The shafts of sunrise reflect off the truck’s chrome into blazing flashes pitching through my hidden nest in the scrub and serving as a laser beam of sorts, burning through the sleep glue of my sealed lids. The night voices of the lot are tenuously rasping and easily overtaken by the newly minted daybreak assertions of truck lot commerce. Like an army awaiting the dawn to attack, the shrubs encircling the lot begin to morph to human forms, a leg sprouting here, an arm poking there, as the economy of the lot rotates with the earth. Mourning cloak butterflies tremble off the spirited bushes, their dark maroon wings pumping in the air like congealed blood suddenly made weightless. The thick leaded diesel smog fractures over the damp sweet grass scent as trucks make their escape before the morning assault.
I crawl quickly out my sleeping bag the six feet to the end of the hollowed out scrub. I grab hold of a branch and lean out as far as I can without falling into a deep drainage ditch framed by a cracked muddied concrete embankment. I unzip my pants and pee quickly before the gaming begins. I still make a noble effort to hit the wall over the gully with what feels to me must be a strong current of torrential pee.
“What ya got a swarm of yellow jackets dribbin’ down ya legs for?” Sheriden’s laugh is sufficiently self incriminating as to soothe any accidental wounding of egos.
I lean out toward Sheriden, his leathery face looking like an old cracked red rubber ball from a jax’s game squeezed up in all its concentrations on the concrete embankment wall.
“Naw son, you want to see a piss that shovels coal, you place your money on this one.”
“Sheriden, won’t you put that tired old cod down for his mercy killin’?” Drasco leans out from the bush aside Sheriden, and tips the black shiny top hat perched atop a frosting wave of his shoulder length brown hair, barely allowing for his green eyes to poke out like rectangular sprinkles. “I’d rather be herdin’ cats than watch you flail that thing out in the all of doors!” He rolls up the flannel arms of his shirt and claps his hands like he’s ready for a pitch.
“That aint a no count thing to say to your elder,” Streetrodder peeps his alternately haggard and adolescent face from a thicket of laurel up the bank some. “Sheriden done hit higher on that wall then you Drasco, last few weeks in a tow of rows!”
“Maybe when you take-up young’ens are better off pissin’ in the brush and not walkin’ before folks you’ll a’stop losing your wages to me.” Drasco smiles and tips his cap.
“Well knock me down and steal my teeth why don’t ya!” Drasco exclaims, his face a smooth mask of sly incredulity. “Drema, you gonna do that count or you hoping to go Johnson picking later, mines about to freeze clear off the vine!” He wags his hips fast so it sounds like a basketball hitting the court.
“Tis true about that!” fellows say down the line.
“I’m gonna do my count. I was just letting y’all have your little to do,” Drema’s abrasive voice echos through the brushwood holler. On the far end, she stands on a bridge of felled spruces piled up so thick they’re as strong as any metal frame overpass. Drema’s small body looks misleadingly available cast in the welcomingly overt flowers spattered across her mail-order housedress. The fog reveals her in segmented veils making it seem as if thick microscope slides were being pulled back and forth across her.
“Oh, it’s gonna be runnin’ like a sugar tree from what I drank of last night,” Streetrodder says warming up his pelvis, tapered, flat and vaguely green like Gumby’s.
I lean out towards Sheriden’s bush. “I almost hit the wall,” I whisper to him. He squeezes off a fast wink with his sleepy lids, then narrows his eyes even smaller towards the wall five feet in front of him. If it weren’t for the peek of disquieting white blues of his eyes you wouldn’t suspect he could still see a God darned thing.
“Had me some of Indian Peach mountain dew!” Streetrodder boasts licking his cracked lips.
“Briggity Britches aint ya?” Sheriden says without turning from his focus in front of him, his legs bounce in a half squat gun-fighter style. “But sweet peach shine aren’t givin you but a peach fuzz piss.”
“On yer set…” Drema sings out. “Give her mark—” All the men take a deep breath and lean their hips forward, “Get Go!”
And with that, huge semicircles of urine arc high through the heavens with a good number splattering against the concrete side with the force of a thrown china dish.
“Great day in the morning!” Sheriden calls out after seeing his pee mark, as usual, blacken a good three feet higher on the wall than anyone close.
“Not so quick on that!” Drasco yells out while flogging urine drops with an irate vigor from his member. “Have you a look see yan side!” He stuffs himself away and points with both arms at some dripping spray on the side of the wall across from his perch.
