You are reading Fiddleblack #3
Ellery swats a mosquito. It disappears into the long shadows stretched across the grocery store parking lot, blood about its abdomen. He scratches the elbow where the mosquito fed and gazes through his Silverado’s dusty windshield. Rust has crept across the hood and she leaks fluids, but Ellery loves his truck. Used to be he washed and waxed her once a week. But since the water got cut off, he’s had to let her sit. Ellery reaches for the ignition, jingles the keys, but does not start the truck. He looks across the cab at Danny, his dirt-smudged grandson, packed beneath the shoulder belt. The seat cover has come unhitched, and it drapes over him. Ellery pats down the boy’s messy hair. It’s the best he can do cause Smitty won’t cut hair on credit.
Anywhere but here. That’s where the boy should be.
“My tummy hurts,” Danny says.
As he opens the glove compartment, Danny’s eyes widen. Ellery realizes too late that he used to keep snacks in there. He wishes he had some jerky to tide the boy over. He tosses aside a bundle of dog collars and searches for his fingernail clippers.
“Hand me that paper.” He nods at the classifieds beneath the boy’s feet.
Ellery unfolds the newspaper into his lap. He sets to clipping his fingernails, cutting each one the same length. The boy fidgets.
“Can we turn on the radio, Grandpa?”
“Nothing’s on the radio.” He continues clipping. The newspaper fold collects sliver moons.
“There’s always something on.”
Ellery tosses the clippings out of the window.
“You shouldn’t litter,” the boy says.
“What do you care? You don’t live here.”
“Remember when you tried to cut Mean Joe’s toenails?”
Ellery’s hand tightens around the steering wheel. Mean Joe was his black labrador.
“Dogs don’t have toenails. Dogs have claws.”
“He whined, all right. He didn’t like to get his nails cut.”
“Claws,” Ellery says. He realizes only now how much Danny loved that dog. How much the dog took his mind off things. “Why don’t you ever wash your face? You allergic to water.”
“I ain’t allergic.”
“Would a comb kill you?”
As Ellery talks, Rexroad approaches and sets his delicate hands on the window frame. Cigarette smoldering between his lips, he unties his apron and drags it up and over, knocking the sooted ball cap from his head. The only redneck Ellery has ever met without callouses. Couldn’t lift a bag of concrete mix without hyperventilating, but Ellery hired him way back when. He might have enjoyed canning Rexroad if each week they hadn’t been letting go of another man or two. He tried to shrug it off as the cost of business. Rexroad had looked so tiny in the foreman’s trailer. Tobacco spit on his steel-toed boots. He just held out his baby-soft hand and thanked Ellery for the opportunity.
“Late again” Ellery says.
“Ain’t got a watch.” Rexroad picks up his ball cap and chuckles.
“How do you get to work on time?” Ellery asks.
“Quit your moaning.” A crushed box of cigarettes sticks out of his breast pocket. “Can’t leave till my shift’s done. Shove over, boy. Uncle Rexroad needs a place to sit.”
Danny slides over. Sneaker tips straddling the gearshift, his stained knees bunch against his chest. Rexroad rests a long bag against the passenger seat. He slides in and wiggles about. Ellery turns on the engine, glances at the fuel meter as it shivers up from empty. Ellery puts the truck in gear. He taps his finger on the steering wheel and mouths the words, “Blue skies smiling at me. Nothing but blue skies do I see.”
“I don’t want to listen to this wheelchair shit.” Rexroad looks at the boy.
“Watch your mouth. You ride in my truck, you listen to my crap.”
Danny’s gaze follows Rexroad’s hand against the long bag that points from the floor mat into his stomach.
“What’s in there?” Danny says.
Rexroad unzips, pulls out a rifle. He lifts the stock to his shoulder and aims the gun across the cab. “Beauty, ain’t she? I got her for a song at the pawn shop.”
“Careful.” Ellery pushes the rifle’s barrel down.
Danny rubs his fingers along the barrel. “Ain’t she a beaut, Grandpa?”
“What’s the matter with you, Rexroad?” Ellery looks at him.
“Boy wanted to know what’s in the bag.”
They pull in to a Chevron station.
