Every night when it got dark, Dale pulled a silver pistol from its place in a kitchen drawer, tucked it away behind his back, and told me to behave. He’d tug his cowboy boots on and tuck his pant legs down inside them. I would watch him leave out the front door. I’d sit in the kitchen, painting with watercolors on old printer paper and wait for him to come back. To pass the time I’d sing songs I was afraid I’d lose the words to, because the radio had stopped playing them. I couldn’t remember, what did Whitney Houston want?
Every night the same thing, gun in his pants, pants in his boots, boots out the door.
That night, couple of nights before he died, long after I got tired of eating the stale powder from old oatmeal packets, I’m telling him how hungry I am, saying, “Listen to my belly ache.” He bent down, lifted up the shirt I’d been wearing every day since we know when and we aren’t saying, put an ear to my stomach, and screwed up his face. When he still had a face to screw up.
“There’s grits in the cupboard,” he said. That night I was tired of grits too. Didn’t matter anyway, grits were gone.
“The grits are finished Dale. You ate the last of them yesterday and said we’d go for more.” I’d been flipping through the pages of a book, finding gum wrappers pressed between them. That night Dale thought I was lying and started opening up the cupboards, finding them exactly like I said he would. I sat the book down and watched as the gap between his shirt and pants got bigger, looking for the grits. I started closing windows, one room after the other closing all the windows we’d left open trying to cool off in this great, big farm house two nights before Dale died.
“Can’t go tonight,” he called after me. “Be dark out soon.” I went upstairs, drawing shades and shutting windows.
I stopped at a picture in the hallway. A picture of Dale’s family a few summers back when you could skinny dip late into September. Dale’s wife was wearing a one piece, the kind with rubber ribbing. Her smile was stretched wide and fat, like a hot dog bun. The picture made me miss my mom.
In his kid’s room I fluffed the pillows, told the ghosts in the room goodnight.
“We’ll get food tomorrow,” he said, standing behind me in the doorway, stretching out his hand for me to take, looking at the fluffed up pillows, and rubbing his nose.
“You said that yesterday,” I told him. He looked past my shoulder, out the window, down in the yard, at the fence.
“What?” I asked, turning so I could see. Looking out at the yard I saw what he saw. Something caught on the fence, waving its arms. “Stay up here when it gets dark,” he said. He hurried down the stairs to the drawer in the kitchen and pulled out the gun. Gun in his pants, pants in his boots, boots out the door. I watched out the window as he moved across the grass, heard the squish, squish of his boots walking to the fence. It had rained for three days and two nights right before he kicked the bucket. It was clear skies that night and I could see red in his beard. He passed the swing-set and disappeared into some tall grass. The grass rippled, broke up like water.
A house this old makes sounds like bones breaking late into the night. It took deep breaths and held the autumn air in its walls for hours before it let go. It was a stale and whispering company I kept. Dale hadn’t come back, so I was sitting in the study, twisting knobs on an old battery radio, listening to the static, hoping he wasn’t dead. If I listened long enough, closed my eyes and pushed my knuckles up against them, I could see petals bursting open in the darkness. I listened for anyone, and if I was alone for long enough I could convince myself it was my mother’s voice I heard, humming something through too thin lips. She was singing a made up song. Andy, Andy, she sang, I feel so dandy, your nose is a sprinkle and your eyes are cadies. She pinched my nose, pulled her thumb down the side of my face.
I switched the radio off and went upstairs.
I woke up around the time Dale started gutting the dresser, grabbing for clothes. He wiped sweat from his forehead, bent over and grabbed socks that both looked blue, but one was black. He fumbled with the drawers, clanged the gilded pulls. His back was tense like flowers before they bloom, bunched up tight. He turned and threw a shirt at me. “I need your help clearing the yard,” he said. There was a shovel in the corner of the bedroom. Its blade looked like a scab.
“You have your shirt on backwards,” I told him.
“Did you hear me?” he asked, pushing his hair back from his forehead.
“I heard,” I said and went to the window. My bare belly pressed against the glass and I looked down into the yard. They were there, what needed clearing, rotten and red and making noise. Noises like the inside of paint cans. Dale left the room and thundered down the stairs. I put on a pair of sweats and a heavy sweater.
I pulled on boots and grabbed a shovel from inside the closet by the door.
Dale was standing over what needed clearing. Shovel in his hand like a sword, hat pulled on like a crown.
It was missing both legs, what needed clearing, had crawled into the yard making noises like it was dragging wet bags of flour. Dale took the shovel to its head, like King Arthur, like Joan of Arc, swinging like baseball. When he pulled away there was a noise like a bowl of yogurt and a flash of color. “Start over there,” he told me, pointing to the chicken coop where they were pawing at the wood. We hadn’t named the things because most of them had the faces of people we knew. Mostly they were slow, but Dale told me sometimes they were fast. I dragged my shovel through the grass to the coop, which had never housed chickens. The wife called it rustic. Dale told me. Rustic, he said, means cute if you’re a woman.
