Dog Days, fiction by Kevin Winchester

Even before the cash changes hands Ard is think­ing of how quick­ly the eight ball will be gone. The count looks light but it always does any more. He unwraps the twist tie, touch­es his lit­tle fin­ger to the rock, then to his gum and his brain mea­sures: one thou­sand one, one thou­sand two, one thou­sand three, one thou­sand four. He clicks his front teeth with each num­ber and on four the only feel­ing that rever­ber­ates into his gum is the sound wave to his inner ear. Good. Ard drops four hun­dreds on the table and picks up both bags.

Out­side the August sun is white and sti­fling. The glare from the pearl hood of the Cad­dy shocks him and Ard slips on his shades before he eas­es out into the street. He wish­es it were Feb­ru­ary and raining.

Three blocks down he turns right on Ash­land, goes a half a block and pulls into the lot, checks his watch. 3:55. He waits. Checks the dial again. 3:58. Across the lot and up the mar­ble steps, through the heavy oak doors. He moves to the last door on the right, checks his watch again to assure him­self its four, goes inside.

Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been a week since my last confession.”

I fail to see the humor. And it’s get­ting a bit old.”

Ah, my big brother’s in a mood. Con­fes­sion­al stress? I might have a lit­tle some­thing for that.”

Shut up Ard. I don’t know about this anymore.”

Ard paus­es. “About what, Jamie?”

This. I am a priest, you know, we’re not teenagers. I have respon­si­bil­i­ties, vows. I’ve got an oblig­a­tion; to you, even.”

Don’t start. Not every­body wants to be saved, Padre. Besides, there’s some in your reli­gion that have worse habits.” Ard pulls one of the bags from his shirt pocket.

Maybe I shouldn’t have tak­en the assign­ment here. I thought mov­ing back would be good for us, for you. You and Rosa were the only fam­i­ly I had.”

I don’t need you decid­ing what’s good for me, Jamie. Now do you want the blow or not?”

That night after Rosa Lee’s funer­al, I drove you to the bar because I was wor­ried about you; what you might do. All you want­ed was to cop a gram, and then I let you talk me into doing it again.”

And I got the flake right now. Come on, big broth­er; hear it call­ing you? Besides, you’re the one got me start­ed way back when. I was just return­ing the favor. So, you want it or not? It ain’t like I can’t put it to good use if you don’t.”

The pause lasts too long, gives Ard time to think. These secrets thread between the two broth­ers like an old tapes­try, worn but some­how still intact. Grow­ing up with the town drunk col­ors the per­spec­tive on things; weaves a patch­work ver­sion of his­to­ry and events into both of them so deep they don’t notice any­more. If Jamie cleans up Ard is afraid the last of those strands will unravel.

When we were kids, teenagers, noth­ing made any sense to me. The Church gave me answers, made things clear. Late­ly, I’m not so sure.”

Well, you know what they say—God’s just an imag­i­nary friend for grown-ups.” Ard leans to the edge of the bench. “So make a choice, you in or out? Daylight’s wasting.”

The pause is short­er this time and Ard grins when the cur­tain shuf­fles and two hun­dred and fifty dol­lars appear beneath the cloth. Ard counts it, then gen­tly slides one of the bags back under the cur­tain before fold­ing the bills into his shirt pocket.

Glad to see the parish­ioners have been gen­er­ous again this week. Always a plea­sure, Padre. See you next week, same time, same weight.”

Back at the apart­ment Ard is impa­tient. He unlocks his door and goes straight to his desk, gets the mir­ror and the blade, shaves a cor­ner from the rock, chops it, cuts out two lines, rolls a hun­dred and they’re gone. He waits for the drain to hit the back of his throat and when it does he smiles and cuts out two more lines that dis­ap­pear neater than the first. He chops about a gram from the rock and care­ful­ly dumps it into the vial that he puts in his right pants pock­et before tuck­ing the rest of the bag in his left. Ard taps the razor on the mir­ror and lines up the residue. For an instant he thinks about Jamie and then frowns at his reflec­tion before inhal­ing the last line. Ard sits back, rubs both eyes with the heels of his hands and then stares at the framed pho­to­graph on his desk. “Every­body has a sto­ry,” he says to the image. His words sound hol­low even to him and he thinks of heat and humid­i­ty and Hell before he ris­es to leave. He wish­es it were Feb­ru­ary and raining.

Ard curs­es the heat and flips the Caddy’s AC on high but he knows it needs fre­on. He dri­ves through town, keeps an eye on his speed, then opens it up a bit after he cross­es the rail­road tracks, has it hum­ming by the time he pass­es Char­lie and Lin­da Wrenn’s place. Ard pulls over just before he gets to JoJo’s and scoops two more hits from the vial. JoJo and him were neigh­bors, before. He was an all right guy but he nev­er bought blow. Nev­er seemed to mind doing some­body else’s though. When he pulls in the yard he sees JoJo at the edge of the woods behind the farm­house, swing­ing a pick ax at the dirt.

What you doing, Jo?”

Got­ta bury George Bush. Fuck­ing ground’s hard as a brick­bat. Christ, we need some rain.”

