THE LONG GREEN STRETCH, THE TALL TREES, THE CLOUDS SHAPED LIKE STARS
by Benjamin Woodard
I’m not supposed to get calls after nine, but when the phone rang, my old man didn’t stop me from answering. He’d already removed his leg for the night—it stood upright on the cushion next to him—so he just stayed there and stared me down with these death eyes, these ass-kicker eyes, as if I’d planned the whole thing to interrupt his lame TV show, and he grunted while I walked over to the cordless and slunk into the kitchen.
It was Maura. She said, “God, I don’t even want to talk to you. I can smell your stink through the phone.”
And, yes, I’m kind of dumb enough that I did a pit check. She heard me sniffing and made one of those disappointed tsk sounds on her end, like she was picking up where we left off, back last month when we found ourselves tanked on strawberry Boone’s at Billy Hurlbrink’s big woods party and I licked her neck after we got kind of glued together, at least in our minds.“Glad to hear we’re back on speaking terms,” I said.
My old man grunted again. A warning grunt. A don’t-make-me-hit-you-with-my-peg-leg-in-the-middle-of-my-TV-show grunt he’d grown fond of since his accident.Most days aren’t too fun.I sidled up against the sink of dirty dishes in the dark.“You’re a last resort, I’ll have you know,” Maura said. “Gonna leave for Grandma’s funeral tomorrow morning and you need to come feed the animals while we’re gone.”
I said I couldn’t and ran a finger over a greasy bowl.
“You don’t understand the term ‘last resort,’ do you?” Maura was all sarcastic now. “Trust me, you’re the last person I want around my pets.”
“How about Saddam Hussein?” I said, thinking of some lethal jerkoffs we’d all like to avoid. Like Billy Hurlbrink’s older brother, Ed, he of the strawberry Boone’s procurement. Ed haunts the neighborhood, does go-kart races two towns over and acts as if that’s something special, as if it’s his career. “Want Saddam feeding your animals?”
“You’re an idiot, Tripper,” Maura said.
“Who told you to call me that?” I said, though I knew fully well she heard it from the Hurlbrinks.
“It’s just a name.”
“Bullshit it’s just a name. Billy tell you to call me that?”
“Jeez, nobody really thinks you’re going to, you know,” she said. “Like your dad.”
“Then don’t call me that again.”
“First say ‘yes.’”
“You want me to start calling you a name?”
“Jeez, of course not.”
I looked down at my shadowed body. I could barely see my legs, as if they’d already been blown off me. My old man muttered to himself in the other room. It was time for his pills. He keeps count so I can’t nab any.
“Must be nice,” I said.
“What must be nice?”
“Getting away for a vacation.”
“My grandma is dead,” Maura said.
“Still,” I said, “beats hanging around here with the living, don’t it?”
She tsk-ed me again, but she didn’t outright answer, either. Princess Cocktease didn’t have to. I knew I was right.
Now I’m heading over to Maura’s for day three of my pet duties, my obedience. One of her pink bras dangles loose in my imagination, all silky and soft. What a dipshit I am, letting my pecker decide my fate.
Ed comes out of the bushes smeared in motor oil and black sludge: Total gearhead, double dipshit. He catches up to me, getting his stroll on, a twig shooting out of his matted hair.
“Hey there, Tripper,” he says in his crazy way.
“Name’s not Tripper,” I say.
Ed laughs. He tags me with his fists, leaves a little bit of black behind on my jeans and shirt. Expecting more, I curl up in a ball on the ground.
“Can’t believe you,” he says. “After all that booze I get Billy for you little fudge packers, least you can do is show me some respect.”
He offers a hand, gets me to my feet. He brushes me off like he cares.
“Where you headed?”
“No place special,” I say.
“Just enjoying those legs of yours, I bet.” He makes a chainsaw sound and pretends to hack through me with his hands. “Bet your dad’s got some sweet painkillers.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I say.
The two of us walk side by side—a regular dynamic duo—to the end of the street, past the collapsed sheds, the empty foundations, and the half-trailers full of snotty little kids chasing each other around with Wiffleball bats and firecrackers. Ed fires off mean eyes and they scatter. I turn left instead of my usual right and I lead Ed away from Maura’s place. All I smell is engine grease, like Ed showers in the stuff. I kick at a stone that bounces up the dirt shoulder and hangs off into the woods.
“You know someday I’ll be pro,” Ed tells me. “Down at the track they say I’m on my way. Wouldn’t hurt to be tight with a guy like me.”
“I’ll think about that,” I say.
Nobody ever feels completely safe walking next to Ed Hurlbrink.
“Where you headed again?” Ed says.
“What were you doing in those bushes back there?” I counter.
“If you ain’t going nowhere, maybe we’ll head over to the diamond. Feel like it? Maybe you’ll let me work on my jab? My right hook?”
This cracks him up.
I look back and can barely make out Maura’s driveway. I don’t want to peel off. I can just imagine Ed following me back and stealing the TV or breaking something or feeding one of the animals a food it’s not supposed to eat. So I keep walking like I don’t have anything to do but walk, like I’m some kind of sissy freak that goes on walks for exercise.
“Know what I did the other night?” Ed asks.
“Nailed that Maura. That friend of yours. You hear me? Nailed ‘er.”
I nod. He’s looking to make me nuts. A classic Hurlbrink move. But the whole thing is déjà vu because not long ago, just around the corner from here, a whole slew of us hopped off the bus early to watch Billy slaughter this weirdo, Keith Clements, a beat down that started with Billy making claims on someone Keith liked. Just like Ed and me right now. Only difference was Billy used Keith’s little sister as his target—which is sick. Libby’s nine.
Point is, Billy got under Keith’s skin, and Keith ended up with a busted tooth that led to extra torture from Billy and me and everyone else.
So I smile at Ed like a dummy, act like who cares about Maura.
We walk and we walk and we walk until Ed finally says, “You’re wasting my time, Trip,” and he rams me into the side of a mailbox. I go down. My ankle splits open. “Say hi to your daddy for me,” he says with a chuckle. “Tell him watch out with them power tools.” Then he lopes away into somebody’s yard.
Slipping into Maura’s using the Hide-A-Way key, I feel my sock spongy with gore.
Ed’s got me all pissed off.
The little indoor orange cat I sometimes call Firecrotch (though I think she might be named Sunny) prances over, tangles my legs while I try to get inside. I swear she acts like I didn’t spend two hours petting her just yesterday between spelunking missions of Maura’s bedroom, and I nearly drop, which makes me swat at her and shout and I’m yelling “Jesus, give me a minute, will you, Crotchspark!”
She scampers. I hop to the bathroom.
Twist on the bathtub faucet and poke my naked foot under the cold, cold water. The blood above my ankle swirls down the drain in a peppermint pattern.
Stupid clumsy old man. Fucking chainsaw. Doesn’t he know that shit trickles down to me? That being a kid sucks enough without cutting your legs off? I hate having to deal with Ed. Like his family’s something special. Like he’s some kind of superstar. Truth: He and Billy come from a long line of flunkies and pyros. They live on food stamps and charity. And they go ride the go-karts.
Listen, Ed, go drive your go-kart off a goddamn bridge. How about you and your brother stop handing out shitty nicknames? Tripper. That’s a clever one. Like you’re so special.
I roll tight my wet sock and press it into my back pocket.
Maura said my old man didn’t fall on accident, but that he chopped his leg off on account of having me for a son. She was kidding, of course. But there’s some truth in every joke.
I slap on three short band-aids like stitches and then I dig through the bottles in the medicine cabinet and choke down a pill that looks like the kind my old man devours. It sticks in my throat so I suck from the tap.
“Firecrotch,” I say, wipe dribble from my chin.
“Sunny,” I say. “Sparkbutt.”
I pad into the hallway, the kitchen, the living room. But no cat anywhere.
The fish tank bubbles soft against the wall, all neon.
I kind of expect to see Ed flop around the corner with the animal limp in his arms, to learn he’s outwitted me and followed me here and drowned her in a bucket of vinegar, but he doesn’t.
Instead, I peep her through the backyard windows. Firecrotch hangs there near the rabbit cages: tail curled, head darting, she swaggers on the long green stretch like she belongs to the grass.
Only thing is Firecrotch isn’t allowed outside.
I slip my foot into my sneaker and make for the screen door, which is ajar on account of my own carelessness—the gory leg, the tangled feline greeting—not Ed Hurlbrink, and I jump the brick steps and turn the corner in time to see the little dimwit tiptoe into the dark underbrush of the surrounding woods. Moron won’t survive this move. She has no experience, no history of owls, dogs, hailstorms. Her biggest adventure to date was probably a trip to the vets or a dustup with a field mouse.
So I pick up the pace: grass swooshes, pants swoosh, the smells of fresh dirt and a rusted old swing set fill me up. I tuck head and charge into the mystery behind her.
Bye -bye lawn.
And if this sorry excuse for a neighborhood qualifies, so long civilization.
I use my sweetest voice, my softest, calmest intonation. “Kitty! Kitty!” But the twat keeps inching forward, through the stick piles and fallen limbs, the old crumpled leaves, the pitted ground and jagged rocks, like she doesn’t remember the good times we’ve shared, and I clutch at the tall trees with their rough bark like elephant skin, and I put my lips together to make little chirping sounds. And I reach and I grab, but it’s like there’s an invisible wall between us. Like we’re dancing. Like we’re in sync in two halves of an underworld.
