Bent Country, by Sheldon Lee Compton

I stead­ied myself on the embank­ment. Below, down the hooknose incline of brush and grav­el, ran the tracks, glint­ing like a school of sil­ver fish run­ning in the moon­light to chase the C & O. I stood care­ful­ly, leaned my head back so it was only me and moth­er-fish moon in a blan­ket of black, and pissed loudly.

Pete and Bryan wait­ed in the car while I fin­ished, Pete slouched behind the wheel of his Grena­da and Bryan in the pas­sen­ger seat. Bryan tapped the win­dow as I zipped and tugged to read­just. I turned and flashed him the fin­ger. The Pover­ty House would be there. It wasn’t going to close down while I took a piss.

“Jesus, Van,” Bryan said as soon as I was in the back seat. “We still have to pick up Deb. You’re already piss drunk. Seriously."

“Man’s got­ta piss, Hoss. Man’s got­ta piss,” Pete said. He didn’t wait for any response but punched the gas ped­al peel­ing trench­es into the grav­el that left behind a dust burst ris­ing off into the sky to join my moth­er moon.

I looked out the back wind­shield, tried to watch the sky for as long as pos­si­ble. My piss splash would be shin­ing gold on the brush the rest of the night while we stomped and drank at the House. I found myself wish­ing I could take it with me and real­ized I was very drunk. Aware of this, I slid side­ways in the back­seat and fell into an impos­si­ble sleep while Pete straight­ened out curves like a child fin­ger-paint­ing his own escape plan.

A half-mile from Deb’s house, Pete cut the engine and rolled through the last few curves with the head­lights off. He pulled the Grena­da to the side of the road and wait­ed. Bryan leaned rough­ly against his door and got out. He crept to the back and eased the latch on the back door and sat down beside me.

“Hi, Bryan,” I said.

Bryan smiled. “Drunk ass.”

We watched the house in silence. Awake again, I fum­bled in the floor­board for anoth­er beer. Bryan motioned to the bag and I pulled anoth­er out and hand­ed it to him. We drank our beers slow­ly and watched Pete watch for Deb.

“There she is,” Pete whispered.

We leaned to the win­dow and saw Deb mov­ing across the yard, a lean fig­ure mov­ing like a swan through the swells of a lake. Blonde braids bounced across her shoul­ders and when she smiled I saw Pete lean toward her and their smiles lit the world. I fin­ished off my beer just as she got to the car and set­tled in beside Pete. She spoke soft­ly to Pete for a time and then turned to us, her braids swip­ing at the air, her even­ly tanned arms draped across the back of the seat.

“Hey, losers. I was just telling Peter here that we’re gonna have to burn out of here like bats out of hell. No cruis­ing in silent like you came in,” Deb said. She reached between my knees and came up with a beer. “That’s gonna be nice, huh? Dad’ll just cuss in his bed and pray for damna­tion and vengeance for the wild hea­thens, right? Right.”

“Here we go!” Pete yelled, start­ing the Grena­da and pulling into gear.

“Long live the hea­thens!” Deb yelled back to Pete.

More trench­es more dust bursts float­ing away to the moon. We were leav­ing behind us wild souls ascend­ing to the unknown, marks of where we had been like my gold­en splash alone in the brush, a part of me for this place to remember.

The final deci­sion was made the day before. Me and Bryan and Pete were leav­ing the next morn­ing or after­noon for Peru, Indi­ana. There were jobs there in fac­to­ries. Jobs in build­ings, not under­neath moun­tains in two-foot high coal with angry machin­ery and men who looked swal­lowed up and drained of their blood, walk­ing, work­ing fad­ed car­bon copies of men thrown togeth­er with burned leather and dis­card­ed bones, hol­low-eyed and for­ev­er silent while they ate their sandwiches.

Our fathers all worked or did work the mines. Pete’s dad was killed pick­ing rock from the belt line. Caught his leg and pulled him off into the coal. He was the out­side man and the rest of the night­shift crew was inside. It took three hours before any­body noticed Pete’s dad was miss­ing. By then, he was cov­ered up under tons of coal, crushed. They dug him out after the fore­man con­vinced the rest of the work­ers that he hadn’t skipped out and left shift. It was a closed cas­ket. Pete was two years old.

Every day before our shift two words were always loop­ing inside my head as per­sis­tent and undaunt­ed as a bird’s song. Pete’s dad. Pete’s dad. Pete’s dad.

