Kevin P. Keating


      They are lost, well, maybe not quite lost, how can they be, there are only so many roads out here, impossibly long ribbons of blacktop that roll across immense tracts of untilled farmland, bisecting one another at ninety degree angles every two or three square miles, a thousand nameless lines plotted with monstrous logic on a grid in the middle of this vast, vacant, November desolation.  The leaves have peaked, the trees are practically bare, and few things remain to attract their attention—a crumbling dairy barn, a collapsed grain silo, the skeleton of an old windmill.  From time to time, they see painted ponies loping and cantering in the fields, and further on, as they crest the rocky summit of a hogback ridge they can make out a thin gray spire of smoke from a smoldering campfire rising from a valley.  Further on, long rusty lengths of barbed wire stretch from fence post to fence post, marking either the beginning or the end of a wilderness, it’s difficult to tell which, and just beyond the wire there are swales of twisted yellow grass that swish back and forth and sound like a million whispering voices and where buzzards squat with outstretched wings and scratch at the black earth and pick at the fleshless bones of deer and rodents.
      On a distant hillside, erupting from the earth like the skewed teeth of an exhumed skull, they see a dozen simple white gravestones, the last signs of a town long since abandoned, its inhabitants gladly returned to the anonymity of dust and bone.  Many of the stones have been toppled over by drunk and listless teenagers, the inscriptions faded by a century of rain and snow that comes slashing sideways out of the sky.
      “Think of the erosion,” Claude murmurs.  “After a while, I bet the coffins slide down that hill like bobsleds.”
      Even though his coffee is cold and bitter, he continues to drink it anyway, slowly and with pleasure, because it gives him something to do.  He refuses to acknowledge Elsie’s silence, won’t ask if anything is wrong.  For him, it’s a matter of principle and he is a man who always stands on principle. 
      “The soil gets thin,” he continues, “the earth crumbles away. Imagine this place after a heavy downpour, the spring thaw. I wouldn’t be surprised to find a pile of remains down there in the gulch. We should go take a look. I could always use a memento mori as a paperweight on my desk.”
      “Keep your eyes on the road!”
      He straightens up but continues to gaze dreamily into the distance, imagining coffins, hundreds of them, thousands, rank and fetid and bursting with the bones of small children, racing down the muddy slope into oblivion. 
      Elsie studies her fingernails.  Except when money becomes the topic of conversation, she rarely listens to anything he has to say.  She is used to “a certain lifestyle,” a fact she sprang on him after they spent the night at the Hinnom Motel where they listened to the ecstatic yelps and screams of a couple in the adjacent room, true Olympians those two, gold medal winners.  Elsie was furious.  She’d been expecting a posh resort, a romantic cabin in the woods, at the very least a quaint bed and breakfast, not some fleabag motel with stains on the pillowcases.
      Claude tries to reassure her that there is nothing to worry about, that he can always treat her well and still make the minimum payments to his creditors, everything is under control, but as his sedan screeches around a sudden bend and struggles over an abrupt hill, he recalls with the mounting panic that more and more has come to define his life that he is two months behind on his car loan.  Of course this hasn’t deterred him from embarking on yet another pointless excursion with his lover.  How much money has he spent?  No, he won’t think about that just yet.  He’s having too much fun.  
      “Maybe,” he says, gazing up at the shattered headstones, “I’d be better off buried up there.” Self-pity comes so naturally to him.  Over the years, he has mastered its gratifying tone of despair; it gives him so much pleasure that he sometimes feels like a hedonist, shamelessly wallowing in masochistic burn and sting of failure and misery.  “I’d be the first new resident in a hundred years, probably more. Gotta be cheap for a plot. Save on the funeral costs.” 
      Elsie smirks.  “Claude, darling, you couldn’t get credit for a pine box.”
