wiped at his eyes as his father came in the room. His hair was still disheveled from his pillow and he was sucking at the sweaters on his teeth. He pulled his cigarettes and lighter from his pocket before he sat at Henry's feet. Henry hated the way his father smelled in the morning.
"You an me gonna have a talk," he said and sat. "Things is gonna hafta change round here, boy."
Henry had heard this sort of thing a lot and knew better than to say anything.
"Yr maw told me whatcha done t'her TV, an y'hit her too."
It occurred to Henry all the times he had seen his father hit his mother or broke something in a rage.
"Whatcha gotta say about that?"
Henry shrugged his shoulders and looked down at his bare knee sticking out from under the dirty sheet that covered his naked body.
"Now y'gonna talk t'me, son," Briar said. His voice dipped down into his own version of sincerity and lenience. "Don't think yr gonna sit here an stare at th'wall an stick yr lip out and not say nothin.
"I'm sorry 'bout hittin you. That's not how I wanted it t'go, but I can't abide y'hittin me, or yr momma. You frgive me an I'll frgive you an we can just start over."
"I don't know what t'say. I's mad."
"Yr onna real kick, boy. Y'pull that shit at th'lantern, got kicked outta school, then ya come home an pull that shit with yr ma, breakin shit ain nobody got th'money t'fix. Whatta y'think we was gonna do about it? Just take it? Not do nothin?"
"I don't know, pa. I's mad, an-"
"Bein mad ain no goddamn excuse, boy," he shouted, and jumped up from the bed.
He paced a few steps back and forth and ran his hands through his hair trying to calm down and think. Henry watched him, his eyes trailing back and forth.
"I don't care about yr excuses," he said, settling back down on the bed. "They's gonna be some changes around here. Yr gonna straighten up an I aim t'make sure it happens."
"So yr movin back in?"
"Don't git smart with me, boy."
Briar stopped and looked down at his feet. His hands were crossed in his lap and he had a look on his face Henry had never seen before. Thoughtful. Almost gentle.
"I done tried t'raise y'into a man, Henry. Guess I didn do a good job, but I tried th'best I could."
Henry felt the heat of his anger in his face and it made his hands tremble a bit. The words were on his tongue ready to explode and cover this old man in fire, but they stayed. They were hammered down by self-preservation.
"Ever since you's born I tried t'do th'best thing t'make y'tough an right. Me an yr maw couldn git along, so I hadda go on fr a while, but I's still tryin."
He took a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one. Th'room filled up with the smell of burning Marlboros and lighter fluid.
"But," Briar continued through a cloud of smoke, "looks like I ain done good enough. Looks like you ain no more a man then any them dimwits y'go t'school with."
He stood and walked across the room again. The old whiskey stench came up again when he moved. The nostalgic sadness Henry felt when he smelled the cigarette smoke and the fuel had faded back into anger when Briar started to talk again. The words made him mad. The smell of stale beer and whiskey disgusted him. Every second of him being there made Henry feel a different way, different degrees of hate and misery and wishing things could be different.
"Ya caint be a troublemaker all yr life, Henry. Y'gotta straighten up fr it's too late."
Henry was in his own thoughts.
"Y'hearin me boy?"
Henry looked up quick and saw Briar was staring him down in that way.
"I don't try t'make trouble, pa."
"Y'sure do a good job of it."
"I try t'do good."
"Well, maybe yr maw an me ain done a good job, but I aim t'change it."
Briar stood and stubbed his cigarette out on the desk and slid the crumpled cigarette pack back in his pants. Henry looked up at him with wide eyes that said to Briar that all of it had just gone right over his head and Briar huffed and shook his head.
"Get on outta bed, boy. Y'got somethin t'do.
Henry stood at the fence of the backyard, just outside the sliding glass door, staring at the pile of fur back next to the shed. It was a hump of black and white on top of a brownish mess he could see even from that distance was more scab and blood than dog. Behind him, Briar stepped through the door and stopped on the stone step just under the doorway. He had a shovel in his hand. Henry looked up at him barely able to hold in his frightened tears.
"Don't look at me like that," Briar said never really looking at the kid but off at the hill of fur and blood. "I done th'hard part. You go bury'em."
"Why'd'ya kill'em, fr chrisake?"
"We caint feed'em an that ole bitch was too sick t'heal. Them pups woulda gotten it too. Done'em a favor."
Henry looked back out across the yard and he tried to take a step, but nothing moved. He was waiting, stalling. He was waiting for the big joke to be sprung. He was waiting for his mother to come out and put a stop to it all like she used to in the past. He was waiting for godjesusallmighty to poke a finger out of the clouds and touch old Briar Pupp down into hell or to lift him on up out of there, or both.
"Here ya go now."
Henry turned sharply and Briar was holding out the short-handled shovel and nodding toward the shed. He took it and held it close to his chest and stalled a bit more until he saw that twitch in Briar's eye that meant it was time to move. He went on through the fence looking back once and Briar was staring off into the sky offering no solace. His mother was nowhere to be seen. Henry walked slow and deliberate holding the shovel out like it was a snake and he couldn't take his eyes off the pile before him. The closer he got, the colder he got, the thinner his mind and the thicker his eyes. Then something in the pile moved. He stopped and dropped the shovel and spun around. Briar was watching him, still on the step and leaning against the jamb.
"One of'em ain dead," Henry yelled back, his face melting in fright.
"They's one movin. It ain dead!"
"It ain't dead," Henry shouted out slowly and deliberately.
"Well," Briar said with a certain subdued glee, "guess yr gonna hafta kill it, son. Put it outta it's misery."
Henry had the immediate feeling Briar had left one of the pups alive just for this purpose.
Henry turned back around and tried hard not to vomit. He picked up the shovel and held it up with both hands like a ball bat as if there was something that was going to jump out at him at any minute. He edged closer to the shed as if he was walking on ice. He heard the metallic snap of a thumbed zippo lid and the grating scrape of the flint strike and he stifled the impulse to curse the man. He took a few more cautious steps until he could see the one pup trying to crawl away. A few of them had slid off their mother's body and piled up on the ground and this one was trying to work it's way out from under them. It was mostly free, only one leg getting traction, and it moved mere centimeters at a time. Henry could hear it breathing thin and whining quietly as it worked at escaping the graveyard. Once it moved free of the rest, it still couldn't use but one paw. The back two moved a little, more like tiny convulsions than crawling, and the other front paw was just dead flesh dragging along.
"Git on it," Briar yelled from back at the house and in a convulsion of fear and nerves Henry screamed back, "Shut the fuck up, I'm doin it," and Briar was quiet.
He watched the pup crawl and whine and he tried to think of how he should do it. He didn't question whether he should or not at all now, only how. He wanted to do it quick, but he didn't think he would be able to stand to see any blood or guts and he wished the thing would just be quiet. He thought of ways not to do it, and then how he had to do it. Every thought in the world seemed to squirm around in his head while the crippled pup squirmed around on the ground and finally Henry raised the shovel up like a spear and brought it down into the back of its neck. There was a fan of dark, purplish blood that sprayed out from the head and the rest of the body ran up into the shovel like it was going to run right through it, then it fell back and the whole thing went limp. When he pulled the shovel out of the ground the head rolled off a half foot and that was where Henry dug the hole to bury them all. When he was done he walked back to the house where Briar was still waiting in the door. He tossed the bloody, dirt-clogged shovel against the side of the house and spit and slipped by Briar without saying a word. Briar told him he was proud of him.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
He escaped from the house noiselessly, his mother still asleep. When he had emerged from his room he had stood in the kitchen and listened. No television. No snoring. An apology was what he wanted. He wanted to beg her for forgiveness and promise to be a good son for the rest of his life. He walked right up to the bedroom door and listened. He reached his hand out to knock, but then pulled it back. He saw her in his mind yelling and screaming. He saw her coming at him in a rage like she had done before. He saw her from last night, coming over the destroyed television and he was afraid. Like she did, wild and uncontrollable, when she was mad, and her serpent's tongue. In the end he not only decided to give her more time, to talk to her later when she had cooled down, but there was such a sense of dread in him, of punishment, that he rushed out of the house. He went through the sliding glass door and through the backyard avoiding the sloppy hide of some diseased mutt that had been back there when he got home. Once he was over the fence and clomping through the woods there was something in him that told him he better run, and he did.
