Issue No. 3 – March 2014
JOHANNA STULL, 3/11/88, BLOND, BROWN
Eugene’s partners have gathered on the gravel bar below the rapids at Tulla Bridge, where so many tourists in canoes take spills and lose watches, rings, cameras, sunglasses and so much else, adding their treasure to our riverbed, and Eugene wanted me there. He wants me along as his witness when he tells this bunch how he’s not worried about the mailman any more, that testimony won’t get said, and the cows can be moved to a sale barn in a few days or a week. Buster Leroy Dolly is sitting on a folding chair, bare feet in the Twin Forks, canned beer between his legs, and a handful of other fully dressed fellas also hang about, smoking weed, snorting stuff that snorts, conspiring idly and drinking plenty in the fine sunshine.
When tourists roll over the rapids the men shout numbers at them, ranking their water skills from one to ten, watching them panic when the canoes take air over the rocks, or slap about uncertainly with their paddles and spill sideways. Nobody on the gravel bar is dressed for the beach but they stand as a chorus near the lip of the river and point, laugh, suggest to the pretty that they could become dear friends right quick, all those things. The tourists glance over, scowl or grin if they don’t tip, listen to their scores and paddle faster downstream. They don’t seem to mind the scoring much. We are cousins at some remove, me and most of these men, but I never cared for this bunch and they never cared for me back, which leaves us kin and almost strangers.
Eugene is high for the day, the mailman cooled, whiskey bottle passing, that shit he snorts when he wants to feel his head get turned over, emptied of echoes. He gives me a squeeze, a rap on the arm, and says I did okay, have fun, welcome home again and everything. Eugene high is a person I avoid even more. When he shouts numbers, the tourists sense the deep wrongness in him and paddle harder if they don’t spill. If they spill they have to scramble and splash to the gravel bar in their cut-off shorts, wet t-shirts, bikinis, and feel his shadow lay over their skin.
“Which college is it you girls go to? Like a hand rightin’ your canoe?”
Buster Leroy, the next boss in line, has a quick smile and dimples and no fear of anything breathing, though he is careful with Eugene. He’s of the right bloodline for the throne hereabouts, the throne in the shadows, and he waves me to his side. He’s wearing khakis hiked up to the knees, and a blue shirt with the tiny crocodile over the heart. His hair is combed upwards and backwards, a blondish swoop with fractures of white running above the ears, ending in a duck tail long enough to knot. Little clouds of fish jerk around his toes nibbling. His smile almost fools you. He says, “Well, now—I see you went off and lived through it, young cuz.”
“So they tell me.”
“Good on you. Welcome back to the world.” He swatted a hand that hit my knee like a pat on the back and raised dust. “I been wonderin’ how’s your grandma doin’.”
“Her heart might quit, but she won’t.”
“Never believed she would. We used to throw walnuts at each other, little kids, second grade or so. Third.” He stared down and out at circles on the water he studied as the river skated south. It was a long broody stare to take among company. Then his head raises. “Reckon that mailman’ll be forgetful now?”
“He needs his health.”
“That’s sure as hell true—mailman like that has got to have his health.”
“I won’t be ridin’ shotgun for any more of that shit.”
“Didn’t like what you saw, huh?”
“Didn’t like seein’ it here.”
Buster Leroy cranked his head around and his eyelids drew back flattened as he stared at me. The greased style his hair was combed up into was pretty olden, yet many roadhouse gals of today liked his style plenty when his eyelids weren’t flattened that way. He made me wait a spell, staring his power into my chest, trying to command my blood to flow backwards, maybe, then said, “You ain’t goin’ to be partnerin’ with Eugene?”
My feet were sinking into the gravel and water gathered over my boots, starting out to drown me slow from the toes on up. I put more weight on my heels to dig down further.
“Not in this lifetime.”
A canoe carrying two heavy fellas in armless shirts got hung up on the rocks at the little drop below the bridge. The tip stuck out three feet above the water but the middle had gone aground, and when the fellas grunted, grunted and shoved loose, they went nose down too straight and scattered everything they had into the current. The partners on the gravel laughed, hooted, pointed, but somebody shouted them a rating of ten, anyhow, since they kindly donated so much shiny new shit to us.
Buster Leroy said, “Good— I won’t have any big problems with you somewhere down the line then, will I?”
This bunch counts on fear to mold you. Their histories tend to bully you, till your insides and plant numerous fears of them that grow higher in your guts the more you know them. They are bullying you even when they’re smiling, slapping your back, saying good to see you again, calling you cuz.
