by John L. Skarl
“…religion is the opium of the poor.”
“…I thought marijuana was the opium of the poor…”
I never knew that words could carry weight the way the brown cardboard boxes in the trunk of my car became heavy with stuff. So heavy sometimes I had to reinforce the bottoms with packaging tape so they didn’t break open in my arms on those shining days when Bleeding Wolfe and I used to set up at the flea market twice during the week and on Sunday mornings. Back then, I never understood that folks carry stories the way the Coyotero carried bits of glowing cinder across the lower plains of western Arizona, and that sometimes those stories break out of their boxes and spill. I quit setting up at the flea market because no one wanted the stuff in my boxes because it was ugly, I suppose, like Bleeding Wolfe’s stories, or had outlived its usefulness, like the Mustache Mug. But maybe that was unfair. I’d like to think everything in this world eventually finds its true place, and until we deliver it home we’re like the Coyotero. There’s a whole lot I don’t know, which is why I kept the Nazi’s discarded set of encyclopedias. I couldn’t lift that box, and I wondered if it had something to do with the weight of all that knowledge. Most of their weight, though, came from being waterlogged, but I stacked the swollen volumes one by one in my trunk and left the empty box. Something I had plenty of—boxes, anyway.
Most people don’t know that it gets cold out here at night, and it was chilly on this particular evening. I had just set out to the gas station for a gallon of Neapolitan ice cream, so I rolled up the windows in the old Caddy. The zipper on the case of the rifle Will let me borrow began tapping against the glass. I reached back to lay the tweed sleeve across the seats. I must have swerved because that’s when the cop pulled me over. That spring I was trying to grow a moustache to impress Jean, and I remember looking in the rearview mirror at the red and blue lights, smoothing the bristles on my lip. He got out and asked for my identification. “My goods.” He asked to see my goods. I marveled at the giant red mustache covering his entire mouth, and I couldn’t speak, which happens to me sometimes, and he left.
He opened his trunk and came back with a Breathalyzer at his side. I remember thinking it looked like a pistol out of a science fiction movie with robots and jumpsuits and beautiful women. “Son. Can you tell me why you have a rifle in your car?”
When I get nervous I stutter. I was nervous, but I hadn’t been drinking. Wolfe had left some crushed beer cans on the floorboards, but that was days ago. Stuttering made me feel foolish, and back then the fear of appearing foolish made me even more nervous, so my stutter only got worse. I looked around at the squares of light in the ranches and trailers and rubbed my bare arms wishing I’d worn a jacket.
I stuttered something about coyotes at my fence, which was true, but he began to suspect I wasn’t put together quite right, which was also true, but I’ll bet he thought I was on something, and probably headed to the water tower just outside town. Maybe he figured I was going to start squeezing off rounds at the trailers and ranches and people below, and I remember thinking it’s too bad he doesn’t know I’m afraid of heights.
“Coyotes giving you some trouble?” He gestured to the thick yellow lines that divided the street in half. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to walk that line.”
I had difficulty with the line, stumbling and overcompensating, which made me really mad, and when I get mad I don’t stutter, I shout, and I shouted that I couldn’t walk the line because I have cerebral palsy, which is true. “I was born with it! See?” I hung my hooked hands in front of his face.
He took off his hat and held it in his hands. It was one of those dimpled deputy hats, and now it was his turn to stutter.
It was true I hadn’t been on anything, but when I got home I grabbed a few bottles of beer from the fridge, draped my jacket across my shoulders and headed out back. I slid into a lawn chair, popped a beer, and called out to Ebenezer, “Coyotes bugging you tonight, boy?”