“Pony up. We need some gas.”
“Ain’t got no money,” Rexroad says.
“What about that new rifle?”
“Don’t get paid till Friday.”
The awning’s fluorescent lights turn the twilit sky black. Inside, Ellery taps the bulletproof glass. The clerk sits up, and Ellery slaps his last five on the counter and walks back to pump the gas. After Rexroad got canned and nobody was left to get the boot, Ellery was called up to corporate. One of two possibilities, since the foreman is the first to get blamed and the last to get fired. He left his hard hat in the truck but still felt out of place in his denim overalls and a filthy shirt. They blamed it on the stock market, frozen credit, failed computer modeling. Economic data. Macro something. “If it was up to us,” they said.
Foreclosure signs drown the street. Ellery taps his finger and realizes the song’s still playing. He switches off the engine. He enjoys the sound of jingling keys. He gets out of the truck and watches Danny put his open hands on the seat. The boy’s rear end sticks plumb in the air as he scoots backwards, shirt scrunched about the neck, until his sneakers connect with concrete. The boy turns around and Ellery adjusts his shirt, pulling Danny’s arm back through the sleeve. Ellery walks around to the truck bed and pops it open, and he takes out another long bag and a flashlight for Danny.
“Best split up,” Ellery says. “Meet back here in an hour?”
“Told you I ain’t got a watch,” Rexroad says.
“Just walk the neighborhood. Go toward the interstate. Loop around when you hit the graveyard. That should take you about an hour.”
“What if I catch something?”
“Just hide it under a bush and wait for me at the truck. I’ll take care of it from there.”
Rexroad is off, whistling a song. Could be a song Ellery knows, but somewhere between Rexroad’s brain and chapped lips, the melody gets mangled. Ellery hooks the bag across his shoulder, puts his hand on the back of Danny’s head, and starts in the opposite direction. The boy looks down, flicking the flashlight on and off.
“You hear that?” Danny asks.
Danny follows a yelp down the alley, buckhorn battering his kneecaps. Ellery drifts behind him. Danny stands with his fingers interlocked through a chain-link fence. Past a chassis on blocks and a basketball hoop pushed up from the weeds, Ellery sees a thin mutt. It’s chained to the back porch. A halogen lamp lights the empty food bowl. Ellery can make out each rib. He thinks how his dog Mean Joe used to nap in the sunshine. Each afternoon, under a western window without a care in the world. Ellery rests his bag against the fence. He rubs his shoulder where the strap cut into him. He is about to ask the boy to go back to the truck when the dog leaps to its feet. The screen door opens. A woman looks out. Pink sweatsuit draped off her bones, a cigarette dangles from her lips. She scans the alley, places a hand over her eyes to block the light, stares straight at Ellery. He squeezes the chain links. She shoos the dog inside, and the door slams shut. Ellery thinks he hears the woman lock the deadbolt. One house on the block not yet with the bank.
“Let’s get moving.”
They walk toward the sidewalk. Two out of every three street lamps remain dark. Several blocks away tires squeal. The first car he’s seen since they left the Silverado. They pass a church with a playground. Two see-saws, a swing set and a jungle gym. Danny runs to the fence.
“Can we play?”
Danny puts both feet together and leaps across a concrete slab that juts into the air. He pauses after landing.
“Step on a crack,” Ellery says, “break your mother’s back.”
“When’s Mommy coming back?”
Ellery wishes he hadn’t spoken. He looks across the street into darkened windows. When he was younger, people used to leave their porch lights on.
“Want to play?” Ellery touches the boy’s shoulder.
“Now we have time?”
“Nothing but time.”
Danny throws open the gate and runs to the jungle gym. Up one side and down the other. He sits on a swing, arms hanging, toes twisting in the mulch. He swings for a while before leaping off. He runs to the see-saw.
“Teeter-totter with me.”
“I’m too old.”
