by S.J. Brooks
The sunlight faded in, bluish gray, with a sickly, seafoam green buried underneath, pulsing. He sat in a hard chair at the kitchen window lacing up his boots, his legs heavy, his eyes dry from the fan blades that constantly turned and blew over him as he half-slept next to Glenda on the same scratchy sheets every night. They were going to his doctor in a few hours. Noon. Ticker might be fucked, burns all the time. He wondered how much time he's wasted, but there never was a way to avoid it. The big waste, the great waste. Every weekend--there had only been a few times they'd fought against The Routine: clothes, bills, dishes; yard, booze, smokes. Hell, every week, come to think of it--every, fucking, week.
Night, morning, some sleep, didn't rest, no rest for the working man on the school bus, no sir, the dawn comes calling. Working on the brakes of the bus Sunday afternoons; the brakes are always leaking; he enjoys the work. Blue, pink, orange in the sky. Avoiding The Problem. Avoiding talking. A hate for words. All words are empty. Dead. Black, yellow, green just before sunset, green again in the sunrise, here it is now, through the window, again, oh boy oh boy. Hot, cheap peanuts stashed in his back pack he's not supposed to have anymore, two for one, don't even taste good no more. The booze on the way home from work poisoning his mouth and tearing through his thinning yellow-brown incisors. The booze, booze, booze, one cigarette, two cigarettes, three. Coffee, beer, coffee. A yellow layer, a brown layer, an old layer, a new layer, thickening each day, growing into the next.
His cousin Jake calls every once in a while, drunk while closing down Hardee's for the night in a town thirty hours away, phoning in from the shithole they all grew up in; Jake was the closest thing left to a brother now.
Thank god home was so far-gone, not even conceivable, really--the distance was incredible, the unseen miles, beautiful. He could forget once in a while about Harry. It had been almost a year now--a year since Harry's death, Jesus, and a little less than that since the cross-country move here to the coast. Sleep, wake. Pink in the sky now. Again. Your valve looks strange, doctor says.
Children in through the door even in the rain. Turning the crank, the door folds in. The center aisle drenched. Rain filling in between the rubber ridges. Bright slick rain coats. Tiny pink shoes. Squeaks. He could use a rain coat but he's never out from behind the wheel and the sloshing windshield wipers throwing rain off into the valley. The beer cans he crumples up and buries in the cardboard box under the seat of the school bus. Old number forty-two. Not hearing from his daughter, she ran off and got married, just like Glenda and her first husband, the professional flute player. His daughter is pregnant. She never answered his calls; he never called often.
Nobody worth listening to besides Alice down at the service station with her crackling talk box: she holds a couple gray fingers over the hole in her throat and the cloth flaps while she wheezes out words. They're just as good as any, better, really, because she has to work to get them out; it takes deep breaths to try to mean anything. Makes him want to gag. Driving up and down Calvin Road with the twists and the trees leaning in, growing each day, one stick at a time, stretching out closer. Gas. County Road 17 dips and railroad trestles and that abandoned shack with the rotten barn behind it. There was a light shining inside the shack once. 7:30 a.m., 2:35 p.m., school in, school out; children on, children off; he sits out on his sagging front porch with a half-drunk half-case of beer, in between.
The occasional trip to Fort Walton or Port St. Joe with the middle school basketball team. Little extra dough. Can't remember Christmas. Can't remember the movie he watched with Glenda two nights ago. She wore ragged jean shorts and her love handles shined with stretch marks as she bent forward and picked up popcorn kernels he'd spilled on the floor, the tops of her butt cheeks jiggling, hinting at the rhinoceros cheeks below, her Motley Crue tattoo faded pink just over her kidney; screen goes black, tape rewinds.
Can't have peace and quiet. Can't have enough time to drink--too much time not to drink. Can't wait for that bigfoot movie to come on Channel 12 again, he'd just caught the ending. Never finishes a book. Hears from Jake, high as the mountains, snot-blubbered, closing down. Then Hardee's shuts down; the floors get mopped; the bathrooms get sprayed; the counter tops get wiped; the registers get cleaned out; the unseen door finally gets locked.
The coffee comes on with the timer now, the first bubbles sound--it's 5:55 a.m., whatever that means; the red numbers shine from the dark corner. He turns back to the window and watches the sky, the horizon streaked with orange embers.
Almost a fucking year now.