I won­dered if Pete and Bryan had the same song in their head. Every shift, look­ing into their eyes, it seemed they might. We made our deci­sion after three months at the Jeri­cho Num­ber 5 Mine, and The Pover­ty House was our last night before Peru. He hadn’t said any­thing, but we all knew Pete was going to ask Deb to come along. She just fin­ished her junior year of high school and there was the chance she would stay, a real­ly good chance. Pete didn’t see it that way. Pete always saw things his way, then made it happen.

Now, speed­ing to Haysi, Vir­ginia to our bar under my moon there was anoth­er song in my drink-rat­tled head, a bird song beau­ti­ful in the morn­ing light, a canary to replace the death call of the crow.

What is the answer? Peru is the answer. What is the answer? Peru is the answer.

Dress was casu­al at The Pover­ty House. If some poor shit showed up in blue jeans, the bounc­er or from time to time the own­er, a guy called Blue Eyes, turned the guy out. Slacks and dress shirts. Church clothes. It was help­ful to know this dri­ving from Cal­vary to Haysi. I pushed the wrin­kles from my slacks at the front door and nod­ded to the bounc­er, a thin man named Herman.

“Hel­lo, folks,” Her­man said, cross­ing his arms and tak­ing a step toward us.

Pete pulled out his wal­let and paid the cov­er charge for every­one. A min­er from Burned Rock had once tried to push through Her­man a few years back and dodge the cov­er, but Her­man popped his eye with a boney elbow. They said the eye oozed black and slug­gish out of the sock­et after Her­man hit him. Her­man also had nails dri­ven up through the soles of his boots so out of the back of the heels there was this sharp tip of the nail that stuck out about half an inch, just enough to sweep kick somebody’s gut open. To look at him, Her­man wasn’t much, which is why I guess he was test­ed like that from time to time. But mil­i­tary expe­ri­ence, and hor­ri­ble expe­ri­ences those, were Herman’s weapons. We all avoid­ed eye con­tact as we passed through the door.

The House was dim with only a few patrons seat­ed at the bar, reg­u­lars. We paid the sec­ond charge at the front desk for a run­ning tab at the bar and then passed the two or three old­er men on stools, cran­ing their necks to watch us pass. All of them had hair slicked back with oil and wore check­ered but­ton-up work shirts with the sleeves rolled past the elbows. One of them, a high-cheeked amber-col­ored man who had to have come from a strong Chero­kee line, offered a slimy grin to Deb and Pete laughed at him as we went sin­gle file to a table with two white can­dles burn­ing in the center.

The orders, except for Deb’s, were simple.
Beer, beer, beer. Deb asked the wait­ress for a boil­er­mak­er with a sec­ond beer chas­er and a full bot­tle of Tvarscki.

“Bring us a shot glass, cutie,” Deb called after the wait­ress, a dish rag of a girl, beat­en down by night after night of half-breed Chero­kees telling bad jokes and ask­ing for rides home. A space of utter dark­ness poured from her eyes, vacant and fun­da­men­tal, focused on squeez­ing out the hours. She nod­ded and left for the bar.

While we wait­ed for the drinks, the band start­ed pluck­ing strings and run­ning scales, adjust­ing amp lev­els and posi­tion­ing a micro­phone as big as the head of a twen­ty-pound sledge­ham­mer and bright sil­ver in the dimness.

“Check one, check two… check one, check two.”

The front man for the band, which, accord­ing to the decal on the bass drum, was called The Shine, jerked across the stage, pulling the mic chord across his shoul­ders and around his waist, fly-fish­ing across the stage. He belt­ed out a sin­gle note, deep and grat­ing, the whiskey-soaked voice of an old man, thick and raspy. It sound­ed fine. 

“Guy’s got some pipes,” I said into my beer bottle.

“That’s for sure,” Deb added and propped her hands under her chin watch­ing the singer flop across the stage. “He’s high. He’s like Jim Mor­ri­son. Look at that.”

The singer turned on stage, tun­ing his instru­ment, the hard voice and lean body, the pres­ence, his front man tools. He stopped and across at us. We were the only vis­i­tors at a table. The rest of the bar was emp­ty except the Indi­an and the oth­er regulars.

“I’m going to the bar,” Pete said and quick­ly stood up.

Deb watched after him and then gave me and Bryan a cou­ple sec­onds worth of strange looks and went back to watch­ing the singer.

I could hear Pete at the bar order­ing Jack Daniels, a bot­tle. Then I heard the bar­tender, a lady in her for­ties with jet black hair and heavy pur­ple lip­stick, tell him the seat was reserved. I went to the bar and sat down beside Pete. In front of him was a nap­kin Scotch-taped to the bar. The nap­kin said the stool was reserved for some­one named Rose.

