Photo by Amy Duncan
A dark-morph Ferruginous Hawk soared aloft a desert riparian overstory of deathly oak, black and bony. Lining this dessicant waterway was a lunar-breed of Loblolly Pine seeded to supplant species which nomore survived severe wildfires had in that lawless country— it kept its chlorophyll yet. The hawk planed the inlet headwater of that arid arroyo and alighted on an arm of a wuther-worn Post Oak overviewed a rubificated draw. It scanned bottomland with vectored ticks. The habits of a hawk at hunt. Accretive leaves, autumnal, dun; veins displaying sanguine striae plastered the ingress of a vole burrow beset by a cretaceous outcropping. No recent rainfall. No game. The hawk’s nares, the pinholes of its beak, like an olfactometer, sussed out storms oncoming. The chickenhawk sought refuge from fomenting recumbent whirlwinds which caught its wingtips, careening it counterclockwise. Thence did it depart its temporary perch with deep wing beats through leveled air. Atmosphere above choked and chalky. Westerly winds below blew bilious, crepuscular clouds, coiled as snakes. Over barrenland broken by torrid fissures it flew. Ruby dirt reticulumed by coarse caliche, banded wide as latticed airstrips. Skeins of unearthed coal oil coalesced at an odd junction underneath the hawk’s dihedronally angled origami’d shadow. An alluvial fan of accreted creosote. It alighted on an aluminum corrugated saltbox roof, situating its talons atop a weathervane cock. Motionless. Then peering westward. Latitudinal blacktop. A giant aerated green brontosaur tethered to the tiretracked roadside. Hillocks like humpbacked beasts buried remiss. And remote. Heatwaves which obscured even a hawk’s sight, hither a horizonline. It heard a human voice.
A nother day a nother dollar, eh Luck?
At an isolate Sinclair station stood a man supported by a whitewood cane, and a threelegged catahoula. The man supped of a brown paper bag, the contents of which spilled in rivulets along his wolfjaw and pooled evaporative aside his soot-stained barefeet. Lucky, the cur, lapped up the last dregs before they may vaporize down into the thirsted ground.
Lucky? spoke the septuagenarian, wristing liquid off his chipped lips.
The dog looked up at him. Ropes of slaver slung from his mussy muzzle.
You seein what I’m seein?
Lucky tracked the sector of the man’s gaze. A tractor truck, nomore than a winking blip on the mottled motorway five miles yon.
Lord knows where they’se goin.
The dog yipped demonstratively.
The car had come from the South.
I’ill tell ye where they’re stoppin, he said. He shucked a smoke from the frontpocket of his coveralls and lit it. Looks ta be come from Cooleyway, dudn’t it?
The man sucked at his cigarette. Livid smokestreams on the umber air.
At its approach it appeared a sunburned snubnosed Chevy tractor truck. A Chevrolet Titan. A shivered windshield, the bottommost framing of which was serrated as a shark’s denticles, evidential of something defenestrated. Or someone. From four miles distance the dog saw two tenebrous silhouettes.
Like all the other cars Lucky had loved to chase, he followed fast to his detriment. In his fourfooted days long ago. Three doggy years hence. He wagged his tail and gyrated the femur knub of his ghost paw, animatedly.
Within three miles the man saw them too.
Well. I reckon them’ll be in need of some gas-ilene, said he.
Lucky lowered his hind and arced his spine. His hackles rose.
Don’t go gettin no funny idears now, Luck.
The dog’s ears attuned rigid as antennaes.
I’va need fer some barterin, like. Caint have ye chasin off my butter and bisqits errytime yer legs get’n itch. ‘sides, he said, smiling crooked as a kinked nail, I’ve doubt ye could catch em. His eyes’ gaze glazed over at the notion. Wudn’t that be sumpfin ta see, the man dismissed with a yuk.
