You could walk in the woods there and know the sky was silver or colorless overhead. The trees blocked the sky, so you couldn’t see it, but you knew there was a sky up there somewhere and it would be bright, but sunless, light broken up by all the clouds so it didn’t seem to come from one spot. You were under bright clouds in that part of the country. Always overcast, bit of drizzle in the air, the smell of wet leaves even after autumn was done. Just that rotting leaf smell all year long. And that drizzle and that sky like boiling mercury. Weather so steady you couldn’t get any small talk out of it.
People steady as the weather. Stayed inside, most of them, except when they were out hunting or feeding something. Most of them had relatives nearby, just a house or two down the road sometimes and even then they took their cars to go visiting, maybe to show they had cars and then maybe because they were bone-lazy. Not everyone was lazy, but enough of them so that you noticed. And those that weren’t lazy, you didn’t always catch them at home, you would find them out in the woods checking on this and that. You might see them out there driving with their loud damn music rattling the car windows, and they weren’t usually out visiting. Not visiting relatives anyway. Most of them, their relatives didn’t want to visit with them so much. Unless their relatives were natured like they were, do you see. Not of that lazy persuasion like what the other folks on the mountain were.
You shouldn’t fault the lazy. It’s lazy folks make the world a place worth living in because lazy folks don’t ask much out of you. Lazy folks are easy to get along with. And it’s this other element, the un-lazy folks of this world, why, those are the ones make the world a harder place to live than it ought to be. The lazy people on that mountain were just like the sky out there: steady, reliable. Always there and always just a little bit out of focus. Never far away from you, even when you couldn’t put eyes on any of them.
It was those folks disinclined toward laziness that would give you trouble. And they needed those nice, steady, sorry damn lazy old people around them just like everybody else does; just like the sun needs a sky, even if it is a washed out old sky that is no kind of real color. Sky like that is so thick it’ll hide the sun. Just about the same way with those troublesome people up on the mountain.
My wife was from that mountain and I had to leave her there. I didn’t know too much about those people before I married her. Don’t guess I know too much about them now either, but I know enough. She was just like any other good woman when I met her, wasn’t till I got her back up in that mountain that I saw how she was lazy, too, but she had enough of that other in her to make it hard on a husband. She wasn’t a bad woman, you understand, she just didn’t really belong anywhere but up on that mountain. That’s the only place any of those people made sense.
I wasn’t a hunter when I moved up there, but it was about the only way to pass the time if you weren’t lazy and you weren’t running anything out of those woods. That was me, right there, in between those two ways of behaving. Seen too much of the world to trade it for old cheap beer and TV. But then again, not much of the world found its way to where we were, so I started running out in those woods with a bunch of these other fellows they got up there; type that grew up there suspecting life might have more to offer than just feeding chickens and growing Christmas trees, and running by grandma’s house every Sunday after church. Living that life, not knowing there’s any other way to do it, it’ll make you antsy. Was an antsy bunch of boys I hunted with up on that mountain.
You know how to get an antsy man? Grow him up real fast. Teach him all the stuff he needs to know to be a grown man, and make sure he’s got it licked by the time he’s about 14. Then you just wait for him to die where you raised him. Watch him wait for it too. Let him know he’s being watched. There’s only a few ways he can turn out. He can get used to it and that will make him lazy, or he can kick against it all and that’ll make him mean. Or he can just be curious and that’ll make him antsy.
A lot of those antsy boys turned out to be hunters. A lot of them were pretty good at it. Those antsy boys, they were just waiting on the world to change, and there was no changing that world they were living in. They loved their guns, I will tell you. Not much more changing you can do to the world than to go and find a piece of it and then blow it away. And of course you give a man a gun and it’s gonna change him. Those antsy people up on that mountain, just waiting for anything to change, even themselves, they sure did love their guns. And hunting got them out of the house.
We hunted deer mostly, but there was black bear out there if you went deep enough in those woods. We fished.
I was telling you about my wife. When I met her she was the secretary for a man ran a home improvement store. It was off the mountain so this was a pretty big store, part of a chain. And you or me, we might not get too excited about a job like that, but up where my wife came from, well, just to live in a town that had a big chain store like that was something her folks could brag about at church. She had just a little of that spark about her, you know, that made her want more than Sunday lunch at grandma’s. Must have been something to grow up like that, her being the only daughter in her bunch. Looking at grandma plucking that chicken, knowing one day it would be her mama doing that plucking, and then her own self. And if she was lucky, she would have a daughter of her own she could pass some Sundays off to when they both got old enough, so she could do a little bit of her own eating before the good Lord called her stranded ass on home. So being a secretary was really something to my wife.
I was, at that time, doing a little bit of lumber work for an outfit off another mountain, and this mountain had about skinned itself bald from all the sawmilling they had done. And here and there I could pick up a little bit of construction, wasn’t much work I wouldn’t do back in those days. I was my own kind of antsy back then when I met my wife, just kind of sitting around and waiting for something, though I couldn’t have told you just what I was waiting on. Just out there making what money I could, and doing my best to make sure I was drinking up my friends’ money on the weekends. So I guess I had my own kind of ambition back then, which was why I was antsy. And ambition couldn’t do much for you in that town, but at least it wasn’t a ball-and-chain like what it was up the mountain.
Here I was doing this young man work of milling trees and welding beams and I meet this halfway good-looking little girl running phones for a man my outfit does business with. And we talked a little bit on one of these runs I would do for that chain store and I guess she had some people who knew some of my people or the other way around. Usually works out that way with a woman around there, that you both have people who know each other even if the two of you are not yet acquainted. And I think she told me what church she was going to and I had a cousin who went to that same spot of a Sunday, and he was always telling about how godly that preacher was. So I went out with my cousin one of those Sundays and saw her there and we had some more of that little chit-chat you have when you’re trying to figure out how to fuck someone. I guess she must have liked something in me because she gave me her phone number and we set it up to head out to the place Hump Stewart runs out off the highway.