He wove through the trees turning right where he came to the end of his street and cut through a parking lot, through someone's very meticulously manicured backyard. He ran until his legs burned and his lungs couldn't keep up anymore. He ran out his dread and his sense of danger. He bolted across the boulevard and barreled through the line of municipal shrubbery on the far side and he fell and lay there in the closely mown grass. He stared up into the blue sky and listened to traffic. The cars whipped by and whooshed and hissed. There was the sound of a jackhammer and a large truck off in the distance and a police siren. There was the overall mechanical hum of city like mortar to the individual bricks of sound that faded in and out and burst like gunshot across his ears. Dogs. Children. The sounds clung together and flattened out all he heard into one living, squirming entity. Above him he watched an airplane and it's vapor trail cut a thin slivery slit in the sky.
He crossed the street without even looking for traffic and cut through the parking lot of the Holly View apartments. At the back of the lot was a bridge that crossed the creek which ran the length of the boulevard through town. It was a cement slab laid over and just under it a ledge big enough for a couple of people. On one side of the bridge where the apartments while on the other was a small, overgrown patch of asphalt, maybe and old parking lot big enough for about ten cars. But it was secluded in the trees so it was used now for drugs and sex and kids firing off leftover fourth of July fireworks. From there was a long stretch of woods that bordered the backyards of the houses on Henry's street.
There was a pack of kids in the parking lot of the apartments, mostly Henry's age, but a few younger. They stared him down, kept their eyes locked on him like kids do when someone not in their group passes by, and he knew what they were thinking. They looked at him just like they looked at Bobby Johnson when he got out on bail. He knew he was that crazy son of a bitch Henry Pupp, damn near beat Albert King to death for no good god damn reason. He knew the older kids told the younger ones what they knew because they looked at him the same way. He gave them a look back. He felt conspicuous, larger than he really was, and like he was glowing or on fire or something, or that he was marked by some sort of darkness, some evilness they could see in him. Smell in him. He wanted to take that darkness in him and push it right back out at them and shrivel them up. He had that little speck still in him and he wanted bad for it blow up and wipe them all away. It stayed pushed right down, though, and he had to jog a bit to get to the bridge before those kids saw him crying.
He slung himself against the railing and eased over to get on the landing underneath. It stunk and it was dirty. He balled up on the slab and every time he coughed out a sob, a cloud of dirt and dead leaves came up in his face. He was crying for those kids staring at him. He was crying for his weakness and his darkness. He was crying for hitting his ma and never his pa. He was crying for having no friends and for Albert King and breaking his face. Hours seemed to pass and the tears faded into memories of blood and his torn up fists and the scared faces all around him.
Henry stood at the side of the creek just upstream of the bridge watching the minnows and mosquitoes that skid along the surface. The creek wasn't any more than a foot deep and the water looked clear as glass There were signs all up and down the creek warning of how poisonous the water was. It was deceptive because the water was so clear, and the minnows thrived in hordes darting back and forth snapping up anything smaller than themselves. But there was a smell, something like rotted vegetables and baby diapers, that rose from it when the summer heat got too bad. The heat of the sun was diffused through the jade flashing of leaves high above. The yawning, tenebrous waves of the katydids wove in and out of his ears. Together they conspired with the tiredness of his cried out body to sap him of thought, to lay him down and sing him to sleep.
He climbed up the bank and wedged himself in the split trunk of a tree that grew out of the side of the creek bank. One split of the tree separated Henry from view of the bridge so all he had to do was hook his head slightly out and he could see everything. He was sure no one was able to see him. The split in the tree fit him perfectly. He took perch in this little tree nook and stared at the water and let his thoughts pass through him, most of them too painful and too exhausting to hold on to. The darters, the mosquitoes, and the birds in the sky as they zigzagged across the break in the trees all took up his time. He would drift into the soft haze between sleep and being awake so that he still heard the water and the wind and the airy hiss of cars pulling down the boulevard. If anyone came along, the crunching of branches and leaves would bring him back and he had his escape route all planned out... up the bank, back to the right and a strategic path along the back fences of all the houses that lined the clip of woods until his own yard, his fence, his window... not that such a sudden getaway was all that necessary, but for a young boy in such a neighborhood there was inevitably someone whose property you were violating. There was always someone who didn't want you around and an escape plan was always good to have. Worse yet, these kids that lived in Holly View, they were like a pack of dogs, always roaming together ready to pick apart anything that wasn't them. Mostly he just dozed and he thought and waited for time to pass.
But it wasn't laziness that had originally brought Henry to his perch or this part of the creek. It was "The Big Show," as Tommy VanDean had called it. Tommy liked to bring anybody there to watch he could. To show off what he had found. The two would get there a little after four, once school was out, whenever the bus dropped Vanessa off with all the other kids that lived in Holly View. She was always first. She would get off the bus and a minute later Henry could see her form coming through the trees and he could see her face. She was so nervous. He thought it was funny how she would pace back and forth on the bridge waiting for the other kids to go into their apartments or off to wherever they were going. He could see the anticipation in her face, the nervousness and the fear, a look Henry thought most people would get right before they ran off or gave up. Vanessa Friday didn't. Despite the wrong, the danger, the uncertainty, there was something in it that kept her there. Something that made it all worthwhile. Henry envied that look, the feeling it portended. He wanted to know it. He wanted to look that way and stay behind. He knew fear and nervousness and anticipation. They were feelings his father had instilled in him long ago. And he didn't know why he stayed around, why he paced and hung like Vanessa Friday on the bridge. It sure as hell wasn't for love.
Once she thought it was safe, no one was looking, she'd make her way under the bridge and get up on the ledge underneath. She tried to be real graceful about it even though she knew no one was watching. Once she was where she wanted to be she'd fidget around something awful. She'd fix her hair, change the way she was sitting, trying to be just right for when the coach got there. Henry couldn't blame Coach Summers for wanting to be in love with Vanessa Friday. He thought she was a very pretty girl and sexy and all and she tried really hard to be that way for the old man. By the time he got there she'd fixed herself up three or four times.
Coach Summers, the high school volleyball coach and ninth-grade history teacher would park in the regular parking lot like he lived in the apartments. Both Henry and Vanessa knew the sound of his wine-colored Cutlass. Henry settled back nice and snug and smiled because Vanessa would get to fidgeting even more. He'd watch her fix her tits in her bra and smooth out her blouse and tuck her feet back under her like the girls do to show off their curves and let her hair drape down just right. The coach would get out and look around and pull a blanket and a flower out of the back of the car. He always brought her a flower on their Mondays even if he forgot the blanket and they had to do their business on his coat or something. He looked all around like they did on TV trying to make sure the coast was clear, which Henry thought was pretty ignorant. He thought it made him look guilty of something even if someone else seeing him didn't know he was guilty of anything at all. His momma called people like that lechers. She called men bringing women flowers "greasin'em up."
"Whatcha greasin' me up fr," she'd say to his father whenever he brought her one of those gas station roses. "It ain't gonna do y'no good."
Eventually the coach would make his way down under the bridge just like Vanessa, but with less fussing and fidgeting and he'd give her the flower. Henry couldn't really hear what all they were talking about unless the wind was just right, but it was always about love and feeling good and being careful and such. Then they'd get to kissing and that was the part Henry really liked. Henry learned a lot about the business between men and women from that show under the bridge. He never thought to do his business to himself there in his nook. He was too enthralled in the watching. He was learning, He was interested.
He smiled big thinking of those two and wished they were there. They got busted over the summer and it was a big scandal on the news and Henry hadn't heard a thing about them since.
