“I’ll give you a choice, cracker. You can take off your shirt or your pants.” Fat Man draws a deep breath, relaxing his face from an impatient scowl to a paternal smile. “You don’t have to swallow.” Fat Man places both meaty hands on the foot of the bed and leans toward Brite. “I really want to watch it running down your pretty chest.”
Brite Kitson comes awake, sitting straight up, gasping and gagging, and shocked that Fat Man is not at the end of the bed. He pulls the sweat-wet sheet off, and when his feet touch the floor, he starts breathing through his nose and pushing the dream—but it’s a memory—the dream away.
“Shit. Shit.” He clutches the edge of the bed with one hand and rubs his eyes with the other. Son of a bitch. In the bathroom, he splashes cold water on his face and curses Fat Man again for being the first intruder on the day of his father’s funeral.
A funeral in a small town is an event. Even the everyday, most common of deaths–an old person slipping gently into the arms of Jesus for the flight to Glory–still gives everybody something to do in a one stoplight town like Meadow, North Carolina.
A gruesome death–the beloved teenager who has to be cut out of the car leaving behind parents who take a whole day to decide whether to have a closed casket or not–brings out the gawkers and thrill-seekers from two and three counties over.
Rare circumstances, such as the case with Charles Brite Kitson, Senior, finally at peace so soon after his beloved wife went to her eternal reward, will certainly bring in a fair amount of folks. In fact, the funeral home directors, Harlan and Huey Hart, had seemed positively excited at the potential turnout. At least that had been Brite’s impression when he met with the brothers three days ago.
“Oh, Brite. Dear Son. We extend our most sincere condolences. Don’t we, Huey?” Harlan had crooned as he pumped Brite’s hand.
Huey had cocked his head with a somber scrunch of his eyebrows. “Both your parents gone in less than four months of each other. It is unusual and bittersweet. Lost to you, son, but united with God, isn’t that right, Harlan?”
“Three months. Three months,” Harlan had corrected.
“Three months and six days,” Huey had re-corrected. “We, and may I say, the whole town of Meadow, are saddened by the loss. Yes, the whole town, young man, feels the holes left in this community, once filled by your dear parents.”
Because Brite did not respond, it had been a short meeting about the arrangements. He had nodded or shook his head to their questions and had let Jenna Lee Smith, his cousin, answer when a verbal response was required. When it was over, he had thanked Jenna Lee and then left her standing by her car dabbing her eyes.
Brite is thinking now, as he stands at the kitchen counter and pulls out two mugs for coffee, that a lot of these people who’ll come to pay their last respects today will really be coming to get a good look at him: the son who has killed his father and his mother as surely as a car wreck or old age.
He dreads it all–the prayers, the urgent message to get right with Jesus, the hand-shaking, the staring, the whispering. He’s already pissed off with the whole damn thing until he realizes that he’s taken two cups down from the cabinet. He slowly replaces the cup that has the fish jumping up and over toward the handle and closes the cabinet door.
Brite has been pouring coffee for himself and his daddy for a year now. His mother had never liked coffee. She’d had hot tea every morning right up until the week she died. It had taken Brite a month before he had finally stopped reaching over to turn the burner on for the kettle.
When he’d come back from Jacksonville, Florida, Brite had avoided moving back into the house until his mama had explained exactly how sick she was. Before that he’d spent most nights sleeping on a couch in the office of Barney Juneberry’s trucking company.
Barney’d had a thriving business in the spring, summer and fall, sending the fresh fruits and vegetables his Mexicans picked down in South Carolina all the way up to New York and out to New Mexico. In the winter, Brite would have driven one of Barney’s trucks over to the mountains and pick up a load of Christmas trees and then spent a month selling them up in Cleveland. When he wasn’t driving, Brite had worked on a car for his daddy or just holed up in the little one-room apartment over the garage.
