Authors: Jon Bassoff
* * *
I sat there for a long time, listening to the blood roaring in my ears. I knew who I was.
There was a shovel in the bed of my truck. I turned my headlights on and stepped outside. The snow was whipping all around me. I walked away from the road and started digging. The ground was cold and hard and the digging was difficult. It must have taken me thirty minutes or more before I’d dug a shallow grave. I was sweating despite the cold. I limped back to the car and pulled open the truck door. Death and destruction. Placing my hands beneath his arms, I managed to pull the stranger out of the pickup. He wasn’t heavy, and I dragged him across the snow and toward the grave, rolling him the final few yards into his resting place. Breathing heavily, wiping snow from my brow, I covered him with mud and snow and then got down on my knees and prayed to Jesus Christ with all of my might.
* * *
I got into the truck and drove. Tammy Wynette was singing about standing by her man. The wheat fields around me were engulfed in blackness. As the headlights plowed through the darkness, I kept worrying that I might disappear. Off in the distance, the unblinking headlights of a semi appeared, pulling toward me so deliberately that I wondered if I’d ever reach them. Then suddenly they were upon me, and I shielded my eyes with my hand. My Chevy trembled as the big rig rushed past. I watched in my rearview mirror as the red taillights got smaller and smaller, fading into nothingness. Then I was alone again. That ancient coldness rose up inside of me, quickly, unexpectedly. I could barely breathe. I jammed on the brakes, and the car screeched to a halt. I turned off the headlights and the world disappeared. Suddenly, I got the strange sensation that I was staring at the back of my own head.
Panicked, I got out of the pickup, leaving the driver’s-side door open and the engine running. I was standing on County Road 13 staring into endless miles of nothingness. I began running down the highway like a fool, just running as hard as I could, not knowing if I could be with myself anymore.
* * *
Back in Stratton. All the streets were silent and still, save the dead leaves marching toward their graves. Off to the south the factory smokestacks shot columns of soot into the filthy sky, a human sacrifice to God. I drove down Main Street, stopped at a liquor store. My clothes were covered with blood. I walked inside, zombielike. The windows were barred, and the man behind the register watched me suspiciously as I found the cheapest pint of gin. I paid for the booze, twisting off the top as I staggered outside. Then I sat in my truck and drank. I drank a lot. My head was bobbing around, my tongue lolling outside of my mouth. The devil’s shotgun rested on my lap.
I weaved through town. I knew where I was going, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. My name was Joseph Downs and I came from a small town in Ohio. I was wounded in Mosul when our Humvee exploded. I knew who I was.
* * *
I parked at the edge of her property and turned off the engine. My truck was hidden in the shadow of an old juniper tree. The windows of the little ranch house were glowing orange, the curtains pulled closed. Every so often I could see the silhouette of a woman, then the silhouette of a man, walking through the empty hallway.
I turned on the radio and listened to a Southern preacher, and he got me good and scared. The moon was an evil grin in a basalt sky.
Nobody left the house that night. I watched as the lights began shutting off. First the kitchen. Then the living room. Finally, the bedroom. The whole house was dark. I choked down one last drink, squeezed my eyes shut, and went to sleep.
* * *
Early the next morning I saw him. Tall, thick, ruggedly handsome. The
from the bar. He was wearing blue jeans tucked into roper boots, along with a brown Carhartt jacket. He stood outside a while, just gazing across the desolation toward a lonely windmill, the metal blades and tail vane shining all purple and pink and orange in the hazy winter sun. He started walking slowly toward his car, whistling a tune I’d never heard. Then he got inside and hit the engine. I could hear the muffled sounds of Los Ponchos playing from his radio. He put the car into gear and drove, passing right in front of me, kicking up dirt and dust.