GB’s dead?” Ard sniffs and thumbs at his nose, hopes JoJo won’t catch it.

Pret­ty sure. He ain’t moved in a day or so. Looks pret­ty stiff. Hand me that shov­el.” JoJo toss­es a small pile of dirt out of the hole and grabs the pick ax again.

It’s too hot for this shit, let’s go get a beer.” Ard feels the sweat pool­ing in the small of his back, looks toward the pen. “GB’ll wait.”

Go ‘head on, I got to fin­ish here. You think it’s deep enough?” JoJo swings at the dirt again and the pick ax bounces back at him and near­ly hits his bald scalp.

Ard looks at the hole while he strug­gles to keep his mind from rac­ing back—back to her cas­ket being low­ered, dis­ap­pear­ing below the sur­face, back even to the moment the fire start­ed; but it’s no use, he’s there again and he can smell a brief hint of patchouli and jas­mine that sends his fin­gers to the vial in his pock­et, doesn’t real­ize how hard he is press­ing it into the soft flesh of his thigh but think­ing of the white pow­der all the same, hears it call­ing him, whis­per­ing, until a pain shoots up through his femur, along his spine and then spikes into his right eye. The pain is famil­iar and it brings him back. “No.”

Shit.” JoJo swings again, this time sink­ing the blade into the clay and wedg­ing a chunk out of the earth and into the thick air. He stead­ies him­self for anoth­er swing. “You could help me, you know. Lit­tle hard work do you good.” JoJo grunts just as the blade strikes the yel­low earth.

Naw. Looks like you got it.”

JoJo grunts again with­out look­ing up. He starts anoth­er swing then stops to wave the back of his hand at Ard. “I’ll catch you at Red’s after while. Damn dog would wait until the ground was baked con­crete ‘fore he decides to die. Asshole.”

Ard starts toward the Cad­dy, won­ders whether JoJo was talk­ing about him or George Bush. When he reach­es the car he decides he doesn’t care. The dog was a big Ger­man Shep­herd, dumb as corn­flakes and always want­i­ng to fight. He got into Rosa Lee’s flowerbeds once after she’d spent two days putting in new bed­ding plants and shrubs. Ard didn’t care for flow­ers so much but he’d sat on the back porch rub­bing Rosa’s shoul­ders after the work was done, look­ing at her look­ing at the plants, and the light in her eyes sift­ed over him like silky beach sand and he knew it felt too good, knew even then the feel­ing would some­how slip from his grasp. The next day, when he came home and found GB dig­ging in the beds and all the flow­ers destroyed, he went straight for his shot­gun. He raised the gun to his shoul­der and yelled, he want­ed the dog to see what was com­ing, but GB turned and growled before he charged him. Ard was so sur­prised he couldn’t get off a shot and had to use the butt of the gun to knock the dog away twice before it final­ly ran for home. Ard’s glad the damn brute is dead.

He does two more hits before he starts the Cad­dy, clos­es his eyes and waits for the rush. He sees the gash of earth JoJo was stand­ing over, how the packed red soil yields to hard yel­low bull tal­low a few inch­es down and feels him­self falling into the hole, feels the weight of the soul­less dirt press­ing on his chest until he opens his eyes and backs out of the dri­ve. The low moan of the big V8 wash­es over him, cleans the last of the vision from his head. As he pulls off he sees JoJo bent and drag­ging George Bush toward the hole, the dog’s legs stick­ing straight up toward the heav­ens, the two of them a strug­gling sil­hou­ette against the fad­ing sun.


The grav­el park­ing lot at Red’s is already three quar­ters full. The build­ing itself is made of cin­derblocks, low slung and non­de­script, but recent­ly Red hired some­body to paint a beach mur­al on one wall. Years ago, when Ard and JoJo first start­ed com­ing, the place was no more than a beer joint that dou­bled as club­house for Red’s dri­ving range. After the by-pass was fin­ished and the new mon­ey dis­cov­ered that land and tax­es were cheap­er out in the coun­ty and all the sub­di­vi­sions sprang up, the place got trendy. Ard guessed the new­bies fig­ured it was safer dri­ving a mile or two home from Red’s than nav­i­gat­ing the Lexus through Char­lotte traf­fic after sev­er­al rounds of apple mar­ti­nis. Red had no idea how to mix a mar­ti­ni but the PBR’s were ice cold and only a buck.

After two more quick bumps, Ard stash­es the bag­gie in the glove box, the vial in his pock­et and makes his way through the lot and across the new sand-filled patio area, winds around the wrought iron tables with umbrel­las and side­steps the mod­er­ate­ly rich. Two guys in khakis and golf shirts stop Ard just as he makes the door.

Nice ride.” First Guy tips his beer toward Ard. “Ford, right? About a 59, 60?”

Sec­ond Guy nods. “You restore it yourself?”

Ard stands with his hand on the screen door, looks at his Cad­dy, then back at the guys. He can feel his heart click­ing and real­izes he’s grind­ing his back teeth, the mus­cles along his jaw knot­ted tight. Needs a cold beer to wash the taste of ben­zene from his throat. Thinks he ought to smash his fist into First Guy’s bleached teeth for fun but says: “59 Cad­dy. Won it off two fag­gots in a crap game out back. Fuck­ing after­mar­ket AC don’t work. When you guys see ‘em tell ‘em they owe me some fre­on,” and he walks into the cool stale air of the bar.

He knows he should eat but every nerve is up on edge now and his mind is mov­ing one notch quick­er than every­thing around him, out of sync but man­age­able. Prefer­able. No need to dull it with food. Red slides him a Miller, Ard takes one swal­low and goes to the john, locks the door. He’s shocked when he sees the vial, emp­ty to the point that he can’t scoop anoth­er hit from the bot­tom and he’s forced to dump what’s left on the back of the stained uri­nal. The line’s too thin and gone in an instant. The smell from the toi­let makes him feel like he’ll throw up. He chokes back the ris­ing bile and goes to fin­ish his beer.

Rosa Lee’s dad­dy and mom­ma was in here the oth­er night.” Red pulls the stool across the bar from Ard, set­tles in. Most of the crowd is out­side and the wait­ress­es are han­dling them.

They say any­thing?” Ard rolls the Miller back and forth in his hands.

Small talk. Had a cou­ple of beers, watched some of the game. I ain’t seen them in here for a while. Won­dered if they migh­ta been wait­in’ on you, you know, maybe you all was okay.” Red winks at him with his good eye.

I’m fuck­ing fine. Can’t say about Ross and Eileen. Any­thing come up about the fire report?”

Naw. I fig­ured that’d be done by now. You ain’t heard nothing?”

It ain’t back yet. ‘Sposed to be end of this week, I think. Thurs­day, maybe Fri­day.” Ard drains the last of his beer and toss­es a twen­ty on the bar. “Lis­ten, hold my spot, I left some­thing in the car.”

Out­side the two guys are stand­ing beside the Cad­dy, nurs­ing import­ed beers. Ard shakes his head and remem­bers when the only choic­es Red offered were Pab­st, Bud and Miller. I ought to sell the car, he thinks, draws too much atten­tion. He needs the guys to dis­ap­pear, needs the Caddy’s pri­va­cy to cut out the rest of his blow, but he knows the type. He’ll have to humor them at least for a while or they’ll nev­er leave.

How long is this thing?” First Guy asks.

Twen­ty-six feet, nose to tail.” Ard grins.

And you real­ly won it in a crap game?” Sec­ond Guy chimes in while First Guy walks the length of the car.

Naw, I was just messin’ with you. Ain’t no gam­bling gone on here since Red closed the dri­ving range. Used to keep a mon­key in a cage out back, though. Mon­key loved to smoke weed. We used to bet how many tokes before he went for his first banana. Damnedest thing you ever seen.” Ard bris­tles as he watch­es First Guy run his hand along the tail fin of the Caddy.

So where’d you get it?” First Guy asks as he kneels to inspect the bumper.

Old man Jenk­ins, used to live over by Alton. You wouldn’t know him; he was dead before all y’all start­ed mov­ing out here. Sat out behind his barn. I went over there squir­rel hunt­ing one day and saw it, bunch of weeds and bri­ars grown up around it, going to rust. Said it was his boy’s, but I knew his boy had got his insides blown out some­where up the Mekong Delta. Said the boy parked it right there where I found it, back in June of ‘67. Asked his dad­dy to keep it for him till he come back.”

Both men move to the front of the car, lis­ten­ing to Ard but nev­er tak­ing their eyes off the Cad­dy. Ard gauges the two men, won­ders how long before they tire, how long before they spot the next best thing and leave him alone. He knows it won’t be long until the dull ache set­tles across his sinus­es and every­thing slows to a crawl. But right now he still has a nice edge.

So I told Jenk­ins, I said, hell, its 1999, I don’t much believe your boy’s com­ing back.”

You didn’t. What’d he say?” First and Sec­ond Guy are work­ing in tan­dem now, one ask­ing right on the heels of the oth­er and Ard’s not sure which one spoke first.

Told me he didn’t expect he was, but that didn’t mean he was gonna sell his boy’s car. Told me he didn’t much think he want­ed me hunt­ing squir­rel on his prop­er­ty no more, either.”

So how’d you end up with it?” First Guy takes a long pull from his bot­tle and makes a bit­ter face.

Ard laughs. “Beer tastes that bad I believe I’d switch brands. Old man calls me in the spring of 2000, says come get the car if you want it.” Ard holds out his left arm and points to a small scar on his fore­arm. “Damn black snake had laid claim to it, bas­tard bit me when I went to haul it out.”

Damn,” Both Guys in unison.

Any­more old junkers over there?” First Guy laughs, “I might be will­ing to take on a black snake.”

Ard walks to the back of the car and wipes the edge of the tail fin down with his T‑shirt, leans to inspect it, wipes it again. “Nope. They found Griff Jenk­ins two days after I picked up the Cad­dy. Pis­tol still in one hand, pic­ture of his boy in the oth­er. Brains on the bed­room wall and blood all the way to his shoes.”

Laugh­ter rolls from the patio and all three men turn and look toward the knot of peo­ple there. Study­ing menus, order­ing. Throw­ing recent slices of their lives across the table for enter­tain­ment, and Ard knows that even before the sound of their words die out they’re already think­ing of the next amus­ing sto­ry they’ll tell. He can feel it, as if some unseen strand reach­es from the crowd at the tables, stretch­es past him and anchors itself to the two guys in front of him, already draw­ing them back, pulling them through the uneasy silence that now sur­rounds them, sur­rounds Ard.

Ard cuts his gaze short and looks instead at the two guys. He knows them, hell, cou­ple of choic­es here or there, he could almost be them. Col­lege boys, prob­a­bly from New York, Jer­sey, maybe Penn­syl­va­nia or Ohio. Came down here to Duke or Car­oli­na on their par­ents’ mon­ey, grad­u­at­ed, moved back North for awhile then fol­lowed the mon­ey trail and sun­shine back to good old Car­oli­na. Good mon­ey jobs either at one of the banks down­town or one of the new hi-tech com­pa­nies spring­ing up every­where, maybe real estate. Not a hard day in their life.

But it always came back to the choic­es. His grades had been decent in school, at least until they moved him and Jamie into the Thomp­son Home. It wasn’t long after that he decid­ed a sack of weed was a lot more inter­est­ing than a his­to­ry book. And that Sat­ur­day night, the par­ty. He should’ve left with Jamie, tried his luck sneak­ing past the nuns, but there was plen­ty of blow around and he didn’t see any point in call­ing it an ear­ly night. The next morn­ing, while Ard was still in the hold­ing cell for the DWI, Jamie decid­ed he need­ed all that reli­gion the nuns kept shov­ing at them. It wasn’t long before Jamie went away, study­ing to be a priest.

The only thing close to right after that had been Rosa Lee. He hadn’t made it easy for her, but she had man­aged to talk her father into hir­ing him in the Pro­duc­tion Con­trol Depart­ment at the plant. All he did there was get by; nev­er got a pro­mo­tion and nev­er want­ed one. It was hard enough cut­ting the week­end par­ties short in time for Mon­day morn­ing. Rosa tried, but Ard nev­er thought he had in him what she real­ly needed.

He shakes his head, tries to focus. The report from the fire inspec­tor flash­es through his mind, dis­tracts him. It would say what it had to say, one way or the oth­er. What he needs now is to lose the col­lege boys and get back to the bag­gie in the glove box, back to an answer he’s com­fort­able with.

Fuck it, man. I’m Arden. Ard for short. You guys wan­na go for a ride? I know where there’s a cock fight out by the State line.” He sees the fear flash in their eyes.

Thanks, but we prob­a­bly ought to stick around. We need to hold our table, our wives are meet­ing us here.” Both Guys turn toward the patio.

Nice meet­ing you,” Sec­ond Guy speaks over his shoul­der, already head­ing for his table. First Guy has his wal­let out, fish­es for his busi­ness card.

If you ever decide to sell the car, let me know,” he says. “I’ll pay you top dol­lar. Here’s all my numbers.”

Ard looks at the card and says “Sure” but First Guy has already caught up to his bud­dy. He watch­es them dis­ap­pear through the door of the bar, looks at the card again, then at the Cad­dy. It’s a choice he’s not ready to make, not yet. If the insur­ance mon­ey doesn’t come through, maybe, but right now the Caddy’s some­thing he can count on, some­thing per­ma­nent. The two of them have a nice under­stand­ing and Ard can’t imag­ine it any oth­er way. He lets the card drop to the ground and his hand rests on the door han­dle for a few sec­onds before he opens it and climbs in.

Ard slides across the seat to the pas­sen­ger side and drops the glove box lid, digs inside for the bag, glanc­ing out both win­dows and check­ing the side view for peo­ple. No time to cut prop­er so he pulls out his license and smash­es it hard against the glove box lid, crush­ing the rocks to pow­der, run­ning the card back and forth until he’s sure its fine. He cuts out two more lines and scoops the last of the pow­der into the vial. He flips the emp­ty bag­gie inside out, sticks it between his upper lip and gum and does the two lines.

Thought you’d gone,” Red tells him when he gets back to the bar.

Some of your new clien­tele want­ed to gawk at the Cad­dy. Had to scare em off.”

Yeah, ain’t like it used to be. Cou­ple of them wan­na buy this place.”

Aw hell, Red, you can’t sell out. You want me to end up drink­ing alone?”

I don’t know, Ard. I can’t stand this heat no more. Me and Charlene’s talk­ing about mov­ing to the moun­tains. Besides, place ain’t been the same since I closed the dri­ving range and Mon­key ran off. Lit­tle bastard’s prob­a­bly in Mex­i­co by now.” Red shakes his head and grins when he says it.

Why don’t you open the range back up?”

Shit, my heart ain’t in it. And you know Char­lene wouldn’t stand for it after she knocked out my eye with that three wood. Would’ve been a hel­lu­va dri­ve, too. Besides, after that I pulled every­thing left, and you can’t win a bet for shit if you ain’t hit­tin’ ‘em straight.”

What’re they gonna do with the place?” Ard reach­es and feels the vial in his pock­et, wish­es he hadn’t asked the ques­tion and thinks about going back in the john. Red shrugs and looks at two cus­tomers that have just walked up to the oth­er end of the bar, then turns back to Ard.

You know, me and Char­lene, well, she’s put up with a lot of my shit over the years. A man needs some­thing, Ard. Used to be, around here, you had a piece of land, some his­to­ry, you knew folks and they knew you. I don’t much think I like it around here no more. Char­lene either. She keeps talk­ing about the moun­tains, Jonas Ridge. I fig­ure I owe her a lit­tle peace. At the end of the day, she ain’t so bad to sit up in the hills and get old with.”

I still say she hit you with that golf ball on pur­pose. She always was the bet­ter shot.”

Yeah, prob­a­bly. Hav­ing one eye ain’t been so bad, though. I don’t think I could take it if I was see­ing things full on.” Red tilts his head toward the oth­er end of the bar. “Let me get these ass­holes anoth­er design­er beer.”

Ard locks the bath­room door behind him, stands in front of the mir­ror and gets two quick hits, then leans on the sink and stud­ies his face. He looks old­er, old, for forty. The blue of his eyes looks more fad­ed, weak­er than he remem­bers. Checks his watch, decides he’ll lay out of work again tomor­row. It’s been a week and a half, what’s one more day? He’s prob­a­bly been fired by now any­way, he hasn’t both­ered to check mes­sages or call in. Two more hits. Wash­es his face. Two more. Leans in close to the mir­ror and whis­pers “If he sells this place, you got nowhere else to go, noth­ing left in the world but that damn Cadil­lac. Christ, you’ll have to become a fuck­ing priest.”

The bar is near­ly full when he returns and Ard is con­fused. How long was he in the bath­room? The music has changed, it’s loud­er, he doesn’t rec­og­nize the song. Two girls are danc­ing togeth­er between the pool tables and from this dis­tance the smoke hangs over them like a halo. It seems every­one in the place is talk­ing to some­body and Ard strains to deci­pher some­thing, any­thing, that’s being said. He makes his way to the bar, but it takes a few min­utes before Red sees him. Red’s buried shoul­der deep in a beer cool­er when he yells to him.

JoJo called and said he ain’t gonna make it, Kathy’s a lit­tle upset about George Bush and he bet­ter stay home. What’s wrong with GB?”

Noth­ing now.” Ard shouts back but Red is already pass­ing out more beers.

Ard scans the crowd, think­ing maybe he’ll spot the two guys that liked the Cad­dy. The mos­qui­toes have chased most every­one in from the patio and now the bar is packed. Cou­ples, tables of five, six peo­ple, clus­ters of the upward­ly mobile around the bar, turn­ing up drinks, laugh­ing. He doesn’t rec­og­nize a sin­gle face. A guy bumps into him on the way to the bath­room, mum­bles “sor­ry” as Ard elbows him away. Ard sees the car guys at a table in the cor­ner and starts over. They’re with their wives, young, good look­ing, too thin. Ard approach­es and rais­es his beer in salute. Both guys look up, one shouts “Cad­dy Man!” and leans back into their con­ver­sa­tion. Ard waits, then turns back toward the bar, but a red­head already fills his seat, flanked by two guys hov­er­ing over each shoulder.

The vial is open in his left hand with the spoon in his right. Ard has no idea how long he’s been sit­ting in the Cad­dy, how many times he’s raised the spoon to his nose, how many peo­ple he’s watched file into the bar. The din from inside has been replaced by the cicadas and bull­frogs scream­ing from where the dri­ving range used to be. The noise is deaf­en­ing and relent­less and Ard final­ly reach­es to roll the win­dow up and pan­ics when he near­ly drops the vial. What’s left will nev­er last until Thurs­day, won’t last much past morn­ing, and a new strain of pan­ic grips him.

It’s near­ly two a.m. when he pulls into Quinn’s dri­ve and rings the bell. He rings, rings again, and sees a glow of light through the win­dow. The door creaks open and Ard is greet­ed first by Quinn’s 9mm, then grad­u­al­ly Quinn’s arm, shoul­der, and final­ly half of his face takes shape from behind the door.

You don’t come by with­out an appoint­ment, shit-fer-brains. What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

Yeah, Quinn, sor­ry man. Lis­ten I need anoth­er eight ball, two if you got it.” Ard reach­es for his pock­et, checks to make sure the cash from Jamie is still there. There’s only six, maybe sev­en hun­dred left from the bank accounts, and the insur­ance com­pa­ny won’t issue a check until after the fire report. Depend­ing on which way that goes could make for a rough land­ing. Ard can’t think about that now.

Get the fuck off my porch. I told you Thurs­day.” Quinn starts clos­ing the door. Ard reach­es out and stops it.

You know any­body else that’s hold­ing? I got to get through tomorrow.”

Quinn steps into full view. He’s wear­ing noth­ing but his box­ers. “Ard, lis­ten, we’ve known each oth­er a long time, hell, since high school. You got­ta slow down, man. Do the drug; don’t let the drug do you. You gonna get your ass killed pulling shit like this.”

I got lots going on, Quinn. I need a lit­tle more to get through tomor­row, a gram or two even, that’ll hold me until Thurs­day. After that, I should be get­ting my insur­ance check. I can pick up some real weight, maybe a brick. Won’t be both­er­ing you as often. I’m pret­ty sure work’s canned my ass; it’s a lot to deal with, you know? I just need to get by till the check makes it.”

Sure you do. And if the check’s so cer­tain, why they wait­in’ on the report? Besides, you got the last of it this after­noon. My next order won’t come in until Thurs­day morn­ing. And I don’t know if you ought to think about upping your count. You get­tin’ a lit­tle car­ried away late­ly. Now I got to get back to bed before Annie gets up. Go home, go to bed, leave that shit alone for a day. I’ll see you on Thursday.”

Ard stands beside the Cad­dy and stares into the dark sky. He’s sur­prised that he sud­den­ly remem­bers a class from high school and Mr. Hoskins talk­ing about black holes. About how once some­thing is drawn into one it’s nev­er released, how it becomes anti-mat­ter, as if it nev­er even exist­ed. Ard search­es the sky and thinks about the absur­di­ty of it all. If noth­ing exists in a black hole, then how can any­one know the holes actu­al­ly exist? You can’t mea­sure emp­ty. Ard stretch­es both arms upward and gives the Milky Way the finger.


A threat. You come to my house and deliv­er a threat? Okay, sure, I’ll dri­ve. Maybe before we get to the bishop’s office we’ll make anoth­er stop, see how the sheriff’s doing.” Jamie doesn’t turn to face Ard; rakes a comb through his thin­ning hair.

Come on, Jamie. Just let me have a gram or two. I’ll make it up to you after I see Quinn tomor­row. Besides, you gonna tell the sher­iff old Ard here’s been sell­ing you cocaine? Remem­ber, I’m out, I ain’t hold­ing, what’re they gonna do?”

Ard can see the priest’s reflec­tion in the mir­ror but Jamie doesn’t return his gaze, occu­pied instead with adjust­ing his col­lar. Ard looks clos­er at his brother’s image. Same blue eyes, but stronger. Jamie’s chin is his chin, Jamie’s nose, his nose. Ard thinks of his best friend from child­hood, the boy he grew up with, hunt­ed and fished with, drank his first beer with. Thinks of how he loved him, how he hat­ed him, and he sud­den­ly real­izes of all the ass­holes walk­ing the earth, Jamie’s the only one with the same blood in his veins as his. So what was it Jamie had that he couldn’t find?

Today would’ve been your and Rosa’s what, fif­teenth anniver­sary?” Jamie says as he turns to face Ard.

Fuck you, Jamie. Why you got­ta bring that up?” Ard walks out of the bath­room hall­way and sits at the table. Jamie fol­lows him.

How long since you’ve been to work?”

I don’t know. Week, maybe more.” Ard rubs his eyes with the heels of both hands.

Have they fired you?”

Yeah, prob­a­bly. I ain’t both­ered to call.”

Arden, you can’t just not work, you’ve got to get your shit together.”

The fire report’s due this week. I’ll have the insur­ance mon­ey in a cou­ple of days. Now come on, Jamie. I feel like shit warmed over.” Ard drops his head on the table. The lam­i­nat­ed wood lies cool and for­eign against his forehead.

So take the mon­ey and start over. Get your­self straight­ened out. Our church has a program…”

Ard jerks his head up from the table. “So is this advice com­ing from my coke­head broth­er or the local coke­head priest? You don’t know shit, Jamie, you nev­er did. Jesus Christ, we weren’t even fuck­ing Catholic. Our old man a drunk. And hell, if the State hadn’t of sent us to the home after Mom­ma died, you’d nev­er of seen the inside of a church. You were the dumb ass that bought into all that shit they fed us. Look at you, you’re no dif­fer­ent than Pop, no dif­fer­ent than me. Use your own damn rehab clinic.”

No. You’re wrong, Ard. I thought about what you said yes­ter­day, what we talked about, what I’m doing. Becom­ing. Thought about it a lot. Maybe we aren’t any dif­fer­ent, maybe you’re right. But I’ve found my place, what’s right for me. Not this. So can you. Love…

Save the bull­shit, Padre, I know the rou­tine. I heard all the same fairy tales you did, but I ain’t stu­pid. Look around, take a good look. God is great, God is good—you remem­ber when we had to say that bless­ing? My ass. Your God is one twist­ed, vin­dic­tive SOB the way I see it. Damn Jamie, you’re a fuck­ing priest and you’re doing an eight ball of coke a week.”

No. Not any more.” Jamie turns and stares out the kitchen win­dow for sev­er­al min­utes and Ard can feel the air dis­ap­pear­ing between them, finds each breath more dif­fi­cult. When Ard hears the sound of Jamie slid­ing open the kitchen draw­er he can feel the oxy­gen rush in to fill the space. Jamie faces him and toss­es the eight ball of coke. It lands on the table and slides across the lam­i­nate, near­ly falls off into Ard’s lap.

I’m done. Nev­er even opened it. There it is, now you make a choice. We’re broth­ers, Ard, we’ll walk away together.”

Ard looks at the bag, can already feel the surge and his heart quick­ens. He paus­es for only a sec­ond before slip­ping the bag into his pocket.

Cash is a lit­tle tight. Okay if I square up with you after the insur­ance check comes in?”

Don’t both­er.”

Real­ly, man. I’ll cov­er you, swear it.”

No.” Jamie shakes his head and looks at his shoes, sighs and walks past Arden toward the door. Ard feels him pause just behind him but he can’t turn and face his broth­er, even as Jamie speaks to him. The words “I love you” fil­ter over him but Jamie’s voice sounds a thou­sand miles away and echoes faint­ly until Ard hears the soft click of the front door.


 Out­side the sky has already gone white from the stale heat and humid­i­ty and it’sonly ten in the morn­ing. The steer­ing wheel is hot to the touch and Arden uses the heel of his hand to guide the Cad­dy into the street, not sure where he is going. He rides past his apart­ment, turns around and comes back, this time pulling into his park­ing space. He stares at his bal­cony win­dow, thinks the Cad­dy is the only place that feels like home as he light­ly touch­es the bag in his shirt pock­et, then backs out.

The park­ing lot at Red’s is emp­ty and Ard makes a wide turn, cuts the wheel hard left and throws a spray of dust and grav­el toward the patio before com­ing to a stop. As he’s walk­ing down the over­grown path behind the build­ing, Ard decides there’s no sight more depress­ing than a bar in day­light. When he reach­es the clear­ing he stops beside the wood­en pic­nic table and stares first at Monkey’s emp­ty cage, then the table. He thinks of the night he talked Rosa into doing it right there on the table and how Mon­key screamed and rat­tled his cage the whole time. The scent of patchouli drifts up to him and he reach­es to let his fin­ger­tips trace along the edge of the boards where Rosa, smil­ing, had pulled him toward her that night. Ard sud­den­ly spins and kicks the cage with his right foot and near­ly falls as it rocks back on two legs. He kicks it again and this time it tum­bles into the weeds, the door pops its rusty hinges and swings free, slam­ming into his shin. Ard pulls up his jeans and watch­es the blood trick­le down his leg until it reach­es the top of his sock.

The inside of the Cad­dy is almost unbear­able now and Ard can feel his shirt stick­ing to the back of the seat as he picks the cock­le-burrs and beg­gar lice from his pants. His leg aches and the AC’s blow­ing hot air, the last of the fre­on gone. He looks around the emp­ty park­ing lot, at the bar, at his reflec­tion in the rearview, but only for a sec­ond. He takes the bag­gie from his shirt pock­et and holds it up to the sun. He moves the bag­gie in front of his eye, fur­ther, then clos­er to his face until the bag blocks the ball of sun from his view. He reach­es to open the glove box but slips the bag back in his pock­et instead and drops the Cad­dy into drive.

Ard slows down as he pass­es JoJo and Kathy’s place but he knows nobody’s home. Before he real­izes it, he’s cov­ered the two miles and is parked in what used to be his dri­ve. He wish­es the big oak were still there but the flames jumped from the house to the branch­es and then it was gone too. The weeds and bri­ars have tak­en over the twen­ty-three acres to the point that even the real estate devel­op­ers that have start­ed call­ing don’t real­ize there was a house there only six months ear­li­er. Ard walks past where their porch once stood, through the remains of Rosa’s flower gar­den. The sun’s noth­ing more than a glare in the sky and every­thing in front of Ard appears to shim­mer and he can see the waves of heat ris­ing from the earth.

The dry weeds crunch with each step Ard takes and for a moment the sound reminds him of walk­ing on snow. He can hear the insects buzzing and occa­sion­al­ly sees a grasshop­per take flight as he approach­es. The dog days. The time of year when you can smell the heat, and, when he was a kid, this was the time you’d see some stray dog come wan­der­ing up, its head low and swing­ing from side to side as it ambled for­ward, slob­ber and drool drag­ging from its jaws. Step after stiff-legged step, it would just keep com­ing at you like it want­ed you, need­ed you to take the twen­ty-two from the rack and put a hol­low point through its brain.

Ard keeps walk­ing, cov­ers the ten acres they planned to turn into pas­ture, pass­es the fad­ed barn and its emp­ty stalls. The land ris­es slight­ly here and the uphill steps short­en his breath. At the crest of the knoll Ard stum­bles and falls to one knee, but catch­es him­self before land­ing on his face. The pond is at the bot­tom of the hill only twen­ty or thir­ty yards before him and as he ris­es to his feet, the green water looks thick and solid.

There’s no shade any­where and Ard sits on the low side, oppo­site the dam. He takes the bag from his shirt pock­et and begins to unwrap the twist tie when he hears a voice behind him and quick­ly drops the bag­gie, still open, back into his shirt pocket.

Those after­mar­ket AC’s nev­er work on Caddy’s, huh?” The boy, about nine­teen or twen­ty Ard guess­es, stands over him. Ard doesn’t rec­og­nize the boy. He can tell he’s wear­ing fatigue pants and no shirt, but the sun dis­torts his view of the boy’s face.

Hot­ter than a French whore in Saigon, ain’t it?”

Ard looks back at the pond, wraps his arms around his knees.

I come down here for a swim, lit­tle R & R. How about you?”

Ard looks back at the boy but the sun is direct­ly behind him now and he still can’t make out any of his fea­tures. He’s noth­ing more than a dark sil­hou­ette and his shad­ow stretch­es over Ard, but Ard doesn’t feel any cool­er. He shades his eyes but the boy still doesn’t come into focus.

Fire’s a hel­lu­va thing, ain’t it? Cook your meat, burn your house.”

Who the fuck are you?” Ard tries to get up but his legs have fall­en asleep and he has to roll onto his knees and then tries to push him­self up but can’t.

Napalm; now that’s a fire.”

Get off my property.”

Fire’ll burn itself out. This heat just keeps on, don’t it?” The boy shifts to one side and the glare of the sun blinds Ard and he quick­ly turns his face away.

Need some rain,” the boy says, drags the toe of his boot in the packed dirt. “I heard there was a house up yon­der. Burned down first day of March, what I heard.”

Ard tries to stand again but his left leg is still stiff and heavy, feels like it’s sep­a­rate from his body and he rais­es on his good leg while he rubs his hand over his oth­er thigh, try­ing to get the blood moving.

Guess they coul­da used some rain that day too, huh? Migh­ta been able to save the woman what was in the house to slow that blaze some. Well, shit like that’ll hap­pen, can’t say the rea­son why. Coul­da been her hus­band was try­ing to cook up a lit­tle hash oil. You look sur­prised there, broth­er. Ah, I know all about that. Take a lit­tle hooch, mix it in with a cou­ple of buds and boil it down. I seen it done in a field hel­met, though, nev­er on a stove or noth­ing. You got to tend it close either way, that stuff’ll flame up in a sec­ond. Course, it coul­da been some bad wiring, it was an old frame farm­house and you know how those are. Tin­der­box, and prob­a­bly ain’t no insu­la­tion on the wires, house that old. You don’t ever know.”


Some­thing like that get in a body’s head and just eat away, best not to even dwell on it. I seen plen­ty I ain’t got no answer for. Seen this VC come run­ning across a field and a 50 cal­iber cut him plum in half, right at the waist. His legs just kept on run­ning like ain’t noth­ing hap­pened. Heard this thump one morn­ing right beside of me. Looked over and damned if my best buddy’s head wadn’t gone and him still hold­ing his rifle. Go figure.”

I said get off my prop­er­ty.” Ard’s teeth are clenched, the mus­cles along his shoul­ders taut.

Course I guess that VC and my bud­dy was both just try­ing to hold on to some­thing. Bout like the old man used to have that Cad­dy. The answers don’t mat­ter one way or the oth­er. Just like that old car, none of it real­ly stands for no count, huh?”

Ard lunges at the boy, swings wild but the boy glides out of the way. When the boy turns, Ard can final­ly make out part of his face. The fea­tures are blurred and for an instant he thinks its Jamie, even calls out to him twice, but the boy shows no sign of rec­og­niz­ing the name.

Instead, the boy looks across the water and stretch­es. “Damn hot, ain’t it? You know, if I was you, I’d go on and sell that Cad­dy. After mar­ket AC won’t ever be right, no how. Ain’t no point thinkin’ it will.” He stretch­es again and cocks his chin toward the pond. “Yep, think I’ll take that swim now,” he says, then runs past Ard and dives head­first into the water, bare­ly mak­ing a splash.

The rip­ples spread across the pond and Ard waits for the boy to sur­face. The last of the tiny waves reach the far bank and still no sign of the boy. Ard calls out to him, begins to pan­ic, yells again. Won­ders why the boy looked like Jamie, only for that sec­ond, and the thought tight­ens his throat. He looks around, half expect­ing to see some­one, any­one, that might help but he’s alone and his voice echoes against the trees at the far side of the property.

In an instant, Ard breaks for the pond and dives just as he reach­es the water’s edge. The water rush­es over him and he’s amazed at how cool it is, how he can feel it glid­ing over every inch of his skin. He strokes twice, three times, heads for the deep­est part of the pond, but he doesn’t see the boy any­where. He turns all the way around, looks every­where but sees noth­ing in the murky water. Ard dives deep­er still, finds the mud­dy bot­tom. Noth­ing. His lungs are aching now. He opens his mouth and yells but the only sound is his heart­beat. He turns around once more and then he no longer feels the water on his body, for­gets about his emp­ty lungs.

The water around him is clear­er now and he sees a shad­ow float­ing near him. When he moves clos­er and tries to grab the form it’s gone. He real­izes he is scream­ing and as he feels the water rush in his lungs he’s cer­tain he smells wood smoke. Ard looks up, calmer now, and sees Rosa Lee smil­ing and slow­ly mov­ing toward the sur­face. The bag­gie floats out of his pock­et and hov­ers in front of him, the cocaine briefly cloud­ing his view of Rosa before it dis­solves into noth­ing. When the water clears again he can only see the yel­low sun per­fect­ly formed above him, its rays soft and light, cas­cad­ing through the water. Ard ris­es toward it and as he breaks the sur­face the air wash­es over him, car­ry­ing the clean scent of jas­mine across the pond.


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