This excerpt from Benjamin J. Gohs’ dark literary thriller The StickHare finds Henry Coney and his sister Georgia on the run from some very bad men. After fleeing a scene of terrible carnage, the duo finds temporary refuge on a ferryboat. For the first time since their deadly escapade began, Henry contemplates the veritable whirlwind that’s been his life since being released from prison a few months prior.
Not even pretending not to watch him as he watched them. Freak observing freaks. Or the pretense of. And they, too, scrutinized. Without subtlety. Without pity or, worse, overburdened by it. Dyed hair, tattooed skin, heavy lipstick and funny hats, retro slacks and grandma’s jewelry. Noted them with cryptozoological curiosity. Never could grasp the desire for uniqueness.
Delicious tall legs, straight spines, slim fingers, joints without ache. Oh, to be a rebellious genteel youth so safe in the herd. Why would they want to be different? He knew why. Same reason rich people kept poor friends around. Ever’body likes to slum. Now and again.
Henry was used to people gawking at his large head, small body, crooked legs. If a person could get used to such behavior. Was used to a lot of things. Didn’t begrudge them their curiosity. Understood the urge to ridicule. Wondered if the irony had escaped them. Their trying so hard to be different from one another while at-tacking anyone brash or stupid enough to exhibit differences; actual or perceived. Some people think those who have had it rough are immune to the lure of bigotry, the magical qualities assessed against the wills of the small and large, ugly and downtrodden. But Henry knew better.
Line advanced toward the concessions counter and Henry ordered two hot chocolates. Warm and dry inside but crowded. Paid the four dollars and complained quietly through his nose about the outrageous cost all the way back up onto the observation deck of S.S. Badger to ride in the rain.
Mickey Mouse sunglasses she wore. Left much of the bruising on the side of her face visible but at least they hid her blood-filled eyes. Though, it didn’t matter much since they were the only two up top. Drops, hard and fast, came at them slantways up under their hoods. Bad weather for a four-hour crossing. Bad weather for any-time.
“Want some?” Held out a cup. Gave his a sip.
Georgia eyed her big feet.
Moved in and repeated and she flinched when he came too close and looked at him with pinched wrinkles and thin eyes.
“C’mon. It’s good. Yeah?”
Sister’s lower lip folded into a ledge of disagreement above that massive jutting chin. Brother sat, tucked her drink between his legs and worked a cigarette from his coat. That look of hers was one he long ago promised he’d never again allow. Promised who? How many lifetimes ago?
Boat cut the lake with constant rumble and hiss. Finished his smoke and guzzled the oversweet drink and said, “Well, take it now or I’m tossing it.”
Stuck out her hand without looking and he touched the beverage carefully to the center of her wide palm until those big shaking fingers closed around it.
“I’ll be back,” he said and walked the deck and leaned on the forward rail and lit another smoke. Boat closed in on all sides by the same downhearted prison block gray. Droplets collected on the green bar, the iron freckled with blooms of rust bubbling under the surface. Those silent terrible juggernauts of slow decay. Wrenched at the cold metal and thought it funny they always show guys in movies standing at their cell doors, hands on or through the bars. Spent most of his time inside sitting on the floor in the corner, awake or asleep. Then he heard something and looked back. Georgia was drinking her cocoa and chatting happily with Peg. Her head still cocked to hide her face as she’d been told. Rain beaded on her hood. Pearls of liquid glass growing in the mist and in his mind, and he was struck with a remembering that could be said, as much as any event, to be the invention of their current miseries.
Not quite eight years ago.
Wasn’t long after he began his stint in prison the trouble at home worsened. Mom had already been gone a long time. So, when dad had his stroke, and a few years later began developing Alzheimer’s, Henry inherited two invalids. Family carpentry business couldn’t survive without its patriarch, and that was when the little man began hauling packages for Mesick. Good money. Flexible hours. Until he was caught with a portmanteau of chalk and the stupid notion of loyalty.
Hadn’t served more than ninety days when Georgia brought Rex in for a visit. Younger attractive men could have no honorable plans for a woman like her. But what could he do? With mom gone and dad out of his mind? His only thought at the time had been planted in his brain by a lifer who’d had a cousin of similar affliction.
“You know what they do with mental cases that don’t have any family, right?” Those words echoed a long while in the little man’s head.
Priest looked in on her once a week to make sure she had food and toiletries, but she needed regular supervision.