That was when his eyes started to wonder and that was when he saw it. At first he thought it was just another piece of old garbage floating down the creek, but then he saw the pink and the fleshy, bloody look of it and he thought right away it might be some kind of body part. A head or something. Henry had found a finger floating down the creek one time and he thought it might be something like that. He almost slipped out of the tree trying to get a better look. He caught himself and climbed down the bank. He saw that it was wrapped around a stubby, brown link he surmised was a turd. Henry immediately thought of the kids that lived in the Holly View and what they'd think if they came up on him messing around with a turd in the creek like that. He knew they'd get to laughing and one of the bigger boys would want to fight. Henry pulled a stick out of the red clay of the creek bank and poked at the thing until the turd came free and kept on down the creek.
It was hard for Henry to tell just what he was looking at. It looked like maybe it was an animal or a body part turned inside out or burned up. It was mostly pink and fleshy and there was a little oily bubble sitting on top of a brownish, yellow jelly that he thought was maybe an eye, but he couldn't be sure. Looking at it, trying to determine just what it was, Henry had the distinct feeling that he should just leave it alone, but he knew he couldn't. He knew most anybody would have left it or told him to just leave it or at least given him a lot of shit for messing with it, but he knew he wouldn't. He at least had to take it to Willard. Willard was about the smartest person he knew that wouldn't give him hell or tell anybody. He was the one Henry showed the finger to that he found and he told Willard how much his confederate dollar that his daddy had given him was worth. He was a hell of a lot bigger than Henry and could have taken it if he wanted to, but he didn't. That was pretty good in Henry's book.
An idea came to him so fast he popped up and looked around as if it had made a sound someone might have heard. No one there. He pulled another stick out of the bank and used it to gently coax the thing to a more secure place. It rested on the little sandbar near the bank and he used the stick to anchor it and covered with some dead leaves to keep it hidden. He looked around again to check if anyone was watching and he listened for a bit, his senses lost in the sounds of the trees and the boulevard and then tore up the creek bank in a shot and off into the woods.
He had a good path through all the old tires and broken lawn chairs and whatnot and could get along without getting tripped up or tangled in the greenbriar. He came through like a squirrel, lithe and quick, a streak through the dark green and hot bulbs of light. You could see in the way he moved that he had been doing it for years. He made it past old Grover's house and with a long, precise leap, was over the back fence to his yard and took a rest against the shed that sat in the back corner. He was about ready to move on, but then he heard the whining coming from underneath.
For some reason Jim Young, the landlord, had brought the mangy old bitch home from god knows where. She was a nasty, sloppy old mess covered in blood and puss. Why some other dog would want to fuck her and knock her up was lost on Henry, but nonetheless she had puppies right there in the backyard. She dug a little hole out under the shed, and as Henry wormed his way back through the dirt and dust he could see the little black and white heads poking up over the edge just like he had found them upon returning home from the hospital. His mom had told him about them and had him find them like they were a big surprise. He figured she just didn't want to feed them or take care of them.
"Why I gotta take care of'em. Git yr boyfriend t'take'em back."
That's what he had thought to say, all the while smiling and petting them and keeping quiet.
The bitch was across the yard eating at some scraps. She knew better than to come around Henry. She had snapped at him once and now he wouldn't hesitate to give her a kick. The hole she had dug out was under the edge of an old lumber pile that was supposed to be new roof for the shed years ago. Henry reached in and fished out one of the pups and it squirmed and whined in his hand, it's new muscles twitching and rumbling against his palm. Behind him he could hear the bitch getting closer, whining a bit herself. He looked back and saw she was right at the edge of the shed. Her own whining had turned to a low, nearly inaudible growl. Henry kicked out some dirt at her and snapped at her. "Git on," he said and she took a stumbling step backward and paced a bit a few feet from the shed, sniffing and keeping an eye. It seemed some of the old bitch’s muck had come off on the pup, probably while it was suckling on those scaly old tits, and maggots had rooted down in it's fur. He held the thing as gently as he could and picked the maggots out. One by one. Then he pulled the next one out and the next one. There were seven of them, all squirming and hungry, plots of maggots all over their bodies and dried, crusty sick clotted in it.
It took him a while to clean up all seven pups, but he couldn't let them sit. His throat hurt from all the dust and his skin itched something terrible from it clinging to the sweat. He knew there was a good chance the thing in the creek was gone by now. Probably come loose from his haphazard prison and floated on into someone else's life. Most likely a meal for the minnows or some dog sniffing around. It took too long but Henry knew he couldn't let those maggots get under the skin. It wasn't their fault their mother was nastier than hell. But it was a good thing, very lucky for him, for he saw just what he needed toward the back of the shed.
Back by the pile of long-forgot roof wood there was quart mason jar sticking butt-out. He settled the pups back into their burrow and scooted himself out of the hole. He gave the old bitch a glare just to let her know. Hell, he just picked maggots out of her babies' fur. He had to let her know. He circled around the shed and plucked out the jar. Lucky enough the jar still had it's lid and there wasn't that much dirt inside.
Back at the creek he washed the dirt and detritus out of the jar. He carefully picked the bits of dead leaf off the thing and scooped it up with a little bit of creek water. It plopped down in the bed of brownish water so the strange bubble faced out atop the fold of it's body. Henry stared at the thing as he slowly tightened the rusty lid. Again, he had that pang of thought. Leave it alone. Dump it out and go. He gazed into the murky eye of the thing and it all of a sudden had a life, some kind of essence in it. There was no pupil. There was no iris. Just the turbid hint of his own imagination.
He was careful walking home. Careful not to slosh it around or break it up too much, though it looked thick and strong. He stepped around all the junk in the woods without looking. The whole time his eyes were on the thing in the jar. Thin frills of flesh were swaying in the water. The body of the thing seemed to ripple in it's scant pool. Whatever it was, Henry knew it was dead. Just a lump of alien flesh that could have been a dozen things, but no more. The thought made him sad. It made him wonder if that was how he would end up, some indescribable lump of mess caught up in some creek. He was sure that was how his daddy was gonna end up. Probably shot in some old girls bedroom with her husband standing over him, or beat to shit and left in some parking lot. Briar Pupp was a big, strong man, but Henry knew (hoped) he'd meet his match someday. Henry wondered if the thing in the jar had put up a good fight.
A tangle of greenbriar caught the cuff of his pants, and, trying to pull out of it, he lost his balance and fell into the damp underbrush. The jar slipped out of his hand near the ground and he caught himself and felt the sharp nubs of twigs try to bury into the fleshy heel of his palm. He paused for a moment there, held in mid push-up, looked to see the jar wasn't broken, and broke into an uncontrollable laugh. He rolled over onto his back and kicked at the twist of greenbriar until it let loose the cuff of his pants. He threw out his arms and legs and let them fall into the bed of dead leaves underneath and he laughed and laughed. He wasn't really sure what he was laughing at. Himself, he guessed. He saw himself barreling through the past few days in a fog and he was jumping at every little spark of light and it made him want to cry but his tears were all used up. There was only the confusion of none of it making any real sense and that twisting around in his brain could only find an outlet in his laugh, like a fit, and it tumbled out of him loud and spasmodic.
He stared up through the trees. The leaves were luminescent emeralds surrounded by globs of white sunlight and they bustled around each other in a delicate wind that carried Henry's laughter up and out of the trees. It fizzled out into a wide grin and there was relative quiet. He could hear the crackle of bugs scurrying back and forth under the leaves in what might as well have been an alternate universe. The starlings screeched in the distance looking for cats and dogs to torment, and off beyond the ridge Henry could hear the faint rumbling of heat lightning.
