Be Still, My Soul by James Emery

Joe Lee inhaled long, filling his lungs with smoke and holding it until they screamed for air. The slight burning of his throat brought comfort while he turned the glass bowl and examined the ash of weed remaining. He exhaled slowly, the smoke filling the cab of the truck, and cussed to himself. Another goddam reunion of family he hated, but the lure of food and alcohol was too strong. He waited for his heart to settle to a steady rhythm before he opened the door and walked up to the burning drum. Joe Lee felt his stomach churn and stopped as if he ran into a wall when he realized who was standing next to the fire.

“And I told that goddam Mexican if he’d come ’round again, I’d cut off his balls and shove ‘em in his mouth.” Dale’s fat face shook with laughter, his gaze catching Joe Lee. “Son bitch. You look like shit, boy.”

“Yeah?” Bile rose in Joe Lee’s throat. Why was he here?

“Don’t be so fucking serious; grab yourself some drink. Coot’s apple wine, strong shit.” His lips parted into a smile; stained teeth with black roots filled his mouth. Joe Lee could smell the stale mix of body odor and cigarettes, one that haunted him.

He took a long pull of the sickening sweet liquid with a gasoline aftertaste, hoping that alcohol may dull the effect of seeing Dale. He grimaced and spit into the coals, taking a moment to enjoy the angry hiss.

“If it’s too much for you, I can get you some water, fag.” Dale laughed and slapped Joe Lee’s back, his hand lingering.

“I’m good, not used to fruity drinks.”

“Used to somethin’ harder I’d bet.”

Joe Lee held Dale’s gaze, unblinking, daring. After a moment, Joe Lee broke the silence. “What’d you say about that Mexican?”

Dale squeezed Joe Lee’s shoulder, sending a chill down his back. “You got something for them wetbacks?”

“No, just sounded like someone got what they deserved.” Joe Lee put a cigarette to his lips. “Ain’t enough of that.”

“Goddam right.” Dale’s hand drifted off Joe Lee’s back and he moved on to another group of men. Joe Lee held the cigarette up to the glowing lip of the barrel until the tip caught fire. He took a drag and slipped off to the barbecue pit–a small, boxed shed constructed from found wood and rusted sheet metal.

Inside the pit, the humid, night air mixed with the heat of the coals, turning the small space into a hot box. Sweat coated Joe Lee’s body but he shivered. He drained the rest of the wine and looked down at the hog, split and laid on the grate. Squirrel stood to one side, picking under his nails with a knife.

“Hell of a beast,” Squirrel said, flipping the blade closed and moving next to Joe Lee.

“Sure is.”

“Heard it’s five hundred pounds.” The fat dripped off the carcass onto the embers below, sending up dark spirals of smoke.

“That right?” Joe Lee took a long drag and kept his eyes on the cooking meat. They stood in silence for a moment, the scent of vinegar and charred flesh encompassing them.

“I’ve been meanin’ to ask you somethin’,” Squirrel said.

Joe Lee looked over.

“Come on with me to the shed, help get some wood.”  Squirrel glanced around.  “I’ll ask you there.”

Joe Lee’s chest tightened. “If this is ’bout last June–”

“It ain’t nothin’ ‘about that.”

“And that money, I told you PJ took it.”

“Goddam Joe Lee, stop falling over yourself.” He flipped the knife closed and slipped it into his back pocket. “You know I’m clean now and ain’t looking for no trouble. Come on with me.”

Joe Lee looked at Squirrel, his heart pounding in his chest. Squirrel may be clean now, but crazy don’t rest too long. You can’t do the things Squirrel’s done and just wipe yourself clean. The two walked the thirty yards to the woodshed, Joe Lee’s hands in his pockets, fingering the blade he kept with him. When they reached the pile of oak and pecan, Joe Lee held out his arms reluctantly and Squirrel piled on chunks of wood.

“You know Dale, right?”  He asked between pieces, the splinters pressing into Joe Lee’s forearms.

“Yeah, I know ‘em.”

Squirrel stopped moving and studied Joe Lee. “You know what I’m asking you?”

The booze made its way back up his throat.  “Yeah, think so. Why?”

Squirrel looked back, the group was still huddled around the fire, smiling and laughing.  “Well, I don’t know for sure, but I think he got to Squirrel Jr.  Ain’t said nothin’, but I know.  He’s different now. And Dale is such a smug piece of shit, I can tell by that fucked up smirk he gives me.”