Rex said he was a sous chef at the country club. That he’d met Georgia in line at the grocery store when he noticed the clerk trying to shortchange her. How bad could he be?
“L-love at first s-sight.” That’s what Rex called it.
Georgia wasn’t good for much else but cooing and blushing and holding her handsome beau’s hand. While the other inmates saw their kids, wives, girlfriends, these two—the middle-aged subnormal and the too-good-to-be-true fiancé with the shifty eyes—shared their big news. They’d already married at the county courthouse and he’d be moving in though he’d already been staying there on weekends. Wanted Henry’s blessing and, having no alternative, he gave it. There was no sun to shine on his nothing new.
Even a stranger, he figured, a moderately intelligent one at that, had to be better than leaving two invalids up to god-knows-what. But they needed Henry to formalize a document that would allow Rex to better care for Georgia. For her money. Henry had pretended to think about it, pretended to read, and with a sick pang of resignation—the kind one gets just as they begin to shit their pants—the form was signed.
That was the last he saw of them. Until the seventh turn of the calendar, when the state turned him loose. Springtime at last!
Henry had on the same boyish brown suit he’d worn in court. Sweated through it on the walk from the bus stop. Couldn’t believe how warm it was for May in Michigan, but he grinned huge to have such a free man’s problem.
Walked giddily the whole way. Was there a better feeling than the underfoot crunch of gravel leading to an ancient oasis? When he saw the house, he gave a tiny moan and broke into a run. Crooked little gallop that his malformed hips and knees would allow.
Came panting through the side door, stopping long enough to notice boxes and boxes of empty beer bottles stacked high against the window. Adhered to a cloudy pane, a fly buzzed frantically in a long-abandoned and dust-covered spiderweb.
Henry carefully tore loose a patch of the frail netting and pulled at the sticky strands until the bug was tethered only by its feet. Wiped the web onto the doorjamb and watched the little creature buzz for its life. After a few attempts, it was free.
Remembered smiling big and saying something like, “Make it count, bud.” But the fly completed two turns around the entryway and landed back onto what was left of the abandoned web.
Henry remembered this moment for a number of reasons but mostly because of how disproportionately bad he felt for the fly. How unreasonably betrayed. Took an empty bottle and crushed the pestilent little shit and ended both their suffering.
Opened the kitchen door to a blistering fog of bleach fumes. Georgia on her knees, facing away, wobbling about. Sound of scrubbing hissed like water at full blast out the tap. She made big quick circles with Mom’s old wooden brush. Can of powdered cleanser at her elbow. The ammoniac tang mixed with the bleach and his nose ached until he sneezed.
Slammed the door and Georgia spun on one knee and said, “What the what?”
“Spic-n-span in here.” Henry looked around the kitchen. Darker. Smaller. Same. “Geezus, beanpole, are they feedin ya?”
She looked up, the purple rise on her forehead slow in making sense to him. Shirt rolled to her big biceps, arms cloudy with the fuzzy green phantoms of old bruising.
“Heeen-ryyy!” She hunched like a linebacker with both big fists on the floor and popped up from her knees to her feet and rushed the little man. Picked him up in a hug that made him have to piss, and the two twirled around the kitchen, ballroom style.
She was slick and musky, her clothes crusted with mustard, yolk, ketchup, and the faint smell of maple syrup that he knew to be very old urine.
“Gonna break both our necks. Yeah?”
She set him down and tilted her head and said, “You are to home?”
Wiped her forehead and sighed with an exaggerated “phew” and poured a tall cup of red juice.
“Up the stairs.” Pointed at the ceiling while she guzzled.
Gulped her drink and poured another.
“There coffee?” Henry pushed a chair against the silverware drawer and climbed up and opened the cup-board. There was a can but no filters. Folded a paper towel into the basket and spooned in the grounds and ran cold water.
“Hims don’t talk right.”
“Dad don’t?” Henry flicked the switch and got down and put the chair back. “Well, he really didn’t before.”
“How’s he gettin to the bathroom?”
Finished her second glass and smacked her lips and belched. Childish ring of red all around her mouth. “Diapers.” Fought to quell the wicked grin curling her cheeks but broke out in giggles just the same when she said, “Like a baaaby.”
“What happen there?”
“To your face.”
“Nutheen.” Georgia scowled at the floor.
“I didn’t touch none a it. You sayed me to and I did not.”