Around there, a woman that goes to a bar with you, intends to fuck you. Fucking, fighting and buying that shit in little bags are the only reasons you would ever go into a bar around that town, and she didn’t look like she was ready to box. But you don’t really ever know. Sometimes to get to a woman’s Saturday night, you got to meet her on Sunday morning. If you look good to her in church, she can fuck you in your car and not feel so bad about it, because she liked you when she was at her most pure, you see. All the same, there’s plenty of women I know that would make you trot your stuff out over more than one Sunday morning before they met you up at old Hump Stewart’s. That ain’t to say she was of an easy-lay frame of mind, just that she was maybe the same kind of lazy and not-lazy mix that I was and she didn’t see wasting a whole heap of time on putting off something she thought she might like. I respect a girl like that for her initiative.
Well, we did like each other and I guess she liked the way I handled things in the bar and how I handled my car—which was a Ford Galaxy that I had bought out of Albert Clark’s yard when I was 17 and had fixed up reasonably with glass pack mufflers and a replacement transmission I loved on for two years before I even put it under the hood—and she let me get her past good and drunk. I put her in the passenger seat of my car and took her back to my house. My parents were in bed, of course, and they were past paying attention to what I did in life so long as I didn’t ask them for money, so I knew it wouldn’t be a problem to bring her in and have her wake up there.
I was a gentlemen and didn’t fuck her at all or even kiss on her after I could tell she was definitely blacked out. And I put her in my bed and did even sleep on the couch in my basement where I was living in my parents’ home. And when she woke up, she was real hungover, but she knew I didn’t take advantage of her, and so I was showing her that I was serious about seeing her again and being good to her. And mama cooked her a real good breakfast. We spent all day at the lake and then I fucked her that afternoon and so she knew I was a good man to her when she was in her right mind. And all this was, you see, because I really did like her and wanted to handle her like a woman I planned to marry, because I was ambitious. Or, I’ll say, I was as ambitious as that town would let me be. I was ambitious enough for her.
We got married not too long after that, I guess. I think those were good times. I remember them as being good times for everyone.
I met her people along the way and saw they were good people. Simpler people, I thought, than those I grew up with who were, Lord knows, simple enough. I wasn’t quite right about that, but I guess I wasn’t all the way wrong either.
We got married on the mountain, which was how her folks wanted it. Her people had stronger ideas about how to do it all than my parents did, God knows. Not that it matters. My parents were just simple people, too, after all.
We moved up the mountain after we got married, which is as I have already told you. Well, I got up there and figured out quick as anybody that there’s only so much fucking and sitting around you can do before the air in your own house will drive you crazy, or drive me crazy anyhow. Wasn’t much for us to do together but bowl and go out for pizza or fried chicken or whatever. I don’t like bowling for shit and, well, I just started going out with these boys I chopped lumber with and we would hunt. Out of season we would play cards a little bit, but I didn’t take to handing my money over to a bunch of keyed-up mountain boys for the reason of not being able to bluff for shit. A man shouldn’t have to pay for being honest, or at least having an honest face.
So, it was more hunting than cards with me. There was a crew of us. Had Jacob, who had some kind of problem with his knee someway, so that it would give out on him from time to time. Was Richie who didn’t say too awful much, but did shoot pretty good. His brother was called Brian, and he and Richie were opposite to each other. Where Richie was real tall, Brian was on the short side and he talked a mile a minute where Richie just didn’t have much to say on any subject except his truck. And then where Richie was a real good shot, I don’t recall Brian ever hitting nothing, even with all the chances we must have had to do it in all those years I was up on the mountain with them. And then there was Carlos, who was one of these Mexicans come up to work on the tree farms around there, and he was the best shot out of anybody, but also the quietest because he didn’t speak the first lick of English.
There was others who would mix with us on those hunting trips we took, but none of them really need talking about except for maybe Ben Turner, who turned out to be a real important man up on the mountain for a while. He was old Bobby Turner’s youngest and the only one ever turned 30 outside a prison. And Bobby Turner was Indian Turner’s youngest, and Indian owned just about the whole damn county in his time. Bobby Turner had too much hound in him and he lost a good bit of Indian’s land fucking his way across it. What he didn’t lose, Ben’s brothers and sister lost in their drinking and whoring and gambling and from stupidity, for no one who came from Indian had the sense to be lazy. But Ben was all right, and then I say he was real important up there around the time I parted ways from my wife. In fact, he was not uninvolved in the parting.
The Turners were one family up there that you knew about if you lived up on the mountain, and those Weatheralls were another. Turners and Weatheralls never did have much to say to each other. In fact, just having Ben Turner around our hunting crew was enough to make sure we wouldn’t never share no deer stand with a Weatherall, which suited me all right since most of them was either bootleggers or speed cookers or pill cookers going back as far as anyone knew. In fact, wasn’t but one Weatherall I ever knew who wasn’t just trash and that was Stoop Weatherall who wound up being the mayor of all that town they had up there. And I don’t know if that really did excuse him from being trash. I suppose you know how you feel about politicians and I won’t change your mind either way. Weatheralls was mean trash, too, and they would have mean trash sons and daughters and they would all stay mean trash until they were called home at the end of their mean damn lives. Trash thou art, and unto trash shalt thou return. That’s what I thought of Weatheralls and I wasn’t alone on it either.
