August 29, 2015 by RJ
Shinebone tucked hawk feathers into the laces of his boots and lit a cigarette. He had been scared of snakes ever since he’d seen his brother’s arm swell up from a cotton mouth bite when they were kids. He thought if they smelled a hawk coming they’d stay coiled up in their holes. It was early morning, before dawn. He stood on his porch listening. It was the hour of silence. He smoked down to the filter and flicked the butt into a lidless Styrofoam cooler that was in the yard. It was half full of month-old rain and bloated cigarette butts. Shinebone knew the grass beneath it was dead. Shinebone and Darcy both smoked Marlboros. Shinebone only smoked Reds, and would joke that he must have been a lousy parent to raise a boy that smoked 27s. But Darcy was dead and Shinebone knew there were a couple 27s somewhere in the cooler, and couldn’t bring himself to clean it out.
He stepped off the porch and headed toward the woods. He wanted a drink, felt the thirst calling to him, promising that old comfort he used to know so well. Not today, he told himself. Even in the dark he could make out the short-cut path that led to the neighbor’s trailer. The woods were quiet around him. Birds still sleeping. Possums and coons done savaging for the night. When he got to the dry creek bed he stopped. He knelt and gathered a handful of silt dust. Millions of years of rock and animal bone crumbled to sediment. Darcy’d told him that. As a kid, Darcy had kept a box of fossil stones beneath his bed. Shinebone would take him down to the creek to hunt for them. Darcy would flip the stones and check their bellies for the outline of ancient shells. Shinebone taught Darcy how to lift the rock in case there was a snake underneath it. You always lift the edge of the rock that is farthest from you, keeping the rock between you and whatever is sleeping beneath it. In high school Darcy said he was going to leave the mountain and go to college to study geology, but he dropped out after his junior year and never left the mountain. Never will.
Shinebone wiped his hands clean on his pant leg and crossed the creek bed. Day was beginning to burn at the horizon, an ember light slowly warming. Shinebone bent at the neighbor’s mailbox and picked up some driveway gravel. He circled to the back of a hard-worn trailer and tossed a rock gently against the boy’s window.
Shinebone’s brother had told him about a woman at the foot of the mountain that caused miracles by praying to God and floating candles downriver, out toward the sea. When they released Darcy from Brushy Mountain, Shinebone started paying a neighbor boy ten dollars a couple times a week to climb an old oak tree and burn candles in the highest branches. Shinebone hadn’t prayed in fifty years, figured there was no use starting now. God didn’t keep an ear open for people that’d done the things Shinebone had done. But he burned those candles anyway, always at dawn, and hoped his son would straighten out, hoped for a miracle.
After three rocks the boy slid his window open and gestured with his hand for Shinebone to wait a second. A moment later the trailer door opened and the boy came out carrying his boots. He sat down on a cinder-block step with chipped-off corners, and laced up his boots.
“When’s your daddy getting out?” Shinebone said.
“They got him up for parole in eighteen months.”
“My boy was in there for a bit.”
“He out now?”
Shinebone nodded. He had never talked to the boy about Darcy, never told him why he burnt those candles. Ten dollars to climb and keep quiet, Shinebone had told him the first morning. He couldn’t have explained it anyhow. Burning candles to keep his grown son safe. Didn’t make any sense, not even to him. But he had to do something, and he had kept at it with a parent’s patience.
The boy stood up. “Where’s the candles?” he said.
“We ain’t going down there no more,” Shinebone said.
“Then what’d you get me up for?”
Shinebone reached into his pocket and handed the boy five twenty-dollar bills, tightly folded.
“What’s this?” the boy said.
Shinebone tossed the gravel he was still holding back into the driveway. “I’ll be around from time to time,” he said. “To check up on you.”
The boy and Shinebone both looked at the fold of money, then back at each other.
“I won’t waste my money if I hear you’ve been finding trouble,” Shinebone said.
The boy put the money in his pocket.
“All right then,” Shinebone said, turning to leave.
“Thank you,” the boy called out.
Shinebone kept walking.
The last time Shinebone saw Darcy, Darcy had come by looking for money. Shinebone told him he couldn’t help him. Darcy said he had figured as much, but had to check anyway. He only stayed long enough to finish a beer he’d brought with him and a cigarette. It was almost dusk. No stars visible yet, but a sliver of crescent moon. Darcy got in his truck and rolled the window down.
