The Gran Fury rolled from the supermarket lot—crimped four-door, three passengers—off to the Hess Station and back to the asbestos-shingled two-story, the rain-dimmed living room, and the high-sheen florescence of the kitchen. All’s quiet in the gray Saturday afternoon, snapping on the Weather Channel, slowly awaiting chuck steak and corn and the coming of Christ.
Wayne hadn’t noticed as his sister Charlie finished off almost all of the six pack. When he did, he sprung.
“Fuck you doing, girl?” he said. “Beer don’t grow on trees.”
“Eat me!” she said.
“I don’t fucking eat my sister.”
Their mother emerged, half-invisible, from the smoky kitchen, damp dish towel slung over her shoulder like a weapon. Well, at times—it was.
“Hey, hey,” she said. “Pipe down. Your daddy’s trying to sleep.”
“Yeah?” Wayne said. “Like, three in the goddam afternoon?”
“Well, like some folks actually work,” she said. “Come home tired and beat. Can’t hardly hold ‘emselves up.”
“Ahhg,” Wayne said in disgust. “Gimme that clicker, sister. Don’t care if it’s going to storm or not. Rain’s coming anyway an’ you can’t stop it.” Just then, a July sun broke through the living room windows, only to be thwarted by paisley dollar-store sheets that were fastened as curtains, loyal to the grayness within.
He hadn’t figured out much in life, but Wayne was good with mechanical things and he’d fly through features of the TV remote—last channel, mute, favorites—blind. Sadly, no one much noticed how the stations seemed to dance around when he had command. He paused on a Popeye cartoon. Bluto was wiping the floor with Olive Oyl. Seemed like he was going to rape her, but Popeye stepped in at the last minute, spinached-up (pause for scene of chugging battleships in his mighty forearms), and the wiping, as it were, was reversed.
“Little Jesse’s got the cat trapped in the garbage can,” Mamma cried out from the kitchen.
Wayne and Charlie got up and saw Mamma standing over Jesse, gripping the dish towel, inching it toward deployment in second-hand increments till the kid got the feline out.
“Little shit punched me in the eye,” Wayne said, pointing to a bluish quarter-moon above his right cheek. “See! Bastard’s nuts, you ask me.”
“Didn’t ask you,” Mamma said.
The older siblings returned to the living room. As they sat down, a baby’s cry was heard, coming from the back bedroom. Mamma scurried to assist. Before long, all was quiet again.
An hour on, Mamma announced she and Charlie were taking Jesse and heading out shopping. “You keep an eye on that little baby, hear?” Mamma said.
Wayne signaled “yes” with a smoke-signal wave in the air.
“Steak for dinner, ‘n corn,” she said, going out the door. “Don’t snack to hell.”
With the women and the kid departed, Wayne clicked around the channels aimlessly and lit a bowl of weed. He sunk deep into the sagging couch and stared at the ceiling fixture, a curved dish affair with gold filigree. After a bit, the yellow curlicues seemed to circle-dance like a lame merry-go-round.
A cross Pops shambled through the living room to the kitchen, rattling cans and slamming cupboard doors, grumbling about where the coffee was. When he came into the living room, he plopped in a ratty lounge chair cradling a bowl of Apple Jacks. After two tablespoons, he hung eyes on Wayne.
“What I say about smoking in the house?” he said. “Let me tell you something—I don’t give a fuck about the weed. But your mom’ll kill the two of us if she knows you been . . . you know, it’s the baby. I don’t care a hoot about the pot. Can’t see it’d do the little guy no harm anyways. My daddy was a drunk, left his moonshine all over the damn place. Started stealing swigs when I was six. Didn’t hurt me none. But it’s your mom, see?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
“Yeah, nothing,” he said as he hooked his foot under the coffee table and flipped it over. “Now clean it up and put the pot away. Open the door ‘n air this place out. Can’t do the damn windows—you know how your mamma feels ‘bout that. Got those sheet things stapled to the damn window frame. Psycho, right?”
“I know the fucking routine, Pops.”
“And go fill out an application at the cement plant. I talked to Sam down there. Says he can get you on the rail detail. Nights.”
“I hear you, for the tenth time.”
Pops was in the bathroom shaving and Wayne was on his knees picking pot seeds out of the braided carpet when his friend Ratboy—whose given name was Billy—walked in. He never did knock.
