A black snake peered out at them from deep within a hedge and quickly vanished, flowing into the roots below as the couple made their way along the edge of the field. Almost simultaneously they started, having spotted the figure looking down on them from a slight rise up ahead - and then they laughed at themselves.
They approached the scarecrow, clomping along in their thick rubber boots, carrying mesh bags containing their day’s feast, along with a bottle of new wine. “Poor muscle tone,” the man remarked, manhandling one of the scarecrow’s shapeless limbs.
Some of the clothing the thing wore was better than what they had on now. They helped themselves to a shirt and a coat, and outfitted the scarecrow with some of their own worn garments. They left the ratty old hat where it was, the woman knocking its brim into a jaunty angle with a careless fingertip before they went on their way.
Orderly ranks of sunflowers turned as a group to follow the sun to where it now hung suspended, high above the trestle in the distance. A tractor toiled unseen, behind a hill.
They walked on until they reached a meadow where plate-sized agarics grew, carpophores already laden with larvae. They stopped long enough to take a drink of the tart wine and picked some small mushrooms that were sprouting beneath the surrounding pines, slicing through the tender feet, close to the soil, with the blades of their Opinels.
They stood at the edge of a small stream, patiently observing as a red viper moved gracefully through the clear water, and then they crossed. As they approached the stand of oaks that concealed the old fountain they heard the caretaker’s dog barking faintly above the sound of the waters bubbling up out of the ancient spring. They stood still, listening intently.
They peered into the clearing where the fountain lay and saw the beast circling there, confused by the sound of the waters and unable to get a bead on the intruders, whose scent was masked by the profusion of aromas the rains had conjured up out of the soil. The German Shepherd growled in frustration and continued to circle, dreaming of torn flesh, and salivating.
The couple crossed the stream once more, heading home now, but the viper had long since moved on. Charolais cattle basked in the sun or stood unmoving among the shadows beyond the treeline.
On the way home the couple found a handful of late morels sprouting among tall slender grasses, and added these to the day’s bounty. They sensed the phantom passage of a boar somewhere nearby.
When they got home the man kindled a fire to ward off the remnant of chill, always present within the stones that made up the walls of their home.
He turned to his woman, and she graced him with a smile as she removed stray blades of grass and bits of grit from the caps of the mushrooms they had picked that day.
They knew all the shit had gone to hell and come back rancid when they noticed the head of the little girl's doll peeking up from the living room floor as if to say now just what are you gonna do about this? but their minds were still contemplating the significance of the screen door hanging cockeyed and waving at passersby out on the street as the preacher, Mama and the boy stepped gingerly around the wreckage and on into the house, the little girl sticking close behind Mama's knees.
It was a sight to behold.
The preacher's eyes rolled back in his head to search the archives of half-remembered sermons for some appropriate scriptural quote or biblical injunction with which to make sense of the domestic chaos spread out before him, but he just drooled on his tie like a palsied dog and listened as the hamster made his little wheel squeak faster and faster in the hall, where grape juice stained the flowered wallpaper and fragments of shattered drinking glasses glittered like diamonds in the abused nap of the babyshit-green carpet.
It was just like Mama had said it was.
RL had come home a little late that day, stinking of whiskey and tequila and gin and about ten different kinds of beer (domestic and imported,) pissed off to hell and gone 'cause the Cadillac was stole out of the driveway by some Mexicans, driven up the side of the mountain till the carburetor coughed in the thin air, then sent back down the mountainside in a storm of hubcaps and Herb Alpert tapes till it come to rest against a big pine tree that caved in the car's long silver nose and made a spider's web out of the windshield, radiator hissing like a teakettle while the kangaroo rats scrambled for cover, sometime in the early hours of the morning.
And the insurance people wouldn't write it down as totaled out, believe it if you want to.
So the insurance company sent the heap to some shed on the outskirts of town where another bunch of Mexicans took their hammers to the frame and tried to beat it back into some kind of shape while the drunken owner of the scrapyard looked for a windshield that would fit the thing so long as the corners were knocked off just so, and a little dimestore spraypaint to cover up the spot where a chunk of granite had waylaid the driver's door with a ripping bony middle finger, coming away all covered in metalflake silver.