He turned his head from the dance of canopy and sky to see the jar laying on the ground. He leveled a finger to it and ran it slowly along the glass and then gave it a push so the water would slosh a bit. Another little cough of laughter. He thought again about how he should just leave the thing there and go on or bury it, but he knew he wouldn't. He tried to imagine what it must have gone through to end up so unrecognizable and tattered as it was. Then he realized the thing looked just like Henry felt. He didn't recognize himself, how he felt. He couldn't get a hold on how he should feel, who he was. How could he have lost that? Surely he hadn't always felt that way, but so much of his past had become a fog over the last few months. He thought it was the drugs they had given him in the hospital. He figured it was that why felt so frayed and scattered. Just a mess in a jar sloshing around in the muck. The thought made him laugh again but only to hide the feeling of being so lost. So fucking stupid.
He stood and picked up the jar gently turning it upright and thought he should get something better to put it in. Then off in the distance he heard something that caught his attention. Something vaguely familiar. He took a couple of steps closer toward the direction of the sound and he heard it again. He thought for a second that it might have been more of the heat lightning, but it was too low. By now he could see the fence of his backyard and he walked up to it and before he could climb over he heard the sound again. He knew what it was. It was his father and he was somewhere out there calling Henry's name.
"Briar, he's in here!"
Henry's mother was standing in the kitchen when he walked in the house through the side sliding glass door. He quickly put the mason jar behind him and managed to jimmy it into the waistband of his pants. He didn't say a thing. His skin was tight from crying and his body worn out to the point of falling.
"Henry," his father shouted from the front stoop.
"He's in here," his mother yelled again, louder, and they both heard the front door slam.
She just stared at him and didn't say a word to him. She sort of leaned on the beer can she was drinking from and pulled from her cigarette and looked at him like a sacrificial lamb. But she didn't speak. She just waited.
"Y'hear me callin you, boy?"
Henry didn't say anything.
"Naw," Henry said. "I didn hear ya. I's out back."
"Yr ma called me an told me whatcha done," he said and tilted his head toward where the TV had laid dead the night before.
"Yeah," Henry said weakly.
"Yeah, well, that kinda shits gonna stop," Briar said getting closer to the boy, then stopping to take a breath. To compose himself.
Henry was dumbfounded, shocked as if a cup of cold water had been thrown in his face.
Then it dawned on Henry, and the thought of his father, and him standing right there, and the shit-eating look on his mom's face and he burst out at her,
"You called him?"
"Y'knowed where he was an y'juss lettim be gone?"
His mother straightened up and looked at him, bothered.
"Yeah, I knowed where he was. What of it?"
"Y'don talk t'yr momma like that, Henry," Briar interjected.
Henry remembered all of a sudden where he had learned the words bitch, cunt, and fuck you. He was astonished. For some reason he was under the assumption that his mother and he were on the same side when it came to Briar Pupp.
"Been too much of that lately, so I hear," Briar continued.
"Too much of a lot of shit," Darlanetta Pupp spat from behind her cigarette.
Henry shook his head and tried to walk past Briar, but he caught him by the arm and brought back in front of him.
"Where th'ell y'think yr goin?"
"I wanna go t'my room."
"Stay right here."
"Cain't do nothin with'im," Darlanetta spit.
"Shut up," Henry yelled.
Briar looked at him mean and raised his hand but then lowered it and turned toward his wife.
"Dolly, keep quiet. I'll hannel it."
She turned on rolling eyes and pulled from her cigarette then flung her hand in the air to wave him off.
Henry had dodged down but wasn't fast enough. The big meaty hand held him in place and he was immediately filled with an anger unlike the anger he had for his mother. It was a cautious anger tempered by the fear of being hit again but wanting to strike out himself. He balled up his fist and swung, but Briar saw it coming and flinched and he barely grazed his arm.
"Y'little shit," Briar hissed and from behind, Darlanetta said, "Told y'so."
Briar grabbed Henry by the arm and Henry tried to wrench free but the old man's grip was vice tight. Briar just let the boy flail for a minute then shook him and told him to calm down. The two locked eyes and for the first time it was Henry who shook with violent anger. Briar actually shrunk back.
"I juss wanna talk t'ya, Henry. Calm th'fuck down."
Henry tried again to pull from his father's grip, but couldn't.
"I ain't got nothin' t'say t'ya."
Something like desperation stole over his body. He felt like he might cry again, and that could not happen.
"Lemme go!" he yelled and begun yanking against his father's grasp like a dog pulling on a rope.
"Goddamnit, Henry," Briar barked.
Henry started kicking at Briar as he tried to jerk out of his grip. Briar hopped around trying to avoid it.
"Just let'im go," Dolly called out, tossing her cigarette into the sink. She was just about to say it again, to scream it, when she saw the boy hit his father.
Not being able to connect with Briar's shin made Henry angrier and angrier. He began to growl in his effort and he thought he saw Briar smiling, almost laughing, and that was what he swung for. That grin. Those crooked, yellow teeth. His fist smacked hard against Briar's mouth. He could feel the soft give of lip-flesh against teeth.
Briar grunted and jerked his face back and let go of the boy's arm. The plaintive mercy in his eyes was consumed, burnt up by confusion. He could feel his lip swell, pushing the split further apart. A drop of blood bubbled out of the wound and ran down into his mouth.
Henry saw it and panicky tears filled his eyes. The satisfying sting of his hand rang in the silence. Briar, a barely perceptible glaze passing over him, grabbed the boy by his shirt and backed him against the wall. He raised his hand. Henry shut his eyes. A bright flare of pain exploded in his stomach.
Dolly ran forward and pushed him back and bent down to her son. She laid her hand gently on his shoulder to roll him over, but he pulled away and screamed something unintelligible. She looked up at Briar and his anger seemed to leave him in a trance. Henry stood slowly and when she offered to help him, he shrugged her off, pushed her back, and ran toward his bedroom.
He laid his shoulder square against the bedroom door as he wrapped a fist around the knob and with an instinctual choreography of muscle and bone plowed through the door, slammed it shut, and turned. He was sure Briar would be coming through the same door any second. He took a wide stance and waited to meet him. There was still the ringing in his ears. A jelly-like fear in his bruised gut. His oxygen and blood-soaked muscles were ready to pounce, had to before the acidic tension in them began to burn and turn sour. Nothing. His entire body was shaking uncontrollably. From his clenched jaw to his curled, leveraged toes there was a metallic vibration he could not stop. As he waited and breathed and stood ready to jump, the vibration intensified and threatened to shake him loose from his bones. He let the back of his thighs rest against the footboard of the bed for a little more support. He listened intently for the coming trying to separate imagined voices from the real. He squeezed his eyes shut in effort to wipe away the ghostly imagination of Briar's reddened, furious face before him for fear he might not see the real thing coming. He decided there wasn't enough space between himself and the door for the bed so he repositioned himself, shakily and frantically, to the side of his dresser wedging his back into the corner made by the dresser and the wall. It gave him vantage of the whole room and put about as much space as possible between the door and himself. He waited.
The viscid fear in his belly began to dissolve leaving only the pain where his father's fist had been. He crouched down against the cramp of bruised skin and torn muscle. The slower and deeper his breath became the harder it was to draw. Blood pulsed through his head in volcanic thrusts that mounted behind his eyes and threatened to pop them right out of their sockets. He allowed himself to curl up around his pummeled gut, his face trying very hard to squeeze out all the pain.
"Run," said a voice, strange and weak, from somewhere ethereal and hidden.
The thought, run, was in his legs and they flinched a bit but the sound of footsteps across the kitchen floor linoleum turned the muscles into a weakness that couldn't be controlled. He felt the tears coming, or at least the stinging heat that proceeded them. There was a rage in him asking why, why, why, and a paralysis emboldened under the visage of his father's face. The footsteps got closer and there was the creek in the floor that sounded just before his bedroom door and then a knock on the door that, at first, seemed to be the explosive bursting of the hinges and the beast...
"Henry?" his mother's voice called softly. Guiltily.
He didn't answer. He couldn't. The air, his breath, and every bit of light in the room was right up against him. They mocked his sweat and his brimming tears and boiled his blood. There was a hissing in his ears and that shadowy voice again... run...
"Henry, are you ok?"