The wood felt heavier in his arms. “Sorry.”

“I ain’t looking for a sorry.  What I’m about to tell you, you breathe a word and I’ll string you up.”

Joe Lee looked up, the eyes of Squirrel were wide and bloodshot.

“Here’s the deal.  That motherfucker, I’m done with him.  I can’t do nothin’ ’cause of the kids, but I would, you know that.”  Squirrel took a deep breath and exhaled.  “Five grand.  I’ll give you five grand to kill that fucker.”

Joe Lee licked his lips, his tongue seemed to grow thick. “How you want it done?”

Squirrel put his hands up and shook his head. “I don’t wanna know nothin’ about it.  If he’s dead by this weekend, come by my place and I’ll hand you the money.  No questions.  Nothin’.”

“Five thousand?”

“I’ve got it put up and waitin’.”

Joe Lee nodded.  He would have done it for a hundred.

*****

Early that morning, Joe Lee sat under brush in the back of Dale’s yard and scrutinized the squat ranch home. Trim boxwoods lined the windows and a full hydrangea bloomed by the door.  The lights in the house had been off for an hour, the harvest moon casting light over the world.

He finished the bag of crank from his pocket with a quick snort.  A light exploded in his mind, wiping his thoughts and allowing him to fixate on the present.  Memories of Dale surged through his mind–the scent of body odor and chew, a lopsided smile, a squeeze of his shoulder.  They evaporated and left a sureness that whatever happened, he would concur and leave as a god.

Joe Lee shimmied out from under the bushes and slipped on a pair of work gloves, his hands shaking.  He ran through the backyard to the screened back porch.  The wind at his back carried him to the house, his mind pulsing with electricity.  He glanced over his shoulder down the dirt driveway, the clicking of the cicadas deafening.  Dale’s Town Car sat in the drive, but behind every shadow he could feel eyes on him but saw no one.

Sweat dripped from his face as he rang the doorbell and beat on the frame. Fire burned in his fingers as the porch light burst on.  His hand tightened around the knife, its curved blade opened and hid behind his back as he watched the door open.

“Joe Lee?  What the hell you doin’ here?” Dale stood behind the cracked door, bare chested with a thick layer of hair covering him.

“You got a minute?” Joe Lee concentrated on keeping his voice steady.

“What the fuck? It’s two in the goddam morning.”

“Won’t take long.” He bounced from foot to foot. “Something serious.”

Dale looked back over his shoulder before he stepped back and opened the door wider. “Come in, but if you wake Crystal I’ll kick your ass.”

Dale walked across the open den, through the house and out into the sunroom with Joe Lee following closely. The knife grew heavy in his hands. Dale nodded to a wicker chair and closed the glass door behind them.

“What’s going on? You looked like shit tonight and even worse now.” Dale said as he sat. “Before you get started, if you’re looking for a handout you can get the hell on.”

“No handout, just a question.”

A vein popped out of Dale’s forehead. “You woke me up at this hour for a question?”

“Yes.”

Dale snorted. “Let’s hear it.”

“Do you believe in God?” Joe Lee stared, daring Dale to move.

“Are you fucking serious?”

“Do you?”

“Get out of here you fucking tweaker.” Dale started to stand, but before he could get to his feet, Joe Lee jumped and shoved him back into the seat.

“Answer the question!”

A smirk grew on Dale’s face. “Is this about before?” The smirk grew into a tooth filled smile. “It is. You’re still hung up on that?”

Joe Lee’s face burned, his gripped tightening around the handle. “You asking if you raping me still bothers me? You goddam right it does.”

“Rape? Shit boy, you wanted it. I remember you begging for my dick. Hell, you called me a month later crying for me to pick you up from little league.”

“I was a kid.” Joe Lee felt his face redden. He remembered the feeling of rejection he felt when Dale moved on to the next boy.

“Maybe. But I made you a man.” Dale stood again, this time Joe Lee made no effort to push him back down. “Did more for you than your drunk ever did, that’s for damn sure. You should be thankful I took you on, you weren’t much to look at but I wanted to help you out. And do I believe in God? Hell no. You keep on believing and living in that shit trailer and smoking whatever, and I’ll go to bed in my two hundred thousand dollar home and fuck my wife half my age.” Dale brushed past Joe Lee’s shoulder, sending him into a side step. “And then I might call up new boy tomorrow and teach him a thing or two about being a man.”

