The outlaw album stories, p.1
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       The Outlaw Album: Stories, p.1
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           Daniel Woodrell
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The Outlaw Album: Stories


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  And I am learning not to separate these beings

  charged with violence from the sky

  in which their desires revolve.

  —Albert Camus, “Summer in Algiers”

  The Echo of Neighborly Bones

  Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him. He killed him again whenever he felt unloved or blue or simply had empty hours facing him. The first time he killed the man, Jepperson, an opinionated foreigner from Minnesota, he kept to simple Ozark tradition and used a squirrel rifle, bullet to the heart, classic and effective, though there were spasms of the limbs and even a lunge of big old Jepperson’s body that seemed like he was about to take a step, flee, but he died in stride and collapsed against a fence post. Boshell took the body to the woods on his deer scooter and piled heavy rocks on the man, trying to keep nature back from the flesh, the parts of nature that have teeth or beaks. For most of a week Boshell was content with killing his neighbor just once, then came a wet spattering Sunday, the dish went out and he couldn’t see the ball game on TV, so he snuck away to the pile and cleared the rocks from the head and chest. Jepperson had died with a sort of sneer on his face, thick lips crooked to the side, his dead eyes yet looking down his nose in calm contempt. That look and Jepperson’s frequent sharp comments had months ago prompted Boshell to put a sticker on his truck bumper that read, “I Don’t Give a Damn HOW You Did It Up North!” Even dead, the man goaded a fella. The falling wet slicked his hair back from his greening face, and his lips seemed to move under the drops, flutter, like he had still another insult he was about to let fly. Boshell hunted a stout stick and thumped the corpse. Thumped the stick enough times to snuff a live man, thumped enough to feel better about the rain and the washed-out ball game, then went home to his wife, Evelyn.

  She said, “Wherever’d you get off to?”

  “Oh, you know. I just can’t get to feelin’ done with the son of a bitch.”

  “In all this rain?”

  “I’m gonna have to move him. He’s goin’ high now the cold snap broke. Someplace further from the fire road.”

  “Well, his wife’s got herself some company today over there, and they been sniffin’ about, lookin’ places.” She pointed across the creek where there was a big metal barn, four penned horses, and a mess of guineas running loose, pecking and gabbling. Four people in raincoats and sagging hats stood near the horses, with their boots on the bottom fence rail and their elbows on the top. “Best wait ’til they leave.”

  “I’ll try.”

  Only two days later Boshell checked the can for morning coffee and found it empty, so he went out to kill the man again, kill himself awake without any joe to drink. Bird droppings had spotted the rocks over the man, and one of the hands had moved somehow so that a pinky stuck from between the rocks. The little bit of the pinky that showed had been chewed at, nibbled, torn. Boshell pulled the rocks away until Jepperson was open to the October sky. He went back to his truck for a hatchet, a beat-up hatchet with a dinged, uneven blade and a cracked handle. He stood over the corpse and said, “Say it. Go on and say it, why don’t you?” Then he sank the hatchet into the chest area and stood back to admire the way the handle stood up straight from the wound. The handle was directly below Jepperson’s nose, and his eyes appeared to find it to be kind of funny business, having a hatchet in his chest.

  “Glad you like it.”

  Boshell left the blade in the man’s chest, then dragged the corpse to his truck. He tossed a tarp over the raised handle and all, but knew he wouldn’t likely run into anybody, not where he was going. He steered the truck downhill going west, onto a creek bed with shallow puddles but no flow, and eased south over the pale and reddish rocks, the truck bucking during the rougher patches. He turned uphill below the old home place, the land now overgrown by brambles and deserted by residents, and parked on the slope. One wall of a house with an askew window could be seen still standing back in the thicket. Boshell’s people had lived on this dirt until the government annexed it for the National Forest in the 1950s, and lazy old time had slowly reclaimed the place for trees and weeds and possums. He came here often, to sit and wonder, and feel robbed of all these acres.