“Durn Drasco!” Drema shouts out. “Your watercourse is all turkey tails out, what didn’t ya hit, except Sheriden’s set point, bless your young heart!”
Covert laughter disperses from the hollow, quickly transforming to clearing of throats and the quick rip of zippers being yanked along their task, as Drasco leans out trying to catch any faces that might be caught mocking him.
“That there!” With a sporadically sinewy arm looking like a clown’s balloon, untwisted into little bubbles from its former shape of perhaps a dog, he points to a dark spot on the wall. Branches all rustle as everyone inclines forward to look up at the small globule that hangs a good foot above Sheriden’s utmost pee droplet.
Gasps echo around the gully.
“Drasco, if my eyes do not deceive me, I do think you got a squirt higher!” Drema stomps and swipes her leg as if she were to bust out square dancing.
Drasco tips his hat towards her and pulls his smile in high and tight so the deep sockets of dimples hollow out like a snake charmers pit.
“Drasco, I do might’ve think you a’had yourself the winning urination of the day!” She claps her hands like an amused child.
I look over at Sheriden, trying to prod his hefty lids up in disbelief, like a sleepwalker trying to come to. And before I am aware my mouth has even spoken, I shout out, “‘twant nothin’ but a buckshot!”
“Mind you,” Drasco hisses in a crouching voice to me.
“What’d you say thare?” Drema motions like she’s trying to swim through the fog to see me.
“You need to be put a good quietus on your behind,” Drasco snarls quietly.
Everyone’s attention is turned toward me, even Sheriden has directed his vigilant gaze at me and despite Drasco’s threat to punish me, my vocal cords keep propelling words out of my mouth.
“I saw him shoot buckshot,” I mumble into the silence of the gully. I’d seen him in the evening while everyone was still out drinking. I’d crawled into my bed early tired from a day’s full work. I heard the shot, sounded like an exploding tire down the embankment. I crawled over, and I peeked out. I saw Drasco with his rifle. I figured he was hunting coons. They can make as good a dinner as any and their penis bones been well known to help a feller in the love department. But I saw no coon, or coyot’ or anything ‘cept a smoking hole in the concrete. And before I could ask Drasco why he was shooting straight into a wall, he did it again. I heard him laughin’ to himself. Figured he has himself a pint bottle company and its better to leave a man alone that’s taken to shooting at concrete walls.
“Any plain could see that aint no Buckshot, why’d I shoot at a concete wall?” Drasco yells out.
“I agree, Drasco, can’t see why you would be wanting to shoot at no concrete wall,” Drema cocks her head like a hunting mutt. “But it’s been a questioned and if I don’t check it out now, you win this pot, and later I hear it’s but a buckshot, well, and I aint saying yours, well, I might lose my officiating job and that’s a whole lot of sweet tea I can’t buy. Can’t afford to let that lie on ya tender conscience. Somebody put a boy up there, I’ll recompense ya for your troubles.”
And out of the bushes, tumbling up the brush, past Drema on her bridge, leaping to the other side of the gully, come some of The Astounding Flying Scarberryies. They were a renowned Appalachian circus act known for soaring like flying squirrels using their hanging underarm skin the Scarberry clan was partial to. For generations they performed till Juliussen Scarberry, the patriarch of the family, lacking in substantial underarm drape so was more known for his crock-pot still that toured the circuit along with them, fed shine mash to the dancing elephants that as a consequence took to highstepping in the audience. Now the Scarberryies give exclusive engagements at truckstops and are the bravest roofers anywhere. The four youngins are up on the wall before anyone can blink. The mist dampens the Day-Glo yellow of their satin unitards, causing them to look like monstrous banana slugs as the elder Scarberry brothers clutch the smaller by the heels of their feet over the wall.
Everyone watches as their fingers work the spot like basket weavers. One of the boys pushes up on his arms and holds up the round BB. “Buckshot!” His voice rings out clear.
Sheriden turns and nods at me and the pleasure I feel wash over me is swiftly doused by Drasco’s pitching over to me, running his nails over the short stubble of his meager beard so it flutters like a pack of playing cards and utters, “We’ll be talkin’ at you.”
“Drasco, you taken credit now for shootin’ bullets out that thing?” Drema’s arms wave like she was beset, but her voice betrayed a placid satirical tone.
