First published in BULL: Men's Fiction, Summer 2015.
There was a period of time when everyone’s mailbox was down on the end of Thorncreek Road. But after Mr. Berzansky got caught for the child porn thing in ‘97, no one wanted their mail near his slot, so to speak, so everyone started to have their mail delivered to their front porches. No one ever thought to take down the orphaned mailboxes at the end of Thorncreek, though; they just sat there like three rusted crows balancing on a fencepost.
When Mr. Berzansky left our rural community for the State Pen, his niece moved into the house. I was in college and Jess Berzansky was probably around twenty-seven, though cigarettes and booze had already started to affect her looks. She maintained a rigid rotation of three or four stained t-shirts, each logoed with a different brand of light beer, and all of them clung to her not fat, but not exactly skinny body. Her jugs were big, and even though she wasn’t that old, they sagged, because she either refused or forgot to wear a bra. I always caught myself staring at her shirt, trying to determine if the dark spots on her chest were her nipples or just stains. From a distance it was hard to tell. To complete her look, Jess usually wore a pair of yellow slippers, spotted with dirt from treks down the graveled driveway and into town for more alcohol and maybe even some non-proofed groceries. Aside from her liberated chest and overall disheveledness, Jess kept herself looking—not “well,” but not explicit either. I was always grateful for that, because our other neighbors were shameless. What I mean is that she wasn’t the type of white trash that showed too much skin, the kind that lived on the otherside of Thorncreek. The Rochelle family definitely fit this sub-category.
The Rochelles, pronounced “Row-shells,” were filthy poor due to lack of birth control, and their half-nakedness was a result of this population bubble forming and bursting every nine months. My father called them, “the rabbits down the street.” They must have had ten kids, but I could never get a firm count because with families like that, the kids are wild and literally running off, usually into the woods to go play with guns and knives. Jeremy Rochelle stuck cherry bombs in the old mailboxes one Halloween, yet only the middle box yielded enough to have a hole blown in it. You only get one shot to blow up a mailbox, because it makes so much damn noise. That’s why if you’re doing it, you should stick four or five of ‘em in there. One should never be half-assed when it comes to small explosives. Jeremy was a sloppy criminal—I think he also ended up in prison for some sort of meth lab bust. Maybe he and Berzansky are cellmates now.
I wasn’t surprised he half-assed his vandalism. His parents demonstrated an equally half-assed approach to keeping up the family home. The Rochelle’s house didn’t have an inch of siding on it, being only wrapped in metallic Tyvek insulation. The poor shits’ house looked like a pathetic space shuttle or like a massive appliance stripped for the steel. Pink clouds of insulation poked out all over the damn thing. On one of my usual runs, I once saw two Rochelle girls eating it, probably cause it looked like cotton candy. The Rochelle’s house was about as close a thing we got to “modern architecture” in Lake County. In our wooded landscape, the place was an empty Bud in a ditch, just on a bigger scale.
The Rochelles and Jess Berzansky were the two messes on either side of our property when I was growing up. Our house was originally my grandfather’s hunting cabin, which once functioned as a regional den. A Klanster until he died, he made it to Grand Cyclops status, which really only means that he hated more kinds of people, and to a greater degree, than others in the club. Not only was his hatred of the Imperial status, but it was also considered progressive: he was the first, they say, to really go after “the faggots” too. He died when I was about seven. My sole interaction with the Grand Cyclops was a short visit to the Forest City regional nursing home. He looked like a tenacle-covered alien the way every hole in his body was plugged with plastic tubing, weaved into the blinking machines at the bottom of his bed. He died from emphysema and the sound of his voice added to non-human quality of his appearance. In a robotic and hissing monotone he offered me one of his Fig Newtons. I’m not sure if the cookie was stale or if they always taste piss-vile, but it was the first and last time I ever ate one of those things. He died a week later.
The Grand Cyclops lived on in only my Dad’s expletives when rednecks would show up looking for a place to squat and brood and pay tribute to the past. Dad sold all of the Cyclops’ things really fast; he even donated the IKA memorabilia to a Civil Rights museum in Atlanta. But even after all that, my dad ended up moving us into the house. It was modest for five and there were problems with the roof, but my mother, aside from suggesting an addition, never complained. Dad said that we’d never get much money for it because of our neighbors, so we grew up in a house that was too small for us, and played in a yard broken in by hate-rituals. My brother and I slept in a bunkbed on the bottom floor, and my little sister, Emma, made do with a converted gun-closet turned nursery bedroom. We were cramped on fifty acres.
