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Chokedamp.

In the blue dawn light my brother paced, his boots pounding loud and the smoke of his cigarette curling under my half-closed bedroom door. John had Mom's beauty made manly, sharp features, long bones and straight teeth.

"Hey, Billy," he called out. "You coming?"

Under the blankets, I was dressed already, Realtree vest over my brown sweatshirt, Carhartt boots laced tight. I'd woke at five and drank three glasses of milk in the dark kitchen but when John's snores didn't stop I'd climbed back in bed. The baseboard heat in Mom's apartment couldn't cut the cold, not like a woodstove would have.

"Look what I found." John pushed my door open and stretched his arms out, showing off his faded denim jacket, spray-painted with the stencil of a car and the words Death Devil--the name we'd give to the Oldsmobile we'd raced in the demolition derbies three summers back.

"You ready?" he asked, turning away towards the living room.

I followed, my muscles stiff with sleep, and grabbed Daddy's Winchester M70 out of the gun cabinet. Up until yesterday, I hadn't seen John in six months, not since the afternoon of his twenty-first birthday when he announced he was joining the Marines, handed me the keys to his Chevelle and got on a bus to Parris Island.

"I've been looking forward to this for weeks," John said, taking the stairs two at a time.

We passed all the other numbered apartment doors, each one the same, with boots and trash bags set outside, smelling of coal oil, baby diapers and damp tobacco.

"I tried to go duck hunting with this guy down in Carolina." John pushed open the front door and moved out into the sharp morning. "Dumbest shit I ever seen. The dude couldn't shut up for a second. We're sitting out there in the duck blind and all he wants to do is talk about how his girlfriend, back in Oklahoma or wherever, loves to suck cock."

John kicked at the door to his Chevelle, loosening the thick ice and pulling at the handle, his shoulders rippling under the Death Devil jacket.

The afternoon John had left for South Carolina, I'd gone into his room. The air had changed already, thickened with dust, as if he'd left long before. I'd rifled through a pile of letters from his ex-girlfriend but they were boring notes full of hearts and flowers and baby-making propositions. In the closet, I'd found the United Mine Workers belt buckle Daddy gave to John when he turned thirteen, and that jacket we'd stenciled and painted together. I'd tried to wear it, but though I was only four years younger than him, the coat hung huge on me, the sleeves almost reaching my fingertips.

"Last night Mom was talking to me." John eased the Chevelle out of the driveway and onto the dark stretch of Polk Road.

"Mom's always talking," I said.

John laughed. "Well, last night she was telling me about this idea she's got of moving to South Carolina."

Turning too quick onto Front Street, John slammed the brakes and the car skimmed to a stop just shy of the wooden railroad-crossing arm. I rocked forward and braced myself, palms flat against the dashboard, as a coal train shuddered past, the yellow cone of engine light piercing the morning air and spreading across the hillside of pokeweed and nettle. I glanced over at John. He drove too fast. He did everything too fast, too showy. Jack-ass-backwards, our daddy would have said.

"She said she tried to talk to you but you just fussed at her."

Through the snow encrusted window the red crossing-signal blinked on-off-on.

"Billy," John said, "this ain't easy for Mom either, but she deserves something like this. A new start, a little apartment down by the beach."

The last train car shivered by and disappeared behind the bend, following Milk River and Highway 64 out towards the Piedmont.

Mom's plan wasn't nothing new. I could see she'd been plotting for the past five years, pretty much since the day Daddy died. When the Frazier mine collapsed all the oxygen sucked out, left the shaft an unlivable lockbox of carbon dioxidized air. A week later Mom started talking about how she couldn't keep the farm going, even with two full-grown boys to help her. She started talking about how much she hated the cold up on the mountain and having to keep the woodstove going. Said it was lonely up there and the land was mean and hard. She kept the farm but used Daddy's whole pension to move me and John and her down off Bethlehem Mountain and into a tiny apartment above the laundromat in Render. Now she wanted to sell the farm and move to the beach. It was nothing new. She'd just been waiting till John established himself out there, waiting till I was almost done with high school.

"I promised her I'd talk some sense into you." John drove up over the tracks and onto Snake Run Road.

"It ain't sense she's talking," I mumbled.

"Why the fuck do you like it around here so much? Huh?" John brought his lighter up to the tip of his Pall Mall. "First you whine and cry about us moving off the mountain and now you'd rather rot here than move to the fucking beach."

