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g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
“This is the meaning of mercy, wouldn’t you say, when it is offered to the underserving?"
Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil
MY DAUGHTER. She places a photograph before him. You’ve seen her
She sits down across the desk, taking only the edge of the chair, leaning forward. The tremor in her hand
He picks it up –a brunette with large gray eyes, about seventeen. Small mole just below the right corner of her mouth
Tattooed stars red&gold orbit his neck and disappear down his collar
Know where she is?
She rises and stands before him, clasping her hands at her waist. She looks at him for a long moment. Think she’s still here?
Can’t tell you
I’m her mother
Shit, she says, no one helps, police, FBI, missing persons. What am I supposed to do?
Leans back in his chair. Breathes a moment with closed eyes
I’ve got nothing left to lose, tell me what I’m supposed to do, sleep with you?
When you get here?
Drive out? That’s a long drive
Where else you been?
Came straight here
He breathes heavily and closes his eyes. These people are very mobile
That’s what I said
He hangs his head and rubs the back of his neck. Sits like this for a full minute. He stands and walks around the desk. I’ll help you, he says. I can’t but I will. He places a hand on her shoulder
Just like that?
Timing is everything
What did she say?
They walk a block to a coffee shop and take a seat outside
Avery Black, he says. But you know that
I got a postcard from Oskaloosa with your name
How long ago?
I’m in treatment, don’t worry. Call you soon
Does that matter?
With a hand signal he orders two coffees. When they come he remembers Mormons don’t drink coffee and pulls one away
Least of my worries, she says, and slides it back
Goddamn it, he says, I let her walk, you know I did
You think she’s dead
He snaps the lid back on his paper cup and suddenly rises. Come with me
In crop-field country miles north of Lawrence she turns her head to him. Are all drug counselors recovering addicts?
He laughs and says, It helps. Would you trust one who wasn’t?
So you know this? – she sweeps her arm at teeming green hectares
Bugs eating bugs, he says, like the back of my hand
She sits correctly in the seat and stares straight ahead. Should I give up?
Then you got nothing left to lose, not even hope
It’s that bad?
He pushes his seat back, reaches between his legs and bends over slightly. Take the wheel, he says, then leans over far as he can. He comes up with a holster, and places it on the console between them
Are you a cop, too?
Then what’s this?
You want to find your daughter?
No stupid questions
Where are we going? How stupid is that?
You’re leaving the comfort zone, let’s put it that way. I know someone
Where my daughter is?
She pulls the revolver out of the holster. What is it?
Can I shoot it out the window?
He throws his head back and laughs. That’s the spirit, lady
Left the comfort zone when my daughter did
We’re going to see a man named Mars. Mars wants you to believe he’s a sports gambler: No-name teams nobody bothers to fix - Sam Houston State, Lamar, Akron, Central Michigan
What is he?
A conduit. A cockroach sonofabitch. The two are related
You going to shoot Mars?
I’m HIV positive, Hep-C to boot. Now Hodgkins
He looks over at her. You roll your eyes on me, lady? He laughs again. That’s right, he says, nothin left to lose, me neither
One dirt road drains into another and an hour later he stops in the middle of a leafy copse strung to others in a jade archipelago ranging silently to the far horizon. He takes up the revolver and opens the door, hangs his head a moment as if catching his breath
There’s his trailer half-mile up that ditch
Irony is the human condition, she says
In there drinkin’ tea like an Englishman
Tea, she says, can you imagine
Watch your step. Snakes everywhere
They scramble along an overgrown ditch, approaching the trailer over a paddock thick with milkweed and thistle. There is an elevated wooden porch half-fallen facing them and the back door is open. They hear young voices and a song on a stereo from The Sound of Music. Four girls naked except for shoes fly out the door and circle clockwise around to the front. A large man with wobbling gut wearing diapers, cowboy boots and an Indian chief’s headdress pursues them. He carries a flyswatter in one hand, a spatula in the other
You think my daughter’s in there?
Put a stake in that thing’s heart
He knows where?
Where Red Bull & vodka get ya, that’s where
The man disappears around a corner and the girls reappear from the opposite end and clamber back inside
Come on says Avery Black as he runs toward the porch, grabbing a gray board off the ground. He slides his back against the trailer and lifts the board over his head. When Mars lumbers round the bend Avery smashes him across the face. The headdress flies straight up, Mars goes down, and after he rolls over twice clutching his face in his hands Avery Black grabs him by the ankles and yanks him backward towards the ditch
Hit him again, goddamnit!
She seizes the board and runs to where Avery Black jerks and curses the now-kicking man. She strikes his groin, throws the board at his head and punts his face again and again, screaming at the top of her lungs
We can’t goddamnit kill it yet, Avery Black cries and shoves her away
The man, well-beaten and dragged through stinging nettles is coated with blood and dirt, wholly unrecognizable as Sitting Bull. Avery Black unholsters the .44, thrusts the barrel in the man’s mouth and says You got thirty seconds asshole and if I don’t like the way you say it even if you tell the truth I blow your FUCKIN head off
The man bobs his head up and down
Avery takes the girl’s photograph from his shirt pocket and shoves it in his face. You seen her?
