Shuck’s plan was fucking stupid. Everybody told him so, though “everyone” meant only his guilty conscience and the imaginary Jiminy Cricket voices of his semi-girlfriend Maggie and best friend Doc and his dog Biscuit, all in his head saying: “Jesus Christ, don’t do it!” The ballots felt like feathers—light, fragile, too ethereal for touching—and Shuck’s hands fumbled slick with sweat.
The tent was warm and quiet, the festival stages dark. The picking tent cast a pleasant ring and buzz, the night’s breeze carried ripples over the river. Shuck had two sacks: one filled with counterfeit ballots, and the other empty for the real ones. He was going to cheat the Jam the River bluegrass festival’s raffle, for a guitar.
(And don’t get this wrong; maybe the guitar wanted something. You can’t say it didn’t. Don’t go on thinking you’re better than this guitar.)
(What kind of guitar was it, you say? It was custom-built for Shuck's friend Doc's newly popular bluegrass festival and donated in conjunction with Gruhn Guitars, a world-class establishment in Nashville. And it was built by none other than Pete Kisanouvich of Kisanouvich Guitars, which, if you haven't heard about, you might not know enough about guitars to appreciate this story.)
(So far as words could do her justice, she had the world’s most endangered rosewood for the fretboard, stuff you had to jump into the Amazon bush for and probably come out shooting.)
(Set gentle in that precious board were mother-of-pearl inlays milky like the creamy stuff of godly loins. It’s gross how beautiful this guitar was. The inlays were shaped like hammers and sickles, some kind of hippie joke; doesn’t matter; the hardware was burnished gold, and the headstock wore a rose of sparkling, technicolor tin to catch stage lights and strobe them back on rows and rows of bleached blondes and screaming, red-faced dudes.)
Alone and shaking in the raffle tent, Shuck scooped tickets into his empty bag, his fingertips squeaking on the bottom glass. He dumped in the fakes. His eyes watered over. His name was on every single one. He'd done his best–that is, poorly–to change the handwriting every time, which only made it take longer.
He stirred them with his fingers, then ran crying out loud past the big stage and down the crafters' thoroughfare with the closed shops and food stalls, then west through the camping fields by the river that formed the southern boundary of Doc's family lands. It was quite a haul, particularly wailing and wiping away tears and stumbling sometimes in the dark.
Maggie slept in a lawn chair with her feet up in Shuck’s seat. Their dog, Biscuit, slept twisted underneath, his goober ass stuck out. Shuck gave him a prod and dumped Maggie’s feet from his chair—he wanted company. As expected, Maggie kept snoring, but Biscuit completed a grunting extraction and circled to sniff Shuck’s lap.
On his Walkie Talkie, he buzzed his buddy and festival runner Doc: "Tucking in for the night. Come burn one, if you can."
“Roger that. Wait for me.”
Maggie snored with her mouth open and her tonsils jiggling. She had the long, austere build of the mythic Valkyrie and when low, as now, he sometimes envisioned her in full bronze and plume regalia flying him around the stage of some genuine Italian opera, him tucked away like a football and her spearing past the fabric clouds and thwarting cardboard foam thunderbolts. Alas, he could not place this feeling as love so much as abiding respect, even admiration. But what did it mean about him?
In a flash of repentant ecstasy, Shuck reached and tugged her tank top and said, "I did it. I cheated and I am ashamed!"
Maggie’s eyes popped open, one after the other. “Shut up.” She snored and the eyes snapped back shut in the opposite sequence.
The dog licked his elbow; Biscuit didn’t give a shit about man’s laws. Maybe that meant he was partway forgiven.
(And what’s the worst thing you ever did? Think about it; you might be, already. Or, hey, don’t. Don’t ever think about it. Maybe that’s better.)
(It’s OK. They say the one true almighty skyward friend forgives you. That’s Jesus Horatio Christ.)
(I don’t have the power to forgive or not forgive; I’m just an omniscient narrator. Or am I limited? Sure feels that way, for all of us down here in the morass.)
Shuck felt better for about 30 seconds until Doc and Angeline showed up on the Mule, parked by the dying fire.
“Make sure that goes out before you go to bed,” Doc said. He always had to assert control like that, keep folks on notice. He winked, was always winking, too. He was a control-asserting, winking type of motherfucker. “We got a bunch of reports about some guy running around the campsites crying and playing with himself. Probably a sex-peeper. Can I get a hot dog?”
"Sex-peepers ought to be shot," Shuck said. Angeline furrowed her brow across the firelight. Maggie snored.
Doc gave Shuck a long look. "Okay? Probably just kick them out, is all." Doc rummaged around, looking through Shuck's camp for a hot dog. "We've gone five years without no summary executions."
Angeline kicked him lightly as he passed. “Stop talking like some dumb cowboy or I’m taking that hat.”
The hat. The goddamn hat. Only officials of the Jam the River festival wore official straw cowboy hats of that specific tint and diameter. Shuck had been promised one five years running, forgotten every time.
Maggie woke up talking to her dream: "Put that up, no higher, there, in Heaven." She smiled at everyone. "I was having the nicest dream." Biscuit perked, farted the interrogative case, and wandered off into the black.
Shuck said, “How’s The Blue Busters? I missed them.” He took a wiener from Doc and poked it with a coat hanger and stuck it in the fire.
Doc nodded. “Good.”
Doc liked anything musical with twang. But Shuck hardly came out for the bands, missed as many as he caught. He mostly liked to play in the picking tent, and they had a lot of good pickers and fiddlers, but Shuck was right there amongst the best.
Angeline sighed heavily and stretched out in a chair. “We haven’t sat down all day.” She wiggled her toes over the fire. “Shit. That’s nice.”
“Turn it, Shuck,” Doc said. “You know how I like my wiener.”
Maggie laughed too loud, then, embarrassed, announced she’d get the hotdog fixings. She rummaged in the dark through the armada of coolers Shuck had appropriated from the Lowe’s store he assistant-managed. She came back with her cigarettes and no buns. They all laughed, and she went back sheepish. Angeline caught Shuck’s eye, mouthed, “I like her.”
Shuck squirmed at the compliment, knowing only a few cures for it: he lit the joint, passed it delicately to Angeline. She threw her head back and took a long drag, shook her hair out of its bun.
Maggie yanked the joint from Angeline and dragged it hard, shooting sparks. Then she coughed and stomped, cough-stomping all around the campsite blowing billows like a dragon.
Not to be outdone, Shuck took the joint and blasted on it, held it up in a big, speculative, cock-eyed appraisal, held up a finger like wait, there’s more, and hit it again, really bore down. Then he coughed so hard he threw up some in the grass and hoped they couldn’t see him in the dark.
(They did see it, but let it pass, in the name of friendship.)
“Y’all got ketchup?” Doc asked.
Shuck scowled and wiped his mouth. That’s right, ketchup. Fuck you and your Paul Newman face and perfect, sweetheart girlfriend—ketchup. “We got mustard.”
But Maggie found Doc ketchup.
Doc asked, “You played much yet? I heard some guys going at it in the picking tent just a while before.”
“Not yet,” Shuck said, face burning in the dark.
Now Doc was being so quiet it was like he had Shuck figured out. Finally, he said, “You talked to Dad?”
“About time y’all make up.” He meant the party last Christmas, which concluded with Shuck shouting at Doc’s locked door, giving up, shivering on the long, drunk walk to his truck, where he slept without heat—he’d lost his keys—and hoped the pre-dawn chill would take him.
Shuck said, “It was you that threw me out, not him.”
“What choice did I have?” Doc had a way of chuckling at you conspiratorially like at the bottom of it all, you agreed with him. And part of you did, the part you wanted to punch in the face until your hands and face turned goo. “You wouldn’t shut up about the guitar, how we owed you something. You know how you get.”
