You are reading Fiddleblack #19
The Ku Klux Klan holds a cross burning out in Egypt Valley every month. They congregate from Ohio’s Appalachian foothills and West Virginia’s loneliest mountains. There are about two hundred pointy-headed ghosts out there chanting hate and vindicating humanity in the dark. Their shadows stretch long and crooked across the dirt and stones, the withered timber and sagebrush. I sit up on a big rock and suck on a Blow Pop, sour apple, and wonder if suburban Neo Nazis throw such fun spectacles.
They simultaneously bow to the Grand Dragon before them, his arms outstretched beneath the flaming cross. He wears red silk like a Catholic cardinal. They all look kind of ridiculous in their costumes. I can almost forget there are about seventy people buried somewhere out here, accumulated since the sixties, their necks stretched and broken, their faces scorched, hands severed and elsewhere.
They keep asking me to join up. I tell them I’m allergic to bleached cotton and don’t care much for racism. But they keep inviting me to their gatherings, as if I’m an honorary member, though it’s probably just because I sell the wiser ones meth.
The Dragon roars into the night, “May we strengthen each other, brothers and sisters. To rage against the legions polluting our fair land!”
They call it Egypt Valley because to people who’ve never left Ohio it looks like they imagine Egypt must. Which just means there’s a shit ton of dirt and sand and rocks and dead trees where there shouldn’t be. The entire valley was once alive and fertile. Back in the eighties the strip mining and drainage fucked the entire ecosystem. Now it’s a twenty mile diameter of wasteland speckled with little farm houses sacrificed to time. We gather at a ranch surrounded with tilted fence posts and rusty barb wire. A massive lodge slumps beyond the parked trucks and sedans. That’s where the festivities will be after the ritual. Coffee and beer and poker. Ardent plans for abduction and intimidation. I expect to see some new faces on the back of milk cartons, the obituary pages. Anymore there are half-assed plans for assassinating the mongrel president. Others just fuck around on meth fueled dreams, bust out the shotguns and light up an abandoned car, howl at the stars and shatter beer bottles with machetes. I guess there’s little else to do out here, for sport.
“White power!” they scream, slicing their palms up. I don’t have biases, but it really is the most powerful salute I’ve ever seen, objectively speaking. Co-opted symbols. From the Romans to the Fascists to the hillbillies. Some people just know what works.
My supervisor, Barton Shoemaker, has steady relations with the Klan. They trust me because they respect him, even though he ditched their club ten years ago. He condemned the killing of a farm boy who married some black girl from Youngstown and moved her to Barnesville so she could be the youth services librarian. All organizations have ideological spats. Maybe Barton thought more of freedom than others. Don’t know. He is not the kind of man you ask to explain himself. Anyway, he lost out, and both of them are buried somewhere out here.
Myself, I don’t think about alternatives, only that I’d encourage them to lynch me from the highest branch. I need the money for my sister’s medical bills. Diabetes. Type two. She lost a leg that just kind of rotted off her slow, bit by bit curling back yellow and dripping to zilch. I sometimes imagine dropping her down at the Salvation Army with a “free” sign, like a splintered chair that could just be fixed with a little ingenuity. Those are the bad days. And I know family is family. My sweetheart sister with the pretty smile, angelic shame.
Out in the black desert, they’re firing up two more crosses. Golgotha style. They bow and recite. All those white sheets ripple against a hot wind.
I keep the crystals in a multi-vitamin jar I rattle now like a mystic charm. There are some people I don’t mind poisoning. But I always had an entrepreneurial spirit anyway.
At the ranch they take off their hoods and expose their sweaty faces and matted hair to the moonlight. Their pale skin a mixture of hues they’d never admit. Some are the good old boys you’d expect. Rotten teeth and asymmetrical grins and snuff bulges, tight jeans with loose crotches, the gapped-mouth breathers, the dim-witted mules, the ogre muscle, the fat old men with snowy beards rolling past pregnant stomachs. Their maidens are skeletal ladies with leathery skin and licorice veins, and crinkled tattoos like melanoma. But, many others are a bit more disconcerting. They wear khakis and sport sharp crew cuts. They are dour and handsome in polo shirts and button down Eddie Bauer and Van Heusen. Beautiful women with long hair and humorless smiles stare into the wind, austere in their flowing dresses. These are the people who run communities and live pure. But all of them have a lifetime of violence and rage etched within their hard faces.