I said, “You never do know. That’s what you learn.”
The girl had crawled under a low willow above the riverbank and is still hiding from the sky and everybody else when I approach. Flashlights are shining around, a couple at the willow, the others at Eugene, who is shitfaced and mumbly, mostly undressed, lurching along the gravel bar, dark scratches on his chest. The girl is curled up, looking straight down toward something certain and invisible, shivering, showing sunburned shoulders and a pale stripe where her swimsuit strap belonged. I only see her in spots as the lights bounce about. The noise of the rapids is so much louder in the night. Spots of light bouncing sudden pictures.
Somebody says, “We wondered where he’d slunk away to, then we heard screams and knew.”
“How come me?”
Buster Leroy says, “He’s your fuckin’ Daddy, that’s how come you. This one’s a local girl, too, from town, here. Them canoe people’ll be lookin’ for her by now. You best take care of her, understand? Carry her to a doc or somewhere and tell her how it goes testifyin’ against Eugene.”
I bent to the girl, spread the curtain of whips and scooted close under the willow. She made a sound I hurt to hear, shivered more. Her nose is risen into a bitter lump, with blood and snot fallen in tangles onto her chin and chest. Her swollen top lip is bloused over the bottom. She’s squeezing the panty-piece in her hands, the bra-part of the suit is gone. I get a grip and tug her standing. She’s sleepwalking now. She just squeezes those striped bright bottoms.
“Put those on, won’t you?”
Somebody says, “I don’t believe I ever was even here.”
She steps into the leg holes slowly, like she’s standing on something brittle that might snap apart and she’d fall through to the lava pit if she stepped down hard, then crosses her arms. I pulled my shirt off and pulled it around her, shook her to get her arms open, hands through the sleeves, buttoned the buttons, and her eyes cringed in their holes and looked through me by then. I held her arm to guide her across the dirt in the dark, over to the truck, and set her inside. There’s vomit in her hair. Everybody starts leaving the river where they never saw a thing, never even were, slamming doors, rumbling motors, a quick convoy gunning tires away from this scene. She makes that hurting sound again. I said, “Don’t blow.” She looks at me all bewildered and bashed, a girl who woke rested in a familiar world and will be sleepless a while in this sudden new one. “Nose. Air might get in there and swell your face up worse.”
The headlights cut a short lane in front of the truck, the trees so thick, weeds so close to the dirt, and dust huffing. I can’t see far but I’m rolling hard. She’s clutched up to the door, this hurt town girl, window down, wind pushing the soiled yellow hair from her face. Her legs are bruised with his fingerprints and her toenails are painted blue. She keeps staring at me, bruised good and hoping hard I won’t become her next nightmare.
“That man’ll get after you and stay after you if you call the law.”
It was the shivering of her body that just drew me in, let me know her deep of a sudden, the puffing of her face and the vomit in her hair let me know her more, in that way hurt knows hurt. Her legs stretch to the floor, her hands come down and grab her knees. That hair flutters so yellow and mussed. Then a streak of recall hits her, I get it, I get it, I do know well that quick dumping of wrong feelings or thoughts or memories of fearful instants or ugly deeds that take over the screen and flicker scenes in your head whenever you don’t want them, and she raises her hands to her face and goes away behind her palms. She has to breathe through her mouth, each breath like dry limbs rubbing. I feel dizzy just then, too.
She sickens again on a curve and I yank the truck onto the shoulder. Her knees drop to the floorboards and she’s chucking the scrapings from her gut in small doses. A puddle is arranged there, not in a circle, but spread thin and bumpy with salad bits. I grabbed a rag from under the seat and swabbed at her, rubbed puke from her hair, blood from her neck, then turned her face to me and wiped the drool, raised her back onto the seat. I felt her breath carry onto me. Not far down the road, I said, “It’s a bad man you run into, and he’ll come to your house, too, hurt you and yours, do about anything.”
Nothing else gets said—sentences shoot away from me and dive into darkness fast as minnows in the mind. It’s a dank, clabbering quiet between us all the way to West Table, and I drive her to the town hospital, pull in on the emergency-room side. There’s nobody standing there, just glaring overhead lights and a glass double-door. I run around the truck to help her out and she lets me touch her, touch her fingertips. She stands under the bright arch and brigades of bugs beating away against every light above, in my old shirt and her stained white bottoms. Her eyes are on me, wounded tight. There’s a nurse in the hallway.
