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Dark places, p.27

Dark Places, page 27

 

Dark Places
 



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  “No! No!” He was aware his voice sounded nervous, cowed. Diondra shifted her weight next to him. “I don’t owe anyone.”

  “Then why am I supposed to be giving you money I work my damn tail off for, huh?” Runner said, his voice bitter. “That’s what I never understand, this idea of handouts: alimony and child support and the government with its hands in my pockets. I barely can support myself, I don’t know why people think I need to take three extra jobs to give money to my wife, who has her own farm. Her own house on the farm. And four kids to help her out with it. I mean, I sure as hell didn’t grow up thinking my daddy owed me a living, my daddy oughta give me money for Nikes and college and dress shirts and …”

  “Food,” Ben said, looking down at his broken boots with sloppy-joe stains on them.

  “What’s that? What’s that you say to me?” Runner was in his face now, those blue irises rolling around in the yellow orbs like fish on the surface of a bad lake.

  “Nothing,” Ben mumbled.

  “You want money for your hair dye, that it? Want money for the beauty parlor?”

  “He wants money for his girl …”Trey started, but Diondra was giving him quick axes across her throat, no no no.

  “Well, I’m definitely not in charge of buying things for his girlfriend,” Runner said. “You his girlfriend now, Diondra? Small world. But definitely ain’t my business.”

  The men at the pooltable had stopped playing altogether, sneering at the scene, and then the white-haired guy limped over, put a firm hand on Trey’s shoulder.

  “Problem, Trey? Runner here, he’s good for it. Give him another twenty-four hours, OK? On me. Understand?” The man had a wish-boned stance, like gravity was pulling him toward the ground by both legs, but his hands were muscled, sinewy, and they pressed into Trey’s shoulder.

  Runner smiled, wiggled his eyebrows up and down at Ben, signaling they should both be pleased. “Don’t worry, buddy, it’s OK,” he told Ben. “It’s OK now.”

  Trey tightened his shoulder under the man’s hand, seemed about to shrug it off, then stared into the middle distance.

  “Sure, twenty-four OK, Whitey. On you.”

  “Appreciate it, Injun,” the man said. He winked, made a cheerful, creaky noise with his mouth like he was calling a horse, and rejoined his friends, a rustle of laughter going up from the group just before the pool ball clacked.

  “Piece of shit pussy,” Trey said to Runner. “Tomorrow night, here. Or so help me, Runner, I will hurt you.”

  Runner’s victory rictus, that Halloween smile, faded, and he nodded twice, and as he was turning to the bar, snapped, “Fine, but then stay out of my business.”

  “Man, I cannot wait to stay out of your business.”

  As they started to leave, Ben waited for Runner to say something to him—sorry, see ya, something. But Runner was already trying to talk the bartender into giving him one on the house, or maybe on Whitey, Whitey would stand him a round, and he’d already forgotten about Ben. So had Trey and Diondra, they were busting through the doors, and Ben stood with his hands in the front pockets of his pants, caught sight of himself in the mirror, looking so different, and he watched himself in the mirror as he turned around to Runner.

  “Hey, uh, Dad,” he said, and Runner looked up, annoyed he was still there. It was that feeling of pestiness that made Ben want to make Runner respect him. He’d felt the tiniest jingle of camaraderie before—that word, buddy—he wanted it back. He had pictured, just a quick flash, him and his dad at the bar, having a few beers together. That’s all he really wanted from the guy, just a beer together every so often. “I just wanted to tell you something. It might make you feel, I don’t know, good,” and Ben started grinning, couldn’t help himself.

  Runner just sat there, sleepy eyes, not giving any expression.

  “I uh, Diondra’s pregnant. I, uh, we, Diondra and I are having a baby.” And then his smile split wide for the first time, for the first time really feeling good, saying it out loud like that. Going to be a dad. A dad, with some little one depending on him, thinking he was it.

  Runner tilted his head to the side, lifted his beer sloppily, and said, “Just be sure it’s yours. I doubt it’s yours.” Then he turned his back on Ben.