      When she speaks, her voice takes on an omniscient quality.  It never goes away, that voice, not entirely.  During the long afternoons when Claude dozes in his cubicle at work and at night when he falls asleep in front of the TV and dreams of forbidden delights, the voice comes to him, shrill and acrimonious, berating him for the most inconsequential of his failings, and now, as they speed by a little red brick schoolhouse surrounded by moldering husks of corn, he hears it again, a coiling phantasm that rattles and hisses in the claustrophobic confines of the car.  Lately, he’s built up an immunity to its venom and finds that it actually has a calming effect on his nerves; it soothes him, lulls him into passivity, makes him think of blue skies, crystal clear waters, the gentle crescent of a tropical beach with miles of white sugary sand. 
      He reaches again for his cold coffee and watches the schoolhouse door open and close, open and close.  A flock of croaking ravens dances on the gabled roof and suddenly takes flight high over the field, so high they look like ink spots, black and blotchy, bleeding through the paper sky, and Claude thinks how lovely the world can sometimes be.   


      What finally snaps him out of this debilitating stupor isn’t Elsie’s sudden scream or her fingernails digging deep and hard into the tender flesh of his forearm but the loud thud and wet slap of matted fur against the grille, the crunch of bones beneath the tires, the horrific howl of pain that echoes across the immeasurable emptiness of bogs and fields and the disquieting corpse-bloated knoll that rises above the plain.  In the rearview mirror he glimpses a great shaggy carcass tumbling end over end, a dazzling shock of scarlet against the gray road.  Only then does he hit the breaks and turn on the hazards.
      Elsie digs deeper into his arm, draws blood.  “What are you doing?
      He yanks his arm away. “That hurts!”
      “Just keep driving.”
      “I can’t. I’m sure I have some kind of legal obligation.”
      “For chrissake, Claude, please don’t get the law involved.”
      “No need to worry. It was an accident. When the time comes, I’ll explain everything.” 
      She turns around and points to the thing in the road.  “How do you intend to explain that?” 
      Claude scratches the stubble on his chin.  He hasn’t shaved since they left the city.  For the first time he sees flecks of gray among the coarse black hairs.  He feels like they’ve been driving for years.  The days blend together, dreary and formless as the clouds that float above the frozen fields.  He tries to envision this place in the dazzling summer sunshine, blazing with goldenrod, lush and green and heady with wild flowers, yellow buttercups, blue cornflowers, indigo lilacs, but he simply can’t do it.  He suffers from a chronic lack of imagination, that’s what Elsie says anyway.  She reminds him of this every time they make love.
      Now she folds her hands on her lap, breathes in and out, comports herself with the stillness and austerity of a medieval sorceress practicing the arts of necromancy, one of her most recent interests, and one destined to bore her like the others before it—the books written by New Age crackpots, the silly bells and crystals, the wands and incantations.  Occasionally Claude unearths some of these books buried beneath the fashion magazines on her nightstand.  Though he can’t say why, he commits several passages to memory: “Thou shalt speak out of the earth, and thy speech shall be heard out of the ground, and thy voice shall be from the earth like that of the python and out of the ground thy speech shall mutter.”  What the hell does it mean?  He asked Elsie to explain it to him, but she rolled her eyes and says, “Oh, you wouldn’t understand.”
      Looking at the mass of bloody flesh and fur on the road, Claude finds that the mysterious text offers a small clue to the dilemma he now faces. 
      “A ghost…” he breathes.
      “What? What are you saying?”
      “Do you believe in ghosts, Elsie? Perturbed spirits?”
      She shakes her head and speaks slowly to him as she might to a child or an idiot.  “I’m sorry to tell you this, Claude, I really am, but you’re losing it. I think you’re fucking delusional.”
      “But those books you read…”
      “Don’t lose your shit. Not now. I’m warning you.”
      “Fine, fine. Just stay right here. I’m going to take a look, see what I can do.”
      She leans over and locks his door.  “Don’t!”
      He has never heard her scream, not like that, and it troubles him.