In most stories, goats eat anything. Tin cans. Garbage. Ebenezer was supposed to be my landlord’s solution to yard work, but the grass out here is dry and twisted. “On account of the sand,” Will said. Anyway, Ebenezer didn’t eat the grass. A few weeks went by, and his ribs started to show just like the fingers of an old rake. I didn’t know what to do. I used to make a little extra of whatever I was having and scoop it onto a paper plate, but there was no guarantee he’d eat it. I tried just about everything—slices of potato fried in butter and salt (Mom’s recipe), a little bit of peanut butter spread on the heel of a loaf of bread. Nothing. I even looked up goat in the encyclopedia, which said they feed on noxious weeds, whatever they are. Not many noxious weeds out here, unless you count the stuff Bleeding Wolfe carries around in his tobacco pouch. Or cacti. Not even a regular goat will eat cacti, certainly not a finicky goat like Ebenezer. One day I scooped some cottage cheese onto a paper plate and left it out back. He licked the plate halfway across the yard. When I figured out he wasn’t going to starve to death in my backyard, I started calling him Ebenezer because of his stingy appetite. Ebenezer is the pickiest goat I’ve ever met, but to be fair I can’t say I’ve met a lot of goats.
My Elvis alarm clock woke me the next day with Blue Suede Shoes, but the batteries were dying so it came out all warbled, his hips jittered instead of shimmied, and I thought, what a cruel jab.
I heard the television and walked out there in my boxer shorts. Bleeding Wolfe was sitting in my recliner spooning from the carton of Neapolitan ice cream. I read in the encyclopedia that Neapolitan comes from Italy, and even if Wolfe had been Italian, I couldn’t have forgiven him for eating only the chocolate. But that’s how Bleeding Wolfe was—“mi casa su casa,” was his philosophy. Too bad he was basically homeless. And he wasn’t Spanish either.
I repeated his Spanish, and he complimented me on my moustache, so I forgot all about the Neapolitan and went in to shower.
Halfway though my shower, he came in to use the toilet. I had to ask him to shut the door because when someone opens the door while you’re in the shower, all the hot air rushes out and cold air rushes in. “Shut the door, peckerwood!” I’d heard Will call Bleeding Wolfe peckerwood, and I’m still not quite sure what it means because it isn’t in the encyclopedia. He shut the door and then he flushed the toilet, and you probably know what happens when someone flushes the toilet while you’re in the shower.
Bleeding Wolfe had long hair in the back and short hair up top. That’s called a Mullet, which is a ray-finned fish found in coastal temperate and tropical waters, but it’s also a kind of haircut. He was missing the thumb on his left hand, and I don’t know what that’s called, but I wondered if he blew it off with an M-80 as a peckerwood kid.
“I think there’s a garage sale up here,” Bleeding Wolfe kept saying that day, but the places we went didn’t have garages, and I parked the Caddy in the street because in those days she pissed oil like an old goat. In dribbles, that is.
Bleeding Wolfe found a sepia print of an Indian chief and said he wanted to paint it in color. “Really bring it to life.” Most of Bleeding Wolfe’s paintings were pretty bad, which I thought had something to do with his missing thumb until I found out he painted with his good hand. He used to paint on all kinds of stuff, like wooden ironing boards and long, jagged saws. Said he had a slice of tree stump he was saving for something good.
My favorite Bleeding Wolfe painting was his Last Supper with a brown Jesus. “Ran out of flesh tone,” he said. The Darkie Christ made the vein in the Nazi’s neck stick out.
“You’re an artist, Bleeding Wolfe,” I used to say whenever the Nazi stalked by, pulsing.
The apostles in the painting were all gloopy like Claymation in Hell, but Bleeding Wolfe always said, “I’ll never sell that one.”
We saw a bunch of knives, canteens, and camouflage. I could never get into all that army surplus crap. We left it for the Nazi. That day’s find was an old green coffee mug designed for someone with a mustache. There was a little opening for your mouth so your mustache didn’t get wet when you took a drink, and it had the words Mustache Mug printed on the side. “Paul, how much you get outta that?” Bleeding Wolfe asked when I bought it.
“It’s a keeper.” I smoothed my mustache.