A country music station plays slow. There’s Budweiser and Sierra Nevada beer in a huge ice cooler. Cigar and pipe smoke hazes the starlight. The Klan segregates into self-made circles. I hunt out the fringe, mingle and ignore the glares and the occasional shove and collect cash from the ones whose faces look like atom-bombed landscapes, the sad ones who were just gnawing for me.
They scratch and bite at themselves. Wiggle in their boots. Some of these addicts, you’d cross the street to avoid. Others you’d pass in a grocery store and think charming, just afflicted with peculiar facial blemishes and energetic to a fault. The girls’ basketball and volleyball coach, she always tries to pay with jerk jobs, raises her constantly vibrating hand and guarantees I’ll never forget.
Jeremy Fuller is a carpenter and refurbishes antique cabinets. He used to inhale wood stain fumes until he started having seizures. He has a mouth like a pothole and ladder-wrung legs. He always buys an eight ball, 3.5 grams.
“With a cross burning,” he explains. “You got to saturate the wood. The way they make lumber now, hard as hell to torch up. You got to soak it with kerosene or gasoline and maybe wrap it around in old sheets.” He picks at his crumbling nose and watches me sprinkle glassy shards into my palm from the multivitamin bottle. “Just got to be careful not to fuck up the integrity of the cross.”
Near the empty stables, two men start playing banjos and fiddles while a woman slaps sticks between her long fingers. The fiery crosses burn and cast everyone in ghoulish sheens. Jugs of homemade moonshine get passed around, apple and blueberry. Some cute freckled redhead with mustard eyes hands me a tin cup and tells me to think of paradise as a “nation not going brown.” I don’t even get her name before she’s in another’s arms.
It only takes a few sips to flush my skull. I make the rounds and soon my jacket is stuffed with damp bills. I can sell to a straight edge proud white superman, or a recovering addict on the home stretch. I measure the weight in my palm and am never off a dash. This is how useful I am. This is how much Barton trusts me.
Though my presence here is a bit contentious. Many have advocated for my murder, or at least a meth prohibition. Both topics must still be under discussion. I have learned to embrace hateful, derisive glares, to take nourishment from being unwanted.
Someone licks my ear and pats my ass. “Euclid Jones, my amigo. Pharmacist of little Egypt.”
This guy, Randy Melvin, disturbs me. He’s got long greasy hair and thick tattooed arms, a viper menagerie. He thrives on insane masochistic sex. I know because my sister dated him in high school. She limped even then when she was still bipedal. Wore long-sleeved shirts in the summer and always had a discolored cheek graveled in thick makeup. Later she told me just what Randy fancied. Paprika dusted into his peehole and candle wax dribbled on his eyelids. He used carrots when he couldn’t get stiff, cucumbers when he wasn’t insecure. He enjoys tenderizing a woman’s flesh until she screams. You know, the kinds of quirks that make a man special and unique.
This girl with him tonight is so bruised up I actually suspect their chanting reanimated a corpse. Her jaw hangs open like a trowel and drips blood. “Becky,” he says, smacking her muffin ass. He tells me she’s a dentist assistant and gets hold of the best shit. Anesthesia and drills and flavored floss. He says she doesn’t have a gag reflex and with all the Novocain her mouth never tires. He vibrates her lips with his finger and makes engine noises. Manipulates her puffy mouth to say, “So nice to meet you, Euclid. Would you like a sloppy—” She slaps his hand away and stares at the surrounding rocks.
“She’s fun,” Randy says. “My asshole burns like a herpes kiss.” He notices the Dragon speaking to a kid, maybe sixteen, with a varsity letter jacket. “Buy your shit, hon.” He flicks my ear. “Later, loser. Say hey to your sis for me.”
Becky focuses back on me. She looks like a holocaust ghost. Her words come out like frozen ketchup. She tells me he makes her tighten floss around her breasts so they are easily punchable and fuckable. That he’s painfully creative with dental hygienic power tools. Her swollen eyes get all gunky and she asks me for help. I say I’m fresh out of help, and that I understand helplessness. Then I sell her some crystal.
“I don’t think his father loved him enough,” she says, paying me in crinkled twenties. “Know mine sure as shit didn’t. He was grabbing my tits soon as I had ‘em.”
“I never really had a father,” I say.
“Me either,” she says.
I leave her and strut over to the sandy field where two old timers are taking forever at the bushes. Swollen prostates and shriveled hoses. “Hey, boys. This where the party’s at?”
“Garbage. Absolute waste,” one says, zipping up smartly. “You disgust me.”
“I disgust myself,” I say, meaning it. “Truly.”