Sucker made its way down Sierra like a fiddler crab with a firecracker up its butt after that, had to keep an eye on the wrong side of the road just to drive it straight, plus the rates went up on the insurance. Somebody had to pay.
The kid was sitting there on the sofa like he deserved the privilege when RL got home. What RL wanted to know was why didn't the kid love him? He slapped Mama away like a pesky gnat while he was yelling the question, and didn't tear the place up till she grabbed the kid by the collar and hauled him out of there. Then RL went to work, poured chlorine bleach into the icetrays in the freezer, kicked the shit out of Cal Worthington and his dog Spot (who was a giant scorpion that day) on the TV, leaving a big crack and the print of his boot on the screen, and then stumbled into the little girl's room where he saw the doll looking up at him with her long lashes and her little lace trimming, nothing but sweet innocence in her little blue eyes.
This little bitch was gonna suffer!
He ripped her head off and tossed it into the middle of the livingroom, where it came to rest next to the recliner, staring all blank up at the ceiling. RL looked out the windows at the street and swore to himself that he'd kill the little bastard and his mama, they ever come back.
Then he went out and climbed into the injured car, stuck the key into the ignition and drove away like a crab scuttling on a beach full of fat people, accompanied by the music of the Tijuana Brass.
Mama cried all the way to the preacher's. In the back seat the little girl was quiet and still like a cottontail among coyotes while the boy sat up front wondering what he'd done to cause such a mess, to make RL start drinking and raising hell, and Mama so miserable. There weren't any answers to any of these things, just the sound of Mama sniffling to herself and the wind slapping at the windows of the Impala. The little girl, shrinking into the back seat, totally silent, was somehow the loudest sound of all.
The preacher lived in the parsonage next to the church, both boxy white little places, summer patch gnawing at the grass and yellow wasps buzzing around the eves. The stucco was coming off here and there, and the blacktop of the parking lot was buckling, bursting with tufts of crabgrass. A dog was hunched over pinching a loaf in the preacher's yard when they pulled up in the Chevy.
The preacher listened close as Mama told him what had happened. They talked back and forth for the longest time as the boy and the little girl stood by looking at the wallpaper. The preacher couldn't believe his ears. He'd called on RL to lead the prayer in church several times and RL had been happy to do it, even spoke the King James Bible words-of-Christ-in-red English that the First Missionary Baptist God seemed to favor, sticking "eths" on the end of every other word just like some preacher you'd see begging for old ladies' money with tears in his eyes on Sunday morning TV.
It weren't no surprise to the boy, or to the others who rode to church with RL - everybody dressed up in their best clothes, RL reeking of aftershave, Mama trying to ignore everything she could just to be happy for the five mile or so drive from home to the church and back; ignoring everything that might tear up the little picture of her family that she carried in her mind: the family, going to church and united in a righteous fear of God, a love of the word and the blood of the lamb - nobody able to look down on her as the poor Arkansas hick girl she was, anymore.
RL would rather have been betting on the horses or watching a ballgame than going to church with his brother's widow of a sabbath, the little four-eyed sissy fidgeting in the back seat, mother fucker'd never amount to anything, wouldn't be a ball player like his own son, Roger. Kid'd never amount to squat - and was it his fault if he couldn't help but to tell him so on the way to worship?
Mama'd come up with some ideas though, asked the boy if he wouldn't be happier living with another family, figuring she could farm him out as a foster child to some family that wanted a son, 'cause there were some of those around. It would take him out of the picture, the little faded family snapshot, and the boy wouldn't have to be a sore point in her marriage anymore, and then maybe they could have some peace for once.
And the boy finally understood things as they were - that he was a wasted limb that needed hacking off if they were ever to be any kind of family that wasn't eating itself up alive all the time. He understood, for the first time ever, that he looked a little too much like his dead father, and that he might as well have been his father's ghost inhabiting the little tracthouse there on Greenwood, rattling chains in the night and irritating the hell out of his stepfather.
The preacher was relieved when they got back to the house, 'cause RL wasn't there, only the wreckage he'd left behind. The boy picked the doll's head up off the floor, went into the little girl's room and found the body. The head went back on with a soft snap. He handed the doll, whole again, to the little girl. She took the doll and held it closely to her breast.
Only then did she start to cry.
