Such Healthy Brutes
By Benjamin J. Gohs
“This town, how can I put this? This town gives my soul the shits … borough, burg, and ville.”
Though the bells were silent and gates standing, Dixon Croinbleau sat parked north side the railroad tracks. Looked out over brown stumps of cornstalk jutting from black furrows, endless in every direction, and took a deep breath.
“This town gives my soul the shits.” He whispered his words. “You don’t have to do this. I know. OK.”
Gust rocked the truck. So loud he didn’t hear his phone at first.
“Yeah? Yes, it’s me. Only me. No. Of course not. Course. I understand that. I’ll have it by Sunday. Because. Something came up. I told you—by Sunday. Latest.”
Dixon threw his phone the passenger side floor and idled over the tracks. Stopped midway. Looked long left and right and ahead to the welcome sign. It read, “Skag County: Somewhere north of Hell and south of Paradise … it’s just right.”
“Just right. Not too hot. Not too cold. Somebody’s been sleepin in my bed—juuust right.”
Wail of horn sent his heart galloping. Dixon shut his eyes and clenched the wheel. Held breath and listened. It thumped along, syncing with the approaching chug. Bells clanged and lights flashed. Dixon exhaled. He saw spots and the horn sounded again. Gates hummed. And just as those giant zebra striped swords began to cross, Dixon tromped the gas. Tail end kicked sideways and tires screamed as they caught asphalt. Dixon Croinbleau joined in, yelling long and loud as he accelerated into the cold gray nowhere.
Highway 13. Doomed by poor design and a high speed limit. Dixon hated driving that stretch but it was the only way into town. Thirteen was too fast and there were too many blind spots and cars driven by hoary widows were always pulling out driveways wrong. Lot of dead truckers and bikers and families of four on the way up to camping or grandma’s house.
“How is it everybody’s grandmother lives up north?” Dixon lit a cigarette and puffed and pondered before coughing out a foggy sort of cartoon madman laugh. “Hee-hee-heeeee!”
Skag city limit sign appeared atop the next hill.
“Me old junkyard.” He spoke in a hokey brogue as the pickup crested. “This town … how can me put it? This town gives me soul the shits.” Dixon tried to remember the rest of the poem but high school was so long ago. And a poet he was not. Just a scribbler of thinly veiled memoir who got lucky.
It’s not that the people were so bad or the city was so ugly or that there were too many secrets under the bay. And, sides, who’s to say what’s too many—secrets, junkies, welfare mothers, bruised babies. It wasn’t even that the place smelled so bad or that everything was made of crumbling concrete and rust. But it was all those things … and more.
City of Skag in County of Skag. A place so wretched they cursed it twice. But this was no New York. This was Old Failure. And it wasn’t even one city. Skag was really two cities geographically-hypothetically. Not like that Dickens story. That was metaphorically two cities. Dixon Croinbleau’s hometown was really two different cities, identical in desperation and defeat—municipalities conjoined by kindred baggage and familiar despair.
West side consisted of two long roads, seven miles each, intersecting the corner of Cornfield and Oblivion, blooming as two long junk-sick arms, sparsely situated scabs and scars starting at the wrists exploding in prolifery the closer you got to that sweet elbow crotch with its big soft veins and tender skin.
Dixon slowed to cross the train tracks bottom of the hill. He passed the burned-out television repair shop, dilapidated vacuum cleaner store—still sold door-to-door by despairing also-rans and former high school sports stars—a used trailer home sales lot. Lights were on in the stores he passed, and cars rusted quietly in their parking spaces, but Dixon couldn’t imagine anyone going in or coming out.
Followed the vibrant stream of mass marketing slime running south along those four-lane abominations.
“Jesus Christ. Road always been this long?”
Passed a burger joint and his stomach clenched. Wrinkled his nose and rolled up the window. Nothing but fast food, laundry, gas, liquor, pharmacy, for miles.
But that wasn’t what fathered this stink. Above the odor of burnt French fry oil and overflowing dumpster juice lay a thick wet blanket of salty putrescence. Past the closed potato chip factory and a dozen motels in varying states of ruin, it appeared—ladders and scaffolding going up and up against four galvanized silos, each as big as a high school gymnasium and shiny as the word itself. Thirteen dead-ended the factory, which stretched across a half-mile. Behemoth roared under gigantic clouds of steam that blocked out the dear old sun. “London fog,” locals called it. Thick as cotton batting.
“Good god.” Dixon cracked the window and sniffed. He coughed, gagged, tried not to pass out from the dry heaves. Whole time he was a kid he never smelled the rotting beet pulp except for the few times when he’d come back from someplace far away. Took days to get the stench out of your nose. By the time you returned from Florida or grandma’s place up north, your body had forgotten what normal smelled like.
In twenty years, Dixon had remembered the place stunk but not like this. This seemed an unbearable funk, a living death bloom flowering in the spring of apocalypse.