His pissing partner takes off smiling at the stars. But this other straightens his flannel shirt and wipes at his chest and then punches me in the throat. I’m afraid he crushed my windpipe until I wheeze air through my teeth. He must have pulled it near the end. I drop to my knees and hear him mumble something about trash and disease. Then I’m kissing dirt and getting mouth to mouth from a spider tickling across my lips.
“Get up.” I recognize the voice, the powerful tone over the hooded assembly. He still wears his red robe. He smells like lavender and is three hundred pounds of raw muscle. When I push up and crawl and then stand, he’s sitting on a rock with an outstretched hand, as if I could have taken it all along.
The Grand Dragon’s name is George Jackson. Not really a name that inspires dread. But that’s what his lizard eyes are for.
“You’re always joking,” he says. “World isn’t as amusing as you think.”
“It better be.”
“It isn’t, Euclid.” His iron jaw clenches a smirk. “You can hide reality with absurdity, but never think that reality is absurd.”
“Well I believe in the power of wishful thinking.”
He parts his willowy red arms as if summoning the divine. “Shit in one hand. Wish in the other. Which you think’ll fill up faster, boy?”
“I’m so irregular, I don’t even know.”
He raises his eyebrows. “When you hang a man, he defecates himself. It is such a shameful thing to see. Shameful.”
I touch my pulsing throat. “I’m not trying to make any trouble. I’m not trying to disrespect.”
“If Barton weren’t an old friend of mine, this bullshit wouldn’t have been tolerated so long.”
“I get it.”
“People.” The word sours his mouth. “No honor and pride about them anymore. This is not what was intended.” He stands and stares down at me. “You going back to college?”
“What would I go for?”
“Yourself. You’d go for yourself. To better your condition.”
This is the kind of advice I never get from anybody. Never have. It rings so goddamn true that I want to murder and kiss this man. “Well, I got people I can’t abandon, Dragon.”
“There are other ways.” He smiles and rubs his wrist, his grizzly hands like burnt roots. “Maybe, you join up, work for the good guys, financial opportunities will present themselves.”
“I’ve told you. My heart’s just not in it.”
“Hearts are not always intelligent things to follow.” He watches the burning crosses. Jeremy Fuller and Randy’s girl dance and twirl together in manic delirium. His sigh is a tempered growl. “Tell Barton his privileges are over. I see you here again, if you sell to my fellowship anywhere, I will come to your home when you aren’t around and fuck your sister to death. Me and the boys. Maybe I take Randy along and give him no boundaries. They’ll be so many of us we’ll have to create new holes. New slits.”
I can’t look at him. Macho talk and threats usually don’t trouble me. Unless they come from men who mean everything they say. Conscientious men who always make good on their promises.
“Leave,” he says.
On my way to the truck I pass three boys handing around a glass pipe. They call out to me, their benefactor, and tell me to join them. I just shake my head, no. Soon their young eyes become anxious and lost, cannonball stares that take in the surrounding dark as if it means something.
Barton’s place is at the edge of town, Barnesville, our county’s “quiet Victorian village.” His house has complete shingles and a two car garage. White siding and a smiling turkey, dressed like a pilgrim, hanging in the screen door. I pull up and watch the television light flicker and dim like prophesy. My heart’s still churning to puree. And I start doubting the wisdom in my life choices.
How it happened was my mother named me Euclid after she walked out of high school algebra and before she delivered me. In between were my father, Who-The-Hell-Knows, and Cheshire cat acid tablets. My sister, Persephone, is three years older and her father lives in the Georgia state penitentiary for sexual assault and pedophilia. Mom’s family lives somewhere down there and her father is in the same pen, maybe the same cell, same face. We try not to speculate. So it was always just us and mom living in a rotting house out by the dump, until she climbed up a billboard along I-75, overlooking the Ohio River. Sign was for Bob Evans, or Cracker Barrel. She did a high dive into the trees and all those branches broke her body, and her fall. She died slowly in a hospital for about a week during which time me and Persephone asked questions we never knew we cared about. She couldn’t talk because that side of her brain was pudding. She dipped her finger in my coffee and scribbled on napkins. The general gist was that she had made terrible mistakes in life, endured abuse, had insufferable regrets, and wished we were never born. Persephone left her to die, but I stayed bedside until she actually did. I gazed into her drowning eyes and held her trembling hand and didn’t know she had gone until a nurse answered the flat-line and said, “What are you doing?” We signed some documents and buried her in the backyard. Cheap funeral with neighbors. She had no real friends and we have no family that gives a shit.