      “You didn’t do anything wrong,” she says, trying hard to regain her composure.  “It was already dead when you hit it. Dead in the middle of the road. Flies buzzing all around.”
      “Are you sure? I thought I saw it run right in front of the car. It came out of nowhere. Like a phantom, an apparition.”
      “Don’t make me repeat myself. You were daydreaming. As usual. Now drive away like I asked. I’m getting nauseous.”
      Because he can’t quite accept the reality of the situation, he leans over and kisses her hand, takes in the scent of her lotion, sweet but subtle, a magic elixir capable of purging away his foul crimes, his weakness of character.
      He puts the car in drive, takes his foot off the brake, and presses gently down on the accelerator.  The sedan eases forward, it hums and purrs as a well maintained vehicle should, a vehicle that is free of damage from a head-on collision.  But before reaching the next bend in the road, Claude looks back one last time to study the thing at the edge of the ditch, carrion for the great birds of prey that hover always in the sky, huge creatures of prehistoric visage that swoop low over the fields and perch on the telephone lines to peck madly at the vermin burrowing deep in their black wings, and though he can’t be certain, he thinks he sees the thing struggling to lift its shattered head and writhing with unimaginable suffering, doomed to take its last agonizing breaths beside a pasture reeking of cow shit.   


      One hour later, the low hills and the patchwork of farmers’ fields give way to mountains and valleys and a deep gorge like a jagged wound in the earth.  The deranged matrix of country roads suddenly turns into to a labyrinth of concentric circles that draws Claude and Elsie ever closer to the faint glow of sodium lights in the small town of Gehenna.  Its narrow streets smell vaguely of burning rubber and gasoline and raw sewage purged from lines after the heavy rains of October.  An old canal encloses an isolated row of brick warehouses like a moat protecting the ruins of a medieval fortress, its shallow black waters invaded by an armada of beer cans and whiskey bottles.
      Claude and Elsie search for a bakery, a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, but after circling the rustic square three times, they find only boarded up storefronts and a sinister madhouse tavern where men in denim coveralls smoke cigarettes by the open doorway and check the losing numbers on their lottery tickets.  From the lopsided porch of a frame house, a horde of children stare blankly into the thin white mist, maybe dreaming of a way to escape this dreary little factory town, but then they laugh and sing and resume their game of throwing stones at a snarling black dog chained to a stake.  
      On Main Street, just past the library, Elsie and Claude spot a diner with a blinking red neon sign in the window.  They haven’t eaten since breakfast, and there are few options now.  They decide to risk it.  After locking the car doors and activating the alarm, they go inside.  Claude lowers his head to avoid the scorn of the other customers who chew mechanically and with little satisfaction on steaming buttermilk biscuits sopping with gravy and who regard them with unmistakable loathing as if to say, “There is something not right about you people, you are destructive and depraved, now leave us be.”
      They both order “The Fish” (that’s how it’s printed on the menu, “The Fish”, as though it’s a culinary wonder that has become legendary in these parts), but Elsie is skeptical, and when the waitress returns and sets a platter of silver-gray meat in front of her, she use the tongs of her fork to pick at the bones and scales with the surgical precision of a pathologist. 
      “Look at this thing,” she hisses. “I bet the cook scooped it out of the canal with a net he keeps beside the back door. Fried it up in a greasy skillet, too.”  She tosses her fork down with a loud clatter.  “Are you sure this is fish?” she asks the waitress.
      “I guess so. Sure smells like it.”
      “Well, since the menu doesn’t seem to specify what kind of fish it is, maybe you can tell me?”
      The waitress shrugs.  “Catfish? Never had the courage to try it myself. Never asked the cook about it neither.”
      “Catfish? I won’t eat catfish. They’re bottom feeders.”
      “Well, that’s your prerogative, ma’am.”
      “Prerogative? My, my, someone’s been taking night classes at the community college. I’ll tell you what, sweetie. Just take the fish off our bill.”