Drasco brings out his dimples and tips his satin hat again. “Thought t’was my mark,” he says grandly, pushing a grin. “Boys, I’ll pay ya for your trouble and Sheriden,” he turns toward Sheriden’s hedge, “let me take your thirst from ya later, all ya come on too.”
Everyone cheers and branches ripple round the holler like a crowd doing the wave at a football game.
Sheriden swooshes his mouth. “Drasco, you could throw a tub to a whale.”
“I’m a-callin’ the rightful and most lauded urinator in these lands to get yourself here and take these winnings from me ‘fore any more dramas of the day give me cause to go a’drownin’ my heavies and out piss all and every last of ya!” Drema calls out.
And I look around at the mouths peeled back in laughter and I know, not a soul has seen the silent gun Drasco crafts with his fingers in my direction, holds it low to his hips, and fires with the rapid see-sawing of his thumb in my general direction, and after he blows the invisible smoke off, half his face breaks in all its pre-ordained lines that run counter to wrinkles in a fast and intimate wink before his face disappears back into the thicket of Climbing Bittersweet.
I climb back in to the little domed room inside the brush, and fall on my sleeping bag. I try not to think, only to listen to the sounds of men pulling on their coveralls, heading to the spigots with their cans of Red Devil Lye to make their cleaning solutions for the day. I hear Sheriden’s measured saunter through the dust outside on his way to claim his prize loot. And as soon as Sheriden’s past, I locate the slicing click Drasco’s boots somehow always make as if he were walking on hard mahogany instead of soft red dirt. The sound pauses outside my shift. I raise my head and watch his form, like a varying puzzle beyond the leaves. I hear him raise a match. My eyes go to the fallen leaves collected outside my pitching, near his shined black leather boots sculpted with yellow unbroken stitches looking like treacherous do not pass roadways. The boots rotate like a ballerina on a music box to face my hedge.
And there are the times you are stuck in an abandoned amusement park, in the fun house, and they’ve all been killed gruesomely, all of them, the friends that convinced you in the first place that spending the night in an abandoned fun house would be a valuable adventure. And they are all undeniably dead. Guts ripped out like spaghetti squash hanging upside down swinging in your face dead. And now the ogre is coming after you.
“What do you do?” She is leaning back in the comfort of the plush couch and the knowledge that she would unequivocally know what to do. Her thighs squeeze around the beer warming between them. Are you the type that curls up in horror, crafting a safety zone via the fetal position and scrunching of eyes? Or the sort that runs, runs no matter what injury. And fights when it is time to, when you can not get away. To the death. “What make are you?” Her skin gives way with a fleshy suction as she pulls the beer up. And as she sips, a seductive smile shadows her lips, as if you are a spy she must bewitch information from.
Then her laugh that follows your silence burns as hotly as your immobility in your dry throat. “How can you be from me?” she says rolling her eyes, unpausing the VCR. And there on tape, the last survivor unfolds from her crouch to behead the creature in an acrobatic feat of violence that leaves you breathless.
The match tumbling down from his hand glints like light refracting from a mirror. And as the cone-shaped flame, small as a pilot light, pops up in the oil-soaked straw and vegetation, I pull the open sleeping bag over my body, zip it up tight and roll over into it. I watch upside down as the flames form a suddenly sprouted low grass line.
“My-my-my,” Drasco says quietly squatting crossways to the fire. “You see what a’caught out of here?”
She is still running, she’s still out there, waiting her chance to rise like a wild beast and end him before he dispatches her.
Drasco’s face wears the unplagued rage of a carved pumpkin. The smoky sweet perfume of charring hay-scented ferns seem like a useless appeasement against incineration and so release squiggly rescue plumes of white smoke like a peace pipe offering.
Firemen always come round the trailer parks and let the kids scamper across their trucks, try on oversized rubber boots, ring the big brass bell. And they always make you repeat, “in a fire you drop and crawl out, in a fire you drop and crawl out, in a fire you drop and crawl out,” and then they scan all the small dirt smeared faces, locking eyes, and raise their yellow raincoat sheathed arms to conduct the recital chorus of, “YOU NEVER HIDE IN A CLOSET! YOU NEVER HIDE IN A CLOSET! YOU NEVER HIDE IN A CLOSET!” And all the kids disclaim their allegiance to closets. And then they strain their heads up to get patted by those thick, gloved hands that smell like old tires. And but two days later there is another mishap whilst producing a fine batch of kitchen crystal meth and the same fireman shouts, “I told you ignorant sons of bitches not to hide in the goddamed closet!” as he lets slip the white sheet covering the charred black small bodies that were carried out of the shell of the trailer closet. “When y’all ever goin’ to listen?!” And as all the small heads bow down following the shrouded remains as they are wheeled into the ambulance, nobody ever explains to the fireman, hiding in the closet is a habit as hard to break as breathing. The closet is a world of safety and to undo that you need a whole heck of a lot more than a sticker promising deputy firefighter status.
