Greasy Creek, Tennessee. 1979.
The shallow water––rushing over the muscular, pebbled stream-bottom, sunlight shuddering on its surface in silvery, quick-moving slashes––ran through and beneath them but did not disturb Lana Dickey and Squid Cuomo humping away bare-assed in that July dog-day calefaction. The water was shallow and the sun was hot and his ass had dried completely while being worked in the air, but Lana kept her head turned to the side so as not to let her face above the water, her face pressed against the pebbly bottom of the shoal, submerged, not coming up and breathing much at all as Squid worked her. That was the way she liked it. Lee Foster Magnus, winner of the Golden Beret Photography Grant in New York City, New York, sat crouched next to a Cypress tree by the bank, taking a very clean shot.
“I did a minute and a half, Squid,” she said. “I counted.”
They sat Indian-style, the water rushing over their legs, but the tops of their bodies had dried. Lana Dickey’s hair began to dry and show golden in the sun.
“Is that the best you can do?” he asked, and he stood tall and handled his dick. “Let’s see if you can do two and a half.”
There was a shout across the water toward the bank. Lee Foster turned around and watched up the slope and into the woods, craning his neck, flailing about.
“Look at that man,” Lana said. “Dancing.”
“I’ll kill him.”
Lee Foster was hit again. The small rocks flew like scatter-shot and made faint popping noises, then Lee Foster screamed something about himself and his camera.
In the wild heat he wore a black turtleneck and brown corduroy pants, Italian leather boots. His mustache looked painted that way.
Lana and Squid waded to the bank where a tee shirt, a pair of panties with a pack of Marlboros hammocked in the crotch and some running shorts hung from the low branch of a tree. Squid put on the shorts and took a large, ivy-coiled stick laying beneath the tree and advanced toward Lee Foster, asking, “what’s that camera you got tied around your neck for? What’s that camera for, motherfucker?”
“Stop,” cried Lee Foster. “I’ve been hit.”
“Was you taking pictures of us?”
“No,” he said, panting. “Of course not.”
Another stream of dirt and rocks flew from the top of the slope and Lee Foster held his camera to his belly and crouched. Toward the top of the slope stood crazy Marvin Key, the forest hermit of Logan, Tennessee, behind a stump and raising his fists in the air and laughing.
“Why was you taking pictures of us?” asked Lana.
“Because, what you all were doing is beautiful. But who is that man, for Christ’s sakes, and why is he throwing rocks at me?”
“That’s just crazy Marvin,” said Squid. “That man just don’t give a fuck.”
He raised the big stick as if to say he didn’t give one either. Lana pulled the pack of Marlboros from the ass of her panties, untucked a pack of matches from the cellophane and lit one.
Lana was very thin, but had it in the right places, and Lee Foster thought she might be around seventeen, maybe eighteen. She stood in her panties and tee shirt smoking a cigarette, and Lee Foster had almost forgotten about Squid Cuomo and the six-foot stick.
“Hold on, please,” said Lee. “Put that thing down, I’m not asking for trouble. But tell me all about this hermit, please.”
“Did you like what you saw?” asked Squid.
“I did very much, but I want to know about him.”
“Shit,” said Lana. “He’s just an old crazy, ain’t nothing to him.”
“Bull shit,” said Squid. “I heard he kilt his fair share of people, just ain’t never been caught.”
“He ain’t done nothing,” she said.
Lee Foster found it hard to believe a man could get away with general craziness and murder attached. However, he understood that hermit culture existed outside of any social institution. He considered Squid’s perception favorably. But he said nothing––Lana had on a tee shirt and a small pair of panties and hair that was golden in the sun.
“Do you mind if I have a cigarette?” he asked.
She told him sure, reached into her ass and gave him one. Squid lowered the stick as if his anger toward Lee Foster had become mere agitation.
“I’m Lee, by the way. Lee Foster Magnus, the photographer.”
“We know good and damn well you’re a photographer,” said Squid.
“Well I’m Lana Dickey and this’s Squid Cuomo.”
“And you’re lovers?”
“We ain’t in love,” she said, laughing. “We both love to fuck, and we love it out here. You couldn’t never love Squid Cuomo, could you, Squid?”
“I can’t be loved.”
“Do you know where this crazy Marvin lives?” asked Lee.
“Yeah,” said Squid.
“You have to take me there. He is as haggard an individual I’ve seen. Positively crazed.”
“What makes you think you’re out of the dog house with me, motherfucker?”
“Listen, the Beret Grant has given me many liberties, but stumbling across you all? What you two were doing was pure magic, the carnal heartland in a backwoods creek. Do you have any clue how goddamned authentic you are?”
“I want to see pictures of me getting fucked,” said Lana.
“Yes, yes,” said Lee. “But please take me to this Marvin’s place. He’s a goldmine. I have to shoot him.”
“You walk in front,” said Squid. “I’ll steer you in the right direction, with my new walking stick.”
Lana laughed. She took a drag from her cigarette, hopped on a fallen tree and pirouetted herself. She giggled almost constantly. But Squid stood, menacing, gold curls in front of eyes that were squinted, piggy and black looking. He looked like a young, lean, beardless Greek god. On his left side was a tattoo of a skeleton, laughing, handling a woman on a dog leash from behind––it had scribed beneath it: Dead Men Tell Many a Tail.
