Wednesday, October 2, 2013

God's Buckeye

       An antique station wagon idled in the parking lot of the Warwick Falls lookout. A patch of frost was melting from the outside in on its periwinkle roof.  Mist rose from the gorge below and swirled around it, shrouding the tail lights, which looked like waspy red spirits. Its headlights beamed across the wet dirt road and painted dim yellow circles on a rock wall. Through the windshield, sluggish silhouettes ducked and swiveled their heads.
       The man behind the steering wheel reached under his seat and retrieved a nickel-plated .38 revolver. The woman next to him stared at it. The corners of her mouth turned down in a symphony of wrinkles.
       “How sure are you?” she asked.
       “’Bout what?” His eyes glimmered as if someone had recently added a coat of lacquer to them.
       “About them things in your shirt pocket.”
       “Well, if it was just me, I s’pose I wouldn’t be all that sure at all… but there’s you saw ‘em too.”
       “Yeah, I know I saw ‘em, but who’s to say I didn’t hear something different from what you heard?”
       “Did you?”
       A lone tear grew fat in the corner of her left eye and spooled down a groove in her cheek. It nestled itself in a crease in her chin.
       “They’re Tommy Boy’s buckeyes and you know it. Here,” he said, fishing them out of his breast pocket and displaying them on a flat, trembling hand. The buckeyes had a polished gleam from ritual handling. The beige circles on the tops of them were both tilted towards her as if they were studying her. “You see that little cross-shaped nick on the one? He used to say that it was God’s buckeye. He’d put it on the table at the last hand of every poker game and roll it towards the pot.”
      The woman chuckled painfully, her face twisted up like a tree knot.
       “Yep. He sure did… I don’t remember him ever losing, neither. I just don’t feel right about ‘em. We were both there at the funeral. He was buried with ‘em, folded up in his hand. It doesn’t seem well that they ended up on your nightstand all suddenly.”
       “One of ‘em’s God’s buckeye. That’s what he always used to say. I think it was God what left ‘em with us, Carole.”
       “Mayhap he did.”
       He brought his spotted hand up to her cheek and fingered her ear ring. It swung like a pendulum for a long time. He watched it—watched her. Then he returned his palm to the weapon in his lap.
       Carole leaned over herself and rummaged through her purse. The seatbelt cut into her floral dress, underlining a plump ridge of skin which drooped over the one already hanging from her waistline. Sitting back up, she brought a cell phone with her and stared at it for a minute or two. With a shaking finger, she swiped the gray band at the bottom of the screen. Nothing happened. With her second try, the lock icon twitched toward her yellowed nail and then settled back into place.
       “Do you know how to work this thing, darlin’?” she asked.
       “You gotta plant your finger directly on the lock and drag it to the right.”
       She nodded with a flimsy smile and, moving as precisely as a watch maker, lowered her finger once more onto the lock. This time, she managed to draw it completely to the right. A brightly colored background picture appeared behind a number of application icons. It was of Carole and her husband standing on either side of a young woman in a forest green sweater with big white letters, MSU, stamped on the chest.
       “Evelyn…” she said. “I don’t know that I can do a thing like this, Nick. What do you think she would say? Lord, what might she tell her little boys?”
       “She can’t tell what she don’t know,” said a voice like river rocks falling into a tin bucket, coming from the console—the spot where Nick had placed the buckeyes. “No one ain’t never gonna find out. You mark me good, Carole. You’ve got some business needs attendin’, and you ought not to shrug of attendin’ it on account of it’s God’s work. The both of you ha’ been chosen.”
       Carole froze, blinking rapidly at Nick who was twisting the chamber of the revolver with his thumb and gazing at the rock wall across the road.
       “…Did you hear ‘im, hon’?” he asked without moving.
       Her eyes shot down to the buckeyes. They were resting on a mound of pennies, shining dully in the grey light.
       “I sure think I did.”