Lucky folded into a dogday doldrum at the man’s methaney feet, licking and nipping at his salmon underbelly. Not neutered, but fruitless. His eyes half-lidded as if in a diurnal dream of running running running. Tongue lolled. Plump hares huddled in a hovel. The shotgun shot thunder. The dozen hares scurrying frantically from a fixed point to an earthly end.
Lookit all that thern dust e’s rustlin, wont ye? Like doomsday itself.
A plume of dust and black exhaust trailed the truck along the expanse. A line of soot stark on even that smutted sky. Segments of sky which earth itself shadows.
The bell of the farflung gasstation knelled ding-ding.
The Chevrolet applied brakes like banshees at the brontosaur and rolled nuetral in.
The man flung his smoke aside and grounded it with the ferrule of his cane then sauntered over with an attentive grin. His steps in concert with his bowlegged contour. Rotating from hip to hip. Waddling. He waved the Titan toward a pump with his Sinclair ballcap. Balding, he had a comb-over.
A man manually rolled down the driverside window. His hair tonsured, a brown ecclesiastical crown.
Hiya thur, said the man.
The driver’s eyes were glacier blue, eyebrow-less, as if wildfires had burnt them (the eyebrows) and his lashes off. His facial muscles taxed taught and waxed with paraffin. He simply stared.
You want I should fillerup?
The man answered glossolalic: do-no-do exempi sipiflum vaqoose.
Then shared silence. A staring contest with no victor.
The old attendant temporized, tucking thumbs through the beltloops of his green coveralls. You want I should fillerup? He symboled a fuel nozzle with his hand shaped gun-like, prodding an abstract aperture.
The passenger, pretty with prominent cheekbones poked her head over the driver’s shoulder and said, Excuse him. Arvad doesn’t speak American. Yes. You do full service, as well?
Yessum. Yes Mam. Yes we does.
Thank you, sir. I’m Penelope. She spoke with the affected accent of foreign boarding schools for the precocious familial blacksheep. Academies.
Joel Kern, Mam, at yall’s service. That thern’s Lucky. The man thumbed overshoulder to Lucky, curled up at the empty newspaper receptacle.
Penelope jumped from the truck and padded around the frontend to Joel. She wore sandals and floral dress. Cascading hair coppery as a sun at dawn.
Might we trouble you for some food? We have not had any good food for days.
Kern glanced at the grimy windowpanes of his store. He rubbed the top of his head and stared askance the split cement slabbing. Well. I. We. Uhm.
Caint say I unnerstand it myself, said he. He hobbled to the pump and it pinged as he extracted the nozzle. All we gots is eighty-eight octane. I hope that’ll do.
Arvad mentioned something muddly from the cab and Penelope answered, I humbly aver, Arvie, he looks to be a good dog.
Ya worried bout Ol Luck? E’s harmless, him.
Lucky’s scaly tongue lolled. Limp as taffy.
Arvad doesn’t care for dogs, is all. She went to Lucky who’s eyes were milky and demeanor milquetoast, and crouched to pet his ribcage as if passing a conjuration over the protruding bones. There is a sweet dog, she said. Are you alone out here? I mean you and Lucky. I dont mean to pry. Personally. But I could not help but notice you are wearing a wedding ring.
She has passed, Penny said.
Dead as latin, Kern stated.
I am truly sorry to hear it.
They spoke over the hum of the pump’s siphoning into the rusty Chevy.
She’as five years my senior. Kathleen was.
Penelope gandered the gasstation as she expertly groped the spot behind Lucky’s left ear with swift swirls of her sharp nails. Lucky looked orgasmic, kicking from a coma position. Once again running running running.
She noted its disrepair. Shellacked by years of storms. Thick dust coating.
You must get awfully lonely out here.
Sorry. I ought not to have said that.
Joel withdrew his grip on the gas. Think naught of it.
Penny simpered braceset teeth. Joel smiled with a tic.
So what’re you all doin up here?
Penelope looked at Arvad. Joel Kern looked at Penny, looking at Arvad.