Red snowflakes danced in Joe Lee’s peripheral vision, every breath an effort. With a grunt, he swung the knife from behind his back and plunged it in Dale’s side.  The hilt snapped against the skin near his armpit, and Joe Lee pulled the blade across his chest, sliding through the lung, letting out a hiss and blood.  Dale bellowed as the knife embedded in his sternum with a snap.  Joe Lee grabbed the handle with both hands and yanked it to the side as blood oozed from the wound.  He looked into Dale’s eyes, the pupils dilating and his breathing muffled.

Dale stumbled back and dropped to his knees, the blood running down his torso and filling the cracked linoleum.  Joe Lee stepped in, grabbed him by his matted hair, and lifted his face.  He slit his throat open before Dale could make a sound other than gasps; a fish sucking air.  Light exploded inside Joe Lee’s mind and dropped into his chest.  Years of rage, ineptitude, and frustration bloomed into perfect violence.  As the blade ripped back and forth over Dale’s face and body, tearing the flesh, Joe Lee’s vision was dark and his mind free.

When he was able to steady his hand, Dale had collapsed into a heap of open wounds and torn tissue.  Blood splattered the walls and covered Joe Lee, who tasted the sweet, metallic liquid.  He ran out the door and through the pine woods to his truck, breath ragged by the time he reached the door.  He peeled off his gloves and blood soaked clothing, sticking them in a Walmart bag on his floorboard, and sped off in boxers and boots.

The truck skidded along the dirt roads, tossing gravel against the oaks.  He slowed to a crawl on the bridge over Seven Mile River.  He rolled down the window, the air thick and sweet with tannin, and tossed the bag into the water below.  The moon was bright against the black water that crawled from the swamp. He took a minute to watch the bag drift down the river, cursing he did not weigh it down.

He drove off and within minutes stopped his truck near the front of his rusted trailer. He jumped out and attacked the earth, throwing clumps of red clay, and buried the knife. He stripped off his remaining clothes and piled them into the trash beside the porch before he locked himself inside. Hugging his knees to his chest, he sat against the front door and prayed.

*****

Joe Lee bounced in the driver’s seat of his truck, the midafternoon sun sending waves of heat off the hood.  He took a hard left onto a dirt drive, tires squealing their resistance, and a cloud of dust erupted from the earth.  Twisting the knob, the sounds of George Strait competed against slinging gravel and the groans of the suspension.  The music played but he couldn’t focus on the words, just the rhythm. After two minutes, he pulled up to a beige trailer with a curtain of green mildew dripping from the roof.

Squirrel was underneath a rusted Charger propped up on cinder blocks and stuck his head out as the truck neared.  He glanced back to the house before waving the truck over.  His white shirt, stained black over the chest and yellow under the arms, struggled to keep his stomach covered.

“Shit, I didn’t hear nothin’ from you, got a little worried.”

“Late night, slept it off most the day.  You hear?”  Joe Lee fought over each word, keeping the slur from coming through.

“Hell yeah I heard, didn’t expect it to be so quick.  Did you hear?”

Joe Lee stared back, a haze of oxycontin still swirled in his mind. How much longer would this take?

“Oh shit.” Squirrel went on when it was clear Joe Lee wouldn’t be answering. “Sunday morning his wife, you know Crystal that slut from Cedar, wakes up and finds him.  Calls the sheriff and all that.  They searched his house and found all them pictures.”

Joe Lee nodded with a bitter taste in his mouth, like one of the pills was working its way back up.

“Heard there were thirty, forty different boys.  Years’ worth of fucked up shit.  Some like five or six.  They found the one of Squirrel Jr too; I knew that fucker had messed with him.  I wish I could have cut his dick off myself.”

“What else you heard?”  Joe Lee asked, his mouth sticky and dry.  The creep of paranoia worked its way up his spine into the base of his skull.  An itch that needed to be scratched. If they found all the pictures, they would see his.

“Once the cops found the pictures, they stopped givin’ a shit.  Sheriff Floyd said something down at the bar that he’s done lookin’.  Seems like someone did this town a favor.  You’re a fuckin’ hero.”

Joe Lee snorted and blew snot into the yard.  The itch had worked its way over his entire head. Squirrel might call him a hero, but he knew that any chance the law had at arresting someone, they took it. Hero or not, they didn’t give a damn. “You got the money?”

“Shit man, thought you’d be happy.”  Squirrel turned to walk into his trailer, shaking his head.  “Wait right here and I’ll get it.”

Joe Lee paced between the rundown Charger and the ditch and kicked clumps of earth, arousing the anger of dirtdobbers.  How long could it take to get the money? Squirrel wouldn’t call the cops, would he? He may have hired him, but there was no doubt in Joe Lee’s mind that if it came down to it, Squirrel would rat him out in a minute. Even drive the pigs to his trailer. He was leaning against the car, a cigarette hanging limp from his lips, when Squirrel walked back outside. Joe Lee starred at Squirrel with unwavering eyes.

“Here you go man, five grand.”

Joe Lee grabbed the envelope with his wiry fingers and ripped the top, keeping his eyes on Squirrel and searching for any flicker of doubt. Finally satisfied, he flipped through the bills and when he was sure it was near the amount, put it in his back pocket.

“Thanks.”

“You alright man?” Squirrel asked, raising an eyebrow.  “You don’t look too good.”

“I’m good.  Don’t worry.”  Joe Lee turned and walked back to his truck.
“Well listen, don’t go blowing it all.” Squirrel yelled as Joe Lee shut the door to his truck.

By the time Joe Lee had pulled off the dirt road, he’d already made two calls.  He would use the money any goddam way he wanted, and from here on out, he’d be keeping an eye on Squirrel.

*****

Forty-eight hours later, Joe Lee laid slumped in his trailer. He leaned against the plywood paneling and tried to focus his senses. The air reeked of chemical smoke, piss, and sweat He looked at the remnants of his purchase, enough for one last smoke. Holding the lighter to the tinfoil, his glass pipe in pieces against the wall, he watched the fire dance.

He took one last inhale through the straw, but it brought no comfort. It had been over three days since he last slept and his thoughts came in fragments. Broken pieces of images, emotions floating without attachments. Black specks clouded his vision, danced, and collected in the periphery. Goddam it, he thought, I’m ready.

He balled up the tinfoil and threw it to the floor. He stumbled over to the coffee table, littered with empty cans and rotten food, and moved aside the bloody towel he used to wick away the ooze from his sores. He knew his face was pockmarked with holes and his eyes stung with every blink; a steady stream of pus dripped from the corners. In some recess he was embarrassed, but now sleep was all he wanted, or at least to black out and forget. Tossing the contents of the table to the ground, he found the bag of pills he’d made earlier next to his 9 mm and took the handful. He never counted the number of oxycontin he took, seeing it as a way to ask God if He was sure.

After chasing them with three gulps of vodka, he stumbled to his bedroom, stepping over puddles of vomit and empty bottles. He collapsed onto the bed, the only area in the trailer with more than two square feet of clean space, and closed his eyes. He tried to grab hold of the thoughts that scattered, which rolled and bounced as if someone was shaking his head–the blood that had covered him, the way Squirrel had smiled, the taste of Dale’s cock. The bed swayed, as if he was in a boat in the marsh. The tide going out.

One thought remained constant, that life was different. He didn’t fully understand, but he had seen his potential, what he could accomplish if he grabbed life. Instead of being a passive observer, lamenting his position, bitching about his mom, job, or Dale, he could change the world. He had prayed for this before, but felt as if he was talking to himself. He wanted to believe in God, needed to in some way, but the shit of the world kept him away. How could a God exist if this was what he created? But now he knew, Squirrel was sent by the Lord to show Joe Lee his role. He would, from the moment he would awaken from his opiate induced sleep, be the hand of God.

*****

Joe Lee woke himself from the grog of drug-induced sleep before the sun had risen.  His skin pulled away from the sheets with a crunch, dried sweat sticking him to it. He checked the date on his phone and texted the supervisor; broke and painfully sober, today would be a workday.

He attempted to wash off the grime of the previous week in a shower coated with red mildew.  His muscles ached as he toweled off and examined his face; the open sores had crusted over.  He picked at a few, expressing yellow pus, and attempted to brush his teeth.  The soft bristles felt like a wire brush digging into his receding gums.  Accepting defeat, he dressed, gave himself a coating of body spray, and grabbed a bottle of rum before driving to work.

On the way, the thoughts came to him fast, released from the damming.  Dale was dead and no one cared who did it. He had spent the past few days holed up in his trailer, and if he were going to be arrested, it would’ve happened.  The only person who might still care, Dale’s whore of a wife, was probably already on to the next guy.  Still, the creeping fear lingered in his mind.  He checked his rearview mirror every thirty seconds, took the long way to work, and never used a turn signal.  What if the police were waiting for him? By the time he pulled his truck into the worksite, he was dripping with sweat.

Joe Lee walked with his head down, hoping to avoid attention.

“Goddam Joe Lee, you look like shit,” Carl said, looking up from the plans.  He looked at Joe Lee and shook his head with a smirk.  “Come over here a minute.”

Damn it, Joe Lee thought, couldn’t he just let me work?

“Joe Lee, you can’t keep texting me whenever you feel like working.  I’ve got men who need the money and I can’t keep taking extra help.  Today, you’re lucky we can use it, but next time you’ve got to let me assign you days.”

Joe Lee stared back and for a moment said nothing.  Carl looked the same as in high school, greasy black hair and a pudgy gut.  If he tried to push Joe Lee around then, he would’ve found himself bloodied.
“Yes, sir.”  The words hurt as he said them.

“And as a friend, you’ve got to clean up.  The owners come out here and see you, they’re gonna think I’m crazy.”

“What are trying to say?”

“I’m trying to say, it don’t take no genius to see you’ve got problems.  You look like a fucking poster for meth.  I say live and let live, but take care of your shit or I can’t have you working.”

Joe Lee dug a fingernail between his front teeth, sending a jolt of pain up his face. “That it?”

“I guess . . . just, if something’s going on, you can tell me.”

Joe Lee’s stomach flipped. He must know, does everyone know?  “Like what?”

“Anything.  If you get in trouble or something.”  Carl rubbed the sweat off his neck with a wad of paper towel.

Joe Lee felt his head swim.  Carl must’ve heard from Sheriff Floyd, or maybe Squirrel. What is this son of a bitch trying to do? He told himself to stay calm but he could feel the blood rushing through his body. “Ain’t no trouble I know about.”  He needed to get away.

“Do you need a water or something?  You’re sweating like a whore in church.”

“No. I’m fine, what’s with all the questions? You got something you want to say, just fucking say it.”  Joe Lee took a step towards Carl, fist clenched by his side. His blood hummed in his ears.

“Whoa,” he said, holding his hands up in surrender, “Relax there.  Go on and get to work on the framing. Remember what I said. We’re old friends, but next time you text, ain’t going to be no work for you.”

Joe Lee stood his ground for a moment, took a deep breath, and spun on his heels.  He could feel Carl’s eyes boring into the back of his skull. He counted his steps to keep his pace slow, adjusting his balls every few steps, fighting the urge to run. Sober, he knew he was being paranoid, that the drugs had fucked with his mind, but once the fear takes a hold, it stays.

The morning dripped by hot and slow like molasses.  He worked the nail gun with focus, the humming of the air compressor drowning out the world.  The monotony helped to calm his anxiety.  Even if Carl thinks something, but there is no way he knows anything.  By noon, the temperature was near one hundred and Joe Lee had to take care of more important business.

“Hey, Chui.  Got a minute?”  Joe Lee hollered to a large Mexican, slowly drinking a Jarritos.  The grey T-shirt that attempted to hold in Chui’s muscled form was dripping with sweat. He put the bottle down in the dirt.

“I guess, you gonna make it? White boys like you ain’t made for this heat.”

“I’m not lucky enough to die.  Come on to my truck for a second, got something a little better than that fruity coke.”

Chui smiled, a line of tobacco stained teeth contrasted against his skin.  “Whatever, man.”

Joe Lee lead him to truck and took a long pull from the rum before handing it to Chui, who gratefully took the bottle. Joe Lee watched his Adam’s apple bob as he took several deep drinks, but Chui’s eyes never left Joe Lee; he could feel them on him.

“I need a favor,” Joe Lee said, leaning against the shade side of the truck.

“You always need a favor, man.”  Chui handed the bottle back.

“Listen, I got word on something.  I can get my hands on some pseudo and maybe cook up a little something, but I need some cash.  Like a grand or so.”

Chui laughed.  “Shit man, if I had a grand I wouldn’t be sweating my ass off out here.”

“I thought you could ask El Rey.”

The smile fell from Chui’s face.  “You don’t ask El Rey for nothing.  Listen, man, you don’t need to be saying too much ’bout him round here.  We cool, but ask the wrong dude and you in some shit.”
“It’s just something th

“Listen, ain’t gonna happen.  I ain’t got a grand and I’m sure the hell not going to El Rey with this shit.  I can float you a hundred, maybe, but that’s it.”

“A hundred’s not going to do it.”

“Then you ain’t cooking.  That shit’s got you fucked up anyway.  You need to lay off.  Work out here some more, sweat for some cash.  Get it out your system.”

Joe Lee handed Chui back the bottle, but he held up his hands. “I had enough man; I’m going back to work.”

Chui walked off, leaving Joe Lee in the shadow of his truck.  He took another long pull from the bottle. Fucking Chui don’t mind smoking his shit, but now he’s getting all high and mighty. Joe Lee heard Chui drowned a girl last year, just for not sucking him off in front of his friends, but he wants to give him advice on his life? Joe Lee figured Chui knew he was lying about the connection anyway. It had been a long time since Joe Lee cooked, preferring to just consume.

“Goddam it, you text me at 6 in the morning to work and then you’re drinking by noon?”  Carl yelled, coming from around a pecan tree across the lot.

“I was heading back to work.”  Joe Lee dropped the bottle inside his truck, slammed the door, and walked quickly away.

“Slow up there, you ain’t going back to work now.”  Carl trudged behind, pushing his short legs to keep pace.

Joe Lee never slowed and picked up the nail gun, flipping on the compressor and was back to nailing boards by the time Carl caught up.  He grabbed Joe Lee by his shoulder, his touch sending waves of anger through Joe Lee.  His chest tightened.

“You need to turn that thing off and get on home.”

The nail went in and Joe Lee moved to another board.  Carl jerked Joe Lee’s shoulder back, spinning him.  They stood face to face, inches apart. Joe Lee’s heart hammered in his chest, the grip on his nail gun tightened.

“I said get your ass out of here.  You’re fired.”

Joe Lee stared back, his mouth suddenly dry.

“If you don’t leave, I’m calling the cops.”

Joe Lee exhaled slowly, the image of Dale’s bloodied face pushed forward in his mind.  But instead of guilt or fear, it only brought confidence. This must be another sign from God. He squeezed the trigger and the scream echoed through the yard.  All work stopped and everyone turned to the source of the animalistic yelp.

“What the fuck?”  Carl screamed, staring at the nail protruding from his hand, the other end lodged firmly into the wooden beam.  Joe Lee looked at the nail the same way a father would look at his newborn son.

“You ain’t no better than me or anyone else out here,” Joe Lee said and stood.

“Are you fucking crazy?”  Carl yelled and then turned to the mass of onlookers.  “Call a goddam ambulance!”

No one moved, the only sound was the hum of the compressor. “You think just because your fat ass daddy owns this place, you own us.”

“I swear to G” The nail went smoothly into Carl’s shoulder and the onslaught of screams began again, tears flowing down Carl’s cheeks.

The next nail went into his ribs, the pain forcing Carl to rip his hand off the board. The nail tore through the flesh, blood poured from it as he held his side.  A lopsided smile plastered Joe Lee’s face.

Freed, Carl lunged.  The gun raised and poised, the next nail set with a crack into Carl’s forehead.  He froze before dropping to his knees.  Eyes wide and glaring at Joe Lee, he fell face first onto the porch. Joe Lee looked at his crumbled body and savored the sense of accomplishment.

Joe Lee dropped the nail gun and sprinted to his truck, glancing in his rearview mirror to see the mass of workers standing, mouths gaped open. If the cops weren’t looking for him before, they sure as shit would be now. Joe Lee knew he had a few hours to take care of some business and get out of town.

*****

Joe Lee drove for an hour, down backroads and dirt paths. The window down and his arm hanging out limply, he skidded the truck around corners, leaving clouds of red dirt behind. Charlie Daniel blared from the radio. Finally, after years, he understood the world. He elevated, seeing the entire body of the planet, and knew the universe had set him in motion. He tossed his cigarette, sparks danced on the road, and turned down a long, familiar road. One more stop and he was heading down south.

He pulled into Happy Valley trailer park, one lane with lines of trailers at angles abutting the road.  Metal swing sets with faded red stripes and rusted slides, dotted the occasional yard. The rest held various debris–an engine dismantled, a pile of aluminum cans, a broken collection of folding chair behind chain linked fences. He drove to the second to last, a small brown box with a sign over the parking spot ‘This is the day the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it’.  Where in hell in this trailer park is there something to rejoice about?  Joe Lee lit another cigarette but outed it right away in an empty tallboy and threw the door open.

