Marcy and I had been on the outs for some time. In hindsight, I should’ve realized the eventuality of our demise many months before we rented the apartment from the kind gentleman who owned the golden retriever, only to split from each other a week into our shared lease for reasons then unfathomable to me.
I loaded my truck bed with my share of our belongings and made the long drive south from Wyoming on down through Colorado and the Panhandle, before settling in the Hill Country, the place where I was born and raised.
I felt the warm air lifting me, the cedar hills hugging me close, heard fresh water running across limestone bottoms, saw lightning bugs winking at me in the nighttime. There is a promise in this country that distance can heal a wounded heart quicker and more fully than introspection. And this, a fine definition of the American dream.
Still, I needed a place to live.
Opportunities arise from wanting. Reality gives itself over to your will and nothing can be discounted as chance. Which is a swell way of saying I found the advertisement for my next residence buried in the classifieds of Craigslist.
The photos of the place were framed in twilight, and highlighted the surrounding property, which was nestled in a hollow between the hills just before you come upon the Great Divide on your way south to Blanco from Henly. I made arrangements with the landlord and visited on a bleeding hot July afternoon.
The property consisted of a small washout pond, several tin structures, and a ranch house with a wraparound porch. The landlord was a tall tan man with silver hair and great big hands, impressive even in his early seventies. He spoke in fast and stuttered rhythms that made me want to clutch the dirt and hang on, but walked at a pace which indicated there was no other place he’d rather be in that moment than with me, touring his property, him explaining to me his rules.
“This part here is where I host my guests,” he said, pointing to a cantina beside the pond. “Of course, if you sign a lease, you won’t be invited to our engagements. But you’re allowed to lurk anytime we’re gone.”
We passed by a house with a screen porch and a tan single cab Chevy, lifted. “This is your neighbor, Justin,” said the landlord. “He’s a veteran of the wars. He’s always shooting guns and arrows at the wild things. You’ll probably want to stay away from Justin.”
There was a garage with some peacocks inside of it. He waved at them with the tips of his fingers. “Certain faiths consider the peacock to be a holy creature. Your thoughts?”
“They’re handsome, I would say. But their heads are too small for their bodies.”
“Some assessment. And you claim to hold a graduate degree?” said the landlord. Then quickly, “I’m kidding. You’ll come to find I’m a real funny ha-ha sort of guy.”
The last structure we visited was 300 square feet, max—the house I’d seen in the advertisement. The landlord fiddled with some keys and opened the door. Light flooded into a cramped apartment, a young woman and a child lying on the same couch, watching a movie about exotic zookeepers. “Ah, Natalya,” said the landlord. “Your potential replacement is here.”
“Hello,” I said.
Natalya nodded her head. The child beside her was probably seven, playing with a blackened banana peel. The rest of the house was filled with cooking utensils and cleaning supplies. A toy box sat in the corner overfull with action figures.
The landlord let me take pictures and look inside the bathroom, which was just a shower head spilling into a drain at the center of the floor, a toilet and sink. I’ve always been impulsive, and my acknowledgement of such a character trait is what inspires me to feign due diligence, even when I know I’ve made up my mind. I had already begun to imagine myself sitting on the front porch on balmy afternoons in the spring, drinking Mexican beer, and listening to my truck radio. I’m awfully saccharine when I envision the many ways I could spend my time at leisure.
Between pictures and thought dreams of my soon to be future, I listened to Natalya’s child singing through the wall, thinking about the time Marcy described to me the prospect of having children as something akin to perdition.
I exited the bathroom, biting my cheeks and not blinking, and quickly thanked Natalya for allowing me into her home. Again, she just nodded. “Shit,” said her child, a little boy.
“Yes, I know,” I said, and Natalya smiled. I thought she was pretty, if not sad in the eyes.
I walked onto the front porch, finding the landlord there, smoking an American Spirit. He would hold in the smoke and push it through his nostrils, so that it billowed big and white around the contours of his cracked face. He had probably protested Vietnam and read Kerouac’s oeuvre. He had on brogans and a Velvet Underground tee. “What’s your judgement?” he said, not looking at me, but instead at some of the peacocks, which had followed us over and were pecking at the dirt.