  OUTSIDE, TREY KICKED the side of his truck, screamed between closed lips. “I tell you what, that old crew better die off soon, because I’m sick to fucking death of them protecting their own—you’re telling me it’s honor, it’s not, it’s old white guys trying to hold on to the last bit of business before they start shitting themselves and need name tags attached to them so they know who they are. Fucking Whitey!” He pointed a finger at Ben, the snow everywhere, floating down Ben’s shirt and melting on his neck. “And your old man is a piece of crap if he thinks I’m believing his line of bullshit. I hope you’re not too attached to him because I’d like to flush him like a piece of shit.”

  “Let’s just go, Trey,” Diondra said, opening the door, ushering Ben into the backseat. “My dad is going to come home next week, and I’ll be dead anyway.”

  Ben felt like hitting himself. The one thing he wasn’t supposed to tell, and he’d wasted it on Runner. Ben was so angry as soon as he got in the backseat, he began punching it blindly, spittle shooting from his mouth, fuckerfuckerfucker, kicking at the cushion, banging his knuckles on the roof of the car, hitting his head on the window glass over and over until his forehead was bleeding again, Diondra yelling, baby, baby what?

  “I swear to God, I swear to fucking God, Diondra, fuck.”

  Annihilation.

  He could never tell Diondra he’d told.

  “Someone should fucking die,” Ben spat. He put his head in his hands, could feel Trey and Diondra consulting each other, silently, Trey finally saying, “Your dad’s a fucking douchebag, dude.” He threw the car into reverse and squealed out into the street, knocking Ben against the window. Diondra snaked a hand back and stroked Ben’s hair until he sat upright, barely, a pile. Diondra’s face was green under the lamplight, and suddenly Ben could see what she’d look like in twenty years, flabby and pimply like she described her mom, her skin hard and wrinkled, but with that electric glow from the tanning booths.

  “There’s stuff in the glove compartment,” Trey said, and Diondra popped it open and began rifling through it. She pulled out an oversized pipe crammed with leaves, the pot spilling everywhere, Trey saying easy now, and then she lit it and toked in, passed it to Trey. Ben reached up a hand—he was almost sick now, so shaky from lack of food, dizzy from the streetlights fluttering—but he wasn’t going to be left out. Trey kept it from him. “Don’t know if you want this, buddy. This is me and Diondra’s thing. Hard-ass weed. I’m serious, Diondra, it may be tonight, I need the power in me, I haven’t felt it in too long. It may have to happen.”

  Diondra kept looking up ahead, the snow dizzying.

  “Ben might need it too,” Trey pushed.

  “Fine, let’s do it then. Take a left up here,” Diondra said.

  And when Ben asked what was going on, they both just smiled.

  Libby Day

  NOW

  The sky was an unnatural purple when I left the Lidgerwood bar, bouncing on backroads toward the Superfund site. I wondered what it said about me, that my own father was living at a toxic waste dump and until now I’d neither known nor cared. Grasshopper bait. Bran and molasses and arsenic to help end the grasshopper plague back in the ’30s, and when folks didn’t need it anymore, they just buried it, bags and bags, open-grave-style. Then people got sick.

  I wished I had someone with me. Lyle fidgeting in the seat next to me in one of his shrunken jackets. I should have phoned him. In my nervous rush to get down here, I hadn’t told anyone where I was, hadn’t used a credit card since filling up in Kansas City. If anything went wrong, no one would miss me for days. Those guys at the bar would have the only clue to where I’d be, and they didn’t seem like good citizens.

  This is ridiculous, I said out loud
so I knew it. I shivered when I thought of the reason I was looking for Runner: a goodly amount of people believed he killed the Days. But I still couldn’t make it work in my head, even without the alibi. I had trouble picturing Runner using the axe, in truth. I could see him grabbing a shotgun in a temper— raise, cock, pow—but the axe didn’t fit. Too much work. Plus, he was found at home, asleep and still wasted, the next morning. Runner would have gotten drunk after killing his family, yes. But he wouldn’t have had the discipline to stay put. He’d have gone on the lam, accidentally announcing his guilt to everyone.

  The dump site was marked off by cheap metal fencing, jagged holes cut into it. Waist-high weeds grew everywhere like prairie grass, and tiny bonfires flashed in the distance. I drove along the perimeter of the fence, the weeds and loose gravel rattling against the undercarriage of my car more and more insistently until I came to a stop. I closed the car door with a quiet tamp, my eyes on those distant flames. It’d be about a ten-minute tromp to reach the camp. I slipped easily through a wire-snipped hole in the fence to my right, started walking, foxtail swatting my legs. The sky was draining quickly now, the horizon just a cuticle of pink. I realized I was humming “Uncle John’s Band” to myself for no good reason.