       “Well, I think that solves it. Let’s not be too ceremonious about all this,” he said, popping his door open and setting his foot on the gravel outside. “I’ll go’n and get the car ready—you call the tow man. Remember how Evelyn set it up for you? Just press the green phone-shaped button on the bottom-left ‘n’ press the word, ‘roadside’. Then, all you gotta do is say you and your husband done popped a tire out on route 43, you’re parked out by the falls, and ain’t any spares in the trunk. Okay?”
       “Okay,” she said, eyes wide.
       Nick nodded and pulled himself onto his feet, briskly shutting the door once he was all the way out. She heard his crunching footsteps trail around to the trunk, then a mechanical pop and a rusty squeal. A flicker down in the console caught her attention. One of the buckeyes—the one with the cross-shaped nick—had tumbled away from its brother.
       “Who’s in there? Is that you, Tommy Boy?” she asked.
       There was no answer for several minutes. Then the trunk slammed shut. She flinched and the phone slipped from her hands into the narrow space between her seat and the passenger door.
       “Hell!” she grunted, looking through the back window at Nick.
       He was holding a bowie knife with a brown leather handle close to his chest and peering around the car at the back left tire.
       “Call the tow man, Carole,” said the buckeyes. There was a touch of anger in the voice. The pennies rattled.
       The voice made her go rigid, jowls quivering, and before she’d heard the last word, Carole had jammed her hand down past the seat cushion and scrabbled around, sweat sprouting along her burgundy hairline. At last, her plastic nails ticked against it. She yanked it out and held it up to her face. With her thumb, she brought up the home screen once more and pressed the green phone icon. “Roadside” was the third number on the list, below the words, “Ev” and “Home”.
       She tapped it and held the phone to her ear, looking dazedly at the buckeyes which now sat nestled in individual divots, surrounded by respective calderas of pennies. A far away ringing purred in her ears until a click sounded and a young man answered on the other end.
       “Plateau Towing. How can I help you?”
       “Hi,” she said, throat crackling as if it were made of dry leaves. “Me and my husband just popped ourselves a tire out on 43 by the falls and we don’t have any spares. Do you think you could send out a truck to help us?”
       “Well, sure we can, ma’am. That’s not a problem at all. I’ll come out, myself. How’s that sound?”
       To her rear, there was a meaty thud followed by a slow hissing sound. The car began to tilt and sag towards the place where her husband was helping himself back to his feet.
       “Uh… that sounds just fine. When can we expect you?”
       “Our shop is actually only fifteen minutes away from there. You just sit tight and I’ll be up in no time. We’ll get your car hooked up and have her back down here before nine.”
       “Alright, then. We’ll be waitin’ for you.”
      “Good deal,” he said. “I’m hopping into the truck as we speak. See you in a bit.”
       Carole’s throat began to close. She swallowed and cupped her palm around the drapes of skin under her neck.
       “Hey, son? Mind if I ask you a question real quick?”
       “Sure. Whatcha got? Shoot.”
       “What’s your name?”
       Outside, Nick was panting and swatting at the knees of his khakis. The overcast sky combined with the swirling cloud constantly spuming up from the falls caused deep shadows to fall over his brow, making his eye sockets look empty.
       “My folks dubbed me Martin. You can call me Reds, though. That’s what everyone calls me.”
       “And why’s that?” she said, continuing to watch her husband.
       He had taken a few steps away from the car toward the railing that sat just above the falls. The upstream breeze blasting out of the gorge tousled the thin band of cotton still clinging to his scalp. And the leather handle of the knife jutted through the slit in the back of his tan tweed jacket.
       “Oh, well I’m a little embarrassed to say…” Reds mumbled.
       “Go on,” Carole said, her voice jittering.
       “Well, it’s just a name that stuck with me. I used to have a chain-smoking habit—two packs a day; cowboy killers—and one night, I was drinking heavy at this party I wasn’t supposed to be at. My mom caught wind and came out looking for me. She had just found the house I was at and was coming in to give me a piece of her mind when I made the stupid mistake of lighting a cigarette backwards and taking a power-drag. Let’s just say that it didn’t end well for anyone involved and I had to buy my mom a new blouse afterwards.”