“It’s small. Not at all like what I thought.”
“Your problem is you expected something. Expectations are a bummer. You’ll learn that as you get older.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Tell you what. Let’s say I cover the electricity and water. Then all you have is rent.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“I like you. I think you fit my image of this place. The story I want it to tell.”
“Oh fine,” I said. “When can I move in?”
Soon after I signed my lease, the landlord informed me about the water situation. There was a rain cistern that supplied water to my shack and held something like a hundred gallons. If I burned through it before it stormed, I’d have to pay to have it refilled. Then there was the fact that the shack was constructed without the use of drywall, which prevented me from hanging anything on the walls. Not that I’d ever been an enthusiastic decorator, but it frustrated me that I wasn’t free to, anyway.
I moved in a few days later, somehow surprised at how fully the shack had been wiped clean of its past history, of Natalya and her little boy. The only thing remaining was a half-full carton of eggs in the refrigerator, which they must’ve left there on purpose, because the rest of the refrigerator had been bleached and scrubbed.
I squeezed a twin mattress into the corner, crammed my books onto the windowsill, spread a rug I’d found at Walmart across the green dyed concrete floor. In the evening, I sipped beer on the front porch like I’d imagined and thought about displacement. When I was in Wyoming, it had seemed time was slow, and I had made decisions which were a reflection of this quality, forming plans for myself and others that could stretch on unto death, whenever or however we died.
Now I was drinking a beer and it was summer in Texas, and I hadn’t a job and only half a dozen eggs in the fridge to eat.
I drank another beer and then one more, and soon it was night, and a haze of lightning bugs hovering among the cedar wood surrounding my shack. It was downright dreamy. From the windowsill, I grabbed the copy of Walden I’d stolen from a former professor and held it to my breast. This professor was long dead, but the book I’d taken from him, and the feeling of man in nature, this too might last until every place like it is violated or burned to ash.
Somewhere along the line I crawled into my bed, sweaty and sore, and dreamt of snakes.
In the morning, I was blinded by the light which came in through the many windows. On the ground, I recognized the pages of Walden, ripped from the binding and scattered. I realized then that Natalya had taken her blinds with her when she moved out, and I had not noticed until it was most bothersome to me.
I had an awful headache and my stomach was all cramps. I stumbled to the sink, stepping over and onto crumpled paper, and filled a glass with water. Having drunk most of this, I opened the refrigerator, where sat the lonely carton of eggs. I removed these from the shelf and started a burner on the gas stove, placing a cast iron onto the eye, and drinking yet another glass of water.
Once the skillet was shimmering and glossy, I cracked an egg into the pan, and out fell a fetal chick, filling my nose and eyes with the scent and sight of curdling placenta, and life promised, yet unfulfilled.
I threw away the scalded fetus, and though I hadn’t eaten, my appetite vanished. I drank another glass of water. Several hours later I was hunched over the side of my toilet, vomiting.
The landlord had forgotten to remind me the water from the cistern was unfiltered and might contain bacterial particulates. I had to find that out on my own. There’re many things, thoughts and ideas, we have to come to this-a-way, though we be children of God.
As for the fetus that lurched out the egg, call it bad luck.
For another few weeks, I enjoyed the property alone, so that summer was quickly fading into a September gloaming, and the mesquite grass and ball moss in the trees so green it hurt to know it would shrivel up and brown soon. How ugly creation can seem when you’re death obsessed, even in the high times, when the world is lush.
During this period, the landlord and my neighbor—Justin—had apparently conspired to stay elsewhere while I settled in. I knew the landlord to be a permanent resident of San Antonio, a businessman with moneyed ties there. As for Justin, I hadn’t the slightest clue where or who he was, outside his being a veteran of the wars.
I got a job cutting cedar with a man named Johnnie Lutz. He made me use a beaten chainsaw that leaked fluid, and repeatedly told me I was shitty at it. In spite of this, Johnnie Lutz paid me regularly and always asked that I return to whatever property we were cutting on the next day and the day after.