“Madonna was right.” Dixon nodded. She’d grown up not far from this very spot. He came to a red light and lit a cigarette and blew out the match and snorted up that tangy sulfur smoke until his eyes watered. Hooked a left. Followed high chain link fence until the factory was out of sight. Another set of railroad tracks, and houses began. “Smelly little town.”
In a county of a million people, better than half in the city, there was nothing higher than three stories. No great architecture, no real landmarks to speak of. Just flat gray ant colony taken up in a dying industrial town, an ailing hermit crab relegated to an old soup can.
Trees and cars. That’s what built this place. Not no more. Dixon wondered how it was possible. Didn’t people still use both?
No Louvre or Montparnasse or Rues d’whatever but Dixon couldn’t help draw some parallels between this slum and the haunts of Henry Miller’s Paris, with its bedbugs and whores and two of three people walking around with a dose of the clap. Closest to romantic he’d ever known. No brothels or death houses here, but beggars and slums, oh they have a few. Every girl is a whore and every boy is a failure, but for the lucky who nabbed one of the last shifts at the chemical company or the auto parts manufacturer, well, in a place where $35,000 salary means you’re rich, dentists and lawyers are rock stars.
There were some great cities by the bay, Dixon was sure of it. He’d read about them—San Francisco, Seattle, New York. And what of Burden’s Landing, Charlevoix, Green Bay. Somehow, though, Skag was built on a body of water which continued to shrink and stink. A wholly unique scent of its own.
Dixon thought about swimming the park as a child. Only decent public beach around. Water was great. Park nicely manicured. But year after year the water withdrew farther from shore, and the sand between the original beach and bay became filled with a deep-green putrid sludge. One year it was ankle-deep, the next summer it was up to your calf, then knee, then everybody just stopped going. Gave it up to the gulls and the rats and the tall-tall grass.
Parked outside one of the dingy two-stories, Dixon studied it. Same white clapboard. Same green shingles, crumbling at the corners now. Empire Strikes Back sticker in the upstairs window faded cloudy pink. Dog barked. Woman’s face appeared between curtains.
“Hell you want?”
“Lookin for Larry.”
“Ain’t here.” Cocked her head, pressed against the screen. “Dickie? Holy crow, get on in here.”
Too warm inside. Burnt pork chop stink. Caught up in the usual way: kitchen table, one question of another until the room had inflated near to bursting with the spent energy of curiosity.
Felt good, talking the old woman. Mother Dixon wished he had. Sitting there in the soft arms of nostalgia reminded him what a drudge he’d become, sputtering through the days and years with the only aim being to survive until bedtime. Wishing that secret hope of everyone who pines for it even if they never thought of such a thing—to die peaceful-like in a good, deep, dreamless slumber.
“What clawed creatures lurk in the dreams of the dying?” Dixon killed the thought and shivered.
Larry’s mom went to a back room for a minute of rustle and grunt. “Would you mind?” she hugged a book to her bosom. “It’s so good.”
Dixon dug in his pants pocket. “Anything special?
“Oh, you’re the writer. You think of something.”
He wrote: To my second mother, baker of the best dang cookies in the county.
“You didn’t really mean it.” Old woman giggled then sobered. “The dedication, I mean.”
Dixon closed the book and slid it back. “I don’t even remember what I wrote.”
She flipped to the fourth leaf and read. “To all the people I hate the most—myself included.”
They were quiet. She took a few cookies out of a large yellow crock shaped like a beehive. “Wanna say how sorry … bout your sister. I know it’s been a while but … such a nice girl.”
Dixon wiped the edges of his eyes and left the kitchen.
“Good seeing you.” She waved from the porch. “Can’t find em at work, he’ll be at the Willow Tree. There most nights til close.”
Dixon waited until the house disappeared from the rear-view before he threw the cookies out the window.
Quarter after. Medical building parking lot empty. Dixon drove on to the bar. East side of town, despite its higher crime rate, was nicer of the two. If the west side of Skag was a white trash strip mall, then the east side was the world’s fanciest Polish ghetto.
Dixon stopped for a skinny old man made fat by too many layers of tattered pants and coats. He whispered to the dead-eyed stumblebum as he tottered across the street. “Not your fault, bud. It’s bred into you. Shit. Us.”
Lucky few hatched within gagging distance the sugar factory had the good taste to hate themselves without ever asking why. “Nothing a few dozen drinks won’t cure.”
Street after street of broken down little two-bedrooms—originally built by and for star-spangled youths fresh from saving the world from evil old Adolf. Once a titled haven for Middle Class Midwesterners, now rental units for a never-ending cast of familiar transients who called the area home but not with any sense of permanency. And in every neighborhood the houses gave way to quaint pubs, some dotting the length of a city block, thanks to lax zoning. String of imitation pearls. Penny-ante taverns with more bicycles parked out front than cars.
Half-lit sign buzzed into gray evening. Peeling letters read: Supper Club.
“Still time to turn back. Don’t wanna be here. Don’t not wanna be here, either.”