About a week after getting back from my frosh year at UCF on a football scholarship, I found myself living back at home for a month bored as all hell. My brother, Tommy, was always a nerdy kid and that June he was in Cape Canaveral at some science camp, so I had our bedroom to myself. Most days I was bored, lonely for my frat brothers and teammates. I was running to stay quick for football, which started up again in July, and also because I planned to be in the ROTC officer program that fall—a ridiculous idea that never happened. Division I football took my soul and all of my time at school. But, I was determined to stay on track and to overstretch myself, at least for that summer. Coach Beucher had made me the starting H-Back, and for a white freshman that was pretty damn hot. I was keeping on the extra weight I had put on that spring at the Gold’s, next to the Piggly Wiggly where I bagged groceries ever since I was sixteen. The running was to keep my speed. My fiver went by both of our neighbors’ houses, because it was a perfect loop. I turned left, ran down the hill, hit the “T” where the old mailboxes were, curved around Square Lake, up past the Rochelle’s place, then down and around the backyard of the Berzansky’s, before ending up back home. The only part of the run that was difficult was the final hill and the stretch of about 200 yards where the bitch barked at me.
Jess Berzansky has an affection for very large dogs. There are two types of very large dogs. There are the St. Bernard gentle giant-type dogs, and thier deal is identical to people who are too big—they lead meek lives that seem to apologize for their increased mass. The other type of very large dogs (and people) are the ones who are just flat-out angry about everything. Pissed and wired psychopathic, they’re like toasters on the edge of a bathtub. Jess Berzansky owned one of the latter type. The prevailing tendency among the owners of these kinds of dogs is a complete reluctance to even attempt to tame, discipline, or domesticate them. This dog, who she affectionately named “Killer,” was rarely on a leash. Only on occasion would he bling out and wear a metal chain choker around his hairy neck.
Next to the mailboxes and the Rochelle’s house, the most pathetic structure in Yalaha was Killer’s doghouse. His collar was connected, via six yards of Ace hardware’s finest quarter-inch steel chain, to a dilapidated wooden box. Killer would have made a three hundred pound Marlin look like a bluegill the way he wrestled his anchorage, a weak rusted hook secured by two crooked nails to the gray-weathered plywood.
It has always been my opinion that very large dogs that require daily “choking” should be put down by default. My running route included a small tract of Killer’s territory, but I refused to give it up. Killer was part of the rush. He was the cause for speed. Or, if he was actually on his leash, he was the cause for a mid-run stretch ritual that taunted him into an even more furious fit of noise and rage. Every time he barked, I’d dream of more ways to kill Killer. The beast and I were soul mates. We hated each other intensely, and were connected by that hatred. We both desired nothing more than to extinguish the other. There was a stump perfectly stationed across from his radius of chain and choking. I’d stretch and think; he’d bark, lunge, and gag. I usually just took my time, close my eyes and visualize how it’d play out: I could see my Achilles tendon turned into Killer’s chewtoy. Running just near a sprint, I’d feel a mist of drool right before he’d get my left leg. He wouldn’t stop until marrow was dripping all over my calf. Yeah, I know marrow doesn’t drip, but the blood wouldn’t come first. First there’d be fluid the color of Elmer’s wood glue. Then, arching back after the initial blow, I’d reach for the beast’s neck. Both of us would be on the ground, where all fights to the death end up. I’d gag him by reaching my arm up to my wrist in his mouth, down past his slimey purple lips and deep into his throat. His teeth would clamp into my forearm, blood everywhere, and I’d still reach further. Down and down until it broke off with a snap, like plucking a tulip. Killer’s tongue detached and my victory literally in my hands. It’d be bigger than my hand—bigger than we both thought—but not so amazing as to lose my appetite. I’d eat his tongue and make him watch. Bark now, you bitch.
I was approaching the Berzansky’s house, wondering what kind of date I’d have with Killer that day, when I heard a voice yell at me from the direction of their porch.
It was Jess. She was in her usual getup. It must have been Miller Time. She got up from her rusted glider chair on the front porch and started toward me. I remember thinking that this was ambitious. This was way too much coordinated activity for her. She was half in the bag and nearly fell down the stairs. She had stubbed her toe in the stumble and sat at the bottom step awkwardly cradling it, but she wasn’t looking down. Her eyes were as glazed as a Krispy Kreme donut.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” I said.
“It’s fine. It ain’t bad.”
I winced and looked down the road.
“Why you runnin’ around for? Ma said you in R-O-T-C.”
The woman she called, “Ma,” was actually my mother, not hers. I’m not sure why Jess always did this, perhaps it was because she never had a mother. I never saw a woman other than Jess at the Berzansky’s. “Ma” thought her son had grown mean and judgemental ever since going to college. Well here I am, I thought, I’m talking to the “lady” next door. Jess burped loudly and reached for her pack of cigarettes beside her. Her foot clawed its way back into its slipper.
“I’m in the Army program, yeah. So, I’ve got to stay in shape,” I told her.
“You look alright from here. You look real nice.”
Jess smiled and started attempting to play with her brown, knotted hair, but her fingers got stuck in a tangle. She put the cigarettes back on the ledge, because she required both of her hands to free herself from herself.
“Thanks, Jess. I better get going.”
I turned to run away, but she stopped me.