It was the voice he remembered, longed for. The voice he loved. It had been a long time since he had heard it. In some way since he had been gone, it had seemed to dissolve. She had hardened, donned an age and an estrangement that had not been there before, or at least he hadn't noticed it. But now, that voice was back. The memory of her he thought maybe had been lost in the flesh was just outside his door. He could still feel her comforting heat.
And then their faces were together, their voices, and she had let it in. She had called him back to the one place he had begged and prayed and hoped for years he would never return. He could stand the scant, periodic visits and he could stand the dreams, memories, and loss. He had learned how over his fifteen years, but it had all hinged on the idea, the sheer fact, that he would never again be in the house, never living there. She had promised that much. Huddled together, sweat-covered and swelling and bloody, she had promised. Feeding him and nursing his bruises, she promised. Locking the door and taking him to the bath and locking that door and staying right beside him as the warm water soothed him and washed him, she promised. And there he was. Waiting. She had asked him to come. He lay in this very room not two full years before wrapped up in a blanket like he was an infant, and as she stroked his forehead and kept her lips pressed to his swollen cheek, she promised.
"Henry, are you ok?"
The closest thing to him was the jar and it's muck lying on it's side where it was dropped on top of a backpack still half-full of the clothes she had brought him while he was locked up.
He reached out for the canvas loop jutting out from the top of the pack, wrapped his fingers around it and slid it toward him so that the jar rolled off.
"Henry, please answer me," she said in the same calm, loving, deceptive voice.
He flung the pack out to his side for leverage and in one swooping, arching effort he sent it flying at the door where it bashed the wood in a spasmodic drumroll of zippers and straps. It was a clatter more than the percussive whump he was hoping for, but effective nonetheless. There was silence afterward and he curled up again against the dulling pain in his gut. After a second he heard the footsteps retracing their path back through the kitchen and beyond into the hush.
Before he let the boy go, before he had fallen onto the floor, his punished lungs gasping for a breath, there was a pang of regret. This was a man he had pressed against the wall. This was the man that had hit his wife, the man he was dutifully required to protect her from. This was the man who would not bend to his will and do what he was told and make things easy. This was the man into whose belly Briar had thrown his fist and silenced and put in line. But he was not a man. His feet barely even reached the floor. He could smell the childishness on his hot, panicked breath. He recognized the whimper, and it was that pain-filled memory that brought him around and forced him to recognize his son in his hands, so he let go and the boy fell limp to the floor.
He turned, the look of surprise just barely swelling behind the crooked countenance of anger, and caught sight of Dolly in the kitchen as if she would have some sort of answer. She wouldn't even look at him. She had her head in one hand while the other clung to the edge of the island for support. The boy, curled on the floor, and she nearly bent in her own sorrow, might as well have been staring him down, pointing fingers, bashing gavels. The whole world was swirling around him, somehow created only from his choice, his action, and all he could think: what just happened?
He couldn't move. Dolly tried to help the boy but he got up and ran to his room. Briar didn't stop him. Didn't even try. Everything around him was strange. Though it was his home for so many years, it somehow instantly, as the boy ran away and his wife refused to see him, felt foreign and hostile. A den of enemies. He looked again to Dolly but she had turned away.
"Goddamnit, Briar," she finally said, her voice strained by tears she didn't want to let loose.
"I didn't mean-"
"You ain't been here two hours. You ain't seen the boy nearly two years."
"I...," he started, but his voice and the thought trailed off. Useless. Instead he pulled out a cigarette and stood thinking with it dangling from his dry lips. He grasped at the clutter of incomplete, ragged, apoplectic thoughts trying to find some sort of answer, but no answer came. There was no reason, other than, he assumed, his stupidity. His inability. His failure.
"Fuck," he hissed in desperate remedy and flung open the sliding glass door and stepped out and slammed it home.
Run, the voice whispered. He's coming. She'll tell him. Run.
It wasn't his voice there in the ether, but he listened all the same. It might as well have been his thoughts. It might as well have been his voice.
You better run now, because he's coming.
He went to the pack he had thrown and pushed the few odd shirts and socks back into it's largest pouch as cushioning for the jar, which he put in next. He put in a few more articles to hold it tight and slung the pack around on his shoulders. He stopped and listened, holding his breath, to see if he were about to be caught in the act, but there was nothing. He slid open the window, eased his aching body through it and lowered himself to the ground, being sure to bring the window down with him. He closed it softly taking extra care to bring it quietly passed the last catch of the sill until it was closed.
Where will we go now?
I don't know, Henry thought to himself. He had crouched down under the window trying to massage the pain from his belly. He wondered what kind of permanent damage a punch like that could cause. He thought of internal bleeding and words like rupture and fracture.
He couldn't tell if it was from inside or outside the house, but he heard Briar cough like he did sometimes after he lit up a cigarette. A brutish, chest-clearing hack that, especially now, put his hair on end.
The sound of it and the thought pushed him up out of his crouch there under the window. A feeling of exposure and eminent doom rushed through him like a cold breath. He couldn't tell if the rustling he heard in the house was coming nearer or moving away, but still it seemed to wipe his mind of everything but movement. Escape. He took a couple of loping strides and tried, as he had done a hundred times before, to vault the fence that separated the little strip of side yard from the neighbor's driveway. The usually graceful arc of his sidelong body fanning across the top rail was now a clumsy roll, his arms wobbly, a strained, phlegm-soaked grunt spilling out of his mouth. A pair of the twisted v-shaped tines that he had become adept at avoiding caught the taut flesh along his wrist, the sharp, grating pain making him flinch in mid-vault. He dropped over the other side, more tines catching his shirt and a bit of the skin of his calf, and he flopped limply to the ground, landing solidly on his hip and elbow with a crushing, meaty whap.
Henry slowly pulled himself up out of the gravel of the neighbor's empty driveway. He took a few cautionary steps using the top rail of the fence for support. The lacerating pain in his hip and elbow and the deep, bruised pain in his gut coalesced into a leg-weakening agony that at first seemed manageable, but after a few steps, was quite crippling. He eased himself along the fence slowly trying to find a more comfortable shift in his balance. He made it to the end of the drive where there was a thin gap between the fence and a dry-rotted wall of wooden lattice separating the driveway from the backyard. He peeked through the gap wincingly to make sure no one was there, and when he was satisfied he was safe, he sucked in a deep, aching breath and squeezed his gaunt figure through the gap.
It was slow going along the fence. He kept his eyes on the hurtle he was to face in the back, trying to convince himself that he wasn't as hurt as he seemed. He could feel the warm trickles of blood and swelling tissue stiffening in his hip. It felt like the socket was somehow loose, shifting in it's boney cup. He could almost hear a grinding in each of his steps. About halfway, though, he stopped using the fence for support. He told himself once again that he was not as hurt as he seemed. All the same, he stopped when he came to the back of the yard where the fence cut across and leaned and caught his breath.
As soon as he was able, Henry straightened himself up and shook his leg as if the injuries were only a top layer that could be waggled out of. He looked around seeing no one, and slipped the backpack from his shoulders. This time he was going to try a bit harder. He slung the pack over the fence letting it drape from one side to the other. He held it in place with the jar inside bobbling against the fence grate, the shoulder strap's buckles tinkling against the vertical rail. He placed his hands over the bend in the pack letting the canvas guard his hands from the tines. It was his left hip that had been hurt, so he planted his right foot squarely beneath him and with a grunting, painful effort hefted his left up onto the fence's top rail. He took a couple deep breaths and preparatory bounces on his good leg and then pushed as hard as he could to send his body, longways, over the fence using his right hand and left foot as a pivot. The jump was slow and shaky, his body splayed out in the air as if he were a wooden doll flapping on a hinge. Just as the bulk of his weight was concentrated on his left leg, a whipcrack of pain shot through his hip. He knew he was going down hard again. He pushed off from the backpack, the dulled points of the tines still digging into the palm of his hand. He meant to land on his hands and knees, roll away and diffuse the concussion of the fall, but instead he dropped like a ton of bricks onto his stomach.