“Alright. That’s good. Gonna clean up and take a nap. Wanna get some pizza and a movie tonight?”
Her face brightened before dimming with recognition. “We gotta ask first. Is it To-days? We have pasketti on To-days.”
Pea-green carpet with the orange flecks was black and shiny in a broadening oval on the center of the steps where it had worn down to the warp. Whoever thought that was a good color combination? Maybe he’d pull it up and see what was underneath. And the walls could use a fresh coat of paint. Or three.
Old barn smell got stronger the higher he climbed. Perfume of comic books and Saturdays and green plastic army men and waiting for Christmas morning. Landing piled with open garbage bags stuffed with clothes and books. Floor squeaked the same, but the plaster had more cracks and the ceiling’s brown spots were bigger, browner.
Henry stopped and peeked into Georgia’s room. Old man sitting in her old bed. Propped by pillows, staring at the window.
Old man looked his way but didn’t respond.
“Goddamn glass so dirty can’t see shit.”
Warm fog of accumulated waste choked him as he opened the door all the way. Tried to see what his father was seeing but the backyard garden was obscured by a milky sheet of polyurethane. Said, “Plastic’s still up from winter, Pop.”
Old man groused.
Henry pulled at a bottom corner of the sheeting and then yanked. Staples jingled onto the old pink linoleum. Raspy plucking as he took the sheeting in both hands and leaned back, hauling in the material as it came loose.
Sneezed and checked the lock. Ivory and rust where the old enamel had split and piled on the frame. Hard going but it opened. Looked around for a boost and slid Dad’s drab footlocker under the window. Screen had long ago been pilfered. But the breeze came all the same, breathing sweet spring into the musty hovel.
“Air at last.”
“You know, pop, that garden could use a weeding.”
“Feels like heaven.”
“Maybe I’ll pick up some seeds, now I’m home. Yeah?”
“Been so goddamn hot in here I can’t even tell ya.”
“We still composting? Prolly not, huh.”
Henry felt his chest swell for a brief moment.
“I’d give you a couple dollars … but my wallet. Wife went into town. Does her shopping on Saturdays. Tell my boy. He’s probably down to the shed pulling his pud. Tell em I said give you some pop bottles for your trouble.”
Old man’s eyes were blank again. He looked not at but through the window.
“That’s alright. I got to be goin.” Closed the door and listened. Hoping to hear giggling, some admission it was all just a prank.
His old room was fairly as he’d left it. Boxes and bags piled in the corner. Needed a good dusting and some-one on cobweb patrol.
Tore the plastic off the west and south windows and jerked in a sneezing fit. Lay on the bed, balled his fists, and worked them lightly on his forehead, slow and steady like a kettle drummer on a slave ship in an old black and white movie.
“Now what? Now what? Now what?” Lulled himself to sleep on that quiet mantra and woke to shouting. Looked around, expecting bars and block. But it wasn’t guards or inmates having a row. Late but still light out. Short bursts of angry query shot up the stairs, echoed in the landing. Thinking at first it was mom and dad but that couldn’t be.
“But Henry sayed we could!”
“I don’t g-give two shits what he said!”
“Don’t say me that!”
“Stop acting like a idiot and I won’t t-treat you like one!”
Henry scooted against the headboard. Cool on his neck. Worked the pack from his pants and tapped the plastic lighter and a cig onto the bedspread between his legs. Listened, looking dumbly at his rock-n-roll posters, and lit the smoke and let the ash stretch an inch before flicking it onto the bedside dresser.
Door slammed directly below, and the argument reduced to an angry stuttering monologue. Sounds familiar enough for him to think, just for a second, Mom was home, and Dad wasn’t bedridden. All that was missing was the blare of the TV in protest, and Georgia running into his room to hide under the bed.
But there did come a rapping.
“Yeah.” Henry snubbed his smoke. “Come.”
Door cracked. Georgia squeezed her big face into the opening like some husky raccoon reconnoitering a tent for snacks.
“Hey, you, come on in.”
“We cannot have no pizza.” She flopped on the bed, hung her head and sighed. “It are To-days. We have to have dumb old pasketti on To-days. Dumb old To-days.”
“No biggie. We can do it a different day. You want some help with dinner.”
“I’m not posta.”
“Prolly a good idea.”
Georgia snuffled and wiped her face.
“I don’t want you a go.”
Henry crawled over to pat her hand and she flinched as he neared.