       “My word. Well, I guess we all end up bein’ infamous for somethin’ or another,” she said.
       Over the phone, she heard the tow truck’s engine grumble and huff as it began its trip up into the mountains.
       “Yeah. I don’t mind it too much, though. I kind of like the name. It seems to suit me. Anyway, I should get off the phone before I wreck this thing but, before I do, what’s your name? I don’t think I caught it.”
       “Oh, me?” she asked, raising her penciled-on eyebrows. “I’m Carole, sweetie.”

       The tow truck rattled, navigating the beaten dirt roads up the mountain. Reds, leaning over his steering wheel, struggled messily with the wiper switch so that he could rid himself of the sheet of fog that had plastered itself across the windshield. The old blades whined on their servos, doing little to improve visibility and painting streaks of dirt in a familiar arc.
       He rocked away into his seat, smacked his skull against the back window.
       “Fuck!” he growled, reaching blindly toward the console. He plucked the receiver of the CB radio out of its holster and whipped it toward his face. “You should’ve washed Josie-May when you were done yesterday, Daniel… dunno how in the hell you expected me to drive her like this, knowing the fogs were coming. By the way, remind me why you took the headrest out of here?”
       A slushy, Alabamian drawl crackled out of his hand.
       “Take ‘er eathy, Redth. I’ll make it up to yuh, bah y’ a thix-pack.”
       “Kiss my ass, pumpkin. If I make it back down, I’ll hold you to that.”
       “Alraht, mayn. Be thafe up thur. And dontchu be cawlin’ me punkin.”
       Reds smirked, swaying side to side as the truck rocked over damp roots and kicked-up clods of dirt.
       “You want me to call you Fiddlesticks, then?”
       “Over ‘n’ out, jackath.”
       There was a momentary shriek of static as the radio cut off and then the cabin was quiet. Reds leaned forward again to replace the receiver. As he leaned back, he snuck a hand into his pocket and removed a cigarillo with a blonde wooden tip and a golden foil label wrapped around it. He gripped a loose piece of its cellophane packaging between his teeth and liberated it with a careless sideways jerk. Tucked into the seat by his belt buckle was a grimy yellow lighter which he easily found and flicked alight under his new fare. His fat red lips, looking like the split back of a jumbo shrimp, levered the cigarillo as he stoked it.
       Squinting through roiling ribbons of smoke, he found himself coming up on a black wooden sign. Just a few meters beyond it, he saw the gravel lot and the couple’s old station wagon. The husband was tall and pale, his jacket swaying from his sharp, bony shoulders as he took a few ambling steps away from the edge of the lookout. As Reds backed up to their rear bumper, the man suddenly appeared panicked. He jerked the driver door open ducked his head down into the car. When he stood back up, he was dropping something into his shirt pocket, patting it with a gnarled hand.
       “Alright, Carole. Let’s get this over with,” Reds said to himself, killing the engine with a punctuated flick of his wrist. He took a long, slow drag from the cigarillo; the glowing tip brightened to a nuclear yellow.
       As he hopped out of the cabin, the sound of the falls bore down on him. Their vomitous din was amplified against the rock wall, causing the noise to wash over him from both sides. Evergreens hung forlornly above him, deep and lush green, sacrificing none of their hue to the miasma of cold spray and fog.
       “Hey, glad you made it,” the old man said, his face twitching a couple of times before pulling itself up into a crinkled smile.
       “I’m glad I made it, too.” He chuckled and held his hand out. “I’m Reds.”
       At first, the old man stood still, looking sullenly at his shoes, hands tucked into his pockets. Then, as if receiving a delayed transmission from a distant satellite, he jerked forward and clasped Reds’ hand just as he started pulling it back. The senior’s palm was raspy and loose as if it would shed at any moment.
        “Name’s Nicholas,” he said, barking the first syllable out as if he were coughing.
        “Nice to meet you, Nicholas. I take it that’s Carole in the car?”