One evening, bouncing up the road in my rusting Dodge, my hair waxed in sap, I saw the tan colored Chevy, and a giant of a man leaning over the bed of it, drinking beer. Justin. I parked my truck beside my shack, and before my feet could hit the ground heard him calling for me. I waved, hoping that would be all of it.
“Don’t be a stranger,” said Justin, rifling through a cooler he stored in his truck’s toolbox. “Come over and have a beer.”
A good neighbor couldn’t say no.
I walked over, introducing myself. He tossed me a can, something light and cold, cheap. I cracked it open and thought of my grandmother, who used to drink several of the same brand every night before she went to bed, lived until she was ninety, and never had to have a tooth pulled. Herein was a secret to good health, or one lucky woman, the likes of which would never be seen again. When I’d gotten to the bottom of the can, Justin handed me another.
“Are you sure?” I said.
“Have all you’d like,” said Justin. “It’s good to have another man around the place. Someone I can bullshit with.”
“To be honest I had thought you moved out. I haven’t seen you around.”
“I’m on the road a lot,” said Justin. “My lifestyle asks this of me, this transience, this nomadism.”
“Nomadism,” I said. I liked the word, the many syllables, and the intellectual aspirations of one who would deign to use it casually. “But you always come back here, I’m thinking.”
“Bingo,” said Justin, chuckling. He had a good laugh. Like he could be your older brother or something. “You gotta have yourself a hitching post, to slow down when the world sets to spinning. Otherwise you’re just lost, which is what I was when I moved here.”
He proceeded to share with me the story of how he’d found himself living on the property. Formerly married, he’d slogged through a painful divorce. Charges of infidelity and abuse on both sides. Admittedly, he had never been quite alright since he came back from the war, always a shell to those who knew him before. Sure, he’d punched the wall, and broken all the glass above the garage doors with a 3-Iron, but she’d fucked their next-door neighbor (who was a former college pitcher, he annoyingly reminded himself), so he figured they were even.
“And now I couldn’t be more at peace,” he said, seeming to conclude his tirade against the frail bonds of holy matrimony. “I even found me another woman, with whom I’m approaching love again.”
I imagined Justin blitzed and reeling against the sources of his anguish through some suburban unreality, physically manifesting his anger and bad feeling. When I had discovered all the bad between me and Marcy, this had not been my reaction. I had receded into myself and fled. So that I knew where I stood along the spectrum of fight or flight.
The frogs were croaking down in the pond, and Justin was framed in the silver light of the moon. He looked like the source of some Elizabethan folktale, the kind of gentleman who comes out the woods with a shepherd’s crook and cloak, trading in stories of apocalypse and damnation. I suspected that if I stayed up long enough, on this very night he might show me something about or of myself that was lost to me. Instead, he said goodnight, closed up his cooler and went into his house, which was an actual house, unlike my shack. “We’ll do it again sometime,” he said, before he shut the door.
“Next time, I’ll bring the beer,” I said, to the screen door whipping against the keeper spring.
After that, I felt inclined to walk down to the water and slough through the shallow part of the pond till I was waist deep, then just floated on my back awhile, looking up at the stars, my mind buzzing and heart of stone.
When I was ready, I could crawl to my shack and shower in unclean water, water that would make me sick to drink. For the time being, however, I deemed it perfectly acceptable to amble towards nothing, and nothing still.
I began to look forward to days spent working for Johnnie Lutz, the drowning sound of a saw blade whipping around, and sap and wood chips plastering to my wetted shirts. Johnnie Lutz was growing fond of me, too, or at least the fruit of my labor, which must’ve demonstrated passable skill and effort. And my thoughts of Marcy were becoming fewer and further between.
In the middle afternoons, after we’d delivered a truckload of cedar to the fiber plant, Johnnie Lutz would invite me back to his trailer, where he would regale me with stories of the good ole days, which by his estimation ended the year he’d been drafted into the Army, and soon after shipped to Vietnam.