There was one November when it happens so that my lazy father-in-law decides his TV reception wasn’t worth a shit. My father-in-law had two bad hips and he couldn’t stand or walk worth a damn, so all he did was sit and watch TV when he wasn’t out there driving his short hauls out to Danville or Greenville or wherever he took that mess. Grind the man into dust and build him back up and he still wouldn’t have a single joint that was worth spitting on, so TV was real important to him and real important to my mother-in-law too, because if Jerry (who was my father-in-law) didn’t have TV to watch he would just stomp around the house on his gravelly hips pestering her to death. So, I get my mother-in-law calling up my wife on her cell phone and I can see that she’s asking her daughter to ask me to come on over and fix Jerry’s dish so that it works and he gets the kind of TV picture he feels like he’s entitled to since he’s paying them damn people at the dish company for it every month. Jerry grew up with a TV antenna sitting up on his roof that made the evening news look like it was happening in a blizzard, so he thinks you can just run up on the roof and move that dish around until the picture’s good, which is how he handled things when he had an antenna and a hip that both worked like they was supposed to. I can hear her mama and how she’s getting closer to asking that question and I’m looking out at that November sky and it’s just pissing down rain and I know how slick that roof is going to be and that it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to the picture on Jerry’s TV even if I did try and move that dish.
So I hop up and tell my wife I’m headed out after some squirrel or rabbit or something nobody would miss, so I don’t have to bring it home and piss her off by making her skin it. And she’s kind of opening her mouth and shutting it again, trying to get me to stay so her mama can put me to work but not wanting to interrupt her mama while she’s working up to it. I throw up a hand and grab my .22 rifle and my ammunition bag and sling them over my shoulders. That door is closed behind me before she can call out my name.
I get into my truck, but can see the fuel’s low on it, so I grab my slicker and get into the woods where the rain won’t be quite so rough on me. I dropped my gun and bag down there on the seat because I didn’t want them getting wet, and I can see now where that might have been my first mistake. Anyway, it’s about dark, but that don’t matter to me because I ain’t planning on shooting anything anyhow, just trying to get out of the house.
So, I get into our little piece of woods and hear thunder land just as I do and I know I’m going to be out there for a while until the weather moves on. Suits me fine. I like being out in the woods and you can be sure that if weather’s bad you got those woods to yourself. I set off to walking and just start following my feet, not headed anywhere in particular. I have a beagle with me most days back then, but that weather is keeping him pinned down in his little house so I don’t have to be paying attention to where I’m headed.
Our land ends in the west where Dwight Turner’s old barn is. I see that barn through the trees and the rain off on my right as I’m walking up a hill. But then maybe I don’t so much see it as know it’s where I’m looking. The important thing I’m telling to you is that I knew I was off my land when I came over that hill.
Now we’re neighbors with the Turners and after their land, if you keep walking down the little valley I was walking in, you are going to come to the Myers, and then the Hortons who grow good corn on that good bottom land, and then it’s some old Moravian land even though the church on it is in worse shape than Dwight Turner’s old barn. After the church land, as you keep walking west, you got Rivers land and then Mohaffey land and then finally you got Weatherall land. From there on out it’s all Weatherall land until you hit the county line. All this without leaving the woods. You could get just about anywhere you wanted to in that county without leaving the woods if you only had a mind to walk instead of drive.
I remember being real happy to be in the woods that day. I’m imagining myself slipping and sliding around on Jerry’s roof pretending to be handling his dish and calling out, “How about this? This any better?” from time to time. But even below all them trees I can tell the weather is nasty and getting worse. I pass on by the Turners’ barn and through that little clump of fern and shrub the Myers got. I’m getting on into the Hortons’ plot and the fog starts getting thicker. The afternoon is getting darker with the fog so these lights the Hortons keep on their house are shining out there and all that light is just bouncing around on the wet grass and all that rain is spitting on it. It’s lighting up this fog kind of green and the fog is thick so it really does cling to me. Fog like that so damp and heavy sinks past your skin and soaks down in your bones and I hate to be cold and wet. I’m trying to hustle back up the hill and get off this bottom, get out of this fog, but it just doesn’t seem like that fog is going to let me go. You know, when you’re wet and cold, you just feel like you’re going to be wet and cold forever. You can’t imagine being warm.
The fog hangs around as I get deeper into the woods. I got the path under my feet, or it looks to me like I do, and I just keep walking, figuring I’ll head back once I get to the church. I can creep on back and my wife will be off the phone with her mama by then, or if she ain’t, I can at least sit in my truck for a few minutes until it’s safe to come in. If that fog is back at the house, she won’t see me going for the truck. But then I’m walking, and I don’t see the church. And that fog is still pretty thick, and it’s getting darker and darker and I’m not just all the way sure I’m still on the path. So, I run ahead a little bit hoping to catch that church up, which is silly. If you’ve made up your mind to head back, you should just head back, but I told myself I won’t turn around until I get to that church and so I won’t. Can’t tell me nothing sometimes.
So I’m clipping along at what you might call a jog and I’m still not seeing that church, so I go ahead and start to run. And I’m wondering while I’m doing it, “What are you running for? You think something’s going to get you?” And though I knew those woods pretty good for someone who wasn’t raised in them, I’m starting to think that, yeah, I am afraid something is going to get me.
There ain’t no worse feeling in the world than being scared and lost. I don’t care how old you are, when you’re afraid, can’t nobody tell you not to be and you listen to them. And when you’re lost and you know it, there’s nothing to be done about it. You are just lost and that’s it. And the more scared I got, the more lost I felt, though when I looked down at my feet it did seem like I had the right path up underneath them.