Ellery stands by the see-saw’s opposite end, pushing down with his hands and releasing, raising and lowering Danny. Ellery cannot get that alley dog out of his mind. Before he lost his job, he never thought of a dog as a luxury. He used to feed Mean Joe the good stuff out of a can. After they switched to dry food, Ellery tried to teach the dog to hunt. Mean Joe just pawed the squirrels and rats they caught. The killer instinct had been bred out of him. Mean Joe’s last meal was bread. Wonderbread. By that time Danny was living with him, so he had to find some excuse. He told Danny that Mean Joe had run away. It was the first time he had to deal with Danny crying. “Mean Joe will be fine,” he’d said. “His instincts will take over.” It had to be done. He could barely afford to feed himself, let alone the kid or a dog.
Ellery presses the see-saw to the ground. Danny concentrates on the handlebar, his white-knuckled grip. Another yelp in the distance. Ellery turns his head, a hand to his ear. He releases the see-saw and swerves as the plank narrowly misses his chin. It takes him a moment to regain balance, and he sees Danny balled up in the dirt, clutching his knee.
“Let me see it,” Ellery says.
“No no no no no. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts.”
Ellery pries the boy’s tiny hands from his knee. Blood on the kneecap. He dabs at the blood.
“It’s just a scrape.”
“I want a Band-Aid.” Danny has stopped crying, but his cheeks are still wet.
“A Band-Aid?” Ellery narrows his eyes as he speaks. “It’s barely bleeding. Let’s go back to the truck.”
A block from the Silverado, Ellery hears the yelp. He pauses. A darkened porch. Junk mail piled beneath the mailbox. A scrawny black labrador. Its body wobbles as it spins in a circle, spirals to a lying position. Ellery reaches for his bag but doesn’t unzip it. He feels a pinch at his neck. He slaps it and looks in his hand to see a smashed mosquito. He wipes it onto his pants.
“Is it Mean Joe, Grandpa?” Danny saw it too.
“Give me your hands.”Cupped together they are still smaller than Ellery’s palm. He jingles the key ring before giving it to the boy, and nodding toward the truck.
“Go to the truck.”
“It’s Mean Joe. I know it.”
“Go to the goddamn truck. It’s not him.”
The boy’s eyes shut. His fists dangle at his sides.
When the truck door shuts, Ellery unzips the bag and removes his lever-action Winchester. He runs his hand along the varnished walnut. A gift from his father on his eighteenth birthday. Ellery still oils the blue metal once a month. He chambers a bullet and raises the rifle to his shoulder. He aims below the neck. He curls a finger around the trigger. It licked his lips, looked at him with those brown eyes. Low tail. Sick legs. It had never looked happier. Ellery lowers the Winchester. An airplane overhead, a flashing taillight in the black cloudless sky. A rifle crack. The dog’s spine kinks. It springs to its feet, but the legs splay beneath its body. Ellery looks around. Rexroad approaches.
“I shot that mother,” Rexroad says. He holds his rifle like a lunchpail. “You see that? Right in the damn heart.”
Ellery looks at the truck. The cab is lighted. Danny’s silhouette fills the window.
“I could be a sharpshooter.” Rexroad returns his rifle to its bag.
“Get me a trash bag from the truck,” Ellery says. “Tell Danny turn that light off.”
Ellery scans the block before opening the gate. He kneels by the dog, scratches behind its ear before removing the collar and putting it in his pocket. He opens his pocket knife and cuts beneath the sternum, slicing downward to the anus, careful to avoid the guts. He could never wash the stink off if he slit the stomach. Heat follows his face as the organs spill out. He reaches his hands into the cavity to clear out the liver, stomach, the intestines. He lifts the dog’s front legs to drain it.
“I got you that trash bag,” Rexroad says.
Beside him stands Danny, lips together and eyes wide. He shines a flashlight at the carcass.
“Stop right there,” Ellery says.
“What did you do?”
“I told you stay in the truck.” Ellery drops the front legs, moves his body to block Danny’s view.
“Hey, kid. Your Uncle Rexroad’s a good shot, ain’t he?”
Danny looks at the mess at his grandfather’s knees. He spits at Rexroad’s shoes.
“You little shit.” Rexroad swats back.
“I’m not gonna warn you again,” Ellery says. “Get back in the truck.”
Danny freezes, out of Rexroad’s reach. Mouth open, he rubs his eyes with his tiny fists and he cries. Ellery stands above the boy. His knife glints in the low light.