  Scraggly trees stood in the distance, but for the first few hundred yards it was all rolling, waist-high weeds. Again I was reminded of my childhood, the safe feeling of all that grass grazing your ears and wrists and the insides of your calves, like the plants were trying to soothe you. I took a few loose strides and jammed the point of my boot into a woman’s ribs, actually feeling the bones part as the leather tip slid between them. She had been curled on the ground in a puddle of piss, her arms wrapped around a label-less bottle of liquor. She sat halfway up, groggy, the side of her face and hair caked with mud. She hissed at me with a withered face and beautiful teeth. “Get off me, get off me!”

  “What the hell?” I yelled back, taking a scurry of steps away from her, my arms up in the air like I was worried about touching her. I walked briskly on, trying to pretend it hadn’t happened, hoping the woman would pass out again, but she kept yelling after me, between gulps off the bottle: Getoffmegetoffmegetoffme, the screams turning into song turning into weeping.

  The woman’s cries aroused the interest of three men, whose faces appeared from behind the crooked copse of trees I was walking toward. Two of them glared at me, belligerent, and the youngest one, a skeletal man maybe in his forties, shot out, running toward me full bore bearing a stick he’d lit on fire. I took two steps back and planted myself.

  “Who is it? Who is it?” he yelled. The thin flame of his torch weakened in a gust of wind and blew out as he neared me. The man trotted the last few steps, then stood in front of me, staring limply at the ember and smoke, his machismo turned to sulking with the loss of the fire. “What do you want, you shouldn’t be here, you have to have permission to be here, it’s not OK.” The man was goggle-eyed, smudged everywhere, but his hair was glowing yellow, like a cap, as if it was the one thing he took care of. “It’s not OK,” he said again, more toward the trees than me. I wished then that I’d brought my Colt and wondered when I’d stop being so goddam stupid.

  “I’m trying to find a guy by the name of Runner Day.” I didn’t know if my dad had bothered with an alias, but I assumed even if he had, he’d have forgotten by his third or eighth beer. I was right.

  “Runner? What do you want with Runner? He steal something from you? What’d he take? He took my watch and he won’t give it back.” The man slouched into himself like a child, picked at a loose button at the bottom of his shirt.

  Just off the path, about forty feet away, I saw an irritation of movement. It was a couple rutting, all legs and hair and faces bunched up in anger or distaste. Their jeans were both bundled around their ankles, the man’s pink ass going like a jackhammer. The yellow-haired man looked at them, giggled and said something under his breath, like fun.

  “I’m not upset with him, with Runner,” I added, pulling his attention back from the couple. “I’m just his family.”

  “Runnerrrrr!” the man abruptly screamed over his other shoulder. Then he looked back at me. “Runner lives in that farthest house, out on the edge of camp. You got any food?”

  I started walking without a reply, the couple climaxing loudly behind me. The bonfires got brighter and closer together as I hit the main drag—a scorched bit of ground, dotted with tents that sagged like storm-ruined umbrellas. A big firepit blazed in the center of camp, a woman with deep jowls and a distant stare was tending the flames, ignoring the cans of beans and soup that were turning black from the heat, their innards sizzling over. A younger couple with scabby arms watched her from half inside their tent. The woman wore a child’s winter hat partway on her head, her pale face peeking out, fishbelly ugly. Just past them, two old men with dandelions woven into their matted hair sat greedily eating food out of a can with their fingers, the thick stew steaming in the air.

  “Come on, Beverly!” the scabby man snapped at the fire-tender. “I think it’s damn done.”

  As I walked into the campsite, they all got quiet. They’d heard the screaming of Runner’s name. One old man pointed a dirty finger farther west—he’s over there—and I left the heat of the fires and walked into the cool brambles. The hills rolled more now, like fat ocean waves, just four or five feet high, row after row, and about nine hills away I could see it: a steady glimmer, like a sunrise.

  Up and down, floating along, I reached the top of the final ridge and discovered the light source. Runner’s home, it turned out, was an industrial-sized mixing vat, which looked like an above-ground pool. Light poured out of it, and for a second I worried it was radioactive. Did grasshopper arsenic glow?