Briar stood smoking, leaning against the fence's gate watching the diseased dog lope across the yard, sniffing as it went. It didn't quite occur to him that it was his backyard and he had no idea whose dog it was. It looked like it had a mange or it had been run over. He was thinking, of course, of the boy. It seemed only last week the boy had been born. Only yesterday he learned to walk and talk, and now he seemed a hundred miles away. A stranger. The only solution Briar could come up with was to leave. To get in his truck and not look back. He knew, somehow, that there wasn't a damn thing he could do about any of it. His boy was going to grow up with or without him and by now, as old as he was, was most likely going to end up just like those bastards who chopped up Don's bar earlier in the day. The thought made him sick. He spat and kicked gravel over the slimy, splattered wad.
He watched through the cloudy window of the sliding glass door as Dolly came out of the bedroom again. He finished off the last of his cigarette and flicked it up the driveway and watched her come walking back with a fresh beer in her hand. He laughed to himself and spat again and went back into the house.
She had left the door open.
He went into the kitchen and pulled one of the beers out of the fridge and began to drink leaning against the island and rubbing against the softening stubble of his cheek. Again he thought of leaving. Again he knew it was the only choice he had. Only two hours and he had already fucked up the situation beyond all belief. He needed to let the boy cool off, forget a little and then he could work on forgiving. Briar knew he was out of line. He had hit the boy before, for his own good mostly, but he couldn't find a reason this time. Couldn't even lie to himself. The boy's punch had stung, had hurt a lot actually, but he had been hurt worse. He drew a mouthful of the awful swill from the sweating can and swallowed hard as if it would wash away this monumental fuck up of his. He realized, as he finished off his beer and opened another, that it wasn't so much shame that he felt, but embarrassment. The more he thought about it, and the longer, it seemed, those eyes weren't on him, the more justified he felt in what he had done. Everyone knew the boy was out of control. Everyone knew... He was just angry and the boy wouldn't listen and Dolly, his wife, seemed to be pissed from the minute he walked in the door. No, he wasn't ashamed of what he had done. He was embarrassed. Embarrassed he had lost control so easy. And pissed. She had called him. She had asked him for help, and he had come to help.
The television was on low in the bedroom, but she didn't seem to hear him.
He took slow steps toward the bedroom as if there were some monster in there and he couldn't sneak up on it unless he wanted to be mauled. Once he was at the door, he peaked in and saw Dolly was sitting on the side of the bed, not even watching the television, letting a cigarette burn into a thinning arc of ash.
She didn't exactly jump when he spoke, but she was pulled away from the far place her mind had gone, some place other than the bedroom where her body dwelt.
"I killed m'first husband," she said in a low, soft voice that sounded nothing like the slightly-too-loud grit of her normal voice.
Briar shifted to his left leg. He nodded his head, but she didn't see.
"I went to prison for a long time for it."
"I know y'done," he answered.
"Had a long time t'think 'bout what I done."
He nodded again unseen.
"An I swore I wasn never gonna be with another man like Harlen."
He took a sip from his beer. Silent.
"I done th'right thing what I done."
She looked up at Briar weakly and seemed to just then become aware of the fact that she had let a cigarette burn down to the filter and go out. She dropped the singed but butt onto the carpet and wiped away the salty tracks where there had been tears moments before.
"Y'ain't been here two hours, Brair."
"I know. I aught notta hit'im, I know."
"You cain't hit'im again, Brair."
"He ain't gonna get no better you keep beatin on'im."
He thought for a minute and his eyes squinted down into razor slits.
"You blamin' me for th'way he is?"
"You and me."
In an instant he had landed and blacked out and came to with a panic-ridden gush of air. The bright, blinding light that had burst through the instantaneous dark dulled as he caught his breath and revealed the viridescent patchwork of leaf and light bleeding through the trees above him. Once the burning subsided in his chest, once the vice-like constriction had eased, he remembered where he was and what he was doing and he sat up too fast. Something popped inside him and a bolt of pain shot through his entire body. He went cold and almost passed out again.
He didn't have the instinct, the inclination that most children had to call out for help in moments of pain. Where most children naturally called out for mommy or daddy, Henry kept quiet and gritted against the pain. Most would wait for rescue, to be held and petted and mended. Henry, on the other hand, had no one to call out to. It was something he had felt for a long time. Laying there in the weedy scrub of underbrush by the fence, an ever-present ache in his muscle, his skin hot and sticky with cuts and gravel-burns, he groaned as he tried to pull himself to his feet. He wanted to rest there, to lean against the fence a little bit longer while the wobbliness ran out from his legs, but then he heard his father's voice calling for him somewhere outside the house.
Briar came back to the bedroom after stomping away.
"Look, Dolly," he started, anger clamping down on his voice like a hand around his neck. He caught himself and tried to start over. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldna done it. I didn want it t'start out like this, y'know."
Dolly nodded, but kept her eyes on her knees.
"I wanna do th'right thing here, y'know?"
"Do ya even know how no more?"
The question stopped him. It hit him hard in places he couldn't describe.
"Know how t'be a father?"
"To be a man, Briar?" She had looked up at him in that placid, unwavering way, her eyes round and composed and lacking the sympathetic malleability he had come to depend on.
His face flushed and his chest hurt.
"You don't think I'm a man?" he growled.
She didn't flinch, but only looked back at her knees and shook her head ever so slightly.
"You don't talk to me like that, Dolly," he said and smacked the thin woodwork again.
Still, she didn't move, didn't speak, which made the violence in his mind seem at the same time useless and unavoidable. Unquestionable. Instead, once again, he walked away from the bedroom.
The house was somehow darker than before as if the drapes had somehow grown thicker. The air was stuffy and made the place seem like it had been long abandoned. Forgotten. Briar walked slowly through the den, the kitchen lighting a cigarette, his anger fading quickly into a sort of omni-directional dismay. Walking into the front living room, he wondered how many times he could screw up before it was too late. Was it already too late? Would either of them forgive him for the things he had done, or not done? It didn't seem so. It seemed, in fact, that their minds were made, and Briar had indeed lost. She called him out of desperation, and now she was sorry she had done it. In the span just a few minutes his one chance to make things right, the one chance he had, whether he would have ever admitted it or not, been waiting for for two years whiled away in Bobby Holt's old trailer, had been dashed by his own impulsive idiocy. His loss of control. Once again he felt like he should just leave. He felt claustrophobic and out of place. He stood in front of the wide picture window at the front of the house looking over the dirtpatch front yard, the street, the neighbor, a scene he knew by heart yet felt sickeningly abandoned by all at the same time. Not abandoned. Exiled.
So many years ago. Same spot. Same scene. Same brand of cigarette smoldering between his yellow-tinged fingers. Dolly and Henry, an infant then, sleeping in bed, the astringent smell of hospital still clinging to their soft skin. He had tried to lay with them. He had been jumpy and distracted in the hospital and he knew it had caused chatter with her family and her friends, but he couldn't help it. Hospitals made him physically ill. They made him feel like every nerve had risen to the surface of his flesh, as if any contact at all would be agony. Just get them home, he thought. Everything will be okay then. But even at home he felt clumsy in their presence. He felt like he was unable to take care of such fragile things. And they lay in bed sleeping, clinging to each other. Their breaths were wispy thin, lighter than the air itself. A subtle wish in and out. Such perfect beings who didn't dare take any more than they needed. He eased himself back out of the bed so as not to wake them. He stood over the bed for a very long time watching them sleep. Just in their sleep he could see a bond that would never be broken. There was some faint trace of that same bond for his own mother, long dead now, still in him. It hit him that he was not a part of this bond between his wife and child, though he knew he should be. He left the bedroom and walked into the front living room and lit a cigarette and watched the still world outside the picture window. He thought of the child and his thoughts of being separated from him and there was a physical pain that came up in his chest that he could not bare. There was a sadness that seemed to take him over that actually scared him like a monster had just jumped out of a dark room. It seized him and made him weak, but comforted him at the same time. He knew that fear was his bond. That inability to even imagine separation, that was being a father.