  He shoved the corpse from the truck bed, and the hatchet fell loose when the body thumped to ground. Boshell set the blade back into the wound, then tamped it in snug with a boot stomp. The hatchet fell free twice more before he got Jepperson up to where his grandma’s garden had been laid and she’d grown the tangiest okra he’d ever had and oddly shaped but sweet tomatoes you just couldn’t find anymore. The corpse nodded when dragged and the head bent a bit to the side, as if he was taking an interest in this trip, noting the details, setting the picture in his mind.

  Boshell said, “This all was ours, ours up until foreigners like you’n yours got here from up north with fancy notions’n bank money and improved everything for us.” He looked on Jepperson, with his face yet smug in death, and remembered when the dead man said in that voice that came from way high in the nose, “If I come across one more eaten guinea, I’ll shoot your dog.” And Boshell had said, “That ain’t the neighborly way, mister. If’n Bitsy was to rip a guinea or two, just tell us.” And the dead man, so much younger and bigger and flush with money and newcomer attitudes, said, “I don’t give two shits about being neighborly with you people. Have you not noticed that?”

  Now Boshell nudged the corpse with a boot, put his toe to the chin, and shoved the head until the face was up again. He started to crouch, but the scent was too high, and he stood back a step to say, “They go for about a dollar fifty a bird, neighbor—still seem worth it?”

  The old, original well was sided by short, stacked walls of stones. The well had gone dry long ago, in Grandpa’s time, before the coughing killed him, and a slab rock the color of dirt had been slid over the gap so no playing child or adult drinking shine in the dark would wander over and fall into the hole, bust a leg or a neck. The hole was but eight feet deep, and there were a few shards of glass and earthenware scattered about the bottom where the spout had sealed shut after the water table dropped.

  “Your new home, neighbor. Maybe I’ll be back to tell you about this place. Family history.”

  Evelyn made his favorite dish that night. She’d thawed a couple of quail, split them and fried them in the black skillet, served them with sides of chow-chow and bean salad. Boshell had whiskey, she had her daily glass of beer, and they watched the evening news on an East Coast channel the satellite dish pulled into their front room. The traffic reports made them laugh, shake their heads, and the weather was interesting to watch, what with the cold northern temperatures and early snowflakes swirling down between sun-thwarting buildings into gray canyons, but of no use. When a segment about lost dogs in Brooklyn came on he tried to turn the TV off, but Evelyn was bawling before he could find the button.

  She ran outside and Boshell followed. She rushed past the ranks of firewood, the chopping block, a wheelless Nova that would never be fixed, and sagged against an oak tree lightning had split. Bitsy had crawled home hurt and collapsed beneath the split tree, gutshot, vomiting, looking up at Ev with baffled, resigned eyes, and it took two hours for her to bleed out and die with a last windy sound and a little flutter. Strands of silver hair waved across Evelyn’s face, and her hands clenched onto her dress and squeezed the wad of cloth. The horses across the creek neighed in their pen, and the big house beyond was dark.

  “Oh, Ev,” he said. “We’ll soon get you another.”

  “There wasn’t never but the one Bitsy. Just the one.”

  Later, when the moon had sett
led, Boshell slid from bed and dressed. He fetched a big flashlight and went out back to the toolshed. He shoved cobwebs in the corner aside and searched among hoes, rakes, a busted scythe, until he came across his old three-tined frog gig. He tapped the ground with the gig as he walked, and started down the dry creek bed, splashing light over all those rocks, whistling like a child.

  Uncle

  A cradle won’t hold my baby. My baby is two hundred pounds in a wheelchair and hard to push uphill but silent all the time. He can’t talk since his head got hurt, which I did to him. I broke into his head with a mattocks and he hasn’t said a thing to me nor nobody else since. Uncle is Ma’s evil brother and there never was a day when I wasn’t afraid of him, even when he gave me striped candy from his pocket or let me drive the tractor in the yard.

  Before Uncle became my baby, when he was a man, myself and Ma both tried to never be alone inside with him, tried to never even stand too close outside, as he was born with a pair of devils in his chest and the one just eggs on the other and neither ever rests, and last fall he seen my undies on the clothesline moving in the wind and said to me kind of joyful and mean, Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed.

  I was waiting on him ever since, the slide-in move under my quilt as I slept, the whiskery rub on my cheek, the fingers riding roughshod over my skin like cowboys hunting an Indian to blame. Ma always was scared to chase him off, or even let on she noticed the things he done.