Barton Shoemaker sent flowers for mom and helped with expenses. He once lived right down the road from us, out in the wasteland hollow. He always seemed to take a liking to me as a kid, inviting me over to watch football and drink root beer and play catch. Everyone knew he was in the Klan but that wasn’t something that turns people off. As a kid he may as well have been my dad. He taught me how to read and shoot a handgun. His daughter, Emily, would always be around smiling pretty. She became my best friend. We shared our secrets and fears, explored the shaded forests to avoid the cross burnings, made escape plans where we ended up happy together, selling fruit from a travelling cart. But when Barton quit the Klan and moved into town the whole family went reclusive. Emily went to a private school through the Baptist church. I lost her, and had some idea of what hell was like.
Years later when mom died I had been going to the community college for accounting. In the summer I mowed lawns and cleaned gutters for old people. One day Barton called me up and told me my mother was always a wretched woman, and that his lawn resembled Vietnam. He said he’d pay me “better than fair.” The first time I went to get paid, after a long afternoon stinking of grass, gasoline, and sweat, Emily answered the door and was no longer a girl. Lost time had made her gorgeous with hips. Her kind eyes made me happy to be born. We started it in secret. I never got past her pants but I could paint a photo of her puffy nipples, could tell you the heavy weight of each lovely breast, down to the exact gram.
She was a sweet girl. Too sweet for me. Barton told me as much when he found out we were fooling around. He slammed my face into a fish tank and slid a serrated knife between my legs and said, “Other fathers have beautiful daughters.”
Breakups are never this easy. Emily went to Ohio State for pharmacology, or something. And I kept cutting grass and attending classes at the branch.
One day he came out on the porch with two frosted root beer mugs. Same ones from when I was a child. It made me smile. I had forgotten this warm feeling, being in his presence. Now he was an aging man in a white t-shirt and cuffed pants, his once long vibrant hair was now buzzed like dry hay, wispy yellows and curling whites. Ruptured capillaries reddened his stony face. But his eyes still stunned me, an unnatural blue, like toilet bowl cleaner. And of course, there was that lurking violence, a low hum like an electric fence.
We sat there drinking and feeling the sunshine against our necks. He asked if I liked mowing for a living. I said, for now. He searched my face for a long time, then he said only ambitious men fuck beautiful women and breed conquerors. When I only laughed he said that my mother had been beautiful, before she ruined herself. He then told me state patrol was fulfilling monthly quotas that day. Speeders and brake lights and seatbelts. He took my empty mug inside and came out with a shoebox caged in duct tape. It rattled when shaken. He gave me an address and said I could finish the hedges later. So I went twenty miles over to St. Clairsville and gave the package to a jittery Rotarian who managed a private tutoring center. Then I had a cheeseburger at Denny’s and watched truckers eat. I wondered if they took pictures of all the places they’d seen. If they remembered them all fondly.
When I got back to Barnesville the hedges were already trimmed and the lawn was completely mowed. He helped me load the gear back into my truck. I expected the usual fifty dollars, then he stuffed five hundred in my hand and said, “Wasn’t that easy, son?”
You don’t have to be an accountant to figure out the math.
I rush up pounding on the door and blabbering past the bug screen. Barton sleeks out of the shadows and puts a finger to his lips and tells me to shut up. Waves me inside and says, “Patty’s sleeping. We can’t wake Kong.”
His wife always lurks upstairs like a tuberculosis patient. Keeps the curtains closed and never gets out of her bathrobe and slippers. She seems to be asleep whenever I come over. Back in elementary school she worked in the cafeteria, gave me skimpy servings every day. No gravy on the mashed potatoes and no ketchup for anything. I can’t imagine her without a hairnet and a knowing smirk.
His living room is furnished in simple maple and oak, leather chairs and dim lamps from old smoking rooms. He tells me to rest my ass. On the coffee table is an assortment of little paint brushes, glue sticks, decals, and stained tissues. He’s working on another model airplane, a dismantled Messerschmitt with black iron crosses along gray wings. All of this is spread over the “Community Happenings” section of the newspaper.
The flat screen’s playing a documentary on Agent Orange. Jungles hazed in yellow smoke, choking peasants, planes flying low and dropping gassy payloads as if crop-dusting. He nods at the screen. “I inhaled that.”
There’s a Ruger .357 revolver hidden under the newspaper. The hammer cocked back, just one round in the cylinder. There’s a diet soda balanced on the armrest but I can still smell the rum. Around the walls are paintings of ducks and deer, enchanting grizzlies in Alaska.
I point at the gun. “You aren’t playing Rooskie roulette again are you?”
“I always win, Euclid. Except when I won’t.” He mutes the television. “What happened? You’re sweating like a bastard at a family reunion.”