Dixon stepped out just as it began to sprinkle. Tapped a smoke from the pack and there she was.
“Holy geez. Dixon?”
“You remember me?”
“Course I do.” She shoved his shoulder. “Everybody does.”
She lit his cigarette. “I’m sorry.”
Dixon pretended not to know what she meant.
Her eyes welled up.
“Oh, hell.” He was still pretending.
“I read your book. It’s good.”
“Everybody thinks so.”
“Tell my publisher that.”
Their laughter drew the attention of two girls other side the parking lot in tight jeans and slinky tops, no coats, much younger. Everyone smoking and shivering.
“They with you?”
“No, not really.” She waved and the girls waved back. A truck pulled up and one of them got in. Other leaned against the building, inspecting her nails between drags.
“Bum me one?” She closed her eyes and puckered shiny red lips. Dixon slid a cigarette into her mouth, marveled at the tiny diamonds bursting from green glitter on those pale lids. Somewhere weaving between the plumes of smoke, a warm cloud of pink bubblegum.
“So. You here alone?”
He took his time, enjoying the feeling—little as it was. All those years she had the things he wanted. And now he… “You want some comp’ny?”
She blushed. “Depends on what you want?”
Dixon followed inside. “How much an hour.”
She laughed. “Nobody lasts that long.”
Drank the corner booth. Six hours. Cheap beer and expensive whisky. Last time she went the bathroom, Dixon slid two hundreds under her drink.
“Just let me know when those are used up.”
“Goodness.” She pocketed the cash.
“Just one thing.” Dixon leaned over the table. “Am I going to have to worry about … you know, someone storming in. If you’re gone too long, I mean.”
Stacy cackled and clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle the shameful volume of it. “A pimp?”
“This isn’t New York. I have a sort of business partner but he don’t follow me around. Why, you planning something nasty?”
“No. I.” Dixon looked genuinely insulted. “I Haven’t been with a woman since my divorce. Just don’t want no trouble.”
They closed the bar and Dixon remembered the person he’d come to see he peered around with one eye closed to keep from falling out the booth. Couples guffawing, two old men arguing over whose pool stick was straighter, a few lonesome drunks staring longingly into their last call nourishment.
“What you looking for?” Stacy too had one eye open.
“Forgot. I was hoping to find Larry.” He scanned the perimeter before coming back to her face. “You mocking me?”
“A little. You look like a pirate.” She curled a finger up like a hook. “Yargh! Who be Larry?”
“That clears it up. C’mon, let’s go.”
“Oh, no. I forgot to get a motel.” Dixon trailed into giggles. “Skid row, here I come.”
“C’mon. You can come back to my place.”
Quick ride over potholes. Potholes on top of potholes. Gray houses under black sky.
“How long you been doing this?” Dixon watched the driver’s eyes in the mirror to make sure he wasn’t listening too close.
“Little while. I guess. Got pregnant. Asshole left. Moved out of state. I was alright. Had me a job over to the plastics plant. Working on the line. But they shut that down three years ago.”
“Sure this OK?”
Stacy squeezed his hand.
They sneaked past her mom, snoring on the couch, and stopped the hall to look in on a little boy.
Room end of the hall, Stacy cleared a pile of clothes off a wooden rocking chair under the only window. She left and came back with wine coolers.
“Sorry. It’s all we got.” She patted the bed. “You can sit over here, if you want.”
“This is good.” Dixon rocked a little.
They talked for hours about their exes and jobs and the old days and who they were most eager to see at the reunion—in agreement mostly just to see how old and fat and miserable everyone had become.
Dixon was explaining how best to cook an omelet when Stacy hushed him.
They looked up the window and listened.
“Oh shit.” Dixon finished his drink and slid it into the carrier with the rest of the empties.
Dixon went to the bed and turned off the lamp and the gray light of tomorrow was brighter now. Stacy unsnapped his pants and they fell to the floor. She stripped while he took off his shoes and got under the covers. He lie there, with her behind him, and watched the rain-speckled window grow clearer. Stacy rubbed his back. He put a hand on her thigh.
“I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“That’s ooo-kay.” Her words sang. “Tell more me about your book.”
“Like what? You read it.”
“How’d you come up with the title?”
“Secret.” He yawned big. “Hafta kill ya and all that.”
“You know, I have ways of making men talk.”
Dixon sighed. “It’s from Henry Miller.”
“Really? Sorry. He wrote ‘Tropic of Cancer.’”
“Really? One of the most controversial books of all time? So filthy it was banned for decades.”
“I like Harry Potter.” She pulled his hair.
“Ow. Prolly best. Dude didn’t exactly hold women in esteem.” Dixon’s face wrinkled in vinegar mouth contortions. “Well, it’s about this guy living like a pauper in Paris. There’s this one scene where he’s at this supper club for low-lives and he’s watching this thug and his prostitute girlfriend gorge themselves on some big meal with plenty of drinks. Miller, at this point is starving. And they’re arguing and groping each other and nearly having sex at the table. He refers to them as ‘such healthy brutes.’”