“Hey!” she said. “I seen you stretching at me—I like it. You wanna come by, just write a note or knock. Not much on TV now.”
She lit a cigarette, took a deep inhale, and blew the smoke out of her nostrils big as horse flies. She took another quick drag and puckered her lips to exhale through her mouth. Then she smiled, and if I didn’t look at her crazy eyes, her smile could have passed for a nice one. Her teeth were straighter than mine, like a neat row of dominoes. It felt dangerous for her to have anything attractive. I had nothing to say, so I turned and ran. The visuals I got surprised me, mostly because they were far from unpleasant. For whatever reason, I gave Jess every benefit of the doubt when I imagined us fucking. I started thinking about how good it’d feel to lick her left nipple through her t-shirt. I became intoxicated and repulsed by the imagined sensation of damp, salty cotton. Then I heard the sound of wet breathing, which broke me out of my generous fantasy.
I flashed back to the road and now standing in my path was the beast himself, Killer. The sneaky shit didn’t give himself away with a bark. His pants were loud, heavy breaths, lapping air. I stopped moving. He jerked his head back, dropped his jaw wide, and bit down with a bark—one crisp shout that reverberated off the pine trees lining our road. His chain laid behind him, connected to a splintered piece of his sad doghouse. He barked again and his hind legs loaded, then a sound louder and more serious than his barking pierced through the trees. A whimper and a moan mixed with the echo of the gunshot. Killer folded and became roadkill in an instant. I looked back at the porch. Jess was standing with a rifle, still smoking like a toy train. She turned and walked back into the house.
I didn’t know what to do with Killer, or if I was even obligated to do anything for him. I approached and saw the tan fur on his chest turn molten red. He was hit right above his shoulder. The fur covering his upper torso was matted and slicked in greasy clumps. I crouched down and looked at his face: his dark jowls flecked with excited foam; the marbles of his eyes; that massive pink tongue, collapsed on his glistening teeth. His teeth were what I had assumed Jess’s would be: gator-like, yellow, and misshapen. He had ticks in his ears. I tested his wieght with my toe and figured I couldn’t kick him to roadside, so I dragged him by the hind legs into and up over the run-off ditch, past the graveyard of abandoned appliances and onto the leaved dirt. I thought about digging a hole, but that’s just about all I did. I covered him with a couple broken branches and walked away.
I went back to Jess’s, walked up to her porch and looked in through the screen door. The TV wasn’t on. I had never been inside their house, never wanted to, but soon I was. A broken coffee cup sat at the foot of the stairs. I kicked the handle piece with my sneaker before climbing the steps. I knew she was upstairs because I could hear the shower going somewhere down the hall, past more rooms that I didn’t want to see. I didn’t knock. The door might have not even been closed. I got into the bathroom, already filled with steam, and slid the glass door back. It revealed a crying Jess.
“I shot my dog for ya.” She bawled.
I looked at her face. Her pink eyes made the circles underneath them even darker. I scanned down. She had a mole on her left breast. Tiny and flat. I stared at it and decided to kiss it. I kicked my shoes and socks off. She let the water drip onto the floor while waiting for me. I pulled off my shirt, dropped my shorts and got in with her and she immediately grabbed my dick. She stopped crying. The entire thing changed quickly into something I didn’t understand. I wanted to touch her chest, that’s all I knew. I wanted to lift her heavy breasts and feel their weight. I wanted her clean. If she wasn’t in the shower, I don’t think I ever would have touched her. I turned and shielded most of the water from her when she started to kneel down. She massaged my hamstrings and I had to grip onto the walls, it felt so good. I looked up at the ceiling. There was a spiderweb on the window. I couldn’t look at it for long. I had to shut my eyes to come.
She stood up after I finished. She didn’t take her hands off my body until she turned the water off. When the faucet shut, Jess grabbed my arm. With one hand on my shoulder and one hand on my elbow, she clamped down and bit me, right above the bicep.
“What the fuck!” I yelled.
“I saved your life. I gave ya head, and I know this ain't gonna happen again. I just want ya to remember that I shot my dog. I shot him, and now I’m alone.”
Jess walked out and pointed at a yellow towel for me to use. She was dripping wet when she picked up a fogged-up glass of whisky that had been resting on the sink. I saw her look at herself in the mirror while taking a big gulp. I looked at her pale skin when she walked out. I remember thinking that she must have lived in the shade of her front porch, because her skin wasn’t tan at all. I noticed another small mole on her lower back. I wondered if I was the only person who ever kissed her skin, even though that was a stupid thing to think.
When I got out of the shower I stood in front of the mirror and picked up Jess’s drink. The glass tumbler was heavy and the whiskey tasted like the plastic bottle that it no doubt came in. I finished the drink and put on my shorts. I sat on the toilet seat and put on my socks and sneakers. I picked my shirt up off the floor but it was too wet to put back on, too soaked through with sweat that had since gone cold, and no longer my own.