I look at his sagging face, the deep lines and gray stubble. He folds his hands over his little stomach and crosses one leg over the other. His stare is hot ice. He used to be an awful drunk, I’ve heard. He and Patty. They held Klan bonfires and raves down in the hollow. Emily told me she’d hide under her bed or in the closet, when the screaming cut through the dark. Me and Persephone would watch the cross flames from the window until our mother pulled us away, saying, “Those are just bad, misunderstood people.”
I tell him about George’s promise. That I want out. That I’m sorry. That I never really knew it could actually come to this. That I’m sorry. I give him all the earnings from the night, over three thousand in wrinkled presidents spread out on the table like payment, a buyout, for my naïve stupidity. I tell him I’m sorry.
Barton rests back and watches the silent crying on the television. Some naked girl’s running down a dirt road with a burning village behind her. He takes a sip of diet soda. “I know the prick that took that picture.”
“I just got to look out for my sister, Barton. I’m sorry.”
“Good old George thinks he’s going to clean up an organization of hateful people. Purify his ranks.” He shakes his head. “Poor bastard.”
“I’m not discussing anything,” I say. “I’m out. This is it.”
“Your throat okay?”
“No. It fucking hurts.”
“Who hit you?”
“Just some old assclown.”
He leans forward. “Euclid. Who hit you?”
“I don’t know.” I’m pretty sure the man’s name was Joshua, and that’s enough to get him killed.
“So. Tonight you’re overly apologetic, and you’re forgetful.”
“And I’m serious. I’m done.”
“We can maneuver around them. You know this isn’t over for me.”
“I’m under the fucking boot, Barton. And he won’t stop.”
“Me through you.” He angles a dried brush away from the revolver. “You’re not even going to ask me for protection.”
“What could you even do?” I imagine vicious romantic possibilities, but any scenario ends with us all fucked and tortured and mangled and thrown in some hole in Egypt Valley. And Barton knows it.
I set the two empty multivitamin jars on the coffee table. Their insides smell like nothing good.
“That’s one thing about George. You know where you stand, and he gives chances. Nothing would ever happen to us without warning.”
“Well he just fucking gave it.”
“Sounds like.” He palms the revolver and sets it across his knee. He thumbs down the hammer, and then thumbs it back. He passively studies the empty chambers, the single rotating bullet. “Well. There are always the fracking crews, the banditos from Texas and Louisiana. We could help them fry their little pinto brains, dream whatever Aztec fantasies make them forget they aren’t in a desert.”
“I’m not putting her in anymore danger, Barton.” Right after my mouth closes, this sounds like an excuse, and not the reasonable reason I wanted it to be.
“Yeah?” I don’t think he means to glare, but he does, melting my brown eyes to snot. “What about her bills, Euclid?”
“I’ll think of something. But I can’t keep doing this.” There it is, just one more trembling pansy-ass step. “I won’t.”
There’s a fish tank glowing in the far corner, by the kitchen, bright tinctures float waiting to die, caged in bubbling water. I can’t watch them for long.
He rests back, the flaming images warping his face. “Your life has been a sad one.” His finger taps along the trigger guard. “And I haven’t helped.”
“You tried,” I say.
“No. I didn’t.” He turns away from me and glances at the fish. “Your sister doesn’t mean as much to me as you do. She’s weak, just like her mother, and she can’t carry herself. Eventually, Euclid, all women collapse under their own weight. But she’ll be fine. Because you’re too damn soft.”
Upstairs the floorboards creek and a door closes. I just know I have to get back home to her.
“Egypt Valley’s a strange place,” he says. “A damn desert. Here in Ohio where everything’s alive.” He scoops the money from the table into a brown grocery bag. “Life’s a dangerous thing.”
I get all pouty and indignant. “Why’d you get me started in this?”
“What you going to do with yourself now?”
I think about that for a long, shameful time. “I don’t know.”
“Bet it won’t be dealing. Bet it won’t be anywhere near me.” He slips a cigar from a leather stogie. Bites off the tip with tombstone teeth and then spits it in his shirt pocket. He lights up and puffs until the end’s glowing orange, then he winks at me through smoke.
“Why you keep doing this, Barton?”
“Her pension from the elementary school’s too damn wimpy.”
“Stop being a retard. I’m serious.”
“I don’t make anybody buy a damn thing. I’m not the problem. You know that.” He taps ash into the can. “George can’t see yet. How it is. He will.”
“I can really just stop?”
“You worked because you wanted to. Now you don’t. That’s okay.”
I steady my hands. “You sure?”