“Ever heard the Grundy County mating call?” Darcy asked as he pulled a pill bottle from his breast pocket.
Shinebone tried to force a smile but couldn’t. He sipped his coffee. Darcy had been telling the same joke since he got out of prison. Shinebone wanted to tell Darcy to flush those damn pills and straighten up, but Darcy knew all the old stories about his father, about the drugs and drinking, the arrests and the fights. Shinebone had lived like Hell burned inside him when he was Darcy’s age. Darcy wouldn’t listen to a word of advice from Shinebone’s mouth. Shinebone wished Darcy would hide those bottles from him at least, like he used to do. But since he’d been out he’d treated Shinebone more like a friend and less like a father. Even called him Shine like everyone else did.
Darcy shook the pill bottle. The pills clattered loudly against the plastic. “Grundy County mating call,” he shouted. He laughed and put the truck in gear.
That bottle sounded more like a rattler to Shinebone.
When he got home from the neighbor’s, it was full morning. His yard was wet with dew. He stood outside, not wanting to go in. Today he was supposed to identify the body. Opening the back door would put him one step closer. He stood and listened to the morning birds test their sleepy voices. Dogs barked at truck engines starting. Shinebone went inside.
He buttoned up his shirt from the bottom, misaligned the holes and the buttons and had to start over. He fumbled at his tie, and when he finally tied it right it didn’t even reach his belly button. Shinebone looked at himself in the mirror, his sleeves came down to his knuckles, pant legs touched the floor. He felt that old thirst inside him telling him to take a sip, just one, and feel all of this start to ease away. Two sips and it’ll all feel okay. He walked into the kitchen and took the jar of corn liquor from beneath the sink. He’d kept a jar there for the last twenty years, and never taken a sip. When he felt that thirst he’d take out the jar and feel the weight of it, just to know he could sip if he needed to. He held it up to the light and slapped it. High-proof bubbles formed on the surface. Not today, he thought.
In his truck, Shinebone turned on the radio and listened to the weather. Rain was predicted to come in after midnight. He turned the radio off and rolled down his window. He felt the wind strong against his palm. He thought of Darcy coming home from first grade with plans to catch fish with a kite. They had learned in school that clouds are made from water sucked up from rivers and lakes and seas. Darcy’s face lit up when he told this to Shinebone.
“There must be a thousand fish up there,” he said. “Just like the ones we caught in Uncle Fez’s lake.”
Darcy spent the rest of the afternoon tying rusty fish hooks to the kite’s string and trying to fly it high enough to make a catch. When the wind died down the kite got caught in a tree limb and Darcy threw rocks at it until the sun went down.
Shinebone parked in front of the coroner’s office and turned off the engine. He lit a cigarette. He tried to take the whole thing down in one long draw, but he started coughing spit all over the steering wheel. A mother and son passed by on the sidewalk. Shinebone tried to hold a hand up to tell them he was okay, but they hurried by and averted their eyes. He wasn’t okay, they could see that. He tossed the cigarette into the parking lot and went to the door. He saw his reflection in the dark glass. He’d forgotten to comb his hair. The knot of his tie was crooked. His suit was too big. The skin beneath his eyes was wrinkled and drooping. He went inside.
They led Shinebone into a room bright with a light so white it seemed almost blue. The stainless steel countertops were clean and empty. The floor made squeaking sound beneath his shoes. All the drawers were shut, cabinet doors closed. Everything had been put away, everything except for Darcy.
A man whose name he had forgotten led him by the elbow to the side of a table. Darcy was covered by a sheet.
“Are you ready?” the coroner said.
The man pulled the sheet down just enough to reveal Darcy’s face and the tops of his shoulders. His eyes were closed. His skin was pale and cold, as if a light had been switched off behind it. His hair dark brown and just long enough for it to be worn messy. Shinebone noted the scar that separated Darcy’s eyebrow. He remembered the cut was too close to the optical nerve, so the doctor couldn’t give Darcy a numbing shot. Darcy was eleven years old, had slipped in the bathtub and split is eyebrow in two. The doctor strapped him to the table in something like a straightjacket to keep him still. Shinebone held his hand as the doctor sewed his eyebrow shut. Darcy didn’t even squeeze. Shinebone had wished he had, wished he had sqeezed hard just so Shinebone could share some of the pain.