I said, “I hate to see this happening here.”
When you scare things you’re going to eat, you sour their taste. I tried to herd the cows gently, without making them bawl or bolt, but Eugene and his partners just whacked at them with sticks and hollered, pushing them toward the loading chute. The truck had markings that were too faded to read, and the cows went into the little pen of iron bars and filed right up the ramp as more whacks landed. This day had the windiest weather since I came back and my skin felt called to the mood of the sky, fluttered. I stood off to the side of the chute, part hidden behind the trailer door, but the cows’ eyes kept finding me as they went up, giving big grave looks of things that know and know there’s no way out and say it to me in those doomed looks that say it all anywhere you go. Several adults shit on the ramp and the calves stretched their necks to the limit and screamed and pissed streams.
Eugene said, “Smells like payday!”
Colors jumped up and splashed in my head as I walked the pasture—various blues, odd whites, those nervous greens so alert they hum in the brain. The sun was sulky in the sky behind early clouds and I walked around the red clay wallow, the pasture empty now, missing the cows that had rambled amidst so much good grass and rested in the shade. When I hopped the north fence all that emptiness watched me go.
Eugene was outside the hay barn, banging away at his truck, a truck I considered white, or close to white, trying to loosen the lugs on a wheel with a gleaming black tire. He said, “About time, Colonel Purple Heart. Plenty of repairs need doin’ round here—pitch in.” Eugene gives me orders so freely. I said, “Aye, aye.” Those lugs are not coming loose, and he hunkers low to beat at them with a small hammer, break the crud and rust away. There’s a heavy pipe in the junk pile that fits my hand. He’s squatted by the gleaming tire, banging that hammer, my rough-cob daddy, and I stepped closer to his bent back, hefted the pipe. One good whack opened his head and dropped him to the dirt, and I stood back to keep my boots clean. He wiggled on the dirt quite a bit and dumped. Running blood kept making me inch backwards.
His stink came and went like a shit ball the wind kicked.
I sat on a stump, stretched my legs and listened to morning birds in the pasture, waiting for his chest to stop pumping, feet to stop shaking. The skull bone had opened enough to see something gummy was contained in there, and the bone was a moistened whiteness inside a shawl of scalp and hair that was slightly flung back from the split. Blood escaped through the split and down his skin but turned to thick gunk in the dust. Busted heads always make a puddle.
My bones had sweetened to the root swinging that pipe.
He still heaved and one foot yet jittered when Grandma stood behind me. She’d come quiet up the pasture and around the fence. She was in hospital slippers and a summery dress with the color washed from it, her homemade sunbonnet, face showing sadness, limbs quivering. I said, “You walked here?”
“I heard you sittin’ in my room all night.”
“You shouldn’t walk that far, Grandma.”
“I had a feelin’ when you got up so slow and went out the door.”
“It’s a strain on you.”
“I noted you walked off like you had somewhere you needed to go.” She bent to her son and listened to the twanging sounds from his interior. “Oh, I reckon Eugene’s been aimed at a finish like this all his life.” Her legs gave way and she knelt beside him, knees in his blood, and laid a hand on his back. She felt the rise and fall. “You know, he ain’t dead yet. He’s still breathin’. He’s not all the way dead.”
Her eyes would understand me even when she was gone.
“That ain’t the way to do. You know that. He’s still breathin’—I have to call.”
“He did somethin’ I hate to see, Grandma. Somethin’ terrible again.”
“That’s how he does. Who he is. Always has been.” She pushed up, mud made of Eugene clung to her knees, and came to me, put her arms all around me, talked into my ear. She smelled like so many corners in the cellar. “I’m fixin’ to die, Cookie. Go to God. Not far off, neither. And I surely don’t want to be carryin’ my own son’s murder with me while I shake and shake them gates.”
“You think them gates are there?”
“I can feel my hands around the bars.”
When our hug broke, I looked at Eugene, then said, “I’ve known worse hurt that lived.”