There’s a lot of things happen in those woods. I did love those woods at that time, because it was just a good place to go if you were trying to get away from anything outside of them. Why anyone went there, I guess, to get away from their wives or husbands, kids, neighbors, law. Everything. I don’t believe I’m making too bold when I say some thought they could get away from God there, but I don’t think you ever get away from God. But then I don’t know too much about all that. But I didn’t fool with the woods too much unless I was in a group of other men and we all knew each other. And we would have guns on those occasions. Here all I’ve got is a boot knife and little cigarette lighter, which ain’t much. Might have been a different story if I’d have brought that gun.
What I’m saying, I suppose, is that there was a lot of strange stuff happened around that part of the world, and whenever it happened, you always got the feeling the woods was involved somehow. You didn’t need to spend 15 minutes on your porch on a good day before you would hear guns popping off here and there. Some days you would just have smoke rolling on the wind and there be no fire to explain it, except maybe somewhere off in those woods. Cats and dogs would disappear. People would disappear. Woods was the only place for them to disappear to. Matter of fact, around the time of this story, the Mohaffeys had lost their littlest girl, just up and gone one day. That seemed significant to me later on, but just then as I was hustling down that path, scared as I don’t know what, that Mohaffey girl was not too much on my mind yet.
Well, even though that fog was thick as it could be, I could tell I was climbing a hill. I started to hear this real high whine in the distance on up ahead of me, and there was something familiar about it. Even though it was off in the wrong direction for me I set out running for it. I still don’t know why I did that. Somewhere behind me was home and a woman and TV, and I just decide to run in the other direction. But that whining was familiar and I guess I wanted to place it, and it made sense to me in that moment when not a lot of other stuff was making sense to me.
I get closer to it and I start to hear this rumbling up underneath of that whine, and I place the sound as I’m just coming up on it. It’s a woodchipper. And half of my mind is relieved to have the answer to the question it’s been asking, but the other half is wondering who in the world would be running a woodchipper in the middle of the damn woods and in the middle of a damn rainstorm. Rain will just make that wood soggy, I’m thinking, it’s just going to gum that chipper up. Well, about that time this bit of wood splinters off and hits me in the cheek and sure enough it is wet.
I rub at my cheek and see where it’s cut me and brought up some blood. I dab a little more at it and I’m surprised at how much blood is coming out of me, especially because it doesn’t really sting too bad, that splinter. But do I back up? I don’t. I just sort of stand there rubbing at my face, listening to that chipper, which it’s still too foggy to see it yet. And then, pop! I get hit with another splinter right in the forehead. And I catch that splinter as it’s falling off my face and I see that it ain’t made of wood.
This hand claps me on my shoulder and I jump a mile. I spin on whoever is grabbing at me and I see it’s Little Jim Weatherall. I never have liked a Weatherall. Little Jim ain’t the best of them either. First off, he ain’t been little since they killed Kennedy and he didn’t spend the years between in church. He’s got years on him, but it only shows in his face, because he grips like a vise. Which his face ain’t really much to enjoy. I’m just looking at the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and at his mouth, he’s got lines all over his face like leaves right before they are about to fall off the branch. And his eyes have got these little pouches above them, kind of thing a man grows on his face when he’s spent too much time in bad weather, as he is doing just then. They’re like little hoods, and they’re hanging over these black eyes that are watching me just as hard as they can. He’s got a smile on his face, but it ain’t convincing. Little bit like he’s measuring the muscle between smiling and watching me so a hair wouldn’t grow without him knowing it. And the watching is winning. That Little Jim Weatherall is a real grim son of a bitch.
I hear someone cut that chipper off and I wonder real quick why Weatheralls would be out in this piece of woods. That’s when I come to understand that I’m in their woods. It ain’t him that’s where he ain’t supposed to be. It’s me, I realize. I have come too far down this road, I think. And I look at Little Jim and I get to wondering what’s down there in his other hand, down in that fog.
“Chipper catch you?” he asks me, but I’m still thinking about his blind hand. I know he carries a knife. Everybody does. I don’t know if he’s any good with it, but then I guess he probably is. And maybe he’s got a gun on him, which would end any argument between us. And then there’s that other out in the fog. The one that cut off the chipper.
I guess I say something back.
“You’re bleeding’s why I ask,” he says and he’s still got that smile and them eyes on me. Still got his hand there, too, and his grip ain’t no looser. And then he says my name and coming from some that would just be a neighborly thing to do, but from Little Jim it’s more to say that he knows who I am and where I live. Not in a neighbor kind of way, either.
“I reckon,” I tell him. I’m trying to feel him for danger, hoping that what I can’t see, I can maybe just feel. I can feel that other man out there by the chipper, quiet and careful. I feel him listening to us. “You ain’t watching that race?”
Well, must be something in my question or my tone of voice tells Little Jim to take his hand off my shoulder, which he does. And he shakes his head. “Cable’s out. Weather.”
“Weather ain’t no account,” I say to him. “Ain’t worth killing.”
About half his smile twists up his face and I can see his teeth, which are all cock-eyed, sitting in his mouth like gravestones in wet ground. He turns his head a little bit and cuts his eyes at me a different way.
“Can’t see shit in this fog,” I say, and he kind of grunts at me. He’s got this smell coming off him like he’s just had him a fresh smoke and that reminds me of the little soft pack I have in my back pocket. So while I’m waiting on Little Jim to do what he’s going to do, I figure I’ll have me a smoke. Feels like a good idea to me.
I reach around to my back britches pocket and he’s just watching me. And he don’t stop watching me when I pull back my little wadded up piece of cigarette, which I put fire to. And while he’s using all of his energy to watch every move I’m making, I’m using all mine to keep my hands from shaking off at the wrists. But I get her lit and take me a pull, which is the first thing that’s felt good to me in what seems like a long time.
“You smoke?” he asks me, and he says my name again, saying it like he’s got a power over me, which he does.
“Shit, Little Jim, don’t everybody?” I ask him and I grin, kinda hoping it will crack him up a little. It don’t.
He leans in closer and says, “Ain’t talking about Camels.”
Now I am not a regular smoker of weed, but I do know what to do with it when it comes my way. So, I sort of grin at him to let him know that. And he does smile with them brown damn graveyard teeth and pulls something out of his pocket, some kind of rolled up mess of something, and he just stuffs it down in my front pocket.
“There,” he says to me. “Smoke that.”
Well, I thank him and take the weed and give it a big sniff like you’re supposed to.
“Damn, Jim, ain’t that the shit that killed Elvis?” Which is what you’re supposed to say when somebody gives you free weed. To tell the truth, that weed don’t smell right at all, but I figure weed is about the least of what Weatheralls is into, so they probably don’t pay out that high dollar for it. But I do cackle away at him and make a show of stuffing it down in my pocket, patting that shit, letting him know I’m going to be hitting every bit of that later on.
I take me a last drag on my cigarette, flick that butt out into the fog and watch it spark as the fog swallows it up. I stand still for a moment, staring off in the direction of that dead cigarette and I’m not saying anything. And he’s not saying anything. And so I maybe figure it’s all right to get going and Little Jim don’t see no trouble between us.
“Well, Jim,” I tell him, in the manner of leaving. “I sure do hope that cable cuts back on for you. Do appreciate this here. I’ll get you back one of these evenings.” I pat that pocket again and throw up a hand and turn my back on Little Jim.
But it seems like Little Jim ain’t quite through with me yet. He claps that hand down on my shoulder again and he says, “Smoke it here.”
It’s like somebody punched me in the chest, because every bit of me is wanting to run just as fast as I can, jumping every stump and root between here and my little house with my little wife and my little TV.
“Well, damn, Jim, I will if you don’t mind,” I say, hoping my voice ain’t shaking. So I pull that stale weed out of my pocket and I see it’s already rolled up in joints. I put some fire to one and it tastes like it’s about half carpet. I cough and cough that nastiness out, but it’s still burning me. I feel a little shy about how I just coughed up my hit in front of Little Jim like I was in Junior High, so I take me another, a real lungbuster. I keep it this time, like a champ, and I pass it over to Little Jim.
He shakes his head and just keeps staring at me, which don’t make me feel too comfortable. “Damn, Little Jim, you won’t smoke your own weed?” I ask him.
He just kind of smiles at me some more and keeps watching. Well, I take a couple more hits in that silence and then Little Jim pats me on the shoulder and says he’ll see me around. And then Little Jim is gone, just turns and vanishes back into that fog, two little waves of it rolling along behind him, the fog just turning in on itself as he walks into it. He don’t say goodbye to me, just calls out, “All right. You watch yourself. Watch that wife of yours.”
And I throw up a hand, though he is deep in the fog now and can’t see me. I hear that chipper start up again and I head the hell away from it, it now pointing true dead north in the direction of Little Jim and Weatherall business and woods and all that hairy damn bullshit that is the beating heart of that devilish place, and me headed on a course in the direct opposite direction of it and happy to have something I know I can run away from that will put me out of that fog.
Then that weed takes hold. Well, here I am just running and sucking air down the hillside, every log and branch and root in that damn woods springs out of that fog at me like this weed has given me 3D vision. So I’m jumpy and running kind of wobble-kneed and slack-jawed and tripping over everything in God’s creation and probably do look a damn sight, but what’s going on in my head is even worse, because now I’m wondering about the wife and what Little Jim means by “watch her” and does she fuck my friends and how much do I really need her anyway and could I maybe fuck some of her friends that are all right to me, and I should have just gone up to her daddy’s and fiddle-fucked around on his roof until the weather cleared up enough for the satellite to hit his dish, and I think again about how nobody looked after my grandmother like they really should have even though she was dutiful to call everybody on their birthdays and did send around a few dollars to everyone at Christmas even though she was in a home and couldn’t have had any way to get money, and what about my own daddy and my brother and sister who are always at each other just fighting, and do I maybe jack off too much, and who knows about all the jacking off I do, and if that satellite can send TV shows and movies from outer space, can’t it send a list of all the perverted shit I watch to the government where there is probably a man who is appointed to keep track of me and all my pervert shows I watch and he goes home to his own wife at the end of the day and tells her all about the shit that I watch after my own wife goes to bed without fucking me, and then I wonder how much hotter his wife is than mine, and all this while I’m tripping over every tree stump rotting in a woods that seems to be made of nothing but rotten tree stumps.
I clear the fog, finally, and my mood gets a little bit brighter. I’m stomping through the yard and then up the steps, not even knowing if it’s raining anymore and hoping I don’t look high, even though I’m thinking high and will surely sound high to my wife when I’m talking to her. I’m standing on my porch and I’m thinking about how awful that daggone weed was and wondering why Weatheralls would smoke it. And then it occurs to me that Little Jim didn’t smoke it. And then it occurs to me about the chipper.
My wife comes out on the porch where I’m standing and surely looking pretty stoned. Well, I have spent most of the last couple of hours scared out of my damn mind, and her face looks pretty good to me, real familiar and I can see it clearly, see why it’s beautiful, and the most familiar parts of it are the ones that are most beautiful. And I want to hug her and say what I’m thinking and what happened, but I just wind up asking about her daddy and the dish. And she asks me if I’m high and I get mad and stomp off and then of course she’s mad and we don’t wind up doing too much talking the rest of that night. Which is just how it goes.