They headed up the slope and as Lee Foster walked he dabbed a fingerprint sized smear of dust from his camera lens. There was a small nick on the side of his camera from the rocks and dust being thrown by the hermit and Lee Foster petted it as he walked. He stopped mid-stride on the slope and turned. “Let me take a picture of the two of you,” he said. “Perhaps you could hold hands. I want to remember you that way, too.” Squid and Lana stood side by side in the shade of a tree and held hands. Lee Foster peered through the channel of the lens, and Lana smiled brightly and Squid did nothing. Lana’s nipples were hard beneath her tee shirt.
They advanced upward and Squid prodded Lee with the stick as they climbed the slope. Lee told Squid that he didn’t have to do that and Squid told Lee that he didn’t have to tell him what to do. “You’re our prisoner, now. Ain’t that right, Lana?” Lana laughed and took a long drag from her cigarette. They crested the slope, and far away and through the trees you could see the road that took you back to town.
“I hope all of this won’t take long,” said Lee. “I was hoping to get back on the road before dark.”
“You see that smoke?” asked Squid. A dim plume of smoke spiraled into the sky, perhaps a hundred yards away.
“That’s his fire.”
“That’s where he stays at,” said Lana. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about, though. That old hermit ain’t nothing. I say we get back and get in the water.”
They approached the shaggy edge of a clearing. Lee Foster looked back. He couldn’t see the road anymore. They edged through the brush, quietly, and you could smell the campfire. They approached the edge and peered through the web of brush.
Crazy Marvin Key sat Indian-style by the fire, drinking something clear from a glass jar. Behind him sat a one room wooden shack and the wood was almost black as if it had caught fire once but had made it somehow. The three of them crouched in the brush and Lee Foster felt of his camera. Lana and Squid crouched on either side of him. “There he is, motherfucker,” Squid whispered. The hermit rocked back and forth next to the fire and closed his eyes. His white hair was below his shoulders and slightly dreaded and his clothes were brown and bulky from mud. His boots looked patched together from something dead, and he had no beard, which surprised Lee Foster, as if the hermit had dismissed conventional society and conventional hermit society as well, in the name of youth, staying away from it all to be young again and be young and wild forever. Lee Foster thought this fascinating and began snapping pictures. The springs, gears, and levers in his camera made faint hollow clicking sounds and Squid said if he didn’t shut that thing up, he’d get them all killed. The hermit then lay on his back next to the fire. “He’s going to pass out,” Lee whispered. “I have to get into his place. I have to shoot it.”
“You’re fucking crazier than me,” said Squid.
“No,” Lana hissed. “I want to go in there, too. I want to see what it’s like.”
Lana put her hand on Lee Foster, ran it beneath his turtleneck and pressed it against the side of his stomach, slid her hand up and down the sweat-slicked flesh. Lee Foster felt fearless. “Let’s wait another minute. He’s drunk himself into a stupor. I have to get in there.”
“I ain’t going in there,” said Squid.
“Squid,” said Lana. “I thought you was crazy.”
“I’m crazier than hell but I don’t want to be dead, girl.”
“You’ll go in with me?” asked Lee.
“Shit yeah,” she said. “I ain’t scared of nothing.”
“I ain’t letting you two go in there without me,” said Squid.
“But you said you ain’t going in.”
“I know, but I ain’t letting you and this camera-queer go in there alone. I don’t feel like sharing my girl.”
“But I ain’t your girl.”
“I’m going in there for my art, Squid,” explained Lee.
“The hell you are. You’re giving me that camera as collateral.”
“You’re insane. I have to have it.”
“Your camera for my girl,” he said. “Then we’ll trade back.”
Lana felt of Lee Foster again. “Come on, give him the camera and let’s just have a look in there. Come on.”
Lee Foster unhooked the strap of his camera from his neck. It was a silver-bodied Nikon F2 with black grips.
“He knows I ain’t his girl,” Lana whispered. “He’s just being stubborn.”
Then Lee Foster Magnus felt a carelessness like none before and handed the camera to Squid. That piece of modern technology ought to keep this animal busy, he thought. Crazy Marvin looked almost dead, and Lana grabbed Lee Foster’s arm. They stepped quietly through the brush, and Squid studied the camera as if he’d made an archaeological discovery.
They snuck along and past the fire and the hermit lying on his back, his white hair splayed, his belly rising and falling and the smoke creating a dim curtain between them, Squid crouched in the brush behind and fiddling with the camera.
Squid peered through the channel of the lens, but for the capped lens cover he couldn’t see a thing, but he didn’t know any better. He kept looking, squinting into the lens, waiting for something to appear.
Lee Foster eased the door to the shack and snuck in, Lana trailing behind and gripping his hand. She leaned her back against the door to shut it, pulled Lee Foster into her and kissed him. Lee pressed himself against her as tightly as he could, and felt of her underneath her tee shirt. “We can’t do this here,” he said. She said that they could and threw off her tee shirt. In the corner of the room lay a soiled-looking mattress. A long table stood against the back wall. A Remington .22 with a brown stock and a long, nickel-plated barrel was laid out on the table like something in a museum. A fox pelt stretched across the wall. A few dead squirrels hung from strings of twine. The room smelled of rot and mildew, but Lana pressed her breasts against Lee Foster Magnus and felt beneath his corduroy pants.