They groaned. They were making noises like breaking pencils and ripping wrapping paper. I walked up slow, from behind. The way Dale showed me when we practiced on ripe watermelons, Swing the shovel, hit it in the head. “Like you mean it!” he said. When I swung, the shovel stuck and I pulled. This one looked like Mr. Clark, a man who lived four houses down from me, taught me how to throw a football. He hit the ground and stunk of earth and awful potatoes. “Again,” Dale said. With a twinge of guilt, the same as when I squash a bug, I brought the shovel down on his face. The others saw me do it. One looked like a girl I went to school with, Julia Donovan. She’d been last year’s prom princess, wore a blue dress. I hit her hard, broke her jaw. When only one was left Dale took the shovel and beat it back to death, pushed his hair back, knelt down beside the thing and dug through its pockets. I took the shovel inside, careful to slip my shoes off at the door.
I took a shower, having left the yard smelling barely human. The shower was a clear bag we filled with water from the creek and left outside in the sun. It dripped warm water and emptied fast. I wished I hadn’t recognized faces that time. The week before, my ninth grade English teacher, Delia Frank, wobbled into the yard and impaled herself on a fence post. When I found her out there, checking the fence with Dale, she clawed and snapped. I’d laughed, imagined she was chastising me for a late paper. Told Dale and he laughed too. Everything that was supposed to make me cry made me laugh. I’d asked Dale, “Do you think she remembers?” Dale said not to count on it. The year I met Dale, Mrs. Frank taught us participles.
The year I met Dale, he kissed me after practice in the locker room, just the two of us. I cried about it later, at home in my room over a bowl of ice cream. Dale used to work at the lumber store out past Young’s Greenhouses. Finnegan, the high school cross country coach, retired and Dale applied for the job, got it, and led us to victory after victory. The newspaper headlines said stuff like SHERMAN’S CLEAN SWEEP and COACH CRUSHES COMPETITORS. He’s got some of the articles hanging on the fridge.
I was his star runner. They nicknamed me Gazelle, after my long legs. Long like street signs, long like poplar trees. I was his VIP, and he said so when he kissed me. His kiss tasted like Parliaments and honey, he kept both in his gym bag. Cigarettes and honey sticks. He’d smoke the Parliaments outside the school by the trashcans before practice and suck the honey sticks dry while we were running laps.
This was before the cupboards were always empty, before only eating grits and oatmeal. Long before we started wielding shovels like swords and clearing the yard.
I heard the bathroom door open and peeked out from behind the curtain. Dale was filthy. His white tee covered in red, his Dungaree’s too. He undressed and slipped in beside me. He ran his fingers up my spine, said something about my ribs. The water got cold and ran onto the floor. The shower had been first thing to stop working. Dale would go out for fuel to run the backup generators, but we ran out quick. Dale said we needed candles. I wanted to leave, but knew we wouldn’t.
“Who was that?” I asked him when we were drying off, thinking about the body he’d ransacked outside.
“Stop asking who,” he said.
“Ok,” I said, thinking how to better say it. “Who’d it used to be?”
“Used to be Geraldine Wittig,” he said and reached a hand into the pocket of his soiled jeans, pulled out a pair of keys. “She owned that grocery store in Paradise.”
“We’ve been there,” I said, “The Hickory Bin? The place with the tacky sign?” The sign had a seagull wearing a cowboy hat. I named the seagull and forgot what I named it.
“We’ve been there,” I said again. “It was picked clean, nothing left.”
Dale shook his head. “There was a room in the back I couldn’t get into, remember?” he jingled the keys.
I remembered. I remembered Dale kicked his boots and slammed his fists against the locked door before he kicked his boots and slammed his fists into me. I remembered it had somehow ended up being my fault. The way no fuel for the generators got to be my fault, the way no grits in the cupboard was bound to be my fault too.
Dale had rules about leaving the house. Couldn’t be gone more than a day, lock all the doors and climb out a window, check the fences before we go. That day, day before he died, he even made the bed. Evened up the fitted sheet, got the comforter just so, admired his work from the hallway. Said the word, Pristine.
There was no more gas to siphon, we’d drained every car in a five mile radius, to the last vapor. So we walked. We walked in silence, which was different than walking quietly, but we did that too. These things followed big noises so you had to be extra quiet. I never realized how little me and Dale had to talk about. I wanted to talk about my mother. I’d heard her singing through the trees, humming like a cicada. I hadn’t seen her since a bunch of men with horrible breath and angry voices pulled her by the hair into our house and locked the door. Get lost, they’d told me. I’d hidden inside the pool shed behind my house, crouched and crying beside pool noodles and old towels for hours until the screaming stopped and the men left. When I went inside and saw my mother, she was not my mother anymore.
