Literary Orphans

Tooth by Remy Barnes Klein

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Barnyard found the tooth in a patch of oil soaked dirt outside the Hurt and Game Saloon. He plucked it from the mud and held it against the sun, frowning as he dug the pointed end into his index finger.

Come morning, the red clay lot sat in front of the saloon was a treasure trove of lost change and crumpled dollar bills. Apart from the pecuniary recompense combing the lot provided, Barnyard considered himself a collector of lost things. He had a necklace of keys he kept in the catchall kitchen drawer. He’d put the necklace on now and again, the keys banging against his bare bird-chest like bones against the skin of some dime store shaman.

Once he found a picture of a sweetheart, or daughter all dolled up leaning against the wooden post of a porch he’d never seen. Smiling in cut off jean shorts and a denim shirt tied up, exposing her little bellybutton. The sweltering sun of a forgotten July afternoon setting fire to her bleached blonde locks. He kept the picture in his shirt pocket most always.

Finding the tooth wasn’t a surprise. Barnyard had plenty recollections of drunken revelers spitting out tendrils of blood hunting for their broken chompers, but few folks who partied at the Hurt and Game left their teeth behind when some ornery fellow decided to go and knock them out. You could lose your keys, or a couple dollars, but Lord at least go back for something really belonging to you.

In the reflection of the blacked out bar windows he pried open his lips with his dirty thumb and forefinger, exposing his tobacco stained teeth and worn out reddish gums. He examined his own teeth against the one he found, judging by its pointed end, it was a human’s dogtooth, but he couldn’t figure out whether it had come from the top or bottom set. He plugged the thing in his pocket and, finding nothing else of interest, left the parking lot.

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A young woman passed his way on a bicycle. He smiled as she looked back at him. He took his cap off, exposing his bald spot, unseemly for his nineteen years, and waved it after her. He watched her ass as it worked the pedals on the cycle down the street and out of view. He pulled the picture of the anonymous girl from his pocket and examined it. Not the one and it never is.

The saloon squat on a bare patch of highway 35 that cut across the eastern edge of Conroe, Georgia and ran towards Moultrie, then Macon, then Atlanta, and, according to legend, could take a soul all the way to New York if he pleased. Barnyard bit at his thumbnail, hung a right when he got to the overpass and took the path beat yellow into the grass of a hill shaped round like a soft green tit.

The road ran over a small crick, and the alcove underneath served as a meet-up spot for Conroe truants. Cars whooshed overhead and the crick gurgled idly, but there was little other noise. The alcove was empty. Barnyard needed to bum a cigarette, but neither Jim nor Alligator were hanging around. He tip-checked a few bottles, but they all fell empty, leaking out tiny streams of stale beer. A couple bottles broke and he kicked the shattered glass into the crick.

Barnyard had met Chimney Jim before he had dropped out of school. The two shared the same homeroom and neither gave one or more shits about class. Chimney Jim had gained his nickname, as he was never not smoking. Even though he was newly seventeen, he managed to secure himself a regular supply of cigarettes. Rumor had it he was fucking the forty-some-odd year old owner of the tobacco shop, Helen.

More often than not, they ended up underneath the overpass, trying to convince one of the several homeless men settled under the alcove to buy them a sixer of something cheap. Barnyard had a certain affection for the homeless; some nights he’d come down and squat down over the crick and listen to them tell their tales. He enjoyed their company despite the smell and lunacy.

He kicked a moldy cardboard box. It stayed firm and rattled. He plunged his hand in and pulled out a full can of beer.

Goddamn, he said aloud, cracking the can. He drank. It was warm and a bit flat, but it was good. He shoved two in his back pockets, and two into his waistband. He finished off the first can, and tossed it aside. He cracked another and downed it. Goddamn, he said again. My fucking lucky day.

He traced the hard lump of tooth in the front pocket of his jeans. My fucking lucky day.