His mama had been staking out late tomato plants while she talked about doctors and diagnoses. Brite had been holding the string while she’d carefully propped heavy and tender branches against it. Satisfied that each green globe would get some morning sun, she had looked up at him and said, “Cancer.” When Brite had dropped the string, she had stood and put her arms around him, and they had stood there for a long time like that.
Brite had thought about Icarus falling from the sky. Fatal disaster occurring while the sun shone and ships sailed and tomato plants bloomed. He had felt the future then and there. Instead of crying, he had shivered in the September sun until his mother had finally said, “I guess it’s chilly. Let’s go in the house.”
His father’s death certificate read “heart attack,” but it had really been heartbreak.
Now Brite takes his cup and walks into the living room and stands staring at his parents’ wedding picture. He can’t feel anything. He walks over to the family pictures his mother had insisted on having made at church when he was about ten. He still can’t feel anything, except a gut-twisting desire to fast-forward the hours past the funeral. He turns and goes out the back door with his coffee and his dread.
Shirtless, he squats and then leans back on the big scrub oak. At five a.m. the earth is still warm from yesterday’s sun. Brite’s bare feet feel the warmth of the dirt and the cool from morning dew. He stares into the woods toward Sweet’s Pond. The path that intersects Kitson family land and Sweet family land has grown up with weeds—goldenrod, thorny bushes, and beggar lice plants—but Brite can make the ten-minute walk to the pond with his eyes closed any way.
The squares and rectangles of the tree bark bite into his back. Brite pushes a little harder against the trunk and thinks of the penitent sinners in hair shirts, and the self-convicted sinners meting out their own justice as they lash sharp-ended whips across their shoulders until blood flows from their wounds.
Maybe it’s a relief.
At one o’clock, Brite stands at the large front window of his parents’ house. Now his house. He stands, hands in his pockets and squints a little at the brightness of the sun. The air conditioning is on, but struggling since it’s 98 degrees outside, and mourners have kept the front and back doors flapping open since noon. He pulls one hand from a pocket and places his index finger on the glass. It’s warm. He looks just above the finger and focuses on the outside. Green branches from the bushes under the window are crowded against the glass. They need trimming. The grass is mostly green since there’s been some rain during the last couple of weeks.
An untended flowerbed makes a line between the yard and Jessop Street. Grass is sprouting among the flowers and blurring the border. Dahlias, his mother’s favorites, lean clumsily against one another, their purple and pink heads looking down.
On the other side of the street is an empty field leading to Kitson’s Garage and the large oak tree that shades much of the garage yard. Brite can see one side of the garage and the Son’s part of the sign that has been there since before he was born. Now his garage.
To the left of the yard is a white gravel drive leading to the back of the house and the back door. The old Chevy truck his father drove and his mother’s blue Buick are under the detached carport. Brite had looked at them this morning after finishing his coffee. He couldn’t imagine anyone else driving his mother’s car; it would just be disturbing to see it go down Main Street with someone else’s head above the wheel. And he had guessed he would need the old truck now, if he was going to stay in Meadow.
If. If. What if?
There really was no if, and with that thought, he had gone in to take a shower and had felt the hot water sting every scrape and cut left by the tree bark.
Jenna Lee is hosting the wake, just as she did when his mother died. Father and son had stood together then. Brite had done whatever his daddy had wanted, but Jenna Lee was really in charge then too, and he could tell that his daddy was grateful to her. Let Jenna Lee do the talking today as well. She’s good at it. Brite had said very little to anyone in town since he “ran off.” No one expects any different now.
Fried chicken and glutinous casseroles in shades of brown are carried in by large women in polyester dresses. A pea-green congealed salad slides dangerously close to a plate of deviled eggs. Chocolate pies and pound cakes are presented to Jenna Lee like Magi gifts, and she thanks each giver. For both of them.
Most of the men stand outside in the shady back yard. The heat makes them pull at the collars of their starched white shirts and hitch up their dark pants. An occasional chuckle makes it through the back door to Brite’s ears.