At our house I went inside Eugene’s room. It catches you off-guard to see how tidy he kept things there, a habit of order he picked up living six years in a cell. Everything neatly put away in dresser drawers or the little closet. The old wood in that room had been marred by antique dents and browned gouges but he’d sanded it new while still wearing Department of Corrections clothing and polished it just so. The only pictures on the walls are calendars from different years, the kind with tanned women in short-shorts and hard hats showcasing power tools, special saws, hammers that won’t miss. Grandma goes for the phone. A small drawer was left part open by his bed, and I slide it on out, look inside. There are three pocket knives in the drawer, the dinky kind for slitting letters open or cutting chaw, a packet of sugar-dipped cigars like drunk kids smoke, and five driver’s licenses, all of women, collected from each so he could find them again if charges were filed. I go through with a slow shuffle, looking at faces, taking my time, looking until I see that color hair.
There’s a chopper coming down to land in the pasture while I squat on an old rock wall inside the timber line swallowing the facts of this girl, the numbers of her life, and wash from the chopper blades storms the trees and makes limbs panic and leaves jump to ground. It’s her face without the damage, and she near about smiles. She’s two years older and has gained weight since and let her hair get dangly. The radio on the chopper squawks and bleats and I can’t keep from getting to one knee, fixing to run and hop aboard, like the chopper is my unexpected transport into or out of some close by or far off fight I’d been assigned to, couldn’t guess who with. My teeth grind and grind and I sit back on rocks and put her face into my shirt pocket. Grandma stands leaning on the north fence, dress tightened against her by the gust, sunbonnet gone, a few scatterings of limp hair to blow, waving the medics toward Eugene.
The doctor says I saved him for now without knowing it was me. “He was hit so hard on the head he’s got a chance to live.” Doc’s from some other country, wearing a white coat, no smile, a necktie part stuffed into a white breast pocket, the pointed ends swaying when he gestures. He says the way I cracked the bone open took pressure off Eugene’s brain by letting the blood gutter away to reduce swelling. Doc’s voice ranges high at odd words in his sentences, gives him a strange beat it takes a minute to catch on to, then he’s a song from overseas, basically. “Sorry to say he won’t be the same again, but we might one day be able to return the man to his home.”
Grandma says, “He’ll live to go home?”
“Or, he could pass tonight, brains being so very difficult to predict.”
Me and her take seats in the ICU waiting room. There are glossy magazines stacked around, most all of them dedicated to subjects I couldn’t care about, so I thumbed through a dozen, glancing at the ads, mostly, plus recipes for meals I didn’t understand. I have one opened on my lap, and I’m using a licked thumb to grip the pages as I toss through them, and Grandma reaches over and pushes the magazine shut.
She says, “You better act like you care. You better act like you care somebody bashed Eugene in the head.”
“I’ll care most if he lives.”
“You’ll care right quick if Buster Leroy’n them others guess it was you.”
Do civilian hospitals make the hallways extremely glowing on the floors and pearly on the walls so the doped and dying might see the shimmering around them as they are wheeled here and there and think they are already inside the shine of heaven? Maybe people don’t hurt as much inside the shining. I had been in a dulled one that was dirty, plain old dirty and crowded, with vague, drifting nurses and men without all their parts or minds moaning from grayish beds in gray light for their meds, meds for pain or fear that were always late in coming, and the doctors would shuffle through once in a while without making eye-contact but writing patient evaluations on a clipboard. There were cracks in the forgotten walls and broken windows and broken sounds. Screams and quiet, screams and quiet, and in the quiet moments loping echoes of the screams kept roaming your head. Soon you started claiming to the staff you were well way before you were, learned what answers a well person would give and gave them, over and over, just to leave the ward and the stink of oozed blood from yesterday. I guess it smelled like payday in there for somebody behind a desk in the distance who wouldn’t ever feel anything but the money.
She has that loneliness light inside her house; shades pulled, lamps not turned on, just a smear of sunshine through the window above the kitchen sink. You can see the lonesome facts in different rooms if you stand and bend your neck to look; the one dinner plate, the one tea cup in the sink with a teabag string looped around the handle, the dog bowl full of spare change on the dresser next to a worn dog collar, the skinny bed against the wall, fuzzy childish slippers underneath. She listens to the radio station that announces everything for sale by owner, one voice after another calling in to get shed of that old fridge with the loud motor, the backhoe that smokes, a three-piece couch, two spools of cable, the last goat and a rubber canoe that has never been floated. Most of the voices are calm, but others really need to make a sale and the needy pitch of their words lets you know you could bid them awful low and carry their stuff away.
She said, “This saves me a trip to the DMV—am I supposed to thank you?”
Her face is in the ugly stage of healing, blended bruises making colors no single word fits, but the swelling around her eyes is down. I was surprised she let me inside at all. “Plus, he’s in the hospital with a caved-in head.”