The idea that the conclusion of these good ole days preceded my birth by twenty-some- odd years was a theory I favored and seemed to explain the high sorrows of my life. For a cedar chopper, Johnnie Lutz was a grand thinker.
“One of these days, I’ll have you out to my place,” I said one day, while we were trading lies at Johnnie Lutz’s trailer. “I’ll cook you a steak and baked potato. You can fish in the pond if you like.”
“Why, you’re just a right country squire,” said Johnnie, rasping. “Whereabouts is ‘your place?’”
“Right before you come down the Great Divide, on 165.”
“Shit, boy,” said Johnnie Lutz. “You got a neighbor by the name of Justin Hanks?”
“That’s right,” I said. “You know him?”
“He used to work for me. Oh yeah, I been down to that place of yours before,” said Johnnie Lutz. “And I know the lot that reside out there. What they bear in spirit, ain’t much for me.”
“Well, they hadn’t done nothing wrong that I can tell,” I said.
“But with a heart like his it won’t be long,” said Johnnie Lutz. “Be warned, friend. If I was you, I’d be looking for someplace else to live, and fast.”
That evening, when I got back from Johnnie Lutz’s, and walked into my shack, I found the refrigerator door open, and several packets of yogurt half consumed on the floor, with the foil lids peeled away and tossed into the sink. I looked outside, towards Justin’s house. His truck was parked there, but he was not beside his tailgate, sipping beer. I walked up the hill where I could get service on my cellphone, and called the landlord, not sure what else to do.
“What’re you doing, where are you, and who are you with?” the landlord answered.
“Someone ate my yogurt,” I said.
“You eat yogurt? Why haven’t you told me this before?” said the landlord. “How delicious and precious.”
“Someone went into my house,” I said. “That’s the point.”
“Did you lock the door?”
“Well, there’s your problem, silly. I didn’t give you a set of keys for just any reason. Use them! And buy more yogurt. If you mail me the receipt, I’ll subtract the difference from this month’s rent.”
“I had a friend tell me I should keep my eye on Justin.”
“I’m afraid I can’t be bothered with gossip,” said the landlord. “Ciao.” And then he hung up.
I started down the hill, towards Justin’s house. Before I could get to his truck, he was coming out the front door, all smiles and paunch. “Well, hey there, stranger,” he said. “I thought you was bringing beer?”
“You see anyone go inside my house?” I said.
“I wouldn’t call it a house exactly, partner,” said Justin. “More like a shack.”
“Someone went inside and ate my yogurt.”
“You eat yogurt?” said Justin. “I’m sorry. You must have one great big Johnson, to confidently tell another man a thing like that.”
“Did you eat my yogurt?”
“Sorry, I don’t eat yogurt,” said Justin, and a Camry came pulling up the road. “All I can say is strange things happen to people when they begin to call this place their home. Sometimes lines are crossed and feelings hurt.”
The Camry parked behind Justin’s truck. Out of it stepped Natalya, closely followed by her boy. “Well, hey, baby,” Justin said, walking over and slapping Natalya on the ass. She blushed. “My friend here who moved into your old place—he eats yogurt.”
Natalya just nodded. Her skin was greasier than I remembered it, her hair more tangled. The boy had grown several inches taller and his eyes were focused and intense.
“You ever have a problem with someone going into your house uninvited? Taking food out your refrigerator and leaving the trash laying around for you to see?” I asked.
Natalya pointed at Justin.
“Bullshit,” said Justin, chuckling. “Don’t let her lie like that. She was coming to me long before I come to her. I can promise you that.” He walked behind Natalya and grabbed her by the waist. He had knobby hands, all covered in rosacea and callous.
“But don’t worry,” he said, as he, Natalya, and the child started their way into the house. “Just cause I gave you a beer the other night and you live in Natalya’s old place don’t mean I’m trying to get inside your pants.”
That night I locked the door before I went to bed.
For a few days, I kept quiet about it, went to work and home, spending my idle time watching reruns of old sitcoms. I was beginning to realize how easy it was to hide something from me, how willing I was to ignore when something was wrong. I wondered if Justin could see it too. I wondered if I would ever stop missing that which was past and gone.