Up and down
She covers her mouth with a hand
Where is she?
The man points to the barrel and Avery Black pulls it out, then bangs him on the forehead with the pistol butt
AW AW AW! AW AW AW! Fresh blood pours through the man’s fingers where he clutches his head and he rolls again over rocks and thistles. Mama! he cries. Mama!
Avery Black cocks the hammer. The man hears this and sits straight up. Avery Black says, You’re gonna die anyway might as well do something good you see angry Jesus any second where’s the little girl?
Republic County, he wheezes, Nebraska line, place called Narka
You sellin’ her ass?
Mars stares with big eyes. Mandrake clan, he says. Salvinorin freaks. You know
Zetas nail me soon enough, Avery, ‘lessin he gets me first, let them do –
BOOM between the eyes, woman stagger-shouting with the flash, brains crimson-gaudy splashing the bank behind, Mars’ lifeless mouth gaping. Avery Black flips him over with his foot, pulls a Buck folder from his pocket and shears the diaper down the middle. He pulls Mar’s butt-cheeks apart and she sees stool-flecked fifty-dollar bills duct-taped each side of his anus
What am I seeing?
Come and get it, that’s what. Pure evil
He kicks the body to the bottom of the ditch. Rubber gloves, lady, what you’re dealin’ with here. Go back to the car
Ten minutes later he packs four girls in the rear seat
Safe-house by Tonganoxie. They’ll take ‘em
The girls are clad in a motley assortment of too-large shirts. Their arms and necks are patterned with sores and burns and what appear to be injection punctures
Every bad thing, he says, body and soul. What’ll god do with them now? He turns to look at her. Same’s he did with me: Any damn thing he wants
Late-afternoon they are pointing north forty miles out of Manhattan, Kansas, eating Sonic from a sack. She wonders aloud what’s wrong with them, burgers after what they’ve done
Nothin. Piece a shit finally gets his due. Makes me hungry
I’m an accomplice
You are not
We’ll go to prison
We will not
In the first place, who knows?
Four girls for one thing
Didn’t see it
Didn’t have to. That thing sounds like the end of the world
Who they gonna tell?
I see, she says
Why you can’t find your daughter
Or what’s left of her. Be ready for anything, lady, I’m sorry to say. That shit eats you up and what I saw she was well on her way
Speaking of the end of the world, she says as they drive into Narka, a tiny place dying by itself in a prairie ocean. He pulls into the parking lot of a boarded-up grocery store
Back in the day family farms far as the eye could see. He stretches forth his arm and sweeps it about. They came here to shop and play baseball. All gone. Progress. Bullshit
What do we do?
I’ll know when I see it
He rolls the car out of sight around the side of the store and they stand behind barrels, road construction signs and barriers someone stored beneath the tattered awning. He shoves his hands in his pocket and watches the highway. Something comes, he says. You’ll see
You just killed a man, Avery Black
It wasn’t a man, he says, that’s your error. Sick in the objective, problem being it’s just one way of knowing. That man was a devil
I’m an academic, she says. No one’s a devil
What you teach?
Civil War. Frederick Douglass in London
You teach this in Utah?
Like fartin on the moon, isn’t it?
Or rehab in Kansas
Dusk a van drives in from the east and pulls over across the street. Ten minutes later a pickup from the west. The truck u-turns and the van follows, both bearing north on CR28 and accelerating out of sight
That’s our pig, he yells, supply run. They dash to the car and he pursues lights off. They see tail-lamps disappear below a rise nearly a mile away
They top the rise and see the van drop below the next hill, even further. He swears and guns it and she fumbles with her seatbelt and he says I can’t see shit yell if there’s a goddamn cow on the road we lose these fools we’re on our own out here. She leans to see the speedometer 110 the road shooting straight on hill after hill and those tail-lamps maybe a bit closer now and then they’re gone. Two minutes later he hollers and points west where both sets of lights crawl slowly over the earth. He decelerates just short of a skid and finally stops where he can see how far they are and reckon their progress
Trailer can’t be too far up there. Dirt road’s a bad getaway someone runs up a red flag. Next dip they go down I think
The lights disappear and Avery Brown thunders up the road again, overshooting the rutted turnoff by two hundred feet. He fishtails through a u-turn and they creep up. Before they reach the second rise he jumps out the car and runs to the top where he scans for a full minute. When he walks back he says Shit there’s a colony up there little gulch out a sight goddamn motorcycle gang. That’s good. She’s probably in one of them. And that’s bad, cause I can’t use the gun
What are you going to do?