“Low-lives?” Stacy pulled away. “Is that what we are?”
“No. Jesus. I didn’t mean it like that. It was a place where poor folks went and it attracted a lot of criminals and other … types of people.”
Stacy slapped Dixon’s shoulder and, in a British accent, said, “Mista Big Stuff.”
“Awe, c’mon. I’m a white trash idiot. Always have been. I never looked down on anyone for what they do.”
Stacy pulled him close and, just before they fell asleep—as mother and child—she whispered, “Hush little baby.”
Even after his eyes opened, the little blond boy kept poking Dixon’s forehead. Mischievous smile propped chubby cheeks above a fat little butt chin. In the other hand, a ringing cell.
“Yallow.” Dixon hacked and cleared his throat. Sat up. Rubbed his aching head. “Like I said, I need til Sunday.”
Boy climbed into bed between the adults.
“Shh. We’ll get something in a minute. Go get dressed.”
Dixon waited for the boy to leave before getting up.
“Shut the door.”
Dixon dressed. “I’m late. How much?”
“Time is it?”
“Eleven-thirty, almost.” Dixon counted off three crisp hundreds and shrugged.
“That’s too much.”
“Take it. Best sleep in a long time.”
“Gotta see my folks. Later? Maybe?”
“Best not dawdle.” Stacy slapped Dixon’s backside. “Don’t wanna make mama mad.”
Three miles southwest of Skag. Flat, dusty little piece named Village of Hills. Dixon pulled up the long gravel drive to the old farmhouse.
“Daddy’s at work.”
“Why don’t you guys take it easy. Hire someone to run things.”
“You know your father.”
“Wash up. He’ll be home soon. I made soup and sammich.”
“Go for a coffee.”
“I’ll put some on.”
Dixon went the bathroom. Looked his peaked reflection. Ran cold water over shaking hands. Wiped neck and cheeks with mildewed towel. Wave of nausea twisted his guts and he swung his head over the toilet. Put his hands on the wall and spit until it passed.
Mom poured coffee. “Still take both?”
“Lots. More cream than sugar.”
She put a plate of cut sandwiches in the center of the big oval table, filled three water glasses, and ladled soup. When she came to Dixon’s bowl, he put his hand over it.
“You want some Pepto?”
Heavy thumps on the porch.
“Who’s in my spot?” The voice high, familiar, aged. “Hello, goddammit? Whose car’s that?”
Dixon took quick sips of coffee. Mom put her hand on his arm.
Between dining room and kitchen appeared a graying husk in faded black coveralls, too tan face and hands, no longer ducking doorways. Lifted bifocals from the breast pocket which also held a gray razor knife.
“You doin here.” Dad ran the faucet, squirted dish soap into his palm and scrubbed the knuckles, picked at the nails, stroked each wrist and rinsed.
“School reunion.” Mom took her seat. “Twenty-year already. Can you believe it.”
“Twenty years. Sounds right.” Old man piled four half-sandwiches on his plate and gulped down the water. “More.”
Mom took the glass to the sink.
“Paid your respects?” Bread and cheese tumbled in Dad’s mouth as he spoke.
“No, sir. Not yet.”
Dixon looked his mother. She snuck an apologetic smile.
“People still need carpeting.” Old man lifted his bowl and slurped down a good bit of tomato broth. “You workin?”
“Remember, daddy? Dickie’s a writer now. They’re gonna make a movie outta his book.”
“Books.” Sounded more like the old man was coughing something up than saying words.
“Think I’ll take some flowers. Greenhouse still around?”
“Mother already. Ever Sunday. Maybe you should ought to see about Calvin. No one tends his grave no more. Parents dead five, six years.”
“Such a nice boy.”
Dixon forced a smile.
“If you lookin for work, could always use extra hands up to the shop.” Old man leaned back, belched and slapped his little belly. Picked his teeth and stared at his son. “Well, back at it.”
“Yeah. I better be going, too.”
“Park somewheres else fore I get home.”
“I got a place in the city.”
Traffic choked the west end of town just past the rumble and screech of the Bean & Grain. Train cars, single-file-a-mile, filled their bellies with sorghum, corn, and beets. Dixon turned off the main road and drove until he lost the sounds of harvest in the wind.
Into North Union Cemetery. Parked near a utility shed and walked the half-moon path up and around crumbling blocks older even than the Civil War. Scanned the headstones both sides. Even in such a small area there were too many. Called mom for directions.
“She’s in the back. The new part. Hill with all the rocks. Second row. Pink marble. Can’t miss it.”
Dixon drove til he saw the craggy little rise in a field spotted sparsely with the dull gray teeth of the dead. At the end, pink and white swirled and shimmered even under the overcast ceiling above the silent swaying pines.
Still looked brand new. Not a crumb of dirt or errant leaf. Dixon squatted, ran a hand over the freshly trimmed grass.