Saturday arrived and I pulled the tarp from my booth at the flea market. Someone had spray painted Dirt Mall on the side of the building, and I guess they were right, but setting up on a good day paid rent. That Sunday I laid down Elvis, watered my ferns, and splashed my cactus while Will counted change into a cigar box. Will was an old black fella used to sell rifles, old TVs and musical instruments. He picked the banjo those weekends and some guys got tired of it, but I never did.
“Paul?” He ran a rag over one of his TV screens. “You fire that little .22 yet?”
“No. I hear them at my fence, but I can’t catch ’em.”
“Damned coyotes.” He set the cigar box under his table. “You got to aim at the head. Otherwise you’ll just ruffle their feathers.”
I thought that was funny because coyote didn’t have feathers.
He held out a little orange bottle and a paper bag. “Do me a favor, Paul. Wipe that gun down. I can’t stand the thought of it dirty.”
I took the bottle and the bag, but what I want to tell you about is the way things used to work at the flea market. If someone gave you something or did something for you, you always did something for them in return. Kind of like what the Indians used to do, with Wampum, which is a string of white shell beads fashioned from the channeled whelk shell. So, I grabbed the Elvis clock off my table and handed it to Will. “Why don’t you see what you can get out of this, Will? I was thinking twenty.”
Will took the clock with an old black hand and looked at it. “Can’t say this cracker was ever worth a damn, Paul, but I’ll see what I can do.”
I walked on laughing because Will laughed, but I didn’t know what cracker meant, so I wrote it in my steno pad under peckerwood.
Jean was the one who started calling him Nazi. Maybe it was all of the shapes on his flags. One shape is called a swastika, which used to be a shape people liked, but now most people wrinkle their faces when they see it. Some flags were striped with shapes called Confederate Crosses that Will shook his head at, and some said POW, MIA, You Are Not Forgotten. They probably meant something to Bleeding Wolfe now that I think of it. Anyway, the Nazi was at his booth, his angry vein running up under his chin, and I realized he had a mustache too, but a mean mustache. One with the ends pointed down.
Bleeding Wolfe was sitting at his booth wearing big headphones, and he held up his good hand and made a shape that means “Rock Out.” That was something Bleeding Wolfe liked to do. Rock Out. I was kind of glad he couldn’t hear me because he’d set out his new painting. Well, his stump. I didn’t know what to say. Something like, “Him Paint Garage Sale Indian Chief.” The eyes crossed a little, and there was too much paint on the feathers. I kept on towards the crowd. Some weird music came from over there, all harps and falsettos, so I wormed through the throng to see what all the fuss was about. A new couple, Spanish I think, had set up a bunch of religious stuff.
The woman was built like Bleeding Wolfe, and a couple of eyes shined down near the tabletop. Kids. The man was small with a squirrely little mustache. Finally, I thought, one worse than mine. Anyway, they had a mound of little pink boxes that said Pieces of the Cross, a stack of glue-bound Bibles, and a few flesh-colored Christ statues. They even had a crown of thorns. Someone was flipping through a photo book at the table full of miracles—Jesus’ face in the clouds. On some guy’s window. On a piece of tortilla. Someone wanted to see what was back there in a frame. Do you know what they had? They had a copy of Jesus’ Draft Card. I bought a bright headscarf with a striking dark-haired woman on it. “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” the big woman said when she took my money, and I stuffed The Virgin in my pocket.
As I was pushing back through the crowd, the Nazi stalked by and muttered something that sounded like, “God damned beaners.”
I walked back to Bleeding Wolfe’s booth, and he pulled his headphones down around his neck.
“We’re in the wrong business,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Did you see them beaners sellin’ all kinds of religious stuff?”
“What beaners?” He stretched his neck.
“They got flesh-colored Christs,” I said. “They got Jesus’ Draft Card.”
“I’ll bet the Nazi buys it.”
I barely broke even. I sold my life-size cutout of Marilyn Monroe for half price. I didn’t really want to part with it because usually you see her with white skirts all blowing up around her, but in my cutout she wore a red dress and looked back over her shoulder. Like she was happy to be walking away from something. Bleeding Wolfe actually sold a painting. Well, a saw. He had painted a gray wolf jumping over a log, and he wanted to eat at Ponderosa to celebrate.