Some time passed. I stepped outside of the truck, the snow crunching beneath my bloodstained boots. A bedroom light flashed on, and I saw Lilith in the window. She was wearing a long white gown and her face was otherworldly. I stood in front of my hearse, the shotgun dangling from my hand, a steel appendage. Somewhere in the distance a lonesome train whistle blew. I pulled back my hair with my hand and started walking slowly toward her door. And now I knew what I was going to do, what I had to do. Choices aren’t made. There is no free will.
PART TWO: BENTON FAULK (2003)
“There was something terrible in me sometimes at night I could see it grinning at me I could see it through them grinning at me through their faces it’s gone now and I’m sick…”
The Sound and the Fury
The old man kept the rats in the cellar, hundreds of them in metal cages on cinder block shelves. It was some sight to see, boy, all those rabid rats watching you from beneath those beady black eyes, longing to stick their disease-infested teeth into your flesh. And in the middle of the cellar, a large rectangular table with beakers and Bunsen burners and medicine droppers and notebooks filled with equations and whatnot and all the mountain folk talked and said what’s he up to down there, he can’t be up to no good, but it didn’t bother me even a single bit because Dad knew some things and I trusted him more than all the doctors with their sighs and shaking heads.
And now, as Mother lay in bed in her moth-bitten white nightgown, muscles withering, voice shrieking, Father showed me the Christ Rat, in a cage by itself, body calm, eyes alert, and said, three days, my boy, and no symptoms. Just a little mixture of Tetrabenazine and Peroxetine. An antidote from God himself! Don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner! And then I realized how much Father’s eyes resembled those of the rats, but still I didn’t want to believe all the things the men at the store were saying, didn’t want to believe that the Castle was waiting for him.
And me upstairs, pacing like one of those caged rats, feeling more than a little melancholy, hoping nobody would come check up on me because the living area was a mess with clothes and blankets and pillows and cans and plates, and they might say enough of this, time to call social services on you! They might say time to put you in a foster family or worse! I walked across the living room, floorboards creaking beneath my graveyard boots, and pulled open the curtains, stared outside. The snow was all over the mountain and it made me realize how cold the house was, colder than a penguin’s left nut as they say, so I began gathering wood from the corner of the room and placing it in the fireplace, and by the time the flames were dancing I felt tired and I rested on the couch and snorted some snuff and then fell asleep. Then I was awake again and my head was aching and I could hear my father singing mournful songs and sobbing and I knew he’d sneaked some of that homemade bourbon again, that will be the death of you, I told him once and he just smiled and said better to die from a bad liver than a broken heart and I laughed and said so true, Dad, so true.
Feeling restless and maybe a little anxious, I went to the closet and grabbed my flannel jacket, thinking maybe I’ll just get outside, maybe I’ll go explore in the mountains and the caves, but I’d just gotten my right arm in the sleeve when I heard my mother’s voice, weakened but still shrill, calling out my name, Benton…Benton…Benton. For a moment I thought about ignoring her, but then the guilt stifled me, and I walked slowly toward the bedroom, where the stink of disease seeped from beneath the wooden door.
I stood outside the bedroom for a while hoping she’d stop calling for me, but she was tenacious, so I pushed open the door and stood there, hands useless at my side, eyes aimed downward. I could hear her breathing noisily and I felt sick to my stomach and feared that I’d vomit.
I’m not well, she said, though I’d heard it a million times before, for years and years. I don’t have long to live, Benton. Soon I’ll be gone and nobody will care. They’ll put me in a cheap casket and bury me beneath the dirt, and those worms will have quite a feast, don’t you think? And what about you? When I’m dead and buried, will you care?
And when I said that I would, that I loved her because she was my mother and spent sixteen hours giving birth to me, she just laughed and laughed and called me a liar and said she didn’t really blame me, that she’d been a terrible mother, unfaithful to me and my father, and once she was dead I should just forget about her, shouldn’t bother wasting love on her because there’s only so much love in the world, and it’s much better to spend it on somebody who can be redeemed.
Then she asked me to sit with her and those were always the words I dreaded to hear, not because I didn’t love her, but because I didn’t like being near disease, was afraid it might seep under my own skin.