Harry, his brother, stops at a gas station on the way home from work at the butcher shop one night, gives him a ring around two a.m. Remembering this, more than anything, is what keeps him awake; a ringing phone always turns his stomach to shit. They talk, briefly, about nothing. Then Harry drives down the highway over the bridge and goes out to the pond behind their parents' place and puts a .38 Special in his mouth and pulls the trigger, sinks to the bottom. It's two days before anybody figures out what happened--when his father goes out to feed the fish, he thinks the water looks strange; the shape at the bottom ripples in the sunlight, he sees his creation destroyed. Then the phone rang its empty buzz.
Harry had asked for a song at his funeral, late one night at the pond his last Christmas alive; Harry, looking into the face of destruction and heroin. Harry made him swear he'd play his favorite song on the old guitar he hasn't touched in almost as long. Never knew what a beating a heart could take and keep on beating. Words went something like that. Never said a word to Glenda about it, never told anyone about the vow he made, he just didn't feel like it, couldn't conceive of it, when the time came for sitting in the pews, looking up toward the preacher he'd never seen before; he started wondering what he was going to do, how he would ever be able to live without his little brother, even though Harry was a scum bag, he'd determined, had owed close to a thousand dollars for years, money loaned to him after the first wife split. Still, he thought of the song from time to time, of the melody at little moments, like sitting alone at Arby's for lunch, drenching his curly fries in horsey sauce as it burned his mouth, stuck to his mustache sweet and hot, where he tasted it all day.
Then getting home late with Glenda after Harry's funeral, he got up and went to work in the morning and he drove a school bus and he drove the children to school and then he picked them up and the next day he drove the bus to the school and he went and picked them up and then the next day he called in sick and drove the bus on his own time out behind his parents' place to the pond where his brother had sunk and sat all night listening to the sounds of the woods and his father never came out though he must have seen him from the window at the back of the house. Weren't that many pine trees between the house and pond now.
Didn't tell anyone where he was, sat under the moon, saw a coyote across the field coming close. The coyote looked at him, and he remembered once back when Harry and him were kids how their family dog, their old golden retriever, Nugget, backed a coyote into his dog house and when they came outside, son of a bitch, the coyote was trembling with fear, Nugget's teeth bared. It was the sweetest dog they'd ever had. They'd laughed about that for years, him and Harry, long after Nugget was nothing but bones in the back pasture. They laughed about it through the divorces and the broken-down Thanksgiving dinners where nobody said anything, just mumbled and stuffed their faces with dried-out turkey and coffee that tasted like toxic waste, his mother's coffee, fresh sewage, come get it, boys. Nobody did the dishes. They laughed about old Nugget and drank from a rebel flag flask he'd since lost. And what was there to say?
That night, sitting by the pond in silence, the coyote was not afraid, and the light from the moon shined back in its eyes, reflecting in his own, and the light was broken. The coyote watched him; he wondered if there were any more of them around, if they would have liked to have had a meal of him, there was plenty to go around, it would have been the best meal of their lives, those hungry bastards with the razor teeth waiting to tear, waiting to take him down into their bellies, along with anything else they found alive or dead, and let him rot there, let him sink to the bottom of each of their stomachs, let him turn to nothing in the acid-filled bellies of those wretched beasts, his organs will be spread over the land as they roam and keep to themselves, spreading miles between them, miles between what used to be his body; through winter and summer, he'll eventually start fertilizing the weeds and flowers, the school bus will sit for the rest of eternity; the brake fluid will drain; nobody will ask questions. He hadn't told anybody where he was, telling would have violated the sanctity of the whole operation. Finally the coyote ran off through the pine needles into the darkness, long after he'd quit paying attention.
The hungry bastard left him alone, and the sky covered over in an ocean of gray clouds, the moonlight pulsing behind them, and in the morning he went and got into the driver's seat of the school bus and picked up the children, then he went home and didn't wake up for two days, would have lost his job if Glenda hadn't called in for him, told them he wasn't feeling well. He thanked her for that. Oh, he thanked her, with one of the last good fucks they'd had. They put the house up for sale and it sold; he never wanted to see that pond, or his father, again.
The sun was full now, the sky a peaceful, shadowy blue with white patches stretching, the day coming up; who knew what lay ahead? At noon they will go to the heart doctor; first he will drive, pick up the children, drop them off--they will meet, swing, and forget--he'll watch the light spread through the valley.
About the author:
S.J. Brooks's recent work can be found online in Eclectica Magazine and Stickman Review.