Is it the smell of the hot food on this hot day or the lack of anything but coffee on his stomach or the knowing glances and awkward handshakes that makes Brite feel sick on his stomach?
Or is it the dream?
A lurid image of Fat Man comes to Brite’s eyes just as Pastor Vernon and his wife step into the living room to speak to him. As the pastor sticks out his hand, Brite flinches, which causes the pastor to ask, “Are you all right, son?”
Brite shakes his head, breaking the dream–but it’s a memory–and sending the pieces flying from his eyes.
“I’m fine, thank you, Pastor.”
“You look a little sick. Do you need to sit down? It’s hot,” says the stooped old man. “Gets to anyone after a while.” Brite sees that he is truly concerned, which unexpectedly sends shame to Brite’s cheeks.
“Yes sir, it is hot.”
“He’s in a better place, Brite,” Pastor Vernon says. “With your mother,” he adds, gripping Brite’s hand with his knobby fingers.
Brite excuses himself and heads down the hall to the bathroom. With his forehead pressed against the cool white tile of the bathroom wall, Brite imagines what they are all free to say now that he’s not in sight.
That Brite just worried both of them into their graves.
“It’s a shame.”
“They loved that boy.”
“They used to bust a gut with pride. Now look at him.”
“How long do you reckon it’ll be before he sells everything and puts it right up his nose or smokes it or drinks it or whatever he does?”
Brite heads back to the large front window and tries to keep his back to everyone. He feels Jenna Lee beside him. She is almost as tall as he is. Her red hair is back in a neat ponytail. She has chewed off her lipstick and her eyes are tear-filled.
She puts her hand on his arm, just below his shoulder, and for a moment they look at each other. Jenna Lee starts to say something, but she and Brite turn at the same time toward the big-mouthed Vernie King who, true to nature, has said something a little too loudly. “Well, nobody really knows what he’s up to, do they?”
Brite’s light blue eyes glint and shut Vernie King up. She holds her big white pocketbook tightly. Jenna Lee presses something toward Brite, which causes him to look down. She says, “Here, I brought you a glass of tea. And you ought to eat.”
He immediately takes the tea and drinks it down. It’s sweet, almost syrupy.
Jenna Lee says, “Do you want some more?” Brite nods and she leaves his side. He goes back to his inspection of the window. Needs cleaning.
Jenna Lee returns with the refilled glass and says, “Hey, Tucker thinks you and him ought to go fishing this evening. He went and bought himself a new rod and reel last week.” Brite looks at her, and she raises her eyebrows a little and grins. “He says to tell you it’s better than that crap you’ve had since you were fifteen.”
For the first time Brite feels tears at the back of his throat. He looks down and says, “Tell him I said alright.”
“I’ll give you a choice, cracker. You can take off your shirt or your pants.” Fat Man draws a deep breath, relaxing his face from an impatient scowl to a paternal smile. “You don’t have to swallow. I really want to watch it running down your pretty chest.”
Brite feels his eyes widen, but he focuses on keeping the rest of his body from panicking. “What?”
“You heard me.” Fat Man reaches for an amber-filled glass. “Would you like a drink first?” He motions to the dark-suited man by the door, who comes forward and hands over a small bag of cocaine.
“I have to go. I have to get back to Jacksonville.”
Fat Man shifts in his chair, which creaks with his weight. Reaching for his glass, he says, “There’s a tip, of course.” He drains the glass and reaches for the decanter. Another creak ricochets in Brite’s head. Muffled traffic sounds seep in from the streets below. A siren screams.
Brite had known from the moment the dark suit met the car in the parking deck that something was wrong. He had tried to put him off with a smile and an “aw shucks” attitude. “I appreciate it, but me and my girl here got to get back on the road. It’s all at the garage on Hill Street. You can call them.” But the dark suit had loomed in the open car window insistently.
“We already called. Fat Man wants to see you. Not her. Just you.”