“I—” He sucked for a breath and went to his hands and knees where he blubbered loud and wet.
When the episode subsided, Dixon looked over the rest of the plots in the new part of the cemetery. Other side the hill, in the old part, he found Calvin’s gray little stone which read, “Rest Well, Our Only Son.”
Sudden unease in the chest. Dixon looked around, feeling as though he was being watched. But only the pines. Rival breezes swept crunchy leaves across the lawn. He listened to their scattered applause, mindless sounds for an audience of the dead. He snorted and hocked and spit a great yellow gob onto Calvin’s headstone.
Sitting his truck, twirling a key ring, rocking with each autumnal gust, Dixon rang Stacy.
“You wanna go do something?”
“I was just taking my son to the park.”
“People still use that cesspool?”
“They cleaned it up last year. Real nice now.”
“Mind if I meet you?”
Familiar was the location but gone were the sun-bleached wooden fences and overgrown brush. Crumbled black blacktop replaced with smooth white concrete. Where rusted swings and monkey bars had been now stood an enormous wooden structure, complete with slides and cubbyholes, ladders and bridges. And the smell of stagnant water, of putrid death—there wasn’t.
“My god.” Dixon rolled down his window as he pulled up.
Stacy and her boy were buttoning their coats and adjusting their hats.
“You weren’t kidding.”
“Pretty amazing, huh? Wait’ll you see the beach.”
They strolled. Far ahead, the boy fought phantoms with his maple branch sword. Stacy explained that the city, in hope of luring developers, had secured state natural resources trust fund grants in recent years as part of a five-year reclamation project. The city would clean the park and build a new marina, and the hotel and condo developers would build on either side.
“Aren’t you the know-it-all.”
“I’m a hooker, Dickie, not an idiot. Almost got my associates. Sides, I care bout this place—our future in it, anyways.”
“No, I didn’t—what I mean is, I used to work for a little country newspaper; been around a hundred years, and half the town didn’t even know it existed. Good to see some folks still care about community, is all.”
“It’s OK.” She rubbed his back. “Supposed to start dredging next spring. After that there’ll be lotsa construction. Maybe reopen the plant.”
“Really?” Dixon choked with terror. He felt as if he were listening from a mile away now. “Where?”
“Gonna open up Tobacco Marsh. Water levels are fine up to the inlet and then they drop down. Gonna dig down so bigger boats can come.”
Dixon sat the ground hard trying to catch his breath.
Image of spit oozing into the chiseled letters that spelled “CALVIN” flashed behind his closed eyes. And the dark green water, and bubbles breaking alongside a rowboat.
“Yeah.” Dixon panted. “Allergies.”
Out at the beach, it felt as if his memory of the place had all been one big misunderstanding. White sugar sand, free of the shoulder-high spiky grass. Instead of rancid green, a blue bay. Gone were the decades of decay.
They perched a log near orange fence separating the park from future condominium high-rises. Wind picked up and toppled white caps as they rolled ashore.
“Shoulda never come here.” Dixon held his stomach.
“We can go.”
“Not the park.”
“So why did ya?”
“Why’s anybody come home.”
“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
“Don’t get poetic with me. I’m not in the mood.”
“I’ll be a poet if I damn want.” She nudged him.
“That from Harry Potter?”
“Toni Morrison, smart-ass.”
“Don’t sound so shocked. I do read, you know.”
“Hey, you’ve already established yourself as a renaissance woman. Oh, and, here.” He reached into his pocket and stuffed two hundreds into Stacy’s hand. “Fore I forget.”
“For your time.”
She pushed the bills back at him with a grimace. “I’m off the clock.”
“No. I don’t want anything. I just—”
“Look, I like you. I’m not in the habit of bringing tricks around my son, you know.”
“I didn’t suppose.” He put the money back in his pocket. “What’s wrong?”
“Work. This place. Everything.”
“You ever … ever think of doin something else?”
“Every damn day.”
“Nothing pays enough. Have to work three jobs even come close.”
Stacy got up, held out her hands.
“C’mon. Let’s go to the boardwalk.”
“There’s a boardwalk?”
“Little one. Wanna get dinner? After I’m off tonight?”
Dart tourney. Dixon elbowed his way through a crowd to reach the bar. Soap cake scent and dull thrum made the place realer still than he’d ever known it. Between homecoming and hangover, Dixon felt at the edge of someone else’s periphery—ghoul on a day trip into a two-way mirror.
“Spirit, what day is this?” Dixon was giggling to himself when a guy in a bowling shirt shouted, “Holy shit, it’s Groinblow!”
“Let it go and take a seat.” Larry appeared on the stool next to Dixon. “He’s got a windsock for a pecker so he beats his wife.”
Good old Laurence: Mr. Everyman and all-time nice guy; dude who’ll smoke weed down on the banks of the River Skag, shoot clay pigeons with over a case of Budweiser, and pass out in cornfields with you even on school nights.