The restaurant was packed, and Bleeding Wolfe was only picking at his first plate, and I was into my third, which almost never happened, so I set down my breaded cauliflower and asked him if anything was wrong.
“I was in Nam,” he said.
“That’s the one, Paulie. The Draft Card got me thinking.”
“Did you see action?” I asked, which was from a movie.
“God damned mess.” He set down his fork and looked at me. “It rained a lot. I took some shrapnel.” He banged on his leg.
“The palsy saved me,” I said, and it was true. The army couldn’t use me.
“You’re lucky, Paul. Well, you know what I mean.”
I nodded and pushed my plate across the table.
He picked up a piece of cauliflower and nodded back. “What’d you do?”
“Gosh, where to begin,” I said. “Jerking off on Friday nights with two withered arms, everyone else out bowling. Smoked pot with devil worshipers. Grocery Boy on Speed. No big whoop.”
He laughed and slapped the table, and my silverware rattled. Every head in that place turned. Our waitress brought the check.
Back at my place, we slipped out back and sat in the lawn chairs, and Ebenezer ran his tongue across the back of Bleeding Wolfe’s hand. “Sit,” he said.
“He doesn’t know that one,” I said.
“What does he know?”
“Stand?” I said. “Stare?”
“I never painted a goat before,” he said. “Pose.”
I patted Ebenezer’s head.
“So.” Bleeding Wolfe held out a leather baggie. “Anything to mix this up on?” He used to mix marijuana with cherry pipe tobacco. His ration system.
I grabbed an old Gordon Lightfoot album from inside. I had this stereo Will traded me for my old high school band cornet, and it was one of those 1970s stereos with fake wood paneling, big buttons and colored lights, but it Rocked Out, and I set the record on there, and the music started. I took the sleeve out there for Wolfe’s drugs.
“Oh yeah!” Bleeding Wolfe liked it. We were definitely Rocking Out.
Like I told you, the weather’s goofy, so I grabbed some old newspaper and some wood I kept to start a fire. The secret is you have to stack the wood like a teepee so it has a chance to catch and then you can keep it stoked all through the night. I asked Bleeding Wolfe for a match, and he handed over his lighter. We were in business.
“Nice technique,” Wolfe said.
“I was a Boy Scout.” Only a few weeks, but it was true.
“Hey, Boy Scout. Wanna hit the peace pipe?”
The pipe was meerschaum carved to resemble an Indian. Bits of the blend hung over the feathers, and I took it and dragged the lighter across the top. I remember coughing a bit. It had been years since the devil worshippers, but it always used to fix my stutter. I blew out a smoke signal.
We passed it for a bit then Wolfe banged it against the chair and pocketed it. I had never noticed how many stars hung in the sky.
“I’m thinking of asking Jean out,” I said, which was true.
Jean was from Canada, and she used to set up in the dressing rooms at the flea market. She charged a buck to read palms and stuff like that. Tarot Cards. A sign read Lady Esmeralda Will Peer Into Your Future. I liked going back there because she had a bunch of velvet sheets hanging around, and she used to burn incense. She used to sell, but boy, did she have class. “Any ideas?” I said.
“I don’t know,” Bleeding Wolfe said. “She seems like the amusement park type. Take her to one of those.”
“I’m afraid of heights,” I said, which was true.
“Take her out to dinner.”
I asked Wolfe if he was ever married.
“Nope. Dated this real sweetheart for a while. Nice.”
“What happened to her?” I said.
“I went to Nam. She got married. Shoot, nothing lasts forever. Even those stars are gonna burn out someday.”
“What about God?” I said.
“What about Him?” Bleeding Wolfe said.
“He lasts forever, don’t He? Like them beaners? All that religious stuff?”
Bleeding Wolfe nodded and said, “Yeah, but I don’t think God’s what everybody thinks He is. Like, how do you even know it’s a He? Like them beaners. All that Jesus stuff. Maybe He’s an It?”
