Art switched off the ignition but the engine fired on, twice, three times; coughing, shaking the old car and then finally wheezing itself into silence.  In the gathering dusk, doors flew open, all except Art’s.  Mom grunted herself out, followed by Pop who sprang to the crushed gravel, nimble as a tiger, eyes wild.  Parked before the house trailer, his huge Peterbuilt cab sat quietly, splattered with dirt and mud, looking forlorn with no load hitched to it.  Jet-black with a lacquered finish, Pop had paid Rooster twenty dollars to airbrush the nickname Heart ‘O Darkness across both doors in bold, red letters.  It sat there quiet now, waiting for Pop to ride it into the night like a witch’s broom.

Shirl swung her legs out then heaved herself upright.  Bean slipped off my lap and skittered away in Shirl’s shadow.  I, too, tried to hide behind Shirl, hoping the big cat wouldn’t notice me and instead, prowl his way to the liquor cabinet and crawl inside for the night.  Not so fast.

“We got business, boy.”  Pop glared at me with the squint-eyed look that usually only comes out of a thick bottle and not until.  Lightning slashed the horizon behind him as his right hand, the club hand, opened and closed idly.  The left, his chop and slap hand, straightened itself and rose to his waistline.  I set my jaw, trying not to show the shiver that rose in me sure as sap in springtime.  Slivers of wind-driven rain stung my cheeks as I crunched around the back of the car to Gram’s door.  I bought time, figuring Pop probably wouldn’t smack me while I helped his own mother out.  Shirl grabbed Bean by the hand and trotted her off behind Momma with a worried look over her shoulder.  Momma flinched every time Pop snarled but kept walking, just the same.  She knew she was next.

Art rolled down his window and fumbled with the outside door handle while he popped the hood open on the tired old heap.  A curl of steam hissed from under the cracked, paintless metal as Art swung his door open between Pop and me.  Grateful for the fleeting instant of safety, I planted my feet, ready for the cat’s charge when a mangy furball, yapping like crazy, dashed between my legs and flung itself at the poised tiger.

Pop spun around on one leg, the other swung the growling mutt clamped onto his pant leg through the air in a tight arc.  He hop-stepped toward the front end of the car, his eyes wilder than the snarling animal’s, and slammed the dog against the fender.  The dog yelped, scrambling to its feet, and Pop whirled once then aimed a deft kick that grazed Scamper’s hind quarters.

Mason’s screen door banged open and he stomped onto the plywood door stoop clutching a newspaper.  Barefoot in bib overalls that bulged over an enormous gut, he glared silently at Pop over the top of his bifocals.

Still yowling, the dog scrambled up the wooden steps and into the trailer.  Droopy-eyed Mason scowled, smart enough not to say anything that might provoke the tiger further.

Art waddled to the steaming hood.  “Last week it’s your drunk brother shooting at the dog.  Now it’s you launching him against my car.  Dog ain’t gonna live too long next door to you folks.”  Art swatted at the hissing vapor cloud with a handkerchief.  He coughed at the dank smell, then pulled a crumpled pouch of chew from his coat pocket and offered it to Pop.  “Now come here and help me with this dang motor, son.”  He pried the warped metal open with Pop’s help.

“Good thing Ray was drunk, Art, or that dog would have a big hole in him right now,” I said carefully.

Mason winced and Pop whipped him with an ugly, jagged-tooth smile, probably savoring the memory of wild-eyed Ray on one of his gin-soaked shooting sprees, target shooting the dog with a 44-Magnum.

Then as quickly as it had appeared, Pop’s smile vanished.  “Damn right, Mason.  Now get your fat ass back inside.”

Mason flicked his gaze to me and though I could read the pain, the scare in them, I didn’t say one word.  He turned away, hurt, but I’d make it up to him sometime when the big cat wasn’t breathing down my throat.

Pop leaned over the popping, crackling engine block.  “Artimus, we gotta patch this damn radiator once and for all.”

Pop paused to spit a brown stream onto the dirt, then loosened the radiator cap.  The sizzling cloud swallowed him and Art in a sour smelling whitewash of vapor and I eased toward the trailer, forgotten in the steaming white haze.  I hoped.

Gram’s raspy low voice called me back; her bony hand closing around my wrist.