Shinebone wanted to cover his son’s body back up and carry it out. Darcy wouldn’t have wanted to be in there, he didn’t like places like this, so neat and orderly. Darcy liked weeds that came up through the sidewalk, kitchen sinks full of dishes, jeans with holes at the knees. Shinebone wondered if he still had the strength to sling Darcy over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. When Darcy was little Shinebone would call out, “Bedtime for Bonzo” every night before bed. Darcy would run around the living room begging for thirty more minutes. When Shinebone caught him he’d shout out, “Sack of potatoes” and sling Darcy over his shoulder, carrying him to bed.
“Would you like a moment?” the coroner asked.
“No,” Shinebone said. I’d like a drink, he thought. He felt that old thirst inside him promising to make everything better. Just a couple sips and this pain will start to loosen.
The coroner covered Darcy’s face and handed Shinebone a one-gallon Ziploc bag. “Everything that was on him,” the man said.
Shinebone took the bag without going through its contents. He signed some papers and left the building. He breathed deep, relieved to be outside. He could go home now and hold the bottle, give the thirst the chance to change his mind, uncap it and descend back into it all. He started his truck and drove home. Not today, he told himself, not today.
Shinebone took off the suit and laid it on the bed. He stood looking at it, knowing the next time he wore a suit he would be laying in his own casket. He got a wire hanger from the closet and hung the suit on the nail he’d half-driven into the bathroom door. He’d been hanging things from that nail since before Darcy was born. Twenty-seven years, and it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
In the kitchen Shinebone put on a pot of coffee and waited. Through the window above the sink he watched the sun struggle to keep the world alight. Only a sliver of sun still visible above the tree line. When his coffee was ready he took it to the porch and lit a cigarette. He smoked it down and listened to the paper sizzle when he took a deep drag. When he finished he flicked it into the cooler and heard the sound of the ember tip hiss as it hit the water, all its heat gone in an instant. He set his coffee down, unsipped, and walked to the cooler. The water was murky and crowded with cigarettes and a few dead leaves. An insect floated belly up, legs kicking for something to grab onto. Shinebone wondered if Darcy had fought, had kicked and struggled to grab onto something as life slipped him, but with so many pills in his stomach he’d probably just fallen asleep.
Shinebone tipped the cooler over with the toe of his boot. The water spread across the yard and pooled, only for a second, before soaking into the ground. Soggy cigarette butts littered the grass. The insect righted itself and scampered away. Shinebone went to the garage and came back with a shovel and a rake. He carefully dug up a clump of grass and set it aside. Daylight was no longer on the horizon, but he could still make out the cigarette against the dark blanket of grass. He dug two shovelfuls of dirt from the hole and raked all the cigarette butts into it. He filled the hole with dirt and returned the grass clump, tamping it down with the heel of his boot. He imagined what noises could be heard underground. Blind creatures tunneling their way through the darkness, scratching roots as the passed. Footprints from the above ground world, like slow rolling thunder.
Shinebone unwound the garden hose and washed the cooler out, cleaned it as good as he could but the nicotine had soaked in deep. He placed it back where it had been. He knew what he was going to do now. He was going to leave it there, let it fill back up with rain. But this time he would keep it clean. No more cigarette butts. He would buy a goldfish net and skim the water each morning. The stain would always remain, but unable to bleed back into the water. The water would be clean. He would watch storm clouds come in slow and unleash water that had evaporated from rivers and oceans halfway across the world. He would drink coffee on the porch, watching the cooler fill, watching till the water rose up and spilled over the edges.
Shinebone returned to the kitchen and took the liquor jar from beneath the sink. He uncapped it and breathed in the fumes. The scent burnt his throat, made his eyes threaten to water. Not today, he told himself. He took the jar into the yard and set it where he knew the sun would find it when day returned. He left the cap off. Let it mix with rain, he thought, let it dry up in the sun.
Shinebone took the lid back inside and threw it away. This was the first time in his life that he was living in a dry house. From that moment on when he felt the thirst tightening its fist around his organs, threatening to rip the life out of him, he’d kneel at the cooler and drink the storm water. Handful after handful of clean water scooped from a tarnished cooler, until his belly was tight. But tonight the cooler was empty, tonight he would sit on the porch and wait for the rain.
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Andrew Gray Siegrist is a graduate student at the University of New Orleans. He is from Nashville, Tennessee.