“You been addled,” Johnnie Lutz told me while we were eating lunch at the Stripes. He was chewing on a stale taquito and sipping from a massive plastic cup filled with Big Red. “Must be that Justin went ahead and fucked you over. I don’t claim to know how or why, I just know. Speak now or forever hold your peace.”
I shook my head and took a bite out my chicken fajita taco. It tasted like rubber.
“He steal from you? Get drunk and try to beat you with a great big stick?”
“No, nothing like that,” I said. “I think he ate my yogurt. But to tell you the truth, I’m not even sure it was him.”
“You eat yogurt?” said Johnnie Lutz, who personally refused to consume anything that wasn’t deep fried. “I would’ve never took you for the sort.”
“Fuck off,” I said. Johnnie Lutz punched my arm.
“Hey now,” he said. “I still love you.”
“I don’t understand it. There’s something odd in it,” I said.
“Well, I told you he wadn’t the kind to put your trust in.”
“Yeah, you did.”
“If you need a place, you can stay with me for a time. My only rule is you can’t eat yogurt anywhere on the premises and your doing so would result in immediate eviction.”
“I’m alright, Johnnie. I’ve got it under control.”
After lunch, when we went back into the field, I felt a cool breeze, and the clouds built heavy and churlish on the horizon. That summer was after all a memory and I was changing, slowly learning what I already knew, and greater men like Johnnie Lutz could simply intuit.
When Thanksgiving came Johnnie Lutz invited me to his trailer to share it with his two children, who were both in their forties and had grandchildren. I thanked him for his offer, and falsely claimed to have plans of my own. I ended up spending the holiday eating frozen pizza and watching old Westerns.
The days were short but after several winters in Wyoming, December in Texas was practically another spring, besides the dying of the grass and leaves of the live oak trees.
I remembered my last Christmas with Marcy, which had been a productive one. I had met her parents and she professed her love for me, which seemed more a theatrical act when I looked back on it than a heart-struck admission.
The landlord and his family came out for the holidays and decorated the main house in red and green lights and plastic statues of Santa Claus and his reindeer. Unlike Johnnie Lutz, the landlord and his family never invited me to join in their familial celebration. Christmas Day, they left a tin of cookies on the hood of my truck, with a note attached that professed their pleasure at me continually paying my rent on time, and of course closed with the impersonal “Ciao” instead of Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.
As for Justin, I hadn’t seen him around much since the incident with the yogurt, though I often caught Natalya pulling up in her beaten Camry, and would sometimes see her child running around outside, lost in his imagination. I wondered why she’d relinquished her leasing of the shack if she was so in love with Justin, and where she stayed now when she wasn’t with him.
Sometimes I imagined her sneaking over around the witching hour and crawling into bed with me, nude. Strangely, these visions never ended in sex. Just me making vague pronouncements to Natalya of my desire to raise her child, and take care of both of them generally. Which was made all the more ridiculous by the fact I cut sap cedar for a living and could hardly afford the cans of French Onion soup I consumed in large quantities. Then Natalya’s face would turn into an abomination of Marcy’s, and the child into something that never was. I began to think I could never enjoy the plain sensuality of imagining myself with another woman again.
“Why shit, not even thirty and you’re becoming sentimental,” said Johnnie Lutz. “A sure sign of old age.”
“I’m not sentimental,” I said. “Just tired.”
“Try being happy first,” said Johnnie Lutz, helping me with a saw that wouldn’t start. “Then, when you get my age, you can be tired of being happy, and eventually just dead. Ain’t a bad progression, when you really think about it. As it stands, you ain’t been happy, and already wanting to be dead. But most men can’t skip the years between it takes to get to the end. God simply won’t allow it.”
The first day of February, as I was lying in bed, I heard a gunshot. I muted my television and listened. I could hear Justin and Natalya arguing. Not long after, someone knocked on my door, and when I answered it was the child standing there, and in the yard by Justin’s house, between the Chevy and Camry, I could see him and Natalya yelling at one another, and Justin waving a pistol around. Natalya was buck naked, comelier than in my repressed visions of the two of us together.