  The day I come across the mattocks in the shadows and swung down on his head and rendered him into my own big quiet baby, there was a girl. The girl was yelling high-pitched the way they did, out there in the old barn where Uncle took them. The barn sets near where the house was once, long ago, a good ways down the cow pasture from where the house is now, and the wood hangs at a tilt on the sides of the barn, all dried up and flaky from sun and rain and freeze since Ma’s ma was younger than me, and the roof has fallen open in a bunch of spots, but there’s some hay put by inside, pitched around loose, and a shock of old garden tools leaned in the corner, and small birds black as pepper come and go from the slanted rafters. This one screamed louder than most, and screamed loudest in between sentences she said, such as, There’s no need for this! Get off of me! Stop! Stop! Please, stop!

  Uncle culled these girls from down on the river, which they come here for, and flows just yonder over our ridge and down a steep hill. They come here from where there are crowds of people bunched in tight to loll along our crystal water in college shirts and bikinis, smoking weed and drinking too much, laughing all the way while their canoes spin on the river like bugs twirling in a spider’s web. Mostly they don’t know what they’re doing, but the river is not too raging or anything. Everybody thinks they can do that river when they stand looking at it up at Heaney Cross, where they rent the canoes and the water is smooth. Uncle dicks them when he catches them, on the smelly damp hay in the old barn with the open spots above leaking light on his big behind bouncing white and glary on some girl whose eyes won’t blink anymore. But this yelling girl was giving him a tussle, clawing at him and such as that, scratching him under his eyes so blood laid a narrow path down his face and dropped from his chin onto her chest and bare boobies, and Uncle dicked her even harder in his own blood. She had brown hair that was bright blond on top in perfect streaks, which looked pretty and special, something I might ought to try, and stopped yelling because he had his hands on her throat.

  Uncle stood once his own breaths slowed, stood and hooked his bibs up and left her lay there, and then is when I slunk into the barn and knelt.

  Let’s get you out of here, lady. Sometimes he comes back.

  I hauled her up and made her move, trying to get her to the spring pooled under our ridge where her canoe would likely be waiting. Uncle looked for loners, mostly, and understood that the law here ain’t eager to come into our woods after him, so he was bold as an idiot sometimes, when he smoked powder or drunk a bunch. I held hands with her down the trail, which switches back and forth and is steep, with little rocks slippery underfoot, and she didn’t say a word. Get in the spring, I said, and when she didn’t, I pushed her. The cold water shocked her face into a different cast, brought color to her skin. The water in the pool shimmered like glass, and you could see the polish on your toenails standing in there. I made a shallow cup of my hands and sloshed what water I could onto her skin, which had tanned, and she wore earrings I liked, the kind that hung low from the ears but didn’t flop around all spaz every time your head moved, with purple glass in the low part, my favorite color. Her body had got to be one big goose bump, plump and trembling, her lips pressed together and mumbly.

  There was a bird book in her canoe that put a name to all of them it looked like, with inked pictures. I said, Come on, lady, get the hell away from here. And, listen, if you run to the law, well, he’ll know, and pretty quick he’ll know where you live, too. You won’t want that. Nobody wants that. She got into the canoe, and I gave it a strong shove out to the main current and waved good-bye. She didn’t raise a paddle, even, until she was near gone from sight.

  Back in the pasture, he said to me, She leave anything good?

  Didn’t she have on a necklace? I said. Seems like there was a skinny golden one around her neck before she laid down on the hay. Must be it flew off or broke loose.

  You might be right, he said, and headed for the barn. I think maybe you are. He started staring at the messed straw and dirt and bird puddles on the ground. Golden, was it?

  I said, Just there, I think. She laid just there. Then I eased to the dark nearby corner and let my hand drop to the mattocks handle. Maybe you could find it best with your fingers, feel for it. He got on his knees to feel the dirt for gold, and I hoisted that mattocks overhead and slammed down like I was busting the cow pond ice open in winter, so the whole herd could drink.

  There was a good deal of blood, and his arms and legs and fingers and all shook pretty jittery for a spell. His face was to the hay and the blood built a creek down his backbone. He messed himself so I could smell it strong standing back from him a distance.