“We can’t do this here. This is insane.”
“Just real quick,” she said.
“You have no idea how insane this is, do you.”
“You don’t have any other choice,” she said, and her panties fell to the packed-dirt floor and Lee Foster was naked from the waist down, his corduroys piled around his Italian leather boots. She turned around, both of them facing the door, and fell against him. “We can both be on the lookout,” she said.
Lee Foster forgot about Squid Cuomo and crazy Marvin Key, his camera, the dead squirrels and the smell. She was leaned over, the tip of her hair touching the ground, and he held on to her waist very tightly, feeling the fear begin to blur. “Come on,” she said. “Come on.” He told her he felt like Christ. He thought she had given him new life; he wanted to thank her for giving it to him but he kept his mouth shut and felt the ecstasy of fearlessness.
A crack in the front door nudged a little. The crude wooden handle rotated a bit, clicked a little. Lee Foster watched, but he was in midstride on Lana Dickey. There is no way that this could be ruined, he thought. The hermit, he is a myth; it isn’t happening; nothing in existence can ruin what I am feeling.
The door handle completed its rotation. Lana, almost to wailing, didn’t seem to take much notice to it.
The front door blew open and crazy Marvin Key tottered in, holding Squid by the back of his hair. Lee Foster pulled away from Lana, backed up, and the fear returned to him very quickly. Squid struggled in the grip of the hermit, the camera swinging from a strap around his neck. He eyed Lee Foster wildly, grunting and pawing at the back of his hair. The hermit was red-eyed. He began undoing the buckle of his trousers. He advanced forth and threw Squid on the mattress in the corner. He picked up the .22 caliber. Lee Foster did the best he could to get dressed.
Squid Cuomo lay on the soiled mattress and glared at Lee Foster, and Lana Dickey, still a tall nude pearl, gripped Lee’s arm and squeezed it. Crazy Marvin drew the .22 and cocked it. He lowered the barrel. Then Lana squeezed harder and pulled Lee Foster toward her.
They blew out of the door. Lana naked and Lee Foster keeping up his corduroy pants. They ran through the trees and down the slope, very fast, the fastest Lee Foster had ran since he was a boy. The air became the swiftest wind he had ever felt and ran through him, filled him and cooled him. He held on to her hand. “Don’t look back,” Lana said, laughing and panting as they blew on down the slope. He didn’t look back. He was fearless again.
They reached the bank and stood in the shade of the Cypress tree.
“Take off your clothes,” she said.
“I can’t. We have to keep running.”
“Forget about it. Fuck me. Make love to me.”
“Where do you think they are?”
“Forget about it,” she said.
“I can’t,” he said.
“You can’t? What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can.”
He took off his Italian leather boots, his corduroy pants and underwear, his black turtleneck. The air cooled him and cleaned him. She pulled him into her and kissed him. “Come on,” she said. “Take me into the water.”
The sun was bright, but a cloud drifted beneath it and the light grayed a little. They stepped into the middle of the shoal, and he lay her down in the clear, cold water.
Lee Foster worked her and felt no fear. Naked in the stream with her, he had never been so clean. He worked her until he could see nothing. He closed his eyes.
“I love you,” he said. “Jesus Christ, I love you.” She kept her face pressed against the pebbled floor of the stream. He kissed the side of her face, and the water became swifter and ran through them, creating small rapids. He finished, and lay on top of her for a time and felt the tired sun against his back.
He opened his eyes and sat up in the water. He shook her, but she kept very still, and he shook her again, felt the fear return in his chest and in his face, in his hands. He stood up in the middle of the shoal and the water rushed over it. Her face, medallion-shaped at he bottom of the stream, something indiscernible and silvery through the clear, rippled surface, like an artifact.
On the bank stood Squid Cuomo in the shade of the Cypress tree, pointing the .22 caliber toward Lee Foster Magnus, and Lee Foster stood feeling the clear, clean water, wondering if Squid had ever killed a man before.
On the slope behind Squid stood crazy Marvin Key, holding the camera to his eye, pointing it past Squid Cuomo and toward Lee Foster. The water felt clean and cold around his ankles, and the cold then filled him completely. The clouds broke a little and the sun glared and silvered the stream, and a needle of white light glinted on the camera’s eye but the sun slid away again.
And he watched it touch his hand. The dense, gray, liquid-looking dark, the thin veil of darkness and the smell of it. The sunlight fell again and slid into Lee Foster Magnus, and for the brightness of it, he saw nothing.
Brett Puryear is a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, pursuing an MFA in Fiction at the University of Montana. His work is published or forthcoming in Storyscape, Drunken Boat, and the chapbook Old Haunts (23 WLVS Press), among others. He lives and writes in Missoula, Montana. You can follow him at twitter.com/BrettPuryear.
–Art by Bostjan Tacol