      “No refunds, ma’am. Says so right there on the door. Sorry about that.”
      Elsie smiles.  “Oh, I’m sure you are. Well then, could you please box up these rancid bones so that when I leave your filthy little establishment I can toss them into the trashcan? I want your customers to see just what I think of your ‘home cooking.’”
      “You want that in a Styrofoam box?”
      “Styrofoam would be lovely. It releases toxins.”
      During this exchange Claude tries to keep his eyes focused on his plate, but the need to inspect, to study, to supply his dwindling libido with some kind of fuel, however meager, proves too tempting.  Though not particularly pretty, the waitress is young, much younger than Elsie, no more than nineteen or twenty-years old, and she is also slender with a disproportionately ample bust.  Normally, other women do not catch his eye, but for three days now he’s been forced to endure the sight of morbidly obese women who trundle their hefty rolls along the cramped aisles of antique shops and stuff their wobbling thighs into the tiny booths of ice-cream parlors; he has listened to their raucous laughter and has smelled the cloying cigarette smoke on their clothes and in their great piles of wiry hair. 
      He bears witness to other things, too: a middle-aged woman and teenaged boy walking arm-in-arm through a farmer’s market, a mother and son he initially thought, until they began kissing near a big bin of gourds, their tongues wet and heavy and eager to taste the other.  A teacher and her sexual acolyte.  It was disturbing to watch, and several customers stopped to stare, an old man whose left ear had been sliced away, a little boy whose skull was criss-crossed with angry black sutures, a barn cat fat from a diet of milk and vermin that hopped on a barrel and sat licking the bright festering sores on its hind leg.
      The waitress is different, and Claude admires how her thin cotton blouse, which is just a little too short, creeps up her back and reveals a bright blue butterfly tattooed only a few breathless centimeters from the glorious crack of her ass. 
      Elsie, who has a sixth sense about these things, shouts, “Let’s go!”
      “But the young lady hasn’t brought us our check.”
      “She’s lucky I don’t speak to the manager.” 
      Claude considers tossing a few singles on the table, the spare change in his pockets, but the risk is too great.  Insubordination of that sort will cost him dearly, and so he scurries obediently behind Elsie, once again trying to avoid the scornful glares of the other customers who sigh with relief that the weird couple is leaving, carried off by howling gales of neuroses and pretension.
      “You can’t stiff me like this!” the waitress calls after them.  “I’ll call the police!  I’ll call the police, you deadbeats!” 


      Though she never stops complaining of hunger, Elsie insists they keep driving until they find a motel where the aging proprietors might regale them with a vending machine filled with bags of pretzels, candy bars, cans of warm soda, maybe even a mini fridge stocked with small bottles of booze, but the longer she speaks the less Claude listens, and whenever he closes his eyes her voice fades in and out like a weak radio frequency crackling and hissing with those bombastic preachers who revel in overwrought descriptions of hellfire until all that remains of it is a single unwavering note, a buzz, a hiss, an alien humming that allows him to indulge in his fantasies of the waitress, skinny little country girl bored out of her mind, nothing to do on a Saturday night but drink cheap beer and get high and screw her good-for-nothing boyfriend, the bruises on her arms prove as much, rough fingers pressed into tender flesh, lots of dirty talk, vivid instruction, sheets sullied with sweat and reeking of hashish. 
      Claude opens his eyes and sees another barn with a faded octagonal hex sign painted across its warped planks.
      Elsie crosses her arms.  “Did we pass that barn a couple hours ago? It looks familiar. We’re going in circles, aren’t we?”
      “I gotta piss,” he announces.