Out the window bare trees whipped by. We passed the gravel road that wound around to the Yarborough and Layner cemetery. When Daddy died, they'd tried to say there wasn't room for new graves in the family plot. But Uncle Bud was sheriff of Monongah County and they found space in there somehow. Mom and John and I'd gone up to see his grave yesterday. We put a handful of plastic junk-store flowers in a vase and mumbled some words. I wanted to tell Daddy I was sorry for the whole pitiful scene: Mom fixing the flowers just so and making a fuss, rubbing her dry eyes, John not even looking at the grave, just scraping the mud off his brand new boots, and me not doing nothing, just watching the whole thing. The flowers probably blew away before the afternoon had passed. It didn't matter; it was all fake anyways.

John and I'd gone down to the cemetery by ourselves when we were kids. The day after Daddy was laid to rest, we walked there through the fields behind the old home place. John carried Daddy's bottle of Jim Beam. He took big swigs and then screwed the top closed and walked ahead, swinging the bottle through the waist-high yellow grass. I'd always known where Daddy hid the bottle, in the corner of the woodshed, but before he died I'd never tasted it. I was only twelve but John'd shared the bottle with me anyways.

"Half and half," he said, pouring part of the bottle into a mason jar. "Toast." He raised his bottle high. "To Daddy, the old asshole."

Daddy's grave was mounded, a pile of raw red clay. John kicked at the loose dirt.

"Why the fuck'd you have to die?" he'd shouted.

Spinning around, he'd slammed his fist into the tall poplar that shaded the grave.

"Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you." He kept punching, pounding at the bark until I grabbed onto his arm and pulled us both to the ground. John's hand swole up all purple and bleeding. My face was a mess of tears and snot. Pulling his handkerchief out, John'd tore it down the middle with his teeth. Half for my face, and the other half for his fist.

John turned into the lane and slowed the car to a crawl. The path was choked with multi-flora rose bushes and greenbrier vines. Through the empty winter branches the farmhouse rose up before us, a two-story hulk of a structure covered in yellow tarpaper. John parked the car in the yard and stepped out, stretching his arms and wandering down towards the chicken coop, overrun now with blackberry vines. I opened the passenger door but didn't move.

"Man, I ain't been up here in so long," John hollered, "must be two, three years now. I betcha there's some fat little deers out here, been munching in the apple orchard all fall."

I came up to the old place as often as I could. I brought my girl Regina up about two weeks back; told her how my great-granddaddy built the house in 1903. I'd made a fire in the belly of the woodstove to chase out the cold. Bending close, I lit twigs and paper, coaxing them into a crackling heat that could sustain a larger log. My muscles had relaxed and my mind focused as the yellow flames licked with the promise of warmth. I led Regina upstairs to my parents' old double bed and burrowed my hands through her layers of sweaters and blue jeans to reach the soft mounds of her hips. Afterwards we lay under the mouse-eaten blankets and stared out the window, but Regina complained that it still felt cold. The gray-blue evening light stole across the frozen fields while the neighbor's Herefords moved like patches of rust against the windblown hillside, their breath billowing in great white clouds as they cried out for feed.

"It's spooky in here," Regina whispered. "Come on, let's go."

"Aw, shut up, you sound just like my mom," I'd said, kissing her neck in that soft spot just below her little white ear.

"Hey," John hollered. "Watcha waiting for? The deer ain't gonna come and climb in the trunk."

I reached into the backseat for the rifle and followed John along by the old garden plot where the fence sagged over the rotten posts. In my daydreams I set new posts and rolled out wire to protect the plot where Regina would plant her tomatoes, okra and string beans. Skirting around the house, we took the path past the garbage pile out towards the cliff. John walked in front, head high, rifle slung over his right shoulder.

"Watcha thinking about, huh?" John's voice came out in a nasal whine. "Cat got your tongue?"

I shook my head. "I was just thinking about Regina," I said. "I was thinking about asking her, after we graduate and I get a job and all, if, you know, she'd wanna move up here with me. Fix the place up again. But now Mom's talking all this foolishness."

John's laugh erupted in a snort. "Two things I got to say to you, Billy. First off, no matter how well you're hung or how much money you planning on making, you ain't gonna be able to convince a girl to move up here with you. The place is falling apart man, wasn't all that well built to begin with. Besides, you don't wanna marry the first girl you fuck, there's a whole lot more pussy out there in the world. Move to South Carolina with Mom, you'll see what I mean."