  As I started toward the tank, I could hear the amplified echoes of Runner’s movements, like a beetle walking across a steel-drum. He was whispering to himself in a schoolteachery, chastising voice— well, I guess you should have thought of that before, Mister Smarty—and the tank was broadcasting the noise out into the sky, which was now the violet of a mourning dress. Yeah, I guess you really did it this time, Runnerman, he was saying. The tank was about ten feet tall, with a ladder up one side, and I began hauling myself up it, calling out my dad’s name.

  “Runner, it’s Libby, Your daughter,” I bellowed, the rust of the ladder making my hands itch. Gargling throat sounds came from within. I climbed a few more rungs, and peered inside the tank. Runner was bent at the waist, retching onto the tank floor, and suddenly he expelled a purple globular mess, like an athlete might spit chaw. Then he lay down on a soiled beach towel, adjusting a baseball cap on his head sideways, nodding as if some job, somewhere, had been well done. A half dozen flashlights glowed around him like candles, illuminating his craggy, tan face and a pile of junk: knobless toaster ovens, a tin pot, a pile of watches and gold chains and a mini-fridge that wasn’t plugged into anything. He lay on his back with the loose pose of a sunbather, one leg crossed over the other, a beer to his lips, a saggy twelve-pack carton at his side. I hollered his name again and he focused his eyes, pushed his nose at me when he saw me, like a mean hound-dog. It was one of my gestures.

  “Whatdaya want?” Runner snapped up at me, his fingers tightening around his beer can. “I told everyone, no trade tonight.”

  “Runner, it’s Libby. Libby, your daughter.”

  He raised himself on his elbows then, twisted his hat toward the back. Then he swiped a hand across the lace of dried saliva on his chin. He got part of it off.

  “Libby?” he broke into a grin then. “Little, little Libbbby! Well, come on down, sweetheart! Come say hi to your old man.” He struggled to an upright position, standing in the center of the tank, his voice sounding deep and melodic bouncing off the walls, the flashlights giving him a crazy campfire radiance. I hesitated on the ladder, which curled over the top of the tank and then ended.

  “Come on in, Libby, this is your old man’s new home!” He held his arms up to me. T
he drop into the tank wasn’t dangerous, but it wasn’t a gimme.

  “Come on! Jesus Christ on a crutch, how far you come to see me, and now you’re gonna be a scaredy-scared,” Runner barked. At that, I swung my legs over the edge and sat on the rim like a nervous swimmer. After another Ah jesus! from Runner, I started awkwardly lowering myself. Runner had always been quick to brand his children as crybabies, cowards. I only really knew the guy for one summer, but it had been a hell of a summer. His mockery always worked on me: I’d end up swinging from the tree branch, jumping off the hayloft, throwing myself into the creek even though I couldn’t swim. Never feeling triumphant afterward, just pissed. Now I was lowering myself into a rusted tank, and as my arms started to shake, my legs flail, Runner came up and grabbed me by the waist, dislodged me from the wall, and started twirling me around in tight, manic circles. My short legs spun out around me like I was seven again, and I began struggling to stick them on the ground, which only made Runner grip me harder, his arms sliding up beneath my breasts, me floating like a ragdoll.

  “Stop it, Runner, set me down, stop it.” We knocked over two flashlights, which went cartwheeling, their rays bouncing everywhere. Like those flashlights that hunted me on that night.

  “Say uncle,” Runner giggled.

  “Put me down.” He spun harder. My breasts were smashed up to my neck, my armpits aching from the strain of Runner’s grip.

  “Say uncle.”

  “Uncle!” I screamed, my eyes squeezed in fury.

  Runner released me. Like being thrown from a swing, I was suddenly weightless in the air, soaring forward. I landed on my feet and took three big steps til I hit the side of the tank. A big metallic thunder boomed up. I rubbed my shoulder.

  “Man, my kids always were the biggest babies!” Runner panted, both his hands on his knees. He leaned back and cracked his neck loudly. “Pass me one of them beers, sweetheart.”

  That’s how Runner had always been—crazy, then not, and expecting you to pretend whatever indignity he’d just inflicted on you never happened. I stood with my arms crossed, made no move for the beer.

 
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