“Oh come on.” His eyes soften, searching mine. “Do you think I’d ever hurt you?” When I don’t answer he frowns and turns away and says, “Shithead.”
I stand and straighten my jacket. Hang my hands at my side. “I’ve got to get back to her, Barton. I’ll stop by later, I guess.”
“No. We’re done.”
He’s not looking at me. And the television is just in his way.
“What do you mean?”
He throws his hand towards the door. “Leave.”
I laugh until he tilts the revolver towards my stomach. The hammer’s cocked, and the bullet appears to have gone full circle. There’s a swelling beneath my guts. I hold my bladder and make it all the way down the hallway before turning back. “Guess what. I loved Emily, you fucking shithead. Still do.”
“Well. Guess what, Euclid. You love your sister.”
“Of course I do. So fucking what?”
He watches me carefully, and then he just shakes his head. “Emily’s taken care of. Stop worrying about her.”
Emily’s now married to a tight-ass Iraq vet who drives an armored truck and looks and dresses and acts like a death camp guard. She seems very happy. There are winners and losers in life. I’d just like to know which one I am so I can stop trying to be something I’m not.
“So,” I say, suddenly fearing any thought of distance, of being away from him again. “Can we still be, I don’t know, friends?”
He wipes at his eyes and flicks the cigar into the fish tank where it hisses and floats. He throws me the paper bag. “Severance pay, Euclid. Three years served. Now fuck off. And stay gone.”
Our house is at the end of a long gravel road, the deepest point in the hollow. Our neighbors are adults you never see and filthy kids in underwear chasing after ravens. The Kiplinger children hung an old television set to a tree. Knotted the frayed cord in Boy Scout fashion. They smack it around with iron rods and broomsticks, like a tetherball, the glass and green computer shards scattered around like minerals. They drag back old car batteries from the dump over the ridge. Crack them open and play with the acid. Use it to paint ditched puppies. Scrawl brown messages in the grass, misspelled curses for the state planes that fly over hunting for marijuana crops.
This is it.
Because I’m a goddamned weakling I cry all the way home through the dark. Listen to sappy Delilah on the radio and wipe my face with musty Wendy’s napkins. Barton was always so good to me. The asshole.
The house is completely black beneath the hills. I pray she’s just sleeping and rush up the rickety stairs and throw open the door. Persephone’s sticking a sawed-off ten gauge in my face and screaming unintelligibly with her eyes shut. I shrink against the door and hold up my hands and soon she’s beating me with her crutch and telling me what an idiot I am for not announcing myself.
“Euclid’s here,” I say, feeling the piss soak all the way to my kneecap.
When she sees the spreading stain she doubles over like she’s sobbing. Then her laughter cuts deep.
“Like you never,” I say, slamming the door and locking the bolt. She’s wiping at her pudgy face and gazing pitifully to the ceiling. Her throat jerks like she’s choking. Maybe she is crying. “You okay, honey?”
She shakes her head fast and throws her porky arms around me. The shotgun rests across her shoulder on a sling. I discreetly angle the barrels to the wall and pat her massive back and say, “It’ll be alright.”
“Randy stopped by,” she says. “Was acting weird and he scared me.”
I push her back and steady her freckled face. “What he say?”
“I don’t know. He was just whispering freaky shit, staring at me. I asked him to repeat himself a lot and that made him upset.”
“Did he come in?”
“Fuck no,” she says. “I aimed at his wang and kept him on the porch.”
“Okay,” I say, breathing easier. “Good.”
“He was just being stupid. Said he wanted me so much he’d follow me anywhere. Wanted to ‘chew the fat’ on me.”
I could learn to hate people.
“He really scared the shit out of me, Euclid. He didn’t look right. Even for him.”
I motion to the shotgun. “Keep that at your side. I’m washing up.”
“What’s going on?”
“Get in the kitchen. Make us some coffee.” My sneakers squish down the hall. I leave little piss footprints on the linoleum. In the bathroom I peel off my jeans and wash my face with cold water that stinks like sulfur. Always burns the eyes. In the mirror I see how gangly and scrawny I am, like a tattered sock puppet. You’re never as tough as you think.
I hear her sobbing in the kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator. Her little sniffles making strange harmony with the percolating coffee pot. I lean my head against the glass and hate myself, wanting to do so much better for her. Wanting things to be easier. She has a profile on an online dating website for diabetics. Full biography cataloguing likes and interests. Physical descriptions. She was talking to this man from Tacoma. Those days she’d hop around laughing for no reason and pecking me on the cheek. Smile her lovely smile. Then the guy’s little daughter hacked his account and said to her, “Who wants to fuck a lardo amputee? Make babies with shitty sick Shamoo? Fuck off, fatty! LOL.”