Use the fuckin gun excuse me. Can you drive if you have to – like that?
You damn right
They inch over the rise and the next and at the bottom of the last pull far enough off the road the car is hard to see in near-dark. He points it back out toward the highway and leaves the keys in the ignition
I’m coming, she says, it’s my daughter
Gonna be a mess
Already a mess
He reaches across her to the glove box and takes out a box of ammunition then reaches over again and lays his hand on her head. What’s your name, lady?
Sandra Packer, she says, and they step out the low dark coupe and walk towards the lightless settlement. Careful, he says, snakes everywhere
Then he takes her arm and turns her to face him. I got the same Jesus problem old Mars did but worse because I believe. I’m a no-good son-of-a-bitch too and I’ll tell you why: I didn’t grab your girl off the street that day because I was loaded. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, what kind a girl she was, little girl from Salt Lake City. You hear what I’m saying?
Well I’m sorry, Sandra Packer
You don’t tell a living soul what you see out here tonight, you just take her if we find her and get the hell gone, understand?
What about you?
He draws the revolver and declares, Whatsoever your hand findeth itself to do, do it with thy might
She lifts her head to a sky bejeweled and sees him do the same, mouthing silent words. He holds the revolver over his heart as if in benediction
If my mother could see me now, she murmurs. What she would say
There are four trailers with blackened windows, an assortment of bikes and pickups parked randomly. In the inky gloom they walk right up to the first. Then he backs them off and whispers, We wait a while and see what happens
A figure descends the steps of one trailer and carries a box to another; fifteen minutes later he returns with two boxes. OK, says Avery Black, these are factories
They circle toward the others and he slides against a trailer and attempts to see through the windows. They are taped with black plastic and cardboard from the inside. They wait somewhat beyond them for almost half an hour and he finally says, Holed up
I’ll go in, she says, don’t you doubt it Avery Black, I wish you had another gun
He pulls her close and whispers to her ear, Know how many times I was married? - five, each worse than the other. They say the same about me, every one
He lets her go and rubs his forehead. If she’s here she’s in one of those and it would be a big help if I knew which one
I’ll say a prayer. Hold my hands
I’ll jinx the whole thing
No you won’t
Her prayer lasts five minutes
He opens his eyes. What does He advise?
That’s the best He can do?
I want to ask you a question Avery Black: Are you high?
Is that important?
Did god tell you to ask that?
He thinks about this for a moment. Is belief in god intended? Is it intentional?
For some it is and for some it isn’t. I can’t help it. Why don’t you ask what kind of mother I was?
Because I don’t have to
I was a Valium addict like half the housewives I know. How do you think she got the idea?
My dad was town drunk in Muscatine, Iowa. That’s not why I shot horse in Saigon
He lets go her hands and takes the heavy revolver from its belt-clipped holster, drops the cylinder and reloads the round he spent on Mars. He empties the box into both front pockets, takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and says, Find a rock. Give me a minute to get my place by the door then hit the side hard three times. Get around front but stay out a sight
She kicks the ground till she finds a stone the size of a big tomato and looks at her watch. With both hands she pounds the wall then runs in the dark around to the front, falling twice. She sees the shadow of Avery Black crouched by the steps, starlight glinting off his revolver. She holds her breath for the front door to burst open
Ten minutes later Avery Black straightens up and says, Well that simplifies the situation, doesn’t it? He motions toward the other trailer with the gun. They’re in there, ‘cept the chemists. Dozen give or take
We could set it on fire but there’s girls won’t get out. Can’t shoot through the walls either, which would be my first choice
You’ve done this before, haven’t you Avery Black? That’s the stars around your neck!
Knock the door, he says softly. Tell them you come fetch your daughter
She walks up the stairs, simply opens the door and steps inside. Blue smoke pours into the cool night air and she staggers backward into his arms
Weed, he says, little bong-fire
Avery Black pokes his head in and checks left/right. He goes left, moving soundlessly through the hall. A minute later four thin girls emerge clutching tattered t-shirts and plastic bags to their naked bodies, half-falling down the stairs
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego sleeping on yonder couch, he nods, wiping a blade she hasn’t seen on his pants-leg. Rest in that trailer you hit with the rock. No more girls
The woman now crushing one so close
These three to that safe house
Come on Avery Black
Repent Avery Black, my god!
But his eyes only glitter in the tumbling light. He points the way out and heads to the other trailer
Go, he shouts. Remember me
Halfway to the car the detonations begin and she knows he’s blasting through the walls. They cover their ears and run, then speed along the narrow rut, prairie grass ripping through the high beams, behind them a plume of dust rising and settling over the plains
She stops late in Lawrence, a darkened street near a darkened coffee shop. She wipes his car of fingerprints, locks it, blesses it, throws the keys down a storm sewer, takes her daughter’s cold rough hand and fades into the night.
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