“Long time, no see.” Larry sucked beer foam from his umber mustache. Same long chin and high forehead, same sad smile, shiny hair parted down the middle. Same Larry.
“Last time I saw you, you were wearing a gorilla mask and being chased through Elmer’s field by the cops.”
“Mom said you stopped by.”
Dixon motioned and they moved to a corner table. Ordered doubles of peppermint schnapps.
“What happened to you?” Larry looked serious as he gulped his drink. “Brings you back to purgatory? Better yet, why’d you leave us?”
“I don’t know, man. Couldn’t hang around no longer. The faces. The grief. Had to get out for a while.”
“Twenty years is a helluva while. And now a big-time writer.”
“Think I’ve come to flaunt my fame and fortune at everyone who wronged me in childhood? Geezus. Maybe a little.”
Larry lit a cigarette and leaned across the table. “A little cliché, no?”
“They let you smoke in here?”
“You been gone way too long. Everyone smokes … so no one complains.” Larry offered his pack. “You ready for some hard enlightenment?”
Dixon took a cigarette and swished the liquor in his glass.
“There’s no amount of shit you dump on these folks they ain’t already endured. I know. They all come to me. All a mess. Even the successful ones. Especially the successful ones.”
“Aw, hell, I was just kiddin.”
“You don’t seem real happy to see me. Everything alright?”
Larry shrugged, guzzled his beer.
Two men in jeans and grubby chef coats brought steaming trays of fried chicken and potatoes out to the buffet and the dart players swarmed the other end of the main room. During the drop in the roar of the tournament, Dixon swallowed his drink and called for another.
“There’s something I need to tell. Long time now. It’s real bad. I can’t sleep or screw or … hell, I never even told my wife.”
Larry breathed a thick stream of smoke and rubbed his bloodshot eyes until they were shiny. “I can’t, man.”
“It’s like I’m cursed. I got all this success and no one to share it with. I’m sad all the time.”
Larry shook his head. “I just can’t do it. Five days a week I hear the nightmares people have inside, and when I’m not on the clock it’s even worse. Every friend, relative, ex-coworker wantsa dump their garbage in me. Either don’t wanna pay or can’t be seen in my office. And now you. Gone god-knows-where all these years. No call, no letter, no nothing.”
“And first thing you see me you wanna unload your middle-aged divorcee crap at my feet. Screw you, man. Go eat some Xanax like everybody else. Better yet, let’s do some shots.”
They sat quiet for a long while. Three drinks turned to four, five, six. Then the talking began again. Old times and big laughs over embellished adventures and misremembered victories.
Tournament finished and the place cleared out and a group of men in suits along with a couple construction workers took a corner booth. When Larry went to the bathroom, Dixon took his seat and listened closer.
“Still waiting on the corps of engineers final OK but then we should be good to go.”
Dixon listened nervously, wondering how long it would be before some unwitting crane operator dug up the thing that would haunt his blue-collar dreams and leave him with a story he would retell a thousand times.
Yesterday’s fear, tomorrow’s doom, they collided in a tightened chest and so jerked Dixon out of the boozy coma … head-a-pound and stomach clenched. Stacy sat her rocking chair, drinking coffee and watching as his eyes focused on her.
“Reunion. Sorry. Larry and I. Why you lookin like that?”
“Did you really do it?”
“Don’t remember any of last night?”
“Yeah. Hung out at the Willow, then…”
“You really did it.” She whispered the last part. “killed Calvin?”
Dixon looked around the room, dumbfounded; floor, high window, steam rising from her hands. He grabbed his cigarettes and shoes, rose to leave and stopped—chopping block grimace and scared eyes.
“Stop.” She squeezed his wrist. “I don’t care. I just … what happened?”
“Jesus Christ.” Dixon flopped back onto the bed.
“He was a scumbag. Glad he disappeared. Just wanna know why.”
Dixon went the bathroom, took a brown piss, doused his head in cold water. Stacy made him coffee.
“You member my sister?” He blew and slurped the caramel liquid. “Few grades head of us?”
“Christmas break, when she come to me. Couldn’t believe it. Calvin had—she was at a party and drank some spiked punch, everyone was, and she woke up. He drugged her, I guess. Did things and videoed it.”
“Comes to her a little while later and says if she don’t work for him he’s gonna show everyone the tape. Mail a copy to grandma, grampa, mom and dad.”
Stacy’s cheeks were wet. Her pursed lips bugled small animal whines from deep down.
“She wouldn’t let me tell the folks. Said if she didn’t, I would. But it wasn’t a week before … well, you know. Nobody knew but me. And him.”
Stacy took a rumpled shirt from the floor and wiped her face and blew her nose.
“So sad I couldn’t breathe. Thought I’d die. Days went. Got mad. So mad. By spring I was thinkin bout ways I could get him. Go the cops. Do something. Stupid kid. Thinkin any sorta revenge would fix things. Summer I worked and drank and kept to myself. Then, Fourth of July weekend, saw him at a big house party out to the bay. Had his camera. Taping girls while they danced.”