Arvad unclasped the door and stepped gingerly out. A giant in monkish robe. He too wore sandals. Not the elastometric polymer and polyester-strap type donned by Penny. But an ancient variant built of brush fibres, willow cord.
Arvad, said Penny. Joel wants to know what we are doing up here?
Arvad said, Dem. Do-no-do ki-ki ama-shama-lam. He brushed past her in two paces as if on stilts and passed into the gasstation, stooped, bell chiming muffled out. Penelope watched, raptly.
The wicked will be dealt death in kind, she translated with a whisper.
Kindly. Is him retarded? Joel asked.
No, she spoke. He is Jeremiah.
Thought I eard you say his name as Arvad?
Yes. His name will be Arvad.
Kern judged her circumspect. The weight of wisdoms writ upon her softly wrought face.
He some kinda foreigner?
All of god’s children are foreigners to this land. Aliens if you like.
Guess that splains all the jibberjabberin.
Arvad tells only the word of our one lord.
Dont sound like no word I e’er eard.
Lucky scratched at the glass door, whimpering for entrance. His nose a-twitch and leg muscles spasming. As if a scent was cast therein.
You the one’s payin? J. Kern discriminated, rolling his sleeves to the middle of his arms, revealing uniform patches of scabs like beef jerky. His cane handle dug into his armpit. Or might we barter?
Penny held the door for Lucky to enter. And Arvad was nowhere visible.
We dont have much, she told, keeping the door chinked with her sandal.
How bout water?
Penelope dimissed this with a cute chitter.
Joel Kern spat and shoved his cane underarm then doddered to the door.
How did that happen? Penny asked.
Yer an inquisitive lil queen aint ye?
Accept my apology.
No. No. He waved the apology away. Happened in ninety. Or ninety-one. I'se a smokejumper. Jus landed wrong, is all. Funny. Inna way. All the times I’d jump. I got to thinking I’se bulletproof.
Does it hurt.
He smacked a pack of cigarettes against the gammy leg.
Sometimes. When there’sa storm brewin.
Lucky moseyed around the counter and curled up in tattered bedding. Joel joined him and lit another cigarette with his elbows on the laquered countertop blowing smoke rings. I aint supposta say this to ya, Miss, but, well, that dog’s got himself some mighty fleas. And we aint gotsa delouser.
Penelope slid the straps of her dress up then went to the coffeestand.
That coffee there’ns three days ol’ I’m sorry to tell ye.
She picked up the pitcher and twirled it. Coffee, she said almost mesmerized. She wafted and whirled it, her eyeballs big marbles in sockets. She examined its glass base, held overhead as if she intended to shower so.
Take some, he told. I wont charge ye. Kath always said that stuff’d gimme a hernia, anyhow.
Penny lifted the lid and drank directly from the pitcher until all that was left were speckled dregs. Grossly supernormal. She exhaled. Yummy.
Well damn, said Joel.
Sorry. Penny wristed the remainder from her lips then licked that too. This place is like some old oasis.
Joel smirked. A oily oasis.
The skin around Penelope’s squinted eyes creased affably.
So. Joel smashed the cherry’d end of his cigarette into an ashtray then swirled the sandy filter around the rim. He talked as if rehearsed: Any new news? What’s the word?
And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Penelope perused the sweets section. She held up a cinnamon bun implicitly.
Go for it, Joel aquiesced, keeping mental account. Ya know, my Kath useta say that the man who holds the keys to the highway, or kingdom if ya like, will never enter another door. No more reasons. Watchin ye and that fella yer ramblin with, well. Gets an ol fart like me to recollectin. What time’as like. And whatall. He eyed her reception of his exemplum. Ya know?
She hadn’t heard him, apparently. She shredded the plastic packaging and swallowed the bun, munch munch munching. She masticated until her molars were sore. Then went for another.
My you ungry, gal. A open hole, he said with unconscious lasviousness. As they say.
She swiped frosting onto her fingertip and held her finger before her. Turning the morsel about. Furthering Joel’s blindly toothsome allusion.
What news’ve you lot had in CooleyVille?