Out in the pasture the wind had sculpted the snow into miniature glaciers and knee-high mountains. I stood still in the crystallized grass and trained my gaze along the edge of the stand of oaks that rimmed the pasture. Stuffing my toboggan in my coat pocket, I freed my ears to catch the slightest rustle.

We chose a grove of tulip poplars and settled ourselves there, crouched low against the trunk of a mid-size tree. Between tuffets of gypsum weed, a plump rabbit bounded, its fat body bouncing across the snow-ice. I raised my rifle but John slapped my arm down.

"You do that," he hissed, "and you'll scare off every damn deer from here to Kingdom Come."

I slumped against the poplar, reaching for the thermos of coffee. My fingers ached and I wished I'd come up here alone. Off the edge of the cliff at the far side of the field I could see the raw open earth at the mouth of the Frazier mine. I always figured I would work there, even after Daddy got killed I still thought of it as a good, steady job. But the tipple burned down in '97 and they closed the whole operation, said slope mining wasn't profitable anymore.

"Lookie there," John whispered.

I followed the barrel of his rifle where it pointed to the slender legs and white tail of a doe, half-hidden beside the trunk of a black oak. She broke from behind the tree and disappeared too quickly into the deeper woods.

"Shit," John said.

I leaned forward, my own rifle raised.

"Now don't get all trigger happy," John whispered. "We'll get her, that's for damn sure, we just gotta wait her out. She'll be back. She's been stuffing herself on them acorns and she ain't gonna be able to resist long."

We sat there a full twenty minutes before either of us spoke again. In the branches above my head a woodpecker tapped. The first heavy snowflakes began to fall, sifting down like feathers and clinging to the dry grass. The deer did not reappear and the excitement ebbed out of me, leaving a cold anxiety. Running my hand along the barrel of my rifle, I felt it smooth against my palm, and there on the stock, my fingers found the carving of Daddy's initials.

When I was eight Daddy'd placed that same rifle in my hands, set me down by the trunk of a locust and told me not to come home without at least one squirrel. I sat at the base of the tree for hours without managing to kill anything. I needed to pee bad but was afraid to move for fear of scaring away the few squirrels I'd seen. So I sat stock still till warm piss spilled down the inseam of my jeans and even then I didn't move, picturing my empty hands and the anger rippling across Daddy's face. After a long while John'd come upon me and pulled me to my feet, laughing. He opened his thermos of lukewarm coffee and poured it down my leg to cover the urine, then handed me a squirrel out of his own bag and sent me home.

"I'm gonna circle around," John announced, "see if I can't get her, if nothing else maybe I can scare her out and you can shoot her in the field. We can't stick around here all day if it's gonna snow like this." He turned his face up, and squinted into the whirling flakes. "We're likely to get stuck."

I nodded as John rose and started off in the direction the doe had fled.

"Now be ready," he called to me. "I might scare her out soon as I walk over thata way."

I stood and lifted the rifle to my shoulder. The woods were silent except for the crunch of John's footsteps in the dry leaves and the echo-whistle of a coal train down in the valley. As I scanned the tree line for movement, my right finger rested lightly on the safety, my left hand steady on the forestock. If I could be the one to shoot the doe, to dress her there in the field and carry her back to town, then maybe John would quit acting like he was the cock of the walk. Maybe then Mom would listen to me for just one second.

The snowfall thickened and I lost sight of my brother among the bare branches. My eyes swam fast up and down the edge of the trees and just as my arms began to cramp a slight rustle and blur of movement pulled my attention to the far end of the clearing. Squinting, I narrowed my focus and pulled the trigger.

As the recoil shuddered into my shoulder, my brother's scream split the silence.

"John?" I called, my heart slamming.

Dropping the rifle, I ran. Snowflakes spun before me, my breath booming loud. I moved towards the shadowed woods, searching the trees for the shape of my brother but snow sealed the line between earth and sky. A world of white.

"John," I screamed again.

Something darted then. The doe. She moved fast, flickering back into the trees, dripping a red trail.

"Shit balls." John stepped out from behind an oak. "Look what you fuckin' done." He walked across the clearing towards me.

My body vibrated with the ebb of adrenaline. "I ... I ... thought ..."