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The screen door snapped shut behind him, but Barnyard let the front door hang open. The cool evening danced in through the holes in the aluminum. He stuck the four beers in the fridge, pulled the tooth out of his pocket and placed it on the counter. He kicked off his boots and collapsed onto the couch, the springs whining under his weight.

The TV was already on, he must have forgot to turn it off on the way out. The old rabbit ears on top of the set didn’t do much for reception. He got the local networks and the Spanish channel came in all twisted and grainy. Some pretty girl was relaying all the news of the day— the local high school lost their football game, a wreck on 85 and Fred’s Chicken Hut burnt to half cinder on account of a grease fire gone wild. Barnyard laughed snorted into his chin. He never was much a fan of Ol’ Fred anyway.

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The sun sat low over the land when Barnyard walked out into the tall grass behind the trailer. He held a can of beer in the tips of his finger, sucking out some of the cold liquid now and again. The dry brush crunched beneath his feet. A trio of buzzards hovered over the jagged jaws of the Georgia Pines in Caves National Park.

The old barn had once been a bright shade of brick red, but had dulled over the course of many storms and years of neglect. It was skeletal frame now, the greyish color of spoiled beef. A gaping abscess where doors once were and a hole cut up at the top— supposed to be a window— looked more like a wound in the forehead of a dead thing. It leaned against the greying sky; another decaying structure Yank vacationers took pictures of to illustrate the dilapidation of the True South.

Barnyard had caught a pretty good buzz now and swayed with the wind when it blew. He caught himself in the doorway and figured, if he tried hard enough, he could probably push the whole thing over.

This is where they found him. In the first stall, in a puddle of mud and horseshit, crying so hard even God must’ve reached for the cotton balls. Couldn’t have been more than a couple days old. The woman who became his mother was unable to bear children and to her he was a miracle. His father said he was born from horseshit. Regardless of his means of deliverance, they raised him up right. Like their own.

They named him Bernard, after some great-uncle or great-granddaddy from Civil War times, but not much goes down in a small town unknown to the population at large, so most just called him Barnyard. He’d come to wear the title proudly.

He finished the can of beer, and crumpled it end-to-end. His forearms were strong, lean and ropy from a summer spent digging ditches for the city. He shoved the can in his back pocket and set to picking up old discarded bedding and empty beer bottles. When the summer swells came tumbling down, bringing their great swollen clouds of rain pissing all over the town, all amounts of creatures took shelter in the old barn.

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Barnyard was heading back with an armful of trash when he saw Alligator’s pick up idling in the front lawn. Even from a hundred yards out, he smelled the diesel and heard the old beast rattle. Alligator was out of the truck and walking towards him, hand outstretched over his head.

Hey Barnyard, he yelled out over the dull roar of the truck, need some help?

Naw, I got this, Barnyard yelled back, why don’t you click off that old wreck and come in for a beer?

Alligator gave him a thumbs up and reached through the window. The engine died and the truck ceased shivering. Barnyard craned his neck towards the trashcan and Alligator opened the lid. Barnyard dumped the stuff in and wiped his palms on his jeans.

Alligator had rough and reddened patches all up and down his body. A form of skin disease sounding similar to what Barnyard’s daddy died of, but he couldn’t rightly remember the name of either affliction. Unlike Barnyard and Chimney Jim, Alligator had given himself his own nickname to beat the kids to the punch. For as long as anybody had known him, he’d been called Alligator and, when asked, said he’d long ago forgotten his Christian name. Even his parents called him Alligator.

Another bum in the barn? Alligator asked following Barnyard inside.

Guess so. Barnyard, pulled two cold cans of beer from the fridge, handed one to his friend, and cracked the top of his own. I don’t mind as much if they take shelter out there, guess that’s what it’s there for, but I just wish they’d clean up after they goddamn selves.

Alligator took a sip and nodded. Who’d you convince to buy the swill?