And I am breathing the soothing oxygen of my sleeping bag closet as little nannyberries hanging low off my bush begin to turn black like chocolate chips. I reach up to pull the zipper to seal off the horrible tapping of the black boots that waver in the smoke like a tarmac road in a barren. And suddenly a hand reaches in from above and latches on to mine, pulling my arm along with the rest of me out of my bag like hair being tugged from a drain. I am towed up, through the bushes above the fire and into the startling morning. I see faces attentive to me with the low eyes reserved for the well-cooked as I am laid out on the ground. The fireman’s chastisement echoes in my head, drowning out the moving mouths above me. Cold droplets of water from the sloshing buckets splatter on my face as men pass them over me to douse the fire.
I wait for the white sheet to be draped over me.
“How many times we tell you?” Drema’s leaning over me, her watery red mouth looking like a twisted smile being upside down as it is. “There aint no smoking in them brushes! What you smokin’ in there for?”
I turn my head to watch Sheriden standing over me putting a plug of Mail Pouch into his expanding cheek.
I don’t feel any pain yet, but my limbs feel vague and faraway. I swallow the parched sootiness and manage, “How burnt am I?”
“My lashes get more singed from chew!” I hear laughter from above me.
I raise my head confirming my body in all its un-blackened form. I drop my head, humiliated by my lack of combustion.
Drema leans her glowering face directly over mine as I stare off into the horizon of her set wave puff of her hair, the shadings of dye looking like far off mountain ranges. She shakes her head over me. “Aint ya got no grace to give?”
“Thanks,” I sputter up to Sheriden. I cough, surprised the bit of smoke got to me as I realize it did now that I’m in fresh air.
Sheriden blinks at me, words finding their way out between chomps of chew, “Drasco the one that was a’saving you!”
“With no thought to his own person getting burnt to a sapling!” Drema continues. “Nor t’werent a grudge held for you costin’ him the bet pool neither or you’d be blackened Corn Pone.”
“I don’t get het up over that sorts,” Drasco’s voice comes down at me, the silver tip of his boot touching cold on my ear. “Just glad I shot an eyeball on it, as I saw him a’tossin’ that match out, younglings don’t know no better half times, bless they hearts.”
“Aint ya got no senses? We all coulda lost everything, not just youself,” Drema quakes the landscape of her tresses.
Against the side of my face, Drasco’s boot swivels some as if he were snubbing out a butt. His shadow falls over Drema and covers me in its elliptical darkness. The smoke of the put out fire wafts over me and I choke again. Drema sucks her lips in disgust of me not offering up a proper apology.
I look to Sheriden but his Eeyore-like countenance sways like a bough at the lack of my remorse. And with all the manhood I can summon I look into the shadows of Drasco’s face. And there is no message of furtive wrath in his eyes as I had expected. His eyebrows, burgundy thick and uneven as a red-tailed hawk, lay drawn up as a theater curtain, over the clear absinthe green self-possession of calm eyes. The thin track of his mouth is puffed in a Betty Boopish pucker. At first I think it is his trepidation that I will expose the truth of the fire that lets hold such an affable expression.
“Wilder then a plum orchard boar,” Drasco says and reaches his hand down to me. And I recognize with the astonishment one has when one discovers they are as easy to read as My First Bible, he knows of what sort I am. I will not rise up, a deathly screech emanating as I point at him like a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers: “Liar liar pants a’fire!” He knows an invisible zipper has crossed my lips as surely as he had ordered me to do so.
I reach my hand up and he closes his, smooth as striped tree bark from all the lye he’s soaked in. He pulls me up hard to stand next to Drema. And with his heel he jabs my bare foot, and I know what it is meant to knock loose in me.
“I apologize for smokin’ in the bushes,” I mumble, avoiding both their faces.