“Travis Carlisle,” she said in her emphasemic whisper, “you listen to me. You’re a good boy, you listen to me now.”

What choice did I have? I avoided her eyes, keeping mine on the whispy steam curling from under the raised hood, and the hulky figure bent over the engine, working on something.

“This fighting, killing,” Gram rasped, “it has to stop with you. Just look at my boys: good one’s in a bad place; bad one’s in a good place, but death is no place to go rushing off to like that. Are you listening to me, Travis?”

Good one, bad one; what could I care on the verge of a good beating from whichever of her ‘boys’ was cursing the motor? Pop spat a brown stream, then ducked back under the hood. If I had a tire iron, I could have walloped him. But that would only make him madder.

She grabbed both of my forearms and with a strength I wouldn’t have believed she had, she jerked me around to face her. “You’re the last hope, Travis, the one and only hope for this crazy feuding family. Fighting just begets more sorrow. You can’t fix anything by declaring war and fighting blindly on. There’s nothing but death down that road, more death and sorrow for everyone left behind.”

I could see that in her eyes—a painful sorrow, loss; the sunken look of a life lived but gone wrong, marked with yet another trip to the grave. But talk of peace is easier if you weren’t at war already, if there wasn’t an evil army marching your way, as soon as the radiator cooled and he could round up the peacekeepers and shoo them out of sight. That would end the flimsy “peace” in favor of the endless war. What choice did I have?

“I gotta check on Bean and Momma.” I wanted to say more, to really listen more, but that wasn’t the time or place for anything but survival, never mind oddball notions of peace.

Gram studied me for a moment, then let go of my arms. “You think about what I said, Travis Carlisle. You’re a smart boy. Think. Think hard!” She turned towards the front steps as I slunk toward the back.  “I’ll just wait inside while you two—“

“Naw, you won’t neither,” Pop barked.  “I’ll have you and your husband outta here in just a minute.”  He uncoiled the garden hose as I slipped around the corner of the trailer.

I trotted up the back steps and pulled the door shut.  In the small bedroom, Momma leaned over her vanity, shoulders bunched, squinting through hard eyes at the small spot in the cloudy mirror that wasn’t plastered with magazine cutouts and clippings of The King.  She’d powder her face then a trickle of tears would roll a wet trail down her cheek.

I yanked off the string tie and stuffed it in my jeans pocket as I unbuttoned the cardboard shirt.  “Momma, don’t.  Just don’t.”

“Now don’t you start on me, Travis Carlisle, because I don’t have the time.”  She rolled up a red tip from a tube of lipstick, then threw it down and fumbled in her make-up pile.  Outside, Art’s car rumbled, choked, then died.  “You don’t have time either, boy.  So you best high tail it.  Shirl!  Where’s my ‘drank’?”

Her sister brushed past me and handed her a glass of amber liquid.  “You do this for The Kang, hon.  Remember, you just think of Evis all the while.  You can do it.”

Evis.  In west Texas, you didn’t say the ‘L.’  And Evis was The Kang.  Momma slurped the drink as Shirl patted her back.

I studied the water-stained ceiling.  “He ain’t no Evis, Momma.  Why do you have to—“

“It’s the easiest way.”  She gulped her drink and lit a cigarette.

“It’s the only way,” Shirl promised.  “You got to make your mind elsewhere.”

The starter cranked and whined, then stopped.

Momma sighed and fingered a clipping with a photo and a schedule on it.  “Shirl, tell me again how we’re gonna go to Vegas . . .”

Bean slipped into the cramped bedroom, headless Doll in one hand, and hopped up on the cluttered vanity.  She picked a picture of The Kang out of the mirror frame and studied it quietly.  Her lips drew into a straight line and she shook her head slowly.

“We’re going, honey bun, we just are.”  Shirl helped steady her big sister’s hand.  “You think about him all night tonight.  Just him.”

Momma’s eyes mirrored her sister’s shock and fear, with an added edge of pain in Momma’s that at once made her seem old beyond her thirty-five years.

Shirl turned to me as I dug in the hamper for a T-shirt.  “We’d best clear out for the night, Travis.  Where you going?”

I shrugged.  “Janey and Carl’s.  I reckon.”

“Go over to Buster’s.  Find out when Bo’s coming around for me.”