"He has a condition called King Baby," Maggie said like she was helping. "It's what the therapist told us."
"Aw," said Angeline. "Poor King Baby." She reached to pat his head despite the good ten-foot distance, the fire in between. "There, there, king baby."
Shuck imagined crawling into the fire. “I didn’t mean no insult, but your Dad knows I helped you think this whole thing up, and now I’m no part of it at all.”
“Well, Dad wants it in the family. Plus, you called him a ‘tyrannical masturbator’ in his Santa suit in front of his wife in his own driveway on Christmas. So, get over it.” Doc rose like mist, not propping or boosting himself but simply sliding upright like a marionette. “The past is done, pard. Let’s go for a ride. I got one more thing to do before I call it.”
Shuck stared out into the dark. His eyes watered, just as they had when he’d run the half mile back to camp, like he’d wept in his car at Christmas, chattering cold. “All right,” he said, eying around the campfire. “Hold on, Doc. Now we’ve heard about my darkest moment. What about y’all? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
"Dated you," fired off Maggie. She tried Angeline for a high-five, but Angeline politely demurred, so Doc swung in and clapped her hand roundly.
“No, really,” Shuck said. “What about you?” He stared right at Angeline.
“Huh.” She tapped her chin, considering.
Doc sighed, raised his hand. “I cheated in every class I ever took from grade school through two years of community college. Every single class.”
Angeline kicked him again. “I bet I know how you pulled that off. Was it some poor, love-struck girl you cheated off?”
Doc shrugged. “Sometimes. Sometimes I paid in weed I stole from Dad. I have essentially no education.” He gave his trademark deadpan look around the fire. “Did I use that word right, ‘essentially?’ I heard someone say it before. You ready, Shuck?”
Maggie cleared her throat. “I called in a bomb threat to my high school. I wanted to go to Starwood to see Incubus and it was supposed to be a school night.” Everyone nodded in appreciation.
“Not bad,” Doc said. “You lose points for Incubus, but I love the creativity.”
“Starwood was what they called the Ascend Amphitheater back when us old-timers were in short pants,” Maggie said to Angeline.
“I helped my ex-boyfriend commit insurance fraud with his boat for like fifteen grand.”
Angeline frowned. “Don’t tell anybody. Please.”
Only Shuck didn’t laugh. “Y’all wanna hear mine?”
Doc cleared his throat. “Nope. I doubt our hearts could take it.” Before Shuck could object, Doc added, “Come on–step it up, pard. It’s not you that spent the day working.” Rare irritation crept into his voice. “You don’t understand, this gig is hard work. And I came by your camp to ask for help, what, three times? Four? Found you drunk off your ass.”
Shuck rose shakily. “Where we headed?”
“Check the bonfires, put them out.”
Doc climbed into the Mule and Shuck slid in by him. "Here." Doc reached behind the seat and found another straw ranger hat. He gave Shuck a pointed look. "Dad wanted you to have this. He ordered it for you special, 'cause your head's so fuckin' big."
Stunned, Shuck took the hat, and they went bumping in the dark over grassy hills steep as dunes.
Hats never fit Shuck’s watermelon of a head, but he scrunched and crammed the ranger hat over his crown and sat back, one hand fixed to the brim lest it flew off into the sea of snores. And he beamed, despite himself.
They twisted through the campsites, the river a dark gurgle on the left and the last lights from the festival burning up ahead. They bumped down the gravel thoroughfare by the shop booths where Doc stopped and gathered the trash from the big barrel cans. Shuck felt so honored by the official headgear that he stumbled out and pretended to help. Heading past the shops and mainstage toward the bonfires, they rode past the raffle booth and Shuck winced.
Doc must have noticed, because he said, “Your ass still sore about that guitar?”
“It’s a nice guitar, is all.”