Fat Man pours a little of the cocaine onto the glass-top table. He’s making slow circles with his index finger and staring at Brite. His breaths are growing short with his patience. “I’m used to dealing with crackers; stupid cracker gets on my nerves. Your girlfriend knows what the tip is for, and I know she’s sitting downstairs in that Holy Roller car of yours, and you know what you’re supposed to do.” He tastes the white dust. “Jenk says you’re smart. Prove it. Get on your knees.”
“You can kill me and go to hell,” Brite says and turns toward the door.
“I’m not going to do that, but when you get back to Jacksonville,” Fat Man says to his back, “you’ll have to explain to Jenk why he isn’t getting paid. Well, he’ll probably want Finley to explain. Can your little girlfriend do that?”
Brite stops. What would Jenk do to her?
Why do I care? I hate her. She knew this was going to happen.
When he turns, Fat Man is drumming his fingers on the leather arm of the chair. A diamond bracelet softly clinks out the rhythm. His eyes are cold bloodshot gray. He reaches for a small towel on the table and wipes a line of sweat that has gathered at his layered throat. Rolls of pink flesh are visible under his thin white shirt. He blows a deep breath out and throws the towel aside.
“You delivered the coke; you better deliver the money.” Leaning forward, he adds, “Don’t you think so, cracker?”
Brite looks back once more at the man in the dark suit, who smiles benevolently. He thinks of the coyote gnawing its leg off to get out of the trap. Who am I saving? Why?
Brite crushes two one-hundred dollar bills in his fist. Dry heaves are shredding his guts. There’s nothing left. And when he finally breathes, his stomach muscles still jumping, he leans for a moment against the concrete wall of the parking deck, eyes closed. There’s nothing left. That’s for sure. There’s nothing left of me at all.
He stuffs the money down into the front pocket of his jeans, pushes himself off the wall, and walks to the car with the words, “she knew, she knew, she knew, she knew,” pounding in his head like a heartbeat. The neon green “Jesus is My Co-Pilot” bumper sticker has caught the attention of an elderly couple, but when they look back to the sound of Brite’s footsteps, they scurry away.
The slam of the driver’s door moves Finley closer to her side of the car. She puts the back of her hand to her nose and sniffs. Brite notices the skin on her wrist is a pale, almost translucent cover. Her neck is so thin. She’s shaking. She looks at him and opens her mouth to speak.
“If you say one word to me, I’ll break your neck, you lying bitch!”
Finley covers her ears and presses against the door. She pulls her knees to her chest.
Brite reaches under his seat and feels for the bottle. Every swallow feels so good going down, but he gets the door open just in time for all of it to hit the concrete. As he pulls his head up, the elderly couple is standing in the elevator, their eyes wide as the doors close.
“I can’t drive.”
Finley opens her door and walks around. Brite slides to the passenger seat.
Finley stops at the parking deck exit and pays the parking fee. As she pulls the car forward, Brite says, “Take a right.” He closes his eyes and leans his head against the headrest. “Stop at the first cheap motel. If you get pulled over, you’re on your own. I’ll go to jail before I say one word for you.”
The bed is covered in a threadbare spread, and the air conditioner is on full blast, moving the faded yellow curtain hanging above it. The bedside table is scarred with cigarette burns and the TV is missing the on/off knob. Brite is lying on his back with one arm crooked over his face. The pillows stink so he’s thrown them across the room.
He hears Finley move to the side of the bed. Before she can reach down for her bag, Brite places one foot on the metal box cranking out the musty cold air. Finley stops short of touching his leg. He knows she is pulling at her hair and staring at him.
“I need my bag.”
Brite doesn’t move.
“Can I get my bag? Please?”
“No,” he says and removes his arm.
Finley returns his stare, her fingers fidgeting in her hair. Brite feels like a cat with a mouse. He feels like ripping something to pieces. Maybe her.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It was Jenk’s idea. I can’t control what he does. He’s crazy. He can hurt me. He can hurt us. I didn’t really know.”
Brite sits up now. His head has suddenly cleared, and he looks at Finley with a cold-minded focus. He sees her chipped nail polish, her dull hair. She’s skinny–not a woman, a ragged doll. “You’re a whore and a liar. Give me the gear in your shoe.”
“Brite, baby, please, give me my bag. I’m sorry. I’m…” She sits on the bed. “What can I do? What do you want? Give me my bag, and then I’ll go get us a Pepsi or something.”
“Take off your shoes or I’ll pull them off you myself.”
Finley lunges for her bag, but Brite holds her back easily. He feels every bone in her shoulders; her arms are as weak as a child’s. She pushes against him screaming. Then she stands and paces back and forth by the foot of the bed, in turns pulling her hair and holding her stomach.
Brite follows her only with his eyes. She is ugly and sickening. His pounding brain allows him a moment of clarity in which he wonders at his own stupidity. That he could really be in this circle of hell.
His silence breaks her, and she turns on him. “You want to punish me because you had to suck one cock! How do you think I feel?”
Brite stands now and leaning over her bellows, “You don’t feel anything, you stupid junkie, you’re numb all the time!”
The air conditioner clicks and whirrs to a stop. There’s a TV on next door. Game show music rises and falls. Finley’s eyes narrow and, hands on her hips, she leans toward him. “So self-righteous. So much better than me, college boy.” She has never called him that before. She straightens, takes a breath and with a wicked smile says, “What do you call it when you leave in the middle of the night to pick up license plates for that garage on Palm Boulevard?”
“What do I call it? It’s the money you use to buy the shit you’re cooking up all the time.” But his voice falters a little because Brite is starting to feel less sure about how to lay the blame.
“And what do you call it when you take a shower with Bobby’s wife and she pays you with coke?” Finley takes a step closer. Her voice gets stronger. “You don’t have to look away. I know all about it. Cause Bobby always sets aside a bottle of whiskey for you, too. I guess he likes a night off.”
“Shut up, Finley.”
“You know what Leena calls you when she comes in the bar afterwards? Oh yeah, she always comes in when ya’ll have had a nice little fuck. She calls you her boy. Bobby laughs. The girls do, too.”
“So, you don’t think you’re a whore because you like doing what you’re getting paid for? Is that it?”
“I swear if you don’t…”
“You’re a thief and a whore, and you still think you’re better than me, don’t you?” Finley points to the bottle on the bedside table. “Pour that out.”
Brite slowly turns to look at the bottle. Keeping his eyes on it, he sits on the bed. The game show audience laughs and laughs. It’s so funny. It’s so funny how Brite knows he can pour it out, but he knows he won’t. It’s physically possible. Reach out, place his palm on the smooth glass, lift and walk to the sink, the sink that he now hears dripping. Dripping out the time. The time before ...and the time after…he doesn’t pour it out.
Finley kneels and circles her arms around his waist. He feels hot, silent tears on his chest while the bottle watches him. They’ve spoken the truth. The truth is present in this paneled room now like the stained green carpet and the bottle. Out of the mouths of babes.
He puts his arms around her. They roll back on the bed and hold each other until the grimy sunlight changes the shadows in the room. They doze. The traffic sounds change. Game show music flows into soap opera voices.
“We’re going to stop, Finley. We have to. We’re either going to prison or we’re going to die if we don’t stop.” She shivers and buries her face harder into his chest. “It’s going to hurt, but we can do it.” He touches his lips to her forehead. “I’ll help you, but you have to trust me. No more lies.”
“I want to go home,” Finley says and squeezes him tighter.
“We can’t go home like this. We have to stop all this shit. All of it.” He pulls away to look in her face. “Then we can go home, but not like this. Okay?” Finley nods and Brite rubs her back and kisses her face, and feels his heart soften like it always does. He holds her more tenderly than he has in a long time because somehow he knows he’s just told another lie.