I first met Ray up in the mountains at the I‑40 rest stop, where I used to go to meet guys sometimes. I found him leaning against a wall, albino-pale, with these watery fish eyes. We messed around in a stall for a bit, and then he told me to meet him at the red truck out by the ravine.
In his truck cab he produced an uncapped light bulb. Below us roared the Pigeon River. "Keeps you up," he said, "as in hard," and I yelped when it burned my fingers. He barked a joyless heh. We got to talking: his wife was Sheila and mine was Lisa, and his kids were Ray Jr and Angel and I don't have kids. After we were too high to talk I guess I told him to start driving. Two days and we were in Tulsa. Now it didn't matter if the bulb was hot; the burn felt good. Sometimes he'd smack me upside the head, which we both liked. He asked what I'd do if he broke my arm.
"Go to the E.R."
"But to me."
"Break yours back?" He nodded like it was the right answer. He knew this stuff; so did his wife, who had more sense than to do what Lisa does, which is report me missing. Six days after I'd met him we rolled back into Pigeon Forge to find the cops at my place. "Drive," Ray growls, so I did. Halfway up the mountain he pulled a sheath knife out and held it to my throat. "You've been filming me," he said. "I don't care if it's your wife that called; they've seen the film."
He was giving off this ugly leaden smell, and I could feel blood draining down through me, through my neck. "Thought it was you filming me, Ray."
Ray looked behind us as if back toward Oklahoma, lowered the knife, and said, "Makes you jumpy."
"Lisa, she was the one."
"If you're a cop, you're a brave cop."
He motioned for me to face him. When I did, he put the knife to my wrist and cut it open. My yell came out as a heh like his laugh. He did the same to his wrist and pressed them together. He said it was a Bowie knife from the Indian Wars and we were blood brothers. I said, "But what about…" and the loons hollered and he said if you catch it, you get the flu, is how you know.
At his house, a log cabin, a girl was jumping on a pogo stick. "Call if you get the flu," he said, but then I left without his number. Back home Lisa ran barefoot into the mud and beat her fists on my chest. "I don't know," I told her as she carried on, "I woke up an hour ago outside the hospital." Next thing I knew I was in the paper, which upset my ma. When I was twelve, she'd had a heart attack, and from that day on she went to church and never smoked. Lisa always told me "you're lucky your ma's so young" but truth is she wasted it on that heart attack. Anyhow she arranged for tests, my ma, and I set off meaning to have them, but on a billboard I saw a girl with black teeth under the words "Meth Destroys." Something gunned in me like a jake brake and I decided to find that girl, get her high. I went to Ray's and he walked out in his boxers followed by his wife. "You slept?" he said.
"That was a week ago."
"So you slept."
"Can I come in?"
There was this Cherokee in their house, and the four of us messed around while a pit bull watched from a cage. Next thing, the Cherokee was leading Sheila and her kids away. "I'll never see those kids again," Ray wept.
I wondered if I'd missed something. "Is there more?"
"You want to be my bitch?"
"What do you mean?"
He reached over, stuffed my balls between my legs, and said, "My bitch." We drove across to Cherokee and played slots until we had cash to start cooking again. He had me wear Sheila's panties when I went out for Sudafed. Law makes you buy just a little at each store but it adds up. So does the money, and we were broke when AT&T offered ten thousand to let them put a tower on Ray's land. They disguised it like a pine and birds nested in it like it was any other tree. Ray would come upstairs with these water bottles and say go for a bike ride. In my bottle cages they sloshed around and mixed up while I tried to climb Mt. Cammerer. Each day I got a little closer to the top. The day I made it, there was a green cloud like an anvil moving across the valley. It hit me with a spray of mist and then I was opening a bottle, offering it my mix. A car sped by and I chased it down the slope and caught it, flipped it off, sped home to Ray.
"Where's the other bottle?" he said.
I seized up: I'd left it at the summit.
"You drink it?"
"Can you drink it?"
"Well, you'll die."
At first I believed I really had. "Guess that's your punishment," he said.
"Don't you care if I die?"
"There's more of you where you came from."
That kind of emptied me out, which he saw. "Just kidding," he said after a while.
"So you think there's more of me."
"Well, just go fetch that bottle."
Folks would come at all hours. There was a deputy who bought five hundred at a time and we would listen to his cop radio. One day, honest, a dude reported his wife had pissed in his coffee. "Call and say we'll report to the scene," said Ray. We piled in, Ray and the cop in front and me behind the grid. The siren screamed as we sped across town. At the man's house Ray told me, "Stay." I tried to get out anyhow but I was locked up. Whole hours passed before they came out chuckling.
"What happened?" I said when they got back in.
"Filed a report," said the cop, and then a look passed between him and Ray. "Did he think you were both policemen?" I asked as we drove off.
"Maybe you should beat him with your stick."
"Replaced our sticks with Tasers."
"Tase him, then."
"Why don't you?"
"Won't fit through the bars."
"I'll pull over."
We veered off onto a dirt path and then Ray got out. "Stand up," he barked at me. A wild boar was watching us from the woods. It had come to protect me, but Ray would tase it too. Stay back, I begged it in my head, and Ray lifted the Taser and at the last moment, as I shook, he said, "Just kidding."
Things got better. We drove to a cockfight and busted it up, then went to another and won some cash. There was a guy the cop said was Dolly Parton's brother. He smoked with us and Ray said, "Where's your big tits," and when he got mad Ray pulled the Taser out and tased him and we took off. Then the cop got to talking about Dolly and her songs. He said she'd written more songs than anyone in history, thousands upon thousands of them. "I admire that," he said. "Me, I've written ten, maybe twelve songs."
I said, "I bet she'd be having fun if she was here with us."
Instantly I got scared they'd tase me for being a pussy again, but they must have liked it, because she got in and rode along with us for a bit. She'd done this deal with the governor called Imagination Library where poor kids get free books. It was on all the billboards, and Ray's kids had read some of those books. Why she was in the car, she'd found out Ray'd stole them from her. I thought to warn him but I looked up and the next light was her road, Dolly Parton Parkway. The cop thought his own fingers were the ones that hit the signal, and I froze and next thing we're at Dale's, but if I tell you we watched Dale screw his girl and took his cash and pistol-whipped him, you won't see how I sat frozen while that bitch stared through me and steered us toward hell. She wanted to show me what happens in hell when you give AIDS to your wife. She had it from her husband and that's what her songs were about. She wouldn't kill us just yet cause it would all be there waiting, come time.
I woke up alone with a note by the bed that said "Call your mom." I drove to my ma's and let myself in to find her at her table, writing. "Knock knock," I said.
"Hi," she told me without looking up.
"You copying a recipe?"
"Is it your brownies?"
"He's my blood brother."
I could see she wasn't meaning to bake brownies. There were some medical instruments lying around—a blood pressure cuff, a stethoscope, a roll of gauze—along with several pill bottles, and I figured she was intending to put Ray out of business.
"Lisa called here not fifteen minutes ago."
"So then you know where she is already."
"She told me she was at Shoney's."
I can't explain. It was like all women were inside her right then, cussing me for not wanting them hard enough. I got to feeling she was a cop. I said if you're so naïve, why'd you have that heart attack? I knew I just needed a hit, so I headed back to Ray's, but no one was home. For the first time I went down to the basement and turned the knob. There he was in a chair, wearing a shirt and nothing else, waiting.
It took me a second to scream. I jumped and hit my head on the low ceiling. "Remember when you told me you'd break my arm?" he said.
I shook my head, stammering sorry.
"How would you do it?"
"I know you don't want me down here."
"Tell you what, go buy some whiskey. Here's twenty bucks."
I stumbled over myself running back upstairs. I knew he'd call his buddies, which was too much to bear. I sped through the holler full of dread. I ran over a dog and decided it belonged to a boy who told his dad my license plate so now I'd have to go back the long way while Ray screwed the whole state.
The clerk was a lady I hadn't seen before, with icy eyes the color of blue Kool-Aid. "Back for more?" she said.
She was nodding at me, her curls bobbing along with her nods. "Of what?"
"George Dickel?" she said, and I thought, maybe I've got a twin, maybe Ray's doing him right now and drinking his Dickel.
"I'm an only child."
"I'm the youngest of ten."
As she stared through me, I felt more fear than any soldier at war, but she rang me up and let me go. On the way home I passed the tooth girl and tried to count my teeth by feeling them with my finger but I lost count. I recalled finding Lisa on the phone with her friend, giggling about me. She thought Ray was part of her plan but the joke was on her, because I was in love, and I decided right then to help him get his kids back.
I carried the bottle in, unscrewed the cap, and presented it. "Look," Ray said, gesturing out the window behind me. I turned and saw the pine woods across the road.
"You mad about the basement?" I asked.
He shook his head. "While you were gone," he said, "I realized I hate you."
I figured he was joking, so I laughed. "That's what a pussy you are," he said: "I say I hate you and you laugh."
I set the whiskey down and asked what was going on.
"I got you screwed up and screwed your marriage up and never used a rubber and your ma won't talk to you, but you like me."
"So I should hate you?"
"So I should hate you?" he mimicked in the high voice of a pussy.
"What do you want me to do?"
He shook his head. "Nothing. Stay here. I'm gonna go find my wife."
He descended the porch stairs to his car. "Stop," I called out, tearing up, and he pointed at my tears and said, "There's the problem with you."
After that things started to change. I started wanting to lose my teeth out of just spite. Weeks passed. I looked around for the billboard girl and found her in Knoxville. Her name was April and she took me to see some folks. There was a dude that hotwired cars, who drove me to the Atlanta bathhouse. He left after a few days but I stayed on. Your body needs dreams but you can get them while you're awake. Every few days I bought something to eat from a machine. One day I got sick with fever chills, then I got better. When I finally went outside, two weeks had passed, because that was how long my car had been impounded. The bill was twelve hundred dollars, which meant it was totaled. I walked to Big Lots, found a truck, and hotwired it, which was the start of not being a pussy. The sun was rising as I reached Miami. I looked in the rearview and saw the weeks of fasting had chiseled my face, which led me to meet some folks. We drank rum in pools and sang Auld Lang Syne and one day I froze up and realized it had never gotten cold.
"It don't," said Vince, the silver-haired guy I'd been hanging with, but there'd been others before; now suddenly we were alone.
"What month is it?"
"March," he said.
"I had a birthday."
"Well, happy birthday." A grin stretched out from either side of his cigar. I asked if he'd seen my phone. "They turned it off," he said, "remember?"
I felt uneasy as he handed me his. Outside on a deck facing the canal I called the only number I could recall. It rang twice before I got an error message. If I wanted, it said, I could hang up and try again.
"City and state?" said 411.
I had to grip the railing to keep from tumbling into the water. "Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Dr. Lighter."
They connected me automatically. Each ring was a shock to my chest but I kept holding on. "Doctor's office," said my wife.
I spoke her name. "You're alive," she said.
"Where's my ma?"
"We tried to find you."
"Lisa, come on."
"It was in November, she—"
I threw the phone in the water. The number was on her ID, though. She could give it to the cops. That's what I'm most ashamed of: letting myself think about her ID when I'd just learned about my ma.
I never went back inside. Twelve hours later a sign said Welcome to Tennessee. Below those words it said the state was home to Vice President Al Gore, but that had been years ago. I sort of broke down on the shoulder. The cop asked what was wrong and I pointed to the sign. He told me to get on up the road and that's what I did. For months I got up the road to wherever I could. I figured I'd smoke till I died, which would happen when my mind ran out of dreams. All I had to do was quit dreaming. I would drive through the night, and if I started to dream, I slapped myself. One morning I rounded a curve and saw the moon over Mt. Cammerer. It had never risen so late before. I started keeping a list of the things it does. I built up a book of them that could have broken some ground but there was no use so I ripped it up and kept on driving. One of those AM stations was shouting about patience when the preacher asked, What will you miss when you're dead?
It was the stretch where it stops being Dolly Parton Parkway and goes to two lanes. I was overtaking this car. I slammed on my brakes by the sign for Forbidden Caverns. I know how it works in those caves, you go through them together in a group. The whole group gets to know each other and makes friends. What will you miss, said the man, and I looked at the hills and thought, There's nothing I'll miss. Not Lisa, because I can't stand what I did, and not my ma because she's gone. As for Ray, my head sent a signal to my foot just as a semi rounded the bend. I sped up hoping to crash into it. The driver would probably live but if he didn't, I've hurt plenty of folks anyway. I wondered if my ma would be there when I died, shaking her head along with the fucking Lord. I started to cry. My vision blurred and I figured it would keep blurring from there into oblivion, but at the last minute the trucker ruined it by pulling onto some dirt.
That's when I drove to the rest area. I sat there touching myself as families pulled in and their dogs peed and finally a Hummer parked beside me. "You party?" said a fellow in a Braves cap. "I've got tons of room."
His windows had a full tint, so we put down the seats and messed around, nothing special till he pulled a phone out and said, "Know about this?"
"About your phone?"
He swiped the screen and I looked down to see a grid of thumbnail pictures labeled with names. "It's in order of how close they are."
I touched one, and the screen filled up with a guy named Josh. 10 Miles Away, it said in the corner. "So it knows where I am?"
"No, it knows where I am."
"Moon's about to rise." I pointed through the sickly tint of his rear window. Ten seconds later it began to peek above the summit of Mount Cammerer.
"Here's a dude looking for now, and he smokes for sure."
I took the phone and stared down at the inimitable fish eyes of Ray. To appear calm, I stopped breathing. He didn't look so pale anymore. Maybe he'd followed me to Florida.
"Hit 'chat,'" the guy said, and I obeyed. It occurred to me to type hey, which floated up the screen in a yellow bubble. Seconds later came the response: 'Sup?'
'Nothing,' I wrote instead, and then 'Horned up' chirped onto the screen. The guy grabbed the phone from me and typed with both hands. I watched the moon rise and shrink while my gut did the opposite. "Dude says come over," he exclaimed, and I looked into the future and saw my teeth fall out of me. It would happen that day in 2012 when everyone thinks the world will end. What they mean is the world will carry on, but for each person something important will fall out of him.
"I'll tail you," I said, pocketing the phone, knowing he was too high to notice. I followed him until we came to an exit ramp. As soon as he'd passed it, I swerved off, crossed the highway, and turned around toward the first clear destination I could recall. I figured I had until morning before the account froze. The radio preacher was saying we're made of dust and it won't take much air for the Lord to blow us away. He said one lung of the Lord is the size of the world. I pulled into Hardee's and signed on to find five guys with green dots: Clay, James, Anchovi, Just Lookin, and Kid. Kid was Ray and his distance was twelve miles. I checked my own profile: I wasn't the Hummer fellow, but a black guy called Tyrone, twenty-one, headline reading "Don't fall in love with everyone you see."
I ordered a hamburger, the first time in days I'd thought of eating. A long journey faced me. An infinite number of directions led out from me, and I had to try each one—but suddenly Kid was eleven miles off. After a minute I hit the button again and it said ten. I thought of the jack pine and how readily Ray had agreed to it. He was coming for me and I had no weapon. They handed me my burger. I thought I might puke, but something in me reached out and devoured it and I was revved up with gas. I guess that that's when I began thinking straight. I'd imagined driving in circles, hunting Ray like a fox, skirting his circumference. I saw now that the phone was a shield. There were eight miles between me and his house, and he was eight miles away, but the road twisted in on itself so many times that it was of no concern to my pulse to go there.
Back in the car I talked along with the radio to calm myself. Halfway there the phone said five miles, which was bad, but I reminded myself it was supposed to feel good not being a pussy. That's why other guys liked it so much. I gritted my teeth and pulled up to his house and the phone said seven again. Maybe it was broken. I used my key and the door creaked open. If he could see me on his phone I looked like a black kid named Tyrone—unless he knew to begin with and my mug had a green dot in his head. That's how it will be in another few years: like now, but in your head, we'll drive all night just looking for folks in our head.
I felt my way to the basement and plugged in the bulb. It swung on a cord in front of a mirror in which I saw a St. Andrews cross and a workhorse. I walked to the closet and swung the plank and there was the knife. Its handle was wood and its blade curved and I'd forgotten what war it came from.
I was climbing the stairs again when my phone rang. Damien Warman, announced the touchscreen, and he said, "Where are you?"
"I'm not telling," I said.
"You two think you can treat me like this?"
I was getting ready to apologize when I remembered this wasn't my phone and a non-pussy would take advantage of that.
"Who are you?" I said.
"Screw you, bitch."
"No, I asked a question. If you want to live—if you want to survive another minute of your worthless life, then answer it."
There was a gulp. "Where's Tyrone?"
"Dead. You're next."
"Where is he."
"No, you tell me where you are."
"Well, you best get yourself out of that Hilton."
I can't tell you what a thrill it gave me to say these things. I hung up, and then the screen showed the earth in space, the clouds moving in real time. The mountains were inching toward dawn. I guess the camera was on the moon. My blood heated up in anticipation of sunrise. Just as I was about to catch fire, Damien Warman's name flashed across space. To be a pussy was to answer, to say just kidding, so I hit ignore. I found some gin and took a swig and realized the dog should be barking, so I went upstairs to his cage, in which he lay dead.
I had a new message from Kid. "Sup," it said.
"Not much," I wrote.
There was no response, so I looked at his profile: four miles.
I began to feel time slowing down. I went out into the night and ran the knife blade along my finger. It felt intensely strange, and I realized why: I was sober. I pricked another finger, then pricked them all and rubbed the blood on my pants. The cuts all stung. I was so sober I could feel pain. I looked at the moon, which was bisected by the jack pine, and knew on any other day I'd have believed it was broadcasting my thoughts to Ray. I checked the phone again and saw a distance of two miles.
It was curvy those last miles. I had about four minutes. There's a lot you realize when you get sober. It occurred to me to look up "Zeela Tipton 1950–2009" on the phone. I read, "After an illness, Zeela went Tuesday to be with the Lord." I learned she was survived by two brothers and a daughter-in-law. I knew I might meet the Lord soon myself, and I wanted him to know there was some good in me. I typed Lisa's number into Tyrone's phone and wrote, "Ask Dr. Lighter for a blood test."
The noise of a motor faded and grew closer. The phone said 500 feet. I hit refresh and it said 700 and then 350, which was about right.
I went in and pulled out the fuses. Through the peephole I watched a single shadow climb out of a car. My pulse was about four hundred. I saw the shadow lurch forward and grow larger. I had read the obituary to help urge myself ahead. I moved from the hinged to the unhinged side of the door. A siren blared for a split second. The last thing before he came in, I looked at the phone, which said zero feet.
The door swung open and his hand reached through the dark. I clutched the knife and plunged it into his arm. It sank easily into his flesh. I pulled it out and saw his eyes bulge as I stabbed again. As the blood spurted onto me he lunged toward me and I held tight onto the hilt. "Sarah," he said as he sank, which is when I knew what that siren had meant.
He contorted away, making gurgly noises. I let go and ran outside. The cruiser window was open, and I could hear cops on the radio. "How do you know a Kentucky girl's on the rag," one of the cops asked, and then they all laughed as the pines heard my phone ring.
I've written ten, maybe twelve songs, I thought.
"Babe?" said Ray when I answered it. "I heard you're back in town."
"How'd you hear that," I managed to say.
"I was on my way to you but I drove into the river."
"I don't live at your house anymore."
"Lisa never answers your door."
"I gave her AIDS. I caught it from you."
"But you never came down with the flu."
"You've ruined my life."
"I have some crystal."
The blue of the light bubble gleamed in moonlight as he told me he was at the S‑curve near his house. "I like you," he said, and I told him that was retarded and he said, "I'm trying to say things that I mean."
His front door wouldn't budge. I broke the window with a brick and climbed in and saw the cop sitting up against the door, meeting the Lord. I reached in his pants for Ray's phone. I held it in hand and checked the distance: 2000 feet. A chill went through me then, because Ray had just talked to me on his own phone. It was like Ray had been talking to me from the cop's pocket. I put the phone in my own pocket with the other two. I imagined the phones all talking to each other and to the pine trees. If I was high I might have tried to saw down the cell tower. Its trunk was metal but I'd have made sawdust out of the wrong pine and felt safe.
As I drove the cruiser, I checked my messages: Sup. Hey stud. Where u at. One was named Lucifer and he was ten miles away, which I guessed was ten miles down. I passed Dollywood, which is on a back road in a holler, not where you'd expect. I drove deeper into the forest. Finally I pulled off by a precipice where at the bottom of a ravine Ray stood by his wrecked car in water up to his knees.
"There's a way down," he said, pointing to a path.
I left two of the phones on the seat and carried the knife in hand as I scooted downhill. "How are you?" Ray said from across the water when I reached the bank.
