He spat on the rock pathway that led to a front porch. A blue-tailed lizard moved over his shoe and dipped down through the grass, hidden in a patch of clovers.
His dad had told him that those kinds of lizards could drop their tails if their lives were in danger. When he was in the fifth grade, he overheard some of the boys at school talking about how they caught one of them and took pocketknives out to test that theory. They bragged about it at lunch, and he couldn’t finish his chicken nuggets and chocolate milk. All he could do was stare out the cafeteria window and watch vultures circle down an obscure drain in the sky.
His parents called him Little Rambo because he liked watching Stallone manhandle the bad guys on an old VHS tape. He rewound the tape over and over until he copied Rambo’s posture the right way and shot his own little arrow through the air into mimosa trees lining their property. He ran through the woods and jumped over fallen pine, charging after imaginary enemies, calling out and telling them that he was coming for them.
It had been a long time since then. Thirty-odd years. He looked at the house before him and could see something waving back through the broken wooden lattice beneath the front porch. A Doberman growled in the shadows, loping back and forth as if walking an invisible line of sanctuary.
He crept over the rock path and planted a foot on the first wooden step. The dog barked, and dust sneezed from the base of the wood grating. He stopped.
A dauber shot from one of three dirt tunnels shouldered against one another in the corner of the porch. A cricket jumped from warped decking, next to a rocking chair, and missed its landing, bouncing and falling into a wide crevice of separated board, disappearing somewhere in the semidarkness with the dog.
The screen door opened, and a woman stepped out. The door closed behind, banging against the jamb and hissing. Cicadas returned calls from maple trees.
She held the last three beers noosed and dangling from a six-pack plastic ring. She tore a can loose and rested it on her forearm and opened the tab with one of her paint-chipped nails. “Mr. Gable don’t like visitors,” she said. “I been watching you figuring on whether or not to come all the way up here.” She threw her head back and put the open can to her lips, her eyes studying the wilted ceiling fan rimmed with mold as she chugged.
“I was under the impression that Mr. Gable wanted a visitor to take care of something,” he said.
She quickly lowered the can. “Do what?” Foam braceleted her wrist, running down her forearm and dribbling off her elbow.
“I was just on the phone a little while ago with a man claiming he needed help. This not the Gable residence?”
“Only Gable I know’s the one named Clark with the little pencil mustache across his upper lip.” She raised the can and drank again.
He watched her throat pump up and down. A strand of three moles stood out near the hollow of her neck. Some lampooned mockery of Orion’s belt. “Don’t know what you’re talking about. This not the right residence?” He raised his left wrist and studied the time on his watch.
The drink was now empty, and she slurped up what little beer was left around the mouth of the can. “You ain’t never laid eyes on such a gentleman as Clark Gable?” she asked, hand-crushing it in the center and tossing it aside. She meant for it to land in a five-gallon paint bucket of other used-up cans, but it bounced off the rim and out.
“Can’t say I have.”
“Never heard of the man?”
“He a cousin of yours? Or someone I ought to be on the lookout for?” He turned and looked over his shoulder, half-tensed, half-dramatic.
A few yards away, a bird was perched on a feeder. Seemed like more food was falling from its beak than what it was actually consuming, and he could hear seeds dropping below and tapping on the metal rim of a deflated tire where the feeder’s pole was anchored.
“Boy,” she said, “you don’t know a thing do you?”
He turned back around. “A thing about what?”
“Is your last name not Gable? If not, I need to be on my way.”
“Come to think of it, you look like you’re a Patrick Swayze fan. Not the one from Point Break. No, not that one. That one hangs too loose for you. Too rugged. I bet you like Ghost. Bet you watch that one over and over, just a-hoping and a-praying those demons don’t come for you. Bet you like being perfectly lit, all hollow-cheeked, acting concerned about the well-being of others without ever really givin a shit.” The last word seemed to have caught her unaware, and she shuddered and looked at the crushed can on her right.
“What makes you think you’ve got me figured out?”
