The pickup was loaded with furniture which he planned to sell in town. He drove slowly down the highway so the canvas tarp wouldn’t blow. There had been some rain that afternoon and he knew the old dealer would pay less if the furniture was wet or in any way damaged. Having talked with him earlier that day, when asked if he bought used furniture, the old man’s eyes had glazed with practiced indifference as he absently replied that he’d have to see the ‘stuff’ first. So the young man promised to return with the furniture before the store closed that evening.
He glanced to the rearview mirror, checking the tarp, and remembered the dogs running behind the pickup, lost in the trailing dust. That morning he’d dumped the dogs, a yellow Lab and a white Spaniel, near a little town too small to have a dogcatcher where he hoped they’d find a home. Some years before when his father moved the family off the farm, he remembered the dogs dumped along a desolate road, how they’d circled and sniffed the air then ran after the car. There were other times in his youth when grownups came in the night to haul a stray away; they might as well have lynched his best friend. He could never understand the gruff ease with which adults performed such acts. Now, however, he realized if you live long enough, sooner or later you’ll likely commit every lame act you felt incapable of as a child.
Later in the week, he would leave his wife and young son, another betrayal, though only for a short while, till he could resettle. Still, an uncertain sadness quarreled with his thoughts, indistinct as two children quarreling behind a barn, faint and defiant as a distal, nostalgic scream. Too much was passing from him, too many attachments forsaken in a day. He felt more and more a traitor with its sour pang and hunger. It was dangerous to feel so empty. The home he had searched so anxiously and hopefully for, his wife, child, family, and friends, who were more than people to him, all members of a holy tribe living off a harsh yet cherished land, all betrayed.
There was another reason he drove slowly. He wished to savor the land, its contour and color, its varied texture and scent, take it all in and etch it deep to give assurance he would one day return. So he drove silently asking of the land its forgiveness – far easier to apologize to the vast face of the prairie than be gripped by the pleading condemnation of his young wife’s wounded eyes.
It was one of those transitional days of late November, the air full of melting snow and mud odors, the atmosphere gray, oppressive, as pale, sifting stratus clouds distorted the anchoring sun in a purplish haze, yellow-rimmed, shrouding the sky. And over all the land stretched a black sea of mud with islands of filthy snow scattered here and there, waiting to die. In the fields, arthritic stalks of milo and corn huddled, gnarled and bent by wet snow and high winds, their tumescent fruits hanging isolate, untenable, also waiting to die and to rot. One of those near-winter days of car-heaters and stoves half ablaze, the smell of over-boots on damp floorboards and gloves let to dry.
Many farmers had come to town, their cars and pickups lined the streets, no parking space left in front of the bars and cafes where the men sat talking over their coffee or beer while their women-folk shopped at the IGA or Boogaarts.
As he drove down the street he could hear their talk, the men, already knew their words. How it would have been a record milo crop. How the pheasant hunters out from Kansas City and up from Wichita had done enough damage dragging their big-ass boots and shotguns through the fields. No respect. Then the early snow and high winds had hit, knocking the buxom feed to a muddy mattress as sure as the little woman got hers. And there she lay in all her ravaged splendor, ripe and ready, the richest grain ever, and you couldn’t get to her lying there in the mud. No damn way! And di’ja hear, some took over 90 bushels an acre before the snow! This really sparked some ripe words. He’d heard it all, their pool-hall parlance, the county had been fairly abuzz with it for a week. He had it memorized, the piss and moan of each wagging tongue.
That ought to slacken their fat bellies, he thought, wondering how many new pickups orders would be canceled. But to those in the bars and cafes, it smacked of sin, an unharvested crop, something like thievery or adultery to their eyes. Like the Holy Virgin set before them, ever-merciful and kind, yet her loving mercy was forever out of reach, which made man’s doings all the more desperate. For the well-healed and their boosters, he had no sympathy, only bitter disdain. They hadn’t any need, nor were they luckless. Year after year the big landowners had pilfered the prairie then dissipated their gains in vain bellicose consumption. Having tilled the land for less than a century, yet in this mere span, they’d rifled the grass and soil in many places clear to the rocks. So he viewed the storm cryptically as the Indian nemesis…or dirt farmers blown to the wind. For there was a bitter pulse about the land and in himself, if he’d admit it, an angry sullen spirit which knew of other harvests left unfinished and other lives left untapped. And if the current gentry were not pleased with their substance then they could leave like all the others had through the years. All those they’d helped chew up and spit out…the jilted daughters and abandoned widows and sons. No, he had no sympathy for the overlords and bankers, only for the victims of their usurious, cunning ways. And of the latter, he knew a good many, knew their worries and shared them. Knew also that they wouldn’t be in the bars and cafes, or even in town – for they bought their whiskey early and would be parked in old pickups along the county’s back roads. And their thoughts with each drink would turn to their pending debts, after each bottle to their children, and with each passing day to themselves and to their wives alone at home dreading the anger, rage, and despair that would return come nightfall.