That kind of stuff sticks in ways I pretend not to understand.
In my room I throw on a pair of boxers and button the fly. Pull mom’s old .38 snub from under the mattress and make sure the cylinder’s fully loaded. I lay it on a stack of unread comic books that just keeps getting higher and higher. I stuff Barton’s paper bag in my underwear drawer.
I’ll sometimes find Persephone curled up on the floor, in a corner or under a table, just crying for herself. Wiping her snot and tears with a worn shirt. I never know if she falls by accident or just takes herself down there. She writes a column in the Barnesville Enterprise for those suffering from depression. Submits self-help articles to faraway magazines I’ve never heard of. She has direct deposit to an account I never see. The professional picture accompanying her words is from high school graduation, when she was slim and confident. When the future held all possibility. When mom was alive.
I double-check the windows and doors. Consider turning on every light in the house, but worry about the power bill. I find her still at the refrigerator. There’s a bowl of salt and vinegar chips on the card table along with a box of salt and a bottle of vinegar, for her extra flavor. “We never have any syrup, Euclid. What the hell?”
She pours us coffee and turns down the tiny television. Local news hour, where war casualties are reported before sports.
“Anybody we know?” I unwrap a Blow Pop and stick it in my mouth.
We watch the stern faces under helmets and caps. They list the rank and age and location of death, unpronounceable sandy Arab places. Each soldier has five seconds and then it’s on to the next.
“Don’t think so. Maybe that one.” She carefully lowers herself into the chair. “That Vance Sherman?”
“No,” I say. “Heard he’s in Blackwater now. They don’t do the news.”
She leans her crutch against the refrigerator and brushes oily hair over ample shoulders. “I know this sounds naïve,” she says. “But I just don’t know why anyone would ever hate America. We’re pretty good people.”
She sips at her coffee. Pours vinegar and sprinkles salt over a chip. “So what’s going on?”
There are piles of unpaid bills near the stove. Mom’s old shotgun a lethal paperweight.
“I paid the first two,” she says, catching me tallying up predictable sums. “Insulin and our Zoloft.”
“I love you,” I say.
She chews a chip slowly. “I love you too, Euclid.” Her nub stares me down, folded skin like crimped dough.
“I quit Barton.”
“Quit!” Her face shakes. “What does that mean?” On her lips, the salt looks like sugar. “You can’t quit. What will we do?”
“I think we need to leave,” I say quickly. “Just get.”
“No. I’m not leaving, Euclid. Where would I go?”
“Anywhere. We just go anywhere.”
“Yeah. But why?” It doesn’t take her long at all. “He wasn’t going to hurt me, was he? I mean. He wasn’t sent, right?”
Words mean something to my sister. Reality changes with their usage. As if it cared.
“Do you want to die?” I say.
“So fucking dramatic. God. Like I don’t know what pain is.” She scoots the bowl away and stretches for the shotgun. She can’t reach it. “Let that idiot come. This house is our castle, damnit.”
“We need to get out of here, Seph.”
“I’ll blast him into a female.”
“We need to get.”
“No!” She scoots her chair across the tiles. Fumbles the shotgun into her lap and pets the blued barrels like a cat. “I’m sorry I’m just so much trouble for you.”
Her mouth starts twitching. She wipes tears from her cheek and eats a chip.
“I appreciate everything you do for me, Euclid.” She sniffles and steadies her lip. “Do you think I don’t? Oh God. Please no. No.”
I sit back and watch my feet. The huge uprooted veins grandmotherly. Like I ever really thought they’d take me anywhere other than here.
“Randy’s gotten kind of handsome,” she says. “Bigger through the chest. Like, forty-five inches.”
Outside there’s a gas rig on fire. Along the ridge. A burning sword over hazy hills without shadows.
“You could find something else,” she says. “We aren’t cowards. That isn’t who we are. We don’t run from responsibility.”
The kitchen still reeks of our mother’s foul cooking. We’ve never cleaned the burners. The floors are rotting in spots. The bathtub leaks when you turn on hot water. There’s black mold splotching her bedroom carpet, leaching up from the moist earth. This house is ours because it would be unwanted.
“I could maybe find something else,” I say, touching my bruised throat. It only sounds correct when I press. “Go back to school. There are other opportunities.”
I think about that girl with the yellow eyes who handed me moonshine. I think about what it would be like to actually punch back. Feel strong in a strong community. I imagine seeing the world through slit fabric.