I sniffed a T-shirt, then quickly pulled it on.  “I can’t take Bean to Buster Ketterly’s house, Shirl.”

Art’s car cranked again, caught, then revved to a roar.  Car doors slammed.  Shirl huffed a sigh.  “I’ll take Bea Anne with me.  You go on over to Buster’s.  Tell Bo I’m waiting on him.  Better hurry.”

Gravel crunched as the car pulled away.  No time, just no time left.  I moved towards the back door, behind Shirl and Bean, rolling my sleeves up to my shoulders as I went.  “You take care of Bean, Shirl.  And you’d better haul ass.”

Shirl thumped down the back steps, Bean leading her, following headless Doll.  “Come on, Travis.  I got the truck.”  She waggled a key ring with one hand, the other struggling to hang onto Bean’s hand.  “We’ll carry you on over to Buster’s.”

I stood on the back stoop, just as the front door slammed.  “Shirl, you just take Bean and git.  Go on.”

“Don’t be a fool, Travis,” Shirl threw over her shoulder as Bean dragged her toward the truck.  “Go now, tell Bo.  Travis, you tell him I’m waiting.”

I turned and pulled the back door open and waved a hand, but didn’t look back.

Inside, Momma still sat at the mirror, drink in one hand, a smoke snake drifting lazily out of her nose as she hummed “Love Me Tender,” tears streaming down her cheek.  She seemed not to notice as I rushed past her and stepped quietly down the narrow hallway, toward the rustling sounds coming from the kitchen.

Pop had his back turned, pouring a jelly glass full of tequila.  He held it up to the window, turning it back and forth with his fingers, looking through it to the street lamp cutting the darkness outside Mason’s.

He growled deep in his throat.  “Get ready, Baby-Doll.  Put on your pretty face.  The Kang’s coming after you.”

Slowly, he put the glass to his lips.  I breathed through my mouth, carefully, praying to God that Pop couldn’t hear the thudding of my heart that sent the blood roaring through my ears.

With noisy gulping swallows, Pop drained the glass, gasped and spat in the sink, then wiped his mouth with the back of the slap hand.  The fingers on the club hand trembled ever so slightly, then groped for the bottle again as Pop stared out the window.

He flinched, his shoulders hunched slightly and the hand froze.  I knew the black eyes had locked onto something, either outside or reflected from inside, in the filthy glass pane.

The hand moved toward the bottle again, steadily, and found it.  Thick, grease-stained fingers closed around the bottle, lifted it, and poured the last few ounces of clear liquid into the drinking glass.  He froze, eyes still locked on the window, bottle tipped toward the glass, thick shoulders tensed, a motionless freeze-frame save the tiny, colorless drops that plinked one by one into the clear pool in the glass.

My heart thundered.  I fought a shiver that drew every nerve in my body tight.

The dark statue before the window gripped the bottle, frozen save the measured drip that slowed, and slowed, and finally came to one clear drop that stretched, but hung on just the same.

Faint strains of my mother’s ragged humming mixed with my own shallow breathing as I watched the cords on the back of the chop hand bulge and the finger pads whiten against the empty bottle.

I blinked.  In that fraction of a second, the tiger leapt and spun and I heard the air whistle over the mouth of the empty bottle just before the starburst of light and the dagger of pain exploded from my left cheekbone.

I flexed my knees and braced myself forward to resist the charge as Pop leapt over a laundry basket and grabbed my throat.  He slammed me against the wall by the stove.

“Boy, you ain’t got the common sense to git while you could of.”  His eyes bulged and he panted short breaths sweetened with the afterscent of tequila and lingering traces of Red Man.  “You jest got no sense at all.”

A thumb dug under my jawbone probing, then found it’s mark.  My cheek throbbed, my ears hummed and the room began to swim.  A reedy voice fluttered up from somewhere deep and my heaving chest.  “You . . . ain’t no father . . . to Bean.  And you . . . ain’t no husband to—“

My feet left the floor and I sailed across the room, weightless, catching a glimpse of my pale momma, jaw slack and eyes wide, frozen in the hallway.  I dropped against the front door frame.  Pop vaulted over the cluttered table and landed on his haunches square in front of me, his face in mine.

“You’re goddam right I ain’t,” he hissed, dotting my throbbing cheek with tiny flecks of tequila spit.  “Ray-Bob talked, didn’t he?”