She moved her mouth to make more saliva.
He scanned her face. Abandoned. Drugged. By a cinnamon bun.
Mam. Is you aright?
Penny gaped at him, lost in gustatory glee. I’m sorry. My sweettooth has been chomping at the bit. What were you asking me?
No need ta ‘pologize, Miss. I’se askin what news, if any, yall’d had recently? You all comed from Cooley right? I’ve a cousin there. Well. No. I’ad a cousin come from thur. Franklyn J R Jr. We called him lil pork rind. Dont go askin me why, now. There’s a barbeque joint out in Cooley I’ive a especial hankerin fer. Bubba’s BBQ. Lawd mercy thems some mighty good eats.
I dont know it. Cooley? you said? Was it on route four-nine-one? Penny approached Mr Kern like a gymnast on a balancing beam, arms akimboed.
Route four-ninety-one? Nawhp. This is route six-hundred-and-sixty-six.
Formerly, she said.
They did not elucidate the difference.
Which way is Providence? asked Penelope. That is whence we are headed.
Providence? Geez. That must be, uh, slightly due east of Farmersville. Forty degree due by my reckonin. Leastways I think. But aint nothin thata way but rubble. Elementary school’as smitherins. Right in the eye’s wake. Last times I’se up thur I saw’d just miles of nothin. Jus nothin, yet. Notta livin soul. Razed to its very core t’was. S’that fella yer with... d’he tell ye why yer makin fer there? Yon’s a hard road.
At his name Arvad exited the bathroom beyond the sparsely articled magazine rack— littered with Sinclair emblemed merch. He stood at a column of sunglasses, stooped over to mirror himself in them then plucked a pair off and pried them over his gorilla-ish temples.
Penelope turned at the clomp of Arvad’s footfalls. Joel Kern watched wearily. Even Lucky peered round the corner. Then dissapeared undercounter. Tail tucked timidly.
The sunglasses snapped at the bridge. Arvad didn’t bat an eye but let them dangle lopsided.
Hey. Pardner, said Joel. I dont mind ye tryin em on, but if you break em you buy em. Tha’s our store’s policy. If’n dont none of em fit jus quit.
Arvad pocketed said sunglasses in the kangaroo pouch of his robe. And then procured a Sinclair ballcap and tugged it over his big, tonsured head.
Ya earin me?
Arvad strode over. A-pooska pupo a gimzi gari? He grimaced.
I will pay, said Penny. Arvie. She warned without gumption.
Arvad continued to the counter.
Penny rotated her neck between the men. Gentlemen. Please.
He dudn’t unnerstand a word yer sayin mam. Not a word one.
Arvad understands me fine, she said.
A pisi poso domcari doldidi.
O K. Then what’d he jus say.
He said, the question is, whether or not you will ever understand him.
I’ill give him more’n unnerstandin, if he carries on. Breakin my shit.
He meant nothing by it, Penelope said. He cares little for this world. This material plane.
Arvad drew the bill of the ballcap forwards and back, testing comfort.
There’s a word for that, said Joel.
He means well.
He’s a goddamned...
Arvad’s face, at the counter, was concealed by the cigarette’s shelf. But the monkish man’s goliathan hands constricted the counter’s beveled ledge until his knuckles were golfballs. That was enough evidence for Joel to shrink to his turnstool on rachitic legs, wobbly barefeet dangling from.
Penelope placed one palm flat on the giant, heaving chest. And silent.
Arvad’s shoulders slackened and his hands ceased to grip, instead set supinely at rest, covering a considerable portion of counterspace.
Tha’s one helluva short fuse e’s got. Joel attempted a smile.
Pay heed to what you say.
Kern’s face resituated. Stern, suffused with stunned.
Tha’sa pot callin the kettle cold if I’ive e’er eard.
Arvad detests blasphemy. She removed her palms and patted the creases down on her dress, very demurely. As do I, she said, stiff— as her posture.