      “Oh, goddammit…”
      He pulls to shoulder, puts the car in park, and tiptoes through the muddy field to the barn.  Behind the great decomposing door he stands, prick in hand, and listens to the ghostly stridulation of insects in the wood and the gnomic response of an owl in the rafters and the sardonic cackle of black birds that dance on the faraway fence posts.  He envisions the waitress bent over a table, the blue butterfly on the small of her back gyrating as he thrusts his hips with wild abandon.  Something tells him that she probably has ugly tits, large areolas like slices of baloney, asymmetrical and pink as the belly of a prize-winning pig.  Razor burns on the inside of her thighs, fingernails chewed and jagged.  This doesn’t deter him.  He strokes his penis until it stiffens, slow and lazy, and then masturbates with ferocious self-loathing. Desperate for some kind of catharsis, he varies the rhythm and pumps away with purpose.  
      Through the gaps in the planks of wood he glimpses a red truck barreling down the road, its rusty tailpipe dangling like his own defeated member.  The rumbling engine and grinding gears make it even more difficult for him to concentrate.  It’s no use, he decides, and with a grunt of resignation stuffs his disobedient prick back into his pants. 
      The truck slow and pulls to the shoulder in front of his own car.  The man who emerges from the cab of doesn’t look particularly menacing—he’s elderly, rail thin, insubstantial, trembling with what might be the onset of Parkinson’s, and when he removes his felt hat he reveals a head free of hair and covered with liver spots.  A gentleman farmer, perhaps, on his way home from church, a familiar hymn on his lips, a Bible opened beside him on the seat, the pages turned to a damning passage from Revelation.  The Jesus fish on his back bumper gives him away.  So does his sober blue suit.  But Claude is reluctant to leave the barn, maybe because the man, despite his outward appearance of infirmity and meekness, cradles a large shotgun in his arms. 
      Claude looks for an escape route.  Hiding in here won’t be easy, but should the old man be hell bent on senseless slaughter, Claude can always bury himself under a pile of straw and remain quiet as a mouse until he finishes his business with Elsie and then disappears into the late afternoon gloom.  But Claude also understands that the longer he lingers in the barn, the longer he will have to endure Elsie’s taunts and insults.  “You were hoping he would kill me, weren’t you? That would make you so happy, wouldn’t it?” 
      After a few moments of serious reflection, he emerges from the barn and goes forth to accept his fate.  The rain taps against the rusted weathervane spinning on the peak, a gentle song of suffering played in a minor key, largo, morendo, like some dark and suppressed memory that soon fades away and dies, and Claude looks to the sky as if wondering when the real rains will come and when the hand of god will stamp him out once and for all like a scuttling black bug.         


      At first the old man says nothing at all, only nods with grim severity.
      Claude waves to him and shouts, “Howdy there!” but the second the words leave his lips, he cringes.  Nobody uses an expression like that around here, wrong part of the country, probably wrong decade as well.  He struggles up the slippery embankment and coughs from the blue fumes spewing from the truck’s tailpipe.
      The man regards him with eyes that are blue and bright and belie the rest of his wind-ravaged face, and when he speaks his voice is slow and deliberative, the voice of a village elder prepared to pass judgment on the wicked. 
      “I believe you folks ran over my dog.”  He points to the bed of the truck.  “You wanna take a look, see if you know him?” 
      He lowers the tailgate.  The hinges shriek in the cold and the wet.
      Claude peers inside.  “God almighty…”
      The thing is still alive, an enormous dog, a Great Dane, its head crushed like a rotten apple, its floppy ear crusted over with blood, its steel blue coat matted with dried mud and spotted white with bird droppings, its reeking innards bubbling and foaming from the gaping wound on its enormous heaving belly.  Claude stares, he can’t help but stare, and when the thing weakly lifts an accusatory paw toward him he stumbles backward and shakes his head. 
      “Ain’t right, you know,” says the man, “to leave an animal in the condition that you did. Maybe you folks never had a family pet?”
      “I don’t think that makes any difference…” Claude begins.
      “In fact, sir, I did own a dog.”  Elsie cranes her head from the passenger side window.
      “Let me handle this, Elsie.”
      “The gentleman asked us a question, Claude, and I think he’s entitled to an answer. He wants know about Gonzago.”