“What if God’s a She?”
“Could be,” he said. “Probably built like Jean.”
“What if God’s just Life?”
“Well,” he said, “then, we’re both just pissing up a rope, Paulie.”
The fire was just about burned out because I let it, and the occasional pop of the wood sent cinders into the air. The music was nice, but it had stopped. When I came back from flipping the record, Bleeding Wolfe was sitting with his eyes closed, his hands crossed on his belly.
“You know what I always wanted to ask you?” I said. “Why do you call yourself Bleeding Wolfe? Sounds like an Indian name.”
“Want some more?” he asked.
I sat down, and he pulled out The Chief.
“Fixed my stutter,” I said.
We smoked some more then he began. “Back in Nam I was a dumb kid. I was ready to fight. Buncha longhairs running around. Some of them headed to Canada. Not me. They pulled my card. I shipped out May 23, 1965.
“The platoon was full of all sorts and everyone got along for the most part. There was the occasional fistfight over something stupid, but we were nineteen. It was the same thing that happened in high school. Some guy made a crack, and you had to do something about it or never hear the end. I saw a lot of buddies go at Pleiku. I started to get the idea I was involved in something really big. The whole country was getting that idea. War everywhere. War in your C rations, in your socks. War staring back at you in the mirror. Even war in your dope.
“I had been there six months, humping up through Dong Ha, when our Platoon got this Indian kid. He was young, kind of pretty, actually, which only made it worse for him. Some guys picked on him, John Wayne types, and I have to say I did my part. He wore slippers, right? So did the gooks. He never looked you in the eye. That was what bugged most guys.
“Anyway, word got out he was Coyotero. Apache. Actually called himself Wolfe. Guys used to fuck with him. Your name’s Chief Peckerwood, shit like that. Finally we settled on Coyote, not Wolfe, and that was our way of accepting him. Putting him down.
“We humped for months, ended up around Ky Son. Close to Laos. The platoon leader was a sucker for gook whores. We ran out of dope and into some heavy jungle, so some of us pulled back. We went into Laos. Took Coyote with us. He didn’t have a choice.”
Right then we were in the bush, Bleeding Wolfe and I, stuffed into lawn chairs, sporting camo. I imagined his hair cropped short, his thick ears sticking out. His features rugged, rawboned, almost handsome in the waning fire glow.
“So we found this gook had some girls. Not a bad joint. Imagine. You’re in the middle of the jungle. They even got a little rice booze. Well, Coyote wanted no part of it. No drink, no dope, no girls. So he’s a fag, right?
“I was upstairs, and I heard loud voices downstairs and guns going off. I lost my hard-on, and I jacked up my gear. This whore started screaming something, and I grabbed my gun and headed downstairs. There was sporadic fire, and she was screaming in my ear and then I felt a hot jab on my shoulder, on the top of my head. She was stabbing me.”
Bleeding Wolfe pulled down his shirt, and I started to protest, but he said, “No, Paul, this is all part of the bargain,” and sure enough, three little round scars dotted his back. He hung his head and showed me the hairless patches on his scalp. “Hurt like a sonofabitch, so I knocked her down and put a few rounds in her. In her hand one red stiletto heel. Stabbed by a fucking shoe.
“Coyote was down there in the doorway, firing into the street, shell casings bouncing like shit against the walls and the steps. Coupla gooks lay bleeding on the floor. By this time the other guys came out of their rooms to see what the hell the shooting was about, gooks hanging on them, biting and scratching. Revenge of the Whores. I got my weapon up and shot a few, and they scattered. They all did.
“I headed downstairs, and Coyote was reloading his M16, but he wasn’t looking at it. He was looking straight at me. For the first time he was looking me right in the eyes. I looked out in the street, and there must’ve been twenty dead. Machetes and scythes. A few had rifles. They were going to raid the place. Probably kill us. Coyote didn’t say a word. He just looked at me, and it was like I was looking into a mirror, and I didn’t like what I saw.”