“Well, save your money. He’s got more for sale.”
“I could win it,” Shuck said.
“Nope.” Doc gestured at the ranger hat. “Contest is just for paying customers. No staff. Sucks to get what you want, sometimes, huh?”
Three bonfires were spaced evenly along the field at the eastern edge of the property, where Doc and his father pastured horses most of the year. The first fire was smoldering but the second still flickered, and they found there an old customer howling at the moon, stripped to patched, old-timey britches. Shuck took him by the waist of those britches, and with the hat on like a badge and the cheek-tingling, wide-open feeling of being out on the farm, the vigor of the damp clean air, he would have tossed the drunk into the fire out of over-exuberance, but Doc cooly intervened, talked the old camper down from howling and sent him sheepish back to camp. Doc's voice and his easy manner mesmerized folks that way.
At the dregs of the last fire, they shared a cigarette as coals smoldered. “Anyway,” Doc said, “the drawing is first thing tomorrow. I thought we’d get more tickets. If you weren’t a ranger, now, you just might have had a shot.”
Back at the camp, Shuck took out the Aria, a miserable, dingy thing finished like a rotten cellar door and made in red China. He didn't check his voice despite the quiet camping, shunked and sang his own new ditty.
(Ever heard of Chris Stapleton? Well, this is his story. Not really. But he recorded at the Jam the River for their PBS special program a year or two before he blew up. The whole festival served as a set up for the show, the grand vision of The Old Man, Doc’s Daddy, who looked like Kevin Costner and interviewed in a weird, laconic way. He liked to reference pre-interview conversations, so the viewer always felt a little left out. Great cinematography, though.)
All Shuck had wanted was his chance, and he got it. Early days, a night-time shoot on the newly outfitted main stage, a warm-up before the festivities began the next morning. Lights up, searingly bright, Shuck had to keep his hands just so to keep the Aria's pickup from buzzing. They'd tried just a mic but couldn't mix it well. Everyone was learning. Everything was quiet: must be time to go. Pick the long ride into "Aunt Hoot's Root Cellar for a Toot-e-nany."
“Wait, Shuck.” Can’t distinguish the voices, the Old Man, Doc, Doc’s brother Virge, the sound guy. Hands won’t stop fucking shaking. Don’t you blow this thing, don’t blow this thing.
By the time they got things right, he could only play chords and a little turnaround, some kind of lilting variation on "Old Susannah," first thing he'd learned in lessons twenty years ago.
"Thanks, Shuck." That was that. They put it in the second show, with some reel of a horse in a field and some strange baby running out of a chicken coop. His name in with a heap of names credited as "Add'l Music" ass-end of the credits.
Someone, Maggie, would call his name, ‘Hey Shuck, you’re on!’ and not mean any meanness at all, and he had to go to the living room and pretend to be delighted with her as his dreams ran out the punctured sack of his life in semi-sync with a baby falling in mud in grainy black-and-white. He flubbed the same note, every godforsaken time.
There could have been more chances, maybe. He never asked. He gave up. It happens. I’ve given up on this tale a time or two. Maybe this time, it ends up different.
To say Shuck didn't sleep well, what with his preoccupation with the possibly felonious fraud he'd committed and its deeper implications concerning his character, wouldn't quite get near it. He lay face down on a thin sleeping bag outside the tent grinding his big teeth on rocks. Biscuit wheezed and whined next to him, fluttering her paws in protest like she dreamt of Shuck being her owner.
And of what did Shuck dream? Nothing. That was over for him.
Shuck sat up wild-eyed at twittering dawn. He started his day by drinking an MD 20 20 Maggie'd brought—it was orange flavored specifically for breakfast. He crept into the tent and drank and watched Maggie snore, wondering why he couldn't love her.
There was no clear answer. She was a strong, kind, lovely woman.
So why hot tears welling? He could say it: She pitied him. (She didn’t.)
He didn’t want it. (A God damned lie; it’s all he wanted.)