      Claude laughs nervously.  “I really don’t think he’s interested, Elsie. You’re not interested, sir, are you?”
      “Oh, Gonzago was a demonic creature. A hellhound. He kept digging up my garden, eating the hostas and pansies. And I’ll tell you this, too. He enjoyed watching us, yes, watching us while we were in flagrante delicto.”
      “He’d pant and moan and lick himself feverishly. It became so terrible that Claude took him out to the backyard one night and, well, tell him, Claude.”
      “That’s enough.”
      “Tell him how you took care of business, darling. Tell him how instead of digging up daisies, Gonzago is now pushing them up.”  
      “Goddamn you, Elsie.”
      “He’s probably playing fetch with Saint Peter.”
      “It was your idea. You told me…”
      “I say all sorts of things, you know that, Claude. But, sir, sir!  Are you listening? Let me ask you a question. What kind of person is capable of actually carrying out such a monstrous deed?” 
        “Well, I don’t know about none of that,” the old man mutters.  His forehead creases with perplexity, and he seems to regret his decision to stop.  “What I come here to say is that since it was you who run down my dog I figured you should put him out of his misery. It’d be the decent thing to do, the Christian thing.”
      Claude gestures to the gun.  “I’ve never handled one of those before, but if you show me how, I’ll be the one to pull the trigger.”
      “Ain’t nothin’ to it. Just point and squeeze. It’s already loaded.”
      The rifle feels heavier than Claude expects and smells of oil.  The black barrel glimmers faintly under a sun concealed by clouds, inflexible and motionless and heavy sheets of steel.  The man positions the dog’s head so it hangs over the tailgate, giving Claude a clear shot.  A gentle rain begins to tap inside the bed.  Claude steps forward, pauses a moment, awaits a message imparted fleetingly on the wind, some kind of secret wisdom, an acknowledgement that what he is about to do is important, transformative, but the silence is utterly vapid, banal, indifferent, there is no message, no secret wisdom, though for a moment he does catch a small whimper, whether from the man, the dog, or Elsie, he does not know.  He looks back at the car.  Elsie has shut her eyes and clamped her hands over her ears.  Claude grunts, and when he finally musters the strength to squeeze the trigger he counts the echoes from the blast—three, four, five—each one ricocheting off the ugly little hillocks of clay on the far horizon, a sound gradually hammered down and flattened by the dumb immensity of the land.
      The old man bows his head.
      Claude hands the rifle back and feels compelled to say something.  “I don’t believe in god, haven’t seen the inside of a church since I was a schoolboy, but I’ll say a prayer for your dog anyway.”
      The man plods over to the cab, checks the safety on the gun and tosses it through the open window.  He leans heavily against the door, his hands spread across the rough surface, fingers picking absently at the loose flakes of red paint.  Then with a small grunt of discomfort, he climbs inside the truck where for a time he sits behind the wheel and stares at the road.  He wipes rain from his forehead, the tears from his cheeks, and with a smile as intractable and harsh as the desolation all around turns slowly to Claude and says to him, “‘Don’t believe in god.’ Then, my friend, you will burn, you will burn.” 
      Had it been a dry day, the kind of day when the sun scorches the fields and blisters the backs of the migrant workers who come to gather the corn and rye and wheat, Claude would have felt the sharp sting of gravel against his face as the man stomped on the accelerator and sped away, but it is autumn now, the road is pliant, and the tires of the truck do not spin with the speed and force the old man would have liked, and so Claude feels only the soft splatter of mud against the cuffs of his pants.
      He watches the truck rise and fall on the ribbons of road like a boat carried high and low by the swells of an angry sea, and he keeps watching for what must be miles and miles because there are no other roads out here in this mindless waste, and even though Elsie urges him to get back in the car because she is in a hurry, the antique shops close early today, Claude stands very still and waits to see if the old man will pull over to bury his dog atop one of those distant hills.