Didn’t have to convince no one. Found a twelve pack under the bridge.

Well hell, son, why didn’t you take the whole damn case?

Barnyard frowned. Reckon I don’t know. Just didn’t feel right I guess.

Alligator pointed at the counter top. You lose a tooth?

Barnyard had almost forgot about the tooth. He held it out for his friend to examine. Found it out front of the Hurt and Game, he said. Was looking for dollars or keys, but found this.

Man, you just finding all kinds of shit today, aren’t you? Alligator took the tooth from Barnyard’s palm and examined it under the stark white burn of the slab fluorescent. Good lookin’ tooth I guess. No cavities anyway. What you gonna do with it?

Barnyard crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the kitchen counter. Don’t rightly know. I seen some dudes make a necklace out stuff like that. I reckon it’s brought me some good luck today.

Luck? You still look like the same piece of shit I saw last week. Alligator tossed the tooth back at Barnyard. It arched high over the dull linoleum.

Barnyard caught the tooth and shoved it back in his pocket. Found me a case a beer didn’t I?

Suppose you did. But didn’t have the sense to take the whole damn case.

Ungrateful. That’s what you are. Barnyard spit into the sink. What you wanna do tonight?

We could go to the Hurt and Game. My uncle’s gonna be playing some tunes and if we go in and move a couple guitars around, y’know like a roadie or whatever, they’ll let us hang out.

Sounds good. Good enough anyway. Barnyard said.

The grey sky rumbled and thunderheads a few miles out let off great bands of black rain drenching the spindly Georgia pines like mile high sentries out in The Caves.

Alligator whistled. Sounds like God’s hungry. He finished off the dregs of the can, extending it high above his mouth and letting the droplets fall on his tongue.

He slapped Barnyard’s outstretched palm. I’ll hook up with you later.

Barnyard nodded. True enough.

Barnyard watched Alligator haul himself into the pick up and drive off. He peeled out of the driveway, kicking up dust and earth, leaving two shallow tire marks in the piss-poor patch of dirt Barnyard came to call the front lawn. Barnyard wiped beads of sweat salted beer from his wispy mustache and the thunderheads kept on rolling.

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When his mother was bedridden with the cancer, carrying out the last few months of the last of her days, Barnyard sat with her and read the papers. Even if she could have gotten out of bed, she wouldn’t have wanted to be seen in public. Her hair grew in grey and patchy, and the treatments had left her gaunt cheeks carved into a skeletal half smile. She missed the social life, and the local news gave her a window back into the world.

The same small-time gun that held up the pawn shop knocked over the liquor store then got caught selling dirt weed to old friends and beleaguered teachers and they all shook hands and danced in the black-and-white of the obits. She made Barnyard read the obits everyday. Said she wanted to get a leg up on the competition.

They ain’t no competition, Barnyard said, sat on the edge of the bed in the in the back room. Sun streamed in through the dusty blinds, and little bugs floated on the air wet and heavy with the humming and puffing humidifier. The room smelled medicinal and antiseptic like the halls of a hospital. The smell spread and settled in every corner and cobweb of the trailer. They were all sorry for it. He held her hand shriveled down to bone and vein and tried to smile into her fading smile.

Just put me right in the dirt out there in Caves, she said, I don’t need no box keeping me from the earth. I want to be a tree or at least a good-looking bush. I want to feed the birds and the bugs and even those damned squirrels. Maybe that’ll stop your daddy from shootin’ at ‘em. She laughed like a rusty hinge.

His old man probably didn’t say more than six words the whole damned year and most of it was just cussing. The foreman at the paper mill put him on extended leave because he showed up drunk and almost killed a man. After the incident, he just sat on the couch and watched TV until the sun woke up and drank and drank.

The day she passed his father sobered up enough to drive them out to Caves but they got stopped short by a ranger who wanted to take a look under the sheet over the truck bed. Drugs ran through the park pretty frequently and he was just doing his job. They turned heel and settled for a sunny spot underneath a healthy pine right behind that shitty old barn. They deposited her body into a hole they spent half the day digging in the tough Georgia red clay.