  I had sat down and started poking him with a stick by the time Ma got home from work. He wasn’t shaking that much anymore. She screamed, yanked on her hair, called for an ambulance, and asked me, Who did this? I said, The last girl he was after done it. Ma said, Oh, my, if he don’t die what’ll we do?

  Ma works, so he became my baby to take care of once they turned him out of the hospital. He was there almost all summer, s’posed to pass away any ol’ day but he never. Doctor said, He’ll need constant care, like a newborn. Ma said, I got a job already—he’s yours, hon.

  You finally get an ogre under your thumb and you can’t hardly keep from torturing him some at first. That’s how it started with my baby, torturing him a little bit now and then, but his face hardly twitched and his eyes just stayed focused on something over yon behind the clouds that he couldn’t look away from, so it wasn’t as much fun as you figure torturing an ogre should be. I wheeled him out to the yard in thunderstorms and left him set there in his metal chair. Rain beat on him and blown leaves stuck to his face, but he never caught pneumonia or a lightning bolt. I poured bird feed into a bread pan and set him along the tree line with the pan on his lap. One day I put him in a frilly pink dress Ma had and did his hair up in a French bun and used the whole bucket of Ma’s makeup on him—eyeliner, rouge, lipstick—and wheeled him out front to the road and left him sit all day beside the mailbox, for every passing neighbor and stranger to see, until Ma found him and wheeled him back to the house. Then she and me spent the evening curling his hair like Shirley Temple and laughing, hooking bras on him, drawing movie star moles on his cheeks, searching for just the right spot until he looked like a disease had got him, trying all the shades of lipstick on his sagged mouth, and cherry red worked best, we figured, with his complexion.

  I had to feed him pabulum with a cereal spoon and squirt water into his throat so his pills would go down. He could
chew, which must be the last reflex to shut off in a body, or something. Once I rolled him all the way around on the paved road to the river, and shoved him into the water up to his neck. He made a picture, with only his head poked up for turtles to rest on, while tiny white waves lapped at his jowls, and the chair scooted slightly in the current. I left him there for fate to find him easy, and floated away to the bridge, where I dove and dove for tourist treasure that might’ve washed down from all the canoes that take spills upstream, and let the sun dry me after, then dawdled back to where he waited. He wasn’t exactly where I left him, but was fine, cold but fine, and I had a terrible awful time wheeling such a big fat wet baby uphill to home.

  Twice a day I slid the thunder pan under him and wiped his butt, and every three days I shaved his face with an old straight razor in case my hands shook and he got cut to ribbons by accident. I wiped the drool from his chin when he slobbered, which was always, spent most of my time with him, and in about a month I caught myself singing at him, “You are my sunshine…” and such—baby music, the kind you coo more than sing. I puked out the front door, catching myself that way, the first time. It was awful, awful, singing happy words to a baby that had done so much bad in this world, but soon it started to happen again, about every day, and I got used to catching myself singing to him, accepted it as a human thing of mystery.

  He was helpless, and I took to wondering if Uncle was still evil now that he’d become a helpless baby. Do babies learn evil in the run of their days, or bring it with them from the other side of all that you can see? He drooled and I held a rag to his lips, and wheeled him outside into the fresh air and bright light, shoved him along the driveway, to and fro, singing.

  It was coming up on Halloween when I first caught my baby’s eyes following me across the room. Then it got to where every time I spun around quick, his eyes were on me, and not on my face, neither. Uncle was yet alive inside that big old baby, and his eyes was wanting what babies don’t even know about. When he raised a hand to swat a fly, I peed down my legs and ran around inside the house bumping every wall. Come morning I shoved him to the paved road and around to the hill and down to the bridge. The air hung gray and cool and I could see fish in the water, still in the flow with their noses pointed upstream. I wheeled Uncle to the far edge of the bridge, where a drunk in a truck had torn away the railing, and pushed him to the edge. I dabbed the slobber rag to his mouth, then looked into his eyes and saw how babies do change so fast. I tossed the slobber rag into the river and it made a small shadow over the fish before the current whisked it past. I’d been making him well; now I needed to make him right.

 
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