Same spot. Same scene.
Where had those feelings gone? So many years had passed. Somehow this family had become something he had to survive. Something he had to save himself from or suffer not being himself anymore. The fear that had felt like such belonging those long years ago was now the hazy core of an anger he couldn't hold, control, or even see now. These thoughts in his mind had become so twisted and foreign that he didn't even recognize it any more. Now he just reacted and retreated and it had horrifically become an inescapable part of himself. He could see it. He knew it's shape and it's depth. But it was still a wild beast inside him he just had to control. But when he was face to face with it, he was no better than those boys in Don's bar.
And now, watching the neighbor, Jim Harbrough, looking out his own window onto a frightening world, Briar thought of his father. He thought of the scared look he had when his wife, Briar's mother, came home from the hospital for the first time. He remembered that look of helplessness and horror and he remembered how it had coalesced and folded into a look of utter disgust. He saw that fear transform right in front of him into something disgusting, but manageable. Something less constricting. Something recognizable. Something that could be dealt with specifically because it was something all together different. Deferred from the beast that threatened him in the first place. Now, drawing from his cigarette and rubbing at his aching head, Briar saw it for the weakness it was. The weakness he despised. The self he despised.
Briar stubbed his cigarette out into a cobwebbed ashtray on the windowsill and walked back toward the small hallway that led to his son's room.
"Henry," he called lightly before knocking on the door.
There was no answer inside the room but he thought he heard a rustling like the boy had turned over in his bed.
"I wanna talk t'y'boy."
Still no answer. He tapped again lightly against the wood of the door with his knuckle and put his hand on the knob but thought twice. He needed to be invited in.
"I'm sorry 'bout hittin' y'Henry. I didn mean it. I jus got real mad an I won't do it again. I promise ya. Just let me come in an talk."
Silence. Then, in the distance, he heard Dolly say, "He ain't in thar, Briar."
He tossed an unseen look of exasperation back through the house and knocked again and asked, "Can I come in Henry," then twisted the knob and pushed his head through the crack in the door.
"Where th'hell he go," he asked, storming back through the house.
Dolly, sitting back in the den flipping through silent channels on her new television, only shrugged and shook her head.
"Where is he, Dolly?"
"He's out that winder first thing, Briar. That's what he does."
"More like gits away. He goes out that winder an goes out to cool off. Don't think he likes bein in th'house when wer pissed at'im."
"Where's he go?" Briar asked, dropping himself onto the couch.
"Hell if I know, Briar. He's gotta friend up the road. Maybe's gone thar."
Briar sat forward and tapped the table.
"You mean that r'tarded boy up on th'hill?"
"You let'im hang around that boy?"
"He's craziern hell, Dolly. No tellin what they do up there."
"Briar, y'think I'm gonna go runnin off t'find'im ever time that boy takes off? I'm too old fr that shit."
"What am I s'posed t'do if th'boy won't even talk t'me? He goes running off all th'time?"
"Guess it'll take morn a day, Briar. That boy's been scared o'you most his life. Y'given'im plenty reason t'be too."
He flinched like he was going to say something, but was quiet. He only dropped his head and tapped the coffee table again.
"He's fifteen years old, Briar. Most o'that bein scared is just hate now."
"My son don't hate me," he barked, snapping his head back up and staring into her tear-reddened eyes with a searing heat.
Dolly looked away and nodded and smiled and said, "You gotcha a'fight on yr hands, Briar."
The door opened the second time Henry knocked, but just an inch and it stayed there. He was about to push it open when he saw Willard's pale, sausage-like fingers curl around the edges of the red door followed by his broad, pimply forehead.
"Willard?" Henry whispered.
His spectacled eyes peered around the door and Henry smiled.
"It's Henry, Willard."
He jumped as the door flung open to reveal his friend, barefoot and shorts, a white t-shirt dotted with stains, virtually hairless, eyes wide and a goofy, selfless smile.
"Henry," he whispered.
Henry hadn't thought of it but those eyes and that smile reminded him. He hadn't seen or heard from his friend in a year.
Willard rushed forward and enveloped Henry in his short, flabby arms and again sleepily whispered his name.
"Easy, Willard," he said with a smile, pulling away and holding his stomach.
"Come in, Henry," Willard said and pulled Henry through the door.
He watched Henry, following him, limp toward the couch and sit easy, holding his stomach, eyes clinched in pain. It was hard for Henry to find a position sitting that didn't make his hip ache, the swollen joint throbbing constantly now.
"Does your stomach hurt?" Willard asked and Henry nodded.
Henry opened his eyes to see Willard standing in front of him watching him as if he were a big present under a christmas tree.
"Oh yeah," he said, breathlessly and darted off into another room.
Henry shook his head, smiling, too stiff to follow. He eased his backpack down to his feet, checking the jar was upright in it's swath of clothes. He drew a deep breath. Still Willard's house had a sweet smell somewhere between burnt food and candy.
"Here," Willard said, returning with a sweating can of Canada Dry.
"Ginger ale for your stomach. My mother always gives me ginger ale when my stomach hurts."
"It ain't that kinda hurt, Willard."
"Oh," Willard said and looked at the can in his hand as if it was magically transformed into a strange object he had never seen before.
"But I am thirsty," Henry said mercifully.
"OK," Willard said and handed over the drink.
There was a moment of silence. Henry watched as his friend searched his own thoughts for something to say. Henry was about to apologize for being away so long, but Willard launched in his story with a burst of rapture.
"Caught a four pound catfish," he said. "My daddy took me fishing at my Uncle Tony's house on the Tennessee River. We had hotdogs and fished all day. My daddy and my uncle drank beers but I just drank Sprite."
"You would have liked it too. Maybe you can go next time."
"I drank too many Sprites and I had to pee but my Uncle Tony's house was way far away so he told me to pee in the cattails and guess what I did?"
"I peed in the water. Right where the catfish swim around. I peed all over it. And then we cooked the catfish I caught and ate it. You think other people peed in that water?"
"I don't know, Willard. Probably."
Willard looked thoughtful for a moment.
"Think it'll make my daddy sick, seeing as we ate catfish out of the water people peed in?"
"I doubt it."
Henry listened as Willard went on about the fishing. His voice was childish, but precise and deep. He was thirty-four years old, though his mind seemed to be stuck at about ten. He was given to silence unless he was overjoyed, then he talked ceaselessly, monotonously like a bored schoolchild reading from a primer. At any moment he would spout some sort of fact no one in the world could possibly know, whispering it in your ear like it was a secret. He liked you close, but didn't want to be touched. Glen was his daddy and Martha was his mother.
"Mother still comes by all the time and she doesn't call first like I asked her to," he said, walking across the room to look suspiciously out the window. "Daddy calls. We do things every week. Except last week. He and mother were in Kentucky."
He recounted the past year as much as he remembered, jumping from one thing to the next, and then back again. Sometimes he even confused himself and then digressed for minutes on end until he caught back up with himself. He never said anything about Henry being gone. It was as if he hadn't just disappeared one day, but had gone away as planned and was now finally back.
"Willard," Henry finally said, interrupting.
"Hi, Henry," Willard replied innocently.
"I, um, I'm sorry I didn't tell you where I was."
"Oh," Willard said, looking down at his feet.
"I couldn't, really."
"I got into some trouble at school."
"They arrested me, and I hadda go t'a hospital cause they think I's crazy."
"I thought aboutcha lot, though. I knowed I shoulda wrote a letter'r somethin. They got me all drugged up. Wouldn let me use th'phone'r nothin."
He sat up on the couch, wincing at the pain, and tried to make eye contact with his friend, but Willard seemed to be lost in some sort of painful thought.
"Now my pa showed back up at th'house. Been gone two years and first day back he already hit me. That's what's wrong with m'stomach. I had t'git outta there. Hope y'don't mind me comin over like that."
Willard looked up, his eyes vast globes, almost sleepy.