The sheriff came by asking questions but knew the story as well as anybody. After seeing the state the old man was in, he just drove on back into town and didn’t say nothing to no one about it.

It wasn’t eight weeks after his daddy decided to follow her. His liver just up and said Fuck It and pulled a full on mutiny. Barnyard found his old man ass up cold as hell and dead in a puddle of his own mess.

Barnyard called the sheriff. They hauled his old man off and returned him six days later in a Folgers coffee can. Best they could do with what they had. A couple squirrels watched Barnyard dump his daddy over the lump of dirt housing his momma and didn’t say nothing to no one about it.

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That night the Hurt and Game was all aglow with neon and the headlights of trucks burning in the heat and ether. Barnyard wiped at his nose with his sleeve and tugged at his new necklace. He had drilled a hole through the crown of the tooth and slipped an old bootlace through it. The fang swung from his neck, pointing down at his burgeoning beer gut.

He caught Alligator kicking up dirt through the parking lot, side by side with Chimney Jim who was puffing on a Marlboro Red. The outline of a square crushproof pack was just visible in his shirtfront pocket. With his black bowl haircut stooped low, and his shoulders tense, locked above his neck, he looked more like an skulking ugly man-shaped vulture.

Alligator waved at him. Barnyard waved back. A couple of cowboy looking fellows cut in front of the friends, one of the two, a tall drink of water in a white wide brimmed Stetson, pushed Chimney Jim back with a stiff-arm. The cowboy wiped his hand on his shirt and laughed as he entered the bar.

Fuckin’ asshole, Chimney Jim said flicking his cigarette to the dirt, goddamn cowboys.

Pay him no mind, Jim, Alligator said patting his friend’s bony back, pay him no mind at all.

Say, Alligator, Barnyard said, where the hell’s that uncle of yours? I don’t see his beat-up wreck anywhere.

Alligator took a deep breath in, Well boys, been a slight change in plans. Unfortunately, The General Lee’s will not be performin’ this evenin’ on account of a medical incident.

Rick too drunk to play?

You know my kin all too well, Barnyard, all too well.

Well then, how the hell are we supposed to get in? Chimney Jim asked lighting another Red.

Alligator smiled and counted off on his fingers, Motor oil, snake oil, baby oil. Whatever greases the wheels, I guess.

Jim threw up his hands and retreated back towards his truck.

Chimney Jim, Barnyard called out, cupping his hands around his mouth, where ya gon’?

Home! He said over his shoulder. I knew this night would be a bust. I just knew it. Fucking cowboys. Fucking Alligator. Fucking heat.

Jim kept on cursing until he made it back around to the cowboys.

Alligator clucked his tongue. Well he’s got that feminine temperament don’t he? And jogged to catch up to his forlorn friend.

With more than a little cajoling on the part of Alligator, Jim decided to rejoin the pack. Alligator kept a hand firm on his shoulder, one part to keep him from running off, and one part friendly reassurance.

There’s a certain way about Conroe bars, maybe bars in small towns all around, and the blind eye they’ll turn. Some nights they’ll let the youth in, and serve them a few thimbles of beer or whisky because Lord knows they’re better off getting sloppy when there are at least one or two sober eyes around to keep watch on them. And you might as well start them off young because the last thing a town needs is a pack of wild twenty-something’s vomiting in the town fountains and starting fights because they haven’t acclimated to the bar life yet.

Other nights the bouncer doesn’t want to hear it. The bartender doesn’t want to deal with it. And if luck is pushed too far, cops bored from busting jaywalkers will come down and throw a kid in the tank for the night just to teach him a lesson.

The boys had come all the way down to the Hurt and Game so they figured they might as well give getting in a shot. Worse case, barring a night in the tank, they ended up under the overpass slugging warm beer and listening to the hobos talk their crazy over the fire light and radio static.