She deserved better. (Ain’t that the truth?.)
He hereby released her with a benedictory gesture of the bottle, which spilled a little by her foot. Afraid she’d wake and find him leering like some kind of sex-peeper, he stumbled out of the tent and rolled down a little hill into another camp.
He saw a fistfight break out between another set of campers, didn't bother to rise as he rubbernecked. A fiery redhead with droopy, mossy eyes and yellow lip-and-chin whiskers staggered around his camp, crashing through the furniture. He back-flopped onto a little picnic table and buckled it.
A woman with some allegiance to decorum or the table yelled, “Get up!” over and over.
A thick guy with short dark hair came scrabbling from a tent bewildered, surveyed the scene, and went to help his fallen comrade. But the redhead came up swinging, smacked his friend in the nose. The girl yelled, "Don't hit him, Frankie! Don't!"
Frankie could have been either one, but the kid with the bloody nose reared back and
knocked the cold piss out of the redheaded table-buster.
“No, Frankie!” the girl yelled.
Too drunk to go down or die, Red reeled and pitched, locked Frankie up in a headlock.
Now Frankie was murder-angry, but at last, the woman got them apart. Shuck mumbled, "There's a fine, strong woman." Red slumped against a tree, everybody paced. Frankie bided. The girl drifted too far away, surveying the furniture damage, and Frankie charged, bashed Red's head against the leaning sugar maple. The clang rang out across the campsites.
Red went down floppy, started yelling: "You hit my head into a tree, Frankie. I'm going to give you a red-ass beat down when I'm sober. I'll find you when I'm sober, Frankie. I'll beat the tar shit out of you. The tar shit! Tar! Shit!"
Mind cleared of turmoil for that bright instant, Shuck chuckled, Huh huh, into the dewy grass. Red kept hollering “tar shit” until the words were dispersed into Shuck's mental soup.
The woman had wandered over to where Shuck lay. “You all right, there, mister?”
Shuck nodded face down in the grass.
“Let’s get you up.”
With the girl in the shade of the main stage, Shuck figured now was nearly time for the raffle, felt the ice water of incoming panic in his arms and gut like he’d read about in war stories. He told himself to confess, here, now, and end this thing. Doc would get pissed, surely send him home. They’d fix the raffle box.
Instead, Shuck sipped Gatorade by the fan in front of which the woman had parked him.
She told him, "Stay put and you'll feel better," had a husky voice, looked in her late twenties but cured by hard-living, hair in cornrows and tied with tie-dyed ribbons. A thin dress and no shoes. Freckles and brown eyes. Shuck wanted her to stick around for what was coming, why, he didn't know. He said, "I'm Shuck. What's your name?"
“Syd, short for Sydney.”
“Yep.” He came up with nothing else, and she took a long look around and tapped her foot.
He was sobering up, noticed for the first time the mass of purple thunderheads perched to spill into the valley. Salvation, perhaps, if they’d roll on over and spoil the morning itinerary.
“What’s the matter, Shuck?” Syd prodded his foot with her own. “You look like you just caught your dog wolfing down your baby.”
“Jesus. What a terrible thing to say.”
(And, were Syd present back at the impromptu campfire confessional, she’d have taken the grand prize for scintillating regrets; behind her ear were the initials TK tattooed in thin blue ink and the story thereby alluded defies the scope and sensibilities of this paltry tale.)
(Suffice to say, injustice abounds. But all shall be forgiven, and those who traverse the rolling world without the weight of sin are babes alone who must tarry not with freighted souls lest they pass the precipice themselves and lose their grace. Such may have been the fate of TK, departed too soon, but, strictly speaking of the spirit, not soon enough, perhaps, ergo, alas.)
(But what do I know? I’ve never done anything; I’m only signification, the ghost of these several thousand words.)
Syd tried to laugh it off. “Just concerned, is all.” She punched Shuck’s shoulder, quite hard.