“You got a cat?” said the child, himself wearing plaid pajamas.
I shook my head no.
“Justin kilt it. Momma was worried it might be yours.” He turned and ran towards the Camry and jumped inside. Natalya got into the driver’s seat, her breasts flopping wildly, and peeled out of the yard and towards the gravel road and highway beyond.
“Fuck!” said Justin. He fired the gun into the air. I slunk into my shack and locked the door.
Quickly following came Justin’s voice, calling my name, and then him knocking on the door. “I know you’re in there,” he said. “I seen you watching.”
“What is it?” I said, not opening the door.
“Come on out,” said Justin. “You need to know what that was. You need to see it for the truth.”
This sounding more like a threat than a request, I stepped outside, where Justin was panting, barefoot, the pistol rudely shoved into his waistband. I had a couple of wrought iron chairs and patio table that were there when I moved in. I offered Justin a seat and sat down beside him. He began fiddling with a package of cigarettes. He was shaking and I noticed his pants covered in blood.
“I can’t stand cats. My ex-wife had one she kept in the house and would only feed boiled chicken to. It never liked me. I would try to pet its ears and it would box my fingers,” said Justin.
“I’ve never owned a cat,” I said.
“You’re a good boy,” said Justin.
“Some think so,” I said.
“Then listen to this,” said Justin, lighting his cigarette. “I come home, wanting a little poke is all. Thing is, that little creep of Natalya’s always listening in when me and his momma are getting down to business. I’m always telling her there’s something fucking wrong with him, to want to listen to his own mother like that.
“So, we’re in bed, about to get to it, and I hear this fucking meowing outside. Just the creepiest meowing you’ve ever heard. I throw Natalya off of me and go outside, figuring it’s the kid making noises. Sometimes he does that, you know. And I know he’s doing it on purpose.
“When I get into my living room, the little bastard has let in this fucking cat, all covered in fleas, not even tame to the touch. He’s trying to feed it a saucer of milk or some stupid shit like that. And here all I can think is Natalya should’ve aborted this shit-for-brains first trimester.”
“Then—boom,” said Justin, pointing to the pistol in his waistband. “Need I say more?”
“I got it.”
“Well, you might be the only one,” said Justin, blowing smoke, and then looking at me seriously. “I tell ya, her boy didn’t take kindly to it. Told me he was gonna make me pay.”
“Sometimes children say things they don’t mean.”
“He shouldn’t’ve done that,” said Justin, stubbing out the cigarette. “He should know better than to say that to me.”
We sat in silence for a moment, me imagining Natalya and her child’s faces when Justin assassinated the cat which had wandered inside another’s home on good faith and hope. Something told me Justin’s behavior didn’t come off as shocking to them, and that they’d become used to him dictating what they could allow into their hearts, whether it be pleasure or pain.
“Can I tell you a secret?” said Justin. “That boy is the only thing standing between me and Natalya being together, forever. If it wasn’t for him, she’d probably still be living right here in this shack you call home, and you, my friend, would be, well, who frankly gives a flying fuck?” He laughed, stood up and started towards his house.
“You shouldn’t scare them like that,” I said, and Justin stopped walking. “They thought it was my cat. They were worried you’d killed something that was special to someone.”
“A man who eats yogurt and owns a cat,” said Justin, laughing his way home. “Now wouldn’t that just be the cherry on top.”
I had been looking forward to telling Johnnie Lutz about the incident with the cat and asking him for advice.
When I pulled up to his trailer in the early morning, he wasn’t sitting in the cedar truck with the heater on, listening to talk radio. Beside the porch, I found him with his face dug into the dirt, drooling. I dialed 911 and turned Johnnie Lutz onto his back, held his torso in my lap till the ambulance arrived, then became a ghost as they strapped him to a stretcher, loaded him into the ambulance, and peeled off.