Barnyard was elected to lead them in. Alligator made a big show of the tooth necklace and its inherent power. Barnyard gripped the tooth in his fist and tugged the old bootlace twice. The boys followed Barnyard with backs straightened, and chests out, preening like peacocks high on the testosterone of the electric night.

A fat biker with the bad tattoos sat hunched over his black padded stool, cracking his knuckles and flirting with the girls hung on the arms of their boyfriends already drunk from the pre-game. The line was slowly sucked in towards the bar and Barnyard was next. The bouncer held out his palm for the ID. Great beads of sweat rolled into Barnyard’s socks. The bouncer looked him up and down then examined the boys behind him.

Ain’t you Rick’s kin? He said to Alligator.

Alligator nodded slow. Yes, sir.

You tell that drunk sumbitch that if he cancels another show, he ain’t never gonna play the Hurt and Game again.

Yes sir.

You play any?

No sir.

The bouncer snapped his fingers and gazed out past the boys, towards the parking lot. He rubbed his chin thick with grey stubble and placed his hand square on his faded black jeans. He narrowed his eyes at Barnyard.

Y’all ain’t gonna cause no trouble are you?

The boys together: No sir.

Ain’t gonna drink too much?

No sir.

And I won’t have to call y’all’s kin, he glared at Alligator, to come get y’all because y’aller passed out and covered in your own mess will I?

No sir.

He exhaled through his nose. Barnyard smelled the tobacco on his breath. The line of people behind the boys groaned and grew restless with each sobering minute.

The bouncer flicked the tooth. It swung and pointed its yellowed fang towards the interior of the bar.

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The Hurt and Game was the only true saloon in town with live music, a jukebox and, most importantly, a license allowing them to serve spirits. All the other dives in town forced patrons to guzzle nothing but flat bottled brew and sit listening to whatever CD the bartender had dug up from his ancient collection.

Tonight, like most nights, the saloon was alive with a mass of sweaty bodies wrapped in a thin film of cigarette smoke. It took the boys a full five minutes to get from the door to the bar, pushing their way past damp flannel shirts, taking care not to scuff anybody’s new boots. Lessons learned early: Keep your eye to the ground and don’t drag your feet.

Barnyard laid his palms flat on the warped pine bar top and pressed down, trying to raise himself up some and survey the patrons standing around the bar. He sighted a few familiar faces from high school, and avoided eye contact, when a big red refrigerator of a man filled his vision.

Fortner had been a friend of Barnyard’s father for as long as Barnyard had been conscious his daddy had friends. They went on the hunting trips, but rarely returned with any game. The outings more-or-less served as excuses to get drunk out from under the watch of their wives. After Barnyard’s father went and passed on, Fortner made a few trips to check up on the boy, but it was known he was mostly preoccupied with his own desire to drink himself to death.

Right awful thing that happened to your daddy, Barnyard. Fortner said, his eyes glassy and wet. Right awful thing.

Was over three years ago, Fortner.

Fortner took a sip of his beer. Foam spilled over the side of the glass and dripped from the ends of his mustache. You know I served with him? Two tours in that gad-awful sand trap.

I know Fortner.

Fortner drew one hairy knuckle under his eye and put a heavy paw on Barnyard’s shoulder, How’re you doin’ son?

I’m gettin’ along I ‘spose. He said tapping the elbow of the refrigerator.

Fortner rocked him slowly and bit his bottom lip. The lines in his brow grew dark and more defined. Good, Barnyard, real good.

Fortner released his grip on Barnyard’s shoulder, now dampened with sweat and stale beer, and waddled his way back into the crowd, disappearing in the heavy fog of cigarette smoke. Blending in with the other broken old machines in faded sandpaper colored jackets.