She sat up, her head propped with pillows. Her face was gray, ashen, waxy, her eyes sunken. Her mouth was contorted into a forever scowl, and it was only her hair, long and flowing and black, that looked like my real mother’s. Her bare arms rested above the quilt, but they were covered with strange-looking scars.
I didn’t want to look at her so I stared at the steel cross hanging from the wall. The doctors are stumped, she said. I don’t blame them. The devil gave me this ailment. There are parasites crawling beneath my skin!
I told her that she’d be okay, that Dad would figure something out, that Dad’s medicinal punch was working just fine on the Christ Rat, and it would work just fine on her too.
She only grunted and then asked me how school was. I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t been going because I knew that would break her heart. Instead I told her that I was getting straight A’s, that I was on the debate team, that I was on the football team. I told her that scholarships looked likely—oh, you should see me dodge those would-be tacklers!—and I told her that I was dating a pretty young girl who loved Jesus and horses and we were going to get married. Well, Mother was thrilled about that! She started crying, and they were tears of joy, and she said, I always knew you were special, from the very first moment I laid eyes on you!
I sat with her for a while, and she held my hand, and I wished she would fall asleep so I could leave. But she didn’t fall asleep and so after a while I said that I had to go, that I had to study, and Mom said she was so proud of me and she hoped I would come visit her again soon, before it was too late, before she’d withered into nothing.
Then I left the house and the snow was falling and I was shivering. I was sixteen but I didn’t have a car so I had to walk everywhere, and in the summer it wasn’t so bad, but the winter was cold and miserable. I walked down a dirt path and I could see smoke billowing from all the chimneys and just then Old Man Skinner appeared from behind a rusted Ford pickup carrying a load of wood in each arm, and I waved my hand and said how do you do sir, but he just growled and kept right on walking. I was used to that, neighbors judging me on factors beyond my control, that’s the way it had always been, but there’s no use complaining about that.
By the time I made it to Gold Street, my feet were blocks of ice, my skull crushed and aching. Gold Street wasn’t much of a street, more like a dirt road really, but there was a school and a church and a general store and a café, and it was called the Miner’s Café and that’s where I liked to go from time to time because Constance Durban was a waitress there and sometimes she would wink at me. I blew on my hands and pushed open the door, and nobody was inside except for Eli Wyatt behind the counter, his long white hair combed back into a ponytail, his ruddy face concealed by a decade-old beard, and I wondered when Constance would be there, or if today was her day off, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to draw suspicion from Eli, didn’t want him saying: what are you interested in someone like her for, why she’s old enough to be your mother! So instead I looked at the pastries and sandwiches beneath the glass and tried to look as natural as I could. Eli said how ya’ doing, Benton Faulk, while wiping the countertop with a rag. Ain’t you supposed to be in school?
I told him no, told him all about how my mama was sick and that my father needed me to stay home and help, but I didn’t mention the Christ Rat, and Wyatt just nodded his head in sympathy and said it sure is a shame that Catherine is sick. I said indeed it is, then asked for a root beer, not the one from the fountain but the one in the bottle with the old-time writing on it, and he nodded his head slowly, wiped his hands on his apron, and pulled out a bottle from the cooler. He opened it for me and poured it into a frosted mug, then asked if I wanted a slice of cherry pie, that it would be on the house, and I said, I sure do appreciate it, that pie looks awfully good. And it did look good—you could see the cherries bursting out of the crust, and I could just tell they’d be juicy and sweet.
So I sat all alone at the end of a long metal picnic table and sipped the root beer and ate the cherry pie and watched the snow fall. Then, a few minutes past five, the door to the café opened and Constance Durban entered and she already looked tired and haggard even though her shift hadn’t started, but I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was tall, maybe a little on the heavy side, and had bright red hair. When she saw me, she gave me that secret wink, and I’m here to tell you, my heart jumped like a jackrabbit with a firecracker up its ass, as they say.