“Will he die?”
“There’s a real good chance of it. Doctor said that.” She seemed alert to me but not quite scared, and wore a white skirt, ninety-nine cent flip-flops, a green t-shirt. Her yellow hair hung lank and straight, maybe needed a wash. It was still daylight, and in daylight she might be willing to go see him. “Let me show you how the man is now. It could mean something to you.”
She had her answer ready.
“I’ll follow in my own car, take one look.”
“Meet in the front lobby.”
In the lobby she said, “I don’t know about this.”
“There’s no way this’ll make anything worse.”
“There’s always a way.”
Inside that shine we walk down different hallways to the ICU waiting room, her trailing me but not by much. Buster Leroy and three others are sitting around with a side-table pulled up close to their knees, playing poker. There are stacks of dollars in the pot and stacks before each man, and an unhappy nurse with a hand on her hip is standing there. Buster Leroy says, “We ran out of matchsticks, darlin’, so we had to switch to money to keep score with.”
“We can’t have gamblin’ goin’ on in here, Mr Dolly.”
“We’re not gambling. Gambling is done for money. We’re only playing for matchsticks.”
Inside the ICU a male nurse hops up as the double-doors close behind us, and asks, “Are you family?”
“You saw me here all night, didn’t you? This is his daughter, come from somewhere else.”
The curtain around Eugene is a wasted-away greenish color. I just pulled it around on the circular rods. He is covered to his neck. His head is tilted way back with a big gadget hooked to the bed frame that clamps at his temples and neck to hold it still. There’s a sort of cheesecloth spread over the spot where I bashed him. His head has fattened. Tubes run here and there, and there’s a wheezing machine. The room is very much brightened by the late sun.
She stares at Eugene and her own skin pales. Her feet move side-to-side.
“You can do whatever you want to him,” I whisper. “I’ll watch the door.”
“I couldn’t do a thing to him.”
“Would it make you feel good to at least smack him?”
“I wouldn’t feel right about that.”
“You hadn’t ought to do it, then, if you already know you wouldn’t feel right.”
She turns to me in all that brightness, looks up with that healing face and asks, “Did you do this?”
But footsteps come up behind me while I’m pondering, a hand squeezes my shoulder. I smell his hair oil as he squeezes.
“I need to borrow him for a minute,” Buster Leroy says to her. He’s pulling me along and his grip sort of hurts. “Come on, cuz, walk with me.”
She’s gone when we come back, so I head the truck her way. He’d wanted to tell me I could turn to him if I ever needed to talk. He knew by my face at the river I wasn’t home yet. We could rap, dredge it up, get it all out. He mentioned Eugene only once, said he knew who bashed him, but didn’t want me to say so. There was no need. It’s over and done. The sun is pretty gone down and there are trees in the way, but it’s not dark, just softened. There’s an ice cream truck on the road making music that calls kids. He said there’s no point in talking to civilians, cuz, ‘cause you could talk for a week and a day and they’d never get it. People who don’t know shit like to say to your face they would never have done what you did, man, not to anybody, or would’ve done it better, or their goody-goodness wouldn’t allow them to be in such circumstances as you had been in, ever, or even look at the pictures. If they haven’t seen guts on the ground, brother, it’s just too frustrating to talk with them. They can’t hear you. Some of them only want to see you cry. I note that she has closed the blinds and the lights are off.
I hop up the porch steps and knock. The door opens barely a crack. I can see it’s open, but can’t see anything inside there. She says, “You need to go away.”
“I could help out, mow your lawn—getting shaggy by the curb, there.”
“No. Go away. Anytime I see his face, your face is right beside his. I see his face, I see your face, and I don’t want to see either. You make me see both.”
The door shuts on me and I turn away in case she’s looking.
Buster Leroy had told a story about how he’d been a Forward Observer with two other guys and had gotten cut off in the jungle when a regiment that wasn’t supposed to be there appeared of a sudden and went rushing past to attack the base on every path and through the trees. Buster Leroy and his guys had to crawl into a tiny hole. The hole went straight down. They had to crawl in one at a time. They spent five days stacked in that hole hoping they weren’t seen or smelled and our own bombs wouldn’t get them by mistake. The bottom guy in the hole went nuts on day three, which is better than it sounds.
Daniel Woodrell is the author of eight published novels, five of which were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Tomato Red won the PEN West Award for the Novel in 1999. Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill.