Authors: John Vigna
“A heartbreaking portrait of what it means to be a man in a world where violence trumps reason, and bad decisions begin with good intentions. With wit, tenderness and intelligence,
exposes the raw underbelly of male experience.”
âGary Shteyngart, author of
Super Sad True Love Story
“John Vigna's prose grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go. The characters in
never give upâthey keep trying to fulfill themselves by taking action. Like all of us, their decisions were the best option at the time, but in retrospect often caused more difficulty and damage.
is a brilliant book by a writer who never flinches.”
âChris Offutt, author of
“A remarkable collection of rough-edged stories about the hard lives of men and women living and working in hard places, and John Vigna's eye for detail, gift for description and unflagging empathy are the keys that unlock these characters' closely guarded hearts and give us access to their weary, yearning souls.”
âRichard Lange, author of
is full of yearning hearts, people living on the edge of trouble and tomorrow. A man mourning his dead wife and daughters takes in a vagabond girl. Two elderly brothers shun the modern world that slouches toward their doorstep. These are keepers of the faith in a hard-scrabble landscape, forever stumbling into urgent embraces. In every story there are gritty, heartfelt truths to be found amid sagebrush and starlight and feathery dustings of snow.”
âCharlotte Gill, author of
“John Vigna is a rare writer, capable of standing stark brutality alongside complex humanity, adept at showing us the cruelty of the world without making us despair for ourselves within it. The stories in
are rich, compelling, and sometimes frightening, written in spare honest prose without pretence or posturing. An astonishing debut.”
âSteven Galloway, author of
The Cellist of Sarajevo
Arsenal Pulp Press
Copyright Â© 2012 by John Vigna
US edition published 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any part by any meansâgraphic, electronic, or mechanicalâwithout the prior written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may use brief excerpts in a review, or in the case of photocopying in Canada, a license from Access Copyright.
ARSENAL PULP PRESS
Suite 101 â 211 East Georgia St.
Vancouver, BC V6A 1Z6
The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council for its publishing program, and the Government of Canada (through the Canada Book Fund) and the Government of British Columbia (through the Book Publishing Tax Credit Program) for its publishing activities.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to persons either living or deceased is purely coincidental.
The following stories have appeared in a different form in the following publications: “Fences” (originally appeared as “Two” in
The Antigonish Review
), “South Country” (originally appeared as “Hops” in
), “Two-Step” (originally appeared as “The Ballad of Big and Small” in
Cabin Fever: The Best New Canadian Non-Fiction
), and “Gas Bar”
(The Dalhousie Review).
The author would like to thank the editors of each of these publications.
Cover photograph by Michael Jang for Getty Images
Author photograph by Nancy Lee
Book design by Gerilee McBride
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication:
Vigna, John, 1965-
Bull head / John Vigna.
Also issued in electronic format.
... the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him ...
âFlannery O'Connor, “On Her Own Work”
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
âThe Book of Hebrews 12:1
RLENE IS BOTH
kinds of music: country and western.
When she stomps toward Earl, kicking up sawdust across the worn parquet dance floor, faux gold rings curved around her liver-spotted fingers and aquamarine rhinestones hanging around her neck, sweat beaded above her painted lips, eyelashes done just so, he sees his own hurt in her. He turns away and orders a beer.
“Earl, gawddammit, you're late.” Arlene slaps his back.
“Sorry, honey, I've been packing.”
“Packing? Something you forgot to tell me?” She runs her fingers along the marbled snaps on his shirt, tugs on his bolo, stands on her toes to reach his broad neck. “I oughta lynch you for making me wait so long.”
The first beer of the day is cold and goes down fast. The fiddles and Dobro are loud and bittersweet. They sting like she does.
“You can't hang an innocent man.”
“Baby, you're anything but innocent.”
He laughs, pulls her in by the doughy flesh of her hip, presses his weight into her, and rests his chin on her head. Her hair is sticky and stiff but it smells clean. “You oughta know.”
“I wish I didn't.”
He drains his beer and sets it down. Nods for another. “Can't we have some fun tonight?”
“Fun seems to be the only thing you know.”
On the dance floor, Earl holds Arlene tight, her hand damp in his, the tips of his fingers firm on her spine. He smiles as he leads her; they slide in swirls of sawdust, float in and out of other couples, counterclockwise around the room to the twang of Don Williams. He twirls her like a tiny doll, her eyes wide, boots gliding and stepping, thighs and calves brushing in long strides. Their silver belt buckles click when they come together. He is not a religious man, nor does he carry a great deal of faith in himself unless a woman puts it there. An ache of sadness tugs at him when he brings her in close again and whispers that he's leaving in the morning, that he'll be gone for a few days to see his brother. And when she pulls away and stops dancing, he's certain he has already lived the best part of his life.
“You're full of surprises, aren't you?” She studies his face. “The lone wolf rides again. Well, suit yourself. But don't come crawling back to me again. I can't take a man whose favourite topic is himself.” She spins around and leaves him standing alone while the other couples twirl close, sawdust rising and falling around him, lost in the dark lights of the tavern.
Earl gears down the '72 Ford pickup he borrowed from his used-car lot to read the sign: “You are entering a Correctional Services Reserve. Any vehicle or person on this site is subject to a search. No loitering or photographs.”
Crisp autumn air rises over the gin-clear river, the valley laid out before him like a dark green bottle. He inhales deeply before he unlatches the glove box, pulls out a flask of bourbon, snaps the cap, and takes a long drink. Whitetails and mule deer dot the open patches; a stand of birch and alder gives way to pine, spruce, and fir. He prefers the meadows that appear suddenly in the dense swathes of forest, cattle lowing on land cleared by generations of hardworking folks. But it's getting more difficult to recognize true pastures from the greened-over slag heaps that pass for hillsides. Geese honk above him in a melancholy song.
In the prison parking lot, he takes another swig before he stuffs the flask in his chest pocket. He slings a duffle bag over his shoulder and carries three plastic sacks of groceries toward the main entrance. A large German shepherd paces back and forth in a fenced pen. Behind, neatly manicured lawns; two white gazebos stand placidly outside of the barbed wire fences. He enters the waiting room and sits down.
The week before his visit, he had asked Hammy if there was anything he could bring, just say the word, anything at all. Hammy requested two rollerball pens, nothing else.
“What the hell kinds of stories?”
“I dunno. Stuff. Social worker says it's to get in touch with who I am.”
“Is it working?”
“Hell if I know.” Hammy sniffed on the other end of the phone.
“But the ink makes good tats.”
They talked once a week; Hammy called collect punctually at seven p.m. on Sunday nights. Earl made a point of being home alone before he went to the Northerner for a night of dancing and drinking. He looked forward to the calls even though they didn't talk about much. It was better than the smashed and incoherent calls at all hours of the night before Hammy was arrested. What shook Earl were the phone calls when Hammy would be coming down from a high, his voice raw, a whisper on the other end of the line. “Maybe it'd be better for everyone if I just disappeared.” And then he'd hang up. Once Earl asked the operator to see if the call could be reversed; she replied that it could, and the phone rang unanswered. He tried the line again and again throughout the night even though he knew it was a payphone he was calling. He imagined a solitary booth on the edge of a parking lot near a gas bar, the phone's ring echoing across the gravel like a death rattle mocking him. He finally gave up, lay in his bed listening to the birds chatter as first light appeared, reached for a nitroglycerin tablet, placed his hand on his chest, and prayed for his breathing to slow. The phone rang and Hammy was on the other end, his voice brighter than before. Earl asked him if he had found a fix; Hammy shouted, called him a fat bastard who only thought of himself, then hung up. Earl poured himself a generous shot of bourbon, yanked the phone line out of the wall, and rested the glass on his belly, studying the popcorn ceiling until it was time to get up.
Staring at a soft-drink machine in the waiting area, Earl feels the weight of his flask against his chest. He glances at the glass case on the wall jammed with trophies and banners and pictures
of prison staff, smiling in softball uniforms, and considers turning around, getting a motel room for the night, checking out the local action in the bars, kicking up his heels.
“You waiting on someone?” From a booth lined with tinted windows, a guard with grape-coloured lips and a mouth packed with misshapen teeth emerges, blinking in the daylight.