"Fine," I told him, brushing dirt off me.
"That's my knife."
"I'll slit your throat with it."
He opened his mouth, then shut it. "The crystal got wet."
"My mom died."
"Mine did too."
"I'm not afraid of you."
"Then get on with it." He pointed to his neck.
"That's the oldest trick in the book."
"Mark's on his way. Call and see."
"Cop from the dogfight. I made a deal with him: he'll file it as a suicide."
"Why don't you piss off, Ray."
"But it's really what he's coming for."
It was easy enough to look Ray in the eye and still hate him. His eyes were fixed on mine, but that wasn't a problem; nor was I touched by the sound of his voice. I hadn't been prepared, though, for the effect of his breath. It smelled of bourbon and smoke and instantly I was in Tulsa drinking bourbon with him, holding him and thinking he was just a lonely child.
"It's for my kids," he said. "If you had kids, you'd understand."
I guessed there was a fair chance he was telling the truth. "I've been in Florida."
"I like it down there. Took Angel and Ray Jr. to the Daytona 500."
I kicked some gravel into the river. It landed by his foot, and he said, "Remember at the Bristol Speedway, when you thought we were dying?"
I shook my head. "I've never been to Bristol."
"You were lit up back then."
"You were just as lit up."
"But I was aware of it. You, you acted like you were surprised."
I tried to imagine Bristol, which straddles the border of Virginia and Tennessee. I pictured a state line painted down the middle of a street. I imagined fast cars in circles and recalled a race in Mexico where the drivers steered by remote. The cars crashed over and over until I knew the stadium would explode. I dragged Ray out into a country I've never seen. What happened next, he punched me, right in front of the Mexicans. "Now you'll have a black eye for your ma's birthday." He drove me to her house but by then we were in Leo, and she was a Cancer. I staggered inside and found her on the couch with her quilting circle. Those three ladies together weighed less than me, and they sat in a row like sticks of brittle.
"This is my son," said my mother.
I can't account for what came next. I looked down at the quilt, a patchwork maze whose path mapped all that I'd done wrong in her eyes. I saw my house when the bank forced Lisa out of it. I saw her in 2012, dying of AIDS. I saw my ma getting sick and writing in my baby book. It was a list of my firsts, which appeared on the quilt as triangles arranged in a loop. With that loop she was telling me I would never change. "Up your cunt with a plunger if that's what you think," I said, which she must have taken as a response to her words.
I stepped into the icy water and sat on Ray's hood. "I need you alive," I told him, taking his hand, pulling him toward me. He slipped on the algae but I held on.
"You were about to kill me," he said.
"I don't have anyone."
"You've got Lisa."
"I don't want her."
"You want me?"
"You're better than nothing."
He put his hands in his pockets and kicked at some rocks. "That came out wrong," I said, and he looked at the far shore and said, "No, it's true."
Tyrone's phone purred in my pocket. I pulled it out and Ray took it and squinted. "This guy's twelve miles away. Says he's glad I'm online again."
"I wonder what that means," I said.
Ray glanced into his smashed car. "Can you drive?"
I twisted around and looked too. I saw the river roaring around it, flowing into its broken window. Shards of glass from it would reach the Gulf, while others would sink into the ground here. I knew Ray wouldn't change. He took my hand and pressed his fingertips to the holes in mine. The wind blew through me and the river was rising: it was nearly high tide. I could feel the tide even in my blood. That was how sober I was. If the new awareness had ended there with the glass and the blood, I'd have survived it, but I was aware also of being aware. That was the part I couldn't bear. Otherwise I doubt I would have said, "So long as we find a dry bag first." Otherwise I might have gone looking for folks that weren't better than nothing. I might even have told them this story. As it was, I figured I'd keep quiet, because I knew nobody but Ray would have cared to listen.
John McManus is the author of three widely praised books of fiction: the novel Bitter Milk and the short story collections Born on a Train and Stop Breakin Down. In 2000 he became the youngest-ever recipient of the Whiting Writers Award. His fiction has also appeared in Ploughshares, American Short Fiction, Tin House, and The Oxford American, among other journals. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1977, he lives and works in Norfolk, Virginia, and teaches at the MFA creative writing programs at Old Dominion University and Goddard College.