"What? Thought you hit me? Surprised you didn't with what a fucking lousy shot you are." He kicked at the red drops in the snow. "I could of had her easy."

I breathed deep in and out. "We'll find her," I said, my voice steadying.

"Naw." John shook his head. "Not in this kind of blizzard we won't. You barely wounded her." He waved his hands in the thickening flakes. "Besides, I gotta get my car outa here before we get stuck."

John walked tall, with his shoulders all thrown back, and I thought of how his face must of looked while he hid, smiling behind that oak, watching me run all frantic and screaming across the field.

"I ain't lettin' her die and rot out there," I said. "Our people ain't like that, to waste like that. I'm gonna find her and dress her even if it is snowing."

John shook his head. "Man, you do whatever the fuck you want. Me, I'm going home, get warmed up and go shoot some pool. You can track that damn deer to hell and back if that's what you want."

"Fuck you," I screamed at him.

John picked up his backpack and walked towards the woods. I didn't move and when he reached the edge of the trees he glanced back over his shoulder at me.

"Hey, Billy," he hollered. "Come on, man. I'll buy you a beer."

"Fuck you," I screamed again but my voice sounded small, sucked up by the dense snow-clouds, and John disappeared then, into the leafless trees.

The blood-path grew faint in the woods where the snow did not pile as deep and I lost it at times among the browns and grays of the forest floor. I kicked at the piles of damp leaves, shaking my hands to keep the cold out. When I found it again, the blood ran thicker, slick pools dotted across the snow at regular intervals like morse code messages. Bleeding like that, she couldn't of got far. I walked with my head down, pausing now and then to listen for her rustling. When I emerged from the trees and looked up, the dark outline of the old house loomed on the far side of the clearing, and there she was, splayed out below a gnarled apple tree. Following her path, I'd come full circle, round the back way to the house without even realizing it.

She lay on her side, eyes liquid and frantic, thick blood spilling across her brown coat. I knew I should shoot her right then, finish her off and begin dressing her before the storm got much worse, but I'd never been so close to something that was dying. Her eyes followed my movements as I dropped to my knees, still clutching the rifle. Hovering close, I smelled blood and wet soil. The doe's breath slowed, the light brown coat over her barrel of ribs barely rising. Her muscles relaxed as her body grew slack and her eyes emptied. In the silence, I heard the delicate spattering of snowflakes against the dead leaves.

Letting my own breath out, I pulled my Buck knife from the sheath on my belt and rolled the doe onto her back. I made a slit just below the breastbone and pulled the blade down straight between her legs as the purple-red organs spilled out, slick, warm and shimmery wet. Slicing the diaphragm, I reached blindly up inside, her body heat thick on my arms. The flow of dark blood melted the snow around us, soaking through the knees of my jeans and steaming in the cold air. I cut loose the heart and severed the windpipe, but stopped then, sat back on my heels and looked up to the clouds. The snowfall had quickened, fat flakes dissolving on my skin but piling deep on the ground all around me. There was no way I could carry her carcass all the way out to the road in a storm like this. Though my hands knew each move by memory, it was pointless to go on dressing her, to keep spreading the quantity of this waste out around me, snaking guts, pear-shaped bladder and slippery stomach bulging out of the ruptured skin.

The spilled blood turned chill and as the cold crept into my body, anger surged up through me. I thought of John punching his fist into that poplar beside Daddy's grave. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. After that day John never really seemed to grieve, as if the power of that moment had slammed the sadness right out of him.

Footsteps rustled and I glanced up but saw nothing aside from the spindly winter trees and fat clouds, and then there, by the house, the smooth brown back of another doe. She stood beside the front porch, her slender legs meeting the earth precisely where an eight-year-old me had dug two holes for the red and yellow rosebushes Mom always fussed over.

But the bushes were long gone and the house itself leaned to the left, the roof hanging soft with rot under the wet weight of the storm. Looking closer I could see that the living room windows were shattered, the door hung off its hinges. And though she stood frozen in fear, I knew the doe was only waiting. The place was hers now. Come spring, sharp green grass would push up through the rib cage of the deer that lay before me and the house too would slump just as she had. It would fall under the winds and the rains until locust saplings sprang up between the floorboards and twisting oaks climbed through the window frames.
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Title Annotation:NCWN Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, Winner, 2015
Author:Maren, Mesha
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Words:3693
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