I knew he was dead. I got the call from his son the next day, telling me there’d be no need to come into work anymore. “We thank you for your efforts,” Johnnie Lutz’s son said. “It was just his time. He lived hard. He was tired.”
“What are we going to do?” I said, after a moment of quiet.
“You don’t have to do anything at all,” he said. “We’re making funeral arrangements. I’ll be sure you get your invitation.”
Several days later, Johnnie Lutz’s children hosted his funeral at a Baptist church outside Blanco. A surprising number of people showed up, filling the church, which was cool and cramped in the early spring. Several of Johnnie’s friends told stories of youthful nights spent parsing in the sketchy behavior which becomes romantic when you’re old and can hardly step out of bed in the morning without a helping hand.
At the conclusion of the service, the pallbearers carried Johnnie’s casket out to a small plot nearby, and buried him beside his wife, who had apparently died several months before I came back to Texas. Johnnie Lutz never told me about this. In fact, I realized then that he never told me much about himself at all, outside his stories of being young at war. He was too busy listening to me, all my minor aches and mourning. I felt sorry I hadn’t made an effort at asking what pained him.
Walking back to my truck, I heard Justin’s voice, and when I turned, he was standing there with Natalya, both of them dressed in funeral black. “How the hell did you know Johnnie Lutz?” said Justin, roughly grabbing my hand to shake.
“I’ve been working for him since about August,” I said.
“No shit?” said Justin. “Would you look at that. I used to work for the ole codger myself, when I was first settling in. Another thing me and you have in common.”
“He mentioned y’all were acquainted.”
“‘Mentioned,’ did he? One thing you should know about Johnnie Lutz is that he was always full of shit. Don’t matter what it was he talked about, he was pulling your leg, making a big joke out of you and the situation. Probably why I couldn’t stand working for him after too long.”
“Where’s your child?” I said, to Natalya. Justin wrapped his arm around her shoulder and drew her close.
“The kid’s staying with friends for a while,” said Justin, grinning at me. I noticed one of his front teeth had died and was turning black. “Me and Natalya gonna get married. Can you believe it? It’s like a right fucking fairytale. And you’re invited. I’d even take you to be my best man, if you’d so kindly oblige.”
“Don’t you have friends?”
“No. Not like you.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Of course you’ll think about it! We’re all you’ve got now. No family, no name, no Johnnie Lutz. Just me and Natalya, and the trauma we share. You ever think the universe, our lives in fact, is just one great big conspiracy?” said Justin. “You can tell me your answer before you give my best man speech. Just do me one favor—don’t overthink it.”
I sat in the cab of my truck and waited for Justin to drive off, then watched the many mourners leave the church grounds and go their own way too. Before long it was dark outside and I was alone.
I stayed inside my shack for many days and didn’t eat, though I drank from the tainted tap, but did not grow sick from it like before. Entire afternoons I spent staring at the ceiling, imagining Marcy in some hotel room after the procedure, shaking and weary from the pain medication administered, and I’m leaving her voicemails, telling her to give her parents my best wishes.
I began to see myself again with Marcy on cool afternoons in the mountains, and her growing faint and wispy. I remembered how she would get stomachaches whenever we went out and she’d had a glass of wine, and spend whole nights beside the toilet, vomiting, and me listening from the bedroom, annoyed that she couldn’t hold her alcohol.
I took long walks across the property. I followed the peacocks, trying to learn something substantive about my own existence from their aimless migrations. I jumped every time one of them honked or crowed. I could never get used to the sounds they conjured, no doubt cosmic expressions of unrequited love. I made up stories of failed romance for each of them, gave them motives and scars. I wondered where they lay their eggs and perseverated on what impossible horrors visited their chicks if no one was there when one of them hatched. This was a cause of much anxiety for me.
I walked high up the hill and looked across the Great Divide, towards Blanco and San Antonio, all that treed country going out and undulating, spilling into the Rio Grande. Perhaps that’s what I was doing here too, momentarily paused at that elevated register, but soon to swoop down into the flotsam and low places. From this vantage, the sight of the evening horizon playing off a world made fecund by spring was sickening.