Plump little fingers dive repeatedly into a microwave safe dish of artificially-flavored popcorn. Occasionally, a stray will catch a ride on the way down to the bowl, wrapped around a puckered knuckle. It migrates from one butter-coated finger to the next, from one hand to another, there among the exploded kernels. Then it makes the short return journey to one or another set of equally plump, equally butter-coated lips.
Mr. And Mrs. ______ and the lovely ______ children (one each, a boy and a girl) are sitting on the sofa, eyes riveted to the television. The ______ family dog reclines at their feet, waiting for an errant morsel to fall. Outside, high-tension powerlines hum carcinogenically. Somewhere nearby, a shiny new riding mower is started up and makes its first pass across a lawn half the size of a tennis court.
All is well.
On the television, the commercials (BIG, BIG SAVINGS!!!) are over for the moment, and coverage of the war resumes. A correspondent, reporting via satellite, appears on the screen. His teeth are impossibly white, his hair immaculate. He begins to say something about troop morale when the sound of incoming fire is heard. Suddenly, his head vanishes in a mist of blood, bone fragments and brain tissue. A crimson blossom blooms from the stump of his neck and withers before the picture is quickly replaced by a message:
Len sat at the kitchen table of the old farmhouse, nursing his beer, absentmindedly scratching his dog behind the ears, and waiting. He'd kindled a fire in the woodstove earlier, but had let it go out, and the night chill with its iron teeth was creeping back in on both of them.
It could take all night, this thing - or it might not happen at all. Conditions had to be just right, but Len had never quite come to understand precisely what the conditions were.
The place wasn't in such bad shape, really, considering how long it had stood empty. It needed a good cleaning - what his mother would have called a woman's touch - but that was to be expected after all this time. Mice had moved in over the many long winters, and he had rousted whole tribes of them from the drawers and cupboards, and had then gone in search of a broom with which to sweep away decades of dusty cobwebs from the corners and ceilings. He could occupy himself for hours puttering around the place.
Something stirred inside the stove with a delicate flutter of wings. The dog's ears immediately perked up at the sound. From long experience, Len knew what it was. He got up and approached the stove, where he dropped to his knees, quickly opened the hatch and reached inside. The bluebird was covered in ash and soot, but was apparently unharmed. As he walked toward the back door with the bird held to his breast, Len resolved to climb onto the roof and place some wire mesh over the stovepipe to keep the birds out. Should have done it twenty years ago or more, he told himself. He opened the door and gently sat the bird on the wooden stoop. It would most likely end up right back down the stovepipe the next time a fire was lit, seeking warmth - if one of the feral cats didn't make a meal out of it first.
He had just sat himself back down and had taken a swallow of flat beer when it started. There was a slight draft in the house, as if the air was a web in which some insect had become trapped, struggling feebly as the spider approached. It was easy to miss if you didn't know what to look for. Len had long since learned to recognize the signs.
And then the sunlight and warmth of a forgotten springtime flooded the kitchen. The shadows of clouds moved across the planks of the worn wooden floor as Len listened for the faint sound of cows and chickens and pigs, and for the voice of his father or mother calling his name from somewhere nearby. And there were the moths that always appeared out of nowhere, homely black things that quickly vanished into the dark nooks and crannies of the house, never to be seen again.
Len wasn't a man given to belief in the supernatural, to hauntings or possession by demons. He'd grown up dutifully accompanying his mother to church each Sunday because it had been demanded of him, but had long since decided that this too was just another form of superstition intended to keep people in line, obedient and submissive to the expectations of the community. He wanted nothing to do with any of it, a fact that had caused him no end of trouble when he had reached a certain age and was able to work such questions out for himself. For these reasons and others, he had thought himself mad when he'd first encountered the phenomenon in his parent's kitchen, and had been terrified, and this had been his state of existence until the dog came along some five years later.
He'd taken one of the rickety kitchen chairs out to the front porch after one such episode one summer night and, was sitting there finishing off a six-pack, well hidden behind the tall stands of kosherweed that had overtaken the yard, rocking slightly, thinking things over; listening to the ratcheting flight of locusts moving among the weeds. The sun had just begun to set when the dog appeared, covered with yellow pollen from one end to the other. She had approached him with caution, and laid her muzzle on his leg. He had placed his hand upon her head and spoken to her quietly, and she had never left him.