“You that hard up,” Ratboy said. “Here, I got half a lid—”
“Nah. The old man freaked out. Everything went flying.”
“You’re lucky, bro. My mom’s new boyfriend clunks me in the head with the butt of his 12-gauge.”
“Hey, rain’s let up,” Wayne said. “How’s about we go outside and shoot guns or something before the women get back?”
Wayne had set up beer bottles and now-rotting watermelons on two tree stumps. He and Ratboy took turns on his .22 rifle. Wayne was too stoned to hit anything but the watermelons, which were slumped dead on the stumps anyway. Ratboy knocked off the bottles bim-bam-boom!
“You shitheads keep it outside, hear?” Pops said as he climbed into his F-150 and roared off. Wayne turned and pointed his gun at the dust cloud in the truck’s wake. Then he raised it to the heavens and fired a round.
“You say you were holding?” Wayne said.
They flopped into two worn beach chairs—errant vinyl strips flapping in the breeze—and Ratboy pulled out a stash. They passed a bowl around, firing it up with a charcoal lighter.
“Hey, what happened that night down at the lake?” Wayne said. “I never did get the skinny. All’s I know was Darlene punched a guy out and all hell broke loose.”
“The Thin Man. You know the guy?”
“Weighs like 350, right? Well, everything was fine. They had two kegs, weed, even some blow, you know? Place was rockin’, till Darlene—I think she was on ludes, man—decides to strip naked and swing on the tire from the oak tree. Everybody’s hootin’. And you know how fine Darlene is.”
“Yeah, yeah, so?”
“Everybody’s clappin’ and she’s swivelin’ her hips back and forth, lovin’ every minute of it, when The Thin Man reaches out and grabs her on the back swing.”
“Fuck, yeah, and the dude’s like groping her and shit. Those big mitts all over. Darlene was having none of it and starts screaming.”
“And all shit breaks loose—big time. The boyfriend, Nelson? He tackles The Thin Man. Then Wrecker grabs Nelson. Darlene’s screaming louder and louder and manages to get free and high-kick The Thin Man, breaking his nose. Now she’s in the lake and everyone’s on everyone.”
“You shittin’ me!”
“No, I ain’t. Then the troopers show up and almost everyone’s in the drink, swimmin’ for the other side, see? But the cops have boats in the water, searchlights everywhere. Didn’t know you could light up a whole fucking lake. Never seen anything like it. Folks gettin’ hauled in and hauled off to jail, and our buddy Boomer’s hauled in, but he’s dead, bro. Just dead, lying in the damn grass. Fucker drowned, man!”
“And I missed all that?”
“You sure did, pal.”
While Ratboy snoozed in the beach chair, Wayne swung in a nearby hammock, sitting crossways. As the hammock swung one way, he could see two turkey buzzards circling in a ballet between leaf clusters. How would it be, he thought, to be eaten by such great creatures. Would they take his eyeballs first or simply start pulling at the skin on his cheeks? What would it matter, if he was dead already? Wouldn’t it be the way things were supposed to be, like when he throws a shot squirrel into the woods, knowing a screech owl will take him by morning? Aren’t we all to be taken?
Ratboy came to and went to wake his friend. “You with us?” he said, as he kicked at one of Wayne’s work boots.
A groggy Wayne looked up to see his friend rattling a tiny baggy of heroin.
“Oh, so now I got your attention,” Ratboy said.
“Yeah you do. Hey, let’s do it inside, man.”
Ratboy opened his little works bag, emptied some white powder onto a spoon and began cooking. He drew a dose into a hypodermic needle and handed over a belt for Wayne to wrap around his arm. He gave Wayne the first hit, then did himself. They leaned back and faded away.
The house was overcome with a stillness, until the baby started to cry. To Wayne it sounded like an ambulance as it mixed with the rush that was swirling in his head. At one point, he thought he did hear a baby, and tried to figure out how he might gather himself enough to come around and stand on what were now elephant legs.
“That a—a baby crying?” Ratboy said.
Wayne didn’t respond. Now he was transfixed by the muted TV screen displaying a Popeye cartoon. In it, the sailor’s adoptive baby escapes from their house on all fours and finds his way through town, ending up at an active construction site where he rides an elevator to a high floor and crawls off the steel framework, about to fall several floors when a beam swings into view. He manages to mount the beam and move along it, but again is about to plunge when another beam comes into play. Next, he’s heading for an elevator shaft.
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