Bleeding Wolfe didn’t say anything for a while, and I was beginning to sense some sort of payoff, or at least, I hoped there was more. After a while he pulled something up over his head and handed it to me over the glowing coals of the fire. Something spilled into my hand, and I wasn’t sure if it was hot or cold. Someone’s dog tags. Not someone’s. Wolfe’s.
“He stepped on a rigged shell on February 3, 1966. I’ll never forget because he was up ahead of me, and I saw it happen. Lifted him into a goddamned tree, Paul. I dropped my gun and my rucksack and climbed up there. Nothing but parts. And those.
“I still had three months to go, and they planned to recommend me for a second tour. Twelve months. I was a hell of a gunner, but well, when Coyote went, I couldn’t be there anymore. I did this.” He held up his left hand. The one with the missing thumb. “I was choppered out of there and home February 14, 1966. Valentine’s Day. I didn’t do it because I felt bad for him, Paul. I did it because I couldn’t feel anything anymore. Not even when I pulled the trigger. What I said about shrapnel is bullshit. I limp because I’m too god damned fucking fat.”
“Look, man,” I said.
“I know, Paul. You don’t have to say anything. You’re the only person I ever told that story. I told you because you’re no stranger to pain. Most people wouldn’t understand, or think I was crazy. You wear your pain on your sleeve, and there’s something admirable about that.”
I wanted to tell him that I never had a choice about my pain, but in a way, I suppose neither did Bleeding Wolfe. He looked at me. I handed him the tags, and he lifted them over his head. “Guess that means you got to tell me a secret.”
I shifted in my chair. “A secret. Well, let’s see.” I had a lot of secrets back then because I didn’t know too many people. It took me a while to think of one, and I told him the best one I had. “Okay. I moved out here without anyone knowing it.” And it was true. “I was born crippled, and my dad left. My mom raised me, and I woke up on my nineteenth birthday and realized if I didn’t leave I’d be bagging groceries and living in the basement until I was forty. Nineteen and a lot of nevers. Never had sex with a woman—”
“Whoa, I said one secret. I’m just wiggling your chain,” Bleeding Wolfe said. “But I gotta ask, of all the places, why out here? The middle of the desert? Most guys headed north.”
“I told you the army didn’t want me. That’s not what I was running from. I was running from what I felt in my heart. There was a gulf there the size of the Grand Canyon, and I needed to try and fill it. Besides, I grew up on TV. I loved the west. Cowboys and Indians. I figured it was now or never. And here I am.”
That night I had some strange dreams. Ebenezer ate my car keys off the coffee table, and Wolfe’s Last Supper was hanging above my couch in a gold frame, a single red feather pointing up from Brown Jesus’ head. A dark-skinned Indian chief was smoking a long, skinny pipe on my couch, and his eyes crossed a little. Jean was dressed as a Canadian Mountie in a red uniform and dimpled hat and everything, and she was looking back over her shoulder, walking away. I woke up thinking that my whole life was about walking away.
I walked into the bathroom all squinty, flipped on the light and looked at myself in the mirror. Hair everywhere. My mustache was crooked. “That looks damned dumb.” I ran some hot water in the sink. Halfway through shaving, I remembered the green Mustache Mug. Have to sell it now, I thought.
The sky was dark on the way to the flea market, the headlights lit the road, boxes of stuff rattled in the trunk. I had the radio on, and I got a sound just like shoes in the drier, so I slowed down, pulled off to the side of the road and got out. The front driver’s side tire was pouched along the gravel. I knelt on the stones and ran my fingers along the rubber. They came away black. The road was dark and barren and quiet. I popped the trunk, lifted the lid and stared at all my boxes. I lifted one out and set it on the gravel.
In Arizona you can see a storm coming even if it’s miles away. That morning magenta rimmed the mountains, and the moon floated like a scrap of rice paper in the west. I looked out at the base of the mountains. Something like a three-penny aesthetic was in those tiny ranches and trailers, and if I painted the landscape, I’d include them. Far off clouds filled with light. I figured thirty minutes before the rain moved in. Tops.