That night as I was lying in bed with her, after things had thawed out a little bit between us, I thought back to the afternoon and being in the woods and what Little Jim was up to with that wood chipper. Because that second splinter that popped me looked a whole lot like a tooth. It was chipped, but a dentist would know where to fit it in a mouth, I was thinking. There was enough of it left for that. And it didn’t look like no dog tooth. Weatheralls is notorious for dog poisoning and also for stealing dogs, but this tooth came out of a human being’s mouth.
Well, my next thoughts weren’t so pleasant, I guess, because once you start to imagine a human body’s path through a wood chipper, there ain’t much you would want to tell about. And here I wondered was that person alive when Little Jim started the chipping and all this. Not pleasant.
So, I’m lying awake next to the wife and then I sort of become aware that there’s a young girl at the foot of the bed. I didn’t hear her come in, but she’s there, just standing there real quiet, but looking at me. And I squint at her and she smiles, and when she does, I see that all her teeth are broken and then they start to drop out of her mouth with this kind of sucking sound and it is a queasy thing to watch. And then I’m still looking at her and wondering if I should shake the wife awake and the girl smiles at me a little bit wider and she squints at me and her eyes sort of roll up and then roll back into her head and blood just starts to pour out of the sockets where they were and I feel all the muscles in my face lock and in my neck. And I cannot move. And then that little girl she reaches up to her hair and begins to pull it out and there are clumps of blood and scalp attached so she must have used some force in pulling them out, but there’s no sound except like a real soft slipping sound, like a snake moving in the water and her hair is just sliding off her head. And she’s dropping it in wet clumps on the floor.
Well, she steps over these little piles of wet hair and she begins to move around the side of the bed, to my side of it and she’s walking and I can see that as she’s walking, she’s just barely held together. She’s coming unspooled, so to say, her skin is in shreds and she’s dropping it behind her. And I can start to smell her and she smells like hot oil and diesel and the rot of nature. And she bends down in my face and I couldn’t move to shake my wife awake if I had been paid to. I can smell her breath then and it ain’t like no breath at all, just like rot on the bone and that rot coming in gusts out of an empty hole. And she screams.
Well, that next Tuesday the weather looks pretty good to go out hunting and the mill say they don’t need me, that they’ve run up against a property line and they got some stuff to work out with the owners who are afraid trees are going to fall across their property or some such bullshit. So, it sucks to not get paid, but ain’t no sense sitting around the house taking up space, so me and those boys get together and decide to go hunting. And we talk about this and that and where we ought to post up to get us some turkey, which turkeys are all over that mountain. And when it comes time for me to put my couple of cents in I just give the location of a place the hell away from where the Weatheralls are up to their business. And the boys chew on that a minute and nod their heads and off we go.
Well, we ain’t too far off the road, kinda scooted back in the woods at the edge of a field and we just wait on a turkey. And Brian is talking a mile a minute like he does, and bouncing back and forth about this and that. And he asks me how come I ain’t brought my beagle to hunt and I have to tell him that he’s turned up missing. I tell them how I found his collar and his chain and the stob for the chain still dug in the ground pretty good, but no beagle. And Richie, who is Brian’s dead-shooting and no-talking brother, kinda pricks his ears up and asks where I thought that beagle got off to. And I have nothing I want to tell him. Of course, I suspect Weatheralls, but if I’m going to tell him about that afternoon I spent in the woods with Little Jim Weatherall then I got to tell him about every sleepless night I have spent since then waiting on the corpse of a little girl to come and scream in my face. I just don’t want to tell him about either thing is all. So I just shrug and tell him somebody knew a good hunting dog and ran off with mine. And everybody kind of grunts at me, except Carlos, who just smiles a little bit and sights his gun at the field. He can’t say it in English, but we know he’s there to shoot turkeys and not talk bullshit, so we shut up for a little bit.
I see Brian and Richie again in church that Sunday. We kick the rocks for a few minutes before going inside and Brian is running his mouth about doing some more hunting in the week, being as how we didn’t shoot the first turkey last Tuesday. We’re all nodding, saying how we ought to get us a big group together. Carlos and Jacob, Ben Turner and Cody Stewart, maybe. Richie shakes his head a little bit and Brian says we could get Carlos and Jacob, sure, and likely Cody Stewart but that Ben Turner has lit out from his wife and nobody has seen him in a month, so we won’t get him. And I ask where he’s gone and Brian says nobody knows where he’s went to. And I nod at him. Brian asks me about my dog, if he’s still missing and I just shrug at him.
The preacher asks us to keep a few folks in our prayers. He says the Mohaffeys are still praying for their missing daughter and I look at them and they’re nodding with what the preacher says. I get the feeling like Mrs. Mohaffey’s hair sort of looks like the hair I see in my room every night, that it looks kind of like the hair that little dead girl pulls out of her head and drops on my floor, before she comes over and screams at me. But then I wonder if I’m just making it up.
The wife and I go over to her daddy’s for Sunday dinner and she talks to her mama and stirs dumplings in the kitchen. Her daddy’s got a game on and I hunker down next to him while we watch them young boys go at it. It’s a funny thing to watch college ball in a poor home. I always sit there and think about how those young boys are waiting to be rich. How they’re going to travel in their lives. When I was younger, I considered myself to be ambitious. It didn’t take much to be ambitious back in those days coming from where I come from. All you had to do was to see the edges of where you were from, just to know that this life that you were living ended somewhere and something else started. Once you saw the edges of your world, you could start to see the shape of it and the size. I could see how small it was. I thought I was ambitious. I knew I lived in a little world inside a bigger one. I thought maybe the stuff inside that little world didn’t matter as much as what happened outside of it, past the edges. I look over at her daddy wondering what he’s thinking and he passes a beer over to me. He gives me a look like I need to crack it soft so his wife don’t hear and I nod at him. I crack it real soft.