“Ouch. I’ve done something very stupid.” He didn’t know he’d admit it before he did, and the rush of relief was so great he nearly stood up.
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“I cheated Doc and I’m gonna go to jail. It’s the worst day of my life, I feel sick. I’m already drunk.”
“Yeah. I smelled your breakfast on your breath. Who’s Doc?”
“The guy who runs this thing.”
“Field of Dreams Kevin Costner or Yellowstone Kevin Costner?”
“Field of Dreams.”
“He looks like a dick.”
“He isn’t. I mean, kind of. Not really.”
“How did you cheat?”
“The raffle. For the Kisanouvich. The guitar.”
“No biggie. I think all the guys in my camp must have put their names in two or three times.”
“No. I took out all the tickets and filled the box up with my own.”
She dropped her smirk. “Oh, man. You’re fucked. The Costners are gonna beat your ass.”
Shuck shuddered. One little baby teardrop slipped down his trembling cheek.
“They’re gonna take you and throw you in that pit in Wyoming. The murder pit. You watch that show?”
Shuck did watch that show. He cried a little more.
"I like to shoplift," Syd offered by way of consolation, which it wasn't. People stole all the time from his Lowes store and heretofore he'd stood in judgment, always pressed charges. No more.
That’s it–he’d change his life. He’d let people steal from the Lowe’s. Maybe Old Man Lowe had hurt them somehow in the semi-recent past. He just couldn’t know a thing like that.
A cold breeze came down from the ridge. Shuck stood up and paced a few yards, Biscuit eagerly attending him every step of the way. He came back and crossed his arms across himself, said, “That’s a stunning admission, and I feel honored and all that. But I think I better get out of this place before I’m exposed.”
Doc came over looking serious, caught Shuck by the shoulder, and said, "Hey, man, come help me set up for the drawing. We're going to get going and hope the rain waits."
Syd stepped in and said, “He was going to help me hitch a camper. That OK?”
Doc looked up at the clouds and tipped his hat back. "Well."
“It’ll just take a second.”
But they’d waited too long: helpers unveiled the raffle box already transported onto the stage. The Old Man stepped up to a squealing mic and wished the gathering crowd good morning.
Syd elbowed Shuck, “Let’s go, man. Don’t just stand there.”
But Shuck was mesmerized by the Kisanouvich, which Angeline now carried across the stage. Whispers of admiration burbled through the crowd. Despite thunderheads rolling down from the ridge, the last bits of sun danced on the tin rose. Angeline gave a wide smile and curtsey, put the guitar on a stand.
Syd pulled on his belt, but Shuck dug his feet in. The old man reached in, withdrew and read the card. Shook his head. Said into the microphone: “Shuck Johnson.”
Angeline shot Shuck a smile and picked up the guitar again. Held it out. Everybody clapped.
The Old Man said, “Get up here, Shuck.”
He thought he’d have to crawl but made it upright up the short plank stairs to the stage, took the guitar in his hands; it thrummed electric with perfect, ultra-light craftsmanship.
Doc’s father nodded to the mic for Shuck to make some kind of speech. Instead, he ran, down behind the stage and around, the crowd parting. He glanced back and saw Doc with his hands in his back pockets and his hat still cocked up, tall and stern like Gary Cooper on the stage, squinting down at his fleeing friend in confusion or embarrassment.
Maggie stood at the edge of the crowd with her arms out like Shuck would, in his elation, want to embrace, but he mistook her for festival security, juked hard, and sent her flat on her face in his dust, Biscuit stopping for a conciliatory nuzzle before charging on.
Shuck wanted to leave the guitar but could see no safe place to discard it as he ran. Then, he saw Doc's Mule ATV idling in the horse pasture.