I lifted the next box out of the trunk. The bottom broke open, and all the stuff I was carrying fell on my feet and scattered across the gravel. “You’ve got to be wiggling my chain.” I just left it. I pulled out a few more boxes. I could feel the burn in my arms, and the morning breeze cooled my forehead and my bare lip. The big wing nut was rusted to the spare, and my hands began to ache and I couldn’t get it to budge, but I kept at it until the pain sharpened into thousands of cactus spines in my fingers and my hands were gritty, and I wiped them on my pants, and that’s when blue and red lights filled the trunk. I turned around into the headlights of a cruiser and someone got out. Big red mustache. He was looking at all my stuff scattered on the side of the road, chuckling to himself. I started to get nervous and I told you what happens when I get nervous. “Flat,” I said. “Tire.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised, partner. Those tires are bald.”
I thought of my own bald lip. I remember wondering if he was going to stuff me in the trunk, and I imagined smelling gas and it being dark and cramped in there like a high school locker, even though the trunk was really big. I started to panic.
Instead of stuffing me in the trunk, he walked up to the rear bumper and worked that wing nut loose. He didn’t say anything. Just went to work. He had the spare out in no time and started working the lug nuts with a groan of metal and spun the jack handle on the side of the road.
I watched out across the mountains as the blurry pillar of rain advanced, and then I started to gather up my scattered stuff. When he was finished, I tossed him an old yellow rag. He worked his hands on it and helped me lift the flat tire and my boxes into the trunk just as the first raindrops fell cold against my face and neck.
“Thanks,” I said.
He tipped his dimpled hat and turned to go.
“Wait!” I think I shouted it because he turned around like something was wrong. I reached into one of the boxes and found what I was looking for. The green handle of the Mustache Mug. “Here.” I held it out. “It’s got a little opening. So when you drink your mustache doesn’t get wet.”
“I can’t take this.”
I could tell he really didn’t want it. “Well, the way I figure,” I stared at his gigantic red mustache, “you’re the only one who can.”
I think he knew what I meant, because he took it and tipped his hat again. The rain was starting to darken the road, and I shut the lid of the trunk and drove out of there.
That Sunday before I pulled the tarp off my booth, I decided to go see Jean. The velvet sheets were tied back, and I smelled incense. She wore a purple denim jumpsuit and had pulled her sandy blonde curls off her forehead with bright green headscarf.
I imagined sitting beside her in a Ferris wheel gondola. “Lady Esmeralda,” I said. “Do you think God is a Woman?”
She liked to talk about that kind of stuff. She was lighting another stick of incense and smiled. “Here, sit down with me.”
I knew what she wanted. I sat, held out my hand.
She cradled it, palm up. “Not even God has a hand like this.”
“Stop it.” But I didn’t mean it.
“Really. Do you see this line here?” She traced a deep crease along my palm. “This is your lifeline. See all the little lines running from it?”
“That means you’ll see and do a lot of things. Fear will never hold you back. And do you see how long it is?”
I nodded again. She’d told me all of this before, but I didn’t care. I’d listen to it a million times.
“Is there any-anything in there about a g-girl and a Ferris wheel?” I started to get nervous.
“Hmmm.” She grabbed my arm and felt my muscles, which was something she liked to do. “Have you been exercising?”
“I do that stuff you told me about sometimes before bed. It makes my legs feel better. Wolfe and I smoked.”
“What was that like?”
“It fixed my stutter.”
“Do you want some more?”
“No,” I said. “I had weird dreams.”
“It does that sometimes.” She was still holding my hand, which I liked. She used her Lady Esmeralda voice. “I predict you will sell many things today, Paul.”
“I predict you will be the prettiest girl at the Dirt Mall.” My face grew hot.
“And you, Paul, are the most handsome man.”
“Now I know you’re lying to me,” I said. “I want a refund.”
“But you haven’t paid.”