“Deb wants to fuck Jim Mor­ri­son over there,” Pete said. He waved his hand to the stage where the singer had stopped his rehearsal rit­u­al and was now sit­ting at the edge of the stage, his feet dan­gling off the edge. The band seemed to be wait­ing for the crowd or some cue for when to start their set.

“Check one, check one,” the singer bari­toned into the mic. He sound­ed bored, and Deb was right. He was def­i­nite­ly high.

I couldn’t argue. It seemed Deb was into the guy. So for a time we sat at the bar, hav­ing scoot­ed a cou­ple stools down for Rose who still hadn’t shown up. Grad­u­al­ly the bar picked up. Groups of five and six were fil­ing in, pay­ing their bar cov­er and mov­ing to the oth­er tables. The tables sat off from a hard­wood dance floor, and men out­num­bered women, just like our group. Most groups had just one girl in tow, and that girl was prob­a­bly with one of the oth­ers. Find­ing some hard love my last night in Ken­tucky was going to be a chal­lenge. I’d have to find the sis­ter, the girl who made her broth­er take her to Haysi for a night out. More like­ly there would be some fighting.

I looked back to our table and Bryan gave a quick hand motion for us to come back. Deb was out of her chair and mov­ing to the dance floor, the curves of her body shift­ing like the smooth sur­face of a cut dia­mond under her dress. The singer, who by this time I thought of as sim­ply Jim, had hopped down from the stage and was walk­ing slow­ly across the hard­wood. I poured myself a shot of Jack and turned to fill Pete’s glass when I saw a flick­er of hard white light at his belt line.

“I’m gonna gut Jim Mor­ri­son,” Pete said hold­ing the knife under the bar. “I’m gonna gut him like a fish.”

Bright dance floor light. Arms and legs swoop­ing in blurred arcs. The knife clat­ter­ing across the floor. Deb yelling then whoop­ing and laugh­ing insane­ly. Bryan hold­ing Jim Morrison’s arms and rock­ing back from the trans­ferred ener­gy of Pete’s body blows admin­is­tered to the singer’s ribs and gut. Me wig­gling a tooth now loose from a lick I took from some guy I nev­er saw before, maybe the half-breed, but I couldn’t be sure. And then Her­man and the odd, com­plete silence. 

One by one, cradling us like fresh caught fish by the back of our new trousers, Her­man sent us skid­ding across the dirt park­ing lot. The skin­ny bounc­er with the dead­ly boot heels held Pete’s knife up in the moon­light and then tossed it into a near­by thick­et of trees. Deb wait­ed in the Grena­da. Her braids were slung out the open win­dow, sleep­ing snakes against the Bon­do of the driver’s door, her head lopped side­ways, blacked out from cheap St. Louis vodka.

“You’ll be good enough to get to work tomor­row, Pete?” Her­man asked. His voice was even and calm

Pete right­ed him­self in the park­ing lot, stum­bled back into the packed dirt and then got to his feet. “What?”

“You get into work and then bring me your pay­day next week to hire a new house band or pay for Calvin’s doc­tor bills. That comes from Blue Eyes, you stu­pid civvy.”

Pete grinned at Bryan and then winked at me.

“I’ll do bet­ter than that, Her­man. You tell that to Blue Eyes. I’ll make good on all repairs and pay the band or hire anoth­er fag or what­ev­er. I’ll do that and then some. Mon­ey is no object.”

“Mon­ey is no object,” Her­man said. “Mon­ey is always an object. But you wan­na go deep­er to make good on this, then that’s fine by me. Should be fine with Blue Eyes. See you next week.”

Her­man resumed his spot in front of the door and through the dark­ness I could see the swelled places of his knuck­les, droplets of blood hang­ing there, skin peeled up and white, ready to start bleed­ing as soon the cir­cu­la­tion made its way back to his knot­ted hands. I wig­gled my tooth with the side of my tongue. The half-breed hadn’t got a good lick in, but Her­man had popped me in the mouth. It was the fin­ger­prints of my teeth hang­ing off Herman’s knuck­les. No won­der my head was spin­ning like a top. I turned my atten­tion to Pete as we made it back to the car. He pushed Deb across to the open pas­sen­ger win­dow to make room behind the steer­ing wheel and I kicked the back of his seat with my knee. Pete turned around and, see­ing my bust­ed lip, laughed and start­ed out of the park­ing lot.

“Mon­ey is no object?” I final­ly asked.

“Van, don’t you under­stand noth­ing. We’re not even gonna be here tomor­row. I coul­da told Her­man I was giv­ing him my house to make good and it’s all just talk.”

I sat qui­et for a time, Bryan leaned against my shoul­der. He held tight to his stom­ach and was laugh­ing under his breath. It came out of him like a weak breeze twist­ing through a torn down val­ley. Prob­a­bly a cracked rib. Cracked rib, bust­ed tooth, crazy Deb and Pete the Knife and not a good buzz between us. The Pover­ty House was a bust. Soon I allowed myself to lean gen­tly against Bryan and the two of us held the oth­er up for more impos­si­ble sleep.

When I heard the hiss­ing again, much louder
now, my first thought was that one of Bryan’s cracked ribs must have bust­ed through a lung and the life was escap­ing him like a bal­loon. I shook him awake. Deb was gaz­ing back at me, eyes of fire and her mouth a small pink cir­cle in the mid­dle of her face. Her eyes looked like tiny saucers streaked with toma­to sauce. Pete was hunched behind the steer­ing wheel, furi­ous in his silence. The hiss­ing grew loud­er and then the front of the Grena­da start­ed flop­ping like the fin of a hooked bluegill.

“Flat tire,” Deb said sleepily.

“Flat lung,” I said, shak­ing Bryan.

“Flat tire,” Pete said. “Flat tire, Hoss.”

No spare. Those two words were repeat­ed, yelled, screamed, and kicked around until they almost lost mean­ing. No spare. We were hours from home, break­ing the speed limit.

“Let’s hitch,” Deb said.

She was sit­ting on the guardrail smok­ing. She and Pete hadn’t spo­ken. The com­ment may have been direct­ed to me. I start­ed to answer when Pete whirled around the grill, jumped the guardrail and stood five inch­es from Deb’s face, arms stiff at his sides, fists clenched, soft curls of smoke from her cig­a­rette appear­ing to come from Pete’s ears, the top of his head.

“We can’t all flash a leg and get a ride,” Pete spat.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Deb said and took a long last drag from her cigarette.

With Bryan lean­ing against the back bumper, I eased over and hopped the guardrail and joined Pete who had stalked five good steps from Deb. I sat down, clear­ing my head and saw the fire­fly of Deb’s cig­a­rette streak down the bank, its ember the sin­gle red arch of a mid­night rain­bow. The glow­ing ember bounced onto the tracks below. It thought of my splash ear­li­er and rubbed my eyes, try­ing again to clear my head. Pete didn’t seem near­ly as drunk, which was com­fort­ing, even now with all the Deb prob­lems and flat tire, con­sid­er­ing he was dri­ving. The ember near­ly land­ed in per­fect bal­ance across a flat­ted out rail and then light­ly fell to the mid­dle, a red light fad­ing into the dark.

The ridge line was vis­i­ble even in the dark­est dark, its out­line rolling past on every side of us, thick and more dense than the sky itself with mil­lions of years of veg­e­ta­tion. The Rock­ies were young kids com­pared to our soft curved moun­tains, naked and cold, ugly rocks jut­ting up like half-wit bul­lies, no majesty, no his­to­ry, just flat gray fault line hem­or­rhoids. But our majes­tic ridge line cir­cled now like a sea snake watch­ing us drown­ing in the depths, hang­ing on to a shred­ded Goodyear.

Pete wasn’t talk­ing and Deb wasn’t talk­ing and maybe because I was drunk and not my usu­al medi­at­ing self, I also con­tin­ued to sit qui­et­ly. A scoot­ing about of road­side grav­el trailed up behind us and Bryan put a hand each on our shoul­ders. His breath­ing was less labored now and I only now noticed that he had tak­en what may have been a knee to his fore­head. A knot the size of a bird egg cast a small shad­ow across his brow. Bryan: the human uni­corn lunger of Cal­vary. I laughed and Deb shot me a look, her eyes sparkling beau­ti­ful fire.

“Fear not,” Bryan said. “I have the answer.”

“Peru is the answer,” I said. My lips were still numb.

“Shut up,” Bryan said.


“The C & O runs through here to Burned Rock about this time,” Bryan con­tin­ued, then glanced at a nonex­is­tent watch, screwed up the cor­ner of his mouth. “Any­way, it ain’t come yet. It’s com­ing. It always slows here, I’ve seen it. We blind jump it and when she cranks back up we ride to Burned Rock, walk to Cal­vary and get a car and a spare. From Burned Rock, it’s just a half mile walk.” He held out his arms, favor­ing his side as he did so, and made a wob­bling bow­ing gesture.

Pete had been lis­ten­ing with­out look­ing at Bryan. He had left his gaze some­where out there with the sea snake. “Yeah, sure thing. That can be our back­up plan,” he final­ly said. “Back­up plan. Got it?”