“You ain’t no ghosthunter, are you? I’m no Whoopi Goldberg. So, don’t be using me to speak to the dead on your behalf. Lord knows they might come up from the grave and take me on down there with them.” She removed a second can from its plastic ring and popped it open and drank.
After several gulps, she appeared off balance, and she stumbled backward, reaching out to catch herself on the screen door. Instead, her hand mashed the doorbell. “You ought to answer the door,” she said.
“Appears that you live in your own fantasy world. I work too much to sit in front of the television and watch people play make-believe.”
“And it appears you don’t get out much. You and your pasty self.”
“I get out plenty.”
She ran a tongue over her front row of teeth. “You look rail thin and frail to me. I bet your bones is yellow, you’re so sick. Bet you’re the last carrier of leprosy. Why, they oughta put you in the Shiele Museum and study you.” Then she sucked her teeth and let out a loud pop.
“Now, ma’am. My patience is wearing awfully thin. Where’s Mr. Gable?”
“Should I be scared?”
“Your patience.” She drank some more. “Or lack thereof.’
“Where the hell’s Mr. Gable?”
She swallowed and caught her breath. “Mr. Gable’s under the porch.”
He could barely make out the sound of padded paws roaming the dirt. “That dog there?”
“There a cow under there I don’t know about?”
“It’s a wonder your husband’s not strangled you to death yet,” he muttered beneath his breath.
“Speak up. You here to sell me some of Gideon’s Bibles? What you got in that truck over yonder? Dictionaries? I don’t have no more room for that kind of stuff. My daughter don’t visit no more because she thinks I’m a hoarder.” She drank again. “But I’m not.” She belched.
“Got a call,” he said. “Man said he lived here. With you, I guess. Told me to be here in thirty. I’m early. But not anymore, thanks to you and your foul mouth.”
“What you think’s foul about my mouth?”
“Want to show me on back behind your house over there?”
“What’s your name?”
“Don’t know no Ronnie.”
“I come here to see about your deck in the back.” He realized that he was still standing staggered at the bottom of the porch steps, and he stepped back.
“Said his name was Clayton. Clayton Gable.”
“That’s my husband.”
“Did he not make you aware of the smell?”
“Clayton’s upstairs asleep. Never goes nowhere. About as swollen as a tick. And as ugly and thick-headed as Herman Munster himself. I don’t ever let that poor sonofabitch out. He’s liable to tell the whole town about me. I’d give old Christian Grey a run for his money, the pain I put that man through.”
“Doesn’t sound like a bad thing for the whole town, or the whole state to know about your tomfoolery,” he said. “Maybe somebody ought to come out here and get you evaluated.”
“Worms. And everything else.”
“Boy, you don’t know a thing about me.’
“Then stop talking like you know a thing about me. Can I speak to him for a minute since he was the one who called me?”
“I done gave him his whiskey for the day,” she said. “Figured he’d be out of it by now. What’d he say to you over the phone?”
“That there was a dead possum up underneath that deck back there and that he was an invalid and couldn’t get out of the house to clean it out.”
“He’s not bedridden. He can still get up and go.”
Above her, a second story window opened, and an old man popped his head out. He regripped the windowsill for balance. Oxygen tubes snaked out from his nostrils. “Hep me,” he spoke in a feeble voice.
She looked up without making eye contact and cried out, “Shut that window! You’re letting out all the cold air. And you don’t pay the bills around here!” The window slid down in its frame, a squeaked shutting. Then she turned to Ronnie. “How does he know it’s a possum?”
“Said he smelled it.” Ronnie reached across his stomach with his right hand and scratched a rib.
“What do those things smell like?”
“Smell dead. You ain’t ever been around roadkill?”
“I don’t get out of my car to smell em. You one of them boys who bury roadkill cause there ain’t nothing better to do? You one of them sickos?”
“You know one of them buried my dead cat,” she said and put up both her hands, fingers clawed. “Used to rear up at me in the middle of the night.”
“Who buried it?”
“One of them crazy Pruitt brothers. The ones who got busted a while back for stealing offering from the church basement. He stuck my stray cat in the ground. Picked it right up off the road and buried it in that old pet cemetery behind the elementary school.”
“Why’d he do that?”
“Why you think?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked,” he said.
“Cause one of those brothers got baptized down at the Catawba River. Said the preacher took his hand off him and just let him float on downstream. Preacher knew he couldn’t swim. That’s why he did it. Just let him go. Kirk was his name. Kirk Pruitt. Preacher Gittens waited for him to scream out for God. Well, he screamed all right. Then Gittens swam over to him and grabbed him up. Hauled him out and onto that bank. Slapped his face a few times to make sure he coughed up that water. I was there. I seen it. Damn near drowned him, but it worked. Got him saved.”
Ronnie shook his head. “Or scared, one.”
“So, Kirk picks up roadkill,” she said. “Because he was one of them assholes that hurt animals back in his younger days. Turned his life around. Started picking up animals that got hit by cars. To pay them back for what he done in the past to their ancestors. He’s still out there somewhere. Scraping dead things off asphalt,” she said and drank the last of the beer and crushed the can. “You look tense.”
“You need to get rid of some of that anxiety.” She tore off another can from the plastic rings and tossed it underhanded. He caught it against his stomach. She wrenched her own can loose and flung the empty plastic rings into a bucket of rainwater. A mosquito leapt from the metal lip and coasted away.
Ronnie said, “I don’t usually drink on the job.”
“Drink on the job. Usually’s today.”
“You’re awful demanding.”
“Well, if I were havin to grab hold of something dead, I’d want to be drunker than a pirate.”
“It’s my job. I’m used to it.”
“That stray cat of mine ran around spraying the whole neighborhood. Then it ran off and got run over by a tractor. You ever seen something you love get killed?”
“Had a bunch of pets growin up. Sure did. Hated losin them. My dad liked to paint them.”
“Paint them? Like some kind of circus side show? Who the hell you think you are messin with roadkill and paintin animals. You couldn’t have kids? That what it was? So, you paint dogs and cats and birds and God-knows-what-else just so you can imagine it’s a little human?” There was an air of pride about her now and she spoke with a pneumatic chuckle.
“He was a painter.”
“I’ll say,” she said sarcastically.
“Not like that.” Ronnie gripped the can and traced a thumbnail over its font. “Painted them on a big piece of canvas. Called himself an artist. Liked to have got himself arthritis doing it. Sold a bunch of those paintings all over Mosquito Branch and towns like it. Made a good chunk of change. There’s still some out there in some galleries here and there.”
“Art don’t pay the bills, bud. But I guess you know that,” she said, looking him up and down. “Cause you got a real job.” She popped her new can open and drank from it while she stomped dead a praying mantis on the porch. Then she spit some of the beer on its folded body. “Damn things always walking around like they got somethin better in mind than me.” Then she looked back at Ronnie as if she noticed him for the first time and said, “I don’t know what’s holdin you up. You should’ve already gotten that possum out of there and been gone down the road by now. Go on around out back. I ain’t smelled a thing.”
“I’ll be quick so you can get back to drinkin.”
She nodded and said, “Go on.”
He backed away and crossed to the corner of the house, hopping over the corrugated iron fence. A silvery orbit of no-see-ums haloed his head. A drool of sweat dripped down his forehead and sloughed off the tip of his nose. He skirted the side of the house, stepping over thickets of poison ivy.
Once in the back yard, he bent hunchbacked below a bough of weeping wisteria, a bumblebee hovering in a buzzing lunacy over the white clovers at his feet. In his worn leather shoes, he saw his father’s own wide feet staring back at him, tempting the seams to give way. He tossed the can in the yard and pushed back old memories of his father’s anger.
When he came to the deck, he removed a great piece of plywood leaning against the bottom rail and let it fall evenly to the earth. He removed leather gloves from his back pocket and put them on and dropped to the damp soil on his hands and knees.