Joel Kern exaggerated an exhale. Yeah, if Kath’d eard me curse the Lawd she’d come plumb outta her coffin ‘n’ kill me then divorce me at the Pearly Gates. My Kath Lee too was re-ligious. Loada hokum. But there it is.
Arvad’s voice erupted like a ram’s horn: A sisi susso badibi sulioler.
Penelope crossed herself.
What’d he say now.
Perdition for the unpenitent.
I paid my time, said Kern. Dalhart Pen.
Som joko jaka iffi iffi bomdari donlari.
Real ol motormouth aint he? Lemme guess.
It is hardly translatable, Penelope warned.
Man’s time aint nothin. I’ma gonna suffer eternally, er somesuch. Listen, Gal. I heard it all before. Prison chaplains said we’d been in a Lake of Fire, fishin fer our souls. Did errythin but stick them cowtags in our earlobes, did the guards. Beat us like beasts. Like we wudn’t nothin but a mangy pack a rabid dogs.
Lucky growled, then burrowed his muzzle under his knub malcontentedly.
An lemme tell you sumpthin else. See. I seen slavery. Its chains. Not just physical chains. Not cuffs. No. Mental chains. And by the looks of it, Miss, yer no freer’n that one there –he pointed a grease stained digit— lets ya be.
May I say something.
Yer nothin but a mouth, Mam, beg yer pardon. Movin accordin to his dictation. I dunno if you think he’s some sorta Messiah, er what. Er if you all is lovers, god ferbid, but if yer dumb anough to foller him to the end then an end ye shall ave. Joel huffed satisfied.
I think you need to forgive yourself, she said.
I dont fergive nobody. Myself included. He stopped, as if tracking the words audible waves working unto the world. Then he nodded, doubling down. I dont fergive and I damn sure dont fergit. And I aint fergot what all you all owe me neither. So I recommend payin up and skeddadlin. We’re a cash only establishment. Joel indicated the cracked credit card machine.
I left my purse in the truck, she conceded.
I wish you luck, he said.
Penelope turned with her dress fanned behind her for the door. Arvad stayed. Skulking. His skull invisible and demeanor crabbed.
Go on. Ye aint got any business bein in here. Miserly.
A fulco failo a fulso.
I dont unnerstand you. Now git.
A fulco failo a fulso, Arvad repeated with force.
That do not mean nothin to me.
Arvad exited, stooping, once more under the door.
Joel grabbed a keyring from a hook under the counter and went to the glass, heeling Lucky. He watched Penelope unpack a five-gallon carton of crystal clear water and set it by the service pump. Arvad started the truck which hiccuped up, then back down, as it shifted crankily into first. The Titan u-turned and made North.
Grackles congregated on continuous powerlines marked unto an undulating mountainscape northwards. They’d arrived in the wake of an irregular migration: West. Their patterns askew. Not from Northeast to Southwest. The flock flew farther West than they’d ever. And now, in the middle of summer. Month of June. They’d molted most of their sheeny black plumage so that they appeared a prenatal pink with sepia pockmarks. All skeletal. With feathers frayed unto like keratinous twigs.
Several seperated from their staging and alighted on the pitted plains, contorting themselves onto antpiles, self-anointing by the dust and formic acid secreted by the unmassed ants in millions scuttling to the crevices of caliche. And just such a grackle the hawk espied and pried from the antpile with its talons and tore at its neck in midflight. The flock watched woodenly predator and prey return to the rusted metal roof.
Joel and Lucky cast their eyes towards the dwindling Chevrolet Titan, as did the Ferruginous Hawk, which had recently regurgitated the cast of the grackle. No semblance in that pellet of the power swallowed.
Joel hobbled over to the five-gallon carton of water left as barter, and bent on his whitewood cane. As he unscrewed the cap a sharp pain rang through his bad leg, sending shivers through his spine into his teeth roots. He clutched the knee and thereby knocked the gallon to the ground whence Lucky lapped it up with tormented haste afore is might evaporate. Luck, that day, was a very lucky dog.
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