On the drive back to the house I see my missing dog run out of the woods and under my tires. I see him do it over and over again, probably about 20 times in all. It ain’t a long drive either. He keeps running out of the woods by the road, I can only just see the blur of him running out in my peripherals, but I know it’s him. And I keep waiting for the little bump of my tires against his body as it flies under the wheels over and over again, but there never is no bump, so of course the wife doesn’t notice. She is fretting about something else, likely something her mama told her, and I’m just watching my dog run into the road again and again, always too late to stop or even react. I know that my dog wants me to know that he is dead and he wants me to have that feeling of killing him, wants to make real sure I get that feeling deep inside of me. He wants me to understand I killed him when I seen Little Jim Weatherall running a little girl through his wood chipper in the rain.
Well, that little girl is waiting for me when I get ready for sleep that night. The wife is just passed out beside me, sick of her own worrying about her mama and her daddy, who her mama knows drinks too much of that beer, and who ain’t worth cussing when he’s around the house, him mostly just sitting quietly thinking of plans to go and drink beer without her knowing and then complaining about the TV between them secret beers. All that’s hard on her mama, her mama makes it hard on her, so that once there is some hardness done, everyone winds up feeling hard done by. No meanness to it, just a general hardness. And my own hardness is there at the end of the bed, the skin falling from her face and her pulling herself apart so that all’s gonna be left is that dead-smelling scream that she is going to pour over my face while I lie there wondering how to make it stop.
By December, it gets so it’s hard for me to sit still and my stomach is in knots most of the time. It occurs to me that Wethearalls probably don’t see this shit that I’m seeing. They don’t wake in the night and see people dying. They likely close their eyes again and sleep till the rooster crows. I wonder how I came to be so despised by them that they’ve put in the ground. I wonder why I’m the one that dead girl and my dead dog are punishing and it makes me feel sorry for myself.
The sawmill is still trying to get this or that worked out with them property owners so there ain’t no work for me unless I go out and find it, which I ain’t inclined to do. In fact, I just don’t go out for much generally anymore at that time. I don’t go walking in the woods, because I just don’t want to be in them. Don’t go out driving much because every time I go driving by the woods I see my little beagle running out in front of my vehicle over and over again. And never a bump. One place I do enjoy to go to is the grocery store, which is just a very short drive and it takes me through town most of the way. At that time, I felt I could spend hours in the grocery store and buying things we didn’t need, just to have the excuse to be shopping. And then the more time I spend looking at this or that, why, the more I decide to need it and that makes me spend more money. And so I’m spending more money on groceries than I agreed to with the wife and not bringing money in, and I’m starting to feel no account with the not being called in to work. And feeling no account, I can’t get started going out and looking for work on my own. And then too, it’s nice to spend time in the grocery store because you’re around people and they got the same look on their face as you do, just trying to look busy about getting their food and little whatever, even though they’re there in the middle of the day and there every day just so they ain’t hanging about the house. All of us lazy, just too lazy to be out living our lives because we feel like our lives is putting us through some type of hardness here and there. All of us just pushing our carts around that grocery store putting things in, putting things back onto the shelf, all of us knowing about some kind of hardness or another, leaving it behind as we decide and un-decide what groceries we need.
It’s just the opposite in church, because all I see there is just the Mohaffeys and that mother looking so sad and the father trying to look like he’s not. I recollect I went to church twice after that time out there in the woods and then stopped going. Just making my excuses to my wife in the weeks after that and her finally just giving up about asking me to go. We still went to see her folks for Sunday dinner though, every Sunday, though I always made her drive so I could rest my eyes on the way. And that just another hardness on her, her having to go to church alone and then having to drive both of us to her daddy’s house to eat.
All this made for some hard days.
Finally comes the time when I am set to go hunting out with Brian, Richie, Carlos, Jacob and them. We do get Cody Stewart to come along, but we don’t get Ben Turner, who has still not come back to his wife. And we meet up together at that trailer Brian and Richie share, never parted from each other since the time of Brian being born or Richie, me not knowing which is the older.
There’s beer and then some weed and some jokes, which Brian is making most of those and he always laughs harder than anyone at his own jokes. We are all enjoying ourselves before we even leave out of their trailer and Richie is smiling a little bit at the jokes and even Carlos, who is more acquainted now with English than we thought, is laughing at Brian’s silliness. And we’re all just waiting on Jacob, who comes stumping up the steps with his knee acting up and then he comes in and is just laughing with the rest of us without even knowing what’s funny. We are all set to hit those woods and it feels to me like we are doing it on our terms and not going to be swallowed up in whatever darkness the woods has for those it enjoys to fuck with, like myself. I feel silly for having felt so bad these past few weeks.
We set out before the sun is even down so we can stake out a good camping ground out on that bald in the Kilbys’ piece of woods. And we have talked to Son Kilby and he knows we are going to be there, and we are set to be out on a bald and under the stars, not stuck under the trees. We are not to be fucked with on this evening. I feel fine about it all. I don’t give a shit if we get a single shot off at anything.