Stacy sniffled and threw the snotty shirt atop an overflowing laundry basket.
“Didn’t know what to do. But, when Labor Day weekend come, I drove up to Tobacco Marsh.”
Stacy nodded. “Big end-of-summer parties up there.”
“Yeah. He always was up couple days ahead. Set up camp. Fish before the drunks invaded. Was surprised to see me but real friendly. Don’t think he knew I knew. Middle of putting up his tent, he went to get us beers and I don’t even know but I saw the hammer in a pile of tent stakes. Really a hatchet on one side, ballpoint on the other. Just walked over like I was comin to get my drink, picked up the hammer and swung it. Hard as I could.”
“Oh my god” Stacy covered her mouth.
“He went down without a peep. Dragged him to the canoe, wrapped him and some stones from the fire pit in a tarp, sunk em out to the middle the lake.”
Stacy was shaking her head, mouth wide open now.
“Gets better.” Dixon gave a morbid laugh. “Had him half over the rail when he got to moaning a little.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ no.” Stacy feigned covering her ears.
“I stopped for a second—just a second—and pushed him over. Sat out there for an hour, at least, make sure he didn’t come up.”
“I don’t care.” Stacy knelt edge of the bed, put her head on Dixon’s leg and petted his hand on her cheek. “He had it coming.”
“Maybe. But they find that body and I’m fucked.”
“I just want you.”
“You don’t even know me.”
She cried a little. “Make love to me.”
“Can’t make love to a whore.”
“No. It ain’t that at all.”
“It ain’t worked in years. Now can we just get outta here.”
“Oh.” She glanced at his midsection. “Go where?”
“Up north. Come stay with me.”
“I’ve got work. And what about him?”
“Bring the kid. I got plenty room.”
Stacy pulled away.
“It’s not on the moon. They have schools. Jobs. Not that you have to, I mean.”
She looked up at him, put a hand to his chest. “I knew about your sister. I mean, I had an idea.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“It’s how they get you. How they got me.”
“Who? What are you talking about?”
Stacy went back to the rocking chair, lit a smoke.
“Calvin did that to you, too?”
“Lots of girls. Just surprised he, well, with your stepfather and all.”
“You don’t know?” she got up, slid the high window open and stared out. “How can you not know?”
“Know what? Look at me. Please.”
“Oh my god. Who you think Calvin works for? I mean, Jesus, you think it’s a coincidence they both worked for your dad?”
“Step-father. And, who both? I know Calvin did some installation work for a while. Who else we talking about?”
“Joey.” She coughed up smoke and shook her head in frustration. “Guy who’s been blackmailing you.”
“Joey Lowell. Joey Lowell has been the one?”
“He was so jealous when your book came out. Started telling people you were paying him to keep a secret. Nobody believed him, of course.”
“Wait, you’ve known all this time and haven’t said a word?”
Stacy sat the bed next to Dixon, a swell of sobs rising in her.
“I didn’t know for sure until you just told me. I figured you knew I worked for your dad. Figured that was why you came to see me, looking for a discount.”
Dixon put on his shoes, pocketed the smokes.
“Where you goin?”
“Take me to my truck.”
Mom cut hard-boiled eggs against her thumb with a paring knife. House was sultry with the stink of boiled potato. Clock over the stove ticked its loud minutes in sad relaxed Sunday silence.
“Daddy’s out to the garage.”
Dixon left without a word.
Old man’s upper half was under the hood of a delivery truck.
“Grab me a medium crescent wrench.”
Dixon dug through plastic trays with hollow jangle.
“Too big. Said medium.”
Dixon just stood there, staring the dusty coveralls until his old man looked at him.
“Did I stutter? Them’s too small.”
“Tell me it’s not true. That she’s a goddamned liar and I don’t have to kill you right now.”
“What the hang are you talkin bout?”
Dixon pulsated with anger. “Do or don’t you have girls working for you? As prostitutes.”
“Ah.” Old man’s annoyed grunt rang under the high pitched roof. Laid his tools atop the radiator and wiped hands on a gray rag. “How you think we paid for school?”
“It’s your fault she’s dead.”
“No. Now I didn’t know nothing about that. Not at the time.”
Old man grabbed a handful of Dixon’s shirt and pulled him close. “Woulda killed em myself if I’d known what he done.”
“But you know about me.”
Old man let go and smoothed the crumpled material on Dixon’s chest. “Next time you haul off and kill someone, be sure they ain’t no witnesses.”
Dixon clenched his fists and screamed up at the tin ceiling. Streaks of tears shined his cheeks.
“Don’t get upset.” Old man patted Dixon on the shoulders. “Ain’t gonna tell no one. Look, what’s done is done. No sense draggin up the past. Sides, you’re a big-shot writer with a fancy life far away from here. Prolly time you head on back.”