They—Shuck, Syd, and a whining Biscuit—were tearing through the woods by the river in the Mule before Shuck realized he’d just added grand theft auto of a farm all-terrain vehicle to the rap sheet. Syd held the guitar to her chest, too scared, perhaps, to look up but anyway fixated on the tin-plated headstock. She moved her lips as she read the serial numbers.
He found a trail and bounced through the river dangerously, glad the morning chill still kept the campers off; otherwise, he'd have squashed man, woman, dog, and child, had any swum where there where the river intersected the winding road up out of the valley, where Shuck headed now.
They made it to the top of the ridge and Shuck clicked off the motor. Got down and listened for a while, waiting to hear someone driving up. He heard a shout or two below but far away, seemingly disinterested, or rather interested in something else entirely.
“Well,” Syd said from the passenger seat, “you might as well play me a song, Shuck.
Shuck said, “I think you better slip off somewhere. I appreciate you coming along but this is going somewhere ugly. You’ve had a bad enough morning.” The calm creeping into his voice bothered Shuck more than the woman’s ease with the conspiracy; she only shrugged and plinked on the guitar herself.
“Nah,” she said. “I’ll just say you kidnapped me.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Yeah. Guess not. Here, play something.”
At first, he couldn’t play. His fingers trembled and the last dregs of the Mad Dog churned in his sloshy head. He couldn’t remember how anything went, even after his fingers found their proper places. But then the Kisanouvich spoke to him, in a voice sonorous and clear. It said: “We was meant for one another, pal. I’ll never let somebody hurt you ever again.”
He played “Aunt Hoot” flawlessly for Syd, who did not hide her stunned weeping
admiration. As he finished, Doc’s Jeep bounced in beside the Mule. Doc and Angeline stepped out.
Doc said, “Uncool, man.” He said it again: “Unnncool.” Angeline’s big eyes sparkled. Syd lit a cigarette and shuffled in the deep, dead leaves. Doc patted Shuck’s shoulder. “How drunk are you, you son of a bitch? That was the goofiest shit I’ve ever seen.” He ran a mocking, wobbly-armed circle around the clearing, reversing course at invisible adversaries, and Angeline doubled over laughing. Doc stopped and beamed at Shuck like this was all for laughs. “So, you got wasted and entered your name like fifty times. Please tell me you remember doing that.”
Shuck set the guitar down in the Mule. “I won it,” he said, that creepy calm still in his voice. He couldn’t look Doc in the eyes.
“Dad covered for you.”
“He was really smooth,” Angeline added.
Doc shrugged. "So, I guess, no harm done. We just played it off like it was a gag. It took a long time to get all your goofy ballots out, though. Set us back half an hour. Why'd you write them differently? I have to know."
“I think your girlfriend is pissed. Shit, what’s her name?”
“Maggie,” Angeline said, still laughing. She hopped up on the hood of the Jeep. “I liked her.”
Doc spun. “Watch the finish.”
“You calling me fat?”
Shuck felt like he was in a dream watching something fall on his head that wouldn’t quite land. It kept getting closer, an anvil maybe, or a big black boulder, but it couldn’t close the distance. He said, “Well.”
"Well?" Doc smiled at him, their lives already resettling back to normal.
Angeline caught Shuck’s eye, a smile of recognition dawning on her freckled face. “Wait, is this why you were asking us to confess our sins last night? Shuck, is this the worst thing you’ve ever done, stealing from your best friend in the world?”
Her eyes hardened and she held his gaze for a full three seconds, then blew a raspberry fart in her elbow and laughed. “One time, I was driving these guys around and by like, the second liquor store, I figured out they were robbing them, because, duh, the masks.” She stared wistfully out over the treetops. “But yeah, we must have hit like four that night, a drug store, too, and then we got fucked. Up.” She clapped her hands for emphasis. She sighed. “Been sober six years, though,” she added, near a whisper.