I spent three days in the woods behind my house looking for the trail that Dale had made two summers ago. The trail I ran for practice, five miles to Dale’s house on Tuesdays and Thursdays after all my homework was done. When Dale’s wife visited her family in Connecticut and took Dale’s kid with her, I stayed the night. We stayed up late, saying we’d get together someday. He’d tell me he’d leave his wife, leave town, sweep me off my feet. He told me I was prettier than her. He’d run his hands across my shoulders and say, Mountains. He’d kiss the small of my back and say, Valleys. I’d lay my head on his wife’s silky pillows and push aside long strands of hair. Her skinny ghosts. When I quit the cross team my junior year, because you don’t leave your wife for a sixteen year old, the trail got thick with brush. I didn’t go near it.
That year, my life, the flies had been at it.
He found me on the third day in the woods, gun in his pants, pants in his boots, a lifeless squirrel dangling over his shoulder. I was bleeding and thin. Thin as a wire hanger. Dale said wire the way I say war. He carried me out of the woods, even kissed my forehead, said he’d left his wife.
The last leaves were falling, everything red and rotten. It was getting to be a different season. What had Donna Summer said about autumn? Something inside her was dying?
Where I am now is cold all the time.
“Catch a falling leaf and you live forever,” I said, extra quiet.
“That seems to be the problem.” He kicked a rock up the road and jogged ahead. “I’ll make sure it’s clear,” he called back. I put my hands in my pockets and picked up where he left off, kicking the rock up the road.
The store was dark except the light coming in through the blinds, casting zebra print against our bodies. I searched the shelves knowing nothing was left. Came across a can of dog food and thought, Am I that hungry? I dropped it in the bag. Dale’s back there trying different keys in the lock, swearing when one won’t work. I searched for books. Most of what Dale had was boring. Don’t you read anything that isn’t lawyers and crime? I’d asked.
“I’m in,” Dale said. I walked back and found him kicking things around. The room was mostly empty. “Someone’s been coming and going,” he said.
“Probably,” he said. “Probably what got her killed. Probably thought it wasn’t safe leaving food in her house,” he kicked an empty box. “Fuck.”
“We can take what’s left,” I said and bagged packets of rice and noodles.
“Yeah,” Dale said. “Yeah, we’ll take what’s left.”
I never asked about his wife and kid. I liked to pretend they’d gone to visit relatives in Connecticut. Played that they were safe. The day that Dale carried me out of the woods I saw two bodies face down in the tall grass by the silo. Two white fence posts made makeshift graves. So I knew she wasn’t visiting relatives.
The day after this day, the day after I never asked about his wife and kid, Dale dies and there weren’t any fence posts for graves.
“We should go to the beach.”
“Now?” he asked. We were at the fork in the road, one path going home, one path going off toward the highway. Dale called it Old Country.
“Lots of reasons.”
“We’ve got all the time in the world.” I opened up an old granola bar cracked it in half and gave it to Dale. “It’s my birthday,” I said. “I’ve been counting and it’s September.”
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” I said.
“Barely legal,” he teased. “It’s not safe,” he said. “I got rules about the house, rules we’ve got to abide by, rules that have kept us safe.” I begged, swore up and down and black and blue I’d help him look for breakfast and start a fire. He got tired of me swearing up and down and crossing my heart and hoping to die, and said we’d go. Called me his VIP, said I was a no-good rule breaker.
I’ve never seen so many cars as I did the day before Dale met his maker. There were broken windows and tires with big gashes in them. Car doors whined, dull winds caught them and pulled them a little this way, a little that way. The beach was breathless, the water was still and scared to wave. Walking to the beach I’d tucked a flower behind my ear, a yellow one with petals like tiny wings. Dale carried me on his back some of the way, we laughed like there was nothing to be sad about.
We found a towel folded up neatly in the backseat of a truck. We laid it out on the sand and sat and watched the sun and called it an orange, called it a doubloon. When it was more or less a painting of a sunset we found a car we thought was safe, laid down inside and covered up with towels.
In the morning we left our clothes in wads and took our chances in the freezing water. Dale’s muzzle glistened, the water cascaded down his body, broke into bits and pieces. He laughed his big laugh at me. We covered our bodies in sand just so we could wash it off.
We fucked on a bench.
We split a can of beans for lunch.
“I think I might check out that concession stand,” he said, and he pointed to a big building out in the middle of the beach. “We’ll have a feast tonight or something.”
“Want me to come with you?” I asked, scraping sand from my legs. He started off without me, said no with both his hands. Had I only known what I know.