He crawled into the darkness beneath the deck and saw something big scuttle up a post in the far corner. There, beneath the middle of the crossbeams, a man squatted in turquoise swim trunks and turned from a half-eaten apple pie in an aluminum pan that he cradled in both hands. He stopped chewing and said, “I live here. What the hell you trespassin for?” He sounded like he smoked cigarettes backwards.
Ronnie said, “I’m not here to ask if you’re supposed to be on this land. I’m here to see about a smell.”
“Look under there,” the man said, and he nodded at a framed piece of canvas lying face down. “Where I put the scraps. That’n there’s my trashcan lid.”
“Scraps from what?”
“From in there.” He dropped the aluminum pan and wiped soggy crust from his chin with the back of his forearm.
“They know you’re livin here?”
“Clayton—your father, I suppose—said he smelled somethin under here. I’m gonna have to tell them that they have somebody living under here.”
“You go on and do what you gotta do. I’ll just find someone else’s deck.”
Ronnie tugged on the base of his glove and smoothed the material over a gnat tangled in his wrist hair. Then he peeled the glove from his skin and flicked away the bug’s remnants. “You know they got some shelters in town.”
“Can’t go in there. Already tried that.”
“They kick you out?”
“The guy who ran the place knew me. Or knew of me. My last name. He grew up with my dad. Said that my dad used to push him down in the dirt in the playground. When they got older in school, he messed up his car with a nine iron, and then he took his girlfriend. So, he got rid of me.”
“But that ain’t your fault,” Ronnie said.
“That’s what I told him.”
“You ought to try other places.”
“The world’s done run out of space for somebody like me. And I can’t live with people. I’d rather live by myself.”
“This ain’t livin.” Ronnie braced himself one-kneed in the dirt.
“You ever play sports?”
“Sure,” Ronnie said. “Used to wrestle at my high school back in the day.”
“When was the last time you had an adrenaline rush like that?”
“Been a while, man.”
“You remember how close to death you felt when the other guy had you in a hold that you couldn’t get out of?”
“Sure,” Ronnie said. “Regionals. Senior year. Eric Lemmons. Had me in a banana split. Nearly ripped me in two.”
“The hell’s a banana split?”
Ronnie smashed the heels of his hands together in a V, opening his palms and spreading his fingers. “Where the other guy throws in a leg on you and grabs the other’n and then leans back and splits your legs apart. You either fight it and kick out of it, or you let your shoulder blades go flat, and let him pin you so you don’t tear your groin.”
“That shit’s legal?”
“If you do it right.”
“Well, I used to be the water boy on the field.”
“Didn’t play any sports yourself?”
“No,” the son said.
“You had me believing otherwise.” Ronnie watched a sprinkling of dust in a beam of sunlight that cut through one of the gaps in the back deck above them. He hunched down and crawled in on his hands and knees toward the framed picture.
“I was a water boy.”
“Cool deal. I’m just gonna see what’s under here.” Ronnie inched forward.
“I got all adrenaline-rushed just running that bottle out to them. In between plays. At half-time. I had it perfect comin out of that spout. Right between their facemask grills. Felt like I was part of somethin. Like I was the one who helped them win those games. Had four water bottles on my little water bottle belt. Two on each hip. Put ice in those suckers. Made it way colder.”
“You got a point to all this?” Ronnie asked.
“Aw, just get on out of here.”
“I said get. You ain’t gonna understand because you was a jock. Only picture I ever got with the team was the one they took at the end of the year. When the yearbooks came out, I could hardly find myself. I was on the back row and coach had flared out his big elbows and covered half of me up. I think it was on purpose. You wouldn’t know it was me unless you was squintin.”
“That’s been a while back, bud. Way on back in the past.”
“Well, it’s still fresh up here.” He tapped a finger against his temple. “It’s how I ended up here. Never got noticed for nothin. Only one that ever noticed me was my momma. Me and her used to go out for ice cream. I loved that stuff. She used to get me the kind that looked like a rainbow. They called it Superman. Felt like I was gonna fly every time I bit into it and gave myself a brain freeze.”