He longed desperately for the past – a past before all the looming thresholds of decision and anxiety when at times the sadness of the entire world seemed to collapse and descend upon a man’s lower gut like some deadly black cancer, an effluvium of despair like a day-after’s breath of alcohol and tobacco. He would like to have gone to the little cafe in the south part of town where his friends would be drinking coffee, their words always full of mystery and play like rowdy children born of riddles. And he would have joined them like a child in their theater of the absurd, shared in their cuss and laughter, and thus briefly escaped the environs’ as well as the mind’s hostility, instead, he turned east up 4th Street. He headed on past Lincoln where he should have turned, then circled the block and parked in front of the used furniture store.
The old building had once been the local Nazarene Church and retained the faded red lettering above the door; this epitaph merged with another more recently daubed on the wood and so juxtaposed the old dealer’s sign read “Nazarene Used Furniture Store.” It served somewhat as the county repository, shoddy, dilapidated, no larger than a one-room schoolhouse which it resembled, containing all the unharmonious clutter in which the communal soul abides. Whereas the Nazarene had been a carpenter and went into Judea to become the Messiah, his church now housed the unfired corpses and chipped remains of his former craft.
The young man stepped in and found the old dealer with another customer. So he stood back and let his eyes drift over the soiled mattresses, springs, and bedsteads, tables, chairs, hall-trees, and lamps stacked about the floor and up the walls in an indifferent array. There was a desk child-scrawled with crayons; a mirrored bureau in the far corner which a delicate old lady may have owned before she passed away. A strange expression he thought, pass away. He always envisioned a person walking over a pasture hill into the distance with the nimbus of evening serving in solemn witness to their passing. An old scythe hung like a crucifix on the east wall, the veins of its handle long sealed by the dirt and sweat of earthy labor. The implement as ancient as the Nazarene himself, and he wondered if the user had reaped just reward in final harvest. Close by stood a woodstove, its metal hide pitted by rust and ashes, the grate and flue unfired for a decade now. A set of narrow bedsprings stood against the wall, bent and warped as if by fevered nightmares. He wondered if the heat that had framed this tension had been of death-throes or passion. To the side, behind a chest, he spied a swirl of glass tubing that spelled the word ‘Cafe’ – a ghostly haze haunted the cold, dead neon trapped within. And there were mirrors along the aisles, some with quaint filigree and frosted pictures, one cracked, others gazing up off tables. He had long been superstitious of mirrors, not only for their reflections but for the memories inherent in their silver-lined surfaces. Avoiding these stares, he stayed by the gas-heater for warmth. Nonetheless, the old building and its contents oozed a chill, damp breath. A gray winter day, the sky one omniscient cloud with no shadows, the only thing sustaining the world was a raw, hungering sense of the spiritual, seemingly lost as well. Even the walls, naked and stained, bore ghosts of vanished scenes rather than the wallpaper itself.
To avoid the haunt he decided to move outside and await the old dealer on the front steps. No longer was he drawn to the past and its certainty, rather it was the future he yearned for. Time for a journey, time he stepped past the various thresholds and shed his angst and dread. Life now seemed absurdly transparent, brief and metabolic, whereas it had once appeared dense, mysterious, and dramatic. No matter, whether toward peril or promise, he would choose a path and go. His grandfather, a veteran of the Great War and the trenches, had told him that when crossing a narrow plank bridge to never look down, always trust your instinct and look straight ahead. Was this the way to cross life’s voids and uncertainties? To keep running in sweat behind one dim headlight beamed through the darkness, with bone-faith and trust your only guide? Was this what his grandfather meant, that we must always run blind?
Presently the old dealer came out and sent his other customer on with a perfunctory word. He turned his vague blue eyes to the one waiting, gaze and intent blurred by thick bifocals. He gave a nod and hunched his gray jacket against the damp air as they silently crossed to the street. At the pickup he pulled back the tarp, peered in briefly then stepped back, coughed and spat, preparing his gambit.
“How much you take for the lot?”
The young man thought a moment and said, “Fifty dollars.”
“Nope,” the old dealer winced in parry. “Cain’t do ‘er. I’ll give ya twenty for the works. And that’s my offer.”
“Hell, those chairs alone are worth five bucks each, which comes to thirty. Then there’s the couch, the table, the bed…”
“I know that, son. I know all that,” the old dealer wheezed, dismissing the youth’s indignation. “But I got to turn a profit. Pay for my trouble. Now I may sit on this stuff a year before I can turn it, and that costs me, son, in storage, heat ‘n electric. Plus I charge fair prices, I’m reasonable. Don’t like to hike my customers. Now twenty dollars is my offer. If ya don’t like it, don’t think it’s fair, go somewhere else.”