"You ride in a police car?"
"When they arrested you. Did you get to ride in a police car?"
"Yeah. Had me in handcuffs and everything."
The heat inside the house was left over from the day. It was cooler outside. The house had grown very still, incredibly quiet, as the day waned and the tumult of the afternoon settled into the flesh of memory. Like sore muscle. Like a ringing in the ear. The boy hadn't come home. After Dolly had tried to get him to talk and failed, she retreated to her room without saying a word to Briar as she passed through the den where he sat on the couch drinking another beer. She was sure to close the door, and not lightly. The television came on and the sound eventually faded into the periphery like the birds and the dogs outside and the boulevard. Now there was the relative silence, the human silence, that had long ago replaced real silence, and Briar sat in it's gut drinking.
He had told himself that soon enough she would come out of the bedroom and she would talk. That she would not be able to help herself. He thought that he would turn on the television and that would make her join him. He drank the last beer and decided to make a noisy, dramatic exit from the house and do the same upon his return with a full case of beer, and she would talk. He stocked the refrigerator and cracked open the can and drank the nearly frozen beer down fast through a very satisfied grin, but Dolly didn't budge. The same chattery television program leaked through the bedroom door. The same smell of stale smoke and mildew filled the air.
He checked Henry's bedroom to see if the boy had come home while he was at the store. He didn't bother to knock or announce himself. He pushed through the wood and took a minute to scan the room. He didn't say a thing. The room was still empty.
He grabbed another beer from the refrigerator and sat himself back on the couch. He turned on the television and flipped through the channels, not to to try and bait his wife, but out of boredom. Trying no to feel so lost.
The channels rolled over from one loud, chaotic scene to another. It was too much for him to witness alone. He clicked off the TV and rose from the couch and went back into the bedroom.
"I cain't find shit on TV. Whatchu watchin?"
His casualness was deliberate. He did not ask for permission to come into the bedroom but he stalled at the door with his question so that he could afford a quick getaway if she really didn't want him there. Of course, she was silent, but she smiled and shook her head and that was all Briar needed for an invitation.
"Reckon I ain't watched regular television in a long while," he said as he crossed the room to the far corner of the bed. He turned his body about faced so that he could keep an eye on her and the TV, a smirking, half-drunk smile on his lips and a bow in his back he decided long ago made him looked relaxed.
Dolly watched him move, her smile broadening because he looked so ridiculous. He reminded her of a very young boy trying too hard to impress her. He looked goofy and awkward, like he had been practicing each of these movements, these words, in a mirror somewhere and had finally gotten the guts to try them out on a real, live girl. She had to stifle a laugh.
"Ain seen this'un," he said with a puzzled look trying to decipher just what it was he was watching.
She lifted the remote control and tapped in another channel and Briar immediately recognized cops and a police station and a big city. Maybe Chicago or New York.
Beyond the sound of the room, Briar heard the coyote howling on the ridge and immediately, as always, the neighborhood dogs began yipping in chorus.
"Who's dog is that in the backyard?" he asked.
"Henry's, I guess."
"You don't know?"
"Jim Young brought it over," Dolly sighed. She was loathe to even say it. She could almost figure how Briar would react.
"Yes," she answered, as if already bored with the subject.
"Month or two ago. Said it was for Henry when he got home."
She could hear the anger, the jealousy, in his voice. Nearly an electric charge raise in the air. She decided to lie to him.
"I told him Henry wouldn want no beat up old dog. Told him if he's gonna git one, his daddy'd git'im one, but he left it here anyhow. Ain't seen'im since t'git'im t'take it back."
"It ain beat up, Dolly. S'got th'goddamn mange."
"Felt bad about turnin it out, though."
"He come out here alot?"
"Oh, Briar," she said and wondered if he could tell she was blushing. "He's th'landlord. He mows th'yard some and fixes things. He ain't been out a lot, no."
Briar turned to face the television. He sipped his beer and thought about it, tried to let it go and just watch the television.
"I'm gonna git rid of it m'self."
"I figured y'would."
"Yeah," she said, smiling.
"You mind I sit?" he asked as he moved for the bed. "I'm old."
Dolly shrugged and raised her eyebrows in a non-commital arch. Briar sat and adjusted and pulled from his beer and fished around in his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. She couldn't ever remember him being so timid. Even when they first met. He was nice, for sure, and very polite in that way only southern men can be. Polite, but not weak. Not condescending. But Briar was never timid. He was nice because there was something he wanted and he was going for it. Dolly never doubted that he had only talked to her that night because he was drunk and he wanted to fuck her. She never doubted that he married her because she was pregnant. And all through their lives together she chose to love him because she wanted him in bed. She wanted him to take care of her. To help her. Now, she was tired of making that choice. And just as it had become absolutely apparent that she neither wanted or needed this man in her life, he showed her that weakness she had never seen before. It was a weakness, a timidity and a vulnerability, that she was loathe to admit made her want him all over again. And Briar knew it. She knew he knew. And that, oddly enough, strengthened her desire.
Henry and Willard stood at the kitchen counter making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They passed a butter knife between them and as one spread ingredients over white bread, the other tossed Doritos in their mouths.
The kitchen was cluttered and dirty, but the dirt was not settled in. Willard's mother came once a month to clean. He had told Henry many times how much he hated his mother's visits. He described in frantic, animated detail how she went from room to room upon her arrival pointing out all the difficult cleaning she was going to have to do and just how nasty a boy she thought Willard was. Whenever he couldn't think of the word to describe her expression or an action, he pantomimed with exaggerated gestures and the two would laugh at the old lady. The friends spent a lot of time comparing mothers and were hard-pressed to say which was worse.
Once their sandwiches were made, they loaded their plates with a heaping mound of chips and sat at the kitchen table. They talked through mouthfuls of sandwich and milk, Henry trying to talk about the hospital and his daddy's homecoming, but Willard had his mind on other things.
"No, no," he said. "tell about the police car first."
"It's really small," Henry said, trying to recall facts that were foggy at best. Ain't hardly no room at all, and yr hands'r cuffed b'hindya so y'gotta sit on'em. They's a cage over th'winder between you and th'police so'd y'cain't git at'em."
"Did they do the siren?"
"No," Henry said thoughtfully. "It wasn no 'mergency."
Willard pressed for more details, but Henry had none to give. Then he thought of something to take up his attention.
"I got somethin t'show ya. Come on."
The boys got up and went into the living room. Henry picked up his backpack off the floor and unzipped it. Willard sat in the armchair across from him, a look of anticipation slowly broadening across his face not unlike a child about to receive a present.
"I found it in th'creek a little while ago," Henry said as he dug through the knots of clothing. "Think it's some kind of animal'r somethin."
He pulled the jar out of the pack jostling it a bit so that it lay flat against the beveled bottom glass. He marveled at it again, himself, then gently turned to offer it to Willard.
Willard took it and spun it around in his hand. He tapped the side with his thumb and shook it a little to see if it would move.
"I know. But, I cain't tell what it was."
Willard inspected it closer and Henry watched for some spark of recognition. Willard only continued turning it and, like Henry, eventually focused in the discolored bubble sitting on top.
"I think that is it's eye," he proclaimed officiously.
"I thought th'same," Henry said.
"Maybe that peice is an arm or leg, and that looks like maybe an ear."
Henry moved in closer to get a look. He hadn't seen anything like that himself, but he did have to admit the one flange of fleshy material did look an awful lot like an ear.
"How y'think it come t'look like that?" Henry asked.
"Don't think it was born right."
"Born too early. I don't think it was in it's mother long enough."
"Y'think it's human?"
"Hard to tell."
"Pretty cool, huh?" Henry asked and sat on the couch.
"I don't know, Henry. I think you should get rid of it," Willard replied and set the jar on the ground as if it was dirty with something that might get on him.
"Yeah," Henry said, unsure.
"Your father will get mad if he finds you with that."
"People will think you are crazy or something if they see you with that."
"I know," Henry said. "They already do."
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