“She not around anymore?”
“She’s in that house.”
“Do what?” Ronnie said.
“She don’t know I’m livin here. Thinks I’m still at some kind of corporate job in the city. But I lost it.”
“Drinkin. You going to drink that thing over yonder?” The son pointed to the sweating can that lay in the sunlight.
“Both you and your momma don’t like to be direct. I still gotta see what’s under that thing right there.” Ronnie pointed at the rotting framework. “You sure it’s just scraps?”
“From their fridge. They like eatin a lot of rotisserie chicken. I throw the bones underneath that paintin.”
“Yeah. Got it in a dumpster on here a while back.”
“What kind of painting?”
“I don’t know. Was a picture of a little boy and a tractor.”
Ronnie thought of the two versions of his dad: the red-faced man and the artist. “Was the boy flying a kite in the background on it?”
The stranger duck-walked over to it, jamming a thumb under the elastic band of his swim trunks and ran it around the inside, readjusting it and pulling it up higher. Then he scratched his back and inched closer to the frame and picked it up, sucking on his teeth. Beneath the painting was a small pit dug into the ground. Chicken bones and banana peels masked empty egg cartons peppered in coffee grounds.
Ronnie covered his nose and mouth in the front of his shirt collar. “That smells awful.”
“How’d you know?” The son turned the picture around so that Ronnie could see it.
“Because it belongs to me.”
“Not so fast there. How much is it worth to ya?”
“Not worth jack. It’s a painting my dad drew when I was a kid. Don’t know how it came to be in a dumpster.”
The son propped the frame up, using his arm as an easel. “Thing stinks.” Then he looked back at Ronnie. “You sure you don’t want to throw a dollar on it?”
“It’s not even worth a nickel.” Ronnie stretched forth his finger. “Only painting Dad ever drew of me.”
“Quit yankin my chain.”
“Did it after he knocked my tooth out. Had a change of heart.” Ronnie opened his mouth and pointed at a missing bottom tooth. “Hand it over.”
“I’m going around front and telling your momma about you living like this. A damn shame.”
Ronnie turned around and walked to the grass where the beer lay. He picked up the can and slung it underneath the deck. He heard a scrambling in the darkness.
When he reached the front porch, she was rocking in an unpadded recliner. She cradled a paper plate with fried okra and red beans, fanning away the steam with her hand.
“You got a man up under there,” Ronnie said.
“Come again?” She looked up from her hot meal.
“There is a man living under your deck. It’s your son. From what I’ve deduced.”
“Quit yankin my chain.”
“That’s what he said. He’s been eating your food.”
She turned her head to the side and placed her plate on an upside-down terracotta pot, soil skirting its cracked lid, and bounded off the front steps, yelling, “Justin!”
The son walked along the side of the house and crawled over the fence, the painting in one hand. He crushed the empty beer can and threw it into a rusted wheelbarrow filled with growing herbs. “You weren’t supposed to know I was here,” he said.
“Supposed to know? What are you doing here?”
“Knew you wouldn’t let me through that front door if I came back.” His stared at his bare feet.
“What’d you do?”
“Lost the job in the city.”
“Why didn’t you call?”
“Cut the shit. You been callin me names ever since I was yay high.” Justin waved an open palm above the ground. “You think I wanted it this way?”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin about.” She turned to Ronnie. “I don’t know what he’s talkin about.”
Ronnie reached out his hand. “Give me the painting.”
Justin side armed it like a frisbee. The frame cartwheeled across the lawn, landing face down on top of an abandoned ant hill. Ronnie hurried over and grabbed hold of it. There, in the light, he could see a piece of the back’s matting taped closed. He dug a fingernail underneath and peeled it back. Inside, he saw a small leather pouch with a string looped through, forming a necklace, and removed it.