“Wall-eyed, can’t even but look for ground worms,” Drema huffs, standing, brushing her hands hard as if the dirt of these dealings will never come clean.
“Yup,” Sheriden says and stuffs another wad of Pouch into his cheeks. I want him to disagree with me accepting a blame I should not own. I want him to state he can testify for the conscientious standing of my character and for the known fact that I do not char or smoke tobacco, he being the one that apprenticed me when I arrived at the Conduit Truck Stop just some time over a month ago.
I had set out with a driver to head to California, but being overly eager to prove my trustworthiness, that I would shell out my share of diesel and what not for incidentals, I showed him my little fold of cash from inside my boot. And I thought it was lovely he wanted to camp outside instead of sleeping in the cramped smelly insides of the cab. And I thought the cocoa he brought me back from the diner did have the distinct tang of burnt rubbing alcohol, but I thanked him for his trouble and drank it anyway. And when I woke up in the brush, way past noon, my hands holding my brains from slipping from betwixt my ears, it was to Sheriden leaning over me laughing with his rutabaga face, sniffing round me like an aardvark. “You look a might youngin to be a’drinkin popskull!” He squatted down next to me. “But maybe it’ll learn ya for the next time.”
He only laughed his corroded warble, his mouth pulled back like a spongy red pepper as I raised my head to scour for my boots and the billfold in there.
“Yes, ya shoes is gone, and ya pockets turned out.” He squats down next to me. “Now that explains the bust skull your highway cowboy bought up for y’all.” His face creases into its humored folds. I feel like a hand puppet as he slides his hands under my slicker and bends me up to sitting.
The vague memory of the astringent cocoa makes my mouth pucker and my stomach force up a dry heave.
Even though Sheriden’s worn work boots are under my line of fire, he doesn’t withdraw his feet, which strikes me as a sacrificial kindness I am grateful for. He reaches down his hand. “After what with you drank, best you find ya feet right ons or like a new bore foal, you may never walks again!” He yanks me to standing. I am astounded to find I really can’t seem to recall how exactly to walk. He hoists my limp arm around his shoulder and anchors his around my waist and under the low roof of the Rhododendron brush, he walks me like a loose strung marionette.
“I’ll introduce to you as I am known myself as Sheriden,” he says, and takes hold of my floppy hand, which feels like a leaf that has yellowed and he is attempting to pluck off instead of shake. “You at the Conduit Truck Stop.”
I nod my greetings and endeavor to tell him how I am off to California to find my momma. “Well yee boots and notes done about rode out with ya ride onto the four lane, so you might think on staying for a dance or two.” Sheriden spits a big black bubbling glop like roofing tar. “Have ya any skills about ya?”
I nod, but then think better of enlightening him on my former proficiency as a lot lizard, and would like to shelve that as a skill that is best locked in the in-case-of-emergency-break-the-glass box. “What ya skills?” he asks again as slowly the crackling electrical synapses reattach in my brain, finally guiding my ligaments on their motory course.
The only skill I can think of besides the unmentioned, is what I just know my mother must be doing and from what everyone tells me, must too, be my awaited fate. “I can be famous in Hollywood.” But I don’t need to finish the sentence to realize I just gave tongue to one of those things you say to yourself in bathroom mirrors, and you shucks folk when they tell it to you, but to say aloud is akin to being tricked into uttering the secret name of the bogeyman, unleashing the probable destruction of whatever fragile kingdom you may reside in.
“By godlings, that is an enviable skill!” Sheriden shakes back a long flowing multi-hued gray mane, like Moses in Technicolor. “I should like to learn that skill.”
I look down at my dirt caked socks and feel a heat rise in me.
“I’ve no skills,” I try to announce as strongly as I am able so he knows I am in on the joke.
We circle the small perimeter of the brush before his voice slides into a yodelish, “Eeeehhh, I don’t know.” He spits again and with a quick card-trick-like flip of his foot covers the mess like a cat. “My Momma used to swook the cows with a voice fellas said she’d a’win the bank down in Nashville. But she aint had a big-feelin’ bone in her.” He rubs a raw knuckle between his teeth, “Didn’t think but the cows should get wind of her. Knowin’ you got a patina to you is a skill not to be played with.” Sheriden looks at me, the skin around his eyes curling like split ends, he bows his head in an eloquent way that fills me with an unbridled current of hope.