We get our tents up as the sun is going down and the fire is lit before the moon is up. A bottle goes around and we start to talk our regular bullshit about this and that. Brian is convinced he is about to start fucking Miranda Clarke, which he don’t have a chance to do and Jacob tells him so, because everyone has put eyes on her and there is a line. In fact, to say that everyone knows her is just a plain statement of fact because Carlos hears the name and rolls his eyes and kind of draws her shape in the air and then puts up his middle finger up at old Brian. And we are laughing as Brian sputters. Richie tells about how he caught Jesse Stewart, who is cousin to Hump and Cody, trying to chisel him on his brake pad replacement. And everybody turns to Cody and he just puts up a hand as if to say that he wouldn’t expect any better from Jesse even if they are kin. There’s laughs about this, too.
Bottle keeps going around until it’s dead and then another one comes out to replace it. And that bottle starts taking its own casualties so that Jacob and Richie who don’t drink much to speak of are wobbling in their little lawn chairs and know to call it a night. And then Brian drops out behind them and soon it’s just me and Cody and Carlos who are sitting around the fire.
Carlos and me are drunk enough to try speaking to each other and there is some brotherly feeling there. Us slapping each other on the back and leaning on each other, Cody grinning at us across the fire, but not in such a way that he is mocking us, just too drunk himself to come over and hug up with us. I don’t know what makes me say it, I guess because I’m drunk enough for anything and maybe I’m cocky because I don’t think anything is about to touch us that evening, but I pound old Carlos on the back and I say to him something like, “Carlos, what do you say about evil? What do you all think about evil down in Mexico, because you got evil folks just like we do, I know. What do y’all do about your evil folks?” I know it’s something of that nature. And Cody just shakes his head, like wondering why I would bring up something so unnecessary into an evening where we have all been enjoying ourselves. Also, it is a common thing when we got drunk at that time to mess with Carlos about being from Mexico even though we all kind of want to know what life is like down there and do have attractions for certain Mexican women in town, even Carlos’ younger sister, and some of us even do wonder if we might ought to move to Mexico to find a better life there. So, anyway, I ask Carlos about evil, like a damn fool. Like he’s even going to understand what I’m asking him about, because how do you translate that?
But then I guess Carlos does understand what I’m talking about and he just shakes his head and points to the sky, pounds me on the back. He tells me something about a heart and I don’t understand what he’s saying, but he takes that bottle from me and takes him a big old drink, a drink big enough to make a sober man drunk, and big enough to put a drunk man on his ass. But Carlos is like me, maybe, that night, and he has the thirst on him and so it probably don’t do much to him.
Well, I figure it’s time for a change of chemistry so to say, and so I pull out some weed from my back pocket I brought for the occasion, because I know Carlos will indulge in that weed every so often. And Cody maybe will or maybe won’t, but I don’t care. I put fire to it and pass it around to Carlos who nods at me and sucks down on that joint. He gives me a look like, “What pile of mouse turds did you grow this here on?” because it is that same nasty damn weed I got off Jim Weatherall all them weeks back. And time has not been good to that weed as I find when I take my own hit, but I’m luckily drunk enough that it does not matter. I pass it on to Cody who hems and haws before he takes a pull on it, all of which coughs back up.
And Cody says something like, “Damn, boy, where did you find Ben Turner?”
And I don’t know what he’s saying at first, but I do start to get itches at the back of my neck, which only happens when I get nervous. So, I guess I know something is coming.
I say I ain’t seen Ben Turner in ages and Cody asks me what I’m doing with his weed then. And I ask him what he’s talking about and he says Ben Turner is the only one fool enough to soak his weed in embalming fluid before he smokes it. And Cody says he wouldn’t have smoked that weed if he had known it was Ben Turner’s weed, because it is some bad shit.
Well, I tell him Weatheralls must do that dumb shit because that weed come from Little Jim Weatherall. Cody looks at me like I’m stupid and says there ain’t a Weatherall smokes weed. Least of all Little Jim, he said. Said Little Jim won’t touch nothing that don’t come in a bottle, that Little Jim has said to him personally nothing but queers will touch anything else, because it makes a man useless.
I take me another hit of Ben Turner’s weed, because I don’t really know what else to do with it. I smoke on it until it burns my fingers. I feel a brush against my leg and I know what’s brushing against it, looking to get petted. So I don’t look down. I look over at Carlos and he’s studying Cody. Cody’s still talking, but he don’t say nothing about seeing a dead dog, so I just let it be what it is.
I take me another drink and then another, decide to smoke me another little bit of weed and decide against it. Cody’s still talking about this and that and the fire’s getting lower and lower and Ben Turner has sat down beside him at some point. Ben won’t say shit of course and Cody either can’t see him or just don’t want to. And I think about that tooth that hit me in the face and I think how it probably wasn’t that little Mohaffey girl’s tooth after all and how maybe there’s some hope that they’ll find her somewhere. How maybe she was just smart enough to run off that mountain early, though the world probably won’t pay much attention to that kind of ambition. I hope for her that she maybe gets enough ambition to find her own laziness, that it’s a good kind of laziness, that it comes to her at a good time in her life so that she always feels contented when she returns to it.
I take me a hit of that bottle and pass it over to Carlos and I ask him, “What about the guilt? You got all of that evil, just like we do. But what do you do about the guilt?” And he just sort of looks at me like he don’t know what I’m saying, which he don’t. And I say louder, “The guilt, Carlos, is what I’m asking you about. Down in Mexico, you got those men who go about doing evil things. What do you do about the guilt? If it never comes to those who are doing the evil, who does it go to?” And Carlos just points up and he points down and he taps his heart and hits that bottle again. And I look over at Ben Turner, but he’s got nothing to say to me. And his eyes sort of roll back in his head. And his teeth start falling like rain, Cody just talking a mile a minute next to him. And then Ben Turner stands up in that low firelight and begins walking toward me and I guess I know what’s coming next.
Wes Freeman is a fiction writer and journalist from the southern Appalachian mountains. He lives in Chicago.