       Again, the Nicholas seemed not to register what he had said. He simply stood and gazed at him, eyes like glittering pits. The sun had begun to rise but the burly grey clouds all but obscured it. Where it hung in the sky, it seemed like someone had taken a giant eraser and scrubbed in a circle slightly brighter than its surroundings.
       “Sir?” Reds said
       “Huh? Oh. Yeah, that’s my wife, Carole.” The old man shambled around and bent over, signaling with his hand for her to get out of the car.
       Carole stood slowly, looking somberly from Nick to Reds. Her lips were pressed so tightly against each other that they seemed to disappear into a bloodless horizontal line.
       “Hello, ma’am,” Reds said.
       “Hi,” she said. The word seemed to whistle out of her throat.
       The skirt of her dress swishing between her legs, she trudged to a spot just behind her husband and placed a lizard hand on his shoulder. Nick’s head drifted minutely in her direction and then came back to Reds.
       “So how’re we gonna do this?” he asked.
       “All I’ve gotta do is hook your wagon up to the back of my rig and then you two can ride up front with me. It’ll only take a few moments.”
       “Well, is there any way I c’n help you?” As Nick spoke, his skin stretched thin over his cheekbones, drawing in dark hollows below them. Fat, winding veins had popped out on the sides of his forehead. A slick sheen stood out on his skin.
       “No, I can handle it. Why don’t you two stand back and enjoy the falls a bit while I string her up?”
       Nick nodded and smiled appreciatively.
       Reds rubbed the back of his neck and shot a quick glance behind him, pulling the cigarillo out of his mouth so that a delicate arc of curly smoke followed in its wake. When he looked back, he staggered, gasping.
         Nick had leveled the revolver at his head.
         “Hey, man, what’s… what are you doing with that thing?”
         “Beg pardon, son,” Nick said, sighing. His eyebrows bunched in a lax sort of despair. “We’ve been chosen and so’ve you, I’m afraid. It’s god’s work, what’s gettin’ done this morning. Now why don’tcha just get on down to your knees ‘n’ close your eyes. I’m gon’ hafta kill you now.”
       Reds gaped at him, his lips trembling like pink epileptic worms. Shadows seemed to shift like spiders over the old man’s face. He tilted his head and motioned downward with the barrel of the .38.
       “Sir, why don’t we just put the gun down? You don’t need to kill me. I’m sure this is just all a misunderst--“
        “On your KNEES!” the old man screamed, spraying him with specks of saliva. He cocked the hammer back with a trembling thumb.
        Reds dropped immediately, grimacing as a sharp piece of gravel dug into his knee cap.
        “Okay, okay. I’m on my knees. Let’s just slow down and talk.”
       “Sorry, boy. There won’t be any variety of speech gonna save you. I’m afraid it’s outta all our hands.” He reached into his shirt pocket and brought out the two buckeyes. Holding them out for Reds to see, he continued. “These here belonged to an old friend of mine. His spirit is alive in them—I’ve heard his voice comin’ directly out of ‘em. He says he’s thirsty.”
       Reds looked over Nick’s shoulder at Carole, his eyes round with shock. She frowned at him and looked away toward the falls.
       “Carole…” he said. “You seemed like a nice woman earlier on the phone. Don’t let him do this.”
       “Don’t you say another word t’ my wife, hear?” Nick said evenly, rattling the buckeyes.
       She turned back and looked down at Reds. Her eyes were red-rimmed and wet, but her face was slack, emotionless. Nick held the buckeyes out to her while keeping his eyes and the gun trained on Reds.
       “Go on and take ‘em, dear. I think Tommy-boy’s got somethin’ t’ tell you.”
       Carole cupped her hands under her husband’s. The latter loosened his ashy fingers and let them fall through. Eyes rolling upwards, she held them up to her ear. Occasionally, she nodded and mumbled assent.
       “What’s he saying?” her husband asked. The arm he held the gun with was shaking so badly that his fist began to bounce.
        She brought her hand away from her ear and dropped the buckeyes. They skittered across the gravel, one bouncing and skipping until it thudded into Reds’ leg. He looked down and noticed that it had a small cross-like shape carved into it. Nick twisted around, mouth hanging open.