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If he could just remember why the young cowboy was screaming at him, Barnyard might be able to devise a plan to extricate himself from the situation. After his run-in with Fortner, he had returned to his friends and ordered a round of shots and a beer.  Things immediately went sideways. The booze sent him floating down Whiskey River and Alligator was just laughing, throwing his patchwork arm around Barnyard’s shoulder and Chimney Jim was somewhere in the white background puffing on his Reds.

And here was this cowboy wearing his white ten-gallon hat, spitting and soaking Barnyard’s face. Goddamn, how did shit go so sideways?

I think the boy’s about to clock you, friend. Alligator said, laughing in his ear.

Before Barnyard could get in a word of protest, the air had gone from him. The cowboy had served him a stiff fist into the gut. Barnyard briefly saw both Chimney Jim and Alligator as black blurs rushing towards the cowboy, and a hush fell about the bar. A cold sick crept from Barnyard’s gut towards the back of his throat. He clutched his belly and cut through the crowd towards the door.

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Outside, doubled over, Barnyard spilled the contents of his gut into the dirt. The cowboy’s punch still resonated in his bowels and ached into the back of his balls. He dry heaved and breathed heavy, wet and stale.

He crouched down on his haunches and dug his fingers into the dirt, spat twice.  The humming crowd at the front of the bar took no notice of him. He raked at the dirt, drawing lean lines in the damp red clay.

You lose something? A girl’s voice behind him. Keys? Contact? I think I got a flashlight behind the bar if you need it.

Barnyard kept squatted. His eyes to the ground. No. I just needed some air.

Are you Barnyard? Said the girl. I think you’re buddies are huntin’ for ya.

Barnyard wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stood up. Turned around to face the girl. He recognized the bleach blonde locks, the denim shirt tied up around her waist exposing he winking bellybutton. Looked just like she did on that sun-bleached afternoon. He tapped his breast twice but the photo wasn’t there.

See, she said, I knew you had lost something. She pointed one slender finger at his chest. Why do ya got that tooth ‘round your neck?

Well I— he began, but any answer sounded strange and unhinged. He just gripped the tooth in his fist and pulled the lace tight on the back of his neck. He settled on: It’s nothing really.

The girl smiled. Barnyard’s stomach twisted. The cowboy’s punch still throbbed in his belly. Well, she said, I’ve got to get back inside, the other bartender is probably huntin’ for me.

She pushed the door open and paused. The hillbilly chorus and country music echoed around the parking lot. You should come and visit me sometime, she said not turning her head, I bartend up here most Wednesdays and every Friday.

Then she left, wiggling her way back through the mass of bodies. Barnyard just sat down in the dirt, the cold clay dampening his ass.  He rolled the tooth back and forth between his thumb and forefinger and couldn’t help but flash this big dumb grin. Even when Alligator and Jim finally found him, both bloody and blackening with their own swollen bruises, and told him it was high time to depart, he just sat in the red clay and smiled.

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The yellowed linoleum and must of damp wood rot welcomed him back to his trailer. He left the doublewide dark and went to the kitchen. The necklace of forgotten keys trembled and jingled as he worked open the catchall drawer swollen at the sides with the oncoming low-pressure system.

Inside were other trinkets he kept to ward off wayward ghosts. His mother’s hospital bracelet. His father’s church key. The photo of the girl now found. He laid the tooth down among them and closed the drawer.

From the window, he could see the old barn out in the pasture, a fading light flickering in one of the horse stalls. Another runaway spirit taking shelter in the grey dilapidation of his former life. He turned on the sink and filled his dirty palms with water. Drank. A great shadow stalked across the far wall of the barn. The wind blew the pines to singing and was gone.

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Remy Barnes Klein, previously from palm swamps, currently resides in Texas. He’s seen the inside of drunk tanks and has had his lights snuffed by guys half his size. His mother remains proud God Bless Her. His work has appeared or will appear in GRAVEL, whiskeypaper and other outlets.

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–Art by Simona Capriana