Dixon pushed away. Went to the door and stopped. “I’m never coming back here. And I’m taking Stacy with me. If you even try anything—”
“Hold on, now. Your mother’s expecting you at the picnic. And your cousins and aunts.” He smiled a wrinkled smile. “Doin barbecue chicken. Used to love that. And, anyways, I got one a my guys on his way over now with the trailer. Gonna need a hand with them chairs and whatnot. Get em set up out to the park. We’ll talk about this later.”
Dixon wiped the wet from his face onto his blue jeans. “How long you think mom sticks around when she finds out?”
“No. No. No.” Old man spoke slow and deliberate, staring the floor and wrenching his grease-black hands. “You don’t say a word.”
Coffee and small talk for twenty minutes while mom stirred the potato salad dressing and packed boxes with buns and condiments and paper plates. Red truck and trailer drove up the way. Bald man about forty-five came in and filled his thermos.
“Dickie, this is—”
“Dixon Croinbleau.” The man spoke with a long, affected drawl. “Zat really you? What’s it been, like forever?”
Dixon looked up from his coffee, head tilted a little. Hot sick hum of confusion lacquered his middle. “See that, ma. He don’t remember me ay-tall.”
“Joey?” Dixon mulled Stacy’s words, hardly believing this broken-down man-child could shoplift a candy bar let alone—
“How long you been workin for my folks?”
“Joseph’s been with us seventeen, eighteen years now.”
“Well, we better git if we’re to set up by lunch.”
Joey talked all the while they stacked folding chairs and card tables in the trailer and truck bed. He spoke of fishing and his drag car and his hernia operation the year before and the new house he was building. Dixon just listened. And the longer Joey talked, the more certain Dixon became about why his voice sounded so familiar.
“Seem to be doing well for yourself.”
“Oh, I manage alright.”
“Dad must pay pretty good for you to be able to afford all that stuff.”
Smile dropped from Joey’s face. He downshifted ahead of the crossroads. When they were stopped, Dixon put his hand on the back of the man’s arm, vibrating with the wobbling shifter.
“Why don’t we just cut the crap.”
“Fine. It’s Sunday and the account’s still empty.”
“I been busy.”
“Ever-body’s busy. Ain’t no excuse. I need that money.”
“You need that money. You need that money?”
“Suit yourself. Wanna take your chances with a judge-n-jury, go right ahead.”
“Whatta you think my step-father will do when he finds out what you been doing?”
Joey laughed long and hard.
Dixon watched, confused, as the man tapped a cigarette pack against the wheel and lit one.
“Whose idea you think it was? I’m the one told him not to get greedy. Said we had a good thing. Shouldn’t push. He still bitches bout puttin you through school.”
Up over the grass and down into a little grove of trees not far from the beach. Fresh split logs piled high the center. Nine tables end to end in three rows, and they stuck as many chairs as would fit around.
“Forgot the smoker. You wanna stay or come with?”
Dixon shrugged. “I wanna get this settled so I can get on the road.”
“If I was you, I’d just pay. Ain’t worth all the headache over a few bucks. Not with your old man.”
“More than a few.”
Joey got in the truck and started the engine.
Dixon knocked on the window. “You were there? Saw me?”
“Brutal. But, I spose he had it comin. Your sister and all.”
“You know about that?”
“I still watch the tape, Dickie.” Joey wiggled his eyebrows and put the truck into gear.
Hot prickling sweats burst all over Dixon’s skin. He wrenched the door open so hard it bounced back and hit him in the temple, making him see spots. Joey screamed and hit the gas just as Dixon yanked him out by the elbow. The pickup lurched and idled down the beach into the water where it stopped, the bay pouring into the cab.
“Hell is wrong with you!?”
Dixon’s fist landed on Joey’s nose. He hit back. They fell together, with Dixon underneath, hands choking. Flail as he might, Dixon couldn’t break free. Joey grunted as he squeezed. And then, blackness.
Dixon awakened, shaking and lost.
“Wake up! Wake up!” Stacy shook Dixon. “Oh my goodness you scared me.”
“What … my … there?” Spinning gloom came to a stop as bright gray overcast rushed in. Dixon sat up.
Stacy’s hands trembled so hard she couldn’t light her cigarette. “He dead? I think he’s dead. Oh, god. I think he’s really dead.”
Dixon crawled to the body, watched the chest for movement. Shallow red puddle around the bald head and stick of firewood.
“I don’t know.”
Dixon got up. Wobbled. Took her hand. “We gotta go. Where’s—”
“He’s safe. With my mom. What about him?” She pointed to the body at their feet. “What about your dad?”
They rushed up through the trees, back to the parking lot and sat breathing hard in Stacy’s station wagon.
“He’s gonna kill us. Or tell the cops.”
“No. He knows I’ll tell ma what he done.”
“Can I still come?” Her eyes so wide and wet with dead-end dread, Dixon teared up himself.
“Course you can. Now drive.”
As the gray landscape blurred, Dixon whispered, “This town, how can I put this?”