I remembered the headscarf and got excited trying to pull it from my pocket, and I couldn’t get my hand in there. “In my puh-puh-pocket.” I pointed.
She leaned over and reached into my pocket and pulled out the bright scarf.
“For you.” My heart banged in my chest.
She held it up to get a better look. “The Guadalupe Virgin. It’s beautiful.” She pulled the plain green headscarf from her hair, curls sprung around her face, and I remember thinking that I loved her, but I didn’t tell her. She tied the scarf loosely around her head and lifted her head, and she looked beautiful.
“Perfect,” I said.
“Gracias.” She bowed.
That was the last time I saw Jean. Can you believe that? I didn’t even get to see her turn and walk away. No goodbye. The Virgin and the Wolfe left for Canada in a big rusty van. Their booths were empty the next weekend, and they didn’t even leave a note. Will saw them. He said something about starting over. I wondered how many times a person is allowed to start over.
That was the last time I set up. I pulled into my drive around sundown. I unpacked all my stuff and set it out all around me. It’s funny how we hold onto things until we find someone to give them to. Most things just rattle around this world and never find where they really belong. I suppose it’s the same with people.
I grabbed the tweed rifle case and pulled the gun out. It was long and black and cold. I got the little orange bottle Will gave me and ran a bead of oil along the barrel and worked it in with the rag. It was relaxing, cleaning the gun. I worked the lever and squeezed some oil in there. Ran the rod down the barrel. I lifted the gun up to my shoulder and looked through the scope. I couldn’t see a damned thing and it hurt to hold, the way my cornet used to hurt to hold, but this was different. I rubbed some more with the rag. Once I got it shining, I opened the box of brass shells Will gave me and loaded them in. I set the gun on the floor and scooped some cottage cheese onto a plate. Freshened Ebenezer’s water under the tap and walked back there. He was gone, but I could still hear the coyotes.
I passed back through the trailer and picked the rifle off the floor and raised it to my shoulder, looked through the scope. The world snapped into focus. I thumbed the safety and worked the lever. It sounded cold in my ears. When I looked back through the scope, I saw them.
The coyotes were dog-like creatures, and there were a few of them. Ebenezer was gone. My hands were shaking, so I rested the barrel on one forearm and maneuvered the cross hairs to its head. Will’s voice sounded in my head. Anywhere else will just ruffle their feathers. All the sudden I was sad. The coyotes’ ribs showed like the fingers on an old rake. I lowered the rifle and yelled, “Get out of here! Go home!”
Now, don’t tell me that coyotes don’t have homes because I already looked it up, and sometimes late at night I get silly and wonder if that’s the case with me. The other day I got a package from Wolfe in the mail. From their address up in Canada. Told me to come up for a visit. And he sent me those dog tags. I put them around my neck, and the cold metal burned my chest like one of the Coyotero’s cinders. Some nights they burn hot enough to wake me in a sweat, images of prehistoric jungle leaves scattering in my mind, the stench of spent powder just at my nostrils. But I guess if it’s true, that stories can be passed on, you’ve taken something from listening to this, our ritual, and if it works the way I think it does, those dog tags will soon be cold, lifeless metal.
This morning I realized it was Valentine’s Day, and I got to feeling sorry for myself. I went out for a drive, and I passed a bunch of men at work setting up for a carnival just at the base of the mountains. I pulled over to watch them work at assembling the pieces and the parts. The sky was still dark, but I could make out the darker form of a big Ferris wheel, and they must have strung it with white bulbs, because do you know what happened? The lights came on.
And I headed north.
John Skarl holds an MFA in fiction writing through the Northeastern Ohio MFA consortium, was recognized as a Coulter emerging poet and writer, and won the Marian Smith Short Story Award at The University of Akron. He has published with The University of Chester’s Flash, crosspol: a journal of transitions for high school and college writing teachers, Vineyards Press, and other eZines and college publications. He teaches college credit plus courses and occasionally maintains a literacy blog at www.valuablesandcuriosities.blogspot.com.