All of us, even Deb, looked at Pete. Going hobo on a train back to Burned Rock was not the most desir­able sug­ges­tion made since the flat sent us to the side of the road, but it was some­thing. It was a lit­tle bet­ter than cling­ing to a shred­ded Goodyear and cross­ing our fin­gers. But now Deb was off the guardrail and eas­ing over to us. The sleek, slow move­ments of her legs cut through the moon­light. Her breath might have smelled of elec­tric rain wait­ing in the clouds. She ignored me and Bryan and now it was Deb who was in front of Pete. It was some kind of musi­cal guardrail game.

“So what’s the real plan, Peter?”

“Don’t call me that, okay?”

She sulked the way Deb sulked, a gor­geous set of tics and twitch­es. The flash light­ning and storm clouds were gone. If I’d known her the way Pete knew her, I’d say she was wor­ried. Pete must have noticed it, informed as he was. His voice was dif­fer­ent when he spoke again.

“We just ride the flat hard as hell back home,” Pete said, and went to her, tak­ing her small shoul­ders in his hands. “I’ll dri­ve it straight, six­ty, six­ty-five, and that’ll keep down the grind on the rim, at least enough to get us there. I’ll have to get anoth­er rim on top of anoth­er tire, but we should get there.”

Deb’s fea­tures soft­ened. She gave Pete the gift of her smile and then kissed him hard on the mouth. Break­ing the speed lim­it so that three good tires lift­ed on the cur­rent and eased the grind on the rim seemed to excite her endlessly. 

My gold­en splash machine shriv­eled inside my khakis and then, sud­den­ly, I need­ed to relieve myself again. I paced off a good dis­tance and pulled out, bend­ing, adjust­ing, and going through my rou­tine. There was a firm smack against my side. My knees buck­led and piss streaked my pant leg. Bryan sidled up next to me.

“You going on the roller coast­er ride?” he asked after I finished.

“You made me piss on my pants.”

“You pissed you pants?”

“No. You made me … Look, Nev­er mind. I’m not rid­ing that thing back home. I’m with you. Let’s play it hobo style and catch the C & O.”

Bryan seemed pleased with this and we walked back to the Grena­da where Pete was inspect­ing the dam­age to the tire. Deb was already at shot­gun pick­ing her fin­ger­nails and hold­ing them up in front of her face, nib­bling the edges. She waved to us and we squat­ted beside Pete.

“Pete, we’re catch­ing the C & O,” I said. I thought of the sil­ver fish streaks of moon­light on the rails from ear­li­er chas­ing their way across the bro­ken map line of tracks lead­ing through the valley.

Pete seemed gen­er­al­ly uncon­cerned, but con­tent. “Okay, Hoss. See you in a few hours and then we’re out of here. Out of here for good!” He whirled around the grill again, the strange dance an exact repli­ca of what he had per­formed in hot white anger just moments before. White hot anger, white hot lust. I fig­ured there wasn’t much dif­fer­ence. Didn’t look to be, anyway. 

As soon as Pete was behind the wheel it was bursts of dust and trench­es again and Deb wav­ing back­wards out the win­dow, her ni
bbled fin­gers wig­gling a good­bye. I won­dered if she noticed the stain down my new pants. See­ing the sparks fly like weld­ed met­al from the rim, I won­dered if we looked like wicked souls ascend­ing, lift­ed away with the dust.

Shel­don Lee Comp­ton
lives at the east­ern­most tip of Ken­tucky. He has earned pay­checks as a teacher, jour­nal­ist, coal min­er, plumber, pub­lic rela­tions spe­cial­ist and car­pen­ter. His work has appeared in New South­ern­er, Inscape, The Cut-Thru Review, Kudzu and elsewhere.

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One Response to Bent Country, by Sheldon Lee Compton

  1. GO says:

    Sheldon’s sto­ry brings back mem­o­ries. Par­tic­u­lar­ly of a back-coun­try farmer’s bar, The Rain­bow Inn, oth­er­wise known by the locals as The Buck­et of Blood, where every Sat­ur­day night the grav­el park­ing lot was a fight. The place had two doors on the front and the angry crowd would go out one door, some sit inside and watch out the large win­dows at the parked vehi­cles and the fight­ers, and then the crowd would fil­ter back in the oth­er door swear­ing and hol­ler­ing for more beer. There was live music, sort of music, and danc­ing, but the main attrac­tion was the brawl. And then there is always that promise of the town with real jobs that you some­how nev­er quite arrive at.

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