I made a castle, dug a moat and drowned some pebbles in it. I dug to see the sand change from fine diamonds to miry clay. I dug to find my mother, even said her name once. I sat and dug out the earth from under my nails. I saw a seagull and thought I must be dreaming. It was far away, something white on the horizon. I wondered where it was going. I asked out loud, asked, could I go too?
When I heard Dale scream I didn’t get up right away and didn’t go running the way I know I should have. Instead, I guess to make sure I hadn’t imagined it, I waited to hear it again and when I did it still took me a minute getting up.
I tried not being scared, but nothing worked. Not counting back from ten, not holding my breath, not making a fist and biting my tongue and rolling my eyes back in my head. Nothing worked. So I had to open the door to this concession stand with Dale inside screaming, scared and everything.
He was by the vending machine, trying to hoist himself up into a chair. The blood on the checkerboard tiles left him slipping around on the floor. First I saw his face, and he gave me this look like I won’t ever forget. Next to him, almost in a spot you couldn’t see, something red, rotten, and made of mess. Its brains spilled out on the floor. His leg was bleeding, I saw that second. When I saw that I must have said no a thousand times, just, “No, no, no, no, no.” Just like that.
Dale said calm down. Said he killed the thing, just not before it got him. I must have started crying because he called me lily-livered. “Help me up,” he said, and when I tried to get him up in that chair we both heard what was Dale’s pants tearing or his leg or both and I couldn’t do it. I gave up and lay my head down on Dale’s stomach, listened to the noises his insides made.
“What happened?” I asked.
“What’s it look like?” he said, and I said Dale the way my mother said Andy when I shook presents at Christmas. “I was trying to get this vending machine open when this fucker got ahold of me. Dropped my gun trying to shoot it.” We both looked at his leg. “He sure mangled it to near nothing, didn’t he?” I didn’t look this time, couldn’t look again.
“How long?” I asked.
“How long what?”
“How long before you die?” His stomach got big with a sigh, his lips let it go.
“Could take days but probably only hours,” he pushed my hair back from my face, his fingers were cold or my skin was hot. I wrapped his leg in a towel, tried to stop the bleeding. I cried like a baby. I got the vending machine open the rest of the way, Dale told me how. We ate five bags of Cheetos, four Snickers bars, seven Reese’s—fourteen cups in all, and ten Kit-Kats. Our bellies ached. We got it so Dale was leaning up against the wall, almost comfortable. I sat there next to him feeding him Skittles and wiping the sweat from his brow. Dale called it cold sweat, said he broke out in cold sweats around pretty boys like me.
We had one last long talk right before he started seeing lights.
He asked me to tell him something he could never guess. I told him a man had hypnotized my mother into losing twenty pounds. I told him I loved the sounds made by low-flying planes.
“Now you,” I said.
He fell asleep in the middle of telling me a secret, which started the way most secrets do, started with me promising not to tell anyone. He fell asleep and I picked his gun up off the floor, went outside to search the cars for a blanket, something better than a towel. I found an afghan draped over the back seat of an old Lincoln. I found two bodies crawling under cars and put two bullets between their empty eye sockets. I sat on a bench and watched the sun go down until it was just a fingernail clipping against a black sky. I went back inside and I covered Dale up and listened for my mother in the dark but she was gone.
When he started moving, he moved the way a puppet does, something pulling him from the outside. Not the way a person moves, from the inside out. “Dale,” I said his name about a hundred times to see if he knew it. I called him Coach, I called him Mr. Sherman, I called him baby and I got close, knowing I’d never be close to him in any other way than this again. I stood over the body and saw red in his beard. A light flickered somewhere behind me, the whole world was running out of things to say. I checked the gun for bullets and laughed because there were none. I yanked up a floorboard, cracked it in half, wielded it like a sword, tried to do him this one last favor.
It was finding my mother all over again. The way she tried, with two broken legs and her neck opened up from ear to ear, to stand and eat my brains, or whatever. This was just like that. That day, after hiding for hours in the pool shed, next to noodles, legs asleep, when I went inside and I saw her crawling down the stairs, making noises like breaking bones and ripping flesh, I tried to do her one last favor too.
Both times I walked backwards out of there. Chicken, lily-livered, spineless, yellow-bellied. Both times I tried goodbyes, but the words got lost behind sobs and boogers. This time, the time that Dale died, or didn’t die, gun on the floor, pants turned red, boots in the air, I picked up the gun, tipped a hat that wasn’t there, and closed the door behind me.
If I’m ever looking for him now, I just listen to the trees. Dale and my mother, whistling through the maples, humming like cicadas.
Jacob Guajardo is from St. Louis, MI, not, MO. He is an undergraduate student at Grand Valley State University. Jacob is an aspiring harpist, Tori Amos enthusiast, part-time comedian, and full-time student. His work has appeared at Midwestern Gothic, Hobart, and Necessary Fiction. Find him on Twitter @mrsaintjacob
–Art by Charles Simms