“You’re an asshole, Rexroad,” Ellery says, watching the boy until the door shuts on the truck.
Rexroad flicks the lighter and draws at the cigarette. “What’s that kid’s problem?”
“He thinks you killed his dog.”
“You killed Mean Joe.”
“I told Danny he ran away.”
“You told me he liked him.”
“He loved him.”
“I mean I liked him,” Rexroad says.
“He didn’t know.”
“Didn’t know what?”
“Didn’t know we ate him.”
“What’s it matter?”
Ellery returns to his knees. He reaches into the chest, pulls out by the handful the heart and lungs. He wraps the dog in the trash bag.
“Gimme a hand.”
Rexroad grabs half of the bag, and he waits for Ellery to help him.
“Carry it,” Ellery says.
“You killed it. You carry it.”
Ellery stands at the lift window, running a clean handkerchief along the Winchester’s cold barrel. Rexroad takes small backward steps, the bag behind him. He drops it at the fender. He removes his cap, and he wipes his forehead in his armpit.
“Think you could get me some Styrofoam trays?” Ellery asks, hoisting the trash bag onto the truck bed. “Maybe some plastic wrap and some stickers and a black marker.”
“What for?” Rexroad squints, shows his ugly teeth.
“Been thinking we should branch out,” Ellery says. “Call up some of the boys. See if any want to buy some meat.”
“Ain’t nobody gonna buy dead dog.”
“I’ll bet your wife won’t want to either.”
“My wife don’t care.”
“She eats what I bring home.”
“She eats what you bring home.”
Ellery shuts the lift window. His hands leave condensation prints on the glass.
“We’ll tell them it’s turfcut game,” he says.
Ellery opens the door. “Put out that cigarette before you get in the truck.”
Ellery sits behind the wheel. He turns the key, watches the fuel gauge rise just below an eighth of a tank.
“You smell bad, Grandpa.”
Ellery rolls down the window. He pushes play and sings along, “Blue birds singing a song. Nothing but blue skies from now on.”
Ellery pulls up at a trailer park. As Rexroad opens the door, Ellery says, “Come by tomorrow and I’ll have it ready for you.”
“Why don’t you just drive it over here?”
“Tell you what.” Ellery looks at the fuel gauge. “When you package it, I’ll come pick it up. Until then, I’ll call around. See if anyone wants some.”
Ellery drives. Danny leans against the door as far away from Ellery as he can get. He looks out. Leaves will change. Soon the trees will be branches. Frost will spiderweb the windows. Ellery will see his every breath till spring, and the gauge tilts toward empty
Ellery finds a good spot to park.
“Ready to eat?”
“No,” says Danny. “I’m not that hungry.”
“Danny, I don’t know what you think you saw tonight.”
Danny points his finger like a pistol. He aims at the window.
“It wasn’t him.”
“Can we bury that dog,” Danny scratches the scab on his knee.
“Rexroad’s gonna bury that dog.”
Danny looks out the windshield but gestures with his thumb toward the truck bed. “The dog’s back there.”
Ellery grabs him, but the boy clutches the seatbelt with all his might. Ellery is out of the truck, pulling Danny by his foot. Ellery wraps his arm around Danny’s knees and with a free hand unhooks his grasp. He opens the lift window and forces Danny inside. He shuts and locks it.
Ellery sits behind the steering wheel and watches moths beneath a street light. Danny pounds on the window, but Ellery ignores him. When he lost his job, Ellery kept looking. He walked out of his house each morning with his lunch, his hard hat. Construction was quiet. A pile of concrete blocks here, a frozen forklift there. He even waited on an overpass with the day laborers. Eventually he took to parking along the river. He could still afford to let the engine idle, to listen to music. He looks into the truck bed. Danny is finally asleep, the blankets bunched up around him, his sneakers sticking out. He’d always planned to sell the house and live out of a trailer anyway. Maybe travel a bit. That’s a lifetime ago.
William Haas lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches at Western Oregon University. His work has appeared in River Teeth, Dark Mountain, Appalachian Heritage, Glasschord, Bull and elsewhere.