So the dog, who he'd never thought to name, was at his side the next time it happened. She had reacted visibly to the stirring of the air and the change in the light, and had playfully chased a couple of the moths. He had broken down in tears of relief with the knowledge that it wasn't just some figment of a madman's imagination, this thing - unless the dog, too, was insane, and was sharing in his hallucinations.
Len stood in the phantom sunlight in the center of the kitchen, eyes closed. He felt a moth tap him lightly on the chin. The dog whined softly somewhere behind him. He could see his father crossing the yard with his long purposeful strides, black duster flapping in the wind, chickens scrambling frantically to get out of his way. He could see himself as a boy of twelve or so, going about his chores, bucket in hand; heard his mother singing to herself as she went about her duties, indoors. And then it was all over and Len confronted the profound emptiness it always left behind in him. He sat down with a sigh and opened his last beer.
It had long since lost any element of terror for him. It nourished something in him, and he had come to rely upon it, almost as an addiction. He often wondered if it ever occurred during his many absences, or if it waited for him to be there, watching for it. Somehow he knew that it was a very fragile thing, something exceedingly rare that he dared not question too much. He was willing simply to be there while it played itself out for him. There didn't seem to be any regularity to it. Sometimes he would arrive and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing would be happening on that particular day; other times he could feel it gathering itself in readiness for him.
And then it all came to an abrupt end, as it was perhaps always meant to: Len had been absent for weeks dealing with earthly matters, as he had come to think of the struggle for money. As soon as he drove up the long drive to the house he knew that today it would happen. The feeling was stronger than he had ever known it to have been. The dog, too, seemed anxious to get inside, though that may have been due to the cold more than anything else.
Len hurriedly gathered an armful of firewood from the teetering stack and carried it into the house, the dog close by his heels. He deposited it in a haphazard pile next to the woodstove and set about building a fire. The bluebird - or its identical twin - was dead on a bed of cold ash inside the stove. Len silently cursed himself for having failed to cover the pipe. He left the bird where it lay, and readied the fire on its remains.
The wood had sat out in the weather all year, and it had been an unusually wet one. Len was preoccupied with getting the fire going when he heard the clucking of the hens. He looked up and saw that the kitchen was swarming with black moths. The sunlight, when it came, was nearly blinding. The fire wouldn't be needed now.
Len stood in his customary spot in the kitchen, the warmth of a vanished spring infiltrating his bones, moths batting against him. He closed his eyes ever so tightly and saw himself running across the barnyard with his cane pole and a coffee can full of bait, the dog following close behind. He opened his eyes and looked at the dog that was watching him from under the table, and he remembered.
The dog watched silently. Len began to weep. I am crazy, he thought to himself - always have been.
There came a sudden knock at the door, and everything fell apart. The sunlight winked out. The sounds of the farm fell silent. He looked for the dog, but she was gone back to where she belonged.
Len pulled the front door open so hard that the upper hinge gave way. The man waiting there jumped and backed up a few steps before regaining his composure. Len knew him well, though not by name. He was the pastor of one of the churches in town, a certified son of a bitch with the name of the lord forever on his lips. The pastor smiled and opened his mouth to speak when Len hit him with everything he had. The man fell off the porch, landing on his back in a puddle of mud and ancient chickenshit.
The man (whatever his name was) sat up, gingerly rubbing his bleeding face. He looked up at Len, brooding in the doorway.
"Looks like your suit is ruined." Len said. "Send me the bill."
Len slammed the door shut with as much force as he had used to open it. The remaining hinge gave way, and the door fell away entirely. He watched through the doorway as the pastor staggered back toward his car, his back covered in mud and a bloodied kerchief held to his bleeding mouth with one manicured hand.
Mother fucker . . .
He whistled for the dog, but knew that she wouldn't be back. He sat down at the kitchen table and cracked open another beer. He downed it in one gulp, and opened another. He was just starting to get drunk when he looked down and saw a moth laying on the floor at his feet. Its legs twitching weakly.
He reached down to pick it up, but it crumbled into a fine dust of black ash in his fingers.
He awoke with a killer hangover. Even the dog looked at him with disapproval. He thought again of blowing his brains out, but he’d never owned a gun in his life. He’d have to resort to suicide-by-cop. Not hard to do, but first he decided to see if he could get up and walk. The answer was no, not yet. He needed water badly but settled instead for some flat beer because it was within reach. A basket case, as usual.