Justin and Natalya stayed away from me, but their vehicles were always parked nearby. It was as if they’d excised me from their dramas, indeed, their wedding plans, no longer deeming me useful to the story they were plotting together. Before, I had wished they would leave me alone, but now I was lonely, and wondered what was wrong with me, that they had taken to avoiding me.
I paid my rent on time and kept the receipts.
I thought a lot about Johnnie Lutz and his children, his grandchildren. I pondered my mourning of his absence, was thankful there had been something of him for me to tangibly miss, an ego or persona, his hokey wisdom and old-world metaphors. I regretted he hadn’t visited me in my dreams.
One day while I was taking one of my walks, coming down the hill, I ran into what looked like a miniature brush arbor, like the ones Church of Christ and Baptists used to worship under in this country a century before. There was a possum skull hanging off one corner, some unidentifiable varmint’s ribcage from another. Atop it was tied down a body shrouded in a brightly colored sarape. I stopped to apprise the structure, wondering at its purpose and origins.
The body looked juvenile and there was a hump and folds at one end that suggested a skull and arms crossed. I picked up a stick and gently thwacked at the body’s side. Sinew and tissue gave sickeningly. I got out my phone and called the landlord, still standing next to the arbor. He answered before the first ring was completed.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said.
“It’s actually what you would call an ‘art installation.’ A sculpture. Just a fawn I killed. I’ve been lost for many weeks in dense academic research on the subject of the Indian Sky Burial. Are you familiar?”
“You killed a fawn and sewed it in a blanket?”
“Did you do it recently? I’ve walked by here every day and …”
“… The sky burial is designed to expedite the soul’s transition to the heavens. And if a vulture hauls off a severed limb, all the better! Because the vulture is a ferryman of the heavens.”
“You should warn your tenants before you install something like this.”
“Yes, yes. All apologies,” said the landlord. “Any more questions?”
“Yes, actually. I haven’t seen Justin around lately, though his truck is parked there by his house, and …”
The call was abruptly ended, this time without even a ciao.
I stood there and looked at my phone. I dialed the landlord’s number several other times, but the account had apparently been disconnected or I had lost service. I poked at the body with the stick some more and eventually started back for the shack.
A dead fawn. I couldn’t understand it. Men could play such barbarous and strange games and call them by any other name. Once I’d gotten by the cantina, I saw Justin’s tall figure helping a limping Natalya into the passenger seat of her Camry. He shut the door on her when he saw me coming and smiled and waved, like the first time we’d met. I was oddly glad to see him. “Hey neighbor,” he said. “You look like you seen a ghost.”
“I might have,” I said. “You seen this sky burial the landlord put in?”
“To tell you the truth that’s why we’re leaving,” said Justin, looking one way and then the other, as if me and him shared in some grand conspiracy.
“That’s right. Gettin’ the hell out of Dodge. Just me and Natalya. Gonna head south maybe. Spend some time in Acuna. Keep going from there. Find us a beach where it ain’t never any cooler than 72. Get married by the ocean at night with the moon shining high and full.”
I looked at him, not quite able to compute what it all meant.
“But hey, I wish you luck,” Justin said. “Maybe we’ll bump into each other again one day.”
“What about the child?” I said.
Justin Hanks, who had survived the depravations of war and heartbreak, shrugged his shoulders and got into the driver’s seat of the Camry, then drove off.
I ran back up the hill, to the sky burial. This world is fraught with chilling conclusions. I unwrapped the head of the body, which was the only part not sewn shut. A white pair of eyes and a deer’s face stared back at me blankly. I folded the blanket shut, curled up on the ground and cried.
When my body was empty, my mind beyond cognition, I walked down the hill and rested on the porch of the shack. I wondered at the location of the child, of Johnnie Lutz and his celestial resting place, of Justin and Natalya and what horrors they shared together and with no one else, and whether Marcy was plagued by ancient memories, too. Sometime in the night, I noticed the stars unfix themselves and clump into incomprehensible arrangements. I took time to study them, and through the walls of the shack, I thought I heard a soft voice singing, calling my name.