“Easy there.” He moved more slowly. “I’m not goin back. My time’s all done.”
She blubbered some glad gibberish.
“Let’s pick out a movie. Yeah?”
Burble and steam. Henry looked in on his way to the living room. Kitchen alive with the clang of long spoon, and the on-and-off of the faucet.
“We got any beer?”
“He-Henry. G-good to see you.”
Henry pulled back the spring-loaded handle on the refrigerator and let it clatter to its resting place. Always sounded to him like a cartoon sound effect. Studied the old behemoth. Chrome cloudy and pitted, rust spots spreading upward from the base threatened to reach the freezer someday soon. Sad polka dots on this obese apparatus. Throwback to McCarthy, to exceptionalism, to happier times.
Rex kept stirring at the stove.
“Dad used to paint this every spring. Easter break. Just flecks off eventually but it slows down the rust. Looks like it ain’t been done in a coon’s age.” Henry waited for a response. Pulled the handle back and let it go. Pulled once again until it was almost far enough to free the locking mechanism, and he let it rattle to its resting place.
“Dammit.” Rex slammed his stirrer onto the stovetop. My nerves are already shot.”
Henry watched the tall man’s body stiffen, and he gave the handle one last flip before opening the door.
Rex grumbled through his teeth.
Henry checked the crisper and took a brown bottle and shut the fridge with his heel and flipped the cap onto the table. “I’ll slap a coat on er tomorrow.”
Rex sighed and took the pasta to the sink and put a dinner plate over the pot and tipped it sideways, his arms vanishing in a cloud of steam.
Henry guzzled half the beer and forced a belch. “How long til din-din?”
“R-ready when its ready.”
Stared at each other for five long seconds before Henry raised his eyebrows and left the room.
On screen, a fat boy with ice-creamed cheeks pleaded with two bumbling goons. Rex hollered suppertime. Georgia stood quickly from the couch and turned off the TV and VCR before rushing away.
Henry replayed the scene in his head to make sure he’d seen what he’d really seen and whispered, “Yes sir, drill sergeant.” Took his smokes and empty bottle and sauntered across the house, listening as low voices dis-cussed his fate. Put his bottle in the empty side of the sink and rinsed his hands in cold water and grabbed an-other beer. Three steaming plates of plain pasta on the table.
Georgia agreed, her hand hovering above her fork.
“B-better be.” Rex took a small pan from the stove and poured a heaping amount of red sauce over his spaghetti.
“Just a touch.” Henry held a slim slice of nothing between his finger and thumb.
Rex dripped one spoonful over the noodles and waited.
“Perfect,” Henry said.
Rex came around the other side and smothered Georgia’s plate. “And f-f-for my lovely wife, who j-j-just l-l-loves my sauce.”
Every time Rex’s hand moved too quick or too close, Georgia’s eyelids fluttered, her body tightened.
Malaise filled Henry’s chest and he washed it away with more beer.
“Don’t you.” Rex stared at Georgia, but her attention was on her food.
Georgia tilted her plate.
“Look at me when I t-t-talk at you.” Rex slammed the pot, sending a geyser of boiling sauce up his wrist. “Ow! Shit.”
Georgia trembled, looked at Henry with shining eyes.
Release was long in coming and finally Rex said, “Only teasing, b-baby. Eat. Eat.”
Georgia grimaced and took a bite.
Rex hid his face until his plate was empty.
Henry sipped his beer and watched the happy couple.
“Too good for Italian?” Rex put his fork on his plate and pushed it away.
“Not too good for anything. Just takin it slow.”
“I will have it.” Georgia’s cheeks were orange, her forehead flecked with sauce.
Henry pushed his plate at her until Rex’s fist made the table jump.
“W-w-wanna get fat?”
She looked away.
“If she’s hungry, she’s hungry.” Henry tossed back the last of the foam and tasted the sweet and sour in his mouth and decided he’d have another cigarette. “Looks like she could stand a few pounds.”
“You got something m-m-more you wanna say? I swear. I work all day, handle the house, w-watch over that sick old man and take care of my l-l-l-l-lamebrain wife and all I g-get is accusations?” Rex took the empty plates to the soapy side of the sink. “N-not hungry. She just l-likes to eat.”
“Whatever you say, m-man.” Henry put his bottle down hard.
“I’m goin to town.” Henry looked at Georgia as he spoke now. “Need anything?”