“I got caught for all that cheating and I cried and said Marjorie Simpson copied off of me and she got kicked out of school and didn’t get to go to the prom after her mother worked all those night shifts at the Dollar Store and days nursing the geriatric psych ward just to buy her dress. I could have still taken her to the prom as my date, but I didn’t want to. Ha-oooh—" Doc gave a tremendous bleat as he pounded his chest like Tarzan. "Damn, it feels good to get that out there."
Syd grinned, scrolling through her cell phone. “If we’re letting it all out there, y’all ever heard of yodel-fucking? ‘Cause I’m kind of famous. Wait, dang, I don’t have any reception.”
Shuck cleared his throat. “It was mean of you to embarrass me at Christmas when I asked to buy the guitar at a friendly rate. You hurt my feelings and you told me once I could even ask you anything.”
Doc squinted at him, appraising quietly, not liking what he was seeing.
Shuck tried not to cry. “You said we were brothers.”
Angeline said, “Aw.” Syd went and sat a ways away, her back to everyone, still playing on her phone and grumbling. Doc looked out over the cloudy morning.
Shuck said, "I just wanted it 'cause it's got our Jam the River logo right across it. You remember I came up with that design."
Doc hooked his thumbs into his belt loops. “Well.”
Shuck looked up into the treetops and said, "You can have it back."
Doc said, “We thank you. Your girlfriend—Maggie—left with all your shit.”
“I figured that. Don’t believe she’s my girl no more.”
Shuck threw a glance at Syd, who had swiveled back to watch the reunification. “But maybe that’s for the best.”
Syd shook her head, gave the slow thumbs-down of a Roman emperor. “Total lesbian. One hundred percent.”
“Everyone is, when it comes to Shuck,” Doc said, distracted by the coming weather. “Sorry. I just can’t help it.”
But then the clouds broke. The sun shone down on the guitar and Angeline looking pretty and in love lit up holding it, the scouting ray glittering on tin pedals. Hell, she looked like the veritable “Angel of the Morning Light,” which was the name of a song Shuck had written and sung for his special girls, including Maggie, missed badly now and gone forever with his tent and coolers, which were the property of Lowe's, but he wouldn't report the theft. Instead, he'd write Maggie songs and sing them to her windows until she took him back. Staring at his friends, he didn't know what in the world could be better, how he could ever truly be part of something like that.
Doc reclined against the Jeep under that lonely, only ray. Angeline waved the Kisanouvich around, laughing as it cast a dance of sparkles across Doc’s bare, goose-pimpled chest.
Everyone had what they wanted, but him. He said to himself, “It ought to be mine. I earned it.”
(And if it wasn't true, and if Shuck, not given to introspection, or, for that matter, appreciation of the kindness shown to him by abiding friendship, didn't feel the least bit sorry, so what? If we can't write it off as "poor Shuck" or say "Ah, fuck him and the giant head he rode in on" or sew the world's litter of Shucks up a pillowcase and toss them in the river, where does that leave us?)
(Maybe we just give him the damn thing, because he wants it. Like that poor jilted girl wanted to go to the promenade with handsome young Doc. Like Biscuit wants, just once, to eat everyone’s dinner while they cower in fear at his dominance. Like people like Doc and Angeline, seeming possessors of everything, must want something, too. Maybe just line them up–everyone–and give them what they want.)
(And is it possible–might this all have occurred there on that ridge to Doc, watching his sulking friend, chewing his lip, mulling over the next move? Maybe so. My narratorial intuition suggests it's just what Doc was going to say.)
Then Angeline asked, “So how are we going to decide who really gets the guitar?”
Shuck had it back before she could stop him. "Just let me see it for a second," he said and ran. And before Shuck tripped, before he bounced down the ridge and crushed the Kisanouvich to smithereens beneath him, he turned back his head and told them, "You said I only had to ask."
Lucas Flatt's work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, Typehouse Literary Journal, Sundog Lit, and Ellipsis…literature and art. He won the 2016 Larry Brown Short Story award at Pithead Chapel, and teaches creative writing at Volunteer State Community College.