“No place else buys used furniture.”
“Suppose so,” the old dealer shrugged, frank, impatient, “then take ‘er home or to the city dump. I can’t pay much for it, son. Heck, I get more every day. Stuff like that.”
“How about forty dollars,” the young man persists.
“Whoa now!” the old dealer laughs, genuinely amused. “Think to bargain with me, eh? Well, I never change my mind once I make an offer. That’s it. Twenty dollars, boy, take it or leave it.”
“I need the money.”
“Then swing yer pickup over round here ‘n help me unload. I’m an old man…”
They worked quickly, unloading and stacking the furniture, and he listened as the old dealer complained about his back.
“No sir, I never wished nor whined,” he gasped, breathing heavily. “Don’t get much out of this, boy. Do it sort of as a service, ya see. Naw…,” he paused lifting another chair to the porch, catching his breath and rhythm to better match the young man’s occasional concurrence and nod, “should rest myself, ‘stead I drive down here twice a week from Rynal. That’s sixty miles. You know where Rynal is, don-cha?”
“Can’t say as I do,” the young man answered blankly.
“Well, it’s up off 36 Highway. ‘Bout ten miles west of Bellville,” the old dealer again paused, blinked his eyes, cleared his throat, briefly searching his thoughts before resuming. “I do an antique business up there. Fine stuff too. Not like this ol’ shit here. No sir, get tourists from New York, California, all over the country stop in there. Have some fine quality articles. But since Clair died, that’s my wife, there’s no one to really care about, no one to worry. She’d never let me do this…drive this far and this much more work ‘n all. But as I’s saying, do this more as a service. Lots of folks ain’t so well off, can’t afford to pay much for furniture. So…,” heaving another load, “I give ‘em a fair shake. Keep prices reasonable. Though takes a lot out of me to drive, and I really don’t make all that much, ya see…”
This last trailed off as the old dealer noticed the young man had turned away, not listening, avoiding as much his breath as his words. The old dealer straightened with a grimace and began slowly ascending the steps.
“I got talking there,” he said. “Forgot ‘bout your money. Suppose you want cash.”
“Yes,” the young man answered, turning to follow.
Inside, the old dealer carefully counted out a score of dollar bills then casually asked the young man if he was moving far.
“Yeah, I’m going back East,” he replied.
“Say now, that is a goodly distance. Do you have work out there?”
“No,” the other answered quietly. “I write songs. Want to make it with my songs.”
“Oh, you one of them guitar players, like ol’ Hank?”
“Say, I sure wish you luck, young feller. Yes sir…”
With that, the young man said thanks and started to leave, but before he could reach the door the old dealer called him back.
“Just need your name here. Got to keep records for Uncle Sam, ya know,” he added with a chuckle.
“Clayton. Lee Clayton,” the young man answered, reluctant, bitter at the deal and now being detained.
“Clay…Clayton…?” the old dealer repeated, trying to recall as if thumbing through the pages of a telephone directory. “Did you ever have relatives up round Oakvale?”
“Yeah,” the young man answered warily, for he knew, knew better than the harvest talk in the pool-halls and cafes, the question that would follow. “My family farmed north of there. We moved away when I was six.”
“Your father named Faris?” the old dealer asked, examining the other more closely.
The young man noted the recognition in the old dealer’s eyes, knowing that he shared his father’s features, the same posture, the same wry, dark look.
“Yeah. That was my father. Did you know him?”
“Sure. Sure nuff did,” the old dealer said. “Knew your father ‘n mother and you kids. You was all young then, of course. No sir, knew your father right well. Ya see, I ran the sale-barn up to Mankato and cried sales all over them parts for years…before I got too old—” the old dealer stopped abruptly, again regarding the young man.
“Your father, he took his life, didn’t he?”
It came like a blast of ghost-heat from a furnace or white steam off a train engine, long, panicky, all the fear, thought, guilt, and repressed screams that cloaked the years began to churn like hot gravel through his gut...yeah old man, took his life. Had to t’save it. To save his spirit. My father’s spirit, old man. That deep heart of him wrapped warm like a babe in a blanket, cuddled and nestled to his chest, took it and faded over the hills, lurching from shadow to shadow, yet wanted to scream...‘cause there was all kinds of lyin’ bastards out to get him! Running low and hunched, silent through the slumbering dusk…yet wanted to scream! Hell, he used hot lead to fill the vacuum of his dreams and left his life dissolving on the floorboard of a 1940 Ford sedan! And dire words, old man, depict the act – the rank dust, despair, and body odor agglutinating with the pale dross and scoriated flesh, burnt gunpowder, and dried blood – but memory holds it dear. Killed his life to save it! And the only garden to surface that spring was asparagus and onion, then only the wild and fibrous. And the preacher said only that he was a desperate man and should not be blamed. Then after weeks of drought, it rained at his funeral, hard into his grave. So God must have been pleased. He passed away, as they say, if not his spirit, then the man, his footprints, and all the moments up to his last act on this earth. And the three unities of his drama like the holy trinity lie shattered in the clutter of this remnant church. Yeah, old man…he exhaled slow and easy, releasing his anger like a child does its breath when attempting to blow a bubble bigger and bigger.