“Get over here,” she said. “I thought you was dead.” She walked over to the side of the house, turned the water spigot to the left, and chased down the hose, pulling it from the ground like a snake handler, wrenching forth the kinked thing and shucking it between her legs as she walked spraddle-legged through the yard. She found the copper nozzle drooling water and yanked some more, sending the lime green line in a traveling hump that whiplashed against Justin’s groin. A passerby might have mistaken the pair for vaudeville actors from a lost piece of the theatrical who knew not the word.
Justin bent over, grabbing himself between the legs and pulling at his swim trunks. “Quit it, now!” he cried out. He danced around like a demented leprechaun.
“Come over here,” she said. “When was the last time you bathed?”
She stuck a thumb over the nozzle and the water shot out with more force. She nearly tripped over her own feet, but she made her way across the yard and showered her son’s back, waving it back and forth with little flicks of her wrist. She gave him a shove, and he fell back on his butt, squirming in the downfall of well water. He yelled out for her to stop. Called to her for mercy. Told her how sorry he was for drinking too much. And in his yelling, she dumped the water in his mouth. He gargled and waved his hands in the air as if some olden spirit had grabbed hold of him. None of his words made sense. Only he knew what tongue he spoke beneath the rush of water.
Ronnie removed the pouch from the back of the frame and walked over to his truck. He threw the painting on a heap of knotted sisal rope in the bed. He walked around the truck, opened the driver’s side, and sat behind the wheel. He unfastened the pouch and stared at a little tooth in the bottom. He plucked it out and moved it around between his fingers. He didn’t mean to, didn’t feel like he had squeezed it hard enough to warrant it, but the tooth fissuered almost exactly in half. Had it been that long ago? He could hear the sound of his own voice breaking through the fragments. He’d lost the tooth back when he was only a child and his dad had almost knocked him out.
Ronnie had stolen some cash from his dad’s wallet. When his dad found out, he took him into the back yard and told him to put up his dukes. “You think you can just take the easy way out,” his father had said, “and just steal my money that I worked so hard for and expect me to just sit back and not do a thing?”
“I needed it to take this girl on date,” Ronnie had said. “I can pay you back.”
But it hadn’t been the first time his dad had hit him. And it hadn’t been the first time his dad drank too much. Ronnie’s tooth flew out his mouth with the first fist to his jaw, and he groveled on the ground and grabbed at his mouth as if to stopper the blood.
“That’s not who I am,” Ronnie remembered his dad telling him weeks later, holding the tooth eye-level. “I’m holding onto it. So that I won’t do it again.” He put the tooth in a small faux-leather pouch and wore it around his neck. When his drinking buddies invited him to the bars, he told them he would not go because of what he had done before, clutching the pouch for security like a stuffed animal. He stopped drinking and never touched another drop.
Over the years, Ronnie would see his dad painting pictures of hawks, frogs, and horses, the leather pouch swinging above his navel with each brushstroke. He remembered watching his father paint that last portrait that Justin had been guarding under the deck. His father had removed the pouch from around his neck and placed it behind the canvas and then tape it shut.
Ronnie looked through the front passenger window, back at Justin and his mom. A rainbow flickered and disappeared in the hose’s mist. Justin drank.
Ronnie cranked the truck and backed out of the driveway, the weakened suspension rebounding as it crossed over gravel and hit pavement.
He drove a good distance down the road and felt like he had once been that lizard with the blue tail. He had lost a bit of himself all those years ago under his dad’s temper and rage. Some part of him felt like he was still tied to that tooth in his hand.
He put both hands on the steering wheel when the road curved, and he slowed down for a man who stood on the shoulder of the road, sliding a snow shovel beneath the ribs of a dead fox.
Ronnie watched him in the rearview mirror as he went on, wondering if people should pay for their mistakes forever. He thought that he should turn around. But then he thought: It’s their choice. Not mine.
He bit down on the inside of his cheek when he remembered how painful it had been all those years ago. He rolled a fist over his left jaw, massaging it. Then he rolled down his window and chunked the little tooth out onto the side of the road with the litter and the dead things.