Hector always wondered how he could feel randy as a goat while being so physically ill. One for the great philosophers to puzzle over. His job for the day would be getting to the toilet before he pissed himself. The floor was not cooperating in this endeavor.
He lay there on the sofa for a couple of decades, looking up at the ceiling. Time passed and the leaves turned yellow outside the window. Winter came. The dog died of natural causes and decomposed by his dish in the kitchen. The Sun went cold and all life on earth was extinguished.
Finally, he felt well enough to get up. He immediately fell over again and began crawling. The toilet seemed farther away than he remembered. It smelled nearly as bad as Hector himself did. He sat and waited for his bladder to catch up with him. Several more years passed in this manner. Finally . . . blessed relief. He could have beat a horse in a pissing contest.
He drank several glasses of water and some vegetable juice, choked down some multivitamins and minerals. The things were the size of golfballs. When the phone rang Hector’s skull shattered into several jagged pieces. Headless, he went to look for some duct tape, came back with a Louisville Slugger and beat the phone into blessed silence. He figured it was only Rufus calling anyway. Screw him. The tape around his head itched like mad.
He didn’t realize Anita was snoring until she suddenly quit and began to stir. Hector loved his wife, but she had a way of making him feel like the worst bastard who ever walked the earth. He considered himself to be several names down on that list. For this reason he preferred to move about in a cloud of cannabis smoke as much as possible. It took the edge off and allowed him to focus on something other than his many and varied failings as a man. Otherwise, he had to resort to alcohol, which was much worse than weed. He remembered being totally straight and sober one time, long ago. He hadn’t cared for it very much and tried to avoid the condition these days, with a fair amount of success.
Hector took his wife her cup of morning coffee. She started in on him right away, asking him if he remembered what he had done the night before. “Yeah,” he said, “sure do” (this was a bald-faced lie.) He apologized profusely, wondering if he’d brought home another worn out party girl for a threesome with Anita. That had gone over real well. He’d ended up sleeping under the porch with the poor dead dog while Anita and the party girl stayed up late into the night yakking about what pigs men were. They’d been fast friends ever since, those two. Funny how things work out.
As the day wore on, Hector’s residual drunk faded away and his hangover gradually subsided into the generalized misery of waking existence. He stood drinking his coffee and looking at Anita’s bare butt peeking out of the sheets at him. “Smile,” he thought to himself. She farted.
By the time his cup was empty Spring had arrived, and the ants had carried off the last of the dog. He rolled himself a smoke, took a drag and coughed like some consumptive Dostoevsky character. Damn good smoke. He wanted another.
It occurred to Hector then - in one of those odd little lucid spells of introspection that sometimes afflict even the most obstinate of men - that he was a guy who was defined solely and utterly by his vices: if he wasn’t sucking down spliffs, he was giving himself cancer smoking rotgut tobacco; if he wasn’t skunked on cheap-ass beer, he was trying to engage his wife in some kind of deviant sex. He had been in trouble yesterday, he would be in trouble today, and - surprize! - he’d be in trouble tomorrow.
Despite all the careful instruction he had received from all the brilliant and dedicated teachers who had made a living hell out of his childhood, and all of the guidance of the many wise and learned people he had been fortunate enough to have known, and despite the nurturing love of good women - this is how he ends up?
Hector pondered the idea. There didn’t seem to be any way out of any of it. There was simply trouble everywhere; unavoidable tribulations, annoyances great and small. Pain, disease, death. It was a reeking river of shit, this life, and all he could do was keep swimming until he went down for the last time. Meanwhile, he would share his home with an angry female spirit whose particular talent was for making it rain nails upon his head. Hector finally realized just how deeply, terminally screwed he really was.
Suicide-by-cop. Why the hell not?
Oswald showed up that evening. Hector was still thinking about getting himself a toy gun, pointing it at a few people downtown. “Did you hear about Ruf?” Oswald asked him. Turns out Rufus had been out by the tracks when the pipeline exploded. At least the police believed he was. All they’d found was the remains of one badly-charred shoe.
My name's Joe. My mother's a Republican nitwit. My daddy's long dead (the son of a bitch.) I pick up cigarette butts out of the gutter, reroll them, and sell them to down-on-their-luck 12 year-old nicotine addicts. It's a living.