My mind flashed the image of those same hard eyes, only in his brother’s wounded head, on his deathbed, whispering to me.

The slap hand whipped out of nowhere.  Impact sparked another burst of light that made my ear ring and my nose burn somewhere down deep.  A warm trickle flowed down my chin but I ignored it, boring a hole in his eyes with my own.

His lips pulled back against brown teeth.  “So you know what Lester don’t want nobody to know.  Did Ray-Bob tell you the rest?”

Starbursts again, on the other side.  My skin burned and that ear rang.  Still, I lanced him with my eyes but clenched my jaws tight.

“Who do you think I am a Pa to?”

Course hands lifted me and pinned me roughly against the door.  Again, I said nothing.

Pop drew ragged breaths.  “You best listen to me, boy.”  He banged my head off the door.  “Pa or no, I’d sooner burn in hell than rot here in East Jesus with the likes of you.”

He grabbed a handful of my T-shirt with one hand, the other twisted the door knob.  He kicked it open.  “You’re damn near eighteen, boy.  Get the hell outta this house.”

Weightless again, I sailed through still air never touching a step, and landed flat on my back in the dirt where I writhed like a headless snake, my wind gone.

Pop pointed a thick finger at me.  “If I ever come back and find you here, I’ll kick your ass all the way to Fort Worth.”

The door banged shut and the deadbolt clicked.  Voices rose, one of them my mother’s.  After a loud crashing, the hollering receded, as I lay on my back, forcing shallow gasps, watching scud clouds riding the wind between me and the stars.

Mason’s door creaked open and footsteps shuffled across gravel.  Then a thick hand pulled on my jeans and belt buckle, holding them up.

“Lie still, Travis.  Let it come back on its own.”

Flat on my back, I watched the stars wheel between cloud gaps behind Mason’s head, fighting panic until my breath returned.  Finally, I sat up.

“Sorry,” I gasped.  “Sorry about Scamper.”

Mason helped me up.  “You got someplace to go for the night?”

I slipped past him, my chest heaving.  “Ketterly’s.”  I took a shaky step, then another.

Mason brushed the dirt from my back but said nothing.  I walked with careful steps to the gravel drive, spit a coppery tasting dark glob on Pop’s silent, hulking Heart ‘O Darkness and moved on without looking back, concentrating on my dimming shadow.

Trudging down the gravel road from Rattlesnake Gulch, I cleared my throbbing head and wrapped myself in the darkness.  Ahead and to the north, the prairie storm flared the horizon with sparks and flashes that backlit a ghostly outline of a towering thunderhead jumble.  The wind carried the dank smell of earth touched by some rain, but not by enough.  Moments later, muffled booms rumbled across the flatlands as the storm rolled on, punishing Oklahoma just for being itself, I reckoned.

To the south, angry orange flames dotted the night sky, flickering in the heat waves that still shimmered across the miles between me and the uncapped gas wells in the Harlow fields.  I forced a determined stride, matching the cadence of my bootheels in the gravel to the measured rasp of my own breathing.  Staring straight ahead in the black night, you couldn’t tell where the sky ended or the ground began and my legs disappeared.  So I floated, a weightless feather riding the wind, down the hill from Rattlesnake Gulch toward the lights of Ketterly’s ranch.

That thick lump rose in my throat again but I fought it off with careful, strong breaths.  I’d sooner burn in hell than rot here in East Jesus with the likes of you.  I rubbed my eyes, wiping them clear and though some drops still fell, it would be okay because the black sky and sailing wind still spit a fat drop or two that also would dot my shirt.

Crossing Slide Road I spun on my heels and stopped, fists clenched, and faced back toward Dix.  Was this how it was for Ray now?  No arms, no legs, floating in the solid black, heart trying to cry a hole right through his very soul?  A shotgun blast and then Lester’s lopsided grin played in my mind, over and over, that and Ray’s strangled words from his death bed.  I dug in my pocket for the string tie, looped it over my head, then pressed my eyes shut.

Damn the night, damn that hole in the ground and the one in my heart too.  And damn the raging tiger, the false Kang, still strutting, stomping and making life hell in the red dirt shithole, Conroy.  I ordered my invisible legs into motion again and floated towards Ketterly’s.

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