“Ain’t gonna d-do themselves.” Rex wiped his hands on a checkered towel and threw it at Georgia on his way to the living room.
“I can do the dishes. Yeah?”
“N-no. Her job.”
Henry waited for the sound of the TV before sliding his plate the rest of the way to Georgia. She covered her mouth and flitted her eyes to the door as she took big bites. Her joy was pure.
Henry patted her hand and excused himself from the table and went upstairs and showered and found clean jeans and a t-shirt still hanging in his closet. Clink and drag of fork on porcelain in the hall and he looked in on Dad.
Georgia sat the edge of the bed, chopping noodles and shoveling them into the mouth of sparse brown teeth. Charybdis, the little man thought but wasn’t sure why.
“Henry?” Old man sat up. His gaze different, knowing.
“Yeah. It’s me.”
“When did you, I mean, I thought you were gone. Gone-gone.”
“I’m back now.”
“Yeah. It is good.” Henry watched Dad’s face and took in that old subtle visage of good humor and confidence. In the lines of his temples and scrunch in his cheeks, there again the vestiges of the one they lost so long ago. What is a man if not his eyes, his smile? Waited for him to recite a line of Poe, stanza of Emerson. But in the matter of a chewed mouthful, the look was gone and with it that familiar ghost.
Later that evening, Henry walked the dirt road to the highway. Even with the sun gone it was warm out still. Unseasonably so. Made him think of the year they had a green Christmas. Snow right up until the week of—and by Christmas Eve, there was nothing but steady rain and standing water. Shit, that must’ve been ‘84, right bud?
Eight cars going his way flew by him without so much as slowing. Peepers in the cedar swamp sang so that passing vehicles couldn’t be heard until they came whipping around the bend, lights popping into life on the birch stand along the south side of the road. Number nine stopped a little ways ahead and reversed and told him get in.
Offered the guy a dollar for gas but he declined it and dropped Henry off in the city at the little brick pub with the bustling backroom. Asked after Mesick and the waitress said he’d be in later. Sat sipping two-dollar vodka and lemonades until the man he needed to see arrived. Finished his drink and flagged his server and she told him betting stopped at eight.
“It’s not for a bet.”
“I’m sorry, hun, but he’s not seeing anybody right now.”
“It’s OK. He knows me. Tell him its Henry. Little Henry.”
Girl took the money and the empty glass and didn’t bother hiding the disdain in her eyes. After a couple minutes, he got the OK and the girl led him back to a tidy little office with two metal desks and four straight-backed chairs. Nothing on the walls.
“My little friend.” Mesick opened a lower drawer and pulled out a manila envelope and placed it between them. “Have seat. Please.”
“How’s things.” Henry looked around the mostly empty room. Everything the same except for the Czech. A little heavier. Hair getting shaggy.
“No complaining. Yourself?”
“I’m alright. Other than being a little short. On funds.”
“Funny guy, you are.”
“So, I was wondering.”
“Vhat you vas vondering?”
“If I could borrow a few bucks. Just til I get some things going.”
“How they treat you?”
“No trouble. Other than that one thing. Your guy straightened them out.”
“Prosim. Is good.”
“Thanks again. For everything.” Henry withheld the thought that, out of everyone who should be saying thank-you, it shouldn’t’ve been him.
“Prosim. Ve take care. Ya? Not so many do business the right vay no more. But you, my little friend, you is dobrý muž.”
“Ano. Ano.” Mesick slid the envelope across the desk.
Henry put the package in his coat pocket and nodded.
Mesick lifted his hand in the direction of the door and said, “Come back next veek. Ve talk.”
Outside. Little man counted the twenties. Five hundred bucks. Not quite seventy-two dollars for each year in-side. Still, it wasn’t nothing. Promised himself he’d use it to get started doing something right.
All the way to the off-track parlor, he told himself he wasn’t going to give in, that he just wanted to look around, see some old faces. When he got there, he counted the bills five more times before putting it all on the long-shot in a morning race in Seoul.
Second the money was out of his hands, a familiar sickness filled him. Nervous anticipation. Shame. Like he imagined heroin users felt at plunger’s first push. Made him calmer, happier even than when he’d parted the gates of the prison earlier that morning.
Rex was still on the couch watching baseball when Henry got home. Grunted at each other and the little man went straight up and flopped on his mattress to let the room unspool. Chest fast and heavy, he closed one eye to slow the spins. Between Dad snoring down the hall and the announcers shouting downstairs, he couldn’t sleep.
Used the bathroom and drank from the faucet and laid back in bed. Pulled a thick envelope from his pocket and counted it again. Thirty-seven-hundred. Who ever wins the longshot? Nobody. That’s who. Korean horse that would have been dog food by the end of the week had saved its own life and Henry’s with an impossible win. Or prolonged them anyway.
Closed his eyes and waited for the comforting drone of lights-out, evening lockdown. Cage doors slamming, squeak of boot on polished painted concrete, slitherous echoes down long dark halls. But it did not come.
On the inside, Henry concentrated on his cellmate’s snoring. Something so simple and normal. Those were the bits that got him through. To cope with the unfamiliar, look for the familiar.
After he’d learned to latch onto the small things, the place wasn’t so terrifying. Forced detention, loss of control, dehumanizing of the self—they were not pleasantries. But for Henry, what hurt most from moment to moment was the theft of intimacy. Taking a long luxurious dump. Showering without an audience. Eating late at night out of a refrigerator if he cared to. Feeling vulnerable. All things impossible under the searching, pitiless scope of State and Psychopath.
Henry strained his eyes in the dark as if the sounds could be seen. Divined like some trickster alchemist’s radiograph.
Over the downstairs din came Dad’s raspy breaths. Imagined himself back in his bunk and realized he was missing the place. Closed his eyes and thought incarcerated thoughts and soon he slept.
Woke a short time after to a horrible screech. Or at least he thought. Echo of a scream. Sound was gone by the time he gasped himself into consciousness.
“Hello?” Henry looked around in the dark, sure he was back in his cell. Twelve-thirty by the orange clock light. Sat up and again the sound came. Cats fighting? But not outside.
As his awareness expanded, he realized it was something else. Human. Not outside his window. It was Georgia. Crying? Not exactly. Vigorous crunch and shameful squeal of the old parental bed below his room twisted Henry’s guts.
Lit a cigarette and slid the windows as high as he could reach. The east frame went up most of the way, but the southern casing stuck by half. Took off his shirt and pants and leaned out the east window and let the sweet night breeze fill his ears with a shush that drove away the maddening marital scene downstairs.
Deafened to the indignity, he sucked the cigarette just to see the cherry glow and coughed on the hot smoke. What you gonna do about Rex, bud? What can you do? They’re married. They have papers. You got nothin.
Woke at five with a throb in his crown and in his teeth. Looked at the ceiling and waited for the thousand foot-steps, jingle of keys, hoots, and expectant hungry groans of those well-rested beasts anxious to be let from their stalls. Instead, he heard the old familiar rattle and tick of hardwater throbbing through the house’s aging copper veins.
Found his pants on the floor and checked the pocket for the envelope and counted the bills before dressing. That one impossible bet, he knew, was enough to sustain his fool heart for a very long time. Maybe forever.
Smell of coffee brewing knotted his guts, but he wanted a cup anyway. Found a mug and pulled the pot out with sizzle-hiss-splash and poured too quickly and mopped the brown puddle with a clean dish towel.
“P-pour me one.” Rex sat the table, putting on his shoes.
“Cream and sugar?”
“Think I’ll do a little fixing up today.” Henry worked his gnarled fingers into the porcelain ear of the mineral-stained cup and soft-stepped to the table and put Rex’s coffee down. “Fridge needs paint. Yard’s way past a cut. And most these windows gotta be opened and washed.”
“Stop. J-just st-stop.” Rex took his cup between his thumb and fingers like he was holding a shot glass. “Stop already. You stayed last n-night without asking. And that’s whatever but this isn’t gonna be some kind a d-deal you can just come in my house and start t-t-taking over.”
“Your house.” Henry blew waves into his caramel liquid. “The house that Social Security checks built.”
“It’s G and mines.”
“You know what, I’m not doin this. You want me out, I’m out. I’ve had enough a this place to last a fuckin lifetime.”
“F-Friday. I got people coming this w-w-weekend and don’t need any more headaches.”
“I’ll be gone before then. Got my own cookin gig lined up anyway. You can have this rat hole if you want it. But, really dude, you need to lighten up.”
Rex buttoned his chef coat and said, “I don’t know you and you sure as shit don’t kn-know me.”
“Just stop putting hands on her.”
“N-need to m-mind your own b-business.”
“Or,” Henry said, his head low and eying Rex through slits of pure hate, “I’m gonna pay someone a hell of a lot meaner than me to do you likewise. Yeah? Yeah? Yeah?”
Rex halted at the door and jangled his keys and Henry started to line up for breakfast but stopped himself.
“T-t-tell your sister to l-listen better and I won’t have to.”
Little man’s teeth ached under the weight of his stiffening jaw as he watched the tall man go. Followed him to the door and stood looking as Rex got into a fairly new white pickup and pulled out onto the dirt path that led to the gravel road. And when he was out of sight, Henry gave him the stubby misshapen middle finger.
Took his coffee out to the shed. Had rained late in the night and the grass was cold and soaked his pantlegs to the knees. In the workshop where there had been nails and paint and Grampa’s brass tools, it was now filled with amplifiers, guitar chords, a drum set, and heavy metal posters on all the walls and windows.
Henry kicked the snare over with a clatter and stomped back into the house, down into the basement. More trash bags piled everywhere. Looked inside a few. Mostly clothes and books. Mom’s and Dad’s stuff. Ornaments, keepsakes, Family photo albums. In the corner, three wooden apple crates. Top one with handles sticking out. Brushes, bolts, drywall screws.
“Not a drop a friggin paint? Are you kidding?”
Brushes caked and stiff. Every one. Henry stomped back upstairs into the kitchen. Looked around and said, “Goddammit.”
“What’s a matter?” Georgia put away the cereal box and topped her bowl with milk.
“Nothing. Lookin for dad’s tools.”
“We had a garbage sale. Last summer.”
“You mean a garage sale?”
“Uck. Sold Grampa’s good tools? Those’re irreplaceable.”
“Rex sayed it are junk.”
“I don’t care what Rex—I gotta make a trip into town.”
“I can come?”
“If I had a ride you could. It’s too long a walk.”
“I’m a fast. I can go faster. Please. I can.”
Brother and sister hiked to the end of the gravel road and waited out on the highway. Worktime traffic picked up, but everyone seemed too hurried to notice them. Half an hour and nobody stopped.
“We’re gonna have to hoof it. Sure you don’t wanna go back?”
She gave that slow exaggerated nod and as they walked, they talked.
“Where’s dad’s money goin?”
“Who’s been cashing his checks? What about your checks?”
Covered her eyes with her hands and Henry pulled them away and said, “He always mean to you?”
“You know who I mean.”
“I mess up things every times and it um stresses his nerves.”
“Can’t let him do that. He hits you, ya need to hit em back.”
“Nooo,” she sang with an embarrassed beam.
“I’m serious. He got no right.”
“I can’t not.”
“Why?” Henry stopped, jerked his sister’s forearm til she faced him. “Tell me why not.”
The mirth in her high cheeks slackened and she pulled her arm free. “Be. Cause. I. Love. Him.”
Henry sat Georgia at a table with a red pop and asked for an application. Older woman behind the counter handed him a form and a pen and said, “You do time?”
“I called earlier about the cook job. They said come down.”
“I asked if you been in prison.”
“Can you cook?”
“Do you steal?”
“You kill anybody?”
“You plan on killing anybody?”
“Sorry. No ma’am.”
“Alright. Forget the paperwork. I need a body who can start tomorrow. Cash. What’s your pal over there do?”
“Nothing. I mean, she’s a good worker but she doesn’t work. She’s uh—”
“I need a dishwasher, too. Think she could handle it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Well lemme know.”
Henry ordered them lunch there and halfway through the meal he asked Georgia how her food was.
“What you think of this place?”
She nodded vigorously and spoke a garbled “yeah” through a mouthful of fried chicken and potatoes.
“How would you like to work here with me?”
Georgia swooned cartoonishly and feigned a fainting spell and lay there in the booth.
“Is that a yes?”
Slowly, her fist raised above the table and up popped her thumb.
“C’mon, ham. Sit up and eat your food.”
She sprang up and swallowed and said, “I can cook like Rex?”
“No. You’d be washing dishes.”
“I can get my check and buy moneys for shopping?”
“You’ll have to listen close. And do a really good job.”
“Yes. Yes,” she said, bouncing in her seat. “I-I-I will do it”
“Alright then. You finish up and I’ll be right back.”
Was late when they came home from shopping and seeing a movie. Rex already in a rage when Georgia told him the good news.
“It’ll be good for her.” Henry patted her hand. “She needs to get out the house more.”
“You stupid b-bitch.” Rex threw the cutting board into the sink. Chopped onion flew all over the counter and rained against the window above the faucet. Slapped his hands clean on his pantlegs and leaned against the sink with his arms crossed, eying brother and sister.
“I’m sorry.” She sidled to him, cowering with her hands in the air, clenching and opening like a toddler’s in want of sweets as she did. “Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”
“This’s gotta stop.” Henry’s words came just as Rex backhanded Georgia across the bridge of her nose. She cowered and held her face. All three suddenly silent.
Henry charged across the room and punched Rex in the crotch. But Rex only let out an angry laugh and shoved the little man to the floor and went to Georgia’s side.
“Ow!” she yelled when he put his hand to her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, baby. W-w-was an accident.”
Georgia backed against the refrigerator and jerked her arm free of his grip. Rex held her face, false kindness gone from his voice, and squeezed until she yelped. Slammed her against the metal door and put his hands around her neck and growled, “The hell is your p-problem.”
“No, goddammit.” Henry sobbed in his rage as he scurried around the table and fought to pry the tall man’s hands from their deadly grasp. “Let go. Let her go I said. Now!”
Rex released her long enough to punch Henry in the forehead and the little man went down hard.
“Henry, no.” Georgia coughed and gave Rex a two-handed shove to the chest so hard he fell straight back as though she’d tipped a chest of drawers. Back of his head caught the kitchen table on the way down. And Rex didn’t move after that.
Kitchen was still and the air too heavy for Henry to breathe. Floor so strongly scented of bleach it burned his nose.
“Oh my Christ,” Henry said as he got to his hands and knees and used a chair to help him stand. “We’re so fuuucked.”
Georgia dropped to her knees and shook Rex’s disinterested body. Mumbled that it wasn’t on purpose over and over again until Henry led her upstairs and parked her in Dad’s room with a coloring book and crayons. She just sat there staring at him with wide eyes, open mouth, wet cheeks.
“You stay upstairs for now. Yeah?”
Big tears dripped from her quivering chin.
“I gotta,” Henry put his hands on his head, “go check on em.”
“He is sleepin?”
“He sick. I needa take him somewhere to get better.”
“Hims to thee hop-spital?”
“Just stay put. Yeah? I won’t be long.”
“Halfs to come back to give me a baby. He promised.”
“Just color a while. It’ll be OK.”
“I want my baaaby. Say me it.”
Henry did promise she’d get her baby. As he promised he would never let anyone hurt her again. More lies, bud.
S.S. Badger’s horn sounded, and Henry jumped out of his daydream. Looked around. Georgia made Peg dance on her lap. Pink fur laid flat by the wet. Rain enough to baptize the human race, to drown the world.
He sat with her and held her wrist. “What you doin?”
“Nutheen.” Her head jiggled in defense of the accusation.
“Look. I’m sorry about what I did. But you had no reason to go after Carol.”
“Follow them rules.”
“I told you we were leaving soon. I just wanted to—”
“Didn’t not get no baby. Didn’t not get no husbands. You promised.”
“Yeah, well, people promise a lot a things and it don’t usually amount to shit.”
“Wanna go home.”
“How many times I have to tell you?”
“What bout dad?”
“Don’t you get it?”
“Where we are go-een to?”
“You tell me. You’re the one in touch with the mystical road atlas.”
“Wanna go to home.”
“Well, which is it: you wanna follow them rules or go home?”
“What we ought to be doing is waving bye-bye to all this bullshit and heading down to Gibtown.”
“What means that?”
“Don’t matter. We can’t go there.”
“Go to where?”
“Place where all the freaks go when they’re not working at the circuses and fairs. Thought maybe we could go. Before all this. But now I don’t know.”
Georgia cocked her head and closed one eye. “What means freaks?”
“You and me, kiddo.”
“Brudder and sister?”
Badger bellowed again. Land appeared larboard.
“I wanna. Go. To. Home.”
“Well, we can’t. We can’t ever go back. You made damn sure a that.” Henry watched their destination slow-ly growing in the mist and repeated that desperate plea to the wind and the rain and to himself. “We just can’t.”
Georgia looked deep into his eyes, her incongruous tinge of lucidity lurking once again, and sprayed him chest to lap with the upchucked remnants of hot cocoa and two sloppy joes.