There are worse ways to live. Maybe.
She’s moaning now. Her body spasms in waves. “Just don’t leave me, Euclid.”
I go over and squeeze her close. Run my fingers through her hair and kiss her trembling forehead. The warmth of her disease makes me feel at home. “You know I’m not going anywhere, sweetheart.”
Everyone and their brother know where to find George Jackson on a Sunday afternoon. His jacketed shoulders take up an entire booth at the front window of Patrick’s Diner. He reads the newspaper and studies the town as it lurches. The devout and habitual church goers in dresses and suits that never fit godly, too wrinkled or too uncomfortable, just artificial skins easily peeled. He’ll shake hands with old men in suspenders, charm ladies with puffy hair and flimsy Bibles. They’ll talk of evolving demographics and perverted sin and social decay as if Armageddon were an academic exercise. Then he’ll lead a convergence of “Mercy” and “Amen” that none seem to recognize as mocking. Though the man does not discriminate with his smiles. He’ll discuss sports and weather with town drunks and transient bikers. Wave to teenagers with shitty hair and holy t-shirts, “unambitious reprobates” on skateboards, meth-pocked faces cruising aimlessly in salvaged cars. He’ll wink at some, stare into others and shame through contrast. He is a distinguished and respected man of the town, educated and wise, the head Librarian at Barnesville’s Hutton Memorial Library. So everyone knows him and where to find him, but most are ignorant of his true position in our quiet little community.
When I sit in the booth, he doesn’t lower the paper, miniature in his titanic hands. “I always knew you had a keen eye for the obvious, Euclid.”
“I try, sir.”
He keeps reading, then folds the paper methodically and taps at the “New Books at Your Library” column. He lowers his glasses and squints. “I’m excited for this one here, by our local authoress, Eva Hauptmann.”
“Wow,” I say, looking only at him.
“Before our involvement in the war, far more Americans favored the Germans over the Soviets.” He waves a fly from his grilled chicken chef salad. “This has been forgotten.”
“I knew that,” I say.
“Hhm.Your mom. Maybe she wasn’t all filth.”
I adjust my weight in the torn seat. Blow air over my chin.
“How’s your sister?”
“Oh she’s great. Thank you.”
“My mother. She had diabetes.” He pats my fidgeting hand. “Terrible disease. Died in a pitiful pile.”
“I’m sorry. It’s hereditary, you know.”
“She never took care of herself. One deserves it.” He sips at his black coffee. His hands engulf the mug. He watches me over the rim.
“I want to keep us safe. And earn money. Like you said.” I’ve never been good at anything worthwhile. The hard facts of my life are so stupid. “Just like you said.”
“Barton ever have you murder anyone?”
I look around at busy eaters and shuffling waitresses. “No. He didn’t.”
“Did you ever want to?”
I slowly shake my head. “Never will.”
He stabs a tomato with his fork and scrapes it past his tongue. “I won’t allow my people to live as degenerates.” He wiggles the fork at me. “Your drugs. An affliction unbefitting our race. Your generation. You have all forgotten who you are. But you have been made to. Educated and conditioned, by this multicultural chamber pot of a society. But it’s all coming apart. This empire’s collapsing.” He shrugs passively, so proud of his cruel insight. “Just like any empire in history, once the foundational race foolishly allows the subjugates to have a seat at the table, to share a slice of the seized pie. You understand?”
There is no truth in understanding. “Sure.”
He dabs his mouth with a napkin. A little red seed stains a corner. His eyes are thirsty, blistered indigo. When he whispers, it’s a slow hiss. “We must reverse this. Train and await the time. To rise. To kill. Do you believe that, Euclid?”
“You know I’ll never play dress-up.”
“Well I have to try.” He laughs with his throat and spreads his hands. “How else could I win your love?”
I imagine what it’s like to burn, to boil apart and breathe smoke. Drown in dirt. I feel myself shrink back into a frightened child, the dumb child I am. There is no refuge in absurdity. I drag my finger along the wooden table and flick away salt crystals.
“You’re not joking around anymore, Euclid. You’ve lost that jolly grin of yours.”
“Please don’t hurt her,” I say.
“Then you just come to Egypt next weekend. Let me test your will. Your heart. See what you know.” His jaw tightens. “What you think you know. About yourself.”
“I don’t know anything,” I say.
He smiles at that. And for a bright, terrifying instant, those teeth comfort me.
John Woods grew up in Appalachian Ohio and graduated from Ohio University in 2009. He has been previously published in Midwestern Gothic and The Rag. He has written an unpublished collection of short stories and is currently revising two novels.