        “What in th’ hell’d you do that for, Carole?!”
        “I was just doin’ our lord’s work,” she said raggedly, eyelids drooping.
Nick veered violently forward and clipped his wife, then fell to the ground with her. She writhed sluggishly under him like a drugged insect, pulling on his shoulders to see over him. The bowie knife was buried so deeply in his back that only its handle was visible. Reds dashed toward them and, planting a knee in the old man’s back, reached out for the gun which had fallen right next to Carole’s head.
       With a speed that he wasn’t expecting, she snatched it and jammed it against his skull. Between them, her husband lay still, eyes half-open and unblinking. The pupils had blotted out his hazel irises entirely.
       “Get up ‘n’ drag him off me. By the ankles,” she said.
       Reds, moving as carefully as he could manage, obeyed her and crawled backwards until he was hovering on his haunches. He took one of Nick’s ankles in each hand and duck-walked backwards, tugging in short bursts. A maroon patch had begun to seep through the old man’s blazer and bloom outward from the brown, segmented handle that stood like a monument between his shoulder blades. When he had completely freed Carole of her spouse, she sat up and gazed at him. He stood straight and gazed back.
       “Are you going to let me live?” he said.
       “I think so.”
       “Can I have the gun, then?”
        She peered dreamily down at it, hefted it in her blue-crossed palm. The fog had thinned and the clouds had broken, allowing spokes of ocher sunlight to dart down through the mist wafting over and through the lookout railing behind her. Prismatic rings danced around her head.
        “I can’t give it to you.”
        “Sure you can, Carole. I promise, I’ll just take it and put it somewhere safe. We’ll get your husband into the truck and go straight to a hospital.”
        “That’s not gonna work, hun. I’ve still got God’s work to do.”
        “You think God would want you to do anything with that gun?” he asked, taking a step toward her.
        She closed her eyes and cleared her throat.
        Reds took two steps closer.
        Carole’s eyes snapped open and she shoved the gun into her mouth, the barrel clicking against her molars. He froze and held his hands up, palms out.
       “Don’t do it, Carole. You just need he--,” he said as she pulled the trigger.
       A confetti of grey matter and blood spread out like a plume on the gravel behind her. The force of the bullet had laid her on her back, her dress hiked up over the red-striped mound of her stomach. Reds’ knees gave and he slumped onto his side, barely supporting himself with his left arm. He surveyed the scene numbly, letting his eyes drift over every detail, feeling almost calm somehow.
       He heard something skitter across the gravel to his right.
       The buckeyes lay nestled together only a few feet away. Reds stood up abruptly and knelt over them, scooped them into his palms. They were bigger than they had been moments before. There was a smear of blood on one of them. He studied it for a long time. Then he looked back at his truck, began to walk toward it.
       He climbed back into the cabin and placed the buckeyes on the seat next to him. In the side mirror, he could still see Carole’s body, arms and legs splayed out to the four corners. He heard a faint crackling sound, followed by a familiar voice.
       “Redth, what’th taykin’ yuh tho lowng?”
       “Oh my god,” he said, suddenly looking wildly about him. He leaned over and pulled the receiver up to his mouth. “Something horrible has just happened. I need you to call the police right now.”
       “Yew thound a kahnda bad, buddeh. What’th goin’ own up thar?”
       “The people that called us are dead. One of them almost killed me. Look, I don’t think I can fucking go into it right now. Can you just get the cops?”
        “Thay no more, mayn. Ahm callin’ ‘em raght naow.”
        “Okay,” Reds said.
        He replaced the receiver and ran a hand through his bristly hair. Through the windshield, he saw a white rabbit scampering down the road along the rock wall. Up the way, a series of tree branches snapped, a ways into the woods. The radio crackled to life again.
       “Hay, Redth?”
       He grabbed the receiver again and depressed the white button on its side with a shivering index finger.
       “What, Daniel?”
       “Yew thould turn yer radio awn b’fore yuh thart hayvin’ converthathions wiv’ folkth awn it.”

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