The sounds of a television evangelist emanated from the the trailer. He bounded up the rickety steps and threw open the door.  June Landry sat on the couch in her indention formed over years the 700 club and the shopping channel. She jerked her head around when he walked in.

“Momma.” He strode across the room and turned the television off.

“Joe Lee, what’re you doin’ boy?”  Her chins shook with the words.
“Somethin’ I should’ve done a long goddam time ago.”

“Boy, you will not take the Lord’s name in vain here.”  She made a move to stand which resulted in a reshuffling of her mass deeper into the couch.

“Shut your mouth!  Shut your goddam mouth!”  Joe Lee yelled and bent over the flimsy coffee table.  The trailer walls shook as he screamed.  “I don’t wanna hear nothin’ you’ve gotta say.”

“Joe Lee Landry.  What is wrong with you?”  Her eyes widened and her lips trembled. Joe Lee’s heart raced, the words flowing through him. He imagined this moment for years, and now it was finally here.

“What’s wrong with me?  I’ve got somethin’ to ask you.  And if you lie, I swear to God I’ll fuckin’ lose it.”

“Joe Lee, you’re scarin’ your momma.”  She pulled the blanket tight.
“How long did you know?”

She stared at him. The fire burned hotter inside his chest.

“How long did you know Dale was fuckin’ me?  When did you know?”

“What?” Tears began to stream down her wrinkled face, making treks through the weathered terrain.

Joe Lee couldn’t remember the last time he had seen her cry, and this realization fueled his anger.  He sprang up and flipped the coffee table, candles and Southern Living magazines scattered.  “You heard what I said.  Tell me right fuckin’ now.”

“I didn’t know nothin’.”  Her voice broke.

Joe Lee stood and pulled the black 9 mm from the small of his back.  One sweaty hand gripped it with white knuckles and the other steadied the tremor as he pointed it to her chest.

“You tell me everything right now or I swear to fuckin’ Christ I will kill you.”

Her face melted in defeat.  “Joe Lee, I’m your momma,” she whispered.
He stepped forward and shoved the barrel against her forehead, his breathing fragmented.  “One more chance.”

“Yes, yes I knew.”  Her voice shook with sobbing.  “Dale took a likin’ to you.  I knew that.  I hoped he would be the daddy you didn’t have.”

“Did you know he fucked me?”

Tears made steady streams from her face, lost somewhere in the folds of her neck.  “I don’t know.  I knew he weren’t right.  I knew somethin’ weren’t right.”

“Liar!”  Joe Lee yelled and pushed the barrel harder into her head. “You goddam liar!  You knew!”

“I did.  I did, but I didn’t want to.”  Her body convulsed as she cried.  “Joe Lee, Dale’s your daddy.  I didn’t wanna think a dad could do that to his son.”

He held the gun steady but the world had stopped.  His heart beat a steady rhythm in his ears but all other thoughts and sounds stopped. He felt a vice tighten around his head.

“My dad?”

“Yes.  I told ‘em.  Told ‘em I was pregnant and he said he ain’t never want no kids.  Didn’t want one around and if I didn’t take care of it he wouldn’t be there.  I couldn’t do it.” She wiped her face with a stained dish towel. “When he found out, he never said nothin’ to me.  I married right after to another boy who you thought was your dad.  When Dale took to you, I prayed it was in God’s way, but I knew.” The words poured from her mouth, released from years of damming.  “We all knew what he was.”

“Dale knew he was my dad?”

June nodded slightly.

Joe Lee stepped back, his vision blurred.  He put his hand out and held onto the television for support.  The gun became heavy in his hands and hung at his side.  It took all his strength to lift it.  Once the barrel passed his lips, he thought how strange it tasted. He closed his eyes and pulled the trigger.


James_EmeryJ.B. Emery was born and raised in South Carolina. He took the traditional route to writing—a degree in biology and chemistry, medical school, and a career as a pediatrician. However, he realized the South he knew was screaming for an accessible voice. Growing up with trailer parks, Christmas Eve pig pickings, frying turkeys and target practice with an AK. A South not of bow ties and juleps, but of Carhartts and PBR. Following in the footsteps of Harry Crews, William Gay, and David Woodrell, he brings the raw, gritty, dirty South to the page.

 

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