And I’m thinking about Maura and her attitude and the way she thinks I’m her dog, with her tsks and everything when I’m just trying to be a good fucking boyfriend, and a part of me just wants to say screw it to her and her cat, but another part of me comes up with a declaration, a kind of deal: I won’t completely fuck up this simple mission of feeding a cat while my girlfriend is staring at her dead grandmother in a pine box, meaning I will nab Firecrotch here from certain death by bear or bobcat or coyote and bring her home, and in return I’ll get me some decent luck for once, something that’ll make sure I don’t turn out like my old man, or Ed, or even Billy, and somehow no one will call me Tripper anymore and we’ll all end up happy.
Maybe something like that will happen.
Even a part of it would make for a pleasing development.
I’m all full of sweat and itches.
By the time we pass the spot of Billy’s big woods party, Firecrotch is not even looking back anymore. I’m no concern at all to her pea brain. I’m watching this stupid creature move deeper and deeper toward her own tragic fate and I can’t do a single thing to stop her. She goes on trucking through the scene: busted glass jumbles the beauty, as does the old sofa. My gut flinches. I wobble on a bottle of strawberry Boone’s, same bottle I tossed into the sticks that night, feeling all grown up littering, and I catch myself before I take another header.
Swear to God I reach her I’m going to drag her home by the tail.
I try the voice again, try the chirping sound, tread softly. Stop and rub my thumb and middle finger together, like I’m dangling a live goldfish for her to eat. But jack shit works. Firecrotch jumps forward, onto a thick collapsed tree trunk, then takes off and before I know it I’ve completely lost her. She blends right in with the other oranges all around: the leaves, the splintered wood, the sunshine.
I stop for a second, catch my breath.
Leaving me in the lurch. Screwing me over.
That’s Maura’s cat, all right, fulfilling her role in my life exactly.
I wander around the wild some more, totally pathetic. I start thinking of an excuse to tell Maura. Something about Ed. I’ll surely never see that pink bra again. I look up at the leaves and the sky, at the clouds that all seem to be shaped like stars today. As if this might give me an answer. Staring at that blue, at that puffed up white with edges and points, I think of Maura’s last words on the phone: “You’re at least reliable.”
That’s her version of a compliment. Not that being reliable means much. It’s not like reliable and gullible are all that much different, right? Think about it.
I do, looking up at the sky.
And I realize, over my breath, I’m hearing this low whir shake through the leaves and the trees like a fly zapper. It gets louder. Then after another second or two I’m seeing the source of the noise as the front of one of those monster blimps, you know, the kind you see at baseball games and carnivals, cuts into my view.
It floats by just perfect in the middle of the sky, this goddamn silver balloon.
“What the hell is that thing doing?” I say, certain that nobody is going to reply.
The blimp stares me down. It shines up there.
I take another step forward with my neck craned. I’m wondering where they’re going. I’m thinking they’re lost. Why would they be here?
Could they spot a cat?
Could they see me?
Then I hear the snap of sticks, and my feet sink.
I’m dropping …
… into a hole, a grave, a well or something …
… that swallows me and I crash at the bottom with a shower of hole-hiding camouflage pelting my head: branches, leaves, corrugated cardboard. It all comes down and I’m wedged in this musty smelling thing probably dug out by a kid with nothing else to do. By a weirdo like Keith Clements or his sister Libby. This tomb. My bloody ankle cranks and I feel drips soaking my sneaker. My clothes are covered in dirt. When I look up, all I see, framed by a rectangle of brown earth, is the green and the clouds and the blimp.
Freedom. Maura. My dad.
I’m scratching my way back into it, but there’s nothing much to grab. All I want at this moment is to jump out, for maybe Firecrotch to appear with a rope, like Lassie. For my weakling arms to kick into survival mode and do some good for once.
But none of this happens. My nails pull back and I don’t budge an inch. I’m a goddamn loser.
“Hey,” I say. “Hey! Anyone hear me?”
I glance around at the dirt. I close my eyes so my ears work better.
“Ed,” I say. “Ed or Billy or anyone. Can you hear me?”
“Firecrotch,” I say. “Sunny.”
“Keith,” I say. “Libby. Can you hear me up there?”
Nobody responds. Nobody’s head pops over the edge of the hole. I don’t hear footsteps or meowing, just the blimp.
Firecrotch could be in a hole of her own nearby.
This whole area could be full of holes.
I open my eyes and dig into the dirt, pull loose some roots. They snap when I yank.
Looking up, I think this is the view Maura’s grandma gets to enjoy from now on, up on her perch in the great beyond.
“Great Beyond, hey, it’s me,” I say. “It’s Alex.” Then, kind of embarrassed: “It’s Tripper.”
More junk blows down and it lands in my mouth. I spit and reach up. The top of the hole waits a few inches above my fingertips.
The blimp slowly cruises from left to right. No help at all. If it sees me, it doesn’t care. The whir grows softer. It flies away. Then all that’s left is the breeze and me. A fern hangs down, as if offering a hand.
So I claw.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His writing has been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi, and other fine publications. You can find him here.