“Yeah,” stated evenly, “he shot himself that next spring down by Asher.”
“So that’s where it was,” the old dealer drawled. “Yes, I recall now hearing such.” Then he asked, a bit more tentative, “This don’t bother you…to talk about it?”
“No, not at all,” he lied, “it’s all long gone, in the past.”
“Well, yes, it’s been quite a while. But sure, I knew Faris. Knew his cousin too.”
“Yes, Arlan was his name. Knew both them boys, and liked them too. And they thought the world of me, yes sir. Why, I’s the one what cried the sale for Arlan before he moved out to Kentucky, I believe it was. You recall that?”
“No,” he lied again – it was the day before his third birthday, the train depot in Mankato, and he remembered hugging his cousins good-bye. “No, I was too young.”
“Suppose so.” The old dealer raised a hand to his lips, delving into his thoughts. “Something else, you see, I always been a little hurt…oh, nothing big, ya understand. But yer dad, Faris, told me I could cry his sale too. It seemed he promised. But come time he got the Wilke’s brothers up to Superior. And I helped both them boys, a fact I did, and they thought the world of me…”
The young man tensed. Like the twenty bucks you gave me you damn leech! He wanted to scream, Five more seconds, old man, I’ll bust you like a broke bottle! Edging to anger, he caught himself and gripped a chair. Hold it, hold…!
“The day of the sale I tried to talk to Faris but he was right short with me. I asked why didn’t I get to cry the sale like he promised. But like I said he just wouldn’t have a thing to do with me. Like he didn’t know me, or I him. And for quite a while I was hurt by that ‘cause I was close to those boys. Then later I heard what happened and of course, forgave him. ‘Cause it’s an illness, ya see, they can’t help themselves. Why you never know. People seldom do. Heck, the best friend life ever give me took his own life. We rode this country and cried sales together for twenty years and I never guessed it. But later, looking back, a man knows. They don’t talk so much, kinda short with ya, and don’t laugh much towards the end. Course no one blames…”
Within his heart the young man felt his deep voice awaken and cry, You vulture, vulture…I am not your carrion! Yet the bubble did not burst and he ceased to listen to the old dealer quickly as cocaine numbs the face. His dark anger no longer threatened even though his heart still pulsed a bitter portion. He turned and made his exit.
Outside, he learned what he’d only feared and guessed at before. What others had seen and already known, his father and all those lost like strays down byways and back roads. An enlightenment he did not want or call for – he felt its surge and damnation as his bitter cry again welled forth – Vulture! – and he saw what made the land vengeful and heartless and the past, present, and future visible and ubiquitous as the evening shadows. In the western sky an imminent sphere, a black moon of despair that hovers both above and within the wounded soul. Anger and reverence poured forth before the unbidden orb, this palpable singularity drawing all light and life and reflecting none, cratered by the haunted ones impacted there. It hollowed his gut and drained his eyes, offered to kill his flesh and save his spirit, draw the latent self to it. A sky hinting no twilight before dark, which reigns empty and numb, sucking your vital marrow; a doubt that freezes thought and action, your very life; a hard, vicious wind that howls about your house and through its walls like they were made of paper.
The same fear that comes with puberty when the hair appears upon your legs and under your arms, the tempting, anxious pleasure that drives and imbues your loins. But this fear wholly unwelcome and consuming. Not wanting to grow or remain. Crying in panic for a never-never promise never to be.
He stood in gaze, close to empty, dangerously so. Felt it suck him dry, cold and alien, as if balanced on the legs of a corpse. He wondered how empty his father had felt leaving the farm. Had he sensed this dark apparition roiling the atmosphere, chilling his bones? He was frightened now and knew he’d better find his friends fast and share some warm whiskey and laughter before this darkness claimed him utterly.
Melvin Litton has published three novels: CASPION & the White Buffalo; GEMINGA; and I, JOAQUIN – all from Crossroad Press. His stories and poems have appeared in Chiron Review, Mobius, Foliate Oak, Floyd County Moonshine, Pif, Broadkill Review, The Literary Hatchet, Bards and Sages, among others. He has two poetry chapbooks, “From the Bone” (Spartan Press) and “Idylls of Being” (Stubborn Mule Press). He is a retired carpenter and lives in Lawrence, KS with his wife Debra and their shepherd Jack. He also writes and performs songs solo and with the Border Band: www.borderband.com